Hello, friends. I know that we are all ready for the dumpster fire that is 2020 to be over and done with. (Yes, I'm aware that our problems won't disappear into the ether on January 1st, but it's helpful to have some light at the end of the tunnel.) That said, many of us are feeling discouraged and (way beyond) burnt out after all this year has put us through, and planning ahead for the future may feel impossible right now -- and that feeling is intensified for many of us with mental health issues like bipolar disorder. My newest HealthyPlace article offers some gentle advice on how to take small, sustainable steps towards making the most of 2021. Even if you are neurotypical, I trust that you'll find something worthwhile here.
As always, thanks for reading -- and please share if you feel inclined!
In Greek mythology, the Muses are nine divine sisters who preside over the arts and sciences. Born from the union of Zeus (King of the Gods) and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, they delight mortals and gods alike with their poetry, music, dances, and storytelling, and inspire humans to strive for artistic and creative achievement. (They have also generously leant their name to the modern word "museum" - a place meant to inspire its visitors with the fine arts and natural sciences.)
The nine sisters were, in no particular order: Calliope (muse of epic poetry, music, song, dance, and eloquence; she is also the eldest of the nine sisters and the mother of Orpheus, the famous bard); Clio (history); Euterpe (lyric song); Melpomene (the Greek chorus and tragedy); Terpsichore (dance); Erato (erotica, love poetry, and mime); Polyhymnia (sacred song; her name is the origin of the word "hymn"); Urania (astronomy); and Thalia (comedy and bucolic poetry).
As the New (and hopefully better) Year approaches -- and per the spirit of the longest night of the year -- I've been reflecting on what went well for me in 2020 (on a personal level, that is), what didn't, and how I can continue to intentionally craft the me I want to be as I wade into 2021. I've discovered that a part of that process involves looking to artists who I admire for inspiration; not so that I can emmulate them exactly, but to have a compass -- you could even call it a pantheon -- to guide me towards the person that I want to become on an artistic and even spiritual level.
The members of my personal muse-pantheon will likely expand as the New Year unfolds, but for the moment, here are the muses that are carrying me forward into 2021.
Queen is my all-time favorite band. I would need to write a separate blog post to explain all of the reasons why, but the nutshell version is this: they were bold. Bold with their vision, bold with their musicianship, bold in the way they stood apart from the rest of the rock world of the 70s and 80s. Oh, and did I mention their bold as eff frontman, Freddie ****ing Mercury?
We all know Freddie as the show-stopper who wrote Bohemian Rhapsody and gave one of, if not the, greatest live performances of all time when Queen performed at the 1985 Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium. But here are some things that you may not have heard about the God of Rock:
I could go on about all of the other reasons why I so deeply admire Freddie Mercury and why I love Queen's music, but we would be here all day. Suffice it to say that Freddie's story -- that of a young Queer immigrant with four extra teeth who refused to let anything hold him back, who rose up from humble beginnings on a tiny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean to become one of the greatest and most beloved entertainers who ever lived -- reminds me that I can make my own dreams a reality, too.
If Freddie were a muse in my pantheon, he would be the Muse of Determination, Self-Expression, and Revelry. (And Epic Poetry, because "Bohemian Rhapsody.")
I may very well be among Tori Amos' few Millennial fans -- Tori herself is a late Boomer, and her primary listener base are Gen Xers who came of age in the 80s and 90s as her career was taking off -- but I discovered her music when I was in high school in the late 2000s and have been in love with her work ever since. I even got to see her in concert during her Night of Hunters Tour back in 2011, and am hoping I get the chance to see her again whenever it is safe to attend live shows post-pandemic.
I love the magical worlds and characters that Tori conjures with her surreal lyrics. As a misfit kid who didn't quite fit in and was always dipping in and out of the world of Fae, it was an incredible comfort for Fourteen Year Old Me to learn that there were other wyrd people in the world who were able to make a living not in spite of their wyrdness, but because of it; Tori herself has spoken on her appeal to a niche audience, and how it doesn't bother her that she's never been a Top 40 or Grammy-award winning artist (although she has received eight Grammy nominations). In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1998, she is quoted as saying: "I know I'm an acquired taste. I'm anchovies, and not everybody wants those hairy little things. If I was potato chips, I could go a lot more places, but I'm not." Seeing (or rather, hearing) that sort of defiant creativity at such a young age had a profound effect on me, especially since I came from a family where creativity wasn't actively encouraged and spent my high school years in a small town where there were not many outlets or opportunities for artists. I remember lying in bed with my eyes closed, listening to Tori's music on repeat and allowing her voice to carry me away to Faerie for a few hours, and feeling so free because I knew that there was room in the world for my wyrd creative visions, too.
But what really punches me in the gut is Tori's remarkable story, which resembles my own coming-of-age in some ways. She was born Myra Ellen Amos and later adopted the name Tori after the Torrey pine trees that grow in her home state of North Carolina. (I had my first and middle name legally changed at age 17.) She was the daughter of a Methodist minister and later broke free of the stifiling religious environment of her upbringing. (My grandfather was a Church of Christ pastor, and I also experienced a profound loss of faith in my teen years that evolved into a beautiful and soul-fulfilling adult spirituality I created for myself.) At age five, she became the youngest person ever admitted to the Peabody Institute at John Hopkins University for her musical aptitude, but was expelled at age 11 for her dislike of classical sheet music and her interest in rock n' roll and pop music. (Though I wasn't exactly a child prodigy, growing up I butted heads with plenty of my English teachers for turning in assignments that were too "out there.") She spent her teen years and early twenties performing in dive bars in DC and LA, and was sexually assaulted at knifepoint at age 21, an experience described in her song "Me and a Gun." (I myself experienced sexual abuse from an intimate partner as a teenager.) And her first professional foray into the music world as the frontwoman of the short-lived 80s syncho-pop group Y Kant Tori Read was a bitter flop (although personally, I think Y Kant Tori Read was a fabulous album).
Tori suffered so many setbacks, traumas and disappointments in her young adulthood as she struggled to pursue her creative dreams, but her perseverence paid off: when Little Earthquakes was released in 1992 (the year yours truly was born), it was a critical and commercial success, and thus a very bright if peculiar star was born. Despite what some might call her "niche appeal," her brilliant songwriting career has been going strong for almost three decades. She has used her platforms to participate in activism as well; she served as the first national spokesperson for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), and continues to be closely involved with the organization to this day.
Being a young woman in my late twenties struggling to launch my creative career off the ground, Tori's unique vision and her incredible coming-of-age tale fuel me with inspiration and hope. Every time I listen to her music, I'm reminded that I don't need to hide my wyrd and wild self from the world in order to prosper. In fact, that wyrdness and wildness is what will ultimately lead me to where I'm meant to be, so long as I heed the call and am willing to take what comes with it.
In my pantheon, Tori would be the Muse of Dreams, Magical Realism, and Witchcraft.
I first discovered Emilie Autumn's 2003 album Enchant back in 2013 via my Gothic literature class at ACC (which remains my all-time favorite class that I took in undergrad). If you've read this far, it should come as no surprise that my heart fairly exploded with joy when I discovered that there is an artist in the world who describes her musical style as "fairy pop." I loved Enchant and Fight Like a Girl, but I confess that I remained a more or less casual listener for a long time. That is, until I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in May 2019.
Emilie Autumn also has bipolar disorder, and has been very forthcoming about her illness on her public platform and in interviews. After my diagnosis, I immediately gravitated back towards her music, particularly her album Opheliac. When I listened to "Swallow" -- a song about Emilie's experience realizing that she needed psychiatric medication in order to survive -- I cried, because the only thought I had was Oh my effing gods...someone out there GETS it.
I love how Emilie Autumn isn't afraid to confront the topic of mental illness and the stigma that has followed it through the ages head-on in her music and her writing. Her novel The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls and its companion musical album Fight Like a Girl are loosely based off of her own experience of spending time in a psychiatric hospital as a teenager. (There is also a musical based on the book in the works, which I'm quite excited for.) She spoke about her experience living with bipolar quite frankly in Metal Discovery: "I'd prefer not to have it, and then not be artistic, and would probably be a lot happier...I'd still trade it in for anything else but, while it's here, I'm going to use it for all it's worth so that I'm not a victim of it."
I also love how she is completely uninhibited in her stylistic choices; similar to Tori Amos' experience as a young girl, Emilie Autumn left the conservatory at Indiana University because her aesthetic clashed with the expectations of the classical music teachers there, and she's been doing her own thing ever since. She draws inspiration from classical literature, history (particularly the Victorian era), and burlesque -- which, coincidentally, happen to be three of my favorite things. And I admire how fiercely dedicated she is to her fans, whom she affectionately calls "Plague Rats," and how she has created an entire fictional world of the Asylum for fans to gather and bond over shared experiences. That's the kind of relationship that I hope to build with my reader base as I continue to publish and grow my platform as an author.
As part of my pantheon, Emilie would be the Muse of Psychiatry, Healing, Literature, and Fashion.
There is an expression you may have heard that goes "great artists steal." This doesn't mean that we should plagarize or copycat other artists (seriously, don't do that, it ain't cool). I interpret it to mean that art feeds off of art, and that creativity does not exist in a vacuum. You can think of creativity as an aquifer -- the artists who came before us tended a deep, rich well for all of us up-and-coming little saplings to nourish our roots so that we can grow into the most glorious versions of ourselves. And just as trees convert water and sunlight into an energy all of their own, so do we take inspiration from our muses -- whoever they might be -- to create a vision for our lives and legacies that are unique to us.
So tell me, who are your muses? Who are the people -- be they artists, historical figures, ancestors, or beloveds in your personal life -- who fill you with courage, inspiration, and hope? What lessons do you feel like they have to teach you as we (praise be) leave 2020 behind and take our first steps into the New Year? And how can you (yes, you - I'm talking to you) potentially serve as a muse for someone else? (Trust me, there's someone out there looking up to you. Are you showing them the you that you want to be, in all its perfections, imperfections and vulnerabilities?)
Tend to your roots. Then tend to others. Let your muses show you the way.
Hello dears. My newest article on HealthyPlace deals with the challenge of creating a long-term career plan when you live with bipolar disorder. I speak from experience when I say that looking too far ahead with bipolar disorder can be really hard and emotionally exhausting -- those of us with the disorder are ten times as likely to be un- or underemployed than the general population, and despite the protections afforded to disabled folks in the ADA, there is still stigma attached to mental illness that can lead to hiring bias. However, I have a little trick I use to keep myself going whenever I start to feel discouraged or hopeless about my career prospects. Read on and you'll see what I mean.
Before we go on, let's get the elephant out of the room: I don't celebrate Christmas.
No, I have nothing against Christmas. I grew up with it, and it was a holiday that I looked forward to every year: some of my happiest childhood memories involve helping my grandmother decorate the tree and make her famous Christmas fudge, as well as going with my grandparents to see the local theater company perform A Christmas Carol. I also grew up in a staunchly Christian family (my grandfather was a pastor at the Church of Christ) so in addition to reindeer and elves and colored lights, my childhood Christmases were peppered with nativity scenes and church plays. While I never felt comfortable in the Christian church -- even as a young child, I always felt like I didn't belong there, and that the faith of my upbringing wasn't the right path for me -- the sentiment of peace for the world, goodwill towards others, and hope for a brighter future that came with the Christmas season deeply resonated with me.
As an adult, I celebrate Yule, which is the neopagan holiday that marks the Winter Solstice. For the uninitiated, the Winter Solstice marks the point where the Earth tilts to the farthest point away from the Sun on its axis, marking the day with the shortest ours of daylight out of the whole year. (By contrast, the Summer Solstice marks the longest day of the year.) After the Winter Solstice has passed, the days will gradually begin to grow longer and brighter again until the Spring Equinox. The Winter Solstice usually happens sometime around December 21st in the Northern Hemisphere and June 21st in the Southern Hemisphere. While modern Yule celebrations draw inspiration from numerous ancient Solstice traditions from northern Europe, the Winter Solstice has been celebrated in some form or fashion by cultures across the globe for millennia. (You can learn more about some of these rich traditions here.)
It makes sense that the Winter Solstice is celebrated the worldover, and that ancient humans treated this day with great reverence. Before the days of electricity and central heating and supermarkets and Doordash and streaming services, winter was rough for most people; the days were cold and short, the nights dark and long. Game and wild foods were often scarce. Depending on how the harvest had gone earlier in the year, families and communities may or may not have had enough sustence to tide them over until spring returned. The return of the sun after months of post-harvest cold and darkness would have been a welcome relief to them -- a promise that no matter how long or hard the winter, spring was on its way once again to bring light and warmth and the beginning of a new cycle back to the world. It was a time for hope, cheer, and sharing what you had with others -- our ancestors understood that their individual survival was directly tied to the community's survivial, and they acted accordingly.
While Winter Solstice celebrations may not be widely recognized in popular culture (in America, anyway), it is interesting to note that most of the major winter holidays also carry the theme of light coming to bring hope and grace to the world: the candles of Hanukkah represent the miracle that kept the temple lights burning during the Maccabean revolt, Christmas honors the birth of Jesus as a light (savior) for humankind, and Kwanzaa celebrates the rich traditions of the African diaspora and the ability of the Black community to continue to shine bright in a world where they face so many forms of systemic oppression. Whatever you choose to celebrate during this festive time of year, light and warmth and peace for the world are themes that we can all rally behind.
In addition to the return of the light and the promise that spring (my personal favorite season) will soon return, I love celebrating the Winter Solstice because it gives me an opportunity to reconnect with my ancestral cultures. I have heritage from Scotland, Wales, Ireland, England, Germany, Sweden and Norway - cultures that boast very ancient and very festive Winter Solstice traditions. It's not only fun to learn more about the spiritual and cultural practices of my ancestors and the ways that they honored the natural world around them, it's also an important part of my anti-racism practice.
For the most part, Euro-Americans are estranged from our ancestral homelands and cultures and spiritual practices, and we don't really have a cohesive cultural identity within the United States. This creates a vacuum, an emptiness, a longing to belong to something that drives many of us to engage in harmful behaviors. At best, we may partake in cultural appropriation (a topic worthy of an entire blog of its own, but if you're unsure what it means or why it's harmful, here's a helpful article on the topic to get you started). At worst, we may join white nationalist hate groups that offer a sense of pride and identity based on nothing more than the arbitrary characteristic of skin color. I firmly believe that an active and engaged anti-racism practice (and no, I don't mean "not acting racist," I mean actively pushing back against racism in your daily life whenever and however you may encounter it, which also means being honest with yourself about how you may consciously or unconsciously perpetuate racism yourself) requires us to unsettle our lineages.
What lands did your ancestors come from? What languages did they speak? What stories did they tell? How did they pray? What drove them to leave their homelands and their cultures behind? How did their story change when they arrived in a new land? What role did they play in perpetuating colonialism and white supremacy - or working to dismantle it?
In order to create a brighter future for our communities and the world, we have to understand where we come from and what brought us here. Connecting with our ancestors in whatever ways are available to us allows us to learn from both their mistakes and their successes, and reminds us of our own rich cultural heritages. My Winter Solstice traditions are one avenue I work within to do just that. Especially this year, when we are all hoping for a better post-2020 tomorrow, I believe that our ancestral traditions have much to teach us about community and holding onto hope when the world looks bleak and dark.
So this weekend I'll be making Welsh wassail and leaving (LED) candles burning on my windowsill all night, as is the custom in Ireland and Scotland to send a beacon of welcome to strangers and visitors. I've had my tree and my lights up since the middle of November and will leave them up until the end of January (in the same spirit as the Swedes, who leave their holiday lights up for months during the dark months) and I've already mailed out Solstice cards to my beloveds who I'm sorely missing this year. (Fun fact: the tradition of sending holiday cards got its start in England, where it was introduced by Sir Henry Cole in 1843 as a way to simplify the old tradition of sending a Christmas letter to family and friends.) I'm disappointed that I won't be able to visit any Christmas markets or attend any Yule or New Year's parties with my loved ones this year, but I know that the distance we're practicing now to keep each other safe will make our eventual reunion all the more joyful. I'm saining my apartment with pine smoke and baking gingerbread and sugar cookies from my great-grandmother's time-honored recipe. I'm divesting from consumer capitalism and purchasing gifts and decor from small businesses and creators who are suffering due to the pandemic, and making reparations where I can by giving my dollars to BIPOC creators. I've stuffed my partner and pets' stockings with limericks giving hints to what their gifts are (yes, even the pets, don't judge me), another Swedish tradition that I absolutely love. On Solstice night I'll be lighting candles (in lieu of the traditional bonfire) and sending prayers out for a joyful and prosperous 2021 (the gods know we all need it), and in the morning I'll sing and ring bells to welcome back the sun, just as my ancestors did for thousands of years. That light and that hope that guided them onward through the winter still exist for all of us now, in this twenty-first century time that we're upon.
No matter what your faith or cultural background, I hope that you're able to find and hold onto a little bit of that same light. After all we've been through this year, let that glorious Solstice sun remind us that there will, in the end, be spring.