A Blog for the Turn of the Year

We’re officially 1/52 of the way through 2023.

Did you feel shocked (like I did) when trying to process that statement? And also a little anxious about how fleeting time is? And yet also, maybe, a little relieved in knowing we’ve already made it through a week of this rocky adjustment?

The start of this year has felt rough. These past couple weeks, as 2022 wrapped up and as the new year began, I’ve had a striking number of conversations about mental health with people who are struggling. And I count myself among that lot.

It doesn’t help that it’s been cold and rainy — and at times snowy and icy, or that many of us settled in to enjoy a major Monday Night Football match-up only to watch in horror as Damar Hamlin collapsed, or that that hardship hit Buffalo (a neighboring city here, home to many loved ones) right on the heels of its devastating blizzard, or that this is the fourth calendar year in which the COVID-19 pandemic looms over our lives…

Many of us are feeling shaken, discouraged, and simply exhausted. We want to start this new year with hope and resilience but are reminded of our own mortality and how quickly life can change.

Beyond those recent and (hopefully) unusual factors, the holiday season can often stir up grief and longing. I love Christmas, easily caught up in the giddiness and magic like a child would be, and yet it makes me miss my beloved fur baby so badly that hanging up her stocking still brings tears to my eyes, 3 years after her death, and the pangs of nostalgia I feel for childhood Christmases can sting, wishing that somehow, just for a few minutes, I could be back at the top of the stairs with my brothers, waiting for our parents to be settled with their coffee and video camera, ready for us to come down and see what wonders await.

Just as the complicated mix of merriment and sadness of the Christmas season winds down, here comes the new year — a time when we put extra pressure on ourselves to feel festive, to reflect on accomplishments, to set goals, to do better. It can be exhausting!

Several years ago, I received as a gift the book Tape for the Turn of the Year, by A.R. Ammons. It’s a long, journal-like poem that he typed on a roll of adding-machine tape, written between December 1963 and January 1964. I was enthralled by the concept, Ammons challenging himself (a) to fill the roll and (b) to be forced to wrap up the piece within the confines of its medium. Returning to the page (as it were) routinely over the course of those days gives Ammons’s writing a meditative quality, finding beauty and room for contemplation in ordinary moments of ordinary days — which seems to me a beautiful way to think about time.

…all day
life itself is bending,
weaving, changing,
adapting, failing,
  succeeding

A.R. Ammons, Tape for the Turn of the Year

Ever since first hearing the book’s title, I’ve found a sort of comfort in thinking of the arrival of the new year this way, a turn. It’s not merely a beginning (and an ending) but a continuation, a wheel that will keep carrying us along.

Sometimes, making the turn is hard. Sometimes, we long for stability and familiarity, and sometimes that means acknowledging that what was once familiar is now gone, or that we’re not entirely comfortable in our current circumstances.

And that’s okay. This is but a moment of our journey.

If you are struggling:

  • please be patient and gentle with yourself. Allow yourself to feel your feelings and work through them with time.
  • remind yourself that this is a temporary state — one of my favorite mantras I’ve learned from my counselor.
  • know that you are not alone and do not need to navigate the tough times alone. Reach out to a loved one — to me! — or to a counselor or doctor or online community.

If you should choose to make any resolutions for the year, I hope they’ll be ones that truly feel good to you — things you want to do, not things you feel you should do or have to do. In my mind, the shoulds and have tos are immediately laced with anxiety and negative self-talk. (Why haven’t I done that yet? Will I really do it this time?) No one needs that sort of energy to start off the year. Or ever!

Among my resolutions this year is to dedicate more time to self-care. A friend recently told me she takes a self-care day at least once a month, and THAT is the energy I need for 2023! Self-care too often gets bumped to the bottom of the list — which leaves us less equipped to tackle everything else on that list.

Wherever this new year finds you, and wherever it may lead you, I hope you can find ways, old or new, to help yourself feel rested, refreshed, and renewed. To let go of things that no longer serve you and find more things that do.

May your 2023 be whatever you need it to be.

Muse, I’ve done the best
I could:
    sometimes you ran out
    on me
    & sometimes I ran out
    on you:
 
        I know you better now:
        you’ve come closer:
            will you
            confer the high
grace of your touch?
come & live enduring with
me:
            I’ll be faithful:
            I won’t trick you:
            I’ll give you all
            I’ve got:

A.R. Ammons, Tape for the Turn of the Year
Photo by Sumit Rai, downloaded from Pexels

Unpopular Opinion: LOVE ACTUALLY Is Both Lovely AND Terrible

A debate I’ve often seen flare up during the holiday season is whether Love Actually (2003) is a good movie. It seems people tend to fall in one of two camps: love it or hate it. I only recently watched the film for the first time a few years ago, after warring factions of my family wanted to know which side of the debate I’d fall on. Upon that first viewing, I primarily felt underwhelmed. I’d expected to feel confident in standing on one side of the line or the other, without a middle ground being possible. After all, I’d been hearing this impassioned back-and-forth from my loved ones for quite some time: “It’s fantastic! We watch it every year!” answered swiftly by, “It’s ridiculous! The characters are horrible people!”

Well, which is it? Unsatisfied by my earlier reaction (or lack thereof), I decided to watch it again this December and see if I felt something different, one way or the other.

I’m here to tell you today, with confidence, that both groups are correct. Love Actually is both lovely and terrible.

Spoiler alert for all that follows, in case you are, like I was, nearly 20 years late in seeing this film.

I took three pages of notes as I watched (nerd alert). I attempted to distinguish my notes as pros (with plus signs) and cons (with minus signs) as I accumulated them, but the two often overlapped or cancelled each other out in such striking ways that that very effort pointed me toward my conclusion early on, and it only proved increasingly true.

The IMDB description of the movie reads, “Follows the lives of eight very different couples in dealing with their love lives in various loosely interrelated tales all set during a frantic month before Christmas in London, England.”

It says a lot about this movie’s intertwined “pro” and “con” lists that my initial reaction to that description, even after having just watched the movie, was “Eight?!” As in, That’s a lot. But then I started counting and quickly came up with more than eight*. If I can’t even tell who counts as a couple whose lives viewers are following, the plot and cast may be a bit overcrowded.

The movie opens with a promising premise: “If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around,” Hugh Grant says in a voiceover. (I assume that’s supposed to be Grant as his character, David, the prime minister, although he does not return as any sort of narrative voice, nor as any more of a leading character compared to the many others.) This premise is illustrated in several effective ways throughout the movie: Daniel (Liam Neeson) and Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) navigating their grief over the death of Sam’s mother and bonding over Sam’s crush on his classmate; Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz) finding ways to communicate across their language barrier; and the charming, if somewhat unconventional, chemistry between David and his staff member Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), whose face glows whenever they interact.

It seems that many of the movie’s other storylines are working against that heartwarming premise, though: Colin (Kris Marshall)’s sole personality trait is that he has an urge to get laid, he believes he can achieve this by going to the United States, and it’s then proven true with such an over-the-top turn in his luck that we’re waiting for a punchline that doesn’t arrive; the US president (a particularly dirtbaggish Billy Bob Thornton) hits on / sexually harasses Natalie; and she then feels the need to apologize to David about it, both in her Christmas card and in person. And whom or what am I supposed to be rooting for when Harry (Alan Rickman), who is married to Karen (the incomparable Emma Thompson), is hit on for the umpteenth time by his sexually aggressive assistant? Do any of these really serve to demonstrate love being all around us? Attraction, maybe, or the complexities of relationships or of finding our way. These examples seem out of sync with the other storylines.

When it seems like viewers are meant to care so much for Karen, it’s a fair expectation that we should be building toward her triumph after she finds out about the necklace Harry purchased for the other woman. Instead, we get a (highly effective) scene of her allowing herself a brief cry in her bedroom before rejoining the family for the Christmas concert, another (also highly effective) scene in which she briefly gets to tell Harry off after the concert but then stops herself when the kids come back in, and then a flash-forward at the end of her greeting him at the airport with the kids in tow, their dialogue so stilted that it not only implies continued tension between them but leaves me lost as to whether they’re still together. (I think they are?! Even after her powerful line about “knowing life would always be a little bit worse.”)

Likewise, we’re rooting for Sarah (Laura Linney) to finally get with her office crush, Karl (Rodrigo Santoro), and the momentum builds adorably in that direction. When he comes over to her place, we get two of my favorite moments in quick succession: her happy dance in the stairwell, fists shaking in the air, while Karl stands waiting just on the other side of the wall, and subsequently her attempt to quickly throw her bedroom clutter into hiding, including, guiltily, her teddy bear. But then her cell phone rings, as it so often does, and interrupts their rendezvous; the obligations of her normal life take over (she’s a caregiver for her brother); and she never gets to return to the sweeping romance.

What’s the moral of storylines like Karen’s and Sarah’s? That sometimes life gets in the way of love? That sometimes you’re stuck settling for your “have to”s rather than aspiring for your “want to”s? This may be accurate to many people’s lived experiences, but the tone feels out of place in this movie. At least Sarah’s storyline demonstrates a different kind of love, the bond and instinctive caregiving among biological family. But it’s still terribly depressing. Yes, “life is full of interruptions and complications,” as Karl reassures Sarah, but are we supposed to take from this that sometimes the interruptions and complications win? Does Sarah have zero agency to carve out some bit of time for her own needs and wants? (And, seriously, she has the most obnoxious and unnecessarily loud ringtone of all time, amiright?)

There are so many utterly delightful moments throughout this movie:

  • My favorite: Natalie’s family heading out for the Christmas concert just as David arrives to profess his love. This leads to the couple sitting in the backseat of a car on either side of an impeccably straight-faced child dressed as an octopus, who interrupts their heartfelt conversation by proclaiming “We’re here!” and then exits the car in an endless crinkle of tentacles. (Bonus content: His character in the IMDB cast listing is named Natalie’s Octopus Brother.) This scene is so well written and delivered (“Keith will be very disappointed. …Eight is a lot of legs, David”) that I rewatched it several times and giggled out loud each time, on an airplane.
  • David’s dance montage, a joyful 40 seconds of total commitment that make him a more likeable and relatable character.
  • The flourish with which the jewelry store clerk (Rowan Atkinson) tackles each elaborate step of the gift-wrapping process, complete with spoonfuls of flower petals and a sprig of holly.
  • The crowd following Jamie through the town as he goes to find Aurelia, and his bumbling attempts at Portuguese as he declares his love for her. This is the good kind of ridiculousness that rom-com fans expect – heartfelt, endearing, and worthy of rooting for.
  • The earnestness of Sam’s crush, which he is adamant is true love (“the total agony of being in love”). Didn’t we all feel this way at some point about a childhood crush, that it certainly would stand the test of time, that our hearts and minds were clear on what we needed? “Another thing about romance is people only get together right at the very end,” Sam tells Daniel, reassuring them both that they can hold onto hope. Perhaps it’s largely because Brodie-Sangster’s massive brown eyes pierce right to the heart (does anyone else remember him, later, from Game of Thrones and thus get a thrill out of his appearance here as such an endearing baybay?), but I love his entire storyline, including learning the drums to impress his crush, his hand on the glass of the airport window as he tries desperately to call to her (“Joanna!”) (slight point deduction here for expecting us to believe that a boy could run so far through an airport in a post-9/11 world), the smile that encompasses his whole face after she kisses him. This is pure, joyful, not-yet-jaded-by-the-world love.

Likewise, there are so many utterly awful ones:

  • Karen telling a crying Daniel, “Get a grip. People hate sissies. No one’s ever gonna shag you if you cry all the time.” Is this supposed to be…funny? His wife just died. He’s worried about his stepson. It falls flat, at best, and makes an otherwise likeable Karen much less appealing.
  • Harry’s assistant wearing devil horns to the office’s Christmas party. I just can’t.
  • Don’t even get me started on the creepiness and poor execution of the crush that Mark (Andrew Lincoln, looking startlingly babyfaced for those of us used to seeing him on The Walking Dead) has on Juliet (Keira Knightley), newly married to Mark’s friend Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who shows up so briefly we don’t even get a chance to decide if we care about him at all. The cue-cards scene has been parodied so many times not because it’s cute but because it’s AWKWARD AS HELL. As is his entire attraction toward her. He’s always swinging around that video camera, then somehow later has a professionally edited montage of close-ups and slow-mo pans of Juliet’s face. He wants the crush to remain a secret and tells Juliet he doesn’t know where the wedding video is, yet he puts the VHS tape, clearly labeled, right on his living room shelf.

The movie tries to cover so much ground that, at this point in this lengthy blog, I haven’t even touched on a couple of the other storylines, which I’ll reduce to brief notes here:

Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) is obnoxious but mostly in a good way, and I like that he acknowledges the ridiculousness of reworking the former hit song “Love Is All Around” into “Christmas Is All Around,” thus also highlighting the commercialization of Christmas and the pressures of fame. This storyline is uneven and rushed (we very briefly learn at the end that perhaps there’s a romantic interest between Billy and his manager?! more of that, please!), but, all told, it’s in my “pro” column.

John (Martin Freeman, who I loved on the British version of The Office) and Judy (Joanna Page) are adorable as body doubles for movie sex scenes, finding they can chat comfortably and develop a trusting rapport in the midst of some hilariously awkward physical arrangements. Their shy self-consciousness is an amusing contrast to the work they do, and together it makes for an inviting vulnerability. And his leap off her front steps after they kiss is pure joy.

In total, the movie’s core is weakened by trying to do too much. Following so many characters makes it hard to keep them straight or to feel invested in them. Give me a remake that reduces the fluff (the Colin storyline and the Mark-Peter-Juliet storyline could be cut entirely) and delves deeper into the cursory storylines that have such potential (does Karen strike out on her own? does Sarah get another chance with Karl? how does Daniel and Sam’s relationship evolve as Sam grows up?). Or give me an entirely separate rom-com about Jamie and Aurelia or John and Judy. The bigger, clunky effort does a disservice to so many promising pieces that are reduced to glimmers among the crowd.


(*More than eight couples: David and Natalie, Jamie and Aurelia, Harry and Karen, Harry and his assistant, Sarah and Karl, Sam and Joanna, Mark and Juliet, technically speaking Peter and Juliet, Colin and his group pursuit, John and Judy, Billy Mack and his manager, plus the familial relationships between Daniel and Sam and Sarah and her brother.)

LOVE ACTUALLY movie poster
Photo obtained from Ron Cogswell, downloaded from Flickr; some rights reserved

A Dream in Which I Tell Myself “I Would Do Anything for You”

I keep thinking about a dream I had several months ago. It was brief and blurry, but one element has remained persistently clear: I was sitting across from myself [a clone? A reflection? That part I’m not sure of, but there were two distinct yet identical presences of me], and the self that I embodied said to the other, reassuringly, matter-of-factly, “I would do anything for you.”

The caring was instinctive, deeply rooted, the way I feel in my waking hours about my boyfriend, my family, and my dearest friends — a level of protectiveness and pride I feel especially about my nieces and nephews: I don’t want anything bad to happen to you. You are strong and beautiful and talented. I believe in you. I’m here for you anytime. I love you beyond words.

Why don’t I treat myself that way?

Well, a couple months ago, several weeks after having had that dream and having it echo in my mind since, my self-care and -compassion were put to the test.

In one simple misstep, I slipped and fell in the yard, landing with one leg curled awkwardly beneath me and my foot bearing the weight of the rest of me collapsing. I’ve replayed that moment countless times since, as if I could retroactively change my footwear or my armload of stuff or whatever it was I stepped on that caused my foot to slip, and each time I’m struck by the notion that I had no idea in that instant how it would ripple out to affect the entire trajectory of my summer and my physical and mental health.

I don’t intend this to be a pity party nor to belabor the details, so I’ll give the abridged version:

  • The sprained foot led to a blood clot in my leg, which has continued to cause periods of swelling and discomfort as well as send my anxiety and depression on a seemingly endless roller coaster.
  • The prescribed blood thinner required me to stop taking another medication that had long been very helpful for me and left me scrambling for an alternative, none of which have proven satisfactory.
  • It was a hot summer to have one leg encased in a boot brace — although that brace has been a godsend in allowing me much better mobility than I had for the first few days, during which I couldn’t put weight on the foot without intolerable pain.
  • This whole experience has been an eye-opener as to how many elements of my typical day are not easily accessible, with any stairs, gravel, or hills leaving me unsteady at best and at times incapable of navigating without help. That is to say it’s opened my eyes to how very much I was taking for granted before.

The dream was not a stretch in that I have long been one to talk to myself — even out loud, even in public — but this too has now been manifesting in new, gentler ways: “We’ve got this,” I’ll say to myself. [We?! As if, again, there are two of us in the conversation!] “Okay, here we go. One step at a time.” I am aware that I am someone in need of caring and more willing to give myself that care than probably ever before. As I step slowly in and out of the shower or turn gingerly to rinse my hair, as I stretch my cramped-up calf muscle, as I climb into bed and appreciate the shedding of a long day, I am carrying myself differently, with more awareness, patience, and forgiveness.

While I wish it hadn’t taken an injury for this slowing-down to happen and I’m eager to start feeling more like myself again, I hope that as I continue to heal I can maintain this new perspective.

And I wish it for all of you, too — without the dramatic catalyst! Let’s adopt an attitude of showing up for ourselves. We need it more than we may realize.

Photo by Hassan OUAJBIR, downloaded from Pexels

Wishing You Anger and Inspiration

My debut book is out(!) — and its content packs a punch. A story like this may upset you or inspire you. I hope it will do both.

The Man Behind the Curtain is a memoir I coauthored for a survivor of sexual abuse whose family and community tried to silence her when the truth came out. As I’ve blogged about before — in introducing you to Jessica and in interviewing her as we neared the finish line — there’s no denying that this is difficult subject matter, and that’s precisely why we felt it needed to be heard.

For too many years, Jessica was the one made to feel guilty about what had been done to her, including feeling guilty if she tried to talk about it — even long after the abuse had been reported and investigated, even long after her rapist stepfather was convicted and imprisoned. The people who continue (yes, present tense) to revere her abuser and portray Jessica as a liar have made grand attempts to shame her into continued silence. As I write about in the book’s afterword, Jessica told me in one of our early meetings, “Every time I tell my story, I apologize for my story.”

This is maddening. Jessica knew it wasn’t right but had to wrestle with that for years, often alone. I knew it wasn’t right upon my first meeting with her, scribbling down page after page of notes by hand as the earliest notion of a book took shape. Now our readers are experiencing that fury, too — and I must say, I love to hear that.

“I was so enraged I wanted to throw the book across the room on multiple occasions,” wrote one reviewer. Another wrote, “This book will make you angry. And it should. A brutally honest depiction of the abuse that a young girl faced, and the heartbreaking account of those closest to her who refused to believe it.”

I want you to feel angry. I also want you to feel proud of Jessica, as I do and as so many readers have told us they do, and cheer for her as she finds her courage and her voice amidst all of those causes of anger.

And I want you to know that Jessica’s story, as shocking and infuriating as it is, is not unique. I want you to be all the angrier to think about the countless others who have lived a story like this or are currently living it. And I want you to be all the more inspired and hopeful and proud to think about each one of those people stepping into their own power. Jessica and I hope that a book like ours helps them, and their loved ones, along that journey. As we write in the book’s last chapter, we’re aiming to “help others take their own first step — or second, or hundredth — toward healing, and toward hope.”

Michelle Bowdler’s memoir, Is Rape a Crime? A Memoir, an Investigation, and a Manifesto, served as a torch guiding my way through my research and writing. In an essay she wrote for Lit Hub, “When Your Memoir Has the Word ‘Rape’ in the Title,” Michelle addresses a struggle similar to Jessica’s: “The temptation to hide the word because the reality of rape is so horrific only made it more critical that it stood front and center in my book. As it was in my life, it would be in my words. If I hid the word rape and its impact on me, it would make anything about my life a lie, an omission, a nod to shame and silence.”

In working to suppress the shame and self-doubt, people like Michelle and Jessica used something terrible as a catalyst for something great, providing a guiding light to other survivors who are still trying to find their way through.

I see a similar light emerging from the darkness when I watch a woman address her church about the abuse their pastor inflicted upon her as a teen, or when I read about the reckoning currently unfolding for the Southern Baptist Convention — which encompasses Jessica’s family’s church — about sexual abuse from the highest ranks, covered up for decades by its executive committee. When I hear these stories, I am simultaneously furious and hopeful, with each emotion amplifying the other. I’m honored if our book can evoke a similar cycle of feelings for our readers.

Yes, the things Jessica experienced can be difficult to hear about. The fact that she and too many other people have lived those difficult things makes it imperative that others of us are willing to hear about them and discuss them. We may not always understand or know what to say. We may feel powerless in response to such horrible things. But we can listen. That seemingly simple action holds a lot of power.

In listening, we acknowledge the victim as a fellow human being with a story bigger than their abuse, with a life still to be made. We bear witness, we learn, we grow.

Another reviewer of our book wrote, “This is admittedly a tough read from an emotional standpoint, but it is well worth the pain to read how Jessica persevered.”

Jessica and I are both so grateful to our readers for being willing to take this emotional journey with us. Collectively, we come out the other side of it stronger. I hope continuing to share stories like this helps us find a way forward, toward a time when there are far fewer of them to tell.

Instagram quote card showcasing a reader review of THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN: "I was so enraged I wanted to throw the book across the room on multiple occasions..."

A Letter to My Nieces and Nephews, Growing Up in the COVID Era

Dear D, L, C, and E,

Sometimes I feel sad or angry that these past 19 months (and counting) of your childhood have been so heavily shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. I do very often feel both sad and angry about all the time I’m missing out on with you and restless to get to the end of this difficult stretch so that I can be with you much, much more.

I recently found myself thinking of this strange time we’re in as “the lost years”: we’re missing out on so much, with plans continually cancelled, postponed, or dialed back. Again and again, we say “hopefully soon” or “maybe next year,” even though we’ve been taught to live in the present and not take a day for granted. So many things are on hold and uncertain, and it’s easy to feel frustrated, tired, and scared.

But then I get to see you or talk to you and am reminded that these years, these days, are not lost. You are continuing to grow, learn, laugh, and find joy throughout it all. You continue to give and inspire love so powerful, so unconditional, that I’m humbled to be a part of it. And you remind me that that’s what we should all be aiming for, always.

There is so much changing around you all the time, and yet you continue to roll with it and accept it. You understood when birthday parties had to be held by Zoom and dance classes had to be (still have to be) held with 6-foot squares taped out on the floor. You adapted to remote learning, and now you’re navigating being in school in person with so many added safety precautions and restrictions. You wear your masks without question and try hard to remember to keep safe social distances. You are much better about these things than many adults. You understand the big differences that little actions can make.

You run around playfully with your masks on. You give masked hugs or air hugs and say “I love you” on video calls. You ask me what kind of hand sanitizer we just used because “it’s a good one.” You make a game of changing your facial expressions, with exaggerated eyes, and seeing if I can guess whether you’re smiling behind your mask.

You tell me about the video game you’re playing, or the clubs and activities you’re starting, or the friends you’re making, or the boy in your class you think is cute, and the world feels normal again. You remind me of all the good there is in every day, and you remind me that I don’t want to lose sight of any of it.

You have more wisdom and clarity in your 9, 7, and 4 years than many of us have managed to acquire in decades. Given all that you’ve accomplished during these restrictive times, I can only begin to imagine all that you’ll achieve and inspire in others as the world continues to open its boundless self back up to you. Thank you for helping me to remember what matters and what’s good.

I love you more than words can ever say.

Love,
Vovo

The Trapper Keeper Is BACK and as Mint as the ’80s Original

The return of the Trapper Keeper combines several of my favorite things: writing, office supplies, organization, and nostalgia. I had a Trapper Keeper in elementary school that I assume was originally used for in-class purposes, but I remember it best as my first at-home creative writing notebook / folio, using each folder within it to safeguard a separate work in progress — all written out by hand, of course. This love affair started before we had a computer at home, and then the comfortable routine of drafting on the built-in clipboard and filing away the accumulating pages continued for years afterward.

My Trapper Keeper evolved as I did, its folders adorned with stickers and scribbled with the names of crushes that came and went. I doodled and wrote notes to myself (sometimes to my future self) on just about every usable surface area, including along the inner spine and on the cardboard cover beneath the plastic that gradually peeled away from it over the years. While mulling over ideas, or when feeling what I now know to call anxious, I would pick at that plastic backing or run my pen along the ridges of its design, the swirls and lines quickly becoming familiar, well-worn paths covered in ink.

Instagram post from actress Elizabeth Berkley promoting Trapper Keeper's relaunch

When I saw this recent Instagram post from Elizabeth Berkley promoting the Trapper Keeper’s relaunch, I was indeed “so excited” (and appreciative of her excellent hashtag use, as any Saved by the Bell fan will understand), and I soon zipped over to my local Walmart to snag one. The excitement built as I searched the back-to-school aisles for the right section, hoping they’d still be in stock. I’m not ashamed to admit that, once I found them, I let out a little eeee! from behind my mask. They were there, they were real, and they were beautiful!

I was thrilled to find that Mead stayed true to the product’s roots and kept all the essentials — the front interior pocket, with holes that help you see what’s inside and also are addictive to trace; a couple of folders in the 3-ring binder; the clipboard hinge in the back; the Velcro flap closure — and even the aesthetic of the designs. The Trapper Keeper has aged well. It’s an effective homage to the original while also a practical purchase for current use. (That’s not just what I told myself while justifying its $9.97 price tag.)

I hope it goes without saying that this is not any sort of official advertisement or sponsored post. I’m not big-leagues enough for that. I just really, really love this product.

Just a couple years ago, I had wanted to get my nephew something for Christmas that would help organize his many writings and drawings and was dismayed to find that Trapper Keepers were no longer around. It would have been perfect! I searched several places for something similar and came up short. There are semi-comparable products aimed at professionals, portfolios that snap or zip shut, but they fall far short of the whimsy of the Trapper Keeper.

Maybe it is largely because I’m a sucker for nostalgia, but the product’s entire design really feels like something special. There’s an important interplay between the colorful prints, the satisfying ripping-open of the Velcro, and the way everything stays tucked neatly inside. Creativity seems inherent in this product. It encourages kids (and adults!) to imagine, explore, brainstorm, and make the abstract concrete. To return to their ideas and build upon them. To believe that they have ideas worth returning to.

I’ve kept my old one around for all these years as a time capsule of sorts, commemorating my early writing days and the sense of boundless purpose and potential they held. I’d occasionally thought about using it again, but I didn’t feel right about disturbing its state, starting a new chapter of use after so many dormant years.

Now, instead, I can start this new chapter in its own cozy enclosure. I’m excited to see what purpose and potential it helps me discover.

  • My old and new Trapper Keepers, side by side
  • Quick inside look at my old Trapper Keeper
  • Quick inside look at my new Trapper Keeper
  • Doodle of the word "puppy" in my old Trapper Keeper
  • Notes to myself on the back of a folder in my old Trapper Keeper
  • Stickers on a folder in my old Trapper Keeper
  • Brainstorming characters' names on a folder in my old Trapper Keeper
  • Price sticker from the Ben Franklin store on a folder in my old Trapper Keeper
  • A folder in my old Trapper Keeper stuffed with drafts and notes
  • I added my birthdate to the list of significant dates in American history on a folder in my old Trapper Keeper
  • Doodle of "I [heart] 'NYSNC" in my old Trapper Keeper
  • Note to my future self in my old Trapper Keeper: "Check if I EVER get a boyfriend!"
  • Doodles beneath the plastic backing in my old Trapper Keeper

“That Door Is Now Closed”: A Sexual Assault Survivor on Coping, Setting Boundaries, and Redefining Her Life

A few months ago, I introduced you to Jessica, a survivor of rape and sexual assault whose forthcoming memoir, The Man Behind the Curtain, I’m coauthoring. We’re nearing the finish line on the writing and aiming to self-publish later this year — stay tuned for exciting updates in the coming months!

Here, I talk with Jessica about what the writing and healing processes have been like for her, what she hopes to accomplish by sharing her story with the world, and what’s next for her — including a major personal life update she never thought possible.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity, including some context from me in brackets.

VAL: In our book, you talk about how you’re no longer willing to let yourself be punished for someone else’s crimes, nor to let your past define you or your future. Tell us a bit more about that journey, how you came to make and embrace that shift in your thinking.

JESSICA: It was all about surrounding myself with positive people, to shut out the negatives. As soon as they found out what had happened to me, my grandparents were so supportive. Consistently going to therapy also really helped. My counselor, Debbie, was and continues to be a very positive person to be around. She understood all the feelings I had and even came down to Tennessee from New York for the trial. They all reminded me, and helped me to keep reminding myself, that everything my stepdad had done to me, and everything my mom had done by turning her back on me, was not my fault.

V: What are some of your proudest moments from the last few years? Are there things you’ve accomplished that you might not have thought possible before?

J: My job [as a flight attendant] is really hard to get into, and I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do something like that because of how much everybody had put me down for years. So, I’m really proud of that, and also of being in a healthy relationship, finally, with such a supportive partner, Matthew. Other than from my grandparents, I didn’t grow up with an example of what a good relationship should be like, so I’m grateful to be able to have that now for myself.

Also, Matthew and I recently found out that we’re having a baby in December! One of the nurse practitioners I had seen after the abuse was reported said she didn’t know if it would be possible for me to have children in the future. Because of that and the trauma of my past, I would not have thought that this could happen for me. We’re so excited!

V: What do you know now that you wish you’d known back when you were a teenager, enduring the abuse and then the trial?

J: I wish I had better coping skills back then. I would shut down a lot; I was just putting one foot in front of the other, doing what I had to do. Now I know how to cope if I start feeling panicky or really anxious. The main one I use is to hold onto an ice cube, which brings my focus onto that and slows my thoughts.

Another important thing I know now is that I’m going to be okay without my mom being in my life. I’m making peace with it. Because of the baby, I’m no longer open to her being in my life. That door is now closed. It was cracked open for years.

V: Has it been difficult to revisit your past in working on this book? How have you navigated and worked through that?

J: Sometimes I do try to avoid it so that I don’t have to think about the past. I’m to the point where I don’t think about it every day. It’s almost like that was another life, one that I haven’t dealt with in so long. But I navigate it by allowing myself to feel however I’m feeling, instead of trying to bury those feelings.

V: What has been the most surprising or rewarding part of working on this project?

J: Honestly, when we announced it on social media. [See, eg, Jessica’s Facebook post and my Facebook post.] There had always been so much negativity surrounding what happened, so seeing all the positivity and supportive reactions was really nice — and surprising. I look forward to the book coming out, even if it just helps one person.

V: Are there any resources that have been particularly helpful to you as a survivor of rape and sexual assault?

J: While I was actively dealing with the aftermath of the abuse, the truth coming out, and the trial, my attorney connected me with Bikers Against Child Abuse (BACA), who became such a helpful support network. [Their mission, in part, is “to create a safer environment for abused children” and “to empower children to not feel afraid of the world in which they live.” They have chapters around the world.]

Also, again, therapy has been so helpful, including a therapy group I found while I was living in Chicago that was focused on sexual assault. It’s great to know that those resources are out there.

And I always rely on family and friends who have been really supportive and who keep me positive.

V: What do you hope readers will learn or gain from your story?

J: I hope readers who have gone through similar things will know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and won’t always feel so negative about it or so alone. And I hope people will learn signs of what to look for if something might be happening to their children or to someone they know and will learn about the damage it can do if they’re not supported.

V: What’s next for you? What goals do you have for the next few years?

J: I’ll be focusing on the baby. I can keep flying till about 36 weeks, and then, between maternity leave and baby-bonding leave that the airline offers, I won’t be working for about 5-6 months. I do want to go back and continue flying after that. But mostly I’ll be focusing on protecting my child as they grow up. I want to make sure my child doesn’t have to recover from their childhood like I did.

Read some post-publication thoughts here.

Photo by Christine Renard, downloaded from Pexels

Great Expectations of the Content We Consume

I’ve written before about the mixed emotions I feel as I near the end of a good book: there’s excitement to find out how it will end, a little worry as to whether I’ll be satisfied with that ending, and also a particular sort of sadness, deep in my rib cage, about parting ways with it. When I’m immersed in a great read, it can be so absorbing that I can’t help but leave part of my mind in the book’s world as I’m moving about in my own; the characters’ voices and predicaments continue to play out as if on a TV screen in the corner. I find myself wondering about them — how they’re feeling, what will happen to them. The haze of that other realm, the texture of the language, follow me around and beckon me to come back soon.

This is often true of TV shows and movies, too. While I enjoy creating my own vision in my head while I’m reading, the provided visuals and audio of the screen add so many more crevices to explore and cozy up with: the costumes, the sets, the actors’ vocal inflections and facial expressions, the music… (The music is utterly essential — I’m planning another post soon about the infinite ways music is tied to emotion and memory. Stay tuned!) Friends, The Office, Community, Gilmore Girls — I came to care about those characters and their worlds so deeply that I felt as if I truly knew them.

One of the things I’ve missed most during the pandemic is going to the movies. In recent years, I became a proponent of going to the movie theater alone. It’s the best way to allow yourself to become fully transported into the story. This is how I experienced some of my favorite films of the past few years: A Star Is Born, Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman (no coincidence about the run of music movies!), and my second viewing of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (which I found mostly to be lovely but in many ways to fall short of the 1994 version, which happens to be my favorite movie of all time). I’m excited to say I recently ventured out to resurrect this tradition and see In the Heights. (Highly recommend.) As the opening musical number swelled and reverberated through the room, I was buzzing with adrenaline and such profound gratitude. I would argue that going to see a movie alone is nearly on par with attending a live concert in terms of savoring a fully immersive consumption of entertainment. And it’s a consumption of content — as a writer, it always comes back to that for me. Someone else has created this piece — these words, notes, visuals, etc. — and, in sharing it, has added content to my life. They have imparted an experience.

The ability of words on a page (or acted out on a screen, as the case may be) to make us laugh or cry or gasp is what solidified my dream of being a writer. I read a sappy Lurlene McDaniel novel in junior high and remember crying actual, full-fledged tears when one of the main characters died — and immediately afterward feeling a full-bodied awe at the fact that those tears were brought about by symbols on paper. I’d always been an avid reader and enjoyed making up poems and stories of my own, but that was the moment I knew: I want to do THIS.

We invest so much of ourselves in all of these types of content that it’s only natural to have such high demands of them — we invest not just time but emotion: hope, curiosity, vulnerability, the expectation of some sort of escape. We don’t want to be let down by the writers, the characters, the actors; we feel appreciative when they come through for us and impart an impactful experience.

The other side of that coin is that when we finish good content of any type, there is a mourning period of sorts. We emerge from that other world we’ve inhabited for however many hours and have to adjust to being back in our own familiar surroundings, often with a pang of longing — something, already, like nostalgia — for the friends and atmosphere we’d come to know.  

For me, though, the most exciting part of finishing a book is picking out which one I’ll read next. I’m a bit of a book hoarder. My multiple bookshelves are stuffed with favorites I hope to reread someday (or simply feel I must own, even if they don’t get reread in their entirety) and many, many books that I haven’t yet read. A small sampling — maybe 20 or so — are promoted to my bedside shelf as a sort of holding area for what’s to be read soon. There’s a pressure of sorts, an eagerness that borders on anxiety, as to picking the next read. What about all those others still waiting? Is this the one I’m ready for next? Choosing the next show or movie to cross off my to-watch list is a similar struggle. The thrill and uncertainty of these decisions, every time, speaks to the power that quality content has over us.

What great reads or binge-watches have you gotten lost in lately? Share your favorites with me — so I can add them to my ever-overflowing queues, calling to me as they wait in the wings.

So many friends, old and new

Meet Jessica: A Survivor Seeking Justice

Trigger warning: sexual assault

When people ask me what I’m writing, I often struggle to find an effective answer, even though — or maybe because — I’ve been focused mainly on the same project for nearly six years now, am passionate about its message, and am excited about its potential. The project is difficult to summarize; it’s a powerful and emotional topic, being authored in a somewhat nontraditional way, and has been an immense learning curve for me. But I’m so grateful to be writing it, and, as the finish line starts to come into view, I’m excited to share more about it with you here.

For me, it all started (the aforementioned six years ago) when my counselor asked me if I wanted to delve more into my creative writing, knowing I was then working a writing-related day job that was leaving me feeling restless and wanting more. She told me that another one of her clients, Jessica, was an amazing young woman with a powerful story to tell; they’d long talked about the fact that it would make a great book. But Jessica isn’t a writer. Our counselor asked if she could introduce us. From our first meeting, I knew I’d been handed a gift — a challenging project, unquestionably, but a chance to help people, to make my writing mean something more.

For Jessica, it all started much earlier, when, at just 11 years old, she was raped by her stepfather, in what would prove to be only the first of many assaults. It quickly became a routine, an expectation; in a twisted power game, Jessica learned that she had to go along with her stepdad’s demands if she wanted to stay on his good side, be able to hang out with her friends, get her phone back after being grounded, have a MySpace page… This horrible routine continued for four years.

Sadly, this was only the beginning of Jessica’s struggles. When, at 15 years old, her boyfriend found out what was happening and reported the abuse, Jessica was met with a new level of fear and shame, as her mother, brother, and church community chose to believe her abuser instead, even as he was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison. They labeled Jessica a sinner and a liar and left her to fight through the criminal investigation and multiple courtroom battles largely alone. She had just begun to use her voice and was only further silenced, criticized, and cast aside.

But she is ready to speak now.

In our coauthored memoir The Man Behind the Curtain, Jessica transforms her pain into power and provides a guiding light for those who are still searching for hope. In calling attention to sexual abuse happening at home, by a family member the victim loved and trusted, her story is a powerful addition to the #MeToo movement.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, organized by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. The Center’s website, RAINN and its additional resources page, and Time’s Up (among many others) offer fantastic support and guidance for survivors and their allies. It’s great to see increased conversation happening about these pressing topics.

We’ll look forward to sharing more with you in the coming months about Jessica’s story and our road to publication. We are both so deeply grateful for your support in this journey.

Read my follow-up Q&A with Jessica here and some post-publication thoughts here.

Here’s a brief excerpt from the book’s prologue:

I will forever be someone who was raped and sexually assaulted. I can’t erase that part of my story, despite how much I’ve wished I could. What I’ve just recently started to accept, though, is that those experiences do not need to define me. I will not let them define me. I’ve struggled in silence for too long, assuming others wouldn’t understand and would judge me. I’ve told myself that my voice doesn’t need to be heard — or, worse, that it doesn’t deserve to be. But I see now that I’ve been letting myself be punished for someone else’s crimes. Maybe I can change what this part of my story means. Maybe it can be a source of power more than pain.

Along the landmine-ridden road to my stepfather’s imprisonment, I lost not only him but my mother and brother, who chose him over me. I lost my role as daughter and sister. I was dragged into the role of victim the first time he put his hands on me; I found the courage to speak from that role only years later; and I am still trying to process how thoroughly that role came to define me and my surroundings. Victim came to mean outcast, interrogated, alone. I am trying now to make it mean more, to take pride in its synonymy with survivor, to make it mean something like warrior.

We Need to Talk About Mental Health.

I have anxiety and depression.

People are sometimes surprised to hear this about me, because, I’ve been told, I come across as a generally upbeat, optimistic person. I try to see the good in everyone and everything. That is partially genuine and partially an effort to help myself focus on the good. Because I have anxiety and depression.

Sometimes I’m fine. Sometimes I’m pretending.

In our modern era of oversharing — inundated by social media feeds and phone notifications and email lists we keep meaning to unsubscribe from — somehow we still have trouble being open about the topic of mental health. Our own family members, close friends, and daily coworkers often hide the battles pressing against their chests. (I’ve done so in all of those interactions, and I’ve often learned of others’ battles only after knowing them closely for many years.) This is a critical failure. Those relationships could be lifelines — often literally — if given just a glimpse of the truths we refrain from speaking.

There’s a cruel cycle at play here: for many of us, a key reason we don’t tell others about what we’re dealing with is the negative self-talk that is so inherent in these conditions (and thus only makes them more urgent): People will think I’m weak, pitiful, not good enough, not up for X, Y, Z. This is especially true when there’s a power issue involved (eg, My boss won’t trust me with that project / won’t think I deserve that promotion) but can be true of even our closest relationships with people who think the world of us. Our rational selves know that those people would not judge us. But our self-image is often vastly different from what others perceive of us.

And, of course, the longer we suppress those feelings, the worse they can get; the longer we avoid those conversations, the harder they are to have.

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly amplified these struggles for countless people and brought on new issues for still more. It can be hard to find the light amidst this long stretch of dark days, during which we’re battling loneliness, fear, and the disappointment of postponed or cancelled plans. I suspect these days we’re all some level of anxious, depressed, or both.

So, I want to share a bit about my experiences, in the hope that it might help others, whether you’re struggling, too, or could be in a position to help people around you who are.

My anxiety makes me feel restless, my thoughts obsessive, my brain unable to quiet down. My depression makes me not want to move, or to feel unable to move. These can be in play simultaneously. It most often happens at night, my mind lit up and spinning like a carnival ride at the same time that my body feels weighed down by a concrete blanket. My body aches for sleep, but my mind won’t let it happen, sometimes for hours.

Writing, exercising, cleaning, or some other burst of productivity will sometimes help lift me out of a depressed stretch or quell my anxiety, as will social time with family or friends. Sometimes, those things don’t help, or they make things worse, or I can’t bring myself to try.

Unfortunately, these feelings typically can’t be explained; it’s not as simple as asking “What’s wrong?” and applying X solution. Yes, sometimes there may be a catalyst that brings on an episode or spurs it into overdrive, but ultimately I’m feeling those things simply because I have anxiety and depression. They are chemical processes that flare up and, thankfully, recede. The lack of an explanation can be confusing for those around me — and for me, too! I ask myself, Why do I feel this way? and think, I shouldn’t feel this way, as my mind rattles off the countless great things in my life.

And then I feel even worse: ungrateful, guilty, and like something must really be wrong with me, if I’m unable to snap out of it when I should have no excuse for feeling down. 

Thankfully, this all happens far less often for me in recent years than it did for many years before. There is no question that this is because I’ve put in 8 years of work through counseling (more on that below) and continue to use the tools I gained there. Personally, I’ve chosen not to take medications, as I wanted to focus instead on understanding my processes and triggers and learning how to work through them. But I know many people for whom medications have made all the difference, and choosing to forgo them wasn’t a decision I made lightly. The choice to medicate, and which one(s) to use, is highly individualized and can be a long process.

Some things that have helped me:

  • COUNSELING! Sooo much counseling. Talking to a professional proved to be absolutely essential for me, even on days when I thought I wasn’t up for it; even on days when I thought I had nothing to say. With time, building that trust and opening up in those sessions helped me to offload tension, gain perspective, communicate better, and listen to myself. Just knowing I had that outlet available — that my next appointment was coming up soon, that I could ask that question or share that progress — came to be such a comfort.
  • Learning that self-care is time well invested. It may be some of the best time invested, the most important. “Mental health days” can be hard to give ourselves permission to take — we worry they’ll be a sign of weakness or laziness or will invite suspicion: Is she really sick? But if our mental and emotional health aren’t cared for, our physical health, our work quality, and our relationships all suffer.
  • As I’ve written about before, gratitude has played a huge role in my wellbeing and is something I continue to put into practice. I love Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project one-sentence journal for its simple focus on daily small moments of joy. It has helped me find light during darker days and to remember that things always get better. It’s the only journal I’ve stuck with consistently for any significant length of time. I recently completed a full 5-year journal and started my next one!

Some things you can do to help:

  • Be willing to talk about it. And be willing to listen. Make sure your loved ones know that you’re available for these conversations.
  • Understand that trying to “fix” the situation may not be the best approach. Even when meant as reassurance, saying, “Why don’t you just do this?”or minimizing the person’s concerns as “no big deal” can feel dismissive. Just letting them get some words out (much like in a counseling session) can be so helpful. Maybe ask if they’d like advice, or ask how you can be helpful. And just make sure they know they are heard and valued.
  • Equally important is a willingness to respect their space and their process. For me, anxiety and depression sometimes mean I’m not up for talking or being social or that I have trouble following through on plans, despite my best intentions. It’s nothing personal (even though I worry obsessively that others will see it that way). With a little time, I’ll work through it, and all will be well.

Of course, the perspective I share here is just mine, and others’ will differ in many ways. We each walk a unique journey. But I hope we can work on developing a shared understanding that we need each other, can learn from each other, and can all grow from being willing to talk about the things we too often keep hidden.

Photo by Burst, of what is clearly my spirit animal, downloaded from Pexels