Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Letter to Me

To Alice, aged fourteen, 

I am writing to you today to tell you that you have become exactly what you feared and what you thought you already were - 


That body you see in the mirror - a body which, as yet, you do not have - is exactly what your body will be in thirteen years. You will have a tummy; and no, you don't have one yet, even though you do two hundred crunches a day to stave off a bit of softness in the abdomen. Your thighs will touch; really touch, no hint of the much coveted thigh gap. Your face will be round, your bum will be squishy, your chest will be, to put it bluntly, huge. 

And you will have the prettiest smile. 

I'm writing to you today in hopes that I can reach back through time and reassure you, reassure the skinny girl who finds pride in skipping meals, who takes photographs of herself late at night to make sure that she's not fat. I'm writing to you because I want you to go away and I want your voice, still young and shaking, to get out of my head. You don't have to do this anymore. 

I want to tell you that, just recently, you started smiling. No half-quirk of the lips in photographs to avoid chubby cheeks, no smirk - just real smiles which show that yes, you are enjoying your life, even with the extra pounds. I need to convey that life is, against all odds, much better in the future, and that you do have a lot to smile about. You have a husband and a home and family; you have your writing and your creativity and your intelligence. And none of those blessings are dimmed because of the moments you catch yourself in the mirror and see the image of roundness that scared you so much. 

I know you're going through a lot. I know that, no matter what you do, you can't fit in. I know that you starve yourself to find a place with your thin classmates - always more popular, always seeming so confident and easy - and are called disgusting when they see how tiny you are. I know you can't win - not in high school, not with friends, not in comparison to the tall, willowy girls who look effortlessly perfect. I know, I know. It's hard. If I could stretch my hands across the past and smooth your path for you, I would. 

But I can talk to you - talk to myself - and let us know that we are good and will be whole. 

I can say that, in thirteen years, you will have flaming red hair and you will love to dance. You might step on the scale and feel ashamed from time to time, and I'm not going to lie about that - but you will have constant support. You will have friends who say you're beautiful and who will love you for so much more than your appearance. You will have a man in your life who loves to hold you, squish and all, and with whom you'll spend hours debating politics and faith and science fiction. You'll have a beautiful sister who sees you as you are - lovable. 

And yes - you'll have strangers at parties and gatherings who think you're pretty. You'll meet men at the gas station and women at bars who give you genuine compliments. And while that feels really good it's just the icing on the cake because God, you know how to smile and mean it. And maybe that's the best part, the most attractive part, of the total sum of your life and your beauty: happiness. 

Oh Alice, you're going to be happy. 

You're going to get an answer to so many questions, and that answer comes with a price. You'll be diagnosed and put on a medication which absolutely makes you gain weight - fast. And you will be scared of that, for years, and you'll try every diet and still have days when you try not to eat. You're going to avoid smiling in pictures until right about now, these weeks and months before your twenty-seventh birthday - and no, I don't know why it takes so long, and I don't know why, all of a sudden, you figure it out. I don't know why it clicked with me that being happy shows in photographs, and being ashamed does, too. And you're going to be in weddings and see yourself in a new way because you are new. Because you've chosen to be better. 

Alice, there's nothing wrong with you. You're going to be okay. 

Fourteen years old and you don't know that yet. But you will. 

I hope that someday soon I can put you to rest, finally and completely, because while you are a good person you are incomplete. You haven't gotten the message that your weight is not the one measure of your value, and sometimes it is terribly tiring to hear you beg me to stop eating. I can write to you with love but also with a promise - soon you will be able to sleep, to relax. Soon you're going to enjoy food and life and your self-flagellation will fade away. It'll be good, I promise. I will take care of this body - you can let go.  

I hope that with this message, with these words, I can really tell myself that it's going to get better, is better.  I might not be able to see you - in person or in the mirror - but I can feel you in the back of my brain. So I'm writing to that little voice and saying, I love you. And it's about time. 

Signed most sincerely,

Alice, aged almost twenty-seven, overweight and smiling

Monday, December 16, 2013

To the Baltimore Sun

If there's one place which has absolutely no right to judge others, it is Baltimore City. 

And I say that kindly - and lovingly. I grew up in Baltimore, and I'm the first to defend it. Who better than a former citizen to understand a city's beauty and its flaws? Baltimore has always been odd, if not downright weird - I was raised on stories of farming pigs in chain-linked Hampden gardens; I ate shrimp salad sandwiches, smiling at the toothless and nigh incomprehensible wash-and-set dinner ladies at Cross Street Market; I marveled at the opening of The Helmand in Mt. Vernon, and even now consider it one of the most innovative spaces in the city. I got married at Grace and St. Peter's, had my reception at the Engineers Club, and had an impromptu after party at Grand Central. I watched Homicide when I was little and Frank Pembleton was my hero. 

When you grow up in a small city you learn to love it - the oddities, the ugliness, the whimsy, the delight. You learn, here on the east coast, that you're never going to be as glamorous as New York City; you don't have Broadway or Zabar's, the Empire State Building, or that infuriating sense of superiority. What you do have is a fierce local pride. Ain't nobody gonna touch your steamed crabs, your Boh, your hatbox-shaped symphony hall; there's no one in the whole world who could convince you that there's any place better. Your baseball team can lose, frequently; your football players can be accused of criminality; your harbor can smell like garbage on a summer's day. Doesn't matter - this town is your town. It is small, plucky, fragrant, and vehemently not New York.

So, after reading the Baltimore Sun's response to the recent Vulture interview of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, I have to say that I am terribly disappointed. 

Baltimore should never, ever be a place which feels entitled enough, feels superior enough, to speak ill of other cities - especially other odd, insular, local pride-filled cities. We can talk a lot of bull about our infamous northern neighbor, sure, but we can be relatively confident that they're talking a lot of bull about us, too. This piece was full of the kind of snotty condescension I had previously thought was characteristic of that island only - nasal intonations, pitying chuckles, exhortations of, now now, can't you take a joke? That attitude is so out of place in our beautiful city on the bay, because, Edgar knows, we've had it directed at us too many times to count. 

The object of this derision? Columbia. A few sentences in the article explained some of the positive attributes of this 'burb between Baltimore and D.C. - you know, the amazing schools, the median income, the perceived (by the author) blah-blah-blah - but the remainder of the piece was so incoherently derisive as to show how little the author understood of the second largest urban center in Maryland. Yes, that's right - Columbia is a city, too. 

I live here, in Owen Brown, now. And you know what? We are a city. We've got neighborhoods. We've got a waterfront. We've got communities debating about important issues and rallying around our local watering holes. We've got older people, younger people, people in between. We've got PTA meetings and beer clubs and meetup groups and yeah, even some amateur theatre (with some pretty impressive production quality, no Fisher-Price need apply). 

And we do have spirit, and we do have pride, and we have no shame in that. Somehow the author of this piece conflated earnest desires to be heard and respected with a country bumpkin's chatter about the latest innovation in overalls. This voice of egregious superiority gave a name to that attitude - snark - and then blithely and blindly blathered on in that same tone. And it's terrible, truly shameful, that that voice of snark is the voice which speaks for Baltimore. 

I'll have none of that, thanks. 

I honestly think that the comments made by Louis-Dreyfus were fairly innocuous - it looks like she was attempting to speak about the industrial park setting where Veep is filmed. Even as a proud Columbian, I can admit that warehouses lack a certain je ne sais quois. Clearly, the interviewer had formed opinions about Columbia which peppered the piece with the expired ephemera of the perpetually bored. Too bad, then, that that author hadn't taken a moment to explore this place of Merriweather and the Second Chance Saloon and Symphony Woods and nature paths and the message of Rouse - diversity. 

For the Baltimore Sun author, however, I have no such pity. Because people in Baltimore should know better. Baltimoreans should know that they're the first in line for snorting and snark and that they should turn that negativity on no other. Columbia doesn't deserve that - because we are trying, really trying, to share our story and to make that story better. You'd better believe that we are going to speak up when we feel we haven't been heard. You'd better expect more responses from us, more participation, more engagement. Even when you laugh at us.

Maybe we've become the kind of city that Baltimore used to be - overlooked, but brilliant. Shining. Earnest. Authentic. Maybe a bit odd - but very, very proud. 

So, to the Baltimore Sun, I say, do better. Because Columbia? 

It's awesome. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Mornings with Snow

I've got a stack of Christmas movies, gingerbread coffee, and snow. 

Growing up, I spent Thursday nights with my grandparents. My parents always had choir rehearsal, so Thursdays were Grandmere and Grandpere days. We had our routines - I would practice the piano, Grandmere would cook dinner, I'd tidy the dishes, we'd watch Dick van Dyke in Diagnosis Murder. Grandmere told me about her family, and we'd do our nails, and she'd show me her jewelry boxes full of treasures. Friday mornings meant buttered toast, or oatmeal, or cereal topped with sliced banana and honey. In the winter, those mornings were also taken up with watching the news for signs of snow. 

Before the internet was what it is today, the only real source for up-to-date weather information was local television. Nothing was so delightful as watching the line at the bottom of the screen cycling through school closings. Grandpere and I would sit enraptured as school names flew by; now, as an adult, I wonder if his years in the school system as a teacher and administrator informed his excitement. After working as a Paraeducator, and watching my parents rejoice in snow days now, I can understand that grown ups want their days off, too. Maybe Grandpere never gave up that thrilling feeling of an unexpected holiday - maybe he just loved the snow. 

I have many memories of snow, though in the midatlantic region, wintry precipitation is never guaranteed. A lot of my memories revolve around Christmas. I don't think I've ever again experienced the peace and calm which was waking up at my grandparents' house after a Christmas afternoon nap, the smell of dinner cooking and snow falling softly on the giant holly tree out back. And there are few moments which can compare to two in the morning on Christmas Day, snowflakes after midnight mass, Grandpere, our poodle, and I leaving our paw- and footprints in the snow. Otterbein's cookies, eggnog, fatigue and anticipation. 

So, it's snowing today. My parents and sister have the day off. I was supposed to spend the day with Grandmere - understandably, we had to postpone. My husband went in to work, but I'm secretly hoping that he'll be able to come home early so that we can snuggle up with a soft blanket and a Christmas movie (or Doctor Who - what's more romantic than science fiction?). But at the moment, I am, as always, sitting on the porch. I've got my mug of rapidly cooling coffee, my choral Christmas station on Pandora, and the hope that the view of snow falling on the pine trees behind our apartment might match those mornings with Grandmere and Grandpere. 

It's a bit cold. But that's okay. 

There are so many times, so many memories, when winter was troublesome or difficult for me. Having an extra allotment of parents led to crowded and sometimes tense Christmases; the dividing up of presents, for example, could be difficult - what things went to which house? Would my mom get to see me play with the gifts she bought, labeled "From Santa?" And Grandpere - he so wanted, as I have stated, for us all to share in Christmas together, but as I grew into a young adult it became more stressful, I think, for all of us. As I struck out on my own, I couldn't shake that feeling, the forced nature of the holidays, the idea that I should be happy when so often I wasn't. 

Now, with my husband, every year is getting better. He loves Christmas, really loves it, and his love has made me want to be happy - not only for him but for myself. I have endeavored to be reborn into Christmas - and now that I think of it, isn't rebirth what Christmas is all about? Whether you're celebrating the birth of Christ or the return of the sun or just the huddling around warmth on the longest night, we are all ushered into a new day, a new year, a new self. Each year I make Christmas better because I've realized my need to be reborn, to let go of past struggle and become something more complete, someone happier. 

As I sit on my porch, writing and drinking cold coffee, I'm watching the snow fall and thinking about all of the good things which come at winter. The ticker tape on WBAL, paper-thin sugar cookies, eggnog with Pikesville Rye, gilded advent calendars, choosing plates and silver for Christmas dinner, lighting candles, dancing to the Christmas Revels while decorating the tree, ruby glass cups filled with green and silver foiled chocolates, picking out the smallest tabletop trees with my mother - happy things, loving things, things done in the cold. Poodles, choral music, string quintets, my stepfather's arrangements, M&M Christmas lights; my husband's cookies, crab points, football, bowling, Waterford crystal, big families. 

I know it isn't Christmas yet - it's Advent. Christmas is a solid twelve days (there's a song about that, you know) and the month before is supposed to be about quiet reflection and preparation. But today, snow is falling, and I have my coffee, and Rankin and Bass are calling to me with glitter and a red glow. And I'm remembering those other mornings, Grandmere and Grandpere and laughter and delight. I don't think it's wrong to celebrate those things a bit early. 

I think I should celebrate them all year. 

Friday, December 6, 2013


If you live in Howard County, you've seen the bumper stickers. 

I'm not talking about the football stickers (an odd mix of Ravens, Redskins, and, inexplicably, Steelers) or the political stickers ("Obama 2012" on almost every Prius) or the stick figure families (moms, dads, dogs, cats, a parade of children with soccer balls). No, the sticker I see most is the "Choose Civility" sticker, green and white, a bit sad, maybe, because so often, we do not. 

Having worked in retail, I can attest that HoCo citizens do not always practice their civility. Driving 'round the mall, too, is an exercise in avoiding those who've lost their civility somewhere between the food court and the parking lot. And, increasingly, the blogging and social media worlds have been infiltrated by those who, if they had it once, have lost their grasp on politesse. 

That said, there are many incredible voices for civil, free discourse online. Because the blogging community in Howard County is small and somewhat insular, we've become aware of how our voices can weave or fracture over issues big and small. What The 53, Village Green/Town Squared, many, many others write - those words become a part of the Howard County cultural landscape. I truly think that the online presence of HoCo citizens plays a huge role in how we imagine this place - and how we imagine ourselves as a part of the community. 

Even so, because bloggers can inform and be informed by politics, infrastructure, community struggles, diversity ethnic or economic, the onus of civility is on us. Petty spats, closed mindedness, snobbery, inflated senses of superiority - they should have no place here within our writing or our conversations. I'm not saying that we are the be-all and end-all of moral or ethical role models - we're bloggers, not superheroes - but because our writing is public we are rightly burdened with the task of civility. We must show what we demand - respect, honestly, kindness, even in disagreement. 

But what of those who read our writing and respond free of that burden? What of those who attempt to interact not with civility but with nastiness? 

In other words, what do we do about the haters?  

I've never received snotty comments on this blog - mostly because, I'm sure, it is a personal blog rather than a community one, and because I have a small readership. I don't write about hot-button HoCo issues - I usually write, as you know, about my individual journeys with mental illness, religion, or whatever impolite thing is on my mind. But, whoo boy, I've seen some vastly negative comments on other blogs. Just today I was made aware of some less-than-pleasant commentary, and I reacted to it immediately. How odd, that people feel the need to resort to petty name-calling. How pitiful, how sad. 

At one time, I would have been infuriated, especially as the original blogger is very close to my heart. Also maddening is the fact that the blog post in question - as well as responses to the negative commenter - was quite civil, quite honest, respectful, and polite. In no way did the blogger rely on the tactics of the reader; she kept her cool. She was asking for opinions in a trusting and trustworthy way. 

But I have no doubt that it stings, a bit, to be denigrated in what should be a safe space. The blogging community in Howard County must remain civil and open - to every opinion, every assertion, every honest question. We enter into the online world hoping to have our voices heard and to appreciate others' - so we must maintain that safety which comes only from respect. 

I've been ticked off in the past by commenters, as I have written before. I mean, sometimes I read a comment and I'm upset by it - but I've learned to let that go, in part because I have realized that people who come online just to be nasty are probably a lot less mentally stable than I am. I have good days and bad, but being mean on the internet is never in my repertoire because, seriously, I have better things to do with my life. And I don't understand the mindset of those who delight in petty schoolyard antics within the comfort of anonymity - who has time for that? Who benefits from it? Does it make those people feel better about themselves? 

Don't they see that it is ridiculously counter-productive?

I'm all for opinions - even differing opinions. The blog post in question was actually very clearly about opinions! If we want to have a rich community, offline and on, we need lots of voices. We need involvement, we need commitment, we even need disagreement. I welcome the opportunity to hear new information, new perspectives, even and especially if those require me to reevaluate my own. But how can I really respect an opinion which is couched in inflammatory language? Being mean is giving ground - taking cheap, personal shots makes your views less valid, in my eyes, because all you seem to possess is infantile pouting and adolescent lashing out. I cannot trust an opinion surrounded by chaotic, juvenile ramblings. Nope, nope. So if you, as a Howard County citizen, want to engage in a valid and valuable dialogue - if you want to make a difference in this community - you'd better grow up, learn respect, and practice civility. 

Civility isn't just a bumper sticker, and it isn't just the way you say please and thank you. Civility is in real life and on the internet. Civility is having some semblance of respect for yourself and others - not lowering yourself to the level of a giggling child tying someone's shoelaces together. Come on, HoCo! We can do better than that. We must be civil, we can be civil, we will be civil. Let's practice that mantra daily - before we log on, before we click send, even before we pour that first cup of coffee. 

And to the haters? All we can do is feel sorry for them - because, by their own actions, their own petty language and limited discourse, their voices will not be heard. And that's too bad. Maybe, just maybe, they might have something valuable to say. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013


Disclaimer: this post is not about serious stuff. 

Rather, it is about my small business - in other words, a shameless plug for my products for gorgeousgoddesshair. 

I have another craft show this weekend at the Historic Oakland Manor. I'm going to be on the second floor, selling clips, bobby pins, headbands, ponytail elastics, and my new pin/clip combos. I'm very excited about this show - every vendor is selling hand-crafted goods, so I will be in good company! If you've never visited me at a show before, I encourage you to spend twenty minutes or more checking out my stuff and all of the other goodies this Saturday from 10-3. 

Below are some photographs of my work. 

These have pin backs and alligator clips. They are made from silk flowers, French netting, feathers, and pearls or beads: 

These are alligator clips. Feathers, flowers, and beads: 

Medium sized alligator clips. Flowers, feathers, pearls:

Headbands for your little princess. Elastic, found beads or pearls, flowers, netting: 

Ponytail elastics.  Ribbon roses, beads, flowers, elastic: 

Lots of bobby pins! I have some for fall and winter, too! Flowers and pearls: 

Thanks for taking a look! See you on Saturday! 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What He Really Wanted

When my grandfather passed away, five years ago before Thanksgiving, I set myself a task. 

I was going to make a great meal if it killed me. 

There are a few things I don't remember from that Thanksgiving - more than a few - but I do remember the weeks of preparation, finding new recipes, setting a day-of schedule, planning out the dishes and the drinks and seeking the perfect balance of leeks and mushrooms and cream for the soup course. I wanted to recreate the holidays, make at least one meal in my Grandpere's memory, fill his Victorian row house with candlelight and the perfume of sophisticated food. 

And I kept doing that - Thanksgivings and Christmases, I ran around the kitchen, trying to fit my love for my grandfather in every morsel and on every swirl of blue and white on our transferware china. As if, somehow, he'd be with me if I just got it right, if the food was good, if we all squeezed in together, bumping elbows, in the gilt-papered dining room, and were, against all odds, a whole and happy family. 

And then last year, my mom cooked. 

She told me recently about her own stress before that big meal, and how, as I sat around doing absolutely nothing, she began to wonder (perhaps a bit frustratedly) why I wasn't helping. And how, almost at the same time, I told her how precious it was to me that I didn't have to do a thing. Maybe I thought that Grandpere was sated, finally - or maybe I realized that his love for me was unconditional, even after his passing, and that I had done enough simply by being his granddaughter and by loving him back. 

Family events are challenging, sometimes, because as life changes we have to adapt, have to reconsider what family means as we grow older. Even so, I had to let go of the notion that I was the glue holding everything together, that what and how I cooked would fix the problems and return to us the mandatory cheeriness which my grandfather enforced with his own enjoyment of the holidays. I have had to reassess my entrenched feelings about Thanksgiving and Christmas - moments I have thought I had to endure, rather than enjoy. 

As it gets colder, I get grumpier. The sun stays out for approximately five seconds, the air is sharp, and I miss my Grandpere. 

But maybe, if I continue to let go of my insistence that everything should stay the same - that we all must gather round a big meal and smile at each other - maybe I can finally honor my Grandpere's happiness during the holiday season by being happy, myself. 

This year I am doing something so novel and unprecedented that I'm blowing my own socks off. My husband, of course, is the instigator in this - he's lived through the stressful holiday season with me for a few years now (God bless him), and he came up with a fantastic, while unorthodox, idea. 

Thanksgiving in my own home, on my own terms - and instead of a giant meal, a build-your-own-Thanksgiving-sandwich bar. Piling turkey and stuffing and cranberry between fresh bread - like making a leftovers sandwich a day early. 

I know, right? Pretty darn cool. 

I don't know if Grandpere would have liked it, but I think he would have liked to see me smile. Really smile, and mean it. 

So I'm getting my lists together - the shopping, the recipes, the timeline, the neverending cleaning - and I'm feeling a bit of stress niggle at the back of my mind, but I'm banishing it, forcefully. There's always cleaning to do - but will people really judge me if it isn't perfect? And there's cooking to do - sauerkraut, stuffing, turkey, pies, ice cream, etc - but I'm not going to let my perfectionism get in the way there, either. I'm making some new choices - gone is the pecan pie, enter my husband's favorite, cookies and cream (that really is a pie). I'm whipping up a few batches of ice cream - snickerdoodle, Oreo, chocolate. And I'm keeping a few traditions, too - namely, my grandmother's sauerkraut with juniper and gin. And, also very important, I'm going to get up early and watch the Macy's parade with my husband and stepmother, who is coming over to spend the night so that we can have eggs and bagels in front of the TV, wonder at the giant ballons, make fun of the boy bands on the ridiculous floats. 

And it's going to be good. 

So, I will be pretty busy for the next week and a half - I have a craft show on Saturday and a bachelorette party on Black Friday on top of Thanksgiving. But I'm not going to obsess or worry or doubt myself. And I'm not going to think of my Grandpere as looking down on me with unrealistic expectations - not anymore. I'm going to do better than that. I'm going to remember him and his delight and his love of good food and honor him with contentment and joy. 

I think that is what he really wanted for us, after all. 

Friday, November 15, 2013


Sometimes, words of wisdom are hard to hear. Or, to put it another way - hard to parse. 

All of us have our own specific language. We may share words and ideas, but each phrase or use of common vocabulary means something different from person to person. I love words, obviously - my poetry, recently, is an exercise in parsing and reimagining the definitions and sounds of words. That exercise is proof in my mind that words can hold multiple meanings - connotations based on past experiences and present situations. Add words together to make a sentence? Well, that's even more complicated, and even more personal. 

For example, we can say, "pet." I grew up with hamsters, birds, and dogs, so when I hear that word I think of my cockatiel Rembrant singing to my braces when I was thirteen. Pet means my grandmother's standard poodle, Harry, who ate watermelon and had very human, compassionate eyes. Pet even means my experiences with my two hamsters, Emily and Sarah, who died of urinary tract infections (oh lord, how horrible). All of those specific memories engender equally specific feelings when I hear that three letter word. 

But your pet is different from my pet - your feelings and memories are not mine, are personal, are a part of who you are and how you approach animals and attachments. Even so, any word means any specific thing or group of things to each of us. We all hear the same word, but our brains parse it within our own contexts to arrive at a suitable definition. 

Then we get to sentences. Advice, encouragement, interrogatives, admonishments, pleas for help, compliments. When I was a teenager, I interpreted compliments as subtle digs, lies, things to make me feel better which were not actually true - especially when addressing my intelligence or physical appearance. I have this library of memories surrounding words like thin, smart, pretty, artistic, and while I am no longer a teenager and a bit more confident, I still end up shuffling through that library, searching for a reference in the card catalogue of my former insecurities. So, as an adult, if I am given a compliment regarding my appearance, I have to stop and remind myself that my old definitions of pretty, attractive, curvy, must no longer apply. I must reinvent myself, down to the way I hear and parse certain words. 

So words of wisdom - phrases which frequently employ simple, easy to define vocabulary? I often find them loaded or burdened, ideas to untangle and dissect and react to only once I have acknowledged my personal biases and history. That doesn't make encouragement useless, offensive, or judgmental - rather, encouragement is an opportunity to recognize my inner life, definitions, past, and present. It takes a minute, but I try to overlook my initial perceptions and filters in order to get to the point. 

Today on Facebook, I saw an image - a list of advice, or life-truths. At first, I will admit, my reaction to it was a pretty resounding, oh hell no, but I forced myself to look back at the text and think, what do these words really mean? Can I unpack them so that they might have meaning in my life? 

The advice was fairly innocuous - it was my bias, my library of personal definitions, which changed it from friendly to sinister. I interpreted the words in a way which made me bristle with, you can't tell me what to do! But going back, reading it again, I realized that I could make the conscious choice to change my definitions, to parse the words anew. And once I had done that, the advice - shocking! - actually made sense to me. And it's good advice, while, I'd argue, it requires us to evaluate how we react to it and how it applies to us. Here's what the image said, along with my reactions: 

1. Make peace with your past so it won't screw up the present. 

Initial interpretation: get over it already!

Reassessment: your past informs your current actions, emotions, and reactions to the world around you. Understand your past so that you might enjoy your present unburdened by previous hurts and harms. 

2. What others think of you is none of your business. 

First: don't be such a darn busybody, nobody cares!

Then: actually, other people probably don't think about you that much. So don't worry about it! It isn't that it's none of your business - it's that it doesn't make you a different person, place any expectations on you, or hand down judgment on your choices. 

3. Time heals almost everything, give it time.

First: get over yourself. Who wants to hear about your past or your problems?

Then: "time" is another word for change. Changing your life, changing yourself, is the only way to heal, and change is an active process - living is change, living is being engaged, and living takes time. Change happens externally but also internally, and it is how we change ourselves over time which allows us to heal. 

4. Don't compare your life to others' and don't judge them. You have no idea what their journey is all about. 

First: actually, this is pretty dead-on. 

Then: this is absolutely true - but it's hard to execute when you think other people are judging you! So, let's go back to number two - no one is really thinking about you all that much. So live your life outside of the cloud of expectations, judgment, and comparison. 

5. Stop thinking too much, it's alright not to know the answers. They will come to you when you least expect it. 

First: honey, please, thinking is a good thing. How can I figure anything out when I don't think? What's that like? I'm not going to wait around for contentment to fall in my lap, you know.

Then: honestly, this one is still bugging me. My positive spin, though, is that this is about worry rather than about critical thinking or intellect. Perhaps "thinking" in this context actually means "fretting." And yes, goodness knows, worrying too much can definitely harm you. So, you know, let's worry less. But I'm not going to stop thinking, or stop questioning everything from my thought process to how to nail the fourth page of Ravel's Sonatine. 

6. No one is in charge of your happiness, except you.  

First: what, are we giving a free pass to people who are mean and inconsiderate? Those people need to check themselves because their actions and words really do hurt. 

Then: well, yeah. I must take responsibility for my own happiness instead of waiting for others to do the right thing. Sometimes it stinks when we feel like we need respect or affirmation from people who are incapable of giving it - but it's valuable to remember that we have opportunities to distance ourselves from negativity. Taking charge of our happiness can mean creating boundaries so that we are less likely to be hurt as well as reinforcing positive self-talk. Taking charge, sometimes, means being able to walk away. Tough lesson, that. 

7. Smile. You don't own all the problems in the world. 

First: excuse me? First off, I know I am privileged to the extreme and that others have issues. Second, I will smile when I want to because sometimes I just can't! I will not lie with my face to make other people more comfortable, that's for sure. 

Then: I think I am dead on about the smiling thing. The "buck up," "man up," "tough it out," school of thinking really concerns me because it implies that a person's feelings are either invalid or of no import. And I think that "bucking up" is usually for the benefit of the people around us, because we are taught not to have messy, ugly feelings. We are not supposed to be truthful when we are upset, and that leads to so many issues - self-doubt, stress, unhealthy stress releases, physical problems, etc. I will smile to be polite, perhaps, but I will not smile just because I am supposed to. 

However, it is helpful for me to count my blessings, which this tip is probably about. I do feel better when I think about my awesome sister, or my wonderful husband, or the organic, local produce in the fridge. Realizing my incredible luck is very useful when I feel downtrodden by things I cannot change. So, again, re-thinking this advice means letting go of my initial dependence on my card catalogue of emotional reference so that I might come to a better understanding of myself. 

All seven of these points can be interpreted for ill meaning or for good. I'm never going to respect a "get over it" attitude, nor will I respect the idea that I must hide my emotions in order to be happy. Having feelings - as I wrote earlier this week - is a good thing, and what makes it better is thinking through those feelings, seeing myself through a compassionate rather than a dismissive gaze. No, my emotions should not rule me - rather, through introspection and self-critique, I should come to terms with the things which bother me or which upset my internal balance. 

When confronted with such words of wisdom as the above, I need to understand myself before I attempt to parse or assimilate these well-intentioned phrases. I cannot give in to my habitual behaviors of rejection and defensiveness; I must study myself and, finally, come to appreciate the true, or at least deeply personal, meanings of the words. 

No one hears language the same way. We communicate with the same vocabulary but draw conclusions based on our own experiences. And I think we can better understand each other if we first understand ourselves - not just what we say, but what we mean. Not what we read, but what we learn. 

Oh, and one more thing. My own number eight: 

Respect yourself, because you and what you feel are valid and true. Understand yourself so that you might learn happiness. And give yourself a break when you don't get it right the first time - sometimes all you need are a few moments to re-think the completely surmountable separation which is being human in a world of language. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


My therapist can say some pretty useful stuff. 

Therapy can be hit or miss - for each piece of good advice it seems to me that there are moments when your doctor just isn't getting it, isn't into it, or forgot what you said last time. It's a hazard in any profession; some days are better than others. My doctor asking me repeatedly over the course of three sessions if I had tried marijuana to manage my symptoms, not remembering my (increasingly emphatic) no? That was a miss. 

A hit, however, was a recent session in which I spoke about some of my typical reactions to emotional stimuli. Everything from resentment to guilt to shame - I talked about my relationships with family and with my disorder. My doctor reminded me that all of those reactions are habits - like smoking or drinking, they're something one can fall back on to deal with new or repeated stressors. And they're breakable; she suggested that I could quit - quit the guilt, quit the shame, by altering myself rather than that which surrounds me. 

Good advice. But also very difficult. 

I try to follow this advice. Deep breaths are helpful, as it positive self-talk. What I love about the "quitting a habit" metaphor is that it doesn't place blame on anyone, and it doesn't require me to stop feeling what I feel. It is okay when I am upset, and I can say so - but I don't need to rely on guilt to handle my sadness. I don't have to feel shame when I am confronted with something ugly in myself or in others. 

Old habits die hard, as they say, and negativity is terribly challenging to shake. And, to be clear, this kind of negativity comes from within me when I respond to events - and it doesn't make me a bad person. Again, it isn't being upset which is the problem; it is blaming myself. It is taking on a load too heavy to bear. It is swallowing my feelings because I think I shouldn't have them. 

Today was a day in which I stopped trying to swallow my feelings. Honestly, I thought I would vomit - all of it bubbling out of me at once, a tide of the at-last, not hiding it, not trying to fix it, not trying to smile. Not pretending that I am okay because I think that I must. And it was hard. And I feel, unexpectedly, purged. 

None of it is my fault. I don't have to put up with anything, from anyone. I can say no. 

Not being able to say no, too, is a bad habit. I've been getting better and better at it - I pick up the phone when I feel prepared to answer. I give to others only what I can spare. Loving is easier when I can say no, because I don't end up soul-sick with resentment. My life is on my terms and no one else's. And I have incredible support in this endeavor, the breaking of this habit, from family and friends. As with any illness or difficulty, having people to turn to makes it better. 

My stepmother sent me words of encouragement this morning about this very topic - she actually sent me a link to the tumblr, skeletorislove (which is hilarious and very, very true). It perfectly addressed my feelings, and in general, my stepmom deserves a very hearty shout-out today. As I attempt to heal and conquer my own demons, so does she. We shore each other up, filling in the holes, laying beams across the pitfalls of adulthood. We have found ourselves closer than we have been in years, and I am so, so grateful for that gift of family. 

Habits. Aren't we all trying to get rid of a few? 

I have good habits and bad; I play the piano when I'm stuck on a story, and I wait 'til I get home to cry rather than speaking my mind. And, my goodness, neither of those happened today. 

Sometimes breaking a habit can feel just as terrible as relying on it. But it's worth it. 

It is always worth exploring who we are and how we feel. It is a good thing to acknowledge things we are not good at and try to change them or try to get help. Without that kind of introspection and assistance, we cannot change our lives or ourselves. I'm always going to have a lot of feelings and, perhaps more because of my creativity than because of my disorder, I am always going to study them. I must be critical of myself so that I may improve. I must break the habits and can only do it by understanding them, by understanding their hold on me and why I feel I need them. 

Why should I ever, ever feel shame? 

Why should I feel guilt?

Why should I say yes, when I need to say no?

Why do I lie? 

I refuse to do those things - never again will I lie, hide, feel obligation beyond reason, feel shame for my self-preservation, feel guilt for actions which are not, at the end of the day, my responsibility. Tonight I am purged of it, and while I realize that recovery from bad habits is a continuing process, I also realize that recovery is more valuable than the quick comfort which is established patterns of psychological self-harm. Recovery is something I can maintain. It's not crash dieting or cold turkey - it is a fundamental change in how I see myself and how I interact with others. Getting better is every day, every hour, every minute that I choose to love myself. 

And I do. I will! My feelings are valid, I have support, I can call my stepmom and hug my husband and have the kindness of friends or family and I can get better. And no part of me is wrong. 

I am a good person. And nothing - not bipolar disorder, not being a housewife, not childhood trauma, not adult expectations, not my sexuality, not my anger, not the damned price of my pills - can alter the fact that I am worthy of respect, compassion, and that I will return it tenfold.

Tonight is a lazy night - we have a bunch of recorded shows on the DVR, we are going to order a pizza, I'm going to pull on my comfiest pajamas. Though I feel wrung out and hungover from shedding my problems and my fair share of tears today, I am going to enjoy this life with my husband who expects nothing more than my love, respect, companionship, and honesty. He gives it to me in turn. 

I will lie no more, and I will feel shame and guilt no longer. 

I am finished with my bad habits. 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Civilized Society

Years ago, when I first filled my prescription for my bipolar medications, I looked at the retail price and thanked God I had a $60 copay. 

At the time, there was no way I could have afforded the regular price - around $3,000 for three months of incredibly necessary medicine. I was on my parents' insurance plan through the Howard County Public School System, and I have to tell you, that plan was a life saver. It doesn't matter how affluent you are, $3,000 is a lot of money. And it feels like even more when you're paying for the proof of (and hopefully, the solution to) your mental shortcomings. 

This year, I encountered something new - my husband's insurance doesn't cover one of my meds. And boy, it stings - muddling through finances while dealing with insurance companies and prescription plans has been a challenge. Fortunately, G's company has many options for health insurance, and we are going over the open enrollment process with complete attention because we absolutely cannot continue this way; we are lucky that we can cover these costs, but shelling out the kind of money which could pay for rent on a studio apartment? Awful. 

And it's awful not only financially, but on principle, and it's shaming. 

I feel so pitiful when the people at the pharmacy do a double take when they ring up my meds. I know, intellectually, that they are shocked by the price (and I am, too), but I often walk away with my plastic bag of pills feeling like I am the one who is shocking, like I am always the oddity, the problem, sick. I know how lucky I am to have these meds, and I know I am doubly lucky to have found the right blend of pills on the first try, seven years ago. That's almost unheard of when it comes to bipolar disorder - so many others have had to endure countless adjustments to their regimen because medicines don't work, or stop working, or cause worse problems than the symptoms they're trying to manage. So the look of horror on the pharmacist's face is probably worth it - but I come away from the experience feeling like that one little shard of shame, that reminder of how strange I am, the bitter icing on the cake which is bipolar disorder, is terribly unfair. 

People with mental illnesses - we don't need to be told that we don't fit in. We already know. 

If you want to show how healthcare in America is failing, there's no end to the examples, the proof, the stories of individuals and groups who have poor access to minimal care. The systems we have in place - what my stepmother rightly described as insurance companies getting rich off of sick people - aren't adequate, and more often than not leave mentally ill people without appropriate care. Again, I am lucky that (for now) we can afford my meds and my quarterly trips to my psychiatrist, but so many people cannot. I know that when I went to group therapy last winter I might have been paying $200 a day without insurance - and how many people don't have any kind of insurance? I met men and women who had been in the hospital and had no way to pay their bills, and the partial hospitalization program was a bandaid on the wound of being poor because they were ill. 

I'm going to say that again: American citizens are suffering financially and emotionally because they have health problems. American citizens are drained dry - of their money and their pride - because of something they cannot change. 

How can we call ourselves civilized when our health care system leaves us uncared for? How can we survive as a nation when we care so little for our neighbors? How can I accept any idea of equality or the American dream when whole groups of people are marginalized because of the chemicals in their brains?

I read Jezebel regularly, and often find myself scrolling through the comments. The overwhelming consensus of non-American readers is, what the hell is going on in America? They list the prices they pay for the same services I receive and boy, it sure sounds great - I'm so envious that in the United Kingdom or in Canada, someone with bipolar disorder doesn't have to break the bank to get access to care. I read their experiences and question why other civilized countries can afford to help everyone while America, seemingly, can't. What are we doing wrong? Why do we spend so much on healthcare in this country to get so little? It's as if paying for insurance in the US is a massive scheme, a manipulation, a rip-off and a lie. We are paying into a system which does not work. 

I have hopes for the Affordable Care Act and for the recent announcement that mental health and addiction services must be treated the same as physical services. I know there are problems with any new program, but it would be great if America could wake up and take notice of the flaws, the cracks we slip into, the huge populations of the under-served. It would be fantastic if we learned how to be compassionate rather than exclusionary. 

Mentally ill Americans don't need to be reminded that we stick out and need specific care - but we do need that care, and I believe adequate services for everyone benefits society as a whole. I'm sure I don't have to describe the inevitable articles after mass shootings which paint the perpetrator as struggling with mental illness - and while I absolutely do not enjoy being lumped in with murderers I have to admit that an untreated mind is an unstable one. Poor care, financial insecurity, and the knowledge that society doesn't value you? That's a perfect storm of isolation and shame and, sometimes, anger. 

Where do you turn if society looks down on you? What do you do if you're struggling and have nowhere to turn? How can you manage an illness if you can't afford your meds? 

Of course, as usual, I don't have the solution to the problem or many answers to my questions. For now, I'm just trying to find out if there is any insurance plan which will address and cover my needs. I'd like it - no, I'd love it, and it would be a miracle - if we could funnel our money into a down payment on a house rather than on my psychological maintenance. I'd be so happy if I could feel normal, feel recognized and respected, feel like my bipolar disorder is just one part of me rather than my definition. 

I don't need to be told that I am weird. I don't need to get shocked looks from behind the counter at Wegmans. What I do need is to be treated like everyone else. 

What we all need is a civilized society - a society where healthcare is a human right and not a luxury. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Heaven and Hell

Last night was not a good night. 

I've always had delayed reactions to things, and most of the time I don't know what I am reacting to until I have a good cry and then, tired and empty, I figure it out. 

So yesterday was just a regular day - a pretty good one, actually, because I wrote, crafted, cleaned, and cooked, checking things off my productivity list. It was a Tuesday, and there isn't much excitement on Tuesdays, just the regular pattern of living. I thought that nothing was bothering me - in fact, I had gotten through the day before, the anniversary of my Grandpere's death, without any upset. 

Ahh, yes. That was the problem. 

Delayed reactions. 

I've written here at some length about my grandfather, and while I could probably go on and on about him today, I think you might have gotten the general picture of a man of intensity - French pastries, good restaurants, a passion for organs of all sorts, an incredibly valiant (or perhaps, it being my Grandpere, incredibly stubborn) battle with pancreatic cancer. A lover of good grammar, a teacher, a jokester, a person very much in control and running everything. 

He was a good man, who, like all of us, had wonderful qualities as well as his fair share of flaws. 


Thinking about him yesterday, I tried to write a blog post and just couldn't do it. How could I attempt, yet again, to do justice to this powerful figure in my life? I'm not a person of few words (shocking, I know) but still, I couldn't use my many words to describe how I was feeling or what he meant to me. 

I kept on thinking, though, about little details which have stuck with me over the years - not only of his life, but of his years of struggle before his death. I really think that he put death off so he could make sure that we were all going to be okay; he taught me how to balance a checkbook, we sorted through boxes of pictures, he told me about raising a child and about his experiences with and opinions on God. 

The God stuff - that was hard. 

I remember our priest coming over to perform the Eucharist. My grandfather and I were upstairs, Grandpere in his bed, and as the priest said the words and served us wafers and wine I couldn't help myself - I turned away, just for a moment, so that they wouldn't see me cry. 

You'd think that I would be upset with God because he let my Grandpere get sick - and I was, a little, but now I've realized that death is a necessary part of living, and without my grandfather's illness and passing, I would not have learned a lot of valuable lessons. Without it, Grandpere might not have told me all the stories he wanted to pass down, and I would be the poorer for it. Some of the stories and lessons were difficult, deeply personal. Some of the stories I needed to hear, and some of them he really needed to tell. 

One story keeps going 'round my head, has been since Monday. 

Grandpere told me about a woman in his life - and I don't remember quite who she was, other than a relative from long ago - who was a good, Christian woman. She went to church regularly and was very devout. In itself, that's not a terribly remarkable story, but what Grandpere told me next has stuck with me. He said that she, despite her apparent commitment to the church (and very much shocking my grandfather as a boy), didn't believe in heaven or hell. 

She said that heaven and hell didn't matter, as long as one lived a good life of compassion, charity, love. 

For myself, I never wanted to believe in that kind of afterlife. Reincarnation made a whole lot more sense to me, because I couldn't imagine any God who would be so unforgiving, so spiteful, as to disavow any of his children. Hell seemed like a fairy tale to me - the bogeyman, keeping you in line, threatening retribution for unkind acts, sins, hatred. And still, I'm not big on the idea of hell, because I don't think that God would reject any one of his creations; it makes much more sense to me that all of us have many opportunities to learn and improve, many lifetimes in which to make better choices.

I didn't believe in heaven, then, either. 

Until my Grandpere died. 

How comforting it is to think that our loved ones can watch down on us, that we can talk to them, late at night in the dark when we can't sleep. How lovely to imagine that there is a place, a real place, of no pain - a place where we all can go to be reunited with the people we miss most. How fantastic to think of a God, a loving God, waiting to embrace us. 

A place of Victorian couches and as many French pastries as we can eat. 

A place with organ music. 

A place where I can see him again.

But there's something niggling at the back of my mind, a squirming thing of discomfort and doubt and betrayal. Maybe I still am angry at God for letting Grandpere get sick - and I know I am angry, very angry, that God would make me live my life with mental illness. 

As I was talking with my husband last night, finally crying and working through what was bothering me, I said, 

"I want to believe that my Grandpere is in Heaven. But how can I believe in Heaven and a loving God when God is such a jerk?" 

Note for honesty: I did not say jerk. I will admit that my language got rather blue.

But isn't that the truth? The thing all people of faith struggle with, the thorn in our feet, the torn pages of our prayer book? Why me, God, and, how could you do this? If we imagine the anthropomorphic God, the God of icons and Christ and gendered pronouns, then God really is a huge jerk - and I, for one, would not want to be his friend. It's so difficult to separate the male, gilded, person-like God from what we are supposed to believe: otherworldly power, vision, and love. 

A power which is powerless over the natural order of life. A power which somehow lets us get sick, be sad, and die. 

I've been struggling with my faith for quite some time, for a lot of reasons. God is hard to reach, now, because the treatment for my bipolar disorder takes away a lot of my perceived connection with the divine: no more euphoria, no more passionate relationship with someone I can't see, no more feelings of completion at Mass. It's difficult to describe what it feels like to be mentally ill and a believer - let me just say that faith is very easy when you feel disconnected from reality and tuned in to the glory of creation. 

I've been struggling with my faith because damn it, my Grandpere was too young. The heck with you, you jerk, who took him away. 

This post doesn't have any answers. I haven't figured this out, probably never will. God is not a person who you can touch and blame and kick in the shins. I can't expect a conversation with him - I have many words, and God has none. Sometimes I pray. I usually pray to Grandpere. 

Even knowing Grandpere's flaws - rigidity, control issues, anger, and a singular mistrust of my bipolar disorder diagnosis - I miss the hell out of him. He's the one I talk to at night, and I just have to live with the cognitive dissonance which is praying and being mad at God and wishing He were real and not necessarily believing that He is. 

I don't know how to solve this problem - the God who is careless with the lives of his children. The God who gave me bipolar disorder. The God that everybody talks about as being so nice but who is a big fat jerk. I'm trying to let it all go, but the process of figuring this stuff out is endless. 

Five years and a handful of days ago, we had to say goodbye to Grandpere. Seven years ago I started treatment and had to say goodbye to God. 

Is there a Heaven? I don't know, I really don't. 

I hope there is. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

On Rage and Writing

One of the best parts of having a quartet of parents, as well as a large group of in-laws, family, and friends, is always having moments of support and inspiration. 

Yesterday, I have to admit, I did not write. Not one single word. What I did do, though, was spend most of the day with my mom and sister. Days with family are so precious to me - made even more valuable, I think, because I remember so clearly being a teenager, going through that difficult period of distancing which, while natural, is fairly unpleasant. I think you probably know what I mean: being that age comes with a fair amount of hubris (I know better than you, Mom), denial (Ugh, Mom, you just don't get me!), and a longing for the easy rapport of childhood (Mom, why don't you understand me anymore?). 

That was a rough patch. A very long, rough patch, an adolescence during which I experienced the normal growing up stuff as well as the manifestations of bipolar disorder. So, when I was diagnosed at nineteen and went home to live with my family, I was relieved not only to be thinking more clearly through therapy and medication, but also to find myself redeveloping a close, friendly relationship with my parents. 

All of this is to bring me back to yesterday, when my mom and I waited for my sister to come home and talked for an hour. 

We discussed a lot of things, many of which I am still mulling over and reconsidering, which I believe is the hallmark of good conversation. Something stuck with me, though, as I attempted to pick up the iPad and return to my daily practice this morning and found myself rusty and intimidated (yes, even after one day): 

What is my relationship with writing?

And, beyond that seemingly simple question, there are more:

How does my bipolar disorder interact with a continued practice? 

What habits have I developed - maybe procrastination, insecurity, guilt over things undone?

How can I view my disorder as natural, or even a gift, when it comes to creativity?

That last, I think, is very important. Yesterday, I found myself describing to my mother what I've come to think of as a predictable cycle - muted by meds and therapy, but still characterized by ups and downs. 

I've usually got about two months in each cycle, and it has become routine enough that I know what's going to happen and when. First comes a week or so of recovery, getting back into the swing of things, as it were, with a daily goal or inspiration, whether it be cleaning or writing or crafting. Then comes a week, or if I am lucky, two, of intense activity. 

I feel like, at this point, I should briefly define mania. Wikipedia, of course, has a whole article on the subject, but the most relevant tidbits to me are as follows: mania is characterized by abnormally elevated moods and energy levels; it is, sometimes, the opposite of depression; bipolar disorder can only be diagnosed if mania is present; the word, mania, derives from the Greek word which means madness and frenzy, and its verb form, "to be mad, to rage, to be furious."

My post earlier this week held clear examples of that second stage. I wrote 20,066 words in seven days. I mean, come on, if that isn't mania, I don't know what is. Obviously my mania now as opposed to the unchecked highs of my teenage years is a bit different - before, it was usually mixed, with a lot of pain tangled up in my creativity. Now, I charge head first into an activity and keep going, spending whole days completely invested in creating things (hair ornaments, workout plans, recipes, novels, poetry collections, you name it). And those days are very happy days. 

And then it tapers off - it all gets a bit more difficult, and those things I had been enjoying so effortlessly become an obligation. Slogging through something you love but which somehow has become dull, challenging, is a lot different than being able to achieve lofty goals without even trying. 

And then, the slump. I still get stuff done, sure, but I feel stupid and insecure and frivolous. 

And then I get back on the roller coaster and start it all again. 

I have to say I feel a bit nutty in describing this so publicly - I feel like this post needs a big disclaimer - I am not a crazy person, or, I am actually quite stable, thanks. But I think this is all important considering my questions on creativity and my experiences with inspiration and daily practice.  

Bringing all of those factors back to my conversation with my mother - an open, honest exchange of ideas, emotions, and support - I still find myself worrying over this cycle and how it can be turned from an involuntary process into a wonderful catalyst for my creative life. In other words, just because I know a slump is coming doesn't mean that I have to view my elevated moods as an inevitable symptom of mental illness. Rather, I could see myself as lucky that I am able to achieve in a week what might take a month or two had I not bipolar disorder. 

And the support I receive from family and friends during my productive phases - linked though it is to progress on a novel or my business - actually carries over into the days when I am not as energized, not as frenzied. My parents and grandparents, husband and in-laws, close friends and acquaintances, don't stop cheering for me when I find it difficult to cheer for myself. 

Again, I find myself thinking that I am lucky, because even in slumps and feelings of foolishness I know I can achieve things and I know that there are always people ready with kind words and affection. 

So maybe, when trying to answer the question of how my disorder is part and parcel of my creativity, I can view the chemicals of my brain not as a curse but as an incredible gift which allows me to make new things and strengthen my relationships with the people I love most. 

This morning I looked at the ever increasing document holding my romance novel and had a moment of thinking, can I really do this? It was so easy two days ago, so why is it intimidating today? Isn't this all a bit of silliness rather than a worthwhile piece of fiction?  

But then I remembered what I had talked about with my mother, how I had told her that I was trying to use my cycle of ups and downs to my advantage. And, though I didn't type out the four thousand or so words I had been able to just a few days before, I got in four more pages. It wasn't easy. But I did it. 

As always, I'm trying to remind myself that having bipolar disorder - that it's not all that I am. Even in slumps I can still call myself a writer, the founder of a home business, a pianist, a cook, and the handful of other things I enjoy and practice. And I remind myself that my bipolar disorder can be a source of great inspiration and happiness and achievement. 

And I am grateful, so grateful, to the people who help me with their support - on good days, bad days, and days of madness and fury. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Fun, Pleasure, and Writing a Novel

Let me tell you - after six days and sixty-three pages, it surprises no one more than myself that I am writing a romance novel. 

The romance genre is pretty well known for unmitigated dreck, I think. We've all seen the paperbacks by the checkout - you know, bosoms and fluffy shirts and handsome princes with long, flowing hair. I've tried reading some traditional romance novels, and most of the time I couldn't get through them without giggling, or couldn't get through them at all. I'm not trying to make light of any writer's work, of course - after four years of training in "literary fiction," and after realizing that in general, that's not what people wanted to read, I've come to the conclusion that every writer, as long as they are having fun writing, deserves the space and respect to practice their craft. 

I admit, I have, in the past, said some pretty negative things about popular fiction. As much as I am grateful for the education I received from Hopkins, I also graduated with a healthy dose of snootiness, which I very much regret. I was unpleasant about a lot of books, and it took me a while to unclench my snobbery to realize the value of, a) reading for fun, and, b) writing for pleasure. 

This is not to say that I had never read anything other than literary fiction. Far from it. 

My teenage years were filled with fantasy novels, primarily, and (I'll come totally clean here) quite a lot of Harry Potter fanfiction. 

Like, a lot. A lot. 

I read and adored Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel novels, which were filled with adventure and romance, the alternate-history heroine trekking the globe and saving the world. I pored over them multiple times - still do, in fact, because I read all nine books set in that universe at least once a year - and I wanted to be a part of that world of language and rescues and pretty solid chunks of naughty stuff. 

What can I say? I was fifteen. 

I regularly read what one might call, "transformative works," a fancy name for fanfiction, until four in the morning. Hermione Granger in Rome, Cairo, Paris; Severus Snape and his pet snake, Esmé; Draco Malfoy, polyjuiced into a rat with a penchant for dancing to the Beatles.


And not for one minute, when I was that age, did I stop myself and turn up my nose and think, ugh, what dreck. 

That reaction I learned later. 

As I said, I've been trying to break that habit. Slowly but surely I've turned back to genre fiction and honestly, I've been enjoying the heck out of it. Some series I return to again and again, some I drop (oh, Anita Blake, what happened to you?), some I start up because my husband gets into them. 

I'm lucky to have a stepmom who loves genre fiction and has always wanted to share it with me. She bought me my first copy of The Golden Compass (long gone, now, which is what happens when you read in the bath) and let me borrow The Mists of Avalon (which I also should not have read in the bath). 

I'm lucky to have a husband who has always read different kinds of books - some science fiction, some thriller, some espionage, some mystery - and who possesses not one bit of pretension. Without him, I never would have read the Camel Club series, or the Dresden novels. 

But I never thought I could write genre. Part of that was the attitudes of the JHU writing program, and part of it was my own insecurity - I think that because I loved genre novels, really loved them, I was convinced that I would never be able to live up to Carey, Hamilton, Pullman, Bradley, Baldacci, Butcher. 

So, you know, I fooled around with James Joyce's language. I tried to call upon Chekhov's understated pain and humor. And it just - 

It wasn't fun. 

I think I probably wrote sixty pages and more at Hopkins - but all different pieces, all shorts. I'd try to start a novel occasionally and ended up staring at my computer screen, stumped. I loved writing, but it wasn't something I could power through or a level of energy I could maintain; I think I wrote well, but I didn't write for myself. I couldn't get out of my own head - almost everything I wrote was semi-biographical, and if I thought I was being subtle I was, I'm sure, very naive and completely transparent. 

That brings me to today. Because for the first time, I'm not writing about myself, and I'm not writing because I have to. 

I'm writing for fun. 

Writing is awesome. 

So what I'm writing now - it could definitely be called "dreck." But I'm enjoying the hell out of it, and I'm starting to form a new relationship with my writing which is revealing what I want to write, want to share. 

The books and fic I loved as a kid - they're about relationships. Yes, there's action and plot and drama in all of them, but even the Camel Club series is about friendship and the inter-connected emotional lives of fully fleshed out characters. A lot of the relationships I enjoyed reading about were - what's the word - unconventional? Whether through magic or sexuality, the people in my favorite books had complicated lives and complicated loves. 

If you think 50 Shades is weird, you should look at some of the stuff on my bookshelf. 

And, even, if all goes well, read my novel. 

So yeah, I'm writing some pretty out there stuff, and if I were back at school and tried to turn it in, it would not go over well, to say the least. Part of me is a bit embarrassed about it - this is so not how I thought I would reach 16,000 words and counting - but another part is pretty happy because spending four hours a day or more on romance is a lot better than staring at a blank computer screen, trying to sound like Dostoyevsky. (Though my stuff has always leaned towards the Henry Miller side of things.)

Tomorrow, I will have been writing every day for an entire week. I'm hoping to hit 20,000 words before I head out for a night on the town with my best friend, raise a toast to myself for sticking with it. 

And I'm hoping to just keep having fun. 

And maybe, this time next year, I can turn this weird, out there, magical, genre, romance novel into a book by the checkout. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013


I love being a big sister. 

Yesterday I was able to chaperone a group of kids, including my sister and one of her best friends, on a trip to the Pennsylvania Renaissance Festival. Now, if you know anything about me, you probably knew or could have guessed that I am a huge renfaire geek - so naturally sis and I were dressed up in garb and ready to roll. 

This baffled a lot of children - I can't tell you how many people asked me for directions at the faire, or whether I worked there. The idea that a grownup could dress up for fun was utterly mystifying to a lot of these kids. Most of them had never been to a renaissance festival before, and I think they couldn't imagine a world in which adults wanted to pretend for a day. It made me think about expectations - my experience growing up led me to believe that dressing up was not only enjoyable but sometimes mandatory (see my Anglican priests in their gold-tinged vestments). These kids didn't have the same experiences, so their expectation of what adults do was entirely different from mine. 

But these kids had expectations of their own. 

When I was little, going to the faire, I heard a lot of things, from recorders to hammered dulcimers to cannon blast and gunshots. I knew the music and I knew what blank ammunition sounded like. It scared me at first, sure, to see a man pull out a pistol and shoot somebody (who of course, didn't bleed) but soon enough I figured out that it was pretend, just like their costumes and renfaire personas. 

The kids I watched over yesterday initially found that music boring, but when they heard the gunshots, the cannons, they immediately stopped talking. Some of them ducked. Some of them hit the ground as if their lives depended on it. 

I am not exaggerating. These reactions were those kids' expectations - this was what you were supposed to do. 

As for me, I felt a shiver of foreboding when I saw that these children - elementary and middle schoolers - already knew how to react to the sound of a gunshot. Not just foreboding - maybe even shame. Because a world in which children have any understanding of this kind of violence means that we have failed them, that we have created a space of constant danger and fear. A space they live in every day. 

How many times do we have to explain to our children what's happening on the news? How many duck and cover drills, how many shelter in place routines do they have to endure before it becomes normal or even expected? I remember my first shelter in place experience - and it wasn't when I was little, but when I was teaching. A classroom full of first graders huddled away from the doors and windows, utterly silent, and none of them were moved by it but I most certainly was. They grew up with it, were growing up in a world of school shootings, domestic violence, domestic terrorism. 

Was I naive, as a little girl, to not think that this stuff could happen to me - or was I just incredibly lucky?

Some people might look at the kids I was chaperoning and assume - because of their economic backgrounds, their race, whatever - that they were naturally exposed to more violence. Statistics of urban gun crimes are thrown out there by common citizens and politicians as an explanation of why gun control doesn't work, as if there's a class of people (read: usually poor, usually minority) who just have to accept, just have to take the blame for pathetic gun laws and routine apathy. As if being Black, or being poor, or being generally disenfranchised and disrespected meant that gun violence was normal. 

As if it were expected. 

But I'll tell you now, those kids were more influenced by school shootings than by "urban gun violence." It wasn't just some subset of kids who got quiet and scared - it was all of them. All of them were living in a world of violent expectations. 

And that's what scares me. 

Those people who allow and even, by their inaction, endorse gun violence in the lives of little children can't see what happens to those kids. Can't see that they are good kids - that my sister's best friend loved the storyline at the faire and couldn't wait to go home so that she could play pretend and shout, "God save the Queen!" with her dolls the way she had been coached by actresses in pretty dresses. They can't see a group of kids from every background run up onstage to dance to the recorder and guitar - even though they had never heard that kind of music before, even though people were watching. They won't allow themselves to notice that these little people who spend their dollars on fake, furry mustaches and run around still wanting to play dress up are the same little people who live in a world of Columbine and Sandy Hook and who know how to duck when they hear gunshots. 

Expectations. How did I end up with garb, and they ended up with violence? 

I love being a big sister - wouldn't trade it for the world. I just wish that I could turn back the clock for this generation of children and bring them into a world without school shootings, mall shootings, movie theatre shootings. And I wish, so much, that our lawmakers could help to make that happen. 

We had a great day at the faire, and I can't help but think that maybe things would be better if I could have kept all those kids there, where bullets were blanks and cannons shot fireworks. 

Thursday, September 26, 2013


My last blog post was rife with the word, bodies. 

And I can't quite get that out of my head. 

When I was my sister's age, I was a Style Channel devotee. This was back in the halcyon days when said channel actually addressed fashion - more often than not, I could turn on the television and see actual runway shows. I was thirteen - I liked to sketch out costumes and leather corsets and replicas of period drama's full skirts and luscious curves. 

I was thirteen. I went to a private school where everyone knew about that one girl who was in the hospital for an undisclosed eating disorder, where buying uniforms was parting with hundreds of dollars and seeing a girl in the mirror who wanted to be an extra small. 

There are so many threads to that tangle, so many little bits of life which eventually form disordered eating. Believe it or not, most women endure some element of disordered eating - and how can we not? Thinking about those models and clothes on the Style Channel, thinking about advertisements with thin women eating fat free yogurt and giggling, thinking about the picture on the packaging of a bathroom scale, stuck permanently on 125 pounds - how can we not be disordered, even a little bit? 

But of course, there's so much more than that.

I know that food was always a challenge for me. I had an allergy we hadn't discovered, so eating often resulted in stomach problems. We had a limited budget, and while my parents definitely tried to (and succeeded in) putting food on the table I knew, despite my young age, that food was money, that money was a problem, that Chinese takeout meant a paycheck and red beans and rice didn't. Not eating seemed easier. 

And being popular was a challenge. I had never been overweight one day of my life, but once I got to middle school I learned hard lessons - I learned that I was terrible at sports (fat), that my body (as yet undeveloped) needed a bra to be acceptable (fat), that the pretty girls wore small uniforms (fat), that girls got more attention by passing out with hunger than by adeptly analyzing poetry (fat). I went to a very well known private school for girls, and the number one lesson I learned was the calorie count of yogurt in the cafeteria and how to get all of those pretty girls to ask me how to lose weight. Because, well, I did. I think that's the one thing I did perfectly. 

Going to high school? I was so excited because no one would be able to know when I didn't eat. I saw myself, somehow grown up between eighth grade and ninth, slugging back espresso and talking with friends and never letting on, never revealing, never showing that I stayed up late to eat Frosted Flakes at midnight because sugar was the only thing which kept me going. I'd stick to my ten grams of fat per day and eat cereal in the dark because no one, no one could see me eat. 

My mom just posted a brilliant piece on underage drinking in Howard County. It garnered a lot of attention, and rightly so. Underage drinking - or, more worrying to me, binge drinking - is a huge issue for people my sister's age and a bit older, and I applaud her for tackling such an important problem. But - or rather, and - there are other things I worry about. 

My sister has never been overweight a day in her life. 

I've been through a lot - I've done the underage drinking thing with gusto, I've made mistakes with boys, I've self-harmed, I've been through bipolar disorder and keep going through it. I've done drugs (very, very minimally, and very much as a youthful reaction to my disorder) and I've been pretty stupid about a lot of things. But there's this terror which I can't shake and which I pray to God will never touch my sister, and that's eating cereal in the middle of the night because somewhere in the back of your mind you know that if you don't you might die. 

I didn't want to die. I wanted to live for my sister, then just born, because I didn't want the last thing she saw of me to be a picture of my too-thin body. A body which didn't even look like me. A body which fit in with the Style Channel and yogurt and scales but not with my incredible love for her. 

But I wouldn't eat. 

That's what scares me - and I'm scared of all of it, too, the drinking, the Adderall, the Oxy, the boyfriends, the girlfriends, the bullying, the rape, the hate crimes, even the freaking internet - but I'm so, so scared of my beautiful baby, my literal life saver, thinking that she is fat. 

Maybe we could de-stigmatize bodies. Maybe a girl of thirteen could buy uniforms in a medium and know that she would grow into them perfectly. Maybe we could keep our daughters out of hospitals and model whole body and mental health. Maybe the image on the box can show a scale reading a higher number, or lots of numbers, or just a smile; maybe we can have all sorts of bodies on runways, bodies of different shapes and different colors with thick or thin hair and muscles and yeah, a little fat. 

Maybe we could also do away with this image of what women are supposed to be, or what real women are supposed to be. Imagine - we could be moms and sisters and grandmas and aunts and not hate our bodies like we've been taught and instead teach our children to love theirs. We could be naturally thin or naturally not and have it all be okay, have our daughters and sisters and granddaughters and nieces see us as we are, beautiful. See themselves as beautiful. 

I remember what it was like to be thirteen, and I wouldn't wish that on anybody. What I do wish? 

I wish that my sister had better role models than the people on the Style Channel. Or on Nickelodeon. Or on Disney. 

I wish I could be her role model and finally, finally, feel like my body is something to be loved.