Shadow Play

GUEST POST By AJ Carmichael; independent filmmaker, yogi extraordinaire, and mama of two 

The afternoon we chose to make cyanotypes was, naturally, a sunny one. Clara filled her tiny hands with leaves and flowers from our front yard. She didn't seem to care when several objects floated away as she bounced, butterfly-like, from plant to plant. On the sidewalk, I placed a piece of the photosensitive paper on the uneven concrete, and Clara secured the page down with rocks on each corner so it would not blow away. She took her time arranging the objects on the dark blue background. A eucalyptus leaf here. A twig there. Multiple magenta bougainvillea blooms. A pebble or two. Rob held River up high in his arms. At one, River was too young to make his own art but considered watching his three year-old sister an eternally amusing pastime, an education, even.

"Okay", we told Clara, "the page looks full. The sun will make the picture. In a few minutes, the blue paper will lighten up in the sunlight, except the parts covered by the leaves and rocks will stay dark because their shadows block the sun, and the picture will show their silhouettes."

“Is it ready?” She asked us every thirty seconds. This was no Crayola. There wasn't any visible reaction happening, and she stood on the verge of disappointment.

“Not yet. It will take another few minutes to make this art.”

Clara wanted to see it up close. She stood right above the paper. She pushed her nose up to the leaves. She explored with contagious curiosity. River squirmed in his father's arms, probably sensing the anticipation. It took us a minute to notice that something was wrong.

“Clara, you're blocking the sun.”


“You're blocking the sunlight from reaching the page, and the sunprint won't work unless the sunlight reaches it.”

She twisted her head up and around until she pinpointed the sun just over the treetops in the southwest sky. “There's the sun! Right there!”

“See,” we said, “you're blocking the sun.”

She started to bend down to move the paper.

“No, sweetheart, you have to move your own body.”

She looked at us, puzzled.

“C'mon, you can move over here, by us, and we'll watch from here so the sun can reach the paper without anything blocking its light.”

It dawned on her as she looked down and moved a little to the left, her shadow was tethered to her presence.

Begrudgingly, she moved farther away from the object of her interest. The brightness slid into the space her presence had obscured. It worked. The warm rays cooked her creation. We counted down together. She smiled again as she raced over to pick up the objects and behold their silhouettes on what had been an empty sheet. She proudly carried her creation inside to be taped to the wall in her room.

When the sun set and the children were asleep, my husband and I argued about something unrelated. It was one of those arguments that feels heated and unforgettable, and now I can't recall what it was even about. What I do remember is that he told me something about myself I didn't want to face. I felt defensive, angry, and then I did what my yoga teachers always ask me to do: I remembered my breath.

As my husband criticized me, I breathed deeply and listened to his pain and his frustrations, which stung me because they had to do with his expectations of me and my responsibilities as his partner. I remembered then another thing my teacher says, that we can identify our shadow because it pushes our buttons. She's talking about the psychological shadows – the parts of ourselves that we don't or can't accept as our own. Our blind spots that remain elusive and block us until we see how they influence our life. Oh, I thought as he let loose his complaints about me, Shadow, please, please go away; this is not at all a good time. In fact, it's a terrible time. I'm about to lose it. I feel vulnerable. I feel lost.

My teacher says we need to see our shadow before it will change. We can't change what we don't know is there. She says, furthermore, that once we see our shadow, it must change, at least in the sense that it is no longer hidden and our relationship to it will be different.

My thoughts shifted in the moment I remembered this, and I saw that it was precisely my vulnerability that led my shadow to feel comfortable enough to show itself. Internally, I felt humbled and thought as I gazed into my husband's still irate eyes: thank you for showing me my shadow. I love you for seeing me like no one else. I was able to not overreact to his accusations, harsh though they appeared to be. I kept my cool, dammit. I saw my shadow, and here's what I saw, thanks to Clara: the shadow doesn't go away when you see it, but you learn how not to cast it over your work or relationships. The shadow is not bad in itself, it's just that you don't want it where it's hindering your progress. What's more, when in doubt, keep your distance and allow the forces of nature to work for you.

We may regret our flaws in this world, but a shadowless world is nothing to be desired, for shadows provide cool shade and endlessly changing gradients. Our shadows are cast in ways out of our control onto the surfaces of everything, especially the very things right in front of us. Our shadows fall on what we care about the most. Our shadows can wreck our creations and our relations if we aren't aware of our position and its effects on the world around us. Others may help us to see where our shadows are in the way of the beauty we want to create. If we care enough about what we want to create, then we'll get out of our own way more often.