Finding Joy in Loss

We’re nearing the end of the extensive renovations, but the work just keeps going on. It’s like one of those house flipping shows where they start in with a tight budget and big plans but discover rot in the walls, and one thing leads to another. Sometimes the unexpected expense is a delightful revelation—like when we discovered that hooking up to town water was an option—and now was the time to do it. After living with impossibly hard water for the ten years we’ve been in the house, along with the low water pressure, bad taste and odor of the well water, and the fact the water turned brown when it rained too hard, investing in the hookup to town water was a no-brainer. In addition to adding to the resale value of the property should we ever sell, I now enjoy showers with the water pressure of a luxury hotel. And like Goldilocks, this water is just right. Not so hard it limes up the coffee maker and not so soft it feels slimy—like you can never completely rinse clean. Just blissfully right.

One of the unhappy expected expenses was is the realization that the heavy construction has chewed up the yard around the house, creating huge ruts that weeks of rain have left with standing water. We have built a walkway out of plywood, plastic tarps, straw, and cardboard, but the sea of mud surrounding the house is steadily working its way inside. We hadn’t factored landscaping, or the need to rebuild the concrete patio, into our remodel plans.

As much as I’ve been looking forward to the desperately needed remodel (honestly, it’s a wonder the house passed inspection when we bought it, and a miracle it didn’t collapse or burn down around us), coming on top of everything else in the last year, it’s been stressful. Even good stress is tough to deal with at times.

I was already struggling a bit emotionally. One of the remodeling decisions we made was to take out a wall, and while it made for a lovely open space where the living room used to be dark, small, and cramped, it severely cut down on my space to hang pictures. I love pictures. Be they photographs I’ve taken myself, images of my various fandoms, or reminders of some place I’ve traveled, I tend to collect and post images that—to borrow Marie Kondo’s phrase—bring me joy. Only during the unpacking process, I’d found myself tearing off protective paper to stare down at a beloved image and have no earthly idea where it should go—or if it should even go back up again.

The remodeling process has definitely triggered my desire to go Marie Kondo on my life (I should point out this is not something new since the Netflix show but something I’ve been considering for some time now—ever since I first read her book and resisted its tenets). Both when packing things for storage and unpacking them now, I’ve been taking a hard look at everything and trying to decide if it still brings me joy or not.

So when I was unwrapping our photographs and prints, trying to decide which to put where, I was devastated to discover the glass on one of my oldest prints was cracked.

I was already in a fragile state of mind when I discovered the damage to my print. Worse, the print was something my mother had picked up at an antique store when I was a child and I’d been carting around from house to house ever since. It has literally been a part of my life as long as I can remember. See, I identified with that beaming little girl and her gentle giant of a dog. It could have been a portrait of me at the same age.

Behind the glass, you could see the ravages of time. One of the reasons I’d never reframed it was that the print was coming to pieces in places, and that removal from the frame would likely cause the whole thing to disintegrate. Now I had no choice. I couldn’t hang a picture with broken glass. So I held my damaged print in my hands and wept. One more thing to add to the things I’ve lost in the past year. And this time, it felt like I was losing me as well.

My husband, quick to respond to my distress, suggested taking it to a framing shop to see what they could do. I didn’t see the point at first—in my mind it was already a total loss as any attempt to remove it from the frame would result in the final destruction. But we went to the framing store anyway, and an incredibly empathetic woman there not only appreciated the degree to which the damage upset me, but she treated my print with the care one would bestow on a living thing. She managed to get it out of the frame without destroying it, a painstaking process that made both of us sweat just a little, as she had to remove the backing in pieces warped by age and neglect.

In doing so, for the first time, I was able to see the name of the artist, previously hidden by the frame.

In the meantime, my husband did a reverse image search on the print, just in case my fears were realized and the whole thing turned to dust like Ayeshea on stepping into the Spirit of Life the second time and reverting to her true age. Not only did he find out the print is still available, though replacing it would have cost a pretty penny, he did a little research on the artist as well. Arthur John Elsley was an English painter of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, famous for his depictions of children and dogs. He was very popular in his day, with his works appearing in magazines and calendars. His style was so distinctive, I suspect I’d recognize it if I came across another of his paintings. I checked the prices on his original paintings still available–some go for as high as $100,000!

The story has a happy ending, though. Not only was the framer able to remove the print largely intact, but she was able to clean and repair it for the most part. We made the decision to reuse the original frame (being of stout oak, of the likes it would be hard to replace without spending a lot of money) and use acrylic instead of glass to decrease the chance of future breakage. The end result is better than what I had before the glass broke.

Not only do I have an improved print to hang on my wall, but I also now know the name and history of the artist, which brings me a little extra fillip of pleasure when I look at the smiling little girl and her tolerant dog. I have something even more valuable as well—more affirmation that my guy has my back. I have no doubt that had the restoration proved terminal, he’d have seen to it I got another copy of that print.

And that, my dear Marie Kondo fans, brings me joy.

The Obligatory End-of-2018 Post

I missed a golden opportunity to post last week about my favorite day of the year: Christmas Eve. While Halloween is fun (I love dressing up, and who doesn’t love candy?) Christmas Eve has long held the number one spot for me as far as favorite days of the year. There’s all the lead up to it: the decorations, the shopping, the Christmas songs on the radio, the holiday baking, watching the holiday-themed movies, wrapping presents… I love Christmas Eve because of all the days of the year, it has the most potential, the most expectant hope and joy for the future. I think I love the promise of Christmas Eve more than I love Christmas Day itself.

But Christmas Eve came and went without me commenting on it this year. No big deal. I made cookies, watched movies, and opened presents with the family. It was good.

Now we are entering the time period I like the least of the entire year–the run up to New Year’s Eve.

I dislike New Year’s Eve for many reasons–I’m noise-sensitive and dislike loud holidays in general. I don’t enjoy crowds, I’m not a party-girl, and I have dogs–who also cower during noisy holidays. Shield me from the fireworks and blaring horns. If I do stay up past midnight, it’s because I’m engrossed in a good book and don’t want to put it down just yet.

But I also dislike the year-end retrospectives. Guess what, you’re about to turn another year older. Here’s who died in the past year. Here’s what happened in the world. Here’s what I accomplished in 2018. Cheers to 2019. Rah, rah.

I guess I dislike these kinds of posts because they place such emphasis on the posts we’re already making: trips we’ve taken, achievements in our careers, heck, what we had for lunch today. The end-of-year period has frequently been disappointing to me because I didn’t lose 30 pounds, win the lottery, travel extensively, get nominated for a major award or hit the bestseller list. Somehow, sitting down to figure out what I did achieve stresses how little I got done besides get up, work ten hours, and come home. Day after day.

So yeah, New Year’s Eve doesn’t make the top ten list of favorite holidays. Not even close.

Only this year, as I was answering emails from various people, one of my friends shared a New Year’s Eve tradition that beats the heck out of partying too hard or sitting in front of the TV waiting for the ball to drop. She said she gets together with friends and everyone writes down something they want to leave behind from 2018–as well as what they wish for themselves in 2019–and burn the paper in a bonfire.

I love this idea.

I’ve been spending some time considering what I’d leave behind. Fear, certainly. Depression. A feeling of hopelessness, the sense that it is all downhill from here and that the best of my life is behind me. Sorrow and grief, twin anchors that have been crippling me these past few years. Self-doubt, a silent killer that has been sabotaging dreams and plans as long as I can remember.

What I wish for is a little harder. I’m not used to picturing what I want–I’ve become too good at imagining worst-case scenarios instead. But I’d definitely wish for a return of health–both mental and physical–even it it means having to work at it. Laugh at myself and with others. Put worry behind me–never once has it made a positive difference in my life, it has only done damage. Refill my creative well and dip from its clear, cold water every day. Shut the door on envy and resentment.

Not just merely exist, but actually live.

For the first time in memory, I’m actually looking forward to New Year’s Eve.

How about you? How do you celebrate the end of one year and the beginning of the next?

Creativity, Gratitude, and Self-Care in a Dumpster-Fire World

I’ve been finding it very difficult to write lately.

I know I’m not alone in this–it’s a refrain I hear from many creative types right now. It has less to do with my personal battles with depression and more to do with the constant bombardment of horrific news–especially the mounting tension as we move steadily toward the US mid-term elections. These elections are going to prove to be a referendum on so many things: where we stand as a nation on democracy, diversity, climate change, health care, decency, equality, and compassion. The stakes have never been higher.

As such, I find myself creatively holding my breath, unable to concentrate on the WIP despite a looming deadline. It feels too damn frivolous to be carving out a HEA right now, even though readers probably need the stress-relief, temporary escape, and emotional encouragement more than ever.

And yet I believe in the transformative power of storytelling.

For a while now, Supergirl has been accurately needling social issues of the day in its writing. On the surface, the show is nothing more than a little escapist superhero television action, but at the end of season 2, Cat Grant makes an amazing speech on resistance and courage in the face of fearful times, and I fistpump the air every time I watch it.

 

It’s a powerful scene that fits seamlessly with the the plot without overtly hammering the viewer over the head with the message. It’s brilliant.

But the writers of Supergirl haven’t stopped there. In another episode, James Olsen shares an experience of being accosted and accused of a crime as young black child–an experience Mehcad Brooks had in real life when he was only seven years old.

And this season, the show’s opening montage openly describes Supergirl as a refugee on our planet–and the first couple of episodes have dealt with the growing hostility and suspicion of “aliens” living on Earth and a rising “Earth First” movement. Yes, it’s a somewhat cheesy CW show–but it’s tackling real issues and I applaud them for it. I was particularly struck in this past week’s episode when the AI’s shield that allows him to look human fails while he’s ordering pizza–and the resulting hostility on the part of the restaurant owner takes Brainy completely by surprise. He keeps saying, “But you know me…” while the pizza guy calls out workers with baseball bats to beat the AI to a pulp.

The imminent violence was stopped because one person stood up–a person, it turned out, who also had a lot to lose if her own secrets were publicly known. Who wouldn’t have been spared from the same violence. That’s courage. As is telling your boss that he needs to do more than ‘tell both sides of the story’, that he needs to take a stand.

And that’s what makes storytelling compelling. It’s what moves a program beyond the realm of ‘cheesy superhero TV show’ into something worth watching.

This is the kind of writing I want to do myself. I want to bring that kind of layering and introspection to a story that is meant for entertaining consumption. Because when we start to have compassion for the Brainys and Nias of this world, then we can see them as people in our neighborhood, and not enemies to be hated. 

But it’s hard when your creative well is dry. When fear and anxiety dominate your thoughts. I’ve recently come to the realization that I can no longer support this sustained level of outrage and horror. It’s not healthy. It’s not useful to anyone, let alone me.

In some ways, it means I’m still speaking from a place of privilege, that I can even say I need to distance myself from current events. There are so many who can’t, who are living the very events I find so appalling. But self-care and distancing is not the same as turning a blind eye. It’s saying that a warrior needs to sleep before a battle. That an army must be well-fed and rested before an incursion. That this is a marathon, not a sprint, and there must be breaks along the way.

So I purchased the little notebook pictured above. I can’t say that I really believe its sentiments, but I’m making a concentrated effort to find something each day that makes me happy–something for which I’m grateful–and jot it down in this little book. I’m cultivating a sense of gratitude in a field sowed with fear and poisoned with anxiety.

WE ARE ALLOWED TO DO THIS.

No one would expect you to eat tainted food day after day without making any effort to clean it up and make it healthier. No one would demand you willingly consume poison in sublethal levels when it’s possible to filter it (unless you live in Flint, Michigan, apparently). Yes, we should be outraged at what’s happening in our country and our world. But outrage alone is ineffective. And a steady diet of outrage will kill us as surely as the things we’re outraged about.

So I’m reading more and watching the news less. Taking a little break from writing and playing around with other forms of artistic expression, such as painting. I’m having my nails done, despite the fact it’s an expensive luxury. Having nice nails makes me feel good at a time when precious little else does. As coping mechanisms go, it’s probably one of the less destructive ones.

I’m also making a determined effort not to spread fear and hate. I’m of two minds over this–I think we should be outraged. I think we should be making our voices heard. To say nothing is to be complicit. But I also fear by pointing fingers at it, we’re also fanning the flames over it and keeping it alive.

Vote. Donate your time or money, whichever you might have. Overcome your fears and participate in the process. But don’t let the fear consume you.

Remember it’s okay to tell stories that are simply pure escapism. What may be a light fluffy story to you is what gets someone else through a dark time. It’s not a crime to be proud of your successes, and share your happy news. We need more happy in this world. 

On the back of my little “Okay” notebook is an awesome quote from Jane Austen. I leave you with that thought now.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Those of you who follow me on Instagram know I have a thing for mushrooms. Not to eat (I think I read too many murder mysteries where the victims were taken out with the local mushrooms) but to photograph. There is something magical about them–not only their variety and color, but also how rapidly they can grow–seemingly overnight!

My mushroom photo collection is extensive, and I delight in spying some delicate fungal growth hiding beneath fallen leaves or nestled in pine needles during my morning dog walks.

Just the other day, I took these side by side images–both probably Aminita species, which contain some of the most toxic mushrooms known. My fingers are in the frame for scale. The first image is of a typical mushroom growing in my yard right now. The second is one I found growing beneath the horse trailer. I’ve never seen one so large before! And I swear, it wasn’t there a few days ago…

I can’t do justice to the second mushroom, as it was hidden up under the horse trailer. But trust me when I say it was bigger than a NERF football!

 

 

 

But while I admire mushrooms in the wild, I confess I am less enthralled with them when they are continually popping up in my fenced yard. It goes back to reading all those British murder mysteries as an impressionable teenager and the likelihood these particular shrumes are Aminita species. Mushrooms in that family account for 50% of all mushroom-related deaths in people and most of them in dogs.

With all the heavy rains we’ve had here, the mushrooms are literally growing overnight. For the last couple of days, I’ve been pulling up mushrooms as I find them in the area where the dogs play, and I’ve been getting at least five pounds a day, I kid you not.

I’ve also had to induce vomiting in one of my dogs, after catching him gnoshing on a mushroom before I could stop him. So under the principle of better safe than sorry, I pull them up.

But their prolific nature has me paranoid now. Every afternoon I head out to the yard with a garbage bag and a set of plastic gloves to pull up mushrooms. They hide under leaf litter. They prefer shade and wet mulchy dirt. They love rotten logs and deep grass. And so I scan the area, digging them up as I go, trying to get as much of the root as possible. Just when I’m convinced I’ve located all the ones there are to find that day, I spy another one: sometimes a bright button of color mimicking the fallen leaves, sometimes a dull brown nearly impossible to distinguish from the surrounding soil.

I love autumn. October is my absolute favorite time of year. I love how the light changes in spectrum from white to gold as it slants through the trees on an autumn afternoon. I love how it lights up the grass from within, making it glow. I love the first hint of frost in the morning air, and that whiff of wood smoke, too. I love the sound of dead leaves scurrying across a sidewalk or crunching underfoot. Nothing makes me happier than pulling out my chunky sweaters in maroon and gold, or pulling on my favorite pair of boots. Give me a book, a blanket, and a cup of hot cocoa, and I’m a happy camper. Autumn is a gallop across fields of drying grass while the mountains all around burst into color. It’s watching the dogs frisk with glee on the morning walk because of the nip in the air. It’s smiling as you hear the honk of migrating geese, and look up to see them fly in V formation overhead.

But darn it, it’s also when the mushrooms proliferate like mad. And until we get a hard frost, I’m going to be removing them from the yard.

(T-Rex for scale…)