The Lonely Cactus

In the interest of full disclosure, this here post is what those in the advertising world call an “advertorial”: I’m going to be pushing a product onto you with this bit of writing. It’s at least a product that I’ve created though; namely, I’m going to push out the children’s e-book I wrote and illustrated. More than an attempt to hock my wares, I’m hoping that this post will help elucidate why exactly I wrote a kid’s book.

Taking a step back, and leaning on the previous posts on the subject, this summer I was seriously injured in a fire-cum-explosion. With around 25% of my body badly burned, and particularly my legs, I spent two weeks in a burn unit and then several months convalescing at my parents’ house in rural Western New York state in the U.S. I was restricted from having visitors for most of this time, and was unable to go outside. In all fairness, though, I couldn’t move all that well anyways so the latter was not so much a burden as it sounds.

Another little tidbit of information that helps frame this exercise is that I simply hate being sick or injured or incapacitated in any way. It drives me nuts to be constrained from leading a “normal” life, and I am an insufferable patient; being pitied or doted on is not something I am too keen on. I need to be active and to feel like I’m contributing to the world around me in some meaningful way. Otherwise I get super antsy and just totally freak out.

With all this in mind, I set upon trying to find ways to keep myself occupied in a manner that also felt like it was leading to some positive growth. Watching television or reading books or the like was not going to cut it. It would feel like too much of a waste of time.

My job in India requires a whole slew of skills to be as effective as possible. As such, I spent some time reflecting on where I was in need of improvement. I settled on up-skilling in graphic design and illustration work as the low-hanging fruit on this front. I’ve always felt jealous of the more creative people around me, and it always irritates me to have to reach out to others for help both in this context and just generally speaking. With this, I set out trying to go from pretty much zero to some level of skill or at least familiarity with the Adobe Creative Suite of programs, specifically Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign.

Akin to writing, starting with a blank slate is incredibly intimidating. How does one begin with such a process of skills development? I needed a starting point, or at least an objective to work towards. At first, and this may be reflective of the sheer amount of pain medicine I was on at the time, I just set about creating some insane pieces of “art”. I had done things like this in the past, but usually for a specific purpose, such as someone’s birthday or a holiday. In the absence of that, things just got weird.

An example of my “art”. This is called “Anthropomorphnic Cage”

I made a lot of these mish-mash artworks (and the Instagram feed I created to share them is testament to this) before, and for whatever reason, this started evolving towards trying to created patterns and shapes on my own. This led me to the Illustrator program. I watched a bunch of tutorial videos on YouTube to get the general gist of how to use Illustrator. From there, I started trying to make scenes and landscapes. Essentially I would search Google Images for interesting pictures to try and replicate using Illustrator.

This is not as easy as it sounds, unfortunately. Or, rather, this was not easy for me to do. I shifted from this frustrating endeavor and tried simplifying the process by just imaging a scene and then creating it. This way I’d have nothing to compare to but what was in my mind’s eye, which made for more encouraging outcomes. Upon completing one of these scenes, it felt like something was missing. It was a desert scene of sorts, so I decided to add a single cactus to the screen. And thus the Lonely Cactus was born.

The very first Lonely Cactus artwork.

Lonely Cactus became a funny avatar to add to the already absurd Instagram feed. I’d create different scenes and plug the cactus in there just to add a subject to an otherwise boring and plain illustration exploration. This was basically the sole purpose of the cactus character: to break up the monotony of the basic illustrations I was practicing on. As I made more and more of these, though, I started getting questions, particularly from my nieces and nephews, as to what, or rather who, the Lonely Cactus was, and more importantly why on Earth was I making so much stuff with him in it. (I realize that I just used a masculine pronoun for an inanimate succulent, but bear with me; it’ll make sense, I promise).

The Lonely Cactus breaking up the monotony of an autumn scene.

The Lonely Cactus had a bit of a following, but simply slapping the poor guy into random scenes was doing him a disservice. He needed a backstory befitting the increasingly large role he was playing in my life. I sat down and decided to create a narrative, and that’s when something incredible happened.

I have heard and read about people having these creative outbursts that lead to the creation of something in short periods of time. I’ll stop short of saying it was anything transcendent, but I will say that it was remarkable all the same. I sat down and, with the help of my hilarious niece Anna, wrote a story complete with ideas for illustrations for each page over the course of a few hours. Following this, I spent less than a week creating the illustrations and designing the book itself. What resulted was a 40-page fully illustrated children’s book that shares the tale of The Lonely Cactus.

Needless to say, a nearly 40-year-old childless bachelor writing a kid’s book about a cactus raised a few eyebrows. Thankfully I’ve been enough of a weirdo most of my life that it’s not too great a departure from the usual. Otherwise I would probably be institutionalized. What was really interesting after sharing the finished book with those closest to me was the number of people that asked if this was in fact my own story and not the cactus’s. And while that was certainly not my intention at the start, it is intriguing to see the parallels.

Painting in very broad strokes, the story goes like this: an unsettled cactus decides to leave the comforts of home in pursuit of happiness, and goes about traveling the world and trying out different jobs and activities in an effort to accomplish just this, only to learn the invaluable lesson that it is not where you are or what you do that matters: it is being happy with who you are that is life’s biggest challenge and greatest pursuit. Again, that’s a very watered down version of the story. You should totally buy the book to see for yourself the true magic 🙂

An illustration from the e-book: Lonely Cactus visiting the Taj Mahal.

It’s a little embarrassing to admit, even to myself, that the story of a cactus is representative of my life’s experience. That said, it is undeniable that the lesson the Lonely Cactus learns along his own journey is the same that I’ve learned along my own. The subconscious is an incredibly powerful animal indeed.

Prior to moving overseas, I spent a lot of time bouncing around the United States and working in varied roles and contexts. I would typically last about 2 years at any one engagement before completely eschewing it for something new and exciting. When the shine of this new experience began to tarnish, I’d drop it for another; this cycle repeating over and over. Worse yet, this was not restricted to just professions: I would treat people the same way. It’s shameful to admit, but when things would become difficult I would leave. I was convinced that happiness was a place, a destination on the map, and reaching there would just require a correct permutation of people, profession, and location; that it wasn’t driven by hard work and commitment, but rather happenstance, really. It’s as simple as that.

I came to India operating under this same distorted logic, but also with the added tinge of Irish Catholic self-flagellation: there was an element of penance ascribed to it as well. I wanted to subject myself to a challenging experience as a sort of punishment for mistreating people in the past. I thought that if I could do something good here it would offset anything bad I had done elsewhere. I didn’t realize then that there is no absolution: what you have done is an integral part of who you are, and the only way to offset the negative is to learn from it so that you can avoid repeating the same mistakes and grow in a positive manner. There is no blank slate with yourself. The mere thought of wiping clean the manuscript of your life is a besmirchment of your experiences and those that accompanied you on them.

Despite being nearly 35-years-old when I moved here in 2012, I was very much a naive, immature child. I lacked a perspective and understanding of the world that those much younger than me seemed to have. I sought the easy way out in pretty much all things. Being here, though, has helped change that in so many significant ways that it’s hard to describe. One significant learning has been that who you are is ultimately your decision: act like a jerk and you’re a jerk; act like more, and you will be more. Never in a million years would I have imagined I’d live in India, and for this long, yet I cannot imagine who or what I would be today if it weren’t for the experiences that living here has allowed me to have.

I’ve always loved writing, and have always harbored the thought that one day I would sit down and put down on paper my thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Oftentimes I joke that this is the motivation behind bouncing around the world and doing some truly insane things; this life I’ve led is simply research material for the inevitable autobiography. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation: is the life being lived to feed the book, or is a book the inevitable outcome of a life less ordinary?

I am wont to say, when talking about different places I’ve traveled to, that my preconceived notion of that place is always wrong, and more often than not pleasantly so. I have always wanted to tell my story, hence this blog, but never envisioned doing so through a children’s book, let alone one about a cactus. I guess this is a manifestation of another of life’s lessons that I’ve picked up along the way: follow your heart and stay true to yourself and, terrifying as it may be, just see where it leads.

In any event, that’s a bit of a backstory of my own to help contextualize where the Lonely Cactus came from. Hopefully it’s enough to convince you to buy a copy of your own.


Originally published at kevinshane.me on December 6, 2016.

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