The good news edition

Wahoooooo!

Hey everybody. It’s been a while since I’ve written, and I *do* have a big ole juicy post coming up soon, featuring such crowd-pleasing topics as nostalgia, bears, self-reliance, krummholz, sex in tents, grief and Sour Patch Kids.

But this is just a quickie to share some news I am exorbitantly happy about: My new novel, The Society of Shame, is going to be published in early 2023 by Anchor Books.

I got the news from my agent that they’d made an offer back at the very end of August, while sitting on a dock on Squam Lake (pictured) eating cheese and drinking wine. (I mean, even getting bad news on a dock like this wouldn’t be so bad, amiright?) It was a pretty magical moment.

But it didn’t feel really and truly real until the other day, when it was officially announced in Publisher’s Marketplace. The screenshot of such an announcement, while not nearly as lovely as a picture of a dock on Squam Lake, is nevertheless, something every writer dreams of posting on the internets. (When I sold my last book, my memoir Double Time, I never got the screen shot. That fact haunts me to this day just kidding.)

If you’ve been following my ramblings for a while, you may recall that the last novel I wrote—which I worked on for five long years—did not sell. That blew big time. No way around it. But I (eventually) dusted myself off, and got back up on the horse. I wrote a very different kind of novel, much more quickly, and had a blast doing it. And, as luck would have it, it worked out this time.

I want to emphasize the “luck” piece here, because I think it’s something that doesn’t get talked about enough when it comes to publishing. (Or anything, really, but let’s stick with publishing for now.) Yes, writing a good book does matter. Perserverance, discipline and a dash of insanity help, too. But I think it’s so important for non-writers—and aspiring writers—to know that there are legions of wonderful books out there that never find homes.

Not because they didn’t deserve to be published, but because they didn’t happen to fall into the hands of an acquiring editor who thought they would be commercially viable. Or they did, but the marketing department or the higher-ups disagreed, or thought it was too similar to something else the press had just published. Or perhaps a given book fell into the hands of an editor who otherwise would have loved it, but she was going through a terrible divorce, and on the day she happened to start reading it, she was in a really bad place emotionally, and maybe also had diarrhea, and probably wouldn’t have liked anything she read.

And, fun fact for non-writers, or writers who haven’t gone through the submisison process: An agent can only submit to one editor per publisher per book. So if, say, Editor Edna going through the bad divorce at Little Brown turns down your book, your agent can’t then go to her colleague, happily married Editor Elizabeth, to see if maybe she likes it.

So. You see why it’s not just a matter of “if you perservere, eventually you will succeed!” or “every good book will find a home!” or “When you wish upon a star….”? (Great song, btw. The Jiminy Cricket rendition makes me tear up every time.) In truth, it’s a matter of: if you perservere AND the stars that you wish on happen to align, maybe your good book will find a home.

All this is to say that while I am proud of myself for not giving up, and for writing what I think is a pretty darned good book, I also feel lucky as hell. And it is a lovely feeling indeed.

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That time when my daughter had cancer

It was a nightmare—so why are there parts of it I actually miss?

I’m laughing as I start this post, because I picked up a bunch of new subscribers (woohoo! welcome!) in response to my last post, which was about death / mortality, and an essay I wrote for Cognoscenti about the strangeness of losing my dad just before the pandemic. And now I’m writing a post about cancer. You newbies must think I’m the darkest soul on Earth. But I’m not! I swear!

And—spoiler alert—my daughter Clio, who was diagnosed with leukemia at age five, is alive and well and totally healthy at fourteen. So don’t run away screaming because the death lady is going to talk about dark, depressing things again. I’m not. (Conversely, if you were hoping I would ONLY talk about dark, depressing things, sorry.)

Actually, I’m going to talk about the colonoscopy I had last week. (Really, please, don’t run away screaming; I promise I’m not going to go into detail.)

I’m on the young side for a routine colonoscopy, but my doctor suggested that I get on the colon train early, given that there’s a ton of cancer in my family—including colon cancer, which my dad had. So, I did it. This meant five days of eating an Americanissimo diet of white foods and no fiber, one day of subsisting on nothing but clear liquids and jello, and then a night drinking the medical equivalent of draino and watching an entire disaster movie (Greenland - pretty good) whilst on the throne. The next morning, it was off to the endoscopy clinic in Boston.

As the very friendly, funny nurse who got me set up said, I am extremely boring, in a medical sense. (“And we want to keep it that way,” she added.) No chronic medical conditions, no past surgeries, no artificial body parts. The only other time I’ve been in a hospital-like setting as a patient was when I gave birth. (Insert feminist manifesto here about how messed up it is that women are considered “patients” when they’re doing something as natural and normal as giving birth.)

But man, did I spend a lot of time in hospitals and hospital-esque outpatient clinics for the 2+ years Clio was in cancer treatment. In the first few years after her treatment wrapped up, I found it very triggering (OMG I sound like a Millennial) to take her back to the clinic or hospital for her periodic check-ups or tests. Or to visit other people in the hospital, for that matter. Hearing hospital sounds, seeing hospital things, and smelling hospital smells—it brought back all sorts of unpleasant emotions: The devastation of first finding out Clio had leukemia. The numb terror of the time she had a seizure and ended up in the ICU. The routine fatigue and frustration and anxiety of hours spent in the outpatient clinic for her appointments and infusions, hoping to God that all of this was working.

But the farther Clio’s illness recedes into the past, the less visceral those memories feel. The roly-poly, sleepy-sick child that Clio was at five, six, feels in some ways like a separate being from the leggy, independent, energetic fourteen-year-old she is now. And the formerly 38-year-old me feels like a different person in many ways, too.

So. It didn’t surprise me that much that when I went in for my…I’m just going to say procedure, because I’m feeling shy now…I didn’t feel triggered. Instead, I was just struck by how un-triggered I felt. Even when it came to the propofol.

Propofol, you see, was the key ingredient in one of the aspects of Clio’s treatment that I hated most. It was the drug used as anesthesia when Clio had lumbar punctures for interthecal methotrexate (translation: chemo injected into her spinal fluid). I hated watching that thick, white propofol slink up the tube and into her bloodstream, via the port in her chest. I hated seeing her eyes roll back as she fell asleep. I hated sitting in the waiting room alone without her, trying to distract myself with work but inwardly counting the minutes until the nurse came back out to get me. Clio must have had at least half a dozen LPs over the course of her treatment; maybe more. It never got easier.

I’d suspected that propofol would be the drug used for my procedure. But this is the weird thing: When the nurse explained that they’d administer a drug via IV as anesthesia, I felt the need to ask, “propofol?” and then add, when she said yes, “my daughter used to get that for LPs all the time when she was in cancer treatment.”

And then, like some kind of psycho, I found away to work the cancer thing in again when I was talking with the anesthesiologist. Even as I was saying these things, I was thinking why the hell are you bringing this up, weirdo?

Was I looking for pity? No, it wasn’t that.

Was I just being a know-it-all? Like: You think you’re dealing with an ordinary patient, but I’m actually a battle-tested cancer mom and an exremely smart, well-read person who knows her shit. Aren’t you impressed?

Yeah, maybe there was a little of that in there. During Clio’s treatment I feel like I got a few nursing and med school courses’ worth of medical knowledge and skills, and it was a source of some pride. I picked up all manner of medical vocab (Neutropenia! Tachycardia! Lipidema! Cytology! PRN!) along with the ability to give shots and remove the access needle to the port in Clio’s chest, among other things. I also did a lot of reading and research on my own about chemo side effects and chromosomal mutations in pediatric leukemia and whatnot. Because the more you know, the more happily deluded you are about the measure of control you have over adverse life situations, no?

And also, yes, I have a tendency toward know-it-allism (a fault of mine), and I probably wanted to show off a little. But honestly, I don’t think that was the real crux of it.

I think I was, in a way, reminding myself that what happened nine years ago was real. I was trying to conjure it up into my consciousness—almost as if I wanted to feel closer to it—out of some perverse sense of nostalgia, almost.

Why in God’s name, you ask, would I feel nostalgic about something as horrific as my child having cancer? What is wrong with you, girl?

I ask myself that, too. So here’s what I’ve come up with: While obviously I don’t miss the fact that my daughter literally, physically had cancer that was fucking killing her, and obviously I do not miss feeling terrified and sad and worried and all the rest, there are aspects of that era that I do miss. (Please don’t think I’m a terrible person.)

  1. I miss my babies. As my kids morph into teenagers, I find myself more frequently nostalgic for when they were little—a time that just happens to coincide with our family’s cancer years. It’s impossible to separate the two. I would never have chosen to have our life dominated by a life-threatening illness and a long, unpleasant slog of a treatment regimen while our kids were 5-8 years old. But that’s what happened. And in the midst of it all, we lived, laughed and loved—just like those inspirational throw pillows exhort. The kids were full-on little kids in all their glory: believing in Santa, loving picture books and goody bags, and actually getting excited about the cartoon character stickers they gave out at the clinic. Moody teens prowl the halls of our home now, and there are days when I’d kill for a hug.

  2. There was also a lot of joy during the cancer years that was, ironically, a direct result of Clio having cancer: Reconnecting with old friends who came out of the woodwork to support us. Meeting new friends who were going through or had been through similar experiences. Experiencing the ways so many individuals and organizations bent over backward to give our family moments of levity and joy (and someVIP treatment) throughout the whole ordeal, from the jugglers and magicians at the Jimmy Fund Clinic, to the chance for the kids to run the bases it Fenway, to sessions at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. Alastair made a beautiful album for kids and families with cancer, featuring some of the other pediatric cancer patients we’d met. Hell, we even got to go to Disney World! Sweet is always that much sweeter when it’s in relief against the bitter.

  3. This one is the biggie, I think: During those cancer years, I had a mission, and it was literally life or death. I knew exactly what I needed to be doing, and threw my whole self into it: Not just taking care of my sick child, but tending to the needs of my healthy child, working to keep our home life on an even keel, continuing to make a living, and, of course, trying not to break down in the midst of it all. (Something I mostly accomplished.)

    It was the hardest and scariest experience of my life, but I felt sense of pride in my strength, resolve and ability as I got through it—even moreso in retrospect. (“I know all about propofol…”). Now, by contrast, I’m at a point where I feel somewhat adrift—ruminating on mortality, adjusting to the loss of my dad, trying to figure out what’s next in my writing career, wishing I’d did some things differently, and wondering how I want to spend the second half of my wild, precious life. I think some small part of me misses having a simple, singular sense of purpose like I did when Clio was sick. Not the purpose itself; just the fact of having one.

So. There’s my armchair analysis. I imagine it’s hard to understand. (Soldiers home from combat might get it...) And maybe it is a little bit fucked up. I don’t know. But it’s the truth. And truth has a habit of being messy.

By the way, my, ahem, procedure was 100% normal. So there is no return to cancer-land in our family’s immediate future. And thank God for that.

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I'm going to die.

And so are you, and so is everyone you know and love. Hooray!

I’m sorry, I know, that’s the clickbaitiest title EVER. But you have to admit: It’s true.

Ever since my father died, less than a year and a half ago, I find myself thinking a lot more about aging and death and the impermanence of, well, everything.

I’m more acutely aware of how tenuously tethered to life we all are, and how final death is; how strange and sad it is that it inevitably all just….stops.

I’m guessing this is not uncommon when a parent or other loved one dies. Especially when their death comes suddenly—or, in my father’s case, sooner than expected.

After he passed, I took possession of his beat-up old LL Bean canvas laptop briefcase (monogrammed, naturally, because LL Bean) containing his old computer—the world’s slowest laptop, running on Windows 1978, I think.

My dad took that laptop bag everywhere, and it was a ubiquitous presence in my parents’ house. He was always writing stories or reflections or poems or mini-political manifestos, or reading or replying to emails (on AOL, naturally, because Boomer) having to do with his multitude of activities: local theater, business ventures, community groups, his UU church where he a couple of times gave lay sermons. (My dad liked to sermonize. Interpret that as you will…).

It was only in the last few, difficult weeks of his life, when his stage IV colon cancer began causing severe pain and started to affect his kidney function that he slowed down. And yet, even after a last, emergency surgery, less than two weeks before he died, he still thought maybe he’d be able to do the guest sermon he’d planned to give a few weeks later, and finish the market research project he’d started for a local arts organization. In the hospital, half delirious, he was telling my mother about people she should get in touch with, to let them know he wouldn’t be able to make such-and-such meeting tomorrow, and that he might need to push back the date of some thing he was supposed to do.

He hadn’t yet grasped or accepted the idea that he no longer had a future; that his busy, active live was about to come to a screeching halt. How could he? How can anyone?

A week or so after his death, when I waded through his computer looking for documents worth saving and emails in need of responses (This is Gar’s daughter…I’m sorry to say that my father has passed away…), I could barely grasp it myself: How can life just end right in the middle of so much…life? All that rich, meaningful engagement and activity, over, just like that.

Recently, my mom asked me to look through his computer again, in search of a particular document. (Sweet JESUS that computer is slow.) This time when I looked at the remnants of my father’s extinguished existence, it wasn’t with the same sense of disbelief. The fact of his death has settled in a bit more. Instead, I saw it through the lens of my own mortality: Someday all of my hundreds of documents and emails will be sitting here on my computer with no me left to read them.

When you’re riding the current of your life, busy and generally happy, it’s hard to believe it won’t just go on forever. And, let’s face it: it’s a goddamned drag to remember that it won’t.

I’ll never forget the time when I found my kiddo Elm—maybe six or so at the time—crying inconsolably in their bed one evening just before I tucked them in. When I asked them what was wrong they said, through sobs, “We all have to die! And it’s forever and there’s no magic or anything to make it not happen!”

I didn’t quite know how to comfort Elm, except to say that all we can do is not focus on death, but enjoy our lives. I told them that they had years and years of life ahead of them (leaving out the more truthful “most likely”). I probably also said something about how the fact that we don’t live forever helps us enjoy life more. (Because, sure, that’s something a six-year-old can grasp…)

I couldn’t tell them that they were wrong, though. I couldn’t take away the blunt, brutal fact that life ends.

And now here I am, in my mid-forties (shut up, 47 does too count as mid-forties), with one less parent in the world, feeling a lot more like Elm did at six than I did back then at 38, when I told Elm they had oodles of time ahead. Back then, I felt like I had oodles of time, too.

I mean, yes, God-willing, I still have at least an oodle or so yet in front of me. But it’s not the same as having your whole life ahead of you—or even most of your life. It’s not the same as feeling like there’s still a chance to fulfill all your dreams and try all the things you want to try. There’s not the same sense of possibility, or the feeling that life is one big adventure. I know what’s ahead, more or less, with regard to my work and career and daily routine. And there are parts of it—my kids leaving for college, more relatives dying—that I’m absolutely dreading.

Shit, am I having a mid-life crisis?

I’m having a mid-life crisis, aren’t I. Damn. What a cliché. Maybe I should lean into it — get a tattoo or have a fling with the pool boy or something. (We have neither a pool nor a boy to tend it, though, so I’d need to borrow someone else’s. PM me.)

It’s not like I’m fundamentally unhappy, though. In fact, I’m frequently astonished by my good fortune. And hey, it’s not entirely a bad thing to be more aware of the impermanence of life, right? It makes you appreciate the good stuff more. It makes you not sweat things like broken dishes or dust on the baseboards or a few more lines around your eyes. It also makes it a little easier to offload clutter—something we’ve been doing a lot of—when you’re acutely aware that at some point it’s all going to be rendered ownerless and meaningless anyway. (Aren’t I fun?!)

But here’s an even better thing: I’m pretty sure that as a lot of people get older, past this weird, liminal place that is mid-life, they are more accepting of the finite nature of their lives. It doesn’t strike them as quite so tragic. They get over themselves and their unrealized ambitions, and savor the time they have.

I want to be that kind of person. I really do.

In the meantime, though, I may still need to get a tattoo.

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This is weird, right?

With the pandemic winding down, life feels...odd.

Anyone else feel a wee bit, oh, disoriented of late?

We were mired in this whole pandemic thing for so long, and what feels like all of a sudden…we’re not. At least here in the U.S., and in the heavily vaccinated state of Massachusetts (sorry, Commonwealth of Massachusetts) where I live. Masks are optional, restaurants are full, social distancing is, like, gone. My kids and their friends are going to a movie tomorrow. I rode in a car and slept in the same room with three of my besties on our annual White Mountain hike this past weekend.

Last week, at our town’s Pride event, a friend introduced me to his brother and we SHOOK HANDS. (!!) My first handshake in nearly a year and a half. And a good one, too. Not a dead fish. I know some people feel like handshakes should go the way of the dodo, but I struggle with that one. I feel like they’re important. Blowing out candles on cakes, on the other hand…let’s just leave that one in 2019, shall we? I propose that the birthday person plucks the candles out and blows them out one by one—and then if they want, they lick the frosting off the bottom. (That needs to always be socially acceptable.)

Birthday candle blowing aside, I am mostly thrilled about all these resumptions of normal life. In particular: not having to pant through a mask on at my climbing gym, being blissfully ignorant of who the anti-mask a**holes are, and being able to hug friends.

At the same time, all of this happened a lot sooner than I expected, and it feels a little like being woken up from a nap. Or coming home after a long trip to a foreign country. Everything that once was familiar feels little different; like it’s been shifted a foot or two to the side or something. You know?

There are things I know I will miss about this whole ordeal, strangely enough. I really treasured having the extra time with E & C. Though obviously it was tough at times, I was keenly aware of the fact that as teenagers, they’re slipping steadily away from us. To have them spend so much more time at home, doing so many things as a family, felt like a lucky bonus.

Then there are the things I really hope will stick around: The aforementioned non-blowing-on-cakes. Outdoor dining at restaurants. Outdoor gatherings with friends, even when it’s nippy out. I have also enjoyed not getting any colds or the flu (or COVID, for that matter, luckily) and the thought of being in a crowded place without a mask during cold and flu season seems positively primitive. I sort of hope masks become acceptable seasonal attire December through March, like mid-calf boots and cowl neck sweaters.

Here’s another one I’m eager to keep: Interviewing authors on A Mighty Blaze. The Blaze was started by authors Jenna Blum and Caroline Leavitt at the start of the pandemic, to help out all the writers whose book launches and tours were canceled by the pandemic. Being a part of the organization was a highlight of the year. More than a year later, we’re still going strong, interviewing new authors every week. (Including some HUGE names: Elin Hildebrand! David Duchovny! Cheryl Strayed! Jane Greene! Nicole Krauss! John fucking Irving!!)

I just started hosting a new show called The Zeitgeist, where I interview authors whose books intersect with hot-button topics like race, gender, culture, class, health and whatever else seems current and conversation-worthy. It’s the first three Thursdays of the month at 4:00 pm ET. There’s a schedule of upcoming interviews here. Watch on A Mighty Blaze on Facebook or YouTube, or on my Facebook page, either live (you can ask questions!) or later. It’s fun! I promise!

OK. There ends the promotional portion of this post. Except for this last little part:

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I hope you’re enjoying the emergence from the pandemic, and not feeling too terribly weirded out. Happy Summer.

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I am overcome by ordinary contentment

What it feels like to re-emerge from depression or pandemic or both

As those who have been reading my writing (including Double Time) for a while know, I’ve got a fun condition called bipolar II—though you probably wouldn’t notice, since I’m able to keep it at bay with medication.

Bipolar II doesn’t come with mania, but with mini-highs called hypomania, which may or may not be perceptible to anyone, including the person having them. Hypomania can just feel like being extra positive, productive and generally jazzed up about life. Frankly, it’s fucking awesome. One time I had it, I remember feeling pretty sure I’d achieved enlightenment. So, you know.

Mostly, though, bipolar II is characterized by recurrent periods of really bad depression. (Which is why it’s often misdiagnosed as just monopolar depression.) For me, this means feeling like my brain is not functioning properly. (‘Cuz it’s not!) Pleasure, enjoyment, focus, motivation, a sense of the future—gone, replaced instead by a sensation of palpable, inexplicable dread. Dread of what? Who knows! Ask my chemically imbalanced brain! I can’t move at full speed, my eyes itch, and I feel generally exhausted. Meanwhile, any real-life stress or disappointment or self-doubt feels magnified by a million. And even though you know it’s a lie, you can’t think (or exercise or meditate) your way out of it.

Recently, I’ve had to switch up some meds due to new side effects—I blame perimenopause, as I like to for anything vexsome these days—and this super fun chemistry experiment led to a depressive episode in late February and another in April. And, damn, I’d forgotten how miserable and debilitating it is to feel that way for days in a row.

Also: how freaking boring it is.

I have a new psychopharm doc, and the first question she asks to evaluate mood is: “Are you able to look forward to things?”

It’s the perfect question. When I’m in a state of depression, the answer is no, I do not look forward to anything. Not even dinner. (OK, no, wait: there is one thing. Sleep. I look forward to sleep.) Life is monotonous beyond belief.

If you’ve lived through the last year and a half—which clearly you have; congrats—you’ve gotten a teensy taste of what it’s like. Not in nearly as painful and bleak a way as the major depression version, and not because of neurological lack of ability, but because, well, there’s been nothing much to look forward to. (Except dinner. Definitely dinner. Amiright?)

It’s been a year and a half of feeling futureless, stuck in a strange, static reality where time didn’t move the way it normally did, and long-term plans were impossible, and the usual ways to break up the sameness of everyday life—going to the movies or out for a meal; visiting with friends; traveling, etc.—were off the table. A year and a half of not knowing when we’d be able to lose the masks, or when restrictions would lift or when we’d get to a point where we’d be able to stop, look back and say, “Man, that sucked.”

But, people: It’s happening!

The pandemic is far from over yet, but in the US, covid is officially in retreat. America is reopening and here in Massachusetts, we are seeing people’s whole faces—top and bottom halves—when we walk around in public. Restaurants are filling and vacation plans are being made and event tickets are being sold. People are hugging their family and friends again. Yesterday I was inside another fully vaccinated friend’s house, maskless, like it was just an ordinary day in 2019.

And all of this is against the metaphorically appropriate backdrop of a particularly stunning spring, busting out all over with its blossoms and leaves and sunshine.

All of it feels so lovely. So normal. But a version of normal that feels new and gleaming and gorgeous because it’s been gone for so long.

What a gift.

In many ways it reminds me of what I experience when coming out of a depressive episode, as I did recently. After days or weeks of feeing like my brain is jammed with damp rags, the clarity of the ordinary is almost blinding. The painless ease of everyday life (Trotting up the stairs! Replying to emails! Dinner!) feels like an elixir. Even if there is sadness or stress or annoyance in the mix, it feels bearable; it feels real.

The poet Jane Kenyon, who struggled with debilitating depression throughout her life, captures the sensation beautifully in her poem Having it Out With Melancholya poem I turn to again and again because it is such an accurate depiction of what major depression feels like—and what the end of a bout of it feels like, too. Here is the final stanza, “Wood Thrush.”

High on Nardil and June light

I wake at four,

waiting greedily for the first

note of the wood thrush. Easeful air

presses through the screen

with the wild, complex song

of the bird, and I am overcome

by ordinary contentment.

What hurt me so terribly

all my life until this moment?

How I love the small, swiftly

beating heart of the bird

singing in the great maples;

its bright, unequivocal eye.

I’m not on Nardil, and I don’t know if there are any wood thrushes nearby. But I am definitely feeling overcome by ordinary contentment right now, for more reasons than one.

I hope you’re feeling the same.

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