I have an addiction. It’s nothing as seedy or interesting as drugs, alcohol, or sex. It’s DragonVale, a game I loaded on my phone sometime in April. My boys suggested it because they know what I sucker I was for Zoo Tycoon and Farmville. They weren’t wrong — I love that goofy game. Perhaps a bit too much.
As soon as I loaded it, I began racing through the levels. I can spend hours arranging and rearranging my islands. I have a spreadsheet to keep track of my dragons and the right breeding combinations for dragons I want. Yes, a spreadsheet. Like I said, I have issues.
It’s understandable. There is so much about my world I can’t control. My health, my job, the global pandemic. I can’t seem to get traction on any of my goals — thanks to the big three mentioned above. But in DragonVale, I can actually achieve things. I reach goals. And the dragons are cute.
Seems harmless enough. But as I fall further behind on the million-and-one things I could or should be doing because I’m tapping my phone screen, a passage comes to mind. In it, one demon is teaching another how to keep man from living his purpose.
“As the uneasiness and reluctance to face it cut him off more and more from all real happiness, and as habit renders the pleasures the vanity and excitement and flippancy at once less pleasant and harder to forgo...you will find that anything or nothing is sufficient to attract his wandering attention. You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday's paper will do. You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people whom he likes, but also in conversations with those he cares nothing about, on subjects that bore him. You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room. All the healthy and outgoing activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at last he may say...'I now see that I spent most my life doing in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
We live in a world of dead fires: social media, streaming services, dating sites, video games… this list goes on. None of these things are bad in and of themselves, but they’re dangerous nonetheless. It’s all-too-easy to get sucked into them and lose days, weeks, months. We get hooked on these sites thanks to the dopamine hit they give, and the effect is that we are literally rewiring our brains. They impact our peace, relationships, and ability to find contentment. These are all reasons I generally stay off social media, I left dating sites, and (pre-covid) limit myself to one television show in the evening.
Stuck in my house and too sick to do much else, I kinda left the one show rule in the dust. But it wasn’t until Dragonvale got its hooks in me that I found myself staring into a dead fire when I should be writing.
Now that I've recognized the problem, I’m going to try limiting myself, seeing if I can have the restraint to only check in a couple times a day and for up to half an hour a time. Because the goofy game really does seem to help me deal with all the rest. But I suspect that, like most addictions, I’m eventually going to have to quit cold turkey because the benefits aren’t worth the cost.
For me, it’s DragonVale. For someone else I love, it’s checking news sites. For another, it’s SnapChat streaks. The world is littered with dead fires. And I can’t help but wonder what we could do if we stopped staring into nothingness.
Right now, the Internet is awash with extroverts climbing the walls amidst social distancing. My poor sisters are jonesing for people. Per usual, I feel like a bit of an oddball because, in many ways, I think I’m less lonely here in the heart of isolation.
Being a single mom is a lonely gig. I often find myself on the outside of the acceptable groups, a bit adrift from the rest of humanity. I don’t get invited to social functions that are largely for couples. I work too many hours to be deeply involved in parent groups at the boys’ school. I’ve never been much of a bar hopper, but I’m especially not now that I’m solidly in my 40s.
Usually, I’m working full-time outside the house and trying to juggle everyone’s competing activity schedules, so I'm too busy to notice it as much, but it also keeps me too busy to reach out to make connections with people. I join things like Meet-Ups, trying to find groups of like-minded people, but I’m invariably too broke and too tired to attend the events.
The truth is, I have friends - wonderful friends - who have their own spouses and children and lives. We are all just so terribly, painfully busy these days.
Pretty much overnight, Covid cleared my calendar, along with the rest of the world’s. But we humans are social creatures; we didn’t let it stop us for long.
There have been a lot of things I’ve seen in the past month that have left me scratching my head, wondering if I will ever understand humanity. But there have been many beautiful moments of people reaching out and finding ways to connect and support one another as we get through this period of isolation together.
Almost immediately, I was added to a local group galvanizing as a community to keep people informed and help people find the resources they needed. Then other Facebook groups like Heart Hunters and What Do You See From Your Window? #StayAtHome popped up, creating a sense of solidarity with others practicing social distancing around the globe.
My family started game nights via Zoom and the HouseParty App, and I saw nieces and nephews I haven’t seen in years because we’re scattered across the country.
Patrick Stewart started reading us A Sonnet a Day. John Krasinski started sharing Some Good News, even hosting a prom for 2020 seniors. Every morning for the past week, I’ve tuned in to Travis Linville’s live stream along with others from around the world, forming what’s been dubbed “the morning crew.”
When a Final Fantasy gamer died of COVID-19, the community honored her with an online funeral procession in what was truly a beautiful moment.
I don’t really know where I’m going with this, except to say that this week has been unsettling for me with all of the strife over when and how to end social distancing. I have opinions on the subject, but they’re just that, opinions. I’m not a scientist and what I think really doesn’t matter. I’ll go back to my office when I’m told to because I have kids to feed.
BUT, whenever I start to get too upset by the venom people are spewing at each other because they feel out of control in this crazy situation, I stop and think about all of the stuff above. I think about all of the people who reached out to check on me and the boys. I think about the store manager at work who created a giant sign that read "We will be okay" in the fence at one of our Iowa locations. I think about the way the entire world, or at least a good portion of it, pressed the pause button and joined together for even this one moment.
As with all things, I’m inching my way through this crisis, hopeful yet pragmatic. Thankful for where I am in this particular moment but aware that circumstances change. Mindful of those around me who are suffering.
Wherever you are tonight, I hope you are well, and I hope you’ve found a tribe to weather this storm with. And if you need a friend, I'm just an email or message away.
Ya’ll, I’m not going to sugar coat it: I have a crush. After the damage the last couple of guys did to my heart and ego, I’d begun to resign myself to being an asexual romance writer, so it feels like a wondrous thing to have a schoolgirl crush, even if it’s on a man I’ve never met.
One of my favorite things about living in Buffalo was the Old Home Place Concert Series. So when they took this month’s concert online because of Covid-19, I was pretty excited about attending. Eight musicians sang two songs each from their home. One was friend and favorite musician Lyal Strickland, but the other seven were new to me, including Travis Linville.
If there is a Mrs. Linville, I will apologize now but that man is adorable and I have been listening to his music pretty much non-stop since Thursday night. I’m fairly certain I need to meet him in person when the world resumes.
I watched Miss Austen Regrets this week - it struck a chord with me on so many levels. I know my inability to finish a novel these past few years is as tied to my regrets as it is to my busyness. The movie, the music, the COVID-inspired isolation, it all seems to be converging to help me embrace where I am in life, who I am.
Whether it’s to my benefit or detriment, I can’t say, but I’m a romantic. I am a writer. (I also miss my farm. I miss my chickens and goats and long walks in the woods with my dogs, but that’s for another day.)
Since I was a teenager, I relegated my novels to hobby because I needed to do something “practical.” I am not a practical person and I am making myself miserable trying to be. I’m an observer and a dreamer and I’m happiest when I let the words tumble from my brain onto the page. I think it’s time I own that, fully, and actively work toward putting it back in the center of my world.
When my kids were growing up, I relegated my desire for romantic love to my books because my children were my world. They needed me to focus on them. When they were old enough for me to try to find my person, the antics that ensued were worthy of a novel - a bit comedy, a bit tragedy. (That book is coming, eventually.) But, not gonna lie, I think the endeavor nearly broke me. He nearly broke me.
I’ve done a lot of healing these past months. A lot of thinking. A bit of writing. The ideas are back now. I’m dreaming books again. I wake up and furiously write down everything I can remember so it’s there when I need a new book idea.
I have three nearly-finished novels that I’ve painstakingly chipped away at FOR YEARS. So naturally, when I dreamed the inspiration for Violet Sky, I set them aside and dove head first into it. At the moment, I am completely and utterly in love with the characters in this book. They’re in my head all the time. I enjoy thinking about them, who they are, what their story is.
As non-sequitur as it seems, stumbling across Travis Linville’s music feels like it’s all oddly a part of whatever transformation is happening to me right now. So I am going to wake up early on a Saturday morning to catch his 8 am Facebook Live because--seriously--dude’s adorable. And then I’m going to spend the day listening to his music on Spotify while I immerse myself in the world I’m creating with Violet Sky, and I’m going to enjoy the writing process. I’m not going to worry about word counts or publication schedules or any of the myriad of practical things I could or should worry about.
I’m simply going to be a girl who owns her regrets, smiles a bit over having a crush at 42, and is happiest surrounded by the words tumbling out of her brain.
I try to stay away from anything political or negative, there is enough of that in the world. But the conversation in the United States yesterday upset me so much I couldn’t help posting an article on Facebook with a quote from Bill Gates saying we can’t ignore the stack of bodies in the corner to restart our economy.
With my post, I said this: I do not in any way diminish the cost of this pandemic to families, but I don't think we can put a dollar amount on lives. This isn't about old or young, every life is precious and this virus is killing people of all ages. The sooner we take it seriously, the sooner we can overcome and build a new normal. I am sickened by the politicians suggesting people willingly sacrifice their lives to save the economy and the stories of pharma companies poised to exploit loopholes to profit from death. Times like these reveal character. Theirs and ours, for better or for worse.
One person in particular posted multiple comments disagreeing with me, saying his father lived through the Great Depression and we definitely don’t want that. He sited riots in the streets in other countries over the hit their economy is taking with the virus and said this isn’t the time for hating Trump. To vote in November and respect the results. There was an air of condescension in his posts - the impression that I just didn’t understand what it was to do without, so my suggestion that people matter was done in ignorance.
I typed up a response. A long one. But the reality is, my sister spoke to each of his points better than I could have, so I decided to take my response and use it as a basis for a post here. I’m sure some of my readers will walk away from me after this, and while that makes me sad because I treasure each of you, what’s the point of having a voice if you don’t use it?
This is the time for people to speak up - loudly - for what is right. It is a time for us to band together to get through this. To set aside differences and remember that we are stronger together, and whatever storms come our way, we will weather them if we cling to hope and love.
I may not have lived through the Great Depression, but my children and I have known incredible hardship. We’ve lost every single thing we’ve owned. Been homeless. Been hungry. Lived in places so cold we would freeze to death if I fell asleep and didn’t stoke the fire on time. We are in a very brief period of comfort in our lives. The only one that’s been truly peaceful because there is no abuse to navigate. I do not take the crash of our economy lightly.
And yes, I hate Trump, but his words weren’t the one that sparked my post. It was the Lt Gov of Texas, actually. And yes, now is absolutely the time to call out the complete leadership vacuum at the federal level. We need to remember this moment when we vote in November - those who are left alive to vote, that is.
We do not get an easy choice here. If we are flip with human lives to save our economy, enough people will die that it will most assuredly still impact our economy.
In my county, the largest number of cases are 20 - 30 year olds. This disease will not just wipe out seniors. It will take our workforce, too. Think of the expense of a million or more insurance policies being paid out. Family breadwinners gone. Our workforce depleted.
I am a single mother. If I don’t put a roof over my children’s head, they don’t have one. If I don’t feed them, they don’t eat. If restrictions are lifted, my employer will absolutely want me back in the office even though my job can easily be done from home.
I am immune compromised. I will catch it if that’s not what I’m already dealing with at the moment. I catch everything these days. My fear is not for myself but for my 20-year-old asthmatic son. Is my 16-year-old with the blood disorder also high risk? Probably.
I am all for people returning to work as soon as is safely possible, but nothing I’ve heard from our federal government gives me any reassurance our safety is at all on his mind.
We need testing. We need to understand how widespread this is and who has immunity before we can have the conversation about returning to work. We need to be gearing up for what is about to hit our hospitals.
We had the gift of knowing what was coming and we squandered it. It’s time for our leadership to step up and be leaders. Since I am lucky enough to be working from home, as long as I have income, I will do my part to help those around me who need it. We will have to band together to survive this. But we can survive it if we don’t start acting like inhumane fools at the very start of this crisis. We are better than this, or we can be if we choose to be.
COVID-19 will cost this world much and in many ways. We can’t let it take our humanity, too.
When you tackle someone in football, you’re supposed to keep your head up. Tackling with your head down, also known as spearing, is a good way to injure people--yourself and your opponent. It’s so dangerous, in fact, that it was banned at all levels of the sport in 1976. Despite the ban, it’s a practice that persists, in large part because coaches fear that teaching their players the correct way to tackle will curb their aggressiveness. It seems a startlingly large number of coaches actually go the other way, teaching their players to use their helmet as a weapon, despite the fact that it dramatically increases the risk of serious injury on both sides of the tackle--like, permanent, crippling injury. It’s such a big deal that the NFL addressed it again in 2018, making a rule that spearing can lead to a 15 yard penalty or even ejection from the game.
We’ll set aside for a moment that there are grown men teaching children to permanently injure other children just to increase the number of wins under their belt and secure their jobs. Because if I go down that path, it’ll just turn into a tirade. A blinding rage, mama bear tirade.
My youngest is nursing his second concussion of the season. Second. Both are the result of the other team intentionally playing dirty and intentionally inflicting a head injury. I’m struggling to wrap my brain around this on so many levels. How one human could harm another just because, how a grown man could teach children to harm each other, how a grown man could knowingly endanger a child’s entire future just to pad his own ego… again, mama bear tirade. There are a couple of football coaches in the St Louis area who should probably walk the other way if they see me coming. But I digress.
What I really want to talk about today is not about the entitled sleazeballs, but about my son’s football team. About the coaches who put the kids first and go out of their way to teach them how to play the sport safely. About the programs out there that care about the kind of humans they’re shaping these young men to be. About the men who stepped in as father figures to my son and how very lost and angry he was before he found football.
I want to talk about the fact that my son’s team held their heads high even when things got rough. They played with courage and grace and heart no matter how dirty it got out on that field. The fact that there are still teams like that, still young men like that, gives me hope for our future as a society.
Because life sucks. People don’t fight fair. They pay unfair wages even when they have the means to do the right thing. They step on each other for the sake of greed, pride, and pure meanness. The playing field of life is not level. And while I am killing myself to give my children a boost up because I hope their road is easier than my own has been, I’d much rather they learn to keep their heads high no matter what life throws at them. Someone else fighting dirty isn’t an invitation to get down in the mud with them, it’s a call to rise above.
There are a few reasons my blog and books have been largely silent the past couple of years. In part, it’s just been the reality of life. I’m a single mom working multiple jobs and shuttling teenagers. There’s not a lot of time or brain power left at the end of all that to be creative.
But I’ve also been struggling with a bit of an identity crisis. As my friend Jesse puts it, “We’re not talking to Happy Heather right now…” It's hard to write about hope and love when my faith in both has been shaken to its core.
After years of silence, the words inside me are starting to shake loose again. The book they’re producing is different. It’s not part of Throwaway’s world. Jesse also told me to stop worrying about how it fit into the platform and just to write it for me, so that’s what I’m doing. And, as usual, the words are helping me process, to find healing. I’m not sure where they’re taking me, but I believe it’s somewhere better.
And I’m realizing that like my son’s football team, I want to keep my head high, even if those around me don’t. Because it’s not about winning a game, it’s about who I am as a person. And I don’t want to be the person who doesn’t believe in love, the person who’s lost hope.
It feels like the entire last year has been one dirty tackle after another, but there’s been a lot of good in it, too. So I’m gonna spit the mud out of my mouth, pick myself up, and keep playing the game with my head high.
I’ll also be figuring out what to do about dirty high school football programs and my platform (and books) might be a bit cheekier than my long-time readers are used to, but my head’ll be high...
A couple of weeks ago, I posted something on my personal Facebook wall about anger. At the time, anger was sweeping through me with such ferocity I was a little afraid I would lose myself to it.
The post was a quote encouraging people to use their anger to fuel action. For the most part, it was met with encouraging words from friends who know me well enough to be concerned for me. But it was also met with a few well-intentioned but anger-inducing words that basically said anger is never appropriate.
In no frame of mind to discuss it—because I was clinging to my sanity for dear life—I deleted the comments, something I don’t typically do. But I’ve spent a lot of time since then not only trying to regain peace but wondering why it is that we as humans have such an odd relationship with anger, and why it’s particularly frowned on in women.
Because while the Bible cautions us to not sin in our anger, and it speaks against outbursts of wrath, and in the book of James, we learn that the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God, I would argue that there is a place for anger in our lives and not acknowledging is much more harmful than seeing it, owning it, and channeling it.
Ignoring anger is what allows it to turn into bitterness, and bitterness is a cancer that eats away at our souls and our relationships.
I have built a brand on the image of Happy Heather, but I am angry.
I am angry at the CEOs who used me for my mind without acknowledging me or paying me a living wage, leaving my family to struggle.
I am angry at my ex-husband and the choices he made and continues to make, at the hurt he has caused me and our children.
I am angry that every time I lift my head up, there is an avalanche waiting to bury me.
I am angry at the men who assaulted and raped me.
I am angry at the childhood wounds inflicted by those who should have protected my heart.
I am angry that I spent so much time healing from those wounds, only to have everything stripped away by alcoholism and dementia.
I am angry that I have to watch my father die a horrible death.
I am angry that the VA would leave him to die under a bridge. That there are no resources available to our veterans, and we are left with the option of my mother being left penniless or my father being shipped to whatever facility they can happen to find—assuming he survives the wait.
I am angry at the old coots sitting at “The V” in Republic, Missouri who snuck him booze when we tried to dry him out two years ago and then left us to deal with the disaster they created.
I am angry that it ripped my family apart. That where there was once cookouts and laughter and love, there is now silence echoing throughout the emptiness of our world.
I am angry that the man I love doesn’t want to build a world with me. That he gave me hope and made me long for something he had no intention of giving. That he hurt my children in the process.
I am angry at how incredibly alone I feel.
I am angry at the powerlessness I feel.
I am angry at the church for turning from Jesus and to politics.
I am angry at the number of people who have been turned away from God by those who purport to follow him.
I am angry about the human beings in concentration camps in our country.
I am angry that instead of looking for real solutions to the question of abortion, women’s health is being legislated in dangerous ways.
I am angry for the children forgotten in foster homes and abject poverty in our own backyard.
I am angry that after a decade of crying out against human trafficking, we haven’t even made a dent because people do not care. Bargain deals matter more than human lives.
I am angry that I’m stacking people into my house like cordwood because young people cannot earn a living wage in this country. Jobs are aplenty, but none of them offer a salary someone can live on.
The problem is not with my anger. Yes, it is a secondary emotion—in every instance above, I can point to the pain, injustice, and a sense of powerlessness that are fueling it. But the anger is real and shoving it down will do nothing beyond allowing it to fester.
I shoved it down for 41 years, and when my father’s crash-and-burn ripped back the scabs covering that anger, the power of it nearly consumed me.
I don’t want to keep this anger. My point is not to hold on to it. It has to be acknowledged, investigated, channeled and then released. I must move forward and leave it behind, and that’s a continual process.
But in that process, I use my anger to fuel me. To guide my decisions. To draw boundaries. To fix what I can and fight for others.
Because we have much to be angry about. But there is also love, and beauty and joy to be had. To deny the anger gives it power over us instead of using its power to move us beyond, to something better.
I have no idea why, but today I had the compelling urge to listen to Chicago—something I did often as a preteen but haven’t done in years. For some reason, as I sit here nursing a shattered heart and navigating adulting minefields and intense family drama, I decided I needed to listen to Chicago. Because that’s just what I need right now, more feels.
The first song to come through my earbuds, I realized it’s all their fault. Maybe not the minefields and family drama, but the broken heart is on that danged sappy group.
Couldn't stand to be kept away, just for the day, from your body. Wouldn't want to be swept away, far away, from the one that I love.
That. I want someone who feels that. I grew up listening to music like that, writing books about it. My heart yearns for something that feels impossible right now. I’m not sure if he ever felt that, the one who made me smile, the guy who brought me back to life. Maybe he did and just didn’t let himself show it. Or maybe he just didn’t. As much as my romantic heart rebels at the notion, it happens.
I know he loved me. There was a time when anyone in the room with us could see how much we adored each other, but somewhere along the way, he stopped enjoying me. Our relationship became more work than not. Not because I was a diva or he was a jerk. It was life, mostly. Life and outside influences. People with their own selfish interests putting up roadblocks. Neither of us handled it as well as we could have, but we tried. I genuinely believe we both did.
After we broke up, I reposted sage words of internet wisdom on my Facebook wall. He wasn’t speaking to me and part of me wished—naively, I know—that he’d see it and some sort of light bulb would go off in his head. (Which would give me the added bonus of being the first person ever to change someone’s mind via a Facebook post.)
Instead, what I got was a comment from an old colleague: All you need is love.
I think it would have hurt less if he’d physically punched me in the gut. I know I’m a romance novelist who has built her entire platform on hope and love and all kinds of sunshiney stuff, but I firmly believe that statement is absolute crap. Like it was my fault for not loving him enough.
I’ve seen people who were loved dearly drink themselves to death. I’ve seen women love their husbands but leave because they couldn’t take the emotional or physical abuse anymore. And sometimes you can love someone, immensely, and still say “no more” because their actions hurt you and keep hurting you and at some point, your heart (and sanity) just can’t take anymore.
I loved that man, deeply, and I believe he loved me. But here I sit, alone. Listening to Chicago and wishing things were somehow different. Because it takes more than love. It takes work, and a choice. Maybe even a daily choice.
I believe that relationships (of all kinds) are not static; they’re fluid and ever-evolving. Either we move toward people or away from them, but we never run completely parallel to them.
When you first learn to drive, you realize that it’s not as simple of a process as it seems—there’s a lot of counter-correcting involved. If your wheels are aligned and the driver is good, you don’t notice it, but it’s still happening. I think maybe relationships are kind of like that. And somewhere along the way, the counter-correcting happening in mine was reminiscent of a 15-year-old behind the wheel for the first time. We meant well, but we were giving each other whiplash.
There is so much in my life that is good right now. I love my new town. My children have turned into ah-mazing men and are flourishing. My dogs are at me feet. I am safe; I am comfortable.
I am sad.
I mourn my family, tattered and torn remnants are all that remains of what was once a big, bustling family full of love and laughter (and craziness, but there was a lot that was good). Childhood wounds lie gaping at the surface, the scars that covered them ripped open by alcohol and dementia and so much brokenness.
I worry about money, cars, work, and my irritating landlord.
And I grieve the loss of the man I love.
The Facebook gods have been serving me all kinds of self-help ads. Recently, they showed me a TED Talk on grief. I felt guilty, identifying with that widow. It feels wrong to compare a breakup to death. But what she said resonated with me: that person you loved is always a part of you. You don’t move on from that. But you do have to move forward.
And so I will continue to put one foot in front of the other and move forward.
Maybe someday he’ll show up on my doorstep and leave no room for doubt in my mind and we’ll have that life together we’d been building.
Or maybe I will cry a little less each day. I’ll grow a little stronger each week. I’ll find my feet again. Learn to hope and love again.
Who knows? Maybe I’ll even write.