The stories of our daily lives have changed. We had no choice. We’re working at home. Not working. Home schooling the kids. Can’t travel. No baseball games, concerts, movies, or parties. We learned to operate on Zoom and discovered you can order anything, literally anything, on Amazon.
The changes were abrupt and startling. We adjusted and asked a lot of questions.
- When will it be over?
- Am I safe?
- Is any of this true?
- When will life go back to normal?
For answers, there’s no lack of stories.
- It will end in the summer.
- The virus will run its course like the flu.
- Only old people are at risk, so don’t worry about it.
- We don’t know what’s going to happen.
- The way the story ends depends on how we behave.
We find ourselves in the role of protagonist.
But is that anything new?
There are so many stories to choose from. As much as humans love inventing stories, then repeating and elaborating on them to entertain each other, this is different, isn’t it?
Yes, and no.
Before written language, people told stories. They relayed what plant was safe to eat, what trail led away from the lion’s den and which one to follow for water.
Stories based on facts won.
When the story is about our health, safety, how we work, and how we provide for our families, we want a story based on the best facts available.
But when the story is about how we respond to abrupt cultural change and how we feel about it, that’s different. It’s about our lives. We get to make it up.
We tell a story about how we’re doing. What adjustments we’ve made. What’s going to happen. What it all means. It’s how our brains work. They want to know the next step. An unfinished story makes them squirm.
We tell the story of our lives all the time. To friends, to colleagues, when we’re interviewing for a job, or talking to a realtor about buying a house. The stories may be snippets, short stories, or in some cases, novels. This is who I am. This is what I did. This is what happened. This is what I’m going to do.
Our story makes up our personal myth.
- I’m the kind of person who always . . .
- I love a challenge.
- Nothing stops me from reaching my goals.
- If my family had been supportive, I could have . . .
- Relationships never worked out for me.
- Boredom is the worst, so I go where the adventure is.
Now that life has changed, are you changing your story? Developing a new plot? Inviting new characters into it?
In fiction the hero’s journey is a familiar plot. The protagonist ventures forth, meets allies, vanquishes enemies, and after conflict and difficulty, seizes the prize. Whether the prize is a princess to love, treasure, or hard-won knowledge, he meets his destiny. He was brave and developed skills.
Another journey is that of the heroine, taken by both men and women. It does not require a quest, but instead follows an inner path where memories, feelings, and beliefs are examined. The goal is to be authentic. The heroine examines her values, decides how much of the common wisdom applies, and who she will be in the future.
This time seems perfect for the inner journey, a pause to examine our lives, notice our reactions to the changes we’ve had to make, and decide what can be left behind. As we move forward, we may need a new perspective. New plans. A new attitude.
If you’ve thought about writing the story of your life, for personal development, legacy, or memoir, this may be the time. Especially if that story is changing. Writing helps sort things out so you can become the conscious narrator of who you are and who you will become.
I offer a class on Writing the Story of Your Life through UNM Continuing Education. Contact me to learn more about it.
I have always written visionary fiction. It wasn’t as much a choice as how I perceived the world. Dreams, visions, alternate realities that peek from behind the veil, reincarnation, ghosts, messengers from other worlds—all the stories that dropped into my mind included these elements. When I sat down to write, I wondered how to incorporate them. What was I writing? Science fiction? Fantasy? Magical realism? As it turned out, all of the above.
As old as recorded literature, visionary and metaphysical fiction is now considered a sub-genre of speculative fiction, along with science fiction, fantasy, and horror.
In the Iliad and Odyssey, spirits spoke freely and generally interfered in the lives of mortals. In The Divine Comedy, we learn how one visionary experienced the afterlife. H.P. Lovecraft made us feel the dread of cosmic horror. And Paulo Coehlo enchanted us with the story of a boy pursuing his dream as he learned about magic and alchemy in The Alchemist.
So what makes a story visionary?
The purpose, for one thing. All stories must engage and entertain, but not all stories encourage readers to expand their view of what’s possible. Visionary fiction tells us about places, times, and beings we cannot perceive with our five senses. A leap of faith is needed. It encourages readers to expand themselves, to explore their own depths and engage their imagination. Visionary stories tease our creative brains as they challenge us to seek for the line between real and unreal.
But how does that help us now? In today’s world of pandemic disease, racism, uncertainty, and polarization, what value could an imagined journey to a made-up world have?
A lot, actually. The best fantasies, myths, and fairytales speak from the unconscious. The language of the soul, they offer the wisdom of the twilight world couched in symbol and archetype. They speak of the emotional, the intuitive, and the underlying connectedness of all life. Our frazzled minds may not understand, but our hearts do.
To solve personal and societal problems, we need new perspectives. The old ways are crumbling and traditional solutions have driven us farther apart. So why not look to visionary literature for clues?
To expand individual consciousness, a person turns inward. This is shadow work, the search for what was denied. Jealousy, anger, blame, fear, competition, dishonesty—all the emotions and impulses we prefer to ignore—end up in the shadow. If not attended to, they re-appear at the worst possible moment, causing us to say and do things we regret. Think of all the acts of violence perpetrated by people described as “quiet, polite, never caused any trouble.”
Only as we accept our “negative” emotions can we attain deeper levels of insight. Only then can our creativity blossom.
To face the shadow standing at the cusp of light and dark requires commitment and intention. We must be brave. Admit we’re not perfect. And make the journey down into ourselves. Into our bodies. Our past.
In my meditations, the entrance to the underground appears as a cave, sometimes a crack between two rocks in the desert. Like the shamans of old, to notice the door is to be invited to enter. Anyone can do it, even though most walk on by.
If we choose not to enter, we can hang on to our established beliefs. The trick is that what we don’t recognize within will be met outside. To heal the shadow in ourselves and society, we need to acknowledge what is uncomfortable. Climb down off that mountain of certainty. Which is exactly what the best visionary shows us how to do.
If we want to participate in healing the global changes causing so much fear and confusion now, being aware of our personal shadow is a good first step.
Another step is to notice what in us is similar to what we judge on the outside. For most people, this is a tough one. I have struggled with it. It means the end of blame and judgement. A tough one.
Which is why the journey to fantasyland, the underground, or the next star system is replete with struggle. Trials and tribulations. Dead ends. Attacks of the zombies or lizard people. It’s hard. Not everyone makes it. That’s why we read about it. We wonder, if we find the courage to go, will we make it?
For the journey to be complete, the hero must return with the treasure. Which may not be a gold ring, but something better. Knowledge. Perspective. Creativity. And eventually, the ability to look back with satisfaction. As Bilbo the hobbit said, “There and back again.”
We go into the darkness to bring back the light.
To read one of my visionary short stories, originally published in ABQinPrint, go here.
A good question, posed in a graduate social psychology class, and an eye-opener for me.
I had recently moved from Philadelphia to California to escape an abusive relationship. What I wanted for the past year was crystal clear. Get my affairs in order, plan the move, and get out of town without my partner’s knowledge. That mission was accomplished. I left my job, shipped my belongings to storage, and drove cross country in my Toyota hatchback. Without an address or a deadline, I never felt so free.
After I found an apartment and settled in, grad school was my first attempt at reinventing myself. I had been a vocational counselor, a humdrum job in a shabby bureaucratic system, but given the volatility of my personal life, it worked because it was safe and easy.
Entering school again did not answer the question, what do you want to be? Keeping my options open, I soaked up the information offered, acquired organizational and leadership skills, and figured it out as I went along. That was just the external, though. Inside, quietly, I knew I was a writer.
I wanted to tell stories, maybe write novels. The kernel of the novel I would eventually write was already swirling in my mind. Finally, I had the time and opportunity to write, which I did, but sporadically. School work, extracurricular activities, and jobs pushed creative writing lower on the list of priorities.
Later, I worked in corporate communications and training, and free lanced as an editor and ghost writer. The novel grew in fits and starts. I took creative writing classes and got positive feedback, but my confidence didn’t grow. I compared myself unfavorably to everyone — other students, teachers, published writers I admired.
Suffering from residual childhood trauma, I didn’t realize how deeply I’d been affected by the paralyzing fear of my early years. I knew something was wrong, but not what. Resistance offered opportunities to heal my wounds. Many I missed, but occasionally, patterns were too blatant to ignore. I started reading metaphysics and eastern philosophy, and began changing my ingrained, negative beliefs. Still, resistance plagued me
What I wanted to have was the easy one. Material possessions never meant much, but I wanted a decent place to live, a car I liked, enough money to pay my bills and support my writing habit.
What I wanted to do never changed. To communicate. I loved working with people, helping them move through transitions in their lives. I began to teach. I always wrote, and eventually finished the novel. Wrote short stories. Took writing workshops. Joined groups.
What I wanted to be was not about career. As a career counselor and coach, I worked with people unhappy in their jobs, who wanted to express themselves in new ways. I saw myself as a motivator, a facilitator, a cheerleader. I loved watching my clients and students grow into new understanding. But as time went on, my work identity took second place to a growing search for my spiritual identity.
Now, in 2020, as we look out in horror at the pandemic ravaging the world, staying safe in our homes if we’re lucky, and wondering about the future, these questions re-emerge.
- What I want to have is simple. Groceries delivered, cleaning supplies, a mask, a strong Internet connection, my books.
- What I want to be is simple. Who I am. A writer, a teacher, a child of God. I want to be brave and confident in these turbulent times. I want certainty to outweigh fear and doubt.
- What I want to do is even simpler. Talk to friends. Wave to my neighbors. Hold my classes on Zoom. Bike through the neighborhood. Walk along the river. Mostly I want to write.
The excuses have faded as do all denials when faced head on. There is enough time. More than enough. No reason not to finish the new book, churn out a couple of short stories, write a blog post every week.
The faces of resistance dance in my mind.
- I’m too busy.
- Work takes all my time.
- I need to have fun once in a while.
- I’m tired.
- Tomorrow is soon enough.
- It’s too late to start.
- The project isn’t worth finishing.
- It turns out I have nothing to say.
- I’m not good enough yet.
- No one cares if I tell my story.
But this time is different. It’s like being given all the resources you thought you needed to complete a project and they turn out to be irrelevant. Now all that stuff is strewn around me in a circle, none of it useful. I walk from room to room, kicking it aside. If I look at the issue sideways, what I want to do and what I want to be are the same.
I want to heal/change/transform that which stops me from being who I am.
Put it like that and things fall into place. There’s journaling and sitting in silence and listening to the wisdom of the trees and playing with my old dog and young cat. There’s writing and listening and being honest. There’s faith and trust that the forces of change turning our lives inside out are the birth cries of something new.
That’s how we grow in spirit, and also how fear catches us. We don’t know what’s coming. So it’s back to basics. Write it down. Show up at the page. Tell the truth. Listen for guidance.
You have to listen hard though, because sometimes spirit whispers.
Well, here we are. It’s been a month since I’ve attended a meeting outside my home. A month since I’ve taught in a classroom. Since I’ve had lunch with a friend, gone to a movie or stood in line at the grocery store. Even for an introverted writer who loves solitude, staying home this much gets weird.
Every day I bike through my neighborhood with my dog. She’s well over a hundred in people years, so we don’t go far. Lots of stopping and sniffing. I want her to keep her muscle strength as long as possible, so I persuade her even when she’s reluctant. She gains enthusiasm as we progress and on our way home, she trots along beside me, wagging and smiling. I put her inside and go out for a longer, harder ride. Sometimes I walk a Bosque trail. Most days I visit the local park to sit under a Ramada and watch people playing with their dogs and kids.
Everywhere I go, people greet me. They wave from cars and porches. We exchange anecdotes about our dogs, our shopping challenges, the weather. I know twice as many of my neighbors as before the pandemic. Maybe because more people are home. Maybe because community is our only bulwark against the waves of tragedy and fear sweeping our land.
It’s so odd that now we express our love for each other by keeping our distance.
I’m one of the lucky ones who can work at home and order what I need. And suddenly there was plenty of time. The perennial excuse evaporated overnight. Without appointments, errands, and classes, I could be wildly productive.
But it’s a month in and I’m just beginning to settle down. I have written. I always do. But my productivity did not escalate with the additional time. I found myself dithering, staring into space, watching shows on Netflix I didn’t even like.
My old responses to stress—procrastination, obsessing on unimportant details—re-appeared. My thoughts and fears about the pain and suffering hovering over the world like a black cloud was the culprit.
I meditated and prayed about it. Took the practical steps feasible for me. Reminded myself that I am safe. I am healthy. At this moment, I have a place to live, food to eat, beautiful animals to keep me company, friends to call and zoom with. And now, I’ve started offering writing workshops via zoom. Why not? Virtual training may be the new normal.
Finally, it occurred. This is the time. To stop making excuses. To look at my reactions to the changes in our world without flinching. To walk the talk. Be honest. The reason I’m not working on my new book for six hours a day is because I’m nervous!
When I’m nervous, I procrastinate. I read every email, news reports, the latest statistics. Being informed is fine, but knowing all the details doesn’t help.
So what does? What helps us live with uncertainty? This is what I came up with
- Acknowledge feelings. It’s okay to feel anxious, stressed, impatient, depressed. Feelings denied only pop up later. Now is the time to admit that I’m human. I’m upset. I don’t like this. I want it to end.
- Make self-care a priority. A walk, a bike ride, a yoga tape, an online exercise class. Deep breathing, meditation, stretching, dancing around the living room. Now is the time to move—bodies and emotions so those negative thoughts don’t dig in
- Keep in touch. Call, skype, email, zoom, wave from the porch. Make a new friend while out walking the neighborhood.
- Help someone. What can I do? Who needs help?
- Tolerate uncertainty. There’s no telling how any creative project will turn out, so that’s nothing new for a writer. It’s a good skill to master. Now is the time to let go of trying to control things. It was mostly an illusion anyway.
- Take small steps. Now is the time to say, I don’t know, and move forward. The best cure for paralysis is action. One foot in front of the other.
- And most important, notice negative thoughts. The what if’s. The it might’s. None of them are real. They’re just thoughts. And thoughts can be changed. Dissolved. Replaced.
I am safe.
I am healthy.
I have what I need.
I can adapt.
I can create.
I can do my work.
I can love.
Yes, we love the holidays. Family, food, out of town guests, parties, long lunches, shopping, and evergreen trees in the living room. Of course we do. But it can be overwhelming. Too much family, food, guests, parties, lunches, and shopping. What happened to the tree? Is it still tied to the roof of the car?
When November arrives, we go on alert. The pumpkin is still sagging on the porch when it’s time to plan the Thanksgiving guest list and find the perfect tree. We have to do it all on top of our regular jobs, family responsibilities, and creative work. And guess what? Sometimes we can’t.
The best response to overwhelm is to back off. Let something go. Scratch a few items off that to-do list. Decline an invitation or two.
Failing that, here are some simple methods to relieve holiday tension. They don’t require long periods of time, gym memberships, or complicated shoes. When you feel overwhelmed, out of sorts, pressed for time, or frustrated, try one of these exercises.
Remember to breathe. Nice and deep. In through your nose. Out through your mouth. Bring the air all the way into your body. Imagine it as golden light filling your organs, spreading through every muscle, nerve, and tendon. Release your breath as golden energy out your hands and feet. Do this for five minutes.
Go outside. Stand or sit and observe what you see. A tree. A patch of grass. A squirrel. Your neighbor’s dog chasing the squirrel.The FedEx truck parked down the block. Stars shining through the bare branches of a cottonwood tree. Do nothing but observe your world for five minutes. (Can be combined with deep breathing.)
Remember who and what you love. People, animals, places. Ideas, books, that action movie you saw last week. Bring your attention to your chest at the level of your heart as you remember how good it feels to care about someone or something besides yourself.
Mentally step back. If you’re judging yourself or another, stop. Notice that everyone is doing their best with the resources they have. Forgive yourself. Forgive them. Notice that you may not have the whole story about why people act the way they do. You may never have it. Forgive them anyway.
Laugh at yourself. It’s the holidays and you’re the only one who can make them great.
What are your tips for decompressing? What can you add to my list?