Reading Weekend

She Wolf & Cub

We had a huge (for us) dinner party Friday that edged towards Saturday morn, which, since I was fighting off the Little Prince’s cold (the one he thoughtfully brought home from school for us) and remain in the status of fighting off said cold, was perhaps not my best move, but what can one do?

Consequently, the rest of the weekend was spent cleaning, coughing, and reading, somewhat in that order. I finished Overy’s The Bombers and the Bombed, which was interesting but extremely difficult to read, then moved on to Lane Moore’s How to Be Alone, which in some places was full of things I’ve been waiting my whole life to hear someone articulate (especially in early chapters) and then…kind of not, but that’s a lot of memoirs. I moved on to An Iron Wind, which was…not what the cover made me think I was getting. I know that’s not the writer’s fault, either, but there was plenty else to side-eye in said writer’s assumptions.

There was one pretty incredible piece in the last, though, which was more than worth the rest of the book. Talking about the Warsaw ghetto, Fritzsche noted:

“Self-help could not ensure collective survival, because the German overlords had expropriated and stolen the resources of the community.

–Peter Fritzsche, An Iron Wind: Europe Under Hitler

Just that single sentence articulated the problem with Republicans’ constant “let charity or the market take care of poor people.” When corporate and rich overlords have expropriated and stolen the resources of the national community, or of marginalized communities (which are part of the national despite every attempt of cruelty-based conservatives to say otherwise), there’s nothing left for those communities to practice self-determination or self-help with. This gets overlooked in propaganda about the “lazy poor” all. the. damn. time.

Afterward, I bounced pretty hard off a first-person present-tense book that was a critical darling last year, and ended up with Murder By the Book: The Crime that Shocked Dickens’s London. It should hav more properly been “a” crime instead of “the” crime; Dickens’s London outright loved to be shocked. The more I read about Dickens, though, the more I realize just what an asshole he was. He basically hung Ainsworth out to dry after using his friendship to edge further into publishing, and let’s not even talk about what he did to his poor wife. Then again, this is the guy who fridged Nancy (and, let’s be real, 95% of all the women in his books, one way or another) and spent a great deal of his later life replaying Nancy’s death for paying customers. Dickens built his career on female bodies

Dude was gross.

Anyway, I needed the hours spent on the couch reading and making notes. It was good to get out of my own head and into other peoples’. And I always forget what a joy it is to spend a day reading. Like Laura in Sleeping With the Enemy (it’s not perfect but it is one of my favorite books), rediscovering days that are wide, and deep, and long as a child’s is enough to satisfy most hungers, and I can crawl out of the dream of a book several hours later, blinking and surprised.

I’m reasonably rested and somewhat reasonably renewed, which is good because I have to shift gears and work on both HOOD and the epic fantasy at once. I can feel the latter gathering for its slide to the end of the zero draft, and may that slide come swiftly.

At least with the dinner party done my social calendar is clear for weeks, which is just how I like it. Staying home and feverishly typing to pay the mortgage is my new vacation, just like my old vacations. I’m ready for a couple of my books to be done so I can move on to writing other things–as well as prepping Harmony for publication and doing a revise on Incorruptible. Never any shortage of work, and that’s how I like it, especially nowadays.

But first there are dogs to run and the day’s work to settle inside my head as I do so, and yoga to get out of the way near lunchtime, and and and. At least I can retreat from the sunshine our part of the world is afflicted with this season, crouch in my cave, and imagine whole worlds.

It’s not a bad life. Not at all.

Spring, Cartoons, Sprung

Saturday was rainy, Sunday sunny, which worked out well since I ran on the former and could lock up the house on the latter. I hid from the day-star and watched a chock-ton of Looney Tunes.

In the old house, I would fold laundry and write while several DVDs’ worth of cartoons played on the telly. The kids and I didn’t watch much else during the day, and when the Princess got older we’d have the subtitles on. She would, without prompting, correct errors in the subtitling.

She might be an editor someday, that girl. Anyway, the kids would play, and every few cartoons we’d all get up and perform a task. (If you’ve never tried hoovering with helpful toddlers, let me tell you, it’s a trip. )

Anyway, the dogs were quite happy to have me rest in one place between bouts of housework yesterday. And at the end of the day, every blessed creature in the house except the cats had dessert in my office, laughing at antics and gasping “oh, no,” at various points.

It’s been a long time since I heard those musical cues, and it took me all the way back to the good things about the old house. There were a few, but as things got worse by increments it felt more like a trap than a home. I was glad to move out, I don’t know if anyone who hasn’t endured a bad divorce or two knows how glad.

But last night there was cheesecake, gasps of recognition and laughter, and I remembered what it was like to sit cross-legged on the old papasan chair, typing furiously while the kids played and Bugs or Daffy or Tweety scrambled across the screen. In those days, the living room was the center of the house. Nowadays, here, it’s the kitchen.

I liked writing in the living room. I liked having the kids right in sight, and being available to them. I liked having Looney Tunes on while I typed furiously; I could work for two or three cartoons then take a break for one to get up and stretch.

But I realized that never, in all my life, had I watched cartoons truly alone.

So, Sunday morning, I got my coffee and settled in front of my laptop, and I watched them for hours. Then, all that afternoon, I did two or three household tasks, then watched a few cartoons, lather, rinse, repeat.

It was just as glorious as I thought it would be. I thought of trying to keep the volume low on Saturdays or Sundays in my childhood, hoping for a few good cartoons and disappointed when my favorites didn’t show. I thought of folding mountains of laundry and writing hundreds of thousands of words while terrified that I wouldn’t be able to make it, that I wouldn’t be able to create fast enough, well enough to feed my children.

And now I can take a whole day, press a button, and have cartoons playing. I can even go to the store, get doughnuts, and dip sweetened bread into tea or coffee while I roll around in every single cartoon I like. I can watch the same one fifty times in a row, if the mood takes me.

We value youth in our culture. We crave it. We glorify childhood, but all youth ever brought me was people fucking with me when they knew I was helpless–or when they thought I was. It was exhausting and terrifying.

It’s much better now. I fought tooth and nail to get here. I’m an adult, and coming up on female middle age. I don’t have to give a fuck, and I have my own bank account–such as it is–capable of absorbing a few charges for a smorgasbord of looney tune-age.

I’m listening to Wile E. Coyote chase the Road Runner while I type. Spring is here, and each time I’ve seen the same cartoon is a ring in my trunk. I’ve survived, and each seven or eight-minute cartoon reminds me of how it used to be, and how good it is now.

I never want to be a child again. But damn, I love cartoons.

Mental Mustelidae

The headweasels are particularly bad this morning. Back and forth they go, treating my skull like a flimsy cage. I’d love to let them out–fly, be free, never come back–but they’re stuck inside a bone bowl. There’s nothing to be done about it.

They’re independent of how many books I write or how much my children love me, independent of how much sleep I got last night or how hard I strive to be good and do good. “Do no harm and take no shit” is my mantra; why should I take shit from ghosts of people who hated and tried their best to kill or maim Child-Me?

And yet.

Meds don’t answer the head weasels, though meds can send them into protracted hibernation or blunt their sharp, tiny teeth. Proper pharmacology makes it easier to see the headweasels in their correct proportions, as distorted reflections not of the world, but of what we fear the world might be.

It’s already terrible enough out there, one doesn’t need to make it worse. Even though there’s a certain amount of frantic quasi-safety and illusionary control in imagining the worst so vividly that whatever actually happens looks like a relief. It’s still shitty, but it could be so much shittier really isn’t a healthy way to live your life, though. The wear and tear on your nerves about absolutely imaginary shittiness takes up time and energy one could be using to fight real ordure.

I should run. Make some tea. Lose myself in work for a while. I dread ending up tired, sweaty, and hammering at a book that will never sell because it’s too dark, too complex, too dangerous, too grim. Or not dark, complex, dangerous, and grim enough.

See? Headweasels, whispering in the corners, padding around the skull’s shadowed nooks, pressing their claws against the soft folds of a vulnerable brain.

The weasels just don’t seem to understand if I go down, they go down with me. They’re still determined to crash this fleshly bus into the nearest abutment at high speed. They’re not even good villains, as such things go. They’re just…balls of anxiety, with sleek fur, red eyes, and needle claws. Short-sighted, poo-flinging, nasty-tempered little idiots without even a cat’s gracefulness or (abstract and imperfectly applied) loyalty.

So I hunker down. I endure the brainweasels. I let them play and do my work while they try to bleed off precious energy. I use every strategy the therapist gave me and a few I picked up on my own. I write about the weasels to perform an old variety of sorcery: naming my enemy so I may gain power over it.

They’re uncomfortable, yes. But they’re just…thoughts. I know the power of a thought, and I know what a thought isn’t. It takes hard work over a long duration to turn small thoughts into reality, and while I’m not in charge of the thieving little mental mustelidae I am in charge of my hard work and effort. I’m the spaceship the weasels are loose in, and I can open the doors and fling us all into space at any moment.

New ones will generate if I somehow get my hands on the old, I’m sure. But I am the life support system, and I am the one living this life, and I am the one who will steer on down the highway, grimacing and pained but still in charge.

First on the agenda is a run to bring my mood back into line. Then it’s tea, and work. The weasels will scream or whisper, threaten or cajole, blandish or brandish, but I remain unmoved.

Or at least, I’m going to pretend to be unmoved, and go about my day. Good luck, everyone.

Let’s hope it works.

Getting Through to New Year’s

Tomorrow is Yule proper, the longest night and the celebration of light returning–or at least, the hope of such. Today is the absolute earliest day I will allow Christmas music in the house; however, the Princess and Little Prince rarely want it. It saturates all public spaces; this is, by contrast, our refuge.

The dogs sense my tension. Boxnoggin is determined to fix whatever has my tail tied in a knot; Miss B dimly suspects this has happened before and is more sanguine. Come the morning of the 25th, when the cooking begins, both of them will be excited and anticipatory. I wonder what Boxnoggin’s other Christmases have been like. No doubt he’ll calm down once he’s stuffed full of ham, belly-scrubbings, and treats.

Growing up, this time of year was inevitably one of mounting unease culminating in explosion. I used to try to decide which was worse: several small fires or the menacingly quiet build-up to a terrifying conflagration. On the one hand, the several small rages and punishments kept me in a state of low-level terror until after New Year’s, on the other, the tension leading up to the huge explosion made me sick with anticipation and I eventually feared for my life during the inevitable culmination. Year after year it was a roulette.

The first time I spent a quiet Christmas just by myself was revelatory. Nobody was screaming, breaking plates or my toys; nobody was hissing that I didn’t deserve presents or that I was a selfish child for having been born; the day passed quietly without me sneaking away to hide under my bed or vomit hopelessly behind a locked bathroom door that could still be screwdriver-opened at any moment. I wasn’t dragged out to “participate”, I wasn’t glared at while I opened presents and tried to guess which ones would be taken away after extended family went home and the war I’d never signed up for returned.

It was wonderful.

When my children arrived, their obvious and visible joy in the holiday frightened me. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to live up to their expectations, I worried that they secretly felt as awful as I had during the whole thing and were suffering trying to hide it, I worried that I wasn’t providing enough gifts, enough “traditions”, enough of anything, especially on Christmases where the budget didn’t permit much in the way of presents. It’s kind of funny now–both kids tell me they’ve always loved the holiday and I’ve always made it special for them. They don’t really understand my unease, since it’s always been a time of joy for them, a time to roll around in evidence that their Mum indeed loves them fiercely, completely, utterly.

I still can’t decide which was worse, the ongoing small fires or the huge explosion. The latter generally cleared the air for a while, but the absolute unremitting fear for my life during it seems a high price to pay. On the other hand, the grinding tension of several small pokes, slaps, pinches, nasty comments, glares, tiny humiliations occurring in clusters before a relatively smaller eruption turned me into a big-eyed, quivering wreck, afraid to even breathe deeply.

There’s really nothing to recommend either.

The kids, of course, are oblivious, looking forward to tree-decorating and a glut of good food. Presents? Well, they have everything they want, really, but I was able to afford some small things this year, and it pleases me to think of their joy when the Glorious Morn rolls around.

Among my friends this year, I feel like I’m the strong one. I just want to get everyone through to New Year’s with a minimum of damage. I feel like I’m clinging grimly to a lifeboat’s sides, making sure everyone has their vests secured and rationing our shipboard biscuits while we wait for rescue, comforting who i can and soothing as far as I am able.

Sometimes I long for the brief period in my life where I could let this entire time of year pass without decoration or remark, safely curled up inside my shell. I only participate for others, and some years I wish I didn’t have to.

All the same, participating for the joy of others is exponentially better than the conflagration or the wilderness of small random fires. It’s even quite beautiful in its own way, and I’m happy to bring joy to the people I care for. It gives me a deep satisfaction that helps battle the residual stress, the way Christmas decorations or the collection of holiday smells make my stomach clench with pained panic. I often feel that being incapable of enjoying the damn holiday season detracts from the joy of people I love, and worry that it indeed makes me the selfish brat I was accused since birth of being.

For me, even the best Christmas isn’t as good as a regular day spent working. It’s a gauntlet to run through, something to endure, and I’m always deeply glad when it’s over.

I’m buckled in and buckled down, prepared to see it through. Let’s hope we all reach the New Year with the minimum of damage, my friends.

Over and out.

Raft

One of the worst things about anxiety–well, it’s all bad, but some things are more awful than others–is the persistent suspicion that you’re doing it to yourself.

This suspicion is not merely confined to strangers. Friends, loved ones, and even your own rat-tailed brain will hold that glimmer, far back and way down. Exquisitely sensitive to any breath of disapproval, your own brain chemistry will chase that glimmer into the swamp, and you’ll be a few feet deep and sinking fast in quicksand before you realize what the fuck’s going on, scratching the itches of why can’t you just be normal until your skin breaks.

Then the things living in the swamp–anxiety’s giant grey toothy brothers–will smell the blood.

It’s not your loved ones’ fault. It’s not even yours. It’s nobody’s fault, really, when you have brain chemistry that does its best to maim or kill you. But that doesn’t change the fact that you’re bleeding in quicksand and carnivorous things are hunting you.

So you spread your weight carefully. You grab a rope, a vine, a stick, and start working for solid ground. You breathe deeply, you take your meds so the grey things are chained if not docile. Slow them down, and focus on one slow swim-stroke at a time. As soon as you make it out of the quicksand and your loved ones try to help you up, the internal bleeding sets in–the guilt about letting them help you, when you were the idiot who ran into quicksand in the first place. The swamp can turn into a sea at a moment’s notice, and it often does.

Deep breathing. Remind yourself that it’s okay to let other people care about–and care for–you. Check in with the people you know are worried. Wrap yourself in something soft, and keep taking your meds. Remind yourself, once again, that you’ve felt this bad before, and it passed like an ocean wave. When you get tired of swimming you can float for a while. The salt stings, and you’re tired, but there are things to cling to.

You’ve made it before. You will again.

Here. Share my raft. I know it’s small–it’s okay, we’ll make it work. Climb up. Or just cling to the side if you have to. I’m right here, I’ll hold on, and when you have the strength I’ll help you clamber up.

What? Me? Oh, yeah. I’ve been out here before too, lots of times. That’s right, I’ll steady you. The raft’s stronger than it looks…Huh? Oh, a little while ago I was drowning again, too. But then I saw you, and it’s kind of strange…yeah, there you go. It’s all right. We’ll pick up anyone else we can, and head for shore.

I was going to say, it’s kind of strange, isn’t it?

Helping someone else makes the raft bigger.

Holiday Waterholes

Just because you’ve always gone to that waterhole doesn’t mean you have to keep doing it.

…Let me back up.

It’s that time of year again, holiday time. Decorated dryad-corpses in living rooms, cranky children in stores overwhelmed by colorful advertising, frazzled drivers ramming each other in parking lots with shopping trolleys AND cars. Also, fudge!

I love fudge.

This is also the time of year I hear a lot of people dreading the inevitable family gatherings. I often make an announcement on social media concerning this, but I figured this year I’d post it here as well.

Here is your yearly reminder that you don’t have to go to that holiday gathering if you don’t want to. NOBODY WILL DIE IF YOU DON’T GO TO THAT FAMILY GATHERING. You can stay home and save yourself the grief.

See, toxic people have a ball this time of year, because not only do they get to ramp up the drama and get that emotional jolt, but their prey will come to the same waterhole and offer easy access. It’s a moving buffet for interpersonal predators this time of year. Plus, there are enablers who will pressure the prey to come to that danger-infested waterhole, because “it’s what we do every year” and “family” and “togetherness” and “you don’t want to ruin it for everyone” and “just get along” and “maybe it’ll be different this time.” Implicit in this, too, is the enablers realizing very well that if the regular prey isn’t there, a toxic predator will turn on someone else–very likely the enabler themselves.

You do not have to put yourself through that. There are other waterholes without predators, and you can visit them for your holiday jibjabber and baked goods. You can even stay home, bake yourself a bunch of fun stuff, and go to bed early, which is my favorite way to spend any holiday.

If you’r looking for permission not to peel your own skin off or stake yourself out in the blazing sun of family drama, consider this it. You do not have to do this thing that hurts you. You do not have to allow predators and toxic people or even just garden-variety family bigots access to you, your emotional effort, your time.

“But I’ll feel guilty!” I hear a lot of people say.

So you’ll feel guilty. Which is worse–a little bit of guilt, or enduring the gauntlet at that particular infested waterhole? My life got a lot better when I realized enduring the guilt I’d been socialized to feel at enforcing my boundaries was way, way, WAY easier than suffering the fallout from making myself available to abusers, predators, and those who were just used to me performing emotional labour at the drop of a hat.

I’m over forty, I don’t have time for that bullshit, I have no fucks left to give, and if a small amount of guilt is the price I pay for holidays that don’t leave me marooned in an emotional mudhole, I’ll pay it and go on with my life whistling.

If you need permission, consider this it. If you need to know it’s okay to make that choice, I’m telling you, it’s okay.

Happy holidays.

Gold, Leaves, Age

morning sun The maple in the yard behind ours has lost about a third of its drapery, which means morning light has taken on that particular heading-into-winter cast. There really is nothing like autumn light. Richer than summer’s, warmer than winter’s, briefer and more beautiful than spring’s. Autumn is when I start waking up again, in exact reverse of most of the world. Winter, with its rain and grey, is my most productive time; autumn tells me I’m about to spike hard in terms of wordcount.

The only problem with fall is bad childhood memories–in particular, raking leaves until the skin on my palms blistered, split, then bled. This was a punishment delivered every year we lived somewhere with trees and a patch of yard, and even if I had finished I was still required to stay outside and rake. When small leaves get wet, it’s almost impossible to get them all, and the very trees seem to laugh at you as they shed a few on a gust of wind after you’ve finished the space just below them. Also, three-quarters of an acre is a lot when you have to go over it with a rake a few feet wide.

I didn’t blame the trees, but it was close. They were normally my friends, each summer I could hide somewhere in their branches. Even friends can’t save, when the powers who rule a child’s world are inimical.

I still hate raking leaves. The day I could pay someone else to do it–someone who had a leaf-blower and actually liked it–was a happy one, and I’ve never looked back. Even now a particular aroma of wet leaves on uncut, mud-footed grass makes my hands throb with remembered pain, along a few scars from where the blisters were worn away and bled so many times. That’s the only thing I don’t like about fall, and the older I get, the less it bothers me.

It’s nice to take stock and realize one isn’t a helpless child any more. Other people say they fear getting older. To me, it’s a gift–a mark of survival, and the smell of wet leaves and the aching in my hands gets a little easier to bear. What you survive makes you stronger and stranger; both are welcome. I can be who I am now, and that person is loving her fortieth autumn, in all its russet and gold.

And being grateful I don’t have to rake any damn leaves unless I want to.