This week I finished a painting inspired by a photograph of a wheelbarrow full of pumpkins, and Eugene, my first little soul-mate cat. He’s the cat who liked raisins, broccoli and ear wax –I don’t need to get into how that came about—and who played my answering machine when he was bored.
I wanted riots of color in this painting and the colors turned out to be a way of making the shadows in front of the wheelbarrow. But Eugene, my little familiar, did not look quite right until I gave him a little shadow. He came alive, sitting in the little shadow that belonged to him, that he alone could make.
A shadow is a companion of the thing itself. Remember “I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,” the children’s poem by Robert Louis Stevenson? The poem treats shadows benignly. But the word “shadow” in this post Jungian age, has acquired an unfortunate rep for something we ought to be able to get rid of.
But our shadow is our companion. It’s that vast part of our being that we are not conscious of but who communicates with us as much as we allow. When we meet our unconscious, it feels like “it” is outside of us. But our unconscious is the shadow only we can make.
The classic engagements are when we dream and fall in love. Slips of the tongue can alert us to something we didn’t know we felt or thought. We meet our shadow when we discover that we’re sexually aroused by the war paint in the movie, Braveheart; or when we realize we love roller derby or the surgery channel. Or when we discover a capacity for jealousy or tenderness or competitiveness or gratitude we didn’t know we had. It throws us into a confusion that is an opportunity to expand our ideas about what it means to be human.
No matter how rational we like to think we are, I believe that our unconscious steers us if for no other reason than there is so much more of it in our beings. It can’t be expunged but it can’t be known either so it seems good to try to live in acknowledgment of its existence and to be-friend it when we can. Because there is always shadow. It goes in and out with us.
When you are trying to Create Art, you think a lot about light and dark and how the two need each other. When I first started learning to draw, I began to see the world in terms of dark and light. The dark of the trees furthest away is what makes the closer trees look closer. In other words, shadow gives depth.
Shadow brings relief from the intensity of the sun. If, as David Byrne sings, heaven is a place where nothing really happens maybe it’s because your retinas have been seared and your brain burnt out from the excessive light. “Truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind,” says Emily Dickinson.
Adam Phillips, my favorite psychoanalytic writer, writes, “Everyone feels themselves prone to feelings and desires and thoughts that disturb them. And we’re being persuaded that by acts of choice, we can dispense with these thoughts. It’s a version of fundamentalism.” (from Going Sane.)
Speaking of fundamentalists, I have a story about my mother. It’s also a story about a shadow that wasn’t and a spark of light suggesting that she was in the light in which she had always believed; and she didn’t be-grudge me the part I played in our tumultuous relationship.
I got a visitation from her a few months after her death. I had taken a copy of her death certificate to my bank along with a check for $300 made out to Mary K. Richmond. The check was from a class action law suit against one of many semi-criminal organizations who manipulate money out of elderly people in the form of “pledges.” Her mail was coming to my house while I tried to get her name off close to 500 of these organizations. I knew on sight which mail to throw in the re-cycle en route from the mail box to my front door, and which inspired further investigation. I had opened this particular letter. I got together the documents and walked to the bank where they seemed unconcerned about cashing the check.
On my way home I came through the cemetery. It was a cold winter day and there was an unusual amount of snow lying around Seattle. As I rounded a corner, I saw a shadow come up behind me so I moved to let whoever it was pass. No one passed. When I turned around there was no one in sight, but there was a momentary glint of sun on a piece of ice, high in a bare tree. It blinded me for a second, and then was gone. The bare branch waved. I smiled a small smile that slowly got broader until I laughed outright. My first thought was that my mother was pleased to do this small thing for me from beyond the grave. Then it occurred to me that, of course, my mother would come checking on what was happening with her money. And finally I heard her voice saying, “There. Don’t say I never do anything for you.”
I thought this blog had become rather dark and wanted to end it on a light note.