I’m writing from Orange County, where–for the first time in years–the region is experiencing daily June Gloom in the mornings. I’m in California, firstly, to move up my beloved dog to Washington. My dear Bellatrix will hit the road with me up the coast all the way to my northern home. She’ll walk in a rainforest for the first time. She’ll discover moss and run through Jurassic Park-like ferns and damp, foreign terrain. She’ll live with me: a dream of mine for years, a dream I didn’t think was a possibility as recent as two months ago. This is happening.
The other reason for this trip is to bid farewell to all of my long-term doctors and do final hurrah check ups. I turn twenty-six in August and will be transitioning to Washington’s public health care. That is happening. It’s beyond my control and all I can do is fight for proper treatment and medications, not panic, and hope. I’m lucky. Washington is the best state for public health care. I’ll be okay.
In May, I finished up the last of my line edits on NOTHING LEFT TO BURN. It’s now in copy edits and has a gorgeous (so, so gorgeous) cover that will be ~revealed~ June 26th and, equally exciting, it’ll be up for pre-order the week prior. This is all happening. This dream. This hope I’ve been working for my entire (young adult and) adult life. I started writing the first version of this novel when I was thirteen and have been re-writing, revising, learning to write, again and again, querying, writing, fighting for this book ever since.
I don’t know when I’ll truly believe that NOTHING LEFT TO BURN is being published. Maybe when I hold an ARC in my hands this summer. Maybe when I hold a finished copy in January. Maybe when I see it on bookshelves on March 13th.
March 13th. March used to be my least favorite month but, oh, that’s now changed.
March is usually my least favorite month but, oh, that’s now changed.
At the start of May, I flew to the Bay Area to help my older sister with my two-year-old niece and their moving to Reno. It was a sudden and quick trip: five days with a roadtrip to Reno squeezed in. But it forced me out of my go, go, go, work, work rythm, and oh I will never turn down an opportunity to see my niece. And, after the trip, still early May, I became severely sick. In May, I wrote seventy pages set in Alaska and struggled relentlessly with a synopsis. At the end of May, I withdrew from the MFA program I’d planned to start this summer. It was when I started applying for a private personal loan to cover rent for the next year that it hit me: no, this can wait, this is a financially terrible idea, no, it can wait, it’s not now or never.
In May I made some good decisions.
In April and May, I walked into the forest regularly, and I’m learning to appreciate the sun, and I learned to let myself take days off, letting myself stop working after I’ve put my time in, seeing new and old friends. In April and May and now June, I’m focusing on the differentiation of what I want to do and what I need to do and what I think I need to do but don’t need to do: I too often get the three confused.
And now it’s June and June kicked off with my flight to California and I’m still here, sorting through a lifetime of books, spending time with my parents and my brother and my dog (oh my, that girl has no idea what’s in store for her), seeing doctors every day, and (attempting) to squeeze some work in. It’s my older sister’s anniversary and she and my brother-in-law are vacationing, so–surprise!!!–more time with my niece (which I did not know what was happening).
And so, with the roadtrip home next week, I won’t be back to my desk until the 16th–so deep into this month–and I’m trying not to let this freak me out; I’m focusing on why this is the case: my health and moving my baby home with me.
This summer: holding a galley of my book in my hands, pass pages, seeing more old friends (fingers crossed), finishing my proposals (again) and letting them go enough to send them onward to my agent, a booked two months of freelance projects (so, so happy about this), and PITCH WARS (and all the better: I’m co-mentoring with one of my dearest friends, Rachel Griffin)!
But, god damn, I miss my young sister fiercely. The last time I saw her there was snow on the ground in Utah. The next time I’ll see her there will be snow again on the ground in Utah. Why is Australia so far?
Spring is my least favorite season unless it’s followed by a particularly lethally hot summer. The week after Daylight Savings, mid-March, insomnia hits without fail. I always forget this trend but, the past two years, Facebook has reminded me. Day four of no sleep and TimeHop pings me with a post from that same day in 2007: “Sleep deprivation will kill me.” This past March, with its lengthening days and breaks in the rain, had me aching for early February, for the season’s last snow, for the dim mornings and afternoons.
Spring has never been kind to me but, then again, this spring has been all right. I think the rain helps. The news says this has been the coldest, wettest winter on record in Seattle and the cloud cover has pushed deep into April. It’s a relief. It’s a dream. Why am I so lucky that with every place I live it’s hard to fathom that it’s my home because of its beauty? That I live here. Here. I’ve been lucky with everywhere, this silly blog is a testament to that. I’ve been so spoiled.
I live in a place where five minutes on foot leads me to a forest. And in that forest are tree houses, and huts made of twigs and branches and logs so that I can crawl over rivers, and platforms in the highest trees. It took me three months to find these forest gem. Three months to see past the mossy evergreens and rain and hail and all the lush green.
I live three hours from Forks, WA. Fourteen-year-old me would be so amused. And, now, naturally, whenever I have visitors a trip up the peninsula is essential. Less for Forks and more for the Hoh Rainforest, for La Push, and Ruby Beach. I’m admittedly going through something of a fangirl resurgence–triggered surely from a personal event that I can’t go into, triggered inevitably from my basically living on the border of the Olympic National Peninsula, triggered probably from meeting new friends who are loud and unashamed in their past fangirl ways. It’s refreshing. And it feels good to embrace nostalgia, to laugh at the passion of younger me but also seriously acknowledge the impact that events and friendships in conjecture to Twilight had on me. I’d be a fool not to be grateful.
The best of news: I’m moving my dog up from California to live with me in June. A three-day drive with my baby. Living with my beloved. I’ll believe it when she’s here, or maybe when we’re on the road, but oh my heart. It’s been a hard few months in terms of health and pain levels, so I’m holding onto this truth with the tightest grip: my dog with me always.
I keep thinking about what I want to do with this space. My blog. I’ve gone through and privatized a bunch of old posts–those that felt too revealing, those in which I showed my teenage naivety, or were simply too painful to read. There are still many vulnerable ramblings public, though I could argue that every last post is just that, including this: exposed, transparent. Where’s my privacy? I’ve been here, open and loud and clear, for so long that I don’t know how to set new boundaries. Since the beginning, I questioned my having a blog on a yearly basis, often shutting it down for months or years at a time, and lately, more and more, I lean toward replacing it with an “updates” page that will offer more book related updates. ~Professional~ Ha? Finally? Maybe. We’ll see.
Hi. I moved. I mentioned I was moving, right? Only an hour south but that hour south has made all the difference. My backyard is a forest, and that forest has trails that lead to a beach or lead to more trees. It’s quiet. It’s so quiet, and it rains ever so slightly more. A hush exists. Strangers smile. My neighbor offered me an ice pack when I fell down my spiral stairs, when she heard my thuds and cry, and that was the strangest warmth. And, oh, driving home means taking the 101 north, and life is always something special when home entails the 101 north (hi, Humboldt). And from the 101, my exit is dark. I have to use my brights and squint and drive real slow as I weave through trees, it’s something like a maze that I learned within a day but it feels safe, protected, beautiful. And yes, I’m so dramatic, but when I enjoy the immediate commute to and from home, I know I’m lucky. This element reminds me of Colorado Springs, when I took the long way home through Garden of the Gods; when I lived in Chipita Park, curving up the mountain pass about Manitou every day. It was a balm. After the exhaustive six months in Renton, to have my home be a balm feels so strange and lovely.
But, oh my, February was weird. Is February ever not weird? A rapid attempt of settling, of organizing, of finding a new work rhythm–all cut off by a quick trip to Utah. And then, the last full week, last week, an utter slam: strep throat, hip woes, falling down my stairs, my Mini (finally) breaking down, and a stomach bug. Last week nearly did me in. But I saw my family this month, I fell more in love with where I live, I saw a concept for Nothing Left to Burn’s book cover (!!!!), and–on many days when it felt improbable–I got myself up from the floor. I want to better focus on the good. I have a home, a workspace, a forest, health and support. And while, yes, simultaneously I feel like I’m in the thick of something–life heavy in ways that are both private and hard to articulate–it’s okay. The future of my life in Olympia isn’t stable when I so desperately want it to be. I’m living month to month, living on hope and dumb luck. And that’s fine. It’s only temporary. And I’m here now.
I am lucky. So I’ll hope and push for that luck to continue.
What I’m working on in March: the next round of NLTB edits, a meaty freelance project (I hope!), two proposals and WIP drafting, lovely Indiana visitors, the onslaught of longer days that March always thrusts onto me (I take it personally), and the continued intention of taking care of myself before anything else.
I hope you find your way outside this month. I’ll be right here.
Things are strange and wonky and as I enter the new year and try to lift up from the last six months, I need to remember the ways in which 2016 was kind–
So, the good that happened in 2016, accompanied by photos from November and December:
I started blogging again. I switched my domain back to heatherezell.com–coming out hiding–making a blog that goes back to my 2008 tangents public. Perhaps a silly, horrifying choice but hey. Here I am. Thank you for reading. Go back and see how I was at seventeen if you so desire.
Nothing Left to Burn was acquired by Razorbill at Penguin Random House. After ten years of work and trial and rejections, my lifelong dream came true, is coming true.
I finished another graduate semester at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. I knew it’d be my last semester at the start of it, but I went in strong and finished strong. Thanks UAF (and Fairbanks) for the strange and exhilarating and painful and glorious experiences.
I taught a course of my own design: Academic Writing About Literature: Growing Up During the Apocalypse–a study of YA trauma and resilience. This course, aside from the book deal, was the highlight of my spring, and perhaps the whole year. It reaffirmed my absolute love of teaching. I worked with incredible students who challenged me and inspired me and I think I challenged them, too. I miss teaching in a classroom. I miss my students.
Finally, finally, after a decade of floundering, I was diagnosed that led to proper treatment, the right medication, and feeling hope, clarity, and safety in my mind. Bipolar II and PTSD. It still feels strange to accept those diagnoses, to work with these tools of labels. But I am working, trying–with a psychiatrist, with a therapist–I’m working to find some level of calm.
The Rumpus (one of my longtime beloved online journals) published my personal essay on my above mentioned lifelong struggle with mental illness, and particularly the two years leading up to my being diagnosed bipolar II. I’m rather proud of the essay. I wrote the first draft when I was hitting rock bottom in Alaska and was finally acknowledging that I needed help. You can read it here.
In May, I drove from Fairbanks, Alaska to Trabuco Canyon, California in a packed to the brim Mini Cooper. Down the Alaska Highway–through the enchanting Yukon and the outrageously beautiful British Columbia.
All the snow the fell in 2016 was a balm, in both Alaska and Washington. The rain, too.
From June to August, I drafted an entirely new book. This was and is a Big Deal. While I occasionally wrote short stories and creative essays (all for school), I’d been solely revising and rewriting Nothing Left to Burn since… 2011 (with some one or two year long breaks). I often regret not drafting other books–my tunnel vision, my obsession, my losing the sense of flowing into a first draft. But NLTB revisions and rewrites were all I could mentally manage with my time, with my frequent moves, with my completing my undergrad in two absurd years. So, last spring, last spring when I drafted a new novel, it was an absolute release.
And that new book: I’m proud of it, now working on further developing it, making a revision plan. It is a challenging and weird and sometimes painful book, and I don’t know if it’ll be the “next” book or if it’ll ever sell but I’m in love and proud.
Oh, and in 2016, I finally learned to outline. In December, when I took a break from my NLTB revision, I started a blueprint for an Alaska-set novel and ahhhhh! That’s all I will say.
Pitch Wars! I mentored in Pitch Wars and it was both rewarding and fun. It reminded me of passion for teaching, mentorship, editing, and working on projects outside my own. And I made new friends and have had the pleasure of watching them gain success and growth as authors.
And following that, in late November, I was hired as an author coach at Author Accelerator. I am utterly thrilled and may have cried when I learned I was joining the team.
In September, I came out. Hi, I’m bisexual. This was something I denied and ignored and refused to accept as a teen. And something I dismissed during undergrad, telling myself that it didn’t matter, I was taking those years to be solo and learn how to depend only on me, why make a fuss, etc. And something, over the last two years, desperately wanted to acknowledge and not keep hidden but didn’t know if I could and should, as it still often felt it was irrelevant because of my being in a relationship with a male. But it does matter. It was painful to keep that part of me hush. I let it impact my writing, my characters. I let it impact my identity, myself. It was damaging to lie and say I was straight. And it felt and feels so good to be out and honest with who I am, my whole self.
I moved to Washington State–something I’ve been attempting and planning and getting distracted from doing (hey Colorado, how are you?) for YEARS. And while I’m moving out of the Seattle area next week (goodbye city life, hello quieter and cheaper and closer to forest trails land), I’m so so so happy that I pushed to move the PNW.
All of the wonderful moments with pup, Bellatrix, and the glimmer of hope of moving her up to Washington to live with me. My previous blog goes a tad too into that but, my gosh, as she gets older, our bond only deepens.
I took risks. I quit jobs that were damaging to my physical and mental health. I chose to pursue freelance and editing (interested? email!) and tutoring, and–while I’ll probably have to supplement with some out of the house part-time work soon–it finally feels like I’m on the right track work wise. My health is far more stable. Retail schedules will never be a good choice for me.
I finished my first for-publication revision and signed my Penguin Random House contract and received my first paycheck as an author. It was strange. It is strange. It is exhilarating.
When I was at the lowest of lows, I asked for help–more than once. I aggressively pursued recovery for things I’ve refused to acknowledge for since I was teen. In 2016, I started taking care of my whole self. I also learned to take days off, to accept down days, to take longer baths, and not hate myself for relaxing. What a concept.
I spent weeks with my family and strengthened those relationships and didn’t go crazy for the two months my boyfriend and I spent living in my parents’ house (!).
And so much more. But these were the highlights, the moments and events that stick out in warmest ways. And I have hope and optimism and thrilling intentions for 2017. It’ll be okay.
Wishing you warmth.
I was asked what I’d wish I’d known before my black lab entered my life. She arrived only three months old in August 2007. I was fifteen and now I’m twenty-five. Easy math: she’ll be turning ten this spring.
The number one thing I wish I’d known: how fast ten years can pass.
This question is surprisingly emotional.
Of course there are technical things I wish my family had known: the danger of ocean waves; her allure to anything edible, including dog-treat-like painkillers (she survived an entire bottle–it’s a mystery how she got into the high cabinet); how she won’t simply chew a bone but eat it down to its marrow, making herself sick.
But what has been most surprising, most important, is my black lab’s impact on my life.
The timing of this question–what I wish I’d known–is spot on. Once again, I’m separated from my beloved. She’s in California and I’m in Washington state. My biggest want is to spend her final years with her, which is implausible and selfish. We also have a relaxed Bichon Schitzu mut in our home, one year her elder. They’re pals, sort of, despite their different temperaments. What would I be doing to these dogs if I separated them, if I took Bella from the house–a house that is large, open, with a yard that looks out to valleys, mountains, a national forest? The home she knows.
I’m convinced she won’t mind after too long: she loves me, I take her on hikes, I give her constant love. But this isn’t the topic of this post–my desperation for more time with her–so I’ll save that tangent for another time.
Excuse me as I will absolutely get sentimental.
///what I didn’t know when Bella(trix), my black lab, arrived.
Hide the macadamia nuts. When Bella snags a newly opened bottle from the cupboard and devours it, she’ll lose control of her back legs. Your parents will think she’s paralyzed, dying, and will carry her down the stairs using a towel. She’s unable to stand, to sit, to move, to respond. Your parents won’t call you until they find the destroyed macadamia nut container and turn to Google, when the vet deems her okay. You will cry regardless.
In her early days, she will help you recover from anorexia. When she is still being kenneled at night, you will hear her crying as you cry and bring her to your bed. She will nuzzle you to sleep. She will calm you, give you the love you don’t think you deserve. In her early and mid and later days, she will be the force that pulls you out of the dark. A reason to keep trying, move forward.
She will maybe save your life in so many damn subtle and large ways.
One day, when you’re on a walk–she’s one, maybe two–two dogs on extending leashes will bound to her. She’s on your leash and you’ve trained her well on walks. She stays by your side. But the other dogs, fully grown, fast and thrilled, they will jump onto Bella before you can pull her away. She’s already shy. The dogs will hump her, try to play. Bella will whine, whimper, let out a howl, and try to escape, claw to you. You will sob as you try to end it. The owners of the other dogs will laugh it off, apologize, ignore your eyes. You calm Bella down, nuzzle her face, and let the moment pass. Continue the walk. Shake it off.
From that walk on, the only other dog Bella will trust is Leonardo–the shitzu mix she shares a home with. At dog parks and beaches, she keeps her distance. She will always prefer humans. When other dogs enter the house, she’s not aggressive (she will never be aggressive) but dubious, timid, sad–keeping a distance, only stepping in when she feels small Leo is at risk.
This one is hard for you to admit: technically Bella was a birthday gift to your brother and is not technically your dog but his or at the very least the family’s dog. (Shhhhh.) Even at age twenty-five, you will generally refuse to accept this as fact.
Because when you’re home, you and Bella spend every moment together–her following you like a shadow–she will pick up pieces of your personality. Or maybe you will pick up pieces of hers. Your family and friend are dubious about what came from who. You both share an affinity for hanging out on the floor (okay, she often chooses the couch but still), bouts of hyperness followed by exhaustion, you don’t like being left alone but rather be near the chaos to observe from afar, your shy around crowds of new people, both empathetic to a fault and cry too easily, introverts who crave attention and give too much love. You both press your face against the faces of those you love. And, fine, are both a wee bit bratty and entitled when it comes to best-sitting spot in the house.
When your younger brother and dad innocently, playfully, toss her into the pool as a puppy, they ruin her the possibility of her every willingly swimming in it again. You will spend years trying to lure her out with treats and patience. She won’t go past the second step.
But days where the temperature peaks past 95 degrees, you’ll look out a window and see her–your pool-fearing dog–relaxing on the top step of the pool. And occasionally, randomly, she’ll prance inside with her belly and legs soaked wet.
Because of your tendency to press your face into her face, she will attempt to do this with every other family member and frequent house visitor. And if someone is sitting on the floor, or really sitting anywhere, she will try to cuddle real close. You will be blamed and you will not care.
As soon as you pull out a suitcase, her mood will plummet. She will nestle in a corner, on a bed or your folded pile of to-be-packed clothes, and stare at you with the saddest eyes. She knows what it means.
She will do anything and everything to obtain food. She will steal an apple from the fruit bowl and raw steak out of the sink. She will find the boxes of expensive holiday toffee in the closet and eat every last piece. Chocolate does not make her sick. It’s a mystery–how she snags food your family now ensures to hide, put up, put away.
Your dad admittedly offers her his breakfast plate for her to lick clean. This will drive you crazy. But after her weeklong stay at the animal clinic after a surgery, when the vet happily proclaims he gave her a McDonald’s egg sandwich every morning, you will be annoyed and amused and you father will be vindicated.
Her guilt is palpable. Especially after food stealing. She will hide, duck her face, hurry outside. She’ll watch your face from afar, your energy, waiting for the punishment to end.
When you return home–because after your first year and a half together, you develop an addiction to sporadic moving–she will tackle you and love-nip your face and cry whimper joy. You will live for these moments.
After you have a surgery, or when your simply very sick, she will know. She will be tentative around you, removed from her normal eagerness. She won’t hop onto you bed but wait for your beckoning. She will lick your face so carefully, nudge her head against your chest. She knows. And when you’re having an episode, when you’re in absolute distress, sobbing, unable to breathe, she can be in another part of the house, outside even, and know this too. She’ll find you. Sit with you. Wait it out. Let you sob into her belly.
After you free her from her kennel mid-night when she is still a puppy, she won’t go near that kennel again. When it’s brought into the house, she will stay several feet away, watch it carefully. She will only go inside when you crawl in too and with a treat.
When you are away–in Colorado Springs or Berkeley or Humboldt County or Alaska, at college, an extended vacation, a random move–your heart will break every day because of how much you miss her. You will become a crazy dog lady. Have you ever missed anyone like this? You will pester your mom for photos and videos and you will sob. Knowing you’ll see Bella again will be your calm.
The ocean is not Bella’s friend. When she is brought to the dog beach a fourth time, she will be infatuated with the waves. She will walk out too deep. She is seven years old and her hips and knees are already weakened, damaged even, from a puppyhood of “dog dancing” (we were young and dumb–me and my siblings) and her jumping near back flips for food and simply being alive–and, at that beach, a series of strong waves will slam her, drag her backside to the sand. You will see a video of the exact moment and your stomach will sink. Her legs under her, her hip yanked to the side. After, she doesn’t care that she’s in pain. That she’s injured. She continues her ocean dance and beach frolicking. She will come home with a limp and bounce around the house, still gleeful. You will try to tell yourself it’s okay.
Three months later, you will demand a vet visit despite the cost. Her limp is worse and she’s developed a tremor. The vet first thinks it might be cancer and your heart shatters. But, ultimately, you learn she has torn ligaments, a faulty joint, other horrifying terms. She needs an intensive surgery. Metal in her knees, her hips. She might not survive. Your heart breaks again. You’re told she’ll probably need a second one on her other back leg in a few years. This expensive surgery. This pain.
She has the surgery. She heals. Her nights spent away from the house, at the hospital, are too quiet. As soon as she is brought home, she fights the concept of not walking on her own, not running. Using a sling, you will help her outside to use the bathroom. She will whine like there’s nothing worse in the world when she’s confined to a small room so she doesn’t hurt herself. She will heal. Two months later, you’re walking with her, running with her through the hills and valleys that make your home. Two years later, you’ll notice an occasional small limp and wonder. You and your family are mindful, watching closely.
But you’ll always resent the ocean.
One day, you will write a blog post dedicated to her, and you will cry as you type and gather photos. You are as dramatic as her.
She will become a spoiled queen. Your family can’t resist. Since your first dog, pups have been allowed on beds and couches. And Bella is the worst–believing she’s entitled to sofa space and pillows, and perhaps you enable this by your preference for the floor below her.
When you realize she is nine years old and has outlived your childhood dog, you will start reconciling her limited time. You will consider the span of her life. Of what she has given, taught. You will make plans for her time ahead. You will cry and then get up and remember there is still time.
At some point, you will consider her a part of you. She has developed you, taught you how to grow from a broken teenager to who you are now. This black lab that you initially avoided. Every day away from her hurts. She is your baby. Your patronus, a bone, your best friend–the only one who understands you so completely. She has seen you at your very worst. She has watched you self-destruct. She has watched you love. She has taught you how to love.
You never expected her to teach you how to love yourself.
Bella reminds me why I stay proactive with my mental health to this day, and she will continue to in memory when her time ends. I’ll say it again and again: I never thought a dog would teach me how to love myself, but that is exactly what Bella did. If I’d known sooner, I would have treasured her early puppy days, would have let her in right away.