The Duality of the Storm

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I have had some great feedback from a few people who wonder how my more positive posts can actually qualify as “writing from the shadow.” One way or another, the general gist of the conversation goes something like this: “Life is not all positive. In fact, for myself and others it is the exact opposite. ‘Life sucks and then you die,’ and there is nothing you can do about that.” This is how they see the “shadow” metaphor playing out.

I completely understand where they are coming from. But here’s another way of looking at this:

In a philosophy class I took a few years ago, entitled “Optimimism and Pessimism: A Philosophical Inquiry,” this topic was tackled in studying what a historical span of various philosophers and thinkers had to say on this dichotomy. At the beginning of the class, we were asked to identify which camp we fell into (or whether we were a mixture of the two).  What I found the most interesting was how several people identified themselves as optimists precisely because they were natural pessimists. As one student said, who was prone to depression: “If I didn’t choose to be optimistic, I would put a gun to my head.” For him, optimism was a choice he made to deal with the difficulties in his life, but it was not based on “hiding his head in the sand”  pretending that these difficulties didn’t exist.

One of the thinkers we studied during the class was Dr. Viktor Frankl, who built his life’s work around a similar idea.  Dr. Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist living in Vienna at the time of World War II.  Dr. Frankl was imprisoned in Auschwitz and endured incredible suffering, including the deaths of his wife, his parents, and most of his family. Based on these experiences, Dr. Frankl called himself a “tragic optimist,” – one who is well aware of the darkness of life but who has chosen to transcend it by finding meaning and purpose in it.  (To learn more about Dr. Frankl, see my earlier blog post about him from last spring).

While I have thankfully not suffered anywhere near what Dr. Frankl has, I have experienced other kinds of hardships, including a difficult childhood that left its mark on my psyche, and almost losing one of my children from a childhood illness that left her with a complex seizure disorder and lifelong developmental disabilities.  Yet I have also seen beauty and meaning come from these experiences, and that is what this blog is about: a reflection of both aspects of life—the difficult and the transcendent.  To find meaning in hardship is not easy. However I am compelled to try, most often from and with the strength of love, in all its many forms.  I am also compelled to do it because my soul and spirit fought to transcend it, often inexplicably, in spite of my own emotions and inclination to despair. Even within my own nature, I find this duality wage its war.

The storm picture used to illustrate the meaning of this blog (pictured above and to the right) also symbolize the dual aspects of life:  the churning waves crashing against the bench on one side, while giving way to the calm waters on the other side. And likewise, the black storm clouds on the left begin to break on the right, revealing the sunlight as the storm is abating.

This is what I write about in this blog. I write not only to find the sun in the storm, but the gifts hidden within it – within me – within us all, as we are faced with making sense of our lives and the responses we need to make in facing its very real challenges. I also do it to lift myself from the logical despair that can come from experiencing tragedy or other difficulties that make no sense at all at the time (and perhaps never will).  I also do it in case it might help someone else, just as other people have helped me when writing of their own suffering.

I truly understand where those who gave their feedback are coming from. I actually have felt the way they do at times. Yet my , but my soul and art continually compel me to find meaning in those experiences and perhaps transcend them.  It is that which fuels my life, art, and purpose.  And most of all, it is how I find healing and meaning in it.

Please share your thoughts on this subject: I would love to hear from you.

Photo of storm clouds and waves image used above and in the Blog header is the work of photographer Jason Swain, and is used by permission. To see more of Jason’s excellent work, click on the link below: http://www.jasonswain.co.uk/.

A Story From My Own Shadow

When I was twelve years old, I wrote my first story.  It was about a girl named Sherry who had a crazy mother.  It was autobiographical of course.  I loved writing that story.  I created a world where I could escape to but at the same time manage what was going on around me.  I still recall some of the words I wrote:

“Sherry looked outside the window of her house at their perfect green lawn, the rain running soft currents down the glass as if the house were crying.  Outside the world went by, but it didn’t see what was going on inside.”

Sherry’s best friend was an old maple tree that sat on the corner of the high school lawn, a few blocks from her house.  Its huge branches were like arms, holding her small body as she looked down through the thick leaves at the high school students walking by.  She felt loved by the giant old tree, and she often wondered as she put her ear to the bark if she could hear it speaking to her.”

I wrote in my story every day, looking forward to it much like a coveted appointment with a best friend.  I carefully hid it where I thought it wouldn’t be found.  But it was.  I came home from school one day and found it ripped up in the downstairs bathroom waste can.

My mother was home ill from work that day (something that almost never happened).  I heard her voice calling me sharply from her upstairs bedroom.  I felt a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as I ran up the stairs to find her.  I only remember stammering somewhat incoherently: “The story isn’t about you!  The story isn’t about you!”  (This was a lie, but I was doing a preemptive strike to ward off what I was sure would be the usual retribution when displeasing or irritating her in any way; her moods were unpredictable).  I simply recall her snapping back in that cold, barely constrained rage that was so characteristic of her at the time:  “I don’t know what the hell you are talking about.  Now go clean your room.”

On one hand, I was relieved that I had apparently escaped a beating (usually by a belt or the hard plastic of the vacuum cleaner wand; or sometimes just her hands: slapping me or pulling clumps of my hair until I screamed; but what I hated the most were her vicious verbal tirades).  However, my story being destroyed and her cold dismissal of my concern felt in some ways worse than those things.  Her response left me reeling, as if I had just gotten off a spinning carnival ride and everything was a bit off kilter.  There was no solid point of reference to help me understand any of it.  If she hadn’t ripped it up, then who?  (I hadn’t really gotten to the “why” yet).  Of course, I knew logically there couldn’t be anyone else.  I doubted one of my siblings could have done it.  And so I internalized all of it, because that’s what writers do–especially when they are children with a crazy mother.

After that, I still wrote–but never as freely; and I almost always destroyed everything I wrote.  Although I did keep a childhood diary, a Christmas gift from my Grandmother.  It was one of those pre-printed types with a page for each day of the year.  I would write a few lines of what I did during the day, such as: “I went to school today and we learned about polar bears,” or “today I went to the bookmobile and checked out two books.”  It was the writing equivalent to coloring within the lines. It is very telling in what I left out:  I didn’t want to go too deep.

As a teenager, I rebelled and fought back.  And as much as I paid emotionally and physically for that needed defiance, I was just trying to survive.  That survival effort also had an additional price: my writing went increasingly underground, and my shadow was hidden (like everything else) behind the 1970s suburban image we were expected to uphold.

It took me years later when I had children of my own to fully understand what had happened to me as a child and the destruction of my childhood creative work. I couldn’t imagine doing that to any of my children — ever.  I treasure everything they have created and still have boxes of those creations from their childhood years that I guard like the precious and priceless gold it is. While I realize with adult compassion that my mother was sick and suffering from her own unvoiced shadow, the damage was done.  While my resulting denial was a needed survival mechanism then, it adversely affected my writing for years to come.  So much of that was unconscious of course, but in those days I felt as if I was fighting myself every time I tried to put words on paper–and of course, I was.

As a result of my crazy childhood, I spent years in and out of depression.  The shadow within was making itself known, and as counterintuitive as this may be, acknowledgement of the shadow is the pathway to light and healing.  As I wrote about in a prior post, The Inner Critic, I recovered my writing when I was hospitalized in my early 30s for depression.  It was during this time that I finally let myself feel the shadow emotions I had so long ago repressed and had once tried so faithfully to express as a 12 year old.  I finally gave my bruised and battered childhood a voice and a lot came pouring out.  From that point forward, I have kept almost everything I have ever written, two decades worth in several boxes and on a variety of old computer media.  It doesn’t even matter if any of it is any good– just that it lives.

In closing, here’s a note to my childhood alter-ego Sherry:  You wrote from the shadow and you did it beautifully.  Now put on a red dress and dance: there’s nothing there to stop you now.  :)

Photo Source: 

Photographer: Wendy Cutler.  http://www.fotopedia.com/items/flickr-2577188984