Minimalism: A Movement for the Elite

I write this just 60 minutes after finally putting my 2-year-old to bed. After putting away the toys, dishes, and giving my dog some much-needed affection. Even though it is closing in on 4AM, I am sitting at my desk instead of getting into bed. I know I won’t sleep.

For most of the evening I held my daughter as she threw up. When she finally closed her eyes and slept in my arms, I sat up, scared to leave her on the couch so I could rest in bed, and scared to put her in bed with me in fear she’d puke in my hair. And now I know that even if I do try to sleep next to her, I’ll be jarred awake every time she coughs, which she does a lot, since she’s been doing that all week at night. Only now, I’ll panic that she’s throwing up again.

But tonight, as she slept in my arms, I finally watched the new documentary about Minimalism.

I’d been putting this off. I probably wouldn’t have even watched it, but I engaged in a debate on a friend’s Facebook thread over the last couple of days, furthering the point I made in an article in The New York Times that minimalism is classist.

After watching the documentary, I realize now more than ever that I am a minimalist in nature. When I moved out on my own as a teenager, then moved dozens of times through my twenties, I gradually whittled my belongings down to what could fit in my truck, which, at the time, was a Toyota Landcruiser from the late 80s. I prided myself in this. The things I had were of value, if only to me. I was never a materialistic kind of person who needed a ton of shoes or clothes. I had books and journals. My rule was that, if I didn’t need to use something through four seasons, then I probably didn’t need it. (I made an exception for outdoor gear.) I constantly culled out shirts and pants. I rarely bought new clothes. If I brought something in, I put two in the donate bin, and so on.

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Having a child a decade ago changed that. I needed household furniture. I needed a couch, a table, and a few other things to make a house a home. At the time, I worked as a maid in houses of people who were what I considered to be very wealthy, even though they weren’t super rich by most standards. They had homes like the ones that I’d grown up in in the middle class with separate dining rooms, living rooms that were hardly used, and sometimes an extra room meant for an office. Some of these places were lavish with extra rooms for doll collections or garages just for recreational vehicles–all things I saw collected enough dust that 1) the people who owned them worked many long hours to afford them and 2) didn’t have time to clean so 3) spent money for me to come in and clean.

It didn’t seem to me that these people were necessarily happier because they had these homes. When I looked at what my daughter and I had–a small studio with what we absolutely needed and not much else–the simplicity of that seemed, well, simpler, but also happier. Yes, I, too, worked long hours, but it wasn’t to afford the stuff, it was to afford our $550 a month rent. I worked long hours because I wasn’t paid much–just over minimum wage.

Minimalism preaches mindfulness in purchases, and it makes me think to the times I spent hours mulling over my Amazon cart full of Christmas presents for my daughter. I could barely afford anything, so the things I purchased had to be well thought-out and few. Buying anything for our home meant toiling over what I absolutely needed vs. what I wanted, and I hardly ever bought the latter. More so, I held on to things because I couldn’t afford to replace them. A cheap, 10 dollar set of pots and pans lasted me nearly 7 years.

When I wrote the article last Spring, it was in reaction to the documentary’s trailer, which showed scenes of people rushing box stores on Black Friday as a reason for needing this movement, or part of it anyway.

My first thought was “Those are poor people. They don’t need to hear about minimalism. Their homes and the lives they live are minimal enough.” Now that I’ve watched the entire documentary, I feel the poor-shaming even more. Those scenes are shown almost as comic relief, with circus-like music played with it, between testimonies of (usually) white men who had corporate jobs saying their lives were miserable despite having a house full of things.

In one scene, Joshua Fields Millburn reads a poem he wrote, talking about the things he needed to buy when he moved. He listed off things that I would never have dreamed of affording. Things that seemed ridiculous, as a poor person, to even consider purchasing. I’d never stepped foot into an IKEA. I’d never known rugs for decoration. Rugs were to keep feet warm, if I was lucky enough to find someone who could give me one they no longer used. But there he stood, complaining about the ability, the privilege, to buy these things.

Mia

Living in small spaces forces you to only keep things that have purpose, often multiple ones at that. This is a poor person’s way of life. The reason those people are rushing in mobs to buy a television or toy is the sales are low enough for them to afford them, and they have often saved up to do so. They will bring that item home like a prize. It will distract them from the crushing hopelessness they feel on a daily basis. Sometimes by the hour as they lie awake at night, adding up money coming in vs. money that needs to go out. A poor person’s accounting that goes down to the cent.

To tell that person they don’t need it would not only be a waste of time, but trite. Like a person who’d just eaten at a nice restaurant telling someone at McDonald’s they don’t need to supersize. Just because you have the means to afford more, just because you have the privilege to say no out of a philosophy you preach, doesn’t give you the right to tell someone counting their pennies to afford a special treat that they don’t need it while hoping they will buy your book instead. Hoping they pay to take your online class. Hoping they purchase something that will profit you.

The Minimalists strive for quality over quantity. As a person in poverty, I could only afford the cheapest clothes. Even used clothing was too expensive, and I often found myself shopping at Walmart’s clearance sales for my daughters. I wore my work pants out until my company told me I needed new ones, and to replace those was a hardship.

So yes, I write this post in the middle of the night, arguably now early hours of the morning. I write it out of anger. I notably write it as a person who considers themselves a minimalist. But most importantly, I write this as a person who has lived in poverty, who was forced to unload carloads of family heirlooms in a donation box because I didn’t have the space to keep them at a time I needed them most to remind me, as a new single mom, that I wasn’t alone.

Sometimes, us folks in poverty need to know that. That we’re not the only ones in this fight for survival. Because, you see, we can’t choose to give up lavish lifestyles and instead spend money on experiences, or going out to eat with friends. So please, all I ask is that you don’t pull poor people into your philosophy, your conversation, and especially don’t shame us. Don’t point to us as a need for a movement you wish to profit from.

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Creating Security when the World is Scary

My response to the news over the past few weeks has been a mixture of anger, sadness, helplessness, and fighting for reaffirmation that my decision to bring my children into the world was a good one.

10305337_10152245834408282_559586058682218791_n (1)I brought my girls into this world promising them I’d take good care of them. I grew them and birthed them with hope they would prosper in our community and wherever they decided to go as adults. I made a choice as a woman, as a single woman at that, to take on this responsibility of providing them with the basic needs of food, shelter, love, and safety.

In a span of several days, I saw news stories of people dying in streets, in front of their children, in front of people peacefully protesting, while trying to provide for their family, and my response was to clean.

We live in a small apartment-about 670 square feet-and even at that size I cannot keep up on the deep cleaning. When I used to be a housecleaner, I learned the difference between light, maintenance-type of cleaning, like wiping counters and giving the toilet a quick brushing, and the deeper cleaning that is done from your knees. The deep cleaning that makes your arms ache from scrubbing marks off of walls, sticky spots off floors, and reaching behind the toilet to wipe away the dust and hair.

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I started sorting through cupboards, throwing away expired food that I’d hung on to out of the old habit of not wasting anything. Some were years old, and I tossed them knowing I’d at one time carefully packed them in a box, bringing them to our new home that I could afford without needing roommates.

IMG_0832A living room free of dust and a hallway mirror without spots wasn’t out of my want to have a clean space, but my biological need to provide a safe home for my children.

I started sorting through my older daughter’s room, clearing out years’ worth of crumpled papers and past art projects she did on rainy Saturdays. If she’d been looking over my shoulder, she most-likely would have objected. But in my experiences in gutting out her room, she returns from visiting her dad, hugging me for helping her climb out of her tendency to save every special rock, every bottle cap, every Happy Meal toy.

For three full days I ignored work, fought through having a slight version of my daughter’s stomach bug, and cleaned. The outside world had turned into a scary place. I had to carve out a tiny space where they could run to, fall asleep in, and wake up to Saturday morning breakfasts.

IMG_0872As a mother, I sometimes resist the complete and total surrender that comes with caring for my children. I also fight to make sure I can say to them sincerely, honestly, and openly “I chose to have you because I wanted you, and I have never regretted that decision.”

Sure, there have been times that I questioned, or thought I’d grossly overestimated what I could physically and emotionally handle, but for the most part we get through our days just fine. Most nights I don’t long for a different life. I am content and often happy with the life I have chosen.

But I can’t protect them from heartache. I can’t shelter them from scary things happening in the world. I can’t keep important people from leaving their lives without saying goodbye.

But I can give them my arms, my beating heart felt through my chest, and a safe place to call home. I can give them food. I can let them fall asleep in my lap. I can sit with them. I can give them myself whenever they need.

 

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Here Now

I’m writing this knowing my bank account is overdrawn, because I’m still waiting on four, unexpectedly late paychecks. I’m writing this from my couch, where my 19-month-old is sleepily nursing in my lap. I’m writing this two hours before I was supposed to meet friends for lunch, but had to cancel because of lack of funds. I’m writing this in between the tugs on my heart strings and knots in my stomach and angst of being alone.

Yesterday I went to bring my friend who’d just had a baby dinner. While I sat at her table, doing the familiar action that was holding a small baby while trying to eat, carefully picking food I’d dropped off of her incredibly new little frame, I started to seethe in jealousy and self-loathing.

My friend had a housecleaner. She had a mother-in-law staying with her. She had a husband at work who made enough to support the three of them and their house, two dogs, and two cats. She had a pile of boxes of things people had sent her, and a lot of things she’d planned to return because they ended up not needing them.

IMG_6450I looked over at my girls, playing so sweetly together, and thought of when Coraline was just born. I was completely on my own in an empty house just two days after I’d given birth. My cousin had stayed with us for a few days, and left us with a freezer full of pasta dishes, and some friends had brought us some food. Other than that, I was alone with a newborn who screamed if I put her down, and a rambunctious 7-year-old who, though I didn’t know it at the time, had hair completely full of lice.

Though Cora’s dad wasn’t there then, he’s here now. For the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen him almost every day. He got a full-time job and has committed to helping me pay for daycare costs while working with me on a schedule that gives him ample time with his daughter.

Mia’s had a hard time with this, of course, since she just returned from being with her dad for a week. Last night, after the visit to my friend’s house, Cora’s dad came to hang out with her for a couple of hours. I turned to Mia and asked her if she wanted to go to the store for cupcakes.

We live next to this ritzy hippie store, full of organic produce, but they also have baked goods that we can purchase with food stamps. On the way there, Mia skipped along next to me, holding my hand.

“Have I told you how much I love you lately?” she said.

I laughed and said not really.

“I love you so much, Mom,” she said. “You’re the best mom anybody could ever have.”

We ate our cupcakes, and I sat across the table from her while she talked about school, and mentioned one of her friends who was really really grumpy that day.

“Am I ever really really grumpy?” I said, knowing I was often.

“Yeah,” she said. “Like if I’m not listening and I know I’m not listening.”

“I feel like I’m kind of hard to live with sometimes,” I said.

“You’re a great mom,” she said. “You get grumpy, but you just had a baby by yourself. I know it’s hard.”

Lately it’s come to my attention that I’ve exhausted myself for a long time, and I’m beginning to feel the mental and physical toll. My hair’s about half as thick, and going gray. I don’t sleep for more than three or four hours. There are always about five things I need to be doing, not including taking a shower or going pee.

I’m looking for a therapist, though I’m not sure what it’ll do to help.

DSCN2248Despite all of this, I’ve already been published several times this year, and am putting the finishing touches on a book proposal that I hope to send out in the next week. My article through the Washington Post a couple of weeks ago made it to print in the newspaper. An essay featured in the Style section.

These last few months have been life-changing with Cora’s grandparents and father becoming a part of our little family. It comes with its own realizations of my own issues revolving around trusting others. In that sense, sometimes it’s easier to be alone.

IMG_6480Coraline took to her dad instantly. I’m pretty sure on some level she knew she was his. Watching them together has been full of moments of unexpected sweetness. She wraps her arms around his whole head, and runs to him for a hug when he leaves.

All of my desires to find a suitable partner have faded. It might be from a mix of no longer having the ability to put energy into it, to wanting to focus on my family’s recent expansion and how that’s affecting everyone. I published a piece about it in the Washington Post the other day, ending with saying I’d try some sort of casual thing, but even that was too much.

I think it’ll be a long while before I can jump into anything like that.

But Coraline’s finally starting daycare two days a week. I don’t think I even need to say what a huge relief that is. It seems like things are always just on the brink of sailing smooth. Or sometimes they do for a while then dip back down to weekends like this where I have absolutely no money.

Darkest light’s before the dawn, you know.

 

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Writing Out of Poverty. Literally.

Lately I’ve been writing a lot about how it feels to live in poverty. I’ve been published or featured seven times in the last week. I’m waiting on three more to go through edits, and another two to go live. On Tuesday, I’ll stand on a stage in front of a class at the college where I just graduated and give a talk about freelancing. I took that class two years ago.

DSCN1960But that’s not even the biggest full-circle moment. I’m working my way out of poverty by writing about my experiences in it. By opening myself up and taking a risk of admitting to others (namely internet trolls) that I’m still struggling enough to qualify for government assistance, I am getting to a place where I don’t need it anymore.

My first piece through the Economic Hardship Reporting Project was published yesterday. It’s the first time I’ve ever published something that said the words “I’m on food stamps.” Yesterday I wanted to curl onto my knees and heave sobs because of those four words appearing on a website. It was admitting how hard this has been while knowing the journey is almost over.

The piece was about the stigma involved in being on government assistance, or welfare, as most incorrectly call it. It’s about being compared to a wild animal receiving handouts on social media. It’s about feeling that judgment and hatred every time I pay for groceries, or even select items off the shelf.

I can honestly say I’ve never felt encouraged to get a college education as a single mother. I especially didn’t feel encouraged to pursue writing. I felt encouraged to work. I felt like I needed to work as many hours as I possibly could, no matter how low the pay, to get ahead. This is an idiotic system. Why wouldn’t low-income people be encouraged to educate themselves to earn higher wages? Not only was I going to school, though, I was taking out the maximum amount of student loans to pay for our meager fixed expenses like rent, insurance, internet, gas, phone, and utilities. I worked my way through college, and received grants and scholarships, but still ended at $50,000 in debt. Graduating meant failing my family at a chance to own a house.

DSCN1965Without the degree, though, I don’t think I would have stopped cleaning houses. I don’t think I would have thought myself on the same level as the people whose houses I cleaned. I don’t think I would have set my sights on top of the mountain, instead of being okay with remaining in the comfort of the trailhead at a job that required little skill or brain-power. Not thinking, not going to school, only working, was easy.

In a sense, I still feel the pull to get a regular job. I’ve written about this before. I think it’s only because writing is such a hobby to me and I feel like I’m not truly working. What is work, anyway? To a low-income person, it means being on your feet, asking people if you can get them anything, and performing customer service in the most direct way possible. Even if you’re working behind the scenes as a janitor, you still have customers to please.

But we’re all working in customer service. We’re all freelancers. Nobody (hopefully) forces us to work and we can leave anytime. And somebody, somewhere, appreciates the work we do, even if they don’t notice it.

I’m sitting in a café right now. I have a store-bought coffee sitting next to my laptop. I’m waiting for emails from editors, sending off essays, and fielding comments on my social media platforms. Last night I stayed up until 2 in order to meet a deadline. The work is constant, a mad dash, and a delicious hustle.

I just found out The Guardian’s running my op-ed tomorrow.

I think I deserve the night off.

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In Defense of My Picky Eater

DSCN0920Like many parents, I saw multiple articles pop up on various news feeds about the study released through Pediatrics yesterday, linking “Selective Eating” to ADHD, anxiety, and depression in children aged 2-5 years. Or, more specifically, “917 children aged 24 to 71 months.” Out of these 917 children, they observed that 20% of them showed signs of moderate to severe selective eating. Being a mother of a child who refuses to eat most foods, and will choose to go hungry an entire day instead of eating food she doesn’t like, I worried over this linkage. According to the study, my child may be depressed or anxious if she’s not eating her vegetables.

The team of doctors heading this study observed that nearly half of the 20% of children who showed signs of selective eating (SE) had parents who were from single-parent homes, kids whose parents used drugs, or who had moms that were anxious themselves.

Their findings stated that “Children with SE at either moderate or severe levels were more likely to have elevated symptoms of anxiety or depression, to experience hypersensitivity to taste and texture, to have mothers with elevated anxiety, and to have family conflicts around food.” Of course these mothers and kids have anxiety and family conflicts around food. Single parents do not have the luxury of purchasing an abundance of healthy foods for their kids to try. I know this. As a single mom, I’ve been there.

1929264_43796148281_6279_nMy daughter started refusing food when she was around 18 months. Before that, I’d chopped up vegetables to mix into her pasta, and fruit in her oatmeal. I am, by default, a healthy eater. I limit processed food, eat fresh ingredients, all of that.

But when she stopped eating, I lost my mind.

I worked part-time cleaning houses, and went to school full-time. I did not, by any means, have money to waste on food my kid refused to eat. I stopped making food for myself, and ate whatever she didn’t eat, but it got worse.

She’d only eat a certain brand of cereal, the yogurt with the berries but not the peaches, and scrambled eggs one week but not the next. I couldn’t afford to purchase food she wouldn’t eat, and sat at the table with her, begging her with my eyes (and eventually words) to take just one more bite. I’d watch her take two bites of her so-called favorite meal and be done.

Going to friends’ houses for dinner or lunch was no longer an option. After a few years, my daughter would look at me and ask, “But what kind of food will they have?” with a worried tone. She’s just over 8-years-old now, and I’ve relinquished all control over her diet. She knows what food is healthy, and what is considered junk food. She knows she has to eat before doing an activity, even if it’s an apple or some cereal. It took us years to get where her refusing a bite of food didn’t make my stomach churn with stress. My anxiety over the possibility of wasting food only exasperated her anxiety about trying new things.

I am also a picky eater. I go through phases where all I want to eat are mashed potato patties with fried eggs, or pasta with meat sauce. I choose restaurants based on what I’ve already had, because I really can’t afford to go out to eat, so I want to make sure I love what I’m buying. I also rarely eat sitting down, and hardly ever eat a full meal. When I realized how much autonomy I had in my own diet, I gave the same respect to my kid.

How much of my anxiety over not having enough food had caused her to stress about it? There have been times that we relied heavily on food stamps, WIC checks, and donations. There were months where I’d eat peanut butter sandwiches and saved the “good” food for her. If she didn’t eat, I freaked. “How could you not be hungry?!” I’d say. “You need to sit right here and finish your food. This is all we have,” I’d demand.

I no longer say those things. I encourage her to listen to her body’s messages before and after a meal. “Do you want a snack or a meal?” I’ll ask. Most of the time she just wants a snack consisting of fruit, crackers, and cheese. And we sit at the table together and eat, and fart, and laugh. I prefer things that way.

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CHALK IT UP TO MOTHER’S INTUITION

I set up the birth tub the night before Mia was born. It wasn’t out of expectation. The next day was her due date and I figured, out of any day, that’d be the least likely she’d arrive. But she did. First thing in the morning. It had nothing to do with a mother’s intuition. I wasn’t a mother yet.

I suppose there might be some similarities to an article I wrote going viral, but maybe not. Writing is something you nurture and care for and witness its growth over time. Maybe, just possibly, it could be your own, inner child. Or maybe I’m looking too much into it.

All I know is, the day before my article on Vox came out, I met with a friend who’s a web designer for Mamalode. We talked about switching my blog to a different platform, SEO, and, finally, starting a professional page on Facebook.

I’d anticipated the pieces coming out on Vox and Scary Mommy for a couple of days. I’d flipped my blog all around, changing pages and pictures, and changing the title. I shut down my Facebook page, making all posts only visible to friends, and made myself a “Stephanie Land, Writer” page. It felt pretentious and weird, but freelancing is my business and that means promoting my brand to get clients, even if that brand is me. Either way, I had to proclaim myself publically as a writer and own it, even though it felt cheesy.

My boss called me Thursday morning right after I’d gotten up. Coraline had been up late and slept in. I was still groggy, had barely gotten out to let the dog pee, and definitely hadn’t had any coffee.

“Have you checked online yet? Your piece came out on Vox, I bet you’re excited about that!” she said.

I hadn’t even woken up my computer yet. The old laptop takes several minutes to get moving in the morning. I let it do its thing, finished my conversation, and went about attempting to boil water for coffee. My bank account was overdrawn for the first time in years. My truck wasn’t running right and needed to get checked out. And I had to mail documents for a hearing next week.

I squinted at my email account, and had a bunch of messages about people following my blog. I frowned, not really knowing what that meant, and checked my blog stats. It’d had almost 4,000 hits in the last hour. Comments were coming in so fast I couldn’t keep up and finally shut them down. Most of them were positive, but quite a few were negative.

Fullscreen capture 7162015 24823 PM.bmpI’d known the Vox piece would cause a stir, and knew it’d piss a lot of people off, possibly defaming my character a bit, but the story and writing were excellent. I trusted most people would see through it, and see the real story that needed to be told: that the big house on the hill doesn’t mean a perfect, happy, life, and my disenchantment from discovering that as a maid.

The comments kept coming in, and people were searching me on Google to get to my blog. They were sending me awful messages, but most were extremely supportive and even inspiring. I kept thinking, “I’m so grateful I started that public page last night.” Most of my Facebook page had been public lately in an effort to promote myself. I couldn’t imagine having thousands of people flipping through years of posts and pictures. I hadn’t expected the popularity at all, but maybe it was a mother’s intuition to protect her kids, I don’t know.

By noon, blog traffic had reached 10,000 hits, which was close to how many hits it’d ever received since I started it in 2009. People from larger news outlets had contacted me for permission to run the story, or if I could send them more of it. Then I got a message from an agent interested in the book I’ve been working on.

I still hadn’t brushed my teeth. I’d boiled water for coffee three times. And why wasn’t the mechanic calling me back?

I finally got a hold of Mia to tell her the news. She’s still visiting her dad until Sunday.

“So I’m extra extra famous now?” she said.

“Yup, sweetie, the book I’m writing about you will probably get published now,” I said.

I could hear her smile through the phone. She told me about her new doll, and all the accessories that came with it. I was so happy to hear her little voice.

You start out on journeys to be a writer, hidden in rooms, scribbling in notebooks, hiding them from others. They’re your private thoughts. They’re things you wouldn’t tell a best friend. Then you get published, and it’s the deepest, most confusing exposure. Part of you is thrilled to get noticed while the other part is terrified that someone has discovered how you really feel. Then you remind yourself to sit back, and enjoy it.

Because this is what over 20 years of hard work paying off looks like. This is what your kids will learn. That if you keep at it, keep working at the dream, you’ll get there. They can choose to do anything, and they’ll know it’ll be possible because they watched you do the same.

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Make. Good. Art.

Neil Gaiman’s commencement speech to the University of the Arts found me a couple of years ago. At the time, I’d just lived through the equivalent of a mother’s existential dilemma. I have a scattering of essays I’ve tried to write about that time, those months, but keeping it in my past has been enough. We’ve recovered. Well, we still work at recovering.

Snapshot_20130319_1Pursing an art degree as a single mom has always been a struggle for me. Not just in the act of going to school. I felt like my status as a solo mom and a low-income one at that didn’t allow me art degrees. I thought I should be getting a two-year degree for a fast-track path to getting a job as an administrative assistant. Anything that would earn me an 8-5 office job with some benefits and enough pay to just barely not qualify for government assistance. And that would be my life. I’d wake up, get the kids ready, and go to work.

But that’s never been my life.

Working as a freelancer adds a special sort of stress. Yes, you make your own hours, are your own boss, and don’t have to ask permission to take a day off. But you don’t apply once for work. You apply again and again. You have work disappear and you have no one to go to for more hours. It’s up to you to get out there, promote yourself, and earn their trust that you’ll do a good job.

Two weeks ago I wrote about feeling despaired over not having any work. In the last week I’ve started my position at an academic writing firm with a vengeance. I have one client I’ll write content for. ESME.net asked me to write a few pieces for them. And I still have my editing job with MissoulaEvents. It’s finally enough for the words “I WORK” to flash in my mind. It’s a sense of pride to pay the bills and have a little bit left over. It’s a sense of hope to think I might be on track to having enough to pay off the debts I’ve been making minimum payments on to keep in good standing.

It’s a sense of maybe feeling like my refusal to sink into a full-time office job until I retire, get tattooed all over my arms, and stubbornly try to hack a writing career out of nothing but my own determination was a pretty awesome idea. That’s always been my mountain, like Gaiman speaks of.

Then this happened.

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It’s like a nod. A congratulatory nod. It’s a blessing. Not because I’ve made it to the top of the mountain. I’m nowhere near it. But I kept trekking. I keep trekking.

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