riding bitch

The life of a writer and survivor of loss.


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The Key to (this) Writer’s Happiness: Organization + Routine

I think the key to happiness is… staying organized. At least, for me. I’m not one of those writers who works in a cluttered office. I like things to be neat and in their place, so I can find them when necessary, so I don’t have to think about the mess. I’m obsessed with lists, making them, crossing them off.

Lately, I’ve been taking care of things that have been on my To Do list for months. New brakes on car, repaying loans, sending thank you cards, organizing my office papers, making and showing up for doctor appointments, etc. It feels good to check things off, to not have them hanging over my head, to have order. I actually enjoy paying bills and balancing my checkbook.

I’m also easily distracted. So, routine (i.e. organized time) is my friend.

The other day on Instagram, @instarlodge (a residency center that I follow) posted the following: Louise Bourgeois was very habitual with her morning routine. She would drink a cup of tea “with some jelly straight out of the jar,” her assistant recalled. Afterwards, he explained, “she’d have a bit of a sugar high and be ready to roll.” Her morning Routine was so set and connected with her assistant she created 10 am is When You Come to Me (2006). Which all goes to say, we’re interested in your morning routine, how you set up for the day, the week. 

I responded in the comments: Wash dishes. Make coffee. Drink coffee and think while outside throwing stick for dog. Feed dog. Take shower. Dress. Review lists, make lists. Get to work.

(I forgot to add Make bed. Like, I can’t leave the house with an unmade bed.)

This basic routine rarely changes. Sometimes the dog and I will go for a walk or hike instead of playing fetch, but that’s the only variance.

In fact, the dog knows the routine so well, she doesn’t even get out of bed (on the second floor) until she hears my spoon stirring the milk into coffee. It’s like that movie Get Out, when the guy has an automatic reaction every time he hears the tinkling of a tea cup being stirred, except with the bionic hearing of a dog. I’ve tried stirring the coffee silently… but her four feet still thump-thump-thump down the stairs.

Once I tried feeding her before going outside; she looked at me like, “who are you?”

So, yeah, organization… and routine. This is my happy place (my dog’s happy place too). Because when life throws those curveballs, all that organization and routine get shattered like broken glass, and it’s so difficult to put the pieces back together, to find that steady rhythm again. Even good news can do this… but definitely bad news, stress and grief.

When I maintain my routine and stay organized, in control of things, that’s when shit gets done. My head is free to wander and roam. My writing is more relaxed and confident. I can focus on the task at hand… and I treasure this.

What’s your routine?


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Observe

It’s been so long since I’ve written here. I feel almost shy about it. But I miss writing, sharing, having my voice out there. It’s been too long.

Life is… okay. Not great. Not bad. Just okay. It’s too much to unpack in a blog post, but I’m still grappling with the loss of my brother, on top of other losses. It’s not an every day in your face kind of grappling, not something I think about consciously all the time… more of a vibration under the surface of things, compounded by other life factors.

I’d like to say I have answers. Sometimes I think, I’m an expert on loss. But I’m not really. Just because I’ve experienced it many times, from different angles, doesn’t mean I know anything… except, maybe, to be patient and observe.

My former therapist used to say that a lot, “Just observe… your thoughts, feelings, behavior, any patterns, don’t judge or try to change anything yet, just pay attention to what’s happening…”

So, that’s what I’m doing. Observing. Taking notes. Registering.

Wishing you all well, dear readers. Hope you haven’t given up on me.

I’ll write again soon. XO


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31 Days of Gratitude (and Counting)

Is there anyone out there who hasn’t heard of Elizabeth Gilbert? She wrote the book Eat Pray Love, is known for encouraging meditation, positive thinking and, for a while, she kept a happiness jar. Basically, every day she wrote down the happiest moment of her day on a scrap of paper “for even the horrible days have one least-bad moment.” I admit, the first time I heard of the happiness jar, I thought it sounded… corny.

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Elizabeth Gilbert’s “happiness jar” (photo by Elizabeth Gilbert)

If I had a best-selling book, millions of dollars, a loving husband and multiple homes, I’d have a happiness warehouse. It was so much easier to think of things that were annoying/upsetting me, and all the things I didn’t have, rather than the things I did.

My attitude changed towards the end of last year. A job had run its course, freelancing was slow, and I was low on money. On top of that,  my dog suddenly needed thousands of dollars in medical care. I felt myself on the brink of a panic attack on more than one occasion. But panic, I did not.

Instead, I set up a GoFundMe campaign, pitched a bunch of story ideas, took an online workshop in a more lucrative area of writing, networked more aggressively, updated my resumes and applied for jobs.

There was one job in particular that I wanted very much. I told myself that I would be okay if I didn’t get it, and mentally prepared myself for disappointment, but I never gave up hope.

To my surprise, donations started pouring in for Ruby’s surgery, and then, the day before Christmas, I found out that I got the job I wanted. I felt so overwhelming grateful that I decided to focus on gratitude for the rest of the year.

I remembered Elizabeth Gilbert’s happiness jar. What if I wrote down every day not my happiest moment, but something that I was grateful for? I pulled out a huge glass jar that I had bought at a flea market last year, cleaned it up and set it on my desk.

my gratitude jar

my gratitude jar

On January 1, I wrote my first gratitude note. It wasn’t very profound. I was grateful for my new haircut, and that so many people liked it on Facebook. In fact, a lot of my notes over the course of the month mentioned really random things: like finding two pairs of jeans that fit.

But almost every day, I wrote about being grateful for:

  • My family, friends and colleagues… including my freelance editors.
  • My dog… and the support that people showed to her/us regarding her surgery.
  • My home… which is warm and safe and quiet.
  • My new job… new co-workers, and the volunteers who help us.

Then a strange thing happened. As the month progressed, I started feeling more grateful, more often.

On January 9, I wrote: “It’s morning, so the day hasn’t happened yet. But I’ve been waking up feeling grateful, first for being well rested, second for my lovely home. Also Ruby seems to be healing well. When I think about how much joy she bring to my life, it brings tears… of joy.”

On January 11: “David Bowie died early this morning. While I am deeply shocked and sad, I choose to acknowledge and be grateful that I lived at the same time as he did. He was a gift.”

On January 18: “It snowed overnight and I woke up to beautiful, still clean white snow. Feeling grateful for this serene winter beauty, seasons that I missed for so long. Also, today is MLK, Jr. Day. How lucky are we to have had him in our period of history.”

Two days later: “This morning’s sunrise was brilliant. I am so grateful to have this wonderful home office that faces east. I get to see the sun rise every day!!”

On February 1, I wrote a draft of this blogpost… and that night I learned that my father was in the hospital. He passed away a few days later.

When I returned home from California, it took me a while to write another gratitude note, even though I did feel grateful for many things… like the fact that my father didn’t feel any pain, that he wasn’t in the hospital for a long time, that he was surrounded by his children, and that he had lived such an active, independent life up until the end.

I was also grateful that my siblings and I got along so well, despite the pressure of incredibly difficult decisions and living together for a week. That – and the fact that my father still had all his own teeth at 86 – was something that even the nurses were impressed with.

When my late husband died, I was so angry, disappointed, confused and upset it took me months, if not years, to feel grateful about anything. This time, I could see the positives.

Two days ago, I wrote this: “It’s been a ROUGH couple of weeks, but also much to be grateful for. Family. Friends. An amazing father. New opportunities. And a graceful exit.”

It feels like gratitude grows on itself, like the more you notice, acknowledge and feel it, the more things you feel grateful for. I love my gratitude jar, and I’m going to keep filling it up, even when times are tough.

Thanks for the idea, Elizabeth.

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pops

 

 

 

 


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Keeping the Creative Spirit Alive

For most creative types, creativity is not a choice. It’s a must. Like breathing, we need to create in order to function and maintain a sense of emotional and mental balance. On a practical level, this means we need the space, time and necessary equipment to do our art. 12000898_10153586813975930_7373778667979507386_o

One of the things I love about writing is that it’s something I can do anywhere. I don’t have to rely on anyone else or any fancy equipment. All I need is my computer, or a pen and paper, and my imagination.

Filmmaking, on the other hand, requires technology – a camera at the very least, sound, lighting and editing equipment. This all takes money and usually a lot of planning. Often it requires working with a team, even a small team.

These days, the filmmaker in me is a little lonely and antsy. It’s been a long time since I’ve directed anything or even visited a film set. I’ve met some filmmakers in upstate New York, but I miss Los Angeles in this respect.

The one thing that keeps me going, however, is photography.

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Like with writing, photography is something I can do anywhere. I’m not a professional. I take most of my photos with my cell phone while walking or hiking with my dog. But what it gives me is so much more than that. It’s my new creative outlet.

These are some recent photos I took of the Catskills.

I’m lucky that where I live is very photogenic. The light is quite dramatic and it changes throughout the year. Winter light is even and diffused. Summer light is bright. Fall light creates these very long shadows.

Taking photos has developed into more than a hobby. It’s a way for me to practice my directing eye. When I take a photo (and edit it), I try to say something with it… convey a mood, a feeling, a thought, even a very, very tiny story.

The animals around here are also photogenic starting, of course, with my favorite model, Ruby.

I hope to get back to moving pictures soon, but in the meantime capturing these still moments is keeping my filmmaking spirit alive.

How do you keep your creative spirit alive?


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How Do You Define Success? (aka Wishing on a Star)

starry night

Photo by Mike Cialowicz

One night in late July, I arrived home around midnight after a long shift at my part-time job. A few minutes later, I was standing on the side of the road staring up at a particular corner of the sky as the dog did her business, when a light suddenly zipped through the stars. I had never seen a shooting star before, but I recognized it immediately. The short line of light happened so fast, if I had blinked – or been looking anywhere else in the sky but that exact spot – I would have missed it. I let out a little yelp of excitement, and then quickly closed my eyes. I made a very simple wish: to be successful.

As we walked back to the house, though, I started to feel misgivings. I wasn’t sure if just wishing for “success” was specific enough. Could I amend the wish now? Or did I have to wait for another shooting star? What did I even mean by that? What did success look like for me? I thought about it for the next few days.

A couple of weeks later, people started buzzing about the Perseids:

The (Perseids) shower is visible from mid-July each year, with the peak in activity between 9 and 14 August, depending on the particular location of the stream. During the peak, the rate of meteors reaches 60 or more per hour. They can be seen all across the sky; however, because of the shower’s radiant in the constellation of Perseus, the Perseids are primarily visible in the Northern Hemisphere. As with many meteor showers the visible rate is greatest in the pre-dawn hours, since more meteoroids are scooped up by the side of the Earth moving forward into the stream, corresponding to local times between midnight and noon. Some can also be seen before midnight.

This year the Perseids were supposed to begin on August 12th. Several friends said they were planning to stay up (or get up) late to see them, but I was too tired (it was another work day). Around 9:00pm, I went outside with the dog for a few minutes of stick-throwing in the backyard, where it is completely dark but the eyes adjust. Between throws, I stared up at the sky again. Another quick beam of light suddenly shot across the sky – my second shooting star! I didn’t know if it was part of the Perseids or not, but I quickly closed my eyes again and wished for something more specific than before: to sell my memoir.

On further reflection, it occurred to me that selling the memoir would be great, but would that in and of itself mean that I was successful? Maybe finishing the memoir would be successful enough. Or maybe success had nothing to do with the memoir, or any other project. The more I thought about it, the more difficult it became to define “success.”

Everyone’s vision of success is different. One can be successful in the traditional sense (i.e. “rich and famous”) but still not feel entirely successful if other areas of life are lacking, or if one never has time to enjoy it. I know people who define success purely in terms of money – if they no longer need to work, or if they never have to worry about money, that is success. I know plenty of other people who aren’t rich or famous, but feel successful because they’re raising happy, healthy, confident children. I know others who seemingly “have it all,” but still want more.

Then I remembered a drawing that I used to repeatedly draw as a child. The image is etched into my mind.

The drawing was of a house… a red brick house with three floors, including a pitched attic. The house always had five windows, two on the first floor, two on the second, one in the attic. I always filled in each window with yellow, indicating that the lights were on. The house also had a chimney, and I always drew smoke coming out of the chimney. The outside of the house was a tidy green lawn with several flowers growing. In the corner of the page there was a large yellow sun, its rays represented by alternating long and short strokes. Elsewhere in the sky I drew several black birds, in the shape of wide “M’s”. I never drew any people. I always imagined them inside, sitting around the cozy fire, enjoying each other’s company. The drawing was my childhood image of a happy home (albeit not very energy-conserving).

Sometimes I think that drawing – what it represented – is what I’ve been searching for all my life.

Yes, I want to sell my memoir and screenplays and make films and win awards and be recognized for my art and work with amazing people and make lots of money. But all of that is simply a means to an end. Ultimately, I want the same thing I’ve wanted since I was a little girl: security, family, peace, warmth and time to enjoy it all.

And really… I have some of these things now, or a version of them. Though I don’t own it, I live in a house with two floors and an attic (no fireplace, and not brick). I don’t feel the kind of financial security I want, but I’m working towards it. I’m single but I live near family and have a dog I love. I generally do feel peaceful and warm, and I do take time to enjoy it all.

We could always have more money in our bank accounts, more stuff, more friends, more recognition, and so on. But we’re also rich in other ways right now. We are alive. We have ourselves. We have each other. We have nature. Perhaps how we treat all of the above is the real measure of success.

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10+ Tips for Rural Living

Huyck Preserve, Rensselaerville

Huyck Preserve, Rensselaerville

September 9th marks my first anniversary living in rural upstate New York after 19 years in Los Angeles. By now, the story of my moving here sight unseen has become a popular tale among friends. What I didn’t realize is how many people thought I wouldn’t be able to handle the isolation, the brutal winters, the humid summers, and so on. Who knows, there might have been a bet or two on how long I would last!

But I proved the naysayers wrong and adapted to my new surroundings well. For anyone considering making a similar move from the big city to a rural area, here are some suggestions on how to make it work:

Be outgoing 

Assuming you’re not a total hermit, the best way to meet people and learn information in a rural area is to be outgoing. Don’t be shy about asking for introductions. In the beginning, I met people through a few key introductions by people who live here, or who used to live here. I also ventured out on my own and introduced myself to folks. It helped to cast a wide net.

A new friend showing me and Ruby a fabulous swimming hole in Leeds.

A new friend showing me and Ruby a fabulous swimming hole in Leeds

Get referrals

One of the challenges of moving anywhere new is leaving behind your trusted mechanic, dentist, veterinarian, etc. Sometimes it takes years of trial and error to find these folks. When I moved to this area, the first thing I did was ask the guys at the local feed store to recommend a good veterinarian and bike repair shop. Others recommended a great mechanic, dentist, chiropractor, massage therapist, and more. The people who live here know who’s who and what’s what.

Classic car, Oak Hill

Classic car, Oak Hill

Find common ground

A new friend who also happened to move here recently summed it up perfectly: “I’m on a mission to make friends.” That means being proactive – finding groups that interest you, and activities where you might meet folks. It also means sometimes going out when you don’t feel like it, going out alone, doing things you wouldn’t normally do… basically stepping out of your comfort zone. I have traveled an hour or more to get to an event or visit a friend. It’s always worth it.

flying goat

Get a part-time job

Obviously, not everyone can do this… but I would highly recommend working part-time at a local business. Earlier this summer, I was fortunate enough to learn of a chef’s assistant position at a local farm-to-table cafe. I applied for it even though I’ve never been a chef’s assistant before, and got the job. Working at this popular local spot lead to not only meeting more people, but also learning more about agriculture, cooking and animals.

goats

Be “social”

There is an actual saying here called “being social” that describes when a person stops to chat with you before, during or after performing a service. For example, when my mechanic Bill works on my car, he chats with me and makes me laugh (his nickname for me is “California Niva”). Same with lady at the post office. Rarely do I just fly in and out of the post office without saying hello to Barbara, or us chatting for a few minutes. The last time I was there, she gave me a marrow bone for my dog. The point is, slow down and get to know people a little.

flowers in water

Be a good neighbor

Social interactions are really important in a rural area. It’s not just about making friends. People can also be resources, especially your neighbors. You might need to take refuge in their house when your power fails in a storm. So, get to know their names, say hello and good morning and have a nice day. When they wave to you, wave back! My neighbor Bob, who’s in his 80’s, and I became friends after he said Ruby could play in his fields. We’ve since had many philosophical conversations while standing in his fields. When his wife recently passed away, I baked him a pie and brought it over. I also helped him with his yard sale, and he lets me share a raised bed in his garden in return for my help with wedding and planting.

hanging clothes

Start walking

I’ve seen some amazing scenery while walking through my neighborhood and met people too. I also think there’s something good about being seen on a regular basis. Every day I pass this one farm where a dog lives that is friends with my dog. The owners and I don’t talk much, but whenever they see us coming, they let Bronson out so he can play with Ruby. Even the farm workers recognize Ruby and wave to us from their trucks as we pass.

Ruby and her buddy, Bronson

Support local businesses

This goes without saying. Local businesses remember their customers, and will greatly appreciate your business.

Be a good guest

In the country, people invite you to their homes a lot faster and more often than in the city. Any time you go to someone’s house, bring something or, even better, make something.

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Nectarine and blueberry upside-down cake

Pick up after your dog

One might think that in the country, it’s okay to not pick up after your dog. Wrong! People are really sensitive about their yards and property. I always pick up after Ruby, even in fields where no one can see us. I did, however, make the mistake shortly after moving here of throwing the bag in someone else’s trashcan. In the city this wouldn’t be a big deal, but after a few times, a woman came out of the house to ask me to stop because the bags were making her trashcan smell. Noted! Now I carry the poop bag all the way home and throw it in my own trashcan.

ruby

More suggestions:

  • Invite people to visit you
  • Travel and explore the area
  • Be nice to everyone you meet because everyone knows each other!

Living in a rural area can be a fulfilling, rich, culturally diverse experience. But just like living in the city, you have to work it!

heart puddle


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Seeing the Stars at Night

It’s funny how life turns out. I never thought I’d be living in the country. I’ve always been a city girl, the kind that screams at the sight of a roach, and jumps on the furniture at the sight of a mouse. On our one and only camping trip, Kaz found it amusing how paranoid I was in the tent at night. “What’s that? Did you hear something? Is there something in the sleeping bag with us?”

And yet, I was always trying to get us out of the city. To Joshua Tree, to Santa Barbara, to the coast, anywhere but inside the urban jungle. 10306074_10153212167690930_8118499099981483930_n When he was sick, and especially when he got depressed, one of my most frequent questions was: “Why don’t you sit outside?” “And do what?” he’d respond. “Just feel the sun on your face, the wind, listen to the birds, breathe some fresh air. It’s good for you!” But sitting outside on Hollywood Boulevard wasn’t his thing. I don’t blame him.

I often think of him now and wonder what he would say about my current life, if he would have been willing to make this kind of move to the country (probably not, his work was in the city), if it would have even occurred to us (again, probably not). 11150378_10153212167250930_9164052667769912565_n I know he would have loved the roads around here, which are perfect for motorcycle riding. He probably wouldn’t have liked the winters. But I think he might have liked the solitude. He was kind of a loner, or at least a homebody. He liked being at home, playing his video games, watching television, relaxing. He would have enjoyed how much I cook here.

Who knows. He might have been surprised by how well I’ve adapted to the solitude because I was always the social one. I still am, but in smaller spurts. Ironically, I relate to his homebody-style more now than before. 10421348_10153212167615930_3991056468008253707_n It’s hard to describe how much I love living in the country. It’s not perfect. I do miss certain things about the city, but on a day-to-day basis, I feel more content than I have since Kaz was alive.

As I write this post (the original by longhand on a yellow legal pad), I am sitting in the backyard on a weathered metal rocking chair that has a cotton cushion. I’ve sat on this chair all through winter. I call it my “outside office.”

The sun is out. It’s in the 60’s. The clouds are mere wisps. There is a strong breeze blowing, and a family of black flies buzzing around me. In the distance, the flowers that line the edges of the house have just begun to bloom. 11156179_10153212166650930_8998367947681788918_nRuby is lying nearby in the grass, her eyes half-open in that way dogs do when relaxing in the sun. This morning she was sniffing all over the yard instead of the usual stick-fetching, and I was reading a book. It was peaceful, both of us doing our own thing, occasionally looking up to check on the other. 11146263_10153212319680930_3791173026327755806_n Some people don’t want to deal with flies or dirt (which is unavoidable in the country), the wind, the quiet, and so on, just like some people prefer air conditioning to open windows in cars (I’ve always been the latter).

Apparently, there’s such a thing as Ecotherapy, which is literally contact with Nature, and it’s becoming more important as the world grows more populated and the environment continues to deteriorate. This article in the Washington Post discusses concerns that health officials have about how people in the future are going to get enough (unpolluted) nature to stay healthy. “The World Health Organization predicts that 70 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas within 30 years.”

If I’m still here in 30 years, I’m pretty sure I won’t be one of those people. I like seeing the stars at night. 10360203_10153212167320930_1901981881794809668_n