The Art of Loving Yourself

(TW for fatphobia and internalized hate)

 

I have a couple of special events coming up this summer and fall, and these days, that seems to send me into a flurry of self-evaluation and determination–once more–to lose that extra twenty pounds or so. Invariably, I decide on some program–be it keto, or Weight Watchers, or what have you, that I can manage for a few days before the reality of my chaotic life comes crashing down.

Between my recent birthday, shopping for a dress to wear to an awards banquet (in which I’m a finalist, so more pressure), and planning to go to the Romance Writer’s Association Conference for the first time at the end of this month, my drive to lose weight before X date is at an all-time high. Especially since I had a recent photo shoot, and the PT for my knee takes place in a room full of mirrors. Both left me depressed at the frumpy middle-aged woman I’ve become.

Growing up, I never had to worry about my weight. In fact, I was so underweight that I could pretty much eat whatever I wanted. My dad referred to me as “a bag of bones and a hank of hair”, which felt like a bit of a nasty gibe. It wasn’t until after he passed that I discovered these were the lyrics to an old song, and meant in affection. Though I didn’t have weight issues, I had self-esteem issues just the same. Wild masses of untamed hair rioted over my head like kudzu growing out of control. Coke-bottle thick lenses in heavy glasses since I was eight years old (and I could never successfully wear contacts). A mouth like a gargoyle with teeth jutting out in all directions. I ended up having eight teeth pulled to make room for them all, but this wasn’t done until I was an adult, so for years, I refused to smile and talked behind my hand.

But I never thought twice about my weight. I didn’t even know what cellulite looked like until I hit my forties.

I was a bright kid, too. I never had to study in high school, and graduated with honors only to discover college was a very different deal altogether. College came as a rude awakening for me when I discovered I could no longer coast my way to A’s based on a good memory and a thirst for reading. I was forced to develop good study habits in order to get my degree. But I didn’t gain the ‘freshman twenty’, nor did I have to change my eating habits. In fact, I never gained an ounce until I became my parents’ caretakers, all while working FT, and caring for my own family. All of the sudden, the increased stress and the decreased physical activity caused my weight to balloon up.  And like the high school honors student, I didn’t have the skill set to deal with the changes.

Not to mention, the information out there was often inaccurate, frequently depended on a level of exercise and deprivation no one can maintain, and completely discounted a society that demands we do more on less time. Yes, I know there are people who successfully manage busy, stressful lives while maintaining good food choices and healthy activity, but face it, many of us are forced to choose between taking care of ourselves and the other demands in our lives. And even though logic dictates you should put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others, that’s not what happens for most women. We’re running around seeing that everyone else in our lives gets their oxygen mask safely in place first before we pass out from lack of O2.

I grew up in a house with a mother who had some very odd ideas about food. She didn’t believe in seasoning, and our meals consisted of a very narrow list of ingredients. It turns out she had acne rosacea, which can be triggered by certain foods and spices. I’ve since developed it as well, which has forced me to eliminate several things from a diet that leaned toward picky in the first place.

I think changing your eating habits is one of the most difficult things anyone can do. Giving up caffeine felt as challenging as how I think giving up heroin or opioids would be–complete with the withdrawal symptoms and the sudden, intense cravings years after you’ve kicked the habit. On a hot summer day, I can walk past a vending machine and visualize putting coins in the unit, hearing the rumble and clunk of the drink hitting the bottom drawer, and picture myself opening an ice-cold Pepsi with condensation running down the side of the can. I can still taste that first sip, even though I haven’t had a Pepsi in over five years now. I have to remind myself caffeine will kill me in order to prevent me from snagging a can. I’m fully convinced one day we’ll discover the soda companies have manipulated the caffeine to make them more addictive, much like the cigarette companies did.

I’ve always thought of myself as a strong person, but recently a torn meniscus has greatly curtailed my ability to do the things I used to do. I feel fragile. Useless. Old.

Worse, I’m pissed with my body for letting me down. I never used to have to think about it. I took it for granted. And now I can’t anymore. I’ve absolutely hated my body for the last five or so years now, and let me tell you, no one should have to live with that toxic energy aimed at them all the time. Not to mention all that hate has been focused on a body still giving me nearly everything I ask of it. I’m embarrassed that I’ve been so ungrateful for so long.

I’m embarrassed that I’ve been just as demanding, unforgiving, and toxic as some of my former bosses and family members when my body has done its best no matter what. I realize that just being able to say I never gave a thought to my weight or health before means I started at a privileged position at the beginning of the race. I’m ashamed I’ve been so angry at so little for so long.

I’ve tried positive affirmations in the past, but always, with each attempt, a snarky inner voice sneered at the things I told myself because I knew they weren’t true. My husband frequently calls me “beautiful” and “gorgeous” and I roll my eyes at him, or snap, “I don’t feel beautiful.”

But all that’s changed now.

A couple of revelations came one by one over the last few weeks, which led to my little epiphany.

  1. I can look at other people who have much higher BMIs than I do, and think how beautiful they are, or how great that cute outfit looks on them. Why can’t I do that with myself? Why am I so unforgiving and unkind to myself?
  2. I wouldn’t treat anyone or anything I care about with the level of animosity I routinely aim at myself. I’d intervene if I saw someone being treated the way I treat myself each and every day. I would not tolerate this level of abuse from anyone I knew, either. It must stop.
  3. The demand for perfection has never helped me achieve any of my goals. I’ve been punishing myself for not being “enough” my entire life and it hasn’t made my life better, either. If anything, it’s held me back. This applies to so much more than meeting society’s rigid (and impossible) standards of beauty. The desire for perfection in everything has hamstrung me from attempting so many things in life. It’s sucked the joy out of the things I have accomplished. Last summer I hiked up into the Cascade Canyon in the Grand Tetons. The scenery was breath-taking. It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip for me. But what I remember most about that day was the photo someone took of me and my husband with the majestic mountains as a backdrop. I was wearing a blue top and shorts and I recall thinking when I saw the photo that I looked like a Giant Blueberry. It came close to spoiling not only the day but the entire trip for me. And yet that body that I disrespect so much carried me up that canyon trail. You’d think I’d give it a little credit for that.
  4. It’s hard for me to view a meal that is packed with veggies, nuts, cheese, and an egg as “bad” or “wrong” because it’s the wrong point count or contains too much fat, or it’s not what my caveman ancestors would have eaten. You should see what I usually eat for lunch! A snack pack such as I’ve described above beats the hell out of a hot dog and a packet of chips. With all my dietary restrictions, I’m going to have to find my own path to a healthier diet. And that’s okay. I might not lose 20 pounds in 2 weeks. I might not lose any weight at all. But if I’m healthier for cutting back on the sugar and carbs, or feel better because I’m not eating the foods that disagree with me or trigger reactions, that’s good enough.
  5. This thread on Courtney Milan’s Twitter account. It made me rethink the whole sneering-as-I-attempt-affirmations thing. Go read it, and take it to heart. So much truth there, including the myth of being ‘lazy’ and the risk of over-exercising, and how changes don’t always lead to weight loss but they lead to better mental health, and that is the best reason for making them. 

So while I’m still stressed about what I’m going to wear to the RWA conference, I’m not going to stress about losing ‘enough weight’ before I go shopping. There isn’t time anyway, and in the end, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is I go and have a great time, hopefully making some new friends and meeting in person friends I know online.

I’ve started thanking my body for giving me its best despite my neglect and abuse, and promising to do better by it.

And this morning, when my husband said, “Hey, Gorgeous”, instead of rolling my eyes, I gave him a hug and said,”Thank you.”

I think I’m finally understanding it when people say one of the great things about getting older is letting go of so many negative thoughts and feelings you believed to be true in the past. It’s very liberating.

 

The Law of Attraction: Be Careful What You Put Out There

I had a weird conversation with my sister the other day. I’d just been about to call her to let her know I’d be in NYC next month for the RWA Conference, as I have a book that’s a finalist in the 2019 Booksellers’ Best Awards. It was an unexpected honor, and I hadn’t planned on attending RWA this year, but that all changed when I got the call from the BBA. It’s been years since I’ve been to NYC, so after I booked my hotel and flight, I’d planned to call my sister and arrange to meet up with her.

Before I could contact her, however, she called me. She’d just gotten word she’s been transferred to her company’s office in Milan! She’s been studying Italian with the hope of getting this promotion and she was calling to let me know she’d just purchased a one-way ticket to Italy for the end of this month. She’ll no longer be living in NYC when I arrive.

We were both excited about our respective news. I’m delighted for her–she sounds so positive about this change in her life and more upbeat than I’ve heard her be in a long time. But when she offered her congratulations to me, I did my usual self-deprecation tap dance. It truly is an honor to be a finalist–in fact, I’m gobsmacked that I am! But I don’t anticipate winning this award. I’ve seen the competition, and it’s fierce.That in and of itself makes being a top three finalist even more of a big deal.

But my sister chastised me for saying so. “Don’t put that out there,” she said. To my surprise, she went on to say that good things were coming to both of us this year, something that had been confirmed by an astrologist.

My cynical, frequently bitter sister had consulted an astrologist? And believed what this person had told her? Apparently so. More than that, she appeared to be practicing the tenants of the Law of Attraction.

I’ve always had a little bit of a love-hate relationship with the concepts of the Law of Attraction. I read Normal Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking as a teenager, and remember thinking at the time there was an element of hokum to it. At the same time, I wanted to believe it. I wanted to believe I could change my life merely by envisioning the life I wanted.

If you’re not familiar with the concept, in a nutshell, the Law of Attraction borrows a little here and there from various religions and philosophies to state if you think very hard about what you want and infuse those thoughts with all the emotion you can generate for this desire, your will for this thing to happen will make it so. More or less.

So yeah, the notion I could bring everything I ever wanted into my life by fervently wishing it were so held great appeal.

But taken one step farther: I was terrified to believe in it. Because the flip side of the Law of Attraction and other tenants along those lines is that your negative thoughts bring negative energy into your life. Follow the logic to its completion and you get the implication that everything bad that happens to you, from a health crisis to a terrible car accident to losing a family member to cancer is your own fault. That takes no account of things beyond your control before you were even born, such as family genetics or being born in a certain country or into poverty.

Whenever bad things happen, you brought it into existence with your negative energy.

I’m a big believer in vision boards. I also believe in positive affirmations, once I get past the tendency to sneer at what feels like patting myself on the back with pretty compliments I don’t believe.That’s always been the sticking point between me and positive affirmations. If I’m rolling my eyes as I say them, do they really count?

The thing is, I know this works in reverse. See, most of us spend our lives playing a negative self-talk soundtrack on an endless loop–repeating things our parents, teachers, or friends told us about our personalities, character, or abilities. What society tells us about our appearance, our self-worth, and our place in this world. We do it without even being conscious of it, not realizing how it shapes our internal image of ourselves, or how it influences our choices. We’re not thin enough, pretty enough, smart enough, rich enough, and all throughout our lives we play this mean little soundtrack as a constant reminder of our failings, as if we could ever forget them.

So if the negative affirmations work, why wouldn’t the positive ones?

Unfortunately, I have issues with books such as The Secret, or movies like What the Bleep Do We Know!? I have a problem with the implication that you can just pray your way into wealth (which really seems against the teachings of nearly every religion I can think of) or that through quantum mysticism you can alter the molecules in a glass of water, create world peace, or toss your antidepressant medication in the trash–something I’d never recommend doing without medical consultation and supervision.

I think there is great value in things such as vision boards (in fact, I shared a Tweet about them today). I like some of the things touted in The Secret, as long as you leave the mysticism out of it. Expressing daily gratitude for things has a way of making you realize you have more than you think you do. Vision boards are an excellent way of making you focus on what you really want. Positive affirmations can help offset a lifetime of negative self-talk. Trust me–you’re not going to turn into an ego-driven narcissist if you look in a mirror and say kind things to your body or give yourself a little credit for an achievement made or a milestone reached! I think it might be beneficial to envision a better working relationship between you and a toxic boss, or a difficult child, or a life partner, too.

Just leave out the whoo-whoo. Having negative thoughts isn’t going to bring misery crashing down on you. Nor is being realistic about life. You’re not going to visualize your way into a better job, successful writing career, better health, or whatever you most desire without putting the work in as well. I can sit at my desk and envision hitting the NYT Bestseller List, selling the movie rights, and retiring with my millions all I want–if I don’t park my butt in the chair and write, it can never happen.

But does that mean I’m going to rain on my sister’s parade?

No.

For the first time in a long time, I see her in a place of hope, looking forward to a better future. And you know what? It doesn’t hurt to keep a little hope for myself, either.

Betty Crocker: The Dear Abby of Cooking

Just this past weekend, I typed the words “The End” on the first draft of my paranormal romance novel set in 1955.

Writing a story set in a different time period comes with a special set of problems, not the least of which is the research necessary to get things right. Frequently I’d have to mark text with the intention of looking up a phrase or piece of technology to confirm its use in the 1950s. Sometimes I’d wind up down the rabbit hole of research, discovering interesting tidbits that had no bearing on the story but fascinated me anyway.

For me, setting a story in another time period is more than just learning the slang or studying the clothing, however, both of which I did. It’s about attempting to understand the mindset of the people of that time, what their hopes, dreams, and fears might be. What makes them tick. That’s one of the greatest appeals of writing historicals for me. 

I tend to do a lot of background reading as a result, even if the material never ends up in the story itself. It’s there in the structure of the story, how the characters act and think. To me it’s as important as costume design or a soundtrack is to a movie. It sets the stage for the characters and for the reader to enter their world.

In addition to the Internet, I rely a lot on books about the various periods I’m interested in, hence the photograph above. One of my late purchases arose out of my research (and I’m still trying to justify it to myself): Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook.

Did you know there was never any such person as Betty Crocker? She was the brainchild of an advertising firm hired by a flour-milling company that eventually became General Mills. She was created as part of a 1921 ad campaign to solve a puzzle and win a pin in the shape of a bag of Gold Medal Flour. The response to the contest was unexpected–in addition to the 30,000 women who solved the puzzles, the company was flooded with letters asking baking questions. Betty Crocker was created to answer those questions and by 1950 was an amalgamation of the forty-eight women who worked for the Home Service Department of General Mills, the largest  customer-service department in the industry, fielding up to 2,000 letters a day to help homemakers solve a wide variety of cooking and baking problems.

The first Betty Crocker cookbook was published in 1950, became a runaway bestseller, and has been a favorite ever since. When I opened my copy, I recognized both in the layout and the nature of the recipes within all those old timey comfort meals I’d grown up with copied from those “Church Lady cookbooks” that every major church I’ve ever been associated with has published at one time or another. The recipes I associate with my grandmother and the holidays. Truth be told, that was the real reason I bought this copy of the original Betty Crocker cookbook, complete with all the salt, sugar, and fat of the old recipes. On her death, I discovered that my mother had given away all the treasured church lady cookbooks, and many of those recipes were lost to me as a result. Now I have them again. And with them, a little piece of my past.

By the 1950s, Betty Crocker was a callback to the past, a font of maternal advice that was missing in the lives of many post-war young women widowed or settling down with former soldiers to build families in communities such as Levittown.

Isolated in suburbia from the generational women who would have taught them the ins and outs of the homemaking, modern brides were leaving behind their mother’s old-fashioned ways and complicated recipes–and prepackaged mixes were replacing traditional baking. It only made sense for General Mills to produce a cookbook using General Mills ingredients and Betty Crocker as their substitute mother.

Another brilliant marketing move by the company was to remove powdered eggs from the mixes, instead having the homemaker provide her own eggs, which allowed the baker to feel as though she were ‘making the cake from scratch’ by contributing to the creative process. I confess, when I make brownies or cakes from a mix, I consider them “homebaked” desserts, and pat myself on the back as though I’d grown the wheat and ground the flour myself. Such is the rarity of my having the time to cook for my family these days. And that’s what Betty Crocker allows us to do.

That iconic red spoon and that readily identifiable signature was part of the brand that helped homemakers recognize the advice they trusted. The irony here is that my fictional heroine might be an even worse cook than I am–so she would definitely need this cookbook. Ah well, maybe in the next installment of the series.

 

The Power of Re-inventing Self

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a new set of characters. My heroine has been through some tough times and has come out the other side not liking herself very much and looking to rewrite her story from this point out. I’ve started a notebook just for these characters and this new series, but it’s still mostly blank. I’m in the homestretch of a WIP with a June-July deadline and I can’t allow myself to get distracted by the new-shiny right now. But her story seems more interesting to me than the one I’m working on and it wasn’t until this morning that I realized why.

I’m in the same process myself.

Yesterday, I did something highly unusual for me. I went shopping.

I dislike shopping in general. I tend to get sensory overload fairly easily, so an hour in a large shopping mall has me screaming for the exits. I also resent the time-sink. I have so little free time on a given day that to waste hours in a department store is just mind-boggling to me. I’d much rather shop online, which can be done at my convenience. The biggest downside to online shopping is returning something that doesn’t fit, but it’s a price I’m willing to pay so that I can pick out a pair of boots at midnight. Truth be told, I don’t do much shopping no matter what. I tend to make do with utilitarian clothing that suits my lifestyle.

Only I’m not so sure what that lifestyle is anymore.

For years, my life has been dominated by my work–both professionally and at home on the farm. I’m most comfortable in boots and jeans. I wear a lot of graphic T’s. I have jewelry, makeup, and dresses I rarely wear. I don’t really need to shop.

But like the first shoots of green breaking through the ground in spring, I find myself after several years of heartache contemplating change. I’m also realizing that colors and styles that worked for a young brunette with long hair no longer work as well for an older woman with a blonde pixie cut.

And yesterday, instead of coming home from work and starting in on the endless list of chores to do around the house, I remembered I have This Thing at the end of the month and decided to go shopping instead.

I didn’t have any expectations of finding anything I liked. To be honest, the mustard and olive green colors that seem to be in fashion this year don’t do a thing for me. Part of the reason I’ve always disliked shopping was because my Inner Critic has always been so mean on these outings. Not thin enough. Not pretty enough. No sense of style.

Well, the last one is a fair assessment. I don’t have a good sense of style. I’ve always chosen value over fashion, which means sturdy materials, doesn’t show the dirt, and can be worn at the barn without changing clothes first. A quick view of my closet looks as though I shop at yard sales. I’ve thought about trying one of those box set things where someone sends you a ready-made outfit, including accessories, each month. Kind of like meal plans, but for clothes. Given the lack of success I’ve had with the meal plan kits, however, I decided the clothing kits would be wasted on me.

But yesterday, not having any expectations going into it, I didn’t restrict myself when it came to trying on things. I tried on outfits I wouldn’t normally consider and found myself buying something that unexpectedly pleased me. I also bought clothing because it was comfortable and looked nice, not caring or stressing about the size on the label, which is pretty remarkable, considering a couple of hours in front of a full-length mirror usually reduces me to tears. Even more remarkable is that I’m significantly heavier and older than that young, critical version of my self used to be, and that alone should have been enough to make me despise the process. It didn’t. This new me didn’t give a rat’s ass. Remaking myself held more power than destroying myself, it would seem.

I also bought new makeup, refreshing my color palette and replacing products that should have been tossed years ago. I topped off the shopping trip with a stop by the ice cream parlor, walking out the door with a cone. To my surprise, I’d spent hours at the mall and didn’t begrudge a single minute of it. In fact, I came home in a good mood, better than it’s been in a long while at the end of a work week. Finally, I understand the phrase ‘retail therapy.’

This morning I spent an hour or so going through my closet and pulling out everything I knew I’d no longer wear, no matter how much I’d liked it when I bought it *cough* twenty -some-odd years ago. Or worse, the clothing mistakes: items with tags still in place that never quite made it off the hanger. Off with the old. Bring on the new.

It took me time to reach this point. I didn’t just wake up one morning and think, “I love shopping!” and want to be a fashion plate after years of being a tomboy. I’m not convinced I do love shopping or that I’ll wear my new clothing more than once or twice a year, only that I had a lovely afternoon focusing on doing exactly what I wanted without having to answer to anyone else. I suspect it could have been any activity that I chose solely for myself.

But the fact it was part of a re-imaging of myself was a scoop of ice cream on a hot spring day. No regrets.

Pets in My Stories: The Joy and Heartbreak

Trigger warning for the loss of a pet

I’m in the homestretch of the current WIP, and I couldn’t resist adding a dog in the story.

Not just any dog, but this one. This ridiculously cute terrier who is a cuddlebug and the sweetest little guy you could ever hope to meet–unless confronted by vermin, in which case he’ll turn into a ferocious killer in the blink of an eye.

The dichotomy of his behavior is intriguing–and just a little amusing–to me. And since it suited the nature of the story, Captain makes an appearance in the upcoming Bishop Takes Knight, and if he has any say so in the matter, will be a series regular. I can’t wait to share him with you!

You’re going to find dogs, cats, and horses in most of my stories. Not just because my stories are set in shifter universes, but because animals are a big part of my life and I want to include them in my storytelling.

At the same time, I tend to get nervous when I read about animals in other stories or see them in movies. Killing the pet seems to be a common way of ratcheting up tension or creating emotional impact. Let me say up front that this is something that I don’t do as a general rule. I won’t say never because I believe in writing the story that needs to be told. But since so many times I’ve stopped reading a book or series because of the casual extermination of a pet for the purposes of creating angst, I’m extremely unlikely to do that myself. As a matter of fact, if an animal appears in a story, I frequently read ahead to make sure it doesn’t die or else I get someone else to read the book for me first.

There’s a website called DoesTheDogDie.com, which describes itself as crowd-sourced emotional spoilers for movies, TV, books, and more. It has icons which indicate what stories include pet death, which ones end happily, and which ones seem to indicate the pet dies, but in the end, doesn’t. I routinely check this site out for movies, but haven’t spent as much time on it for books. I’m definitely going to do that more in the future.

But one of the things I hadn’t counted on when giving my pets roles in my stories is how sometimes it hurts when you lose the namesake–not in the book, but in real life.

Recently, I released Ghost of a Chance, in which the eponymous Ghost is a stray German Shepherd taken in by my heroine after her previous owner dies. The German Shepherd in the story was based on my very first dog, Abby, who’s been gone more years now than she was alive. I gave the dog in my story her personality, her courage. Having lost her so long ago, it was easy to give my fictional dog Abby’s traits and smile while doing so. But I chose the name from a little feral cat I’d started feeding and eventually trapped, neutered, and tamed.

He was still a wild animal, but he’d come running whenever I left the house with the dogs, and join us on our rambles around the property. He’d let me pet him, as long as I didn’t try to pick him up. Making him a house cat wasn’t an option. He wasn’t that tame.

Ghost rapidly became a favorite of mine, despite knowing how risky it is to give your love to a feral cat. Sadly, six months after I published Ghost of a Chance, my favorite wild cat was hit by a car. I knew he’d been crossing the road at night sometimes. I did everything I could to encourage him to hang around and not leave the property. I blamed myself for the disruption to the general environment with the heavy construction we’d undertaken, that probably threatened him enough to make him wander. In short, I was devastated.

For many weeks afterward, I found it hard to look at the book I’d so joyfully written. I couldn’t think about it without remembering the shy little cat I’d loved and lost.

It wasn’t until I re-read another story in which I’d included a cameo from another pet now deceased that I was able to see this with new eyes. I’d written a little fluffy piece of fanfic and included my dog, Sampson, for the fun of it. I lost Sampson two years ago to cancer, but in my story, he was alive, tongue lolling, tail wagging, eyes alight with mischief, ready to go for a walk (or to chase a bear up the side of a mountain). 

When I wrote that story, I had no idea I’d be losing him so soon. I also didn’t give much thought to how I might feel years later, coming across that story again. When I began reading, that same emotional wrench of loss was there–but as I read on, I became fiercely glad I’d included him.

It was no different from taking a photo or video that I could look back on with a teary smile, remembering the joy he brought me. I’d captured his essence, and it would always be with me.

As Abby the dog and Ghost the cat live in Ghost of a Chance. As Captain will live in Bishop Takes Knight.

Being immortalized in that manner isn’t such a bad thing after all.

 

A Cultural Inability to Focus: What it Means for Authors

Lately, I’ve been battling the fear that I’m becoming–I don’t want to say stupid.  Let’s say cognitively impaired. That I’m losing my ability to process a reasonable amount of information. I find myself having difficulty reading a lengthy article, or wading through a basic legal document. Most books fail to hold my attention, and I lay them down never to pick them up again, something that never used to happen to me. When I do read, it’s usually on my Kindle, and I find myself skimming, in part because it’s just so easy to tap, tap, tap and turn the pages.

I’ve been writing the same scene for weeks. I’m lucky if I peck out 300 words in a writing session. I wouldn’t mind if they were 300 fabulous words, but they aren’t. I look at my WIP and think it’s stilted and cliched. Most writers cringe when they look back on their earlier works. I do too, but it’s because part of me believes my earlier work showed more promise. I should be getting better and this, right?

Instead of hashing out the scene and moving on, I find myself picking up my phone and cycling through my various social media sites. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. When I’m done with that, I scroll through my email, read forum digests, and check out my lists. And when I’m done, I start at the beginning and go through them all again.

My inbox is filled with links to articles on marketing and publishing that I never read. I sign up for online seminars and coursework I never take. Sometimes, in a fit of desperation, I delete them all just to whittle my emails down to something less than 400 notifications.

I could blame this on being exhausted most of the time–I am. I work long, hard hours. Chronic pain makes sleeping problematic. Healthy food choices and exercise is always on tomorrow’s To Do list. I can’t keep running on fumes and expect to remember the lyrics to a song I didn’t particularly like that I haven’t heard in twenty years or the name of my next-door neighbor whom I only know to wave to. (I know his dog’s name. I have my priorities right) But I don’t think that’s the biggest factor in my inability to focus.

I think our cell phones are to blame. 

I no longer know anyone’s phone number–I don’t have to–all my contacts are in my phone. Wikipedia is at my fingertips. Google will find me those song lyrics, direct me to that business I went to last year, remind me who said that clever quotation, and more. I don’t have to remember anything.

I’m never without entertainment, either. I can a read one of nearly a thousand books on my TBR list, watch a TV show, see the latest Avengers trailer, laugh over a viral cat video, or check out the latest drama in my writer’s forum. It used to be if I was out walking the dogs or tending to the horses, I used that time brainstorming for my stories. I’d come back from my activity on fire ready to write. Now I check Twitter.

It used to be if I had a few minutes to spare while waiting to do something, I’d open a book. Now I pick up the phone–and it’s not unusual for me and my husband to be sitting across from each other, phones or tablets in hand, concentrating on our screens instead of each other. We’re both introverted, so there was a time when that felt comfortable.

Now it feels like an addiction.

Our attention spans are getting shorter because we are being bombarded with information constantly. We bring it with us wherever we go. Work can reach us 24/7 (that’s another post for another day) and so can any friend or member of our family. Gone is the time when going for a walk meant you were temporarily out of contact. Sure, there are benefits to this–the most important of which is safety–but we’re never unplugged now. It means we can feed the streaming monster: be it TV shows, news feeds, or our Twitter timeline.

And if I struggle to put my phone down–picking it up first thing in the morning, sneaking glances at it at stoplights, opening social media at work when I want a break–if I struggle with the addiction of scrolling, having come to it late in life, what about the generation of people who grew up with a cell phone in their hands from day one? You have to wonder if the plasticity of young minds are being modeled to be incapable of concentrating on anything longer than a three minute video.

I’m sure when television first came into people’s homes, there were a lot of people who bemoaned the loss of family activities such as puzzle solving or reading aloud. I’m certain there were people who decried the bad influence TV had on young minds then, too. They were probably right to a certain degree, though not all the dire predictions came true. But now we have our TVs with us all the time.

When I was serving as one of my dad’s caretakers, I temporarily developed aphasia. I’d be in the middle of a conversation and start snapping my fingers, unable to think of the word I wanted to say. For someone who’s been an avid reader with a massive vocabulary most of her life, this was kind of terrifying. It didn’t occur to me I was worn out from working 12 hour days and then caring for my dad from six pm to midnight every night. Since he was struggling with dementia, it was no great stretch to fear I was developing serious cognitive dysfunction as well.

Back then, I ran across one of those ‘assess your memory’ tests in a magazine that asked you to look at a list of ten unrelated words for one minute, and then read the rest of the article. At the end of the article, you were unexpectedly asked to list as many of the ten words as you could remember. I could remember all ten because I’d made up a little story about them.

Years later, I still remember eight of those words. So I don’t really think the problem is memory loss or cognitive dysfunction. The aphasia resolved when my life stress improved. I’m under a tremendous amount of stress right now, so that’s probably the reason my eyes glaze over when I try to read something meant to enlighten and educate, right?

But maybe not. Maybe I need to spend less time scrolling on the phone and more time making up stories.

I came across this great post How to Focus on Writing Right Now by Rachel Thompson of BadRedHead Media, and I’m taking it to heart. 

If you’re finding it difficult to concentrate on a specific task or simply in general, consider cutting yourself off. Unplug. Put the phone in a drawer or lock out your social media apps while you’re working. Take a walk without talking on the phone, listening to tunes, or playing a game. Put your brain on an information diet.

Your creative side will thank you.

A Thousand Little Goodbyes: The Loss of a Personal Library

I’ve mentioned in the past that the home renovations have been a great motivator for applying some of Marie Kondo’s principles in my life. Some of you may be aware that she’s come in for some marked criticism for saying she only keeps 30 books on hand–which allows her the space to move older books out and make way for newer ones. Bibliophiles everywhere reacted strongly to this idea, but nowhere did Kondo say you should get rid of books that sparked joy for you. That’s the whole principle behind her philosophy. What sparks joy for you. Not anyone else.

Before the reno, I’d made a point of paring down our extensive book population. Shelf space was going to be at a premium after the remodel. We wanted to consolidate my husband’s library with mine (we’re extensive readers) and eliminate the books that no longer brought us as much joy–which for me usually means, “Will I read this again?” or “Is this a piece of my childhood I treasure?”

I was pretty pleased with how much I’d weeded out my own cache of books, ruthlessly donating ancient sci-fi anthologies and obscure British murder mysteries to Goodwill and the like. Since paying for storage was going to cost a fortune, I got rid of as much as I could and stacked the boxes of books in the garage, as they weighed the most.

I did more pruning while unpacking. The realization there were some books, despite the fact they held fond memories, I’d never read again, made me put more of them in the “donate” pile.

Then I began to wonder what that musty smell was.

Then I realized what I thought was simply dust was actually mold.

Then I recalled that the reno had taken months longer than promised–and those months held the wettest winter in my memory.

And I am violently allergic to mold.

Naturally, the most seriously affected books are the oldest–and the ones most precious to me. I suspect mold spores were present in low numbers on them all along, but given the extremely damp conditions, exploded into active growth. A closer examination showed it’s not just books–many of the pieces of furniture and collectibles are also dusted with mold. But those items can at least be cleaned. Ridding the books of mold is far more problematic.

I did some research and came up with several treatment options. The first involves putting books in ziplock bags with baking soda as a deodorizer/desiccant and freezing them a week or more. I’d have a buy a freezer to do this–or else empty out my small one and choose only the books most valuable to me. The second method is to microwave the books 5-10 seconds, which will kill mold and silverfish, but may also damage bindings and glue, not to mention the risk of microwaving anything with gilded edges or print. In fact, almost every post on microwaving says don’t do it. A third method suggests gently brushing the books with a dilute solution of bleach and placing them outside in the sun. Given we are still in the temperamental days of early spring, that means waiting for a day when it’s not likely to rain and bringing them in well before dark so they don’t collect dew or frost. Tricky when most days I go to work and come home while it’s still dark. 

And none of the methods actually remove the mold spores–they just inactivate them. The mold can reappear under the right circumstances again and can remain toxic no matter what treatment you perform. The other night, I was congested and reactive–it’s no coincidence it was the first night the book boxes had been opened.

Many of these books are childhood favorites now out of print. Some are delightful favorites I will re-read again. Even if they are available in digital format, I’m likely to find a better price on them in used bookstores than as ebooks. But it still means cutting my collection to the bone in order to replace the ones that are the most important to me.

I feel as though I’ve been a bad steward to my books. That I’ve been a bad friend to treasured friends that have gotten me through tough times. I can’t even in good conscience give them away. If I have to throw them out in the trash, I know I’ll cry.

My current plan is to photograph the favorites and upload images to social media, thus enlisting my friends in helping me locate replacements (or even soliciting replacements from friends looking to reduce their own book collection). At the moment, I have a dozen or so books packaged with baking soda in ziplock bags stacked in the freezer. I’ve selected one book (of which I have multiple copies and know is still in print) to lightly spray with Lysol and leave outside in the sun. I’m told for this to be effective at killing mold, it has to be Lysol containing bleach, and so far, I haven’t been able to locate that. As soon as we get a break in the April showers, I’ll make a dilute bleach solution and mist a few others to set in the sun. I suspect that will damage the covers and print a bit, but we’ll see. I’ll also select a sacrificial victim to microwave. Of all the methods, microwaving is the one that’s the most time effective, and the one I trust the least. I’ll let you know how it goes.

The freezer method with baking soda does seem to be working, but unless I buy a freezer for this purpose (and I’m not sure I trust the wiring in the garage to power a freezer–one potential disaster at a time…) this will simply take too long. Besides. I’m not sure how I’ll get the baking soda out of the books…

In the end, getting rid of the books and starting over may be the best solution after all.

Spring: Rebirth, Renewal, and Transformation

I’ll be the first to admit spring is not my favorite season. Mostly because these days, spring is heralded by weeks of high winds and heavy mud, and when we finally get them, those mild, pleasant days segues all too quickly into the oppressive heat of summer.

The one thing that makes up for it here in the South is how pretty it is.

After weeks of cold, soaking rain interspersed with occasional sleet and snow, the first buds popping through the ground have me grabbing my camera for a quick macro shot. Robins appear in the yard. Mockingbirds trill their heart-breakingly beautiful spring mating songs. Spring peepers optimistically begin chirping even while frost still limes the ground at night. The grass comes in with the bright emerald green of Ireland. Leaves unfurl, and the forsythia begins to bloom.

The Appalachian mountains always strike me as a kindly grandmother, as opposed to the rocky grandeur of the mountains out west. Our mountains are rounder, softer. We don’t get the spectacular color change in autumn the way they do in New England, either. But what we do get is gorgeous springs. Starting in March, the mountains begin to green up, and redbud and dogwood dot the hills with their pink and white blooms. Mountain laurel peeks out of forests still dark with the deadfall of winter. Our Appalachian Grandmother wears a crocheted shawl done in delicate pastels.

Crocus burst through the soil, sometimes even when there is still snow on the ground. They aren’t alone, however, and are followed shortly by daffodils and irises. My personal favorite is hyacinth–there is something heavenly about their waxy blossoms and their rich scent. Phlox and periwinkle blanket banks and flowerbeds. Bradford pears lining driveways shower white petals like snowflakes whenever the wind blows. Azaleas and crepe myrtle come into flower. Lilacs and hydrangeas send out their siren call to bees, who bumble around them with a lazy drone in the balmy air. Honeysuckle fills the air with the promise of summer.

I take pictures of them all–and every year, too–as though I hadn’t taken pictures of the same emerging flowers spring after spring. There’s something heartening and encouraging about these first signs of spring. The promise of rebirth. The hope of renewal. The encouragement of transformation.

I can’t imagine living in a place without distinct seasons. The older I get, the more I appreciate the signs of spring. My mind turns toward outdoor projects and plans to go hiking, camping, and horseback riding. I need that connection to the earth in such a very real way, it’s hard to explain.

I scrape back the bark on a tree I thought was dead, and see the bright, green quick of life that tells me, no, it was just dormant. It gives me hope that I too will come out of hibernation. Something inside me unfurls with the warming rays of the sun, and I turn my face toward it with a smile, eyes closed.

So while spring is not my favorite season, it’s a close second. Because we all need to be renewed each year.

Fighting “Productivity” Culture

I work weekends, and my husband doesn’t, which frequently leads to me coming home on Saturdays and asking how his day went and what did he do? Often, he sheepishly tells me he didn’t do anything, and then he apologizes.

“What are you sorry for?” My asking about his day isn’t meant to make him feel bad. I’m just showing interest in how he spent his time while I was gone.

Invariably, he says, “I feel like I should be doing something productive.”

I know what he means.

I work 10-12 hour days. My “free” time is so constrained that I feel I must get the most out of it. The dogs have to get some exercise every day, and if I don’t ride the horse enough each week, it’s not safe for either of us. I want to finish my current WIP (and I’m so close! Nearly there!) but I also need to write blog posts, work on my newsletter, schedule social media postings, write some Bookbub reviews, and read or watch all those marketing posts and videos jamming my inbox. Weekends are when I try to do a little meal prep for the coming week, which usually means a grocery run, and then there’s trying to cram in yoga and meditation to manage my stress levels. I have so much to do on any given day, I feel as though I can’t waste any of it, especially if that means just sitting around watching TV or reading a book, or God forbid, taking a nap.

Too often I come home from work completely fried, unable to make healthy dinner choices because my decision-making capacity is used up for the day. Sometimes I can barely muster enough energy to watch TV or read a book. Because of my tight schedule, I have to plan everything pretty far in advance, and sometimes I resent the hell out of that. Most days I have to pick and choose what I’m not going to get done, and I feel resentment and guilt over that, too. 

This morning I was scheduled to meet friends to go horseback riding, but I’d slept badly the night before, and had only just dropped off to sleep when the alarm went off. The day dawned in the upper 20s with the threat of light snow–and it would still be close to freezing by the time we mounted. Normally I love riding in brisk weather, but I couldn’t make myself get out of bed. I texted my friends and weenied out. I just didn’t want to go.

More and more, this is becoming a default choice for me, even for things I love doing. I realize it isn’t necessarily a good thing–I’m missing out on activities I enjoy and spending time with people I like–but the truth of the matter is many of the things I do for fun don’t feel like fun right now. They feel like another obligation, another task that Must Be Done. Sundays can be the worst because I’m all-too conscious of the coming work week ahead and am already dreading it.

I’m reminded of the article I read about a Search and Rescue dog whose handler inadvertently burned him out by taking him to the golf course every weekend and letting the dog search for missing golf balls. The handler thought he was giving his dog a little fun, but the dog took searching for the missing balls as seriously as his ‘day job.’ In short, the handler never let his dog take a break and just be a dog.

That’s how I’m starting to feel about the things I do for fun. It’s my cue that I’m overbooked, over-committed, and completely exhausted.

This past weekend, a friend of mine confessed she was feeling guilty for not doing anything except sitting on the couch watching TV. The thing is, I know (like me) life has thrown her a series of hard blows in a row, finishing up with a debilitating illness. That sort of thing takes it out of you, and yet we live and work in a culture that expects us to shake off everything and keep going. This is so ingrained that we expect it of ourselves as well. We expect to be doing something “productive” at all times and feel bad when we don’t.

Especially here in the US, we burn the candles at both ends, scrape up the wax, slap it back on the wick, and burn it some more. We’re penalized at work if we take sick days and we’re weirdly proud of how little vacation time we take. You’d think if anyone understood the value of keeping the staff healthy and minimizing the spread of disease, it would be medical professionals, but I once had a conversation with a nurse at my doctor’s office about the fact there was an employee’s notice on the wall about staying home if they had a fever–and yet she pointed out to me they got written up if they missed too much time off work.

We’re a culture of do more with less means and yet we don’t understand why our bricks are substandard because we ran out of straw a long time ago.

This weekend, my friend needed to sit on the couch and veg out with some comfort-level movie-watching. Mentally, emotionally, physically, that was exactly what she needed to do. Know what happens to fields that constantly bear the same crops without letting the soil go through fallow periods? The dirt becomes depleted of nutrients, the quality of the crops goes down, and eventually, nothing grows.

So stop beating yourself up for those “lazy” Sundays. Doze on the couch with the cat. Read a book. Take a long walk or lie in a hammock and do nothing. It’s not a sin. It’s allowed. More importantly–it’s necessary to your mental and creative health.

Sometimes you climb the mountain. Sometimes you admire the view.

 

The Right Dog for the Wrong Reasons

A friend of mine lost his dog a while back. After a prolonged search for the ‘right’ pup to replace his beloved Max, he finally brought home a gorgeous little Aussie female a few weeks ago.

And has been bending my ear with complaints about her ever since.

She’s too energetic. She’s mouthy. She’s being difficult to housebreak. She’s not cuddly. Max was never this bad.

I get it–I do. It’s hard when everyone you see on social media with a new puppy seems totally besotted with it–and you’re not feeling that same joy. It’s hard to get back into puppy mode when you’ve had 14 years of not-puppy mode. Time tends to blur your memory of how difficult the last puppy was and grief over your loss places the previous dog on a pedestal.

But after constant texts and phone calls from my friend, my stock of patience is used up.

Probably because I’m annoyed with myself as much as I am with my friend.

See, I did the same thing. My beloved Sampson was diagnosed with cancer less than a month after my mother died of a heart attack. I had to say goodbye less than a month after that. And though I knew better, I made an emotional decision to get another puppy right away rather than waiting until I was ready.

After telling everyone I’d never have another big, energetic dog again–that it was time to downsize–that’s exactly what I got. I found myself impulse-buying a puppy after I’d brought my husband with me to look at the litter for the sole purpose of preventing me from doing just that. And it probably would have been okay, only the cycle of loss in my life wasn’t done. I took hit after hit that year and into the next.

I didn’t neglect the puppy. I worked hard at socializing him–both with people and other dogs. He met over 100 people by the time he was four months old, and I set up scores of play dates with appropriate dogs to teach him the skill set he needed to get along. We went through Basic Obedience 1 and 2, and when he was old enough, I started him in agility classes. He even passed his Canine Good Citizenship test (admittedly by the skin of his teeth).

I love him. How can you not love that face? But with all my grieving, and then the subsequent depression, I withheld the one thing he needed the most: me.

I didn’t give him my whole heart. I was still protecting that.

It took listening to my friend gripe about his Not-Max puppy for me to fully realize what I’d done. Remington turned two recently, and I’m only now recognizing that for all the dogs I’ve had, he’s one of the calmest, most “adult” puppies I’ve ever raised.

I don’t think I could have dealt with anything more energetic than he is. He is extraordinarily gentle in nature. I’m so very lucky to have him.

I don’t deserve him.

He came into my life when I was mentally, physically, and emotionally unable to connect. I based my decision to get him on a gut feeling without giving it the full commitment to make the choice a good one.

But as I said in the previous post about Sampson, I believe specific dogs come into our lives to teach us specific lessons. While Sampson’s final lesson seemed to be to teach me how to live in the moment, Remington’s lesson right now is about commitment. That you only get out what you put in. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about puppies, or relationships, or that story you’ve been working on.

I told my friend he needed to commit 100% to his new puppy. Right now. And don’t look back. Because sometimes you get the right dog for the wrong reasons.