Is there a difference between gratitude and happiness?

This summer, I began a 150 day happiness challenge on Facebook. Every day I would post something that made me happy. It felt important I do this because I was overwhelmed with fear and anger from my husband’s cancer. Suddenly, I was the caregiver for two medically fragile people, my husband and my daughter, and the emotional toll made getting out of bed difficult. So I started looking for things to make me happy.

Quickly, the exercise felt phony. Very little made me happy. Writing about the joy I found in my morning coffee was silly, and how many times could I write about my garden? Happiness? What was that? I was happy just to get through the day.

Then I realized that I was actually writing down things I was grateful for. Having that morning cup of coffee helped ease me out of bed, and I was grateful for that. Watching my garden grow filled me with gratitude because I could feed my family while supporting wild bees. Gratitude was the best I could do. Happiness was like chasing a mirage.

What is gratitude? To me, it is an awareness of the gifts I have in my life. The simple things, like a warm bed, health insurance and the internet. I am grateful my husband’s cancer seems to be gone and I am grateful my daughter is thriving in her new school. I am grateful for her teachers. Grateful my car is running and I can afford new tires for winter. These things don’t make me happy; they make me grateful for my life.

As the weeks went by and I forced myself to post a gratitude, an interesting shift in my awareness occurred. The more I focused on gratitude, the more I felt happiness. Where did this happiness come from? Circumstances hadn’t changed. My husband still struggled to recover and my daughter still had bad days, but she also had good ones. There were days I wanted to cry from the weight of the emotional load I constantly carried, but on that same day I’d smile watching the dog chase leaves across the back yard.

I am not in denial; things are bad. Frightening. Cancer lurks and my daughter could decline any time. Money is tight and I still don’t have job. The future is one big scary unknown and the odds aren’t in our favor.

In searching for any small, random thing I felt grateful for, I uncovered a rich source of joy. Happiness fluctuates. But gratitude is constant. WhenI feel happiness has vanished and I’m left alone fighting my battles, gratitude holds me up. I am grateful for my strong, weary body. I am grateful for love. I am grateful it rained today.

Or is there really any difference between gratitude and happiness? Can you feel one without the other?

The Writing Process – a blog tour

Thank you so much Natasha Yim for inviting me to the Writing Process Blog Tour. It’s fascinating to learn about each writer’s creative process. Click the link to Natasha’s blog and learn more about her process. Then follow the links backward for some great insights on writing.

But first, read my responses to the writing process questions.

1) What Are You Working On?

Currently I’m writing a middle grade fantasy chapter book for Goosebottom Press, but I’m sworn to secrecy on the exact subject. Let’s just say it’s about a really feisty girl with the power to change the universe. I’m also writing another play, this time set in the 1980’s. This new play is more dramatic than my previous two plays, but will still have plenty of comedy.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Writing for middle grade readers is a new adventure for me, one I’m really enjoying. After reading several middle grade books to familiarize myself with the language and nuances of the genre, I’ve learned that middle grade readers are more savvy and sophisticated than I realized. Your average 11 year old loves a scary scene. Maybe we can thank Harry Potter for that. I can’t really say how different my work is, because I’m still learning. All I know is that I love writing for this age group and hope to write more books.

Now, if you want to ask me about my plays, the number one thing that makes my work different is that I typically write more parts for women actors than men. It is a common complaint in the theater that plays seem to be written for and about men. Unfortunately there are far more actresses looking for parts than actors, so competition for good parts is horrible. I decided to do something about that. Plus, having a background in drama helps me create plays that provide theater companies what they need: parts for women and simple sets. Most of my plays take place in one setting, which means a theater company can save money on scenery design, or go full out on one set.

3) Why do you write what you do?

When I was a child, Zilpha Keatley Snyder was my favorite author. I devoured her books! When I grew up and started writing, I longed to write for that age group (middle grade) and explore some of those darker subjects. Now I’ve been given the opportunity to do so.

I started writing plays because I’m lazy. Writing description is hard for me, but dialogue is easy, so I followed my strengths and discovered I can create great stories with just people talking. And it helps me finally use my BA in drama.

4) How does your writing process work?

Typically, I start with a situation. I’ll get an idea about people in a setting and one of them wants something from the other. But at first, I don’t know who the people are. So I’ll start writing the scene, just letting the language lead the way. Suddenly, one of the characters will take center stage and her desires will become clearer. I’ll hear her voice in my head and once I have that, the plot develops. Now the real writing can start. Occasionally I might discover that the character I’m following isn’t actually the main character. A different character will take charge and the story might go a direction I didn’t imagine. How do I keep any control over this chaos of my imagination? By focusing on my original idea, that one scene that started it all. If I write too far from that original point then I know I have a new story and I have to decide to pursue it, or go back. But generally, the first image is so strong it guides me.

I don’t like too much of an outline at first; I like to follow the characters. Once I have a very clear idea of who all these people are and what they want,  I’ll plot the scenes. Ultimately, there has to be a story, not just characters interacting.

Before I even brush my teeth, I write in the morning for an hour. If I start doing anything else before I write, I won’t write at all that day. I’m also a mom and a publisher, so those two jobs take a lot of my time. If I say, “I’ll just start the laundry before I write,” I will start doing other things “for a minute before I write.” Then my writing time is gone. Let the laundry wait. Write!

The blog tour continues on June 9th with writers Shannon Drury and Kirsten Imani Kasai. Follow the links in their bios to visit their websites and next week you can read their answers to the Writing Process questions too. 

SHANNON DRURY is a writer, at-home parent, and feminist activist. She writes a regular column for the Minnesota Women’s Press and served six years as the president of Minnesota NOW. Her book, The Radical Housewife: Redefining Family Values for the 21st Century, will be published by Medusa’s Muse Press August, 2014. She lives in Minneapolis with her family.

KIRSTEN IMANI KASAI writes horror, erotica and sci-fi/fantasy. She is the author of the novels “Ice Song” and “Tattoo” (Del Rey/Random House), “Private Pleasures” (Renaissance), and “Rhapsody in Snakeskin” (Renaissance), a collection of poetry/short fiction. She is the co-founder of the horror/spec fic literary venture “Body Parts Magazine.” Her experimental prose/poetry piece, “mice,” will be published in the spring 2014 issue of Canada’s “Existere Journal.” In May 2014, she participated in a 10-day artists’ residency and festival in Romania, where she dined with the mayor of Borsec and read her locally-inspired poem “The Truth about Decay in Transilvania” in English and Romanian. She’s recently completed a poetry chapbook “The Atmospheric Mysteries of a Steaming Corpse” and is the recipient of the Anitoch Los Angeles Library Research Prize for her critical paper “Redefining Utopia: How Feminist Utopian Literature Can Serve as a Model for Creating Workable Futures.” Originally from Denver, CO, she lives in Southern California with her children and her partner. Visit her at www.IceSong.com and www.facebook.com/kirstenimanikasai.

And for fun, write your own responses and post them here as a comment, or on your own blog. I’d love to learn more about your writing. 

“Dancing with the Stars” is the greatest dance porn since “Dirty Dancing.”

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It’s a new season on Dancing With The Stars, which means I am once again obsessing over Cheryl Burke, Valentin Chmerkovsky, Mark Ballas and Karina Smirnoff. I’m watching fierce dance routines and booing the judges as if ballroom dance was a football game. The “stars” don’t matter to me (how many “reality stars” are there on TV?). I love the Pros, the dancers who train, teach, choreograph, plot and scheme their way to the mirror ball. Why do I love this world of spray tan, fake eyelashes and glitter so much? Because Dancing With The Stars is the greatest dance porn since Dirty Dancing, and I love dance porn.

I admit I’m a little embarrassed by my obsession. I’m an intellectual feminist with a Master’s Degree and a publishing company. But here I am, every tuesday morning (I don’t have cable, so I have to watch it online,) applauding Emma Slater’s creative choreography. In the middle of the night, I’m scouring Twitter for #DWTS comments. I become frustrated that I can’t vote because I’m watching it the day after, and I know exactly how it feels to have to TiVO a basketball game because you couldn’t watch it live, and then have someone tell you who won.

Dancing with the Stars is my escape from the chaotic, stressful, overly-serious world I live in. It feeds my inner child who longs to be a ballerina. When I was little, I was obsessed with ballet and longed to be a dancer more than anything in the world, but we lived in Lake County, California, far away from any dance classes. So I practiced plies’ in my room while studying a book on basic ballet positions, eventually screwing up my knees. The love of dance never left me and I was finally able to take my first class in college at the age of 19. I danced in a troupe for five years and loved every minute of it, even choreographing three productions. Later, I choreographed two shows for children. Yet again, I live in a town with limited dance opportunities, and being a mom keeps me home. I channel my longing to dance into my writing and publishing, but the desire has never left. I’m too old to be a ballerina, but I know I would be awesome at Tango. All I need is a teacher.

Every day at 4:30, I dance to electronic music on Pandora. Dancing is how I de-stress. At the end of my work day, right before I switch into my mommy day, I shake my ass as fast as I can in my kitchen. My daughter thinks I’m crazy, but sometimes she’ll join in. Occasionally, a Tango rhythm will come on and I’ll pretend that I’m dancing with Maksim Chmerkovsky (and that man can dance a tango!).

We forget to play when we grow up, and before we know it the burdens of life drag us down like quicksand. It seems we only remember to be silly when we’re on vacation, or drunk. Why not do something ridiculous every day, like Tweeting about #DWTS or dancing for 30 minutes in your kitchen? Ridiculous is good for you. Silly lightens the load. Just ask any 10 year old practicing ballet moves all alone in her room. What is better than dance to make you feel alive?

The rules to keep from getting dosed in a bar

To the man who dosed me in a bar,

You are a prick. I hope someone doses you sometime so you can understand how terrifying the experience is. And then I hope someone drags you out to the street by your cock so everyone can laugh at you while you freak out in the cold. Hopefully you’ll get hit by a car.

Sincerely,

The woman you dosed two Sundays ago. 

While visiting friends in San Francisco, I was dosed by a stranger in a bar. I was out having drinks, celebrating a few days of relaxation away from the stress of life at home. My husband sat only two bar stools away from me. And while no one was looking, a man dropped a drug into my gin and tonic.

He slid against me and leaned on the bar, as if wanting to order a drink, and when I saw him every alarm bell in my body rang. His pupils were so dilated he didn’t look human anymore and he didn’t blink. He just stared at me, then he stroked my thigh. Shoving his hand away, I glared into those frightening eyes and said, “No.” He smiled. I turned my  back to him so I continue the conversation about Prague with the gentleman on my left, a funny guy who was friends with the man my husband was talking to. I sipped my drink, chatted more, and then realized that I was touching the funny guy’s bare arm. He was so warm… so soft… leaning against him I felt his t-shirt against my chest. Suddenly, he was gone. I gripped the bar and stared at the people around me. Where was my husband? The scary man was still standing beside me, smiling.

“I’m so tired,” I said, and then lay my head on the bar. Someone’s hand reached inside my blouse and squeezed my right breast. I started to cry.

After that, everything is a blur, like a bad dream you can’t wake up from. You feel everything, every touch and sound and breath, but you can’t shake yourself awake, or make the fear go away. I remember being outside on the sidewalk with my friend holding me, but the scary man was still there. I told her he was touching me. Then I remember trying to walk back to the apartment where we were staying. I remember waking up because I was crying and screaming and I couldn’t stop. My husband was there but he couldn’t calm me down. Far away inside of me, I knew I needed to stop, but I kept screaming. Suddenly I was up and screaming louder, accusing my husband of letting a strange man touch me. And then my husband was gone but my friends were there and one friend took me to the hospital. The screaming finally stopped, but not the terror.

In the morning, I was calm and well enough to go home, so the hospital released me, saying I was exhausted and had experienced a break down due to alcohol. My husband picked me up at the ER and we drove home, silent and shaken from a night of chaos. What had happened? Why had I lost it so badly? Did I just have a nervous breakdown?

My daughter has a disability and is medically fragile, so every day is stressful. Add to that losing my job, marriage trouble and constant pain from a neck injury, and it’s no wonder I’m prone to hysterical weeping, especially if I drink too much. But this was different. This time when I cried, I was out of my head and ready to kill myself.

The next day, I explained to my daughter’s aid what had happened and she said, “You were dosed.”

“What? How? What are you talking about?”

“You were dosed. Someone slipped something in your drink when you weren’t looking. Probably that creepy guy who was grabbing you. You have all the classic signs.”

“But… I’m too old to be dosed. I could be that guy’s mom.”

She laughed. “No your not. You’re hot. And besides, you gave him the opportunity. Other people probably had their drink covered.”

And then she told me about the times she’d been dosed, how her friends had been dosed, what to do if you get dosed, and how to prevent it from happening.

But I still couldn’t believe it. Why would anyone want to dose me? I’m not a naive 21 year old girl; I’m an intelligent, savvy, full grown woman who doesn’t take shit from men. They tested me for drugs in the hospital and they didn’t find anything. The idea was crazy!

When I told the story to my friends under age 35, they all said, “Sounds like you were dosed.” I told my friends over age 35 that people thought I’d been drugged, and they all said, “That makes a lot of sense.” I went online and read about rape-drugs and side effects and how to protect yourself from being drugged, and even though my brain just couldn’t accept that someone would do it, I realized my friends were right: I had been drugged by the creepy guy.

The most disturbing thing about this, other than the experience itself, is how nonchalant my friends under age 35 are about getting dosed. Being dosed in a bar is as ordinary an event as getting a phone number from someone you meet there. Since it happens so often, everyone knows how to protect themselves. Unfortunately, I’m 46 and don’t go to bars very often, so no one taught me the rules. But here’s what I know now.

The Rules to keep from getting dosed in a bar.

  1. Always keep control of your drink. Don’t leave it on the bar, or on the table, at any time. If you have to pee, take your drink with you! Want to dance? Finish your drink first.
  2. If you do set your drink on the bar or a table, cover it with a plastic cup or the coasters bars give you. That makes it harder for someone to slip something into it.
  3. Never take a sip of a drink from someone, even someone you know. Do not share drinks.
  4. If someone wants to buy you a drink, go with them to the bar. Don’t drink anything that has left your sight. Someone hands you a beer? Only drink it if it is still unopened.
  5. Do no go to bars alone. If you’re on a date, reread all the rules and FOLLOW THEM.

The other thing I discovered is that hospitals do not routinely test for “date-rape” drugs. And many of the drugs pass through your system so quickly even if they do test, they might not find anything. The hospital I went to tested my alcohol level and checked for standard recreational drugs, like cocaine and pot, not Ketamine or GHB.

It’s a bizarre comfort to know I was drugged and didn’t just lose my mind one night. However, it is frightening to realize how violated I was and I’m thankful my friends were there to help me. What would have happened if I’d been alone?

For more info, here are some links I found:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Date_rape_drug

http://www.medicinenet.com/date_rape_drugs/article.htm

http://goaskalice.columbia.edu/rohypnol-roofie-and-rape

http://teenadvice.about.com/library/weekly/aa062502a.htm