Shadow Revelations

mother anger

Everything felt heavy. My eyelids, the child in my arms, the unrelenting stretch of time before dinner. 

I lugged my son over to the swing set, managing to convince him that this would be an acceptable next step in our park experience. I stood behind him and pushed, the effort demanding the last dregs of my energy. My child reached his arms out with each upward thrust, trying to reach the sky, giggling with delight in the task. His laughter didn’t reach me; I was lost in a cloud of exhaustion, itchy with resistance to this moment of parental obligation. I just wanted to be alone.

I wasn’t looking for his shadow, but when it caught my eye—that dark outline of my son’s wiggling arms and little legs kicking—the fog around me suddenly dissipated. I was plunged back into the moment, now looking in at the scene as if from a slight distance. In the dance of my little boy’s shadow, I saw a child just beginning to discover the world and himself. I beheld his passion and his imagination, and I was flooded with tenderness.

My shadow was there, too, standing tall behind his, elongated in the evening sun.

What tenderness was there for her?

* * *

Curious about what had happened in the park, I started going on walks with my shadow. Alone in the forest, I stretched out my arm and watched my shadow fingers dance across tree trunks. I pointed my toes and stretched out my feet to make impossibly long shadow legs. I hid behind trees, merging our forms, peeking out my head from their shadows like a growth. I studied my shadow self, hungry for revelation.

And I began to notice that anger was there, as sticky as my shadow.

I watched as anger’s spark started, a single thought that caught fire in the kindling of my chest. Out burned the flames, licking my extremities. But this fire wouldn’t die down; my mind was a never-ending source of fuel. When my anger arose, she did not relent. She scorched. She persisted. I was not on fire; I became fire itself.

Beyond the queasy feeling that I was living a life that was not my own, the direct sources of my anger were murky because of my relationship with her. We were not yet acquainted. She menaced like a bully, and the heat of our initial encounters revealed seemingly irreconcilable differences. I did not know how to share a room with her, much less a body.

I kept getting lost in the flames—my well-worn maps for navigating despair and overwhelm were useless with anger. She didn’t follow the same rules of engagement. When I tried to hold her, she was too hot to touch. I didn’t know what she wanted from me.

* * *

The shift happened in autumn. I was on one of my daily walks in the woods, engulfed in flames as brilliant as the yellow maple leaves glowing in the afternoon sun. My anger filled every surface of the forest. Consumed by swirls of rage, I looked down and saw my shadow keeping step with me as I stormed down the path. I studied this shadow self—hunched shoulders, racing legs, clenched fists—and a revelation floated up in my mind:

That is what a woman enraged looks like. 

And all of a sudden, I was able to see myself from a slight distance. I saw a mother discovering her anger for the first time, like generations of mothers who had been here before. I saw a woman on the path of a human life, facing questions about what direction she wanted to take. I beheld her pain and her strength. And I was flooded with such tenderness. 

My shadow distilled me into a version of myself that felt safe to engage and explore. It brought my anger back to the size of me. On this newly equal footing, I opened myself to my anger, asking her to tell me what was wrong. I let her know I was ready to listen. I promised to take her seriously. 

She had stories to share. She told me about sparks that had started fires, about fuel that kept the flames alive, about damage caused. As she imparted her wisdom through images and sensations, I learned that anger’s wave would not find resolution in self-soothing. She would not be satisfied with cajoling. My anger had been scorching me so relentlessly because she demanded action, attention, and change.

It was time to bring her out of the woods.

* * *

I used to think I was a ghost, made of vapors that would adjust their form to accommodate whatever I encountered. But as I become acquainted with my anger, I see proof of my solidity. I am able to trace the outline of me; I feel pain when I bump up against other solid things. 

I rejoice in this solidity.

My anger is teaching me where my body ends and the world begins. She helps me reinforce my boundaries. Even as she asks me to do things that frighten me, I trust her guidance for she is my fierce protector. Her flames burn me out of powerlessness and I am learning to thank her heat. 

* * *

Late last night, I played with my shadow by the light of my phone. I had just taken a shower and was navigating through my dark house with a flashlight app to avoid waking up my sleeping family. The shadow of a light fixture had first caught my attention, stretching across the ceiling as I approached with my electric torch. I circled my phone underneath it, zooming in and out, creating an immersive light show in my dining room. The moment was solid with specificity and fluid with potential.

In the darkness, I offered up different parts of my body for their turn to be held by the light. My face, my arms, strands of damp hair. Easily distorted but always honest, my shadow remained rooted in the reality of my body. I played with shapes, shifting my body’s ratios; I hovered my hand against the wall and brought my shadow back to scale.

The shadowy trace of my hand made me think of those ancient handprints outlined in paint on the walls of prehistoric caves—evidence of that human instinct to use the body to process experience. My shadows do not reveal an absence of light, but rather evidence of my own fire being held within a larger luminosity. In observing how my body interacts with a source of light, I catch glimpses of the mystery of being. Here I am, alive and embodied. Here is what that looks like; here is how that feels. Here is the space I take up on this earth in this body.

Marina Gross-Hoy is a Museum Studies PhD candidate, writer, and mother based in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. Marina’s writing explores what looking at artwork can teach us about seeing the art of our ordinary lives. Her newsletter, The Museum Gaze, examines how observing life with the same attentive gaze we use in museums can open us up to wonder, compassion, and empowerment. You can find more at her website, or on Instagram at @marinagrosshoy.

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1 Comment

  1. Kathleen on 11 February 2023 at 7:12 am

    Wow. I set my phone down and repeated that word and only that about 7 times in 2 minutes. What a profound reflection and poetic representation of the human condition of handling anger in motherhood. It was really beautiful, thank you for sharing your vulnerability with this complex emotion

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