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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Bits and Whatnots, Everything else

End the Stigma. Or Don’t.

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There are lots of trending hashtags about mental illness lately. #endthestigma. #thisiswhatanxietyfeelslike. #mentalhealthawareness. #mentalhealthmatters.

Talking about mental illness is trendy. Self-care is a hot topic.

People are tweeting about their experiences with mental illness. The medications they’ve taken. The therapies they’ve sought.

We’re told now is the time to be open about our struggles. To reach out for help and support. People are more accepting now than they were in the past. Admitting you have a mental illness isn’t as taboo as it once was.

Except.

Except when you talk about your struggles with mental health openly, and people automatically assume it means you’re violent.

Except when an admission of mental health treatment makes others so uncomfortable they leave the room.

Except when the first thing said about every school shooter is that they were mentally ill. When ten seconds after the news of another shooting breaks, there are claims the shooter was taking SSRIs. Or has taken them in the past.

And someone looks at you and asks, “Isn’t that the medicine you take?”

Except when friends ask if you aren’t afraid of “getting addicted to that medicine.”

Really, Susan, I’m no more afraid of being addicted to  Zoloft than I am of being addicted to my asthma inhaler. If I need it, I need it.

In sum, it’s a new era. People no longer need to be ashamed about struggling with their mental health.

Be proud! (wait no not that proud)

Be open. It’s the only way to start the conversation. Just… you know. Not that open.

It’s kind of hip now to talk about depression. But mostly the depression that hits you after your dog dies and you cry and eat six gallons of ice cream and you feel sad for a while and then you remember all the good times and you get outside and get some sun and then you’re fine.

That’s the comfortable kind of depression people want to hear about.

Nobody wants to hear about lacking the energy to shower. Or get dressed. Or roll out of bed for three days straight. Nobody wants to hear you need a combination of four medications to make your brain work well enough to function at a minimal level. Nobody wants to hear you can’t make basic decisions or remember how to get started washing a stack of dirty dishes.

When I’m open enough with someone to flat out state that my brain went to shit for about six months of the last year, people avert their eyes. Tell me I’m exaggerating and I’m fine. Ask how much longer I’m going to keep taking these medications (probably forever tbh). Can’t I just take a vitamin that would do the same thing? Or talk loudly over me about a completely different topic (all righty then, point taken). Sometimes they get up and walk out of the room.

Last fall, when I abruptly realized I was definitely not okay, I was honest. I told the people around me, “I am not okay. My brain is not okay.”

Mostly the response was, “Of course you’re okay. You’re fine.”

But I wasn’t. I really, really wasn’t.

When I say I’m in therapy and seeing a psychiatrist I feel like I automatically need to follow that statement up with an assurance that I don’t own a gun, actually wouldn’t know how to operate one, am pretty much a pacifist, and feel guilty if I inadvertently step on a worm and hurt it. I am whatever you want to call the opposite of violent. Listen, all I want to do is make sure everyone is warm and safe and has enough Reese’s peanut butter cups to last the weekend.

Mentally ill is not a synonym for evil or violent.

Until we stop using it as such, all the hashtags in the world aren’t going to make mental health an easier topic to discuss.

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Everything else, Writing

Feast or Famine

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Writing is weird. Sometimes difficult. Often joyous.

But always weird.

My brain seems to function on a feast or famine basis when it comes to writing. Right now, I’m writing and writing and even when I’m not writing… I’m still writing. The story is moving along in my mind, I’m hearing the characters, I know exactly where it’s going and where it’s been and where it will be in another five years.

When I’m in this mode, it feels more like I’m a vessel for the characters in my head and I’m more or less transcribing their story. I’m less the puppet master and more the marionette. I love it. Regardless what time of day I’m able to sit down and write, it’s there, right at my fingertips, ready to roll. But it isn’t always this way. Some days, my brain is dry as a desert. Some days, I spend three hours moving a comma. Some days, I can’t stand to even look at my laptop.

And that’s okay.

Social media can be cool, in the sense that it feels as though it brings us closer to those we admire. I mean, twenty years ago I would never have known what Stephen King thought about the president or that he has a dog he calls the Thing of Evil. I would never have known when Diana Gabaldon had a new grandbaby. But as I pull back more and more on social media, as I unfollow and unfriend more and more writers, I find I’m enjoying the act of writing more and more.

I wondered why that was.

Presumably, following and friending other writers should make me feel surrounded by a community of like-minded artists. Supported. Encouraged.

I haven’t found that to be the case.

As much as I love art, as much as I love words and books and writing, as much as I love seeing the creativity of my friends’ minds coming to life, the more I watch their journeys taking shape –

the more I realize other writers stress me out.

Not all of them, of course. I’ve made some wonderful friends over the last few years. But the ones who post obsessively about writing – I find that stressful.

The ones who constantly post how stressed out writing makes them – I find that stressful.

The ones who constantly want something from me – stressful.

The ones who talk about missing out on milestones in their children’s lives, or their wedding anniversary, or their eighty-year-old mother’s birthday party because they were writing or trying to make a deadline or just couldn’t stop editing –

Man, just the thought of these things stresses me out.

Don’t get me wrong. I love writing. I mean, I love writing. When I’m in that zone, when I’m planning twists, when I’m cracking up at a funny scene I’ve written, it’s the best feeling. It makes me feel whole. It’s my passion, one of my greatest joys.

I don’t want it to become one of my stressors. I’ve done the whole writing full-time gig before. I didn’t enjoy it. I felt like I was supposed to. I began to dread writing. I felt anxious that my bills being paid depended on my ability to write enough words in a day.

I see this in other writers as well. When they talk about writing being so stressful they cry over it. When they are so panicked over a deadline or a cover reveal or getting enough reviews they can’t sleep. They are missing out on life because of the stress writing brings to their life. They’ve lost the joy, the passion, the pure wonder of creating a world and people and events in their brain. I don’t want that. I get asked if I hope to make the NYT bestseller list –

the answer is no.

I get asked if I hope to  be able to live on what I make from writing books –

the answer is no.

I get asked if writing is the most important thing in my life –

the answer is no.

Last week, I attended a funeral visitation for a three-year-old child and her twenty-seven-year-old father.

A three-year-old child.

Listen:

I love to write. I’m sad when I can’t. It hurts – physically hurts me when I can’t.

But there is so much more to life than writing.

This year marks twenty-five years since I married my husband. My marriage is more important than writing.

My youngest baby is about to celebrate his sixteenth birthday. A blink of time ago, he was a chubby-cheeked, toothless baby. My oldest child is nearing the end of her Bachelor’s degree program. My middle two children are finding their balance in life as young adults.

I love to read. I love to write. I love to hold the books I’ve created in my hands.

But I don’t love any of that more than I love my kids.

When other writers say things like, “Nothing is more important to me than writing” –

that stresses me out.

Lately I’ve unfollowed or unfriended the bulk of writers I used to interact with. Not the ones I have developed actual friendships with.

And I mean… not Stephen King. Because, obviously.

There is a lot of pressure on writers and artists in general, I think – a notion that says if you don’t want to be the best, be at the top of the list, have bajillions of reviews and followers, then you just don’t want to succeed hard enough.

Maybe. Maybe not.

I guess that depends on what your personal idea of success happens to be.

I accepted a long, long time ago that my brain works differently than other people’s brains do. What I cannot accept is the idea that if I’m not out to make a million, it’s worthless. If I’m not ignoring my family and making writing my number one priority, it’s worthless. If I’m not stressing myself to the breaking point or making my livelihood reliant on it, it’s worthless.

I’m content with my writing at this point. I have a little band of readers who love what I’m doing, who are invested in my characters and have all my books on their shelves. I love not freelancing anymore. I enjoy not being so constantly stressed over deadlines. I am happier writing this way. I’m not making a million dollars. That’s fine – I never intended to.

My vision of success is to continue to write my weird books to the best of my ability for the foreseeable future. I will do what marketing and promo I’m able to do, and let it rest. I trust that the people who need my books will find them.

What I won’t do is be a martyr for my art. I won’t give up everything else in my life for the sake of writing.

I love to read. I love to write. I love making books.

I also love my family. I love to walk barefoot in the grass, and look up at the stars. I love  to sit still and ferret out the meaning behind song lyrics. I love to listen to the rain. I love to hear my children laugh. I love to crochet. I love to try new things. I love to hear my husband tell me about his hopes and dreams. I love to look back at how far we’ve come and think about how far we’re going to go. I love to daydream.

I love to write, and while some days, it feels like my ideas and ability to write is feast or famine –

I don’t believe my dedication to the craft always needs to be one or the other.

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Bits and Whatnots, Everything else, Grief

One Step Forward. Three Hundred Sixty Four Steps Back.

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People who know me keep asking if I’m feeling better.

I’m never sure how to answer that question.

What exactly is “better?”

Better from grief? From depression? Anxiety? I don’t know. It’s all tangled up in me and I can’t always pull the different emotions apart.

If the question is, Have you gotten over the deaths of your siblings? Then the answer is no, and I never will, so you might as well stop asking.

If the question is, Are you making any progress at all? Then the answer is, Yeah, I think so.

It feels like I am. In really, really, miniscule ways, I’ve made some progress. For a long time, I felt so raw I could barely stand most of my clothes, so it’s been leggings and soft shirts  most of the winter. But the last few weeks, I’ve been able to wear jeans.

Last Thanksgiving, I hosted the family dinner. My niece brought a turkey. It was too heavy to pull out of the oven, so I transferred much of the juice to a big Mason jar. I set it on the windowsill above the kitchen sink. I’ve been looking at that jar for months, disgusted with myself for not taking care of it, but too exhausted and overwhelmed to deal with it. Two weeks ago, I dumped it out and washed it.

Three weeks ago, as I was walking out the front door to take my boys to school, my youngest son said something funny and I heard myself laughing. Like, really laughing out loud. Hard. And I thought to myself, Oh my God, I’m laughing. How long has it been since I laughed last?

My therapist says she’s proud of me. I wonder how I got to a place in my life where it means so much for a therapist to tell me she’s proud of me for doing simple things like leaving my house or washing the dishes.

I’ve gone to dinner at a couple of smallish restaurants without having an anxiety attack. I told the psychiatrist I’ve been seeing about the anxiety attacks that hit when I’m in crowds and she told me to breathe into a paper sack. So that was just phenomenally unhelpful. Glad I’m getting charged nearly $200 for that bit of advice.

Still can’t watch television or read much. I’ve found a few more musicians I can tolerate the sound of, so my playlist has gotten slightly more diverse, but I still listen to the same songs every day. I have no idea what it is about these artists that makes their music tolerable, but for the moment, I’m just glad I can listen to any music at all.

But it feels like in more ways than I’m moving forward in, I’m stumbling back. Anxiety makes me more awkward than usual, and the usual is pretty damn awkward already. I work in a very small office, usually with three other people that I know pretty well. I have my own desk in a room with two other desks, but there’s usually nobody else there when I’m working. So I walked in last Thursday to find a new person had been hired. She seems entirely pleasant, but I was caught off-guard. I couldn’t think of what to do, anxiety had my brain all jumbled up, and even in the best of times, I’m not huge on hugging, especially with people I don’t know. But the new chick is a hugger, so she jumped up to hug me hello and introduce herself. Entirely inadvertently, I jumped backward and flung my hand out like “stop.” Immediately, I attempted to apologize and shook her hand, babbling incoherently about my own inadequacies and anxieties, and generally making the situation even more awkward. Anxiety ballooned this incident in my mind until it was nearly all I could think about. At the end of my shift, as I was walking out, I thought, I need to make this right so it’s not super awkward next week. So I stopped to shake her hand again as I left, and said the most inane thing I probably could have. “Sorry I’m so awkward, but I’m seeing a psychiatrist about it.”

I’m sure that helped matters. First impressions and all that.

My husband surprised me with a night away at a hotel and planned a night at a casino. He said I seemed overwhelmed and needed a break, which was true. The hotel part was awesome but the casino was crowded and smoky and I had to take frequent breaks from the people. I wrote part of my new book out on my phone while my husband played games, so I didn’t have to interact with anyone. The next day was release day for When Knowing Comes, and as I’d decided to go low-key and stress-free as possible, I’d planned a live video in my FB readers group for the event. We came home twenty minutes before the video was to start. My laptop decided to do updates at the last second, which left me in a panic. The FB app on my phone wouldn’t work for no apparent reason. Finally I grabbed my husband’s phone, downloaded FB, and started my live video twenty minutes late, which left me out of breath, anxious, and shaky.

I find I just really need a lot of preparation before I do anything. Time to work up courage. I hate feeling this way. It isn’t what I’m used to and I get frustrated with myself for not being able to get back to “normal.” Which, okay, with me is still pretty weird but even so. I used to be able to roll with the punches when plans changed. I want that part of me back.

Some days, I am anxious all day for no apparent reason. It feels like that sensation when you tip over the top of a rollercoaster hill, all day. All night. And I can’t link it to anything in particular, so I can’t fix the problem and by the time evening comes, all I can think about is going to bed so I can escape that feeling. Going to bed because you’re tired is a very different thing than going to bed because you can’t stand being awake anymore. Either way, though, I wake up over and over and over. I can’t remember what a solid night of sleep feels like.

But on the upside, I’m having less nightmares about my family and pets dying in front of me. So I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.

I’ve pulled back more on social media. I’ve unfollowed or left all the groups I was in except my own readers group. Weekly, I cull more “friends.” I’ll continue paring down until I get to what I feel is a manageable number. I understand it hurts people’s feelings, but right now all I can do is try to take care of my brain the best I can. My focus has narrowed to my household, my mom, my job, and writing.

And speaking of writing.

I’m writing. A lot. For so many months, I couldn’t write anything, and that was painful for me. Now, I can’t seem to stop. I’m nearly finished writing the third Windy Springs book, and my mind races with ideas for the fourth.

A lot of the time I feel like all I’m doing is treading water. But hey, at least I’m not drowning anymore.

One step forward. Three-hundred-sixty-four steps back.

But still, a step forward is a step forward. And even one step is better than none.

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Everything else, Writing

Blocked.

 

 

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Writers block isn’t real.

It’s just an excuse to be lazy.

Real writers write. Every day.

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably heard some version of these statements. I’m not sure what the people offering this non-advice hope to achieve, but personally, I think such words are extraordinarily detrimental.

For one thing, nobody gets to tell an artist how to do their art. Some people naturally create more in certain seasons. Some artists work a day job (or two, or three) and only get to be creative on weekends. Or every third Thursday. Some artists are single parents, and the idea of creating on a daily basis is so laughable as to be fiction.

Beyond these things, though, is the harmful notion that a struggling person just isn’t trying hard enough. There are all sorts of reasons a creator might be blocked. Maybe they’ve been ill. Maybe there’s been a death in their family. A divorce. Maybe the season of life they are in has them caring for elderly parents around the clock. Depression. Anxiety. Insomnia. Maybe there’s no reason other than that they need a break, and their brain is trying to get that message through to them.

Real writers write. That’s true. You’ve got to write something. You don’t need to write every day, unless that’s the way you work. Pressing unrealistic expectations on someone already barely keeping their head above water isn’t helpful. Despite the overwhelming amount of advice suggesting writers are machines, meant to work every day, all day, without regard to physical or mental health or other difficult outside factors –

You know what? We’re not.

We’re just people. And sometimes being a person is hard. Sometimes the difficulties in life kill our creativity. That doesn’t mean it’s gone forever. That doesn’t mean we’re no longer writers. It means we’re human beings who need a break. And that’s okay.

Take it. Rest. Go outside. Deal with the things you need to deal with. Read. Learn something new. Spend time with your family. Your friends. Laugh. Cry. Heal.

And come back to it. Your story isn’t going to run away because you left it alone for a little while.

If you aren’t a writer but you know one, and they’ve shared with you that they are blocked, telling them they are making up excuses or being lazy isn’t helpful. Instead, encourage them. Remind them they deserve rest like anyone else.

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Bits and Whatnots, Everything else, Writing

The Books that Grew Me

 

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I can’t recall I time I wasn’t a voracious reader. As far back as my memory allows me to go, I had a book (or two) in my hand. And a spare one in the car. And probably another one hidden somewhere for just in case.

I read all the books that were popular in that time frame, of course. Sweet Valley High. R.L. Stine. Babysitter’s Club (always envisioned myself as Claudia). There was an author by the name of Zilpha Keatley Snyder (isn’t that a fantastic name?) whose books I loved. But the ones that caught my attention and held it for years and years were the books by L.M. Montgomery.

I think I started reading the Anne of Green Gables series around sixth or seventh grade. I had a group of girlfriends who read along with me, and we would discuss the stories at length in the school cafeteria. I’ve thought about what it was about these books in particular that captured my adoration so swiftly, and it took me a long while before I came to the conclusion it was Anne herself. Even at a young age, I identified with her inner struggle – she wanted to conform, do what was expected of her, make everyone happy. But she simply couldn’t be anyone other than Anne. She saw the world in a different way than everyone else, and I felt that right through to my marrow, even before I had the ability to articulate it.

My copy of the first book in the series has been read so many times the spine is cracked, the cover gave up the ghost decades ago, and the top corners of all the pages curl in. It’s beautiful. I kept them all – all the Anne books, all the Emily of New Moon books, all the off shoot books – in the hopes that one day my children would fall in love with them the way I did. That didn’t happen, though. Still, I keep them. I like knowing right where they are. Those books were such a huge part of my growing up years. I haven’t read them in probably close to two decades. Maybe longer. Yet I remember sentences from the books.

“Well now,” said Matthew. “Well now.”

“I wouldn’t give a dog I liked to that Blewett woman,” Matthew said.

“People laugh at me because I use big words. But if you have big ideas, you have to use big words to express them, haven’t you?” (oh, how I identified with poor Anne in this regard.)

“The world calls them its singers and poets and artists and storytellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland.”

“Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.”

I’ve never watched the shows that sprung from this series. I couldn’t. In general, I can keep the two mediums separate. And I realize it would be unfair to expect a show to exactly reflect the scenes that I’ve held in my mind all these years like personal little treasures. So I avoided them altogether.

The years I first fell in love with the Anne books were the same years I first started messing around with writing, so the two experiences are forever tangled together in my mind. I had always loved words, but those books showed me how the perfect phrase could conjure a clear picture in the imagination of the reader. How a fictional character could stay with a person for years after they’d read about them. They taught me about the impact words could have on a life. To have known and loved these books so long ago – and still – is a gift. I cannot imagine being a writer now if I had never stumbled on those books back then.

It’s mind blowing to think the words of a woman who died more than thirty years before I was born had such a powerful influence on my life. But isn’t that what good art does? Its reach surpasses things like time. It connects us, generation after generation.

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Bits and Whatnots, Everything else, Grief

Can’t Go Over It. Can’t Go Under It.

 

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It seems simplistic to say that life is often like the children’s song, “Going on a Bear Hunt.” But like many things, I guess, we learned as children, it’s become a solid truth in adulthood.

With life comes much joy. We drink it up. We hold it tight.

With life comes much pain. We want to avoid it. We shrink away from it. We try to numb it in any number of ways. But the reality is, we have to go through it. Even when we know what we have to do, we run from the pain. It doesn’t work, though.

There’s no way over it. There’s no way under it. No way around it. I’ve watched people numb the pain. Avoid dealing with it. What happens is, they get stuck. No matter how you numb yourself, at some point, you’ll start to feel again. Then you have to decide whether you’re going to numb yourself again, or deal with the pain. Those that keep it numb are just spinning their wheels. They never fully go through it, so they can never get to the other side. Years can pass. A lifetime can pass. And still, there they are, trapped in a bubble of agony while the world goes on without them.

It’s scary to face it. I know it is. Standing in the void, peering into a dark, empty place. Unsure if there  might be sun on the other side. Unsure if it’s worth it to try to find out.

The ground is tilted. Your soul is crooked. It seems like pushing through the darkness will be too much. It might be safer to remain in the void, with your crooked soul and tilted earth. You know how to exist there. It might be cold and lonely, but you’ve gotten used to it. Reaching for a light you aren’t sure will be there is a gamble.

What if you get all the way through and find it isn’t there? Then what?

Facing the darkness, facing the pain, will be worth it. It will hurt, and it’s normal to want to run from that. But refusing to deal with it keeps the wound open. It can’t heal until it’s dealt with head on.

You can do this. Brace up. Stare into the inky blackness. Know you are worth finding the sun again.

Can’t go over it. Can’t go under it. Can’t go around it.

Just dive in.

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