Pennwriters 2022: Friends, Fun, and Kidney Stones

Faithful readers know that the annual Pennwriters Conference in Pennsylvania is one of my yearly highlights. Back in 2020, local writers friends and I were stoked to travel to Lancaster, a six hour drive from Buffalo, to connect with other writer friends and laugh until our sides hurt. But, as you may have guessed, the conference turned virtual and instead of jumping on beds, we jumped onto a video chat after the Friday night Read & Critique and exchanged lockdown stories. Things were virtual again in 2021, and while I enjoyed our ridiculous group chats, I missed the sound of my friends’ laughter, missed seeing their smiles after a successful pitch session, missed the energy that comes from a room full of creative people.

So when the opportunity came up to travel to Lancaster for an in person conference this past weekend, I didn’t hesitate. My friend Joy and I were chosen to teach a class on healthy habits for busy writers, and my faithful travel buddy Adrienne (we attended the conference together in 2018) was game for the trip. Unfortunately for this busy writer, the timing wasn’t great. Both boys were scheduled for their first soccer tournament of the season, and my husband had to work all weekend. My parents had only just arrived back from Florida, and my mother-in-law was recovering from COVID. It was like the universe didn’t want me to go.

But I went anyway. I wanted to see my friends and hoped the positive energy would help get me back on track with my writing. The conference was great. I loved seeing people I hadn’t seen in person since 2019 – actually giving them a hug and sharing unfiltered laughter. Our class was a hit, I learned some new strategies, and I got positive feedback on my new novel beginning. On the last night, my friends and I enjoyed a wonderful dinner at my favorite Lancaster vegan restaurant, Root, followed by the social.

That’s where things began to go downhill. Terrible pain kept me awake for most of the night, and by 5am I knew something was very wrong. Adrienne and I decided to leave early, packed up our things, and headed home. While I considered stopping at an urgent care in Pennsylvania, I decided it made the most sense to get home where I would be near my family and Adrienne could go back to hers. Bless her heart, she drove the entire way while I moaned in the passenger seat. I was nauseous and in the worst pain I’ve ever experienced. (Up until that moment, the award for worst pain went to a ruptured ovarian cyst in 2014.) We arrived at the ER around 1:30, where I waited with hubby for several more hours before being seen. Finally, after a CT scan, the prognosis came as little shock to others in the room who had experienced it (hubby and the attending nurse): kidney stone.

Thankfully, I appear to be on the mend and will be seeing a specialist later today. I’ve been examining the reason behind it, (aside from my initial reaction which I’ll admit is irrational – that the universe was punishing me for doing something for myself) and have discovered many of the items in my diet may be problematic. I eat a plant-based diet and drink mostly water and tea, but things like raw spinach, nuts, and soy are high in oxalates, which can cause kidney stones. I’ve been feeling pretty down about it the last few days, as I think about cutting back on some of my favorite foods (I laughed with the nurse, telling him I will probably be the only person who insists they can’t possibly give up spinach!) and I hope to find a nutritionist who can help me navigate the next steps. In the meantime, I was thrilled to find out on Sunday night, after returning from my nine hour stay at the ER, that my poem Bruised (featured in Time won’t give me time) won first place in the In Other Words Contest. I wrote a few other poems during the weekend, including my first slam poem, and I plan to find some in person readings where I can share them in public. Maybe even submit to a magazine and see what happens. Despite the way things ended, I am happy I went to the conference and look forward to next year’s.

Unfortunately, while we were away, there was a horrendous tragedy in my hometown – a local grocery store was ambushed in a racist attack and several innocent people were killed and injured. We are the city of good neighbors, a place where people can count on the kindness of strangers to help dig them out of a snow bank, a place recognized all over for its die hard sports fans and namesake food. I am heartbroken by the events of this past weekend and don’t understand how someone can hold so much hate. My heart aches for the families of those lost, and for the members of our community as we struggle to move forward. Buffalo is strong and resilient and full of hope. We have come together to help each other, as a city of good neighbors must, and we will seek justice and peace.

Sending love to all, far and near. ❤

Girl vs. Mountain

Everyone in my family skis. Everyone but me, that is. I’ve tried it a few times, but I simply don’t enjoy rushing out of control down a snowy mountainside. My husband took me skiing when we were first together. Before that day I’d only ever been on cross country skis and had no idea what to do. Up the chair lift we went. Off the chair lift I fell. We were supposed to go down one of the easy green circle runs, but it wasn’t open, so he took me to a medium difficulty blue square run. I completely panicked. He tried helping me down the mountain by holding my hands and skiing backwards, but ultimately I decided to take my skis off and walk down. I felt discouraged and embarrassed. Later that day his sister offered to take me back up the bunny hill and share some techniques, which, in retrospect, was where I should have started the day.

A few years later, when living on the West Coast, we went with some friends to a ski resort, and I tried again. It went better that time, but I still hated the feeling of being out of control. I spent most of the day in the resort sipping hot cocoa.

The family tries every winter to convince me to go again, but I am older and more stubborn now; I always say no. I go with them to the resort at least once a year, watch them ski, then retreat to the lounge area to read a book. This year my husband mentioned that our local resort has snowshoeing and skinning trails. Skinning is a term that refers to using skis with “skins” on the bottom to walk up a mountain. We recently bought one pair of Altai Hok skis (they are a bit shorter than traditional cross country skis and you can use them with regular boots) and one set of snowshoes and had been out once so far this season. I used the skis. I decided to try the new trail, having never hiked in snowshoes.

Wait, you’re saying. We’ve been here before. This very same mountain, 20 years ago. Perhaps not the best plan?

I may not ever want to downhill ski again, but I am still up for an adventure. And an adventure it was. I told my husband I was nervous to try it, especially the coming down part, to which he responded, You just walk up the mountain, walk across it, then walk back down. You’ve done it in the summer, how hard can it be? True, we hiked the mountain at another nearby ski resort during the off season, and oh yeah, it was crazy hard! This time there will be snow! I nearly chickened out, but the boys wanted to go skiing and the weather was perfect, so off we went. (Hubby had to work.)

I went to buy what they call an “alpine pass” ($10/day), and the woman at the counter must have thought I exuded confidence because she asked if I wanted a season pass. Oh no, just plan to be crazy for today only. She gave me a map with the highlighted trails and sent me on my way. At the bottom of the mountain I ran into a friend who asked if I was going to take the chair lift up. I said no (the pass wouldn’t allow it and I’m pretty sure I’d fall off trying to snowshoe at the top – besides, the point is to hike up and down the mountain, right?), they wished me luck, and off I went.

First thought: Yep, this is completely insane. I can’t even get these snowshoes tight enough! (The shoes were adjusted to my husband’s feet and it took me until nearly the top to figure out how to fully tighten them. Brilliant, Sandi. Really.)

Second thought (as I stared up at the skiers flying down the mountain): How the BLEEP am I going to do this?

Third thought: You are stronger than you give yourself credit for. Let’s go.

And up I went. I climbed up the area next to the bunny hill, then had to cross oncoming traffic to get to the next part of the mountain. There isn’t a designated snowshoe trail; you’re basically supposed to stay to the edge and try not to get run over. Yep. It’s as scary as it sounds.

Hiking in snow is hard. Hiking uphill is hard. Hiking uphill in snow is, well, let’s just say it felt like my heart and lungs were battling over who was going to explode first, while my legs were crying, WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO US? About halfway up I stopped to catch my breath, took off my hat and gloves and unzipped my jacket because holy cow it was hot. The ski patrol came by and asked if I was okay. Just taking a break, I said, waving my left snowshoe at them. Ah, I prefer skis, one of them said and sped away. About 3/4 of the way up I found a picnic table just off the trail and collapsed onto its bench. Thought about giving up, but knew I had to be close to the top, and kept pushing. When I finally made it, a guy said, You walked up here? I nodded. Impressive, he said.

Yeah, it was. Go me.

Once at the top, it’s a lovely walk along the edge of the property with gorgeous views. I passed by Holly, the run where I’d first tried downhill. Then I had to face my fear: walking down the mountain. The first part was gentle and easy (I’d decided to come up a blue and go down a green), but then it got steeper and I had to use the muscles in my legs to keep me stabilized. At one point, the trail merges with another and the only way down was to cross the main ski path. I checked for skiers, then made a break for it. When I reached the bottom of the hill, I collapsed into the snow.

A year ago, I could not have made it to the top of that mountain. But a few months ago I committed to daily exercise and have been getting stronger and more confident. We’ve been doing the winter hiking challenge (five trails done – three to go!) and staying focused on our health. I may be stubborn about some things, but I’m trying to keep an open mind and push the limits now and then. Will I ever downhill ski again? Probably not. Will I ever snowshoe up a mountain again? Maybe. Need to recover from this trip first.

The four faces of my journey, starting from top left:
3/4 way up – pretty much dying
at the top – HURRAY!
1/2 way down – sending pic to hubby for proof I was on the mountain
at the bottom – in need of water and a good stretch

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