Fiction Fragments: Sarah Read

Last week, Girl Meets Monster had a great conversation with horror writer, Todd Keisling, about religion in horror fiction and how COVID-19 has impacted his writing. This week, I have the pleasure of talking with Bram Stoker Award winner, Sarah Read.

Sarah ReadSarah Read is a dark fiction writer in the frozen north of Wisconsin. Her short stories can be found in various places, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year vols 10 and 12. A collection of her short fiction called OUT OF WATER is available now from Trepidatio Publishing, as is her debut novel THE BONE WEAVER’S ORCHARD, both nominated for the Bram Stoker Awards. When she’s not staring into the abyss, she knits. You can find her online on Instagram or Twitter @inkwellmonster or on her site at www.inkwellmonster.wordpress.com.

Three Questions

GMM: Hello Sarah. Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and congratulations on winning a Bram Stoker Award for your debut novel, The Bone Weaver’s Orchard. Tell me about how the book came about. What inspired the story, and what motivated you to finish your first novel?

SR: Thank you so much, Michelle! The book came about because I wanted to write a scary book that wedged between the gap of YA horror and adult horror. I had never been entirely satisfied with YA horror as a young reader–it wasn’t scary enough, or dark enough, it lacked honesty, and too often I could see the author pulling punches. I started reading adult horror when I was nine. I liked the scary side of it much better, but the stakes always seemed to hinge on grownup problems that I couldn’t relate to enough to fully sympathize with the characters. From there, I just took my love for Gothic lit and tossed in all my favorite ingredients. I wrote the novel for NaNoWriMo, I think back in 2014. My husband was working nights at the time, as a janitor in a hospital. Once I got our (then only) son in bed, I’d sit in my favorite chair with a notebook and pen and hit my word count for the day. I didn’t quite get that celebratory feeling when finishing it, because my inner editor had been keeping a tally of all the broken pieces I knew I was going to have to go in and fix. Writing “The End” was a moment of, “Oh shit, now the real work starts!” And it did, and lasted for several years.

GMM: Last week, I asked Todd Keisling to talk about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted his writing process. Many writers have shared on social media that they are struggling to focus on their work and haven’t been as productive as they normally would be. How has the pandemic affected your writing process? Has it inspired new stories? What advice would you give other writers who might be struggling to get words on the page?

SR: Oh gosh, my writing has been almost nonexistent for close to eight weeks now. I have two kids at home with me, stuck in the house. My eldest is 12 and has 4-6 hours of virtual classes a day, and my youngest is 5, and has no home schoolwork. My days are spent teaching 6th grade, playing with my youngest, troubleshooting eldest’s tech problems, fixing snacks every ten minutes, and I’m still also working as a librarian from home, doing virtual programs for our patrons. I’m also still freelancing (writing, editing), though I’ve had to cut back a bit on that. My husband is still at work full time. When he gets home and takes over with the kids is when my workday starts, and I’m usually not done until almost midnight. Honestly, though, even if my schedule wasn’t a shitshow, my anxiety would probably polish off any creative energy that might surface. I’ve had a few good writing sessions since this all started, but I’m definitely not anywhere close to my usual output. I’ve been at this level of anxiety once before, when I was pregnant with my second son and he kept trying to die in utero over and over and over. I was on bed rest for seven months. I thought I’d get so much done! But it was a terrifying time, and my creative energy was re-routed to self-preservation. Instead I burned through Netflix and played Age of Empires. Now it’s Animal Crossing, if I can catch a moment. I feel less guilty this time, and more comfortable focusing on taking care of myself and my family.

GMM: Your fragment has a definite fantasy feel to it, with a hint f Shakespearean drama with the death of the family patriarch and what is promising to be a dispute over who will take his place as Lord. Do you feel more at home writing fantasy or horror, or do you typically combine the two genres? Can you give a brief synopsis of The Atropine Tree?

SR: I definitely frolic in dark fantasy, and tend to blend it with horror fairly often, sometimes crossing into the Weird territory altogether. I don’t know that I prefer one style over the others. Each story feels like home while I’m writing it. The Atropine Tree definitely dances along the Weird line. It’s unabashedly paranormal, where I usually tend to keep my ghosties more ambiguous. I’m having a blast working on it, though.

The synopsis:

Alrick’s uncle Tredan has his father’s last breath trapped in a blue bottle in his lab. Which is good, because they’ll need him to weigh in on a matter of succession and the location of the missing will.

Alrick’s father is dead, but the lords and ladies of House Aldane are restless spirits. When Alrick’s half-brother Aemon (bitter and cruel) and his sister Nelda (whose mouth is stained black from poison and who sways on the line between living and dead) show up with a lawyer and a dodgy will, Alrick and his alchemist uncle must turn to some dark arts to harness the voices of their household spirits. They must win witchy Nelda’s loyalty and turn her against the powerful demonic specter of her mother, and learn to swallow her poisons in the process.

Tredan’s army of young urchins rescued from the streets of London—the scratchlings, only half of whom survived his medical administrations—will aid them in their quest to secure the land and title for Alrick.

The Atropine Tree is a weird, Gothic Victorian ghost story about family loyalty and feuds that span generations, both living and dead. They all want a home of their own—and they all want House Aldane. It’s like Downton Abbey set in Hell House with the characters of Oliver Twist and a chaser of nightshade.

The Atropine Tree, Sarah Read

Chapter One

Alrick had arrived in time, but only just. The collar of his shirt strained against his throat, his cuffs pinched his wrists like ropes binding him to his father’s bedside.

Lord Drummond’s chest rose with a sound like chalk on slate, like plough on stone—each exhalation a surrender against the struggle to draw breath.

Alrick’s uncle Tredan leaned in and held a blue orb jar to the old Lord’s slack mouth. The fog of his breath that had clouded the glass only an hour ago now barely reached past the rim.

Tredan stood poised with the lid.

Alrick counted the breaths. Counted the beads of perspiration gathered in his uncle’s beard, counted the coarse ridges of his father’s knuckles that he held between his hands. The Lord’s cold, dry hands seemed to wick the moisture from Alrick’s hot palms. He spun the ring that hung loose on his father’s finger. Those hands had once been thick with callous, rough with half-healed tears, but now the skin draped from his fingerbones like half-drawn curtains. Like the end of an act. The end of everything.

Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen. He counted.

He wondered if his school had somehow been frozen in time. If in his six years there, a hundred years had passed at House Aldane.

“Thirteen. Twelve. Eleven.” His half-sister, Nelda, counted, too. Whispered, so that the fine veil across her face barely stirred.

“Three. Two.” Nelda’s voice faded.

His father wore at least a hundred years across his brow. The jar pressed into the greying skin, burrowed in thinning whiskers. Covered the lines Alrick had watched as a child, searching for that rare trace of humor. The lines that had faded, erased after his mother died.

The lid of the jar snapped into place—and that was how Alrick Aldane learned that his father, Lord Drummond Aldane, was dead.

Uncle Tredan held the jar up to the candlelight. The mist of Alrick’s father’s last breath stretched like a ghost down the side of the jar.

While Alrick watched the light play over the droplets condensing in Tredan’s bottle, the other eyes in the room watched Alrick.

He had come home to bid his father farewell, but he would not be returning to school.

The gold signet ring stuck at his father’s knuckle. He feared he’d tear the soft crepe skin if he twisted or pulled too hard. Alrick looked to Tredan.

“I’ll take care of it. I’ll have it back to you this evening.” He slid his blue bottle into the pocket of his long coat, and for a moment, Alrick thought the bulge it formed moved as if it were breathing.

Alrick nodded and laid the slack hand on the sheet.

“Best to wait.”

Alrick turned to the voice, to his half-brother Aemon who sat in the far corner beyond the reach of the candlelight, save for its shine off his eyes and teeth.

“And why is that?” asked Alrick. If a hundred years had passed at House Aldane, a thousand had passed since he’d seen his brother. Not since his mother sent Nelda and Aemon away, to live with their mother’s family. Just before she had died. Their return to House Aldane was a special exception. Alrick himself had granted it. Lord Drummond had been their father, too, and now the four of them—Alrick, Aemon, Nelda, and Tredan—were all that remained of the ancient Aldane family.

“Father’s will hasn’t been read, yet.” The shine of Aemon’s smile stretched wide.

“Let’s not speak of such things now,” Tredan said. He waved the housekeeper Merewyn over and she began to see to Lord Drummond, a half-hitch in her breath that stirred Alrick’s own grief.

The powder smell of her apron pulled at his heart like a chain yanking him back to his childhood, to her lap, the soft cushion from which he had learned his home—the whole world. His whole world.

He reached up and ran his fingers over the wood of the wide beam that spanned the low ceiling. It had seemed so high when he was young. How he had leapt, in this very spot, to reach these distant beams. Landed there on the bed where his father now lay.

Fallen. Already sinking through the linens into the straw, as if life itself had buoyancy, and now the Lord was leaden.

Merewyn rolled a bit of blanket under his chin to hold his mouth closed. A sliver of rheumy yellow flashed from beneath his eyelids, the stillness of those soft folds uncanny. It sent cold down the back of Alrick’s neck. No living eyes could ever be so still.

“He’s with Mother, now,” Nelda said.

“With Burgrune.” Aemon put his hand on his sister’s shoulder.

Tredan nodded. “Yes, and Eleanor. He loved them both.”

“I know,” Aemon said, “I saw.”

“So you did,” agreed Tredan. “We should go. Give Merewyn room.”

Three children entered the room. All wore undyed linen smocks, their heads shaved close. Their faces were scarred with the ravages of old pox that left their skin like masks. They were urchins from London—orphans that Tredan claimed and cured.

I’m an orphan. The thought came unbidden to Alrick’s mind.

No, I’m a young man. Not a child. A Lord.

The children set to helping Merewyn—cleaning the room and folding clothes. Alrick almost wished himself in one of those smocks. Something to do. A duty. A place in the world, instead of spinning uncertainty.

Tredan’s hand rested on his shoulder and steered him toward the door. Alrick stole a final glimpse back at his father. His eyelids had slid further back. His pale eyes stared out into the room, each rolling to the opposite side. Perhaps there was a wife at each bedside and he greeted them both. Perhaps one eye looked to the past and one to the future. Or perhaps he was roving, surrounded by devils.

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

Fiction Fragments: Todd Keisling

Last week I had a great chat about comics and writing inspiration with writer and illustrator, Cat Scully. This week, Girl Meets Monster is thrilled to welcome horror writer Todd Keisling.

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Todd Keisling is a writer and designer of the horrific and strange. He is an author of several books, including Devil’s Creek, The Final Reconciliation, and Ugly Little Things: Collected Horrors, among other shorter works.

A pair of his earlier works were recipients of the University of Kentucky’s Oswald Research & Creativity Prize for Creative Writing (2002 and 2005), and his second novel, The Liminal Man, was a finalist for the Indie Book Award in Horror & Suspense (2013).

He is a former editor for The Self-Publishing Review, hosted Crystal Lake Publishing’s Beneath the Lake interview series, and co-hosted the popular live YouTube series Awkward Conversations with Geeky Writers alongside Mercedes M. Yardley, Anthony J. Rapino, Nikki Nelson-Hicks, Eryk Pruitt, and Amelia Bennett.

He dabbles in graphic design under the moniker of Dullington Design Co., and his work has graced the covers of titles published by Silver Shamrock Publishing, Flame Tree Press, Third Crow Press, Crystal Lake Publishing, Precipice Books, and Nightscape Publishing.

His written work has been praised by Cemetery Dance, This Is Horror, Night Worms, The Eyes of Madness, Hellnotes, and Horror Novel Reviews.

A former Kentucky resident, Keisling now lives somewhere in the wilds of Pennsylvania with his family where he is at work on his next novel.

Share his dread:
Twitter: @todd_keisling
Instagram: @toddkeisling
www.toddkeisling.com

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Todd. I’m so excited to have this chance to ask you some questions and learn more about you. I’ve enjoyed reading your short fiction and you seem to be publishing quite a lot lately, both short fiction and novels. During this very strange time of social distancing and the fears associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, some writers, including myself, have been struggling to get words on the page. How are you staying motivated to keep writing? What obstacles have you experienced? What does your process look like at the moment?

TK: Thanks for inviting me! Honestly, I wish I had a good answer to this, but I’m afraid I don’t. Truth is, I’m in the same boat as you and all the other writers out there who are struggling to make the magic happen on the page. I was talking to a writer pal of mine earlier today, expressing my concerns about my complete lack of focus on…well, anything, really. My productivity has nearly dropped to zero, and what little writing I have done over the last several weeks has been in small bites. On a good day, I used to average anywhere between 500 to 1K words. Lately, I think I’ve written maybe 2K words in the last three weeks.

I’ve made it no secret that I deal with anxiety and depression on a daily basis, but with the threat of COVID, the monotony of quarantine, and how uncertain our futures are, everything’s been turned up to eleven. At times it feels like we’re living with a real-life version of Delillo’s “airborne toxic event,” with the concept of our mortality much more upfront and in focus than usual. Working on my next novel just seems kind of minuscule right now in the scheme of things, you know?

That said, in the times when I’ve managed to plant my ass in front of the manuscript, I’ve constantly reminded myself that what I’m writing isn’t permanent. It’s a first draft. It’s okay for it to be shit. And it’s okay not to write every day.

I know that’s all very basic Writer 101 stuff, but I’ve found that’s what works for me in times when my mental health isn’t at its best. And, really, I think that’s what might be best for all of us right now: take things a day at a time, remind yourself that it’s okay not to be perfect, and do what you can. We’re all in panic mode right now, whether we want to admit it or not, and I think it’s imperative we be kind to ourselves above all else.

GMM: Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were plenty of scary things happening in the world — politically, environmentally, economically, socially. How have current events shaped your writing? Is it easier to write horror during times characterized by fear and uncertainty? What scares you the most?

TK: I think those things are always in the back of my head one way or another, and they usually inform my characters or their motivations. Writing horror has always been an outlet for me, a way of exorcising my demons and dealing with those issues by way of writing them down. So, when it comes to facing the socio-economic uncertainty of our times, I tend to do so through my characters.

For example, I’ve been working on revising and expanding my first two novels while also writing the final novel in that trilogy. The main character and his wife are Millennials, he’s had to take on a crappy job in order to provide for her since she has health issues that prevent her from working, and the issue of money is a constant source of friction between them.

Over the course of the series, the protagonist’s job, life choices, and his inability to escape this box he’s built for himself serve as a subtext for the horror that unfolds. There’s a kind of unspoken economic anxiety that manifests in certain situations throughout the story—the idea of being sold an education that doesn’t live up to its promise, the debilitating cost of healthcare, the way we’re forced to compromise our goals in order to scrape by every day, and so on.

I’m a Millennial. I worked in a single income household for half a decade. I’ve experienced those hardships, lost sleep over hating my job, put off doctor visits because of the expense (even with insurance), felt completely lost and trapped, and had ridiculous arguments with my spouse over money. Losing my home, losing my family, losing myself—those things are what scare me, and all those situations, fears, and anxieties usually manifest in my fiction. Often in horrific ways. It’s the only way I know how to deal with them.

GMM: After reading your excerpt, I started thinking about the role religion often plays in horror fiction. You describe what I assume was a religious community with cult-like followers that ended in tragedy, as they are often wont to do. I sometimes joke about the fact that most of my knowledge of religion comes from horror fiction and movies. How much of an impact has religion had on your writing? Is it a recurring theme in your horror fiction?

TK: “I sometimes joke about the fact that most of my knowledge of religion comes from horror fiction and movies.”

It’s funny you said this, Michelle, because I’m the opposite. Almost everything I know about horror comes from a religious background.

I grew up in southeastern Kentucky, in a Southern Baptist household. When I was a kid, I was indoctrinated in that way of thinking, so everything I did was overshadowed with this impending doom of eternal damnation if I didn’t live the way I was told. I had a very clear picture of Hell from a young age, and now that I think about it, it probably had something to do with the anxiety issues I deal with now. There’s always this fear of not measuring up, of always falling short, and so on.

Anyway, when it comes to horror, religion is always going to be a place to find the darkest aspects of mankind. So much has been done in the name of a god, be it one with a capital G or otherwise, and all for the purpose of manipulating minds, curating division, or justifying bloodshed. I’m reminded of the song “Mist and Shadow” by The Sword: Why do people wonder if there is evil in the world? / If it’s lurking in the darkness until its plans can unfurl / When it’s standing before you in the clear light of day / In a finely tailored suit with a smile on its face.

All of that is my long-winded way of saying “Yes” to your question. Religion tends to be a recurring theme in my fiction, especially over the last few years. In relation to my forthcoming novel, Devil’s Creek, religion is a means of revealing the worst in people. If I had to sum up the book, it’s about how an infectious religion—and the resulting zealotry—can destroy a community.

DEVIL’S CREEK – Excerpt

Silver Shamrock Publishing – Release Date 6/16/20

His mind wandered into the dark, and his imagination had its way with him again. Being alone in this ghost town unsettled him, put him on edge like he’d never felt before. He felt like a trespasser in a graveyard. The folks who’d pulled up stakes, sold all their belongings, and given it to his father’s church for the sake of building a utopia in the forest all died here. Their spirits would roam here for the rest of eternity, walking hand in hand, replaying the final moments of their lives.

“Stop it,” he said, ignoring the chattering of his teeth. “You’re scaring yourself.”

Maybe it was the dark. Maybe it was the empty village of the dead. Maybe it was the fact his friend hadn’t come back.

Oh shit.

Zeke stood and crept to the edge of the doorway. He peered out. Moonlight filtered through the trees, illuminating a path through the remains of the holy compound.

“Waylon?” The forest rustled and breathed around him. He cleared his throat and spoke louder. “Waylon, stop fuckin’ around, man.”

The forest said nothing, and neither did his friend. Another chill swept over him, racking his body with shivers for a full minute until he got a grip on himself.

This is stupid, he thought. You’re freaking yourself out for nothing. That dipshit is out there laughing his ass off at you. He knew all along what this place meant to you, and he brought you here just to fuck with you.

“And it’s working,” he mumbled. The forest absorbed his voice, masking it with the primitive sounds of nature, of crickets and rodents in the brush and brambles, of rustling leaves in a wind far too cold for this time of year. He called out to Waylon again and waited, listening to his heart thud heavily in his chest.

One-one-thousand.

Two-one-thousand.

Three-one-thousand.

Four-one—

A guttural scream tore through the night, shredding any hope of this being a joke. Heart racing, his legs like jelly, Zeke scrambled out of the shack and into the fractured moonlight. He called to Waylon once more, but his friend was silent. The forest swallowed his cries as easily as it swallowed his mind, projecting phantoms through the undergrowth, shadow puppets in the dim glow of the moon. Everything moved around him, driven by the wind, and the constant hiss of rustling leaves filled his head with serpents.

Confused, his heart in the grip of an icy terror he’d not felt since he was a child, Zeke Billings pumped his legs and forced himself forward into the dark. He followed the dim outline of a trail through the center of the village, past a dozen overgrown structures, their slipshod windows filled with the faces of the dead. He saw them from the corner of his eye as he ran, and he told himself they weren’t there, they were tricks of moonlight, broken by the limbs and leaves and reassembled by his feral imagination.

His drive to find Waylon was fueled by a desire to leave this place, to leave its silent memory of servitude and damnation behind forever, cast back into the darkened halls of his nightmares.

So he ran. He ran until a phantom fist clenched at his ribs, tugging with each step he took. He ran until his heart pumped steam and his lungs burst with fire. Tears streamed down his face as he shot forward to the clearing ahead, each step more laborious than the last, and when his feet caught the rotted husk of a fallen log, he welcomed the sweet collapse. The hard, musty earth and soft grass of an open field met his face.

Zeke pushed himself from the ground and rose to his knees. He wiped his eyes, and when his vision finally cleared, his heart sank deep into his gut.

“No, no, no, not here, anywhere but here…”

Calvary Hill rose in the center of the clearing, the old stony pathway up its face overgrown with weeds. The church was long gone, of course, burned to cinders and ash decades before, but its ghost remained in the window of his imagination.

A full moon hung overhead, aligned perfectly over the hill like the unblinking eye of God. Susan’s words filled his head, a memory from earlier when the world still made some semblance of sense to him. It’s a full moon tonight.

Zeke stood on his knees, staring up at the silent monument of his childhood, watching incredulously as the earth breathed in the moonlit glow. He was so enraptured by the sight, he didn’t register movement from the corner of his eye.

There were sucking sounds coming from behind him. Slurping, cracking, crunching sounds. A spike of fear wedged itself into his belly, filling him with a numbing cold leeching his last ounce of resolve. Slowly, Zeke turned his head toward the sounds, his heart shooting back into high gear when he saw the hulking shadow leaning over the dead log.

The shadow moved, allowing the moonlight to wash over the log, and Zeke froze in horror.

Waylon lay sprawled on the grass, one leg twisted back at an impossible angle, his glassy eyes locked on the indifferent sky above, and a grotesque sneer of agony frozen to his face. His shirt was ripped open, his chest nothing more than a cavity of exposed meat and gore. A light tendril of steam rose from the warmth of his entrails.

The shadow reached into the hole of Waylon’s chest, snapped off one of his ribs, and began sucking on the marrow.

“Oh God,” Zeke mumbled, the words barely more than a rasp, and the shadow heard him. It raised its head and turned toward him, revealing a face coated in mud and blood. Worms writhed through the thing’s greasy hair, feeling their way along the curve of its forehead and around the dried “o” of an old gunshot wound. The shadow crunched down on Waylon’s broken rib and cast its gaze upon him. Its eyes glowed, two sapphire orbs floating in the dark.

Zeke Billings met the living face of his nightmare and began to scream.

Jacob Masters flashed a grim smile. “My little lamb,” he rasped.

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

Why I’m Not Making New Year’s Resolutions for 2020

jamie-street--d6kTMGXV6E-unsplashEach year as the holidays get into full swing, I begin thinking about what happened during the year — the good stuff, the bad stuff, the stuff I wished I had done differently. And usually, I begin to feel a bit melancholy about all the things I didn’t accomplish. I had a lot of ups and downs in 2019. But lots of good things happened, like having two short stories published in anthologies with Scary Dairy Press, and my debut novel, Invisible Chains, was released at Necon 39 by Haverhill House Publishing. People I admire and respect had some very nice things to say about my book and I couldn’t be happier. In my own heart and mind, I am now a real horror writer. I became a guest blogger for Speculative Chic where I get to write about one of my favorite subjects: vampires. I dipped my toes into unknown waters by writing a few articles for Medium. And, because of those tangible successes, I’m beginning to take myself more seriously as I embrace the idea of becoming a professional writer (even if I still can’t quit my day job).

I reconnected with old friends, made new friends, and deepened some of my relationships with my close female friends and family who continued to join me on this journey around the sun another year. And in the process of spending time with those people, I learned a lot about myself. I’m looking forward to spending more time with all of you and can’t wait to create new memories. We have many more adventures ahead of us in the coming year and beyond.

Looking ahead to 2020, I’ve decided not to come up with a list of resolutions like I normally do. Statistics show that 80 percent of people will fail to keep their resolutions. I’ve been seeing a trend on social media that encourages people to choose one word to represent the things they want to achieve in the coming year and to create positive change rather than set up a bunch of unattainable goals that set you up for failure.

What is my word for the year? CREATIVITY

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As a writer, this word has a lot of meaning to me in terms of what I’m creating. I have several writing projects I fully intend to finish in the coming year, and I want to take a deep dive into reconnecting with my creative energy. That means finding more time to read, reflect, and experiment with my writing. It also means pushing myself out of my comfort zone by submitting more work and taking more risks.

I want to apply this word to the way I approach my entire life — how I eat, how I move, how I worship, how I grow, and how I love.

I am officially divorcing myself from the toxic institution of diet culture. I have struggled with weight loss and self-esteem issues since I was 10 and I am done with feeling shame about my body. I am going to get creative about how I feed myself by trying new recipes with my son, cooking for friends, and learning to enjoy food rather than seeing it as something I am constantly judging and evaluating like myself.

I’m also going to get creative about how I move my body. Exercise is something I usually view as punishment for the “bad” food choices I make. No more. I am going to try some new forms of movement this year. Activities that feel more like play than work. And, I’m going to make more of an effort to get outside and enjoy Nature. It isn’t enough to just move more. I want to learn to love my body. Not because I finally conquer it and bend it to my will, but because I accept it as it is right now in this moment and treat it with the love, care and kindness I would show a loved one.

Over the past several months, I flipped the script and started listening to not only my own intuition, but also what black women and women of color — women who look like me — have to say about health, healing, mindfulness and spiritual practices. Women like Bre Mitchell whose podcast, Brown Girl Self-Care, examines how women of color can learn from each other to heal themselves and their communities while addressing how institutionalized racism further complicates gender-bias, single parenthood, sexuality, abusive relationships, ancestral trauma, poverty, depression/anxiety, access to healthcare, and other issues disenfranchised women around the world deal with on a daily basis while simply trying to survive. I’m going to allow myself to trust my own inner voice, the voices of women of color, and the voices of my ancestors I have been ignoring. In 2020, my goddess spirit guides for creativity will include Kali, Frida Khalo, and Yemaya. Strong feminine beings who embody raw creative power and the healing magic of transformation.

And finally, I’m going to apply this creative vibration to how I view romantic relationships. At 47, dating has become more of a chore than something I enjoy. Being single doesn’t have to be a negative experience. Instead, I’d like to look at this phase of my life as an opportunity to grow and learn more about myself without worrying about how others perceive me. I’m burned out on online dating and I don’t have lots of opportunities to meet new people face-to-face. As a single parent who works full-time and is pursuing a writing career, I don’t have a lot of free time. And, I’m not satisfied with the asynchronous dating model of texting and waiting for days to hear back from someone who I might not see for months. That isn’t dating. At least, it isn’t what I want. So, I’m going to date myself in 2020 and come up with some interesting ideas of places to take myself and create new ways to show myself some love. If I end up meeting someone who genuinely wants to take the time to get to know me, great. If not, I’m still going to enjoy myself on this next rotation around the sun.

What will your word be in 2020?

Am I a Real Horror Writer?

Last night, I finally sat down to watch Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019). If you’re a horror fan and haven’t watched this amazing documentary, I highly recommend it. Based on Robin R. Means Coleman’s book, Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present (2011), the film not only discusses the historical lack of representation of black characters in horror films, but also examines the misrepresentations of black people when they appeared in them. As you might expect, the filmmakers and actors discussing the films and their historically important contexts talk about their fears and experiences with racism while trying to create art within a genre that subconsciously depicts monsters as The Other in relation to white people and culture in place of ethnic minorities.

After watching the documentary, I was inspired to watch a film from the Blaxploitation era, Sugar Hill (1974), which is about a woman, Sugar Hill, who uses Voodoo to avenge the death of her fiance. The film opens with what appears to be a Voodoo ritual with black people in traditional Haitian Voodoo garb dancing to a serious drum beat. I couldn’t help thinking of Angel Heart (1987), and expected to see Epiphany Proudfoot show up with her chicken. As the opening credits end, so does the dance and we become aware of the fact that the people dancing aren’t in a secluded location away from prying eyes, they are actually performers at a place called Club Haiti. They are performing Voodoo for a predominantly white audience. They are literally performing an aspect of blackness that is a stereotypical representation of black people in horror films. This also made me think of a similar scene in Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988).

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Typically, in horror films, Voodoo is shown as something evil, something to be feared. Depicting Voodoo practitioners as women who use their magic to hurt others, or exact vengeance, is a trope that I worried about perpetuating while writing Invisible Chains. I didn’t want to stick to the common stereotypes associated with black women, especially mambos, in horror narratives.

While Sugar is a strong female lead in a horror film, the film is still riddled with tropes like dangerous black women using magic for revenge. Her fiance, Langston, owns Club Haiti. A white gangster wants to buy it, but Langston refuses. So, he sends his henchmen to kill him. They beat him to death and leave his body in the parking lot of the club for Sugar to find.

Sugar doesn’t just use magic, she calls upon Baron Samedi who raises an army of the undead made up of former slaves who died of disease while still on slave ships. Their bodies were dumped in the water and washed up on the shore near Sugar’s childhood home. So, this movie has a lot going for it in terms of supernatural horror that looks at racism in the United States (in the past and in the present of the 1970s).

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In exchange for Baron Samedi’s help, Sugar offers up her soul, but he’s more interested in her body. But, Sugar’s final revenge is taken when Baron Samedi takes the racist girlfriend of the gangster back to the Underworld with him in place of Sugar. In my opinion, that gave the film a happy ending.

Black women in roles like Sugar are viewed as frightening and dangerous because they wield power. My protagonist struggles to accept her strengths and often downplays or hides her abilities for fear of being punished for either her knowledge or power. Her strength is a secret and she doesn’t make use of her power until she’s pushed to the limit. She protects herself and others, rather than seeking vengeance.

I worried that by writing her in this way, people wouldn’t accept her as being “authentic,” and I struggled with my decision, which I think says a lot more about me as a writer and how I see myself than it does about my character.

I also struggled with the belief that because this narrative isn’t a traditional horror story — a slave narrative with a black female protagonist — people wouldn’t recognize it as a horror novel. In fact, people challenged the notion that I was writing horror while I was in my MFA program. But, as Tananarive Due puts so succinctly in Horror Noire, ”Black history is black horror.”

I already knew that what I had written is without doubt a horror novel, but having my beliefs confirmed by another writer I respect and admire made me feel a lot better about releasing this novel into the world. Black women have plenty of horror stories to tell, and perhaps, a female slave is the most qualified protagonist for an historical horror story set in America.

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Invisible Chains will be released in a week on July 22, so my anxiety is on the rise. But after watching Horror Noire and Sugar Hill, I feel more confident about how I chose to write my protagonist, Jacqueline, and I may actually be a horror writer.

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

When Life Gives You Lemons, Daydream About Psychotic Vampires

I don’t know about you, but Life has been kicking my ass lately. Due to some issues with my employment over the past several months, I had to start working for a temp agency to earn some money in order to dig myself out of a huge financial hole. Back in August of last year I walked away from a job after realizing that despite all my hard work and effort, I was never going to be seen as a peer or equal by the people who literally rewrote the job description I wrote for my position so that I would no longer qualify for the job I had been doing for 4 years. So, I cobbled together what little dignity I had to spare, and left.

Then I started working for a small company that was struggling financially, which meant that I was struggling financially. I liked the work and the people, but I had to borrow money and pull money out of savings in order to scrape by. I’m behind on all my bills, and I am often crippled with worry about the future.

I was invited to present a paper about vampires at an academic conference in Romania this summer that I had to pull out of, because I couldn’t afford the trip. I’m still a little broken-hearted over the fact that I can’t go, because it was a dream come true. Well, maybe next year.

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On the bright side, I sold a short story and picked up some freelance work writing web content, and I have some amazingly supportive friends and loving family in my corner. Even if they can’t bail me out of debt, they cheer me up and remind me that life isn’t just about collecting a paycheck. Although, paychecks are obviously necessary and I can’t live without them.

This morning on my way to work, a piece of gravel flew up off the road and cracked my windshield. Now I have to figure out the how the hell I’m going to pay to have it repaired, come up with the money for my son to go to summer camp, and oh yeah, pay my rent.

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I am a 46-year-old, divorced woman of color with three college degrees and lots of valuable work experience. I go on interviews every few months in the hopes of finding a better job, but nothing seems to pan out. I spoke to a woman yesterday on the phone about a job, and she said she was worried that I was overqualified. I explained that I’m a single mom. I’m raising my child alone with no child support. I need a job to survive and I’m looking for a stable position where I get to do work I enjoy. Oddly enough, that seemed like a novel idea to her, as if there were jobs falling out of the sky and I had my pick. We’ll see if I pass the personality test she sent me as part of the interview process. That’s right. I took an online personality test today to see if my personality, not just my education and years of experience are a good match for a job I’m overqualified for. Isn’t Life a scream?

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On top of the fact that I’m in non-stop survival mode, I’ve hit my sexual peak and haven’t dated anyone in over a year because I’m not interested in meaningless hookups. To be fair, I’m not exactly in an ideal phase of my life to attract worthy partners. By worthy, I mean single, attractive, kind, interesting, educated, financially stable men with a dark sense of humor who can laugh at themselves and make me laugh, who didn’t vote for Trump, and aren’t members of the NRA. Too specific? I don’t think so. Actually, if you think you meet these qualifications, I’ll be accepting applications later this month. Just kidding. Sort of.

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Sure, I have pleasant flirtations with friends on social media, but again I haven’t been on an actual date since early last year. Psychologically, I’m not sure I’d be very good company some days, but my friends keep telling me I’m a great catch. Whatever. My plate is kind of full with raising my ASD kid, dealing with my own issues of anxiety and depression, while trying to figure out how the hell I’m supposed to pay for everything. All while trying to work full-time and build a writing career.

Writing is one of the most important and soothing activities in my life. Before I ever even considered publishing my work, I wrote because I wanted to, needed to. Most of my life, I have dealt with times of crisis by finding solace in fiction. I read, I watch films and TV, and I write. Some people might tell you I hide in fiction. Screw them. They aren’t my friends. Fiction is a balm that allows me to escape from reality, and right now, mine is a non-stop shit show.

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Some people enjoy watching sports and reality TV shows, or reading romance novels with happily-ever-afters. Unless there are monsters or other supernatural or magically gifted characters involved, I’m not interested in watching. Don’t get me wrong. I love romance, but I like the paranormal variety, where crazy women fall in love with vampires, werewolves and demons. If you’ve read any of my other blog posts, you know that I absolutely love monsters. Vampires are my favorite monsters, and have been since before I was a teenager. I like complicated characters who are a bit more villain than hero who have faced such great tragedy that they go a little crazy. So, naturally, insane vampires are at the top of my list when it comes to being entertained.

One of the craziest and most entertaining vampires ever is Franklin Mott. Over the weekend, I treated myself by watching all of the True Blood episodes Franklin appears in, so I could laugh, get creeped out, and forget about my troubles for a few hours. I indulged my love of monster soap operas and reminded myself that things could be much worse. I could be tied to a toilet in a cheap motel while being held against my will by an insane vampire who thinks he’s in love with me. Wait. Actually, that sounds like a fun weekend.

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Franklin Mott is a Grade-A psycho. We’re first introduced to Franklin, played by British actor James Frain, in episode two of the third season of True Blood, “Beautifully Broken,” in which Lafayette Reynolds prevents his cousin, Tara Thornton, from committing suicide while mourning the death of her murderous boyfriend, Eggs. Tara is not only mourning the death of her boyfriend, but the fact that the happiest she ever felt in her life was when she was being psychically controlled by a maenad. She compares the experience of being head-over-heels in love with Eggs to being a zombie. That complete lack of control scares her and further challenges her belief in the existence of true love, or at the very least, her belief that she might not be worthy of receiving it.

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Tara hasn’t had a lot of luck in the romance department, and she’s beginning to wonder if the problem is her. So, the fact that the next man she attracts is an exceptionally violent vampire, does little to boost her self-image.

Franklin comes to Bon Temps to gather intelligence on Bill Compton for the Vampire King of Mississippi, Russell Edgington, and learn more about his human companion, Sookie Stackhouse. After finding a secret dossier on Sookie hidden in Bill’s office, and disposing of a dead body Jessica has stashed in the cellar, Franklin goes in search of a little R&R at Bon Temps’ hottest night spot, Merlotte’s.

It’s Tara’s night off, but Lafayette wants to keep an eye on her after her suicide attempt. She’s feeling pretty low, but pitches in behind the bar. When Franklin asks how she’s doing, she tells him she’s trying not to kill herself. He jokingly asks how that’s going for her. She says, “I’m still alive.” He says, “That makes one of us.” Tara then gets up and offers him a bottle of True Blood.

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Later in the episode, we see Tara sitting in the parking lot behind the bar drinking Wild Turkey straight from the bottle. Two drunk rednecks stumble out the backdoor, talking shit about Eggs in less than flattering terms, and one of them takes a piss on the spot where he was shot to death. Tara confronts them and things escalate quickly. She gets into a fist fight, but is outmatched until Franklin suddenly comes to her rescue. He helps out by holding one of the men so Tara can continue punching him, releasing some of her rage and grief. While Franklin holds the man and Tara hits him, Franklin’s fangs pop out, clearly turned on by Tara’s bloodlust.

The next time we see Tara and Franklin, they’re in bed together in a cheap motel. Tara has never had sex with a vampire and the experience is eyeball-rollingly orgasmic for both of them. In the midst of the encounter, Tara tells Franklin to bite her, but he refuses. Confused, she asks why. He tells her it’s because she asked him to, and his tone is teasing, playful.

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They continue to have sex until dawn, and Franklin seems to have taken a liking to Tara. He asks her questions about herself wanting to get to know her. Curious as to where all her rage comes from. At this point, he doesn’t even know her name. Unwilling to develop any sort of attachment, Tara gets dressed and tells him she isn’t interested in forming any kind of lasting bond with him. And you get the sense that his feelings might be a little hurt when she leaves.

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Still on assignment for the Vampire King of Mississippi, Franklin continues to follow leads to gather more intel on Bill and learn more about Sookie. He tracks down Bill’s progeny, Jessica, and lets her know that he’s the one who disposed of the body she was hiding. Then he proceeds to grill her for information. In the process of learning more about Bill and Sookie, he also learns that Tara is staying at Sookie’s while she’s off trying to find Bill. Bill was kidnapped by Russell Edgington and is being held captive in Mississippi. Against his better judgment, Eric provides Sookie with a werewolf bodyguard, Alcide Herveaux, who accompanies her to Mississippi.

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Franklin shows up at Sookie’s and Tara is shocked to see him. She refuses to let him come in until he mesmerizes her and bends her to his will. She invites him in and he asks her questions about Bill and Sookie and discovers that Sookie is in Mississippi looking for Bill. Franklin then proceeds to kidnap Tara, claiming that he loves her and wants them to be together. Apparently, whether she likes it or not. This is when we begin to see just how crazy Franklin really is. We get a glimpse of his possessive, controlling nature when he tells Tara that if she keeps smiling while talking about Jason Stackhouse, he might have to get jealous.

Franklin begins exhibiting some of the classic signs of stalker/abuser behavior. He believes that if he has feelings for Tara, she should have feelings for him. It’s okay if she doesn’t right away, because he’s going to convince her that they’re meant to be together. Even if he has to resort to violence. For instance, he bounds and gags Tara in the bathroom of the cheap motel where they had what she believed was their one-night stand. When the sun goes down, Franklin shows up with flowers that he duct tapes to Tara’s bound hands before putting her in his car.

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When she demands to know where he’s taking her, because she views his actions as kidnapping, he acts offended and tells her she’ll ruin the surprise. She’s angry, confused, and terrified. Again, we get the sense that her refusal to simply enjoy the ride hurts his feelings. He imagines a relationship developing between them that is obviously one-sided.

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At one point, Tara demands to know why he keeps her tied up if he has feelings for her, and he tells her it is for her safety. He gets upset and nearly breaks down crying, because again, his feelings are hurt by her implication that he is keeping her tied up to hurt her, not protect her. His behavior becomes more erratic and confusing the more time she spends in his company. However, Tara is a pro at dealing with abusers, and soon learns how best to manipulate Franklin to protect herself and convince him to do what she wants.

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If she shows signs of being upset, he asks who made her feel that way and threatens to kill them. He apologizes for not taking better care of her when he forgets that she needs to eat regular food. He brings her gifts and tries to make her comfortable. Then, he goes a step too far and proposes to her. She obviously can’t say no, but has no desire to become a vampire. If they are wed, he plans to change her so they can be together forever. One of the obvious drawbacks of falling in love with a vampire, or becoming a vampire’s object of desire, is that in order for any long-term love affair to occur, you have to become like them.

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He loves her so much, he wants to kill her. She doesn’t want to die. In fact, she’s horrified by the thought, which is ironic given the fact that she tried to kill herself at the beginning of the episode in which they met. But, I guess the message here is that she wants to die on her own terms. She wants her death to be her own decision. She wants to be in control of her life and death, not at the mercy of a psychotic, love-sick vampire. Beyond that, Tara also realizes that just because someone desires you, that doesn’t mean they have the right to own you. And, Franklin Mott’s version of love entails ownership.

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While watching the episode in which he offers her what amounts to an eternity of slavery to her bloodlust, it wasn’t lost on me that the setting was an old plantation house in the deep South. Tara is essentially a house slave at the mercy of her owner’s desires. Franklin is not her lover, he’s her master. She’s held against her will and forced to endure his poisonous version of affection. Of course, if you tried to explain this concept to Franklin, he’d probably be so offended that he’d black out in a murderous rage and wake up in a room surrounded by body parts.

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Despite his dangerous flaws, Franklin Mott is an interesting character. He has some of the funniest and most memorable lines in season three. His gallows humor, intelligence, biting sarcasm, and taste in mostly all black clothing make him charming and oddly attractive. Something broke inside Franklin long before he became a vampire. There was darkness in him prior to becoming one of the undead. However, even if he wasn’t a vampire, his attraction to vulnerable women who have essentially given up on life makes him a predator.

As fictional characters go, Franklin Mott is right up my alley, but I wouldn’t want to meet someone like him in the real world.

What Dreams May Come

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The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli, 1781

“Dreams are today’s answers to tomorrow’s questions.” ~ Edgar Cayce

I have a recurring dream. You know the one. No, not the one about being naked in public. The other one. And no, it wasn’t the one about showing up to an exam after missing every class for the semester. It was definitely a stress-related dream, like the other two, but this particular dream is a recurring one that many of you may have had at least once in your life. On a regular basis, I have the teeth falling out of my mouth dream. I say dream, but you might say nightmare. Tom-A-to…tom-AH-to. If you had some of my nightmares, or had the teeth falling out dream as often as I have, you might not be as worked up about having it.

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Image by Yingpis Kalayom via Unsplash

I’ve had variations of this dream for as long as I can remember, and it usually occurs during high-stress periods of my life. Guess what? I’m stressed. And you probably are too. If you have a pulse and are not a chronically deluding yourself about how well you’re managing things in your life, then you are stressed.

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Image via American Psychological Association

The good news is, sometimes our subconscious mind speaks to us in dreams and let’s us know we aren’t completely alone in our struggle. We have our own instincts and internal compasses to guide us through. Since having my teeth fall out is a recurring theme in dreamland, I’ve come to appreciate this dream as a sign that there is something happening in my life that I need to address immediately. And, fortunately, it is usually something I have control over and can manage with the right course of action and attention to the problem. I don’t panic when I have this dream. Oddly enough, I am comforted by it, because when the dream arrives, it tells me that I am almost ready to deal with the situation that is causing me stress.

Great, but what do these dreams actually mean, and why should you be concerned about having them? Well, according to a website dedicated to this particular type of dream, the symbol of teeth have both positive and negative meanings in our dreams.

Negative Meanings

  • Insecurities, especially about a personal loss
  • Anxiety about sexual experience
  • A compromise that is costly to you
  • Life changes and “growing pains”
  • Fear of becoming older

Positive Meanings

  • Signs of personal expansion
  • Wish or need to nurture yourself more carefully
  • An invitation to explore feelings of loss and personal growth
  • A call to look at your support system
  • The Jungian interpretation: Times of renewal and “rebirth”

I checked a lot of boxes in both the negative and positive columns. How about you? Any of these fears feel familiar? Again, are you alive?

A few years ago I was having the teeth falling out dream almost weekly. Beyond the regular stress of daily life – work, family, finances, and relationships – I lost my father and was in the process of grieving his death. He battled with a variety of health issues over an eight-year period, and spent the last two and a half years suffering with dementia and becoming a stranger to my family and me. His death was, in many ways, anticlimactic simply because I had been grieving the loss of his personality for several years as he lost his memory, developed bizarre habits, and eventually could no longer take care of himself. When my mother and I took him to the nursing home, he asked us where we were going when it was time to leave. At that point, he still had enough understanding of who he was, who we were, and that his life was about to change dramatically. It was heart breaking, and we began grieving for him that day.

Even though I did a lot of grieving during that time, obviously, my father’s death had an impact on me and I still find myself missing him at strange moments. Like when I completed my first novel, a supernatural slave narrative, I wrote as my thesis for the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction Program at Seton Hill University. Writing that novel caused me to have the teeth falling out dream on numerous occasions, but when I finished it and found out that my thesis passed,  I was one step closer to graduating. Both accomplishments filled me with a new sense of confidence about myself as a writer and also reminded me that I can achieve bigger goals if I put in the time and effort. These happy achievements were slightly tarnished by the fact that my dad, the person who encouraged me the most to be a writer and pursue my creative interests, will never be able to read my book or share in the joy I felt on graduation day.

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Image by Melanie Wasser via Unsplash

Wait. What does this have to do with the teeth falling out dream? Oh right, I was illustrating an example(s) of the kind of stress that can trigger the teeth falling out dream. But, it doesn’t take the death of a parent to make life stressful. I’m a divorced single parent who works full-time and writes part-time and is looking for a fresh start – a new job, new place to live, and maybe even a chance at a new romance. Honestly? I manage a lot of my life very well, but there are always things I can take a step back from to examine with a bit more clarity. What do I want to do to pay the bills so I can follow my dream of becoming a full-time writer? Where do I want to live? What am I looking for in a partner? Do I even need a partner?

Typically, when I have the teeth falling out dream, a bunch of teeth fall out of my mouth, or I’m yanking them out as I discover that they’ve come loose. The last time I had the dream, only one tooth was loose. When I looked at myself in the mirror, it easily came free between my fingers, but it didn’t look human. It was too big, like a great big honking horse tooth. Apparently, there was one major issue I needed to address, but my unconscious mind was already working on solving the problem. Shortly after having the dream, I found a therapist and began working toward extracting the cause of the tooth dream. I’ve since moved forward and have been managing the stress in my life a lot better. Sometimes, removing what causes stress from our lives alleviates the need for pulling teeth.

Sweet dreams.