Everything else, Writing

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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Everything else, Writing

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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Everything else, Grief, Writing

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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Bits and Whatnots, Everything else

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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Bits and Whatnots, Everything else, Writing

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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Growth. Joy. Writing.

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I feel like I’ve been fairly transparent – especially recently – about my writing journey. My goals, my hopes, my truth. While my mindset may not be shared by many, I find the longer I stay over here on my own little quiet dirt road, the happier I am with my writing and where it is going.

As I’ve said, a while back I made the decision to write for myself. I removed myself from the idea of competition, of writing toward any “trends”, and of doing things other people tell me I “must” do in order to succeed at this art. I will not stick to writing one genre. I will not change my vision for my books to fit whatever is popular in the moment.

This decision was made, in part, by the losses of my siblings. Losing beloved family members at such young ages really drives home the notion of mortality. Life is so extraordinarily brief. Why would I take the thing that brings me such joy – writing books – and make myself miserable with it, just because that’s what I feel pressured to do?

So I quit. Quit attempting to meet anyone else’s expectations. I have to say, it’s turning out pretty well for me so far.

In the last fifteen months, I’ve put out four books – three novels, one collection of short stories. I’ve an e-book releasing shortly and two new books in the works, one very close to completion. I’ve sought and received my author rights regarding Slither and my super chick short stories that were in an anthology. Slither has been re-released as my own indie book, and the super chick stories will be re-released on their own soon enough.

I’ve been hawking my books at Ren Faire for five years now. This year was by far the best season, ever. Honestly, I sold so many books I had to emergency-order another box of them for the last weekend. I met so many new readers! It was amazing. One young woman even came up from Ohio just to meet me (ME!) and have her copy of Consumption signed.

I’ve spoken recently with someone who has interest in turning one of my short horror stories into an indie film. Opportunities have been turning up around every corner, it seems like. One of the things I’ve been doing over the last year is writing down my nightmares, just to sort of get them out of my head. After a particularly odd one a couple of months ago, I posted it on Facebook as a weird little story. The publisher of the Halloween Machine magazine noticed it and asked if I would be interested in publishing it in the summer edition of their magazine, which is pretty damn cool. It released this week. You can find my creepy nightmare under Auntie Val’s Story Time.

Learning to manage my anxiety has been a struggle since my brother died, and I’ve really been focusing on ways to remove extra stressors from my life. One of the things I decided to change is how many book events I’m going to do each year. I’m invited to several, and even though I have fun with them, they are exhausting and sometimes stressful. I intended this year to only do April Ghoul’s Day and then Ren Faire; however, I’ve decided to do one more this fall. I’ll be at the Flint Film Fright Fest in Flint, MI on October 27th. It really does look fun, and it’s only one day. I think I can handle it. I’ve ordered new business cards – I actually ran out of them at Ren Faire! – and a new banner for the occasion.

I guess what I wanted to convey with this post is this: it isn’t wrong to do things your own way. We don’t all need to fit into the prescribed size and shape of what others perceive as “successful.”

Figure out what success means to you, and adjust accordingly.

Life is too brief to live it for anyone else. Follow your own arrow, wherever it points.

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The Burden of the Beast

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I forget sometimes. Even though I know the beast; in fact, have known it now, for  many years, I forget. It comes slowly. Quietly. I watch for it, I memorize its stealthy steps. I plan ahead, how to handle an attack.

I feel its breath on my neck, its heavy weight on my back. I ignore it. I fight it. I run from it.

Still. The beast comes.

It comes in the night, invading my dreams with visions of grotesque accidents, twisted bodies, loss after loss after loss. Some mornings I write the nightmares out in a spiral notebook, just to get them out of my head. Sometimes the dreams are so terrible, I cannot bear to conjure even a faded image of them on paper. Me – a fantasy and horror writer who delights in writing about gristle and blood and death.

The nightmares are too much, even for me.

It’s inside me, pulling my nerves so taught they vibrate. Leaving me so agitated, my skin begins to itch. I absently scratch at my arm or leg and BAM – oh, hives.

This pattern repeats so often, I should know it like I know the back of my hand. Still, it catches me off guard.

Clenching stomach. Headaches. Fatigue.

Why am I so tired? I whisper to myself as my eyes flutter shut in the middle of a workday.

Why am I so tired? I ask my husband, when the alarm goes off in the morning and I feel like I haven’t slept at all.

Why am I so tired? Over and over and over.

And then I remember. The beast.

When people think about anxiety, they often imagine the five second panic attacks shown on television. Watch the character swallow a Xanax. There, now. All better. Life goes on.

The reality is that anxiety is so much more. It affects the entire body. It affects sleep. Work. Hobbies. It affects eating. The ability to relax.

Anxiety affects everything. It is fucking exhausting. I know it, yet I keep forgetting. Every time. I get so frustrated with myself.

It’s been mentioned to me that I seem to be “dwelling.” I don’t feel like I’m dwelling. In fact, I feel like I’m fighting to keep pushing forward. Some days are really difficult, but still, I get up. I work. I write about grief, depression, and anxiety quite a bit, that’s true. Not because I’m dwelling on my losses – because I’m still working on processing them. It’s not an experience to get over, but an experience to learn to live with. I am still learning.

Sometimes words come to me and I feel compelled to get them out of my head. This happened a few days ago, so I put them out as a Facebook status. I got quite a bit of feedback on that post, people messaging to tell me they felt the same way, or thanking me for the words. I’m going to share them here, as well:

“There will be times in life when it feels so cold and dark you think you can’t take one more step. This is it – the one thing in life you just can’t get through.
But you can. I know you think you can’t, but you can.
Right this minute, you may be in the coldest, darkest ditch, overwhelmed by the wind that threatens to topple you.
Please take this knowledge and hold it tight; bury it deep in your heart –
The sun will shine for you again. One day, you will hear yourself laugh and be startled by the sound of it, but recall what a beautiful feeling it is to laugh. One day you will be struck by the simple beauty of a butterfly or a newly blossomed flower. One day there will be words in a random song on the radio that strike a sense of recognition through your soul, and you will know that somewhere, someone else has felt the same way you feel, and it will spur you forward.
Take these tiny moments in. Allow them to be a balm for your raw edges.
The sun will shine for you again.
You just have to keep getting up.”

These words encompass my feelings over the last year. It has been dark. Some days, it still is. But colors are becoming bright again. Music is enjoyable again. There are tiny moments in each day where I feel grateful to be breathing. Grateful for my life. I can create. I can laugh.

Some days, the beast still comes. Even in happiness. Even when I’m determined to enjoy myself. Even when I focus on peace.

I believe this is my new normal. I can accept that. The more I get up, the more I choose joy, the more I create, the smaller the beast becomes. But I’m not certain I will ever be free of it.

I can live with that. I am strong and can carry that burden. And on days that I can’t, I’ve learned to ask others to help me bear it.

In the middle of October last year, we drove my brother and his family to Nashville. It was his wish after we learned of the severity of his diagnosis. On the drive back to Michigan, he wanted to stop in Kentucky at the Mammoth Caves. He remembered our parents taking us there when we were small, and he wanted his son to share in that experience. As it happened, after several busy days in Nashville and the drive to the caves, my brother was too ill to do the tour, but he insisted we take his son and go.

We honored that wish. It was an eerie feeling, stepping down into that cavern. Our group was maybe twenty people, I’d guess, plus the tour guide. We walked cautiously in the dim light, turned a corner, and lined up, as the guide requested, along a sturdy rail so he could tell us about the history of the caves. Part of the way through, the guide asked everyone to put their cell phones away. Then he turned off the remaining lights.

The darkness was overwhelming. I could hear breathing all around me, but saw nobody. Not even my hand in front of my face was visible. Logically, I knew we were safe enough. But after several silent seconds in that blackness, my heart began to pound. Icy fingers of fear crept up my spine. The beast was there, pressing down on me, shortening my breaths.

But then I remembered, we were really just a few feet underground. If I held the rail and followed it back the way we had come, in less than a minute, I’d be back outside in the light.

The sun had not disappeared. I’d just moved away from it.

With that knowledge, the burden of the beast lessened.

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When the Wind Comes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Battle Scars

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

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