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Whatcha Writin’ About?

Ever since COVID hit the US and changed everyone’s daily life, I’ve been doing A LOT of writing. Since I’m no longer working my second job and I can’t go to the pool because it’s STILL closed thanks to both construction and this pesky virus, I’ve been spending so much time behind a computer screen I’m starting to think there’s going to be an actual imprint of my ass on my dining room chair.

Anywho, I realized that despite all this writing that’s been going on, I haven’t really talked about it at all on my blog. Which I totally should be doing since, you know, I am a writer and aside from blogging about mental health and connecting with other mental health warriors, I also want to connect with other writers.

So what kind of ventures are in that folder marked “current writing projects?”

For starters, I managed to completely rebuild the 90,000+ word manuscript that I lost back in January thanks to a USB crash. Luckily one of my friends had the first draft saved in her email and I rewrote the entire thing from that in 4-5 months.
The Month of May follows Ella, a young woman who unexpectedly inherits her grandmother’s house and must return to her hometown of Pittsburgh where she is overcome with both beautiful and horrible memories of her first love and her late grandparents. As Ella navigates these complicated emotions in the steel town that raised her, she ultimately has to decide if she’s strong enough to let love in all its forms back into her life again.
I sent it out to 2 beta readers who were actually helpful, and am going over their comments before making some ‘final’ corrections and touch ups. I’m hoping that I can start querying again by the end of the year and keeping my fingers crossed that I can come up with a 280-character pitch to participate in my very first #PitMad on Twitter on December 3rd.

While May was out to the betas, I turned my attention to another manuscript I lost in the great USB crash of 2020. At the time, Ocracoke’s Daughter was 30-40,000 words, another contemporary fiction novel that I’ve rebuilt to around 55,000 words.
Here’s a pitch I randomly wrote — Adopted at birth and raised by strict conservatives, Sarah Sullivan always thought she was destined for two things – to marry the boy she met in middle school and raise his children. But after a decade of miscarriages and indifference from her overbearing husband, she files for divorce and travels to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to find her biological parents and herself. On the serene shores of Ocracoke and Hatteras, Sarah befriends a man with his own secrets, and an eccentric woman who claims to be her aunt – and the descendant of one of history’s most notorious pirates.
I’m really happy with the progress I’ve made with this one too, but I’m feeling a bit stuck with certain aspects, particularly those that require lots of research — and possibly involve traveling to parts of North Carolina that isn’t really plausible right now with budget and travel restrictions. Thanks again, COVID.
Basically I need to do a bunch of historical research on Blackbeard the pirate and should probably travel to the town of Bath, NC, which I have no idea if I’ll ever have the opportunity to do anytime soon. Fingers crossed that I’ll get some research completed when we (hopefully) vacation near Ocracoke this October.

I’ve also got a handful of other smaller projects I’ve been toiling with —


Summer Essays — Since this summer was essentially void of any typical summer experiences, I lamented those warm, sunny hours away by tapping away at my keyboard on my porch. Instead of lounging by the pool, riding roller coasters, or attending concerts, I wrote about past summers instead and came up with a series of ‘Summer Essays’ that I hope to find a home for someday. These include summers in my parents’ backyard pool, long days exploring the hills at my grandparents’ house, four years of band camp, decades of long weekends at a friend’s cabin in the mountains of northwestern PA, memories of dozens of vacations on the Outer Banks, and the summer of 2003, when my life changed forever.

Lunch with Miss Kitty — This is a piece I’ve been working on that I hope to pitch to a handful of dog-focused publications, this one in particular about my new fur kid, Miss Kitty, and our developing bond as she adjusts to her new life in her forever home. I’m pretty happy with it but am struggling with an ending.

Sweats — I decided to try my hand at a flash fiction piece that is told from the view point of a hoodie that a tourist buys on Westminster Pier while vacationing in London. I actually love 2/3 of this piece, but again am struggling with the ending. It took on an entirely different direction than I initially intended, and I’ve always had a hard time wrapping things up in less than 1000 words, so this one may take a while before I’m ready to submit it.

I’m also still trying to find a home for the following — Light of the Fire, a short story I wrote about the bond of female friendship after one of my friends lost everything in a house fire last year; Comet is Cupid, a non-fiction narrative about how our late dog Comet brought me and my husband together; and a short poem called Stained Glass Window about how people in my life who used to be my biggest cheerleaders faded away when I finally began standing up for myself and pursuing my dreams.

Bridges to Beaches — Aside from the novels, this is probably the project that I’m most excited about, yet is the least complete. Right now it’s just a cluster of unorganized ideas in a Word Doc that have been floating around in my head for a few years now.
I love writing about traveling and visiting lesser-known places in and around my hometown, so I decided that I wanted to start a travel blog from a local and down to earth perspective. So many travel blogs seem focused on unattainable destinations — far away, exotic islands, expensive hotels in European hot spots, or remote, sometimes dangerous villages in the middle of nowhere.
As someone with a limited budget (and travel anxiety), I want to write about accessible, affordable, and unique experiences that the average person can enjoy.
Since I’ve lived in Pittsburgh my entire life, I figured I’d start with my hometown. Everyone knows about our champion sports teams, our three rivers, and our myriad of museums, so my blog would focus on the hole in the wall, best keep secrets of this thriving, revitalized steel town. The best places to go kayaking. A tiny, but impressive collection of antique cars and carriages. A $10 tour of one of the MLB’s most beautiful baseball parks. Farmers markets. Secluded walking trails nestled amid the campus of The University of Pittsburgh. Fascinating historical spots.
The blog would also include write ups about nearby destinations perfect for day trips or long weekends, like Lake Erie and Presque Isle, Columbus, OH, Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands, Lake Canadohota, and New York City.
Since North Carolina’s Outer Banks are a popular tourist destination for Pittsburghers (and it’s my favorite place on earth), I also wanted to include a section dedicated to vacationing there. Again, anyone can find articles about the beaches, the popular museums, and typical tourist attractions, but I’d want this part of the blog to focus on insider tips, hidden gems, and best kept secrets of this whimsical chain of barrier islands.

Just last week I had an idea for a fourth part of the blog, and that would be a section focusing on small businesses in the Pittsburgh area — a real estate agency, a salon, a photographer, painters, musicians, restaurants, non-profits — the possibilities are endless. I think it would be a really exciting way for independent entrepreneurs and artists to make connections and get their names out there.

Wow. Sometimes I get overwhelmed at all the ideas my brain can conjure up. It’s exciting, but it’s also intimidating. I still work a 9-5 job and though it no longer controls my everyday life, my anxiety is always at the back of my mind telling me that I’m being overly-ambitious or that I’m not good enough to have any success with these projects. I’m also still struggling with the technical aspects of ensuring that any of these ventures are a success, like social media presence, SEO, and being relevant on the internet, but hopefully I’ve recently found some resources to help with such obstacles.

In addition to all of these projects, I’m still trying to educate myself about being relevant and present on Facebook and Twitter, and I’m seriously considering starting a Linked In page for my writing. And holy crap WordPress has been telling me about its new formatting and offering me tutelage for months now but it’s finally here and now I have to figure out all this new crap on my own. Oops. (BTW does anyone know how to link prior blog posts on here? I found the “embed” button but can’t figure out how to change the text of the hyperlink).
I’ve also GOT to figure out how to link my blogs to Twitter. In the words of Kimmy Gibbler, Sweet Cheese.

With any luck, and a lot of hard work, I hope at least two or three of these projects see the light of day in the coming months or years. I’d love to hear what you guys think of any or all of them, and would also love to hear what you’ve been working on! Feel free to comment with a link to one of your projects if you’d like.

And as always, thanks for reading and commenting.

Where’d Ya Go, Quirky?

Well hello, Internet friends. I’m still here, plugging along as usual. I realize that I’ve been sort of neglecting my blog over the past few weeks but it’s never far from my mind. To be honest, I’m in a bit of a writing funk at the moment. I recently added to my list of published works by being featured in Macro Mag’s “Pets” issue but all other projects are kind of at a stand still and I’m not sure why.

I’ve queried 7 or 8 agents for WIP #1, The Month of May, and although the first rejection I received was incredibly kind and encouraging, I haven’t gotten any other responses yet. If I don’t hear anything by mid-summer I’m thinking that I’ll have to re-examine my query letter and/or the first twenty pages of my manuscript and, well, I’d almost rather go to the dentist than even think about starting that project . . . again.

For WIP #2, Ocracoke’s Daughter, I’ve hit the 103,000 word mark on my second draft and I only have one chapter left to write, but I am riding the struggle bus with this one. I know exactly how I want it to end, but for some reason it’s stuck inside me and doesn’t want to come out. Maybe I’m having trouble channeling the beach and Ocracoke Island. Maybe I’m paranoid about the length, even though I figured it would run long considering it’s a dual timeline piece with a historical subplot. Maybe I’m overly concerned with the quality of my research when it comes to adoption and suppression of conservative religions. Maybe I’m worried about how agents/publishers/historians will view my fairy tale version of the infamous Blackbeard. Maybe I’m dreading the beta reading process. Or maybe I just can’t stop daydreaming about this handsome gent who played Edward Teach in Netflix’s Lost Pirate Kingdom. Fluttery sigh.

As far as my other writing projects go, I’m trying to write a moving piece for HerStry’s monthly feature, Friendship, but it’s falling really flat and I don’t think it’s going to be ready for submission by the end of the month. HerStry is responsible for giving me one of my first publishing credits and I love their vibe and message, and would really like to have more of my work featured by them, but no luck so far.
I’m also still slowly hacking away at the idea of my Pittsburgh-based travel blog, and while I’ve gotten a lot of drafts written, the thought of launching and maintaining another blog/website is overwhelming. I frequently refer to myself as “The Most Technologically Inept Millennial on the Planet,” and the mere thought of stating another big project gives me instant anxiety. The thing bugging me the most about this is the fact that I think it would be a really good time to launch such a blog, considering COVID is (hopefully) on its way out over the next year and I’m sure people are going to be itching for new and exciting adventures. Exasperated sigh.

Personally, things are moving along with a little bit more hope than I anticipated having, considering the state of the world. My 9-5 is still stressful and incredibly busy, but I recently made a (lateral) move from CSR to the title department, and although much of the new job is intimidating, I’m enjoying doing something new and have gotten some good feedback about my work. So there’s that.

I also received my first COVID vaccine at the end of March, and will get my second one at the end of April. I won’t lie – I’m pretty nervous, considering I was sick for three days after the first one. I had horrible chills, was absolutely exhausted, and really achy. Then I developed a lump near my collarbone which scared the living shit out of me, only to discover that per the Internet, my doctor, and several friends, swollen lymph nodes are a relatively common side effect of the vaccine. Who knew?
As nervous as I am about the second one, I certainly don’t want to get COVID again. Having it once was enough, and even being partially vaccinated has already given me some peace of mind.

On the home front, J and I are talking more and more about fixing our house up to sell and we’ve been looking at new houses and other neighborhoods frequently. This is definitely exciting but we have sooooooo much to do with our house first — replacing the kitchen floor, painting the foundation, painting the fence, painting the garage, cleaning out the basement, cleaning out the attic, etc. Last weekend I spent a few hours cleaning out my curio cabinet and a small corner of our attic where my Wizard of Oz collection has been gathering dust for nearly a decade. I posted 24 items on Facebook Marketplace and had over thirty offers on all of the items in less than 24 hours. I made some quick cash over the course of a few days, which I plan to put towards buying paint and such for the house, but HOLY SHIT sorting through all those offers and arranging meet ups with buyers was like having a second job! Hopefully when we start to clean out the rest of the house we can sell other items just as successfully.
We’re really excited about the fact that our house is now worth almost double than what we paid for it in 2013, but this is also intimidating on the buying side, especially considering so many houses around here are selling in a matter of HOURS. So fingers crossed that this process goes smoothly for us, whenever it ends up happening.

In addition to moving, I’m also looking forward to a girls’ weekend I have planned with my two best friends in June. We’ll be celebrating 25 years of friendship and I’m really glad that the three of us will be able to get together amid our crazy schedules and the pandemic. All three of us will be vaccinated by then, and although we’re not going anywhere exotic or glamorous, it’ll be nice to get away for a few days.

Despite my current writing funk, it’s good to be able to post a blog that’s mildly hopeful. I know we have a long way to go with the pandemic, and there are so many other horrible things going on in our world, but I’m trying to be extra thankful for the little things, and I have to say this spring feels much more positive than last spring.

Here’s to sunny skies!

What Dogs Can Teach Us About Resilience

As you may know, J & I are proud fur parents of Miss Kitty & Ghost, as well as the dearly departed Comet.

All of our dogs have been rescues, and while I’m no stranger to the love and comfort they offer, or the lessons they can teach, I continue to be amazed at how these four-legged creatures have repeatedly, unknowingly, offered me insights on life.

The other day, I took Ghost to a vet appointment for some redness that suddenly appeared around his left eye. When it didn’t go away with Benadryl, I took him to get checked out. I also asked if the vet could take a look at his other eye because J & I had noticed that something about his vision wasn’t quite right. During obedience classes, when using hand signals, we had to move rather close to his right eye before he’d react. And sometimes when the light caught the eye in a certain way, we’d see an unusual fogginess.

The vet prescribed us some ointment for the redness around his left eye, and then addressed our concerns with the right one. He wasn’t blind, and all of his neurological functions were intact, but he did have a scar on both his cornea and his lens. These were almost certainly caused by some type of penetrating injury from when he was quite young. By the time we adopted him, the injury was healed, but he does still have limited vision in that eye. Still, the vet isn’t concerned. He doesn’t squint or compensate for the lack of vision, and it certainly doesn’t slow him down. Ghost has learned to live with his injury in his young life, and although I feel horribly about whatever must have happened to our “little due,” I now look at him with a new perspective.

When Ghost first came to us, he was only nervous for a couple of minutes. He seemed to instantly make himself at home and wasted no time in harassing his older sister. His behavior has been frustratingly challenging at times, and we still have a lot of work to do, but I have a new respect for what he must have gone through with this eye injury. Since he was only about 8-10 months old when we adopted him, and anything but shy, we figured he’d had a pretty cushy start in life. But the new information about his eye tells us that he’s overcome his own struggles and pain, whether the injury was from an accident or abusive human.

Suddenly Ghost’s resilient and sometimes defiant behavior makes a little more sense. He’s had to adapt to his eye injury in order to keep thriving, and perhaps he tends to be defiant because someone didn’t treat him properly when he was a puppy. Maybe that person was cruel when trying to train him, and instead of cowering like most dogs with trauma, Ghost copes with it by running away and not obeying orders.

So while his personality is nearly the polar opposite of Miss Kitty’s, my eyes have recently been opened to how dogs deal with trauma differently — just like people. While Kitty was (and still is) wary and cautious, she’s learning to trust more and more each day. Ghost’s outgoing personality is bringing her out of her shell, and we hope that Kitty’s relatively good behavior will eventually rub off on Ghost.

But the most important thing I learned that night at the vet’s office was that we all have our traumas, our scars, our struggles. We all deal with them in different ways. And sometimes we don’t want to share those stories with others, or like animals, we can’t do it in a verbal way. Still, if we’re lucky, we find people (or pets) who are patient and kind and help us work through and overcome these obstacles that tried to hurt us or hold us back. And while ideally everyone would like to crush each hurdle easily like taking a hammer to an egg, sometimes we simply have to live with the scars life has given us.

Even if we never fully recover from a negative experience, injury, or trauma, there’s hope that we can adapt to it and work through it as best we know how. We may never be perfect, but that doesn’t mean that we’re unlovable or incapable of living our lives and pursuing our dreams. Sometimes the reality of things is completely different from how you imagined it or how you wanted it. But that’s okay too.

My fur babies — Ghost is the little one and Miss Kitty is the bigger one with the black ear

Mental Health VS Physical Health

In tenth grade English, I wrote a persuasive essay on the subject of making gym class an elective.

For ten years I had endured the humiliation of being naturally uncoordinated and completely un-athletic — I was picked last for kickball, taunted for being afraid of a volleyball flying at my head, and repeatedly endured the time honored tradition of having my glasses smashed against my face during each rousing game of dodge ball.

As if the physical and emotional mortification weren’t enough, my class mates and teachers assumed that I was unmotivated, out of shape, and not a team player. Never mind the fact that I got good grades, loved to read and write, and was active in band, orchestra, and the arts. Never mind that I marched around a football field and along miles-long parade routes every other weekend. Never mind that I lost 43 lbs. between the ages of 16 and 18. Never mind that I wore a size 7.  If I couldn’t put a basketball through a hoop or score a soccer goal, I was a loser. I was lazy. I wasn’t good enough.

Even during that time period when I was at my thinnest, physical activity wasn’t something I excelled at. One particularly painful memory took place during my senior year – where, at age 17 or 18, wearing a size 7, and in probably the best shape of my life – I had to “make up” a few missed gym classes. It must have been winter, because instead of doing a few leisurely laps around the track, I begrudgingly found myself in the musty-smelling weight room, surrounded by football and basketball players, cheerleaders, and soccer girls, all talking about their drunken weekends while admiring themselves in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors on three of the four walls. The only thing making the afternoon remotely tolerable was that the guy I was dating had come with me. We climbed onto side-by-side elliptical machines, where I set a moderate pace and planned on flirting and laughing for the entire allotted time period. He, on the other hand, being active in cross country and track, set out on a more aggressive pace and quickly encouraged me to do the same. I gave it a good effort, but despite being thin, despite being in shape, and despite my attempt to impress him, I was never be able to catch the frantic pace he was used to when competing. I knew he was only trying to encourage me, but when I couldn’t measure up I was left with the familiar feeling of inadequacy.

After a lifetime of these and similar instances, it’s no wonder that exercise and physical activity trigger negative feelings in my brain, and I’m surprised that it’s taken me this long to recognize how these feelings have negatively impacted my mental health.

I’ve written in the past about how I simply do not enjoy working out, aside from swimming, kayaking, and walking or hiking. But it wasn’t until COVID that I realized why I gravitate away from competitive sports, aerobics classes, or exercise equipment with harsh, glowing numbers measuring every step, every breath, and every second.

Six to eight months before COVID shut everything down, I had finally found an activity I enjoyed – I swam laps at a nearby pool 2-3 times a week and had even begun to attend an aqua Zumba class. This pool was housed in a small, local library/community center. There were no glaring bright lights, no buff super athletes, and no judgmental competitors. Zumba class included women of all ages, shapes, and sizes, and I felt as comfortable there as I did with my friends.  This was the way I preferred to stay active – in a welcoming, judgment free zone with no intimidation and no clock or scale measuring what I had accomplished. Still, I left the pool each time feeling cleansed, clear-headed, energetic and limber. And yes, my jeans had started to sag just a little bit, which was an added bonus.

But when the country went into lock down, I could no longer rely on the pool – for exercise or something that made me feel good about my mental health. Like everyone else adjusting to unprecedented restrictions, I did my best to stay active by walking my dogs and doing simple exercises at home. But I quickly lost interest and motivation. I was bored, I was lonely, and I was only doing these things because I felt obligated. Experts on TV, doctors on the Internet, and society as a whole soon began talking about how important it was to stay active even though gyms were closed and classes and group sports were cancelled. Not only did it help us stay healthy, but it would keep our mental state positive, they claimed.

So I pressed on. I walked when it was 90 degrees and humid. I strapped our new, 60-lb. dog into her harness and took her through our neighborhood, struggling to contain her strong, sixty-pound frame when she pulled and darted and startled as she adjusted to her new home. And it didn’t take long for exercise to become a stressful, negative notion again.

When the weather turned chilly, J set up an old elliptical in our basement. I hopped on it a few times a week for maybe a month. It didn’t take long for my legs to start burning and for me to be soaked in sweat. But I kept pushing. I obsessively watched the glowing numbers on the display tell me how much I had accomplished – or how much I had failed. Within a matter of weeks I had given up on the elliptical completely. It wasn’t because I wasn’t seeing results – I was, however small. But aside from the small positive change it was making on my body, the elliptical represented nothing but negativity in my mind. When it came to getting on the elliptical, I felt like a child who was being forced to take piano lessons because it supposedly taught them discipline and made them well-rounded. Even when I did complete a session, regardless of how many miles I covered or how long it took me to cover them, it was never enough. At first I thought this mindset was simply a matter of changing my perspective – that I should be proud of myself for doing 5 minutes or 50, 1 mile or 10. But then I realized that it wasn’t about the numbers. I simply did not care about measurements. I didn’t feel accomplished regardless of what the stupid display said, and I didn’t feel good or refreshed when I finished. I hated the elliptical and was angry at myself because I’d grown up hearing that all exercise should make you feel accomplished and refreshed. But this simply was not the case.

So yes – most exercises and physical activities trigger negative responses in my brain and uncomfortable feelings in my body. This means that sometimes what may be good for my physical health may be bad for my mental health. What am I supposed to do with that? Is this normal? Why does society judge people who don’t find joy in exercise? What am I supposed to choose when something that is good for my physical health (the elliptical) makes me hate myself? And what do I do when something that is good for my mental health (Netflix & chocolate) makes me inactive?
Why don’t you just ask me which leg I prefer to amputate – the left and right have equal value!

When I started this post, I was hoping that I’d come up with some sort of answer by the end. But I think this is one of those subjects that’s going to constantly be up for debate – and the answer will change depending on each individual.

I leave you with a quote from a book I recently read while doing research on sexual suppression in conservative religious communities. I found that many of the themes in this work that focused on sex were relevant to the constant push and pull between mental health and physical health:

Maybe rhythm, not balance, is the key to not falling off the too-much-or-too-little pleasure plank. Maybe here is where grace can enter. Allowing ourselves a bit of time in each place rather than continuously monitoring moderation. A rhythm of feasting and fasting. Of indulgence and denial. Lent and Easter. Based on attention for who we are, how we are wired, what we can and cannot handle, what brings harm, what brings joy … rhythm – Finding one that is danceable, livable, maintainable. A time for work, a time for sex, a time for service,
a time for cake ~
Shameless by Nadia Bolz-Weber

More Coping Mechanisms for Panic Attacks

Like most people, the last 10-12 months have tested my mental health. Even before I contracted COVID the last week of 2020, there were a lot of moments where I was sobbing, borderline hysterical, barely able to get out of bed, and feeling like all the progress I’d made with my anxiety over the last few years had gone out the window.

While I was able to see my therapist on a regular basis thanks to Zoom, there were a few times that I had to employ the help of friends, family, the Internet, and my own creativity to claw my way back to some semblance of calm.

So today, I’m sharing the new tips, tools, & techniques I learned in a year that has been rough on all of us.

Relaxing Music
This is a tool that can be used almost anywhere — at home, lying in bed, driving, or even (for most people) at work. When I need something to bring me down a notch, I pull up the Pandora app on my phone and tune into a station that makes me feel like I’m at a spa or on a relaxing vacation. I highly recommend the following stations:
* Instrumental Chill Radio
* Classical Relaxation Radio
* Happiest Tunes on Earth

Mantras
One of the most important things I learned doing EMDR therapy is to have a positive mantra to replace a negative thought or belief. My two favorites —
* I am safe. I am calm. I am quiet. (when I’m at work or trying to concentrate on something, I change the last part to “I am focused.”)
* This too shall pass or this is only temporary. Whether the source of my anxiety is a stressful issue at work or the fact that we’re nearly a year into a global pandemic, it helps to remind myself that nothing is permanent.

Cold Water & Body Tensing
If, like me, you sometimes experience the physical effects of a panic attack without your mind actually spiraling out of control, you know how absolutely infuriating this can be. Your heart is racing, your hands are shaking, and you’re breaking out in a cold sweat — but you can’t pinpoint why exactly it’s happening. My sister said she heard this once described as “when you’re playing a video game and you hear the music warning you that ‘the boss’ is coming, but he never actually shows up.” Truer words.
In these cases, I like to do one of the following:
* Run my hands and wrists under cold water for 60 – 120 seconds. The cold sensation refocus your energy and attention to something palpable instead of something abstract.
* Tense every muscle in my body for 30 – 60 seconds (or as long as you can hold it), then slowly release each muscle, one area at a time (your toes, your legs, your torso, your arms, etc). This apparently tricks your body into thinking you’ve just “fought” something (the panic attack), and it works to calm itself down once you begin to “let loose.”

Living in the Moment
Typically I loathe this term. Of course I want to live in the moment, but my mind doesn’t allow me to. That’s why I have anxiety. But this time I mean it quite literally. If my mind is racing out of control about something, I have to throw all of my concentration into exactly what I’m doing at that moment. This literally means forcing my thoughts in this pattern: I’m turning on the faucet. I’m testing the water temperature. I’m undressing. I’m stepping into the shower. I’m wetting my hair. I’m shampooing my hair.
I’m unlocking my car door. I’m putting on my seatbelt. I’m starting the ignition.
I’m walking into the office. I’m sitting down at my desk. I’m typing in my password. Etc, etc.

Sometimes my anxiety gets so out of control I have to deliberately remind my brain to focus on menial tasks in order to get the panic monster to stop roaring so loudly.

Five Things
This is a helpful tool that I read about somewhere that helps me fall asleep most nights and also helps me peel myself out of bed on those days when depression rears its ugly head and I can’t find anything to look forward to or work towards. Usually I just recite the thoughts in my head, but it can also be helpful to write them down.
5 Things I’m Grateful for & 5 Things I Want
Sometimes I’m grateful for something as simple as my bed and my favorite hoodie. Sometimes all I want is to find the courage to leave the house or the energy to make dinner.
Other times I’m grateful for more monumental things and I dare to dream about traveling the world and making a shit ton of money with my writing.
Either way, compiling these lists and reciting or reading each item several times is a sure way to calm your mind and distract it from becoming a run away train of doom.

These days, we’re all looking for ways to chase away the demons clouding out vision and messing with our minds. I hope some of these methods help you out, and feel free to share any tips if you learned something new during this bizarre period in history.





A Friday in January

I am working at my company’s small sublot for a few days, and on Friday the twenty-something yard employee who opens the gates is running a little late. He apologizes profusely, then tells me to forgive him if he seems a bit “off” today. His friend from high school was killed last night, so he’s understandably emotional. I offer my own shocked condolences, and he manages to give a few sparse details about their friendship and history before the tears he’s been holding back begin to flow. Male tears have always had the power to undo me, and COVID be damned, I rush over to wrap him in a friendly hug. There is no one else around to comfort him, and I cannot stand idly by as his grief overflows. He regains his composure and thanks me, and we turn to the demands of our jobs.

Hours later, I take my lunch break and wonder how he’s managing. I distract myself with Facebook, where I stumble upon an article about how the lack of physical touch over this last year is wreaking havoc with our mental health. I become teary-eyed near the end, thinking not only of my hug with my coworker this morning, but of the scores of people dealing with what may be the most difficult and bizarre period we’ve ever encountered.

I continue scrolling through my feed, trying to focus on positive posts. I smile when I see one wishing my favorite composer, Mozart, a happy birthday. There is a video to go along with the post, one I’ve seen a dozen times before, of opera singer Diana Damrau expertly nailing the Queen of the Night aria. This stunning and exceptionally difficult piece always makes my heart flutter happily, but today it shatters me.

Tears of my own grief and despair pour over my cheeks as I watch the artists on stage, and suddenly I am painfully aware of just how long it’s been since I sat in a darkened auditorium absorbing culture and theatrics and feeling the rush of human interaction and our shared passion for the arts. And then I am sobbing for everything.

I cry out of frustration for the linger, all-encompassing fatigue that COVID has left in my body, and I cry out of fear that the virus will have some future negative effects on mine or my husband’s health. I cry because it’s been nearly a year since I’ve swum laps or splashed and laughed with other women as we aqua-Zumba our way across the pool to Bruno Mars and Ricky Martin. I cry for the restaurants and small businesses, the non-profits and schools, the students and teachers, the nurses and travel industry. I cry for my friends in Holland and the missed opportunity to visit them in The Netherlands. I cry for the unfulfilled desire to see the Van Gogh Museum, the canals, the windmills, the tulips. I cry because I just want to sit at my friends’ kitchen table, laughing and talking and catching up while we sip beer and wine and finally taste homemade Olliebolen.

When lunch is over, I force my tears to an abrupt halt in the way that women do, in order to attend to the necessities of work and life until there is another spare moment for release.

I stumble through the rest of the day as best I can in this fog of emotion and brain fuzziness and exhaustion and wonder how long the remnants of this virus will inhabit my body and mind.

At 5pm, I head to the pharmacy for prescriptions, resting my head against the steering wheel in the parking lot for 60 seconds just to gather my wits. I have not known fatigue or frustration like this since I had mono in my early twenties, but there are errands to run and a house to clean and meals to cook and dogs to attend to.

On my way home I am sitting at a red light, fighting the urge to close my eyes for only a moment, when the tears break through again. I am sobbing because I am so tired. I am sobbing because it is so cold — the bitter January air is cutting through my coat and gloves and laughing at the meager attempts of the heat in my car. I sob because it seems like spring will never, ever come. I sob because I want to exercise swim and take my dogs to the park. I sob thinking about my messy bathroom and kitchen. I sob because I want to go to a restaurant with my friends and have a glass of sangria and eat too much rich food. I sob because I miss my mom and dad and sister and friends. I sob because we still do not know when this will end.

When I finally walk through my back door, I greet my dogs and my husband. I eat a bowl of cereal for dinner, take my pills, and go upstairs to read and rest for an hour before starting laundry and making a grocery list.

But after awhile, I fold down the page in my novel, set it aside, and flick off the bedside lamp. And I sleep. And I sleep. And I sleep.

the one where i get covid

Welp, I am officially a number. On December 28th, I developed a sore throat and began feeling really, really tired. That same day, it was confirmed by our HR department that “an employee” had tested positive for COVID. Though they claimed they didn’t consider anyone at our facility to have been exposed, I immediately went online to schedule a test.

The next morning when I woke up, my sore throat felt worse, I was still EXHAUSTED, I had a headache, and the sniffles. I called off work and went to a drive-through testing site that afternoon — luckily it was just a mouth swab and not the dreaded brain tickler.
My symptoms intensified over the next few days and I developed a cough. Still, during those first three days I truly didn’t believe I had anything other than a cold. I was most definitely sick (AND I MOST DEFINITELY STAYED HOME) but I’d been sicker — like when I had mono in 2005, like when I had the flu last March, and when I had 3 sinus infections within 2 months in 2012 and had yellow junk leaking out of my eyes.

On New Year’s Day, 2021, the day when the shitstorm that was 2020 was supposed to over and done with, I woke up feeling the best I had all week. And then I got the email that my rest results were in. After a few clicks it was confirmed in bright red letters — I was POSITIVE for COVID-19.

I immediately notified my husband, parents, and sister, the only people I’d been with other than my coworkers. Then I began to panic. What if I relapsed and got worse? What if I had lingering effects? What if my family was sick? What would happen to my job?
A few hours later my husband began to exhibit symptoms and I became even more stressed out. A few days after later, HE tested positive for COVID and my guilt swelled. J was born premature and his lungs and sinuses never fully developed. He’s had pneumonia a few times as well as bronchitis. I was scared.

It’s been about two weeks for me, and I am sloooooowly starting to feel normal. My nose is still stuffy, my cough is still lingering, and I get tired really easily. Oh and I have almost NO sense of smell. For someone whose mom used to call them “dog nose” this is a really interesting new way to navigate things.

J’s symptoms are about 5 days behind mine, and while his cough seemed worse than mine and he had stomach issues, I’m hoping he’ll be on the upswing shortly. I’m not much for organized religion, but any good vibes or prayers would be appreciated.

So now my house is a disaster of epic proportion, the dogs are going nuts, and since we can’t leave these 4 walls it’s almost impossible to turn off CNN as we watch the US tumble into an even more disturbing and embarrassing example of a democracy gone wrong. And don’t even get me started on how indescribably LIVID I am about the way my workplace has (mis)handled this whole debacle.

Yay. 2021.

As I wait for my second round of test results, I’m trying so hard to keep things in perspective. I’m trying to focus on my health and my husband getting better. I’m trying to be thankful that my family didn’t get it and that J & I are generally young and healthy and should be able to beat this. I should be thankful that both of us should still have jobs after this. I should be thankful we still have a home and food on the table.

But all I can think about is what I’ve lost thanks to COVID — 80 hours of PTO. The possibility of personal days and vacations, even if they were stay-cations. Trust and faith in the system. Dreams of having a girl’s weekend with my best friends to celebrate 25 years of friendship. Traveling to Holland to see our friends that moved there in 2019. Seeing the Grand Canyon with my husband. Buying a new house in a better neighborhood.

I understand that right now so many people are focused on survival mode, and thinking about these types of luxuries might seem selfish and immature. But in the past when I’ve been struggling to get through tough times, I always try to focus on something good to look forward to. Unfortunately, right now no one knows if or when those good times will ever come around again.

I talked to my therapist yesterday and she reiterated the importance of focusing on little things, especially in the dismal winter that has consumed western Pennsylvania. We probably won’t see the sun here very often over the next few months, which only magnifies mental health issues — global pandemic, financial crises, and unstable government aside.

Sadly I feel like I have to put aside big dreams of traveling and moving right now. I have to dust off my happy light, restock my essential oils, and try to be satisfied with mundane things like chocolate cake, a (shortened) hockey season, warm towels out of the dryer, and my dogs’ adorable head tilts.

I’m trying to hard to think about better days. Sometimes that makes things easier. Sometimes it makes things harder.

Until next time, please take care. And for the love of all that is holy — WEAR A MASK.

5 Good Things That Happened in 2020

By the time this post goes live, Christmas will be over and we’ll all be muddling through that weird final week of the year where we’re not sure what day it is, we’ve eaten too much rich food, and we’re waiting to ring in 2021.

Like most everybody else, I am sending 2020 into oblivion with hopes that the next twelve months look brighter and happier for everyone. While I know that the change of the calendar isn’t a magic wand that will make everything shitty suddenly go away, I’m trying to stay hopeful that we can put the ugliness of this year behind us and move forward to a more positive, inclusive, and healthier way of life.

That being said, I do want to take a moment to reflect on the fact that there were a few good things that managed to happen in 2020. These are the things that kept me going over the last twelve months, and I invite all readers and bloggers to reply or re-blog with the little things that kept them going in these unprecedented times.

  • I finished my manuscript!
    January of 2020 started with a slap in the face for me, and this was way before the word ‘Coronavirus’ was a thing. I wrote here about losing my (completed) 90,000+ word manuscript that I’d been slaving over for YEARS thanks to a USB crash. Also on that flash drive was the first draft of another novel in progress, as well as countless other short stories and nonfiction articles. I was devastated. I cried for two days and sulked for another week. But then I opened up a blank Word document and started all over again. Admittedly this was infinitely easier thanks to a very early draft that my friend (and lifesaver 10X over) had saved in her email, and I used that to rebuild the entire thing over the next couple of months. Being quarantined for spring and summer definitely helped the progress along, and I spent the second half of the year getting feedback from beta readers and editing. I plan on 2021 being the year of the query and already have my first five perspective agents picked out! Wish me luck!

  • We rescued 2 doggos!
    As if 2020 hadn’t started off crappily enough, and as if the beginning of the ‘rona pandemic weren’t scary enough, J & I lost our fur baby Comet in April. Saying goodbye to our fuzz bug was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, and having a house devoid of any paws or barks or clumps of fur was beyond depressing — especially in the middle of quarantine.
    The silver lining to having a fur baby cross the rainbow bridge is, of course, welcoming a new one into your home. J and I happily welcomed Miss Kitty into our home in May, and Ghost joined us in October. It’s been a crazy ride with quite a few struggles, but overall I’m so happy that we have two crazy mutts sharing our home. Kitty is the epitome of a rescue dog — she was found lactating and emaciated on a four lane highway near San Antonio, TX, and clearly had a history of abuse and abandonment. Seven months in, she has made SO MUCH progress and is quite simply the sweetest girl ever. Ghost still has a lot to learn (we have puppy classes scheduled for January!) but he too has made lots of progress, including learning how to ‘give paw.’ Watching these two play and snuggle together absolutely warms my heart and I cannot say enough about how good it feels knowing you saved a life (or two) by adopting rescue dogs.
    If you’re searching for your own companion, may I suggest God’s Dogs in Texas? https://godsdogsrescue.org/
    Both Kitty and Ghost were adopting through this nonprofit and they were awesome every step of the way. If you prefer to meet your 4-legged friend before adopting, I highly encourage you to visit your local shelter or rescue. There are so many animals out there who need homes!

  • I had 2 poems published!
    While I am most certainly a writer, I wouldn’t exactly call myself a poet. I dabble from time to time, and a few years ago wrote a couple of pieces about the Outer Banks. This summer, Capsule Stories published those two poems in their print journal, and I was super excited to be able to share my love of the barrier islands with strangers and other writers.
    Capsule Stories is a refreshing, accessible literary journal that actually publishes in print, so check them out if you’re looking for something new to read: https://capsulestories.com/
  • Joe Biden & Kamala Harris won the election!
    I still get emotional when I think about that day that my husband texted me the news — I was standing in line at the deli at the grocery store when I learned that love, peace, and integrity had triumphed once again and that Joe Biden & Kamala Harris would be the next pair to occupy the White House. While Biden wasn’t my ideal candidate and I know that his presidency won’t solve all the issues in our country, I am beyond relieved that we won’t have to suffer another four years of hate and lies. It is also incredibly refreshing and encouraging to see how much diversity Biden will have in his cabinet, and I look forward to seeing his efforts on bridging the massive divide that currently separates this country.
    Love trumps hate. Love trumped hate. Love is love.
  • We went on vacation!
    When our friends moved to Holland last year, I was hopeful that J & I would get to visit them sometime in 2020. Of course those plans derailed like a train running on moonshine, and god only knows when we’ll ever get to go overseas again.
    However we did manage to make it to the Outer Banks for the first time since 2017, and though this vacation looked different than any other, it was nice to get out of our zip code and feel the sand and sea on our skin, especially when we were so desperate for some type of peace and relaxation.
    I’m keeping my fingers crossed that travel won’t be out of the question for the rest of my life, and in the meantime am having fun living vicariously through books and movies and Facebook posts.

So did anything good happen to you in this mess of a year? Please share, even if it’s something as simple as buying a favorite shirt or learning to cook a delicious batch of cookies. Stay safe, stay healthy, and here’s to a better 2021 — whatever that means!

Outer Banks 2020

Well, peeps, I’m only 2 months late, but here it is — my recap of our vacation to the Outer Banks, 2020 edition.

Better late than never, I guess, and I figured most of us could use a dose of the beach considering winter is rearing its frigid head in most parts of the world right now. Plus, I know it’s been hard for a lot of people to travel what with the pandemic and all, so if you haven’t been able to leave your zip code in the last eight months, I hope this post helps you live vicariously through the Internet for a few minutes.

This trip was originally supposed to take place in May, but got postponed because of COVID, so our vacation looked nothing like we initially anticipated. Virus aside, we planned this excursion with every intention of taking our dog Comet, of course having no idea that he’d end up passing away in April. We ended up taking our new fur kid, Kitty, and as an added surprise our latest (and a bit unexpected) addition Ghost came along too. Considering virus precautions and having two new dogs in tow, my anxiety was pretty high in the weeks leading up to our departure.

We did have a few hiccups along the way — somehow missing the exit for our first traditional rest stop and driving an hour out of our way & Kitty nearly jumping out of the car unleashed — but the journey went relatively smoothly, all things considered. Finding food and bathrooms during the six hundred mile trek required a little more planning with COVID shutdowns, and we had to be hyper vigilant and cognizant of hand washing and sanitizing and pay attention to the differing restrictions in each state. Once we reached out destination, we found that North Carolina’s restrictions were very similar to those in PA. We had to wear masks everywhere we went, capacity limits at tourist attractions were small, and restaurants only offered take out or sparse outdoor seating. Still, I felt safe all week and following these extra safety steps were in a beach town didn’t take away the relaxing and freeing feeling of being on the coast.

The only major disappointment was our beach house. After two decades of visiting the Outer Banks and staying in everything from mansions to modest cottages, this place was probably bottom of the barrel. The house was old and in dire need of dozens of repairs, and I was not impressed by the cleaning staff, COVID aside. Still, we made it work as best we could, and the drawbacks at the house did not detract from the stunning views and quiet, peaceful location in the southern town of Frisco. We spent hours wading, discovering seashells, watching pelicans and dolphins, and marveling at the stunning sunrises and sunsets. We took the nearby ferry across the Pamlico Sound to Ocracoke Island twice, where we made sure to patronize local shops and restaurants effected by Hurricane Dorian and the virus, and walked the haunting trail at Springer’s Point, where Blackbeard’s body is said to have been thrown after his last battle off the coast. Our dogs particularly enjoyed the sugary soft sand, where they dug holes and chased birds.

Back in Frisco and Buxton, I explored a beautiful church, Our Lady of the Seas, to get inspiration for a pivotal scene in my WIP, Ocracoke’s Daughter. I browsed a cool little bookstore called Buxton Books, housed in a pre-civil war building with each tiny room dedicated to a different subject. We made plans to attend a ghost walk on October 30th, but it ended up getting cancelled due to high winds and power outages from a storm off the coast (2020 strikes again). We visited the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, where I did some additional research on Blackbeard, again for my WIP, and as usual spent my last night walking solo on the beach, feeling the rush of salt water run over my ankles and wiping my tears as I said a temporary goodbye to the sea once again.

This vacation was definitely different from any other I’ve had in the Outer Banks, being in a much more remote location on the southern beaches as opposed to the more populated, touristy spots further north. Still, the whimsy of the island did its job in healing my world weary body, mind, and soul . . . and I already miss it.

Les Sigh.

Guess I’ll have to live vicariously through my WIP until I can return.

We Have a Ghost

No, not that kind of Ghost.

Remember a few posts ago I mentioned that Kitty was getting a little brother?

Well, he’s here, and after much debate, J (and I) named him Ghost.

Ghost is about 10 months old and came from the same rescue in Texas as Kitty. We don’t know much about his story, but believe he was saved from a kill shelter. He’s part Jack Russell and possibly part Schnauzer, and only weighs about 25 lbs. And every pound of him is pure energy.

The first and only time I had a puppy was when my family adopted my first ever dog, Maggie, back when I was eleven, and I have to admit that I forgot just how energetic puppies are. Ghost is in instant play mode as soon as he opens his eyes in the morning. He’s always running, jumping, grabbing toys, and prodding at poor Miss Kitty 24/7. The two have learned to get along pretty well for the most part, but I’d be lying if I said the first few weeks weren’t tough — there was even an incident caused by a piece of rogue chicken that resulted in lots of yelping and Kitty ripping some of Ghost’s fur out — something that sent my anxiety into overdrive and had me practically hysterical. But after many conversations with doggy foster moms, friends, and our vet, I eventually realized that this wasn’t quite the horrible sign I thought.

We only had Ghost for 2 weeks before going on vacation, and that was a challenge in and of itself (more about that next time). Even though we’ve been home for nearly a month now, he still has a lot to learn. Though his potty accidents are now few and far between (knock on wood), he is most definitely getting enrolled in puppy classes as soon as one comes around that works with our schedule.

Ghost has learned to sit and give paw (adorable!) and we’re working on “come,” but he’s completely oblivious to “down” and “stay.” We also can’t seem to get him to stop jumping (and nipping) when we come home, and he is SO destructive with his toys — even ones that look indestructible for bigger dogs. J and I have tried everything we can think of — and everything fellow dog owners and the Internet recommends — but he does not respond to yelling, clapping, “AH! AH” or even bops on the nose. We’re trying to be patient and know that he’s still in his transition period, but we definitely want to correct these behaviors soon before he begins to think it’s okay to jump (and walk) all over people and completely ignore the rules.

Like most dogs (and people), Ghost is a work in progress, and the fact that he learned “give paw” in only a matter of a week or so gives us hope. Besides, he’s pretty damn cute and a big cuddle bug. The fact that he wants to cuddle up beside us all the time creates some competition and jealousy between him and Kitty, so J and I are also working to make sure that the two of them know that they are both loved equally and that no one is being ousted. In fact, we bought a king sized bed so that all 4 of us can sleep together more comfortably (hey we needed a new bed anyway). And even though he can be quite a pest towards his sister, I’m glad they have each other, especially during the day while we’re at work.

Drama aside, I’m falling more in love with this little turd every day, and it melts my heart when him and Kitty play together, run in the yard, and curl up next to each other to sleep. I’ll be sure to keep you guys posted on their progress in the coming months.

And without further ado, a barrage of pictures —

I Had a Photoshoot!

I have a confession to make — the picture that I’ve been using on this blog, my social media accounts, and sending along with submissions to publications is from . . . 2009.

I’ve never claimed to be a a photogenic person, and aside from my wedding pictures haven’t had any professional photography done since. The black and white of me posed with my chin in my hand was taken aboard a cruise ship eleven years ago and the only picture of myself I loved other than the ones where I’m in a wedding dress.

So I was long overdue for new ones.

Luckily, my sister told me about a fantastic local photographer who is married to one of her coworkers, and after looking at her website I had to give her a shout.

JM and I met up on the last Saturday in September at Mellon Park in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill/Shadyside neighborhood to get the shots, and I managed to have a lot of fun. Considering I hadn’t had professional photos taken since 2013, I had to admit that I was nervous. I’m not a natural in front of the camera, and I was super worried that I wouldn’t like the finished products.

But JM was open and friendly and gave me plenty of suggestions and direction on how to play up my best angles and use the beautiful setting of the park to my advantage. Before I knew it, an hour had gone by and it was time to wrap up.

When JM sent me the finished photos a few weeks later, I was so excited — and actually happy with the results! There were plenty of pictures I could use to update my social media pages and use as headshots, and I really liked the way I looked in most of them.

I’m sharing some of my favorites and will definitely be updating my photos on my website in the near future.

photos taken by Janelle Michaux Photography

I know that plenty of writers or other professionals use old photos because they feel, like me, that they aren’t photogenic or they don’t know how to create flattering images of themselves on their own. Let’s be honest — as writers, our typical uniform is sweat pants, a t-shirt, a messy bun, and some sort of chocolate pastry. Writing and reading is a mostly solitary endeavor and most of us know more about semicolons and literary magazines than makeup and good lighting. And while it can feel like you’re taking a big risk by hiring a photographer you’ve never worked with before, I highly encourage anyone who needs new headshots to give it a go. Just make sure you do your research when hiring someone to take those photos — ask for personal recommendations if you can, and don’t feel badly about scrutinizing every shot on their website. Bonus points for photographers who give tips about choosing outfits or hairstyles. And while a writer’s budget is typically pretty tight, DO NOT scrimp when it comes to your pictures!

So let me know what you think about my new headshots, and if you decide to update your own images, tell me how it goes!