The Beautiful Terror of Dr. Authorstein

It began with a single sentence. Now I’m left with the terrifying prospect of explaining everything that came after.

I wanted my brother back.

Seemed simple at the time. One thought, unspoken, bounding around my head day after day. But it bred. Opened up a world in which pain and suffering were the norm. Where desperation led to reckless behavior. Where truth and hope were no longer allies.

Mark Murphy had a story to tell and, at times, I wanted no part of it. It stung. Pulled out a sadness in me that lingered and scoffed at my attempts to wish it away. 30 years of suppession let loose and I came to understand that grief never ends. Then grief reared its head anew and everything on Mark’s journey became mine. We traveled together–we still travel together–and shared tears more often than I am able to admit.

The Weight of Ashes was easily the most emotionally challenging story I have ever told, much less written. It is the best thing I have ever written. And that’s saying something because I’ve become a bit of a perfectionist with my writing. I don’t brag much at all. I just write.

In two weeks, it releases. Readers will be able to buy it anywhere. That is awesome. And terrifying. I won’t speak on behalf of every writer, but I know I can speak on behalf of most of them. We control our imagined worlds and characters, we edit and rewrite to get it where it needs to be, we work with beta readers and critique groups and agents and editors, striving to make it the best book possible. Then, if we’re fortunate enough, it’s wrapped up in a pretty little bundle of pages and binding and set loose in the world and we can’t do a single thing about it. We’ve lost control. There’s joy, don’t get me wrong. There’s beauty in seeing that book baby sitting nice and shiny in a store.

It’s gorgeous. The smile can’t stretch far enough. Pride and joy and love and hope and intense happiness.

And fear. So much fear.

What if it doesn’t sell?

What if people don’t like it?

Did I do enough with the story? Will people emotionally connect with my character? With my story?

Oh, God. I just bore my soul to the world. Why didn’t I just go to therapy?

Alright, so maybe the fear isn’t always grounded. Maybe it’s an overreaction to, I don’t know, artistic desire or something nonsensical like that. But it’s real and present and a writer can only tighten their hands on the safety bar, watch the rising hill of the roller coaster, close their eyes (or more likely leave them open because every writer is curious about what their death will look like), and hope for the best. Probably not going to buy that picture of us screaming our way down, but still.

Crazy thing is this isn’t abnormal. This is what most every writer experiences as their book baby goes out into the world, no matter how many they’ve had. It. Is. Normal. Breathe. Relax. Enjoy the ride, okay?

Remember that the next time you read a book. There’s a soul attached to that story. There’s a reason authors plead for reviews, and not simply the business-related and most definitely true reason. It isn’t even about getting positive reviews (though, yes it is) or even bad reviews (which, no it isn’t), but peace in knowing that it is being read.

I am very much one who believes that speaking something aloud makes it real. I wanted Mark to learn that lesson. In that way, The Weight of Ashes is now real. It is in the world. Speaking daily. That is a most amazing and wonderful truth. Everything I poured into Mark’s journey is real. No longer imagined, but living in the hands of readers. On shelves of bookstores. In the homes of others. Mark can now share his heart with everyone.

And that scares the living hell out of me.

The User Within

A now former friend of mine recently called me a user. This insult was stated in concert with various other insults and unfounded accustations, which only served to maximize the hurt in hearing them. Not because someone that I thought knew me well would say such things–that part still stung, obviously–but because I’ve always strived to be an honest and open person. Even if I fall short. Which I’ve admitted here many times. I screw up. I make mistakes. I’m human. When my integrity comes into question, I wonder why. I’m not delusional enough to think everyone thinks I’m just the super greatest person alive, but when I hear something like this, I roll back and try to understand where it comes from and whether or not it has any merit.

In this case, despite the fact that I know this pariticular insult came from a place of projection and insecurity, I’ve come to the conclusion that it wasn’t wrong. I am a user. I do use people. Just not in the way it was implied. I use people as I expect to be used: as a means to help cope with the daily grind of life and the constant barrage of emotional torment. I use people to offset my inability to ask for help. I use people for their philosophy and spirituality and intelligence and their ability to make me laugh. I use people to talk when I finally feel safe enough to do so. And I absolutely do use people for their love, for their hope, for any sense of optimism they can offer. In turn, I open myself to be used in the same way.

And you know what? That’s not a bad thing at all. It’s what we should all strive to be for one another. A person to use to find peace and understanding when we can’t see it anymore on our own. Sure, therapy is a wonder at times, but there is nothing at all like connecting with a person or people who get you (or even someone who may not, in the right circumstance) and using them as a shield, as a confidant, as an outlet, as a lifeline.

According a recent study from the CDC, approximately 41.5% of adults suffer from symptoms of anxiety or a depressive disorder. If that sounds high, well, it is. On average, 2 out of every 5 people you know fall into this category. Most often, you may not know. They may mask it. They may tout an awesome life on social media and spend their nights alone in tears. They may shake your hand or give you a hug (or desperately miss doing so, as the case is at the moment), smile wide, and tell you all about their great home and family and work and anything to avoid letting anyone know they are suffering.

I’ve spent much of my adulthood on a cliff overlooking an emotional canyon. In those times, I’m on the verge of a breakdown constantly. I wonder when the balance in life will come, or whether I’ve grossly overestimated the amount of good I’ve done. I refuse to let myself watch Publix commercials (okay, a little lighthearted there, but seriously Publix, dial it back a bit, would ya?). Most importantly, I turn to humor and hope and optimism to try to cope. I write. I funnel all of that pain and grief and anguish into something that doesn’t involve falling apart in front of someone (or a group of someones as the Board of Directors for Broadleaf once learned … sorry about that, folks!). What I have’t done enough, and what I work on so hard all the time, is using the people close to me for help.

Imagine you’ve slipped on the edge of a cliff and are dangling by a rock you can barely maintain a grip on. Someone you know, or even a complete stranger, drops a rope. Are you going to say, “No thanks, I don’t like to use people for help.”? I think not. An extreme example, sure, but I’ll stick with it.

The fact is you, or someone you’re close to, or someone you run into in a store who isn’t as friendly as you would have liked for them to be, is suffering right now. Before you discount their behavior or look to put distance between you and their up-and-down moods, consider the world from their point-of-view.

One of the primary lessons a writer must learn is empathy. There is no conceivable way to create a story any reader will care about unless you can create characters whose motivations make sense. A reader emotionally connects to characters through shared experience, through a relatable flaw, through hurt. It sounds simple. I wish it was. Seeing the world through another’s eyes and heart is a trial that doesn’t always offer the verdict you’d like. But try. Have some empathy. Look deeper. Ask questions. Trust me, people want to talk. Desperately. They want to share. They want to deal. They want to know they are not alone. They may not want to do it right now, but they want to know they can when they’re ready. Be that person. Goodness knows the world would be better if we all were.

I am user. But if I am, then I must also be willing to be used. I want to talk. I want to help. So, if you’re in need of an outlet or an ear or whatever input I can offer, use me. If you need a hug, use me. If you need anything, use me. You are not alone.

The Grief Monster

Often, I feel alone. Not lonely, but alone. A great bit of this is my own fault. I’m a solitary creature, an introverted writer drifting in and out of the space-time continuum. I spend a great deal of time in my head with worlds and people who are very much real, albeit without any physical nature to them. They are, to me, no different at the heart than the people and places I see in this world. Imagination and reality are the same. There’s a comfort to it. Not an escape, but a pleasant dynamic of creation and satisfaction in discovering people and places that inspire me. It allows me to feel more human. More whole. Less alone.

In my everyday world, it’s a different story. I work alone 90% of the time. I’m not much for chatting on the phone. Texting is communication, and I prefer it, but it hardly leaves one feeling accompanied on a journey of any sort. Social media offers an opportunity to connect, to be a part of something, and certainly gives me the daily chance to broaden the Broadleaf community of writers. But, in the end, the world gets quiet, the sound of the fridge running filling the void when the air conditioner doesn’t. Whether on the patio or at the dining room table or sitting at my desk there is an abundance of silence.

Then, I am truly alone.

My only solace during these times, as I have not been so fortunate as to have children, is of the furry four-legged variety. For the past six years, the constant love and attention I’ve received from the ever-present Molly the Cavatese Muppet Dog has given me a healthy dose of what it might be like to have a mini-human in my life. For thirteen years, my cat companion Maggie has been by my side. Through the closing of my bookstore (long live Wordsmiths Books!), to divorce, to break-ups, loss, and moving from one rental property to another. More moves than most cats could endure, I’m sure. Mix those two in with the friend and family member (and mother to the fur babies) that the Moss has become and there is something daily to remind me that I am not entirely alone. They keep me balanced, humored, and moving forward through the worst life has to offer.

But now Maggie is gone. In a flash. Bone cancer took her one week ago. In retrospect, I can see she dealt with it for far longer than I knew. But from diagnosis to the end was a mere ten days. Ten days. The last three of which were filled with dread and horror, sadness and disbelief. I feel cheated. Stunned. Above all, heartbroken. Finding my way through the days that have followed has been challenging, with more breakdowns than I should probably admit.

Some, I know, don’t understand how losing a pet can rival the loss of a human. All I can say (and have said) to those folks is that, aside from believing that all life has equal value, Maggie was never a pet. She was a friend, a confidant (though I’m sure she spilled the beans to Molly far too often), and a loyal and loving companion through my everyday attempts to live. The void that remains is profound. It is intense. I can’t brush my teeth without staring at the spot on the vanity she would perch, tail driting in and out of the sink, not so patiently waiting for her next round of food or treats (and, I like to think, ensuring I wasn’t left alone). She’s not there to keep me company at night, sprawling out on more bed at my shoulder than I should allow. She’s not there in the morning to climb upon my chest, work her claws into my skin as she makes biscuits, and give me a slice of joy to start my day. She’s not there while I work, while I write, while I sit on the patio and take the world in for a few minutes. There’s no chirpy greeting when I come home, no soft tick, tick, tick of claws on the floor as she moves from room to room hunting her next spot to nap.

She’s just not there anymore. And I feel more alone for it.

Grief often carries one into anger. I can’t feel angry about it. Weird though it sounds, I’ve actually tried. She was suffering, in pain, her liver and kidneys failing as the cancer spread, as she quit eating. She’s at peace now, and I can live with that. I’ve quoted Albus Dumbledore more times this week than is reasonably sane, but it speaks to my beliefs on life and death: “Do not pity the dead. Pity the living. And those who live without love.”

That doesn’t make it hurt less. That doesn’t curb the unyielding waves of calm to agony in the blink of an eye. That doesn’t bring her back. But it helps.

As it happens, I’m working on a project now that this experience broadens. About a young boy dealing with the loss of his older brother. I understand the character far more than I did a week ago. Much like him, I would do just about anything to have Maggie here again. To fill that void created by her absence. And to ultimately come to terms with the fact that she’s gone. That life goes on, just differently.

There will never be another Maggie. In the physical world her uniquness lives only in memory, in picture, in video. In the other world within the walls of my mind, in the realm of imagination that houses worlds and people that keep me company, she prowls and talks and sleeps and plays as she did here. She watches over me, fusses when I’m not attentive enough, gives me that whisper of a meow when I wake her up kissing her head, and stays by my side always.

It doesn’t take the hurt away. It doesn’t remove the fact I’ll never be able to pet her, to pick her up and put her over my shoulder, or to watch her sleep by my feet while I write. But it’s something. And, somehow, that will have to do.

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