When I taught at a Waldorf School, we taught a little poem to the children:
There live in me an image
of all that I could be.
Until I have become it,
my heart is never free.
For some reason, as I try to recall it, my mind always substitutes “shadow” for “image.” It’s like something tickling at the back of my brain is trying to remind me that I am not only what can be seen on the surface, but that there’s something else there, too, some deeper me that needs to be recognized and integrated before I am truly whole and free.
Several years ago, I wrote a poem on the subject:
I will be Crow.
Stone Steps to the Lady Shrine.
Spider’s tidy strands.
Moss. Pine cone.
Lichen. White stone.
Lady, what have you to say to me?
There lives in me a shadow. . .(From Song of the Toad and the Mockingbird by Elizabeth Weaver-Kreider, Skunk Holler Poetryworks, 2013.)
Water trickling in the grotto.
Bark of the Sycamore Tree.
What have you to say?
An image of all that I could be.
Ladybug on Her child’s chubby knee.
Spider in the fold of Her robe.
Green leaf. Cool breeze.
Whisper. Oak trees.
Become the Shadow.
I am the Crow and the Spider.
Scent of new boxwood.
The whisk-footed Squirrel.
Egg sac. Chickweed.
When I look into my own shadows, they’re composed of as many subtle colors and hues as the ones that intersect across my living room floor in the mornings. Some are indeed frightening and uncomfortable, because they are unknown, because they hold the secrets of my unresolved and unacknowledged self. Others hold a thrill, because they hide the daring and adventurous and wild side of me, because they harbor the self hinted at in my dreams. They whisper to me, ask me to take up the work they have.
The various personality and temperament studies I have done often point toward shadow work, to exploring those unexplored regions inside. I have found the Enneagram to be particularly helpful in this work. In the Enneagram, I am a pretty standard Seven, an Enthusiast. I call it Hedonist, to remind myself of the shadow possibilities. The Enthusiast wants to enjoy life to the fullest. What choose one option when five will do? We tend to overschedule ourselves, to take on more than we can handle, to eat too much and drink too much. We have a thousand unfinished projects because we want to try everything. We can be enjoyable companions because we like to pile on the fun. Some of the shadows that dog me are hoarding and gluttony and pain avoidance. There isn’t time or attention span enough to handle all the projects and ideas and things that I want to take on. And I get so excited about the next new thing that I avoid the actual work of other things I have committed myself to. In this case, working with my shadows means knowing this pitfalls, working with the anxiety that comes with saying no to the next new and exciting thing that comes along, learning to discipline myself to do the next thing that might bring work or pain.
And there are shadowselves that call me to integrate my the wilder, fiercer, more daring part of me into my everyday self. The shadows call: “Don’t let yourself be tamed! Don’t become domesticated! Don’t settle into safety and predictability. Don’t settle for the status quo.” It’s these shadowselves that raise their heads when everyday systems of oppression and injustice, patterns that everyone seems to accept, make us raise our heads and look around and start to ask questions. In order to live in a world that actively creates unjust systems, parts of ourselves slide into the shadows in order to function with minimal pain and less of the jarring sense of contradiction. Change in the world comes about when we let these sleeping shadows wake up and live within us.
Here, on the eighth day of our journey into the shadows of the December labyrinth, let’s walk into those rooms where our shadows wait, and examine their colors and shapes and textures. What might they have to teach us? This afternoon, I must tackle some things I have been avoiding, and set up a plan for myself to focus instead of fluttering from bright and shiny thing to bright and shiny thing.
What goal will you set for yourself? Maybe your natural state is to try to control all the details, and today you will let go of control? Maybe you’re dogged by particular shadow anxieties, and today is the day to look at them more closely, perhaps in the company of a beloved who can help you? Perhaps today is the day to wake up some sleepy shadows and start to make a plan to break the chains in an oppressive system that profits from your sleepiness?
(At the beginning of Advent, my pastor asked us to hold the swords-into-ploughshares vision in our heads, to look for stories of people choosing that vision. For the next little while, I am going to look for such stories as my daily morning meditation.)
I think of the people of Landisville Mennonite Church and others who work with them to be companions to refugees and asylum seekers and immigrants who have been detained in York County Prison. These people are holding a vision of a welcoming community that helps people find their way in a new place. A group of people has come out of this work to raise money to pay the bonds for immigrants in the York detention center. Their website is IBAEPA.org, The Immigration Bond and Advocacy effort, if you would like to participate in their making their vision a reality.