Friday, December 31, 2021

2021, huh?

So, that was weird. 2021, I mean. 

Time is always weird, of course. But it's gotten weirder lately. 

I was looking at a family picture today because Shutterfly sent it to me as a "remember this day" ad, and I do indeed remember the day very clearly. 

It's my mother's family, all of us except for one cousin and one aunt who couldn't come. It was a fundraiser my high school band was holding and we took the opportunity to get a family photo of ALL of us. The photographer had trouble getting us all in frame…maybe in part because we ranged in height from three foot to six and a half feet, or maybe because there were just so darn many of us. But it was a fun evening. We laughed so much, which is maybe why it's actually a pretty good picture with some genuine smiles in it. 

Two of my uncles, one of my aunts, and both of my grandparents are now gone, and I'm wondering how that can be, since I can remember this day so clearly, as if it were last week instead of three-going-on-four decades ago. 

2021 felt that way, too. As I write this, there's one more day in the year, and that doesn't seem right. 2021 never really felt like it started; it was more like 2020 just kept on going. So if 2021 never started, how can it be ending? 

So, I'm looking back at the year, because that's what we do at this time of year, right? Or maybe it's because I just read Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf, a book about nostalgia, at least in part. Or maybe it's because one of the things I did in 2021 was turn 50, and that's what us middle-aged ladies do. I don't know. 

But here's my year that was: 

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I started 2021 teaching from home. My middle school had gone virtual starting in March 2020, like so many did. And we stayed that way until February 2021. 

It was a time of mixed blessings. I worried about my students, but was grateful for a way to keep teaching and still feel safe, in those pre-vaccine days. 

I had the best work-life balance I've ever had, and was really there for my family more completely than I've ever been able to manage before. Being home meant that my dog, O'Neill, who was losing a cancer battle, got to end his life with all of us at home to love him and care for him. 

I've always been a teacher who enjoys using tech tools to support my practice, but I became extra adept with learning management systems, video lesson presentation, and teaching via Zoom. Learning was different than it had been before, but it still happened, and some kids thrived on it. 

February-June 2021 were the hardest months of my teaching career (and I've been at this for 27 years in a variety of places and settings). I never considered quitting as often I did during the months where I did two jobs at the same time (as an online teacher and in-the-classroom teacher at the same time), under constant stress of uncertainty and threat of severe illness. Everyone who taught during this time should get double credit towards retirement. 

When the school year ended, everyone lost their minds panicking over "learning loss" (as if you only get one chance in life to learn 7th grade math concepts and the world will end if you didn't get it on the usual time table) and teachers were strong-armed, pressured, and bribed into working various summer programs. 

I knew how burnt-out I was, so I didn't take that work. I'm still glad I didn't, though the extra money would have been nice. Because when school started up in August, I hadn't recovered from the 2020-2021 school year yet. I was still crispy around the edges. It's rough to start a school year only a step away from burnt out. 

This school year has been strange in all new ways. So many people quit. So what felt like half the staff was new, and throughout these first four months (August-December 2021), lots more people have quit, taken early retirement, or suffered medical consequences that kept them out on leave. 

We had two teaching positions at my school that went unfilled until early December and were covered by long-term subs. Often, when a teacher was absent, there was no sub available to cover their classes, so safety precautions and policies were thrown the wind, putting two classes in together and giving up all possibility of social distancing, or taking non-teaching staff (librarians, counselors, teacher's aides, etc.) and taking them out of their own work to cover absent teachers. 

At least I work somewhere that is trying to find a balance between safety and learning. Some of colleagues have not been as fortunate. I'd have to quit if they didn't. But they have a vaccine mandate for staff, mask requirements for everyone, and keep us stocked in air filters and disinfectant spray. So far, I've stayed healthy, despite having one to five students a week who go on isolation or quarantine.   

I've found some joy with my students in person again, even with all the restrictions we have to work within, and most of them, now that they've seen what school is when it's not in-person, are cooperative and grateful and trying hard. But it's still challenging, given that kids disappear for days and weeks at a time and information sharing is sketchy, making it hard to know when to give grace and when to push for productivity (not that it's ever easy to know). 

I haven't quit yet, but I have submitted some resumes for non-teaching jobs. We'll see what happens in 2022. 

: I began 2021 with a big deadline: the fourth Menopausal Superhero Novel, Be the Change (which released on December 16, 2021), was due to my publisher on January 1, 2021. 

I missed that deadline, the first time I've missed a deadline in my writing life. I turned it in on February 1. Considering how screen-burnt I was in 2020 and how difficult it was to write during that time, I'm proud that I finished the book even CLOSE to on time. 

As soon as I turned it in, I turned my attention back to the Gothic Romance I've been working on these past two years (working title: The Architect and the Heir). I was hoping to finish it by the end of summer, before I had to put it aside to work on the fifth and final Menopausal Superheroes novel, due (under renegotiated deadline) in April 2022.

I didn't finish it in time. I've always been a slow writer, compared to many of my friends and colleagues, and that became a serious frustration in 2021. 

Now, as we finish the year, I've got 20,000 words in on that fifth (as yet untitled) novel. It's proving difficult to write. Since I intend it to the be the last, there's a lot I need to wrap up from the entire series, while still making sure the book has an individual story of its own. 

Because teaching life left me so crispy I'd be a hit at Kentucky Fried Chicken, I didn't have a burst of productivity in my writing life over the break like I usually do. I'm hoping that the rest I gave myself during these two weeks will allow me to begin seeing good progress again in January. 

Still, it was not a year to sneeze at for new words written: According to my writing tracker (I use Jamie Raintree's Writing and Revision Tracker and highly recommend it), I wrote 394,333 words in 2021 (on various projects) and revised 278,544 words. My daily writing chain is now eight years long. 

I had two short stories published in paying markets. "Poison" in Enchanted Conversation and "Boy Chick" in Apex & Abyss. I saw another novel through publication. It wasn't the kind of success that lets a girl quit her day job and write full time, but it wasn't bupkis either. 

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Getting Out Into the World: 
In 2020, I dug into life as a Hobbit, and came to appreciate going slower and being home. 

But in 2021, vaccinated and caffeinated, I ventured forth again, taking some opportunities for my writing life, and taking a couple of small trips. Not as many, and with more caution than before, but I got out there. 

In 2020, I attended one convention, MarsCon in January, before conventions started shutting down, cancelling, or even folding. After building up a schedule of appearances and events over the past few years, it was weird to suddenly stop doing that. 

Since my day job involved so much screen time, I wasn't thrilled about zoom events for my writing life, but I did a few. (Con-Tinual gave us all a chance to connect with readers that way, as did Strong Women, Strange Worlds. A pretty complete list of my video appearances can be found here.) Video appearances are easier in some ways--no travel, mitigates geographic distance, potential wider audience--but they are not the same as the energy of an in-person room and the kinds of connections made that way. 

In summer 2021, convention life opened up a bit again, and I attended Con-Carolinas, Con-Gregate, Galaxy Con, and a library Pop-Con. It was really good to see my writing friends again in person. I'd missed them terribly. I have become more cautious about my energy, though, and plan to do fewer conventions and more single-day events in 2022. 

I also managed a visit to Kentucky for my mother's birthday, and she and my dad managed a visit down here for mine. Sweetman took me on a trip to the mountains to celebrate my fiftieth birthday. My long-time writing critique group (which had moved to Zoom), began meeting in person again after we were all vaccinated, and we took a short retreat to Lake Gaston in the fall. 

The big trip was a visit to New York City in October, when Broadway re-opened. I had never been and really enjoyed my few days there, though it solidified my understanding of myself as a rural girl at heart. 

We ate lots of good food, saw iconic sights, and really enjoyed the production of Six: The Musical. We haven't had that many cool travel opportunities with our youngest child, so it was great to spoil them with this trip. 

Throughout it all, I continued to walk in the woods, finding stress relief and solace in walking among the trees. 

Starting in July, two new friends joined me for those walks, when we adopted two new rescue dogs: Ghost and Pumpkin. 

They are wildly different than O'Neill was, but they have brought a great deal of joy to our lives. 

Our holidays were quiet, but lovely and we took our time away from school and work restfully and gave ourselves time to recuperate and recharge. 

So, that's my year that was. Not bad for my fiftieth one on the planet. I hope 2021 brought you joy as well, and that 2022 will give us all more reasons to smile. 

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Finding my Holly Jolly This Year

 Normally, it's pretty easy for me to build up a head of steam and some excitement about Christmas. What's not to like? Pretty lights, time off of work with people and dogs I love, an excuse to spoil those people and dogs with gifts and food. It sounds lovely.

But when you're the mom of the family, it also sounds like a lot of work--those lights, gifts, and special moments don't happen without some preparation and planning and this year . . .well, I'm pretty darn crispy. 

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See, last school year, I worked two jobs at the same time because my school district decided that one teacher could teach both children physically in the room and children attending class from home via zoom at the same time, with no change in pay or other responsibilities. People left the profession in hoards. 

But I didn't. I'm back in the classroom this year, but I'm a shell of my self and struggle with energy and empathy exhaustion. 

I did my best to give myself recovery time. I didn't take any summer teaching work despite HUGE pressure to do so, and I kept my writing life low-commitment, too. But seven weeks off didn't do it, and I started the school year still burnt-out from last year. 

So, as holidays approached, my feeling about them was more exhausted-before-I began than excited. 

Chanukah helped. 

Years ago, we decided that instead of nightly gifts, we'd do nightly family activities, sitting by our candles and remembering what we do this for.  The eldest was able to join us for first and eighth night this year, quite a coup in her final year of college crazy-times. We baked, drew, listened to music, played games, and watched movies. One night though, we had to declare "introvert night" where we spent time ignoring one another and going to our separate corners. 

My latkes were perfect this year, and we started a new tradition of JFC (Japanese fried chicken). The prayers and candles still brought me a peaceful contentment. 

Then, we started making the shift into Christmas, and . . . I just wasn't feeling it. Even as I ticked things off my list in anticipation of all the good times (Christmas Eve pajamas, stocking stuffers, once-a-year treats), it felt like stress management more than joy. 

So I decided to turn to books to save me. Up until Christmas, I'm reading only holiday-themed books. Here's what I've read so far: a mix of nonfiction, classics, and romance. 

A Christmas Carol read by Tim Curry was perfection itself, and on a scale of zero to holly jolly, The Christmas Hirelings by Mary Elizabeth Braddon gave me all the right feels. The light romance approach of The Dreidel Spin made me feel like I'd just watched two deserving friends find one another, and the magic of food and kindness made the Moonglow books a delight. There are seven of those, and if I don't fit more of them in this year, I'll come back for them next Christmas. 

I'm in the middle of two more right now: 

A Christmas murder and some sweet morality tales. Quite a contrast.  Still in my Kindle are a few Christmas reads written by friends and colleagues as well that I'm hoping to read before the 25th arrives: 

I'm grateful that my winter break starts a few days ahead of Christmas this year, giving me time to sit by the fire reading and continuing to try to stoke the fire of my holiday spirit, so I can really enjoy the gifts the season brings. I'm grateful, too, that my family understands how tired and crispy I am and doesn't expect me to travel or host guests, but just to rest and recoup. 

Are there any stories or activities that help put you in the holiday spirit, even when your candles are burning low? Tell me about them in the comments! I'd love to know. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

IWSG: The Delight and Dismay of a Writing Life

Welcome to the first Wednesday of the month. You know what that means! It's time to let our insecurities hang out. Yep, it's the Insecure Writer's Support Group blog hop. If you're a writer at any stage of career, I highly recommend this blog hop as a way to connect with other writers for support, sympathy, ideas, and networking. If you're a reader, it's a great way to peek behind the curtain of a writing life.

Our Twitter handle is @TheIWSG and hashtag is #IWSG.

This month's optional question: In your writing, what stresses you the most? What delights you?

The awesome co-hosts for the December 1 posting of the IWSG are PJ Colando, Diane Burton, Louise – Fundy Blue, Natalie Aguirre, and Jacqui Murray! Be sure to check out what they have to say when you're finished here: 

Writing is central to who I am as a human, but it's really hard to explain to other people. From the outside, it definitely doesn't look like fun. I sit alone, wrestling with imaginary friends, giving myself anxiety and angst over fictional people, places, and situations…and I call this fun? 

Articulating the experience for outsiders feels impossible, and I end up shuffling my feet and looking uncomfortable. 

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Oddly enough, I think I like it because it's hard, so I guess I take delight in the dismaying part. Make of that what you will. 

Sure, it doesn't exactly feel good in the moments when you're struggling to straighten out a tangled plot or understand the secret motivations of a uncooperative character, but when you do it--when you come out on the other side victorious, it feels like you really *did* something. And even in the moments of struggle, part of me is enjoying it--the delving deeper, the striving to understand the part of myself making itself known on the page, the brainwork. 

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It's a highly individual challenge, too. I have a strong support network and love the heck out of my writing community, but there's only so much they can do for me. In the end, it's me and blank page locked into battle and I have to win or lose on my own. 

Then, if you hand that story over to someone else and they *get* it--they pick up what you were laying down, they laugh and cry at the right moments, they get angry at the injustices . . .well, that's a whole second level of wonder and delight. Because as much as I love writing, I'm not sure I'd keep going without readers. I need an audience to finish the circuit. Otherwise, all that gorgeous energy would spin in a circle until it just burned out. I'm not Emily Dickinson, satisfied only to have captured the moment for myself. I want to share it. 

There's nothing else in my life that gives me this feeling. 

When I was a kid writing poetry, I'd call the urge to write "itchy fingers." It was this strange little urge, this feeling of dissatisfaction that could only by soothed by wordsmithing. These days, I feel like the itch is someplace deeper than my fingertips, maybe in my brain itself. But there's a nervous energy that overtakes me when I don't get enough writing time. 

I'm sure a therapist could analyze it for me, but I'm not looking to be cured. It's worth every moment of misery along the way for ecstasy that comes when I've had a breakthrough in a story. 

So, fellow IWSGers, how does it work for you? Can you explain why you love it to someone who doesn't write? 

If you don't write, is there something like this in your life, something you love because it's challenging? 

I'd love to hear what you think in the comments!