EVERYTHING IT TAKES Book Birthday!

Today my third verse novel enters the world. I’ve been a little nervous about this book because she had a bit of a rocky start. The idea came to me during a college recruitment event – I work as an Admissions Counselor at a Community College and part of my job is to attend local high schools and try to convince them to attend our school. The students vary in their level of interest and enthusiasm – some genuinely want to know more about our programs while others only care about the free pens. The opening scene in EIT comes from that observation, as I put myself in the shoes of a high school student, laser focused on getting into college in hopes of escaping her small town. I wondered what would happen if she tried to interview with a college and they rejected her for being too focused on academics and not well rounded, and how she would react. What if she had tried to find clubs to join but never truly fit in? What if her last resort was a group of environmental activists that challenged her rule following impulses?

And so, an idea was born. The original title was GREEN FOR GOOD, after the name of the environmental club, but my editor wanted something catchier. On a Friday afternoon in December of 2019, we went back and forth trying to decide on a title. My husband jokingly suggested LILY AND THE ECOTERRORIST, which our youngest latched onto and continues to use to this day. (He even told me he was going to white-out the title on his copy and write it in.) Finally, we landed on EVERYTHING IT TAKES and I proceeded to write the story.

Lily’s voice came to me immediately. I loved writing her character and watching her grow throughout the novel. The supporting cast was a lot of fun too. My biggest struggle was plot. My original outline needed revisions and I kept getting stuck about halfway in. In February I went on a camping trip with our cub scout troop (my last one!) and brainstormed with some of my friends. They helped me come up with the idea of the buried trash and got me over the plot hurdle just in time for my first draft deadline: March 15, 2020.

Hey, remember what was happening in the world on March 15, 2020?

Yup. I turned my book in just as the world shut down. My very first zoom meeting was with my editor, Caitie, where she lovingly told me that the voice was spot on but the plot, well, we needed to do some major editing.

Editing in a pandemic when all you want to do is hide under the covers and cry? Yeah, not fun. But the book meant a lot to me, and I desperately wanted it to have a positive environmental message. So I pushed through and am deeply grateful for Caitie’s help and patience as well as my husband’s constructive feedback. He is always my first reader, the one who assures me that, no, the book does not suck. He helps me brainstorm ideas and listens to me wallow in self-doubt (then promptly tells me to stop wallowing).

Final draft accepted – YAY!
Cover designed – YAY!
Book will release in April 2021, Earth day month – YAY!

World still a dumpster fire in 2021…
Book release delayed until December
Friends asking why Amazon says it came out in August and they can’t get a copy!??!

Publishing is not an easy journey. But here we are, my third book baby out in the world for real, and I am very excited. When the author copies arrived the other day I quickly re-read it and said to my family, hey, that’s not as bad as I thought it would be. And then my parents read it and told me they loved it. And Kirkus gave it a good review.

Lily is here and ready to take on the world. I hope you’ll give her a chance.

Hiking Challenge Complete!

I haven’t posted since March because I’ve been too busy wandering in the woods.

No, seriously. Hubby and I completed our first hiking challenge on Sunday, the goal of which was to complete 20 total hikes in four local regions. It was a fun, often sweaty, and sometimes exhausting journey that introduced us to amazing parks and delicious local cuisine. It’s crazy to think we’ve lived in Western New York for most of our lives and never been to some of these places! I am deeply grateful to Mike, the challenge creator and founder of Outside Chronicles, for creating such a fun way to explore the outdoors!

I’ve always loved hiking. During quarantine, with no soccer or scouts to occupy our weekends, we took to the woods. I’d search around on google maps, find a large green section, and announce that we were going on a mandatory family fun adventure. Then I heard about the Western New York Hiking Challenge, where someone else identified the cool parks and we just had to show up and walk around. For a small fee we would have access to maps, fun facts, and a community of hikers. Also: if we completed the challenge, we’d earn a patch and a sticker.

A win-win-win in my book.

The summer challenge runs from March-November, and hubs and I were so excited that we started a week early. To prove you hiked the trail, a selfie is required at the challenge landmark. We had to redo our first hike later on because we took our selfie in the wrong place (plus technically it was cheating to start a week early). Thankfully, that park was close by. Some of the places were a 45+ minute drive, and our final hike took an hour and a half to get to. So for several hikes, we made a day of it by trying a new restaurant and exploring the nearby town. The planning and preparation for our hiking trips gave me something to look forward to and helped pull me out of the pandemic blues. And it was cool when people told me they’d joined the challenge because of my social media posts, or youngest talked about it with strangers on the trail, encouraging them to participate. We even met up with a small group for a hike and fundraising event at a local brewpub.

Our favorite hike happened early on during our spring break staycation in Ellicottville. We started at Camp Seneca and hiked the North Country Trail to Little Rock City. The elevation took us up past the snow line, then down across several tiny streams before reaching the giant rocks. The boys had a blast exploring the CREVASES! as they called them, and we returned later in the year to just climb around on the rocks. Hubs was excited to finally hike to the end of the Whirlpool trail along the Niagara River Gorge, where we discovered an old train depot. In effort to avoid crowds, we planned a few hikes during the week and had a lovely time in Chestnut Ridge and Zoar Valley.

Here is the complete list of our hikes:
Knox Farm State Park
Eighteen Mile Creek County Park
Little Rock City State Forest
Bond Lake County Park – I did this one without hubby
Reinstein Woods Nature Preserve
Genesee County Park and Forest
Royalton Ravine County Park
Lockport Nature Trails
Whirlpool State Park
Devil’s Hole State Park
Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge
Chestnut Ridge County Park
Golden Hill State Park
Zoar Valley MUA – Valentine Flats
Zoar Valley MUA – Holcomb Pond
Ohiopyle State Park (not part of the challenge; a beautiful park in PA where we hiked on our trip back from dropping our son at camp)
Emery Park (our least favorite – confusing trails, too close to the road, lots of disc golf – but we saw several deer along the way)
College Lodge Forest
Buckhorn – extra hike in a group we’d already finished
Tifft Nature Preserve
Kenneglenn Scenic and Nature Preserve (not part of the challenge, but done with fellow challenge hikers and Mike the foundera great place for creek hiking!)
Second visit to Little Rock City
Boyce Hill State Forest
Sprague Brook County Park
Letchworth State Park – Finger Lakes Trail

Now that we’ve completed the required trails, we’ll probably hit a few closer ones again to see the changing leaves. The winter challenge starts in December and while I’m not as big a fan of cold weather hiking, I plan to give it a try.

Mama needs to earn her sticker.

I served as official navigator, picture-taker, and caboose during the hikes
the boys pretending to get smooshed at Little Rock City
Me and hubs in our matching WNY Hiking Challenge T-shirts pose for the Whirlpool selfie

Approaching the lockdown anniversary

March 3, 2020 was a big day for the van clan. Youngest got his braces off, and he celebrated with a bag of microwave popcorn. Plans were in the works for an epic Blue and Gold dinner to commemorate his Webelo Den earning their Arrow of Light awards, and he looked forward to his first year of Boy Scout camp. (Hubs and I were excited to spend that week celebrating our 20th anniversary.) Oldest had earned Life Scout and was elected to serve as Troop Guide, which meant he would help navigate the new class of scouts. He planned to finish his last remaining Eagle required merit badges during summer camp and had begun to toss around ideas for his Eagle project. That night, his artwork was featured in the annual district art show and had been nominated for one of the top pieces. Winners would be honored in a special ceremony. He smiled with pride as he showed us his artwork, a smile I haven’t seen much of in the past 12 months. We’d finally agreed to get him a cell phone, so he would have a way to check in with us during his class trip to Washington DC. We joked about whether or not his chorus teacher would let them sing Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody at the eighth grade chorus concert.

Oldest smiles in front of his winning art piece

You know where this is going. None of that happened. The Blue and Gold dinner – canceled. Washington DC trip – canceled. Eighth grade chorus concert and graduation – canceled. Summer camp – canceled. Anniversary trip – canceled. His artwork was chosen as one of the top pieces, but instead of a reception, we received a letter in the mail. Oldest had already coined a phrase to reflect his newfound apathy: I don’t care. And why should he care? Everything he’d looked forward to was taken away. He slogged through the remaining Eagle merit badges after hours and hours of nagging, and says he has no plans to complete his project. He started freshman year in his pajamas behind a computer screen, where he now spends most of his day.

This past year, there have been a mountain of disappointments and a river of tears (mostly mine). Sorry for the clichés, but this year has sapped a large chunk of my creativity energy. Sure, we’ve been blessed – friends and family have fallen ill, but no one we know has died. (That doesn’t stop me from worrying 24/7.) My husband and I still have our jobs, although I have never felt more stressed. Enrollment declined significantly, budgets were slashed, and the constant back and forth of working from home and going into the office has been an ongoing challenge. Working parents, and working moms especially, have faced nearly impossible tasks this past year. My kids have been learning from home since mid-March, and we are all burnt out, we are all desperate for a return to normalcy. Whatever that even means anymore.

When I think about the events from last March, it is hard to imagine I would be sitting here a year later, still wondering when I would be able to hang out with my friends in a coffee shop, watch my kid sing on stage, celebrate work birthdays in person, see students walk across the quad. Hug my parents without worrying about making them sick. Instead of doing those things, I’m planning for our one year work-from-home-iversary. Trying to keep my teenager from sinking. Pushing forward day after day toward an uncertain future.

It’s exhausting. And I’m tired.

I thought about ending my blog post there, but I can’t. Because, to paraphrase President Snow, the only thing stronger than fear is hope. The past 12 months have been full of fear, disappointment, heartache. I want more than anything for the next 12 months to be full of hope, resiliency, love. We can’t change the world. We can’t singlehandedly fight illness, alleviate depression, create peace. But we can change ourselves. For me, that meant a recommitment to the things I love: reading (something I had trouble doing in the early months of the pandemic), making time to write, practicing yoga daily, dancing. Checking in with friends and family. It hasn’t been easy. Most mornings I argue with myself about getting out of bed and getting on the mat. It’s so much easier to cry, complain, doom-scroll – but all those things leave me empty. It occurred to me a while back, as I sat staring at the blinking cursor of an empty word document, that when we lost everything to lockdown, we lost our joy, we lost our sense of purpose, we lost our muse. Our wells were quickly tapped dry and there was nothing to fill them up. I kept reaching into mine and coming up empty, and based on the high number of social media posts referring to the “pandemic wall” I know I wasn’t alone.

So what do we do? My advice? Start small. Look for joy in unexpected places and hold onto it. Like I tell my boys with some regularity, lower your expectations. Celebrate tiny victories. Make space for grief, but don’t let it swallow you. Remind yourself what it means to be human. I get the feeling we’ll be spending the next several days looking backward, at how this year has changed us. And it has. But we should also look forward. What will you do when the world reopens? What will you never take for granted again? Who will you hold tighter than ever before?

Stay well, my friends. ❤

We’re all in this together (alone)

Despite my propensity to dance, sing off-key, or challenge strangers to pushup contests in public, I truly am an introvert at heart. I know this because if given the choice between going to a party or snuggling up with a book/cat/cup of tea, I choose the latter. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy hanging out with friends and having fun, but at the end of the night I need to be alone and recharge. Raised in a loud, outgoing, Italian-American family, I often hid in my room during parties, scribbling in my journal, feeling simultaneously content and depressed for missing out on the festivities. Therein lies the conundrum. I like to be alone, but I’m also desperate to feel included. Ah, the dilemma of a socially awkward, attention seeking introvert.

The pandemic has been a blessing and a curse. Okay, mostly a curse. The up side is extra time spent with my family, being able to do my job with a cat on my lap (when we return to the office I may have to bring him with me), and considerably more free time now that everything has been canceled. The down side is, of course, that everything has been canceled. No more activities for the boys means they never leave the house, and now that our area is seeing a rise in cases, hybrid school became remote school once again. Coupled with the colder weather means they truly never leave the house. Ever. Or change out of pajama pants.

I worry, pretty much on a constant basis, that the next few months will make or break us. We survived the initial shock of the pandemic, the phase I like to call, “Fear overload.” I watched daily news briefings, tracked cases and deaths on a spreadsheet, and sanitized everything. I cried in the parking lot of our local grocery store after watching a teenage clerk in full PPE look completely shell-shocked as he wiped down the checkout lane. I worried about getting sick, about my family getting sick, about losing our jobs, about the people who had gotten sick/lost their jobs/lost their family members. It was a downward spiral that landed me face down in my pillow nearly every day.

When things began to improve, both the weather and our numbers, my worry subsided. We took advantage of a soccer-free summer and enjoyed extra time at the lake. I finally started reading again, something I hadn’t been able to do since the pandemic started. But I missed my friends, my co-workers, eating inside restaurants. And in the back of my mind, I knew things would get bad when the weather changed.

It has. Our county is breaking records in daily cases and the hospitals have filled up yet again. My nurse friend assures me that it is better this time around because they know what they are dealing with, but the media and government push out fear like candy. We’re back on lockdown again, not completely, but on the cusp, and with the long, dark, cold winter months still ahead of us. Before? I didn’t know a single person with the virus. Now? Every week someone else in our circle tests positive. Thankfully, they are all surviving, but it feels like the walls of inevitability are closing in, and I’m worried I won’t be able to keep my family safe anymore. Or sane.

How do we stay positive when everything is constantly so bleak? I don’t have the answer. I’m taking each day as it comes, and looking for ways to find joy. I’ve started volunteering at a local cat shelter because it gets me out of the house once a week. (Also, cats!) I try to walk outside when the weather isn’t terrible, but that’s getting more difficult with each dropped degree. I joined our local online Buy Nothing group, a movement that encourages the free exchange of goods among neighbors. It’s helped me declutter a bit and also provides the opportunity for safe social interactions. Last weekend I watched a movie simultaneously with two friends and we chatted along the way via text. It was a tiny shred of normal, and it gave me hope.

The isolation has changed us, or at least it has changed me. I will never take my local coffee shop for granted, ever. Or the library. Or any of the front line workers who face this beast every day. I make a conscious effort to be kind to any human I interact with, because we are all carrying worry and heartache, some far beyond what I can even imagine. What we need now isn’t government control, or mudslinging commentary. We need compassion. Empathy. Patience. We need to unite for the good of humanity. We need to get through this together (alone).

Peace to all my friends, family, followers. Stay safe, and be kind. ❤