Everything else, Writing

On Writing Strong Women

 

I prefer to write strong women, but not in the way you might think. I’m not a fan of the female characters who don’t show emotion in  some pretense of remaining “strong.” Not a fan of the robotic, two-dimensional females so boring in their supposed strength it becomes impossible to identify with them.

I like writing strong women, because the women I know personally are strong. These are the women who’ve struggled through extraordinary pain and grief, yet continue to get up each morning and do the things that need doing, though their insides may be filled with shards of broken glass. These are the women simply living life as the unique individuals they are: funny, melancholy, frustrated, exhausted, angry, imperfect as they may be. They’re showing up to work at six a.m. even though they’ve got a toddler that kept them up all night, puking and crying. They’re sitting quietly at a funeral home with their best friend, despite the big fight with their spouse and the weird clicking sound their car is now making when they’ve got no money to fix it, because they just spent the last of their paycheck on the heat bill. They’re taking care of their elderly parents, teenage children, exhausted beyond all reason, and still trucking along, doing the best they can in life.

These are the women who have been completely broken at some point, by a disastrous relationship or a catastrophic loss or the demons of their own minds, but finding a way to make it through. Finding a way to push through their tears and go on. These are the women who have balanced on the cusp of the great void, wondering if it’s going to be worth it to get up in the morning, or ever again. They’ve fought through illness, fought through monotony, fought through mountains of laundry and mountains of pain, and still. They show up. And then they show up again, and they keep doing that until they remember how wonderful it feels to genuinely laugh.

They’re in business suits with high heels, or they’re in tank tops and long thrift-store peasant skirts. They’re perfectly coiffed or growing out dreadlocks or it’s all they can do to pile their hair into a messy bun. They’re stay at home mothers or they’re working fifty-plus hours a week, or they’re artists stumbling along, trying to find balance while finding themselves. They’re falling asleep during their nighttime college classes but pushing through, hoping to make something new and better with their lives. They’re gluing the heels back on their favorite pair of boots because there’s no money to buy new ones. They’re eating another peanut butter and jelly sandwich, even though the thought of it makes their stomach turn, they’re so sick of them. They’re making the rent and they’re making dinner and they’re wondering at what point along the way did they forget exactly who they were, and can they ever get that person back?

They’re wondering if it’s going to be worth it to start all over this late in life. They’re worried what other people might think. They’re falling down and getting back up, the way we all do throughout life. They’re laughing and crying and telling people to fuck off, and they’re listening to angry music and falling in love and learning to play guitar for the first time at sixty-five. They’re making big changes and they’re keeping routines exactly the same. They’re raging against the patriarchy and they’re settling in with a book and cup of tea at night, wishing they’d had just the right words to tell their boss off earlier in the day. They mess up and they hate themselves and they love themselves and they start all over. They are weak and they’re strong, quiet and loud, nervous and brash. They are anxious and bold. They are terrified and brave. Broken and courageous. They’re wondering when was the last time they made it through a day without alcohol, and they’re lying on the floor for the second day in a row because remaining upright is just too hard; they’re singing joyfully where everyone can hear them, and they’re realizing they deserve more than what they’ve settled for. They’re finding their own truth and they’re finding Jesus and they’re finding purpose beyond pleasing everyone else.

Every woman I know is a strong woman. Every female character I’ve ever written is a strong woman. Strong women are just people, trying and failing and trying again. They’re you and me. They’re real and raw and scared and angry and joyful. The myth of the “strong woman”, that cardboard cut-out of what the world thinks strength looks like, is a trope that needs breaking.

Strength doesn’t mean you never fall, never cry, never break.

True strength is exhausted persistence, nothing more.

So, yeah. I prefer writing strong women, but not in the way you might think.

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Everything else, Writing

Spark of Recognition

 

I’ve always been a reader, and I’ve always been a misfit. The two don’t always go hand in hand, I know. My mother has often told the story of how, when I was three, I would sit at the table, holding the newspaper upside down, and sobbing because I couldn’t read it. Over the years – and especially since the advent of the internet (yes, I’m that old) – I’ve had the privilege of knowing and loving many other bibliophiles. In junior high, there was a group of us who were consistently devouring L.M. Montgomery books, reading them over and over and discussing them over lunch in the cafeteria. Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve been a regular at the local libraries. Love of books and of reading is a beautiful magnet, drawing those of us who adore them together and holding us tight. I’m not usually a super social person; my true circle of friends is quite small and tends not to change much. But all of my close friends love to read. Few things are as enjoyable to me as listening to one of my friends excitedly telling me about a new book they’ve fallen in love with.

The misfit thing, that’s a little different. Though it doesn’t happen often anymore, given my current personal life, I don’t mind being alone. I don’t need groups of people. I don’t crave social interaction. I realized a long, long time ago my brain works differently and my interests don’t always line up with those of other people. And that’s fine, truly. I know what brings me joy, and I know what I like, and I don’t feel like I need to have the permission of anyone else to pursue my passions. As a kid and young teen, I often waffled on presenting my own truth, by turns fighting like hell to blend in to the landscape and being as outrageous as I could possibly be. The longer I stumble through life, the bolder I’ve become. I was quieter, before, in both spirit and truth. I’m not so quiet anymore. Where I once would feel guilty for making others uncomfortable with my interests, manner of dress, or my writing, now I simply look them in the eye and ask why they think I should have to change myself because they’re uncomfortable. Even amongst my friends and acquaintances that tend to buck the norm, I’m often the odd one out. It doesn’t so much bother me anymore, but now and again I do get weary of trying to explain myself. It’s the incessant why? Why? Why? regarding whatever it is I happen to be doing, or how I happen to be dressing, or what my hair looks like (why do people care so much about that, anyway? Isn’t that weird? And perfect strangers will approach me in public and touch my hair without even asking… bizarre. It’s currently half a wild curly mess and half dreadlocks, and I like it that way.) It has taken me some time, but eventually I realized that in much of life, I’m looking at something, and the person next to me is looking at something, and we’re each seeing something completely different. That’s okay, except when I mention what I see, and the person next to me tries to railroad me into their perspective. Why can’t they just accept that I see the world a little differently than they do? The desire to force conformity is so ingrained in most people. Step out of line and they feel compelled to reign you back in, regardless the topic.
I wouldn’t necessarily call it a ‘lonely’ feeling, being this way. I accept it as my version of normal. How others choose to receive me is neither my business nor my problem, unless they make it so. I have a distant relative who – every few years when she sees me at a family function – feels led to make a loud comment along the lines of, “My goodness, just look at you. And your… your clothes, and your (insert arcing motion with hands and distasteful facial expression) hair. Boy, you just don’t care what anyone thinks of you, do you?”
And I mean, she’s right, I don’t, though I know what she’s really saying is, “I don’t understand why you’re so committed to being an embarrassment.” Yeah. She’s always a delight.
But anyway, I guess, more to the point of this post, I’ve been listening to audiobooks quite a bit lately, and I’m currently listening (entirely out of order) to a long series of urban fantasy books. They’re beautifully written, and make my drive to work and back a bit more bearable each day. Throughout the series, there’s this one character I find I really identify with. A week or so ago, there was a passage where this particular character rebuffed a friend who’d been complaining about a band they’d just seen play live. She said, “But don’t you see it’s not about the way they sound? It’s the passion, the lyrics, the heart that’s in the music that I’m listening to.”
It hit me hard, because that’s exactly a sentence I would say. It’s exactly how I feel when I’m asked (again) some version of “why do you do this, why do you like this, why do view this thing the wrong way?” It’s because what *I* see, what *I* hear, what *I’m* focusing on is not the same thing everyone else is. But that doesn’t make it wrong. Truthfully, this one sentence in that entire enormous book struck me with such force, tears sprang to my eyes and I nearly pulled my car over, so momentous was that spark of recognition for me. Because while I don’t necessarily mind being a loner in much of my life, to hear someone – even a fictional someone – with a thought that so closely mimicked my own was a powerful thing. To know I’m not always alone, not the only one with this particular perspective.
See, this is the importance of fiction. At least, to me. There is inherent value in knowing someone, somewhere, is like you. Has felt the same things you’ve felt. Has thought the same things you’ve thought. And this is the importance in making true art, the kind that comes from a place deep inside, not the same superficial, commercially accepted clones that are made over and over. The connection that can be forged between artist and consumer – whether the two ever meet physically or not – is a magic all on its own, and strange though it may be, it holds the power to change a life. It matters.
It matters.

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Catch 22

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It’s 2018, and individuals with any form of mental illness are encouraged to push past the unrelenting stigma and be open about their struggles. The more we talk about it, the easier it will be to normalize it, right? At least, that’s what we hear.

The reality isn’t always so simple, though.

A few weeks ago, just around the change from summer to autumn, I started having some trouble catching my breath. I’m asthmatic and am blessed with a metric shit ton of seasonal allergies, so I expected it was a bit of an asthma flare. Upped my allergy meds. Broke out a new inhaler.

But it started waking me up from a dead sleep, that feeling of being unable to catch my breath. It felt as though I had to take three or four short breaths in order to get one whole deep breath. I wasn’t coughing. Wasn’t wheezing. But after about a week of this, my husband was concerned and asked me to go get checked out. It was late on a Sunday afternoon, so I went to the Urgent Care nearest us. Filled out the form. Honestly wrote down ‘Wellbutrin’ and ‘Zoloft’ in the spot that asked which medications I took daily.

The doctor comes in, glances at my chart. Says, “I see you take Wellbutrin and Zoloft.”

“Yes.”

“Do you have an anxiety disorder, then?”

Again, my honest answer. “Yes, I do. But this feels like it’s asthma.”

She checked me over briefly. “You’re not coughing.”

“No, I’m not. But my chest is tight, and it’s hard to catch a full breath.”

She looks me up and down. Takes a step backward. (I mean, you stand too close, you catch the crazy, amirite?)  “I think this is an anxiety flare.”

I didn’t even argue. I mean, anxiety is weird, and maybe it was just coming on me differently.  I said usually my anxiety flares come with sweating, hammering heart, panicked thoughts. She responded this could be just an unusual presentation.

I said, “Okay.” That’s it.

She went on. “But I’m not giving you any Xanax today.”

What? “That’s cool, because I didn’t ask you for any.”

“You know that’s addictive, right?” She’s looking down at me then, over her bifocals.

“Okay. But again, I didn’t ask for it.”

“Let me ask you this. How long have you been taking these two medications?”

I think back. “Zoloft, about a year. Wellbutrin since February.”

She nods. “Mmhmn. Okay. And do you know what set off the problem? Anything in particular?”

“Uh, yeah.” I shift uncomfortably on the exam table. The paper crinkles beneath me. “Both of my siblings died, and I had a hard time dealing with that.”

“I see. And what did they die from?”

“Lung cancer.”

“Both of them? Hhmn. Do you think you have lung cancer?”

“Uh… no.”

“I could see why you’d think that, why you would worry you have tumors in your lungs. That would make you paranoid.”

“I’m actually not paranoid. I don’t think I have cancer. I came in with what I thought was an asthma flare.” Now I am getting anxious, and swinging my legs. Getting twitchy. It’s hard to sit still. It’s also getting difficult to look this very judgmental physician in the face, because she’s not listening to me at all and is making a helluva lot of assumptions.

She presses her lips together. Glances down at her clipboard again. “Right. Right. Listen, I know how this works, with people like you. I can tell you flat out, I am not giving you a Xanax prescription. Trust me, I’m doing you a favor.”

“Can I leave now?” I hop off the table. Sling my purse back over my head, so it hangs crosswise. “I’d like to leave.”

“I’m sure you do,” she says. “Since I’m not giving you any medication.”

So, being honest about which medications I take to manage my anxiety disorder automatically makes me, by turns, I guess, a liar, paranoid, a hypochondriac, AND a drug seeker. That’s cool. Super cool. I was so angry when I left, my hands were shaking as I held the steering wheel.

In fact, if she’d had access to the entirety of my medical records and scoured them with a fine tooth comb, she’d have seen zero instances of me abusing substances of any kind. I barely even drink alcohol. And I’ve never in my life even had a Xanax prescription. Never.

Fast forward to the present time. For several years, I’ve had a problem with my left shoulder. I’ve got some joint issues in general, and this shoulder in particular will act up now and again. It begins with pain and stiffness from the shoulder blade and moves into the joint, shoulder, and down the side of my ribcage. Inflammation sets in. If I don’t get something to get the inflammation down, it’ll end up freezing and then I’ve got a real problem, because I spend forty-plus hours a week typing at work, plus, you know, this writing gig I do in my “free time.” So in the spirit of being a responsible adult, I called my family physician on Monday to see if I could get in to see her. I know what I need – either oral steroids or a steroid injection to kill that inflammation. But my doctor is retiring next month, and her receptionist said she’s completely booked until the day she leaves. I was directed to go to the Urgent Care.

Well. That’s cute, right? I’ve been trying to talk myself into going for the last four days. Can’t seem to muster the gumption to go. Because now I feel like if I walk back in there, saying I’ve got pain and need something for the inflammation, it would be just my luck to get the same doctor and she’s going to think I’m there seeking pain killers. Or more Xanax. Or who-the-hell-knows-what. Nope. I just can’t do it. Instead, I’ve been eating handfuls of Motrin every four hours. Icing the shoulder. Applying heat. Doing stretches. Every day the joint locks up more and more.

For as much talk as there is among medical professionals regarding mental health care, how much has really changed? Has anything actually changed? Because it’s sure feeling like being open about my situation only gets me more judgement. More assumptions made. And it’s certainly discouraging me from seeking the medical care I honestly probably need. It’s really frustrating.

If I don’t see out the mental health care I need and take my medication daily, I’m a crumbling mess unable to function and barely able to care for my family. BUT, if I do take my medications and am open about it, apparently it’s assumed I’m a drug-seeking liar out to get my hands on whatever pills I can. How do I win in this situation?

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Everything else, Grief, Writing

Prose, Pain, & Plans

 

There’s something about the change of seasons – especially the transition from summer to autumn – that ignites my  creativity. My brain slides from “yeah, on the weekends I work a bit on that next book” to “yeah, you need to stop sleeping for a few weeks because now we’re crocheting a couple of blankets and maybe a new shawl, sewing a coat, and writing three fiction novels. OH WAIT! NEW IDEA! Okay, now we’re also doing a non-fiction book about learning to live with grief.”

It’s been busy for me, which is probably a good thing, given I’m just about one month from the first anniversary of my brother’s death, and it seems every day assaults me with painful reminders. The last eleven months have probably been about the most agonizing ones of my life, and for a while there I wasn’t certain I was going to be able to get through it. I think I’ve been pretty open about all of that. Last year in August, before my brother was diagnosed, I would never have imagined the following months going the way that they would. So much changed in the blink of an eye. Last year in November, I wasn’t certain I would be able to function even minimally… like, ever again. At all.

Yet, here we are, nearly a year later. No denying it’s been rough. But there’s a lot of beauty, too. A lot of laughter. Much has changed, but change isn’t always terrible. During the crux of the worst of last winter – mentally, I mean – I went through sort of a manic phase where I couldn’t stop moving or creating. I feel as if maybe that was a way my brain was trying to protect itself, flooding every second with creativity. Ideas. Imagination. But it had gotten to a point where holding still, not creating every single second, physically hurt, and I don’t think that was a healthy extreme, either. I was productive, but exhausted.

I wrote and wrote and wrote. Released three books between November and May. And then, although I knew which books I wanted to focus on next, that frantic creative pace slowed way down over the summer, and I began to worry I would not be able to finish another book. Ever. To be honest, though, I generally go through some sort of phase like after writing furiously for a while. It just lasted longer this time, so it started to freak me out. But I’m in it again, now. Not quite the manic, frantic buzz of last winter when the bats had overtaken the belfry and were throwing nightly raves in it, but the typical creative rush I often fall into around the transition to autumn.

I was a little bit worried when I released The Knowing Child in May, because it turned out to be more angst-laden than the first two books. I wasn’t certain how it would be received, but as it happened, it appears to be a favorite amongst my Windy Springs readers. I had planned for the fourth Windy Springs book to be Knowing Rogan, a prequel of sorts featuring Rogan’s early life before he met Keisha. I knew how it would start and exactly how it’ll end, and what will probably happen in the middle, so I’ve been working along on that, though I wouldn’t say with much gusto until here lately. Then I took a break, moved on over to the aliens and turnips (yes) story I started a few years back and which is SO. CLOSE. to finishing, if I could just plow through these last few thousand words. However… a few weeks ago, Captain Dash started talking (as he is wont to do) and would NOT shut up. I thought, well, I’ll just scribble this down, as a jumpstart for later on when I start his book. But his words became a waterfall in my brain and I couldn’t make it stop. So I *might* have to switch the order of books four and five, and release Knowing His Madness first, though doing so will not alter any timelines at all. It’s just not what I expected to be doing.

and then –

And then I had a dream. I know that sounds wonky. But really, what even am I, if not wonky? Anyway. I dreamed the book I was writing was a collection of pieces I’d written on grief since my sister’s death a few years back. I’d asked in my FB group if there might be any interest in such a thing, and the response was surprisingly positive. I toyed around with the idea a bit, then just to sort of see, I started collecting bits and pieces of writings on the subject and lo and behold, I’ve already got about forty-thousand words. Tentative working title is Grief in my Pockets. I’d like to get it out around the holidays this year. We’ll just have to see how that plays out.

It’s awesome when the characters are “talking” as much as they are right now, and there’s so much I want to be writing. But the fact is, I work full time at the law firm, and I live with six other people (and three dogs. and several fish.) in a house that is not a  mansion. Even when I am at home and maybe have time to write, I have no office or really, any quiet space in which to do so which is not a complaint so much as a snippet of reality. So quite often I write sporadically in stolen moments – on my phone during my lunch break at work, or while waiting in the lobby of a doctor’s office, or standing in the kitchen while I’m making dinner. I’ve been aiming for a thousand words a day on any one of my current projects. Some days I hit it, some days I don’t, but that’s always my goal. When  I do finish, then it depends on my editor’s availability, and of course, my limited budget. Even if I finish all four books by the end of this year, there’ s no way I  can afford to publish them all at once. Still, though. I enjoy having all these stories living so vividly in my upstairs. It’s a curious sort of joy.

That’s where I’m at, for  the moment. I try to mention my plans now and again on all the different platforms, because I know a lot of folks follow me only in one spot on the vast web. I’m most consistently active in my FB group, which is a delightful mix of eclectic folks much like meself. That’s also where I do live videos and Q & A days, so if you’re interested in that sort of thing –

As always, I’m so thankful for the readers who share my blog posts, my book posts, my newsletters. Thank you for telling others about my work, and for reviewing (Yeah. I notice. Thanks.) Thank you for being excited about what I’m doing, and for sending me messages about how my writing has affected you. It means so much, and I absolutely could not do any of this without you. Onward.

 

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Mistaken Perfection

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For the longest time, the first thing I’d notice about any finished piece of art I’d made, be it something crocheted, sewn, hot glued, or written, were the mistakes.

Sixty-thousand perfectly perfect words in a novel, and I’d fixate on the two errors I found after publishing. Never mind that I’d given six months to a year over to the story, laughing, crying, feeling all the emotions right along with my characters. Never mind how much I loved the cover, or how many times readers told me they loved it. All I could see were those two errors.

I’ve been sewing for years, since my daughters were just tiny. Little dresses, blankets, Halloween costumes, Ren Faire garb. Mostly passable outcomes, too. Yet when people would compliment me on my son’s Captain Jack Sparrow or Mad Hatter costume, I’d cringe and say thanks, but look right there, I made a mistake on that part. I don’t know why I could never seem to say thanks, and then stop my mouth from running on. Or just enjoy the fact that the costume was obviously recognizable, which meant I’d done a decent enough job on it.

I can spend months crocheting an enormous blanket, and when it’s finished I can zero right in on the place I made one teeny error. One missed stitch. One half-double stitch where there should’ve been a double. Then every time I look at it, that’s all I can see. Literally thousands of perfect stitches, but all I can see is the one I messed up on.

I’ve really been working on not making self-deprecating remarks about myself or my work over the last year. Breaking that habit is hard. Being funny comes easily to me, and making fun of myself is even easier. I can find all sorts of things about myself to laugh at. Part of this is pointing out to others all the ways I am not good enough, and that includes my art. I don’t know where this knee-jerk reaction ever came from to begin with, but sometimes I don’t even realize I’m doing it until someone else points it out. Whether I’m throwing shade at my clothes, hair, or size; my books, shawls or blankets I’ve crocheted, clothes or costumes I’ve sewn, or what have you, I realized a while ago that every time I do this, I’m laughing on the outside but it cements the idea in my own head that I’ll never measure up to other people’s expectations. As a person who struggles with anxiety and depression, it’s just not a healthy thing to do to myself.

The first thing I worked at doing was learning to accept a compliment, which is for some idiotic reason really difficult for me. Sometimes now I say thanks and then actually have to bite my tongue in order to refrain from making some smart ass comment about myself. But at least I’ve made some improvement in that arena.

It’s even harder for me to be proud of my books. I’ve really been trying to accept compliments at face value. Sometimes I screenshot them so I can re-read them later when I feel like I lack any writing talent at all. It makes a difference. Recently, I’ve been trying a new tactic, and have been re-reading my own book series and instead of searching for any errors that might be in them, I’ve been making a point to focus on everything I got right. Those words that came together to make a beautiful, poignant mental picture. The emotions. I feel like I’ve been making some progress in this area, because I’ve actually been enjoying them. Like… really enjoying them.

This week, I tore apart some old peasant skirts and repurposed them into a frock-style coat of different colors and patterns. It’s funky, but it suits me, I think. I’ve got some events I’m planning to wear it to, and if nobody else likes it, that’s fine. Becauseam happy with how it turned out. I made it – no pattern. I made it, by myself, from an idea I had one day. I made it, I like it, and because of that, it has value, even if there are a couple of mistakes in it.

Mistakes happen. That’s part of life. It doesn’t mean the attempt is worthless. It means I did something I enjoyed, something I wanted to try, something that brought me a bit of sunshine as I worked on it.

There’s only one way to consistently avoid mistakes, and that’s to never try.

What a waste that would be.

What a loss of joy, of creativity, of education, of community, of art, of new beginnings.

What a waste of possibility. We’ve gotten it all backwards, I think.

It’s not perfection we should strive for. It’s the journey we take when we make something new. That’s the thing that matters most.

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Bits and Whatnots, Everything else, Grief

Poking Holes in the Oxygen Mask

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“In the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you. Place it firmly over your nose and mouth, secure the elastic band behind your head, and breathe normally. Although the bag does not inflate, oxygen is flowing to the mask. If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person.”

It can be difficult, living with an anxiety disorder. Some days I feel almost normal, and some days the anxiety monster is working in full force, overtime, like it’s going to get an extra week of vacation and a free turkey for Christmas if it just puts in a little extra effort. Some days things seems pretty good. Some days it seems like every part of my life is about to be entrenched in a crisis, only I have no idea what the crisis is going to be, so I just have to keep waiting for it to arrive.

Over the last year – and it’s been almost exactly that, almost exactly a year now, since my brain went to shit and my marbles fell all over the floor – and while my anxiety disorder may not be quite so outwardly visible now, it’s still alive and functioning. The medications I take daily do help, as well as the breathing exercises I learned in therapy and other self-help tools, such as visualization, meditation, removing myself from stressful environments, and delegating certain daily tasks to others so I am not quite so overwhelmed. One of the biggest things I struggle with as far as managing my anxiety is the constant onslaught of catastrophic news. It’s nearly impossible to get away from. I quit watching the news. I unfollowed any news pages on social media, months ago. It didn’t help. I unfriended and unfollowed people who can only seem to post about Every Terrible Thing Ever. I’ve muted and blocked multiple accounts. I click the ellipses above FB posts, then click to hide posts forever from that person or organization. I haven’t watched television in months. Not even reruns of The Office.

But it’s impossible to stay away from it entirely, regardless how hard I try. People are gleeful when they’ve got bad news to share. Believe me, I’m aware of what is going on in the world. I know. And yes, it is awful. Absolutely. I do my best to speak up. To be an ally. To advocate. But I cannot immerse myself in Every Terrible Thing Ever, not constantly. Not every day. Because I’m still trying to hang on to my brain with both hands.

And it matters. It matters that I keep myself doing okay.

Living with anxiety makes it difficult to reign in my worry. I’m already a worrier, by nature. Adding anxiety to that is like dumping lighter fluid on an already blazing fire. I’m over here trying to stop, drop, and roll, and the rest of the world is showing up with wagons full of matches.

Imagine a time when you had that fight or flight response activated. That moment you looked out and for a split second, couldn’t see your child in the yard. Or your beloved pet ran across the street and nearly got hit by a car. Or you woke from the most horrific nightmare, your heart hammering, palms sweating and shaking. For a few minutes, you couldn’t calm back down, even after you knew everything was all right. You’re jittery. Waiting for something awful to happen. Your  mind is racing with all sorts of terrible possibilities. Ten minutes go by. Half an hour. Your heart settles into its regular rhythm. Your hands are steady. It’s okay, now. Everything is okay.

When you live with an anxiety disorder, it doesn’t work that way. Even after you realize there is no longer a threat, that fight or flight response just keeps amping up. Hours can pass, and your heart is still hammering. Your hands are still shaking.  Your mind is coming up with all sorts of frightening scenarios. You’ve lost focus. Your legs are bouncing as you try to sit still. Tears prick the backs of your eyes. Long after the initial fear has passed, you might still end up with chest pain. A panic attack. Struggle to catch your breath.

Of course, you still have to work. Parent. Take care of your life. Drive. Buy the groceries. Walk the dog. Even when every nerve inside you has been pulled taught all day long and your body cries for rest.

Imagine waking up feeling this way every day. But you are determined to push through. You’re exhausted, but drag yourself to the shower. Fix your hair. Make it to work. You sit in the parking lot for twenty minutes, doing your breathing exercises. Thinking peaceful thoughts. Meditating. You’re going to focus on one good thing, you think. It’s a beautiful day. Okay. You’ll focus on that. Remember how the breeze feels. Remember the sunrise. Remember that fat white cloud shaped like a dragon. “Good morning,” you say as you enter the office. “Beautiful day out there, isn’t it?” You make yourself smile. Take another deep breath.

“Did you hear about the celebrity that died? Isn’t it awful?”

“I heard there was a flood, five children died, can you imagine?”

“Did you hear the business down the street caught fire? They lost everything!”

You try to block it out. Focus on work. But it’s already made it through your brain. Once again, your chest is tight. Breaths coming in short, shallow gasps. Your hands shake as you type. Your skin is crawling. Nausea hits.

You make it to your lunch break. Hope to distract yourself by scrolling Facebook.

DEATH! DESTRUCTION! SICK BABIES! NATURAL DISASTERS! IF YOU DON’T SHARE THIS POST YOU’RE A TERRIBLE PERSON!

You close the app. Put your phone away.

Stop for gas on the way home. Try to focus on something positive, even something tiny. But the pumps are now equipped with Gas Station TV, and there’s no way to get away from the cheerful voice describing all manner of terrible news.

So you make it home, exhausted. Dinner. Dishes. Fall into bed.

Can’t sleep, because you’re anxious. Still shaky. Headache. Another bout with nausea. Toss. Turn. Cry. Take deep breaths. Feels like your chest is caving in. Sit up. Focus on breathing. Legs are restless. Get up. Walk around the house in the dark. Get back in bed. Finally fall asleep. Have horrific nightmare revolving around death, destruction, sick babies, natural disasters, you’re a terrible person, imminent apocalypse. Wake shaking. Sweaty. A scream in your throat. Check the clock. Get up for work.

Start the entire cycle over again.

Existing with a brain like this is exhausting. And of course, it’s not that I expect the world to change because my brain is fucked up. But I hope others can understand when I need a break from the constant barrage of Every Terrible Thing Ever. And maybe if your loved one is living with an anxiety disorder, consider how your words might affect them.

People with anxiety aren’t sticking their heads in the sand. We’re just trying to survive. Some days feel like we’re running through a mine field, just trying to make it to the other side mostly intact.

On a flight, they tell you in an emergency, put your oxygen mask on first. It’s not because you don’t care about everyone else. But you won’t be any good to anyone – including yourself – if you don’t have oxygen. The onslaught of incessant Terrible Things is like poking holes in someone’s oxygen mask. Is it necessary? Is it helpful? No.

We’re just trying to breathe, man. Please let us.

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Unpatterned

It seems sometimes as if my brain is hardwired to do the opposite of what it’s told. Though I’ve never been one for conformity, I admit to occasionally wishing I could just make the easier choice. The path more often taken, I suppose.

But I can’t.

This holds true in the art I create, as well. There is a part of me that inherently resists following the pattern. Working inside the box, or whatever you want to call it. I’m more of an outside the box person, I guess. Some days I’m so far outside the box, I can’t see it anymore, not even if I squint real hard. It isn’t that I don’t recognize the value of following where others have trod before. I do. I think I was just born contrary. There’s something in my genetics that pushes me to look at what others are doing and say, “I’ll just figure it out my own damn self,” and that’s generally that. The path more often taken is cleared by thousands of footsteps, wide and easy to walk. I get right to the cusp of it, turn, and force myself through the brush, getting scrapes and knocking my knees on rocks all the way down. It might make a more difficult journey, but I feel more satisfied about what I’ve done, when it gets right down to it.

When I first learned to sew, I was taught how to carefully trim the flimsy pattern, iron it, and pin it to the fabric. It seemed like such a frustrating waste of time. Once I learned the basics, I taught myself to draw patterns on the backs of paper sacks. Of course, mistakes were made. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that I was doing it myself, learning, growing, figuring it out.

Although I am capable of following crochet patterns, I generally do not use them, and am so much more satisfied with the results when  I create a blanket, shawl, or other piece freeform.

I think I’m much the same way with writing.

Over Labor Day weekend, we took a trip to northern  Michigan, squeezing in some of my son’s senior picture shoots along the way. We stopped at my sister-in-law’s place one day for a visit and to snap some photos, as my brother’s family lives in a cabin that once belonged to my parents, and there was some sentimental value in posing him there. As I stood there with my friend who is the photographer, my mind slipped back in time for a few seconds, and I remembered watching my dad build the large wraparound porch that surrounds the cabin. “He did this with no instructions,” I blurt to my friend. “My dad, I mean. Did you know he built this porch? Bought the wood and did the entire thing himself, with no pattern.”

It really is a beautiful porch. He’d started the work after having both knees replaced. I can easily conjure memories of him kneeling – very slowly – measuring, figuring out his next move.  He probably shouldn’t have spent so much time working on his knees, given the surgeries. But he was nothing if not stubborn.

I might get that from him.

My son leans with his elbows on the porch rail and smiles for the camera. “He built my swingsets that way, too,” I say.

When I was very young, I had a standard swingset, green and yellow striped. Metal poles dug into the ground. Two swings with hard plastic seats. A plastic slide on one end. I cried when I woke up one morning and realized it had been taken out of the ground and loaded on my dad’s trailer. He explained that he was taking my swingset to his brother’s house, so my cousin could have it. I cried again. He promised he would build me an even better swingset.

He did. He started with two giant logs he cemented vertically in the ground. They were painted red. The swings were flat wood, wide, with long chains that took me so high in the air when I really got going that I sometimes worried I might flip right over the top. Instead of a slide, he built a sturdy wooden teeter-totter on one end and on the opposite end, a bar that hung from long chains, with springs at the top of each, so if I took off running from across the yard and grabbed the bar, it would bounce, bounce, bounce.

Years later, he built  another swingset. It  was behind the old cabin  up north, and he built  it for the grandkids. This time, he attached a twirly pool slide to  one end, and the kids had a blast with it. He even built a  little playhouse with its own metal roof. No instructions. I stood there, thinking about the bench swings he had built – I still have one in my front yard – the pole barn. All created from the blueprints he came up with on his own.

My grandmother, my dad’s mom, baked, sewed, and crocheted. I asked her once for her pie crust recipe, so I could try my hand at it. She gave me the oddest look and told me she didn’t use a recipe. Ever. I’ve thought and thought, and I can never recall her using a pattern for her crocheted blankets or quilts, either. But they were beautiful.

So this inherent stubborn streak, this bullheaded resistance to following the pattern, maybe I come by that naturally.

It might take me the longer way ’round. I might get a few more scrapes, make a few more mistakes. But the truth is, I enjoy doing it my own way. Over four decades through life, and I can’t see myself changing now. If anything, I’m more set in my contrariness. More determined to forge my way through the woods, while everyone else takes the smooth trail.

It might make for more of a struggle, but the view is so much better.

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Going, going… gone.

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It seems our life has become filled with pets to varying degrees. We’ve got three dogs now. My mom – who tolerated us kids having dogs when we were small but never enjoyed them on any level – has a dog. My daughter and her boyfriend have a 30 gallon tank filled with fish, including one named Ted who is pleasant enough as long as he’s fed regularly, but doesn’t mind gobbling up his small friends if the fish food sprinkles don’t arrive on time.

My brother was an avid animal lover, and couldn’t resist taking in one that was in need. Over the years he’d had cats, dogs, a parrot named Wilma, pygmy goats, rabbits, pigs, ducks, chickens, and I can’t even recall what all else. When he got sick last year, he had a cat and seven dogs. Realizing he was becoming too frail to be able to care for them, he made the heartbreaking decision to rehome some of them, including his own special dog, Beau. My daughter’s boyfriend had hoped to take Beau, but his landlord squelched that idea. However, a pastor friend of my brother’s offered to take Beau in, and that was nice, because he still had opportunities to visit with him on good days. They also had to rehome two of the chihuahuas, and their pit puppy, Jade.

They kept my sister-in-law’s tiny chihuahua, my nephew’s little shih Tzu, and their elderly family dog, Ellie Mae. The chihuahuas were able to find a new home together, which was great. Jade, the pit puppy, went to a friend’s home, and though she was hesitant at first, eventually recognized they were her new people and settled in.

I called my sister-in-law last night to wish her a happy birthday. It was her first one since we lost my brother, and I figured it’d be an especially difficult day for her. In the course of conversation, she mentioned how sad she was about Jade. The last I’d heard of Jade, she’d been doing well in her new home, so I asked what had happened. Apparently, the electrical wiring in the house caught fire, and though the couple were able to rescue their baby from the blaze, they were unable to reach Jade in time, and she perished in the fire.

Some of my brother’s dogs I’ve known since they were pups. I didn’t know Jade well and really had no connection to her. My brother’s family lives a couple of hours away, and Jade was just a baby dog when they had her, so I never got the chance to bond with her. But hearing she’s passed hurts me with a strange, sharp ache. It’s like another little piece of my brother has disappeared, and I hate it. It’s nobody’s fault. The fire was a tragic fluke, and I certainly don’t blame anyone for Jade’s death. Still and all, that pain is there.

Trying to hold on to all the memories is like holding my hand beneath a faucet and trying to catch all the water. Of course the memories are there, but there are so many, over so many years, that the more recent stuff gets shoved to the front. It makes me feel kind of frantic, like I’m losing my family all over again.

I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a book about living with grief. It would be a compilation of pieces I’ve written during and after the deaths of my siblings. I don’t know if anyone would actually read it, but it feels like it might be cathartic for me, and I like the idea of having a tangible something with these precious memories in it. I was reading through some of the posts from when my sister died a few years back, and came across one detailing the moment she left this earth. I had written that with four of her children there, and my mom, my aunt, my sister’s ex-husband and her two little dogs perched on her bed, there hadn’t been much space. I had grabbed on to my sister’s ankles as she took her last breaths. Just to touch her skin. So she would know I was there. It was the only part of her I could reach in the crowd.

I had forgotten that. Or maybe I didn’t forget, but the memory was shoved to the back, less urgent than the others.

I don’t want to forget those little things. I don’t want these tiny pieces to float away.

So I think I’m going to do it. Tentative working title is “Grief in my Pockets.”

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Off Days

You ever have those off days, where everything feels crooked? That’s me, today. I can’t seem to find my footing.

Its been a frustrating week with several personal & household battles, on top of three of the four cars (two belong to our daughters) needing some kind of work done. I left my vehicle at the mechanic’s last week for two days to get the alternator fixed, but instead of fixing that because they couldn’t find the problem, they fixed other things they found wrong to the tune of $400. Now the alternator is still having issues.

My husband has been sick and feverish for days, and he kept shivering. I noticed our house kept getting warmer yesterday but thought he must’ve turned off the air because he had the chills. Nope. Turns out, the A/C just quit working.

There was a modest vacation scheduled for next weekend, which unfortunately fell through.

This week, it seems everything I put my hand to fails. The vehicle. Housework. Yesterday I kept waiting for the water in the pot to boil, only to realize I’d turned the wrong burner on. The dryer kept getting on the wrong setting and not getting loads dry. This morning I typed and retyped and retyped a will, because I kept making the same stupid mistakes. I’m fortunate my boss is a patient person, because I’ve screwed up more ways today than I can count. And it’s not even afternoon yet.

My keyboard, printer, and mouse at work are all being absolute brats for no reason at all.

It feels like I’ve got bubble gum stuck in the cogs and gears of my brain.

I know that none of these things are a big deal in the grand scheme. It’s just cumulative irritation coupled with anxiety, but man oh man. I’m working on taking deep breaths and focusing on positives and I’ve even been messing this morning with what I call my “worry rocks”, little magnetic rocks I twirl in my hand when I’m anxious. It’s like that sensation when a tag in your shirt keeps bothering and bothering your skin, except I feel that way all over inside and out.

I am frustrated today, it seems, with everything that ever was or ever will be. But possibly most frustrated with the fact that my tossed salad doesn’t taste anything like a Snickers bar.

All that frustration has got to go somewhere, I guess. So I’m sitting in my car on my lunch break, venting on my blog.

 

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Ache.

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I hadn’t seen him in nearly two years. The last time was difficult. I had to leave his place before he even touched me. He apologized, but that’s how it had to be, and I tried to understand.

Yesterday I stopped by randomly. I’ve been in a lot of pain, and needed to know if his touch would help. I haven’t been able to sleep. My stress level is through the roof, and I needed… something. In the past, his hands have done for me what no other man’s hands could do.
The door slammed behind me. He looked up, and our eyes met.
I’ve changed my hair since last I saw him and it took him a second to recognize me. He was glad to see me. A bit startled, perhaps.
We didn’t talk much as he led me to his small back room. “Lie down,” he murmured. “On your stomach, first.” And I did.
He started out slowly, and I began to melt. Then he was rougher, and I felt a bit frantic. The pain was so intense I wanted to cry out, but bit my lip instead. Repeatedly, he slammed me against the bed. “Don’t stop,” I whispered. “More, more.”
He leaned over me, and in a deep, commanding voice said, “Turn over.”
I did. I always do what he tells me to do. It’s how our relationship has always worked.
He moved my hair so that the long curls hung off the edge of the bed and began to knead my tight neck muscles. I relaxed and let my head drop down. “Mmmnn,” I mumbled. His hands moved to my shoulders. I kept my eyes closed.
I felt the joints of his thumbs press against my ears, and tried not to panic. He cupped the back of my head in his hands. I breathed deep and slow, preparing for what I knew was coming. It was going to hurt, but it had to be done. He always insisted on it.
He pressed his palms against my head and twisted, hard.
I felt the crunching in my neck, so loud it seemed to echo across the room.
It startles me that I pay him to do this to me. Still, when we are finished, I hand over the cash. I assumed his rate hadn’t gone up in the two years I had stayed away, and he didn’t correct me.
When I left his place, I was sore and my entire body ached, but he told me to come back Thursday, and I am. Hopefully my shoulder is better by the weekend.
I missed not being able to see my chiropractor when I didn’t have insurance. He’s the only one who can work my bones this way.

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