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.

Is it Time to kiss Social Media Goodbye?

Photo by Oleg Magni from Pexels

More and more people I know are discussing leaving social media altogether. Divorcing themselves from Facebook, Twitter, and even the relatively happy place, Instagram.

I’m not surprised, to be honest. Social media has become a toxic swamp, weaponized by those forces wishing to polarize populations and bring countries to their knees. Think I’m exaggerating? Remember the huge hate the latest trilogy of Star Wars movies received from supposed fanboys who hated the fact none of the leads were young, white men?

Welp, a post by Wired in 2018 revealed that as much as half the negative tweets about the film were politically motivated or generated by bots (a storyline worthy of the franchise itself, if you ask me).

It’s not just polarizing people over issues such as diversity and inclusiveness. Social media has become the place most people get their information these days, and the amount of disinformation out there, aimed at creating divisiveness at best and destroying nations at worst, is scary. I don’t consider myself a conspiracy theorist, but when I see well-educated people in the medical profession or education supporting unverified, crazy theories over statistically-backed scientific reports, I’m concerned, let me tell you.

On a personal level, I find the damage it causes something else altogether. We’ve become addicted to doomscrolling, and because clicks are king, media outlets are creating provocative headlines designed to keep us in a perpetual state of outrage. My husband and I had a conversation about this the other day, and I think for many of us, we share these anger-inducing posts because it’s the bare minimum we can do. Most of us don’t have the time, energy, or resources to do anything other than share the outrage because we think people should be angry and upset over these important issues.

(Don’t get me started on the data mining these platforms do… how creepy is it that my husband and I talk about buying a new mattress and shortly thereafter, our feeds get flooded with mattress adverts??)

But the truth of the matter is not only is sharing bad news (and OMG, there’s SO much of it these days) completely worthless in terms of doing something about it, there may be great harm in doing so as well. It fosters a sense of hopelessness about our ability to change anything: from the impending climate disasters, to voter suppression and the march to invalidate any election results the opposition doesn’t like, from politicians who get vaccinated themselves, but tell their constituents Covid-19 is nothing to worry about, so don’t bother with vaccines and oh, by the way, get back to work, please. And when we get sucked into a state of despair and cynicism, then we stop trying to make a difference where we can.

My husband shared this great metafilter discussion thread with me, and I’m sharing it here with you: What’s MINE to care about and what’s NOT MINE to care about. It has some great things to say about limiting your anxiety over the things for which you have no control and what to do about the things you can affect. That you can’t fight all the battles in the world, but you can’t opt out of fighting any. And if all you’re doing is sharing outrage posts, how is that different from virtue signaling? The metafilter discussion was in reference to this post here, which points out we are not designed to handle all the suffering in the world, and that circuit breakers exist for a reason: to prevent electrical systems from overloading.

My friends, the majority of whom I met online, are moving off social media and onto other, smaller platforms, such as WhatsApp and Discord. The main reason? To keep up with each other during the day but avoid getting sucked into the mire of disinformation and ugly rhetoric out there. I can’t say as I blame them. I’ve taken Facebook off my phone. I’m considering eliminating Twitter next. Some of my friends have taken things one step further: they’ve deleted their accounts.

I confess, the idea of doing that fills me with a sense of dread. I’m a writer. I’ve been told over and over again that I must have a presence on social media. And without the backing of a Big Name Publisher, I suspect this is true. I need to keep hustling to remind people my stories exist, to build a newsletter following, to manage groups, to post regularly to all my platforms, to stand on the deck of the Ark amidst limitless seas, releasing doves again and again in the hopes of one of them eventually bringing back signs of dry land out there.

To consider eliminating my social media presence feels a bit like giving up. Like accepting that I’ll never be more than a small potatoes writer releasing a handful of French fries once a year. So maybe I won’t delete my accounts.

But I can be a better steward of them.

You want fries with that?

Photo by Dzenina Lukac from Pexels

What do Romances and Mysteries Have in Common?

The other evening I popped into an online book discussion group being held by the Carnegie Library, hosted by Jennie Ellis. I only found out about the book club at the last moment, and joined because while I hadn’t read the featured book, I had read other books by the author, Julia Buckley, and she was going to be present.

What ensued was a delightful hour in which Ms. Buckley described her writing process, and how she came to create her various series, including the Hungarian Tea House Mysteries. She also fielded questions about the publishing industry, her past projects, and what to expect from her in the future.

Toward the end of the discussion, the subject of cozy mysteries in general came up. I lamented that many publishing houses had dropped their cozy lines, and the consensus was this was an inexplicable decision on their part because like romance readers, cozy readers are voracious.

That got me to thinking about the other ways in which romance and mysteries have commonalities, and it occurred to me during the discussion that one of the biggest things the two genres have in common is their contract with the reader.

There’s only one hard-and-fast rule in Romance: there must be a happily ever after (HEA) or at the least, a happily for now (HFN). That means that no matter what happened during the course of the story, we should have either a declaration of commitment between the couple or some indication they are going to be together in the future. It does not mean there must be a baby in the epilogue, though this is an addendum many authors and readers enjoy. It also doesn’t mean that the entire story must be fluffy and light without any angst or difficult storylines. Sometimes the reward of the HEA is all the sweeter for the suffering that took place before reaching that point.

I was having this discussion with my husband this morning, and he brought up (on cue) Romeo and Juliet. Everyone brings up R&J! Shakespeare’s play is not a romance but a tragedy. I went on to say that one of the reasons people take exception to Nicholas Sparks’ books being labeled as romances is the frequent lack of a HEA. Romances have ONE rule.

“Okay,” my husband said, “but what if the purpose of breaking the contract is to get you to look at something from another point of view?”

“Then categorize it as something else,” I countered. “Put it like this: suppose you bought a sci-fi story based on the cover and the blurb. You had every expectation of reading a military space opera based on these things, but instead, you get a romance. You’d be disappointed, especially if you were in the mood for something different.”

“But the Murderbot books aren’t just science fiction,” he offered. “They explore relationships, what it means to have friends, to be human.”

“Themes science fiction explores all the time. Romance has one rule. HEA. How you get there can vary in a million different ways but you have to get there.”

Which brings me to the rule I believe mysteries–or at least cozy mysteries–have: justice will be served.

Like romances, the route at which you arrive at justice can take many forms. I can recall reading an old Ellery Queen novel once in which Ellery figured out who the killer was, but for various reasons, couldn’t go forward with the conviction. At the time, the ending enraged me so much, I threw the book across the room. As a much older and wiser person, I can see the ending made sense, and that the authors had not broken their contract with me, the way I thought they did when I read the story.

It was the frustration of my expectations that angered me so much when I read that story.

The contract should be sacred in my book.

In a mystery, you’re presented with a crime of some sort (not necessarily a murder, but that is often the case). There may be a romance as well–certainly I was more invested in Lord Peter Wimsey’s investigations when they included Harriet Vane–but the romance isn’t central to the story. The central story is the puzzle, the “whodunnit”, behind the shady activity. A mystery writer should make all the clues available to the reader as well, not holding back vital information that the sleuth has access to but the reader does not. It’s part of the deal: providing enough information for the reader to connect the dots while hopefully obscuring the solution until the very end. 

The one rule of mystery? The good guys win.

I think this is why the mystery genre has its devoted following. It’s the same concept as it is with romance: you have certain expectations when you enter into the story. You picked up the story because you were in the mood for something specific. Perhaps you chose a romance because needed to hear that love conquers all. Or perhaps you went with a mystery because you needed to believe that crooked bad guys would someday get their comeuppance.

When I choose to read genre fiction, I do so because I want a certain kind of story with expectations of it ending in a certain way. Let me tell you, with the stresses I’ve been under the past few years, I select my entertainment carefully these days. I don’t read as much sci-fi as I used to because the storylines are often darker and less likely to end well. Am I coddling myself a bit right now? You bet. At some point, when life doesn’t hurt so much, when my mental health is more stable, I’m sure I will go back to stories and movies with darker themes.

While I fully believe there’s a place for having your beliefs challenged, or your insight expanded, I think that can still be done within the confines of a contract if you’re writing genre fiction. Not writing genre fiction? The sky’s the limit! Torture your protagonists! Throw them off a cliff. Let the bad guys win.

But call it something other than romance if your story ends in sorrow, and something other than mystery if the murder is never solved. Your readers will thank you.

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 and 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.

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.

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.

 

 

The 2021 Author Planner You Must Have

If you really want to show the writer in your life you believe in them and take their work seriously, show them how to take their work seriously too. Last year I was fortunate enough to win one of Audrey Hughey’s The Ultimate Authorship Planner, and I couldn’t wait to get started with it, having decided to start off fresh in 2020 with it. It’s more than just another notebook or calendar. SO MUCH MORE. You can track your daily and weekly goals, your expenditures (to make doing your taxes so much easier!), plan your marketing and social media campaigns, newsletters, you name it! What I love about it is it’s large enough for me to work in without cramming tiny notes everywhere, and the coil-bound cover allows it to lay flat while you’re working on it. It’s a bit like having an organizer, an accountability partner, a cheerleader, and a coach all rolled up into one.
 
The 2021 Author’s Planner is designed to be your all-in-one day planner and writing-career coach, helping you organize your writing life and get on a clear path to reach your goals.
 
“I absolutely LOVE this planner. In my opinion, it’s a must for any author who wants to stay on top of their book production and author career with minimal stress and anxiety! (And who doesn’t want that?!)” — J.R. Frontera
 
Finally, you’ll have ONE planner where you can:
– Track your daily and weekly word counts.
– Map out your writing and publishing plans for an entire year.
– Manage and track your monthly expenses so you’re ready for tax season.
– Develop your editing checklist and evaluate potential editors for your manuscripts.
– Plan your social media marketing, book promotions, and advertising.
– Sketch out ideas for your author newsletter and track your open and click-through rates.
– Have the space and flexibility to plan your days and weeks according to your own unique lifestyle and schedule.
 
Are you ready to get organized in your writing life and empowered to reach your goals? Apply method to the madness of writing and publishing with The 2021 Author’s Planner.
* This planner is dated for 2021.
 
“If lack of organization is holding your writing career back, this Author’s Planner will be your salvation. Everything you do, from your writing schedules to tracking submissions you’ve sent out, to keeping tabs on your earnings, you can track in this amazing book. Wow!” — Jimmie Bise Jr.
 
“This isn’t just a planner; it’s a reflection and goal-setting tool, a finance tracker, a social media planner, and a manuscript organizer. Combined with additional online resources, this planner has everything you need to get organized in all aspects of your author career, from the day-to-day actions to the big vision for your authorship journeys.” — Jen Stephan Kapral
 
“As a busy author and mom, I am disorganized to a fault. Thankfully, the charts and calendars in The Author’s Planner organizes my social media, promotions, budget, and, most importantly, writing. There is no better planner available for the self-published author.” — Jen Pretty
 
Seriously, take it from me, McKenna Dean–the most disorganized person on the planet! If there is ONE tool to buy as part of your author journey for 2021, this planner is it!