There is a point in the healing process when you have to embrace all the things you learned to hate. You stop running and hiding from your own sins and you turn and look them in the face, stretch out a hand, let them take you. Wholeness means integrating the dark.
Carl Jung called it the shadow self. “How can I be substantial if I do not cast a shadow?” he asked. Of course, these ideas are older than Jung — the yin and yang of ancient Chinese Taoism had a great influence on his work.
In the Christianity of my childhood, we had good and evil, sin and grace, but there was no integration. “And God separated the light from the darkness,” the opening verses of Genesis told us.
We were taught to always be ashamed of our darkness, unable to escape it but by the grace of God that washes us clean. We were meant to chase a perfection that does not exist, even for the divine.
In the adult shadow lie all the things we were punished for as children — the shame we learn to feel. In mine you will find all the times that talking got me into trouble, the exasperating questions I asked, my inability to keep up, to be “normal”, all the ways that I was queer, and how I faked it to survive.
A little after midnight, every night, I take my dog out for a walk. I have always been a nocturnal type, found the stillness of night a comfort, the drama of stark contrast beautiful. There’s rarely anyone else out there when we walk, which makes it easier to notice the slugs.
They inch along the sidewalk toward the grass, slowly, slowly, some unfortunate ones crushed and smeared by an impatient passing foot. I mourn for these, and stop to wonder at the others, crouched down like a kid fascinated for the first time by ants.
Slugs are gross, their spotted bodies glistening in the street lamps, their little antennae wriggling out ahead, but I get excited when I see them, and for a while I can’t figure out why. Snails start to inch their way into my collages — my gut keeps reaching for images of them. The art makes itself, and sometimes it also makes me.
I start reading about snails. Christians thought they symbolized the deadly sin of sloth. Laziness, the greatest fear of Puritans and capitalists. In the middle ages, there were paintings of giant snails attacking knights — man confronted by his moral failings, perhaps, his sluggard shadow.
But there are older, deeper ideas about snails. The Navajo revered the snail for bringing water from the underworld to the earth, creating rivers with her slime. The indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica saw the snail’s spiral as “a symbol of birth and death.” The Sumerians thought snails were immortal.
The spiral that houses a snail’s body has long been a symbol for the cycles of the universe, a formula for beauty. It’s vast, expansive, unknowable, uncontrollable — these are things the white men of the Enlightenment did not like. They much preferred the rationality of a line, Point A to Point B, objective, distant, efficient — and the earth has suffered for this preference.
“Spiraling” is generally considered a bad thing, a loss of control, a fall into madness and despair. But how can something so natural that the earth and all her beings are stitched in its design be wrong?
Where I grew up in Southwest Florida, we usually had to board up our windows sometime between June and October every year, but hurricanes were such a regular part of life, we always waited until the last minute to do it. You can see them coming for days.
Category 2? Just a bad thunderstorm, not worth the trouble. But once it inched past 3 into 4 or the dreaded 5, it was time to fill the bathtub and get out the plywood. We comforted ourselves with the illusion of the weatherman’s predictions, but we knew the storm could “turn on a dime,” a favorite metaphor of the meteorologists.
When a hurricane hits you, there are three stages: the first band of wind and rain, the calm eye at the center, and the second band. Swirling around the peaceful center is the worst part, the eyewall, where the heaviest weather is raging. The eye is so still as it passes over that you can safely go outside in it, an eerie sort of intermission.
They say your first memory is usually connected to a strong emotion, like fear. Mine is standing in the street outside my aunt’s house in the outer winds of Hurricane Andrew, which passed far enough to the south of us that we were spared the worst.
I was 14 when Hurricane Charley hit the Gulf Coast coast head-on, the strongest storm in Florida since Andrew. It was an apt opportunity for the weathermen to use their line about dimes: Charley rapidly accelerated from Category 2 to 4 and shifted course toward us just two hours before landfall.
It should have been scary, but you know what they say about the devil you’ve known since birth. I spent most of that time cutting out stencils with an X-acto knife by flashlight, listening to branches smash against our boarded-up windows, waiting for it to pass so I could log onto AIM and talk to my friends.
After a hurricane is gone, you emerge from your house to survey the damage. Fallen trees, limbs askew, shingles gone — it’s a mess, but there is a sense of renewal, too. A world born again by chaos, and all the gratitude that comes with living to see it.
Destruction is creativity’s shadow, and a hurricane integrates the two: trees may be ripped from the ground, but this creates holes in the canopy where light can get to the earth and feed new kinds of plants, a cyclical process crucial to biodiversity called succession. Winds may destroy but they also sow seeds further; water floods and drowns, at the same time bringing nutrient-rich sands that can revitalize inland ecosystems.
After Charley, I went with my youth pastor to a nearby town that had been hit the worst, to pass out water and help where we could. I had never seen destruction up close before, how fragile a house looks after it’s been curled like paper. We were lucky that the worst damage to our house was two weeks without power. With nothing else to do, I ran around my neighborhood, spray-painting my stencil on all the fallen trees, trying to make something from their uprooting.
“The terrible writes poetry,” asserts the writer Yrsa Daley-Ward in her memoir.
“The terrible is here one month and gone for a while until the middle of the next, allowing you to catch your breath — and just when you almost think everything is okay and when you are not over- or under-breathing, it surprises you in the middle of the night again.”
The Terrible, the night; Sadness, and his friend, Fear. Naming the darkness is an attempt to know it— maybe that is why we look at a swirling, unfathomable monster made of weather and inanely call it “Charley”.
“People have a lot of words for it,” Daley-Ward explains of the terrible. Emily Dickinson wrote that she felt a funeral in her brain. Psychiatrists would write “mood episodes” or “dysregulation” or “panic attacks” in my records.
I called them storms, because that’s what they felt like. My brain had no meteorologist, so I was never ready, but I would board up the windows of my body as best I could and curl up on the bathroom floor til they passed.
“You may not run from the thing that you are,” writes Daley-Ward, but that did not stop me from trying. I was supposed to be a Christian girl who married a man and had a respectable career, but the more I tried, the more I unravelled.
Have you ever climbed a mountain? You cannot go straight up. Switchbacks carry you back and forth, side to side, weaving slowly upwards. Going up too quickly will make you sick; if you go too fast, it can kill you, because your body has no time to adjust when your oxygen levels drop. The only treatment for altitude sickness is slowing down and descending.
Therapy led to some insights; I tried the mood stabilizers and the antidepressants, but my storms would not be medicated. In the end I had to extend a hand to my demons; accept them, and in doing so, accept myself. Repression will destroy you from the inside. There are no drugs strong enough to change who you are, and one day you have to stop trying, or else try yourself to death.
It’s not just my moods that spiral — I don’t do anything in a straight line, and all those detours take more time. In this world, time is money I am not afforded. The psychiatrists called it “executive dysfunction”. They gave me amphetamines, which I hated, and the life coaches gave me daily planners, which I promptly lost.
But a community of people I saw myself in, who call themselves neurodivergent, gave me hope that there was a way to lean into this queer temporality, to work with my natural processes, not fruitlessly against them. “My Business is Circumference,” Dickinson wrote. I like to think she did not believe in straight lines, either.
Sometimes an idea comes to me all at once, so I sit down and write out the first thousand words of it. Then I spin away in raptured orbit, onto the next idea, perhaps spilling out more words, beginning a new document, and then another.
I forget these half-formed things exist for weeks at a time, reading whatever catches my interest, writing still more unfinished pieces, pulling in words from texts that I stumble upon, slotting them into documents I’ve begun like puzzles I am always solving for in the back of my mind. Then the forward momentum stops, often before I’ve finished any of them, and the words don’t come for a while.
My friend Marta Rose calls this “gathering stardust” — the necessary point in the ellipse of our process where we spin out and rest. This is when I always panicked. Am I dysfunctional? Have I failed? Everything unfinished hangs in the air around my head, taunting me.
I end up on the floor again, crushed by the weight of it. My dog tries to bait me into playing, misinterpreting my entry to ground level as an invitation, but all I can do is stare at threads in the carpet, frozen. A slug playing dead.
My partner, one of the few people I’ve allowed to see these storms, has come to know what it means when they walk into the room and find me in this position. There is nothing either of us can do but wait it out, so they point me toward the TV and put on a documentary about space.
In the dark, gravity pulls dust and gas into a swirl, birthing a galaxy. In her bands, smaller swirls become nebulas, become suns, become planets. This is called accretion, the creation of celestial bodies through spiral and collapse; and, over millions of years, the eventual creation of our bodies, too. Spirals echo from the cochlea to the human heart to the double helix of our very DNA.
“The health of the cell is the health of the species and the planet,” adrienne maree brown writes of fractals in her book, Emergent Strategy. She doesn’t believe in failure, but instead asserts: “It’s all data.”
Those unfinished things, that source of shame in a society obsessed with straight lines and accomplishments, are all part of the stardust that slowly accretes into planetesimals. I don’t panic anymore when I gather it, because I know I am swirling around something new, a form that I can’t yet understand. The art makes itself, and sometimes it also makes me.
The snail may be a symbol of sloth to the capitalist, who sees the world atomized and controllable, himself separate and above the beasts of the earth; but she is a teacher to those who understand our interdependence with the natural world.
In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, the botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer writes:
“In the Western tradition there is a recognized hierarchy of beings, with of course, the human being on top — the pinnacle of evolution, the darling of Creation — and the plants at the bottom. But in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as ‘the younger brothers of Creation.’ We say that humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn — we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance. Their wisdom is apparent in the way that they live. They teach us by example. They’ve been on the earth far longer than we have been, and have had time to figure things out.”
I think of this at 1 AM, when I’m stopped in my tracks at the door to my apartment building once again. There’s a leopard slug on the wall above my head, more than 300 million years of evolution’s wisdom inching vertically down the concrete on a trail of her own slime, her spotted body lit in streetlight chiaroscuro.
“Snails seldom take the most direct route, instead choosing a meandering path with numerous switchbacks and self-correcting U-turns,” David George Gordon writes in his book on gastropods. Snails know how to climb a mountain.
Psalm 58 tells us what we should do with the wicked: Let them be as a snail which melteth and passeth away. But the Bible was wrong about snails. Their slime is not their bodies melting, as was commonly believed, but an act of generation, creating the conditions they need to move and survive.
Their muscles contract and expand in waves, Gordon explains, the goo getting stickier in places where they need it and releasing where they don’t. Something we were taught to see as gross, deviant, and wrong, that we crush underfoot without thought, is actually a wonder of nature’s engineering.
I used to sit in the pew on Sunday morning and listen to the pastor remind us that we are not of this world, that it’s a sin to love anything that is. God gave us all the creatures of the earth to rule and use as we see fit, he said. But how arrogant this worldview seems to me now! How ridiculous! Like trying to name a hurricane, or diagnose the terrible.
This world stitched my body together across millennia, and her shape is not a line, but a spiral. How can I be dysfunctional when I spiral, too? How can I be substantial if I do not cast a shadow?