Craving Simplicity

One of my big takeaways from Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig, which I talked about a little in January, is that our minds crave simplicity. Perhaps this isn’t universal, but in the chaotic and constant bombardment of ads, information, and opinions available to us, I find this to be true for me. Clean lines, fewer items, and a tidy environment are ways simplicity benefits me. And simplicity is also one of my goals in taking care of my mental health. 

When on the way out the door one morning, I pulled open the pantry doors to grab my lunch box. But something was amiss. The reusable grocery bags, all stuffed down inside each other, weren’t sitting neatly in their place, but knocked aside and lumpy. Upon closer inspection, I found that two gallon-size jugs of water were half pushed into same space as the grocery bags, and they had each leaked onto the floor. 

Simplicity allows me focus my attention elsewhere until there’s a problem. Then it’s a lot easier to see when there’s a problem. 

I had some minor but annoying health troubles this month, and I let myself sort of get back to basics in the way I’m physically caring for myself. I had to keep up with meds and call pharmacies and make more and more appointments. So when those things weren’t going on, I relished just being able to focus on 3 simple basics: food, water, and sleep. I decided that if I’m taking care of myself in these three areas, problems will be easier to deal with. 

Of course, within these 3 basics are a host of related possibilities and issues, many of them tied together with my mental health. Matt Haig makes the point in his book that our bodies are not machines housing our minds, but intimately connected to how we experience and process and respond to the world. 

And, when I feel rundown and unmotivated, when work is a struggle and so is getting out of bed, I turn to these three points with some questions.

  • Am I eating vegetables? (I had some last night! Before that…a few days.) 
  • Am I drinking enough water? (No.) 
  • Am I sacrificing sleep for something I can control? (Yes.) 
  • How can I eat better? (Cook regularly with Tyler.)
  • How can I drink more water? (Set reminders.)
  • How can I sleep better? (Replace reading on my phone before bed with reading a physical book.) 

I once had brunch with a friend and her two roommates, all three of whom were in medical school. When one of them announced she had a headache, they cheerfully diagnosed the possible reasons for it (dehydration, hunger, lack of sleep, lack of caffeine) and recommended by consensus the treatment that would address the most possibilities and therefore most likely lead to relief (coffee; we would be eating soon anyway). 

I found this conversation fascinating, in part because I was hearing them do out loud about a headache what they would soon be doing as doctors: diagnosing and prescribing treatment. Also, they loved it. All three of them were enthusiastic about getting to the bottom of things, solving the mystery and righting the ship. And my friend with the headache, who might have done all this diagnosis work by herself, was open to the questions and feedback and suggestions of her friends. Finally, I was enthralled because the causes of a complaint I so often have myself were so basic: food, water, sleep. (And, for them, a 4th possibility based on the substance they were all addicted to: caffeine.) 

My headaches are often do to dehydration or lack of sleep. Just knowing that helps tremendously. If I’m taking care of myself in those ways, when I get a migraine as a result of a change in barometric pressure or allergies, I don’t waste time trying to rule out the three simplest causes with treatments that won’t work.

Which isn’t to say I do this perfectly. I don’t always do it well. But it is a helpful strategy and another way simplicity can help me. 

Minuet, Goodbye

I lost someone. I lost something significant. For a lot of complicated reasons, I’ve given up on the book I spent the 8 years, 1 month, and 1 day writing. And rewriting. And rewriting again. I couldn’t ever seem to make it work. And just recently, a news event changed the context in which my book would have been read. And because of that, my book, my idea, my characters’ journeys, don’t have a place in the world anymore. A real story has supplanted it, changed the landscape for the type of story I was telling. So I’m bowing out and laying my story down.

I’m not going to explain further. I’m not going to change my mind. I don’t want anyone to try to talk me out of it or to tell me that I learned a lot. I know the time wasn’t wasted, though I have felt that at times. I know I grew tremendously. I know how much joy writing and rewriting this book brought me. And it still sucks.

I’ve felt this was coming for a while. I tried to work around it. I consulted my best friend and long-time writing partner, the only person I’ve shared this story and these characters with. She gave me the writing prompt from which it all came to start with. And after I laid it all out, she reluctantly agreed with me.

Thinking about my characters, imagining their scenes and stories and voices, is habitual for me now. My playlists and Pinterest boards are full of references to them. I’ll miss them. And I’ll miss what they represented. I thought they’d be the start of my professional writing career. Something my parents could read and understand me better, somehow. I believed in my idea so much, for over eight years. It was my safe place. And now…

Now, putting them away leaves my writing life wide open. And uncertain. For years, I’ve kept a bright pink post-it on my desk at work, saying simply: “I am a writer. I write books.” Monday morning, after Kayla and I agreed that I need to put this book to rest, I took that post-it note down and threw it away. 

I do still consider myself a writer. I do still want to write books. But I’m not writing now. I’m letting go of a dream, and all these beloved characters and their story. I’m saying goodbye. I have other books partially drafted, but it doesn’t feel right to try to jump back into any of them. I’m not excited about any of them. 

This book is over. It didn’t end the way I would have wished. 

It’s strange, and somewhat gratifying, to have seen my story become real for real people, and to have watched so many in the world rejoice at it. Part of me feels as though my idea moved beyond me, grew legs when I wasn’t paying attention, and bolted at full gallop into the world. It seems to have manifested as real in the world. Velveteen Rabbit-real. I don’t believe that I had anything to do with the news story, with those people’s real lives, but I am aware that this idea, this plot, these characters were a creature I purposefully fed and nurtured for most of the last decade. My pet project. And now it’s in the world with no help or connection to me at all.

The world has changed and it can’t be born into this world and be seen as anything other than a poor retelling of reality. Nevermind that I imagined my story first.

The only people who know, who really know, about my story and what it was before this extraordinary news broke, are me and my best friend. This huge part of my life, that I expected my family to read and my new husband to read, is going in a drawer. It’s quite the mental shift. And I am quite sad about it. 

I’m also aware that all this yawning nothingness before me is full of possibilities. And that should be celebrated. So should my past 8 years of work, really. I did something I didn’t think I could do, and then I did it again. And it never quite worked out the way I hoped, but I did write a 300-page book. And I revised it many times. I called it Minuet, after my protagonist. And I am proud of it. And of her. And of the real-life person who has supplanted her.

I imagine I’ll sneak the names of my characters into whatever I write after this. Just in passing. They’ll be hidden in a world between worlds.

That feels like a good reason to write, in and of itself. Something fun. But not yet.

Right now, I just want to say her name one more time.

Minuet, I love you.
Minuet, goodbye.

Therapy in an Election Year

I’m personally of the opinion that every single person could benefit from therapy at just about any point in their life. The trouble is, we wait until we’re basically having an emotional heart attack before we decide our pain or difficulty is bad enough to try therapy, before we decide that understanding why we respond to stressful situations the way we do is a worthwhile pursuit, before we’re willing to be vulnerable with a trained professional in order to become a healthier person for the people we love and ourselves. 

In 2014, I lost 8 people in my life in one year. And I mean they died. They didn’t all leave me by a combination of moving and dying and ghosting. They died. I hadn’t seen some of them in years, but all of their deaths affected me, and because so many came in such a relatively short period of time, I didn’t really deal with them. This was on top of moving to a new city and starting a new job the year before. I pushed them all down, compacting my grief for each person until it was all one huge boulder. I didn’t feel like I could engage safely with any one person’s death without feeling the full, devastating effects of all of their deaths. I kept this up for about six additional months, until my aunt died suddenly. I learned of it an hour before I had to leave for the airport for a week-long work trip. This was the same week as the sentencing for the two men who murdered my childhood nemesis. It was, in short, one of the worst weeks of my life. 

I had to push down my grief to function. I remember crying late at night, pacing in the hotel  bathroom while my coworker, who I shared a room with, slept.  Also in that tiny bathroom, after a 13 hour day on my feet being nice and helpful to customers and connecting with potential authors and not crying, I couldn’t sleep. So I wrote draft after draft of letters to the sentencing judge, sharing beloved memories of my nemesis, until I dropped into bed, exhausted in every way. I felt like I would never be able to accept my aunt’s death if I didn’t get to see her casket, so I called and adjusted to have my flight home moved up a day so I could go to the burial. I missed her actual funeral, but on Saturday I managed to be there with my family for her burial. 

When I finally got back to town and my usual routine, I wasn’t okay. I lived inches from tears. I felt exhausted all the time. My grief was immutable and huge and impossible. And I felt like I was bleeding from a thousand pricks in my heart every day. In this highly alarming state, I looked up the number for the only counseling service I knew of, the one where a friend had gone to therapy after ending a bad relationship and where a couple I knew had gone to premarital counseling. Simply telling the receptionist that I needed grief counseling, and no, I didn’t have anyone specific in mind, and yes that day would work, knocked apart my composure. I cried throughout this short exchange, heartily embarrassed, and continued crying for another five minutes until I managed to pull myself back together enough to get out of my car and go back to work.

I scoured the counseling center’s website for instructions. I used Google maps’ street view to figure out exactly where I’d be going. A couple days before my appointment, I physically drove to the center and circled the parking lot so I’d see where I’d be, where I’d park, where the door was. And then I got off work early, citing a doctor’s appointment, and went inside.

I’d been to counseling before. As a child, I had one particularly hard and miserable year. My parents were worried there might be more to my pain than the bullying, and were concerned they weren’t doing enough to help me cope, so I had 4 sessions with a licensed child psychologist in a room at my pediatrician’s office. I remember one session where he let me just tell him all the things I was interested in and excited about, including Hua Mei, the panda recently born at the San Diego Zoo. A person who just listened the whole time and engaged with what I liked and didn’t judge or tease me was wonderful, and absolutely not what I was getting at school. 

I think, in these 4 sessions, my parents were getting a second opinion by a professional about how I was doing during a miserable year. And, perhaps because of that early introduction and how he’d reassured my mother that yes, I was well adjusted, and yes, she and my dad were supporting me in the ways I needed, as an adult I didn’t feel much of the stigma seeking out therapy that many others feel. Still, my grief was hemorrhaging before I admitted to myself that I needed counseling, and then made time for it. 

I’ve since described therapy as calling in the fire department. Maybe you just smell smoke, and you want to be sure things don’t get out of hand. More often, your house is on fire and you know it and you’ve been running the garden hose for hours already, thinking you can muscle through it by yourself without the neighbors noticing. But even if you could, why would you? Cost of therapy and access are real concerns, disproportionately limiting low-income people of color from health care services. But when the cost of a few sessions is not limiting, this is what fire fighters and therapists are trained to do. Why not go?

There’s no dishonor is needing some professional guidance to search out and put out any fires. Because really—and here’s where my metaphor breaks down—you’re doing all the work anyway. No therapist can change your life just by talking at you, or by listening. You do that. And if you’re doing all the work yourself anyway, why not get a professional to help point out the hot spots and help you adjust your grip on the hoses so your arms don’t grow too weak?

I friend recently tweeted that he’s gone ahead and scheduled his counseling sessions for the rest of 2020, including extra sessions around the election. He isn’t the only person who anticipates needing them, and I’m not waiting around to see if my social media boundaries will help preserve my mental health. I’m planning for regular mental health check-ups and check-ins right now.

2020 is a great year for us to do so together. 

If you’d like some more information on starting therapy, I liked this article from NPR, and it’s assorted links to resources.

Mental Health in an Election Year

I’ve been thinking about what I want to get out of 2020 and what steps I need to take now to protect my mental health this year. The previous election sparked massive anxiety for me, followed by 3 months of depression. I don’t want to go there again, and I know that means I need to take care of myself in advance of, and particularly during the election cycle. I also don’t want to make plans and set goals and then be knocked back by depression or anxiety, leaving this year on a personal sour note, whatever the result of the election might be. 

One of the ways I’ve chosen to focus on my health, mental and physical, this year is to read more about how my body works. I started with Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig, which focuses on how social media and the internet at large can contribute to mental health problems. I listened to the book on my commutes to and from work, which gave me short snatches of information followed by a lot of time in between to think about what I’d heard. In the week or so since I finished the book, I’ve considered how I need to implement changes to avoid the problems Haig relates. 

First, I locked my Twitter account (made it private). No, my latest witty tweet probably won’t go viral. But I’m also harder for trolls and bots to find, which is a daily pay off. I’ve also made a list of the close friends who I want to keep up with on that platform. If I’m having a bad day, or a lot is happening in the world that could be bad for my mental health, I can go to just that list. It’s quieter. It’s softer. Kinder. I need to stay informed and lean into the acts of activism I can do for positive change in the world, but I don’t have to stay plugged into the Matrix all the time. In fact, it’s very bad for me to do so. And not just me. Notes on a Nervous Planet helped me understand the widespread affects on that constant background buzz, that blitz of noise and opinions and trauma and demands and just…input. Biologically, we aren’t built to deal with that amount of input on a daily basis. Not just daily but, if marketers and influencers and tech innovators had their way, constantly. 

I’ve started staying off social media (and thus, most of the internet) on the weekends. Instead, I focus on where I am, who I’m with, and push back the constant stream for a couple of days. I need to get better about this, because I still find myself mindlessly scrolling through feeds when I don’t have other things going on. As Matt Haig pointed out in his book, the things that often feel good in the short term are usually bad for us in the long term. And scrolling through my social media feels is one of those. So I’m working on training myself not to go to my social media feeds for entertainment in those mindless moments. When I open Twitter or Insta or Facebook, I should do so intentionally. On purpose. Consciously. And when I’m bored, or trying to fill a moment or distract myself, I should crochet or bullet journal or read or play a game (like Stardew Valley) instead. It’s also important to me that I don’t lose my ability to just sit, to just be.  

To help ensure that I don’t succumb to the siren’s song of social media, I’ve limited my alerts and got rid of all social media push notifications. I may miss a few Facebook birthdays or a DM for a day or two, but overall it’s better for me to have a break and not be hounded by all the apps that can make me nervous, anxious, dissatisfied, and depressed. 

This year, I want to watch fewer Hallmark movies and write more of my own stories. I want to craft more. I expect I won’t read as much as I did last year, but I do plan to read more intentionally (about health) and more diversely (at least 50% of the authors I read). And I plan to create an amazing farm in Stardew Valley (named for my grandparents, who had a little hobby farm when I was growing up). 

I’m under a writing deadline at the moment and courting another (still seeking rejections!). It’s possible I may be writing on the blog less often this year. If I make any intentional choices to that effect, I’ll share them here. 

My time, like everyone’s, is precious and finite. I want to be more intentional about how I’m spending it. Which isn’t to say that I need to be more productive. Idleness is vital to the mind and to creativity. But I do want to be intentional. And in the swirl and chaos and noise of the election cycle, that’s so valuable to my mental health.

A Secret

The first book I finished in 2020 was Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn, and I adored it. A man finds a secret code hidden in his hand-lettered wedding program, and goes back to the artist a year later to demand how she knew his marriage would fail. The book builds a relationship between the man and the artist through tiny moments of small but significant contact. In Romancelandia (the online space occupied by writers and readers of romance), we call these as Darcy-hand-flex moments, in reference to the scene in Pride & Prejudice (2005) when Darcy and Elizabeth touch bare hands for the first time. 

Up to this point in the film, Lizzie and Darcy have had a contemptuous relationship, but both are so moved by their first tiny skin-to-skin contact that she stares at him open-mouthed, and he, as he turns and walks briskly away, flexes the hand that touched hers. It is a brilliant acting choice and beautifully captured, giving the audience unique insight into Darcy’s feelings, the first indication that he is truly and deeply affected by Lizzie. It’s a secret between Darcy and the audience. His body hides his hand flex from everyone else in the scene. But we see it. We won’t be shocked by his proposal and admission of love thirty minutes later the way Elizabeth will be. That hand flex speaks quiet, aching volumes. And it’s become an accepted code amongst romance writers and readers for small moments of seemingly insignificant contact or connection that deeply resonates.

Love Lettering masterfully builds such moments into first a friendship, then a relationship. Because the book is told from the perspective of the main character, Meg, we see only what she notices. So she does notice Reid’s proverbial hand flexes, and what’s hidden from everyone but the reader are her reactions and feelings to them. Meg doesn’t want Reid to know how affected she is by his hand on her elbow or his simple, straight-forward statements, like “I am” and “Especially me.” Meg feels in those moments like she lives for the swoop of his almost smile, and the first time she makes him laugh she wants to find ways to make him laugh again and again all day. 

Reading Meg’s secret reminds me that I once had such a secret. And it’s been a secret ever since. 

His name was Ben and he was a poet. 

He was quiet, serious, and beautiful. Blue eyes, pale skin with acne (how human of him), a ruddy complexion, and a short crop of unfussy blonde hair. He spoke sparingly but with gravity. An introvert with shades of sadness. I’m also an introvert, so I related, but I was friendly and social in a way he didn’t seem to be. He’d glower around the room without malice. And I’d want to see him smile.  

I played a very long game of getting to know him. In our first writing class together, I noticed his gravitas and respected his thoughtful comments. He seemed to like my work, and his positive comments made me feel accomplished in a way others’ comments didn’t. As the semester went on, I’d occasionally, strategically linger enough to end up walking out the door with him, and I’d make a comment about his poem or someone else’s imagery. I tried very hard not to catch my breath when I found his full attention fixed on me. I tried very hard not to wonder what his skin felt like. I tried not to notice his back muscles through his fitted t-shirts.

I had a crush on him, but I felt this felt was immensely embarrassing and should be kept secret at all costs, most especially from him. I confided in no one. I didn’t write about it, even in a journal. And I made absolutely sure not to expect anything of him. I set myself up as a safe and familiar space, nothing more. I told myself it couldn’t be a crush—I barely knew him. I avoided eye contact. I avoided looking for him at readings and department events and in restaurants on campus. No strings. No vying for his number or a coffee date. I just wanted to break the ice. And, very gradually, I did.

The next semester, we ended up in 3 classes together, 2 of them back-to-back. We sat near each other in the first class, and when we both walked into the classroom next-door and found ourselves the first ones there, by unspoken maneuvering of “let’s not make this awkward,” we sat a friendly distance apart. The next day, I was already sitting in advanced poetry with a friend when he sat down on my other side. As we left that day, I stayed behind to tell my professor how much I’d been looking to taking his class, and my friend accused me—in front of said professor—of trying to suck up. She wasn’t exactly dead to be after that, but the next class, I turned away from her, toward Ben, and never turned back. She soon moved toward the girl on her other side, which I suspect was some version of what she’d wanted all along.

These 3 classes rapidly accelerated Ben’s and my slightly warm familiarity. And, naturally, my crush got worse. Lord, I lived to make that boy smile, and I got pretty good at it. But I locked down any resemblance of affection. I didn’t neglect getting to know my other classmates better. And when he asked for my number, the reason was so mundane and practical that I didn’t even let myself do a victory dance. I was still in a long game, careful neither to spook him nor to tip my (mortifying) hand.

In getting to know Ben, I eventually learned that he had a girlfriend. (I still remember chanting to myself as my heart dropped, “Do not react. Do not react. Do not react.”) A poem a few months later about him having sex with her was tense with passion and beauty and it absolutely slayed me. In part because of how much he clearly missed her (she was in culinary school in Kentucky) and in part because sex was not an aspect of my relationships, nor would it be until after I got married for religious reasons. So even though I still found him beautiful and kind and a gorgeous writer, we weren’t on the same page.

I didn’t ever wish he and his girlfriend would break up. That would have been deeply unkind, and I was trying to build a friendship here. Also, I knew that, even if they did break up, what he expected and wanted from his relationships was different from what I expected and wanted from mine. This fact was immutable. So I could live on a smile I’d caused for days, but I couldn’t ever forget what we were and weren’t to each other. I asked him a question or two about her when she came up. I made myself care about her and their relationship because we were friends and I was staying in the friendship lane. Even if my knuckles were white with the effort. I worked very hard to keep things friendly. Not light. Not vapid. But platonic. We were linked by our respect for the other’s work, and by the friendship we were building. 

When you’re in a writing program with a lot of workshop classes, in which you share your writing and your classmates give you feedback, you figure out over time whose comments are most valuable to you, the most helpful or accurate. And some people’s feedback, you know you’ll be able to more-or-less dismiss. I treasured Ben’s comments. And I gave him the same serious, at times blistering feedback I was becoming known for in the department. Not that I wanted to be harsh. I wanted to become a better writer, and I wanted others to be able to do the same.

Critiques, even largely positive ones, get at your tenderest parts. Knowing this, and feeling their effects myself, I made sure to open and close with positives and focus only on what was on the page, not on the person. If my classmates had largely ripped the piece we were discussing, I’d try to provide some balance by focusing more on the positives. Still, I learned that I was earning a reputation for harshness, so I made an extra effort to remain friendly and caring outside of those feedback sessions and to always be honest but never cruel. 

Still, at times I felt the distance and coolness of personal affront from people who’s work I’d critiqued that day. I respected that their feelings were tender, so I’d let them not look at me, not speak to me, and I’d quietly slip from the room. One day when I’d shared a deeply unpopular opinion about a classmate’s work, I felt like Public Enemy #1. As I rose to made my escape at the end of class, Ben came to stand behind my chair. When I started for the door, he fell into step beside me. His presence and solidarity in that moment meant the world. I had already chosen him to be my friend, but in that moment I felt chosen as his friend. And I felt understood.

Ben got me as a writer, not always in the specifics but in nature. And from then on, even if one of us was in a hurry, we’d walk out the door together from our two workshop classes. When I or he felt embarrassed because our work had flopped or, in my case, when someone had stabbed at me (not my work) in a critique session, that walk was a tangible solace. Even when we’d critiqued each other’s work that day, and our tender feelings stemmed in part from each other’s words, we left as a unit. Solid. Friends. Respected colleagues. Often, all we’d say on these walks were a simple “bye” or “see you tomorrow” at the end of the hall. Sometimes it was a pained half-smile on my part or a solemn nod on his. All Darcy-hand-flex moments. 

I didn’t ever wish for his relationship to fail or for him to develop a faith like mine. Once I understood him better, and especially when he and his girlfriend briefly broke up, I prayed he wouldn’t express interest in me. I didn’t want them temptation of what I knew wouldn’t be a good romantic relationship. We never got dinner or coffee after class. We didn’t linger on the steps for hours talking.

Still, in a small and distant way, I think my long-ago crush on Ben is one of the reasons I enjoyed Love Lettering so thoroughly. Reading a book where the entire relationship, from strangers to friends to lovers, is built through Darcy-hand-flex moments reminds me of those moments with Ben. How my heart seemed to stutter at his eye contact. The times I watched his thumbs rub together over his clasped hands. How making him laugh made me feel victorious. How understood I felt as a writer when he championed a poem everyone else in our class seemed to misunderstand. His silent support on hard days as we walked to the end of the hall. I was so proud of having built a friendship with him. And I remain, more than 10 years later, grateful for it.

12 Books of 2019

Last week I reported that I read 130 books in 2019, including 31 audiobooks. 

Here are 12 of my favorites, listed in the order I read them.

1. Veronica Speedwell series by Deanna Raybourn

2. Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

3. The Illuminae Files by Amy Kaufman and Jay Kristoff 

4. Westcott series by Mary Balogh

5. Ravenswood series by Talia Hibbert

6. From Scratch by Tembi Locke

7. The Satapur Moonstone by Sujata Massey 

8. The End of Ice by Dahr Jamai

9. Wally Roux, Quantum Mechanic by Nick Carr

10. The Bride Test by Helen Huong

11. The Widow of Rose House by Diana Biller

12. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb 

Welcome 2020

I’ve been seeing a lot of people—friends and strangers—recapping their decade. Initially, I dismissed the idea as too broad. So much has changed for me this year, it initially felt impossible to even consider those of the past decade. But over the past week or so, I have been able to pin down a few of those changes, and I want to record and share them.

In 2010, I was a junior and senior at Georgia Southern, and I’d already met my now husband though we didn’t date for the first 6 years or so. I was studying writing and history. Now I work in publishing as an editorial associate and I’ve drafted 3 novels, all of which are under revision.

As a student, I looked forward to breaks when I could read a couple of books for fun, mostly YA fantasy. I’d recently discovered audiobooks and borrowed YA romances from my hometown library. This year, I read 130 books, mostly adult romance, including 31 audiobooks. 

My best friend in 2010 is still my friend now, though the rest of my friend group has changed quite a bit. I moved more times than I can count, but have lived the last 7 years in Macon, Georgia. I listen to different music. I no longer watch Glee or Doctor Who, but The Good Place and The Curse of Oak Island. Another Star Wars trilogy has come and gone. (So has Carrie Fisher.) I jokingly complain that work gets in the way of my life just as I used to complain that school did so.

My grandfather died the first day of classes of my senior year of college, a Monday in mid-August, 2010. Since then, I’ve lost my grandmother, two great-aunts, one great-uncle, my baby cousin, and a number of other, more distant relatives and friends. I still wish I could call my Papa, especially on autumn days when the red leaves are falling past my window. We just passed the first anniversary of my baby cousin’s death. Lying in his coffin, his long neck and long limbs and grey suit reminded me so much of my last image of my grandfather, in his coffin and suit. And above my baby cousin, the spray was full of the same flowers that’d been in my bouquet a month earlier.

The world is a lot different than I thought it was 10 years ago. Aside from the trends and technologies we’ve all experienced, I now realize that, as a college student, I didn’t understand some core-deep realities of the world and this country related to racism, cruelty, and money. My adulthood has begun to teach me about those upsetting and unsettling realities, and how widely they hurt people. 

Growing up, my mom would avoid reading and watching things that made her sad. She said life is sad enough without seeking out that sadness in entertainment too. She wanted to escape. I didn’t understand that feeling 10 years ago, but I intimately do today. 

My faith has changed greatly, both in my daily practice and in my specific beliefs. I no longer consider myself a Southern Baptist, and am unsure that Baptist best fits my theology at all. My knowledge of the Bible and theology has increased greatly, and my mind and compassion has expanded with these concepts as well. How I embody my faith, how I present it to the world, has also changed. 

Although I long suspected that my level of stress and dread ahead of social situations and changed plans was unusual, during this past decade I realized those struggles are symptoms of an anxiety disorder. Knowing this has helped me manage my anxiety, but it still makes an unexpected dinner with friends and especially large get-togethers with my husband’s family deeply difficult, even painful. I give myself grace to not be my best self right away. I do my best to show up, even if I’m uncomfortable the whole time and exhausted when it’s over. And, honestly, having Tyler with me when we travel or go to socially demanding situations helps my anxiety tremendously. 

I’ve had depression. 

I am, generally, angrier than I was 10 years ago, but I also think I’m a better person. I’m rarely angry for myself, but for the abundance of pain around me. And, with social media (which I was sparsely using as the decade dawned), so much more pain feels near.

The last ten years have been, largely, very happy ones for me. I experienced and gave a tremendous amount of love. I visited Egypt and Key West and Germany and Wales, lived for a while in Manchester, England, became an Atlanta United and Braves fan. I learned to crochet. I became a hot chocolate snob. I went to counseling through three different periods, and I wish I’d gone more often than that. 

Despite allowing myself to look back and be proud of myself for what’s transpired over the past decade, I don’t want to look forward another ten years and speculate. Doing so makes my feel anxious, but I also don’t want to anticipate an entire decade’s worth of experiences. I can’t. So much will be surprising and unexpected, though perhaps not in the broad strokes that the 2010’s brought to me. Instead, I’m looking just at the year ahead of me.

I want to write.
I want to manage my anxiety better.
I want to exercise regularly.
I want to more intentionally support my husband and family.
I want to look forward to my work.

Unlike in past years, I don’t have a single word to help encapsulate those desires. Perhaps I’ll still find one. In any case, welcome 2020

Seeking Rejection

Several months ago, I read an article by Blair Braverman in Outside magazine, in which she encouraged her readers to make rejections valuable to them. In answering a reader’s Dear Abby-style letter, Blair said “Turn applying for big dreams into your hobby.” She encouraged her reader to set a goal for the number of rejections she wants to receive and to pick something indulgent to do or buy for herself when she reached it. In doing so, she’ll make the rejections valuable.

Blair is an Iowa-trained writer and musher (she completed the Iditarod earlier this year), so I trust that she knows a lot about making attempts and failing. 

When I read Blair’s article, I was feeling stuck in a couple of areas of my life and frustrated that some of my big goals don’t seem anywhere closer to being accomplished. Her letter made sense to me in a way similar advice from my writing professors never had. I read the article through several times, picked an arbitrary number (12), and set about getting rejected.

I made my case to my boss for a perk I really wanted. I reached out to an old friend who might not want to talk. I applied to do something cool in my community. 

When I was sailing along, searching out new possibilities, applying, then moving on to the next idea, I felt really good about my rejections. I was dropping baited line after baited line, just to see how many I could do. But the first time someone called me back, the first time I didn’t get a “no” but a “tell me more,” the game changed. I’d had a nibble. So I pulled hard. The reel sung as I worked it. I stopped applying to do other interesting things. Instead, I got excited about this possibility, told a couple of friends my hopes, and kept working the line. I ignored the others and didn’t put any more in the water. Why waste the effort if this one paid off and necessarily took up a big chunk of my attention and energy for a while? 

Then that fish, too, got away. 

And I was disappointed. All my attempts to that point had turned into rejections, and I was steadily building toward 12 of them, but I would much rather have had this exciting opportunity work out than to be one step closer to getting a pedicure. (The planned reward had been a new purse, but Tyler got me a lovely one for my birthday.)

So I told my close friends that it hadn’t worked out after all. I sat with my (and their) disappointment. I considered how important I’d let this one hope become to me. I still wasn’t applying to anything new, telling myself that I needed time to grieve the loss of this “maybe.” (I’ve been reading a memoir about counseling, so this seemed like a very reasonable plan at the time.) 

Finally, I went back and read Blair’s article again. Near the end, this paragraph seemed to have been written with font twice as large,

Instead of being disappointed when things don’t work out, be happily surprised when they do. The best way to do this is to have a lot going on at once. If you’re focusing your hope on a single opportunity—and of course, there will always be opportunities you want more than others—then you’ll naturally be devastated when it doesn’t come to pass. But if you have a dozen things going on, and you’re applying for more every week, then by the time you hear “no,” you’ve already moved on to something else.

I still felt disappointed that this bubble of hope I’d nurtured for so many weeks had come to mark just a single tally on the post-it note by my desk. I also recognize that if I hadn’t focused so much on this one dream, I wouldn’t have felt so hurt when it didn’t work out. But I think Blair would disagree that all I got out of the experience was a tally mark.

Earlier in the article, Blair said,

Treat everything as information. If an editor gives you feedback, implement it before your next round of submissions. If you interview for a job you’re obsessed with, figure out what it is that appeals so much. Maybe that job means prestige, or solitude, or working with friends. Maybe you didn’t realize how badly you wanted to live in Montana until you got rejected from a job in Montana. Great—that’s important information. That’s how you figure out what you really want. 

So why did losing this one opportunity hurt me so much? What about it had appeal to me so much? Without going into too much detail, I decided that its newness alone was very appealing. I have said for years that I’m afraid of getting into ruts and afraid of feeling stuck. This opportunity would have helped me feel fresh and useful, stretching skills I haven’t used in a while to help people in a way I miss. 

Okay, I told myself. That’s really useful information. And after I sat with that comfort for a minute (it’s a very good book about counseling), I named for myself the things I’d learned just by applying to this opportunity, then what I’d learned just by being in conversation with someone about it. I thought of two things I could do differently next time, and a couple things I’d like to get better at regardless. Finally, feeling much better overall, I asked myself, So what kind of opportunities should we apply for next? 

The next old friend I reached out to did want to talk—not a tally, but a yes! But, I didn’t hear back about the next opportunity I applied to, which involved being paid to watch a ton of Christmas movies in a short period of time. I don’t know how many book giveaways I’ve entered (these I’m not counting toward my goal number, but they do count as lines in the water). I’m working on a new pitch for a blog idea. And as the year winds down and I struggle to wind down with it, I’m happy with all of these things. 

“Most things in life don’t work out,” Blair said, “But some do. The secret is to love the possibilities.”

Cat Buglary

Allow me to tell you about our Halloween CAT BURGLARY. Which it so say, the cat broke into our house.

When I got home the eve of Halloween, I opened the door to find Tara sitting nearby, seemingly drawn to the sound of the garage door and waiting on me. It was very overcast, but I could see her clearly. I set down my things and picked her up. 

Tyler wasn’t home yet. Tara has been staying on our screened porch when we aren’t home, full of toys and a 6-foot cat condo and her littler box and food and water. It’s kind of kitty heaven. But she had been getting rather cramped with only that one room to explore and run in, so whenever we’re home Tara has the option of being inside with us. So why was my sweet kitty in the house during the day instead of in her kitty kingdom watching squirrels?

I wondered if maybe Tyler forgot to put her out that morning, so I texted him to ask if he knew why she was inside. I let her out in case she needed to use her litter box. I fed her, as normal, and let her back in when she came to the door. 

The cat door between the living room and the porch is currently set so Tara can go out anytime but it won’t swing inward for her to come in from outside at her leisure. 

We’ve been working with her a lot to try to get it into her adorable noggin that she can go out whenever she wants. We’ve held it open for her, bodily pushed her through it (which worked with my roommate’s puppy), and tried to entice her with treats and toys. 

No dice. She refuses to put her head on the door and push it open. Instead, she stands on her back legs and leans against the glass, pawing at us and pulling at our heartstrings, then sits down and politely waits for us to open the French door as she’s used to. But she absolutely knows that her cat door is a magical portal to the Other Side. 

When Tyler texted that he’d definitely put her on the porch that morning, my best guess was that she’d been messing with the cat door, jimmied it open with her claws, and managed to slink inside. And if she managed it once, I felt sure she’d do so again.

We passed a fairly uninteresting All Hallow’s Eve. We watched both Atlanta United and the Nationals lose. Tara took a nap on the back of the sofa. We spent some more time trying to get her to push against the cat door so it would open as its supposed to. (She still didn’t get it. She pawed at the edges and pawed from a different angle, then sat up primly to wait for us to open the door.)

Eventually, we kissed Tara goodnight and put her on the back porch for her 11pm-1am zippies (like zoomies for a dog) and we went to bed. 

I woke up around 4am and couldn’t go back to sleep. Could not. I was thinking about free tampons in schools and tailoring business clothes and all sorts of odd things. My dear husband was laying so his arm was resting on my back. Not in a cute way. I rolled over, out from under his arm, but he just settled into the middle of the bed. The middle is not his side. Annoyed and uncomfortable, I tried to decide if I should shove him back over, which would wake him up, or if I can manage to sleep on the remaining 2/5ths of the bed. I noticed around this time (4:20 or so), that the door to the bedroom was rattling slightly. It does this when the AC cuts on or off, but this rattle was at an irregular rhythm. I sat up and looked at the door. I could see a shadow underneath, moving side to side.

“There’s a cat at our door,” I said aloud. Tyler didn’t move. He was probably asleep, I realized. When I touched his shoulder, he said, “I heard you.” We both sounded incredibly nonplussed about this situation. I got up, saying, “I guess we know how she got inside earlier.” I went to the door, knelt down, and eased the door open. Tara took her time walking in, and started purring as soon as I picked her up. 

I set her down on the bed so she could greet Tyler and he, her. She wasn’t scared. She hadn’t fled the porch in a panic. She was just awake. She had a cool new trick and she was awake, so she used it to come find us. But it was 4:25 in the morning, on Halloween by the way, so I took her back to her porch kingdom. She didn’t seem upset to be there. It wasn’t thundering or raining. Nothing had gotten in with her. She had food and water, which she sniffed. I shut the door and watched her walk to the cat door and start pulling at its edges with her tiny dagger claws (which we really need to clip). 

I adjusted the settings so the door was closed from both directions, and pushed at it to make sure. Then I stuffed a small towel, which we’d been using to take her on magic carpet rides, into the hole so she couldn’t see the light from inside anymore. This, I hoped, would be her “closed” sign. She tapped at the door, but she couldn’t open it. I said goodnight and went back to bed. 

In the morning, she was still on the porch and ready for breakfast. Cat burglary foiled!

NaNoWriMo 2019

When I was a ministry intern, I would walk into my apartment after an emotionally draining day or full evening and all my energy would whoosh out of me at once, usually the moment I turned the lock on my door and my day. I’d step out of my heels in the dark—feet suddenly aching, shoulders suddenly slumping, suddenly away of my dry throat and sore, watery eyes—and drag myself toward the short list of necessities I had to accomplish before I could tuck myself into bed.

One day last week, my energy left me in much the same way it used to. I’d had a long, full afternoon. I’d spent it with people I love, and I’d enjoyed it. But I hadn’t intended to be out so long or to interact with so many people on my day off, the day after returning from a trip with Tyler over the long weekend. I felt the crash coming as I drove home, and held out until I could turn the lock behind me. 

I took off my shoes, set down my purse, changed into sweatpants, and lay down on the couch. And because I have a capable and sensitive husband, I didn’t have to do much else. When he got home a few minutes after I did, he fed and played with Tara. He checked the porch for packages and made sure I had a glass of water. He cooked. I didn’t put in a load of towels, as I’d intended. I didn’t write, as I’d hoped. I didn’t even read. I merely lay on the sofa under my favorite blanket and recharged for four hours, then went to bed. 

As I look ahead to November and the writing I hope to accomplish during it (50K words as part of National Novel Writing Month: NaNoWriMo, or NaNo), I’m looking at ways I can try to avoid becoming emotionally and physically overtaxed. 

First, I’m taking an honest look at my calendar. I have multiple trips already planned, including a work trip I’m trying hard not to dread, and Thanksgiving, for which neither of our families have finalized plans. I’m considering how I can write on weekdays and my few free weekends to help make up for the days when I’ll be traveling. I’d like to believe I’ll at least get a sentence written even on those days, and I might, but I’m not going to saddle myself with unreasonable expectations or set myself up for failure. I also don’t want to burn out because of the combination of life events, work requirements, and my writing. Holidays can be overtaxing in and of themselves. So can writing 50K words in a month. So I need to be honest about when and how much I can hope to write. Thankfully, I have participated in, and written about, NaNo before.

Two, I’m outlining. In drafts past, I’ve written a bunch of scenes, then strung them together and decided what I needed to write to fill the gaps. To some degree, I’m doing that again. I’m rewriting a manuscript I “finished” years ago but that wasn’t working. I’ve selected a few scenes from that draft that work with the new characterization and pacing, and written a lot of others to mark the changes in plot and the addition of a second point of view. But the main thing I want to avoid with this project is overwriting. I don’t what to write a bunch of scenes I don’t need. I don’t want to waste the time or the energy. 

Throughout October, I’ve been spending my lunch breaks researching various outlining methods, and working on a detailed outline for myself. I’m sure I’ll deviate from it, and I’m not sure how effective it’ll be, since I haven’t written from one before. But I have found it helpful so far. I think it’s also helpful to announce my intentions, thus this late-October treatise:

I’ll be attempting to write 50k words in November. I may not get back to you. I may not be able to hang out. I may not sound particularly with it when we talk. I’m sorry in advance if I sound rude or distant. I’m building worlds with words and it’s taking up a lot of my brainpower. I’m trying hard not to overdo it, and I’m grateful that you understand.