The Last Horse

Last night, I put my beloved horse to sleep.

I’d gone out to feed her and found her drenched in sweat, her coat caked with mud and clay as evidence she’d been rolling. We’d been through colics before–even bad ones–but somehow this time it felt like The Big One.

And it was. After hours of medical management that failed to make her more comfortable, and with a progression of clinical signs for the worse, it was clear that she wasn’t going to squeak through and make it one more time. At 11 pm, standing in the headlights of the vet’s truck, I made one of the hardest decisions of my entire life. I let her go.

It wasn’t the first time I faced losing her. In fact, she’d nearly died so many times in her life, we jokingly referred to her as The Mare Who Lived. At ten, she twisted her colon, necessitating surgery to save her life. Not many horses survive colic surgery. Fewer go on to be functional riding horses again. But survive she did, and went on to compete as well.

I never did get to do all the things I planned with her, though. Oh, we had such plans. She was my first ever horse raised from the ground up. I chose her parents. I carried her ultrasound photo in my wallet. The day she was due, I spent the entire day with her dam, watching her mother quietly crop grass while meadowlarks sang in the summer fields, noting the changes come over her body as she became ready to foal. It was a magical experience. One I will never forget. I was there the night she was born, imprinting on her even as she imprinted on me. Childless myself, she was the baby I never had.

She was why I got up on my days off and drove four hours round trip to spend the day training her. She was the reason I continued to ride after my car accident, after my doctors told me I should stop, and despite grinding chronic pain. She is probably the only reason I’m still functional today. She is the reason I continued to go and do despite clinical depression, and probably the reason I am still alive after surviving one of the hardest periods in my life.

I rode in weather so cold, my breath came out as a vapor, and the weight of her body crunched ice crystals beneath her feet. I rode in weather so hot I risked heatstroke again and again. We worked together in indoor arenas that had to be watered down so we wouldn’t choke on the dust. We rode in outdoor arenas baked into brick-hard surfaces that had to be dragged so they were useable again. We rode down forest trails under a leafy canopy and forded streams like we had to bring in the herd at the end of City Slickers. We jumped fences, and cleared ditches, and galloped across open fields with the Blue Ridge mountains in full autumn color as a backdrop.

She was so massive–hence the name The Moose–that I needed a mounting block to get on her. Never in all the years I rode her did I fall off–I joked you would have to run to the side and leap to fall off of her. In her youth, turning her was like steering the Titanic–I often said her name should have been Inertia. She was excitable, but she was kind. I was never in fear of my safety when riding her, even though she weighed half a ton and stood at 17 hands tall. And she was brave and honest, too. If I pointed her at a fence gave her the right direction, she’d take it without question. She might have slowed down to give it a stare, and leapt it as though it were six feet tall, but jump it she did.

Life prevented me from doing everything I wanted to do with her. She was bred to be my event horse, though we never made it to a single event or horse trial. The only competitions we made it to were the occasional dressage show. My dad developed cancer and I became his caretaker, and then she had the colic surgery, and somehow, it became good enough to know she was doing first level dressage at home, and able to jump a 4×4 oxer like it was a Kleenex box. (For the uninitiated, “first level” isn’t the beginner level–watch the link if you’d like to know more). We didn’t compete often, but when we did, I like to think there was a collective muttering of “damn” when we showed up because we came home with all the ribbons. When I unloaded her from the van at a show grounds, all heads turned to watch her move. She was simply that impressive. It didn’t hurt that she’d get lit by the excitement of a horse show, and would float across the ground with huge spectacular strides as a result.

I did achieve one life goal with her: I took a jumping clinic with a former Olympic Coach, wherein I discovered we were PB&J in the caviar world of eventing… and you know what? Sometimes PB&J is good enough. It was good enough for us.

Probably my biggest regret is never having had professional photographs taken of her. I took thousands myself, however, because she was gorgeous, she was magnificent, she was The Moose.

I can tell you funny stories that will fail to capture her shining personality: of how she was afraid of pigs, or the time when as a baby she tried to get in my car with me, or the time she spooked and cleared the length of a football field in six ginormous strides–all running toward an enormous cross country fence that she tried to jump from the wrong direction. I can tell you about the time she went galloping with the herd toward a field where someone had forgotten to open the five-bar gate at the other end. Every other horse screeched to a stop at the closed gate. She sailed over it–and cleared the water trough on the other side as well. Or about the time she was like a powder keg with a lit fuse when we competed in our first simple walk-trot dressage test, and she ended up doing airs above the ground in the chaotic melee that passes for a warm up ring–and then calming down enough to win the class by a landslide. Oh! Or how about the time we left her on the van to school some other horses and she broke her chain lead, bent the breast bar like it was a pipe cleaner, and jumped out of the van to graze quietly beside it. Oh, Moose. There will never been another quite like you.

We always knew she was on borrowed time after the colic surgery. Many don’t survive the surgery. Those that do frequently become chronic colickers, which she did. Most of her episodes were mild gas colics that resolved without treatment and were probably due to adhesions in her guts after the surgery. About four years after the surgery, I came out to feed her and noticed she was standing in her “colic corner”, the spot where she’d go when she felt bad, and would begin to paw and shift in place. As I’d approached her with a halter, she stood straight up on her hind legs and then shot into the air, kicking out in a perfect capriole, something she’d never been taught. I’d known then, we were in for a bad time.

It was a night that will live in memory. I hand-walked her for seven hours straight as we attempted medical management. The odds of a horse surviving colic surgery twice were slim to none. I wasn’t going to put her through that again. I watched as she became more and more distended and uncomfortable, and as all medical management failed. And just when I was on the point of asking the vet to put her down…. she farted. Long, loud, repeatedly. And ten minutes later she was actively looking for grass to eat.

My vet said he’d never seen any horse look so bad and yet spontaneously recover. He called it a miracle. We suspect she’d been mildly impacted because of an adhesion, which caused gas to distend her bowels but something shook loose even as the request to euthanize her stuck in my throat. That evening, I’d stood at the fence in the middle of the night, watching her graze beneath the light of a full moon, with Saturn and Jupiter blazing overhead. We’d gotten lucky once again, I knew it.

Just as I’d somehow known last night this time we wouldn’t be so lucky. She actually didn’t look as bad as she had as the previous colic over a decade ago. She initially responded to pain management, she had none of the markers that indicate you’re in for a bad time. I grew hopeful that once again, we’d dodged a bullet, even as I mentally acknowledged that sooner or later, one of these colics would get her. We’d been saying that for so long, it was hard to remember that she’d already lived far longer than anyone ever thought she would. Yet as the second round of sedation and pain meds wore off, she gradually began showing signs of discomfort again: pawing the ground, threatening to roll, looking at her flanks which were gradually distending. The parameters of her exam had changed: we now had evidence of displaced bowel, of another twist.

I wanted to believe we’d get our miracle one more time. We’d had so many near misses and spectacular recoveries. She was The Mare Who Lived, after all. She would make it. She had to make it. But as her condition deteriorated, it became clear she wouldn’t, not without surgery, something I wouldn’t do, not a second time, not for a 25 year old horse.

And so I stood in the light cast by the vet truck’s headlamps and made the decision to let her go.

I wanted to rail against the unfairness of it all. I’d had so much loss in recent years. 2017-2018 became known as The Year of Grief. Things had eased up in 2019, only to have 2020 say, “Hold my beer.” Emotionally, physically, mentally exhausted, losing The Moose last night seemed like the one thing that would finally break me. Even now, I’m not sure that it might not.

But the truth of the matter is loss is part of love. It was just an ugly trick of fate that handed me so many losses so close together for such a prolonged period of time. I am not special in my experiences, nor in my grief. And the only way to avoid this pain I’m experiencing now would be to have never loved The Moose in the first place.

Impossible.

The Moose was my last horse. I’d had to euthanize my other horse in the winter of 2018 at the age of thirty-five. Losing him was a wrench because he was my first horse, bought with my hard-earned cash as a green-broke three-year-old off a slaughter truck, and I’d had him ever since. But thirty-five is a ridiculous age for an old horse, and though making the decision to put him to sleep was hard, it was expected as well.

I’d retired The Moose a few years back–she wasn’t sound enough to ride any longer. I’d chosen to lease a riding horse instead, which I kept up until that horse too, was retired. Covid-19 forced me to take a hard look at the risks of riding during a sweeping pandemic, and I’d made the tough call to stop riding last March, at least for the time being. I still had The Moose. I was still a horsewoman. I just wasn’t riding.

Now, for the first time in over thirty years, I am without a horse. And I don’t think I will ever have another one again. This isn’t just a door closing. It’s slamming shut and locking me out. In some ways, that’s the hardest part to bear. Today I called to cancel her farrier appointment for next month. I gave away her winter blanket and sold her brand new, never-worn grazing muzzle for the summer season. I’ll pull out her bridle and saddle, clean and oil them for the last time, and donate them to someone who can use them.

If you’ve never experienced the euthanasia of a horse, it is a tough thing to watch. It’s a bit like felling a tree: done right, it happens in stages and no one gets hurt. I held her head as the vet administered first the sedative and then the euthanasia solution. I promised her that I’d seen her into this world, and that I would see her out. She breathed her last breath into my ear with a shuddering sigh, and we guided her into a controlled fall onto her side. I stroked her muzzle, but the light was gone in her eyes.

She’s being buried today. I couldn’t be there: I had to work. Perhaps that’s just as well. Though she is being laid to rest in a field overlooking the Blue Ridge mountains with the redbud coming into bloom, I know she’s not there. She’s running with her friends who have gone on before her, frisking in the pasture free of pain, ready to eat her fill of grass and snooze in the sun to the lazy drone of bumble bees. She lives on in my memories, in my photographs, and in the cameo appearances she makes in my stories.

And someday this summer, I’ll sit on the hillside beside her grave, with the dogs at my side, listening to the meadowlarks sing.

The Pandemic One Year Later: Are We Ready to Return to Normal?

This time last year, I was hunkered down on the farm, desperately counting down the days until I had some time off. We’d made the decision to split our households into Essential Workers (me) and WFH/High Risk (everyone else) and I was watching videos on how to make masks, posting about flattening the curve, and searching for toilet paper and bread yeast. I organized my personal documents and instructions for taking care of the animals in the event of my long-term hospitalization or death. TV shows, books, and movies that had been favorites before fell by the wayside as I looked for gentle, less-traumatic ways of entertaining myself. I took the dogs for long walks and obsessed over my neighbor’s baby goats.

I was terrified.

The pandemic was a terrible thing to have happen. But having it happen on Trump’s watch made it a national–if not global–tragedy.

This past weekend, as I was walking the dogs, I noticed the first of this year’s crop of baby goats in my neighbor’s field. And while I was charmed, I didn’t have that odd compulsion to stalk and photograph them. A simple, slightly out of focus snapshot with my cell phone was sufficient to appease my interest.

It made me think about how much has changed and how much has stayed the same since this time last year. My family is still divided: I have not yet completed my vaccination series and none of my other family members have been vaccinated yet. I shop online and have groceries delivered to my car. I wear a mask in public and carry hand sanitizer with me wherever I go–and I avoid going anywhere except to work.

The number of Covid-19 cases is higher in our area right now than they’ve been during the entire pandemic–by a factor of twenty–and yet so many people seem to be acting as though the crisis is over. I have a bad feeling we’ll see a huge uptick in cases nationally again once people come home from Spring Break, and I have to tell you, my bad feelings are almost always right.

I am not planning vacations, but I am making much-delayed doctor’s and dentist’s appointments for later this fall. I won’t go back to the nail salon anytime soon–if ever–but I’m looking for a hairdresser that practices Covid protocols for after I complete my vaccine series. I never, ever need to go back to the movie theater again. Between shooters and the inability to exit quickly in a fire, movie theaters always felt like death traps to me anyway. I love being able to pause my movie to use the bathroom or make popcorn that doesn’t cost $10/bag. I don’t need the “movie experience”, though I realize some people love it.

A friend wants me to take a cruise with her next spring. Ten years ago, I would have leapt at the chance to do something I’ve always wanted to do. Now the horror stories coming out of the industry as a result of the pandemic have canceled any desire I ever had to step foot on a cruise ship.

In some ways, the pandemic has forced me to Marie Kondo my life. Not in terms of physical objects but in terms of activities. How I want to spend my time. Who I want to spend my time with. This past weekend my husband and I met for a socially distanced dog walk and talked about so many things we can’t seem to manage by phone or email. It was a great day.

Other things have changed for the better too. Funny how having competent leaders in charge–despite the enormity of the mess they have to clean up–has done wonders for my overall anxiety and my blood pressure. I have hope for the first time in years, venting off some of that building pressure that made it difficult to get through the day.

One thing that has become clear: I don’t want to spend the rest of my life working at a job that is literally eating me alive. As someone tied into a narrow list of job opportunities due to my specialization and the lack of jobs in the area, I can’t just step out of the plane and hope I find a parachute on the way down. But I am getting closer and closer to the hatch.

I find in many ways, I dread a return to “normalcy.” Especially if normal means daily mass shootings or increased pressure to make bricks without straw. I shrink from the idea of businesses opening back up to the public, and of my husband being expected to go back to the office. I rage internally when I run into entire families at the store without masks. As an introvert and an empath, I find I want the distance between me and almost everyone else to be greater than ever before. I could easily become agoraphobic if it weren’t for the dogs needing to go on walks.

But I also miss hugs. I miss hanging out with my husband, who is also my best friend. I miss the excitement of traveling to a place I’ve only ever read about. I don’t want to go to the beach, but I’d like to rent a cabin in the mountains. I’d like to read books or watch movies without worrying if the story was going to hurt me in any way.

I think these things will come back again–eventually. I’m already noting a greater willingness to be more adventuresome in my entertainment, taking a chance on shows I would have deemed too dark last year at this time. I’m seriously looking into other work opportunities. I’m making plans for the future when this time last year, I couldn’t think past my next day off from work.

The baby goats are still cute and interesting, but they are just goats.

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

I’m Starving and I Can’t Fill Up

Photo by Criativithy from Pexels

TW for eating disorders.

 

 

The struggle is real.

I’ve always been prone to using food as a reward, probably in part because food was so often used as a weapon in our house growing up. But I mean, who doesn’t think about celebrating an important event or a special date with a fancy meal? Perhaps a bottle of champagne, or a cake ordered from the bakery? Or think about how the arrival of a box of doughnuts at the office puts a happy smile on everyone’s face–even on a Monday.

We celebrate the holidays with feasting: turkey at Thanksgiving, ham at Christmas, chocolates for Valentine’s Day, candy at Easter. Then there’s the obligatory cookouts for Memorial Day, the 4th of July, and Labor Day. Mega-candy holiday at Halloween and then we’re back to Thanksgiving again. And let’s not forget birthdays, anniversaries, and New Year’s Eve.

Food, glorious food, eh?

I have long used food as a reward for making it through a crappy day and have recognized the tendency to eat (especially carbs) when stressed.

But lately, it’s been more out of control than usual.

I’m not quite sure when things changed. I went through a bad year, that became a bad couple of years, that turned into a bad four years… but the weight was already creeping up before then. I have a high-stress, high-pressure job (even more so than what passes for normal here in the US) and somewhere along the line it began catching up with me. Cortisol, produced in greater amounts when you’re stressed, has a multitude of negative effects on the body, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Digestive problems
  • Headaches
  • Heart disease
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain
  • Memory and concentration impairment

Weight crept on, became the new norm, then stabilized.

But in this past year, stability has gone out the window. In part because I’m never full. I’m never satisfied.

Oh sure. I can eat so much I don’t want anything else. And for a while, it seems to work. But in less time than you would expect, I’m rummaging around in the kitchen again, opening cabinets in the hopes of finding something that appeals. Something that would be just right. So perfect that I would eat it and go, “Now, I’m satisfied.”

Only I never am. There’s just this bottomless pit of hunger that can’t be filled.

I caught sight of my reflection in a window today, and I scarcely recognized myself. Tonight, when I found myself in the kitchen shortly after dinner poking about the shelves and rejecting all my choices, I realized I wasn’t hungry, and yet I was starving.

And I asked myself why.

A lot of it has to do with the pandemic. What doesn’t? But right now, life consists of going to work, coming home and taking care of the animals, going to bed and getting up to do the whole thing all over again. My husband, still working from home in the house in town while I tend to the farm, said today, “I get up in the morning and think, ‘What am I going to do today? Oh. Right. Same as every day. Go to work.'” He has a ridiculous amount of leave that he hasn’t taken because work demands more and more of him but as he also pointed out, what would he do if he wasn’t working?

We’re not going to ball games or horseback riding. We’re not seeing family or traveling to places we’ve always wanted to visit. It doesn’t look like that will change for most of us in 2021, and honestly, I’m not sure 2022 will be any better. I’m hug-deprived and miss simple human contact with those I love. And if I’m really being honest here, I’m staying up later and later because going to bed only brings the next day and the endless cycle of Same back around again. The sleep deprivation only makes it that much harder to roll out of bed and face that Same Old Same as well.

And so I seem to reach for food to fill all the voids, but the truth of the matter is the food isn’t all that wonderful. It’s just accessible. And when you’re completely exhausted, accessible is good enough, isn’t it?

The thing is, most of us were already sliding down into this pit long before the pandemic struck. It’s a national problem: we take pride in working ourselves to death and doing whatever it takes to keep working at an unsustainable level. We’re like rats in a maze, running the paths just to press a lever and be rewarded with a food pellet.

I suspect I’ve been starving for a long time, it’s just taken the sheer weight of the pandemic to make it utterly clear how my life has narrowed down to work and food. And now that I’m standing at the bottom of the pit I’ve fallen into, I can see it’s going to be a bitter climb back out.

So I’m going to concentrate on the things that I know will improve the quality of my life. I’m going to strive for 30 minutes of exercise 5 times a week–hey, the dogs will love that! And I ordered a plant-based cookbook–there has to be something you can make with vegetables in between steamed kale and a salad. Hopefully better food choices will result in curbing this drive to eat when I shouldn’t be hungry. I’m already meditating, but I plan to spend more time in nature–I miss my long rambles through the woods. And I’m going to strive to reconnect with friends and family–online if necessary until we can all be safe again.

The days when I could eat sugar-coated cereal dry out of the box or make a stack of cheese and crackers and call it dinner are gone. That’s kid stuff. It’s time to grow up.

Because climb I must. Because no amount of food–not even eating Fruit Loops straight out of the box–is going to fill me up. And I want more out of life than to work and eat.

 

McKenna Dean: Siamese Hunter

I’ve always been drawn to nature programs. I grew up watching them as a child, feeding my love of animals with the need to know more about all kinds of species. I thought seriously about becoming a naturalist, following in the footsteps of Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall. I kept little notebooks where I jotted down observations of the species in my own backyard. I learned how to identify a wide variety of birds and mammals. Our squirrels became so tame, they would wait for me on the front step to come outside and feed them each morning. One of my fondest memories as a child was spending a snow day on friend’s family farm, and identifying a large number of different animals by their tracks in the snow.

The thing that ultimately kept me from heading off to Africa to study chimpanzees in the wild was the realization that as a zoologist in the field, it would be virtually impossible to take my dog or cat with me, and I couldn’t imagine leaving my pets behind.

As an adult, I found other ways to work with animals, but I still remain at heart an observer of nature–and a sucker for anything that shows up begging to be fed.

15 years ago, I trapped, spayed, and released an ugly female cat that kept having kittens under my porch. She was too wild to catch the first year, and her kittens scattered into the surrounding land too.

Once I caught her, I was able to catch the latest litter of kittens and find homes for them all. It took me another year and a half to catch the big male that was likely the father. Once I neutered both of them, they tamed down and hung about the property, greeting me when I’d arrive home in the evenings and following as I fed the livestock.

Over the years, other cats have showed up. Again and again, I went through the taming process. Some I could find homes for. Some were too feral even once neutered. The dad cat died last year from a combination of hyperthyroidism and kidney failure. The ugly mom cat is still with me, now creaky with age and deaf as a post. I built a catio for her because its no longer safe for her to roam at large.

It’s never been safe for them to roam, however.

One of the hardest things about making yourself responsible for a set of creatures that are largely wild animals is that sometimes there’s a limited amount you can do to protect them unless you are willing to make them indoor animals. We’re already over our indoor limit here, and the one house cat (from the second litter born under our porch) is a bully who prefers dogs to his native species.

A couple of winters ago, I lost my favorite feral cat to the road, and I vowed I wouldn’t get that attached ever again.

I’d spent months taming Ghost, and while I couldn’t pick him up, he was my little shadow around the farm. I was devastated when he died.

But then a new lot of young toms began drifting in, and the cycle of trapping, neutering, and releasing began again.

Black Jack was too nice a cat to let get hit by a car, and he was fighting with Harley, the other young tom who’d showed up about the same time, so I put him in the catio rotation with the ugly mom cat (okay, her name is Psycho Kitty because before she was spayed she would attack you). Harley seemed to be smart about the road, but I overfeed him so he’ll have no need to cross it looking for food.

 

Harley disappeared for months after I had him neutered, only to show up again when it got cold. I made a kitty shelter for him out of a Styrofoam cooler and and he sleeps in it every night. Like the others, he greets me when I come home from work, and follows me (and the dogs) all around the property.

But then Judge showed up. Talk about feral. Judge is so wild, I’m not entirely sure of his/her gender. I’ve never managed to get closer than 20 feet or so. She/he is so named because I’ll catch him or her staring through the bushes in silent judgement of me.

With the latest round of ice storms, both Harley and Judge had been showing up for meals twice a day like Swiss timepieces. But just before this last winter storm, Judge disappeared for a few days. He was gone so long, I was starting to think he was gone for good, but then he showed up right as the latest bout of weather was about to begin.

And he was injured.

I could tell from the way he held one eye closed there was something wrong but what could I do? It was too cold to set out a trap, and even if I could catch the cat, I’d only be able to put eye medication in if he was sedated. Operating on the “do what you can” model, I put antibiotics in his food and did a little fist pump when he ate them.

The following day as the storm rolled in, he appeared holding both eyes open, but dear Lord, his left eye was a mess. He must have been in a fight with a penetrating wound to the globe. And short of putting antibiotics in his food, there was nothing I could do about it. The problem is, antibiotics taken by mouth seldom affect infections in the eye because the eye is a closed system. Few medications can travel through the bloodstream and have an effect on them.

I still can’t trap the cat–he’d perish exposed in a live trap overnight in this weather. I still wouldn’t be able to medicate his eye directly if I could catch him. He’d have to go someplace where aggressive measures would have to be taken (like a third eyelid flap) and I doubt the eye is salvageable.

I managed to get a good look at the eye with a 300 mm telephoto lens, and believe me when I say if it makes me cringe to look at the photo, you don’t want to see it here. But here’s a pic of Judge eating.

So I keep putting antibiotics in his food. At some point when the weather warms, I plan to trap him anyway. He’ll probably have to have his eye removed–and that will also prove problematic if he isn’t tame enough for aftercare. All I can do is watch and worry and hope for the best.

Does this make me a crazy cat lady? Probably. But I don’t know any other way to be.

Fighting Hair Loss in Women: What Does and Does Not Work

Thinning hair is something I’ve been battling for many years, and Good Hair Day_RedI’ve been contemplating this blog post for a while now. I wasn’t sure sharing this post was appropriate on many levels: I’m a romance writer and there is nothing sexy about thinning hair, right? Writing about my thinning mane of hair is quite personal and decidedly off-brand.

But it is something I felt I had to share with you on the off-chance someone else out there is struggling with the same problem, and feeling just as bad about it as I did.

See, the one constant of my entire life has been my long, thick hair. It’s been one of my identifying characteristics. My dad’s nickname for me when I was a child was “a bag of bones and a hank of hair.” It was incredibly apt and I spent most of my formative years slightly resenting that nickname until I found out it that the line actually came from the lyrics of a very old song. Hairdressers never failed to comment on the volume and waviness of my hair, frequently pointing in awe at the amount of clippings piled around the chair after a simple trim. One woman jokingly told my mother to “Stop putting Miracle Gro on that child!” A college friend of mine likened it to kudzu, that invasive species of plant that was brought into the Southern US to stop soil erosion and ended up engulfing entire mountainsides. I myself compared to it as wearing a wet fur coat in the humid summers we have here.

Yep, that was me. Kudzu woman.

As such, I was always a little perversely proud of my hair, even when I hated it. Oh yes, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with my hair. When it got too long, all the curl was pulled right out of it due to the sheer weight of it all. Wearing it up in a ponytail or pulled back in barrettes was necessary for work–but I often had to use multiple hair implements at once to corral this mane, confining it in stages or otherwise dealing with the wicked headache pulling it back would create. Barrettes would frequently pop open with a loud crack, stinging as the clip bounced off my head and onto the floor. Sometimes it would land across the room. I kid you not.

Periodically, I would become frustrated with its heavy mass (usually at the height of August in 100 degree heat and humidity) and go into the hairdresser’s armed with a photo of a cute, wickedly short cut, only to be told that there was no way my hair would do that, and I did realize that I had three times as much hair as the model in the picture, right? When I would insist on cutting it short anyway, I’d always regret it. Sure, it was wash-and-wear convenient, but the very density of it made me look like an angry hedgehog. No sooner would I cut it, I would decide I needed to grow it out. In less than a year, I would be back to shoulder-length hair again.

That was before the hair disaster a few years ago.

Let me be clear–I’ve had hair disasters before. Who hasn’t? There was the horrendous cut that made me stumble out of the salon in tears and immediately seek out another hairdresser who could minimize the damage. There was that time I got talked into a permanent wave to ‘control the curls’ (seriously, with my hair? What was I thinking??) and ended up looking like a poodle. There was the other time when I spent over an hour with a new, highly recommended hairdresser who put magenta stripes in my hair and suggested I let my curls ‘come out to play.’ I looked like Bozo the Clown after that visit. I once had to shave my head nearly to the scalp to undo the damage from a home perm given too close to a recent coloring. That time, my hair developed the consistency of Brillo, and I could actually twist it into place and it would stay there.

I laughed it off because after all, hair mistakes are never permanent.

Until this last disaster.

For a while now, coloring my hair had become increasingly problematic. My gray roots, present since my thirties, were becoming resistant and unpredictable in color uptake. Nothing infuriated me more than to color my hair and, less than a week later, spy the glitter of gray roots somehow missed or already bleeding through. The amount of time I could go between root touch-ups was getting shorter and shorter, and yet I still clung to the idea of coloring my hair. It made me feel good about myself. It was a cheap way to give me an ego boost, a simple way of making a statement. If I wanted to be bold, I went red. If I wanted a power look, I went dark. Coloring my hair was no different to me than choosing a nice pair of glasses or wearing make up.

Sure, I suspected there would come a day when I might have to give it up. Salon coloring was too expensive; I reserved that for the times when it was really important for me to look smashing, like my college reunion. But even my salon guy, who is a genius with color, was having a hard time getting predictable results. My at-home adventures were worse. Finding a color that would last more than three weeks (no matter how much I babied my hair and used protective shampoos and conditioners) was tough. Not to mention the streaky, uneven color, or the fact that sometimes my roots turned out a different color than what I expected. I even went so far as to buy a book on the subject: Going Gray by Anne Kreamer. I confess, I didn’t read it. Gray wasn’t something I did.

Back then, to me there were two kinds of women: those who fought the aging process with style and those who embraced it. Women who looked like Mary McDonnell at 61 or those women who kept their own sheep, spun their own yarn, made their own kefir, wore Birkenstocks year-round, and did yoga. If that sounds biased, I keep my own sheep, but I like nail polish and pretty shoes. I’m a walking example of what I thought didn’t exist, and was too hard-headed to see it.

But that’s how I saw it then. No middle ground. I came by my fear of aging honestly. My mother fought the good fight to retain her youthful appearance with everything in her arsenal. Expensive youth serums, cosmetic surgery, lying about her age, you name it. It wasn’t until much, much later in life that I discovered this had nothing to do with her wanting to appear youthful and pretty–she was afraid of losing her job (and her health insurance) to younger, fresh-out-of-school new graduates. Now that I am in the same boat myself, I can understand her hard-core desire to remain youthful looking with an empathy that dismays me.

The message I subconsciously picked up from her, however, was that aging was something I need to fight tooth and nail. Even my husband, who is very much against Botox and other artificial means of looking young, hesitated when I suggested I might stop coloring my hair. The most supportive guy on the planet, and yet after a brief pause, he said he wasn’t sure he was quite ready for me to have gray hair yet.

Yeah, well me neither.

Then, ironically right after a cheerful online interaction with friends about To Color or Not To Color and why we all choose to keep coloring, the disaster struck. I’d switched brands of home color in the hopes of finding one that would be more consistent in shade and last just a little bit longer. I followed the instructions, as usual, applying the Medium Ash Brown shade.

ombre from flickr commons

ombre from flickr commons

When I washed it out, my hair was jet black. No, seriously. My husband referred to me as his ‘raven-haired beauty’ for weeks. I laughed it off, especially as the color didn’t take evenly, and the ends of my hair were still reddish brown. I told everyone I looked like Xena: Warrior Princess, and one of my clients told me I had an ombre–and that people actually did this sort of thing on purpose to their hair. So I laughed. No big deal, right?

Until my hair began falling out. Big time.

At first, I thought I was just going through a fall molt. After all, I’d done that before. One October when I was in my twenties, I lost so much hair all at once, I began to get worried. But that was when I was twenty-ish. And it stopped. This time, my hair continued to come out in great fistfuls to the point that I could see scalp, so much so my part looked exactly like that woman on the Rogaine box.  For the first time, I had to consider the possibility that not only was I losing far too much hair, but that it might not come back, either.

I went to the doctor and had a lot of expensive tests done to rule out some metabolic reason for why all my hair was falling out. I looked at all my supplements and medications that I took to see if any of them could be a factor. To my surprise, I discovered that completely unrelated side effects from one medication was probably increasing my depression and anxiety, so I stopped that one (always, always read the fine print, peeps!). I also found out that the melatonin I was taking to help me sleep at night could, in a very small percentage of women, cause permanent hair loss. You can bet I stopped taking that right away. In fact, I pretty much stopped taking everything except my multi-vitamin. Anything that could remotely be a factor, I stopped taking cold turkey.

(word to the wise: always check with your doctor before stopping any medication)

That still left me with the possibility it was stress (my whole life was undergoing restructuring, which is part of why I was having trouble sleeping) or hormones. Simple, goddamn aging. My doctor told me I could try minoxidil, and I was desperate enough to buy a box (despite the fact it can exacerbate hypertension, something I struggle with). Everything I read said minoxidil was the ONLY thing that promoted regrowth of hair, but that you had to keep using it or you would lose what you gained. Also, most of the websites I encountered said forget about the 2% solution designed for women and go with the men’s 5% product.

blinding, widening part: 2014

Have you ever read the side effects? “Unexpected weight gain and the potential to grow facial hair.” I have to say, given the fact that I usually get every side effect in the book, the possibility of looking like a bald, fat, mustachioed man made me quake in my shoes. Not to mention, I discovered minoxidil can is incredibly toxic to your pets! I have a cat who likes to lick my hair when I sleep. I threw the minoxidil away.

Each time I took a shower and watched a pile of hair accumulate in the drain the size of a small mouse, I hoped that maybe it was the hair dye. That maybe I’d burned my scalp or something and my hair all fell out in shock. The loss was certainly most prominent at the crown, where the dye had been on the longest. And so I made the decision to stop coloring my hair.

Oh, I railed at the thought. But given my alternatives, I thought it was the best choice to see if my scalp and my hair would recover. My hair guy offered to do lowlights and highlights to minimize the look of the growing out process, but at this point I didn’t want any more chemicals on my hair at all. I had him cut it into a chin-length bob–NOT my best look, but at least it minimized the thinning layers and gave the impression of being fuller. Of course, when the weather was humid, I looked just like Gilda Radner’s Saturday Night Live character, Roseanne Roseannadanna.

Looking in the mirror made me almost physically ill. As time went on, I saw myself as not only balding but also getting progressively grayer. This wasn’t ME. This wasn’t who I am! I’m not an old woman. At the root of my distress was the concern that my husband would no longer find me sexually attractive. Hell, I’m not ready to give up on sex yet! I’m a romance writer, FFS. Sex interests me. I like writing about it, I like what sex can tell you about characters at their most vulnerable and open. I just plain like it. I wasn’t ready to be assigned to the scrap heap.

So yeah, not ready for the entire world to consign me out to pasture. I’m still not. But one day I woke up and said, “Oh for Chrissake, get over yourself. Losing your hair and going gray is not the worst things that can happen to you.”

No, it isn’t. Not by a long shot. But it is something that is very personal and very distressing for virtually everyone facing this situation. And let me tell you, when you are in this mindset, it eclipses everything else in your world. For days, when I first realized that this indeed was really happening, when my hairdresser confirmed my worst fears by walking silently around my chair and finally saying, “We can fix this” in a determined manner, I couldn’t think of anything but the fact that I was losing my hair to some unknown cause.

Chemo? I get that. Hair loss is expected. If you have a great support network, friends will even shave their heads in support of your battle. I can even see where it can be a badge of honor–a symbol of your determination to survive. You are fighting a much bigger fight than hair loss–and yet I have a better inkling of how devastating that portion of your battle can be.

You’re a guy? Sorry, but hair loss is almost the norm for men. I’m not saying it is any less upsetting when it occurs, but you are in good company. I know I sound callous here, but that is my whole point. All I could think about was me, me, me and how this would impact my life.

When it really comes down to it, for me the problem wasn’t so much the hair loss itself as the unexpected nature of it.  It felt unfair. I could accept that I’d gotten heavy, that I was developing wrinkles around my eyes, even that I had gray hair in the first place. Going bald wasn’t on the list of expectations, however, and given how much I’ve compromised on things in the last ten years of life, this was one thing I was unwilling to accept, childish as it sounds.

Especially since we have so many negative reinforcers for older women in this society. Sure, we’ve got such strong positives as Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, and Jamie Lee Curtis, but most older actresses are all about making 40 the new 20, or whatever the phrase is now. They *have* to, unless they want to be relegated to playing the mom, or the school principle.

Add to that how many times we see younger actresses paired with older actors on shows: on two of my favorite shows, the lead actress was in her twenties while the lead actor was in his late thirties, early forties. Even dating sites such as OkCupid release stats that pretty much prove that when women reach a certain age, they are considered undesirable–while men of that same age demographic are still seeking out women twenty years younger than they are.

It took me a long time to reach a point of acceptance, but I finally did. I am not responsible for whether my husband, or the bag boy, or the hot young client thinks I am attractive or not. That’s their bailiwick. I can’t make anyone else find me attractive. What matters is whether or not I think I’m attractive, and the answer to that has been a surprising no for a while now. Long before I stopped coloring my hair. Coloring my hair was a means of clinging to this ideal of what attractiveness meant to me–where nearly every woman over forty on television has long flowing locks of honey-touched hair. I keep forgetting that these actresses are in the business of looking beautiful. That they have full time hairdressers and stylists, and the money to spend on looking good, and when all else fails the magazine industry Photoshops them into the semblance of youth. Given how few strong roles there are for women on television, I can understand the need to provide the industry with what it wants if you want to be an actress. But in my case, I was clinging to this false sense of security. I couldn’t really be old, now could I? Not as long as I could pass for ten or fifteen years younger. Not as long as I still occasionally got carded. Right?

The Great Hair Disaster caused me to stop dyeing my hair for about a year and a half, but it made no difference to the thickness of my hair. As a matter of fact, my gray hairs were thinner and finer than my colored strands, and after giving my hair a good long break from coloring, I went back to dyeing it again. Why? Because I liked how I looked better with dyed hair. I looked so tired and washed out with my dull, dead-mouse-graying hair color.

Here’s one thing I’ve learned in my hair journey: once you rule out the other causes of hair loss, over 50 % of adult women will experience hair loss for hormonal reasons. About the time of the Great Hair Disaster, I’d stopped using birth control pills after a lifetime of being on them for dysmenorrhea. All the women in in my family have developed thinning hair as they hit their forties. I never knew this was so widespread or such an issue until it became personal for me. And yes, harsh chemicals, such as dyes and perms, definitely are a factor in hair loss as well. So lucky me, I’m not alone in this. Thinning hair in women is far more pervasive than I ever realized. I only wish someone had warned me a long time ago. It doesn’t seem to be a topic women discuss readily.

So what are the solutions? Are there any fixes for this?

You’re probably not going to like the answer, which is: not really.

You can slow it down. If you’re not willing to use minoxidil (and I’m not) there are few proven hair loss reversal remedies out there. You need to start early because once your hair follicles shrink and shut down, there is no reversing that. Lady Alopecia runs as website that is a font of useful information about products. Here’s what I’ve tried and what works for me:

Supplements: Biotin, hair and nail supplements, multi-vitamins, etc:

Viviscal is a supplement touted to promote hair growth. I haven’t managed to take it long enough to see a difference because it seems to make my face break out (but a lot of things do, so take that with a grain of salt). Not recommended for those with shellfish allergies or celiac disease.

I take a wide variety of supplements for my poor nail growth (also a side effect of hormonal changes, I suspect. I used have nails with the strength of Wolverine’s adamantium…). You can read about them here. While I think they’ve helped my nail growth somewhat, I’m less certain about the effects on my hair. When you do a number of different things at the same time, it’s hard to examine the benefits of a particular product.

There are a LOT of supplements out there. I’ve looked into many, only to decide against using them because of the ingredient list or because of the unproven results. The supplement industry is poorly regulated, and many products out there don’t even included the listed amount of ingredients on their label. Buyer beware in this department.

Shampoos and Conditioners:

Anti-DHT shampoos are recommended the most for controlling hair loss. There are a wide variety of products out there which claim to be DHT blockers, but only a few actually have the ingredients shown to be effective. DHT is a hormone which is a factor in hair loss. From WebMD: 

DHT stands for dihydrotestosterone, a hormone produced in both men and women by the male sex hormone testosterone. If you have a genetic predisposition to hair loss, certain receptors in your scalp’s hair follicles will encourage DHT to bind to them. Then, DHT stimulates an enzyme to shrink the follicle.

In most ciswomen, estrogen levels offset the natural amount of testosterone present. As your hormones change in output (for whatever reason), your DHT levels have nothing to counteract them. Remember what I said earlier? There is no reversing the follicle shrinkage once it occurs.

I was using Pura D’Or original Gold label shampoo for over a year, but then they changed the label, removing the DHT blocking description. The website says it prevents hair loss through reduction in hair breakage, which makes me suspect it no longer contains any DHT blocking activity (if it ever did).

Lady Alopecia recommends the Nioxin brand line of products, and I have used those as well. The shampoo definitely has a tingling effect on my scalp, but I feel as though the products make my hair too soft. Without a certain amount of body, the weight of my hair causes my scalp to be even more apparent, so I like a certain amount of texture to my hair, not slick and shiny like a seal. What I like about the product line, however, is a tiered approach to your hair thinning and what they recommend using. They also make products specifically for dyed hair. Apparently they are now making a shampoo containing minoxidil, however, so read your labels.

Thicker, Fuller, Hair Shampoo and Conditioner: The original product with the “cell-u-plex” ingredient has been discontinued. Again, making me wonder about the value of the replacement product. The new products is also listed as a “hair strengthening” shampoo, which goes back to breakage, not anti-DHT. I like the fact the conditioner is extremely lightweight and doesn’t weigh my hair down. Not sure I will buy the newer version though, but Women’s Health does list it among the products in their 2020 post on thinning hair. As a matter of fact, I’m going to give that list a hard look here. I suspect I will be trying some new products when I run out of the current ones.

Diet:

A hard one for me, as anyone who knows me knows I’m a carb junkie. As in PopTarts, not kale. Dr. Gundry, who has gained recognitions touting a diet that eliminates lectins (including bell peppers, seeds, peanuts, and beans), claims not only will you lose weight on this diet, but your hair will regrow. Call me skeptical, but willing to look into it more. Given I need to clean up my act there in general, it can’t hurt, even if it doesn’t help with hair growth.

Sugar is a huge culprit in aging in general. We all know about the risks of diabetes, Alzheimer’s and dementia, stroke and heart disease, but when life is stressful and there are doughnuts in the break room, it’s easy to set those concerns aside as something that will happen to someone else, or later in your own life. But did you know sugar affects the cross-linkages of collagen in your skin? It’s one of the marked causes of sagging skin and wrinkles. Now my fear of looking old is at war with my love of sweets.

The sad thing is, I can look at 2020 and see what a toll it has taken on my appearance. I feel as though I’ve aged a decade in this past year due to stress and bad coping mechanisms. I wouldn’t be surprised if sugar played a role in hair thinning too. If I tell myself this often enough, I might actually do something about my diet at long last.

Cut your hair:

What? You heard me. Those long flowing locks with the center part only accentuates the widening of that part and the thinning of your hair. Give up the look you’ve been hanging onto for the last decade and embrace something that doesn’t emphasize your thinning hair nearly as much. Remember that pixie cut I couldn’t wear when I was younger? I can now because I have a third of the hair I used to have. Bonus feature: not having a defined part makes the hair loss less noticeable as well as increasing the time needed between hair coloring from every three weeks to every six or so.

Hair Color and Hair Products:

I’ve stopped using drugstore box dyes. I’m not going to the salon, either, due to Covid-19. I’m ordering my hair color from e-salon, and I have to say I’m not only thrilled with the color and coverage, but my hair feels healthier and softer, too. I’ve given up the dramatic reds and too-harsh-for-my-coloring brunettes and have settled on a dark blonde that hides my gray nicely when it starts to grow out. But I can tweak the color with a simple request: make it browner, redder, etc.

Yes, the cost is a bit more, but given I’m only coloring my hair every 8 weeks instead of 3, and the quality of the product is better, it’s worth it to me.

Be careful what hair products you use to style thinning hair, however. Your favorite mousses and gels frequently have a lot of alcohol, and even if they aren’t damaging to your hair, they can clump strands together, emphasizing areas of thinning.

I used to let my hair air dry, but now I use a hair dryer with a diffuser set on low to give me the volume I desire without excessively drying out my hair.

Hair fillers and fibers:

These are itty bitty fibers that you sprinkle into your hairline, increasing the thickness of the single strand as well as coloring in your scalp. They tend to stay put until you wash your hair as well, though I haven’t tested them through the heat of a summer in the Southern US. What can I say, though? I’ve been pleased with the effect.

Wigs and toppers:

Yes. Check them out. I bought my first wig when I was unable to get my hair cut for seven months during the pandemic. Before my hair loss, going without a cut for that long would have left me looking like Cousin It. The very fact that seven months without a trim resulted in me looking like a shaggy Maria Von Trapp is another indication of how slowly my hair grows these days.

Frustrated with how unkempt I looked, I found a wig in a cute style that matched my own color nicely, and I challenge anyone to have told the difference. Don’t want to go for a full wig? Definitely check out toppers. The difference in my appearance is amazing. Doing what makes you look and feel amazing is okay. We wear makeup, right? Or maybe you don’t, but you still buy clothing that looks nice on you. Wigs are an accessory, like eye glasses or shoes. Don’t talk yourself out of doing something that makes you feel good about your appearance because it somehow feels like cheating if it isn’t your own hair. It’s not.

Last but not least, the only other product proven to affect hair loss: laser therapy.

WebMD’s jury is out on the effectiveness of cold laser for preventing hair loss and encouraging growth. I can only tell you about my experience.

It’s expensive. It’s time-consuming. It takes a long time to see results (six months or more) That makes it hard to do on a trial basis. I shelled out the big bucks for an iRestore because I knew I wouldn’t use a comb for the necessary period of time and I could read or watch TV wearing the cap for the 25 minutes needed for treatment. It’s relatively safe (just don’t shine the laser in your eyes!! and don’t use if you take photosensitizing medications). My biggest problem is remembering to do it regularly–I have to put it on a scheduler.

Results? I am seeing hair regrowth but NOT from the shiny, dead follicles where no hair is growing anyway. It seems that I am getting new growth around my hairline where there are still active follicles, and I’m also noticing double strands of hair coming out of the same follicle. Even more interesting, the new hair strands are not gray and are much denser than the gray ones. Overall, I would say hair regrowth is slight, but my shedding seems a lot less, so I’ll take it.

It is very difficult to get a non-blurry selfie of the top of your head. I apologize for the amateurish images. And if you’re thinking to yourself, “Wow, that’s a lot of gray”, it is. I’m definitely not coloring my hair as often during the pandemic. Most of the time, I can gt away with it but I wanted to show you the new growth.

So there you have it. If you take anything away from this post, I hope it is this:

Hair thinning in women is more common than you think.

The only person who decides if you are attractive is you–and you’re allowed to do what it takes to make you confident and happy with your appearance.

This shouldn’t be a topic we shy away from. We should be having these discussions with our children so they aren’t blindsided by normal aging changes.

It’s not too late to decide how you want to look and feel from this moment forward.

Be safe. Be well. And most importantly, be happy in your own skin.

I’m Not Okay, and I’m Not Alone

No one in my immediate family has Covid-19.

As an essential worker, I’m close to getting a vaccination soon.

I have a job that pays my bills. I have an extremely supportive husband, whom I love very much. In two days, we’ll usher in a new president, and we’ll finally have adults in charge again.

My health is relatively decent, all things considered.

But I am not okay.

Because the problems that have come to a head in the last four years aren’t going to magically go away overnight. We’re on the verge of civil war, and the ugly specter of white supremacy, given praise by the outgoing president, has come out into the open and is not afraid to show it. The pandemic is still out of control, and even once vaccination becomes available to all, I know far too many people who will refuse to be vaccinated. We’re running out of time to affect climate change, if we haven’t already.

We’re in a new year, with a new administration coming, and the winds of change are blowing, but that weather vane is still stuck pointing toward fear and hopelessness, and I don’t know how to make it swing in any other direction.

And I’m one of the lucky ones. I know I’m one of the lucky ones. It makes it hard to share my feelings with anyone else because what the heck do I have to complain about? Almost everyone I know has a much harder situation than mine. So what right do I have to be so down, so depressed that I’m seriously considering giving up writing? Why? Because it seems so freaking pointless right now. Every word is like pulling teeth with a pair of rusty pliers and no anesthesia, and every sentence reads like it was drafted by a middle-schooler. I used to look forward to my writing time. Now I avoid it in lieu of doing almost anything else: laundry, baking brownies, watching hours of Murder She Wrote.

(Why Murder She Wrote? Because the overly dramatic acting typical of the era and the improbable scripts don’t require anything of me, and are definitely not going to hurt me in any conceivable way. Also, there’s the fantasy of Jessica Fletcher, who became a bestselling novelist late in life, and can now jaunt around solving mysteries. Perhaps I’m not running out of time after all.)

Now, I recognize that I’m burned out at work. That the inability to get the regular services I used to do in order to manage my pain means I’m dealing with a higher level of it than usual. I was burnt to a crisp emotionally before 2020 began, and 2020 has asked a lot of us all. I can even look in the mirror and realize at least part of my disgust with my appearance stems from my own decision not to get my hair cut for the time being, and that’s not a good look for me. I trimmed my own bangs recently, and now I look like Maria Von Trapp after one too many servings of schnitzel with noodles.

But teetering on the edge of quitting writing… that’s new for me.

I know what I’d tell someone else. I would point out how important it is for the creators of this world to continue offsetting the destroyers. How we are our own worst critics, and that it’s understandable to find yourself without the ability to create if the emotional well is dry. I’d advise myself to take a little break, give myself the benefit of the doubt, do something different but still creative to get the juices following. I’d say lay off the junk food, get to sleep at a decent hour, and go outside and take a walk.

But it’s been months since I’ve really written anything, and it’s starting to feel like this is the new norm.

Some friends of mine met online today, and I almost didn’t join them. I have nothing cheerful to say and I didn’t want to bring down the group with my unhappiness. But when someone asked how I was doing, and I told them honestly not too hot. I also expressed my feeling that I shouldn’t complain because nothing that bad is happening to me right now.

One of my friends said she was glad I said something because she’d been feeling the same. She wanted me to know I wasn’t alone.

So I’m telling you: you’re not alone. Things really do suck in a big way right now. And it’s okay to be anxious, depressed, and afraid. We’ve been living with these emotions for practically a whole year now (and a lot of anger too) without a clear endpoint. It’s okay to long for haircuts or to get your nails done. It’s okay to miss doing things with your friends and family, and to wish for more from life than to go to work each day. It’s even okay to set aside the things that used to bring you joy for the things that bring you comfort instead.

I do believe things will get better. But I also think they are going to get worse before they do. I think we have a very long, hard row to hoe to make things better for the generations that come behind us. That’s a tough realization when you’re already as tired as you can be.

I believe I’ll return to the things that bring me joy some day. Perhaps even some day soon. But until then, there’s still Murder She Wrote.

 

 

 

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.

 

The Girl Who Lost Her Dream

Once upon a time, there was a young girl who loved polished stones.

She loved the slick feel of them between her fingers, and the way they warmed in her hand. She loved how being spun in a tumbler sanded off the rough outer shell and brought out the beauty within–a kind of Cinderella story for rocks.

She’d learned to identify the dinosaurs by name, and collected plastic models. She resisted the reclassification of the Brontosaurus (and her adult self rejoiced when her belief was vindicated). She moved on to mammals and birds, thumbing well-worn identification guides, learning animal tracks and bird calls as well. 

Her childhood passion for identifying things was on the wane when she discovered geology, but the magic of polished stones stayed with her. A school trip to a mine netted a little velvet sack of rocks that stayed with her through several moves and all through high school, disappearing somewhere after she went away to college. But she always remembered the pleasure those polished stones brought her.

As an adult, she rediscovered that joy again, coming across some polished stones with words engraved on them. She began collecting stones again. A rock tumbled smooth by the Snake River. A piece of quartz that caught the light like a diamond. An amethyst from a park gift shop the last time she took the old dog camping. Bloodstone from the writer’s retreat. Sodalite for creativity. Hematite because it looked like solid mercury. Other stones with words engraved on them: Wisdom, Courage, Serenity, Joy.

The stones that didn’t have words carved into them also got named–secret names that grounded her when she kept them in her pocket: Hope. Love. Kindness. Peace. Strength.

She used to carry them with her one at a time, a talisman in her pocket to remind her to focus on the idea embodied within. But the fear of losing them caused her to leave them on the shelf collecting dust. With time, they got packed away and forgotten, only to turn up again out of the blue after another move.

She spread them out on the bookshelf again, admiring her little hoard.

Then things got bad, not just for her, but for the entire world. Things felt really hard, and she began looking at her talismans again. At a time when she needed it most, she carried Hope, like a little prayer, in her pocket. After feeling hope again for the first time in years, she switched out and began carrying Courage. The smooth stone in her pocket grounded her and gave her strength. So at the end of the week, she selected a new stone to carry: Dream.

It seemed audacious to carry Dream with her, but since she’d chosen audacious as her power word for 2020 (and had sadly not lived up to its promise), she placed the sparkling stone in her pocket and went on about her business.

Only her pockets were shallow, and at some point, Dream fell out and was lost.

She tried not to let it bother her. After all, wasn’t that the reason she stopped carrying stones with her in the past–fear of losing them? It was inevitable she would misplace one sooner or later. The fact it was DREAM didn’t mean anything. Her dreams weren’t encased in mineral, unable to thrive without a touchstone to activate them. Sure, having dreams had been tough this year–for the last few years, actually. But losing the Dream stone didn’t mean she’d lost her dreams–only that she had lost a rock.

She kept looking for it though. In part because she remembered hearing a ‘clunk’ at some point in the past, and hadn’t put it together with losing the stone until later. But if she heard it fall out of her pocket, that meant it wasn’t in the yard, or lying in the forest after one of her walks. She resigned herself to having lost it forever, though, and told herself that perhaps someone else would find it one day, and it would bring them joy (and maybe even a little nudge in the right direction from the universe).

And then after she’d given up searching for it, she came across it by accident while straightening up, the Dream stone lying beneath a stack of clothing she’d had yet to put away because it simply wasn’t a priority for her.

She snatched the stone up with joy, thrilled to have found her Dream again. She rushed to place it back on the shelf where it would be safe with all the others once more. She wasn’t going to make that mistake again. The stones would stay put, stay safe. But she hesitated as she positioned the stone among the others.

Wisdom. Courage. Faith. Serenity. Joy. Health. Hope. And yes, Dream. Concepts that could not be killed by losing a little rock. Concepts that shouldn’t remain safe at home but should sally forth into the world to do battle, to protect, to inspire. She didn’t need to lock up her stones. She needed a better way to carry them with her. In a small pouch, so they couldn’t easily fall out of her pocket. Safe, but still with her at all times.

She took Dream outside held it in her hand. The sun came out from behind the clouds and set the stone to sparkling.

“This,” she thought. “This is how Dreams are meant to live.”

And because she believes in them, the once-upon-a-time little girl grew up and lived happily ever after.