The Insidious Persistence of Grief

Regular readers of my blog know I struggle with anxiety disorder. Anxiety can be exacerbated by many things, such as lack of sleep and a collision of multiple outside stressors. Basically, anything that knocks aside my regular routine can trigger a rise in anxiety—even if I really want to do whatever it is that rocks the boat.

Over the past few weeks, my anxiety has been through the roof. I assumed at first that the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference was the culprit, since that is a major bump in my routine. Three days away from home, mixing and mingling, add in lack of sleep, and that’s enough to trigger me.

DSCN9802The PWC came and went, but the anxiety remained—a tension that ran from my throat to my stomach. Maybe my daughter’s preschool graduation was stressing me? That, too, came and went with no change. On top of the tension, I felt weepy, too—rather odd for me. What was going on?

Friday, June 19th, my anxiety peaked. The strangled feeling at the base of my throat made it hard to swallow, and made talking difficult. I didn’t want to eat. Anxiety-fatigue sucked the life from me, but I fought against it, recognizing my long-time enemy. I got my daughter ready for her first sleep-over, while often on the verge of tears.

That night, my husband and I went to see Huey Lewis and the News at the Borgata in Atlantic City. I knew the concert couldn’t possibly be the source of my anxiety. I had hardly even thought about it, I’d been so busy the past few weeks. Besides, the normal things I stress about—the driving and the venue—didn’t exist this time. My husband drove, and I had been to Atlantic City (although not the Borgata) enough times to feel at ease. I had even seen Huey Lewis twice before.

DSCN1540Huey Lewis put on a great show, as I expected. I rocked out, and every song brought a tsunami of memories from my younger days. Then he played Jacob’s Ladder. I teared up. My nose got sniffly. A sob rose in my throat.

And I understood.

Jacob’s Ladder was never one of my favorite Huey songs, but it took on new meaning when my friend Donna Hanson Woolman got cancer. The song is about a man trying to better his life, climbing “step by step, rung by rung” and all he wants from tomorrow “is to get it better than today.” Whenever I heard that song while Donna was fighting for her life, that was my wish—for the chemo to work a little every day, to climb back to health—to get it better than today.

One of the memories that had come flooding back as I listened to Huey Lewis play at the Borgata was the last time I had seen him play. Back in 2001, the group had toured to support their new album Plan B. Donna and I had seen them at the Keswick Theater, and that concert stands as one of the best I have ever seen. Huey played for more than 3 hours. He had to get permission from the unions to play past curfew. He rocked the house and Donna and I rocked with him, thrilled when he played songs he rarely played in his regular length sets.

That was the last concert I went to with Donna.

My mind had forgotten…

But my heart remembered.

 

*****

When has grief caught you unawares?

Monkee-ing Around

If you know me at all, you know I’m a huge Monkees fan. I was devastated when Davy Jones died earlier this year, because I was sure I’d never see another Monkees concert again. However, in a surprise move, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork, and Michael Nesmith got together and did a short tour this November!

Disclaimer: All the photos in this post are my own and are owned by me.
If you use them for any purpose, please identify them and attribute them to me.
Do not change them in any way or use them commercially.

All Three

Mike Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork
Keswick Theatre
Glenside, PA
11/29/2012

Not only were they touring, but they were playing my “hometown” theater, the Keswick…on Nov 29th. Why does the date matter? Because my two best friends and I rocked the Monkees all through high school and college and beyond. And Donna Hanson Woolman’s birthday was Nov 29th. She died almost 10 years ago, and I couldn’t help but feel some sort of karmic convergence in the date.

Keswick Marquee

And to further the cosmic aspect of the Keswick’s date, my other Monkee friend, Donna L., scored 6th row center seats for me. The amazing thing is not that she got the seats, but that she got them 4 HOURS after the tickets had gone on sale. As a veteran of many concerts, I can tell you those prime seats should have been gone in the first 4 MINUTES. While I don’t believe that God cares a hoot where I sat to see the Monkees, I couldn’t help feeling that Donna Hanson Woolman had a heavenly hand in making that happen.

So, I saw them at the Keswick Theater in Glenside, PA, and at the NJ State Theater in New Brunswick, NJ. Both shows rocked! All the favorites, plus all of my favorites that they never used to play. Since Mike never toured with the other three in the USA before, this was the first time I ever heard a lot of his songs live. Since his are some of my favorite tunes, I greatly enjoyed rocking to them.

Micky MaracasThe guys sounded great, and the music was excellent. These guys can still rock it like no one’s business! Mike on the guitar, Peter on guitar, keyboard, and banjo, and Micky on guitar, drums, tambourine, maracas, bongos, and the big timpani drum for Randy Scouse Git. The crowds jammed hard, too, singing along with every song.

The guys had an easy rapport with each other, talking back and forth in a mix of ad lib and scripted banter. They didn’t mind goofing aroundMoog Mike a little either, with Peter hamming it up during Auntie Grizelda, and Mike pretending to be a Moog synthesizer during Daily Nightly.

Peter CUIn an interview I read, Peter stated very firmly that this was not meant to be a “Davy is Dead” tour, but that Davy would be very much represented. Sure enough, on the big screen behind the band, video clips from the TV show, their movie HEAD, and even from 33 1/2 Revolutions Per Monkee ran continuously, Davy included. They also had a special tribute video montage of Davy, featuring clips from his pre-Monkees day as well as Monkee highlights. And, of course, no Monkees concert could be complete without Daydream Believer. For this, Micky pulled an audience member up on stage to help him sing, and the audience as a whole carried the refrain, while Davy danced on the big screen. It was a moving and fitting tribute.

DavyDaydream Believer

Davy
Daydream Believer

I had a great time, hitting back-to-back Monkees concerts and singing myself hoarse! I felt like a teenager again – until Toddler woke me up very early in the morning. Then I remembered I wasn’t 18 anymore!

I’ve been a Monkees fan since grade school, and starting following their tours in 1986, their 20th Reunion Tour. I’ve seen them together and on solo tours many times over the past 26 years. No matter how many times I see them, or in what configuration, I always love their shows. Together or separate, they have never failed to bring the energy, the skillful musicianship, and the showmanship I’ve come to expect.

Even after all these years, I’m A Believer.

Micky CU

Peter KeyboardMike

Thanksgiving 2011

Since it’s Thanksgiving, I’m going to be completely cliché and talk about what I’m thankful for.

I’m not particularly thankful for the big dinner, because I don’t eat turkey or most of the trimmings, but I am thankful for the fact I have food to eat all year round.

I am very thankful for my family and my husband’s family, who are all warm, loving people who are supportive and are great role models for what family should mean.

I am most thankful for my immediate family—my husband and my daughter. I spent many years being lonely before I found my husband, and he changed my life for the better in more ways than I can count. His greatest gift to me was our baby girl, who lights up my days even when I’m not feeling so great, and who reminds me that laughter really is the best medicine.

But I also wanted to look at what I am thankful for in my writing career. So often I think we authors get so caught up in reaching the next level, we forget to look at where we are and how much we have already achieved to get there.

I am thankful for having wonderful teachers—authors like Jonathan Maberry and Marie Lamba who give me and others the benefit of their time and expertise.

I am thankful for the community of writers that I have found—supportive and welcoming and very, very helpful to all who show up with a sincere desire to write and improve their writing.

I am thankful for my writing friends, especially my Author Chronicles partners, who are always there to share the ups and downs of the journey.

I am thankful for the passion that has kept me writing for so many years. I feel that few people are able to pursue their real passion in a meaningful way, and so I am thankful for this.

I am thankful that my years of hard work have not been in vain. My writing is miles better than it was just a few years ago, and I continue to learn and improve every day.

Even though I am not yet published, when I look at where I am in my career, I can honestly say that I am closer than I have ever been. It no longer seems so pie-in-the-sky, but like an objective that can be met someday.

I am thankful for Donna Hanson Woolman, who walked 18 years of this writing journey with me before going on ahead. Even now, she walks with me every day.

I am thankful for my life, the opportunities I have had, and most importantly those who have loved me along the way and love me still. I would be nothing and nowhere without each and every one of you, and I am thankful for that every day—not just on Thanksgiving.

Fallen Heroes

Twenty-five years ago today, the seven Challenger astronauts lost their lives in the pursuit of knowledge. Other people, like Martin Luther King, Jr., have given their lives standing for principles and speaking for the oppressed. Still others give their lives protecting other people—our police, firefighters, and military. These people, and others like them, are undeniably heroes. But in every person’s life, there are personal, private heroes—people who profoundly influenced their lives. My best friend Donna was one such person.

Donna made me laugh. She was just funny. We would laugh until we cried, until we could barely breathe. It wasn’t that she told a good joke—it was never anything I could explain to people and make them laugh, too. It was how she said what she said, and the timing with which she delivered her skewering deadpan sarcasm. I miss the laughter.

Donna could talk with the best of them (I have phone bills to prove it), but she could also listen. One of her gifts was to make you feel like you were the most important person to her at that moment. She could be hosting a party (something she did often), but when she spoke to you, you had her full attention. When it was just us alone, we could talk about anything—she never judged, never made me feel like my opinion or beliefs were irrelevant. She heard what I really meant, even if I couldn’t find the right words, and she always responded from her heart—a heart that was more generous than I can fathom.

Donna was a writer, and we grew as writers together. Would I have been a writer without her in my life? Certainly. I wrote before I ever met her. But I would not have come as far in my craft as fast as I did without her support and her passion. As many writers know, having a community of writing friends can rekindle the flame when you hit a rough patch. The solidarity of having a best friend who understood completely and shared the excitement of finding just the right word, or finishing a chapter, or hitting upon the perfect title was a tremendous boon.

Donna taught me how to be a true friend. Her loyalty was fierce. She never gave up on a friend and she never walked away from a friend in need. If she was your friend, it was for life. She put her friends ahead of herself. She listened. She consoled. She laughed. She accepted you for you, no questions asked, no demands made.

The final two lessons I learned from her came at the end of her life. I watched her face death at age 32 with dignity, with pride, and with a stubborn determination that this would not be her legacy. She once said to me, “I am not just my cancer.” While those around her raged at the unfairness of it all (and I know she did, too, from time to time), she told me “I’m so lucky, to have all these people that love me.” While those around her tried so desperately to hide their tears, she cracked jokes. While those around her worried endlessly for her comfort and prayed for her health, she worried about all of us. About who would take care of her husband when she died. About how he would cope. About how we would all cope. I promised her we would all take care of each other, and we have. We all learned that lesson well.

The last lesson was simply this: life is short; live it every day. Even before she was sick, Donna lived her life fully. After she got sick, she still found the joy in life. That lesson seems so obvious, but it is so hard to remember. I have to be reminded of it often.

Today is a day we remember Challenger’s fallen heroes. Today, also remember the heroes who have touched you in your life. Count your blessings. Find the joy.

Life is short.

My Writing Process, Part 2

After Donna died, I went through a painful process of rebuilding. Aside from the emotional devastation of losing a best friend at age 32, I had to learn a new skill—writing alone. For a while, I wasn’t aware of how daunting a task that would be.

I was in grad school at the time, so all of my writing was vetted by teachers or other students. Even though it wasn’t the same process as with Donna, it wasn’t much different. Even my final Master’s thesis, a story about Donna’s death, was intensively overseen by my thesis advisor. It wasn’t until I graduated grad school that I became aware of the gaping hole in my creative life.

Suddenly, the aching aloneness of my post-Donna life smacked me in the face. Whenever I contemplated writing, I froze. I couldn’t even think of how to get started. Every writing project seemed a dark, craggy canyon, full of shadows and perils. Who would catch me if I fell off a sudden precipice? Who could guide me through the darkest gullies? Who would help me climb over the rockslides in my way?

Me. Only me. Except that I didn’t know how.

All I could do was do it. So I wrote and revised and struggled and wondered if what I was writing was any good at all. I can’t tell you how many times I almost picked up the phone, or opened my email to ask Donna’s advice. Every time the impulse to talk to her grabbed me, it was a fresh thud in the gut over her death. But I pressed on, because writing is like my heartbeat—I can’t stop it. So I finally finished my first truly solo endeavor and then thought, “Now what?”

I needed feedback. Every author does, at some point, and I didn’t have it anymore. My grad school advisor pointed me to a writing group in Doylestown, PA. The location shook me a little—Donna had lived in Doylestown. Perhaps she guided me there, because it was like coming home. Sharing my passion with other enthusiastic writers broke my isolation and revved my creativity. I have been part of the writing community in Doylestown ever since, and I look forward to many more years of feedback, encouragement and camaraderie.

Even now, six years on from losing Donna, my new writing process is evolving. I still like a lot of feedback, and I still am very comfortable in collaborative projects. The middle grade novel I am currently shopping, The Egyptian Enigma, is a collaboration with two other authors. I also know I ask people to read and give me feedback on very early drafts of my other works, probably much earlier than most writers do. I am, however, becoming more confident in my own decisions, my own instincts, and my own writing.

I have never found another writing buddy who fills Donna’s role. For a long time, that frustrated me. I searched for someone to fit into that gaping wound, and it is a futile search. I can no more find a perfect match for my writing partner than I can for the best friend I lost. But I’m okay with that now. I have grown past needing that symbiotic relationship.

I have evolved, my writing process has evolved, and my writing is miles beyond what Donna and I ever accomplished together. But sometimes, in moments of need, I find myself asking the golden question: What would Donna do?

My Writing Process, Part 1

Every writer has a writing process. Good writers take the time to figure out the process that works best for them—the one that gives them maximum creativity, maximum writing time, and maximum output. When you find that process, you are lucky. When your process breaks down, it is catastrophic.

My own process grew organically, and from a young age. I loved to write all through grade school, and when I got to high school, I found a new best friend—Donna Hanson. One of the things that drew us together was a shared passion for writing. From the age of 14 on, we churned through multiple novels, authoring some of the worst writing ever penned.

But we learned. Together, we explored what it took to tell a good story: plot, pacing, character development, and all the rest. We learned how to create new worlds, how to craft interesting, believable characters, and how to keep readers turning the pages. (One of our friends, who is not a writer, once graced us with this gem: “The way to create a page-turner is to never end a sentence at the bottom of a page.”)

As we matured, Donna and I continued our collaboration, and we worked out the kinks. She and I both hammered out the ideas, the plot, and she would “supervise” some of the main characters, and I would take the others, thus building in differing points of view. Donna rarely did the actual writing, which allowed us to have a single voice throughout the work. She did the proofreading, and (in the early days, when I wrote longhand because I had no computer), she did the typing, too. And always, she was there when I had writer’s block. I could pick up the phone and we would talk for hours until the logjam was broken, the problem solved. In later technological times, it was emails 3 or more times a day, whenever a question arose.

Having two brains is always a plus, but the advantage was also in the synergy of two people who shared a passion for the craft. Writing can be a lonely undertaking, and having someone eager to plunge into the imagination with you at a moment’s notice can be a godsend. I still recall some of her more memorable quotes:

“Wouldn’t you be afraid of you, if you were you?!” (Enthusiastically exploring a character’s fear of herself, and mangling the pronouns while doing so.)

“Ker, what planet are we on?” (Brainstorming a science fiction book that took place on several planets.)

And the ever-present, “Umm, Ker…” which always preceded her pointing out something incredibly ridiculous that I had written.

So, my process grew intertwined with Donna, and hers with me. The juices flowed, the writing came, and everything ran with a humming smoothness that became second nature—it became like breathing. Writing equaled Donna, and it worked wonderfully.

Then she died.

My writing supporters

This week, Nathan Bransford had positivity week, a week where he focused on the good things going on in publishing, and thereby talked many an author down from their individual ledges.

All this positivity got me thinking about the good stuff in my life. Sure, there are things to complain about, and things that are frustrating, and things I just plain old don’t understand, but all in all, things are good. We as humans tend to focus on the bad, and forget the good.

So here’s my good—the people in my life. The list starts with my friends, who have always accepted me for the eccentric that I am, and encouraged the strangeness that is my writing. Of course, these friends have hobbies including Civil War re-enactments and Cowboy Shooting, so maybe they were just glad I accepted their idiosyncrasies, too!

 

The writing community in Doylestown, PA, really launched me into the “serious” part of my career. Only after I got involved there did I think of myself as a “real” writer, someone who could do this well and successfully. I have taken many workshops there, including and most especially workshops run by Jonathan Maberry, which have increased both my craft and my understanding of the business of writing.

 

Classmates from those groups have become part and parcel of a network of up-and-coming writers, and we share the knowledge we gain with each other as we explore this world of publishing together—in particular, Nancy Keim Comley, Tiffany Schmidt, and Matt McGovern.

 

Through Jonathan’s inaugural Master Class program, I met friends and colleagues who still amaze and energize me: Jerry Waxler, Keith Strunk, Don Lafferty, and Jeanette Juryea.

 

The peer critique group I’m in at the Doylestown Library has also been a boon. Not only do I get great feedback from a variety of viewpoints, but I also met my two The Egyptian Enigma co-authors there. Jim Kempner and Jeff Pero have helped launch me into an entirely new adventure, which has so far been a wild and enlightening ride!

 

My family, glad to say, has also been a great support to me. My parents never pushed me or my brother to be something other than what we were. For a very non-girlie girl like me, that was a blessing. Pressure from society to conform is bad enough, without adding family pressure to it. My parents encouraged my talents and comforted me in my failures, and suffered through many a young (translate: bad) story. And my little brother? Well, now that we’ve grown out of the wanting to kill each other stage, I find he’s a pretty cool guy, who I know will always have my back if I need him.

 

Then there is my wonderful husband. He suffers in silence while I type away on my computer instead of paying attention to him. He works hard so I can write all day instead of having a day job. He fetches me books from the library, and tries to help fix computer issues that I cannot. He reads my drafts, nitpicks my grammar, and tells me honestly when something is no good. He loves me and encourages my dream, and I know how rare that is.

 

Last, but not least, is my best friend Donna Hanson Woolman. I met her at age 14, and we shared a passion for writing that bound us together. We wrote many very “young” novels, some of which may yet mature into published novels. Our synergy was legendary (our phone bills will attest to the length of our discussions), and for eighteen years we wrote together. Six years ago, I lost her to cancer, but she taught me one last lesson I will never forget. On her deathbed, she said to me, “I’m so lucky.” I didn’t understand how she could feel that way, and she explained, “To have so many people who love me.”

 

So, that is why, when speaking of the positive things in my writing life, I am not talking about book deals or word counts or best-seller lists. I am talking about the people in my life, because without them, none of it would matter. I can live a full and complete life without publishing a single word. My life would be empty without the people who love me.

 

I am so lucky.

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