Full Circle

I’ve been very secretive about some things going on in my life, but they have had a profound effect on me, so it felt like time to share. Yep, this is one of those personal, life story blog posts, although it is somewhat writing related. You’ll see why. Sorry if you’re only here for the writing stuff. You’ll have to get to know me a little this time around.

At the end of March, I had a hysterectomy. Now, for some, this would be a traumatic experience, but it truly wasn’t. You see, my reproductive system and I have never been friends. We had a brief truce for a short period of time that brought me a gorgeous child. But other than that, we were bitter enemies. I wasn’t sad to see the main troublemaker go. I was actually looking forward to it. 

It’s an odd thing. My womb was gone, and in that same week, I nearly lost the woman who carried me in her womb. It’s a long story, and not one I think my mother is particularly keen to share, but I thought my husband was communicating with my mother during my recovery. He thought I was. By the time we realized, neither of us had talked to her in a week. We all tried to call her to no avail and my husband rushed to check on her. As I recovered from my surgery, my mother collapsed in her home, was unable to get up for a while, and very nearly died. My husband found her unconscious. 

She has thankfully pulled through, but the outcome completely changed our lives. 

Mentally, my mother is as okay as she ever was. She’s always struggled with some mental issues, but she’s feisty and funny and, after a slight struggle, is 100% back to who she had been. Physically, though, she’s weaker than she was, and since April, she’s been in a physical rehabilitation center until she can get back on her feet. 

My mother had lived in the same apartment for 42 years, so the place had managed to accumulate a lot of stuff. A lot of stuff. All of which she kept. But after being stuck in that place as she was, unable to move, my mother didn’t want to go back. 

I set about cleaning out her apartment, scoring her a new one, and preparing it for her return home. And in the midst of all that, after visiting my mother regularly, something in our relationship shifted. We’d had this terribly complex relationship, both with our fair share of mental illness that would grind together whenever we butted heads. She has been mellowing out quite a bit as she’s grown older, and in this time, we have repaired a lot of it. Is it still fragile? It may always be. 

And then I received the proof for an upcoming anthology I will be published in. My essay in that anthology is about generational mental illness and how my mother’s sometimes abusive behavior impacted my life and informed the way I raised my son. There isn’t a single word I wrote that was untrue, but I find myself feeling horrendously guilty. 

In her famous writing book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott wrote, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” And perhaps that’s true. But it’s a complicated feeling. 

My relationship with my mother is healing. I’ve cast a discussion out into the world about that relationship at its worst. 

The point was important, and I believe that what I wrote will have a chance to help another. In the end, as a writer, I know I must be true to myself and what I’m trying to say, despite the difficulties it may cause. 

Still, I cringe whenever I read it. Have any of you ever put something in writing and had regrets afterwards? Share in the comments and make me feel better. :/

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When I Grow Up

Logan as a model again. I asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, and this was his face.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” We’re all asked a few hundred times throughout our childhood. And I realized that now that I’m, at least technically, “grown up,” nobody asks me what I want to be anymore. It’s an interesting thing that we’re all asked about our future vocation when we’re far too young to do much about it or to even know ourselves well enough to know what we want. And when do we lose that? When do we start to know ourselves well enough to know what we want for the rest of our lives? What’s the imaginary age that we decide what we’re capable of?

From the time I started school all the way up to my pre-teen years, I wanted to be an English teacher. Teachers are our heroes when we’re young, until we either fall apart under the pressure of expectations and testing and regimented thinking, or we realize they’re just human like the rest of us. I loved English in particular, and there was this amazing writing teacher in my school, Michael Shaw, who was incredibly quirky and pleasant and wasn’t afraid to be silly as hell if it made the kids in the school love to learn. Every year, he would dress up as Johnny Appleseed to teach us about Earth Day before people really cared about ecology the way they should. He was so engaging, that I quickly decided I wanted to be him.

That dream died when I realized I was decidedly not him. I was prone to outbursts of temper I was not good enough at holding back to work with tiny humans all day without being labeled as the monster teacher. I couldn’t even teach my full-grown adult of a mother how to use a computer mouse without losing my temper and treating her like an idiot. Not cool, I know. But I was journeying into teenagerhood with very messy role models and a burgeoning battle with depression and I wasn’t handling it well. And then I met Dr. Jonathan Dzik.

Doc, as all his students called him, took a chance on a moody student who purposely pressed his buttons for entertainment value. And, persnickety by nature, he had a lot of pushable buttons. While I actually attempted to drive him crazy, he actually attempted to guide my efforts to more useful things, like the school musical. He was right, I was a far better singer and actress than I was a teenage asshat. And just like that, I discovered a new answer to what I was going to be when I grew up. An actress and a singer, obviously.

The truth was, I wasn’t actually good at being a teenage asshat, my compassion and empathy often tripping me up and making me suffer after my various attempts at being an unfeeling wench. So, it wasn’t very difficult to be a better singer and actor than an asshat. Another truth? I sucked at acting. And while I still think I possess singing talent, that 1) often comes with a dancing requirement and I can’t do a choreographed step without tripping over myself; and 2) after a year and a half of auditions with professionals, I quickly learned that the industry was not ready for a singer who shopped in the plus sized section. I was in the era before Kelly Clarkson and Adele, when every singer looked like Britney Spears and were lucky if they even grazed the gorgeous sounds of Christina Aguilera’s vocal chops. I could have kept trying, but the constant requests to lose weight killed my self-esteem dead enough that I became determined to find a thing where people could value my brain and not my belly.

I had been writing since back in the days of Mr. Shaw, but I didn’t really think it could be anything. Mostly, I just wrote silly stories based on television shows. And then, one day, while I stood at the counter of the video store I worked at, stuck in the job-with-necessarily-flexible-hours I needed to go on auditions. It was an incredibly boring day. I was the only person on shift. So I picked up the pad I used for inventory lists, and started writing an idea that had been running around my head like a squirrel searching for a nut.

I’ve broken up with writing a few dozen times since then, but it’s always been a lie, and I always come back. My love for it birthed my intense desire to learn more about the hows and whys behind what works and what doesn’t. That led me to editing, to helping other people learn what will work best for their manuscripts.

That girl who thought she couldn’t possibly have enough patience to teach a room full of kiddies all about reading and language finds herself slaving over manuscripts written by authors of various skill and scope and helping to teach them what they don’t already know and guide them on the path to a more polished manuscript. And suddenly, I can hear that little girl’s voice, answering the question of what she wants to be when she grows up with a very self-assured “An English Teacher” and she doesn’t sound so foolish. Because she must have seen something within herself that the grumpy teenager somehow missed.

That kid wasn’t exactly right. She was close enough though, and it makes me wonder. I may not have known what I wanted to be, but I always knew I wanted to help others, to spread knowledge, to share. Perhaps we shouldn’t be asking children what they want to be when they grow up. I’m a legal secretary who writes and edits in whatever time she can scrounge up and that’s far from what I imagined. Perhaps we’d be better off asking who they want to be when they grow up. That, at least, lends them a greater chance of landing far closer to the mark.



Social Media Marketing 101

Hey all,

This weekend, despite the fact that I was recovering from surgery and had only just gotten home from the hospital on Thursday, I yanked myself together and managed to make sense in our latest CraftQuest episode. This episode was dedicated to how to operate on social media as a writer. Many important points were made by my colleagues, and hopefully by me! We hope you enjoy!

The Meaning of Success

Recently, I’ve found myself saying things like “when I’m successful,” or “when I get where I need to be,” without thinking about what that actually means to me. The dawn of a new year is always good for making you take a step back from your life and forcing you to question those things that just seem like a given when we don’t evaluate them. One day, I’ll be successful. Except what does that even mean? To be successful? Turning it around in my head led me to understand that there is no real definition.

Success is self-defined. Only we can decide our own version of success and there are often many layers to be found there. So I decided to map out a few versions of what I considered to be my own personal meaning of success.

  1. The Semi-Successful Happy Place–In this version of what I consider to be success, I sell a few books for moderate deals. I continue to work my day job as a legal assistant, but the money from the books sales help me have something extra to spend on fun things to do. My son is happy, my husband is happy. Life is relatively the same, but people enjoy my books and I feel a sense of accomplishment. Logan grows up well and I continue to nurture the wonderful relationships I’ve built. I don’t have everything I want, but that’s okay. More to write about. And life keeps on trucking.
  2. All The Dreams–In this version, I sell a lot of books and I’m a prolific writer. I also get a load of editing business, and between the two incomes, it’s enough for me to leave my day job. I get to work from home with my writing and editing, and it gives me the freedom to be more involved in my son’s school life. I can participate in events at his school and be a more hands-on parent than my current arrangement allows me to be. I still continue to maintain the wonderful relationships I’ve built as well as new professional relationships that feed my soul. I get to travel some more and it feeds my writing material. Life is beautiful, but busy. And the beat goes on.
  3. The Best Case Scenario–Not only do I sell books, but I get super successful. There’s fanfiction about my books and weird merchandise and I’m almost a household name, at least among YA readers. I run a successful editing business because I love to help other writers, and money is no longer even remotely tight. My family lives comfortably, we get to travel, and we buy a house on a lake, with one next door for my best friend to live in. I have enough property for a couple of dogs (can’t do that in my apartment because of my allergies), and everyone I love is well taken care of. I make a good living doing what I absolutely love. Things really couldn’t be better.

I would honestly love every one of these scenarios. Hell, just part of some of these would make me feel successful. It’s not about achieving all of your goals, although that would be wonderful. It’s about hitting a landmark. Feeling like you’ve accomplished something.

Success is different for every person. You define it. As large or as small as you want to go.

So what does success means to you?

Storytime with Boogie Down Books

I recently had the wonderful experience of reading to children during Boogie Down Books’ Storytime, and it was an amazing experience. As soon as I arrived at Mottley Kitchen on Saturday Morning, December 15th, I knew I had to chronicle this experience for my blog and let everyone know about the delightful time I had and all about the wonderful bookstore without walls.

I met Boogie Down Books owner Rebekah Shoaf at The Bronx Book Fair in May and immediately took a liking to her. She was unbelievably friendly and energetic and immediately put me, who attended as both a networking author and a mother looking for new books for her son, at ease. She told me all about her company, and I immediately signed up for the newsletter, grateful to discover such an interesting new Bronx program.

Rebekah called Boogie Down Books a bookstore without walls. Instead of a brick and mortar shop, she organizes pop-up shops at events and schools around the borough. She even organized a pop-up shop in Mottley Kitchen, a cafe in the South Bronx, where she organizes  weekly Storytimes for young children and a monthly book club for teens and adults.

After reading through their newsletter, I decided to volunteer to read a book for children at Storytime, and was selected to read Windows by Julia Denos. I was very excited and didn’t really know what to expect.

Now, hearing about all of this and experiencing it are two very different things. In theory, it seemed like a nice idea. In practice, it was warm, welcoming, and engaging. Rebekah greeted me and my husband and son, Logan, near the pop-up bookshop set-up, every bit as open and cheerful as she had the first time I met her. She chatted with Logan for a while and when he asked if he could help her, she promised they’d discuss it when he was older. Logan felt included and happy, and I was exceedingly grateful.

After showing me around and explaining my role, Rebekah left us to grab some buttery croissants, filling granola bars, and piping hot English Breakfast Tea (for my wonderful sore throat) from the staff at The Mottley Kitchen (we also bought books, of course), and we settled in until people started to arrive.

Once we had a good group gathered together, Rebekah called everyone together. I sat in a chair in the center of the reading nook and the children gathered around me. Rebekah led the group in a breathing exercise and then a welcome song. It was clear that the large majority of the children were regulars, and Rebekah knew them by name. The welcome song referred to each child by name, including Logan, whom she had just met.

Rebekah had asked me to read The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats in addition to Windows, as the books held many similarities. I agreed, eager to read even more to these adorable children. So, I read, and asked questions, and interacted, and for a wonderful half hour, I got to hang out with children, which really is the best thing.

Photo by Rebekah Shoaf

Then, it was time for the kids to do their book related craft, and I got to mix and mingle with the lovely parents. By the time it was time to go, I was reluctant to leave. I had felt so welcome, and so comfortable amongst this group–I imagine that’s what the kids who come to attend storytime feel like every weekend.

And just like that, I decided I was definitely going to do this again. Maybe not for a little bit, since my schedule is packed, particularly on Saturday, but I would be back. It was such an uplifting experience. In the Bronx, where it’s been a struggle to get one brick and mortar bookstore open, where the overwhelming need for literacy programs are left to very few people to lead the charge, I decided I needed to be a part of it.

If you’re in the NYC area, you should absolutely support Boogie Down Books. Come out for a Storytime or a Book Club. If you’re not, and you can afford it, buy a book or two from their website. Little pleasures like this one are few and far between. We should try, however we can, to keep them alive.

Meet My BFF

When I was fourteen years old, I met someone who completely changed my life. Now, at thirty-five years old, we remain each other’s best friends. She planted the seed of a non-fiction book I’m planning to pursue, and inspired one of the main characters of Never Say Never—Nina, the main character’s charismatic and gorgeous best friend. Ladies and Gentlemen, meet my best friend, Joy. I’d like for you to get to know the both of us through the things we have in common—and the things we don’t.

Joy and I at age 14. The first picture we ever took together. 

Three Things Joy and I Do Not Have In Common

  1. She dresses like a fashion model…and she likes it! This is one of the major ways Joy and I mirror Nina and Never Say Never’s main character, Brynn. Joy always looks like a million bucks. One time, our friends banned together to throw her a surprise party, but she was sad because we’d all ignored her birthday (for the purposes of the surprise). Her boyfriend at the time convinced her to roll out of bed, get dolled up, and go out with him for her birthday. He said he just barely managed to convince her. When she got to the birthday party, after the initial excitement and surprise, I couldn’t help teasing her—she rolled out of bed into a glitzy and gorgeous dress, a tidy bun in her hair and perfect makeup. Because that’s how she is! I would have showed up in a t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. I show up to most places that way, unless I literally HAVE to dress nicer. I’m all about comfort. Joy insists she is, too. We have different ideas of what’s comfortable, though. There are no circumstances for me where four inch heels are comfortable.

2. She is super active! A yoga instructor and an avid traveler, Joy has pictures of her in yoga poses in places from Cuba to Bali. My physical restrictions due to fibromyalgia have as yet required me to take it easy on the physical exercise, but Joy is determined to get me traveling with her. One day soon, I hope.

Teaching my son yoga.

3. She is grace under pressure. When Joy and I were roommates, Joy was always the house mama, cleaning wounds and corralling myself and my husband (we were all roomies together), through the various emergency situations that popped up in our lives. She was even a pro at working us through her own asthma attacks. She has since turned that natural ability of calm under pressure into a career as a Lieutenant Paramedic for the New York City Fire Department.

No, this is not Joy doing actual paramedic work–but it is an FDNY promotional poster she was chosen for!

Three Things Joy and I Have In Common

  1. My friend at work calls me a ray of sunshine. Joy’s favorite thing to wish people is “love and light.”  At the same time, we are quick with a snappy comeback and our snark game is strong. We love strongly, and we are often kind to a fault, but we do not let people walk all over us. And we’re even rougher if you start with those we love. We’re fiercely loyal and protective of each other and our built family.  

The Original Three Musketeers–Me, Joy, and my husband, Ismael…accompanied by our new addition, my son, Logan. 

2. I met Joy during rehearsal for a school musical and we instantly bonded over our love for musicals. We participated in the school choir together. We share an eclectic love of all kinds of music from opera to hip-hop. We enjoy performing and watching others perform–my favorite birthday gift to her was when I took her to see the Broadway version of one of her favorite novels. A novel that she recommended to me, and that I also loved. We both write, although she writes poetry and I write prose. We’re both creatives, and supportive of each other’s interests and it makes for a comfortable environment for experimenting artistically. One leaps, the other catches. It’s just how we work.

At the Broadway production of The Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime

3. The friendship between me and Joy was forged in the trenches. We were both enduring difficulties in our lives between our health, school life, work life, and our personal lives. Our friendship was built on support and switching off on who was rescuing who from what. We were always each other’s heroes, the people who knew our deepest truths and saw through each other’s lies. We learned each other and became experts at reading each other. I trust her the way a soldier trusts his fellow soldier–I swear, I am not being hyperbolic. We’ve endured some insane, life-threatening things together. I trust her with my life and she trusts me with hers.  We are more than just friends. We’re platonic soulmates.

Struggling through homework together as roommates in college. 

So, is this my love letter to my bestie? Absolutely yes, yes it is. Is there a specific reason I’m writing this now, after twenty-one years of friendship? Not really, except that this year has been one of the harder ones to pull through for both of us and we’ve been there for pep talks. We will still drop everything when our best friend needs us, we can still tell how the other is feeling from a simple hello, we can still understand each other’s vague mumblings over where to find the thing on the thing with the thing and bring the right…thing.

Messing with Snapchat filters this summer.

Last week, she called me crying. Last week, I called her feigning positivity. All it took was a phone call to make each other laugh, to make each other see things from a brighter perspective, to center each other’s thoughts. This is my thank you to her–a love letter, yes. But also, I just want you, the readers I love, to know such an incredible person the way I know her. She deserves it. ❤

It Really Does Get Easier

You see that lady? The vacant stare? The irritated-looking but adorable baby? This was just the very beginning of my struggle with post-partum depression, and the beginning of my Logan’s colic. It was a hard first few months, made worse by my already existing anxiety disorder and what we would later discover to be a burgeoning Sensory Processing Disorder for Logan.

Since then, it’s gotten harder in many ways. In other ways, it’s gotten easier. What it has never gotten was boring. As our little family of three struggled with various and multitudinous mental struggles, we coped with love and, in my case, pouring my heart out through my pen.

“Organized Chaos” was a personal essay written in the height of my post-partum depression and maybe even was what led me out of it. Which is why, when I saw a call for submission to an anthology on motherhood and mental illness, I struggled to hit send. This was a deeply personal exploration of the things that made me tick, and why they caused me a struggle to cope.

But I sent it anyway. And now it will be published in the anthology, “It Will Not Be Simple: Motherhood, Mental Illness, and Trauma,” compiled by writers Liz Howard and Christina Xiong. More details are forthcoming, but I hope you will take this journey with me.

More on my other writing projects, as well as my wonderful time at the Author-preneur Workshop, to come soon. And as always, thank you for sticking by me. It’s never the destination, it’s all about the journey.

All my love,

Justine