Everything else, Writing

On Writing Strong Women

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

True strength is exhausted persistence, nothing more.

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

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Everything else, Writing

Spark of Recognition

 

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

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

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Everything else, Grief, Writing

Prose, Pain, & Plans

 

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

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

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

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

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

and then –

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

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

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

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

 

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Unpatterned

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

But I can’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I might get that from him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Going, going… gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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Everything else, Grief

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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Everything else, Grief

Milestone Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s the milestone days that hurt the most.

It’s the milestone days that mean the most.

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

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Everything else, Writing

Rebellious Creativity

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

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

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

(The parallel, as promised.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

However.

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

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

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

No, seriously. Explain it.

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