Because why wouldn’t I spend a ton of time and money on a Halloween costume that only one trick-or-treater would see?
I was thrilled to find out yesterday that my second novel, The Words between Us, is a finalist for the 2020 Christy Award.
Last year, We Hope for Better Things was a finalist as well. And a couple weeks ago We Hope for Better Things won the 2020 Star Award from the Women’s Fiction Writers Association in both the debut and general categories.
So it has been an exciting couple of weeks!
But probably the most exciting thing? I don’t have to buy a new furnace.
Awards for a job well done are a great boost to the ego (and hopefully to sales as well) but when it comes to endorphins and good feelings coursing through your body, nothing beats being told that you will not have to shell out $4,000-$6,000 dollars just yet.
I’m going into the weekend warm and toasty, inside and out.
On January 2nd of this year, I turned 40. I had one overarching goal for my 40th year on the planet: live with intention. Basically, decide beforehand how I was going to spend my days, choose my reactions to setbacks, make some purposeful changes in how I was spending my time, etc. etc. etc. I bought a 365-day journal with the intent to record this very intentional year.
It was going to be a big one. I had a full calendar of writing and book events lined up. I was anticipating making a little extra money from them, garnering a little extra name recognition, building a little bigger network of fellow writers. I thought to myself, in my delightful naiveté, that this would be a year of building my career. This is where I would lay the foundation for future success.
And wouldn’t you know it, things didn’t go according to plan.
I abandoned the journal in early February because it was straight-up boring. I mean, who cares what I did each and every day? If I didn’t, certainly posterity wouldn’t. Gone.
And then…well, you know. Everyone’s plans went up in smoke. Our family trip to Yellowstone was canceled. The writers retreat I direct in Albuquerque was canceled. Nearly twenty events at libraries, book clubs, bookstores, and conferences were canceled.
I thought, well at least I can use that extra time to write more. [Insert sick, desperate laugh.]
There’s something about a pandemic and a 24-hour news cycle and the dumpster fire that is social media that really hijacks one’s concentration if you let it. Add in a kid suddenly home from school 24/7 and you’ve got a recipe for slow writing. Or, no writing for awhile.
Instead of being intentional and proactive, I, like many of you I would imagine, found myself in reactionary mode for about six months. My schedule, my comings and goings, my very thoughts felt like they were not my own. This was the most unintentional year I could remember.
There were some things I did manage to make happen. I finally got the new fence I had been needing/wanting for the backyard. I lost fifty pounds and starting fitting into my old clothes. I spent a lot more time outside over the summer, reading, working, and yes, even writing a little. (Thank you, Lord, for such incredible summer weather this year.)
And there were some things that happened to me that were good. Because everyone in the world now knows how to use Zoom, I was able to talk to a number of far-flung (as well as local) book clubs and libraries, the furthest afield being a book club in Honduras. I won both the debut and general categories of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association’s 2020 Star Awards for my debut novel, We Hope for Better Things, which also had the honor of being selected as a Michigan Notable Book for 2020.
But the thing that I think has really been a turning point for me, mentally and emotionally, is that I kept something precious to me rather than losing it to a virus. Instead of loosening my grip and accepting that in this world, in this year, I will not be able to do this, I squeezed a little tighter and did something anyway. Even though there was some risk involved. Even though it meant spending money we should have saved. Even though it would invite public censure on social media (see my last post for another positive, intentional action taken in the wake of that).
What I kept was my annual writers retreat in Albuquerque. Not the retreat I’d carefully planned for nearly 100 writers. Not the retreat with the notable speaker and all the great food and all the socializing with writer friends. All I kept was a plane ticket and a hotel reservation. All I brought was some clothes and my laptop and my intentions of getting some writing done. All I wanted was time alone in a place I had grown to love and to need in my life over the past six years.
And I got it. Well, perhaps I should say I got it and then some. Not only did I get precious alone time after a season of everyone being stuck in the house; not only did I get time and mental space to write; not only did I get to spend five days in a hotel that feels like a second home to me…I also got community–unexpected, unintentional, and unequivocally soul-restoring community–at the best cigar shop I have ever been to.
An acquaintance local to Albuquerque told me about it and then, when Uber was uberexpensive, was kind enough to drive me to it in order to pick out some gifts for my husband. This friend smoked his first cigar as I perused the largest humidor I’ve ever set foot in and pawed through a gorgeous selection of pipes. I made my purchases after consulting with the very personable owner of the store (the third generation of his family to run it) and chatted with some other patrons–members of the store’s private cigar club–as I finished my own cigar and the glass of bourbon the owner poured for me. Then I figured I had imposed upon my driver long enough and was going say my thank yous and have him drive me back to the hotel.
Instead, one of the cigar club members invited me on a tour of the private lounge. After the tour, another gentleman who was in the lower level (yes, this amazing lounge had multiple levels and rooms) of the club invited me to sit down. I had already finished my cigar and my bourbon and I felt I had abandoned my ride, so I demurred. But the thing is, I didn’t want to leave yet. And these guys didn’t want me to leave. I was handed another bourbon, another cigar, and prevailed upon to stay. Eventually other guys came rolling into the room until I was holding court with five men, only one of whom I’d ever met before that afternoon.
Full disclosure so that you can gauge how incensed you should be at me right now: no, we were not wearing masks (hard to smoke a cigar through a mask) and no, we weren’t a full six feet apart. Probably we managed an average of four feet of distance. Yes, we were inside. Yes, I had shaken every one of their hands (at their initiation), as well as the hands of nearly every man who had entered when we were just standing around talking and smoking in the non-club portion of the store. These men ranged in age from their mid-20s to around 60. They worked in law enforcement, health care, the film industry, the news industry, in finance, for the military. And every single one of them made me feel…welcome, at ease, happy.
In a year of hunkering down and not even seeing the people I’ve known for years (or in some cases, for my entire life) I was introduced to this new community of instant friends. I was made to feel utterly welcome in what has become a very stand-offish world. The things I said were not met with raised hackles and links to articles to show why I was wrong/careless/borderline evil/probably a murderer. I was not walking on eggshells about how I worded things or anticipating the objections or arguments to come. I was not dreading the fallout from simply being myself.
I was just…there. Amongst people who were in all ways generous and gracious to each other and to me. They gave away pieces of themselves to a stranger in their midst, sharing their stories, trusting me to be gentle with them, to take them at face value, to simply derive enjoyment from them. We had nothing to gain from one another beyond a few hours of congeniality. But I don’t think you realize how truly precious such a thing is until it has been stolen from you, first by an invisible virus and then by the near-constant piling on of guilt that accompanies your every action in a world where everyone is watching and feels they have a sacred, self-appointed responsibility to judge and condemn you for each and every small way you deviate from their impossibly high expectations of you.
We had such a great time chatting, six hours flew by. We all missed dinner.
Here’s the thing about meeting someone new in the context of having no “mutual friends.” When you meet someone new, apart from your previous relationships and work and accomplishments, apart from your carefully crafted online persona, you get to see yourself in as pure a form as you are likely to get in this life. They are meeting you, undiluted, unadulterated you. Not you the student or you the wife or you the mother or you the writer or you the former football star or you the once prom queen or you the executive or you the mechanic or you the failed artist or you the real estate mogul. Just you. You’re an unknown quantity. You’re a risk. And when they take that risk to spend time with you, and then have the exact reaction to you that you wish everyone would have–they find you interesting, charming, intelligent, fun to be around, worth their time and attention–it feels good. It feels like maybe there is something more to you than all the stuff about you.
We all want to feel that we are worth something in and of ourselves, irrespective of who we know or who we married or who we gave birth to, regardless of what we have accomplished and what we have failed to accomplish. And when someone sees that pure spark of you inside and wants more–more time, more stories, more eye contact, more of your attention–it’s intoxicating. It’s the kind of thing that makes you miss a meal and yet never actually miss it. It’s the kind of thing you want to share with other people even if it means you’ll get raked across the coals for daring to leave your house and deciding that social niceties like handshakes are still important and are worth a little risk (and a lot of public censure).
Reader, something important that I realized during this “inessential” trip is that I’m still essentially me. I’m still me, in and of myself, the me I’ve always been. The me that prefers hanging out with guys to hanging out with women. The me that loves hearing other people’s stories more than telling her own. The me that is not afraid to get into a car with people I just met. The me that is done being acted upon by distant forces and judged by distant people.
The me that doesn’t actually care what you think of me.
2020 has been a trial of a year, for sure. But I am taking it back. I am accepting with open arms the unexpected gifts it has given me. There are three months left in the year. Those are my months. I’m going to live them intentionally, without fear, without second guessing, without explaining myself to people who hold no power over me.
How about you?
It’s felt like a longtime coming, but I finally did it. I finally decided that enough was enough. I’d tried. I’d put in effort and care and time–oh, so much time. But there comes a point at which you have to decide if a relationship is working. And in our world, sometimes there is a point at which you have to decide if hundreds of relationships are working.
For me, they weren’t.
I joined Facebook back in 200…6?…7?…after someone in my graduate program at MSU told me about it. It was fun at first. Actually, it was mostly fun for the first eight or nine years I was on it. And then it became not so fun.
But I stayed engaged, kept accepting friend requests, more and more from people I knew through writing organizations, some I’d never actually met or interacted with but who had mutual friends in the writing community I was involved in. I gathered in people I worked with either in the past or present. I acquired more relatives from my husband’s rather large extended family. I collected some of my relatives’ friends, some brothers and sisters and spouses of people I graduated high school with, some people who read my books and wanted to connect on my personal page rather than my author page.
And it got…difficult. You see, you’d never invite all of these people to the same function in real life. You’d want to connect people who would get along with each other, who would treat each other a certain way. People with similar interests and values. That’s not to say you wouldn’t hang out with everyone in certain contexts, but everyone all at once? Bad idea.
In 2014, Facebook introduced the “unfollow” button. In 2017, it introduced the “snooze” feature. And I used these features liberally in order to tame this list of people I knew, sorta knew, and didn’t know at all, which had grown to more than 1,400.
Now listen, I’m an introvert in a solitary profession who has worked from home since 2005. I do not know 1,400 people. I certainly do not have 1,400 friends. And frankly a lot of those 1,400 people didn’t treat me as a friend would.
A friend–a real friend–knows you. They know your heart. They know that even if you have a different opinion than they do on any given topic, you’re still a decent, intelligent, caring person. They know this because they have actually spent time with you. Real time. In the real world. They’re people you can be honest with and you know that if they disagree they’ll just kind of smile and nod and bite their tongue, then give you a hug and look forward to the next time you see each other.
In the snowballing of my social media accounts, it was those actual friends who seemed to be getting squeezed out on my feed and in comments by “friends” who didn’t know me all that well yet had a lot of opinions about how I should vote, how I should think, and how I should live my life. And social media, while certainly social, wasn’t any fun. And if you don’t have fun with people…why would you spend time with them? Why would you spend time with people who only want to argue or scold or explain how you’re wrong about everything?
Answer: you wouldn’t. No one wants to spend any amount of their leisure time with people like that. And yet we do. All of us do.
It was the summer 2018 that I started yearning for a return to real, offline friendships. That was the year of my 20th high school reunion. That night, I spent time with a few dozen people who, even if some of them weren’t my close friends back in school, even if we had differing opinions on politics or religion or child-rearing, still knew me. In fact, those people I hadn’t seen in 20 years knew me way better than almost anyone I had met since. Because I’m basically the same person as I was back then, though hopefully slightly improved (read: nicer). Many of them had known me since kindergarten. I’d been in real fights with them back when hormones ruled our brains and we’d say anything to get the insult upper hand, and yet I still knew they liked me. I bet none of us could even remember what those fights might have been about.
Not so online, with the arguments that last for days and suck people in from all across the spectrum of your acquaintance. That never resolve, never change anything, never build people up but always manage to knock them down. Day after day on social media, there is instead a steady tearing down, gnawing away. We become afraid to say anything because even though we know it will make this person laugh, it will make that person incensed. The audience is so big you can’t talk to any part of it without stepping in it with another part.
I’ve tried to walk that line for a while. It’s exhausting, disheartening, joy-stealing. But I also didn’t want to unfriend anyone and make them feel bad. I do want to be friendly to people. I don’t want anyone to feel rejected or unwanted. It’s not that I don’t want to talk to them. It’s just that I don’t want to talk to them and everyone else about everything all the time. It just got too big.
Facebook also became a place for me to seek out attention, accolades, likes, comments, and compliments. A place I could puff myself up. A place that fed into my most problematic besetting sin: pride. It feels good to rack up those little hearts and thumbs-ups. And social media companies know that. They know how to keep you coming back for more (watch The Social Dilemma on Netflix if you don’t believe me).
It’s also a place where colossal amounts of my life have been wasted over the past decade plus. And I have far better, more rewarding things to do with my time than scroll. (Read Deep Work if you need some encouragement to rethink how distractions like social media are eating away at your ability to do solid creative work.)
But…I didn’t want to throw the whole thing out. Not yet. I am connected with my writing community through our Facebook groups. I communicate with people coming to the retreat I direct through Facebook. I run my own author page through Facebook. And there are people I’m happy to be able to keep up with through Facebook. I love all the Facebook memories that pop up containing hilarious or sweet things my son has said or done while growing up. I like seeing old photos pop up. And there are some people I connect with on Messenger that I have no other way of contacting at the moment. So I knew I couldn’t quite quit it cold turkey.
What I did do this year was two big waves of unfriending. The first wave, early in 2020, was simply people I realized I didn’t even know. That allowed me to drop 500-600 people from the list. But I still had a list that was too large. What I really wanted was to separate out my personal, professional, and public lives. So I dropped about 750 more people. People I like just fine, but maybe people it was okay to simply see in person once a year and not keep up with the rest of the year. People whom I wish the very best, but am letting go out of my everyday life.
I’m a big believer in white space. Clearing out the stuff you don’t need. Leaving room in the margin. Allowing for empty time in my schedule. Reserving mental space for being creative.
Most of my social media interaction over the past five years can arguably be called clutter. How much of it actually needed to be said? Precious little. How much of it led to unintentionally hurt feelings? Probably more than I know.
So I’m letting it go. Mostly.
If you’re reading this and you were let go, I need you to know that it had everything to do with me and nothing to do with you.
If you’re reading this and wondering how to keep up with me and my newest books, you can follow me any of these places:
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/erinbartelswrites/
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/ErinLBartels
- Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/erinbartels
- Bookbub: https://www.bookbub.com/profile/erin-bartels
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ErinBartelsAuthor
But please don’t be offended if I don’t follow back. It’s not you. It’s me.
I am excited to announce that my next book has a title and a cover, and it’s available for pre-order now!
Ten years ago, sisters Olivia and Melanie Greene were on a backcountry hiking trip when their parents were in a fatal car accident. Over the years, they grew apart, each coping with the loss in her own way. Olivia plunged herself into law school, work, and an atomistic view of the world–what you see is what you get, and that’s all you get. Melanie dropped out of college and developed an online life-coaching business around her cafeteria-style spirituality–a little of this, a little of that, whatever makes you happy.
Now, at Melanie’s insistence (and against Olivia’s better judgment), they are embarking on a hike in the Porcupine Mountains of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In this remote wilderness they’ll face their deepest fears, question their most dearly held beliefs, and begin to see that perhaps the best way to move forward is the one way they had never considered.
Michigan Notable Book Award winner Erin Bartels draws from personal experience hiking backcountry trails with her sister to bring you a story about the complexities of grief, faith, and sisterhood.
It’s spring, which for me generally means poetry. I don’t know why, but I tend to write more poetry as the weather changes over from winter to spring than at any other time of the year. Today is the first day of spring. It’s also been nearly a week of social distancing and grocery hoarding and constant talk of Covid-19 on social media. I was on Twitter briefly today and felt that “I should post something” feeling. I second later, I closed Twitter and wrote this.
I have nothing to say
yet I must say it—
that I have nothing to say—
(whether intended or otherwise)
I have nothing to say
to any of you
but I must say something
because you are out there
wanting to see
what people have to say
(not me, necessarily)
anything to fill the silence
I must somehow say nothing
so it seems like something
I must fill in your space
and you must fill in mine
as far as the character count
will allow, as far as
meaning can be stretched—
spread over barren lives
like white paint
over white canvas
adding up to so much
filling an emptiness
that was not there
until the possibility of filling it was
Hunkered down at home
my mind reaches out
to friends, yes, but more so
to their parents, my parents—
that generation the younger
set so despises, so blames
for all our planet’s woes
as though every generation
hasn’t done something (many things)
they couldn’t see the end of
things they would take back if they could
as though their own generation
will never make mistakes
I think of the moms and dads
who fed me during sleepovers
who took me to plays
who coached me in summer-dry fields
who taught me that, yes, defeat may come
but that should never mean I didn’t try
every second of every game
I call them to mind, one by one
and pray for closed doors
for stocked pantries
for clear lungs
And I pray for that younger set as well
who live from paycheck to paycheck
who have small children at home
who just started a business
whose product just launched
whose education has stalled
whose future is uncertain
I call them to mind
and pray for patience
I especially pray
that we would all get off the internet
and find ways of being
Last night I reworked an older painting of mine using new skills developed over the past year.
Here’s what has been over my fireplace mantel for about a year or perhaps a bit longer:
I’ve always been unhappy with the water and felt the sand and sky were too yellow, though I liked the clouds. Then I got better at water through practice. And the lovely thing about oil paints is that you can paint over what you already have to fix it, unlike watercolor. Here’s the new and improved painting:
I didn’t paint over the whole sky, just near the horizon. The truer color is in the second photo.
What I was really lacking in the water in the first iteration was light, shadow, and definition. Everything was basically one color. Actual water registers as many colors, which change depending on the light, reflections, water clarity, and what’s at the bottom of it.
This painting still isn’t perfect. I have to get better about light sources. But it’s probably as good as I’m going to make it.
For a while now I have had an Etsy store called Erin’s Artful Life, but it’s been quiet of late. I don’t have much extra time to update it. So I am going to be moving my artwork over to my website. Soon you’ll see a new page (creatively named Artwork) where I’ll put pictures of my paintings and whatever else I may decide to create in the future. Some of it will be available for purchase. Some of it won’t.
Hopefully I will get to that in the early part of 2020. All part of simplifying my online presence so it feels less overwhelming. As this year closes out, that’s what’s on my mind.
Last night it began to snow and it is still snowing now. Monday morning. Veteran’s day. There are still leaves on the big Norway Maples in the back yard. Still yellow leaves scattered across the back gardens that I didn’t have the energy to deal with after my son and I raked up the elm and ash leaves in the front, the refuse of two doomed trees.
The ash is one of the last standing around here, but the emerald ash borers did finally get to it and it is slowly dying, shrinking back each year so that only the middle of it gets leaves at all while the extremities are dead and brittle and break off in high winds or under heavy snow and ice. It is marked with a big red circle of spray paint, like a bullet wound seeping blood, and will be taken down by the city some time in the next year or so. In the meantime, I wouldn’t park under it if I were you.
The elm was an accidental planting, the result of using free mulch several years back. As far as I can work out, someone else was losing an elm tree to some sort of bacteria or fungus and had it cut down and chipped up and that is what the city brought me to mulch with when I inquired about free wood chips the year after the big ice storm took down so many limbs. I’d been expecting chips from dead trees, but this one still had some life in it (and seeds, apparently). So now its progeny grows at the confluence of three property lines and no one took it down when it was a sapling and manageable. At some point in the next five or ten years, it will start to die and we’ll all have to chip in to remove it. Though I’m pretty sure it’s my fault to begin with.
This spring I planted some trees on purpose. Three varieties of Japanese maple, a Japanese cherry, and one little redbud that was just a weed on the other side of the fence, which I transplanted to my garden and watched carefully all summer (they do not like to be moved). And now all those little baby trees are gathering snow in their bare arms, saving it to drink later when we have a warm-up. Which we will. The ten-day forecast includes several days that reach 40 degrees. Rain is predicted. I may yet get all those yellow maple leaves up, even if they are wet.
There are still a few other chores to do. I must wrap my new sky pencil holly in burlap. I must remove the bamboo fountain and the water pump, which I meant to do this weekend but forgot in my exhaustion and my desire to finish reading a book. I did manage to remember to get the cover on the outdoor furniture.
As we enter the season of cold and snow and ice and clouds I am content. I feel a release of breath. A busy season is ending. A shivering, staying-put-and-reading-and-writing one has begun. I have a few more events this month to support the release of The Words between Us, but nothing scheduled until March of next year (and no intention to put anything on the calendar before that month). I have a book that has steadily made its way from my brain into the tips of my fingers over the past year and is ready to be written. I have cozy slippers and a wood-burning fireplace and a small dog that lives to cuddle.
So yeah, I’m ready for winter. Even if the yard’s not.