Keeping Watch

In Jurassic Park, after climbing a tree and being sneezed on by a “veggie-saurs,” Alan Grant and the kids Lex and Tim settle in to sleep. But the kids are nervous about more dinosaurs coming back while they sleep. Alan promises to stay awake, even all night. But it deeply bothered me as a child that, after the kids settle against him, comforted, we see his eyes close too. And in the next scene, we see the three of them waking up. This felt like a betrayal. Why, I asked my parents, did Dr. Grant promise to stay awake if he was just going to fall asleep? They answered me immediately, “Because the kids wouldn’t have gone to sleep otherwise.” I understood the answer, but I felt unsettled by it. I likely didn’t realized that they’d been in Dr. Grant’s position many times, promising to stay awake so that I would feel secure enough to rest. But I did wonder what my parents might have lied about in the past in order to set me at ease.

A friend recently suggested in a blog post that her and her daughter’s tendency to lay awake at night might stem from a subconscious feeling that someone need to stay awake to keep watch. 

I don’t yet have kids, but when I was a kid, I certainly laid awake a lot. I sometimes got up to make the long walk through the dark house to get more water, but otherwise I didn’t turn on a light or read. Only very rarely did I even turn my radio on, so softly I could barely hear it, so no one else would know I was awake. I’m not sure why it felt so important that my wakefulness be a secret. I didn’t want to get in trouble. I didn’t want to be doing something wrong. I’m not sure why I thought listening to the radio or turning on a light would be doing something wrong, or why I felt my inability to sleep would be seen as a personal failing or disobedience.

My whole childhood was like that. I lived within very strict rules, largely of my own making. My family and school (more so the former than the very loud latter) provided structure and rules that felt largely fair, but I regulated myself to even tighter boundaries. I think, now, it had a lot to do with my anxiety. All the things I was afraid of and nervous about, formed an uncontrollable hum in my mind like a swarm of bees. And I was unsure how to deal with it. Reading helped. Playing helped. But laying awake in the middle of the night, not a lot helped. I prayed. I counted. I imagined (though this could swing into more mental anguish at times).

In particular, I remember laying awake, wanting to give in to that feeling that I’d be more comfortable on my other side, but I was afraid someone would climb through the window while my back was turned. So I’d lay facing the window, trembling with anxiety, uncomfortable, trying to take comfort in what logic I could. My windows were high on the front side of the house. It’d be very hard for someone to scale their way in, even if they could get the windows open. I’d only seen them open a handful of times, usually when Mom was cleaning in the spring. I knew they stayed locked. Still, I worried. Sometimes I talked myself into rolling over and staying there. Sometimes I rolled over but couldn’t stand not to see that vulnerable window. I often prayed, talking to God about my fears as well as whatever came into my head. I got better at praying without ceasing, but prayer didn’t make me feel like someone was in the room with me. Prayer didn’t make me feel secure enough to sleep. Prayer was how I felt less alone while remaining away and anxious, and sometimes afraid.

Eventually, I made a cross out of popsicle sticks to put over that window, then over the one my bed was under, and finally my bedroom door, just to be thorough. This reassured me, a spiritual guard made physical. And when my mom saw what I was doing, she encouraged me. She helped me decorate them with broken bracelets and markers. Later, she bought me a nice ceramic one for my birthday. 

If I could tell my past self something, at almost any age of my childhood and adolescence, I’d tell her that she won’t always struggle with what she struggles with now. I get headaches and migraines now. I still have anxiety. Sometimes it affects me sleep. But so many of the big things she struggled with and stressed about are so much easier for me now. And I think she would take hope in the absolute assurance that one day, her brain will be able to let go of those anxieties in the middle of the night. I’ll be able to roll over without thinking about it or debating it, and my world will expand far beyond what I allowed myself at her age. 

When I wake in the middle of the night now, I have no qualms about rolling over. I don’t feel the need to get up and check the locks on the doors. And when I lay awake at night, it’s not because I feel insecure in my home. Though, some nights, I do feel watchful in a broad sense. Watchful and praying, though everything around me is at peace. Watchful and praying for the insecure, alone, afraid, abused, oppressed, marginalized. Watchful and praying for the world, melting and burning and starving and sick. I lay beside my husband, feel the curl of my cat pressed against my legs, and talk to God as I keep watch.

Reading Goals, Winter 2020

In January, I explained that one of my reading goals for the year is that at least 50% of my reading for the year will be by authors who are diverse in some way. 

Of the 21 books I’ve read so far, 11 are by diverse authors, and they are all fantastic. So I’m listing them in the order I read them. 

I know, I know: some of the romance titles are pretty bad. And maybe the covers are making your cringe. But all the books are amazing. Courtney Milan and Beverly Jenkins are two of my favorite writers, and it’s been a delight to read so many of their books in a run like this. Every one of their main characters are incredibly driven women, and their books and stories feel real, not contrived, in a way that’s really hard for a writer to consistently pull off. The conflict in Courtney Milan’s books usually revolve around a secret the main character is keeping for a good reason, as opposed to the frustrating misunderstandings that so often spark the tension in romances.

Beverly Jenkins’ main characters tend to be based on interesting black people in the Old West or New Orleans who she’s found amongst her extensive research. For example, in Breathless, the heroine’s family owns an early version of a dude ranch-themed resort that’s visited by European royalty as well as the wealthy from San Francisco, Boston, and Chicago. This resort is based on a real hotel owned by a real family in Arizona.

I just finished With Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo on audiobook (expertly read by the author), and it is incredible in every way. How Acevedo describes food—tastes and smells—made me hungry and also feel strangely competent about cooking, which I am not. Also, Acevedo so perfectly and vividly builds the Philly neighborhood in which the book is set that I wanted to sit down with a hard copy and comb through the sentences so I could figure out exactly how she did it. I adore the main character Emoni, who wants to be a chef, and her love for her Baby Girl and Abuela. Even now that the book is over, I’m rooting so hard for them all.

The End of Winter

On a recent Sunday morning, I was struggling. Struggling to get out of bed. Struggling to complete the tasks necessary to get ready for church. Struggling to look at the day ahead of me with anything but dread. Struggling to move. Struggling to talk. I felt profoundly tired, but the day before, I’d had a wonderful, bright day with friends, having lunch and seeing “Hello, Dolly” at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. I wondered if I was dragging so much on this morning because I’d been so active the day before. But, I realized I’d taken naps several days that week. Feeling uncertain, I asked my husband if I seemed more tired than usual.

Tyler agreed that I did seem more tired. Then he said, “But this time of year is always hard on you.” That truth sank into my bones and sparked some vivacity for the first time that morning. I felt like I should have realized on my own that this stage of winter was most likely to blame for my recent struggles and lack of energy, but I hadn’t. And with those words, I understood the why to all my questions. I also understood that things would get better, as they tend to when spring returns. And that made facing the day less bleak. 

Then Tyler asked me if I wanted to go to church. I said yes. He got up, but I didn’t. He reached out a hand. When I took it, he literally helped me to stand.

I didn’t stop being tired. I didn’t stop dreading the two normal events for our Sundays. I’ve had worse bouts of depression—far worse. But that didn’t stop this from being a bad mental health day, as rainy a day inside my brain as outside.

Things were better in an hour or so. Not because I went to church (though I did). Not because I ate a magical breakfast (a banana and a dollop of peanut butter). Not because I prayed or meditated. Those things might have had a somewhat positive affect, but the core truth is that the weather in my brain just happened to get a little better. It might have swung the other way and I would have needed to ask Tyler to take me home after church instead of to lunch with his family. (This happened a couple times while we were dating and engaged.) But I did feel better. I could think more clearly. Standing up wasn’t so much of a struggle. Neither was talking. Nor being in another’s presence. (Tyler is excluded from that last part, presumably because my brain has decided that he and I are made of the same stuff, in a way literally no other person on the planet is.) 

I worry about what my life will be like later. If I’m able to have children, how will I handle a day like Sunday? My history of depression means I’m more likely to struggle with depression postpartum, during grief, and before menopause. And, of course, sometimes there aren’t particular, noticeable triggers for depression or anxiety. Sometimes it’s just weather. 

For now, I’m immensely grateful for my husband, who helps me stand when I’m struggling, and tells me it’s okay if I need to change our plans. 

The past few weeks, despite the amount of rain we’ve had, have been better. Still, I’m looking forward to spring. 

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