The Zen of Lawn Care

This past weekend, I decided to tackle a project I had been putting off for weeks. Saturday morning I got up early, made coffee, put on enough clothing to not be indecent, and went outside to make my backyard more presentable. If it were up to me, I might let the yard go completely wild and see what plants choose to make their home there. But, there’s a rule in my renter’s agreement that states I am responsible for cutting the grass.

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Contained wilderness.

To be fair, my lawn is not huge by any stretch of the imagination. And, my property management company provided me with a manual push mower when I moved in six years ago.

Mower

I sharpened the blades myself and still have all of my fingers.

I think I used this potentially hazardous contraption once or twice after I moved in. That same summer, while I was working on my MFA, writing my first novel, adjusting to life in my hometown after living in a city for 16 years, learning the ropes at a new job, figuring out how to get divorced, becoming a single parent, and dealing with the inevitability of my dad’s death, I got a call from my property management company because they thought my grass was too high. No, seriously. Someone who works for them literally drives around checking to see if people are cutting their grass. After cursing a blue streak about how fucking ridiculous it is to hold ADULTS accountable for cutting grass on some imaginary timeline, I came to my senses and accepted the fact that I couldn’t possibly do all of the things I was juggling AND care about lawn maintenance. The height of your grass shouldn’t be cause for anxiety. If it is, you may want to re-examine your life and look for another source of meaning.

For most of the time I have lived in this house, I have paid a man in my neighborhood $10 a week to cut my grass. Albert, and usually one of his sons, would show up bright and early on a Saturday or Sunday morning (depending on Albert’s full-time job schedule) and mow the lawn in about 10-15 minutes. They’d cut the grass, whack weeds along the fence, and occasionally make suggestions about what should or shouldn’t be allowed to grow in my yard.

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My backyard is essentially a plush carpet of weeds.

One of my favorite plants that grows wild in my yard each year, is morning glory. According to Wikipedia, the species growing in my backyard is the Ipomoea nil, or Japanese Morning Glory.

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A staple of unintentional urban gardening.

I look forward to seeing the lush green leaves and dainty purple flowers each year. According to the website Useful Tropical Plants, “Japanese morning glory is a climbing, herbaceous annual or perennial plant producing stems that either twine into other plants for support or sprawl along the ground.”

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Not only is this plant lovely, but it obscures the view of the neighbors I dislike.

The Japanese Morning Glory lives in harmony next to another weed that grows in my yard: Pokeweed. The dark purple, almost black berries complement the purple flowers and I enjoy watching the snaking tendrils entwine themselves with the pokeweed that grows 3 – 4 feet high next to my fence.

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These berries are poisonous. No matter how delicious they look, do not eat them

One year, Albert decided that I didn’t need these beautiful wild plants and used a weed killer to destroy most of the growth. I typically don’t plant anything in my yard, except in pots — flowers or herbs. So, after he sprayed the toxic plant killer, my yard looked barren. I got really pissed about it, because he didn’t ask me if I wanted him to do it. He assumed he knew better than me and made a decision about MY yard. It was the gardening equivalent of mansplaining. The following year, I told him to just cut the grass and trim the borders of the yard. He asked me three times if I was sure.

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This year, I decided not to make use of his services. Now, it’s up to me to cut the grass, weed, rake, and whatever else I need to do to avoid a phone call from my stupid property management company.

I spent nearly 4 hours in my backyard on Saturday. Using the manual push mower was extra work, and I began to think about the fact that there isn’t anyone else in my life to share the day-to-day labor. I feel the same way every time I have to shovel the sidewalk and dig out my car after a big snow. I often think that it would be nice to have someone to help me, or just do those things for me. But, as I worked my mind wandered. It wandered through the usual things I worry about. It wandered through fears I have about possible futures. And then, my mind wandered into the realm of questions and creativity. It occurred to me that I usually drown out my own thoughts with background noise like music, audio books, or the TV. Saturday, I chose not to listen to outside noise and listened to my own thoughts instead.

I tried to remember the dreams I’d had the night before. I thought about possible story arcs for my next book. I thought about how fortunate I am to be meeting so many new and interesting people, and why I believe some of them were sent to me so I can learn more about myself and grow. (Thank you, Universe.) I thought about why I’m not making more of an effort to take better care of myself. I thought about how the hell I was going to write all the things I’ve agreed to write over the past few weeks and months. And, I thought about the fact that there are so many opportunities ahead of me — personally, professionally, and creatively. I thought about adapting a series of paranormal romances I’ve been trying to finish into a graphic novel or comic series that an artist friend of mine would illustrate. I thought about how excited I am about attending my first Camp Necon in July. I thought about what I would talk about with my friend Megan if we started a podcast. I thought about making drapes. I thought about applying what I had learned from Marie Kondo in order to lighten my material object load. I thought about first kisses and the awkwardness of being naked with someone for the first time. I thought about how wonderful and terrifying the prospect of falling in love can be.

And, I thought about my grandfather. I thought about all the hours he spent taking care of his own lawn. I thought about how much time he must have spent alone with his own thoughts. I wondered if he used that time to solve problems, or gain a better understanding of the people he loved and the world around him. I wondered if all that time working with his hands, caring for his own yard, alone with his thoughts, was the reason he always seemed to have such amazing insight into human behavior. I thought about how much I miss him, and I wondered if he would be proud of my accomplishments. I shed a few tears, and then I got back to work.

When I was done, I treated myself to a beer like my grandfather used to do, and enjoyed the beauty of my freshly mowed and weeded lawn.

Beer

I think I inadvertently created a sacred space.

My lawn will never be immaculate enough to be featured in Better Homes and Gardens, but it’s a space where I can think and work with my hands until I am too tired to do anything else. Something I had been dreading and putting off became one of the best meditative experiences I’ve had in a long time. I made peace with my thoughts and feelings, and completed a task that left me with a real sense of accomplishment. I’m sure there’s a lesson in there somewhere about finishing writing projects.

An Open Letter to Men on Dating Sites

As some of you know, I decided to dip my toes into the dating pool once again back in December. This isn’t my first foray into the wilds of online dating, and given the nature of my experiences, it probably won’t be my last.

In the time I have spent using dating apps to meet new people, I have noticed certain behaviors that either make me laugh, want to cry, or burn down the entire Internet depending on my emotional state.

Feelings

Before I launch into a psychotic tirade about the bizarre mating rituals of human males, I’d like to take a moment to address the men I am dating, have dated, and potentially will date. First, and foremost, thank you for being decent human beings (this is not true for some of you, and you know who you are…if you don’t, it isn’t my responsibility to enlighten you). If I have gone on more than one date with you and continue to maintain contact with you after we are no longer dating, that’s a good sign that you are “one of the good ones.” At some point in time, you have added something positive to my life and I have learned and grown from knowing you. If you are reading this and you haven’t heard from me in quite some time, it’s probably because you are dead to me.

Not Hearing

Now, on with the tirade…

I’ve been thinking about writing this blog post for quite a while and in the process of thinking about what to cover and the tone I should use, I’ve spoken to a few friends who have also tried online dating. A close friend of mine is also currently wading through the dating pool, and on a regular basis we compare notes. This is especially true if the same man is interested in both of us. We laugh about it because our tastes are so different that we’d never need to worry about being in competition for the same dude.

A few months ago, when I began this process of meeting new people, another friend of mine joked about needing a dating resume after I expressed some of my frustrations about how difficult it is to find what I’m looking for in potential partners. At the time, it seemed like an absurd idea but the more I think about it, your dating profile is essentially a resume. And, first dates aren’t that different from job interviews. Except, you don’t usually get drunk during a job interview. And, I’m not suggesting that you should get drunk on a first date, but it happens sometimes.

If, after getting drunk on your first date, you get the chance at a second date, hopefully that person has enough of a sense of humor to accept that you don’t remember everything you talked about at that first meeting. Which will help you decide if you’d like a third date with this person.

Okay, maybe that wasn’t a tirade. But, stick around. I promise one is coming.

Dear Men on Dating Sites,

Hello! Thank you for your interest. Here are a few things I think you should know about me and why I’m swiping left on your profile.

First, I’m a bit cynical and have a rather dark sense of humor.

Humor

My response to the following question should clue you into these facts about me.

What I’m actually looking for…? A handsome alpha werewolf who owns his own home and business.

Yes. That exact sentence appears on one of my dating profiles. Clearly, this is meant in jest. However, several men have asked me to explain my response and have gone so far as to view the fact that they are not a werewolf as a strike against them. They aren’t wrong. I mean, who doesn’t want to date a handsome werewolf?

When I’m not fantasizing about sexy fictional characters, I’m actually looking for kind people who are able to appreciate my weirdness and hopefully recognize the kindness in me. Along with kindness, I’m looking for intelligent people who have something interesting to talk about. If you are actively pursuing your goals, creating something with your hands or mind (or both), and having a positive influence on the world around you, then even better.

wrongmf

I’m seeking comfortable intimacy. I want to talk about things that matter. I want to be held and kissed. I want to go on dates that become the inspiration for stories I’ll write in the future. I want someone to push my boundaries and encourage me to accomplish my goals. I want someone who will allow me to explore their body and mind without fear or the need to constantly be in control. I am seeking someone who thinks vanilla sex can be nice but doesn’t want it to be the norm.

Before we go any further, I need you to understand that the last statement in the paragraph above is not an open invitation for you to send me pictures of your favorite kink. Nor is it a thumbs up for you to send me dick pics. I’m not opposed to you sharing these educational materials with me, but only if you have my permission.

Thank you. Please continue.

Here’s who I am NOT looking for…

  1. Conservative Christians. Do I really need to explain why I’m not interested in dating a conservative Christian? If you aren’t sure, here’s one of my older blog posts that might help you figure that out. Praise Satan!Satan
  2. Collectors. Ultimately, I am seeking my person. A partner who is committed to building a life with me. Someone who takes a liking to me and decides to stay in my life for the foreseeable future. But, while I’m looking for that person, I’m not opposed to various flavors of non-monogamous relationships. However, if you are dating so many people that you need to refer to a spreadsheet to figure out when you can see me, I’m not interested. I do not wish to be part of your harem, and I am not part of the expansion package for your marriage.Deeply-Nin
  3. Racists. If you include the following statement in your profile, don’t be surprised if women aren’t dying to meet you: Willing to date outside my race. I also recommend avoiding any language that fetishizes women of color. Telling me you’ve always wanted to have sex with a (insert racist comment) isn’t a compliment. We’re now in the realm of microaggressions and straight up racism.Racist
  4. Perverts. If your profile picture resembles a glory hole, you aren’t looking to meet people for meaningful connections. And, I’m not sure if a dating app is really the most appropriate place for you to meet people. I recommend hanging out in the parking lots of truck stops and deserted rest areas.
  5. Serial Killers. I realize this seems like a crazy thing to mention, but some of the profile pictures men choose to share on dating apps leads me to believe they are comfortable with their lifestyle of meeting people, murdering them, and whatever else they do with the corpses before holding a quick roadside funeral. For example, if you pose for a photo while wearing your best suit and holding an assault rifle, after I’m done laughing hysterically, I’m going to swipe left. I understand the need for anonymity at times but if your profile picture is you wearing a clown mask, we won’t be meeting. And, thanks for the nightmares.

    Serial killer

    Actual profile picture from OKCupid.

  6. Hipster Know-It-Alls. If you’re in your 20s or 30s and your list of interests matches mine or possibly my grandfather’s, please don’t presume to know more than me about something we share in common. I mean, you’re cute and your beard is glorious but please don’t attempt to school me on the history of American music and how it influenced the British Invasion. I may not know everything, but I was raised on a steady diet of Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, the Mersyside Sound, Al Green, Little Richard, Otis Redding, Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, Robert Gordon, The Stray Cats and the Rockabilly gods that influenced them. I grew up in the 70s listening to radio stations that played entire album sides. On vinyl. I owned a rather extensive collection of music on vinyl that ranged from New Romantics to Punk to Post Modern and proto-Goth, with a healthy dose of British bands popular in the 80s. Please don’t speak to me like I’m stupid.Mansplain
  7. Trophy Hunters. If you have a picture in your profile where you’re wearing camouflage that isn’t government-issued or holding a dead animal, I’m swiping left. There’s only one kind of hunter I’m interested in.Winchesters
  8. The Tragically Boring. If your profile pictures consist of staged shots of you and your bros playing golf, drinking beer, hanging out with skinny white women, running a marathon, or getting pumped at the gym, I’m sorry to say that your profile is no different from the last 20 I swiped left on. Please make yourself sound interesting even if you don’t think you are. Everyone has at least one skill, experience, or goal that makes them stand out from the crowd. Tell me that story.

As many of my friends (and people I have dated) can attest, not all of my dating experiences have been bad. I’ve met some interesting people who I genuinely like and care about. But finding them often feels like looking for a needle in a pile of needles. I’m going to keep meeting people until hopefully, I find my person. I’m not sure I believe that there is only one person out there waiting for me to find them, but I’d like to think there are people out there who are interested in building something more meaningful that lasts longer than a few dates.

fuck-off

Eventually, I will add to this list of what I’m NOT looking for as I continue my journey through the realm of unknown expectations and vague statements about personality traits. So, wish me luck. And wish all the weirdos out there on dating apps luck. I’m rooting for them, but I’m not meeting them for drinks.

Demons

Invisible Chains: My Debut Novel

Michelle-LaneFor those of you who missed the news, my debut novel, Invisible Chains, will be released into the world July 22, 2019 by Haverhill House Publishing. If you’re as excited about this news as I am, you can pre-order a copy on Amazon, and while you’re there, you can check out my fancy new Amazon Author Page. Even though I’ve had my short fiction published, having my first novel published makes me feel like a bonafide author. See, I even have an author photo.

That’s great, Michelle, but what is your book about?

I’m glad you asked.

Jacqueline is a young Creole slave in antebellum New Orleans.  An unusual stranger who has haunted her dreams since childhood comes to stay as a guest in her master’s house. Soon after his arrival, members of the household die mysteriously, and Jacqueline is suspected of murder.  Despite her fear of the stranger, Jacqueline befriends him and he helps her escape. While running from the slave catchers, they meet conjurers, a loup-garou, and a traveling circus of supernatural freaks.  She relies on ancestral magic to guide her and finds strength to conquer her fears on her journey.

Oh, and here is the beautiful cover art designed by the very talented Errick Nunnally.

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As many of you know, writing can be a difficult and solitary pursuit. And, if your goal is to have your work published, the stages of writing, editing, rewriting, editing again, and submitting can feel like a never-ending climb up a hill while pushing a giant rock covered in your own entrails. Plus, if you submit and get nothing but rejections it sometimes seems like a good idea to just give up and find a different way to torture yourself.

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Can I tell you a secret? I’m glad I didn’t give up.

Believe me, I thought about giving up. I thought about giving up a lot. But this story lived inside me for a long time and it refused to be abandoned. This multi-genre slave narrative began its life as a short story back in the early 2000s and had a very different ending. That short story shared space on a thumb drive, untouched  with other abandoned writing projects, for several years. I mean, I would pull it out from time to time and read it but I never did anything with it until I applied to the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction (WPF) program at Seton Hill University (SHU).

Attending SHU was one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made. And, one of the scariest. At 40, I was completely dissatisfied with my life. I had a job I was on the verge of burning out on, I was unhappily married, and I was primarily responsible for raising my son who had begun to show signs of behavioral problems at daycare and school. I was the primary bread winner, I took care of the house, paid the bills, maintained social connections with friends and family, and one day I realized I was living my life for other people instead of living it for myself.

I began making a mental inventory of the things that brought me joy, and at the top of that list was writing. Writing was something I had done all my life. And, when I was writing I was happier. I started unearthing some of my unfinished short stories and realized they weren’t terrible. And then, I wondered what would happen if I took myself seriously as a writer. I made the decision to apply to SHU after asking a friend about the program. Jenda had nothing but good things to say about the program, and honestly, I think SHU should consider sending her a check each month for her excellent marketing skills.

My short story, “Freedom is in the Blood,” became Invisible Chains over the course of six years. Three years writing my thesis novel in the low residency MFA program, and three years of rewriting, editing, pitching, and submitting. In the process of writing the novel, my protagonist evolved into a stronger character who stands up to monsters to make a better life for herself.

In many ways, my protagonist evolved with me as I made changes in my own life. Deciding to write this book was the first step towards reshaping my life on my own terms. I’ve encountered my share of set backs, obstacles, and people who behave like monsters, but like Jacqueline, I keep moving forward.

In the process of moving forward, I’ve made new friends, reconnected with old friends, and built stronger relationships with the people who cheered me on through the highs and lows of writing this book. They’re good people. And I couldn’t have survived the process without their love and support.

I am very fortunate to be included in such diverse and supportive writing communities like the HWA and as an SHU alumna. And, of course, I wouldn’t be able to brag about getting my book published if I had never met the Editor-in-Chief of Haverhill House Publishing, John M. McIlveen.

I met John last year at StokerCon™ 2018 in Providence, RI. I pitched Invisible Chains to him, a book that took close to five years to write, in about ten minutes. And, much to my surprise, after babbling at him in what I believed to be incoherent nonsense, he said he’d be interested in reading it. That was the first spark of hope, and it has been one pleasant experience after the next working with John and Haverhill House Publishing.

Well, now the book is written and available for pre-order. The hardback edition will be available July 22, 2019. In the meantime, I have a stack of proofs that I would very much like to get into the hands of book reviewers and people who would be willing to blurb the book. If you or someone you know might be a good fit for a book like this, let me know and I’ll reach out to them.

What’s next, you may ask? I don’t know, but I suspect I might have to write another book.

Anxiety is the New Black

About a year ago, I had a moment of clarity in which I realized that I have been suffering from anxiety since I was a child. What sparked this moment of personal insight? The fact that my son also suffers from anxiety and I began to think back on what life was like for me at his age. I’m sure that if you asked my friends and family, many of them would tell you that my childhood was good and they have many fond memories of me growing up. My memories aren’t always in line with theirs, and that’s okay as long as I’m allowed to remember things the way they happened for me through my perception of things.

Anxiety

I was born in Central Pennsylvania in 1972. My mom is a white woman who grew up in a small rural community that wasn’t really thrilled about her dating choices and in many ways shunned her after she decided to marry my biological father. While living with my father’s family, a group of migrant workers living near Chambersburg, PA, my mother grew up fast. According to her, my father fancied himself a ladies man, which actually translates as pimp in the real world, and when she found out she was pregnant with me, two things occurred to her: 1) At least three other women were pregnant to my father at that time, and 2) Her unborn child deserved a better life. She told me that she sat in the dark waiting for him to come home and thought about killing him. Knowing she had to be around to take care of me changed her mind. So, she left him that night and filed for divorce soon after.

When I was born, we lived with my grandparents in the same small town where my mom grew up. To say that the town I grew up in lacked diversity is quite the understatement. Aside from my mom’s boyfriend, Gene, and his family, I don’t recall seeing other people of color, with the exception of people on TV, until I was about four or five and we moved to a larger town, Carlisle, PA.

Gene

Carlisle was and is segregated. People who have lived here their whole lives aren’t always conscious of that fact, but when you meet people who move here, it’s one of the first things they notice about the place. Have things changed since I was a child? Yes. But to be fair, one of the changes I would be happy to point to is the fact that when I was a child, people felt completely at ease driving by in their cars and shouting “nigger lover” at my mother while she walked with me downtown.  No one has called me a nigger to my face since I was in an undergraduate in college, but I know some people were thinking  it while they spoke to me. It’s like Spidey senses, but for racists.

So, while I was growing up I experienced a multi-layered effect of racism and bigotry from strangers, teachers, friends, and family. Apparently, this isn’t uncommon for mixed race kids. I haven’t interviewed people or sent out surveys, but I know I am not the only person in the world who had this experience.

What idiot called it a human skull instead of an anxiety cabin.

— Doth (@DothTheDoth) December 2, 2018

Thanks to a series of unfortunate events in my life, I recently spent a year (August 2017 – June 2018) employed but underpaid, and lacking health insurance. During that time, when my anxiety levels were astonishingly high, I couldn’t afford medication to help with my chronic depression and anxiety. I couldn’t afford to see a therapist. Hell, I could barely afford to pay my bills.

But, Michelle, why didn’t you apply for assistance?

I did. And, I was denied assistance even though I was making $15 an hour working for a temp agency after I left another job where the owners of the business couldn’t pay me. They still owe me money, but much like the child support I keep hoping for, I doubt if I’ll ever see it.

A few weeks ago, I tried to apply for assistance again, because even though I am working full-time and have health insurance, I’m only making $0.82 more than what I was making at the temp agency. I was also working part-time as an online writing tutor for $11 an hour. Because I had made an extra $60 during the month of February from my part-time job, my income was considered too high to receive any assistance.

Yep, America is definitely great again.

I was told by a very sympathetic caseworker that if I quit my part-time job, and got a psych evaluation for my autistic child, we might qualify for assistance. So, as long as I make less money and can prove that my child is mentally ill, I’m allowed to receive help.

No wonder my anxiety levels keep rising.

Lavendar

The good news is that since I have health insurance again, I can take my medication. But, even though I have access to services like therapy, the co-pays are too high for me to afford even with insurance.

Where does that leave me? At the moment, I don’t have any good answers. I keep looking for higher-paying jobs, but I no longer have a reliable car. Transportation is an issue. Fortunately, I am able to share my mother’s car and have some mobility. But using her car to drive back and forth to work every week day isn’t an option. Especially since I would most likely have to drive to Harrisburg, Hershey, Lancaster, York, or elsewhere that would require anywhere from 30-60 minutes or more of travel time to and from work. So, I’m kind of stuck.

I try to appreciate what I do have while not focusing on what I don’t. Each day gets a little better, but I’m exhausted. Frustrated. Melancholy. Angry. I’m feeling a lot of feelings all the time.

Thoughts

But, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. I’ll share my good news with you later this week and you can help me celebrate brighter days ahead.

Black Like Me

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Family photo taken in the early 1990’s with my friend and classmate, “Vampire Liz.”

Just over a year ago, something happened to me that made me question my identity. In fact, since the election results came in and I woke up in Trump’s America on November 9, 2016, I’ve been thinking about identity a lot — mine, my son’s, my friends’, my neighbors’, my co-workers’, and complete strangers’. I’m not 100% sure what made me think about the incident that caused me to question the very nature of my own “blackness,” but it might be any number of news stories you can read at your leisure online dealing with the shocking reality that blatant racism is back in style.

At any rate, whatever resurrected this experience for me, I started thinking about it a bit more deeply. During a meeting I attended about a year ago to discuss the qualifications of candidates applying for a social equity position at a state university, a topic related to current events came up. Bill O’Reilly had said some stupid, unprofessional, racist bullshit about Congresswoman Maxine Waters’ appearance.

I could launch into a tirade about that alone, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about. Not today. What struck me about the topic of discussion, was the fact that the white woman who was upset about O’Reilly’s statements (even after his apology, he wouldn’t shut up and continued harassing Congresswoman Waters), managed, in the same breath, to commit her own act of unconscious racism.

The same woman who was talking about how upset she was because Congresswoman Waters had been attacked/criticized/mocked/marginalized for being “culturally authentic.” And then, she looked at me and said, “That’s the right term, isn’t it?” She committed an act of unconscious racial microaggression.

Now, to be fair, we were a group of faculty and staff working together at a university and engaged in friendly conversation about something we all took issue with, but then suddenly I was assigned the role of Black Person Expert. This wasn’t the first time, and I assure you, it won’t be the last time I get asked to put on that hat.

When I was younger, I operated under the misconception that if I was one of the only people of color in the room, it was my responsibility to speak for All Black Folks. I assumed it was my responsibility because it was an expectation of white people. Each time I was asked to speak for All Black Folks, it made me uncomfortable to be put on the spot by a room full of white people who were expecting me to educate or enlighten them on the mysteries of “blackness.” It made me uncomfortable for several reasons, including the fact that I worried I would say the wrong thing. The “wrong thing” was a double-edged sword, because I was either going to misrepresent black people by giving my opinion as an individual who had very little access to other black people growing up, or I was going to disappoint white people by not saying what they wanted to hear. These situations became even more uncomfortable when other people of color were in the room, but weren’t being asked for their input. By the time I was done speaking, I was almost 100% guaranteed to have enemies on either side of that one-sided conversation.

Why would I be chosen as the spokesperson for All Black Folks when other people of color were present? Well, because I’m not really black. I mean, unless it’s more convenient for me to be black.

When the white woman looked at me for confirmation that she was using the appropriate, politically correct terminology for…I don’t know…black people in their natural state of being, a few buried memories and neglected emotions came to the surface of my mind. But first, I laughed out loud at the absurdity of her question and the fact that she was using the term incorrectly.

Before I delve into what this one seemingly harmless question awakened for me, I just want to make something perfectly clear, just in case you didn’t know, THERE IS NO MONOLITHIC BLACK IDENTITY.

You can’t point to one person’s experience and say, “that’s culturally authentic.” Also, “cultural authenticity” is a literary term used to measure how well a book depicts a specific cultural group regarding language, everyday life, etc. So, I’m not sure you can even use the term to describe real people. And, even if you could, the woman’s use of the term in relation to Bill O’Reilly’s comments and the reality of Congresswoman Waters’ hairstyle doesn’t make a lot of sense. What distinguishes Waters’ hair as being culturally authentic?

To satisfy my curiosity and to make sure I wasn’t spouting bullshit like Bill O’Reilly, I Googled the term, and the only hit I got that referenced actual people was in relation to tourism and the practice of “performing” cultural authenticity. I think this is also called staged authenticity, in which an indigenous culture creates a version of their culture for tourists that may not match the actual lives of people living in that culture.

Even after confirming my suspicions about the term and its correct usage, it still struck a chord with me, and I felt the need to explore how I was feeling about it being used to refer to non-fictional people. People who don’t necessarily fit into the misconception of “blackness” being one identity. So, I Googled “what does it mean to be black in America.” Go ahead. Google it. I’ll wait.

A lot of people are talking (and have been talking) about the meaning of “blackness” and how we view ourselves and others. Now, this is a subject I could really sink my teeth into. I realized that reading about other people’s experiences would help me unpack my own feelings and reactions to that white woman’s question and expectation that I had the answer.

FYI, I don’t have the answer.

After searching for “what does it mean to be black in America,” I felt validated, comforted, empowered, and relieved to know that I wasn’t alone in dealing with this identity issue as a woman of color who doesn’t always fit people’s world view of “blackness.” I especially enjoyed reading a Washington Post article that looked at the experiences of three women and what it means to be “black enough.”

“According to Jelani Cobb, a historian and writer at the New Yorker, defining “blackness” is inherently complicated — because race is an invented category dating back to slavery, and the category can encompass a range of identities and cultures. People identify as black, African American, African, Muslim, Native American, biracial and sometimes more.”

Identity can be a slippery slope when you don’t fit into one checkbox. And, as most people who aren’t completely clueless realize, the shaping of your identity is more complex than simply belonging to one racial group of people. This is especially true if you don’t belong to ONE racial group of people, but rather two or more. And, don’t even get me started about the intersectionalities of class, gender, sexuality, political views, religious beliefs and economic status that make the complexities of race and ethnicity even more complex.

Just like there is no monolithic blackness, there is no monolithic whiteness (although, the implication/belief of its existence is the foundation of so many problems we’re all facing in the world today), no monolithic femaleness or maleness, no monolithic gayness or straightness, or any monolithic version of any identity. That’s right angry fascist Americans, like it or not, we really are all a bunch of snowflakes. But, that’s a good thing. Our differences make us stronger and more interesting at dinner parties.

My entire life has been about finding a place to fit in. Wondering how I will ever be enough — black enough, feminine enough, pretty enough, smart enough, financially stable enough — which really boils down to being loved for who I am and who I am not.

Who am I?  I am a college educated middle-aged woman of color who writes dark speculative fiction. I am a divorced single parent of a tween boy who can pass for white in the right setting. I am the daughter of a white woman and a black man. I was raised in rural Pennsylvania by my mother’s working-class white family who were not actively racist, but culturally bigoted.

As a teen I experimented with drugs and attended hardcore shows in Central PA with skinheads, skaters and punks. I identified with Goth culture, dressed all in black, and read every piece of vampire fiction I could get my hands on. Hell, I even met Glenn Danzig.

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Me and my BFF.

My best friend is a white man I have been friends with for over 30 years and we have family dinners and celebrate certain holidays together each year. We’re family. And, speaking of family, I’m really fortunate to be so close to my cousins who make me laugh and remember not to take myself too seriously.

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Cousins make the best friends.

So, if you’re hoping to put me into one monolithic category, good luck. The color of my skin does not determine the unique and diverse nature of my life experiences. And, it certainly doesn’t make me an expert on “blackness.”

Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Life I Learned from InspiroBot

I’m not sure if you noticed, but there seems to be a surplus of inspirational platitudes out there to help us get through everything from bad break-ups to writers block to staying motivated while pursing our personal goals. Don’t believe me? Spend five minutes on Pinterest and let me know what you find. In fact, here’s the board I use to collect inspirational platitudes.

These tired, often recycled quotes that encourage us to keep our chins up and move forward, no matter how bad the reality of our situation might be, are for the most part well-meaning sentiments. However, if you’re a cynic like me, and have a dark sense of humor, or if you’ve simply been through some truly terrible experiences in life, traditional motivational quotes might piss you off. At the very least, they will inspire a need to mock them.

I’ve been going through some rough times lately. And, by lately, I mean for the past several years. As a divorced, middle-aged woman of color who is a single parent living paycheck to paycheck, I can attest to the fact that the struggle is real. This isn’t my first Everything is Going to Shit Rodeo. In fact, I have developed this uncanny ability to remain calm and keep moving forward in the face of every challenge that has come my way.

So far.

I have yet to curl up and die, but don’t assume that I’m a superwoman who doesn’t need anybody’s support to get through the tough times. That just isn’t true. I cry. I scream. I write.  I cry some more. And, I am blessed with an amazing network of people who want to see me succeed. Friends who want to help if they are able. Family who is always there for me. I’m not fighting these battles alone, but after a while, I get worn out from dealing with these challenges day in and day out. I’d like to be able to put down the plates spinning above my head without letting them shatter on the ground.

You may be asking yourself, “How does she cope?” To be honest, although my struggle is mainly the product of a lack of stability, I still have a roof over my head, enough money to pay most of my bills (my defaulted student loans not included), and as always, I have a back-up plan. Okay, one or two back-up plans.

There are people in this world, in this country, in my neighborhood, who are worse off than I am. Yes, I am struggling for stability, but I won’t have to go live on the street with my son, and I won’t have to do anything seriously demeaning to earn money. Like I said, I have a back-up plan.

As you might imagine, people who want to see me succeed have lots of kind words of support and encouragement, and yes, even platitudes. Again, all given with good intentions. And, I believe that people are sincere when they offer their words of support. But, the darker side of me, my cynical self, needs humor to deal with the struggle. Because, let’s face it, if I’m not laughing, I’m more likely to start shouting obscenities at people which only makes matters worse.

My taste in humor runs from absurdist to gallows. For example, last year around this time I was watching Twin Peaks: The Return and one of the funniest scenes in the series that made me literally laugh out loud, was in episode 11, in which Gordon Cole (David Lynch) makes the following assessment while staring at a man whose head exploded without explanation, leaving only the bottom half of his face: “He’s dead.” I replayed the scene three times and laughed over and over. Sometimes, gaping head wounds can be hilarious. In my opinion, overstatement of the obvious, especially in the context of the finality of death, can be extremely funny.

Around the same time last year, a good friend of mine introduced me to the AI inspirational meme generator, InspiroBot. Initially, I just laughed at the random  inappropriateness of the memes. But then I realized that this alternative to insipid, empty platitudes about finding happiness in the worst of times, was exactly what I needed in my life. In fact, I’ve been playing with InspiroBot almost every day since I became aware of it. And, I’m not the only one who’s enjoying the nearly Dadaist memes that range from the absurd to the eerily thought provoking to basic common sense. InspiroBot introduces itself like so:

I’m InspiroBot.
I am an artificial intelligence dedicated to generating unlimited amounts of unique inspirational quotes for endless enrichment of pointless human existence.

So far, InspiroBot has brought me hours of enjoyment, stimulated my own creativity, and reminded me that laughing at things that make most people uncomfortable is actually soothing to me. The memes it generates are funny enough, but the interface is also humorous in a scary science fiction sort of way. It reminds me of AI in films, like Hal 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Skynet Corporation from the Terminator franchise, and David 8 from Alien: Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. The darkly humorous interface inspired Michael Walsh to write an article about InspiroBot suffering from an existential crisis for The Nerdist.

I don’t know if InspiroCorp©™® will be the catalyst for the destruction of humankind, but while I’m waiting to find out, I’m learning lots of interesting things from InspiroBot. As an agnostic who continues to search for meaning in the Universe, I’m open to finding meaning in places that might not make sense to others. At the moment, InspiroBot is one of my preferred forms of meditation. If meditation can be compared to a slot machine that generates bizarre Jungian Stream of Consciousness platitudes that either enlighten or confuse. Even if the path ahead for me isn’t clear, it’s clear to me that InspiroBot wants me to look at things differently. Here are five examples of wisdom I’ve gleaned from the AI meme generator.

Number 1: InspiroBot reminds us that our fear of dying alone may be the primary force that drives us to seek out romantic relationships. Marriage is the logical conclusion for most people who find love in this life, much like death is the logical conclusion to life itself.

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Number 2: Sometimes, you need to start with a clean slate. Which means, you need to learn how to not only accept the fact of change, but embrace it. Starting over can be scary, but it is often necessary to move forward to the next phase of your life. Whether that means quitting a job you hate, leaving a relationship that is sucking the life out of you, or literally setting something you’ve created on fire, like a short story or a painting, so you can begin again with a fresh perspective.

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Number 3: It’s okay to be weird. Being weird, especially in the company of fellow weirdoes can be an intense mood elevator. Getting together with like-minded people, whether they’re horror writers, furries, or goths, can really lift your spirits and remind you that you’re not alone in the world, and more importantly, you aren’t completely crazy. Unfurl your freak flag!

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Number 4: Life lessons aren’t always happy occasions. In fact, I often believe that the more traumatic the lesson, the greater the learning opportunity. People like to tell us to “move on,” or “suck it up,” or “get over it.” Bullshit. Embrace your bad times and learn from them so that you don’t have to repeat them in the future. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.”

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Number 5: The previous meme reminds us that we can learn from our mistakes. One of life’s lessons I have to keep relearning is to not chase after people who do not have my best interest in mind. I have a terrible habit of finding myself attracted to people who will most likely cause me harm. I mean, honestly, my love of monsters relates to both fictional characters and literal people from my past. The idea of seeking out a partner who will either consciously or unconsciously hurt you due to who they are, their life choices, or a history of bad behavior in romantic relationships is almost always a bad idea. Breaking this habit is an ongoing project for me. At least when it comes to real people. My love of fictional monsters will probably never go away. Vampires, werewolves, and Lucifer just do it for me.

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Inspiration can come from unexpected sources. Some people seek enlightenment through religion, others seeks answers in Nature. For now, my answers come from InspiroBot. Laugh if you must, but don’t knock it until you try it.

When Survival Mode Becomes a Way of Life

It’s easy to recognize when a period of transition begins, but how do you know when it ends? Are there concrete, measurable ways to know you’ve come out on the other side and accomplished what you set out to do? Or is there just a constant sense of unease over never truly recognizing you have simply stepped into a new phase of existence? If you began following a path with no real sense of what you expected to find on the other side, how would you know if you reached your destination?

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Image via Unsplash by Kelly Sikkema

For the past six years, I have been in a seemingly never-ending period of transformation. I have celebrated successes, mourned losses, floated around aimlessly trying to figure out what happens next, and have continued to set personal and professional goals for myself in the face of adversity. I keep expecting things to settle down and become more manageable, but honestly, I think I’m kidding myself. I’m beginning to think this is just my life, and good, bad, or ugly, I’m living it.

2012 was a busy year. In February that year, I celebrated my 40th birthday with three good friends in New Orleans: my cousin Tara, my best friend’s sister, Katie, and my friend Christina, who flew all the way from Amsterdam to celebrate my birthday. The four of us met up in the Crescent City, a magical place I believe to be my birthplace in a past life, and quickly eased into a long weekend of drinking, eating, laughing and dancing. Highlights from that weekend include:

  • Shopping at Trashy Diva
  • Eating beignets past midnight at Café du Monde
  • Getting my photo taken with a demon on Bourbon Street
  • Laughing so hard at inappropriate jokes that my sides hurt
  • Watching a Mardi Gras parade in the Garden District with floats from a Krewe in Lake Pontchartrain who wore creepy old-fashioned Mardi Gras masks
  • Getting a birthday spanking by a stranger in a bar on Decatur Street
  • Watching a man in his 70’s perform kickass R&B for a solid hour straight in a Mardi Gras Indian costume down on Frenchman Street
  • Spending time with women I love and respect

I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun. That was a magical weekend I hope to recreate in the very near future.

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Café du Monde New Orleans

Soon after that trip, several life-changing events happened. Events I had speculated about while on that magical trip. First, I was accepted to the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction Program at Seton Hill University, and I began the three-year MFA in June that year. For years, I had struggled with the notion of taking myself seriously as a writer. I had been writing fiction fairly consistently since I turned 12, and then I completed a BA and MA in English in the hopes of finding a career in writing or teaching, but neither of those things happened. Why? Well, that’s a story for another day. The point is, reading, writing, and writing about writing were some of my favorite things to do and yet somehow I wasn’t making a living doing those things.

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Image via Unsplash by Ali Yahya

A few months before my 40th birthday, I decided it was time to take myself seriously and finally write a novel. And, hey, why not earn another college degree while I was at it? That was probably one of the best decisions I ever made. During my second residency, in January of 2013, I decided to end my marriage. I sat up late one night with my good friend and fellow writer, and she and I brainstormed an exit strategy. After that weekend, I applied for a job at my alma mater, and contacted a lawyer friend about the process of getting divorced. Shortly after telling my husband I was leaving, my brother-in-law died. The key to comedy, and apparently tragedy, is timing. One of these days, I’m going to write about that experience: the sadness, the guilt, and the inexplicably delightful black comedy of the whole thing that still fills me with a sense of awe over how bizarre life can be.

Anyway, by April of 2013 I had a new job and had moved back to my hometown. I left a job that was killing my spirit and a marriage that was making me unbearably unhappy, I started a new job, became a single parent, and faced the realities of my father’s rapidly declining health. My mother had recently put my dad in a nursing home because she couldn’t leave him alone at home while she worked. He had developed dementia after fighting several life-threatening illnesses that honestly, he probably shouldn’t have survived. For years, he had battled diabetes, pulmonary hypertension, and levels of stress I can only imagine. Well, to be fair, my own current levels of stress are probably slowly killing me. By some unbelievable twist of fate, my dad received a heart transplant. I’m not sure that was best thing that could have happened. He really wasn’t healthy enough for the surgery, and after the transplant he slowly went crazy, nearly taking my mother with him in the process.

Not only did he become difficult to talk to–because he developed a pathological need to be right about everything–but he forgot to pay bills and drained my parents’ bank account buying books and online services for an imaginary business he believed he had started. My father had spent his adult life working hard to keep people with mental illness tethered to reality, yet at the end of his own life, there was no one to help him keep madness at bay. One day, my mom got a call at work from the police. They had found my dad wandering around a few blocks from home and he had no idea where her was. His hallucinations, unpredictable mood swings, and strange changes in personality were difficult enough to deal with, but after the police brought him home, she put him in a nearby nursing home to keep him safe.

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Image via Unsplash by rawpixel

After moving back to my hometown in March 2013, my son and I lived with my mom for a few months. She had the space and wanted the company. I wanted to save money and needed a safe space to deal with all the changes I was making. We gave each other support in a challenging time. She helped me look after my son, and I helped her deal with the things she didn’t want to face about my dad. There was paperwork, visits to the nursing home, and just accepting the fact that dad was never coming home. She felt guilty for leaving him there, but neither of us could quit our jobs to look after him.

At the same time, I was dealing with financial struggles that followed me from my marriage, an undiagnosed mental health issue with my then 6-year-old, anxiety over starting a new job, anxiety about starting a new job at my alma mater that I vowed to burn to the ground and salt the earth when I had left it, anxiety about being a single parent, anxiety about being single in my 40s, anxiety about what the hell I was going to do with the rest of my life, anxiety about how to finish writing a novel so I could graduate from my MFA program…well, you get the idea. Most days, I was just amazed I got out of bed and made it to work without driving into oncoming traffic. Somehow, I was still functioning as an adult.

I dealt with my emotional and psychological discord by crying a lot. In fact, crying while driving to work was part of my daily routine for a while. I wrote. I went for walks. I talked to friends. I lost myself in social media. I watched Hannibal religiously. I took short trips on the weekends, sometimes alone and sometimes with my son. I went to work, built good working relationships with my co-workers, and began accomplishing career goals. Oh, and I finished writing a novel and earned my MFA.

I also tried online dating after being “off-the-market” for more than 10 years. Dating in my 40s while dealing with nearly crippling anxiety, and battling a lifetime of poor body image and excruciating self-doubt was no small task. I amazed my friends by going on date after date after date with a laundry list of strangers. Some of the strangers were interesting, some boring, some confusing, some I liked, some I didn’t understand, and one was so psychologically damaging that I had to seek out a therapist to leave him. After my second session with her, she told me I was suffering from a mild case of Stockholm Syndrome, and that I was participating in a very dangerous relationship with a narcissist with borderline personality disorder.

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Image via Unsplash by Nicolas Picard

When she told me that, I actually breathed a sigh of relief because I thought the reason why that relationship wasn’t working was my fault. I have a complete set of steamer trunks full of issues that stem from my inability to trust people. I am no stranger to betrayal, and because I think my earliest betrayals occurred at home at a very impressionable age, as an adult, I have simply come to expect betrayal as a given. In fact, sometimes I think I actually court it. Consciously or unconsciously, I seek out relationships with people I know will eventually disappointment me. I open myself up to people who see me for what I am: a safe, warm place to rest while they put their own pieces back together. Once they figure their own issues out, they move on or continue to abuse my kindness until I say enough is enough.

I’m tired of living like that. I’m tired of building walls to protect myself from the thing I want the most: love. But not just any kind of love. I want respectful, reliable, unconditional love. Love that takes work on the part of both people involved. Love that’s worth fighting for. Love that comforts me and puts my fears to rest, or at least makes them more manageable.

My anxiety has been very active lately. But to be fair, the reasons why are no mystery. I have been consistently underemployed for the past several years. I went from living paycheck to paycheck with the saving grace of health benefits, to living without paychecks and no health insurance, to living from considerably smaller paycheck to paycheck with no health insurance. That’s where I’m at right now. In the midst of a financial crisis, trying to figure out how to get a better job, better pay, dig myself out of debt, and rebuild my credit rating. Those are all valid concerns for a single parent with unpaid bills and a late rent payment hanging over her head.

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Image via Unsplash by John Baker

You would think that would be enough to worry about, right? But, thanks to the magical gift of anxiety, I’m also worried about being a good person. Or rather, being good enough. Am I attractive enough to be appealing to potential sexual partners? Will I ever meet someone I’d like to build a life with? Am I talented enough to keep writing? Will I ever have a job that pays me enough to not only get out of debt, but also buy a house and go on vacations? Will I ever trust myself enough to dismantle the walls I’ve built to keep myself safe?

These are the questions that keep my from falling asleep at night. The fears that drive me to binge eat, skip going to the gym, and stop writing for weeks at a time. My pattern of bad habits often leads me to fantasize about a self-fulfilling prophecy that ends with me dying alone surrounded by empty bourbon bottles, ice cream containers, and the pages of an unfinished novel or memoir.

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Image via Unsplash by David Zawila

I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t know what happens next. What I do know is that I am in charge of creating my future. Or, at the very least, I am in charge of making better choices so that my future is a bit brighter. All I’m really hoping for is a better job, stable pay, and access to health insurance so that my mental health needs are met through medication and therapy. I’m not asking for a lot. And, I haven’t given up hope yet either. I believe things will get better. They usually do. I’ll be sure to let you know how things turn out, so stay tuned.

My Birthday Wish List

Today is my birthday. Yep, I was born on Valentine’s Day. As is typically the case, I am single. It’s like some weird curse or something. Being single on Valentine’s Day is a fact of life for me that I look forward to with dread and disappointment each year. When I have been dating people on my birthday, I spend the entire day waiting for something terrible to happen, and people have actually broken up with me either on my birthday or right before. Sometimes I wonder if they can smell my fear or lack of trust. Who can say?

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Psychologically and emotionally, I’m kind of a mess around my birthday. There have been years when I’ve had an amazing time with friends, like the time I celebrated my birthday in New Orleans with my cousin Tara and two of my other friends, Katie and Christina. Christina came all the way from Amsterdam to celebrate with us. That made me feel pretty special. We had a blast. My birthday fell, like this year, right after Mardi Gras, so we spent a long weekend hanging out in the Garden District and French Quarter enjoying parades, live music, shopping, and lots of food and booze with the locals before all Hell broke loose with crowds of tourists. I even got a spanking on my birthday from a guy wearing a leather aviator hat with goggles.

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That was probably one of my most memorable birthdays and most cherished trips to New Orleans. We’ll have to repeat that trip one of these days soon. My sides were sore from laughing after that trip and my heart had swelled to epic proportions. Spending my birthday in the company of women who love me was WAY better than any romantic getaway with some chump who was too afraid to stick around as long as many of my friends have.

I don’t have any flashy plans to celebrate my birthday today. In fact, I have a bunch of writing to do and I am trying desperately not to succumb to the siren call of procrastination. But, I have plans to see Black Panther with my son this weekend.

Next weekend, I’m heading out to Pittsburgh to see Swan Lake with my friend Stephanie and I have an appointment to see my favorite tattoo artist. I’m hoping to run into some of my other Pittsburgh friends while I’m in town.

Friends have been wishing me a happy birthday on social media all day, and I’ve received a few cards. I don’t anticipate any flowers or chocolates today since I’m single, but I’ve been thinking about things I’d like to receive for my birthday if I could ask for anything. Some of the things are a little absurd, but hey, it’s my wish list, I can ask for whatever I want, right? So, here’s my birthday wish list for things I’d either like to achieve in the coming year or at least before I turn 50, and a few things that are purely fantasy…in no particular order.

  1. Sell my thesis novel.
  2. Finish writing the two novels I’m working on and start writing their sequels.
  3. Finish the backlog of unfinished short stories and submit, submit, submit.
  4. Eat more fish and veggies.
  5. Visit my friends who live far away.
  6. Become financially stable.
  7. Buy a house.
  8. Student loan forgiveness.
  9. Save for retirement.
  10. Go on vacation.
  11. Write a memoir about my teenage years.
  12. Start running again.
  13. Attend events where I can wear multiple costumes.
  14. Find the courage to start dating again.
  15. Sell the movie rights to a book I write and cast Jason Momoa in the lead role. Hell, he can star in it, produce it, or direct it. I’d just like the opportunity to work with him.
  16. Ditto for Michael Fassbender.
  17. Trump’s impeachment and imprisonment.
  18. Or, I’d settle for a “magic bullet” that takes out Trump, Pence and Ryan.
  19. Learn how to scale a climbing wall.
  20. Take an aerial yoga class.
  21. Go to a music festival devoted to Doom Metal.
  22. See the Black Keys live.
  23. See Bryan Ferry live.
  24. See Duran Duran for a third time live.
  25. See Depeche Mode for a third time live.
  26. Send a sympathy card to the Devil.
  27. Write love letters to someone I truly care about.
  28. Meet Neil Fallon and work with him on finishing the novel I started writing based on Clutch’s eponymous album.
  29. Discover that I belong to a family of witches.
  30. Trust myself enough to fall in love.
  31. Learn to love my own body.
  32. Meet a tall handsome man with a beard, tattoos, a stable job, who is single and ready to meet someone just like me. I wouldn’t be upset to discover that he’s a werewolf.
  33. See the aurora borealis while swimming naked at midnight.
  34. Travel to Hawaii, Spain, France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Egypt, South America…you get the idea.
  35. Visit more museums and art galleries.
  36. Travel in the TARDIS with the Doctor.
  37. Start a monthly movie night for moms to drop by and hang out with wine or other adult beverages.
  38. Attend a costume party with Michael Fassbender dressed as Carl Jung.
  39. Stop engaging in online dialogs with strange men who think they know me within a matter of hours or days. I’d like to think that I’m more complex than that and pride myself in getting to know people over years of face-to-face interaction. You can’t know a person through their Instagram or Facebook or Twitter account. Unless you’re Trump. We all know that guy’s an asshole.
  40. Learn how to paint.
  41. Learn how to speak German and at least one other language while relearning French.
  42. Get more tattoos.
  43. Purge more than half of my belongings and be done with the clutter of my possessions.
  44. Write a will.
  45. Go to more drag shows.
  46. Date a transvestite.
  47. Own more shoes.
  48. Wear more vintage clothing.
  49. Form an female punk band called Vagina Dentata.
  50. Spend more quality time with the people I love.

Bees in My Bonnet

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It has been entirely too long since I wrote a blog post for Girl Meets Monster. As I sit here in my living room, staring at my Christmas tree (um, today is January 23), it dawns on me that I’m behind in a lot of things in my personal life and my life in general.

Have I been writing? Yes.

Have I been submitting? Yes.

Am I waiting on pins and needles for what will surely be two more rejections? Yes.

Okay, so not too bad, right? Sure, but as always, I think I should be doing more, producing more. And, I have been trying to do that. I mean, I’ve been writing something — blog posts, social media posts, letters, journal entries, and snippets of fiction here and there. All of that is great. It would be better if I could stay focused and finish a project…projects. Aside from my thesis novel that I’m been submitting and resubmitting, I have two unfinished novels, at least one novella, and a handful of short stories that I desperately want to wrap up. The problem is, I’m stuck. Stuck on what? I’m not entirely sure.

I have some theories about what the blockage might be. And, all of those theories relate to unresolved emotional baggage and deep-seated fears that stem from childhood and my early adulthood. Self-esteem can be a real bitch sometimes. Especially when you have lived your life believing that you have to work for people’s love and affection. When you have been the recipient of conditional love since day one, it’s kind of hard to break that pattern and that mental process affects every aspect of your life: romantic relationships, parenting, work, school, friendships, and creating your art. (More on that in a future post.)

While I’ve been working on getting unstuck, I’ve been thinking a lot about stuff and things. If you follow my social media, then you surely know that I am insanely obsessed with Jason Momoa right now. I don’t think I’ve reached nuthouse status yet, but I am fangirling all over myself and anyone else who will listen. I mean, to be fair, he’s abso-fucking-lutely gorgeous, funny, interesting, and talented. And, he’s healthy. In fact, he’s been a source of inspiration for me to take my own health seriously again. I’m not a giant man who is in line for roles like Aquaman, but I can push myself to be better each day. His fitness videos are not only entertaining, but awe-inspiring. I hope he knows that he’s a role model not just for his kids and fans of the DC Universe, but for people who want to live healthier lives and become the best version of themselves.

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I’m pretty sure I mentioned this, but just in case I didn’t, he’s H. O. T.

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He has become the inspiration for one of my fictional characters and I can’t stop writing about this character. Perhaps, that is one of the reasons why I’m stuck and not moving forward. I’m having such a good time thinking about him and breathing life into this character that I can’t think about anything else. Nah. As much as I love Jason Momoa, I’ve been writing and thinking about other things, too.

Recently, I received a handwritten card from a friend that reminded me of the cards and letters I used to send to my friends and other pen pals I had when I was a teenager.

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I remembered coming across a pile of these old letters a few years ago when I helped my mom clean out her basement. I kept some of them but didn’t really spend time looking at them until last week. Holy shit. What a treasure trove. It was like opening a time capsule from the mid to late 80s and early 90s and finding only the weirdest rants about being young and goth.

Letters

I used to have the pen name Antique, and weird goth and punk kids from all over the US and a few from the UK, would write me letters about how they wanted to become vampires too. They sent me photos, poetry, fanzines, mix tapes, and told me about how fucking boring or terrible their lives were. I was actually kind of shocked to read some of the letters and see just how candid people were with me. I wish I had some of the letters I wrote to other people, because that would make an interesting comparison between how much I shared and how much people bared their souls to me. I’m usually pretty open and forthcoming with people, especially in my writing, so I must have given these folks a reason to trust me with some of the personal things they were sharing with me.

One of my pen pals, Carl Velazquez, wrote to me on a pretty regular basis. Carl was roughly 10 years older than me, thought he was a real vampire, and wanted to engage in a romantic relationship with me when I was 15. I met him in person a total of three times. I went to visit him in New York where he lived when I was still in high school, he came to visit me here in Carlisle and stayed at a local dive motel for a few days. My friends and I hung out with him in the motel room — I was never alone with him — and he was basically bored out of his mind. The third and final time I saw him was during my junior year of college. I took an exchange student from the UK with me to New York to visit my friend Don and on that trip we went to Wig Stock, saw a showing of Female Trouble, and saw Lypsinka perform at the Ballroom. Carl joined us for Lypsinka and I think we grabbed a bite to eat at Stingy Lulu’s. I heard from Carl after that, but I never saw him again. And then one day, I didn’t hear from him anymore.

Carl

Carl was one of the first people to introduce me to erotic fiction and encouraged me to write about vampires. I loved vampires long before I met Carl, but he pushed me to explore darker and more sexual aspects of the creatures. His influence was so great, that I named my vampire antagonist after him in my first novel. You know, the one I keep submitting? Anyway, I found some of Carl’s letters that contained scandalous snippets of erotic fiction involving vampire personas we invented for ourselves. That’s right, my stalker sent me pornographic letters about what he’d like to do with me if he ever had the chance to get me alone. Is that vampiric enough for you?

And, speaking of vampires…which is something I do often, and speaking of unfinished writing projects, I’m also trying to write an abstract to submit in the hopes of getting picked to attend an academic conference in Transylvania dedicated to vampires. Again, I’m stuck. I have all these ideas zooming around in my head, but condensing them into an abstract feels nearly fucking impossible. I still have a little time, and I have like…I dunno…at least 10 possible titles dealing with the concept of female characters’ acceptance of violence in vampire romances. It’s kind of a thing. If you read paranormal romance featuring vampires, something I do a lot…NO, like A LOT…then you’ll know what I’m talking about. There’s this weird phenomenon of female characters, especially in YA Paranormal Romance, allowing their vampire boyfriends to expose them to so much violence that it’s practically a cliche. And, they not only allow themselves to be perpetually placed in danger, but forgive their boyfriends, whom they almost invariably marry, for their violent behavior. While I find this fiction entertaining, I can’t help wonder just how dangerous that message is to teenage girls and young women.

Anyway, those are just a few of the things I’ve been thinking about. Some of the things I’ve been thinking about a little more deeply will soon become blog posts. And, some of you who have followed my blog in the past may be delighted to know that I will be bringing back my Fuckable Fictional Characters series in February. At least one of those posts will feature Jason Momoa. Okay, probably more like three…or four.

Happy New Year!

10 Things That Made Me Happy While Taking the #100HappyDays Challenge

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Back on January 23 I started a #100HappyDays Challenge. The homepage of the site asks you, “Can you be happy for 100 days in a row?” I believe most rational people would probably say no. And, if like me, you suffer from chronic depression you’d be even more skeptical.

The second question the site asks you is, “You don’t have time for this, right?” Again, most of us would agree that we don’t have time to make an effort to be happy every single day for 100 days. But is that true? Why don’t we have time? Is it because we don’t believe we’re worth the effort? Or is it because we don’t believe that you can find happiness that easily? Or maybe, and I know this sounds a little crazy, we don’t really understand a) what makes us happy, b) what happiness really looks and feels like, or c) how to begin to find happiness in our everyday lives.

The challenge itself is simple. Each day, for 100 days, you simply take a picture of something or someone who made you happy and then follow the steps on the site.

So first you register in the challenge >here<, then choose your favorite platform for submitting pictures. Here you can decide yourself on the privacy of your participation & happy moments:

  • Share your picture via Facebook, twitter or Instagram with a public hashtag #100happydays;
  • Come up with your own hashtag to share your pictures with to limit publicity. (Don’t forget to tell us how to find your pictures though)
  • Simply send your pictures to myhappyday (at) 100happydays.com to avoid any publicity.

The 100happydays.com site claims that “71% of people tried to complete this challenge, but failed quoting lack of time as the main reason.” Studies have shown that most people are not just busy, but overwhelmed with responsibility – work, housework, school, family, and other social obligations – that keep them running nonstop and afford little time for anything else. People typically don’t make time to take care of themselves, or just check in to see how happy they are with the life they are living.

Believe me, I get it. I’m a divorced single parent who works full-time. I’m a part-time writer trying to become a full-time writer, which means I write fiction in the hopes of being published and farm myself out for freelance projects because my day job doesn’t pay enough. I’m not currently dating, but I have a fairly active social life. I rent, so I don’t have a lot of home repairs to tend to, but there’s still housework, errands, cooking, and child rearing. To be honest, housework doesn’t get done very often, but we always have clean laundry and dishes, and my son never misses a meal. My son is involved in activities outside the house, and he has behavioral/emotional issues that we manage through therapy and other strategies. I’m not going to win any awards for my parenting skills. However, I make a point of showing up and being present when my energy and own mental health issues are balanced. I’m actively seeking employment, because I’m not sure if I’ll be able to stay in my current job after June. So, yeah, I’m busy. Like mind-numbingly, soul-crushingly busy some days. Depression has been an ongoing issue for me since I was a kid. I was diagnosed in my teens and have sought the support of therapists and medication on and off throughout my adult life. I’m not just busy. Some days are harder than others. Some days I have #zerofuckstogive. Some days I consider it a win if I get out of bed, get dressed, and make it to work.

Despite all the challenges I face day-to-day, I managed to find something to be relatively happy about for almost every single day of the 100-day challenge. I chose to post my pictures, thoughts and reflections on social media – Facebook and Instagram. Each day, beginning on January 23 and ending on May 2, I posted a photo, a meme, or simply an observation about that day and what brought me joy.

100happydays.com also asks the question, “Why would I do that?” Good question. I’m sure lots of people would ask that question. Well, here are some answers.

People successfully completing the challenge claimed to:

  • Start noticing what makes them happy every day;
  • Be in a better mood every day;
  • Start receiving more compliments from other people;
  • Realize how lucky they are to have the life they have;
  • Become more optimistic;
  • Fall in love during the challenge.

Need help figuring out what makes you happy? Here are the top 10 things that brought me happiness during my #100happydays challenge (in no particular order). Perhaps, you’ll recognize some of the things that make you smile too.

  1. Booze. Let’s face it, adult beverages are delicious and when they are drunk responsibly, they can have amazingly curative properties. When I was younger, I was hell-bent on self-medicating. I drank too much and too often. I also was careless about mixing drugs with alcohol, and usually in questionable company. That’s a story for another day. At this point in my life, I don’t drink very often. I keep some booze at home, typically bourbon, which is my favorite liquor. Occasionally, I’ll drink rum. Booze appeared in my social media feeds on Day 1 of the challenge. It was a rough day. And, booze played a role in bringing me happiness 4 out the 100 days, 5 if you count the codeine cough syrup I drank when I was sick. Fun fact: Because of my love of bourbon and booze in general, I gained roughly 20 new followers on Instagram who are either bars with specialty cocktails, bourbon aficionados, and distillers of small-batch spirits. So, I guess you could say that booze has the ability to make me popular and interesting.
  1. Coffee & Tea. I don’t know about you, but caffeine is 90% responsible for keeping me conscious most days. It’s no secret how much I love coffee, but I also enjoy drinking tea. Coffee and tea have been staples in my life since childhood. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania in the 70s and 80s, and my grandmother didn’t see a problem with putting iced tea in my bottle when I was a baby. I drank my first cup of coffee when I was five. But don’t worry, she cut the bitterness by adding a tooth-decaying amount of sugar to it. Essentially, my grandmother was my first drug dealer. She hated alcohol. Most likely because her father and one of her brothers were alcoholics. People who drank alcohol pissed her off, but she was the poster child for coffee, sugar, and cigarettes. When I was a poor college student and couldn’t afford to maintain my cigarette habit (I smoked between the ages of 14 and 35), my grandmother would either give me money or buy my cigarettes for me. By the carton. In fact, when I was a junior, studying abroad in England for a year, her biggest concern, aside from my safety, was that cigarettes were so much more expensive there. She sent me care packages on a regular basis, and I could always count on finding at least one carton of Camel Lights in the box of goodies. In a related story, after my first week of living in England, I discovered that I was getting headaches almost every day and was feeling lethargic even though I was drinking between 6 – 10 cups of tea a day. Eventually, I realized that I was suffering from dehydration. Basically, I lived on tea, beer and cider, scones with clotted cream, packets of cheese and onion crisps, and Camel Lights. Once I figured out what was wrong with me, I kept a plastic cup near my sink and I would drink 2 – 3 cups of water before going to bed and upon waking. By the way, I had purchased the cup with Camel Cash, and the cup featured an image of Joe the Camel wearing a leather biker jacket, circa early 90s.
  1. Food. I love food. I love to cook it. I love to eat. I see food as something beyond a means of nourishing my body. Food conjures memories of childhood. Food comforts me. Sharing a meal with family and friends is one of my favorite ways to interact and be social. Learning a new recipe is akin to learning a new spell. Food is a perfect marriage between magic and science. Cooking allows me to express myself, get creative, and heal myself through healthy foods. During the #100happydays challenge, food appeared in my social media feeds 34 days out of 100. Foods that appeared the most were fruit salad and tacos. A lot of the foods were healthy and involved my crockpot and meal prep that allowed me to cook once and eat for several days in a row. Some of my most popular posts dealt with food and the recipes I featured, and these posts got some of the most comments, including requests for recipes. Food is the glue of cultural and social interaction. The healthier I eat, the happier I am.
  1. Friends & Family. I have a small family. For the most part it’s just my mom, my son and me. I also have aunts, uncles, and cousins. For the most part, I am close with my cousins. We’re all around the same age, grew up in the same generation with access to the same elements of popular culture. I saw my cousins during the summer at family picnics most of the time when I was a kid, and now I make time to see them when I can. I spend a lot of time with my cousin Tara. I think of her as a best friend and sister, not just a cousin. She’s 1 of 4 kids and I’m an only child. Her sister and I are the same age and get along well too, but we don’t hang out as often as I’d like. Tara and I have similar tastes in music, movies, television shows, art, food, and enjoy mean jokes at the expense of others. She’s a talented artist, a supportive and loving person, and she can always make me laugh or think more clearly about something happening in my life. I will happily tell you that I am blessed with an amazingly diverse and interesting collection of friends and acquaintances. One of my best friends, Pat, has been my friend since we were 14 or 15 years old. He has an uncanny ability to zero-in on what is at the source of the negative feelings I might be feeling about any given situation. Sometimes it’s spooky how well he knows me, but I don’t know what I would do without his friendship. His ability to make me laugh never ceases to amaze me and he is always brutally honest with me when I find myself in crappy situations. He’s usually the first to tell me that I can a) overcome the problem, and b) if I look at a situation a little differently and take full responsibility for my own actions, 9 times out of 10, things will be just fine. I have other amazing friends, like Sarah and Isabelle who have been in my life as long as Pat has, and I have newer friends, like Stephanie who I feel like I’ve known just as long. And, I can’t forget my friend Danielle. She always has a way of making sure I’m taken care of, even if it’s just getting together to talk over dinner. Friends and social occasions really make a difference in my life. Typically, I prefer one-on-one interactions or small gatherings, but every now and then I attend larger events. I have a touch of social anxiety, so that’s where my good friend Booze comes in to play again. Out of 100 days, 31 of my posts were about friends and family.
  1. Film & Television. I’m obsessed with popular culture and have long-loved the escapism of watching movies and TV shows. My preferences for genre tend to be Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, Black Comedies, Historical Dramas, Mysteries, and Romance, but usually the Paranormal variety. I love vampires, werewolves, demons, ghosts, and other things that go bump in the night. And, I love superheroes. Marvel’s film franchise has provided me with hours and hours of happiness. And, I’ve been known to fall in love with fictional characters. Here’s a short list: Loki, Magneto, Wolverine, Captain America, John Constantine, Elijah Mikaelson, Hannibal Lecter, Francis Dolarhyde, Damon Salvatore, Simon Bellamy, Lucifer, Preacher, Lawrence Talbot, Rupert Giles, Spock, John Mitchell, Captain Ross Poldark, Spike, Doctor Who…well, you get the idea. In fact, if you’ve read my blog before, you’re familiar with my obsessions and may even share some of them. 12 of 100 posts referred to films or TV.
  1. Books. Reading is important to me. I don’t remember a time in my life when books were not available to me. Bookshelves filled with books, trips to the library and used books stores, talking about new books that a favorite writer had written – these were all common occurrences in my childhood. Before I could read, family members and teachers read to me. Once I could read on my own, I read as many books as I could get my hands on. Stories bring a certain richness to my life that I often can’t find anywhere else. My love of stories, books and words led me to become an English major in college. Why? Because I love to read and write (I’ll get to that shortly). I’ll read just about anything, but like my preferences in film and television, my taste in genre and to a certain extent literary fiction, are the speculative genres – Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction. I also enjoy nonfiction. Over the past few months, I have been consuming Roxane Gay’s books, An Untamed State, Difficult Women, and Bad Feminist. Her writing speaks to me in so many unexpected ways. Not only does she show me the different parts of myself that would normally seem disconnected, but she also shows me how they relate to each other to make me a whole and complicated person. And, more importantly, she makes me want to be a better writer. Books appeared in at least 12 of my posts.
  1. Writing. Writing has been a part of my life almost as long as reading. Narratives have always been an important part of my life. Whether I was watching a Hitchcock film or favorite Western with my grandfather, an epic Romance or Soap Opera with my grandmother, “Creature Double Feature” or “Dark Shadows” with my mother, “King Fu Theater” or “The Prisoner” with my father, or enjoying the ridiculous premises you’d find in 80s music videos, and later an obsession with foreign language films, I consumed a lot of narratives in and out of books growing up. Stephen King’s books lined the bookshelves in almost every house in my immediate family. A year or so ago, my aunt bequeathed her Stephen King collection to me. I hadn’t read a lot of his books, but I had seen film adaptations of them. In the last few years, I took the time to read Carrie, The Shining, The Gunslinger, Misery, Salem’s Lot, and I just finished listening to Doctor Sleep as an audio book in my car. I tried reading IT at one point, but I couldn’t get past the clown. It’s weird. I can watch the film starring Tim Curry and I can’t wait to see the remake with Bill Skarsgård, but the book scares the shit out of me. One day, I will read that book cover to cover. Today is not that day. As much as I love Stephen King’s fiction, my favorite Stephen King book is On Writing. It is the only craft book that ever brought me to tears. I have two copies. A copy I bought to read while earning my MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University, and the copy I found on my dad’s bookshelves after he died. My dad was a writer. He wrote a lot, but never finished writing his novel. I finished writing my first novel after his death in 2015. I’ve since started writing 2 more novels, and I’ve been writing poetry and short fiction since I was 12. I’ve only had one short story published, but I will have more of my work published, damn it. I owe that much to my dad. And, I can’t talk about writing without talking about Anne Rice. She is probably one of the biggest influences on my writing, and I must give her at least partial credit for why I write about vampires. Her novels gave vocabulary to some of the things I thought and felt as a teenager, and her vampires made me feel more alive than any characters I’d find in the fiction geared toward teenagers at the time. Thanks for all the good books, Anne. Your work gave me the courage to write about taboo subjects in a way that allowed me to talk about the beauty I found in them.
  1. Self-Care. Technically, participating in the #100happydays challenge is an act of self-care itself. Taking the time to pay attention and make note of the things that make you happy really is an enlightening exercise. In doing so, I found myself seeking out more ways to care for myself. I ate healthier foods. I spent more time in the company of people I love. I tried to develop better habits, like exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and scheduling downtime so that I could do the things that recharge me and fill my brain with creative ideas. Don’t want to take my word for it? Try the #100happydays challenge for yourself and see what I mean. Self-care and self-love are not selfish acts. Doing nice things for yourself, taking care of yourself, enables us to care for the other people in our lives without killing ourselves to do so.
  1. Art. I’ve talked about several art forms/crafts in this post, namely writing and visual media. I’d also include culinary arts in that list. However, I also like to go to museums and galleries to check out the work of mixed media artists – painters, sculptors, ceramicists, collage makers, and several other mediums. During my 100-day challenge, I visited two galleries, CALC in Carlisle, PA, where my son had a drawing in one of the local student art shows, and Metropolis Collective in Mechanicsburg, PA, as well as The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. In each art space, I got to see some wonderfully beautiful, disturbing, and thought-provoking art. I need to go to more museums, and I need to create more of my own art. Perhaps there are projects I can work on with my son this summer to get us both creating and spending more quality time together.
  1. Michael Fassbender. Laugh if you must, but Michael Fassbender’s work as an actor brings me happiness on a regular basis. I had enjoyed his work in films prior to last summer when I went to see X-men: Apocalypse, but for some reason, his portrayal of Magneto in that film struck a chord with me that caused me to not only revisit X-men: First Class and X-men: Days of Future Past, but I also rewatched Inglourious Bastards, and then began making my way through his entire body of work. I’m particularly fond of Shame, 12 Years a Slave, A Dangerous Method, Jane Eyre, Jonah Hex, Macbeth, Prometheus, Slow West, and I loved him in the TV show “Hex”. His characters make me laugh, cry, think, feel shame, and I’m not going to lie, ignite my desire. He is a beautiful and talented man. Eventually, I will see all his film and television performances. His Magneto breaks my heart, and makes me question right and wrong. After watching 12 Years a Slave, I went through a period of deep meditation and self-reflection based on my confused feelings of repulsion and attraction for his character, Edwin Epps. His Carl Jung left me feeling sexually frustrated, and his Rochester made me realize how many toxic relationships I have been in and examine why I keep returning to those doomed relationships. He is a master of his craft, not just a handsome face.

This was not my first #100happydays challenge rodeo, so I can attest to the fact that most of the claims made by the folks at 100happydays.com are true. Are they true every single day of the challenge? No. I don’t think anyone is happy every single day of their life. However, I will say that by taking the time to notice the things that do make me happy, I have a better understanding of my own happiness (or lack of happiness). I understand that happiness is a choice, and we are responsible for creating it for ourselves. And, like me, you might be surprised to find that happiness is all around us. All we need to do is take inventory and remind ourselves that happiness is not completely out of reach. In fact, it may be closer than you think.

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