What’s New in 2022: It’s a Party and You’re All Invited!

I don’t know about you, but somehow the end of the year snuck up on me without my realizing it. Life got crazy there for a while, and I never got around to making my EOY post, which is fine because I hate doing those kinds of reflective summaries anyway. I never seem to have been as productive or as successful as I might have hoped, you know?

Most of you who follow this blog know I like to create a power word or phrase for the coming year, and that looks like it will be a bust this year as well. I chose fearless for 2019. It was audacious for 2020. Resilent for 2021. I think maybe it’s time to retire power words for a while, don’t you?

I had a Tarot reading done for 2021 heading into 2022. The Tower and Judgement cards were major players in my life in 2021 (sadly, this could apply pretty much to every year since 2016), with the Devil and the Fool being factors in the upcoming year. I can overcome if I play to my strengths and ditch my issues with self-confidence and self-sabotage. Sounds ominous? I think so, too. ๐Ÿ˜‰

I was recently exposed to Covid through the workplace, which led to a scramble to get tested. I’m negative at the moment, but isolating from my high-risk family members to be on the safe side.

All in all, I’m surprised I’ve gotten anything accomplished this month!

But the good news is I finished the draft of the second Ginny Reese book: The Dog Days of Murder! It’s off to editing soon. Look for a release date late winter, early spring! If you are signed up for my newsletter, you’ll get a sneak peek at the cover before everyone else! The gang’s all there: Ginny, her dog Remy, Ming the Merciless, the Siamese cat, as well as the cast of characters living in Greenbrier, including her mother, the indomitable Julia Reese! Ginny’s plans to open her own vet practice go awry when a newcomer swoops into town with mysterious financial backing AND a connection to Joe. Of course, this new veterinarian winds up getting murdered, right? ๐Ÿ™‚

I did a fun interview with Marcia James about pets in books and why I include them. Be sure to check it out and see some great pictures! 

Tomorrow, I’m participating in a big release day bash for Kerry Blaisell’s latest release, Damning the Dead. There’s going to be a Facebook party with 13 other authors, with games and prizes galore. Not only are you invited, but you should invite your friends too! It’s Jan 5 from 4-7:30 Pacific Standard Time, so be sure to join us!! Join the group now so you won’t miss a thing!

Here’s the schedule:

Schedule of participating authors:
  • Jeff D. Ellis ~ 4:00 PM PACIFIC TIME
  • Bob Herold ~ 4:15 PM PACIFIC TIME
  • Tena Stetler ~ 4:30 PM PACIFIC TIME
  • Dan Rice ~ 4:45 PM PACIFIC TIME
  • McKenna Dean ~ 5:00 PM PACIFIC TIME
  • Hunter Skye ~ 5:15 PM PACIFIC TIME
  • Pamela Thibodeaux ~ 5:30 PM PACIFIC TIME
  • Shelly Chalmers ~ 5:45 PM PACIFIC TIME
  • Theresa Finn ~ 6:00 PM PACIFIC TIME
  • Augustina Van Hoven ~ 6:15 PM PACIFIC TIME
  • Janet Raye Stevens ~ 6:30 PM PACIFIC TIME
  • Anna M. Taylor ~ 6:45 PM PACIFIC TIME
  • Sally Brandle ~ 7:00 PM PACIFIC TIME

 

And now that I’ve finished the second Ginny Reese book, it’s time for me to go back to Bishop and Knight’s story. When we last left them, Rhett and Peter had become very close, but they’d also been fired from Redclaw and hired by the competition: Rian Stirling! We all know that Rian has his eye on Rhett as well, so this doesn’t bode well for our intrepid duo. Sometimes, however, you must form an alliance with an enemy to defeat a more powerful adversary. No spoilers, but we’ll find out the source of all those mysterious artifacts and why the planet has been seeded with them…

 

Maybe I should chose a power word after all. How does confidence sound? ๐Ÿ™‚

 

 

Teaching Yourself New Tricks: Advice from an Old Dog Trainer

The other day I was complaining to a group of friends how frustrated I was with my journey to better health. That I was so frazzled and stressed that even the smallest things seemed impossible. That I was so angry at how much I’d had sacrificed and given up in the last few years that I resisted like hell when asked to give up anything else. How exhausted I was all the time, and how this impacted my ability to make good personal decisions when all my energy for good decision-making was reserved for work.

I begged for their support. I was hoping for some other bit of miraculous advice, the perfect diet plan that would allow me to shed twenty pounds in two days, feel AMAZING with just some small tweaks in my routine, and take at least twenty years off my appearance. Okay, not really. But certainly that’s the expectation we have when starting any new ‘clean up your act’ plan. Miracles in 21 days or your money back.

The response I got startled me.

One of my friends said, “You wouldn’t expect a reactive dog to make huge improvements overnight. Why do you expect the same for yourself?”

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a reactive dog is one who over-reacts to things in its environment. This kind of behavior can be hard-wired into the dog through genetics (certain breeds, especially the working and herding dogs, have been bred to respond to certain situations and stimuli, and can be more reactive as a result), through poor socialization (not having seen enough different things as a young pup, which makes the whole world an intense place), or from a terrifying incident–like getting attacked.

Reactive dogs are tough to live with because almost everything sets them off: movement, sound, certain situations. They lunge and bark in public spaces, making them difficult to walk. The tendency is to keep them home, which makes the problem worse, especially if you stop having people come over. The risk of a reactive dog biting someone is high because their displays are often fear-based, and if you can’t calm them down, their response is disproportionate to the stimuli.

I’ve had two reactive dogs, so I’ve had to learn a lot about managing them.

The first was Abbey, a female German Shepherd that came from bloodlines that featured a lot of Schutzhund champions. Schutzhund is a dog sport that tests a dog’s performance during tracking, obedience, and protection work. That is not to say that a Schutzhund dog can’t make a great family pet, but the sport does prize drive as a characteristic, and reactivity can be a consequence of high drive.

Abbey would have probably been a tough-but-manageable dog had she not had a horrific experience. When she was about three years old, we were out walking after a heavy snowstorm. My neighbors had a litter of adult mixed-breed shepherds that lived in a pen with little human interaction. On this day for the first time ever, they decided to let their unsocialized, untrained dogs loose to play in the snow. Four dogs all about Abbey’s size jumped us as a pack with the intent of killing her.

Had it not been for the excessive snow, they probably would have. Abbey dove under the snow pack while I waded into the mass of dogs, screeching like a banshee, grabbing dogs by the scruff and slinging them across the yard. Their owners came charging out of the house to collect their dogs–with never a word of apology or to see if me or my dog had been injured, mind you.

And after that, if Abbey saw a dog even 100 yards away, she went into an impressive display of barking and growling, pawing the air while I held her back by the collar. Going for a walk was no longer fun. We were like victims of assault, constantly looking over our shoulders for another attack. Abbey thought a good offense was the best defense. She even reacted on garbage days when people set their trash cans on the curb. Whatever was new and different in her environment was grounds for being defensive.

Over the next three or four years I worked on her behavior, taking “aggressive” dog classes, working with trainers and behaviorists. It wasn’t until one such trainer helped me to see that she was over-reacting out of fear that I was able to start managing her better. In the end, we were able to safely introduce her to strange dogs, and pass another dog-walker on a six-foot-wide trail without her blinking an eye.

But it didn’t happen overnight.

When I got my next reactive dog, Sampson, I had a better handle on what to do. I’d made sure Sampson had been well-socialized as a puppy, but his problem was he had a strong prey drive. If it moved, it lit him up. I could always tell when he wasn’t getting enough exercise because he’d flinch if a car or a jogger passed us while we were out walking. I’d have to take him to the side of the trail if we met someone on a hike and ask him to sit while I fed him treats. This required me to be hyper-vigilant, always scanning our environment for something he might react to and heading off that reaction before it occurred. Fortunately, he was very food-motivated, and eventually it got to the point when he saw the jogger, the cyclist, the car, etc, he’d flip around, plant himself in front of me, and stare at me while drool streamed out of his mouth.

A wonderful dog, but not easy to live with.

I bring this up because much like all worthwhile things in life, retraining a reactive dog is a marathon, not a sprint. It requires patience, dedication, and consistency to see results. You can’t decide that this time, you won’t reinforce the behavior you want while discouraging the behavior you don’t want. The results matter because not following through will lead to a lifetime of trying to prevent your hysterical dog from hurting himself or someone else. Not to mention it is horrible to live in a state of such anxiety all the time.

And at no point did I tell either of my dogs they were fat, lazy, or stupid for behaving the way they did. I didn’t scream at them. I didn’t tell them they were ugly. I didn’t set them up to fail. I didn’t ask them to do something not very much fun without providing some kind of reward to make it worth their while. I didn’t expect them to get it right 100% of the time, either. I accepted anything that moved in the right direction until it became a consistent habit and I could ask for a little bit more. I acknowledged that if they got it wrong, I was usually to blame because I wasn’t paying attention.

Why would I treat myself–and the changes I want to make in my life–with any less patience and compassion?

I shouldn’t. And neither should you.

So remember the tenants of dog training when it comes to yourself and the changes you want to make in your life:

  1. Set yourself up to succeed. Look ahead for the triggers and plan redirects around them.
  2. Calmly and firmly tell yourself no when faced with a decision that isn’t good for you (like walking into the break room and discovering boxes of doughnuts from the best bakery in town). Be sure to reward yourself for making the right decision. This is critical! You’ll have to figure out what your “high-value treats” are. Try not to trade one bad habit for another (i.e. you’re trying to quit smoking so you’re eating lots of cookies, or you’re spending too much money shopping online).
  3. Be patient. You’re in this for the long-haul. Getting ten little things right can be set back by getting one major thing wrong, but getting something wrong isn’t the end of the world. Just do better next time.
  4. Remember that you’re making changes for a reason. Failure to stick with it has consequences. Failing to train your reactive dog may result in your dog biting someone or getting into a serious dogfight with injuries. Failure to make needed changes in your life may result in further damage to your mental and physical health.
  5. Remember that some of the behaviors you’re dealing with may have their roots in past trauma. I never blamed Abbey for over-reacting to the sight of strange dogs–we both could have died on that snowy day! Be kind to your wounded self too.
  6. Learn from your mistakes. Failure to plan is planning to fail. I wouldn’t leave the house without a treat bag full of high-value tidbits to distract my dog in certain situations. I also learned to recognize which situations were too overwhelming for her to start, and adjusted our interactions as a result. Identify your triggers and challenging situations and plan accordingly.
  7. Accept that it is up to you to affect the changes you want to see, and that you can’t necessarily expect help from others. When you’re out walking a reactive dog, you have zero control over what other people are doing with their dogs, or on skateboards, or with kids in strollers, etc. It is up to YOU to take yourself and your dog out of a situation that you suspect will be triggering. Same if you’re trying to alter your habits (be it food, alcohol, drugs, swearing, or a pervasive need to sing Disney songs, whatever). You cannot expect others around you to create a safe zone for you. Accept responsibility for your own life.
  8. Ask for help and support. Wait, what? Doesn’t that contradict the last rule? No, not really. Training a reactive dog will fail if some members of the house refuse to support the training efforts. It isn’t reasonable or fair to expect the world at large to cooperate with your efforts to make change, but it is reasonable to ask for help from those in your immediate circle. It’s okay to admit that a house full of cookies (or alcohol or Chez Doodles, whatever your poison) proves to be too hard to resist. You can sit your family down and explain that you have to make changes in order to improve the quality of your life, and while you’re not asking that everyone follow the same strictures you might be making for your personal health (for example, going dairy-free), you are going to need to set limits on how much of the high-temptation food is in the house, and that when choosing to eat out, preference be given to a restaurant that has more options than pizza or burgers. It isn’t wrong to ask for this kind of support, particularly in the early stages of change when you are trying to get a handle on it. You wouldn’t take a reactive dog to a dog park until you’d learned how to manage their reactivity in public. A dog park is too much for many dogs, not just reactive ones! You start out with smaller, quieter walks until you know how to manage your dog in more stimulating situations. So if you’re trying to affect change in eating habits, perhaps eating out with the family isn’t the best choice at first.
  9. Consider professional help. Sure, you’ve been training dogs (or feeding yourself, or dealing with your own issues) all your life. But sometimes you need the help of a trained professional to manage a specific issue. Sometimes that reactive dog needs medication to calm down to the point it can listen appropriately to your training. You might need therapy to deal with old wounds. Perhaps your current methods of coping, which come with consequences, have their roots in previous trauma, and you won’t really effect change until you figure out how to heal from that.
  10. Give yourself credit for the changes and improvements you make. They may not seem like much at first, but don’t discount them! A baby step in the right direction is still a step in the right direction. Eventually, you will no longer be satisfied with baby steps, and you’ll be able to continue pushing forward. Six months or a year from now, you’ll look back in astonishment at how far you’ve come.

So there you have it: why training yourself is no different from training your dog. If your dog slips its collar and runs off, you wouldn’t beat your dog for finally coming to you when you called it, would you? No, you wouldn’t–or you shouldn’t, at any rate.

Then stop beating yourself up for returning to the path you want after briefly straying from it. You can teach an old dog new tricks.

Compassion Fatigue: or Why I Didn’t Share Your Post

 

TW/CW for sad things tugging on your heartstrings.

 

 

 

The other day during work I got an email from an acquaintance. A shelter in the neighboring county had posted an urgent notice: they’d been inundated with puppies during the past week and if they didn’t find homes for them by the end of business hours that day, they would have to euthanize them.

Did I know of anyone who wanted a puppy? Like right now? Immediately.

I wracked my brains but couldn’t come up with anyone on the fly.

“Send me the link and I’ll share it when I can,” I offered as a stopgap before delving back into work.

But ultimately, I didn’t share the link. Let me tell you why.

You see, something about that urgent request to spend compassion currency that I have in dwindling supply broke me just a little.

I have to reiterate: it was puppies. Puppies that needed homes right away or they would die. But for the first time ever, getting hit with such a request rang the resentment buzzer instead of the compassion bell.

Whoa. Hold up there. Resenting an impassioned plea to help save at least one or two puppies? Doesn’t that make me some kind of Cruella de Vil?

Sure, I couldn’t do anything directly to save the puppies. But I could share the link, right? How much energy could that possibly take? How could I refuse to put out the word?

Well, there are a couple of reasons. For starters, there was the link itself, which felt very “click-baity” when I read it. “Help us! Puppies will die if you don’t come TODAY!”

Believe me, I know there is probably someone on the other end of that post, hoping against hope that they don’t have to perform the soul-destroying task of euthanizing healthy puppies because some irresponsible person let their dog have them without any intention of raising them and finding homes for them. And my heart breaks for that shelter worker. I know their pain is real, even if they couched their request like so many other posts begging for help.

But practically speaking, by the time I’d put out the half-a dozen or so fires at my job, which also requires a great deal of compassion, it was so late in the day that my sharing the post would have been too late for that litter of puppies. Perhaps it could have raised awareness for someone else out there looking for a puppy that they should check out the shelter, but the puppies in question? Too late.

And that’s when I realized that my compassion bank account was dangerously low.

Because every day we’re hit up with thousands of similar requests. GoFundMe accounts for medical or funeral expenses shared by our friends. Political organizations playing off our justifiable outrage over some restrictive measure that’s just been enacted, and if we don’t donate NOW, warning of the Bad Things coming our way. Just causes demanding we take action. Global catastrophes begging for our financial support. Legal funds for kids in cages, ripped from their families. Egregious acts of racism that deserve investigation and some kind of response. Missing children on milk cartons needing to be identified. And so on.

And yes, I realize that I’m speaking from a place of great privilege because I’m not the one begging for help paying my bills or needing someone to rescue me from having to perform a heartbreaking task.

I think of myself as a compassionate person. Professions that demand compassion tend to attract empathetic people, and I chose my career path years ago because I had compassion to spare. I donate generously to things I believe in because I usually don’t have the time to volunteer in person. I spent years serving as a caretaker to my father because it was my mother’s wish that he be able to stay at home rather than enter an advanced care facility. I trap, neuter, and vaccinate the stray cats that show up around my house on my own dime, finding homes for those that can be tamed and going to ridiculous lengths to take care of the remaining ones (see the expensive catio that I built for these furry freeloaders). I cried when the annoying trash panda, whom I caught three times before trapping the mean tom (who hisses and spits at me every day, despite being nursed back to health), got hit by a car.

I share things. The post about the homeless trans teen who needs help. The post from an internet acquaintance who needs help paying for her cat’s surgery. The posts about fundraisers, many of which I contribute to myself. The posts about organizations raising money to deal with the aftermaths of flooding, fires, hurricanes, and earthquakes. The posts where some mother is asking for likes to show her son or daughter how beautiful they are. I comment with sympathy on the posts of total strangers who have experienced a great loss.

My lack of willingness to share the post about the puppies, and the resentment the request generated, tells me I must draw the line somewhere. None of us are designed with endless wells of compassion. To mix metaphors, we can’t keep overdrawing our compassion accounts to spend on things out of our control. The constant withdrawal of coins to spend on people we don’t know will bankrupt us.

I’m not Cruella de Vil.

I have compassion fatigue.

Put another way, if I’d found a box of puppies myself, I would have taken them into my home. I would have had them vaccinated and dewormed, and tried my best to find homes for them all, while at the same time, trying to socialize them and instill some manners in order to make them the best possible candidates for adoption.

If the local shelter had a fundraiser, I’d volunteer my time, donate some money, and if I couldn’t do either of the above, I’d share the post about it. I’d probably share the post regardless, but in terms of doing something, sharing is the last on the list. I’ve said it before, but sharing posts without taking action is little more than virtue-signaling. It might make you feel good, but for the most part it accomplishes very little.

I wrote a bit about my struggles with social media in general a few weeks ago, and how I think SM breaks are necessary for our mental health. In that post, I mentioned this metafilter thread that my husband had shared with me: What’s Mine to care about and what’s NOT MINE to care about. The original post cited, as well as the discussion thread it generated, is well-worth reading. In the OP, If You Can’t Take In Anymore, There’s a Reason, the poster refers to the need for an emotional circuit breaker because our minds and hearts aren’t wired to care about everything that’s on fire all over the world at the same time, and if we don’t flip that breaker, our whole house will burn down.

I couldn’t agree more. So like the OP, I recommend you pick one fire to put out at a time, and you concentrate on the fire that threatens the things you care about the most. Battle that fire with all your heart and resources. Fight the fire you think you have the best chance of helping to contain, or the one that is the most pressing to you because it’s in your backyard. You can help fight a fire halfway across the world, if that’s the fire that’s important to you, but you can’t squander your limited resources on trying to fight them all.

Because if 101 Dalmatians show up at your doorstep looking for a ride home, you want to have enough compassion in the bank to get them there.

And perhaps if I wasn’t staring down at a compassion overdraft notice, I would have shared the post about the puppies after all. Because that is the sort of thing I care about.

An Embarrassment of Itches: New Cozy Mystery by M.K. Dean

It’s here! And owing to a colossal mistake, it’s live instead of only available for pre-order. Because I am SO excited about this release, An Embarrassment of Itches is only 99 cents AND available on Kindle Unlimited for the next three months!

It’s Diagnosis Murder meets All Creatures Great and Small…

As a house-call vet, Ginny Reese has seen her share of the weird and wacky. But nothing in her previous experience could have prepared her to find one of her clients floating in her own swimming pool.

Local artist Amanda Kelly was extremely wealthy with her share of secrets. By naming Ginny as her heir, not only did she make Ginny the number one suspect, but she painted a big bull’s eye on her friend’s back as well.

With her trusty German Shepherd at her side, it’s up to Ginny to find the real killer and prove her innocence to the sheriff. The new sheriff. Who happens to be her ex.

Piece of cake, right?

But I had this great launch party planned with gift baskets and prizes galore–all my pre-marketing plans for this book got scuttled with the early release. So I could really use your help in spreading the word!

Stay tuned for more information on the post-launch party and how you can get in on the fun!

Most of my social media platforms will remain the same, but if you’d like to follow the M.K. Dean Facebook page, it’s here. Also, here’s M.K. Dean on Amazon!

Can We Please Find Another Way to Celebrate the 4th Without Fireworks?

This morning I saw a Tweet bewailing the fact the OP’s timeline was full of “anti-fireworks” rhetoric, and it got me thinking about my own dislike of 4th of July celebrations.

I came by them young, when my family would drive for what seemed like an interminable time so we could fight for a spot on a blanket in a mosquito-infested park and watch 15 minutes of fireworks, only to sit in line for over an hour to get out of the park on our way home. Like many other mass group events we participated in when I was a child, this seemed like a huge waste of time for me.

As I got older, I simply didn’t care for the noisy holidays. Give me Halloween, with the excitement of dressing up, the spooky decorations, and the fun of collecting candy. Halloween is the nip of fall in the air and the crunch of dry leaves underfoot. It’s bobbing flashlights in the dark and neighbors pretending to be scared. Or Christmas, with the delight of giving and receiving gifts, filling the house with the scent of cinnamon as you bake cookies and put up the tree, watching old movies, and the promise of snow. (Christmas is always about the promise more than the reality, which is probably why I prefer Christmas Eve to Christmas Day).

I’ve never cared for New Year’s Eve, even without the practice of reviewing the year and assessing your goals and achievements (or lack thereof). Around here NYE has become yet another excuse to light off fireworks. When you live in an area where fireworks are legal, every “fireworks” holiday starts a little sooner and lasts a little longer each year. Sometimes the “4th” starts in late June and runs until the middle of July.

As someone who is both an empath and sound-sensitive, I’ve always struggled when someone’s music bleeds through the walls in group housing, and grind my teeth at the thumping bass reverberating from the car sitting next to me at a stoplight. So I think it’s fair to say that I personally don’t like noisy celebrations of any kind.

Pre-pandemic, around here the 4th meant live music and cookouts at the big park in town. People would start filing in mid-afternoon and enjoy a day in the hot, humid air while vendors sold hot dogs and soda. As soon as it started to get dark, everyone would head over to the big field facing the high school. Fireworks would be launched from the school over the playing fields for the entire town to see. It was a pleasant enough way to spend an afternoon. It makes a huge difference when you choose to participate in something.

What I never understood, however, were the people who brought their dogs to the fireworks display. From an early age, I’d learned how devastating fireworks could be to animals. One time my neighbors left their dog outside during the 4th celebrations only to discover on returning home that their dog had panicked and attempted to chew its way back inside the house. He’d ripped the frames off the windows, breaking teeth and nails in the process. Working with animals as I do, one of the most frequent (and devastating) things I hear about are the number of pets that injure themselves or run away during the weekend of the 4th. It’s hard for me to imagine a pet enjoying being present at such a display.

The Forever Dog created a graphic that depicts all the ways in which fireworks negatively living creatures around us, including everything from wildlife and birds ingesting debris, abandoning nests or becoming disoriented to companion animals and humans with PTSD suffering from anxiety and panic attacks. To say nothing of the risk of wildfires caused by fireworks in all settings. Forever Dog has a handy brochure for helping your pets deal with noise phobia. Because my dog has developed a noise phobia after a severe, damaging storm last year, I’ve spent months counter-conditioning him to thunder, gunfire, and loud noises, giving him calming supplements and rewarding him with food every time he hears a loud noise to make a positive association with it. I’ve literally been working on this nearly a year.

Saturday evening, the town celebrated the 4th with their annual fireworks display. It lasted about 15 minutes. Though rattled, my dog handled it fairly well, despite the fact neighbors released bottle rockets and their own fireworks on the ridge behind us. I figured that was the worst of it, and was pleased that it caused minimal distress at our place. The official celebration was over. People wouldn’t go nuts on a Sunday evening, right?

But last night, everyone around us fired off bottle rockets, Roman candles, firecrackers, fountains, spinners, and the like. It was a barrage of noise and light, many times of which went off directly over our house. At no time did I actually see anyone releasing fireworks. The people setting off fireworks weren’t within eyesight. But the acrid smell of powder filled the air, and debris rained down in my yard. With a loud bang, colorful explosions lit up the sky over our trees. At times, it sounded as though the fireworks were going off in our own yard, or could come barreling through a window. The dog, who had managed the night before, now smashed up against me shaking, his lips pulled back in a rictus of fear as he panted. Calming supplements, given in advance of nightfall, failed to touch his panic. When I offered him a tasty treat as usual, he took it only to drop it on the floor (where the little terrier dove in and snatched it). I ended up having to give him strong anti-anxiety meds.

None of us slept well last night. Long after sundown, and well past midnight, an intermittent explosion still took place. My husband had nightmares. Both dogs wedged their way onto the bed between us. I’m sharing this because I don’t want you to think I’m just trying to harsh your squee because I’m a big ol’ party-pooper. I’m sharing this because having night after night like this sucks. And honestly, I don’t understand why your celebrations should impact my quality of life.

At last count, the sale of fireworks is banned in only two states in the Continental US. Ordinances may vary from state to state, but most allow them. I found this handy fact sheet on the risks of injury and wildfire from a law office, which should tell you a little about your liability in such matters. The craze for fireworks is something I don’t understand. Light a few sparklers with the kids (making sure they’re safe and there’s no fire risk for the back 40). Attend a sanctioned event held by your town and run by professionals. One night, 15 minutes, yay for the US of A.

But I think it’s time to retire home fireworks displays. My dog and I will thank you.

Introducing the Real-Life Captain: Pets in Books

Some of you may know I modeled the little terrier in the Redclaw Origins series, Captain, after my own Jack Russell. I introduced the dog late in Bishop Takes Knight, where he had a small but important role. In Bishop’s Gambit, releasing Oct 6, 2020, he has a much larger part to play.

What you might not know is how close my representation of the mischievous terrier might be. Aside from Captain’s “special ability” as seen in the books (and I don’t want to say too much about that, as it’s a bit of a spoiler if you haven’t read them), I pretty much cribbed the fictional Captain’s behavior from the real one.

I’d never been a “small dog” person before Captain came into my life. I’d grown up with big dogs, and as soon as I moved out on my own, I got a German Shepherd puppy and have had Shepherds ever since. I like the feeling of security that comes with a big dog, as well as the hardiness that means such dogs will enjoy the same kinds of activities that we do.

But when my mom decided late in life that she absolutely had to have a dog to replace my late father’s spaniel, we tried dissuading her until it became clear she intended to go out and get the first dog she came across, whether it was appropriate for her or not. A friend of mine told me about Captain at the shelter where she worked. He was a great little dog, she said. I should go look at him.

I wasn’t convinced. Still, he had the advantage of being a middle-aged small dog and not the two-year-old pit bull my mother had been eyeing on Craigslist, so I drove out to the foster home to see him. I found out he’d been in the system for almost a year. No one wanted him, it would seem.

The foster mom walked me down to the kennels out back through a large flock of chickens that came running up, obviously expecting to be fed. As she put Captain on a flexi-lead and released him from the kennel, he shot out to the end of the twenty-five foot leash, dashing through the chickens and sending them squawking. I fully expected to see him take down a hen and pop up with a mouthful of feathers, but he just… scattered them. After a gleeful rush through the birds, he came back to the foster mom, his little tail wagging so fast it was a blur. Like in the picture here.

We went up to the house, where I visited with him a bit. He was personable and relatively calm, considering that he’d been kenneled for the past year. I liked him a lot, and realized then there was a very good chance that since I’d inherit whatever dog my mother chose, it might as well be him.

That initial impression proved to be emblematic of the dog himself. An ecstatic burst of joy, followed by relative calm. When two years later, I did indeed inherit him, I worried about introducing him into my already animal-dense household. Terriers frequently did not distinguish between wildlife and cats. We had a LOT of cats. Also, Sampson was still with us then, and I didn’t know how a 20 pound dog would get along with a 100 pound one.

The day I brought him home, a couple of feral cats were hanging out on the porch as I approached with Captain on leash. I wound the lead around my hand, prepared to pull him back should he show any sign of aggression, but Captain merely glanced at the wary cats and sat down to look up at me as if to say, “Oh look. Cats. Can we go into the house now?”

I needn’t have worried. He meshed into our household as though he’d always been there.

But I was determined to rehome him. We already had too many animals. We didn’t need a second dog. I tried four times to place Captain in another home, and each time, the arrangement fell through. After the last failure, I stalked down to the pet store and put his name on a tag with our contact information. He was our dog now.

And what an adventure that proved to be. I’ll never forget the day I left a sandwich on the kitchen table to get something to drink, and in a flash, Captain bounced from the floor to the chair to the tabletop, snatched up the sandwich, and leapt off the table to run down the hall with it. Sampson, the Shepherd, looked at me with a bug-eyed expression as if to say, “That’s allowed??”

We discovered the long stretch of being kenneled made it nearly impossible to board him, but the first time we left him with a pet-sitter (an experienced dog owner and horse trainer), she called in a panic because he’d stolen an entire plate of sausages when her back was turned. Far too much fat for a little dog to consume, as it could have triggered a life-threatening case of pancreatitis, so I had to walk her through inducing him to vomit. Had she not been successful in this act, she would have had to take him to the emergency clinic. She refers to him as “Sausage Plate” to this day. 

I did warn her about the food-snatching behavior…

He proved to be so chill with the cats, I jokingly said he couldn’t be a real terrier, only one day when I had the dogs loose in the fields, they plunged in the bushes after something. Moments later, the foul stench of skunk filled the air. I shrieked at the dogs, who came charging out of the bushes wiping their faces on the ground. Sampson clearly had enough. He came back to me on the run.

Captain, however, gritted his teeth and barreled back in for the kill.

Just now, when I took the dogs out for the final elimination break of the evening, something scrabbled away from the door as we came out of the house. The motion-sensitive light came on, catching the undulating movement of something about the size of a possum. It moved like a ground hog, and yet it was much slimmer and with a narrower head. I thought it was a groundhog, only they aren’t supposed to be active at night, and there was something about it that made the hair on the back of my neck rise. Both dogs alerted on it, but it was Captain who nearly pulled me off the porch to go after it. It’s astonishing how strong a 20 pound dog can be.

Just then, one of the feral cats saw us and came trotting up. Now you’d think a terrier in full-blown attack mode might redirect onto the cat (and I made sure the cat stayed back until I was sure it was safe) but nope. Captain knew the difference between “our family” and “vermin.”

It’s this dichotomy between sweet, loving little dog and “show me the vermin!” killer terrier that made me immortalize Captain in the Redclaw series. Okay, it might have something to do with the fact that I am besotted with this little dog, and wanted part of him to be with me forever. But seriously, the night and day change in behavior when he spots a rabbit or a squirrel versus how he behaves the rest of the time is like watching someone flip a switch. Small wonder I couldn’t resist putting him into my stories. He’s just so darn stinking cute, and then there’s this vicious little killer lurking within. He steals food, digs holes in the yard, rolls in stuff so smelly it requires an IMMEDIATE bath, and is a little escape artist, too. He weasels his way into bed with us and has to be persuaded to share space with the humans. Every morning he turns over on his back and wriggles in place, grinding little white dog hairs into the comforter.

And I think he’s pretty darn near perfect.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

How a Stay-At-Home Order Helped Me Bond with My Dog

Let me preface this by saying that while my state is under a stay-at-home order, my job is considered essential, which means I’m still working outside the house–my shift only reduced slightly because of shorter business hours.

I’m also aware of the privilege I have: I have a snug little roof over my head (thank God we’d finished the renovations last spring), food in the pantry, and my income isn’t going to be seriously impacted in the near future. We have a financial cushion. Our circumstances have allowed us to divide our family and send the high-risk individuals and those who can work from home into another residence while I–still working with the public–can avoid bringing something home to them. More privilege. I have a lot of safety nets others don’t right now, so I get it if you want to roll your eyes at me.

That means, however, I’m living by myself on the farm with the animals.

As a former dog trainer, it embarrasses me to even write this, but I’ve struggled these past few years to bond to our newest edition, our young big dog, Remington. (Named for Remington Steele, the TV show, not the firearm)

That’s not to say I’ve neglected him. No, I did all the proper things to raise a German Shepherd. I introduced him to over a 100 strangers by the time he was sixteen weeks old, including lots of children (which he loves). He went through two basic obedience classes, two agility classes, and passed his Canine Good Citizen test. I set up doggy play dates with other dogs to make sure he was well socialized. We went on long rambles in the woods and I taught him to swim. On days when I knew I couldn’t make it home from work at a reasonable hour, I paid a friend to let him out and play with him.

But I had a hard time bonding with him just the same.

It really bugged me. Animals have always been a huge part of my life. Not having a dog was–and is–unthinkable. But I kept finding fault with him. He didn’t seem as smart as some of my previous dogs, nor as courageous. My previous German Shepherd, Sampson, had been a high-performance dog, built for action. Remington’s confirmation leaves a bit to be desired, and I can look to the future and see hip problems. I also acted as though he was the worst puppy ever, when he was actually easier and less destructive than others I’d had before. I’d come home in the evenings too tired to deal with puppy energy and be annoyed that he had any at all.

The thing is, he wasn’t the problem. It was me.

2017 was a bad year for us that bled all the way through 2018 as well. Part of it was timing: we had several elderly animals that came to the natural end of their lives at the same time, but we also had pet losses due to cancer and illness. I also lost multiple family members within months of each other, with no time for emotional recovery. I put those emotions aside, thinking I’d dealt with them in a mature and rational way, but I’d only spackled over the cracks in the walls and ignored the rot within.

Two months after I’d buried Sampson, I took my husband to look at puppies. He was supposed to prevent me from impulsively buying one, a task at which he failed miserably, I might add. ๐Ÿ™‚ I’d sworn I’d never get another big, male dog. That it was time to downsize. That we had enough animals already. But I was also getting inundated with texts and images from well-meaning friends and associates about available puppies that ranged from the inappropriate to the unsuitable and everything in between. I was tired of the onslaught. I suspect I put down a deposit on a puppy in part to stop the barrage of messages. But it was also with the knowledge that I needed another big dog to feel safe at the farm, to make me take long walks, and keep me honest about getting some exercise. And, to be frank, I wanted some joy in my life.

When he was eight weeks old, I brought Remington home. As I said, I did all the right things. In addition to socializing him, I practiced the kinds of handling techniques he’d need for vet visits, and I set him up with short day boards prior to his neuter so that experience wouldn’t be terrifying for him. Though I could have trained him myself at home, I enrolled him in classes so he’d meet lots of other people and dogs, and learn to focus on me in exciting and distracting circumstances. We went to farmer’s markets and to school yards and on walks downtown alongside traffic.

And still, I held myself at a slight distance from him. I can see now that it wasn’t just him, but he became the canary in the mine for my emotional frigidity. I was stretched too thin from a mentally and physically demanding job, and everyone at home bore the brunt of my growing inability to deal with burnout and unresolved grief at the same time. I’d spy a crack in the wall and spackle over it again. I was irritable and short-tempered, and above all, I wouldn’t allow myself to connect with anyone. Because connection was attachment and attachment inevitably led to loss and I couldn’t handle any more loss.

Hah. Apparently, after giving me some slight breathing room, 2020 looked at 2017-2018 and said, “Hold my beer.”

I’ve been on my own here at the farm for the last three weeks now. With the shortened workdays, it’s been easier to get back in the habit of evening dog walks, and tentatively, afraid to reawaken the plantar fasciitis, I began taking them out again.

One of the things dog trainers recommend encouraging is something called ‘checking in’. That’s when your dog glances back at you to make sure you’re still with the pack, that we’re all still moving as one unit. You want to encourage this attention because you want your dog to be more focused on you than your surroundings, like the kid on the bicycle or the jogger headed toward you. Some dogs have to be trained to check in, though it is a natural reaction. My little terrier doesn’t check in at all, unless I call his name or crinkle the treat bag. But after about a week of walking every evening, I noticed Remington would not only check in visually, but he’d often drop back to touch my hand with his nose.

How you doing, there? You okay?

It made me wonder how often he’d done it before and I’d never noticed. That I was the one who’d checked out, who wasn’t paying attention. Daily we’d walk, and finally, finally, I was able to tune in to him.

“Not so hot, buddy. Truth is, I’m not okay.”

As the cracks widen, my emotions have been all over the map. Some days I’m calm in the face of knowing I’ve done all I can and continue to try to protect myself to the best of my ability. A big part of my COVID-19 preparations has been to outline a plan for the animals in case I become hospitalized or die. It’s made me really focus on how I would manage if I got very ill but was able to self-treat at home versus what to do if I became so sick I needed hospitalization for several weeks. Truth is, I believe if I get sick enough to need to check into an  ER, I’ll never come home.

Other days I’m dealing with escalating anxiety and near-panic attacks. Those emotions, never completely dealt with, always bubbling under the surface, erupt in strange ways over unexpected things. I heard someone liken this time period where many of us are waiting for the coronavirus to hit our area hard as pre-traumatic stress syndrome, and I for one, believe it. The other day I compared life as we know it now to being a caveman foraging for food in a hard-scrabble existence and learning there is a saber-tooth tiger somewhere in your area. Oh, and by the way, it’s invisible. My mood can swing from gallows humor to certainty I’ll be fine to wishing I’d get it and be done with it to nauseous with fear at the prospect of going to work again.

I’d joked about giving zero f*cks in the past, but in the face of a pandemic and the potential loss of everything you love, the phrase is taking on new meaning. Growing up in a household where appearance was given undue emphasis, I am no longer concerned about crow’s feet or carrying more pounds than I’d like. I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about being embarrassed for squeeing over something I love. And though I have to work to keep both my health insurance and the money coming in to pay the bills, once this is over, something has to give there. It’s a funny thing but when you face your worst nightmare–and for me, that IS a pandemic–nothing else scares you nearly as much.

In the mornings, ten minutes before the alarm goes off, Remington climbs onto the bed, touches me with his nose, and curls up beside me until I have to get up. At night, he sprongs about on pogo-stick legs as we begin our walk, only to settle quickly into our usual routine. He chews on his bone quietly in the evenings now, when he used to pester and poke at me. I kept wondering what had changed until I realized it was me. I’d changed. I was cued in now.

Last night on our walk, as the red-wing blackbirds sang their welcome, spring songs and the wild redbud lit up the mountainside with their gorgeous blooms, I found myself thinking that Remington was a wise, gentle soul in a young dog’s body. That he was exactly the dog I needed right now, even though I’d been too blind and stupid to acknowledge that before.

He checked in with me, turning his head to touch my hand.

How you doing, there? Are you okay?

“Not really, buddy. But better because you’re here.”

Be safe. Be well. And love those you love with your whole heart.

 

 

 

 

Dealing with Writer’s Block: Creativity Thrives in the Quiet Places

I’m in the process of final edits on my current project with a tight deadline, so I’ve been spending a lot of time with the manuscript lately. To the exclusion of just about everything else, I might add. No long walks with the dogs. No taking photographs on my rambles. Not riding the horse or swimming or anything. I sure as heck am not cleaning the house!

Just me and the manuscript, day after day. I’m in the final stages of polishingโ€”looking for typos and making sure I have my ellipsis with consistent spacing throughoutโ€”that sort of thing. No major changes.

Yesterday we got a cool breeze rolling in, another hint of fall to come, and I decided to ride for an hour just to clear my head and move some muscles.

Shortly into my ride, as I was trotting around the arena in a circle, I had a eureka moment about the final scene in my book. Something that by changing, I could deepen the connection between the main protagonists and honor the fact that real character change doesn’t happen overnight. It was a great moment, and I couldn’t wait to get back to the draft and make the changes.

I love these moments, but as I finished my ride, it occurred to me I’ve been having less and less of them lately.

It’s really not that hard to see why. Fifteen years ago, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to take a phone with me on a dog walk. Ten years ago, when I began writing again, the phone stayed in my back pocket while I climbed hills and crossed creeks behind my dogs. Five years ago, when I began writing intending to publish, the phone was in my hand, but mostly to take pictures. But two things have happened in the last couple of years that give me pause. The first is an injury has sidelined me for months from many of my former activities. I haven’t been walking in ages because of plantar fasciitis, and then a knee injury.

The second is more insidious. I’m always looking at my social media feeds.

I used to watch my dogs at play, or take pictures of cool mushrooms, or close my eyes to the sun on my face and listen to birdsong.

Now I endlessly scroll, react, comment, or RT. Most of the time, to be honest, I’m in a state of rage over what I read. Not good for my mental health, but not good for writing, either.

In the book, If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland, the author speaks of the importance of freeing the creative power within you. Of releasing the imagination to go on rambles of its own. She describes how talking 5-6 mile walks does this for her, but only if she exists in the present during those walks. If she heads out on them with the intent of either plotting a story or performing “exercise”, the ideas don’t come. I recently read that Tolkien plotted out large bits of the Lord of the Rings trilogy on similar rambles with his dogs.

But it doesn’t have to be a long, physical activity. The Queen of Mysteries, Agatha Christie, once said she got her best ideas while doing the dishes. I find this to be true myself. Some of my best ideas–my eureka moments–come while I’m doing mindless tasks, such as cleaning stalls. And Ueland herself describes “little bombs of revelation” that go off when doing other things: sewing or carpentry, whittling or playing golf, and yes, dreamily washing the dishes.

The problem is, we have less and less time to free our minds to wander these days.  Something constantly demands our attention. We have tendonitis from constantly scolling and a crick in our necks from looking down at our phones. And that wonderful, lovely brainstorming time, those little bombs of revelation? Well, they aren’t happening nearly as often because our brains are never quiet enough to meander freely. And I’m coming at this as an adult who didn’t grow up with a smartphone plugged into my ear. I can’t imagine how much harder it’s going to be for the people behind us to find that sweet spot of creative revelation. It’s not just so you can get those little bombs going off either. If you’re blocked on your current project, I believe letting your mind out to play is one of the best ways to get around whatever hurdle is blocking you.

I’m reminded of an article I once read about a bomb-sniffing dog who got burned out on the job because his handler used to take him to the golf course on the weekends and have him find missing golf balls. The handler mistakenly thought the dog was having fun doing this simple activity, but what he didn’t realize was the dog took finding golf balls as seriously as hunting out explosives, and the poor dog was effectively working seven days a week as a result.

So I plan to incorporate more ‘free time’ into my brain’s activity each week. I challenge you to do the same. Find “your moment of Zen” by whatever means necessary. If music takes you there, make a playlist and run it on repeat. Pick back up some of the activities you’ve set aside so you can grind out your stories. Stop grinding and let your brain out to play.

You’ll be glad you did.

Surviving the Daily News: Comfort Reads

At this year’s Romance Writer’s Association conference, keynote speaker Jennifer L. Armentrout made a powerful statement regarding our work as storytellers with an emphasis on happy endings: “Your stories save lives.”

On the surface, that may seem to some like a bit of an exaggeration, but I don’t think so. I can look back at cycles in my life where things were so bad, where every day was a struggle to get out of bed and go to work, where I found little joy in the things I cared about most, and I needed help to get through my day–again and again I can point to certain books that got me through those dark times. I tend to plunge into a series during these times, devouring at least a book a day. The story must engage and MUST end well. Surprisingly, mysteries often fit this bill, as long as they aren’t too grim or realistic. Mysteries that come to a satisfying conclusion can be just as good as romances for pulling me out of a dark news cycle or a life full of stress. The most important thing is that this form of entertainment not stress me further. That’s why romances reliably deliver the HEA I need when the world is a dumpster fire.

When things are really bad, I reach even farther back. I pull out the books of my youth: L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, or The Blue Castle. I dig out the horse (or dog) books I read as a child: Summer Pony by Jean Slaughter Doty, or the Black Stallion by Walter Farley, or Silver Chief: Dog of the North by Jack O’Brien.

Most of the time, I’m looking to recapture that joy experienced when I first read these books–the total immersion into another world. I can look to how many times I’ve re-read the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters and recall the happiness it brings me instead of the circumstances which made me read it again.

So when I woke to another news cycle of horror, of people spouting useless platitudes instead of taking definitive action to end a cycle of unspeakable violence in our country, like many people, I furiously made my opinion known. I lent my voice to others saying ENOUGH. I magnified the voices of others calling for change. I wasn’t the only one.

But as the day went on, I noticed other voices quietly begging for recommendations for comfort reads and shows to watch to shut off the anxiety and depression these news cycles bring. I saw fellow authors express guilt for announcing new releases or cover art and heard other creators beg the collective community to keep celebrating their works. It’s not wrong to want relief from horrific world events, especially when we’re all more connected than ever, especially when it feels as though we’re hurtling toward a battlefield from which we can’t turn back.

We have a long battle in front of us. That doesn’t mean we can’t stop and rest along the way. That we shouldn’t eat or sleep until we win the war. That path leads to madness and a level of grief and depression we can’t overcome. It’s okay to curl up with a book and shut out the world for a while. To turn off social media and watch four or five episodes of Due South. To remember what it was like to immerse yourself in the Secret Garden or journey to Narnia.

It’s also okay for us as creators to keep creating. More than okay–it’s vital. Not only to our own mental health but to anyone who reads our story (or hangs our paintings, listens to our music, watches our films) and finds a measure of peace there.

So if you as an artist are feeling despair right now, remember, someone needs your work. And if you feel guilty for promoting your latest work, it’s okay to take pleasure in something positive we’ve created. There’s a lot of negative energy in this world. It’s not only okay to put back some pleasure, it’s part of the battle.

So tell me, what are your comfort reads/comfort watches? I want to know.