Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Lessons From High School—30 Years Later

I went to my 30th high school reunion last weekend.

Aww... Thanks for saying that I look like I couldn't be more than 18 years out of high school. That's sweet.

Anyway, I had a pretty good idea who I was in high school. Or at least, I knew what I cared about (ethics, humanity's search for the divine, playing your best game with a badly-dealt hand, kindness to others, global respect, resilience of the spirit, the priceless value of life) and what I didn't care about (fashion, dating, gossip, makeup, social status, school politics).

Which made me kind of a nerd. And a social outcast—a role I embraced wholeheartedly.

My first three years of high school were spent with one especially good friend who had similar interests, exploring exactly those things that mattered to me, and by the end of my junior year, I had a pretty good idea of why I was on the planet. But then my best friend graduated a year before me and I had rarely felt so alone and adrift. Always the questioner, I wondered if there was actually an average number of french fries served with hot lunch, and began counting my french fries at lunchtime, to see how much disparity there was from day to day. I ate alone, people-watching in the quad, and simultaneously felt a longing to be accepted and a desire to get away from it all.

High school graduation photo, 1986
From exploring the mysteries of the universe to counting my french fries seemed to be a pretty long fall to me, and I filed my senior year away as "pathetic loser." When I graduated and went off to college, I didn't look back.

I kept in touch with a very few close friends, including that one special friend, but high school held nothing other than pain for me. And so I largely ignored the reunion invitations as they came and went.

A few years ago, I became aware that it wasn't that I didn't care about my high school years. It was that I was still running away from them. And I'd done enough work on myself that I knew it was time to put those ghosts of high school to rest, once and for all.

I won't lie. I was scared shitless in the days before the reunion. That 17-year-old high school senior was afraid I'd be walking into the middle of the kind of cruel judgment that only teenagers can dish out. I was convinced they'd see me now as I was sure they'd seen me then: ugly, weird, worthless. I weighed barely 100 lbs. in my senior photo, recovering from several years of anorexia. Nearly thirty years later, after long years of doing battle with my childhood demons (there might be one or two still skulking around), I wore my scars in the form of distrust, social anxiety, depression, and weight gain. So now I was sure my classmates, many of whom were still trim and athletic and gorgeous (or appeared so on Facebook) could add "fat" to their assessment of me.

And then a weird thing happened. A shift, both subtle and profound, as I prepared myself to walk back into the haunted memories of high school. I stopped caring. Really, honestly, stopped caring what they might think. Because I know the truth: I have come a long way in my healing, my growth, my embrace of my spirit. My body will follow; I trust that now. By fully embracing myself, self-care becomes a desire rather than an unwanted obligation. Change always has to come from within.

When I graduated from high school, I was a mere eighteen months past seriously wanting to end my life. Now, thirty years later, though those intervening years were punctuated by death and unemployment and housing crises and medical challenges, I am living the life I've always wanted. I have a strong, solid marriage (25 years as of July, 30 years together), children (now teens) who still love to hang out with me, a 98-year-old house that I love being in, close friends who share those same values I've long held, a career I've dreamed of since third grade, and a clear, strong sense of who I really am.

I walked into the first of three social events at the reunion willing to be open to whatever showed up, be it criticism or acceptance, or anything in between. And I learned that while I was right about how I see myself, I was wrong about how my classmates see me. Wrong about how they'd always seen me.

I was, in fact, really, really wrong.

Many classmates shared their memories of me, and those things I was so sure they'd thought about me didn't come up at all. I started keeping track of the adjectives they used, and other than "quiet" (definitely then, and mostly out of fear, but not at all now), I was amazed at the words that came up most often:

Kind. Caring. Compassionate. Fiercely independent. Quick-witted (especially with puns). Champion of the underdog. Deep thinking (really, really deep). Poet/great writer. Badass.


I'm humbled to say that they might have known me better than I knew myself thirty years ago. Because every one of those adjectives have been used to describe me lately, and I'd have to agree with them. ("Badass" took me a while to accept, but I'm down with it now.)

At the tree where I spent many hours
exploring the mysteries of the
universe. 2016.
I thought I'd changed so much since high school, that I barely resembled the girl I was. I think now it's less that I changed, and more that I grew into who I am, who I was meant to me. I was all those adjectives in high school, but you had to take the time to get to know me before you saw them. (The "quiet" part drowned the rest out unless you were willing to look deeper.) Now, they're big and obvious. "Quiet" is my default only when I'm under a lot of stress.

I went to my high school reunion, thinking that I'd show them—and myself—how much I'd changed for the better. And I did this weekend walk those familiar paths between classrooms with more confidence and contentment and clarity than I ever felt in that place. Already, I was no longer haunted by high school.

But the surprise for me was that my classmates showed me that they'd seen who I really was all along. And for that gift, I thank them.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Naked and Afraid

Despite the tragic and devastating news from Orlando, there are still good, kind people in the world. I know, because I met two of them yesterday in Chicago's Midway Airport during what was one of the most embarrassing experiences of my life.

Allow me to explain, and in some way, thank them.

I was in Chicago this past weekend for the Printer's Row LitFest, doing authorly things like chatting with readers, networking with other authors, speaking on a panel about my complicated path to publication, and signing books. Saturday was hot and muggy, but I've been in the Midwest for 23 years, so I'm used to it by now. Sunday—the day I did my panel and signing—was gorgeous.

I arrived at the airport at 3:00 p.m. Sunday for a 5:20 p.m. flight home, sailed through security (thank you TSA Pre√), and ordered a lovely tuna salad sandwich at Manny's at 3:30. And that's when everything went south. Kind of literally.

As I finished my sandwich, I had a sudden and extremely urgent need to use the restroom. I grabbed my backpack and CPAP bag and found a restroom right around the corner. And the moment I went through the restroom door, I knew I wasn't going to make it.

I've had IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) for over 23 years (one of my many diagnoses) and have been lucky that this had only happened to me once in public. Until now.

I had zero control over the muscles I most needed and every step let more out. Mortified, I ran for the nearest stall and slammed the door shut. I threw my bags on the floor and tried to lock the door, only to discover that the lock didn't work correctly and I had to angle it oddly and smash on it with the heel of my hand to get it to fasten.

I made it to the toilet but it was abundantly clear that some serious damage had already been done. Any of you who have had infants will likely remember diaper blowouts. This was an adult-sized version.

Despite the copious amount of material in my underwear and shorts, and on the floor in front of me, not to mention on me, my body had more to do on the toilet, complete with pain and cramping that left me in a cold sweat. The thoughts that went through my head included:

I should lose at least ten pounds with this.
What happens if I dial 911 from the restroom?
I wish I had paper on which to write "Do Not Use" and tape to stick the note to the door.

With my bowels finally empty, I took stock of the situation, trying to quell the growing panic. It was 4 o'clock and my flight boarded at 4:20. I had no change of clothes with me; all my clothes were in my checked luggage (that's going to change for my next flight). All I could think of was to wash my clothes as best I could. Fortunately, I had a source of clean water under my bum. Unfortunately, I had a lot to clean up.

I began to clean myself with toilet paper, grateful that there were two huge rolls in the dispenser. As I pulled the paper, the front panel of the dispenser fell down on me, so I had to pull paper with one hand and keep it on the dispenser roll with the other. Half a roll and a dozen flushes later, I was pretty sure I'd cleaned all of me that I could. Then I started on my underwear, trying to use the suction of the flushes to rinse them. It didn't work nearly as well as I imagined it might, and I filed that way. Do not use this trick in a book. Doesn't work.

I'd have to throw out the underwear. Next, I looked at my shorts, which were—of course, because nothing should be easy—denim. I couldn't do this in the toilet. I nearly broke down and cried then. A few people had commented to me over the past few months that I seemed to be living a charmed life. Doesn't look much like a charmed life now, does it?

I had only one recourse now: venturing out of my stall half-naked.

Just then I heard a woman exit a stall near me. I fought with and opened my stall door a crack and peeked out. "Excuse me," I said, near tears.

The woman turned around and the first thing I noticed was a stethoscope around her neck. A doctor? A nurse? Thank G-d!

"Yes?" she asked.

"I need help," I said. "I have a bowel disorder and I had a really bad accident. Can you call someone to help, or . . . I don't know what to do. My flight boards in—" I checked my watch, "—five minutes."

The woman winced. "You're going to miss your flight. Are you bleeding? Is it blood? Do you need me to call you an ambulance?"

"No." I shook my head. "Not blood. Poop." I saw a shift in her expression. She no longer wanted to be involved. "Maybe I can just wash them . . ."

She glanced around, then back to me. "There's a sink right around the corner here, next to a changing table. There's no one in here. You're safe. I'll start the water for you." She disappeared around the corner and I heard water turn on.

I grabbed my bags with one hand and my soiled shorts and underwear with the other, and sidled, bare-assed, over to the sink. The woman with the stethoscope was gone.

The underwear went into the trash, my bags went onto the floor away from the sink, and I started to rinse my shorts. I had miscalculated the amount of material I needed to rinse out of my shorts, and it turned into an extremely gross, messy job. As I rinsed, I started to cry. I kept checking my watch. 4:25 p.m.

I rinsed and scrubbed and tried not to panic. And I prayed. I wondered irrationally if my prayers from a Chicago airport restroom were voided because I was at a literary festival instead of in shul on Shavuot. My continued grieving over having to leave my former shul left me ambivalent, even a bit angry, this year at Shavuot, which used to be one of my most favorite holidays.

Nearly a dozen women came into the restroom as I scrubbed and rinsed and prayed. A few looked at me, standing sideways at the sink, my butt up against the wall and my now-soaked shirt mostly covering my front, and immediately averted their eyes. I could read their expressions: I don't want to get involved. The others walked past as if I wasn't there.

I started "shoulding" on myself as I washed. I should have brought a change of clothes. I should have gone to the bathroom before eating lunch. I should have never come to Chicago. I took a deep breath and tried to relax. No. I am here, now. Deal with the present moment.

Two women came into the restroom, chatting and laughing. I saw them in the mirror over the sink I was using. Pretty. Athletic. Nice clothes and makeup. One blond, one brunette. They saw me and immediately, as if one person, made a beeline for me. "Can we help you?" one of them asked.

"I don't know how," I said, my voice catching in my throat.

"There's a sportswear store around the corner," the other said. I remembered passing it on my way to Manny's. "How about we get you some new shorts?"

Gratitude and realism collided. "I don't know how much money I have," I said.

"No, don't even think about that," the first one said. "We'll be right back. We'll bring you a bag for your shorts too."

Again seeming to be one person, they turned in unison and left the way they came in. I had hope for the first time in an hour.

I kept washing, wanting desperately to trust these women, but knowing that I needed to be prepared to put on wet shorts and hope to catch my flight before it left. I checked my watch again. 4:40 p.m. Finally the water ran clear as I rinsed my shorts. I wrung them out as best I could, picked up my bags, and sidled, butt against the wall of sinks, toward the sole air dryer in the bathroom: a Dyson Airblade.

Dyson Airblades work awesomely on hands. The pressure of the blowing air even gets under watch and FitBit bands. They do not, however, work so well on denim. I dipped my shorts in and out of the Airblade until it automatically stopped, rested for a few seconds, and then went at it again. Several rounds into this, the blond woman returned with a pair of gray athletic shorts.

She looked concerned for a moment, gazing at my previous location at the sink, until she saw me at the air dryer. Smiling, she held the shorts out. "I hope they fit."

I left my shorts in the Airblade and took the shorts, held them up. "These will be perfect," I said, now nearly in tears of gratitude. "I can't thank you enough. Can I reimburse you? I can send you a check if I don't have enough cash."

"No, no." The blond woman waved my suggestion away. "This was our pleasure. I just hope they fit and you can have a better day."

I held up the shorts. "This guarantees a better day. You literally saved my ass."

She smiled. "I know. We all have to help each other out." Before I could say anything more, she left the restroom.

I put the shorts on. They fit perfectly. It felt good to finally have some protection on my lower half. Moments later, the brunette woman came in with a plastic trash bag. She noted that I had the shorts on.

"Oh, I'm so glad they fit!" she said, handing the plastic bag to me. "We weren't sure."

"Thank you so much," I said. "I told your friend, you literally saved my ass. I don't know how to thank you. I'd really like to reimburse you."

"No, definitely not," she said. "This happens to all of us at one point or another. It's happened to me. We've got to watch out for each other."

"Then I'll pay it forward," I said, stuffing my wet shorts into the bag.

She grinned. "Perfect. That's the best thanks of all." Then she also left the restroom.

I washed my water-logged hands, gathered up all of my stuff, and speed-walked to my gate. To my amazement, people were exiting from the Jetway door. I double-checked my information. Yes, I was at the right gate, which had been changed a mere ten minutes before my bathroom experience.

The gate attendant got on the microphone. "Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize for the delay. Our aircraft has been downgraded so we will need to reassign seat numbers for everyone in coach. We're also asking for two wonderful volunteers to give up their seats in exchange for a $400 flight voucher from Delta good for one year, and we'll get you onto the next flight into Minneapolis/St. Paul. We'll start our pre-boarding in about ten minutes."

I opened my Delta app and verified my seat number. I'd managed—for the second time—to get a first class seat for about the same cost as coach plus one checked bag, so my seat was unchanged. And I hadn't missed my flight.

I felt humbled. I didn't have to wear wet denim, thanks to the kind generosity of two strangers. Three, if you count the woman with the stethoscope who gave me the courage to head out to the sink. None of this could have happened if I'd stayed locked up in my stall. I glanced skyward and closed my eyes. Thank you.

It was only after I boarded the plane that one incongruity stuck out: the two women who bought me the shorts never actually used the restroom.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Bitter Herbs

I haven't written a blog post in over six months for a very good reason: I couldn't. I couldn't find the right words and when I thought I might have a few of them, I couldn't stop grieving. Yet somehow, once again Pesach (Passover) has given me tools with which to describe my leaving the most recent narrow place.

It's interesting to note that when I write books, they're always in response to some Big Question. Destined to Choose was an answer I could live with to the question "Why is there evil in the world?" Strength to Stand was an answer to "How much intolerance must we tolerate? And if the answer is 'none,' aren't we also being intolerant?" But I've never been able to write my way through traumatic experiences. My third novel, No One to Fear, due out in 2017, is the first post-9/11 book in the Rabbi David Cohen series. It's the first time I've been able to write about 9/11. I haven't yet been able to write about my parents' deaths, and it's been twelve years and seven years, respectively. Last December brought another kind of trauma and I'm only now able to write about it without bursting into tears.

September 2015 was filled with joy and book events. To my utter amazement, I found myself on TV, radio, in several newspapers, and around the Internet. For an introverted author, this was both exciting and terrifying. I flew to North Carolina (back when anyone could still use the bathroom most appropriate for them) for Bouchercon, the world's largest mystery/suspense/thriller convention for authors and fans. I met wonderful booksellers and readers and fellow authors through November.

In early December I had another book event, one that I'd dreamed about for years: being the December spotlight author for the local JCC's Jewish Book Series. It was, in many ways, a dream come true. And it was sponsored by my home synagogue. The rabbi seemed excited, and at one point said, "We have an opportunity to celebrate one of our own." Except it didn't turn out that way. At all.

I'm not going to go into details, because that isn't the point of this post. I'm also not going to name names, because that also isn't the point. (I ask that any commenters please not name names in the comments either. If you know me in person and want more details than this post gives, please contact me by email or through Facebook.)

What that event did do, however, was open my eyes to a problem that I'd been avoiding and choosing not to see for years: the shul had let members of my family (and me) down repeatedly over 20+ years. I'm not talking about the occasional human oversight. I'm talking about an ongoing failure of communication, of actions not matching words. Of talking the talk but not walking the walk.

My kids (now both teens) had no ties to the shul. No friends, no future there. My husband, save for a couple of individual friends, felt no sense of community. I was convinced that the problem was with me: if I just tried harder, I would be valued.

But December's event made me realize that all this time that I thought I was eating a savory, substantial brisket, I was really eating bitter herbs, washed down with the salt water of my own tears.

In an email I sent to the rabbi the day after that December event, I wrote, "The fastest way to drive someone away from Judaism is to make them feel like they have no value." I stand by that comment. We as human beings are hard-wired to belong. We need community (even us introverts).

Since joining that congregation some 20+ years ago, I had often wondered—and worried—what if I really, really needed my Jewish community, and they weren't there for me? While they sometimes were there for me, there were far more times when they weren't, including (but not limited to) my father's unexpected death, an extremely difficult pregnancy, and a life-threatening crisis involving my youngest son. During all of these times, I reached out for support. I didn't hide or expect anyone to read my mind. I heard the words I needed to hear ("We care very much") but no action followed. No minyan after my father's death. No support while I was under doctor's orders to remain in bed during pregnancy. No support or even resources during my son's crisis. I couldn't rely on their support. I couldn't trust that I actually had a community.

Thank G-d I didn't feel the need to leave Judaism as a result of this. I can't even imagine doing that. But with my family's input, I did come to the conclusion that this was not a healthy environment for me or my family. We had to leave our spiritual home and find a new one.

Psychology teaches about behavior change through rewards. Nearly everyone has heard about Pavlov's dog. That's an example of classical conditioning. Anyone who uses clicker training with a dog or cat is also using classical conditioning. But another type of behavior modification is called variable ratio. Slot machines work on a variable ratio reward system. You keep inserting a nickel or quarter or dollar into the machine and while you lose most of the time, you win just often enough to keep inserting those coins, ever hopeful that the big win is just around the corner.

Synagogues (and churches and mosques and other faith communities) should not work on a variable ratio reward system. For many people, these communities are their primary support network. It is true that no single group can meet all the needs of their members, or even all the needs of one member. But if it's actually practicing what it preaches, so to speak, it can do much better than 50%.

Since January, I've been going through a grieving process. While my kids and husband have been able to move on to the new synagogue without regrets, I feel like I've been through a divorce — or what I imagine a divorce would feel like. Thoughts like "I thought you cared," and "I thought we had something" and "Was it all a lie?" continually flit through my mind.

I emailed a handful of people from the congregation with whom I felt close, to let them know we were leaving, but outside of a few of those people, no one — including clergy — has reached out to us. There was no contact when we ended our membership. No contact when I gave an exit interview to a committee chair a few weeks later — and the committee chair only knew because she was one of the recipients of my email. It feels like the 20+ years we put into that community meant nothing, has no value. It's as if our family never mattered.

But I refuse to be defined by others' indifference. I've learned and grown enough to know that what we experienced in this congregation is not a reflection of us but rather a reflection of them. I didn't see the signs before December but I do now. I recognize now that leaving was an act of health, of taking care of myself and my family.

I'm still navigating the grief. It's too soon for me to go back to visit. Aside from a simcha next fall, I'm not sure it's appropriate to go back at all. My family sees no need to visit. In fact, my youngest, who was about to call it quits on Judaism all together, based on his experiences with our old congregation and the local Jewish school, has blossomed and begun to thrive at the new synagogue.

It is hard to let go. It's hard to give up on a relationship of more than 20 years, even when that relationship caused pain. It's hard to give up on what could have been, and that's what I'm really grieving. But it's also what I have to look forward to with the new synagogue: what can be.

Here's to life, and second chances, and the journey toward a new and fulfilling relationship.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Awesomest Launch Party I've Ever Had (So Far)

The launch party for Strength to Stand at SubText Books in downtown St. Paul was a thing of beauty.

It started with the cake, created by Taste of Love Bakery in West St. Paul:

Which I threatened to kill, because there was a knife there. I mean, seriously, who gives a suspense author a knife?

And a crowd started gathering before we even got started:

I got to sign a bunch of books (and if you want to get one, SubText still has signed copies) as well as give away some author swag:

And I talked for a little bit about how the book and characters came to be and then read a short section from the book:

But we all know who the real star of the show was:

Friday, September 25, 2015

Suspense and the David Cohen series

Destined to Choose (book 1 in the Rabbi David Cohen series) and Strength to Stand (book 2) are very different books in some ways. Destined to Choose might be best described as literary suspense (literary fiction with suspense elements) and Strength to Stand is an out-and-out thriller.  It's come to my attention that an explanation of why this is, and what's in store for the rest of the series, might be of help to readers.

Let me start with a little bit of background. I first wrote Destined to Choose over a period of several years, culminating in its initial publication in 2003. In 2000, I'd shopped it around to other publishers, both Jewish and mainstream, and received some heartwarming responses. The vast majority of publishers loved it. The biggest problem was that I was an unknown author. The next biggest problem was that it was a niche book, too religious for some of the mainstream publishers, not religious enough for some of the Jewish publishers. Some publishers said they'd take it if I could prove myself with a few standalone novels first. Others said they'd publish it if it wasn't part of a series—if it was a standalone novel itself.

Photo: thinkpanama
I actually received several book contracts for it, but I didn't like some of the things they required in the contract. At the top of the list was that I'd have to sign over rights to the series. If Destined to Choose didn't sell well enough for their bottom line, I would be legally prohibited from publishing any other books in the series with another publisher. This, as you can imagine, is the kiss of death for a series author. So I declined to sign them, and my attempts at renegotiation didn't go anywhere.

Upon the recommendation of the founder of a small Jewish press whom I highly respected, I launched my own publishing company in 2002, taking great care to get everything right so that I could compete with the big guys. It worked, better than I could have ever imagined.

At the time, I wasn't thinking about genre. I'd written the book that was inside me, the one that wouldn't leave me alone. David and Sara and Batya and Arik and Eli can be very noisy when they want to be heard. I'd written it also thinking that the primary audience would be the Jewish community, or those who were interested in Judaism. I thought of it as a kind of "scholarly fiction"—the thinking person's novel. A novel with depth and well-researched ideas from a distinctly Jewish perspective. To be honest, I thought that the Jewish community would respect "scholarly fiction" more than "fluff fiction," but the overriding drive was that I love books that make me think more than books that simply make me laugh.

The very best piece of writing advice I ever received was, "Write the books that you want to read." I did exactly that.

 I'd published Destined to Choose with a small print run supplemented by on-demand printing, years before that became The Thing To Do. I didn't print the genre on the book itself because, honestly, I thought of it simply as "fiction." Then I started noticing some troubling things.

Amazon had tagged the book "Christian fiction" until I wrote to them and pointed out that it featured a rabbi, who was rather obviously not Christian. They didn't have a "Jewish fiction" tag back then. (They do now.) Barnes & Noble was shelving it in the "Christian Fiction" section of the bookstore, where it wasn't getting noticed, or was getting passed over because it wasn't, well, Christian.

Around the same time, a publishing organization of which I was a member offered an educational meeting about choosing the right genre. I figured maybe it was time to give this another look. The meeting was a presentation by a bookseller, a book reviewer, and a librarian. I had the opportunity to talk to them about my book. I gave them a copy to look through. They did, and discussed it among themselves.

When they called me back, they said they'd unanimously agreed: Destined to Choose was, in the
Photo: Derek Bruff
broadest terms, a mystery. More specifically, it was a suspense, but bookstores didn't have suspense sections. They all agreed it should be marketed as a mystery.

"But there's no murder," I countered. "Nobody even dies."

"Not all mysteries have to have a murder," the book reviewer told me. "This clearly has suspense elements: finding the teenage runaway, then what all is going on in the rabbi's life, and then especially everything leading up to the crisis with the teenager. That's suspense."

The bookseller nodded. "I'd shelve this in the store in the mystery section."

The librarian nodded with the other two. "What they said. It's not a murder mystery, but it's still within the genre."

I thanked them for their time and consideration and started marketing Destined to Choose as a suspense novel. I also started thinking about the rest of the series.

My idea for the series was pretty general. I knew I wanted to pair each novel with a Jewish holiday, finding intriguing ties between the plot and the holiday. I knew I wanted to deal with big issues: the existence and role of evil in the world, hatred and intolerance, family violence. I knew that each book would be partly from David's point of view and partly from others' points of view. I knew that I was less interested in a whodunit and far more interested in a whydunit.

But I hadn't plotted out all of the books in the series. I didn't have a whole-series story arc. Some might say that I should have had all of that in place before I published Destined to Choose, but if I'd waited until my series plan was clear, then the publishing company—if it ever got launched—wouldn't have been around to publish other authors' books. Many debut authors and two veteran authors wouldn't have the award-winning books that Yotzeret published. The timing might not have benefited me, but it definitely benefited others. Who am I to say that wasn't part of the Big Cosmic Plan?

Photo: Stuart Anthony
Years passed while I raised very young children and published others' books. I worked slowly on Strength to Stand. Several traumatic life experiences changed me and how I see both myself and the world. My writing developed and changed as I did. I wanted to challenge myself as a writer. I wanted to stop hiding in fear of what others thought. I became willing to write controversial material. Strength to Stand took on a different shape. It became darker. Edgier.

Strength to Stand was, once again, the book that was in me. The book I wanted to read. But ten years had passed and I was a different person. I was a different kind of author. The characters remained the same, but I was willing to put them in more difficult circumstances. I stopped playing nice.

There's now a sort of dichotomy between the first two books in the same series.

Readers who hear about Strength to Stand and are drawn to the thriller nature of it will quite possibly be disappointed by Destined to Choose. Readers who loved the almost-cozy-mystery aspect of Destined to Choose might find Strength to Stand too dark or too violent. Readers who love books that make them think and feel might well enjoy both.

The third book, No One to Fear, is even darker and more violent. It's a no-holds-barred thriller with a whodunit element. If Destined to Choose was rated PG, Strength to Stand would be PG-13, and No One to Fear will most certainly be rated R. It's the book that's in me and I won't apologize for being who I am.

If you're like me, you like (or need) to read a series in order. For many—some may even argue most—series, all the books are going to fall in the same genre. If the first book is a cozy mystery, so will be the second and fifth and tenth books. If the first is a thriller, you're not going to get a romantic comedy thrown in the mix. Those are arbitrary rules that someone made up about book series. Rules can be broken.

Ultimately, the Rabbi David Cohen series is about the stuff of life that enters David's realm, his arena, so to speak. It's the could-actually-happen events that real people deal with, where life—quality of or length of—hangs in the balance. Sometimes that stuff of life is harsh and unforgiving, dark and violent. Sometimes it requires thought and finesse and subtlety.

Photo: Karola Riegler
I invite you to join me on this journey with David and Sara, Batya and Arik, Eli and others as they deal with this stuff of life—the good, the bad, and the ugly—no matter what labels the genre folks would like to slap on it. Let go of your expectations that every book in this series be a thriller or a mystery or a whatever, and enjoy them for what they have to offer: a story that makes you think and feel about life and the world around you.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Triggers, Critics, and Rosh Hashanah

It is two days before my newest novel, Strength to Stand, is released to the public, and I would have expected myself to be ecstatic. The book and I have both overcome so many odds to get to this point that the very fact some interested reader can hold it in his or her hand is nothing short of a miracle. Emotions swirl around inside me: gratitude, pride, humility, joy.

Yet there are others there, uninvited guests who have taken up residence in the party room, scaring away the fun with their chilly presence: pain, despair, hopelessness, depression. I was certain I hadn't invited them, certain my focus was on the guests I wanted. I had every intention of getting autographs from hope, opportunity, and love. So why the downer?

Because pistol triggers aren't the only kind of triggers that can leave a gaping, bloody hole in one's life.

If you've spent some time on this blog, you know that I've come out about battling depression, among other things. I've also written a little about what life was like in my family, growing up. Over time, I finally learned that I have worth, that my opinion counts, and that the Torah actually commands us to love ourselves (though not in a narcissistic way). These are life lessons that we need to learn experientially, not intellectually. And for those of us who grew up with a lot of criticism or shame or violence, learning these life lessons may well be the thing that keeps us alive.

But what these lessons do not do, unfortunately, is erase the pain or the shame or the scars left on our bodies and souls. And when something similar to those original assaults comes along, it can rip off the scabs, tear open the scars, and leave us hurting and weakened, right back in the center of hell.

There's some interesting psychology around what are now called Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs). There are a total of ten (defined) ACEs, events occurring before a child turns 18, including but not limited to physical and sexual abuse, physical or emotional neglect, mental illness or addiction in the family, and divorce, violence, or death in the family. The ACE study has linked these adverse childhood events with later (decades later) physical and emotional health issues. The higher you score on the ACE Questionnaire, the greater the likelihood you'll have one or more of the health issues commonly associated with ACEs.

Is it causal or correlational? The brain science behind the study does seem to show that it's causal. Long-term stress caused by these ACEs has a physiological effect on the development of the brain, thus leaving individuals at greater risk for health problems and reduced longevity. But it's not a death sentence. Science also shows that there are things we can do to help heal our brains.

Nowhere on that list, though, is finding ourselves, willingly or not, in the middle of situations that resemble the original assaults we endured.

We call those situations triggers, though that seems like a relatively innocuous word to describe all that scab-ripping, soul-tearing pain. Avoiding triggers is good. Becoming strong enough in ourselves that the triggers lose their power is even better.

I'm not there yet. I will be. But not today.

I got triggered this past week, which is probably what sent out the party invitations to the chilly, downer guests. Here's what happened, in a nutshell.
  • I received a mean-spirited, snarky review of Strength to Stand from a review journal infamous for mean-spirited, snarky reviews. They described my characters in caricatures, wrote in hyperbole, and then accused me of writing stereotypes.
  • Everyone else said that this was one (anonymous) person's opinion, and meant nothing amidst the sea of overwhelmingly positive reviews. One supporter thought my book was "too Jewish" for this reviewer. Another wondered to what extent there might have been an undercurrent of antisemitism. My favorite comment, by far, was from one reader who asked, "Who peed in [their] Wheaties this morning?"
  • My brain didn't—couldn't—go there, as much as I tried. I tried doing the whole I-have-worth, I-am-loved, I-am-not-defined-by-one-review thing and no matter how much I practiced measured breathing and positive thoughts, they could not break through the Door of Shame that locked me inside with all my trigger emotions.
  • Locked behind that door, I was a child again, harshly and undeservedly tongue-lashed by an adult who held my physical and emotional safety, indeed my entire survival, in their hands.
  • My brain processed this criticism as "Not only did you do something bad, but by creating this and putting it out into the world, you have irreparably harmed the universe."
  • My brain, honed by forty years of well-placed, well-timed barbs meant to cut, maim, and destroy, followed this train of thought: I did bad = I am bad = I am not worthy of living.
The negative critic in my head has been busy too. "If you're going to be an author, you're going to need thicker skin than that. Maybe you're not cut out to do this author thing." No judgement there.

Intellectually, I get it. All authors get bad reviews. No author's books are for everyone, and clearly, the snarky reviewer is not the intended demographic for my book. The greatest authors of all time get bad reviews. The book I'm reading right now and love has received bad reviews. It's one person's opinion and nothing more. I get it. I really do.

Emotionally, the child-me has associated that review with a parent's authority, tossed it onto the mountain of evidence that I don't measure up, and tried to convince me to find another career. Or at least stop writing Jewishly-themed books.

In related news, I've finally gotten around to watching the last half of Glee Season 5. The episode in which Rachel reads every negative review ever written about her performance in Funny Girl, of course, hit home. It begged the question, "Am I going to let the bullies, the haters, the trolls keep me from my passion?" Am I really going to give them power over me? Over my life?

Clearly, critics and bullies and haters (or those who comprise all three) are in abundance these days, especially on the Internet. Responses to them have made their way into popular songs, as well as television shows, evidenced by lyrics like, "Done looking for the critics 'cause they're everywhere / They don't like my jeans, they don't get my hair" (P!nk, "Perfect," 2010). 

Taylor Swift, in an interview about the song-you-either-love-or-hate, "Shake It Off," said, "The message [in 'Shake It Off'] is a problem we all deal with on a daily basis. [. . .] We live in a takedown culture. People will find anything about you and twist it to where it’s weird or wrong or annoying or strange or bad. You have to not only live your life in spite of people who don’t understand you — you have to have more fun than they do."

So as we head into the Jewish New year, as I ponder the year ahead and what I want it to look like, what G-d may want it to look like for me, words from the Unetanah Tokef—a thousand-year-old religious poem—come to mind: "Who will be safe and who will be torn? Who will be calm and who will be tormented?"

It is said, during Rosh Hashanah in general and during this poem specifically, that teshuvah (return [also translated as "repentance"]), tefilah (prayer), and tzedakah (justice [also meaning to act in a just or charitable manner]) can "avert the severity of the decree." While some interpret this to mean they must confess their sins, pray more (or go to shul more), and donate more money to charity, here's my interpretation:

Teshuvah (return): I return from what others think of me to knowing who I really am. I am Sheyna. I am created b'tselem Elokim, in the image of G-d. Through G-d, I am loved and accepted completely and unconditionally. Without need of caveat or disclaimer, I am enough, just as I am.

Tefilah (prayer): I internalize my intention to return, and I ask for G-d's love and support in my process and at all times. I seek out time for prayer and meditation, time to Connect. I seek out people who are loving and supportive, and situations in which I feel safe and supported.

Tzedakah (justice): My actions toward myself and others come from a place of justice. I treat my body, mind, and soul with care, compassion, and love, for I and others are created in the image of G-d, and how I treat myself and others is how I treat G-d. I do not expect perfection, but I do expect myself to show up and do all I can.

I know that this is not an all-done!-check-it-off sort of deal. We do have Rosh Hashanah every year, after all. We have every day to make a change. Every morning when I wake, up I can choose whether I want to keep my power or give it to the critics. In every moment, I can choose whether to see myself as I fear others may see me, or I can be who I am.

I may not be able to avoid the triggers, nor the wounds they leave. Yet. But I may have found the key to get out of that locked room of shame, and the exit door to show to my chilly guests.

Because damn it, I worked really freaking hard to get this book out into the world, and it's time to party!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Ups and Downs of Being an Author OR Check Your Ego at the Door

Be careful what you ask for, the saying goes, because you might just get it. That can be a problem.

The problem isn't getting what you want. The problem is that once you have what you want, you want something different, something more.

In an author's world, there is no such thing as enough. There's always the next book, the next review, the next reader, the next appearance, the next award, the next book contract. Sure, some few lucky writers have more than they ever could have dreamed of in royalty income. Their award shelf is sagging with the weight of having won every award given in their genre. Some might call that enough. But no true writer I know of has ever finished writing a book and said, "Okay, I'm done now. No more books."

There's always another book. Which means there's always more reviews, sales, signings, award submissions. There's always a new opportunity to succeed. Or fail. Most authors do some of both.

This past May, I was feeling pretty down, coming off the temporary high of seeing interior and cover files for Strength to Stand go off to the printer. This book was a long time in coming. I'd finished most of the book by 2006, with the exception of one scene that my editor wasn't buying. The manuscript languished as I put all my efforts into my day job and my kids. Years passed, and while I felt the pull to return to that manuscript, it wasn't until a good friend prodded me into rewriting that one scene, late in October 2014, that I finally picked up the mantle of author again.

I was a writing machine for two months, the book coming together seamlessly. In January 2015, it was back in my editor's hands. By April, Advance Reading Copies (ARCs) were being prepared, and by May, I was four chapters into writing book 3 (No One to Fear) in the series. And then I did the Bad Thing. The Bad Thing that authors should never do if they want to keep their sanity. (No, not that one. The other Bad Thing.)

I compared myself to other authors.

I was skimming through Facebook and seeing posts from fellow author friends, some struggling with their work in progress (WIP), some also anticipating a new release in the fall, and then others who were awash in good news—every few days a glowing review or the announcement of an award won.

If you've ever compared yourself to someone whose life's work is somehow related to yours, you know the inevitable outcome: when you compare yourself to others, you always, always lose. I am now convinced that authors should only ever compare their current work to their work from at least a year ago. No one else's. Ever.

But the book industry thrives on comparison. "If you like x author, you'll like y author." The various bestsellers lists are all about ranking sales, and if you know anything about the book industry, you know that sales are not a factor of how good the book is. Rather, sales are a measure of how effective and broad the marketing campaign was (hint: $$$). But any author who is deemed a "bestselling author" will claim the title without asking any questions, and they certainly won't ask if they're now a bestselling author because of the quality of their work or because a well-timed publicity campaign followed by a few Goodreads giveaways happened to go viral and it could have happened to anyone.

And then there are awards. The ultimate in comparison. Awards are supposedly an objective ranking of the best books in any given genre. But even this is suspect. Awards judges have biases, including sometimes a bias against Jewish books, no matter how well they're written, or a bias against small presses, no matter how beautiful and professional the book appears.

In the space of one week on Facebook, I watched no fewer than three authors, whom I knew personally, receive highly prestigious awards nominations, win other highly prestigious awards, and receive amazing reviews in some of the most highly regarded media, all for their debut novels.

I felt sure my book, which wouldn't even be out for another five months, was doomed to fail.

I wrote an impassioned note to an authors' group in which I'm active, hoping for some comfort or support: "I'm finding that as I'm seeing all the awards nominations and the photos from conventions, reading about new book deals and bestseller lists, I'm happy for those involved, and it's also kicking into overdrive my tendency to compare myself to others, in which I always lose.

It's hard sometimes to remember that I write the books that are in me, in my soul, not the books in someone else. I don't write for the purpose of winning awards or making a bestseller list, though both would be welcome acknowledgments.

I'm learning to focus on my own writing, on being true to that part of me that MUST put words to paper, reminding myself that I'm me and you're you and there's no need to compare. And yet..."

The responses were as expected: Yep, that's life. Keep on writing. Me too. One author posted a blog article on writer envy. I didn't want to admit this was what I felt.

Another well-published author sent me an email in response, and managed to hit the nail on the head, saying their reaction was twofold: happiness, on the one hand, for these other authors' successes because they deserved them, and a mixture of hurt, despair, and even anger, that after years of writing and being published, they still didn't see the level of acknowledgment these other authors were now enjoying.

That was exactly it. I was thrilled for my author friends, who were finding such success (and with their first novel!), and at the same time, there was a little voice inside asking, "But what about me?"

Ten days later, I learned experientially that I should be careful what I ask for.

Ten days later, Destined to Choose, my first book, the one that was first published back in 2003, which was re-released as a tenth-anniversary edition in 2013, was named a National Indie Excellence Award finalist. Kindle sales of Destined to Choose spiked and it ranked #1 in the Kindle store under Jewish literature. Back on the authors' group, I felt like eating crow.

Sometimes we human beings learn best by experiencing what we need to learn. And often times, especially for the hard lessons, the Universe decides to teach us also through repetition. So it was with me, though whether that's because it was a hard lesson or because I have a hard head remains to be seen.

By the end of May, about 180 ARCs had been sent out to reviewers, bloggers, magazines, newspapers, and journals. I figured by August, I'd start seeing reviews. August 15th came with nary a review, and not knowing where to turn, I emailed my publicist, trusting her experience and trying hard not to whine.

"Oh, who knows?" my publicist said, adding that many reviewers shoot for publishing reviews closer to a book's pub date (in this case, September 1st), so I may see more in September. Some may hold on to reviews until late fall, since the book takes place during Chanukah, and then they could review it as a "Chanukah book." (It isn't, really, but I could see the point.) In any event, she instructed me to keep working on those things I could control, check in with some of the places to which ARCs had been submitted, and let the rest go.

A trusted advisor pointed out to me that, really, I'd already received reviews in the form of blurbs. They were all fantastic. No one said, "Sorry, I can't blurb this; I didn't care for this book." The same advisor asked me what I felt about this book.

"I love it," I said. "I think it's a better book than the first one, though I'm loving book 3 even more than the second one."

"Isn't it a sign of growth as a writer that each successive book is better than the one before it?" she asked.

"Yes. It's when the first one is spectacular and the second one tanks that you have a problem."

"And you love Strength to Stand?"

I had to separate out my own feelings from what I'd taken in from others. "I do," I said.

"Then there you go."

I'd gotten myself to the point where, even if no one else reviewed Strength to Stand, I still believed in it. I still loved it. I was coming to understand that reviews didn't define my book, and they certainly didn't define me. I could live with that.

And then this morning, I received an email with a link to a review of Strength to Stand, which reads in part: "Sheyna Galyan offers a sophisticated blend of insight and entertainment; suitably complex, flawed, and yet commendable characters; well-developed action and suspense; and an authoritative rendering of synagogue-centered Jewish life. This is a very fine book group selection and teaching text." The review will appear in the fall issues of three publications in Florida.

Okay, I get it, Universe. Really. Do I have to eat crow again?