Where all the ladders start

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

William Butler Yeats, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”

Today’s Quest2015 prompt, from visionary Eric Klein, is about “shadow bags.” Klein explains that the concept comes to us from Robert Bly, drawing on the work of Carl Jung. A “shadow bag” is, in short, the place where we stash the bits of ourselves judged unacceptable, cutting them off with niceness. “Nice is a knife,” Klein writes, and with this knife, we have been dismembering ourselves since early childhood. After a while, the bag starts to stink, and we can either try to ignore it, or face it, taking ownership of our fragmented selves and attempting a reintegration. Klein’s question is this:

How will you face your shadow bag and stop the stink, so you can bring forth what is best within you in 2015? What can you claim right now?

This prompt makes me fifty shades of contrary, and perhaps that’s some shadow baggage that I need to own. First, though I love the sentence “Nice is a knife,” I disagree on an intellectual level. “Nice,” to me, means, roughly, “meh.” I don’t like the word, but not because it carries any masochistic connotations; rather, to me, it’s always seemed like a throwaway word, a word that means precisely nothing. As I ponder this prompt, I keep reminding myself that I need to work past my linguistic issues and focus on the intent.

I think that what Klein means by “nice” is what I’d describe as “self-negating.” Or maybe the older meaning of “nice”–scrupulous, or careful to avoid giving offense. I think that’s what he’s getting at.

Okay, so I’ve worked through my linguistic issues. Then, contrarian that I am, I take issue with the example he gives of a child who bursts into the house, excited about spring, only to be shushed by his parents.

I have two little boys, and they have about a zillion little friends, and I can say with unwavering confidence that not only has my shushing never cut off part of anyone’s psyche and stuffed it in a bag, it has categorically failed to shush anybody at all. If anything, my admonitions to please keep the decibel level below the bleeding-eardrums level have only made them louder.

At this point, I have to rein myself in and remember that this is only an example. I think what Klein is talking about is not only a consistent squelching of behaviors and attitudes, but one that is arbitrary. If I ask my children to please not scream in the house and to avoid breaking the furniture, I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong, particularly if I explain that the shrieking is upsetting our dog or making my husband’s migraine worse, or if the carousing is threatening to knock a heavy mirror onto my children’s heads. So I think what Klein means here is the kind of behavior-censorship that comes from worries about appearance or image rather than safety or compassion.

I believe that there are parts of ourselves that we stifle. In wrestling with this prompt all day, I’ve begun to identify at least some of mine. Confidence and self-esteem are the big ones for me, their amputation a process so long and drawn-out as to be insidious. I cannot say at what point the exuberant self-confidence of two years old gave way to self-doubt and self-denigration, because there is no single point. There is not even a single source. There’s no one and nothing I can blame for this amputation. These words by John Irving, which I encountered as the epigraph to Kristin-Paige Madonia’s remarkable novel Fingerprints of You, keep dancing around in my mind as I percolate my response:

In this way, in increments both measurable and not, our childhood is stolen from us — not always in one momentous event but often in a series of small robberies, which add up to the same loss.

This is what I keep coming back to, this sense of cumulative and untraceable loss. I could point to incidents–being shaken by my third-grade teacher; being disqualified from a middle-school young authors’ contest because one of the judges, a parent, thought my work was too good to have been done by a child; being in middle school, period. But none of these things, taken in isolation, maimed me.

But that’s not in any way the heart of the question, because what Klein is asking me to do is to face up to the fact of having a shadow bag, and to think about how I will reclaim what’s in it. And here’s the scary part–I don’t know. It’s easy for me to accept the existence of such a bag, but to get stuff out of it? I don’t think that’s a question I can answer right away. Just as it took years to whittle away parts of myself, it will take years to undo that severing. What I do know is that things can never be the same. Life marks our souls and bodies in so many ways. The beauty of growing older is that we learn to value our scars, to see them as the glyphs they are, life’s tracery writ large (or small) on our living bodies. The scar on my stomach says that I brought two human beings into the world. My crooked collarbone proclaims that I survived a terrifying car crash one bitter night in December. Knit into my body are other marks, some invisible–the place where a broken arm healed when I was two, the antibodies resulting from battles with assorted childhood illnesses, the fingerprints friends and family have left on my heart. If I can stitch the pieces of my psyche back together, the stitches will always show. And in a way, I will be stronger for it.

I’ve grappled with this prompt all day. It makes me think about zombies, and zombies give me nightmares. It makes me think about the story of Bluebeard, which has always freaked me the heck out. And it makes me think about Yeats and his foul rag and bone shop. About everything that’s taken from us. These aren’t comfortable thoughts.

How to bring forth the best? What to claim right now? I don’t know. I’m still struggling. But maybe this is what I need to own right now, in this place and time–the uncertainty, the grappling, the struggle. The knowledge that there is no return to an Eden, no second childhood, no Neverland. There is only this world, this flawed and messy world, and the beautiful and fragmented souls making their slow way across the landscape.

One final thought–the phrase “that raving slut/Who keeps the till” from Yeats’s poem keeps sticking in my thoughts. Such a bizarre image–a woman, thrown in there among the refuse. I need to sit with this thought a little more, but my gut response in this moment is to say that I want to be her, loud and dodgy and possibly a little crazy, impossibly present and unapologetic and alive in the midst of a bizarre landscape.

Because it kind of sounds like she’s having fun.

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4 thoughts on “Where all the ladders start

  1. Still wonder how “nice” ever get equated with “self-negating?” Which it has.This meaning gives nice a bad name! Linguistics, yes but words are important symbols. As to the stuff in the bag and how to get it out. Don’t know. Maybe one piece at a time, reach in, pull something out. Shake off the dust. See if it fits. Wear it if you like it. I ❤ the closing image in your post!

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