Ten Ways to Cope with Toxic News Cycles

I went back and forth over how to title this post.

“Unsettling” seemed too anemic a term to describe the insurrection that took place in the Capitol just four days ago. I rejected “apocalyptic” because while it may be true, it felt like hyperbole. “Revolutionary”, while also accurate, is a term most often used to describe the good guys.

But “toxic” fit the bill.

I’ve written about distraction before. A lot, actually. And inability to focus or to find the energy to be creative is nothing new for me. I’ve been struggling with these issues for the last several years–the last four years, to be exact. But the stark reality is this:

Nothing is going to change.

You read that right. I don’t mean that everything is going to remain static; that things will neither get better nor worse. Given our current trajectory, things are probably going to get much worse before they get better, if indeed, they still can. What I mean by this harsh statement is that things are always going to be in turmoil, the news is almost always going to be terrifying, the year that we look forward to with hope as being better than the last is almost certainly to disappoint.

We’re going to have to adapt if we want to live our best lives.

I saw a question making the rounds on Twitter this morning asking if those over 30 could remember so much crammed into a single news cycle. After all, this week brought us both Bean Dad and a violent takeover (at the instigation of the current president and others) of the Capitol while Congress was preparing to certify Biden as the next President of the United States. Yes, both these events happened in the same week. I mention Bean Dad because that already seems like months ago. Life comes at you fast these days.

The response of the over-30 crowd on Twitter was interesting: it’s not just that the news cycles have become shorter with more horrific events. It’s that we can never get completely away from them either.

So the real question is what are we going to do about it?

I took this quote from a post I wrote last February

But I’m noticing a greater tendency on my part not to want to do anything but mess around online. Stay home in front of the laptop or with the phone in hand. If I could order my groceries and do all my banking online, I’d never leave the house on my days off. It’s an effort to put the dogs in the car and take them out for a run in the national forest or go horseback riding–things I used to love doing. I keep looking at my watch and thinking, “I have this block of time I need to use for writing!” only I pick up the phone, and four hours later, I haven’t typed a single word in the WIP.

A few days after posting that, because of the pandemic, my husband and I made the decision to split our households into those who could WFH and those who could not. And now I do order my groceries and do all my banking online. I’ve stopped riding because I didn’t feel comfortable going to a public boarding barn where I was leasing a horse. And while I can still take the dogs out for a run in the woods, I don’t do that nearly as often as I could.

I waste my precious available time doomscrolling.

And again, rather than stating the obvious, the question is what am I (and you) going to do about it?

I snagged this bit of advice (that I should have taken!) from the previous post:

Just in time for this post, I came across this old Twitter thread from former CIA personnel, Cindy Otis. (I know, right? The irony…) In it the OP talks about toxic news cycles and how to cope. She doesn’t advocate ignoring the news–and she’s right, it won’t go away. But she outlines positive steps to take to make yourself feel better. You can check out the link or follow the tips here:

  1. Take Action: Volunteer. A hard one for me, I admit because I’m already on compassion burnout as it is. But that’s why I give money when I can’t give time, and why I focus on local rather than national or international efforts. You need to see the benefits of your kindness. Do it. (I should add here that I participated in a small way in Romancing the Runoff this year, which generated over $400,000 to support getting the vote out in Georgia, and helped flip the Senate–so even small efforts can make a difference!)
  2. Accept Your Limits: The flip side of the first, true. But critical. Remember, if the O2 mask drops down on the plane, you have to put YOUR mask on first before attempting to help others. You can’t do anything if you’ve passed out from lack of air.
  3. Research before Panicking: particularly important in this age of disinformation. Check your facts before sharing that post. For all you know, the crisis you’re sharing may have already been resolved by the time you hit ‘send’. Or it may not even be true.
  4. Get up and Move: that’s right. Unplug. Turn off the phone, go outside, play with the dog, call a friend. Your body and brain needs a break from stressful content but also you need to release that negative energy. Even if you don’t feel like taking a walk, do it. You’ll feel better afterward.
  5. Set Rules: I like this one. No Social Media after a certain time. Only fiction reading at home. Whatever works best for you. Shut out the negative so you can recharge.
  6. Avoid Dark Holes: Don’t go down the rabbit hole of one bad news story after another. Don’t succumb to clickbait. Deal with one thing at a time. Don’t get yourself wound up about the coronavirus and then leap to climate change and then hyperventilate about how unprepared we are for all of this and how the next thirty years is going to break us as a society and species… Ooops. That was kind of specific, I see. You see what I mean, though.
  7. Have Fun, Darn it: Another tough one. It’s hard not to feel guilty having dinner with friends or enjoying a movie when the world is on fire. But the thing is, enjoying those little things is what life is all about. And sharing our fandom squee, or a beautiful photograph, or the joy of bringing home a new puppy or kitten doesn’t mean we’re shallow, terrible people because the world is going to hell in a handbasket and we’re not screaming about it. It’s all part of recharging. It’s all part of making sure we’re rested for the next fight.
  8. I added this one myself: Celebrate Your Wins: No matter how big or small. Because that’s what life is about too. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad for sharing about your new book or your concert tickets or pictures from that awesome vacation (pre-pandemic). Because that’s what life’s about too. The things that make us happy.
  9. Adding this one today: Treat doomscrolling like any other addiction.  Because that’s what it is. And believe me, it’s hard to cut yourself off from your phone when you’re supposed to be staying at home because of the pandemic. But if you find yourself unable to stop bingeing on potato chips, perhaps the answer is to stop buying chips. My life seems full of mostly bad habits right now. I’m trying to cope any way I can, and most days I feel like the character from Airplane! You know, “This was the wrong week to give up <insert escalating vice here>. But the only one who can stop me from indulging is me.
  10. Adding this one too: JUST START. If you want to write, knit, paint, do a puzzle, regain fitness, journal, learn a second language, get a degree, whatever. Just. Start. A word after a word after a word is a sentence. If you are stalled out creatively by the endless toxic news cycles, throw out the idea that it must be perfect or that you must complete it by such-and-such date. You may have heard the advice you can’t edit a blank page (Jodi Picoult) or that the water doesn’t flow until the faucet is turned on (Louis L’Amour). Well, it’s true. And if that faucet has been off a long time, at first the water will be tinged with rust and may only trickle out, but given enough time, it will run clear again. But only if you turn the valve.

Now excuse me while I go walk the dogs. I said that in February 2020. I’m saying it again today. Because it’s always the right answer.

My Focus Word for 2021

I’ve been creating focus words and phrases for myself back before it was cool. Before you could readily find small stones with words carved into them, before there were organizations such as myintent.org. Sometimes I would assign an object my focus word as a reminder to myself. Sometimes I would simply decide that this would be the year of living with passion or joy.

Since focus words have become more popular, it’s been easier to not only purchase something tailor-made to carry your intent with you at all times, but also to create your own personal reminder. I even went so far as to purchase a metal stamping kit a few years ago, and while I’m not all that good at it, I confess, I love making these lightweight aluminum bracelets for myself. (Actually, I’m pretty darn good at the stamping, it’s bending the aluminum into a wearable bracelet without screwing it up that’s the problem, even with the special tools for doing that. I need to get a little expert advice on that…)

I’ve written about this concept many, many times. I’ve written about the importance of personal talismans and of using stones to focus my intent. I did a Twitter thread about bringing good energy into your upcoming writing year, and I think the bulk of the advice still holds true today. I wrote about the word I chose for 2020 (and man, does that make me cringe now, even though I still believe in the principles behind the choice). 

I’ve written about the push-me/pull-you relationship I have with the theory of the Law of Attraction, and why it does and does not work for me. And I keep coming back to this: I am my own worst enemy. I’ve made self-deprecation an art form.

USA Today bestselling author and 2018 RITA finalist, Margaret Locke, and I had a conversation about this on Twitter the other day. She had complimented me on ending up on a year-end list with some pretty amazing authors, and my knee-jerk reaction had been to shuffle and say, “I don’t deserve to be there.”

She made me realize that this is common problem among women because we’ve been coached that way. Not just the “You’ll Never Be Good Enough” syndrome that so many of us know from growing up in households with exacting parents, but a condition inherently female because so many women are raised to defer their abilities in a way that men are not. (And I sense a future blog post about this topic someday…)

So I found myself floundering on a word choice for this year. Survival felt too stark, and not the energy I wanted to bring with me into 2021, even if it felt like I’d nailed it. Hope felt too impossible to achieve. I came very close to selecting Believe for this year, because it embodies the things I want to carry with me into 2021–and also because I’ve fallen deeply in love with Ted Lasso. (Note: link contains spoilers) If you haven’t had a chance to watch this charming, earthy show about an American football coach tagged to lead a losing UK soccer team out of their slump, you should check it out. I know, it wasn’t on my top ten shows to watch either, but my husband persuaded me to try it, and after the first episode I wanted to watch the next right away.

And I came very close to choosing Believe simply because of Ted Lasso, and because this word is so flexible. It can be used for so many things: believe in yourself. Believe in your dreams. Believe in change, believe in the future of our country. Believe in things getter better in the future.

But I wasn’t quite ready to go with believe. I know that because when I was looking up old posts to link here, I ran across another word that clicked with me. I saw it and though, yes. This is it.

Resilience.

It’s a word my husband thinks I have. One I used to think I had, but somehow lost along the way. One that I want to have again. It embodies everything I want from a focus word for 2021. Not giving up. Pressing forward. Taking my dreams, my hopes, and goals and tucking them in my jacket to carry with me. It’s putting one foot in front of the other in deep snow. Taking a deep breath. Tackling what lies ahead: be it a pandemic, a thorny WIP, depression, anxiety, whatever.

I had to take a break from moving forward. My base camp has been pitched on the side of a mountain, a small sliver of space I used to catch my breath, lick my wounds, and recoup from loss. But the summit is still above me, and I can’t stay on this ledge forever. It’s time to start climbing again.

Resilience.

I’m not going to ask you to move off your ledge. I’m not going to ask you to do more than you can in 2021. For many of us, the fact we made it to the ledge and are hanging on is a bloody miracle. You’ll know when it’s time to break camp and climb to the next level.

But I’ll leave the rope dangling for you.

 

 

Dear 2020: I’m Almost out of F*cks To Give

People talk about the liberation in reaching a point where they have zero f*cks to give. I’ve joked about it myself, and laughed when a friend gave me a glass that embraced this concept as well as my love of foxes.

But the truth of the matter is we need people to give a f*ck about things. Important things. We need people to care. To have compassion. To go out of their way to help others. And losing the ability to give those kinds of f*cks is not a good thing, or something to be desired.

Right now my TL is in a stew over a couple of new releases: most notably Bridgerton and Wonder Woman 1984. It’s a measure of how tired I am that neither event–things I might have looked forward to in the past–generates any feeling of excitement or outrage. Back when it was first announced, I was thrilled about a second WW movie, and desperately hoped there would be a way for me to see it when I had no intention of setting foot in a movie theater. I purchased HBO Max just so I could watch it, and I simply… haven’t. WW84 seems to be a disappointment to many (and apparently missed a huge opportunity to make use of 80s music–the soundtrack would have been fabulous!) and as for Bridgerton… Let me preface this by saying I haven’t read the original series, I wasn’t aware of the problematic scene/plot point that has some people up in arms and others defending it, I had no problem with the diverse casting until people pointed out the added egregiousness of the problematic plot point, and given the hostility with which the different camps have taken sides, I’m not sure I will watch this series.

Because I am very close to having zero f*cks to give.

And I don’t mean that in the good way, where you stop worrying about what other people think of you, or you look ahead at the remainder of your life and think, “Screw it. I’m going for it.” Where you dress the way you want and look fabulous, and ignore those stupid advice posts “What Not To Wear After Forty.”

I’m talking about when you don’t give a rat’s ass about anything.

I can’t lay this blame entirely on the pandemic, though that certainly didn’t help. It’s a culmination of chronic stress, both physical and mental, combined with a crapton of grief stuffed into the last four years. And while I can’t blame the current administration for ALL the problems in my life, it strikes me as ironic that the worst four years in my life have been the last four years.

I’ve long detested the obligatory “end-of-year” posts. I dislike looking back on the past year and shouting out about achievements. Mostly because it goes to show how little I’ve accomplished in a given year. I also dislike the concept of New Year’s Resolutions, fed into us by the diet industry, given the enormous number of exercise and weight loss ads suddenly crossing my timeline. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve resolved to do x-y-z only to see that resolution fall by the wayside in a matter of weeks.

My only real resolution this coming year is to survive.

My stories frequently have “life is more than mere survival” as a theme, however. Which has me thinking, what would my characters do, faced with the utter lack of f*cks to give?

Rhett would drop her ray gun in her clutch, whistle up the dog, and ask Peter if he had any ideas on how to stop the invading force from taking over the world. Her lack of f*cks would mean she would go down fighting, looking extremely stylish in the process. And because she has such utter confidence in herself, she’d probably come out on top. She’d definitely be the resistance fighter in any guerilla-war.

Ellie West, knowing she had much to fight for and the ability to do it, would marshal her clan and shift into her glorious dragon-form, taking wing and taking names. You’d regret messing with her found family.

Sarah Atwell is the most like me, I guess. She would continue to work hard, and try to please the people in her life. She’d give of herself until there was no more left to give. She’d nod and back down, struggle with anxiety, plagued with nightmares and borrowing trouble with her fears. The problem is, because she’s savvy and well-read, her fears would be legitimate. And believe me, it’s hard to meditate yourself into a calmer state of mind when you know the odds of your worst fears coming true.

But even Sarah has that underlying backbone that cannot be denied. A line in the sand you must not cross. Sure, it may be a lot closer than most people’s lines. But when push comes to shove, you’d better not cross it. Otherwise you’ll discover that meek, self-effacing, self-doubting woman is a cougar inside.

And so when I was writing this post, thinking of how utterly exhausted I was and how unsustainable certain elements in my life are right now, I remembered I created these characters. They sprang out of characteristics I either possess or admire. They are part of me, even if not the whole me.

And end-of-year bragging posts notwithstanding, I am proud of a few things accomplished in 2020. Some are personal, that I’m not sharing here but brought great happiness to my life in a year where happiness was hard to find. I wrote and published a book in the middle of a pandemic. Another book won a couple of prestigious awards. I participated in Romancing the Runoff, and–along with Stacey Abrams–helped raise $400,000 to support Georgia Senate races.

I voted. I saw the tremendous motivation of a nation to vote for change, for healing, for hope.

And while I didn’t get as much writing done as I would have liked, I am still writing.

Maybe my life is more than the mere survival it feels like right now. So watch out, 2021. As someone almost out of f*cks to give, you don’t want to mess with me.

 

Stop The Information Overload Bus: I Want to Get Off

Photo by energepic.com from Pexels

This morning, as I was checking my inbox over breakfast, I told my husband I finally understood why some people ghosted their own lives, walking away from everything. There are days when it all seems like Too Much. Those days come with increasingly frequency lately. I’m sure it has something to do with the greater degree of responsibility I have in my life now compared to even ten years ago, but there’s a reason I chose ten years as my marker and not fifteen or twenty. See, it was about ten years ago that I began publishing my original stories.

Prior to that, my online presence was relatively small. I had a list of friends I kept in touch with via email. I had a livejournal account where I interacted with another handful of friends. I posted fanfic to some of the big archives. I had a Blackberry, the primary use of which was to make phone calls.

But with becoming a published author, I had to have a social media presence, and there followed Facebook pages, Twitter, a website, Tumblr, and eventually, reluctantly (and then embraced with more enthusiasm as it became my happy place), Instagram. I created livejournal accounts for my pen names, switched to Dreamwidth when livejournal got taken over by the Russians, and then deleted my accounts on that platform because hardly anyone was there. I made pages on Bookbub, Amazon, and Goodreads. I maintain a ghostly presence on Tumblr because the platform just doesn’t appeal to me very much but I have friends who use it. I belong to groups on Discord I forget to visit. I snagged real estate on other sites I thought I might use/need at some point–does anyone remember Ello? Just this morning I got a reminder to respond to a friend request on MeWe, a site which I’ve never fully utilized, in part because the name reminds me of PeeWee Herman and that just makes me shudder. But as an alternative to the invasive and amoral Facebook, it’s starting to have more appeal.

And because I have different email accounts (personal, professional, fandom, and pen names, current and retired) on any given day, I have over 600 emails in my combined inboxes. In part, because I sign up for courses on craft and marketing with the assumption that I need the information (mostly I do) and in the hopes that this One Thing will make the difference and that This Time the latest book release will be a smashing success and I can finally step down from a job that no longer brings me joy or satisfaction and I can write FT. Only the backlog of coursework, much of which are daily videos averaging 40-50 minutes in length, weighs on me. As does the money I’ve wasted on courses I haven’t made the time to finish.

It’s also due to the email lists I’m on. Because, as every author is told, your email lists are gold. You must have one, you must provide entertaining information, value for the following. Don’t worry about boring your followers or overwhelming them with posts because they are just sitting at their computers waiting for your newsletter to brighten their day.

Um, I can tell you I’m not doing that. I belong to dozens of email lists that I never open. I signed up as part of something else, or to support someone, or even because they are a favorite author and I want to know the moment they drop a new release… and I have to tell you, if I can’t manage to open a newsletter from a favorite Big Name Author then I have less hope for someone opening one of mine.

On any given day, I have blog posts (like this one) to write, marketing/craft videos to watch, I need to make the rounds on social media (and yes, I do schedule things in advance, but like meal planning, that in and of itself can swallow an entire afternoon to get a month’s worth of posts), submit review requests, answer emails (why is it my friends and family always come in last on this list?), reply to comments, and yes, write. You’d think the writing would come first, wouldn’t you? But it hasn’t been. I’m in a writing slump. Some days I’m enthusiastic and I pound out a few words. More often I open the document and stare at the blinking cursor. Writing these past few years has been like pulling teeth with a pair of rusty pliers and no anesthesia. I know it can be done, but I don’t look forward to it and I doubt it’s my best work.

Scarcely a day goes by when I’m not invited to join this group or that platform or I’m advised to have a presence on x-y-z, particularly the newer sites like storyorigin which are designed to help you network with other authors. But it all feels like a catch-22, you know? Managing my time and presence on all these sites is a full-time job and I already have a FT job. I’m like the solo business owner who recognizes that the workload is too much for one person but it won’t quite support a second salary yet. Do you keep growing or pull back? Work yourself to death or hire PT help you can’t afford?

These days a big part of the problem is an inability to focus. I start a video but pause it to throw a load of laundry in the washer. I come back to the video, but decide I really should be writing. The words won’t flow so I decide to schedule blog posts instead. A few hours later I come back to the story but the words still aren’t there. Is it the story itself? Is it me as a writer? Is my brain simply turning to mush?

I honestly believe it’s because there is too much noise. Not literally, although there’s a lot of that too. I think collectively our brains are on overdrive with too much information to process every day. In the past, this feeling would have been my cue to get up from the keyboard and take the dogs for a run, or unplug from social media for a few days and immerse myself in my characters’ universe. But the problem is this time, I don’t want to do those things either. I can’t settle. I can’t focus.

I said to my husband this morning that we were in limbo, and that’s true. That’s what this feels like, this everlasting holding of one’s breath. Ten years ago, I was a much happier person. Uninformed, living in my own little bubble of privilege, but happier. I need to stay informed so I can take action on the things I can do something about–but there are a lot of things going on in the world right now that I have no control over–and perhaps I need to take a break from updates on those things. I strongly suspect one day we’ll learn that doomscrolling also provides some weird sort of feedback, a negative version of the dopamine hits you get when someone likes or comments on your posts.

So if you’re having trouble focusing on whatever is important to you right now: your NaNo project, your WIP, your book launch, a family issue, some work-related thing, something you’ve committed to but feel is getting away from you, take a little advice here. Unless it relates to whatever it is you need to get done, turn off the news. Stop checking out social media. Oh, you’re an author with a big launch coming up and you MUST make your presence known/felt? Schedule what you can in advance and go back to what’s really important. There are far bigger and scarier things threatening to end the world than lack of your social media presence.

Ruthlessly purge your email lists. If you’re not opening it, you’re just deadweight on someone’s list. Clean out your inbox. Those emails you’ve been saving to read at some future date? If they’re more than 6 months old and didn’t come from friends or family, purge it. Not using Discord, or Snapchat, or Twitter or Tumblr? Delete the apps from your phone. Trust me, you’ll feel so much relief from taking these steps.

Pick three sites to maintain a presence on. For me, it’s currently Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I have some real issues with Facebook’s policies and information mining, and I suspect it’s worse than we know, but for authors, a Facebook presence is considered necessary. I crosspost to as many things as possible to save time. For the time being, I intend to stay off SM as much as possible, using something like Hootsuite to manage my posts. I know, I know, interacting on these sites is The Key to building your audience organically and growing your brand (yikes, I typed that as “your bland” initially–Freudian much?) but so is writing your next bloody story!! For me, the only way to deal with the “squirrel brain” I have right now is to dam up the information overflow pipe and let that crap stream on without me.

I hate scheduling stuff because my life is so rigidly scheduled all the time, but using a daily planner helps me find blocks of time I didn’t know I had, while at the same time keeps me from spinning my wheels too long in one space without traction. If I block off 30-40 minutes for a task–like watching a craft/marketing video or working on a book trailer, etc–and that time runs out, I can decide if I will use the next block of time to complete it or move on. Sometimes the answer is MOVE ON. Just like cleaning your house, writing a book, or climbing a mountain–depending on the size of the project– some things are meant to be tackled a piece at a time. A piece plus a piece plus a piece becomes a whole.

The world is a scary place. Always has been for many, but these days we all have more information about just how scary it is and how directly that frightening thing can impact us. We need to learn how to utilize that information without letting it freeze us into inactivity. Time to calm that limbic system down again. Take a deep breath and put your phone down.

 

Give Yourself Permission to Self-Protect in Uncertain Times

TW for brief mention of election anxiety

 

 

 

Tomorrow is Election Day in the US. For many, it’s a referendum on Democracy as an institution. A matter of life and death when it comes down to civil rights, health care, climate change, and more. Others treat it more like a football game: my team against yours. Still others embrace their party’s ideology and leaders with a fervency that borders on cultism and speak of defending their side with violence if the election results don’t turn out the way they wish.

We are a nation divided, and that division not only stems from radically different ideologies, but also from outside forces fomenting anger and division on almost every topic you can name. I never held much with conspiracy theories in the past, but when we have Russian operatives seeding dissent on everything from vaccinating your kids to the Star Wars fandom, it’s hard to know what’s real and not real anymore.

We are constantly being gaslit. Not the least of which by our own government.

Side bar: I’ll never forget seeing a TV report in which a young Russian boy was receiving an award for his excellent knowledge of geography. Putin asked the child to name the borders of Russia and the kid began listing the various countries, only to have Putin interrupt him. With a shark-like smile, Putin said, “Russia has no borders.”

It was the most chilling thing I’d ever seen.

I know this much: we as a species are not wired to deal with the magnitude of constant, unrelenting stress we currently face between the pandemic, the growing spread of fascism, escalating, devastating climate change, fears for democracy and for our future. The very uncertainty of all of it–the fact alone there is no end date for the pandemic that we know of–makes it hard for many of us to maintain a level of awareness we need to keep ourselves safe. Even if we were taking things seriously, we have to go back to the car because we forgot to put on our mask or we forget to wash our hands. We’re like the person who knows they should eat broccoli for dinner but we’re tired and unhappy and we just say screw it and order pizza anyway. Except making a mistake now could have serious consequences for ourselves and everyone around us, much more so than a single night of dietary indulgence.

I also know something else: the people who keep saying don’t worry, everything will be fine on November 4th can say that because very little will change for them. They will still have access to health care. They won’t have to worry about being denied birth control coverage by their employer or fear being fired for their sexual orientation. They can go shopping or jog in their neighborhood without fear of being targeted, assaulted and killed because of the color of their skin. It’s easy for someone in a position of power to tell everyone else to calm down.

Most everyone I know is expressing an increased level of anxiety right now. I mean a seriously increased level of anxiety. And I’m here to say, give yourself permission to do whatever it takes to get you through these next few weeks, as long as it doesn’t bring harm to yourself or anyone else. Write inexplicably fluffy fanfiction. Binge-watch all twelve seasons of the Great British Bake Off. Play video games all day and into the night. Someone sent me this on WhatsApp and I immediately embraced it. Yes. THIS. Invite possums to a tea party if it makes you happy.

I’m currently posting photos of action figures doing book reviews to my Instagram account because posing the figures with actual replicas of itty bitty book covers calms my mind in a way I can’t achieve doing anything else. It’s silly, but you know what? I don’t care.

DON’T belittle someone else’s efforts at self-calming and self-protection. I’m one of those people who believe the holidays should be celebrated one at a time in good order, but if this year someone breaks out the pumpkin spice lattes in August or wants to decorate their home for Christmas before Halloween, I say more power to them. You know what? I never took down my indoor Christmas lights this past year, and turning them on at night soothes my soul in a cheap, painless way.

I’m seriously considering paying for the Hallmark channel this year because I love holiday movies and I can’t get enough of them. I could start watching them now until March and I’d be okay with this. And if watching improbable movies with ridiculous plots because there is snow and fairy lights and no one dies and the GUARANTEE of a HEA is what gets me through the weeks to come, that’s okay. If I’m wallowing in books from the Golden Age of Mystery and not doomscrolling on my phone, that’s more than okay. That’s smart. That’s healthy.

I’ve done all I know how to do for my country at this point in time. I’ve donated to candidates, encouraged others to vote, have voted already myself. It’s out of my hands now. I need to take the advice I’d give others with regards to getting through the coming weeks. Practice self-protection and self-care. Which doesn’t mean tossing making healthy eating choices or getting enough sleep out the window, tempting as that is. Believe me, I’ve eaten Cap’n Crunch dry out of the box before and called it dinner. But making yourself sick with garbage food isn’t helping matters any.

This uncertainty is part of the reason I’ve been stalled in my writing for months now. I normally hit a little lull when I finish a story, and the business of launching a book sidetracks me with all the marketing and promotion of the new release. This time I’ve been much slower to start working on the next story because I’ve been long on anxiety and short on hope. There frequently seems little point in telling my silly stories when it feels as though the world is coming to an end.

But it occurred to me this morning that my intrepid heroine would take a dim view of this inaction on my part. Part of dealing with the world at large is creating a universe of my own in which I control the outcomes. In this next installment of Redclaw Origins, Rhett faces the equivalent of a Doomsday Scenario. By giving her the strength and wits to deal, I find a little pocket of peace for myself. Sometimes when dealing with some daily trauma, I ask: What Would Rhett Do?

Let’s find out.

Last night I put on my “bracelets of power” and sat down to the keyboard for the first time since I typed “the end” on Bishop’s Gambit. Perhaps I am just re-arranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic. But the world isn’t going to save itself, and Rhett could use a little help.

We Need to Respect the Power of Words More Than Ever

Photo by Designecologist from Pexels

(trigger warning for self-harm)

 

Back in 2004, I went to see a movie called What the Bleep Do We Know!? with a friend of mine. It was a weird combination of quantum mysticism (along the lines of The Secret and other ‘law of attraction” books that claim to grant you all your dreams if you put them into words with intent) and pseudoscience that sounded good. I remember leaving the theater thinking, “It’s all my fault.”

That every bad thing that had ever happened to me was because I brought it into being with my thoughts. Every goal I failed to achieve, every dream I shelved, was all my fault because I didn’t believe in it hard enough. 

Holy Tinkerbell, Batman.

The notion didn’t stick with me for long. I had some real issues with the movie–not the least of which was the fact the main character was depicted popping anti-depressants like candy and then chucking the whole bottle in the trash in the end. No, no, and no. That’s not the way anti-depressants work and you should NEVER stop such medication cold-turkey unless directed to do so by your doctor.

Photo by Gerd Altmann from Pexels

But in 2006, The Secret came out, sold millions, and generated a brief revival in the law of attraction theory. If you’re not familiar with it, the law of attraction is the theory that positive or negative thoughts bring positive or negative experiences into your life. There’s nothing new about this concept. Normal Vincent Peale popularized it in 1952 with bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking. Like The Secret, this book was received poorly by the scientific community, and touted changing your life through positive affirmations, but with a Biblical twist.

I wrote about this same subject last year (ironically, about this time), and many of my thoughts on the subject are the same–though I am laughing like a hyena right now at the memory of my sister’s astrologist’s predictions for the coming year… Suffice to say, I think her astrologist might not want to give up her day job.

But back to this philosophy: these books have a powerful attraction for us as consumers (see what I did there?) because they promise something that is within our control: we can achieve our wildest dreams if we only believe in them hard enough.

Failure only means you didn’t believe hard enough. It’s not the fault of the philosophy itself. It’s yours.

I have a real love-hate relationship with this kind of thinking. On one level, I think it’s all bunkum. It doesn’t matter how much I want to be an opera singer–if I can’t carry a note in a bucket, I’m never going to perform at The Met. I might dream of being an astronaut, but be incapable of performing the upper level mathematics. And so on.

On the other level, I do believe in “putting it out there in the universe.” Of stating a desired goal, be it ever so seemingly out of reach, in the hopes of putting wind beneath the wings of that desire. I believe in making affirmations. Each December I enjoy picking a word to be my intention for the coming year. I believe in making talismans for myself.

Where I differ from the quantum mystics is that when I put my desire out there in the universe, I do so because articulating it makes it clearer in my own mind. Stating a specific goal makes it easier for me to take the steps necessary to achieve it. Many times, left unspoken, the desire remains unformed as well. It’s difficult to race toward a finish line you cannot see.

When I create talismans for myself, they serve as reminders to focus on the word I want to be my motto for the year, be it fearless, or audacious, or persistent. The power isn’t in the bracelet or charm itself. It’s in the reminder its presence serves. Sometimes glancing at the particular talisman offers a kind of mental grounding. It’s not magic. It’s a means of creating focus.

But there are times when I can point to something I did with the law of attraction in mind and my results exceeded expectations. Was it because I clearly imagined the outcome I wanted over and over again until it came true? Possibly. Who knows. I certainly don’t discount the law of attraction entirely as a result. But I am so skilled in self-sabotage there are many times when I don’t want the law of attraction to hold any validity. Otherwise we’re back to how I felt leaving the movie theater in 2004. All my failures are as a result of my negative thinking.

One thing I can say is that I firmly believe we assimilate what we tell ourselves over and over again. Even more so if this internal statement has received outside validity. It’s one of the reasons we get trapped in the stories we believe about ourselves: if someone important to us told us we weren’t smart enough, pretty enough, talented enough, good enough, chances are we’re continuing to tell ourselves these things, whether or not they’re true.

I struggle with this because if you ask me to write down positive affirmations about myself, I can’t do it if the affirmation seems too out there. I have to change the wording to accommodate my beliefs, which kind of defeats the purpose, I think. It’s hard for me to “dream big” (which is one of the reasons I include these words when signing a book). I’m far too good at coming up with negative things to say to myself–that ugly soundtrack plays 365 days a year and I have a lifetime of ‘unlearning’ the lies I’ve told myself.

I know this to be true: you are what you tell yourself.

So a cold shock ran through me when I recently caught myself with a new “negative-speak” I must erase. Just this past week, I realized there were two things I needed to stop saying, both to myself and aloud.

The first is started out as a self-defense mechanism when I got challenged by anyone for taking the pandemic seriously. I’d explain that I had high-risk family members, but too often people in my area challenge our decision to remain curbside service only and to wear masks. So I began saying I was high risk as well, and that if I got Covid, I would die. As an argument, it tended to shut people up. But what a terrible thing to be telling myself!

I’m moderately high-risk, I’m definitely high-stress. I’m not in the best of health. But a 113-year-old pensioner has survived while people in their thirties have died. There are so many factors that determine mortality–including virus load at the time of exposure–that my contacting Covid isn’t an automatic death sentence. Not unless I go around thinking it is.

My response these days to people who scoff at my mask-wearing? “I’m a scientist. I know how viruses work. I want the people in my community to live.”

The second thing I have to stop saying is, “This job is killing me.” While it’s true that most days I feel like I’m at the breaking point, that I’m on the flash-point of burnout, I need to STOP SAYING THIS. Because I don’t want to bring that repetitive thought into reality.

And the funny thing is, if I can point to these extremes and recognize the harm I’m doing when I tell myself these things, it becomes easier to recognize the much smaller nicks and lacerations I’ve been inflicting on myself for as long as I can remember. Some people cut themselves with actual blades. Others do it with thoughts and words.

I’ve always been one for words.

I need to wield them with more care. We all do.

Be safe. Be well. And most of all, be kind to yourself right now.

 

 

 

Re-Inventing Yourself at Any Age

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare.

Photo by Anthony from Pexels

I have a unique opportunity at the moment. I get to decide who I want to be.

You might say we get to decide that many times at different stages of our lives, and it’s true. But I’m talking about something a little different here today. See, I get to decide what my legal name will be.

When I got married, I didn’t take my husband’s last name for various reasons. We were both older, and had no intention of having children together. We were both established professionals as well, and changing my name would have meant jumping through a LOT of legal hoops with a number of professional organizations. It was simpler to keep my own name, and though I considered making the switch, in the end, I decided not to.

But a little wrinkle came up recently, and now the name situation is front and center again. See, I went to the DMV to register for that Real ID thing that’s required now and I brought all my documentation with me. And that’s when I hit a snag. I don’t spell my name the way it’s written on my birth certificate. I guess when I went to school, my teachers assumed my name was spelled in the more traditional fashion. Like Allison instead of Allyson, or Katherine instead of Katharine (leave it to Katharine Hepburn to have a non-traditional spelling of her name!). Anyway, my teachers assumed it was spelled a certain way and they taught me to write it the same. My parents never noticed–or if they did, never bothered to correct it.

I was 12 years old before I learned of the difference. At the time, I was entranced with the idea of a different spelling and I decided I would spell my name that way from then on. A different spelling felt as though I could become a different person, and the child I was at the time would have loved to be anyone else. In fact, I often fantasized about having a different name altogether, which is probably why I took to the pen name thing for authors so readily. But after six months of trying to change my signature to the “correct” spelling, I gave up and went back to the old, incorrect signature. And from then on, I never gave it another thought. Work forms, graduate degrees, tax documents, bank accounts, credit cards, passports, and yes, my marriage certificate… I signed for all of them with the spelling I’d used for most of my life.

Only when I went to get the Real ID, they refused to issue it to me. The name on my birth certificate and the name on all my other legal documents must match. And now I have to go to the courthouse at some point and rectify this if I want to fly on an airplane ever again. Now mind you, I have no intention of flying any time soon–not until we have a reliable, safe vaccine for the coronavirus. My driver’s license was up for renewal and I thought I might as well get the Real ID while I was there. (Don’t get me started on the stupidity and unnecessary regulation of the whole Real ID nonsense. That’s a rant for another day…) I’m not going to start that legal name change process until after the November elections, either. I don’t want to do ANYTHING to jeopardize my ability to vote in the next election.

But it opens up the possibility of changing my name altogether. I have to file for a legal name change. I could take my husband’s name now. I could change my given name altogether. I could leave behind the tired, dated name I was born with and chose something edgier that I liked. I could take on my pen name if I wanted. I could be like the bored, repressed housewife Cathy Palmer in American Dreamer, who gets hit on the head while vacationing in France and suddenly believes she is the brilliant, sexy, and extremely fictional international spy Rebecca Ryan. Because Cathy believes she is her favorite fictional character, she becomes Rebecca Ryan–so much so that the people that meet her are completely taken in.

I think most of us have wanted, like Cathy, to let our inner Rebecca Ryan loose. Or maybe it was just me. I adore this movie.

And I see the possibilities here now.

I know a simple name change won’t wipe away the past or make me thinner, younger, wittier, and give me back my strength of purpose. Change takes hard work and comes in small increments over time, neither of which feels very plentiful in my life right now.

But it’s tempting. Very tempting. The thought of changing my name is a siren call promising me a better, happier, more fulfilling life. Even though I know that despite becoming an Allyson or a Katharine or a Rebecca, I’d still be the same old me underneath. 

Who would you be if you could wave a wand and become someone else? Would you do it? Inquiring minds want to know.

 

Bringing Back Vintage Board Games in Pandemic Times

During one of our many moves, I boxed up all the old kids’ board games and donated them to Goodwill. It seemed ridiculous to keep toting them around when no one played them anymore. The kids themselves were off to college or in their own places, and I couldn’t remember the last time we had a gathering of people over to play board games. With tablets to hand, there was so much more to do: you could watch a movie, read a book, or play games online. I kept a deck of cards, but everything else went the way of Marie Kondo.

Then the pandemic hit.

For various reasons, my husband and I have chosen to maintain separate households. He can work from home. I cannot. Someone needs to be at the farm to take care of the livestock, and since I’m an essential worker, it made sense for him to move in with high-risk family members and be the person who ran errands for them when needed. We’re lucky that we can do this, I know.

Most days, by the time I get home from work and take care of the animals, I’m so exhausted that I scarcely notice how lonely my existence is right now. From dawn until dusk I’m run off my feet, only to sit down for an hour or two before it’s time for bed and start the cycle all over the next day. When I get a day off, I’m frequently playing catch up: grocery, laundry, cleaning the house. It’s a wonder I get any writing done!

In the past, Saturday evenings had been our Date Night. We’d go out to dinner, and either watch a movie at home or go to the theater. We also have several TV series that we watch together. I enjoy hanging out with my husband. He’s my best friend.

So I was determined to bring back Date Night in some form. The first challenge was what to do about meeting safely when we were apart all week–and I was being exposed to clients daily. Lack of a screened-in porch and a ferocious mosquito issue (one that defied all bug spray and gnat zappers) limited our time together until I purchased a mosquito tent. It only takes a few minutes to set up and we have hours of insect-free time in it. Instead of dinner out, we grill something and pair it with salad or greens. I make bread or dessert. We sit outside in the tent with a cold beer or glass of wine and relax. To be honest, I don’t miss eating out at all.

But what I do miss is some way of occupying myself while we talk.

I’m not a knitter, and both of us are a little too quick to pick up the smartphone and start scrolling if there’s a lull in the conversation, so I thought it would be fun to resurrect some of the old board games. Only I’d gotten rid of them all.

I started to simply replace them, but it didn’t take long to realize many of the games in question, like Uno, were best played with a group of people. I wanted to have that option for the future, but I also wanted games that worked well for just two players. I did a couple of online searches for the best two player games, and came up with a few I’d never heard of before. Most of the ones I ran across I remembered from my youth–games played at my grandmother’s house, or during summer camp. There were the classics, of course. Chess, checkers, and backgammon. But many were games I hadn’t thought about in years.

My husband is wicked-good at anything that requires some sort of strategy, to the point that it’s nearly impossible to win against him. I’m no slouch myself, but as soon as I change gears, he’ll effortlessly switch to a new tactic, and leave me in the dust. One of the two-person games I ordered is called Imhotep: The Duel. I believe it’s a modified version of a game for more players. We’ve only played it a couple of times, but each time, my husband cleaned my clock. That’s why I had to find something that had SOME element of chance in it as well, or else I’d never win a single game and the experience would be endlessly frustrating. 

Having been on a research kick for a series of books set in the 1950s, it was easy enough to turn to vintage board games. Bonus points if I could find a version featuring the original artwork. Though it’s unlikely my characters will ever sit down to play one of these games in my stories, it’s fun to know they could do so if I wrote it in. And so I bought Sorry! and Yahtzee. I replaced my backgammon board–and while backgammon is definitely another strategy game I’m probably doomed to lose, there’s a variant called American Acey-Deucy that would even the odds in my favor.

It’s hard to describe just how nice it was to sit outside last night in our little mosquito tent, laughing, talking, jeering at, and encouraging each other as we played. We spoke of our week, and of things that we needed to share, but the world and all its horrors seemed very far away. As dusk fell, the light from our bug zapper cast a friendly glow over the table on an evening pleasantly cool for mid-July while we studied rule books and started another game. It was such a nice night it was hard to say goodbye at the end of it. I could picture ourselves at some future date, when it is safe to gather in company again, pulling out these games for an evening of fun in the same vein.

So if you’re looking for an alternative way of spending the evening with your family, I suggest taking a step back in time. Turn off the news. Put down the smartphone. Pick up those dice and shake them in that can. It’s time to play Yahtzee, my friends.

How a Worldwide Pandemic Became a Harsh Therapist

photo by cottonbro

CW for eating disorders, snakes, destructive coping mechanisms, problematic relationships, pandemic fears, body dysmorphia

I had a wonderful mother.

At a time when few women were encouraged to chase their dreams, my mother was all about her daughters growing up to be whatever they desired. As a result, I became an adult without realizing the degree of misogyny and inequality women faced in their careers. I thought that particular battle had been fought and won. Perhaps because of this, I entered the workforce confident of my place there, and it showed.

Taught not to expect help from anyone, I became the person who waded into a project, saw what needed doing, and got it done. Once, I was camping with friends when we discovered a copperhead near the tents. I trapped the venomous snake in an empty trash can and forded an ice-cold spring river to release it on the opposite bank. The river was deeper and colder than expected, and the trash can filled with water as I dragged it behind me. The snake began rising to the top of the can, but I didn’t panic. I kept my eye on the snake until I arrived, teeth chattering, to dump it out on the far bank and plunge back into the river. And yes, the photo here is a picture taken by me of that snake.

My mother also instilled in me a love of reading, a treasure that brings me joy to this day and for which I will always be grateful. My love of reading has sustained me through illness, isolation, depression, and times of high anxiety. It has also given me my passion in life, which is to write my own stories of love and adventure.

I also had a… problematic mother.

Her determination to raise independent daughters, combined with her own troubled upbringing, meant she brought her issues to the table when parenting. Fatphobic, her own eating disorder was reflected in most of her children. She had an almost pathological fear of aging, one that I struggle with today. Messages intended to make me self-reliant came across as “no one will ever want you” and “you’ll never be smart enough, pretty enough, talented enough, good enough for anyone.”

On meeting my mother for the first time, one of my friends said to me, “Oh, my God. All these years we thought you were exaggerating…”

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to understand my mother a lot better. Her complete devotion to her job meant she had little time and energy left over for her children, and working with disadvantaged children meant her own, privileged kids had better get it right on the first try. And oh man, do I get the irritability that comes with utter exhaustion now. I cringe when I hear my mother’s words come out of my mouth, and tell myself I’ll do better next time.

If I’m hard on those around me, that’s nothing to the internal monologue I aim at myself. Right now, I look the worst I’ve ever looked in my life: fat, frumpy, and old. Face it, I can’t really call myself “middle-aged” anymore unless the average life span of a human being is 110. I haven’t had a decent haircut in six months. I’ve added another ten pounds to the twenty I’ve been trying to lose. From the time I turned 25, I’ve been scanning my face and body for signs of aging. I used to joke that I had “Aging Anorexia”, but I have since learned there is a disorder called body dysmorphia: the inability to look in the mirror or see a photo of myself without adding imaginary years to the image or magnify perceived flaws. If I had a hard time believing I could be loved when I was young and fit, you should hear my inner thoughts now.

Yet all in all, I’m fairly well-adjusted, though I could probably use therapy. I was in the process of finding a therapist when the pandemic hit, which brought the process to a grinding halt. So many people were in the same boat, and most of the therapists recommended to me were overwhelmed and not taking on any new patients. I decided I could wait, even though it was clear I wasn’t handling things well.

The stress of being an essential worker during a pandemic triggered binge eating, stockpiling, and evenings where I stayed plugged in to Netflix. I bought a sewing machine in a desperate attempt to make masks. I planted a garden for the first time ever because I feared I’d need to grow my own food. I even looked into putting in bee hives and a chicken coop.

I’d already had a rough couple of years. Deaths of family members. Deaths of pets. Health issues. Work stress. The loss of communities. The horror of seeing every terrible prediction I’ve made about a Trump administration come true. I did whatever I needed to do to get me through my stress and anxiety over the pandemic, and to hell with the consequences.

But the pandemic didn’t end. It still hasn’t ended. It’s not contained. It’s out of control here in the US. We have no vaccine. We have no specific treatment. People speak of the Second Wave, but we’re still riding the first. We are in this for the long haul, with no foreseeable end. As of this writing, the global death toll from the coronavirus is a half a million people, and in the US, 128,000 people have died. Compared to the number of deaths from the flu in the 2018-2019 season (34,200), this virus is far worse. More people have died from COVID-19 in the US than the total death toll from WW1. There are those who believe we’re on track to lose as many people as the 1918 Flu Pandemic. Not surprisingly, there was an Anti-Mask Movement then, too.

Because a bunch of selfish wankers refuse to wear a mask that AT WORST is only an inconvenience and at BEST might stem the tide of a spreading pandemic, I doubt there will be a single family in the US not affected in some way by this horrible disease. I expect to lose more family members before this is all over, and I find that unforgivable.

The human psyche and body is not designed for sustained stress. For many people, this has resulted in pandemic fatigue and a desire to “get back to normal”, even if that means risking death.

Even among people still concerned about the risks of the pandemic, there is slacking off in taking precautions. You’re not as careful about disinfecting your hands after touching a public surface. You don’t pay as much attention to social distancing as you should. You don’t always time your grocery runs so that fewer people will be at the store.

But surprisingly, I’m finding that some good lessons have come out of the pandemic for me.

I am learning to find joy in little things again. Quiet time on walks with the dogs. Music. Reading.

I’ve realized that I am not willing to spend the rest of my life living only to make money to pay bills and lose weight.

Normally an upcoming birthday is a trigger to go into a frenzy of diet and exercise in order to feel better about tacking another year onto my life. Now I’m just happy to still be alive.

Making healthier food choices is about feeling better and being in a better position to fight off illness than about losing weight and “looking my best.”

Exercise is about mitigating pain and improving flexibility instead of losing weight. It’s about being able to continuing doing the things I love. As such, the diet and exercise choices have become smaller, quieter decisions I make every day instead of panicked, overly ambitious ones I make on a deadline.

Sunscreen and skin protection is about avoiding cancer, not about reversing the clock. “Oil of Delay” no more.

The pandemic has taught me about being in things for the long haul, and how we need to pace ourselves. How it’s okay to declare you need a mental break some days. 

If every day we were expected to place 100 pounds of rocks in a backpack and carry it with us to our destination, most of us would break down under that weight before we learned to carry it. Some of us couldn’t carry it regardless of all the training we put in. But most of us can carry a few small rocks a short distance. If we have to keep going back to the pile to transfer them all, if it takes us ten times or a thousand times longer to move them the entire distance, that’s okay.

We’re in it for the long haul.

 

McKenna Dean: Goat Hunter

Yes, you read that right. McKenna Dean, author of paranormal romance, is a goat hunter. Goat. Not ghost.

And not in the way you might think. I’m not out with a rifle tracking down goats to shoot them. I am stalking them, however.

With a camera.

See, earlier this year, I began walking the dogs in the evenings again. Soon it will be too hot, but we’ve had a long cool spring, and after struggling with plantar fasciitis for over a year, it was good to get back in the habit of daily walks. Our route takes us past some fields where people keep livestock, and I’ve become interested in their inhabitants, as one does.

The goats have proven to be the most entertaining. There used to be a television program in the 70’s called Hee Haw that featured country music and cone pone humor. Given endless life in syndication, it was the sort of show most people knew about, even if they hadn’t seen it. I was never a fan (my tastes leaning more toward Saturday Night Live, even as a child), I occasionally watched an episode with my grandparents. One skit comes to mind: a school teacher presents a math problem to a student (let’s call him “Abner”) concerning goats:

Teacher: Abner, you have 20 goats in a field and 2 get out. How many goats are left in the field?

Abner: Zero.

Teacher: Abner! I said you have 20 goats and 2 got out. 20 minus 2 is 18, not zero!

Abner: Ma’am, if two goats got out, they all done got out.

While I’m not a fan of wince-inducing humor, this particular kernel (get it, I made a corny pun) has a lot of truth to it. Goats get out of any field you put them in.

So on any given afternoon, I might turn the corner on my path to find goats everywhere. Tall Nubians with their floppy ears. Stubby little Pygmies and sturdy little Alpines. Goats with spots, goats with horns, goats without horns. Goats with beards, goats with blue eyes, goats with attitude.

It takes you back a bit when confronted with a herd of goats, some of them shaking their horns at you and your dogs. The lovely thing about herd animals, however, is their sense of flight distance. This is the zone you enter that will trigger the herd to collectively move away from you. If you come into slowly and quietly, without taking a threatening posture, you can pressure the herd to gradually move in the direction you wish.

So after attempting without success to locate the owners of the field and tell them their goats were getting out, whenever I’d come across the loose goats, the dogs and I would carefully approach the herd until they zipped back through the opening in the fence they were squeezing through. There was always one holdout: a big horned goat that would give us the stink eye while all his or her buddies ran back to the safety of their field.

It made for an interesting interlude in our evenings walks, that’s for sure. Then one day last week, I noticed a new addition to the field! OMG, a BABY GOAT. Yes, I know they are called kids, but c’mon, it’s like saying Baby Yoda even when you know it’s not really Yoda (or is it?)

As you can see, this is a crappy pic taken with my cell phone on zoom because it was the closest I could get with the dogs. But I decided I’d come back the next day without the dogs and with my Real Camera to take a decent pic.

That’s when the stalking began.

Because the next day, there was no baby goat to be seen. Mama was there, walking about the field, bleating in the most pathetic way, but no Baby Goat. I have to say, this upset me more than I expected. Perhaps it’s because of the pandemic that I’m so emotionally sensitive right now. I’m an empath, and the degree to which the world is hurting is hard to bear many days. I couldn’t believe how invested I’d become in these goats and how the absence of one little newborn could hurt so much. I thought it possible the goats had left the field again (though I hadn’t seen any recent evidence of that) and perhaps the baby had gotten lost. Or maybe it had just been too cold for it (we’ve had frost the past couple of nights). Or maybe the mother didn’t have enough milk. Unfortunately, because of the thicket that surrounds most of the field, I could only scan so much for the missing baby.

But I was determined to keep looking.

The next day was cold and rainy. No sign of the baby. In fact, most of the goats were huddled a distance away from the fence line. That wasn’t good. I realized the kid probably didn’t make it. Depressed, I continued my walk.

The day after that was sunny and breezy. The dogs frisked along in front of me as we approached the field. I gave the goats a passing glance, when what did I see? THE BABY GOAT! Only as before, I only had my cell phone, and the excited dogs made Mama goat lead the baby further away from the fence. Fine. I’d be back in the morning with the Real Camera.

One of the unexpected side effects of the pandemic is I’ve been forced to slow down. I can’t rush here and there like I used to. I have to give some thought about when and how to go to the store. I spend the evenings at home alone with the animals. Days off are spent at home as well, and I’m doing more reading, more cleaning, more baking. This forced–I don’t want to use the word inactivity because I’m not sitting around doing nothing–it’s more of quietness that has had a chance to flourish–anyway, this forced quietness has resulted in a willingness to be patient, to allow things to come to fruition in their own time.

It’s been good for my writing. After months of barely scribbling a word, I’m okay with letting the story simmer on the back burner for a bit if it needs to. When I do write, it’s with the knowledge that what I’m committing to paper isn’t forced, but has come into its growth on its own. My crit group has noticed, commenting that what I’m turning out now is more complete on the first draft and needs less polishing. I think it’s because I’m no longer spinning my wheels in an endless effort to get out of the muddy pit I’ve been mired in for so long. I know where I want to go with this story now and I’m okay with how long it takes to get there.

And this quietness has taught me patience in other areas as well.

So when last Sunday, I took my camera and went up to the field to try to capture an image of the baby goat with a high quality camera, I was able to sit on the hood of my car soaking in the sunshine and listening to the birdsong while I scanned the field, camera in hand, waiting for a baby goat sighting. I didn’t feel as though I had to be somewhere else. It was just me, the brisk morning breeze, the trilling calls of the redwing blackbirds, and the milling about of goats in the field. I never saw the baby goat that morning, but I did identify the daddy. And a handsome fellow he is, too.

I must have sat for over thirty minutes hoping to spot the baby, to no avail. And yet it did not feel at all like wasted time. Now that I knew the baby was still alive, it was just a matter of time before I photographed it. I kept looking for it on dog walks, but I also randomly drove out to the field at different times of day to see if I could get a picture. I began to get a feel for the goats’ pattern of movement now. How they hugged the far fence line in the heat of the day, where the thicket provided shade. How they slept piled around the large bale of hay in the mornings, enjoying the warm sunshine. How they’d flock to the gate when I pulled up in my car (as opposed to when I came on foot with the dogs), indicating they were used to being fed by someone in a vehicle.

Yesterday, I woke to a porch slick with frost and the occasional flake of snow coming down! In May! The afternoon was brisk and chilly, so I decided to take the dogs out while it was still sunny and reasonably pleasant. And what did I see when I reached the field? Not only the baby goat I’d been seeking, sleeping beside Mama in the sun, but MORE BABY GOATS!

Four new ones, to be exact. I don’t know why this surprised me, after all, I knew there was a billy in the group and that he’d bred at least one doe. So yeah, more kids were kind of to be expected. But I felt as though I’d won the jackpot. Because now there were FIVE baby goats to stalk, er… photograph. I finished my dog walk and returned with the Real Camera.

The goats were still pretty far away, but I got some decent pictures…

Are they not adorable or what? You can see they take after their daddy.

The mamas seemed pretty chill about who nursed whom as well. These babies seemed to belong to this doe…

But then they turned around to nurse on this one as well! Yay for the village to raise some baby goats!

And in case you’re wondering, I did get a photo of the original baby goat–now astonishingly bigger than the newborns, with just one week between them!

I don’t know why goat-watching has brought me such joy this spring. Perhaps because it’s brought me uncomplicated peace. Perhaps because emerald-green grass and sunlight fields were made for baby goats to skip across while golden melodies pour out of nearby songbirds and a breeze ruffles my hair.

This spring will forever be the spring of the 2020 pandemic. But for me, it will also be the spring of the baby goats. I hope you can find peace and joy in your lives right now. Be safe. Be well.