I always thought when you went over the tipping point that there would be a fall. Instead, I’ve learned when you go over the tipping point the point impales itself in your heart and holds you aloft writhing like an insect being prepared for a museum display.
Internally, I can’t understand why I’ve found myself stuck. All I’ve done is experienced two years of the pandemic in the most privileged way possible. I worked from home in my basement office while my husband worked from home in our bedroom, and my daughter attended school at home; then at home and at school; and now at school. We have money to pay for broadband, computers, masks, and COVID tests. I should feel lucky.
My mom is alive. I didn’t survive cancer. I don’t currently have cancer. My house didn’t burn to the ground. The opposite scenarios are all ones my friends have experienced since 2020. I didn’t get COVID. My daughter didn’t infect her grandparents when she got COVID. Thank goodness.
My co-workers think I’m a great boss and do great work. I’m working on a project to fundamentally reduce the climate change impacts of transportation system in this country. This week, my work was lauded by the Secretary of Energy and the Secretary of Transportation. I am at a career high point.
I know mental health. I’ve lived with a partner with depression for 22 years. I experienced anxiety during this pandemic in a vicious cycle of chest tightening, worrying I have COVID causing additional chest tightening and more worry that I have COVID. I was seeing the therapist at my doctor’s office until she quit. She never suggested medication. I took the quizzes every appointment. I’m not jittery. I can focus. I can sleep. I am fine.
Sometimes feeling bad is appropriate. Sometimes the combined strain of the banal — lost friendships, loneliness, dead pets — and a literal apocalyptic existence leave you feeling kinda crappy. I just checked my favorite John’s Hopkins COVID-19 dashboard and 5,802,066 people have died worldwide. I was tempted to round to 5.8 million, but 2,066 feels like significant digits. That’s 2,066 sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends, lovers, human beings. I can’t imagine 2,066 deaths much less the other 5,800,000. An antidepressant doesn’t make that go away. Every day brings new catastrophes. A quick scan of today’s headlines: war, border blockades, delayed vaccines for kids, and voter suppression. Awesome.
I’m supposed to work and achieve. I’m supposed to be a visionary. I’m supposed to lead, mentor, and manage others. I’m supposed to raise a healthy well-balanced child. I’m supposed to care for my family, my friends, and do not forget the all-important self-care. But what if self-care requires alone time to cry or scream? What if I’ve sucked up all I can suck and need to experience legitimate emotions during my endless daily cycle of bedroom, basement office, kid’s sporting events, kitchen, and back to my office for a few more hours before returning to my bedroom to sleep? When do I to take an hour, a day, a week, a month and fall apart because the world is a horrible scary place? And if I breakdown, then what? Do I pick myself up and start climbing to the tipping point again? This isn’t a brain chemistry problem. This is reality.
And here’s the thing. I’m not alone. If I look around there is a mountain range of impaled others. If I listen closely, I can hear a chorus of “I’m fine.” “I’m good.” “Doing okay.”
How am I doing? I am scared. I am exhausted. I am angry. I am stuck. And I don’t know how or when it gets better.
We were so fucking careful for six hundred and sixty-two days. We canceled camping trips and school trips for fear of being infected. For fear of infecting others. We quarantined fourteen days before Christmas Eve 2020, just so we could spend a few hours with family without masks. My daughter played soccer games (outdoors), basketball games (indoors), and volleyball matches (indoors) masked. She wore masks at the beginning of cross country meets. My husband and I? We watched games and races apart from other families with our lower faces hidden behind our own masks.
It wasn’t enough. Six hundred and fifty-eight days of being safe and somehow COVID found my daughter. When you are careful, you know exactly when infection occurs, even if you don’t know how. We’d been quarantining after an exposure to a family friend. For five days from 12/26 – 12/31 my daughter didn’t leave the house, but when our New Years Eve plans were canceled because our friend (the same one we were exposed to) was still testing positive, I made a terrible decision, “Let’s just go to the hockey game. No one will be there.” Our first mistake.
My daughter and I put on our masks in the car. They stayed on the entire walk to the game and the entire game. No one was there. We got seats one row up and 6 seats over from the nearest people. People who didn’t wear masks the entire game. The woman in the group coughed several times. I glared at her a lot as if my mommy eyes could stop any germs. At the far end of the row, another group of maskless fans sat farther away, but didn’t show any signs of unhealthiness. Everyone was at least 10 feet away, probably more. No one was behind us to breathe their COVID-y germs down on us. We had masks on: my husband and I KN95s, but my daughter had asked to only wear a surgical mask. Our second mistake.
At intermission, we walked down through the concourse. My daughter had to use the bathroom. Our third mistake. After a moments hesitation, I followed her, deciding I would go too. We both went, but in stalls a distance from each other. We washed hands near masked women, and then went to visit friends at the game who we hadn’t seen in at least six hundred and fifty-eight days. They wore masks. We wore masks. We hugged, but they had COVID recently, so it was a safe hug, but we were near other people. I didn’t note the mask wearing of those strangers because I was so happy to see our friends again. Our fourth mistake.
We spent the rest of the game at our seats. Near the coughing woman. Near the maskless fans. My daughter sat between my husband and I in her less-protective surgical mask. After the game, it was cold, so we wore our masks all the way to the car, keeping our faces warm and avoiding the germs of the unmasked fans walking near us.
My husband and I were boosted, but kids my daughter’s age were not yet approved. The CDC wouldn’t recommend her booster until two days after she tested positive for COVID; six days after she was infected. All the times I’d thought poorly of people who were infected right before they could get vaccinated came back to me in a karmic vengeance. Our fifth mistake? Hard to say, because we hadn’t heard that boosters were imminent, but we did know it had been over six months since her shots, and we knew Omicron was raging. So yes, let’s count that as mistake five.
We went to another hockey game the next day. Same situation, but more fans. The guy next to me was drunk and kept leaning in to talk to me, touch me. We moved seats so I was out of reach. Could my daughter have been infected then? Sure. But neither me, my husband, our friends, or our friends’ unboosted kids got COVID.
On January 2nd my daughter’s phone pinged with a notification that she’d been near someone with COVID on December 31st. I didn’t get the notification, nor did my husband. The only time we were apart was in the bathroom. Could the state notification system have been smart enough to know that my husband and I had better masks than my daughter? Of course not. Right?
Monday, January 3rd, my daughter felt crappy when she woke up. A wicked headache and a bit congested. My husband had just recovered from a bad cold (not COVID, he tested three times). Maybe she caught it? Or perhaps irritation from all the residual particulates in the air from the fires that burned Superior and Louisville days before? She had no cough and no fever, but we tested her for COVID just in case. Negative, so she spent a few hours with my parents (mistake six), came home and went for an unmasked walk outside with a friend (mistake seven), and then went to her club basketball practice (mistake eight). At least she wore a mask at basketball, like always.
Tuesday she went back to school (mistake nine). Her head still hurt and she didn’t feel great. Of course she’d also slept less than 4 hours. I know because I slept with her. She was anxious about school and finally I gave up and joined her in bed so she could get some rest. All night we shared recycled breath. (mistake ten) “It feels like knives are stabbing my eyes,” she said as she got ready for school. I gave her a Tylenol, because I know how horrible a lack of sleep can make you feel: especially your eyes. Testing crossed my mind, but she was negative the day before and we only had five tests left (mistake eleven). I picked her up from school and she was feeling pretty good. She had an hour to eat a snack and change and then off to her school basketball practice (mistake twelve). After dinner she started feeling really cruddy, so we tested. Positive for COVID. My husband and I tested. Negative.
We felt terrible, and our penance was the COVID walk of shame. I told my parents their granddaughter had exposed them to COVID. She had exposed my immunocompromised father, the one consistent family fear of this pandemic. At least they were both vaccinated and boosted. My husband texted the parents of her (vaccinated, not boosted) walk friend. I emailed basketball coaches, and texted hockey friends. My final note was to school “friends”: the ones who hadn’t invited her to New Year’s, the ones who made fun of her for not going on their school trip, and ones who hadn’t bothered to invite her to any of their outings during the school break. (You know, those middle school “friends.”) I let all their moms know that my daughter was positive and had exposed their daughters to COVID throughout the school day. Everyone was either nice enough, or ignored my note. Was there a little snideness in their responses? A little smugness? Impossible to tell from email, but I know they found us overcautious, ridiculous, and exhausting for six hundred and sixty-two days. I’m sure at least one family felt a little secret joy that the uppity family was knocked off their pedestal. My daughter’s final penance? The recital all the “friends” were going to over the weekend was now out of the question. My kid couldn’t go because of isolation protocols. Another demerit. Another chance to get left out.
What was the tally of our even dozen mistakes?
My daughter, infected with COVID
Her walking friend, infected with COVID
As far as we know, that’s it. My parents were spared. My husband and I were spared. Both my mom and I felt bad enough to test three days after my daughter tested positive, but we were negative and both feel fine now. Did we have it, and our booster helped us fight off the infection? Who knows. No classmates or teammates were impacted. The family we infected has been careful, like us, during the pandemic, and they have been kind as our daughters go through COVID together. We’ve helped each other find tests and traded food ideas as our girls lost their sense of taste. The girls are happy to have an isolation buddy to do homework with via Facetime. As much as neither family ever wanted to end up in this situation we are making the best of things.
But my kid has a disease we know little about. She lost her sense of taste on day 6, so her symptoms aren’t decreasing. She’s still testing positive on day 7. No fever, and blood oxygen levels consistently above 96%. Protocol says she can go back to school tomorrow, but really? I’m going to send my daughter who doesn’t feel great and is testing positive to school? Sure she didn’t infect anyone last time, but do we push our luck? Push the luck of other families?
I’d love to say that I’m super zen about all this. That I can look back and say we were super risky, made twelve mistakes, and all that happened was our daughter and her friend got infected, but I’m not zen at all. I’m fucking angry. Look at my mistakes and tell me what parent, what person, which of you, hasn’t made the same mistakes. In fact, maybe you have made even bigger mistakes without masks or without testing. One of my mistakes was letting my kid go to the bathroom with only a surgical mask on. Should I have told her to hold it? Go when it wasn’t as busy? Force her to wear an N95 mask? What we did wasn’t a mistake. We followed proper protocol. She made another mistake when going on an unmasked walk outside with her friend the day she tested negative for COVID. Raise your hand if you’ve gone outside and talked to someone without a mask. I’m betting every one of you has your hand raised. And did you have a negative COVID test earlier that day? I’m guessing not. Now guess what? You gave your friend COVID. Fuck that. And sure, my kid was not boosted, but she couldn’t be. The damn CDC had to wait FOUR DAYS to approve the FDA’s recommendation and even those assholes waited until it had been over SEVEN months since the kids with the most responsible families got their kids vaccinated. This is all utterly unfair bullshit.
Now I get to worry about long COVID, and what long term impacts this virus will have on my daughter. Will she still be able to run? Play sports? What about even longer unknown impacts? I get to worry because there are no hospital beds and if she takes a turn for the worse there will be no oxygen for her, no ICU, and sure as hell no treatments. For making a dozen mistakes, I get to be that parent. The one who risked her kid’s life, her families’ lives, and her friends’ lives for a hockey game. Except, I didn’t do anything that any safe family hasn’t done this pandemic. And I’m angry as hell for all the people who haven’t been careful, who haven’t worn a mask, and who haven’t been vaccinated so this damned virus keeps mutating. Every selfish person who just can’t bother to put something over their nose and mouth and get a nothing-short-of-miraculous-vaccine is culpable for my kid’s illness. At least as much as I am for making what I admit is one bad decision: to go to a hockey game with Omicron raging.
For six hundred and sixty-two days we were careful, responsible members of society and this just sucks. If I was a toddler I’d be pounding and kicking on the floor screaming a tantrum of “it’s not fair.” As a fourty-seven year old, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that you’ll find me there tomorrow.
McSweeney’s Internet Tendency requested submissions that reflected how surreal Thanksgiving will be this year. I submit, but sadly my piece was not accepted. I worked hard on it though, and it’s timely, so I figured I’d stick it up on Afthead for grins. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
Hold on sweetie. Let mommy light the candles. Go wash your hands, then you can ask the questions.
How is this Thanksgiving different from all other Thanksgivings?
I’m glad you asked, young child. This Thanksgiving is different from all other Thanksgivings in every way imaginable. Our health is being threatened by a virus; our democracy is being endangered by the current fascist-curious administration; racists, bigots and misogynists are swarming out of their bunkers; murder hornets are apparently a thing; and Alex Trebek died (he’s Canadian, but we still were thankful for him and mourn his loss).
Now, you may ask your four questions as this question was a meta-question and does not count against your quota.
Mommy drinks a glass of wine.
On all other Thanksgivings we eat turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. Why on this Thanksgiving do we eat only mashed potatoes?
I’m glad you asked, young child. On all other Thanksgivings, the meal is a communal endeavor. Family members brings their individual talents to each dish’s preparation. Mommy is excellent at making mashed potatoes, so I make mashed potatoes every year. Grandma makes the stuffing and Grandpa sticks that sausage-y goodness into the body cavity of a turkey and bakes it up golden using his magical paper bag trick.
Did you notice Daddy wasn’t mentioned in the “meal preparation talent” list? Yet he thought he could handle the Thanksgiving turkey. But, since he neglected to take the plastic bag of giblets out of the turkey before putting it in the oven, now both the turkey and Mommy’s pathetic attempt at stuffing are ruined. (No, we didn’t notice the bag when we were stuffing the turkey, because putting your hand in there is gross. We didn’t dig around exploring.) What are giblets you ask? Turkey guts. No, that question doesn’t count against your four-question limit.
Mommy drinks a glass of wine
On all other Thanksgivings we eat sweet potatoes with marshmallows. Why on this Thanksgiving are there only marshmallows?
I’m glad you asked, young child. This Thanksgiving, we do not eat sweet potatoes, because they remind us of the unnatural hue of our president. We refuse to even hint at accepting his totalitarian regime by enjoying the sweetness of the orange potato.
We eat marshmallows because of our recent realization that our family enjoys an unhealthy amount of white privilege. The eating of the marshmallows symbolizes the destruction of all squishy white racists – McConnell, Pence, and Graham to name a few. The sickness we feel after eating an entire bag of marshmallows reminds us that too much whiteness is largely responsible for the mess our country is in right now.
Mommy drinks a glass of wine.
On all other Thanksgivings, we don’t have any dips. Why do we have two dips this Thanksgiving?
Did you have to ask, young child? Can you not smell the burnt plastic? Mommy and daddy are not adult enough to pull off a real Thanksgiving. While essential grocery store workers are at the store today, they are getting COVID at a frightening rate, so we don’t want to risk their lives by rushing out and buying another dinner that we would probably ruin anyway. We made do. We are like the fucking pilgrims, with no native Americans to bail us out.
Yes, fucking is a bad word. I’m sorry. But you LOVE French onion and fake cheese dip. Why are you complaining?
Yes, firemen are also essential workers, which is why we didn’t let daddy fry the turkey. No, hon, it wouldn’t have worked better that way, you just would have fried the damn bag of giblets.
Mommy drinks a glass of wine
On all other Thanksgivings we sit upright at the dining room table, surrounded by friends and family. Why on this night are we alone reclining in front of the television?
I’m SO glad you asked, young child. This year it’s just our little family for Thanksgiving, because infecting grandma and grandpa and aunts and uncles and cousins and friends with COVID might ruin our chance to spend future holidays together. Reclining alone in our living room shows our despondence at society’s collective failure to protect each other, and listening to our friends Troy Aikman and Joe Buck commentate the Cowboys game is the closest thing to adult conversation we….
What? Ohmygosh, yes. We want COVID to pass over our family, just like we learned at Zoom Passover this spring. Wow, you were really paying attention. No, sweetie, you don’t need to paint blood on our door. This is a different kind of plague. No, I don’t think there will be any frogs. I’m sorry I know you love frogs. Shhhh. I’m sad and scared too. Here, eat another marshmallow.
Mommy pours a fifth glass of wine.
Is this cup of wine for Elijah? I don’t think Elijah comes to Thanksgiving. Well sure, you can open the door, just in case. Guess what? Question quota is full. Mommy is all done. Let’s have some pie. Yes, I’m sure Elijah likes pie.
When I turned 16, one of my dad’s friends surprised me with a visit. He drove up in his sports car — it was a Corvette I think — and asked me if I wanted to take it for a drive.
He was a cop.
Years later, I chatted with a friend who is black about learning to drive. She explained how in her family, as she and each of her siblings started learning, the family sat down to talk about what to do if they got pulled over. Put your hands on the wheel. Don’t get out of the car. Tell the cop where your license is and ask for permission to get it. Return your hands to the wheel. Tell the cop where your registration is and ask for permission to get it. Never drive without your license, registration and proof of insurance.
I was baffled by this family ritual. I never had this conversation. Why did their family have this conversation? The few times I’d been pulled over I tried to act cute and flirt a little and I’d never even gotten a ticket.
She explained to me that cops kill black people.
My lovely friend with her lovely family who was just like mine — if you don’t see skin color — had to learn how to minimize her chance of being killed by the police. The police did not take her for a ride in a sports car. Other black friends have assured me that they also had these conversations in their families.
How lucky am I? I was in my twenties before I realized that police weren’t just nice guys who helped you when you locked your keys in your car, again. That’s white privilege. After the conversation with my friend I was forced to examine and continue to examine what advantages I have just because of the color of my skin. I can hail a taxi and it will stop and pick me up. I will make more money and I can get instant approval for a mortgage, a car loan, or a credit card.
I’m trying to learn and trying to see what advantages my white skin gives me. But while I am learning, I don’t need to worry that I’ll be shot while jogging, sleeping, or hanging out in my apartment just because of the color of my skin. White privilege.
Maybe you are just now seeing your white privilege for the first time. It’s uncomfortable. It’s unfathomable. It’s true. If you don’t like it, you have an obligation to inform yourself, call out injustice when you see it, and make improvements where you can.
I’m just beginning to understand how I might stand in the gap. When hiring I ask my team if we really need another white man, or if we should go back and look for more diverse candidates. That makes other people uncomfortable, and leads to hard conversations, but nothing will change without questioning the status quo.
Along the way I will make mistakes. I will say stupid things. I will apologize, and try to do better. I will realize horrible things about myself, my family, and my world. But I won’t avoid learning these things because change can’t happen if we hide from the truth.
My daughter? She’s learning along with me. She has heard me talk about what black lives matter means, and why it’s not all lives matter. She knows that there are good police and bad police. When I make donations, I tell her about the ACLU, the NAACP, and bail bond funds. I teach her why it’s important to see skin color. I am teaching her how to ask questions and how to respectfully take criticism when her white privilege is exposed. When she learns to drive, I’ll teach her what other families learn and help her see the injustice of racial inequality. She assures me, with the confidence of youth, that she and her generation will do better. I hope they do.
I read because I love stories. I love being transported into another person’s world and perspective. Occasionally, reading helps me understand life. Last week I was finding respite from the chaos of real life, reading Sarah Gailey’s new book When We Were Magic, when I came upon this gem:
Paulie pats my thigh. “It’s okay,” she says, “It’s okay to be upset at upsetting things.” I’m struck by the sentiment. “It’s okay to be upset at upsetting things,” I repeat, and Paulie taps her fingers on my knee in a pattern I don’t follow.
Anyone else had a rough couple of weeks? Two weeks ago I was diagnosed with arthritis in my left knee. The constant ache and sharp pain waking me up in the middle of the night had a name. My daughter didn’t make her middle school soccer team. Last year when I asked her why she played soccer she told me, “Because I want to play in middle school.” One dream crushed, she rebounded to play brilliantly in a club tournament , but lost in the finals. This all happened before I knew it was okay to be upset at upsetting things.
Last week was finals week. This was the first quarter in my almost three years of graduate school that I took two classes. For ten weeks I’ve been a demon. The pull of work, parenting, sports, pets, life, plus two graduate school classes – Geodatabases and Advanced Geospatial Statistics – was a grind. I was awful to my friends. I was negligent to my family. I was a drag on my projects at work. Everyone had been warned that this was going to be unpleasant, and it was on everyone.
If I finished successfully, I was going to celebrate. With those two classes finished I would only have two more classes left before my degree was complete. I was going to go have a drink with friends. I was going to apologize to my family, maybe go get ice cream. There were going to be donuts at work. Pizza too.
I finished Saturday, March 14th. No one went to the office on the 16th. There was no one to celebrate with. Getting ice cream with my family seemed irresponsible. COVID-19 hit and social distancing had started and my ten horrible weeks was transitioning into a different unknown horrible with an unknown timeline, but by then I’d finished Gailey’s book. I was angry and annoyed and frustrated, but I knew it’s okay to be upset at upsetting things.
Now, I sit in the same horrible chair I sat in for 10 weeks doing homework and I wish things were different. I wish my knee didn’t hurt. I wish my daughter had known the joy of making the team or winning the tournament – especially now when soccer looks unlikely until fall. (Please, let there be soccer in the fall.) I don’t wish I would have been kinder during my 10 weeks of school, because I just don’t work that way, but I do wish I could have had a moment of joy. Sharing with others the accomplishment that I’d done something really hard really well: 99.4% average between both classes – a not humble brag.
I wish my kid could see her friends. I wish I could see my friends. I wish my dad took the health risk of this disease more seriously. I hate that I have to keep sitting day in and day out in my homework chair, but now it’s my office chair, my school chair, my writing chair. It’s the only chair my butt is going to reside in for weeks? Months? But I am so grateful for the escape of books. That I can go to world where life is different. Where I can find wisdom from a bunch of magical teenagers:
“It’s okay,” she says, “It’s okay to be upset at upsetting things.”
I’m two years into a graduate degree. Two years with one year and 10 weeks to go. Yes, exactly. Yes, I’m counting. I’m studying for a Master’s of Science in Geographic Information Systems, or making maps on the computer. Overall, I’m loving the coursework and learning new things. I’m hating that it gives me very little time to write. My family hates that it makes me an unholy grouch to live with. Balancing 32 hours a week of work, school work, and volunteer opportunities, while trying not to be a terrible mom, wife, sister, and child make my temperament less than jolly.
Imagine my thrill when the final project for my last class was posted. A class I hated. A class on which I spent over 20 hours a week. A class I struggled to understand with a professor who I just didn’t gel with. A class in which the technical text book used! lots! of! exclamation! points! incorrectly! The final project announcement said, “I need to see some layout & design, professionalism, communication of ‘a story’, creativity…” The project assignment said, “Tell a story about what is spatially living in this location. Keep it short, straight to the point, and fictional if you want.” The professor wanted a story? A story that could be fictional? Suddenly, my least favorite class had a silver lining. I could write a story as my final project.
I dug in, I got creative. I researched mythical creatures. I thought about fonts and colors. I agonized over the compass rose. I came up with conflict and history and theme. I made a map-story of which I was proud. Right click on the below and open it in a new tab or a new window if you want to see how awesome it is.
As a kid, you have plenty of measurable opportunities to fail. You can fail tests, fail homework, lose at soccer games. Success or failure is quantifiable: less than 60% = failure; less goals than the other team = fail. As an adult, failure feels more nebulous. Plenty of times I feel like I’m failing as a friend, a parent, a wife, a child, a sister, an employee, or a writer, but it’s just a feeling. This class gave me a chance to experience quantifiable failure as an adult. My final grade on the above project? 50%. A big fat honking F.
How did I get an F on such a masterpiece? Oh, let me tell you. He said that the map I created looked too much like the sample map he used as his example. We used the same layout, map on the left, and color scheme – blue for water; shades of green, brown, and yellow for land. So minus 25% for using his map as a guide and using appropriate cartographic colors for the land areas. (The map had to be this size, so where in the heck else was I going to put it?) Anyway, in his mind, 25% off for being a copycat. Then, he said my final work product was just a map, and it would be enhanced by “some ‘pictures’ of the the pixies working at night or graphics showing how the brownies export the farm products.” Really? Maybe I could just throw on some 1990s clip art? Great idea prof! Minus 25% for wanting to create a tasteful uncluttered communication piece. Got it.
Here my friends is the glory of doing graduate school in your 40s. Did I like this class? No. Do I like the professor? No. Did my family have to listen to me rant endlessly for the two assignments I got bad grades on – this one and the other 50% I got because I’m unable to present information to decision makers in the correct manner. (I’ll have you know, my real job involves near constant communication with decision makers and I AM VERY GOOD AT MY JOB. But I digress.) Yes, my family had to listen to me say bad words. However, as someone in her 40s, I know that this guy is just not a great teacher for me. I know that this class is not a subject in which I excel. But do you know what? I’m still proud of my map story. I like the idea of dryads and gnomes emigrating from the Mt. Adams fires and the Fairy Council trying to find homes for them. I mean, they could be building walls to keep them away, but they are not. Good for them. Good for me. I give myself an A+ for taking a crappy class and a crappy assignment and doing a little something with it that feeds my soul. Actually I get an A++ and a gold star.
And you know what? I still got an A in his damn class by 0.15%. Not such a failure after all.
Twas the night before publication, and all through the house not a creature was stirring except me because gosh darn it, holy moly, gee whiz my first short story is getting published tomorrow! Monday, June 3rd is publication day. After a rough few years of submitting and being rejected, then completely quitting for a bit, I’ve had a run of acceptances. (Is two a run? I feel like it is.) My first creative essay was published online April 20th and now my first fiction story will come out tomorrow. Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya, tomorrow….
Grork Dentist will be published by Luna Station Quarterly, a magazine in their tenth year of publication. I’ve loved Luna Station Quarterly since I first came across Holly Lyn Walrath’s story The Joy of Baking. It’s a magazine with a cool mission: publishing speculative fiction by women-identified writers. I love that they do a print and online publication (I’ve got four print copies arriving Tuesday from Amazon, thank you very much.) It’s easy to share online publications with friends and family, but likewise really special to have a print copy of your very own story to hold, and smell, and sleep with, and carry in your purse everywhere, and give to your mom, and accidentally leave at your dentist office and… and…. I might need to order more copies.
The other cool thing? I got to write my very own real live author bio. I mean, does it get any more official than that? My full bio is online and a shortened version will appear with my story. Nothing makes you feel more like a real honest to goodness writer than a bio. That is, not until tomorrow when I see my story. I bet that will feel even better.
It’s funny, because I spend a lot of time with the Twitter writing community. (Too much time, but hey, it got me my first publication.) I’ve read how getting your story published doesn’t change anything. My expectations will just get adjusted and I’ll want bigger and better things. I must disagree. For me, getting my first story published means the world. As great as this story’s rejections were from high quality magazines — “We loved this story’s delightfully ridiculous concept” and “there’s some good writing here” — nothing equaled the joy of “We would like to publish your story, “Grork Dentist”, in the next issue of Luna Station Quarterly. Thank you for submitting!” Getting a story you are proud of accepted into a journal you love is a very special feeling. I’m now no longer afraid of calling myself a writer, and the publication has made me believe that my stories are worth writing and worth being read. That feeds my writing soul.
Tomorrow I’m going to be refreshing my browser like an idiot waiting for the cover image to change and my story to show up. Until then, I’ll be like a kid waiting for Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny to all show up overnight and bring me the best present imaginable. Happy publication eve to all, and to all a good night.
There are times when all my roles in life — mother, graduate student, writer, and professional — threaten to draw and quarter me. I’m pulled in different directions and the pain of not doing my best at anything rips me apart. Then there are other times that epiphanies happen, and could only happen, because I see the world from so many angles.
It started with the note home from school. The anticipated but dreaded permission form for my daughter’s puberty class. The coming-of-age embarrassment of all children when they start to stink, have to think about a bra, or experience “nocturnal emissions”. Nocturnal emissions? When did wet dreams get such a fancy name? I reread the note to make sure it meant a boy waking up in sticky sheets. Yep. The note clearly said “nocturnal emissions.” Apparently it’s not just new math these kids are learning, but new puberty too.
That same week, I had to submit my graduate school capstone project proposal. I’m leveraging a work project on alternative fuel corridors to examine how the climate impacts of the World Cup and Olympics could be mitigated by utilizing alternative fuel. It’s a great proposal that hits the sweet spot of a school project for me: something that extends a work project and gets me credit from both school and clients. As I was researching my proposal I found some fascinating journal articles that discussed the importance of delivery timing during mega-events. The goal is to ensure that souvenir and food deliveries don’t impact spectators getting to events, and one of the strategies is to make deliveries at night.
Without warning, my writer brain engaged. I had the perfect proposal topic. If I shifted my focus to the Women’s World Cup happening in France this summer and refocused on the temporal aspects of the study I could title my capstone: Calculating Nocturnal Emissions resulting from the 2019 Women’s World Cup.
I’ve been sending little stories of mine off to journals to be read, judged, and rejected. From 2015 to 2017 I had one story rejected four times. Then last year I got brave. I threw three stories to the winds and let the rejections flow: ten of them. I worked hard to perfect those little tales. My writing group read them and gave feedback. My mom read them and gave feedback. My husband read them, corrected my grammar, and disliked them. I even donated enough money to a new journal so a real live editor could critique my story. I worked and tweaked, and while the rejections kept coming they started to give me hope.
My favorite rejection? One that ended, “We loved this story’s delightfully ridiculous concept, but we felt the story didn’t have enough conflict to support it through the middle and ending.” Um, the words love and this story appear together in this delightful rejection. It almost feels like an acceptance….almost. Another was rejected the day before they sent out the list of anthology finalists. They said, “…there’s some nice writing in the story, but unfortunately we felt it just wasn’t quite right for the collection.” Nice writing? That’s enough to make me brave enough to submit somewhere else, and to watch this journal’s calendar carefully so I can submit to them again.
I know that ten rejections in a year is nothing. One of my favorite blogs, Rejectomancy, has a whole formula for calculating your power as a rejectomancer. Aeryn, the blog’s author, revels in his rejections, having just tallied his 300th rejection. Three hundred. I love Aeryn’s blog because it’s really hard for me to get all freaked out about 10 rejections when he’s statistically analyzing three hundred. Also, I’m not just a writer but also a geeky spreadsheet loving engineer, so recording and analyzing rejections is a form of comfort for me. Another comfort? Watching your Rejectomancy score increase as you get different types of rejections. By the end of 2018 I was at 20 points: a glass level rejectomancer aiming for ceramic. (Really, this system is so amazingly nerdy!)
2019 hit and I was ready to submit like mad. Armed with my positive feedback and desire to rise through the Rejectomancy ranks, on a whim, I submit to a journal I had not researched that promised personalized feedback. The story I sent had already received one lovely personalized rejection – the nice writing one – and one form rejection. It was a piece I loved and felt confident about. The day after submission I was rejected with a full page of detailed information about how horrible my story was, what a terrible writer I am, how the concept was interesting but horribly executed, and the ending sucked. It would have been kinder and more succinct to reply, “You are a terrible writer with no concept of story. Your words caused my eyes to bleed. Cut your hands off so your tales never torture again.”
So I quit writing. I quit submitting. I quit my writers group. I quit. The end. Eleven rejections was all I’d ever see. It was one thing to get rejected with kind words and another to have strangers rip me to shreds. Writing wasn’t worth it.
Except, I didn’t really. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamont talks about writing presents, “Twice now I have written books that began as presents to people I loved who were going to die.” The concept of writing presents speaks to me, drives my desire to finish my novels, and made me write a love letter to myself. I wasn’t dying, but my hope and dreams of being published were dying, so when I saw a tweet for the 1000 Love, You Letter’s project I started to write.
The concept is not really me. I am not a self-love essay writing kind of gal. I’m an alien dentist, fisherman of children’s souls, bumblecat type of writer. I’ve got stories about convicts puking, the end of the world, and heaven being destroyed by bureaucracy, but my dying craft cried for a story, a goodbye, a last hurrah, so I wrote myself a love letter. No one read it but me. No one edited it. No one even knew it existed. I wasn’t going to send it, but my tribute required a submission, so I sent off my letter.
The submission’s initial response is what you would expect from a project collecting letters from women writing love letters to themselves. “This is a beautiful letter and we’re thankful for you trusting us to share it with the world.” Sweet, and what you’d want every vulnerable woman essayist to hear. Writing a love letter to yourself is an embarrassing emotional effort, and even more embarrassing knowing that others are going to read what you wrote. Urban Ivy, the publisher, does a wonderful job of making the brave women who submit to them feel valued and that kindness was a salve to my broken writer’s heart.
Before I quit writing, I dreamed of seeing my story in print on a piece of paper. Not on a website, but on a tangible page where I could run my finger over the text. Something that I could put on a bookshelf and read until it was tattered. Something that, when I was old, would smell like old paper and ink. My submissions were brave and bold, targeting the journals that still print and accept less than 0.5% of the stories they receive. I had a plan to move onto online journals once I’d exhausted the list of print publications.
The submission response from the 1,000 Love, You Letter project also said, “We will be in touch by March 15 to share which letters will be published in the Love, You book and on our social media!” Even though I had quit writing, this little glow of hope that I find hard to extinguish grew as I watched the social media announcements about the project.
On International Woman’s Day, Friday March 8th, a message in my inbox was titled, “Your Love, You letter has been selected!” I was stuck in a traffic jam on the highway so checked my email. (Totally unsafe. Never do this.) I didn’t want to read the email on the road, but my glow of hope spread during the 20 minutes it took me to get to work. My dream of publication might be coming true. I wondered if there was going to be a request to send my bank account information to a prince in Nigeria before they published. Then I yelled at myself to just be happy for once and not think how this could go wrong. I thought about who I wanted to tell and how. Once I parked, I reopened my email and read, “We’re excited to share that your letter has been selected to be featured in the Love You Book which is set to publish this Fall and will also appear on the 1000 Love You Letter website within the next few weeks.”
I burst into tears. Happy tears. Accomplishment tears. Dream tears. Tears I never thought I’d be able to shed but always wanted to shed. My present to myself was going to be published, and not just published, but published in a book. I unquit writing right there and then.
A week later I’m stalking the publisher, Urban Ivy, the letters that are already being published online, and the Instagram and Twitter feeds about the project. I’m liking and retweeting and anxiously awaiting the next steps. 10 points were added to my rejectomancer score jolting me right past the ceramic level and on my way to denim. My confidence restored, I resubmit my one-day-rejection story to a journal I love in hopes that it will find a home there, or at least some kind words. I returned to my writing group, tail between my legs, and told them of my acceptance and thanked them for their kind words that I had ignored while I was feeling sorry for myself. Because they are awesome people, and writers too, they welcomed me back. Slowly I’ve been telling family and friends, while savoring my happiness.
I wish this fairy tale ending on everyone. I hope that every low point is offset with a high, but I know that this is a wonderful, beautiful anomaly. Unquit writer me is going to continue to have mean things said about her writing. If I’m really successful, people will rant about me the way I rant about Neal Stephenson and Paolo Bacigalupi; I cannot stand the famous, successful, prizewinning works they produce. I have to get thicker skin and grow from these experiences: both the bad one and the good one.
The primary wisdom I gained from this came from my good friend Lew Gibb, part of my amazing writing group, who said about my mean rejection, “My wife and I have a great saying that works in these types of situations: ‘If someone honks at you for more than a second, it’s not about you.’ Everyone’s dealing with their own shit. It’s obvious, since they did the literary equivalent of a three second honk, that your reviewer allowed their shit to overflow into your story.” He’s right. I need to be strong enough to tune out the long honks. I need to value the cheers of myself and my friends more than nasty words generated in a single thoughtless day. I can’t just write love letters when I’m down. I want to remember that everything I write a present, even knowing that there will always be critics who despise my gift.
But guess what? I’m going to be published! Acceptance at last! I cannot wait to hold this book. I’ll need at least two copies: one to cherish and one to get spotty with I’m-holding-my-story tears.