“Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and adventures are the shadow truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes and forgotten.” Neil Gaiman
Welcome to Shadow Work
When I hear the term “Shadows” I often think of The Nazgul, the Ringwraiths of Minus Morgul in Lord of the Rings who live in the shadowlands. Their black shadow cloaks and the fog they summon. Or of J.K. Rowling’s Dementors, based on her experience of depression. Or of Plato’s cave in which the shadows projected across the cave wall from the fire are an illusion of the real. I think of what Bane says to Batman in the The Dark Knight Rises: “I was born in the darkness, you merely adopted it.” Or of this marvelous essay by Gayle Brandeis on her shadow son: here.
I also think of the Enneagram, it’s notion of shadow work, and the exploration of my own shadow side. The Enneagram is a collection of nine, inter-related personality types that describe one’s psyche, modes of behavior, strengths and weaknesses in order to (hopefully) set you on the path to your true self. Each person has a specific type or number with a set of “wings.” When one is living within their numbers and wings, they are living in a healthy balance. However, each personality type also has a darker side, literally called a shadow side, which they must also learn to deal with. If one works through the Enneagram you soon learn that this shadow work becomes a necessary part of the process on the path to discovering your true self. Just because they’re called shadows doesn’t mean they’re bad or evil, like the aforementioned Ringwraiths; in fact, the Enneagram teaches that one must embrace their shadow side. We must embrace this shadow work. In our writing, in ourselves, in others even. This is Shadow Work. Let’s begin.
My Shadow Self
My shadow self is a gibbon with a sash strapped around her neck. When you ask about her ribbon she says she'll never tell about the gushing gash or the river that came before. Instagram means our wounds are medals, brown packages tied up with strings, bondage as beauty. My gibbon bares her teeth because, in the world of demented apes, molars are a mark of the bipolar, because, in the world of shadows, it's better to share your marrow than it is to trudge along with a club slung over your shoulder.
After dinner, my shadow gibbon drips onto the throw rug so we must put it out for the night, grip a rolled-up newsprint flat in the hand, though she whinnies and flees for the nearest tree. You can’t see her, but you know she’s there. You know she’s watching. That’s the thing about the shadow self: she’s precisely an Elf on the Shelf, except your mother cannot reach her, except your father will always blame you when she lands on parquet and it will be you who turns to smithereens.
What is hidden in the shush of a fog?
On the counter of my decomposing kitchen, I have a cat candle that when melted exposes bits of cat skeleton. I’ve had this candle for three or more years and rarely burn it. Its skeleton is still hidden under the skin of wax.
I’m from a family where we’re encouraged to wait to put on new clothes so that they’re more meaningful. My brother parcels out the usage of fancy lotions and aftershave from gifts to extend their lives. Everything is saved for a special occasion. I have a dress I’ve never worn, it’s waiting for its celebration. My sister has hand lotion from Kiel’s that she received as a Christmas gift seven years ago. Everyone in my family has presents that are waiting a generation for their moment.
What is crafted in the shadows? What is hidden in the waiting of a fog? Shadows constructed of moments not lived, items that develop a life - trying to commune with one another, lone soldiers seeking companionship in the isolated ship of waiting.
I have a lipstick so so pink that it resembles the gifted flowers from an evening that ended in putridity - sunsets built on pollution. The pink pink lipstick is dying in the cabinet; I can’t wear it again, I can’t throw it away.
In the kitchen with the candle is West Philadelphia magic. I can see it in the dust motes keeping me company while I sit near the oven to stay warm. In the light leaks of the waning day, blots of dark in jagged lines paint the counters, I invoke the spirit of candle calmness.
I put the cat candle on the garbage lid of an old coffee cup and burn the wick - melt the skin.
I throw away the pink pink lipstick.
You are not you. You walk the same road in the same shoes, but the path is different. Your breath is a fog, clouding in the cold air, hovering close to the pavement, weighed down with secrets. You are occult, expansive, ever shifting. You are ferocious, ephemeral, a warrior at dawn and a ghost at twilight. You split into few, coalesce into many, as varied as the moon and dappled as the sea. You cringe, curl, and stretch. You couple with pebbles and romance streaked limestone. You are inside and outside, a specter, an inspiration, a desolate and lonely god, toes nudging the abyss.
I Took a Picture of Her and Called It a Selfie
The little Picasso sculpture
of the woman reading
lying on her stomach, open book,
green dress, brown ponytail,
reminds me of myself.
She reminds me of the painting
hanging in the Grand Haven library basement:
same woman (younger),
same hair (shorter),
(Was she also in green?
She may have also been in green.)
And the summer I took her picture,
my brother said, at first
he thought it was just a picture of me.
that I should steal the painting.
But I gave up stealing in my late teen years
and ceased to be the reading girl earlier still:
dissolution of childhood,
advent of the internet,
rubbing my fingerprints away.
Little sculpture in its silent museum,
unknown painting not for sale,
shadow of girl--
1. A dark area or shape produced by a body coming between rays of light and a surface.
Often described as looming, frightening, carrying the weight of disturbing thoughts or possibilities. Because blocking light creates shadows, we have cultivated the mental image of shadows being evil.
Yet, shadows are perhaps the only truly unselfish part of this world. They do not ask to exist. They have no say in what they do. They are a mere indication that we exist. But unfailingly, they provide shelter from heat, from the glare of the sun. Shadows can be made to do whatever we make them do. They are the ultimate puppet, and for centuries, millenniums, eons, were our ends to make stories. They ask for nothing, and are as subservient as anything.
Shadows are not frightening, they are the most loving part of everything that lives, moves, and breaths.
“Many miles away there's a shadow on the door of a cottage on the Shore of a dark Scottish lake.” Walter Scott