Living With a Mystery

In October of 2018, some friends of mine and I met up at a shelter on the Upper East Side in Manhattan to look at cats. The giant, brand new ASPCA shelter was closed down for reasons the website wasn’t sharing, so we were at another city shelter — along with everyone else, it seemed. I met up with my friend, let’s call her J, and her two teenage twin daughters. The girls immediately went to look at all the animals, and were already getting misty eyed about the ones that might not be going home with anyone.

But me, I was on a mission: I wanted to get a bonded pair of kitties, one of them possibly being black since I’ve heard that black cats are still harder to adopt out. (Though it seems that this may be a myth, there were a lot of black kitties up for adoption.) I wasn’t sure if I wanted kittens or adult cats, but I knew I wanted cats under the age of six. I was still grieving the loss of my beloved Oscar, and wasn’t ready to take on senior kitties that maybe had health issues.

But while there were lots of tags talking about bonded kitties, it was soon obvious that the shelter wan’t actually focused too much on keeping them together. I was told by a volunteer that if both cats seemed social, bonded pairs would be separated and adopted out  individually, in order to give them their best chance at being adopted. I was also told that if you wanted to get a kitten you’d better show up early, much earlier than we had.

So we wandered around trying to find what I was looking for, and I was starting to think I was going to go home with a single cat (since, unless they are bonded, most shelters won’t let you adopt two adult cats at once).

Then, the teen girls spotted them: two kitties, stuck in the less glamorous cages in the middle of the hallway, where the “special case” cats were. Two cats, whose cages had been connected, were curled up together, their backs to the world, their ears flat, trying everything they could to get away from anyone who tried to look at them. They were so terrified that the shelter volunteers draped towels over their cages to give them some privacy.

They were the only intact bonded pair in the place, and one of them was a black kitty. Here! the teen girls said. We found what you were looking for!

The problem was, they were too scared to do any sort of visitation, and too scared to even try to say hello to without hissing. Adopting these two cats would be adopting complete unknowns.

A couple I kept seeing around looking at kitties pulled me aside. Are you looking at those two cats? They are our second choice. We’d be really happy to see them go to a happy home. They are very sweet — we can tell!

So now I was getting big teenage girl eyes, and mopey couple eyes (they ended up going with a pair of cats that had some health issues and couldn’t be taken home that day), and these two cats who scrambled at the back of their cages when I tried to say hi to them.

So, of course, I adopted them. Brooklyn, a tabby, and Savannah, a black kitty.

The only thing the shelter could tell me was that they were owner surrendered and about four years old. Good health — a little overweight, and some teeth issues typical of their age.

The teen girls and my friend helped me carry them home to Brooklyn, no small feat while holding two cardboard carriers that had to be held just so or they might fall apart. When I got them home, they stayed in their open boxes until the next day, when they found hiding places in the living room. I consulted a friend who fosters cats who said to take them out of their hiding places and put them in the bathroom — the living room was going to be too much for them. I did, and it was a traumatic event for all three of us.

Eventually, after trying to figure out if I should change their names, I landed on calling them nicknames of their original names: B.K. for Brooklyn, and Savvy for Savannah. Slowly, they started to come out more, and spend time near me more, and eventually even let me pet them more.

When I went to make sure their microchips were transferred over correctly in my name, I found out that they were listed as lost. The shelter had updated all my information, but hadn’t updated their status. I found out they were born in 2014, and listed as lost in 2015, and then owner surrendered to the shelter on their birthday in 2018. As far as what happened to them in between or what their lives were like, I have no idea. Savvy startles at the sound of an opening can. Maybe that means something, maybe not. Both do not like to be picked up (yet). It’s been four months and they are just now able to sit either on my lap or curled up next to me, and they still run away if I walk in their direction. Maybe this is all about the trauma of being relocated. Maybe they are just naturally more skittish than some cats. Maybe something I will never know about happened to them.

In the meantime, we keep working on building trust together. In a weird way, I feel like we are all working through grief together, me getting over the death of the cat I had before them, them getting over the humans they had before me. Bonding wasn’t instantaneous for any of us, with me learning to love them as unique creatures over time and getting used to their specific personalities. Savvy plays fetch and curls up next to me in the bed but is more shy of strangers. B.K. is more curious and brave in general, and likes to sleep by my legs — she wouldn’t let me touch her the first month, but so far is the only one of the two who can tolerate being on my lap.

I still wonder — and probably always will — about the life they left behind. But I am very glad that we all found each other, even when their sibling rivalry acts up, or they meow loudly in the night just for attention. Theirs is the kind of mystery I can learn to live with.

Grief and the Holidays

For those who have lost loved ones, the holidays are always bittersweet. All the joy of the season is tinged with this deep sadness, a hard nostalgia that shows up in every ritual and tradition. There are also those who are physically far from their loved ones, and those who just feel isolated and alone, not able to connect to others during the season.

Bad news hits harder at the holidays in part because the expectation for joy is so high. It’s difficult to make space for your own sadness while surrounded by others’ celebrations, and difficult to reach out to others when you feel like they are occupied with family and other obligations.

For me, I have to recognize why I feel tired all the time, why my energy drops lower than I want it to be, and why I struggle to connect to some parts of the season: grief is taking up space in my heart and body, and whether I acknowledge it or not, I carry the weight of loss with me in every activity I do.

So I acknowledge it, as much as I can, and make space for it along with the decorations I put up around my home. Because I don’t think sadness and joy are mutually exclusive. In fact, I believe that to feel one deeply we must allow ourselves to feel the other just as deeply.

So as we head into the home stretch of the holidays and another transition into a new year, I hope those of you dealing with heartache of any kind know that you are not alone, that it’s okay to be sad, and that it’s also okay to do the happy things anyway. Feel all the things.

And I hope you have as good a holiday season you can have, and that the new year brings you as many joyful moments as possible.

Getting into the Spirit

There are a few things that mark the Christmas season for me. The first, of course, is finally getting up the decorations. To make that easier, I invested in a decent fake tree a few years back, which means I don’t have to worry about how to get a tree home (after the year I dragged a 5 foot tree a mile home by myself, only to get the net wrapped around it caught on the hanging chandelier in the entrance of my building, leaving me holding it above my head until my neighbor came home and saved me).  The second is starting my usual list of holiday shows and movies, all of which will culminate on Christmas day when I host a non-traditional Christmas movie marathon (which always ends with Die Hard).

And then of course, there are the Christmas books and stories I read. This is the perfect season to curl up with a good story. I tend toward genre fiction — mysteries, fantasies, and science fiction stories — since they help me tap into the various moods of the season. Christmas, for me, isn’t a time of just happiness. It is also a time when I reflect on all those I’m not with, either because they have passed on or because they are so far away. I rely on stories to help me get through the season, both the grief and the joy. Books and stories have always been reliable sources of support and distraction for me. I will be picking up familiar favorites, such as Hogfather by Terry Pratchett, and A Redbird Christmas by Fannie Flagg. It is always a good time to dive in to The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, or to revisit the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling or The Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.

This year, I am super excited to have put out my own holiday, The Christmas Spirit (which comes out in print and digital today!!) as well as pick up my copy of fellow Stiletto Gang member Bethany Maines’ story Blue Christmas. I thoroughly enjoyed her holiday story last year, Oh, Holy Night, and can’t wait to dig into this year’s holiday mystery action romance.

In the meantime, I wish everyone happy reading this holiday season, and if you’re so inclined, check out my novella, The Christmas Spirit (details below) or Bethany Maines’ Blue Christmas.

The Christmas Spirit: a paranormal holiday adventure

In this dark comedy inspired by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Charlene Dickenson has just discovered that she will spend her after-life as a holiday spirit. She must do whatever it takes to become a Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, or Future—helping mortals transform their lives like Ebenezer Scrooge—or end up like Jacob Marley and spend her after-life in chains.  Stuck in a place where the Christmas music never ends and the holiday treats will never make you full, Charlene is going to have to figure out how to let go of her mortal life and embrace the Christmas Spirit.

 

 

Blue Christmas

Blue Jones just stole Jake Garner’s dog. And his heart. But technically the French Bulldog, Jacques, belongs to Jake’s ex-girlfriend. And soon Jake is being pressured to return the dog and Blue is being targeted by mysterious attackers. Can Jake find Blue and Jacques before her stalkers do? For Blue, Christmas has never been quite so dangerous.  For Jake, Christmas has never been quite so Blue.

Thankful for The Christmas Spirit

Back in July, I wrote about my struggle to step out of my comfort zone and take a risk on a holiday-themed story. I really pushed myself to get this out on time, and am very grateful to all the folks who supported me while I did so. I have never had to work through resistance more than when writing this story, and I learned a lot about my writing process while doing so.

And now, it’s here! In my new novella, I’m asking the question: can you find joy while holding on to the past?

The Christmas Spirit: a paranormal holiday adventure

Digital Pre-Order Now Available!

Thirty-something New York City native Charlene Dickenson has never been good at letting things go, which is why she finds herself mildly stalking her ex-boyfriend after she spots him on her way to work. When this leads to her untimely death in a Christmas-related accident, she discovers a whole new world in the Hall of Christmas Spirits. Now she’s stuck in a place where the Christmas music never ends, mistletoe hangs in every doorway, and the holiday treats will never make you full. As if learning the new rules of her afterlife isn’t hard enough, Charlene must do whatever it takes to become a Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, or Future—helping mortals transform their lives like Ebenezer Scrooge—or end up like Jacob Marley and spend the rest of her existence in chains.  But letting go of her pre-ghost life is harder than Charlene thought, and she can’t help but break all the rules in her attempts to hold on to who she was. In this dark comedy inspired by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Charlene is going to have to figure out how to let go of her mortal life and embrace the Christmas Spirit.

Nurturing Patience

Summer has never been my favorite time of year, as I am not someone that does well in the heat (and the summers keep getting hotter). But I am also working on several projects at once…and struggling. My progress has been slow, my motivating waning, and my desire to just get to what I’m trying to accomplish building.

So, of course, this blog is about patience, something I am trying to cultivate (with a lot of deep breaths) this summer.

Patience is not something I have ever had in much abundance. A hard core procrastinator, I never really had to deal with waiting for something to click in my writing (since waiting for the last minute put me in adrenaline-induced flow). But working on multiple projects at once means that I am actually having to practice writing discipline. Being patient with myself and my process has not been easy.

What I know about patience is that it is a necessary part of life. Worrying and waiting anxiously has never made anything happen any faster. Fussing and trying to force something has been equally unhelpful. Instead, I have been trying to make space for my feelings of frustration, and assuming that the pace things are happening at are happening at that pace for a reason. I have been trying to trust my back brain to come up with the answers, and trust the universe that those answers will come in time.

Patience is ultimately about keeping the faith. It is hope coupled with action, a plan put into motion that with luck with bear the fruit you have been waiting for. I suspect farmers and gardeners have more advanced patience skills than I do. They understand that whole “a time for every purpose” thing.

And I am sure there are writers who are more patient than me as well.

Somehow though, I bet they weren’t as worried about meeting their deadlines.

*Blog originally posted on The Stiletto Gang on August 21st, 2018

Stretching out of My Comfort Zone

It all starts with an idea. What if…?

And then you have a choice — follow through with the idea, or don’t. Not following through is easy. You just have to avoid taking any action.

But following through often means doing something new, stepping out of your comfort zone, taking some sort of risk.

 

This year, I am putting out a Christmas-themed novella. I have never written a holiday-themed story before, so this is all new territory. There is the added stress that I have a very tight deadline to get this story done.

The fun / hard part is having to think about Christmas stuff when in the middle of a heat wave. At this point, “Christmas in July” is a cliche, but I have found myself listening to Christmas carols, and watching Christmas movies to help me get in the mood for my story.

It has definitely been hard to concentrate on Christmas themes with fireworks going off, but it has also been nice to keep some of that holiday cheer up year round. I even have some decorations out for visual inspiration.

Trying something new always feels at least a little risky. And while all writing feels risky, stepping outside of your usual genre or style feels like an even bigger leap than usual. My fear and anxiety is at war with my excitement, and any given day one or the other wins. Good writing days, the excitement wins. Bad writing days, the fear wins.

I find this same fear vs excitement battle happening in other parts of my life, forcing me to take deep breaths, control my catastrophizing thinking, and remind myself that the stakes are not nearly as high as my emotions want me to feel they are.

In the end, I know I will be proud for stepping outside of my comfort zone, whatever happens with the book. That’s what I keep holding on to whenever the fear threatens to take over — there is going to be another side of this feeling. All I have to do is plow through, endure the discomfort, and make it to that other side.

Going Home

Going Home

This week, I am writing from home. In this particular case, home is the last home I lived in with my parents – a lovely house with a gorgeous pool in Santa Clarita, California. It has a special place in my heart — I even set  my first novel in this town.

But home is a complicated thing for me to define. Whenever I go back to California, I say “I am going back home.” But whenever I go back to Washington, I also say (and feel) “I am going back home.” And of course, whenever I fly back to New York, I very much feel, “I am going home.”

I spent my early childhood in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Then we moved. So I spent my most formative years — middle school through the end of college — in Washington State. Many of my closest friends come from that time and place in my life.

Then I moved back to California and spent my identity-figuring-out years in various places in and around Los Angeles again. My parents bought a house there where I lived (after moving “back home” for a while), and of course all my childhood things — boxed and moved around for decades — reside there.

And then I moved to New York, where I currently live, and built amazing relationships there too.

Every home, of course, shaped me, and continues to shape me. Every place I have lived put its mark — the constant sun of southern California and the heat and deserts; the near-constant grey of Seattle, and the amazing green forests; and the constant noise of New York City, and the density of buildings and people. Home is the Pacific Ocean, but also the Williamsburg Bridge. Home is watching the sunset over the water, toes in the sand. Home is walking a muddy trail among evergreen trees. Home is hard concrete and the constant noise of people everywhere.

But mostly, home is the people in those places, the friends who spent hours in book stores with me, or on hiking trails, or in dance clubs. The family who told me I could do it (even when “it” kept changing), and cheered me on. Home is the conversations that helped me figure out what I believed and who I am.

Still, it feels strange to be back in this particular home, where things are starting to be packed up or given away in anticipation of eventually selling the house. Even though this is not my childhood home, I am having many of those same feelings as I look at shelves emptying and closets cleared out. I am feeling the passing of time, feeling my age. I am going through all the emotions of holding on and letting go (and telling myself that it is okay, better even, to let go).

My head is filling with stories real and imaged — the stories I still tell when I try to tell people about myself and my life, the stories I only remember because I have a photograph or item to anchor them to, the stories that kept me company in each place, and the stories inspired by them.

There are a lot of saying about what home is, but I find myself drawn to this particular one over all the others:

Advanced Generalist

I am a know-it-all. This is not a confession I make likely, because being called a know-it-all when I was growing up was not a positive experience.

And yet, I couldn’t help myself. I liked knowing things. I still like knowing things. It goes deeper than needing something to feel superior about (I know something you don’t!). Knowing things was how I held on to an objective reality when my personal reality was constantly being challenged when I was growing up.

Feelings, I learned early on, lied. They did such a good job of lying they could rewrite the past, shape the present, and make the future seem like destiny. If things were good, they had always been good and would always be good. More often than not, if things were bad, they had always been bad and always would be bad. I needed something I could depend on to hold on to. And that’s when I discovered facts — things that were undeniably true. Things that surpassed emotions. Things that I could use as anchors so that my life could make some sort of sense.

My hunger to know things, really know things, also meant a huge reluctance to accept that the things I knew were wrong. My family had invested in a set of encyclopedias when I was a child, and I went to them on a regular basis. These days I use the Internet to verify that I do in fact know what I know (and that it is knowable), using skills garnered in my years as a journalist to test sources and information. Fact-checking, once a part of my job as a reporter, has become part of my daily life. To this day, I go into an emotional tail spin if a fact I have held on to is questioned — how could I get something wrong? What is actually knowable? Will life ever make sense?

It is with old-fashioned journalistic confidence — the confidence of someone who has done the fact checking — that I can say that when I know something, I know something. I have spent more time than is probably healthy looking it up and verifying its veracity, or else I will be light in my presentation of said fact, using “I think I read somewhere that…” instead of stating it as something actually true. Being a know-it-all is not something I take lightly — I try very hard to accurately share what I know.

I have also had a lot of different jobs. In my years attempting to be a freelance journalist (which I was never great at because selling my writing was always harder than doing the writing), I took a lot of day jobs, and in fact, spent a great deal of time being a temporary employee. Being a temp suited me since I have always been able to learn fairly quickly, and because I like being helpful. And since I was a temp, there was only so much filing I would have to do before getting (or asking for) a new assignment. Eventually, I became one of those people who knew at least a little bit about a lot of different things. I was a generalist, in the old terminology.

So it greatly amused me when I found out that one of the methods I could study in social work was “advanced generalist.” An advanced generalist social worker can work in multiple systems and at multiple levels, from direct services to policy. Advanced generalists are considered part of the mezzo or middle level of social workers (with strictly clinical social workers at the micro level, and those working on policy or high admin levels considered more macro level workers). As such they get training both in clinical work and in administrative work, learning how to diagnose individual clients as well as assess communities and organizations.

It matches my know-it-all spirit to be an advanced generalist. I have worked in various jobs in various fields, including journalism, public relations, marketing, administrative work, English and math tutoring, teaching, office management, case manager, social worker, and now, therapist. And I have learned a ton of different things both formally and informally (including that time I took a class called “acting for the nonprofessional” and that other time I learned how to waltz). In fact, lacking any other language to describe my particular brand of know-it-all-ness (I know at least a little bit about a really large number of subjects), I often refer to myself as an advanced generalist outside of the field of social work.

So I was very pleased to discover that my particular brand of know-it-all-ness is not something unique to me, and in fact has a (relatively) brand new name: multipotentialite. According to Wikipedia, In 1972, R.H. Frederickson described a multipotentialed person as people who:

“When provided with appropriate environments, can select and develop a number of competencies to a high level.”

Emilie Wapnick coined the term multipotentialite to help unite folks who fall under this general definition into a single community. Essentially, it’s a fancy term for generalist, which Wapnick talks about in a TED Talk about why not everyone has “one true calling.” Which would explain my multiple jobs, two distinct careers, and constant need to learn new things.

I have never been the best at anything, but I have managed to pull off “pretty darn good” in a lot of areas.

The only time I get use use all my know-it-all-ness — without penalty — is when I engage in writing, particularly creative writing. I suspect every author I know is in some way a multipotentialite, and certainly every one has done a ton of research on a variety of subjects (including various ways to kill people or cover up having killed someone). In a way, I think every creative writer is — or is forced to become — an advanced generalist.

Which puts a whole new spin on the old adage: “write what you know.” If you don’t know it, learn it, and then write about it.

Writers Need to Stretch

I’ve been hitting the keyboard hard lately, and even though I have adjusted  my set up with cushions and things like that, there is still no escaping the fact that extended time writing is hard on the body.

Healthy body movement is one of the things I struggle with most. I have a tendency to treat my body like a last minute project — I suddenly feel a pain or ache and then break out ALL the moves I should have been doing all along, as though one marathon session of stretching will undo months’ worth of damage.

So, this is as much about helping me take accountability as it is to help anyone else with their own stretching goals. My goal is not to do ALL the stretches, but to start by picking five I will attempt to integrate into my daily life.

Fortunately, there are a ton of articles and videos about the best kinds of stretches for people who spend too much time sitting in front of computers. For writers, of particular note are things to help  maintain hand health and back health, since both take a beating with lots of writing.

This article talks about carpal tunnel signs, symptoms, and prevention: https://thebodymechanic.com/active-release-technique-blog/carpal-tunnel-syndrome/

And this article has great stretches to do in a (sturdy) office chair, with gifs on how each one should look: https://www.healthline.com/health/deskercise#head-and-shoulders

To be a good writer is to be a whole person, and I have to regularly remind myself that means taking care of my body as much as my imagination.

Here’s to stretching for writer health!

Regression to the Mean

Two days before Christmas, I had to put my beloved cat Oscar down.

The holidays have been hard for me for a very long time. Grief is like a shadow that is always with you, but changes size and shape depending on what light is around. On the brightest moments of the brightest days, the shadow can shrink down so small you can’t even tell it’s there. Other times, it stretches out so far, it’s the only thing you can see.

The shadows that bother me the most are the ones that come after dark; cast by the light of streetlamps and headlights, they pile up two or three at a time, and are rarely still. There is no true dark where I live in Brooklyn, just as there is no actual silence, just various levels of noise you learn to live with. As such, my nights are filled with shadows.

Christmas lights throw their own particular shadows. The lights are my favorite part of the holiday, and I relish in the opportunity to throw them up on windows, and keep my (fake) tree up as long as possible to help ease the passing of dark-too-long days. I am struggling now with wanting to keep them up even longer, because there is already so much change in my small apartment with my cat gone. I am haunted by the shape of his absence: the lack of warmth against my legs when I sleep, the missing noise of him jumping up or down from things, the many places and things he is not laying on or in. His loss thickens the others that have come before: my grandparents, my brother, and my mother, not to mention other beloved pets. Every time I look for him and he’s not there, I think of the phone calls I can’t make, the people I can no longer hug, and the memories that are fixed and fading.

The passing of a new year is of course something worth celebrating, but it is also something that triggers my grief. Every new turn of the calendar adds to the time after someone I love passed. Every time I count down how long it’s been, I am newly shocked and thrown back into those early days of denial. No, really? It can’t have been that long already… And yet, it is.

Recently I heard someone talk about regression to the mean, a concept in statistics that states that if a variable is extreme on the first measurement, it will be closer to the average on the second (and vice versa). How I understand it from a clinical standpoint is that all things in life — the very big moments either good or bad — eventually return to a sort of baseline. The baseline itself may change over time, but the mean, the average, the day-to-day — we all come back to it eventually.

What I tell my clients is that if you want to see your overall progress toward something, you can’t look at a single data point — a single good day or bad day. You have to look at the trend over time to see if it’s moving in the right direction.

I am not sure what direction I want my life to move in, other than a vague urge to want to have a sense of progress. The loss of a pet is inevitable, if you live long enough, and I knew what I was getting into when I adopted my cat. In fact, I was more aware of the potential of his loss than pretty much any other loss in my life, and that in itself is a gift he gave me. Knowing our days together were naturally numbered, helped me better understand the nature of life and loss.

We love, anyway. And eventually I think I will likely seek out that particular kind of love again, when I’m ready.

In the meantime, what I want most from 2018 is a regression to the mean. It will come — the grief will be less acute, the days will stay lighter longer, and the shadows will feel less omnipresent. I’ll adjust to a new normal, and, as heartbreaking as it sounds, not having him in my life will feel as normal as having him in life did for over a decade.

My one and only New Year’s Resolution is to give myself time. Time to grieve, time to heal, time to write, time to breathe, time to sleep, time to create, time to just be. Next year will come (if I am lucky), and I won’t have to do anything except let the days go by as they are wont to do.

In the meantime, I may keep my tree up until at least the end of January. Some things I’m just not ready to let go of yet.