Diving Inside My Shadow Bag

by Ellie Shorey

With acknowledgement to Robert Bly’s article “The Long Bag We Drag Behind Us”

Do you feel it trailing behind you? 

Without mass, without definition, your shadow bag seems harmless. The more you know about your shadow bag, the better. If you even begin to address its contents, you are closer to drinking from the well of your memory rather than drowning in it. 

According to the poet Robert Bly, the shadow bag stores a person’s shame and anger. Instead of internalizing these emotions, they are carried outside the body, on every person’s back, like an invisible bag of regret that grows heavier with age. Without intense emotional work, Bly asserts, the bag remains an albatross. The process of self-actualization effectively rips open an individual’s shadow bag, forcing the person to examine the contents and come to peace with the wilder, more shameful parts of the human spirit. 

Do you get to decide what is put in your shadow bag? Inherited items like faded photographs left over from an aunt’s attic purge? Intimate family lore that seems to have entered your consciousness before you were aware of family or other relations? The apple—do we all carry one in our bags? There might be one rustling at the bottom. Among the jetsam of memory, experience is both painful and heavy to carry. 

What does this mean for a writer? 

Notebooks are full of allusions to shadow bags. When I write, I begin to describe what might lie in my bag too thin for hands to hold. I unearth words from my consciousness that had no reason to exist but to describe what I didn’t want on the page. Truth is strange in all its forms. I think I am describing the way magnolias bloom without enough heat to survive. Are these images merely codes for my mother? More recently, the same phrase appears in multiple shades of ink: honey sours to vinegar in the throat.

Do I reduce the load in my shadow bag because I draw from it creatively? Is this trickery of some sort, a loose floorboard waiting to be stepped on, fake confidence that I am closer to realizing something significant without the crutch of a pen and page?

Not all writing is entirely truthful. Do I negate Bly’s work with my writing? 

Collective unconsciousness—psychologist Carl Jung’s awareness of generationally shared information imprinted in us from conception—would add more items to our bags without our direct knowledge. Should we carry each other’s common item like a totem of our species? But beyond the shoulds and whys of such questions, the writer manages to explore his or her shadow bag with effort akin to mining. What we unearth can become the foundation of a piece of writing. To connect a reader to one’s shadow bag takes effort. Moving beyond our own codified language—when the words chocolate cake carry infinite emotional turmoil in the writer and speak to a larger story, but the reader is left without the knowledge that chocolate cake is essentially a loaded gun—and turning the shadow bag into an accessible source of information is not easy. 
Here is one trip into my own shadow bag. As I type, the images that I pull from notebooks and past thoughts surprise me. Words multiply into larger, more difficult equations. Strung together, each phrase is only part of a memory, a graft of shame. 

What I carry in my shadow bag: 

Rivers that swallow the colors of fallen leaves, why my father never sings in church, irises that remind me of a girl’s naked throat, in what voice does the officer’s Glock speak, boys’ basketball shoes tossed by a locked side door, the way bullets in the cab door resemble Taurus or a bear’s constellation, blind items 1 and 2, memory calcifies in the bones to escape betrayal, teeter-skiff-rosemary-tonic-charcoal, crushed prescriptions in fanned eyelashes across her sink’s ledge, a hundred kernels of frozen corn, would I rather be: eaten by a tiger (Scylla) or a shark (Charybdis), rock salt on boots, rock salted magnolia petals, what Father Time does at the office with a broken stapler, envisioning my grandfather’s coffin without ever seeing it, a green cable-knit sweater in the thrift store aisle, big mouth twilight kiss, tequila-shot-well, lilac and citrus rind, there’s no excuse for flying crooked, solar plexus, late summer plums darkening on the kitchen sill, bodies in trash bags, bodies hanging from the overpass of a Monterrey highway, my mother, always the mother, one lady on a date at the bar, post-Red Stripe and pre-Jameson, heard slurring to her date, “I’m a goddamn superhero and no one knows it” while spinning her wedding ring over her knuckle in a slow meditation.  

In the midst of the mundane, images leap forward, charged with meaning not purposefully assigned. Sift through the lines, give the feelings form and appropriate line breaks—what the shadow bag offers to a writer is precious. Each bag torn open, contents spilled to the floor, gives the writer a chance to confirm his or her own experience. My bag inherently confirms the existence of your own. Share these items. Begin the unloading process by flipping through old pages. Splice the landscape you’ve already created on one page with another until your lines grow fangs. Let them rip into your skin.