Month: February 2016

Hope in Contrast to Despair

I sorted my thoughts in church today, which is a thing I do most every week. This particular Sunday I had more than the usual quantity of thoughts to sort. I found myself making notes on my to do list and rambling thoughts into my paper journal. Many thoughts to sort is a normal consequence of the type of week I just had, one where I pushed myself hard to get things done. The week was full of twelve to fourteen hour work days, yet even as I was tired and brain fried, there was joy in the work. The vast majority of those hours were creative. I wrote words, I moved words, I built structure. There was a portion of my brain which marveled at what I can accomplish when I clear away distractions and dig into the work. This weekend had only a little work in it. I let my work brain rest, because I recognize that the pace I kept last week will burn me out over the long haul.

A week ago I had despair and anxiety. Today I find myself in a place of hope. The projects are still behind, but I can see how to readjust the deadlines, and I can see that we’ll be able to meet the new ones, if we can continue to focus on the work as I have this past week. Being able to focus is looking hopeful too, because many of the kid things have been settling out. Link had a triumph this past week that has him bouncing around the house happy. He’s been inviting friends over. He’s planning a future and taking control of it. Today I ran my finger over my Tomorrowland Pin and realized that somewhere in the past months we’ve moved out of a dark place and into a bright one. Patch still struggles sometimes, but the shape of his struggles is different. He’s taking more control and more responsibility. Kiki is on the final run to the end of her semester. Gleek has been more social and more physically active lately. She’s getting out of the house more than the rest of us.

Somewhere in all the work of the past week, and all the emotional work of the past months, I moved out of the shadow of anxiety and into a place where I can see a bright road ahead. The work is far from done, but in many ways the work is its own reward. This is a good thing.


I’ve done 10-14 hour work days for the past three days. If I can do that for three days more, I’ll still be behind where I’d like to be, but I’ll be less behind than I was. Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…

Saying No

It is time for me to start saying no a lot. My calendar for the next few weeks has large blocks of daytime work hours. There are no morning or mid-day appointments to disrupt the flow of my work. Afternoons are littered with many places to be, but they’re all regular events: lessons, tutoring, therapy. My only responsibility is to deliver children to their thing and then bring them home again. While I wait, I can be working on anything that I brought with me. I’m going to need every minute of those work hours. Deadlines have begun to loom close instead of distant.

I hit despair last Friday. The projects I have in front of me —work, household, parenting— all seemed like tangled and impossible messes. The only thing I could clearly see was that my available hours were insufficient for the amount of work I had assigned myself. “How can I help?” a friend asked me. He saw the front edge of my despair and wanted to take some of the business load. I couldn’t answer him, not in that moment. One of my weaknesses is that when I am under stress I hold tighter to all my tasks, expecting myself to just work harder. The more stressed I am, the less I can see what I should delegate and who I should give it to. Fortunately I have friends and Howard who have a better perspective. They pointed out a few things to me. It started my mind thinking about how to spread out the work more evenly and which things I can let lie fallow while I concentrate on other things.

I still spent Friday evening very sad. I didn’t like being that sad, but the sadness functioned as a shield which held off the blinding terror which howled around the edges of my mind. If I was grieving everything as a failure, then I didn’t have to be panicked about how doomed all my efforts were. I spent the evening hiding from sad thoughts. Around 1am I got out of bed and began to do the dishes. I hadn’t been sleeping anyway, and dishes were a simple thing that I could see how to do. I was inevitably doomed to failure, but at least I wouldn’t fail in the midst of dirty dishes. Then I began to fold laundry. By 4am I’d put enough things in order that my mind would let me sleep. Fortunately it was Saturday so I slept late. Then I put in eight hours on work projects, one small task at a time. Panic showed up periodically, usually when I was contemplating the project as a whole. Any time anxiety threatened to overwhelm me, I just reminded myself that it was obvious that I would miss my deadline, so there was no point in panicking about it. Instead I would just keep doing tasks one after the other. Then when failure inevitably arrived, at least I would know that I had done everything I could.

On one level, I’m aware that I’ve performed some weird hack on my brain. Doing one task after another is how deadlines get met. There is a part of my brain that has done the math and thinks that piles of hard work might still allow us to meet our deadlines. I’m trying not to think about that too much, because believing success is possible means I have to panic, stress, and push to get things done. The anxiety of pushing will cause me to freeze up and avoid the work. This has been an (unfortunately) frequent pattern in the past few months. But if I think I’m doomed to miss the deadline, I can work steadily and calmly. Shh, don’t tell my anxiety that I’m tricking it.

I made some lists today. One is the list of regrets I have for time wasted in the past few months. Pinning those regrets to the page pulled them out of my head where they were spilling sadness on everything. Another is the list of things that I should hand off to other people. The third list is discrete tasks that I can be doing next. I will follow my lists bit by bit, day by day. In order to do that, I have to vigorously defend the spaces in my days. I have to not let other people put things on my lists. I have to say no to opportunities. I have to say no to social appointments. I have to say no to teachers who want slices of my time in service of my children’s education. All these things can have my attention again once the deadline has been met or been passed. Right now I have to dive deep, ignore the internet, let calls go to voicemail, and work on the task in front of me.

Perseverance and Adversity

Yesterday at church we had a lesson on adversity. The major theme of the lesson was that we need adversity in our lives because overcoming it makes us better people. I believe this is true. The most self absorbed and least empathetic people I’ve known are those who have never had a hard thing happen to them. The older I get, the fewer of those people I know. We all get knocked flat eventually, hence the need to address this fact in a spiritual context. People of faith have to reconcile belief in a loving, all-powerful God with the fact that life is terrifyingly unfair. The lesson kept returning to the message everything happens for a reason. Many of the women around me seemed to find that very comforting. I sat there and thought how I don’t believe that God deliberately smites people with problems to make them grow, but that I do think he allows natural processes and choices of others to bring pain. I’m sometimes angry with Him about that. I also thought of dear friends who I knew were hurting right that moment and how hurtful it would be if I were to say such a thing to them. In fact just the day before I’d given one friend this card which reads “Please let me be the first to punch the next person who tells you everything happens for a reason.” (You should check out all the empathy cards at that link. They are the cards that cover the cases which are not covered by all the other cards. Brilliant.)

The thing is that when people are hit with something breathtakingly hard, they have to grieve. Part of that is being angry, really angry, often angry at God if they believe in one. Those of us who are bystanders to that pain want to be able to fix it. We want our loved ones to be at peace emotionally even if the hard thing continues. We say we want it for them, and we do, but we also want it for ourselves because watching pain reminds us that someday pain will come for us. And we have little control over what it will be or when it arrives. So we try to take the person who is in pain and jump them ahead to acceptance. We want to give them an answer. But that doesn’t work. Particularly if they are in the part of grieving where they need to be angry.

I don’t think I understood the value of anger in adversity until I read Rachel Naomi Remen’s My Grandfather’s Blessings. The book is a hundred small stories from her experiences counseling the dying, the recovering, the doctors who help the dying, and all those in the blast radius of cancer cases. In one of the stories, Ms. Remen says she is always glad when she sees anger in a patient. Anger comes from a vital will to live, to demand that the world be different and better. Angry sufferers are more likely to fight and to recover. Anger bestows strength and forward momentum. The gifts of anger can obviously be used in destructive ways as well as constructive, but the vital energy of it is critical to surviving hard things. I’ve recommended Ms. Remen’s book before, I do it again here. It is worth reading.

After listening for a time to the church lesson, I raised my hand and expressed the thoughts in the prior two paragraphs. I added that when we are close to someone who is wounded, stricken, injured, our job is to mourn with them, be angry with them, and walk along in their journey toward acceptance whatever peace is right for them. We can’t give them our answers, they must find their own. I’m pleased that many of the women who were saying everything happens for a reason, nodded along to this as well.

This morning a friend (who is mid-chemo therapy) posted a link to an article about Death and The Prosperity Gospel. My church is not the only one where “everything happens for a reason” is the party line. The article does a fantastic job of taking a look at the harmfulness of assuming that blessings and prosperity are rewards for good behavior. That doctrine is comforting because it provides the illusion of control. If we are good, then our lives will be blessed. I even think there is some truth to that. Our choices definitely affect our outcomes. This is an important lesson for people to understand: choosing well makes life better. Yet we also have to acknowledge that life is hideously unfair. We do not start on even ground. We are bequeathed unfair loads of challenges, economic status, and family situation at birth. This is compounded by societal unfairness that smooths the path for some people and smashes others. Our choices can make our lives better, but prosperity is not an accurate measure of goodness.

The paragraph in that article which hit me most was this one about grieving:

One of the most endearing and saddest things about being sick is watching people’s attempts to make sense of your problem. My academic friends did what researchers do and Googled the hell out of it. When did you start noticing pain? What exactly were the symptoms, again? Is it hereditary? I can out-know my cancer using the Mayo Clinic website. Buried in all their concern is the unspoken question: Do I have any control?

I’ve actually seen this happen. Years ago I was present when a friend of mine informed people that he had five years to live. I watched him bear the brunt of their reactions, person after person. He ended up comforting his friends about his impending death. I think of that, and I think of the article about How Not to Say the Wrong Thing. It can be so hard when a friend gives you bad news to not try to make it better. It is hard to not attempt to exert control over the situation. Yet what sufferers need is for us to meet them where they are and just be with them in acknowledging that what they’re going through sucks.

I wish I had better answers than this, but I don’t and that is the point. I would dearly love to be able to fix it when Howard has a depressed day or when my son is so lonely and isolated that he lays in bed crying. Instead I just have to be willing to stay in the pain with them and remind them that the pain will subside, that there are choices we can make which may help, that they are loved by me and by God, both of whom hurt for their hurting. And that if they listen carefully, God will help them turn this experience into future strength and usefulness. If they need to be mad at God for not fixing it, I stay with them for that too. So does He. It doesn’t feel like enough, but over and again it is what is needed. Mourn with those who mourn. Comfort those who stand in need of comfort.

Thinking on LTUE

The most wonderful and difficult thing about LTUE is that I get to have many emotional conversations which are necessarily brief. Sometimes a person will come to me with a problem that I may be able to answer and I have a few moments to give the best answer I can. Other times they come to me with thanks and a story about how something I did affected them. Or it may be a friend whom I haven’t seen in a long time and we have years of stories to share. Each of these conversations is worthy of an hour. Part of me wants sit with the person and ask about their lives, listen to their struggles, hear as they sort out answers. The convention does not allow for that. All the conversations are interrupted by schedule or by other conversations. So I get snippets. A string of shining moments, or hard moments, that I try to remember. Often I’m left with the ghost of words not said lingering in my mind. I can always think of something I wish I’d said better or something I forgot to say.

This year was more emotional than usual. I had a couple of dear friends who arrived at the show still in the shock portion of a major life upheaval. I had a panel turn into a solo presentation on a day’s notice and it went really well. My scheduled solo presentation went fine, but I can see a dozen ways I could have done it better. Perhaps someday I’ll get that chance. I got to laugh out loud many times. I had a few spaces with longer less interrupted conversations. And I had the moments when I was tired and worn, wishing for a place to hide so that my face could be tired without someone commenting on it or trying to cheer me up. I had my palm read and numerology math done on my birth date, both of which were fascinating. I’ll definitely take this year over the year I arrived at LTUE so emotionally distressed I could hardly remember how to run a booth. This was a really good event and I’m glad to have had it.

Where to Find Me at LTUE

LTUE Symposium begins tomorrow in Provo, UT. If you haven’t heard of this event, I highly recommend it. They have student pricing as well as general admission. You can find out details here

If you’re at LTUE and would like to find me to say hello, you can check the handy list below for my scheduled panels. In between panels I’m likely to be found in the dealer’s room at the table with Schlock Mercenary stuff all over it.

10am Managing a Giant Project
1pm Marketing on a Budget
3pm Tragedy in Children’s Literature
4pm Crowdfunding

2pm Distributing Your Novel

10am Picture Books
3pm Putting Emotional Depth into Your Children’s Fiction

On Reading Articles About Parenting

I read a lot of articles about parenting. This is a hazard of regular visits to Facebook and Twitter where the links abound. I’ve been reading articles about parenting for longer than I’ve been on social media. Way back before access to the internet was something most people had, I subscribed to some parenting magazines. At this point Ihave a long enough baseline that I can read an article and think “Ah yes the parenting trend has swung back to touting the need for discipline.” I’ve come to realized that there is one thing wrong with every parenting advice article I’ve ever read. It is the same thing that is wrong with advice in general. It is the assumption that one approach is correct for all circumstances. The truth is that parents are coming from wildly different backgrounds and cultural contexts. People have different inherent strengths and weaknesses. One parent needs to learn how to enjoy spontaneity, another would benefit from learning how to keep a schedule. This is why we get the wildly divergent parenting advice. All of it is potentially valuable, all of it is potentially damaging. It is up to individual parents to figure out what to apply in their own lives.

The trick of course is that parents are often insecure and defensive about their choices. I know I am and have been. When I read an article that tells me the critical importance of regular home cooked meals served with the family gathered together at the table, that pokes me in a guilty spot. Then I have to choose how to react. I could write an angry rebuttal so that other parents out there who are like me will know that their dinner style does not doom their children to disaster. I could humble myself and rearrange my life to make sure I’m doing the family dinner thing. I could deflect and say “That’s nice, but I do things differently.” Each of these responses may be correct. Which is why this parenting gig is so difficult. It’s all wibbly wobbly without clear guidelines.

A few weeks back there was a post that went viral. It was from the mother whose first baby was two weeks old. She said that she didn’t see why everyone claimed that parenting was so hard. She was handling it fine, still exercising, eating healthy, and keeping a clean house. Oh and her baby was simply a delight. Naturally there were floods of responses that ranged from angry to supportive to “Oh honey, just wait and see if you still say that later.” To me this young mother seems very naive. She assumes that all the weeks that follow will be the same as the two weeks she has been through. She also assumes that everyone else has the same situation as she does. Were that true, perhaps she would be right to tell others to stop complaining. In this case it is fairly clear to anyone who has been parenting for longer than two weeks (and many who’ve been parenting for less) that this young mother doesn’t know what she’s talking about. The thing is that I feel the same way about many parenting advice articles. They have the same naive assumption that all things are equal and the same process will work for all parents.

Of late many of the parenting articles I read are focused on special needs kids. I’ve dipped my toes into the deep waters of online autism communities and for parents of children with mental health issues. These special needs articles are still full of advice, but they seem to understand the ala carte principle. They are clear that parents should do what is best for their family and skip what isn’t. Still these articles make me sad, because I read about the benefits of particular therapies early in child development and those windows are closed to me. I have kids diagnosed in their teens and it pokes in a hurty place when I see things that would have been helpful if we’d had access to them earlier. Fewer and further between are articles that address the spaces we are in.

So why do I keep reading these articles if they are all naive or painful? Sometimes it is because I’m easily distracted and my brain is trying to avoid the pertinent work of the day. Yet I am drawn to parenting articles over a myriad of other things I could be doing. I read them because when they give advice that doesn’t fit my family, it makes me think through what does work for us and why it works. Articles introduce new ideas. Sometimes masked in the noise I find one thing that rings true to me. Then I collect that thing and it makes our lives easier, or the path ahead more clear, or it simply gives me strength to keep going through the hard stuff. Even when I feel that everything in an article is blatantly wrong or misguided, I can see past the advice to see the writer as another parent who is struggling to make sense of this parenting gig. I read because that is how I learn and get better at what I’m doing. There is not instruction manual for parenting except what we assemble for ourselves. It usually ends up being a hodge podge collection of things we’ve cut and pasted from our own lives and the experiences of others. We’re all making this up as we go, even those who want to label themselves as experts and dispense wisdom to everyone else.

Administrative Things

Administrivia took over this week. My time was eaten by unexpected small tasks relating to the following.

Home refinancing: The details of why this had to be done right now are personal and financial. Also with rates due to go up, sooner is better than later. Yet I’ve been providing paperwork, fielding phone calls to answer questions, and doing some household repairs so that the place shows well for an appraisal. I also had to call the county registrar because somehow they had our property address listed on the wrong street. The fix was simple, but it took me thirty minutes of time.

Shifting Link’s educational path
: Because we were changing the plan, I had to communicate with the WIA Youth program and put the new plan down on paper. We also had to change the schedule for his tutoring appointments. There is still a website we need to go register on and some practice tests for him to take. None of it is difficult. All of it takes time.

Communicating with Patch’s teachers: We seem to have full-on panic attacks under control, but Patch is still frequently shutting down and not communicating well with his teachers. This means I have to communicate with them more. We have to make plans for how to handle his behavior and how to make sure that avoidance doesn’t get him out of doing work. He needs both sympathy and expectation. Because the teachers and classes are different, I have to communicate with every teacher who is having troubles. I also have to spend a lot of time talking with Patch. He has to be part of the process. He also needs to know what the concrete goals are for each classroom. I also talked with him about the efforts he needs to put out to make friends instead of passively waiting for friendships to find him.

Health insurance snafu: The good news here is that we’re covered, we’ve always been covered. The bad news is that over the past week two doctors appointments and five prescriptions were bounced because the system said we weren’t covered. I spent time on the phone talking to the insurance company and they are fully aware that this is an error. Unfortunately the fix will take a few days. Then I’ll have to call all the places again and have them re-run the insurance. Further details of this snafu may become a cautionary post later, but I want the story to be complete before I write it. The truly frustrating part is that nothing I did caused this problem. it was caused by other people and it has cost me at least three hours of time and associated stress.

Project Management: The acquisition of an outside editor has shifted my role in Planet Mercenary a bit. Right now my primary job seems to be making sure that everyone has work they can be doing. Ideally none of the creatives are sitting around and waiting for a piece so that they can be working on it. This means I have to track where everyone is and make sure they have work queued up. This includes me since some of my tasks on the project are also creative. And Planet Mercenary is not the only project I’ve got to manage. There is also a new site design for the Schlock page, the next Schlock book, the 70 maxims book, convention preparation for LTUE, and other things that I can’t think of off the top of my head, but inevitably pop up at inconvenient moments.

Email: There is no end to email. Ever. At least much of it has been nice email, but the quantity still nibbles at my brain.

I do not like administrative minutia, but if I don’t do it everything falls apart. Hopefully I’ll be able to have solid blocks of creative time next week before LTUE.

Things I Wish I’d Done Differently Yesterday

I wish that I’d had a better answer when the heavily accented voice on the phone told me that he was from the IRS and was calling because there was an arrest warrant out on my social security number. His statement was patently ridiculous to me because I know that the IRS communicates via first class mail, not call center phone calls. Also notifications of arrest warrants arrive with uniformed officers at the door, not phone calls. And arrest warrants are issued against names not social security numbers. There was so much wrong with his statement that I listened in silence to find out what strange thing he would say next. But he hung up, I guess he assumed that my silence meant I’d already hung up.
Thing I wish I’d said:
“I’m sorry all my arrest warrants have to go through my lawyer. Would you like his number?”
“From now on all my communications from you must go through my lawyer. I’ll have her call you. May I have your contact information?”
It still would have ended with him hanging up, but I would have felt more clever having traded one fiction for another.

I wish I’d looked down at the icy steps before attempting to walk on them. The result was bruises on various sides of me because I twisted on the way down in a vain attempt to not go down. Nothing broken. I just have a new disbelief for all the action heroes who fall out of vehicles, jump out of buildings, take punches, and then are able to move enough to repeat all of it the next day. I don’t think that human bodies or post adrenaline works that way.

I wish I’d been either more or less assertive with the lady at the couch store. I stood around waiting for 20 minutes with no sales people in sight. When I expressed this frustration, she immediately reacted with defensive statements that implied that I was an irrational customer that she had to manage. I wish I’d either not been cranky with her at all, and thus had a pleasant interaction. Or I wish that I’d been firm and clear that, no, the fault was not mine. Yes I really did push the button which is supposed to summon help. Yes the red light was blinking, it is not blinking now because there must be some sort of auto shut off after ten or fifteen minutes. No I did not accidentally push the cancel button. I made it blink red and waited, and waited, and waited while growing increasingly cranky. Then I finally went searching for a salesperson and found one who was just coming back from break and was more interested in exculpating herself “we just don’t have much coverage on Mondays” than in being polite and helpful to a cranky customer. I bought the couch I wanted because I’m not going to let a store clerk divert me from my purpose, but I walked away from the encounter with a bad feeling floating around in my brain.

On the whole I think I’m glad that my regrets are passing ones. Things that will have become irrelevant and forgotten within a week or two. Those are much better than regrets with real weight and staying power.