The New Normal

Today is Saturday, March 28, 2020.

Three weeks ago, I danced in a crowded club while a DJ spun songs from The Cure and The Smiths, two of my all-time favorite bands. I hung out with the mom who would be chaperoning my oldest son on his class trip to Washington DC, and we laughed about how crazy she was to spend the long weekend with 20 teenagers. We were all acutely aware of a virus that had been spreading through other parts of the world. I washed my hands several times during the night, as I always do. I drank from glasses that other people had touched, shook hands with strangers, breathed in communal air.

We had no idea what was coming.

Two weeks ago, my family went to two plays; Friday night at our local high school and Saturday afternoon at a community theater. People’s behavior had started to change. Restrictions against large gatherings. Hand sanitizer everywhere (but not a bottle to be found on store shelves). Ushers wearing gloves. When we went to the theater on Saturday, I washed my hands before and after the show, and then again before we ate poutine at a local restaurant across the street. I made sure my family followed suit. “This may be the last time we’re out in public for a while,” I said. And it was.

On Sunday of that week, the first case of COVID-19 hit our county, and a few hours later the schools were closed down for five weeks. My youngest was due to participate in his crossing over ceremony for scouts, an event we’d been planning for months. With a heavy heart, I sent out the cancellation notice.

“Crisis school” began Monday. (It is not homeschooling. Homeschooling is a choice.) Oldest had a meltdown the first day. Youngest on day two. Mom nearly every day. I went into work on Tuesday, where the air buzzed with fear, despite the industrial sized bottle of New York made hand sanitizer. I worried that I would be sent home without pay, or worse, lose my position entirely. I worried about our office plants and packed them into my van to bring home. I worried about my mother-in-law, who was recovering from pneumonia and refusing to stay home. I worried about my parents down in Florida, especially my mom, who has a heart condition and recently had her spleen removed after a terrible car accident.

I am an anxious person by nature, a worst-case scenario person, the sort of person who was already wiping down grocery carts and door handles, washing her hands frequently, and being leery of strangers. Who imagines her spouse in a ditch on the side of the road when he doesn’t return from work on time. Who can’t stop thinking about all the people in the world who are suffering and how we need to save the planet before it destroys us. That’s me on a normal day. Before I began to consume far too many news reports and articles on social media.

Late Tuesday night we got word that our jobs were deemed “non-essential”, which seems like it would be a disappointment but meant that we could work from home. I struggled the first few days to balance work with home/kids/school. School was slow to send over plans (understandably so seeing how quickly they were forced to improvise), and the boys balked at my attempts to teach them. There were fights and meltdowns as we adjusted to life together 24-7. My husband works for a plant that manufactures pumps for power generation, so he was deemed “essential”. Classifications became important as each day more and more businesses shut down. By the end of the week, the state declared only essential employees could go to work. (He is now working from home two days a week to minimize the number of employees on site.)

One week ago, oldest would have been on his DC trip, experiencing our nation’s capital for the first time. Instead we stayed home, played games, ate takeout, and watched movies. We tried to make the best of our new found family time, as weekends are typically spent running around to practices and other events. Now, the calendar is completely empty. It is a blessing and a curse, but it is a necessity for survival.

The only public place I have been in the past two weeks is a single trip to the grocery store on March 19. I wiped down the cart, as always, and washed my hands when I got home, as always, but in the store my behavior had changed. I avoided aisles with people in them, waited for the person before me at the register to clear before proceeding, and anything I picked up to examine went into the cart because I could be an unknowing carrier. I tried to be extra nice to the cashier, a high school senior who said she was bored because she was only allowed to go to work and nowhere else. My heart broke for her and all the other seniors missing out on their final year of high school.

Last week I consumed more and more media, the daily updates my safety net in these uncertain times. My anxiety continued to rise, and with it sleepless nights and a lack of desire to start each day. There were pockets of joy – virtual chats with my writing friends and my parents/siblings/nephews, laughing with my family as we invented new games to entertain ourselves, lots of extra cat snuggles. And I guess at the end of each day, I need to concentrate on the joyful moments and pray they will help me get through the anxious ones. Every time I reached out to a friend, they too expressed anxiety, worry, fear. We are all united in the unknown of what lies ahead. People have become more paranoid, yes, but also friendlier, at least from afar. We all want to get through this, to get to the other side and return to normal. We all want to survive.

Today is Saturday, March 28, 2020. It is raining outside. I am still wearing the same clothes I put on yesterday morning. It is almost noon. I am worrying about the doctors, the nurses, the patients who are dying. I am worrying about friends and family members who are struggling, emotionally and financially.

But my husband and children are here, and they are safe and healthy, and today we will play board games and make brownies. And maybe I’ll chat with a friend or two. And I will try to focus on those moments instead.

2020 Hindsight

Ah, the first day of a new year and a new decade. I’ve seen a lot of posts on social media recently about what people have accomplished/gained/lost over the last ten years and what they hope to accomplish in the future. Cute side by side pictures of what they looked like in 2009/2019. I chose not to participate.

Instead I’ve reflected on how things have changed over the past ten years. In the final months of 2009, we received the referral for our youngest son and were in the throes of bureaucratic preparations. Oldest was three years old and so damn cute and precocious. I had no idea what sort of roller coaster ride I was in for.

Parenting has been amazing and heartbreaking, and I know there are many more heartbreaking moments to come. When I look back on the past ten years, I wish I had held their hands a little longer. Snuggled them harder. Taken more pictures before they started making ridiculous faces for the camera and had to be bribed with toilet humor. They are on their way to becoming independent beings, and it is really freaking scary. I can only hope the next ten years fare well and we survive teenage-dom.

Sometimes you need to let go and have faith.

My career has ended up in a completely different place from what I expected in 2010. Back then I was substitute teaching in the district I had attended as a kid, with dreams of landing a full time position. Life had other plans. After four years of subbing, I failed to get a renewed position and spent nearly a year unemployed and trying to figure out a plan B. During that time I started to write a book and volunteered at the elementary school. Those two things led me to my friend Dee, an amazing human being and writer, who led me to other writers and a whole new set of opportunities.

Some days I really miss teaching. But if I hadn’t been passed over, I never would have met Dee and written my first novel. I never would have joined BNCWI and met my editor, never would have published SECOND IN COMMAND. An entire network of friends who I love with all my heart would have remained strangers.

Sometimes you have to trade one dream for another.

While I was unemployed, I attended a networking class for out of work teachers and cast my net wider in hopes of finding something to help cover our bills. (I didn’t make any money from writing until this past year.) In May 2014, I received an invitation to interview for a local community college. Part time, barely above minimum wage, and totally out of my comfort zone, but I went for it.

Sometimes you have to take chances.

I got the job, which led to a promotion, and then another, and even though I’m still not back to full time and I’ll never have summers off or long holiday breaks, I love what I do, and I get to make a difference in the lives of others. At the end of the day, that’s what matters most to me.

These past ten years have been full of ups and downs, as everyone’s lives have I’m sure. People and animals have left my life and others have arrived, I’ve seen more of the world, gotten a bit wiser and a bit wrinklier, learned to not give a crap about what others think and revel in joy when I find it.

As for the next ten, who knows. I’ve learned to stop fighting with the universe. My boys will become adults, hubs and I will start planning the next phase of our lives, and my books will grace the shelves of libraries around the country. I will have lost friends and family members, endured physical and emotional pain. But I vow to take more pleasure in the little things and be the best human I can during my short time here.

My wish for everyone: may you find health and happiness in the new year, and when you face heartache and setbacks, may they lead to growth and new opportunities. Be grateful. Be present. Love when you can and ask for help when things get difficult.

Most importantly: take care of each other and the planet. Happy New Year!

The Writer’s Road

So you want to be a writer, eh? What are your qualifications? Creative introvert with an active imagination and a flair for the dramatic who lives mostly in her head? Perfect. Wait, what’s that? You struggle with self-esteem? Stand by for crushing rejection. Don’t worry. You’ll get used to it. Plagued by jealous feelings? You should probably steer clear of social media. Hold on — you’ll need a platform, and thousands of followers. Have trouble making friends? There’s a hashtag for that.

You published a book! Great job. Try not to obsess over your reviews and sales ranks, and don’t go overboard with self-promotion — no one likes to hear about your book over and over. Make sure you attend plenty of author fairs and book signings — even though the only people who will buy your book are friends and relatives. It’s okay, JK Rowling lived inĀ  her car. Surely it can’t be that difficult to strike it rich in the publishing industry. You’ll be able to quit your job any day now and focus on your writing.

Oh yeah, writing. That thing you love to do because it keeps you sane. What are you working on these days? I hope your next book is good. No pressure. We loved the first one, so don’t disappoint your fans, okay? Writer’s block? That’s just an excuse for laziness. Didn’t you say you were a creative thinker? So go, think creatively! Come up with amazing plots and dynamic characters. There’s no room for self doubt here. No, ma’am. Lock yourself in your writing space, if you have a space with a door and a lock, or maybe just put some cardboard around you while you sit at the kitchen table and pretend you don’t have a family depending on you for survival. Bonus points if there’s a pet on your lap and/or keyboard.

Most importantly, remember: this is your hobby. You do it because it brings you joy. And when something brings you down (the pile of query rejections, yet another pass on your workshop proposals, other authors finding success where you failed) find something to bring you up. I highly recommend a praise journal, where you save positive and encouraging things other people have said about your work (emails, critiques, reviews, text messages from friends and family). Spread the joy by telling another author what you love about their work.

And visit authors when they are out trying to hock their wares. It will make them smile.

author fair

Happy to have customers at our local author fair

Poems from my past

Recently I unearthed a folder full of old poetry and other bits of brain barf with the intent of sharing it with my teen readers. Look! I wrote [bad] angsty poetry when I was your age and now I occasionally get paid to write stuff! However, while teen me felt perfectly fine sharing these poems with strangers, adult me hesitates. Some, okay most, of what I found was BAD. But I hear there’s power in vulnerability so I decided to occasionally share a few randomly selected (ha ha, right, you know I poured over this folder trying to figure out which poems sucked the least), completely unedited, poems from my past.

But first, a quick story. My freshman year in college I served on the selection committee for our school’s literary magazine. I had submitted a couple of my own poems and waited nervously for them to be read aloud and critiqued by the group. One of my poems was chosen for publication, while another got completely ripped apart. How could they do that with me sitting right there? you ask. Well, back then I used to sign my poems “VB” for Veronica Blackwood, a pen name born out of my obsession for Shirley Jackson (after the Blackwood family in We Have Always Lived in the Castle) and the fact that “Sandi” didn’t feel like a poet’s name. Being anonymous paid off… sort of. Because my real name wasn’t on the poem, it gave my group mates the freedom to expose the faults in my writing. But it also chipped away at my heart a bit. Criticism is never easy to take, but it’s even harder when it arrives entirely unfiltered.

I’m not sure the lesson I learned that day. Always use a pen name just in case people hate your work? Speak out against cruel criticism? Go home and cry into your pillow when someone hates your poetry? (Pretty sure it was option three back then.)

Or: Don’t let the haters bring you down.

One thing I’ve learned about searching through these old folders: I may have been a fledgling writer back then, but I was really prolific. There are pages and pages of poems, journal entries, and random thoughts. I wrote every day. And eventually it got me here. So maybe we need to embrace our pasts a bit more.

On that note, here’s a poem I wrote in August, 1994 while on the train to visit a friend. Unedited.

INSPIRATION SOMEWHERE BETWEEN ALBANY AND NIRVANA

The man on the train knows of enlightenment
and he speaks to my aura with his lips pursed
and his head cocked to one side
only i can’t listen because my mind is full of clouds
so instead i peer over his shoulder — watching
his red pen run its spiritual tip across the page.

The man on the train is pacing now
he must be dizzying with higher knowledge
or perhaps light-headed from stuffing white rubber into
his ears — in attempt to drown out my
contemplative bubble gum popping.

The man on the train has reached his earth-bound
destination — he exits with a glazed smile
and a cautious step — and i am left to
listen to empty giggles and morbid thoughts
while i wait for mine.