Reckoning with the Shadow

I started a new audiobook today. I listened to first few hours of Educated by Tara Westover, a book several of my friends recommended to me. It is about a girl from Idaho that was raised in an extremist religious home on a junkyard. She grew up to achieve postgraduate degrees and this is her memoir of her journey. It took me a while to decide to read the book. I think subconsciously I worried that she would look down on her family and her roots.

I’m from Idaho, and I have very sacred fond memories of running wild and free across our land. We didn’t have a lot of land compared to some of our neighbors, but there were few fences, and most of them barbed wire. I learned from a young age how to get through a barbed wire fence without getting hurt- at least not very badly. I remember waking in the morning with a rush of excitement in my consciousness. I would slip on my swimming suit, which was all I wore during the summers, and go out exploring with my little brother tagging along behind me. We spent days in the sun, tramping through weeds, riding bikes, swimming in irrigation ditches, and going on “hikes.”

“Hikes” were magical. With a little bit of imagination and bravery, you could find anything on a hike. You could catch grasshoppers, or if you were lucky, little yellow butterflies. You might see wild rose bushes, smell some sage brush, or find the occasional tree growing next to the irrigation ditch. Once I found a dead robin covered in ants. There were adventures to discover, treasure maps to draw, buried treasure to find, and sometimes a life and death drama, like when our cat, Midnight, first climbed to the top of the power pole.

I remember how sad I was when we moved to the city. It was like I left a part of myself on those acres of scrubby grass, weeds, and dirt. There is a connection to the land living in the country. Something in the air and the water that teaches you that you are only a part of the world, you don’t own it. That you rely on the land, and the land sustains you. It sustains everyone. I learned that what we reaped we sowed, and if we made a mess, it waited until we cleaned it up. If you didn’t know how to do something, you taught yourself how. Living in the country teaches you self-reliance. It isn’t a skill, it’s life.

I could tell all kinds of stories that would curl my city friends’ hair! Stories about jumping off porches into snow banks, dropping pebbles into our pump well, and even an open sewage pit in our backyard….We had to fix our own plumbing problems, and for a while we had to dig up our septic system to fix it. Yes, some kids went swimming in it, and they got in big trouble.

Looking back on my childhood, there is light and there is shadow. I’ve spent a good chunk of my adult life sorting out that and confronting the shadow. Shadows are a part of life in a fallen world. They aren’t bad, they just are. Everyone has one and the brighter and more piercing the light, the darker the shadow. One thing you learn pretty quickly as an artist, is that shadows are very important. The more art I do the more I come back to that simple fact. Shadows can make or break your artwork. They add interest and dimension. They define a shape. They create texture. Rich deep shadows are just as vital to art as light and color. As an artist, you learn to look at them without judgement. In looking at our past, that is harder to do.

We want to look at the good things only, and skip over the shadow. We want to put a rosy glow over everything and distort the image. Our consciousness slips past the complicated and messy places of our lives. We lie to ourselves about who we are. We tell ourselves that what we think we see, is what is real. That’s how non-artistic people see the world. Everything is in stick figures, tables have four legs and so do chairs. Nothing is shown in three dimensions. No shadows are drawn in. It isn’t real, and everyone, including the non-artist knows it. The problem isn’t in their hands, it’s in their minds. My art teacher used to say, “Draw what you see, not what you think you see.”

My Savior says, “Tell me what you are, not what you wish you were. Tell me your sins. Show me your shadow. I know you have one, and it doesn’t make you worthless. It’s part of you, and I love you. I love your shadow and I’ll show you how I can take you, and your shadow, and make a masterpiece out of you. Do not be ashamed, only believe!”

Educated isn’t what I feared it would be. I see myself in little Tara, the ragged girl who looked up to the Indian Princess in the mountain for comfort. She describes the land she grew up on in loving detail, and describes the light as well as the shadow of her past. It’s a beautiful book, and better, very honest. She hasn’t simple-mindedly rejected her past and her family, she has embraced them as part of her history and part of what has made her who she is today. She is not embittered at her difficult childhood, although it was difficult by almost anyone’s measure.

The story is a strange one that reads like “Little House on the Prairie,” except Michael Landon plays a man with severe bipolar disorder, undiagnosed and untreated. And there is a strange juxtaposition of modernity, symbolized by “the feds,” and the simple life of isolation, enforced by stockpiling weapons and food. The story has no clear “bad guy,” just a man at war with himself, trying to manage a disorder that is far too big for him. He turns to more and more extreme ideas to manage the chaos within, but in doing so, he cripples his family’s connections to a healthy network. His inability to confront and accept his own shadow creates a yawning chasm in his life that makes lasting intimate relationships with his children impossible. His insistence on self-reliance at the expense of connection, cuts him off from all the sources of support that could help him deal with his demons, which he refuses to acknowledge. It would be a tragic story, except that there are clear signs that several of his children have managed to rise above the darkness. Of course, I haven’t yet finished the book, so I can’t be sure.

I hope this turns out to be a story of hope for those families plagued by mental illness. God is merciful to all his children and he will not allow any wounds that he lacks the power to bind up. Homes and families that suffer are not left alone. The Master is ever watchful over his little ones. Miracles happen, and blessings come in unexpected places. Blessed be the name of the Lord!

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