Where the Shadow Self Lives

The imposing James M. Castle home in Stillwater, MN, built in 1872. See more: https://www.oldhousedreams.com/2019/05/23/1872-stillwater-mn/

This is the house where I imagine that my alter ego Aurora lives. Isn’t it sheer Gothic Revival perfection?

You could come over and Aurora would serve you an absinthe cocktail on the front porch.

Knowing Aurora, she might even slide down the banister on her way to greet you.

Come into my parlor. You look so handsome in that sweater; is it cashmere? Since there’s a spring chill in the air, when twilight descends, you can make a fire, and I’ll light the candles on the candelabra.

At first glance, I felt a kind of revulsion at this house (the fact that there are more deer heads and a bearskin rug complete with the bear’s head had something to do with that). Like the Addams Family house, there’s an atmosphere that feels slightly imposing and yes, even sinister. The architecture is in stark contrast to the light airiness of the house where my family currently lives, which features a 1980s design of soaring ceilings and two-story windows. This home feels equal parts strange and beautiful. I couldn’t stop looking at the photos.

In 1872, the year the house was built, Mark Twain was writing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (the book would be published in 1876). The horrific and bloody Civil War had come to a close in 1865. The city of Chicago had been destroyed by fire a year earlier, in 1871. It seems that the owner, James Castle, was ballsy enough to want to build a gigantic wooden house despite the threat of fire. I think Aurora and James Castle would have gotten along swimmingly.

If you were born in 1872, your life expectancy was 38 years. Life was short, and full of sorrow. Some one-third to one-half of infants didn’t live to age five. If you managed to survive to see age 10, your life expectancy rose to 48 years — that’s how perilous infancy and young childhood was.

Overcrowding, harsh climate, extreme poverty and diseases from measles to whooping cough all took their toll. The design of this house acknowledges that this was a hard world. I love that it embraces the shadow side of life, because the shadow side will be heard.

I’m fascinated by the portraits with heavy frames and the ornate, carved Victorian furniture. It’s as if this owner decided to zig when everyone else is zagging. This house could serve as an antidote to the “open concept” home layout that every single person looking for a house on HGTV seems to request without fail. By inhabiting a house that expresses the shadow side so eloquently, I can imagine that it would be easier to be light ourselves. We’ve lost something important when we surround ourselves exclusively with the light and bright. In our age, positivity is praised and darkness is banished. “Don’t be so negative!” is something I myself have said on too many occasions. But if you shoo negativity away, it doesn’t disappear. It simply moves to a dark corner.

I think I’ll clean out some of the dark corners this weekend by watching a Stephen King movie … or two, for good measure.

In Which I Dub My Alter Ego “Aurora”

Last month, I wrote about giving yourself a Prince name. Since I published that post on a Friday and I’m all about celebrating Fridays, I decided it would be fun to offer myself as a Random Prince Name Generator for the day so that people could share their names and get a Prince name.

We wound up having a ridiculous amount of fun on Facebook that day. People shared names and I spewed out Prince-ified names in return. All totalled, I came up with about 35 Prince names. Whew! Here are a couple of highlights:

What I didn’t realize when playing the role of Prince Name Generator was that I would actually need a name for an alter ego the very next month. And in celebrating the fun of Friday and dubbing others with Prince names, I had inadvertently stumbled upon my alter ego: Aurora.

Aurora was birthed because it popped up when I plugged “Laura” into a “rapper name generator.” My mind loved that it rhymed with “Laura” and felt like it was in the realm of my given name while also having a je ne sais quoi that’s so essential to Living Like Prince. Emotionally, “Aurora” triggered a rush of childhood fantasies and dreams. When I heard the word “Aurora,” I heard a female narrator in my head say, “Aurora, which means `Dawn.'” followed by a tinkle of bells, which was a prompt to turn a page of a book. Unbelievably, I realized I had unearthed a voice embedded deep in my brain, thanks to a “Sleeping Beauty” record from Disney that I listened to incessantly as a little girl. If I’d given birth to daughters and not sons, the fact that Sleeping Beauty’s name was Princess Aurora would likely have been top of mind. As a boy mom, I was amused that my brain was able to retrieve that long-forgotten piece of data. Because I’m living like Prince, I then made the connection to the original fairy tale, where Princess Aurora sleeps 100 years until being awakened by the prince’s kiss. Prince? “Kiss?” Prince used the phrase “Welcome 2 the Dawn” on the back of many of his albums. Plus, Prince was a cosmic individual, and “Aurora” has a cosmic feel to it. “Aurora” it was.

Next up, I made a list of Aurora’s qualities, because how can I embody an alter ego if I don’t know who she is?

Hmmmm … why is it that Aurora’s traits are the ones I want to cultivate in myself?

According to my manual for Alter Ego living, The Alter Ego Effect, my next step should be to find a totem. When I put on the totem or carry it onto the “field of play” (which can be an office, a club, a restaurant — wherever your alter ego needs to operate), I will be transformed into Aurora. The totem can be anything you wear or can carry. Most anything can qualify, as long as it has significance to you. It could be a bracelet you snap on, or a ring, a pair of sunglasses, a hat, a pair of shoes, a necklace or … a cane. Wonder who used that totem? Guess I’ve got my homework cut out for me this weekend.

How Doing Something I Sucked at Gave Birth to My Alter Ego

It took approximately two billion, two thousand million shots to get this passable one.
Photo by the miracle-working @PhillipsPhotos

You’d think that being a writer for all these years would prepare me for doing something I sucked at without much trepidation. If writers are honest, we all suck at times, sometimes more frequently than “at times,” and particularly so in our first pass at a story — or, as writer Anne Lamott succinctly phrased it, the “shitty first draft.” Still, none of my shitty first drafts could have prepared me for my first photo shoot.

I prepared for May’s month of Cultivating an Alter Ego by doing a photo shoot in downtown Minneapolis. In the weeks leading up to the shoot, I grew more and more terrified. I couldn’t have done this when I was 30 years old, wrinkle-free and ten pounds lighter? I’m getting older, my skin is sagging, the scale is not my friend. There was a mitigating factor in that the stakes were not high, because no one was asking for these photos. Sure, I could have buried them forever under the bed and buried the guilt over the expense. But I was driven forward by wanting to do the Living Like Prince project so badly that I would tempt fate, April weather in Minnesota and certain humiliation to get the photos I needed for the month of May’s challenge.

Twice, I postponed the shoot. To be honest, I was scared and putting off the inevitable wasn’t making me any less scared, but even more than being a big scaredy cat, I knew I wasn’t prepared. The week before the shoot, I was speaking with Leisl AuVante about something unrelated, and in passing, I mentioned the photo shoot and that I had no clue what I was doing. Leisl jumped in feet first. Had I finalized my looks? (I put some outfits together and sent her photos). Who was doing my hair? Makeup? What was the inspiration behind my look? (Um, trying to look better than I do on a normal mom-working-from-home day?) On the spot, Leisl went into model mode and demonstrated how to pose sideways to the camera, turn at the waist, place one or both hands on hips, tilt my chin down, and look up with only my eyes. I practiced in front of her mirror but I couldn’t get the facial expression right. I looked too much like normal, nice, suburban mom me. Leisl, on the other hand, struck a post and effortlessly looked like a card-carrying member of the Prince camp, which of course she was. I needed to adopt an attitude. I mean, I didn’t choose “sassy” as my 2019 word of the year for nothing. That’s when Leisl gave me a mantra to say when I looked into the camera lens. (I need to be thinking of something other than abject terror when I look at the camera? Another revelation).

“I’ll collapse your castle with one look, if you fuck with me.”

Leisl doesn’t mess around.

Now you know what I’m thinking in this photo:

Putting my body into this unnatural-feeling-yet-badass pose and telling myself that yes, I had the power to collapse people’s castles with a withering glance caused something inside me to shift. It a moment not unlike the Grinch’s heart growing three sizes, but I already have a big heart (sometimes, too big, I fear). Instead, it was my sense of self-confidence and power that tripled in size.

By the time the photo shoot was done, I was no longer suburban mom Laura. I was Aurora, the name I gave my Princely alter ego, and I was having fun.

It took humility to do a photo shoot, all the while realizing that I don’t look the same as I used to, but to accept it while also refusing to hide and not allowing shame to creep in. I felt unsteady on my feet, both figuratively and literally (I don’t think I’ve ever attempted to walk in heels as high as the Prada peep-toed booties that Leisl loaned me. I still have much to learn!). Being a model wasn’t an easy fit, but I realized that I had been avoiding a whole part of life by not stepping into the spotlight and yes — crushing the castles of the haters. I’ll never be good at modeling, and so what! I felt a sense of playfulness lift my heart and I asked myself: Why is this thing I’m so bad at bringing me joy?

The only explanation I could find was a Princely one, indeed: Doing something I sucked at was freeing. By humbling myself, I freed myself from the fear of being humiliated. Being a model is never going to happen for me (believe me, that’s no revelation) but putting myself in that vulnerable position in front of the camera opened up a whole new world. With each shot, I got a tiny bit better.

All the World’s a Stage

Every expectation we fill in life can be seen as a show on a stage. Photo: Matthew Wordell

Would you consider yourself a performer?

You may not be a performer in the same context as Prince, but I’d have to agree that we each play a role on various stages in the course of a day. Or, as author Todd Herman puts it in The Alter Ego Effect:

You may not be “performing” in the context of a Beyonce, Ellen DeGeneres or David Bowie (or, hello! Prince. – editor), with thousands of people expecting a “show,” but if you think about “show” as simply a fulfillment of expectations, you’ll see the parallels very quickly.”

In other words, we each have roles to play on various stages during a day, and responsibilities to be performed in each role. Herman says we can equate the performance of those responsibilities with “a show.”

I went through my day today with the idea in mind that I was putting on a show in performing my responsibilities in various roles.

What shocked me was how many roles I played in a day, especially given my limited acting ability! Ha! I played the role of mom to a sick kid, at the doctor’s office. Concerned homeowner of an aging HVAC system speaking with the heating and cooling company. Pup mom at the park. Content consultant for a financial services company working from my home office. Member of a woman’s group. And an author and suburban mom living like Prince. But thinking of each of these roles intentionally made me show up for them. No hiding, no lurking in the background. No spectating in my own life.

The concept of an alter ego can be used to prompt you to show up as the “heroic” version of yourself, as Herman calls it. For beginners, he suggests choosing one stage or “field of play” in which to create your Alter Ego. I’m choosing the stage of this blog and Living Like Prince as the playing field for my Alter Ego, but you might choose parenting or your paddleball league. Wherever you want to see greater success, having the secret identity provided by an alter ego can help you do daunting things on your chosen stage.