The Magic of the Masked Raccoon

I’ve been exploring a relationship with a new spirit animal lately. Raccoon came to me shortly after my friend died, and it seemed to be the perfect expression of how I had grown as a result of her presence in my life.

Raccoon is known for being a curious creature with a lot of personality, but the aspect of it that has stood out to me has been its famous mask.

I’ve been obsessed with masks and all of their nuance.

On the surface, the most common association with a mask is hiding, perhaps deceit. I won’t deny that masks have their shadow side which can easily come to mind; however, masks carry so much more magic than that.

Masks create mystery. Some of the most dynamic roles I can think of in movies involve people whose faces can’t even be seen. As a result, their actions have to convey something mesmerizing–e.g. the phantom of the opera’s voice or V’s alliteration.

Similarly, masquerade balls are fun because of the excitement of the unknown—the sense of being attracted and drawn to people and having encounters with people in a capacity that leaves you guessing who they are at the end of the night. Masks deny us the basics of facial recognition and the non-verbal feedback of expressions, forcing us to pay attention to other clues.

But masks also create unity. In V for Vendetta, the mask of Guy Fawkes becomes a symbol of the power of a people who refuse to be controlled any longer. The anonymity of the masks removes the impediment of fear, allowing them to come together for their shared purpose.

Masks empower. In The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne makes a comment that Batman’s mask was meant to inspire the people of Gotham—it’s not about who is behind the mask because the point is that anyone could be behind the mask. Of course, we don’t often get to see the benefits of empowerment with a mask in real society, but it’s a present enough truth to make an appearance in most of our hero stories: From Zorro to Spider Man.

Masks also help to embody. Halloween is fun because it allows me to try on a character or archetype—to put on the energy of that person or creature for a bit, to feel it within myself. When I put on a costume, I connect with something deep within me that relates to the energy of that costume, bringing out that part of myself to which I may not otherwise have access.

Perhaps most importantly though, masks help to express. One of the greatest lessons I cherish in my grief is the idea that every day is a day for dress up and costume. Every day, we get up, look in our closets, and choose what mask to put on for that day.

Sometimes it’s the mask of professionalism.

Sometimes the mask of flirtation.

Or practicality.

But every day, we choose to portray or hide different aspects of ourselves.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing that we each have different faces in different situations or around different people. We are complex beings with many facets and layers to our personality.

The question raccoon asks is, “Are you doing it authentically?”

 

One of These Things is Not Like the Others: Lessons from Nanowrimo, PTSD, and General Patraeus

This month has been intense, and I can honestly say I’m glad it’s over. It started out rather benignly, with my dedicating my writing to the Nanowrimo craze. I knew I couldn’t expect myself to write the encouraged 50,000 words over the next thirty days, but I decided at least to try to write on the same project every day. I was aiming for a loose 10,000 words.

It was a significant break from my usual writing schedule—juggling five or six writing projects for five days and taking two days off on the weekend. I knew it would throw me off, but I thought, “Hey, it’s just thirty days.” In the interest of avoiding too many boring details, let’s just say that I lasted less than a week on my new schedule. The weekend got too busy, and my body reverted back to the “resting” phase.

Shrug.

I didn’t think it was so bad. I picked up again at the beginning of the second week. Towards the end of it, the same thing happened, but with more days missed—days that I normally would have used for writing. Desperation and frustration started to creep up, and inspiration fled. My writing quality on my novel plummeted. The words became filler words that I knew would be cut later. I lost interest , became bored, and turned to the comfort of movies.

And I hated myself.

Why couldn’t I even meet my own gaddamn writing goals? Furthermore, what was so bad about me that I couldn’t eke out the required 1,500 words a day to meet the Nanowrimo goal? After all, some of my favorite new books were ones that had been started during Nanowrimo. If those authors could do it, but I couldn’t even stay focused on the same project for two weeks, surely something must be wrong with me.

Yes, I actually considered dropping writing.

Looking back at it now, it was kind of a silly mood. I’ve been writing steadily for five days a week for almost a year now with the my kind of odd schedule. It works for me. It’s a slower process as far as novels go, but it gets me new poems and short stories almost every week and ensures that I’m much more likely to edit and submit short pieces to journals and competitions. Objectively, I’ve been doing well. I’d even written two stories and the beginning of an ode to my vagina during the time when I was supposedly not writing anything else other than my novel. It was silly stuff that was just for fun, but it was a flow experience nonetheless.

And isn’t that writing? Doesn’t that qualify?

Yet when I fail to measure up to an arbitrary competition that hasn’t even been in place for as long as I’ve been writing, I start to doubt myself.

Leaving the Nanowrimo disaster for a moment, I now turn to PTSD. (I promise to tie it all together in the end.) Most people who know me know I have PTSD. Even the people I think I am hiding it from figure it out eventually, probably much sooner than I am guessing. To me, the main thing about PTSD that sticks out are the meltdowns—from flashbacks, memories, triggers, panic attacks, nightmares, etc. Those are the big ones and the ones that I fear will give me away (even though it probably has something more to do with the subtle cues like my intense startle response, my intimidation and tendency to freeze up when I feel threatened, and my incessant urge to apologize even for things that aren’t my fault).

I’ve tried my best to be alone when the episodes happen, or to stave them off until I’m alone if I feel it coming on.

But I fail. So far, I’ve managed to have some sort of fairly obvious episode in the car, at work, at the grocery store, in several churches, during sex, in front of my grandmother, in a souvenir shop, and in front of multiple teachers.

Brene Brown has this awesome TED talk on the power of vulnerability, and for the most part, I try to keep in mind what she says. But this vulnerability–this one just doesn’t seem like it could possibly be a strength. I’m embarrassed when it happens. I’m scared. I half expect people to tell me to get up and leave because I’m too crazy for them to hang around. No matter how much I try to tell myself that it’s a sign that I survived, I’m afraid it tells others that I’m broken.

So how does General Patraeus fit into this?

Well, he was my epiphany.

His scandal made absolutely no sense to me. I couldn’t imagine why in hell he would be forced to step down because of an affair while President Clinton was allowed to remain in office. I’m not saying that Clinton should have been impeached for having a love affair. Just the opposite. I think making someone step down because of who they’re having sex with is the epitome of American stupidity. As long as everything is consensual, why does it matter?

So far the only reason I’ve heard for his resignation that sounds remotely legitimate is that he was setting himself up to be blackmailed, which put national secrets at risk. Of course, if we didn’t have this stigma around affairs . . . or even divorce, there would be nothing to blackmail him over. It’s not the sex that is the problem, but the shame and the fear of discovery.

I don’t know the status of his marriage, and I wouldn’t attempt to speculate about the health of his relationship or his reasons for cheating on his wife. It’s none of my business. But I would hazard a guess that the affair easily indicates a certain unfaithfulness to himself too. People in happy relationships don’t just happen to fall into someone else’s bed and try to hide it. Somewhere along the way, Patraeus failed to own his shit, to use the words of my friend Gail Dickert (check out her youtube channel for some pretty badass shit-owning).

Of course, she wasn’t speaking about Patraeus. She was telling me “own your shit,” and it was in reference to claiming my power in situations where I feel powerless . . . . So let me stop projecting my own lessons onto Patraeus and apply them to myself.

I’m not like the average person. I don’t fit the molds or measure up to the ideals of “normalcy.” I’m happier mixing herbs, reading tarot cards, exchanging dream interpretations, burning incense, playing board games, coloring with crayons, and hugging trees than I am with discussing business, struggling to one-up the Joneses, or running the career rat race.

I might briefly flip out over the fact that I’ve already got white hairs, but I’m not interested in hiding myself behind product or trying to stay “young.” I enjoy wine, coffee, and fine furniture, but my life isn’t defined by how much I can show off to my friends. I’m radical and passionate about human rights, disdain corporations, and distrust technology.

I write like a read. My brain needs multiple things to work on. It takes me forever to keep interest in just one book just like it takes me forever to write just one novel. I need variety to keep my inspiration flowing. I enjoy being alone—scratch that, I need time alone.

None of these characteristics, or the many others I could probably mention, are weaknesses. They do put me at odds with many people, but in and of themselves, they are just . . . information about my personality. They only become weaknesses when I feel ashamed of them because I want to “fit in.”

The same goes for my PTSD. All it really says about me is that I survived trauma and that I’ve got the scars to show for it, just as I might (and do) have the physical scars to show from when I fell off a bike. But when I try to hide it, when I try to push away the truth of who I am, or when I’m ashamed of myself or afraid of myself, it gives others power over me—power to tell me I’m broken, power to tell me I failed, power to tell me I’m weak. When I own myself—every part of myself—the power remains with me.

And maybe failing to force myself to comply with others’ expectations and definitions—whether in writing, PTSD, or something else entirely—is really a victory for me. In a way, it’s just my body and mind demonstrating their own power to own my shit despite my efforts to disown it.