Everything else, Grief

When the Wind Comes.

girl swing

 

There are days it just sneaks up on me. It doesn’t seem as if anything in particular sets it off. Sometimes it’s a cumulative effect; an anniversary date has passed, or I’ve read or seen something that reminds me of one of them and over the course of several days it all builds up. June is always a busy month for me, because weekends in June I work at the Ren Faire, but it’s also a difficult one, because there are so many of those painful anniversary dates to get through.

My dad had two birthdays. All his life, he celebrated on June 21st. The first day of summer. The day before my parents’ wedding anniversary. When my eldest daughter was about a year old, my parents decided to go on a cruise. When Dad went to see about his passport, he needed a copy of his birth certificate. After procuring such, he was startled to see his date of birth listed as June 12. He went to his mother’s house to question this discrepancy. My grandmother, a no nonsense farm wife who raised eight children (all born at home) while also maintaining a job at a restaurant, responded, (paraphrasing here) “Listen, Dale, you were one of eight kids. I was busy. I was tired. I don’t remember which day you were born.”

My sister’s birthday was June 15th. And then of course there was Father’s Day, which always kind of bites when you no longer have a father to visit. It was also my brother’s wife and son’s first Father’s Day without him.

While I got through these dates actually pretty well, doing my best to keep busy and generally filling my mind up with enough caffeine and yarn and extra tasks at work, and Ren Faire fun, etc., repeat, to keep me from over-focusing on my losses, there came a reckoning day. I was blindsided by the intensity of it. Like a powerful wind that’s been gaining speed for hours before plowing into a rickety barn, the grief struck me down in the middle of a work day. I was fine, working along, typing and filing and laughing with my coworker, and all at once I was NOT fine, not fine at all. Tears poured forth, furious and salty. The terrible weight that had suddenly taken up residence in my chest made it nearly impossible to breathe. I turned my head, grabbed my purse, mumbled something about taking my lunch early, and staggered out to my car. I dropped the driver’s side seat back as far as it would go, so nobody could see me sobbing, and called my husband. He talked soothingly to me for several minutes, and then reminded me to do some breathing exercises or try to meditate until I had a hold of myself. By the time we’d hung up, what had started as another wave of grief had morphed into a full-on anxiety attack. When it was time to go back in, I’d cried off all my make-up and my face was red and puffy. I’m fortunate to have kindhearted coworkers who are caring and understanding. But I was “off” for the rest of the day, and when I came home, I was so exhausted I curled up on the couch and stayed there until bedtime. My limbs all felt like lead.

I hate to use the word “trigger,” because I feel like it implies I want or need other people to censor their speech and that’s not the case. But I’ve found that one of the things that amp up the anxiety is when I see or hear about siblings coming together during a crisis. My family and I were always so close; the sort of family who would rush to be with one another during a hardship. The night my brother died, I remember walking into the hallway on the way to his room. My aunt Carol was standing there, crying and shaking her head at me. “He’s already gone,” she choked out. I’d missed his death by eight minutes.

As I stumbled into his hospital room, there was my Uncle Russ, mom’s brother, and his wife. None of them lived near the hospital, but they’d dropped what they were doing when they got the call from my mother and sped to the hospital to be with her. To help hold her up. They huddled around her, stroking her back, murmuring words of comfort, getting water, tissues, whatever they could. My mom’s other sister lived out of state, but by the next day had already booked a flight back to Michigan.

Now and again it hits me that I will never again have that. In times of trouble, I will never have my siblings to help hold me up. I will never be able to call them to talk through a struggle I’m having.  It’s a precious thing to have, and one that’s probably taken for granted by many. It’s one of those things you expect to have. Until all at once, you don’t.

I’ve heard it said that after something awful happens, you “get bitter or get better.” I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. Maybe you “get bitter or get empathetic.” Or perhaps you “get bitter or become more compassionate.”

Am I “better?” In some respects. I’m certainly better than I was six months ago, in the sense that I can think straight most of the time. I have the energy to take showers, and I remember to wash the shampoo and conditioner out of my hair now. I remember the steps I need to take to wash the dishes or the laundry. I can go to Walmart most of the time without having a panic attack from the crowds of people.

But there are holes in me that will never again be filled. There is pain that will never lessen. I’ve just learned to carry them inside, next to love for my remaining family, and joy at my kids’ laughter, and snuggles with my puppies, and the memories of extraordinary sunsets. I try not to focus on the unfairness of it, because indeed this situation is unfair. No way around that. But if I only focus on that, I miss out on the pure delight of holding my sister’s grandchildren in my arms. I miss out on beautiful days with my family. I miss out on friendships and art and all the simple parts of life that are not really simple at all. The pain and the joy just have to exist together.

My losses have changed me irreparably and that’s a truth I’ve had to accept. I will never be the person I was before. Part of that change is this excess of empathy and compassion. I have known the pain that has knocked me down and nearly kept me there, so when I meet someone with a similar struggle, my soul recognizes that hurt and I’m compelled to reach out. I listen more. I’m slower to come to conclusions about others. Constantly in the forefront of my thoughts is the knowledge that I have no idea what anyone else has been through, just as they have no idea what I’ve been through. Kindness makes a difference. A smile, a thoughtful word – they make a difference. The gifts of time, of acceptance, of unconditional love – they make a difference. I try to just meet people where they are at in life and love them right there.

There are other changes that aren’t so positive. I feel deeper, in every respect. Sometimes that is difficult to handle. I still struggle with what feel like stupid changes: I still cannot watch television. I haven’t read a book in months. My attention span is a problem, much more so than before, I think. I spend a lot of time lost in my own head. Quite often, I feel like I’ve slowed way down, though that might just be my own interpretation. I catch on to new tasks slower, it seems like I move slowly and though my brain is as crowded as ever before, it feels like the gears are turning at an impossibly slow pace.

On one hand, it seems impossible that all of this has even happened, and on the other, it feels like it keeps happening, day after day, minute after minute.

My rule for myself back in November was that I just had to get up and put on clothes every day. I knew if I allowed myself to stay in bed for one day, it would all be over for me and I’d never get back out. Here were are in July, and I can honestly say my life is far fuller than just climbing out of bed and pulling on leggings. I’ve put out three books since November, I’ve made new friends, I’ve laughed, I’ve gotten a new job, I’ve learned new skills, I’ve been through therapy, I’ve learned a lot about myself, about resilience, about grief, depression, and anxiety.

I’ve changed a lot for both the good and the not so good. But the important thing is that I’m here. Every day, I wake up. I interact. I seek out art and joy and beauty. Life will never be what it once was. I will never be the person I was before.

But that doesn’t mean life isn’t worthwhile.

Maybe it isn’t always beautiful. But there will always be beauty in the pain. There will always be a spot of sun in the darkness.

And even when the harsh wind comes out of nowhere to knock me down, I will always, always get back up.

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Everything else

Battle Scars

It’s that time of year again, when I head up to the enchanted woods to hawk my books and crocheted items, under the shop name, “Your Local Hookers.” It’s something I look forward to every year, as spending time in such a magical atmosphere is something that sets my soul at ease and to be quite honest, spending time with people at least at weird as me is always, always an enjoyable time. One of the things I love best about Ren Faire is the inclusivity of it. You want to dress up as a pirate? That’s cool. Mermaid? That’s cool. Storm Trooper? Knight in Shining Armor Made of Duct Tape? Guaranteed somebody will stop and tell you that you look awesome. At least at the Faire I work at, everyone is accepted. I mean that. Everyone.
This was one of the things that set the Secrets of Windy Springs series in motion. The beauty of the woods, the magical atmosphere, the joy people find in dressing up and playing different personas. The hut where Layla and Keisha sell their fairy wings is much like the little wooden hut my partners – Joe and Tamika – and I hawk my books and our collective yarn projects from. We are directly across from the belly dancing stage, which means we have music playing all day long. It’s lovely. One of my intentions in writing a fantasy series at a Ren Faire is to bring to light how inclusive it truly can be.
I know it, I love it, and I can’t wait for it to come every year. And yet…
Yet I struggle with accepting myself when I’m there. Most people who meet me – wildly curly purple hair, tattoo, brightly colored, (sometimes bizarre) ensembles, vocal about my own issues with my mental health – believe I’m “all out there”, and to a point that is true. I don’t much care what people think of my clothes or my hair or my life decisions. Two things about myself make me self-conscious: my scar and my weight.
Twenty-two years ago, when my first child was born, I had an emergency C-section AND a cholecystectomy at the same time. Because it was an emergent situation, the doctors were concerned with going as fast as possible and getting my (nearly five weeks early) baby out safely. As they should have been. However, this left me with a “zipper” of a scar from the sternum down: wide, jagged, and purple. Cut straight through what was once a normal looking belly button. And in the end, my daughter was fine and now she’s grown and beautiful and intelligent and nearly done with a Bachelors degree.
I still have mixed feelings about the scar. On one hand, I love it. It’s part of me, and the vehicle through which my child was brought safely into the world. I’m thankful for it. But I’m still self-conscious about it. Yes, it’s just one little part of my life story. One chapter in the book of my life. It’s a part I have always kept hidden.
The weight thing is another story. In the last five years, I’ve probably gained about 55 pounds. I swing wildly between trying to love myself exactly where I’m at and loathing everything about the way I look. I am frustrated with myself for allowing this to happen. In the next second, I give myself a break because, come on, in the last five years I’ve lost my sister, my mother-in-law, my husband’s grandfather, several other important people in my life, and my brother. It’s been difficult. Depression is a nasty beast, and one that often left me sleeping large portions of the day, lacking the energy to function, and yeah, eating too much ice cream. I gained at least another 15 pounds after starting on Zoloft, which isn’t something I’m willing to give up. So now that my head is getting back to a decent place, I’ve been biking and walking and considering a bit more carefully my food choices. But still. Here I am. Scarred and overweight. And it bothers me that I care so much. I don’t care about anyone else’s weight or scars. I accept them right where they are at. Why can’t I do the same for myself?
A while back, I was working at the Ren Faire. It was a boiling hot day in the forest, and a woman and her daughter walked by my shop. This woman was about three times the size of me – and I don’t say that as an insult, just as a fact – and was wearing a bikini top with sea shells glued all over it with a long shiny skirt. Her daughter was dressed the same. They looked awesome, so I waved them over and complimented them on their outfits. The woman laughed and said she’d had something else planned, but the day was so hot, they changed their minds. “We decided to be mermaids today,” she said. “Fuck it. It’s too hot for clothes.” And off they went, enjoying their day.
I stood there in my miserably hot pirate wench blouse with three yards of sleeves on each side and the corset cinched so tight I could hardly breathe when I moved and sweat dripping down every square inch of me, wondering why I couldn’t make myself have that woman’s attitude. I was boiling hot. My clothes were far too heavy for the weather, but I wore them to cover my weight and my scar.
So last summer, I drew up a pattern on a paper sack, bought some fabric, and made myself three cropped wrap tops for Faire. It was scary for me, but I wore them with my long skirts and honestly most days I also strategically wrapped scarves and such around my belly, but I felt like it was a good step toward accepting myself. And guess what? Nobody else gave a shit about my scar or the extra poundage. Nobody. Not one comment or weird look.
The only person worried about the way I looked was me.
Here I am, another year later. I am absolutely heavier this year. Faire begins next weekend, and I’ve been waffling about what I’ll wear. I hate that I think so much about my size. I hate that it makes me feel so superficial. I want that “fuck it” attitude about my weight.
I’ve decided this season I’ll work at being a little braver. I will wear the wrap tops, and try not to cover myself with scarves. I will work at loving myself exactly where I’m at, battle scars and all.
The same way I love anyone else.

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Everything else, Writing

For Better or Worse

Slither cover

 

I’ve spent a great deal of time over the last year considering my writing: what I want from it, what I’ve learned from it, mistakes I’ve made and victories I’ve enjoyed.

I’ve come to some conclusions I’m aware seem illogical to many, but here’s the thing about my writing:

It’s mine. The books I write are mine. The decisions I make regarding them are mine. The amount of time I choose to spend on writing, on promoting, on building relationships with readers & bloggers – that’s mine to choose as well.

I’ve removed myself from the idea of competition. I’ve removed myself from the idea of making a living on the books that I write. That’s not giving up – that’s making a choice that is right for me. The constant guilty feeling that I’m never doing enough, the stress of daily promoting and marketing, the unbelievable amount of pressure to reach some random marker of success with every release: it’s crushing.

I love writing. It is my joy, the thing that makes my soul sing when I’m doing it. I love creating books, sharing them with people, hearing what they thought. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last several months when my marbles tumbled out onto the floor and I had to hire professional help to pick them back up, it’s this:

In most of life, I can do what I can do, and then I need to let it go. I cannot keep juggling all the plates in the air. The stress of trying was breaking my brain. This includes writing & releasing books. I’d rather work full time at my day job and write for the pleasure of doing it and of connecting with the readers who enjoy my books. As long as I make enough on each release to create the next book, I’m chill. I mean, money is great and all but depending on my writing to pay bills is so stressful it sucks the joy right out of it.

I’ve had people argue with me over this, that I MUST do this thing and this thing and oh hey also this thing over here, it’s how you DO IT, how EVERYONE does it, yada yada, blah blah blah. That’s cool, but the reality is that I’m the only one living in my brain, and I’m the only one writing my stories, and until one of those things changes, I’ll be doing it the way I choose. Besides, I can’t fit my parallelogram self into the general square-shaped hole of society. Never have. Unlikely I ever will.

Something else I made a decision about is my horror novel, Slither. I wrote it four years ago and it was accepted by a publisher. I have no terrible story about the publisher I went with, it’s just that over time I’ve realized I’m indie at heart. I requested my rights back on it a few months ago. I re-released it with a new cover and new blurb on May 20th. I’m so pleased that it’s all my own again.

I also released the third book in my Secrets of Windy Springs series, The Knowing Child, on the same day. I’m so happy with the way that one turned out. It’s a little deeper, a little more angsty than the first two books, but it works. I have started the fourth book in that series, Knowing  Rogan, but it’s only maybe 4k in. At this point, I’m taking a break. Not a break from writing, but a break from releasing books, at least for a few months. If I put out another book this summer, it will be the aliens and turnips book that’s already almost finished and has been for two years. If I do that, it will be later this summer.

Weekends in June I’ll be working at the Renaissance Festival, schlepping yarny whatnots and books. I sincerely doubt much writing will be accomplished in June.

And that’s okay. My only deadlines are my own. I can do as much as I can do, and then let it rest. For better or worse, these decisions are mine and at the moment, I’m content with them.

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Everything else, Grief

Another Year in the Rearview Mirror

I blew out my candles (placed carefully in the shape of a smiley face) in a pecan pie last night. Thankfully there weren’t really forty-three of them or we might have had to call the fire department.

It was a nice birthday, as far as such things go. I mean, there was work, but I like my job and my boss brought in a chocolate cake so I had that for breakfast which felt mildly rebellious.

Once upon a time, wearing ripped jeans and a motorcycle jacket and staying out past curfew felt rebellious, but those days are so far in the past they’re no longer really visible in the rearview mirror.

There was an odd sort of sense that I was shifting in time last night… my daughter’s boyfriend invited us to his house, and the two of them made us a delightful dinner with my favorite things. The kids put the candles in my pie and carried it to me, singing. It was wonderful, truly, but I felt somewhat cockeyed for a second. For so many (many, many) years, I’ve been the one planning and making the birthday dinners, lighting the candles, initiating the obligatory belting out of the birthday song. The role reversal was cool, for sure, but it just felt a bit odd for a second. Three of my kids are adults now. When did that happen?

The night before my birthday, on Mother’s Day, my uncle died. I hadn’t seen him in a few years, but I cried over the loss. When I was young, we spent a lot of time at my parents’ cabin up north. (That might be a Michigan thing, “Up north.” Basically, it means anywhere above the Zilwaukee bridge, not necessarily in the upper peninsula.) This particular cabin was about two and a half hours from the house I grew up in. In the winters, we would go up on the weekends to head out snowmobiling, but the summers were the best time. Memorial weekend, Labor Day weekend, and several weekends in between we would go north and family would come in for the duration. The cabin was small but the yard was big and when we ran out of room for bodies to sleep on a couch or the floor, tents would pop up in the yard or relatives would drop a rusty tin can-style camper in the front yard. With my siblings and their families, aunts, uncles, and cousins, it would be nothing to have forty relatives or more hanging out for the weekend. The uncle that passed on Sunday was my dad’s closest brother and best friend. They were two peas in a pod; the same mannerisms, same expressions, same grunts of affirmation or disgust. Uncle Vern was always there on those weekends. He and my dad would get up before sunrise to start the massive breakfast for the family, scrambling a hundred eggs and thirty pounds of potatoes while the rest of us woke slowly, took turns with the only bathroom, and stumbled outside in the early morning light. Plates in hand, we’d wait around until food was done then sit in folding chairs on the lawn, reminiscing, planning, laughing. I’m sad that those days are gone, and I’m sad that so many of the people who were there have passed away now.

And I’m not trying to dwell on the past or anything like that. The right now time is good. It’s solid. Every day holds some measure of joy, and my family is happy and growing. We’re making our own memories. But there’s a weird ache in my gut every time I realize most of the people who shared those days with me are gone. There are very few people alive who remember the same things I do. I have no siblings to reminisce with. Nobody else who remembers Christmas mornings, sitting at the top of the stairs while our parents fixed coffee and opened a can of Tab before we were allowed to run into the family room to see the tree and presents. I sort through photos and laugh at a memory, then remember the faces in the picture have all passed away now. Those weekends up north at the old cabin were pure happiness. I miss them, and the people who shared them with me.

Last Friday, I left work early and spent three hours at a local tattoo shop. My left forearm is now decorated with the ink of a memorial for my lost family. It turned out beautiful. I thought long and hard about what symbols to choose for each family member. My dad’s was pretty easy: a sunflower. He always had a garden out back, and bordered the perimeter of the vegetable plot with tall, vibrant sunflowers. To this day, every time I see a sunflower, I immediately think of my dad. For my sister, I chose a sun/moon. She used to buy all sorts of decorations with the sun/moon on them. Something about it really spoke to her, so I chose a bright, happy style with crinkly eyes in the face of the sun and rosy cheeks. Even the face of the moon sports a tolerant smirk. My brother loved all things Viking: history, television, exaggerated lore, random facts. For him I chose a raven. Odin, the Viking god, has two ravens, thought to represent “memory” and “thoughts.” Seemed fitting, to me.

The words are impossible to see in a photo because they wrap around my arm, but they are lyrics from a song called “Less than Whole:”

“The grey clouds have departed

The stars light up the night

Now I can see through darkness

The river shines with life

I’ve waded through the water

My soul is comin’ clean

I’ve held my breath forever

But now it’s time to breathe.”

Here I am, another year in the rearview mirror.

And I’m finally breathing.

ink

 

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Everything else, Grief

Milestone Days

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It’s the milestone days that hit the hardest, I think. It sneaks up on me and quite often I can’t figure out why I’m extra emotional until all at once, I remember.

This week has been a big one in terms of milestones.

Yesterday, my biggest little girl turned twenty-two. I was eleven days shy of turning twenty-one the day she was born. I’d had an all natural birth plan written out, which was promptly tossed in the trash when, a month before she was due to be born, my gall bladder decided it needed to come out. I was feverish and in extraordinary pain, and when my doctor told me they were planning an emergency C-section, I was terrified. Family came up immediately, of course. In the end, everything turned out all right. My sister was beyond thrilled to be an auntie. My brother was ecstatic – he and his wife had just welcomed their son two weeks prior. I have the cutest picture of my husband and my brother holding the babies in the hall at the hospital. They both look so very young.

Yesterday was also my last day at a job I really loved. I hadn’t been planning to leave and then all at once, the situation changed. I’d been half-heartedly looking to pick up a second part time job, and an amazing full time opportunity fell from the sky. I couldn’t NOT take it, but man oh man, it was painful to give notice at a job I truly enjoyed. More than the work, I’ll miss my coworkers terribly. It was a difficult decision to make, and I keep wondering if I made the right choice. I know that I did, for the sake of my family, but it still hurts. Lots of tears the last several days, especially yesterday, packing up my desk and walking out for the last time.

Today is my son’s Junior prom. We picked his suit up yesterday – in the brief window of time between when I left my former job, sobbing, and when we were meeting at the restaurant to celebrate my daughter’s birthday – and wow, does my little boy look grown when he puts it on. He’s taller than I am, now, with facial hair and a new (adorable) girlfriend. Time, man. It marches forward at a ridiculous pace. I wish sometimes I could catch moments like this in my hands just so I could hold them for a while longer.

These are the times when it really strikes me that both my siblings are gone. I have no brother or sister to invite to my kid’s birthday party. Or to call and tell about my new job, or how hard it is for me to leave the old one. No siblings to come tonight and see my son all dressed up, looking sharp and posing with his girl for pictures. It feels so wrong that this is the reality. They should be here. 

Tomorrow, my youngest daughter graduates from college. I’m so proud of her. She’s overcome a myriad of obstacles to get to this point, and to see her with her cap and gown, knowing how hard she’s worked to get to this point, fills me with such an indescribable sense of joy. My sister was a hairstylist. Five years ago, when she was on Hospice, my daughter was telling her how she was going to follow in her footsteps and go to cosmetology school. “Just like Aunt Char Char.” My God, would my sister ever be proud to see her walk tomorrow.

It’s been an exhausting and emotional week, all around. I’m overflowing with conflicting emotions. Some days I miss my siblings so much I can’t catch my breath. Tears well up over the smallest moments that trigger memories. It’s like being kicked in the gut without warning.

I didn’t plan it this way, but a while back I made an appointment to get a memorial tattoo for my dad and my siblings. My appointment is next Friday. This morning I was thinking how fitting the timing is. This week has been almost overwhelming in the feelings department. Next week, I’m taking this step forward in my healing process, honoring my lost loved ones with bright and beautiful ink.

It’s the milestone days that hurt the most.

It’s the milestone days that mean the most.

It’s the milestone days that bring me so much joy.

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Everything else, Writing

Rebellious Creativity

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When I was about ten years old, my paternal grandmother started teaching me to crochet. Really all I learned was how to chain and single stitch, and I never learned how to stop, so for a while I made blankets for my Barbie dolls but I couldn’t figure out what to do at the end and eventually I gave it up. About eight years ago, I picked it back up again. Other than that little bit of instruction I received when I was a kid, I’m entirely self-taught.

A while back, I learned about something called freeform crochet. In freeform, you basically do whatever the heck you feel like doing. This idea appealed to me on so many levels. (Hold tight. I’m going to make writing parallels. Be patient.) I started small, making tiny freeform pieces. Then I connected them. And got braver and braver with the things I was willing to try. Now I’ve got this gigantic freeform shawl I wear all the time, and people stop me everywhere I go to ask where I bought it. It delights me to know I made it and it can’t be duplicated.

Here’s the thing, though: I wouldn’t be able to do freeform if I hadn’t learned basic stitches first. I’m not a huge fan of patterns, but I am capable of following them when needed. I wouldn’t be able to do freeform if I hadn’t learned how to do increases and decreases already. Or how to connect granny squares. Or many of the other basic things crochet entails. I’ve been crocheting steadily now for about eight years. At first, my efforts were plain silly-looking. Patterns didn’t make sense. But as with any new skill, you learn. It takes time, but soon enough, it’s second nature. Now I crochet so fast I rarely have to even look down at my fingers while I work. Over the last year, most of what I’ve been crocheting has been freeform. Spirals, mandalas, shawls, random pieces that grow and grow until I figure out what it wants to be. I love the whole idea of not trying to match colors, or stitches, or adhere to a pattern fifty-million other people have made. The point, I suppose, is that in order to break the rules, first you have to learn the rules. I know how to DC2TOG (double crochet 2 together) when I’m crocheting. Since I’ve mastered that, now I can deliberately DC2TOG and then add a bullion stitch to it. Or pull a second color in to it. Or stick it in the middle of six trebles. Or whatever strikes my fancy. In freeform, it doesn’t need to match, or turn out even, or turn into anything at all. I just enjoy what I’m doing in that moment, and see where it goes. No pressure. No need to be certain edges line up. Freeform celebrates crooked art. I like that about it. It’s very… well, freeing.

(The parallel, as promised.)

There’s a lot of writing advice bandied about that goes something like this, “Good writers break the rules.” I believe that to be so. I certainly don’t want to create books that sound exactly like anyone else’s, and I get bored really quickly reading an author that has the same form for every book. By page ten, I’ve figured out the villain, the plot twist, and the ending. No fun. In fact, when I was writing Heckled, I wrote it backward to begin with. Even once I went to chapter one and started writing, I had decided I was going to write that story exactly as I saw it in my head, without consideration for who might read it or who might take issue with it or what the backlash  might be. And there are lots of people who don’t like that book. Of my novels, Heckled is the one I receive the most private messages IN ALL CAPS about what I wrote. That’s okay with me, though. I’m pleased with how that story turned out. It’s real. It’s raw. And more honest than most people probably realize. But I definitely broke some rules during the writing of it.

Breaking the rules is where imagination gets wild. Where creativity and voice really show. Breaking the rules is exciting. But here’s the thing: you can’t deliberately break the rules until you understand the rules. It’s important to study the craft of writing. It’s important to get a handle on how a story should go. (Not how it “must” go.) While I absolutely do not believe there’s only one great way to write a book, there are elements that should probably be present in some form. It’s important to read lots and lots of books of different styles and genres. Older writers. Dead writers. New writers. Read, read, read. When you stumble on something that really strikes you, pay attention to how the writer accomplished that task. Stick that knowledge away for later.

Any writer worth her salt has learned you shouldn’t use adverbs. Adverbs are devil’s spawn. Putting adverbs in a story is like putting rotted apples out for your fancy luncheon. It’s never okay. Really. Pick up any book about How to Write Things and this advice will always, always be included. So learn to write powerfully without adverbs. Stretch your skills. Use your imagination. Get a solid handle on doing it. It’s important.

Once you’ve got it down pat, break the rule. Because it’s ridiculous to never, ever, ever use an adverb in writing. It’s dumb advice, really. It’s a rule meant to be broken. But only after you know how to write without adverbs should you attempt it. You’ll learn something writing with and without them. Once you’ve learned to slash them completely from your own writing, you’ll notice how many adverbs are too many when you’re reading. You’ll get a feel for how many you can sprinkle in and still pack a punch.

There are so many rules like this that practically beg to be busted into “freeform.” But… but it’s imperative to remember that even the wildest, most rebellious writer on the planet must still adhere to some rules. You can play with grammar. You can’t entirely disregard every grammar rule ever written. Punctuation serves a vital purpose. There are ways to mess with some of it. Some of it, sorry, you really can’t. There are occasions you need to splice a comma. Other times, the words are more powerful as sentence fragments. (Yes, you can write sentence fragments in a book. YES. Absolutely you can. Fight me, bruh.)

Freeform crochet is a beautiful thing. Truly. Look it up on Instagram or Pinterest. It’s just stunning, the art people come up with working freeform.

However.

Even with freeform, there are elements that must be included. You can’t pick up a spool of thread, a block of cheese, and a squeaky dog toy and announce you’re about to make some freeform crochet because there aren’t any rules about it. Well, I guess you could announce it. But it wouldn’t mean anything, because you don’t have the correct tools.

You’re smart. You can draw your own parallels here.

And if you think crochet lessons have nothing to do with storytelling, then explain why long, rambling stories are often referred to as “yarns.”

No, seriously. Explain it.

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Birth Stories, Everything else

Sixteen and Life to Go

Several years ago I committed to writing out the birth stories of each of my children. Probably a task that is long overdue, considering their ages, but I’ve never been what you might call “punctual.”

Today my youngest baby is sixteen. It’s hard to believe, because five minutes ago he was starting kindergarten, but here we are. I remember well my pregnancy and delivery with him, details that probably should have faded by now, but still burn bright in my memory. The pregnancy itself was awful but his birth was my favorite of the four.

In the summer of 2001, we took a family vacation with my parents, siblings and their families to the west side of Michigan. We camped, took the kids to see lighthouses and Lake Michigan, and the trip culminated in a much-anticipated stop at an amusement park, Michigan Adventures. At that time, my children were five, three, and one and a half. I felt fine on the vacation though a little extra tired, but I put that down to the exhaustion of chasing three small children day in and day out. The day we went to the amusement park, I was sitting at a café having a snack. Something had gone wrong – I don’t remember just what, seems like a ride we wanted to go on was broken or something – and out of the blue I started sobbing. I couldn’t stop. Even as I was crying, in the back of my mind I was thinking, “Wow. This is weird. Why am I so upset?”

Upon our return home, I had an appointment with an allergist. He wanted to start me on a regime of medications to help control my very out of control allergy symptoms. But first, he said, he wanted me to take a round of Tetracycline. I hadn’t taken that drug before, so after I picked it up from the pharmacy, I spent some time reading the pamphlet on it. One of the warnings that stuck out to me was all the terrible things it could do to a baby if a pregnant woman took it. At that time in my life, I kept extra pregnancy tests around often. The responsible thing, I thought, would be to take a test before starting that medication. Just to be safe. To put my mind at ease. So I did.

And it was positive. I was stunned.

Everyone I told seemed to think it was funny. My family doctor laughed. My sister laughed. My friends laughed. I didn’t laugh, as my head was generally hanging over the toilet by that point. The fourth go ’round was the worst as far as the hyperemesis went. After multiple trips to the ER for fluids, my doctor finally put in a PICC line and set me up with a home nurse. Halfway through my pregnancy, I switched doctors. Then I was diagnosed with placenta previa. My due date was April 14th and we were seriously considering the possibility that I would need another C-section. However, at the last moment, the previa took care of itself.

My doctor was concerned because my third labor and delivery had gone so fast – three hours, start to finish – and worried I might not make it to the hospital in time once I went into labor. I was cautioned to go in to the hospital if I had any indication labor might be starting and not to wait. April 14th came and went. No contractions. Nothing. Another week came and went. On the 22nd, I had an appointment with my doctor. I was heavy, hot, and aggravated. I very clearly recall demanding he do something to move the situation along. I said something along the lines of, “Listen, buddy, I’m having this baby today whether you help me or not.” He scheduled an induction for later in the afternoon.

We went home. Packed bags for the children and called family members. It was decided we would go out for lunch first, and we all met at a local diner. From there, my parents took the kids home with them, and my husband and I headed back to the hospital. Due to the problems that had plagued all four of my pregnancies, we knew this one would be my last. As such, I had chosen not to learn the gender of the baby beforehand. I wanted to be surprised. My husband couldn’t wait, and had asked the sonographer a few weeks before. He did a decent job keeping it secret, although he did make one slip that he hurriedly covered up. As we waited for my induction to begin, we discussed baby names. We still hadn’t decided on a name for a boy. For a girl, I’d picked out Elyssa Rose.

Finally, it was go time. IV was hooked up. My mom decided to come up and hang out with us. My five-year-old daughter followed her to the car and refused to go back inside the house, so she brought her along. At 6:10 p.m. my doctor broke my water. Shortly after, I expressed to my nurse that labor was definitely rolling along quickly. I did this by grabbing the bed rail with both hands and attempting to yank it off while screaming. She responded by setting the room up for delivery. She called my doctor, who said it couldn’t possibly be happening that fast and he would stop in after a couple of hours.

“How long was your last labor?” she asked me.

“Three hours,” I panted.

Her pace quickened. My screams settled to a repetitive whisper as I lay on my side, still gripping the bed rail and rocking it. “I want drugs this time, I want drugs this time, I want drugs this time, I want drugs this time,” was my mantra. My first baby was an emergency C-section that I wasn’t even awake to experience. My second had a failed epidural, and my third happened so fast there was no time for medication.

None of my labors were light or easy. There is no parade or trophy for doing it without pain medication. I wanted it. Right then. I couldn’t think of anything else. My nurse paused, watched me carefully for about two minutes, and then called my doctor again. When he arrived, he did so with the statement, “Valarie, I heard you’re giving your nurse a hard time. It can’t possibly be going this fast. Just try to relax.”

He went on to say since he was already there, he would go ahead and check me. I declined to give him permission to touch me until he brought me drugs. He laughed. I maintained my order. He called in the epidural guy, who refused to give me one since I had a latex allergy and something about something in the epidural had latex in it. I sat up, grabbed one bed rail in each hand, and alternated growling, cussing, and wailing in a fashion that caused the epidural guy to hustle. In minutes, he’d given me a shot that numbed all the pertinent areas.

“Now, Valarie, let’s see what all this fuss is about,” my doctor said.

The injection was a blessed relief. I reclined on my pillows. Held my husband’s hand while the doctor did his thing. Suddenly, everything was in high speed.

“Um, Valarie?” my doctor asked.

“Yeah.”

“Whatever you do, don’t push.”

I hadn’t been planning on it right then, but agreed anyway.

“Also, don’t sit up until I get this bed broken down. Head’s already coming out.”

So much for me being overdramatic.

My water had been broken at 6:10 p.m. My baby was born at 7:18 p.m. Start to finish: 68 minutes.

We had another little boy. Obviously, he was perfect. Black hair. Ridiculously adorable.

Nameless.

My husband leaned toward Christopher Caleb. I tended to like names that were slightly unusual and had lots of vowels.

The next morning, I signed the paperwork for a tubal ligation. Two girls, two boys, all under the age of six. Our family was exactly the right size. Because of my surgery, we stayed an extra day at the hospital.

Fun fact: After two days, the birth certificate people quit calling your room and just barge right in, demanding you name your baby for  God’s sake, just call the kid something.

It wasn’t that we hadn’t been trying to agree on a name. We had gone through books and made lists of possibilities. Finally, we made a choice: I would pick the first name, whatever I wanted. My husband would pick the middle name, whatever he wanted.

I held my little black-haired boy in my arms, considering. In my head, I had a short list of favorite names and I turned that list over and over while I decided.

Then it struck me that one of the names I’d liked the best meant “raven.”

Raven. It suited him, with his dark hair.

“Brennan,” I told my husband. “His name is Brennan.” It fit him just right.

My husband chose Christopher for his middle name.

As a baby, Brennan made the funniest facial expressions that kept us in stitches. As a toddler, he was rowdy but so ridiculously cute it was difficult to discipline him. By about age five, we realized he had a rather enjoyable knack for dry humor. His quick wit has continued to flourish over the years, and I can honestly say he’s made us laugh daily since his arrival. A budding conspiracy theorist, he’s down to discuss trivia about Sasquatch, the zombie apocalypse, or aliens at just about any time. He is thoughtful and brave, and has a ready stock of puns to pull out for any imaginable occasion.

It seems impossible that my baby is sixteen today. He is getting taller and has the beginnings of a mustache. His green eyes are identical to mine. His once-black hair has turned to a light brown. He’ll be learning to drive this summer.

He might be getting older, but he’ll always remain my little raven. The surprise baby that completed our family and taught us that life is always better with extra laughter.

I’ve compiled a few funny FB statuses from over the years regarding this kid that have cracked me up. It’s been suggested to me that I write a “Bean Book” someday. (Bean is his nickname).

Bean: Mom, you’re my best pickle!
Me: I’m your… your pickle? What?
Bean: Yeah! BECAUSE I RELISH OUR TIME TOGETHER! I RELISH IT!

Bean: Help me button my sleeves?
Me: I don’t understand why you are getting dressed up before bed, instead of getting into pajamas.
Bean: You don’t know what I do after you go to sleep. For all you know, I go out to parties. Or wrestle bears under my assumed name of Mr. Beast.

Me (plowing through yet another sink full of dishes): I wish I could look at my kitchen counter just once and not have to see a mountain of dirty dishes.
Bean: Yeah, I know what you mean. Maybe we could lay a blanket over them.

Me, at a party today, playing with a delightful dumpling of a baby:
“I like him. Let’s keep him!”
Bean: “He is pretty cute. But is he hypoallergenic?”

Took some Nyquil.
Konked out on the couch for like 30 minutes.
Bean jacked my phone and used it to text the other kids and tell them they were grounded.

Yesterday in a parking lot, Bean suddenly disappeared for a second.
Then he leaped out from behind a car, wielding finger guns at me, and shouted, “Stick ’em up! And give me all your Facebook followers!”

My mom and her bf were over, and mom mentioned he had to get back to Canada for awhile, and jokingly added that she didn’t want him to become an “illegal alien”.
Brennan stared intently for several minutes, and then, narrowing his eyes, he leaned in and whispered to him,
“Tell me everything you know about Area 51.” (he was nine)

Life has certainly been an adventure since he’s come into our lives. Happy sixteenth birthday, Bean.

 

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Bits and Whatnots, Everything else

What Matters Most

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There is so much wrong in this world right now. So much pain and heartache. We can’t fix it all, and trying to do so would be a burden too heavy to bear. What we can do is show more kindness, more empathy, more compassion to others. It’s a burden of another kind, but far lighter to carry.

Everywhere we go, there are people hurting. We might not see it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I get dressed. Put on makeup. Do… well, something with my hair. I smile and laugh. Very often, on the inside, my heart is hammering. My nerves feel pulled taut. My muscles are so tense they ache. My thoughts are bouncing around in my brain, finding things to worry about. Tears sit in the back of my eyes; I blink a lot so they don’t fall.

A while back, I was at an appointment at a doctor’s office, and at the end of the appointment, she sent me to their office lab for bloodwork. The phlebotomist was one I’d had before on several occasions. This particular day, she looked and acted just like herself. There was no blazing, “Inside I’m crushed by the weight of this pain” sign on her forehead. But in the course of her taking my blood, she paused and apologized. “I’m sorry if I don’t seem like myself today. My daughter died two weeks ago, and this is my first day back.” Her daughter was twenty-two. Cystic fibrosis.

We have no idea where people are at in life. Where they’ve been. What struggles they are fighting, even as they go about their daily lives, as they laugh, as they do their best to act just like themselves.

I’ve often heard the phrase, “Hurt people, hurt people.” That’s true. Sometimes people who are in pain lash out because they don’t know what else to do. But there are those who take this notion to an extreme, deliberately causing hurt to others while using their own pain as an excuse.

People go out of their way to be mean. Two of my kids work at a local grocery store. My daughter is a cashier. Daily, people wad up their receipts and throw them back at her. She’s had objects thrown at her face. Last summer, an angry old man spit cherry pits on her. My son is a service clerk. People yell at him constantly. There have been times the pop bottle return machines aren’t working right; customers launch their empty two-liters at his head in their anger. Pay attention in a restaurant sometime: customers shouting at their waitress because their toast isn’t just right; refusing to tip because they didn’t like their meal after all; making nasty comments about their server’s appearance, as if that has anything to do with their dinner. Social media… man. That’s it’s own level of awful. Mean things I’ve witnessed there recently include grown women attacking an indie cover artist online, to the point they demanded she kill herself because she was worthless – and then she attempted to take her own life by overdosing on pills. People attack crowd funding at alarming rates, and they don’t care if you’re raising money for your mother’s funeral or to pay your rent or for a dream trip – the things people say. Wow. Instead of just scrolling past, they have to take their life minutes to spew complete and utter hatred at human beings they don’t even know.

There’s another truth that’s maybe not quite so catchy of a phrase: Hurt people see the hurt in others.

We see it. We recognize it. That slight slump in the shoulders. The sadness in the eyes.

We know. And we have a choice what we do about it.

We can go out of our way to be kind.

Hold that door open. Smile at people. Offer to help without expectation of recompense. Listen. Not half-heartedly. Really listen. Let them talk without interrupting. Even about topics that are difficult to discuss. Make time. Reach out. Be the person you wish you’d had when you were in the crux of your own pain. What did you need the most? Do that for someone else.

It takes so little to ease the suffering of another. Maybe kindness is a burden, but it’s a load light enough carry everywhere. Reaching out to others in love is what we need more of in the world today. It’s what matters most.

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Everything else, Writing

Art By the Numbers

 

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The important thing, when considering your artistic path, is to figure out how many Facebook likes your page is probably going to get.

I mean, you can’t be an artist without at least five thousand Facebook page likes.

Everyone knows that.

And any artist that was creating art before the advent of social media, well –

I guess they weren’t really artists.

The amount of people who validate your art by commenting on a post is what determines the worth of the piece.

… right?

Maybe take that idea a little deeper. Exactly how many people need to like your art before it becomes “real art?” Ten? A hundred? A thousand? How much profit must be made off an art piece before it becomes “real art?”

Which leads me to another question. How many people need to lay eyes on the art in question before it’s real?

Let’s say two people make the exact same quilt. They spend the same amount of time and money to create it. When finished, the quilts are identical. One sells hers for two thousand dollars. The other keeps his on his bed and enjoys it for the next thirty years, but nobody else ever sees it.

Which one is an artist?

Now, if one is attempting to make a living off creating art, then of course, numbers become the driving force. There’s nothing wrong with that – rent needs to be paid, groceries bought, kids clothed. But the amount of revenue isn’t what decides whether or not a piece of art is real, or if the artist is truly, well, an artist.

If there is a talent, a drive, time spent over making the piece just right – man, that’s creating art. If ideas slam around in your head at night and you’re getting excited over picking up your paintbrush or crochet hook or laptop or musical instrument – that’s art. If the doing of the thing is what makes your soul light up and makes you smile without realizing it – that’s making art.

Life is so extraordinarily brief. If the desire to make art is burning inside you, MAKE IT. Enjoy it. Learn how to do it better. Immerse yourself in the joy that comes when you succumb to creativity. It doesn’t require a certain amount of Facebook likes or comments; it doesn’t require a certain amount of Twitter followers; it doesn’t require a certain amount of cash to exchange hands before your art is real.

Your art is real when you create it. The quality may change over time. Your abilities will stretch and grow. You’ll try new things. You’ll look back in ten years and groan over your first efforts.

But you will have done it. It will be yours. It isn’t art anyone else can make.

Exactly how many people need to like your art before it becomes “real art?” Ten? A hundred? A thousand?

What if only one person loves it, but they love it so much, they connect with it on such a deep level, your art changes their life?

Is it still worth it for just one person?

And what if that one person is you? If you’re the only one satisfied by the piece you’ve created, is it still real art? Is it still worth doing?

Absolutely.

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Everything else, Grief

A Grief Named Lucille

 

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It comes out of nowhere.

Wait. That isn’t accurate.

It’s there, always. Sometimes it’s hiding, just under the surface. Sometimes it’s shoved down so deep it seems like it’s gone.

Sometimes I forget, just for the briefest of seconds, when I encounter something that really strikes my soul in some way, like a string of powerful song lyrics. I pause and absorb that small fraction of time; peace settles within, and I am overwhelmed with the perfection of what is happening around me. Puppies playing, children laughing, snow falling, my husband’s warm hand linked in mine.

I never see it coming, until THWACK! Negan has sneaked up behind me, and Lucille connects to the back of my neck with a force so abrupt and painful I can do little more than collapse on the floor and try to catch my breath. The crushing hopelessness is upon me and I can’t think how to get out from under it.

It’s been a while since I had a full-on anxiety attack. I came close the night before Easter, when we (as is typical for us) were running around getting things at the last minute for the kids’ baskets. Walmart was so crowded, most aisles were impossible to get down. I could feel the familiar signals creeping up on me, and I pulled my husband aside and told him I needed to finish and get out of there. While we finished getting the final few things, I worked really hard to keep my breathing even, to not give in to the panic thrumming in my veins. What I’m finding is I’m okay and I’m okay and I’m okay and I’m okay and then all at once, I am absolutely NOT okay. It doesn’t have to be anything big that sets me off.

Saturday I had a table at a local book event for horror authors. It was inside a busy farmer’s market, but I knew the room we’d be in was off to the side and less crowded, so I figured I’d be fine. And I was. Mostly. Some of the authors in attendance I knew from the previous year at the same event, and it was nice to talk and catch up. Sold books. Had some good talks. Met a couple new friends. During a lull, I was standing at the table next to mine, talking with the artist, flipping through the pages of his albums, checking out prints I wanted to buy. Nothing in particular was going on. I wasn’t being crowded or upset. But all at once, I felt it creeping up my spine. And I was so hot I couldn’t catch my breath. My chest began twitching. Clenching. I hurried back to my seat. Drew my shawl around me. Pulled my hair up inside my hat. My husband went out and bought me a big bottle of water, then sat with his arm around my shoulders until the panic passed. It wasn’t a full-on attack, but still bothersome. For the most part, I had a great day.

But then I overdid just a little. After the event, I went to a store, and then to a busy restaurant for dinner. I did okay while in those places. I was okay, and I was okay, and I was okay, and then about 2:30 a.m., while I was in bed, in the dark, relaxed and dozing –

Dammit. There she was.

Lucille.

At first, I thought, maybe it’s asthma. It could be asthma. The weather has been weird and my lungs can be sensitive. My chest tightened. Yeah. It’s probably asthma.

Please be asthma.

Even as I thought it, I knew it was that freaking bat. At least that time, I was already down. I curled up and burst into sobs. I searched my brain for breathing exercises to do. Thought calming thoughts. Tapped my fingers. Wept until I was all snotty. Caused my husband some alarm. It lasted probably a half an hour before it began to ease.

Occasionally, people will ask me why I keep talking about grief and mental health issues. There are happier things to write about, aren’t there?

Well, sure. Of course there are.

You’re usually so funny! Write something to make people laugh!

That’s true. I do have a knack for humor. I enjoy making people laugh, and often write that sort of thing.

But life isn’t always funny. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes the pain is so disabling, you struggle just to get up off the floor.

It’s important to talk about those parts of life, too. People need to know they aren’t the only ones struggling with depression or anxiety or grief. They need to know someone out there understands what they are feeling. If there is anything worse than being depressed, anxious, and grieving –

it’s being depressed, anxious, grieving, and completely alone in it.

Sometimes people say I seem to be dwelling on my grief.

“Get over it.”

“It’s been months already.”

“Pretend to be happy, and then you will be.”

I know there is a lot of truth in the idea of focusing on the positives. And I do, truly. Maybe even more than most people do, because I know how awful it is to have family and happiness ripped away in a blink of time. Focus on your joys. Be grateful for what you have. Absolutely.

But, guys, there is an enormous difference between “dwelling” and “acknowledging.”

Forcing yourself to act happy all the time, refusing to acknowledge your grief and pain, that’s some unhealthy shit right there. That agony you shove down deep and refuse to talk about? It’s gobbling you up from the inside out. Dwelling on the past and your hurt, yeah, it’s probably not so good. But taking it out, recognizing it’s there and it’s valid, finding ways to keep getting up every day in spite of it; finding ways to laugh although you ache –

that’s important. Grief and pain, those are experiences that shape us. Change us. Empty and refill us.

So I keep getting up. Keep writing. Keep looking for small joys to hold onto. Keep enjoying those fractions of time that feel like utter perfection.

Even though I know Lucille is going to hit me again. Knock me down. Make me weep.

I keep getting up.

My bones ache. I bleed. I think I can’t do it one more time. It’s not possible.

I keep getting up. Sometimes it might take an hour or a day or a week to get entirely upright.

That’s okay.

Because it’s worth it. I promise, it’s worth it.

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