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?

Fiction Fragments: J. Edwin Buja

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking with Ed Kurtz. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes J. Edwin Buja. I met J. Edwin Buja at Necon 39, where we both released our debut novels for Haverhill House Publishing. If you haven’t read The King of the Wood, I highly recommend that you do.

IMG_5942J. Edwin Buja has spent his life surrounded by books and has written everything from children’s novels to software technical manuals. With an MA in history he discovered early on that researching and writing hold the key to happiness. Who else would think scanning through years of microfilm to index an old newspaper would be a dream job?
The King of the Wood is his first novel in the genre of magical realism, but it will not be his last. For more than thirty years, he has been married to the most wonderful woman on the planet. He lives in a small village somewhere in Ontario.

Three Questions

GMM: Since music is a major theme in your fragment, I thought about the fact that a lot of writers listen to certain styles of music or create playlists to match the mood of a piece they’re working on. Music has always been an important part of my life. Music is more than just background noise. Certain music has been more like a soundtrack for the phases of my life. Your story feels like it has a soundtrack and even without the inclusion of dates, most readers would recognize the time period based on the bands. How important is music to your other writing projects? What do you usually listen to while you’re writing? When you develop a story, do you have a specific soundtrack in mind like a film or TV show?

JEB: I don’t listen to music while I write for two reasons.

First, I prefer to immerse myself in the music so I listen wearing headphones, with my eyes closed, and the lights off. This started after my sister introduced me to Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Mott the Hoople, and Uriah Heep all in the same week. She was the music nut, I only read. I was hooked instantly. However, it was difficult to listen to records because the loudness disturbed my parents. As soon as I could afford it, I got a stereo system and headphones. From then on, whenever I listened to records, I would pretend I was one of the musicians at a concert. That has stayed with me for over forty years. I still rarely listen to a complete album. That’s the joy of an iPod: I can create playlists of “concerts” that I would like to hear.

Second, I tend to bang on the keyboard in time with the music which is noisy and causes the people around me to complain. This happened at my first tech writing job, and I never listened to music at work again.

Music does inspire a lot of my writing and sometimes I have a soundtrack in mind. This is usually to help with the mood and inner thoughts of a character. If a tune makes me happy, then it makes my character happy. I do have a group of what I call Suicide Songs. These invoke such strong memories (times, places, events) that I get the feeling that I should give up and not bother doing anything else. It’s not so much physical death as the death of new ideas, aspirations, inspiration, and of doing anything but reading or watching TV. These tunes have been very useful in setting the mood for several characters.

Sometimes, tunes give me the kick I need to start writing. There’s nothing specific, simply the urge to get back to the keyboard.

In my first novel, I have the main character listening to tunes while he walks. I removed the exact references (Free’s Highway, the remastered version) because my tastes are sometimes obscure and readers might get confused. Several of the streets in town are named after bands or musicians.

GMM: I’ve only ever seen one concert in Detroit. I had the pleasure of seeing Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at a Masonic temple with my friend Tracy. That was a memorable evening that might eventually end up in a story. How much of your fragment is based on real events? And, how often do you pull from your own experiences in your writing?

JEB: In the fragment, all the concerts listed are ones I attended. This is important because I am a fanatic for correct geography in a story. If a character is heading for some location, then his journey must be logical. For example, if a building is seen from someone’s back window, but they leave through the front and arrive there from the wrong direction, I am taken out of the story. I draw maps of towns and house plans to keep everyone in their right place. For the fragment, knowing the layout of the concert venues, what could be seen from a particular seat, how to get in and out, and what kind of movement was possible during a concert, is vital to the story.

As far as anything else from my experiences, I use them all the time. There may be specific events. The feelings and thoughts from those events are blended, mixed up, turned around, and used in whatever way helps the narrative. For example, seeing a girl repeatedly and not knowing anything about her. What to do? How do I find out who she is? What happens once I know about her? I was a history major at university, so I know how to do research, following several paths to reach a conclusion. There’s also the frustration from lack of sources or contradictions in facts.

Experiencing depression is an absolute gold mine. It’s not a pleasant gold mine, but one that is hard to ignore. Writing about this is also therapeutic.

By the way, I saw Rush, Nazareth, and Uriah Heep at the Masonic Auditorium.

GMM: Based solely on the fragment, I get the sense that a romance is blooming. However, since the narrator has mentioned his terrible luck in meeting women, I assume that getting to know the curly haired woman in the red jacket won’t be easy. I anticipate some heartache. Beyond the developing romance, what else is happening in the story? Can you give us a synopsis of what you think is going to happen without too many spoilers?

JEB: What is the story all about? A teen sees a girl at almost every concert he attends. Despite attempts to get closer to her, she disappears every time. None of his friends know her. He falls instantly in love with her. After several years, he stops going to concerts. Nothing is done about the girl because he is unable to act on his desires due to shyness, lack of knowledge, and a sense of ‘what’s the point, anyway?’ Fifteen years later, he goes to a concert and sees her. She hasn’t changed in the slightest. She’s even wearing the same clothes from that last concert. They finally connect, but not in the way he had hoped. She disappears before his eyes. And so, his quest begins. Who is she? What happened to her after his last sighting? Why is she back? The gatefold of the Kiss Alive album (not the CD) plays a vital role in his quest. (I have never seen Kiss in concert.)

A fragment from J. Edwin Buja’s novel, Rock ‘n’ Roll Never Forgets

Part One – Music and sightings

The last time I saw her was December 27, 1977. The J. Geils band was doing an encore and she was in her usual spot down by the right of the stage.

It took fifteen years for me to find her, and when I did it broke my heart beyond repair.

Uriah Heep/Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, 25th of July, 1974 Cobo Arena Tier A Section A2 Row G Seat 9

Things started when I was attending a Uriah Heep concert at Cobo Hall in Detroit. This was back in the day when you could just send your money to the venue, ask for specific seats, and you’d get your tickets about a week later. But that doesn’t matter right now.

This happened to be my very first concert. I was twenty and a late starter when it came to music.

Like I said, I was in Tier A at Cobo getting in to Mick Box as he went nuts doing one of his solos. The audience had slowly crept closer to the stage but the security guys were keeping everyone well away from the stage. My buddies and I had tried to get down to the main floor but security had been much more alert than usual, according to Terry, the guy who got the tickets and convinced me to go in the first place. Apparently, Terry was able to get down to the main floor at most concerts because he knew one of the security guys and always slipped him a doob when passing.

His friendly guard wasn’t on duty this night. It was probably because I was there.

I had a pair of binoculars because I had never been to Cobo and had no clue how big it was inside or how close we’d be to the band. As it turned out our seats weren’t too bad and I didn’t need any help seeing though they came in handy when I wanted a close-up of Mick Box wailing on his guitar.

It was during a bit of talk from Ken Hensley the keyboard player when I happened to look into the crowd in front of the stage.

Most of the time, my eyes were glued to the stage but once in a while I’d scan the audience looking for cute girls. I may have been twenty but my hormones were in high gear so I was always on the lookout for a girl. Not that I would ever have had the nerve to talk to a girl. I was deadly shy at the time and my luck with girls had been poor to say the least. I was pretty much reconciled to never meeting the girl of my dreams.

Still am for the most part.

Something flashed and caught my attention. One of the spotlights from the rig above the band had moved and lit up the section of the crowd below Hensley. Standing about three people back from the barrier between the stage and the audience was a girl who brushed her long curly blonde hair out of her eyes. She was listening intently as Hensley spoke. I couldn’t be sure, but it looked like she was taking notes though why anyone would do that during a concert remained a mystery to me at the time.

There was something magical about her. I couldn’t really see any details, like the colour or her eyes, but I saw enough to make me pay more attention to her than the band. And she was wearing a bright red jacket.

My eyes kept flitting back to her as Heep finished their set then came back out for an encore.

The band finished their last tune, left the stage, and the house lights came up. I immediately focused my attention on the spot where the girl was standing but she was already gone. Feeling a little disappointed, I scanned the crowd to try and spot her. That jacket would be hard to miss. As always, I had no luck.

For me, it had been business as usual. Attend some thing, be it movie, concert, party, see a girl that catches my eye, then do nothing about it because I had no balls and never see her again.

I didn’t give the girl at the concert any more thought.

J. Geils Band/Mountain/Golden Earring, 3rd of November 1974 Cobo Arena Tier A Section A17 Row B Seat 3

She was there again. I couldn’t miss that bright red jacket and the curly blonde hair. This time I was on the other side of the arena so I didn’t see her right away. When Corky Laing set his drums on fire, she was there in the glow of the flames.

Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band/Rex, 5th of September, 1977 Cobo Arena Tier A Section A6 Row E Seat 6

So, I’m at the Seger concert, getting in to the sax, and I spot something in the corner of my eye. Something yellow. I turned and it was hair. Long curly blond hair. The girl who owned the hair was perhaps three feet from the barrier where the security guts were patrolling. There was something about her that got me interested. Maybe it was the hair. I have a weakness for long curly hair. Maybe it was the tune.

I decided to get a better look at her. I inched my way through the crowd and got to within ten feet of her when for some reason, she turned around. My heart almost stopped. She had to be the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. It may have been my imagination but I could have sworn she saw me and smiled. Wishful thinking, maybe?

Do you have a fragment you’d like to share? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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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Happy Birthday to Me: Self-Reflection and Self-Love

still-alive45 years ago today, I was born during a snow storm to a single mom who had every reason to be afraid of her new role. She was about to get divorced from her abusive husband, my birth father, and she was a young white woman living in rural Pennsylvania who just gave birth to a bi-racial baby. The doctor, believing that she was a threat to herself given her choice in sexual partners, gave her a tubal ligation so she couldn’t have any more children. I’m sure he believed he was doing the right thing, but he never bothered to ask her what she wanted. In fact, her parents gave the doctor permission to perform the procedure, “for her own good.” That’s how I came into this world. Born on Valentine’s Day 1972 in a blizzard to a woman who was subjected to physical and emotional abuse, sexism, and racism.

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Despite our rough start as mother and child, we’ve both survived and have many interesting stories to tell. She wasn’t always prepared for her role as my mother, and I don’t hold that against her because I struggle as a mom, too. Being a mom isn’t easy, but it’s especially difficult when you do it without any help from a partner. My mom was a single parent until I turned five, when she remarried. She worked full-time, but lived at home with her parents who not only condemned her choices in men, but also treated her like a child until I turned four and we moved out. So, for the most part my grandmother raised me. I don’t doubt that she loved me, but she was often misguided in how she showed her love. For instance, one of her first nicknames for me was “my little nigger.” Shocking, right? Well, here’s why I think it’s shocking. She genuinely believed that since people were obviously going to call me “nigger,” if she used that word as term of endearment my feelings would never be hurt. I’m just going to stop right there and let you soak that in.

Why am I dredging up these painful stories on my birthday? Well, because birthdays should be about taking a look back at the previous year or years of your life to get a sense of where you’ve been and where you might be going. Birthdays should have a certain level of self-reflection, so that we gain a better understanding of who we were, who we are, and who we hope to become. And, if like me, your birthday is on Valentine’s Day, you can spend a lot of the day wondering why you’re still single.

People often tell me how much they appreciate my dark sense of humor. Here’s a little secret, without my dark sense of humor, I never would have made it this far in life. Laughing at the things that make me and other people uncomfortable and finding beauty in darkness and the things that dwell there have been a part of my survival toolkit for as long as I can remember.

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I have suffered from depression since I was a child, but it was never officially diagnosed until I was in college. I’ve been in and out of therapy ever since then and plan to stay in therapy, because I don’t think there will ever be a time in my life when I don’t need it. It is only recently that I have begun to look closely at the events in my childhood that shaped me into the person I have become. A sensitive woman plagued by self-doubt who constantly fights to keep the shackles of low self-esteem from pulling her down into the depths of a depression she cannot claw her way out of even if she wanted to. My past experiences and relationships with family, friends, lovers and strangers have made me strong and taught me lots of valuable life lessons. I use my wit and creativity to interact with a world I often want to hide away from. I am an introvert with a desire to meet new and interesting people. I have MAJOR trust issues, so if I allow you to enter the wall I’ve built to keep pain at bay, don’t take that lightly, because I have a supply of bricks to shut you out at a moment’s notice. I am a loyal friend, a generous lover, and my love extends to ALL of humanity. I’m often disgusted by the behavior of my fellow humans, but my understanding of the darkness that dwells in our hearts has given me a solid appreciation of monsters and how they sometimes behave better than we do. We shouldn’t fear monsters; we should fear what creates them.

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A few days ago, I had a tarot reading done by a friend who envisions me as being trapped in a circle or cycle that is preventing my next stage of growth. But she reminded me that all I need is a small crack in that circle to let the light of creativity and hope into my life. She told me to try some different ways of approaching my writing, which I’ve been struggling to do lately. She told me to remember to breathe, and take time to take deeper breaths so that my brain and body can function properly. She also reminded me that I am strong and have faced many obstacles and overcome disappointment and heartache many times. I already have the tools I need to figure out what happens next. She told me to use the following mantra and imagine myself opening up to the endless possibilities that life and the Universe have to offer:

I am a powerful creator. I manifest with ease.

I’ve been saying this to myself regularly over the last few days and I’m beginning to feel better. I’ve been trying to reconnect with my power source, and pay closer attention to how I’m feeling and why I’m feeling that way. She also reminded me that I can choose what I give power to – people, situations, objects – I can decide how to feel about whatever is happening to me. She recommended that I sit down and list my intentions, the things I want most to happen in my life and the kind of people I want to attract and spend my valuable time with this year and for years to come.

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I haven’t started writing that list, but I’ve been thinking about it. I’m going to spend some more time drafting and editing that list over the next few weeks and months. This is a time of healing and growth for me. I know I need to schedule time alone and do the things that comfort me and make me happy. I need to give some serious thought to how people make me feel. If they are a constant source of stress or anxiety, and take more than they give, they can no longer be part of my life. I’m cleaning house – my heart, my mind, my body, my soul.

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While those early experiences, and other horrible experiences I don’t feel like mentioning right now, had a hand in shaping the person I have become, I am choosing to move forward. I want to leave as much of that negative bullshit behind me as I can. It has no place in my future. I don’t want to be a prisoner of my past. I have too many important things to do with my life. I have stories to write. I have adventures to plan. I have new friends and lovers to meet. And right now, I want to channel my energy to healing my heart, to writing and publishing, and finding a career that matches my passion and doesn’t simply pay the bills. I want to be open to receiving the love I want and deserve. I want to travel and discover new stories to tell. And, I want to show myself the same amount of love I give to others. I’m going to keep believing in true love – even if my true love turns out to be me. Actually, I’m hoping my true love is Tom Hiddleston, or Michael Fassbender, or David Tennent, or Tom Ellis, or at the very least someone with a sexy accent. But honestly, I’d prefer one of the fictional characters they portray. Just kidding. Sort of.

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So, on the first day of this forty-fifth year of my life, I am ready to live the life I crave. A life I have the power to create for myself.

Fear Is the Mind-Killer: Barriers to Love

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“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” — Rumi

I stumbled across this quote attributed to Rumi this morning, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just a coincidence. Last night I had a moment of clarity while lying in bed waiting for the chorus of “what if” to quiet down. I realized that I had never given 100% of myself in any of my romantic relationships. There are pieces of myself I keep hidden, because my fear of rejection usually outweighs my desire and willingness to give someone my love. I have given some people – the anointed few – a peek behind the curtain. Most of those people know who they are, because they have bared their souls to me too. These glorious and often unholy alliances mean more to me than all the professions of love from people who have fallen out of my heart and been buried in the graveyard where I hold imaginary funerals in a dark corner of my mind. People who have hurt me beyond the point of redemption and still hoped to keep me on a shelf for emergency purposes. However, I’m not an object or a “someday” placeholder. I’m a living, breathing human being full of passion, dark humor, rage, intelligence, curiosity, fear, hope, aspirations, goals, childhood dreams, nightmarish memories, and yes, love.

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Regardless of what you may think of me, if you know me at all, I am full of love. My close friends, people who have touched me in some meaningful way, and my family will tell you that. I believe some people are able to see that the moment they meet me. I’ve actually had people tell me that I glow. And sometimes, I see it reflected back to me. But in several of my romantic relationships, people have seen that as a sign of weakness and exploited it until they broke me. The ability to love after be broken time and time again is not weakness. Each time I have fought my way back out of a deep depression to resurface as a reconstructed version of myself, I have learned to love my stitched-together parts a little bit more.

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Typically, when people have broken my heart or been so unspeakably shitty to me in a relationship I choose to end, I make a point of never speaking to them again. Of course, there are exceptions, but those relationships are still tainted in some way. When I was younger and naïve enough to believe that if you keep showing people kindness they’ll treat you the same way, I attempted to remain in the lives of my exes. And, almost 100% of the time, all that did for me was keep a wound open for continual doses of pain and grief. Yet, I am ever hopeful that someday I will be able to maintain a friendship with someone even after I have handed them my heart and they decided to keep the receipt in order to return it. Time will tell, but my ability to confront my fears is the key.

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” ― Frank Herbert, Dune

Right now, I’m more concerned about the realization that I have never felt safe enough to give myself completely to someone. Maybe we’re not really meant to do that. Maybe the fear of losing myself, not just simply of being rejected, keeps me from opening myself up to being loved as a whole and wonderfully flawed person. Intellectually, I know that fear should never be stronger than love, but nothing is ever that simple. Like physical injuries, emotional and psychological scars teach us to fear being hurt again. Today I wrote the following words in my journal:

I want to meet someone who allows me to feel safe enough to give 100% or more.

I’m not sure that person exists, and each year I doubt it more and more. But, even if that person does exist, it’s up to me to trust them enough, to trust myself, to give them all of myself. Or at least, all that is left of me after years of being disappointed and broken. Whatever I have to give that I’m not giving to my son. My friends know and love me enough that they’re often willing to spare a little of the love I give them to share with the new people who come into my life. I try to do the same for them. I’d like to think that love is a renewable resource that we can all accept and give without end. I hope that’s true.

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Whether or not I meet someone worthy of all my love, and give them an all-access pass to my soul, I still have to work on what is preventing me from being open to that possibility. I need to gain a better understanding of my fears. Heal the wounds left by the people who weren’t worthy. Love is a fire burning inside me, and like a phoenix, I will rise from the ashes.

Ghosts of Valentine’s Days Past

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I’ve been nursing a slight case of melancholy for the last few weeks brought on by a recent heartbreak. I say mild case because I seem to be pulling myself together much faster than I did the last time I found myself in this state of mind – this state of being characterized by self-doubt and a deep sense of hopelessness. Of course, the last time I found myself here, I was not only suffering from the grief associated with the loss of a romantic relationship, but also the after effects of being manipulated by a mind-fucking, lying, narcissist. If I can survive what my therapist called “a mild case of Stockholm Syndrome,” then I can pretty much get through anything, right? Right.

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February has always been a bit of a turbulent month for me. Primarily because it is my birth month. I was born on February 14. Valentine’s Day. A day characterized by grotesque gestures of forced affection and inflated expectations of being showered with insincere overtures of love and romantic gifts like heart-shaped boxes of candy and grocery-store-bought bundles of roses.

Having your birthday land on a holiday is a pain in the ass for most people. I feel sorry for the folks who were born on Christmas who often get cheated on the gift front, but since my birthday falls on Valentine’s Day, I can only express so much sympathy.

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If I had a dollar for each time a romantic relationship ended on or near my birthday, I’d have…well…$5.00. I seem to be perpetually single on my birthday. Some years have been worse than others. Some years I wished I was single, because the relationship I was in at the time was absolutely miserable. Watching someone you used to care about scramble to impress you with gifts and acts of kindness to prove their affection for you on Valentine’s Day is like watching firemen pull charred corpses out of a burning car crash. You hate to look, but morbid curiosity gets the better of you.

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I once dated a guy, a vegetarian, who cooked me a whole duck for my birthday. Before you get all weepy and think’ “how romantic,” this guy was a vegetarian because he hated animals and refused to “eat their dead corpses.” I had two cats at the time that he barely tolerated and constantly threatened to kill. He put a lot of time and effort into preparing that meal, but each time he did something nice for me, whether it was my birthday or not, there always seemed to be an undertone of resentment. Even though he was a good gift giver, the gesture was always spoiled by his nearly psychotic need for gratitude. The duck was delicious, but his expectation for me to give him my undying appreciation made it a bit hard to swallow. You see, we dated for nearly five years. Lived together for three. And each time someone asked him when he was going to pop the question, he’d say “I do all the time, when are you going to clean the cat box.” He cracked himself up every time he said it. Yeah, he was a real keeper.

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I should have left him after the first year we were together, because in hindsight, he was a textbook abuser of the emotional and psychological variety. His specialties were back-handed compliments, comparing me to other women in his life, and making me feel like my goals were pipe-dreams. But he had no problem taking credit for all the thankless support he claimed to provide when I reached those goals time and again. Goals I reached despite his constant stream of bullshit geared toward making my self-esteem non-existent.

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What was the final straw that broke the camel’s back? Seeing him, a 41-year-old man, throw a temper tantrum because he couldn’t get his Oomp Loompa Halloween costume together fast enough. Watching a grown man cry over a Halloween costume kind of cuts off the last shred of desire for him you might be clinging to. FYI, temper tantrums are a HUGE turn off. And just for the record, so are Oompa Loompa costumes. Everyone knows Willy Wonka is the sexy one.

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Perhaps the fact that I am single most years on my birthday, or wished I was, is one of the Universe’s cruel little jokes at my expense. Or perhaps the Universe has been trying to show me a different path that doesn’t involve romantic relationships. At least, not until I am stronger, more confident, and completely in love with the person I am becoming – or perhaps always was. I was just too busy fighting against men who were trying to steal my strength to make up for a lack of their own.

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This time feels different. I’m not nearly as angry as I used to be when a romantic relationship came to an end. I don’t feel completely alone and helpless. Maybe that’s because the relationship itself was good. You would think that when a good thing comes to an end you’d be more upset about it than when a terrible thing comes to an end, but no. It’s weird, I feel more hopeful about what happens next whether I have a significant other in my life or not. I’m trying to learn that I am enough on my own. I still hope to find someone who wants to stay in my life to share and grow, and build something together. But before that can happen, and be a real thing, I know I have to be ready to welcome that person into my life. I’m getting closer to that, but I’m not quite there. I still have a lot of personal demons to confront, but rather than condemning myself for having those demons, I’m going to embrace them and try to figure out how to turn them into positive aspects of my life.

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My birthday is 11 days away. This year I want to use this time for reflection and planning. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve been living my life on too small of a scale. There are much bigger goals I’ve had in mind since I was a child and before I allowed people to do their best to crush my dreams. I want to see more of the world. I want to reconnect with my old friends who live in other parts of the country and in Europe. I want to write more. I want to push myself to become the healthiest version of myself ever. I want to make new friends and build stronger relationships with the ones who are already close to me, the ones who are always there for me no matter what.

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And, while I’m doing these things and making more plans, I’ll continue to work through the events in my past that have left deep, shadowy scars on my psyche by seeing my therapist and writing about my life, my fears, and my dreams.

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I’m sad that I lost my lover, but I’m going to be okay. I always manage to pick myself back up and move forward. I fully expect to have days where I cry unexpectedly because the melancholy that took roost in my heart and mind when I was a child demands to be heard.

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But I’m not going to allow that melancholy to be my compass. I want my goals and aspirations to be my guides, with the hope that the successes that follow will keep leading me toward the person I want to be. The person I believe to be my true self. My happier self. My whole self.

10 Things I’ve Learned While Walking Life’s Path Alone

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Next month, (in 19 days to be exact), I will turn 45. In my mid-40’s, my identity is as malleable as it is fixed, and transformation is not only a process, but also a goal. My identity is also complex and for the first time in my adult life I am beginning to truly appreciate that complexity, because that complexity is what makes me uniquely me. 2017 is still in its infancy, but a lot has happened since the beginning of the year. Not only in the world, but in my personal life as well. As I ease into this new year – still walking this path by myself – I’ve taken some time for self-reflection rather than burdening myself with resolutions I may not be able to keep. I mean, seriously, why create additional heartache for yourself when there are plenty of opportunities for it to find you out in the world?

Pain is a symptom of transformation, and pain is a fact of life if you’re actively living it. Like it or not, pain teaches us how to become better people if we are willing to learn its lessons. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I’ve lived through my fair share of pain. And, because I am a sensitive person, a loving person, and willing to accept others into my life, sometimes things get messy. I’ve had lots of different kinds of relationships and this variety of relationships has taught me a lot about humanity and more importantly, myself.

I am a divorced, middle-aged, three-time college-educated, feminist, left-wing oriented with a heavy dose of secular humanism, single woman of color writer raising a young boy alone. These identifiers are only a small cross section of the other aspects of my life that make me who I am. People are always telling me how strong, interesting, and amazing I am, but despite all of my wonderful and complex attributes, I am still single. I continue to walk my life path alone. Am I happy about that? No. But, I’m beginning to understand that this is my life and if I don’t accept it, embrace the reality that I will most likely be walking this path alone for quite some time, I will never be happy with myself. So, in the nearly 45 years of my life, I have learned some things that I’d like to share with you, if like me, you find yourself walking your path alone.

Be kind to yourself. Self-care is important because it allows us to be healthy enough to deal with whatever is coming our way. Taking steps to maintain your best level of health enables us to not only do the daily things that are expected of us and take care of the people we love in our lives, but it also helps us build a reserve of strength in order to manage our lives better in times of crisis and loss.

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Be kind to others. Everyone experiences pain. Their pain might not be the same as your pain, but they are still learning how to navigate the unexpected disappointments and hurts that life throws our way. It isn’t necessarily your responsibility to help people get through their pain, but a kind word, a smile, or a thoughtful gesture may be all they need to get through the rest of the day, or in some cases, through the next moment. You can’t solve everyone’s problems or rescue them from whatever it is that is hurting them or blocking their progress, but you can treat them the way you wish to be treated. Kindness is free (unless you allow people to abuse it). And here’s the really confusing part that has taken me my whole life to appreciate – and I’m still working through learning this lesson – even the people who hurt you deserve kindness on some level. That’s sometimes a hard pill to swallow, and it may require a lot of bourbon to choke it down. It will definitely take time for some of us, depending on the level of hurt we’ve experienced, to even be willing to pick up that pill before putting it in our mouth.

Do not settle for less than you deserve. When you go through a break up, lose a job, or experience any kind of significant loss, your closest friends will usually tell you that you deserve better. Guess what? They’re right. Your friends, if they are true friends, should know you pretty well and have an appreciation for all that you have to offer. Sometimes they know us better than we know ourselves. They are the people who, even on your worst days, will always be there to tell you that things are going to be okay. They will hold your hand, give you a hug, pour liquor down your throat, find voodoo spells for you, and talk smack about the person or situation that hurt you. You should probably reciprocate whenever possible. Knowing what you want in life is important, but knowing your own value will help you gain a better understanding of why settling for less isn’t good enough. At least, it shouldn’t be.

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Crying is not a sign of weakness. Crying is a natural reaction to the physical and emotional pain in our lives. Healthy humans cry when they experience loss or what feels like unmanageable stress. Crying allows us to heal and is actually a sign of strength, not weakness. Regardless of what The Cure says, boys do and should cry, because crying as a reaction to pain is never gender specific.

Friends are more important than lovers. As I mentioned, I have a widely-diverse and rich network of friends who have either known me for a long time (more than 30 years) or who are still getting to know me, and vice versa. Having a lover or lovers can be wonderful, and if you’re lucky enough to find one (or more) who wants to stay in your life long term, even better. When our physical needs along with our emotional are being met, that can be a really sweet time. For most of us, those sweet times don’t last forever. When someone we have been emotionally and physically intimate with decides to end that relationship, it can sometimes feel like the world is ending. Or maybe, in some cases, we might wish that the world would end in order to avoid the pain we’re feeling. When we become not only emotionally and mentally, but also physically attached to certain people it might feel like part of us is dying when they choose a path that no longer connects to ours. If we’re really lucky and choose lovers who are emotionally stable and genuinely caring people, we may be able to maintain a different kind of relationship with them given enough time to heal and process our hurt emotions. In my experience, friendships have always lasted longer than love affairs or long-term romantic relationships. I mean, duh, I’m still single, right? But, many of my friendships have stood the test of time, some lasting through childhood into adulthood. I am a healthier person because of those relationships. And knowing my friends as well as I think I do, many of them would tell you that being a close friend of mine is a good thing. They love me, flaws and all. And, I feel the same way about them. Lovers come and go, but my close friends are usually around long enough to be considered family.

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People who are meant to be in your life will stay. I’m not just talking about lovers and significant others here. Lots of people will come and go in your life. Family, friends, lovers, acquaintances, and a whole host of other major and minor personal interactions that make up the map of relationships in your life. I am fortunate enough to be blessed with many friends. I am proud to say that I have been able to maintain and nurture some of my friendships, regardless of distance and life situations, for more than 30 years. My marriage didn’t last 30 years. It barely lasted 4. My husband was not my friend. I never should have married him. Fear and unmet desires forced me into that situation, and it took me a long time to dig my way out. Sometimes though, no matter how much we care about a person, the best thing they can do for us is to walk away.

Maintaining friendships with past lovers or boyfriends is rare for me. It happens sometimes, but typically it has taken me years to regain the trust that was lost when those relationships ended. The few people who fit into that category who are still choosing to be in my life, even at a distance through social media, are probably going to stick around for the long haul. Relationships, like everything else in our lives, go through periods of transformation. Having faith in the fact that someone you care about deeply, even though they have hurt you in some way, can still be welcomed into your life not only says something about your willingness to forgive, but also that they are worth the effort. Sometimes that transformation will take time and effort on behalf of both parties to make it work. But, if you both care enough, value, and respect each other, it should work out. Patience and understanding are key ingredients, as well as the ability to give people the space they need to shift from one role to another in your life.

You are a whole person without a life partner or significant other. I’m not going to lie; this is something I still struggle with on an almost daily basis. As a single parent who receives zero support from my ex-husband to raise our child, all responsibility to raise my child rests on my shoulders. For those of you who are in the same situation and do not have the benefit of co-parenting/shared custody, you know how hard this can be some days. It can get seriously fucking lonely. Raising a child with two adults in the house is difficult enough, especially if the responsibility isn’t shared equally. Many women and men find themselves in a situation where they may be the only responsible adult in the house. Sometimes, it is better to take on the responsibility of child-rearing alone than be stuck in a relationship with someone who prevents your growth, or worse, your child’s. Yes, it is hard. Miserable even. But, with the right amount of support (sometimes support is simply kind words from friends and strangers) you can do it. Having a partner doesn’t make you a better person. Surviving and thriving without one makes you stronger, albeit a little crazier in the process.

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Time does not heal all wounds. There’s an old saying about time healing all wounds. Bullshit. The wounds that cause emotional and psychological damage usually stay with us forever. The pain will lessen with time, but the wounds never quite heal. Recent research into psychological trauma has shown that in some cases, the trauma experienced by our relatives is passed to us genetically. Studies of Holocaust survivors and their offspring, as well as the ancestors of slaves in America have shown that extreme trauma can be passed down through DNA. Some physiological and psychological scars go as deep as the molecular level, and these painful experiences get coded into our DNA. So, if it feels like it’s taking you a long time to get over something painful in your life, take the time you need, because sometimes pain lasts through multiple lifetimes.

Believe in your ability to heal. Even though we now know that we not only carry the wounds we incur within our own lives, but also carry the pain of our ancestors in our blood, we still have the power to heal. Given time and the right tools, we can still go through painful experiences and come out on the other side with a new sense of who we are and what we can do. Friends, family, therapists, hippie herbalists, voodoo priestesses, and bartenders can help you through the rough times, but ultimately you must be the one to heal yourself. And, if you’re willing to face the pain head on and do the work to heal yourself, you will be stronger for it.

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Be willing to admit that the path you are walking may not be the right one. Change, while scary and often painful, can be good for us. Change allows us to grow and evolve into the people we are meant to be. I truly believe that. In fact, in my opinion, when our lives remain on the same path for too long without change, we become stagnant. Change is not always a negative thing. Change opens new doorways to opportunity and experience. Don’t be afraid to take risks and go on a few adventures. And, be willing to leave behind the things that are preventing your growth.

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