It’s that time of year again – when I think about what would happen if 2020 was my last year on Earth. Before you start worrying that I’m in a deep, dark place this holiday season, have no fear. I’ve been doing a death meditation for years now, as recommended by some of the most notable authors on how to live joyful lives.
This practice is one of the best ways I’ve found to make sure I’m doing what I want to be doing with my life. Because of my death meditations in recent years, Heath and I traveled across the US and Canada on an epic 11,500+ mile road trip, and I went to live among the polar bears in Churchill, Manitoba.
So, in looking towards the year ahead, I find myself reflecting on this past year to help guide me.
I didn’t have any grand adventures in 2019 and I felt disappointed by that. The unkind Kelly, the one who loves to beat herself up and make “big, fat judgments” about herself (a concept I learned from Julie Hedlund’s 12 Days of Christmas for Writers), likes to tell myself I am no longer interesting and, therefore, I don’t do interesting things.
The truth is I did less travelling, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t do anything interesting. This past year, I had an actual dream come true in Norfolk with the salvage shed opening up at the town transfer station (aka the dump). This project is more successful and going better than I could have ever imagined. This success is due in large part to two volunteers who stepped up, just when things were getting out of control with donations. God bless those volunteers because they have now become the lifeblood of our salvage shed.
I also helped orchestrate Can’d Aid giving 75 bikes away to students at our local elementary school. The way that happened is I eavesdropped on a conversation about how Can’d Aid does bike builds throughout the country, butted myself in, and said, “Have you heard of Norfolk NET? Let me tell you about it!” NET is a grassroots organization I belong to that was created to alleviate poverty in Norfolk. Three months after that conversation, which coincidentally took place at the salvage shed, this happened:
If you want to see a video of the big reveal of the bikes to the kids, you can watch it here.
When I think about 2020 being my last year on Earth, making these connections in the community are ways I would still want to spend my time. So expect more do-goodery from me in 2020 (Note. Do-goodery is a word I learned from Can’d Aid’s tagline: People Powered Do-Goodery).
My single best moment in 2019 happened fairly recently on December 8th. That was the Sunday the Norfolk Church of Christ, Congregational (UCC), formally blessed me as I started a part-time position working as their new Director of Community and Creativity. I stood in front of the church with the senior deacon and the pastor and then they led the congregation of maybe 100 people in the following prayer:
I teared up about halfway through. The power of blessings from all these people as they prayed for me was overwhelming in the best way possible. When they were finished, I wiped away my tears (futile, because more kept coming) and told the congregation, “I’ve never been prayed over that way before. It’s really nice!”
Two other of my best moments in 2019 also happened in the Congregational Church, when I got to preach in both June and November. It still amazes me that anyone wants to listen to what I say, especially as someone who had students literally turn their backs on me when I would be lecturing during my research methods class.
Thanks to Heath for taking this picture!
So if 2020 were my last year on Earth, I would still want to keep connecting with others through God.
Hmm. I think I’m noticing a theme about connections here….
This brings me to what I think is my biggest disappointment in 2019. It’s the same as 2018: I still haven’t sold any books. Last year, I set out that 2019 would be the year “I went all in.” I would try to conquer my fear of failure, which leads to self-doubt and wasting of my time.
I’m happy to report I did make progress on this goal. For example, I queried quite a bit and got several requests for more work or for full manuscripts. A few agents with fulls are still considering me as I write this. I also got a few personalized rejections, which suggests writing that is suitable for publication.
Most notably, I did, in fact, have an offer of representation from an agent whom I liked quite a bit in terms of their work ethic and enthusiasm for my work. At the end of the day, I didn’t think I was a good fit at this person’s agency, and I declined their offer. That was a big step for me, to believe in my work so much that I didn’t want to settle for anything less than the best fit for me.
Of course, the unkind Kelly has a lot to say about my biggest disappointment in 2019. Here’s how it goes in my mind: I’m so embarrassed I told everyone I’m going to be an author, and it hasn’t happened yet. What if it never happens? What if I’m on the wrong path? Do I really want to be an author for the “right reasons?” Is this really my life’s purpose?
For 2020, I’m letting go of my desire to be a published author. After 2019, I don’t actually think it’s my life’s purpose to write books per se. One of the biggest reasons I wanted to write was to connect with others; so they would read my words and stories and feel like they’re not alone. I’ve had those feelings of isolation many times in my life, and I found solace, friendship, and hope in the books I was reading. What I really want is to connect with others so they don’t feel alone. Building those connections – I think that may be my true life’s purpose. One of those ways to do that is through my writing. But, it’s not the only way. I’m still going to write. I’m still going to query. I’m still going to go all in and face my fears. I’m just not going to let it define me or the amount of joy I experience on any given day.
Going forward in 2020, I am prioritizing connections in my life. Connections with God, with myself, with Heath, with others, and, of course, with as many dogs* as I can find. May 2020 bring you joy and contentment.
The next morning dawned bright and clear, but it wasn’t until mid-day that Malcolm roused himself from inside Ozzie’s napping tree. He shook out every inch of his body, from the tip of his little black nose to the end of his scruffy tail. Then he yawned, trying to remember where he was and what he was doing here.
“Good afternoon, Malcolm!” called Ozzie’s chipper voice.
Then it all came crashing back to Malcolm – berry night and playing in the waterfall with his new friends. It had been much later than Malcolm was used to going to bed and he moved more like a turtle than a fox this morning. His brain trudged on in the same way too and it was a few more moments before he remembered the most important point of all – Nana Owl was no longer on the Western edge of the forest.
“Good afternoon, Ozzie,” said Malcolm in a voice that was decidedly less chipper. His mind was already whirring around and around with what to do about Nana Owl. Should he stay or should he go?
“Late night?” Ozzie chuckled at his own joke.
“Something like that,” Malcolm said with barely a glance at Ozzie.
“Oh, come on now,” said Ozzie, who must have sensed Malcolm’s preoccupation because he added, “still thinking about Nana Owl, aren’t you?”
Malcolm nodded, but didn’t say anything.
“Well there’s your problem, then,” said Ozzie who had come over and put a paw around Malcolm. “You’re doing too much thinking.” He then tapped Malcom’s head. “Give it a rest, would ya?”
“But I can’t give it a rest,” said Malcolm. “How am I supposed to figure out what to do?”
“Maybe you’re not supposed to figure it out.” said Ozzie.
“That’s helpful.” Malcolm snorted, though, because he found it wholly not helpful.
“What I mean,” said Ozzie who rolled his eyes at Malcolm in exasperation, “is maybe you should listen to here,” and he put his hand on Malcom’s chest right where his heart beat, instead of here,” and he moved his hand to tap Malcolm’s forehead.
“Ow,” said Malcolm, rubbing his head. But maybe Ozzie had a point. What was it Malcolm really wanted?
Malcolm thought back to why he started looking for Nana Owl in the first place. It was to help him find his waterfall and mountain. He didn’t know if they really existed or not and that’s why Carl the cardinal had recommended Nana Owl. Maybe she can help you, he’d said.
Well, she had, thought Malcolm. In searching for Nana Owl, Malcolm had met Jersey the squirrel and Ozzie the skunk. He’d also met Ozzie’s friends. He’d been shown kindness and given food and a place to sleep. He’s also come to Evergale Falls, the most beautiful place he had ever been. Searching for Nana Owl had so far been quite the adventure. What would happen if he kept going? Would he find his mountain? Would there be a place more beautiful than Evergale Falls?
All of sudden, Malcolm realized what was happening. He was afraid. This time it wasn’t the night creating his fear, but the worry that he would never find what he was looking. He remembered what he thought at the start of his journey which now seemed a very long time ago – he would never know if he didn’t try. And right now, he wasn’t trying. He was letting his fear slow him down. Not that he wasn’t grateful for his new friends and their hospitality, but he had a dream. And there was no time like right now to get it back on track.
Malcolm felt a surge of energy rush through his body. He immediately brightened at the prospect that lay before him.
Ozzie chuckled again. “You seem to have perked up. I guess you ‘figured it out.’ “
“That’s right,” said Malcolm and he gave Ozzie a hug. “Tell Arthur and Milo I said goodbye. I hope someday soon I’ll see you again.” And just like that off, Malcolm took off running through the forest. He had places to go.
Before Peter knew it, he and Sadie had walked two blocks. He turned around as she sniffed at a fire hydrant, trying to recount the steps they had taken that got them to their current location. In the distance, he could hear the bells ringing from St. Michael’s steeple. Peter sighed as the sound reminded him about the new music teacher at his school.
“Come on, Sadie, let’s keep walking.” Peter tugged on her leash as they moved down the street, but the distance did not separate him from his thoughts of Miss Maxell.
He didn’t even know her first name. She had started at the school last week. Peter overheard her singing in the music room one day on his way to the teacher’s lounge. He stopped outside the door and listened as she sang a Beatles’ medley to herself. At first he stopped because the Beatles were his favorite band. A few moments later he was hooked as her voice seemed to reach the very depth of his core and when she started in with Here Comes the Sun, a desire ignited in him to find a guitar and start playing along.
“But we don’t play the guitar anymore, do we, Sadie?” Sadie ignored Peter as she was now sniffing a bench. He let her sniff away to her heart’s content as he remembered the last time he played his guitar. It was before his divorce three years ago. Peter had just gotten back from an open mic night at the local pub when he found a note on the table. Dear Peter, it began and then in a way so generic Peter wondered if she had copied the letter from the Internet, he found out his wife left him.
Since then, Peter turned into a shell of a man. His day to day motions were simply to get him through to the next day, then week, then month, then year. As he and Sadie ambled on, he felt a jolt inside him as he realized just how long it had been since he had even talked to another woman in that sort of way. I don’t even know what I’d say to her, Peter argued with himself as he made the case for doing nothing. I’d make a fool of myself.
Or doing nothing would make you the fool came his own retort. Peter tried to ignore this sentiment, otherwise that would mean putting himself out there and possibly getting hurt again.
“We don’t want that, do we, Sadie?” he asked to reassure himself. Peter, expecting no response, was unprepared as Sadie pounced on something laying on the sidewalk and he felt himself tumble over.
As Peter straightened himself up, he saw Sadie struggling to get four long-stemmed sunflowers into her mouth. Their bright yellows and reds burst through the gloom of his heart like a beacon of hope.
Peter gently pried them from Sadie’s mouth. He dried them off with the side of his shirt and examined them. They seemed no worse for wear and Peter looked around to see if anyone appeared to be missing them. He stood up and held the flowers in his hand, staring down at them as an idea formed in his head.
“Good girl,” he told Sadie with a smile as they turned around to make their way home. Peter knew exactly what he was going to do with these flowers and now he just had to find a card to write on so he could welcome Miss Maxwell to the school.
Garden Victory Part 4
Arthur watched from the back of the church as the congregation processed up the aisle. Some of the people went back to their pews, where they belong, thought Arthur, and some of them headed for the exit. As they walked past him, Arthur grunted, disgusted by the lack of respect these individuals had for the Body of Christ. Damn you, he thought. You’ll burn in hell for your sins. Even though a large part of Arthur took comfort in this judgment, a smaller part pitied the fools. Such a stupid price to pay, eternity in hell, just to avoid traffic.
Arthur checked his watch. Mass had gone over long. It was now six o’clock and they still had fifteen minutes to go. It was the windbag priest. “Anything extra goes back to St. Michael’s,” he repeated a dozen times discussing the bishop’s annual appeal. Finally, the priest got to “The Mass has ended. Go in peace,” and Arthur headed for the nearest exit.
On the way out the door, Arthur made sure not to make eye contact with the woman collecting change for the parish’s refugee resettlement program. Stupid immigrants. He hated that St. Michael’s contributed so much money to these foreigners. Why should a complete stranger get his money?
The woman tapped him on the arm. “We could really use your help,” she said.
He ignored her and started walking faster. As he headed across the street to his car, Arthur prayed the woman would leave him the hell alone. He looked up just in time to see the look of horror on the young girl’s face as she slammed on her brakes.
“Watch where you’re going!” Arthur yelled.
“I’m sorry!” The girl looked shaken. “Are you okay?” she asked, getting out of the car.
“No thanks to you,” he huffed.
“I was just trying to help.” Arthur didn’t say anything and started towards his car again. The girl seemed to dither on the spot, then reached into her car and pulled out four sunflowers. They had long stems. “Here, take these,” she said as she shoved them into Arthur’s hands. “To make up for almost hitting you.” The girl seemed to think she was doing Arthur a great favor what with how she smiled getting back into her car.
Arthur threw the flowers on his front seat. What the hell am I going to do with these, he thought as he drove away. He hadn’t driven too far, when he noticed a flyer on his windshield. It was asking for donations for refugees. At a stop sign, he grabbed one of the flowers and tried to use its stem to remove the flyer. It didn’t work, so he tossed it out the window. He chucked the other three out after it. There, he thought. Maybe a refugee will find them. He drove away leaving the flowers behind. Arthur chuckled to himself. Now, that’s the kind of charity I can get behind.
Garden Victory Part 3
Kayla sat in the parking lot. Twice she opened her car door, but each time slammed it shut. She kept looking through the restaurant window, seeing the girls clustered around a table. They laughed and smiled, scooping up ketchup with French fries and slurping on sodas. It was no different than the cafeteria at school. Not one of them seemed to have a care in the world.
Kayla sighed, looking at her body. She never knew what to feel about it, what with half the posts on her Facebook feed celebrating a big and curvy female body and the other half telling her she could get rid of her muffin top in as little as 21 days. But Kayla liked her muffin top. It gave her something to hold on to when she was feeling shy – she could cross her arms and hold herself tight – and then maybe she could get through whatever it was she needed to.
For right now, though, Kayla felt sure that getting past the girls inside was not something she needed to get through. So she stayed in her car, turning it back on. As she headed to the drive through she put down her window. Just then, two of the girls came out, drink cups held in their hands like trophies. They snickered as Kayla drove by and stopped a few feet ahead of them, waiting for the cars in front of her.
Kayla pretended not to notice as the girls strode past. But she couldn’t ignore their calls of greeting. “Hey Kayla,” one said. “Watcha gonna get?”
Kayla shrugged, but the girl didn’t give up. She pulled a dollar out of her pocket. “Here,” she said, throwing it through the window and laughing. “Keep it to their dollar menu. Maybe then you won’t get so fat.”
The girl didn’t wait for Kayla’s response, which was good because Kayla didn’t have one other than to turn bright red. Once the girls had gotten into their own cars and driven away, Kayla pulled her car out of the line and drove off in the other direction.
After a few miles, Kayla realized that she was lost. She hit the GPS button on her phone and waited for its instruction. “Turn left onto Hummingbird Lane,” it commanded, so Kayla did.
A quarter of a mile down the road, Kayla stopped. There in front of someone’s yard was a beautiful display of cut flowers. They were all propped up in paint buckets with the words 25 cents each written in black marker. The buckets spanned the entire length of two picnic benches. At one end was a metal box with an opening. Honor System it said.
Kayla grabbed the dollar bill on her seat. She picked four sunflowers in various shades of reds and yellows and gave the dollar in payment. She smiled as she got into her car, thinking that flowers were better than French fries anyway.
Garden Victory Part 2
Margie dragged the last of the empty paint buckets to her garage. She would take them out to the curb later. Back inside, she flopped on her couch and stared up at the ceiling. She nodded in satisfaction. Painting all her ceilings had been the right choice. It took three long weeks, but what else would she have done with that time?
A little voice told Margie exactly what she could have done with that time. For a second Margie considered knocking on Stella’s door. They had been neighbors on Hummingbird Lane for over 10 years and best friends ever since. Well, except for the last month.
Margie still wasn’t sure what happened. Half-hoping, half -joking she asked if Stella would consider chopping down her weeping willow tree. Margie’s new pool turned out to be one big hassle, especially the daily cleaning of debris. Most of it came from Stella’s weeping willow.
“How dare you,” Stella yelled. “Matthew planted that tree 30 years ago when we moved in!”
“I’m sorry,” Margie told her. “I didn’t think….”
“That’s right you didn’t. Just like you didn’t think when you decided to get that piece of shit pool in the first place.”
Their fight escalated after that with a lot of sweeping generalizations, over-exaggerations, and dredging up of the past as is wont to happen when two people who have a long history and love each other get into a fight. Margie and Stella had not spoken since then, so Margie had plenty of free time on her hands. Enough, to paint her chipped and cracked ceilings which Stella had pointed out made her house look run down. As Margie continued to stare at her ceiling, her phone rang.
“Margie? It’s Sophia. Listen, I know you and my mom haven’t talked much lately, but could you check on her?”
“Is Stella okay?
“No. It’s my dad – he was diagnosed with cancer a month ago.”
“Jesus,” Margie breathed. “I had no idea. I’ll call her.”
“Margie, it was fast spreading. The doctors said there was nothing they could do. Dad died this morning.”
In a split second it was as if their fight last month had never happened. “I’m going over there now,” Margie said and she hung up.
Margie found Stella laying in her garden, only it wasn’t a garden anymore. Every single plant was hacked to shreds with the colorful blooms scattered everywhere. She saw the weeping willow high above Stella’s house swaying in the breeze. Margie’s own tears now echoed its sadness.
“Come on,” Margie said as she picked up Stella from the ground. “Let’s get you inside.” As they walked to the house, Margie lamented the flowers they trampled on. Then she remembered the empty paint buckets in her garage. They could hold dozens of flowers. Perhaps their beauty wouldn’t have to be wasted after all. Margie gave Stella’s shoulder a squeeze. “And don’t you worry, I’ll take care of this mess.”
Garden Victory Part 1
Stella stood among the sunflowers, daisies, peonies, hydrangeas, and roses. The tears that rolled down her face hit the ground. She looked around to see if her sorrow had been absorbed into their roots. But the flowers didn’t wither and die. Instead, they stood tall and luscious; the sun showering them with vibrancy and life.
“Traitors,” Stella muttered. “It’s like you don’t even care that he’s gone.” Stella reached down and pulled her gardening apron to her, wiping the remaining tears from her eyes. As she did a pair of shears fell out of the pocket. She knelt down to pick them up, but stayed on the ground paralyzed by the flowers towering over her. Were they really as callous as they seemed?
Stella turned the shears over and over in her hands. The ground felt hard underneath her, but somehow that did not encourage Stella to get up. What would Matthew say about her sitting in the garden, she wondered. Would he behave in typical Matthew fashion and call her silly, laughing as he pulled her up? Give her a hug and a kiss on her forehead?
Well I’ll never know, Stella thought. Matthew is dead and I’ll never know what he would think about this. I’ll never know what he would think about anything again.
Stella continued turning the gardening shears in her hands. As she did, the words, Matthew is dead, turned over in her mind. The words and movement both seemed involuntary and she didn’t know how to stop either. She started squeezing the shears together, just for something different to do. Then, as another torrent of tears was unleashed, Stella began hacking the flowers closest to her. Down came the roses.
“Bravo,” they seemed to shout, taunting her with every snip of her shears. “Now you’re getting somewhere.” So, she kept going. Down came the hydrangeas, then the peonies, and the daisies. Last, came the sunflowers. She did not stop until every flower laid on the ground, their remaining foliage and stems at half-mast of where they had once been.
Stella looked at her work. “There,” she cried, sobbing into her hands. “Now you’re dead, too.” Stella wasn’t sure if she meant the garden or herself. She sank to her knees again, but this time the ground wasn’t so hard. The flowers cushioned her like a bed, soft and welcoming. Stella laid down. Maybe if she lay there long enough, the summer sun would somehow bring her back to life. So she closed her eyes and waited.
Despite having assigned many failing grades as a professor, I don’t actually believe in the concept of failure. Sure in academia it means a lack of mastery of the material, but unless a student has earned an absolute zero then I would argue that they probably learned something. But when it comes to life, what really is failure?
When I consider the multiple times I thought I was failing in life – lack of friends in grade/high school, sucking at grad school, taking a leave of absence from my doctoral program, not being able to get to the post office by noon on a Saturday (if you have a sleep disorder or any other chronic illness that leaves you exhausted, you’ll totally get this one) – I take stock of what happened as a result of those situations.
My grade school and high school years were fraught with emotional dysregulation, immaturity, over sensitivity, and the beginnings of an autoimmune sleep disorder that unfortunately got misdiagnosed for 16 years. It took a lot of therapy, meditation, self-reflection, and help from integrative doctors, but I finally came to peace with my past and, in fact, have developed a stronger sense of sympathy and empathy for those I encounter who are still struggling, especially children. Plus, it informs my writing in ways I never would have been able to achieve when I first started writing.
I kind of got my act together in college, mostly because I could take long naps throughout the day, and I had more autonomy with my schedule. The same was true in graduate school, but then my narcolepsy (still undiagnosed) went full throttle to the point where I could hardly function. I was sleeping 20 hours a day, just barely getting my school work done and getting to class. I ate one meal a deal from Wendy’s, a biggie bacon double cheeseburger, biggie fry, and biggie sprite. I took antidepressants and saw doctors, but they would just keep switching the medicine or dose. I had a sleep study. It was invalidated because of doctor error. I felt demoralized, exhausted, and ready to give up. I fell behind in school and I wanted to drop out. But I didn’t know how I would tell my family and friends that I was quitting. At that point in my life, there was nothing worse than being a failure and I admit that in my darkest of hours I considered suicide as a possible way out. Then, I wouldn’t have to face anybody.
I credit my dogs with keeping me going.
I couldn’t imagine leaving Jack and Limit to be on their own because they had brought joy to my life like nothing else had. They also helped get me out of my apartment and moving around even though I was exhausted.
But I was still struggling, especially with school so I ended up taking a leave of absence from graduate school. That choice, one I initially thought would be the biggest failure of my life, turned out to be the single best decision I ever made.
I ended up getting a job as research assistant, but I ended up with so much more than just work experience. I made new friends, a group of women who are so delightful and loyal, that we still love and support each other to this day. In fact, we just celebrated our 10th anniversary of friendship with tea at the Carolina Inn this past October. I found a mentor who is incredibly skilled at seeing the best in people and helping them achieve their goals. He invested in our professional development and encouraged us to write journal articles. It was from this encouragement that I started on my path towards becoming a good writer. I also ended up with a research project I turned into my dissertation. After a year in the research assistant position, I returned to graduate school and two years later I graduated with my PhD.
I wanted more than anything to return to my research group and work there full time, but they couldn’t fund a full time position. I cried at work that day, feeling a sense of loss and fear. I ended up applying for assistant professor positions across the country (except for Kansas because I am terrified of tornados) and I started that fall in a tenure-track position.
That year was a miserable one, where I felt lonely and exhausted. I desperately wanted to return to NC and I talked about it all the time. I started falling asleep again at inopportune times, like on my desk at work or my couch when I was cooking something in the oven for dinner. Again, thank God for my dogs because they would wake me up.
I wanted to quit (again), but then some interesting professional and personal opportunities presented themselves and I decided to stick it out for another year. But I knew I couldn’t spend another year this tired, so I found a new doctor, this one specializing in sleep. Within five minutes of our first appointment she said to me, “I think you have narcolepsy.” No, that’s ridiculous, I thought. I knew what narcolepsy was and I even taught it in a survey of psychology course. But it turns out like everything else, narcolepsy is on a continuum and sure enough, one sleep study later I was officially diagnosed.
It was like I won the lottery that’s how different my life became.
I don’t think I ever would have been properly diagnosed had I kept my research assistant job or quit after my first year in academia. So that’s why it’s okay if I “fail” at writing because every time I’ve “failed” in the past it’s lead me to something even better. And I’m certainly not going to stop writing. I am a writer. Failure can’t take that away from me.