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Books and Beliefs

Books and Beliefs: Reflections from author Sheyna Galyan on how even our smallest thoughts can influence the world around us.

Updated: 2018-03-11T09:06:37.886-05:00


If I Belonged


> When did it start to feel like… Like you fit? Like you…belonged here?> Well, I'm still not sure I do.If I belongedReally belongedI wouldn’t feel the needTo prove myselfTo show my worthTo defend every actionEvery desire for connectionEvery longing for loveIf I belongedI wouldn’t feel like I was trespassingOn someone else’s territoryFearful of triggeringSomeone’s angerThat I had oversteppedMy boundsTaken what wasNot mineExpected more thanI was owedAs if friendships are transactionsAnd love can be meted outIn weights and measuresI don’t know how to belongWithout being invitedHow do I differentiateAn invitationFrom my own longing?Carving out a place for myselfEvokes images of sharp edgesBlades cutting and slashingCreating a spaceIn the absence of a welcomeI’d rather nestle inWhere space is madeWith the intentThat I should fill itA me-shaped spaceA perfect fitBut this requiresThe involvement of othersOne in whichBelonging can never beA one-sided decisionI see nowThis is belongingAmong peopleWhat if this is too narrow a focus?Can I belong in the worldWithout people being involved?Why should other peopleHave the power to decideIf I belong?Am I beholden to themFor my existenceSimply because I’ve never feltWhat it means to belong?What if belongingIs a state of beingAnd not a statusA rank grantedOnly if one meetsSubjective standardsAnd pays one’s dues?If I belongedAs a state of beingI could stop apologizingFor being who I amIf I belongedAs a state of beingI would have just as much rightTo happiness and joyTo love and fulfillmentAs anyone elseIf I belongedAs a state of beingMy needs would be importantShould the cabin lose air pressureOne of those oxygen masksWould be for meAnd I could secure it on myselfWith gratitudeIf I belongedAs a state of beingThen should othersOverlook meForget meIgnore meTry to erase meI have a rightEven an obligationTo speak up for myselfTo fight for myselfBecause I belongAnd I will not be erasedI belongAnd I have a right to be happyI belongI do not need to carve out a spaceOr nestle in to one existingI will make my own spaceIn the worldAnd invite othersTo stand with meTo sit next to meTo share with meAnd if I sometimes feelLike a fish out of waterBecause belongingHas been foreign all my lifeThen I will be that fishWho learns to live on landBig plans for that fishDon’t step on meI belong.[...]

Literary Orgasms


I've long said that the act of writing, whether a short story, a novel, or a poem, is like giving birth. The only difference between the three is the length of gestation.

There is the initial orgasmic ecstasy of a new idea, of plot twists and characters imbued with meaning and perhaps layers of symbolism. There is the period of morning sickness, of wondering what the hell I've gotten myself into and isn't there a more qualified writer to manifest this idea into reality?

There are those first kicks, proof that the idea is developing a life of its own, that ultimately the story will leave the womb and make its way into the world. At times, the story leaves me fatigued and heavy, a beached whale that can barely string two words together while having to pee every thirty minutes.

And finally, after what seems like a lifetime of feeding off me like a literary parasite, and at the same time not nearly enough time together, it's ready to be born, accompanied by sweat and copious tears and possibly some blood.

Nursed through marketing efforts, it soon can stand on its own, garnering the strength to stand up to bullying critics, to make new friends, to find its place in the world.

Until a new idea hits with white-hot passion and my toes curl with the sheer joy of telling another story that can touch someone else's heart.

Should You Trademark Your Indie Publishing Company Name?


One of the things I've been doing here and there is talking with people about whether big New York publishing, small press publishing, or indie publishing is best for their book and audience. And for those who do decide to start their own companies, the question of trademarks comes up. Should they trademark it?Here's my experience.When I first looked into it back in 2003 and saw how expensive a federal trademark was, I thought, “The name of my publishing company is a Hebrew word, and would never be associated with books. So why pay the hundreds of dollars it would cost?” My company name was at the top of the first page on Google. (I know—I checked page rankings frequently.) Why worry?Fast forward two years. A young Jewish teen in another state decided to start a magazine. She played around with names and designs. If she Googled (or used any other search engine) the name she wanted, she would have seen that there was already a publishing company with that name. Her magazine name was the same name as my company, except I had “publishing” at the end.As soon as I found out about this magazine, I emailed her. I told her who I was and that I had a book publishing company by the same name. I thought she would react with an “Oops, the name I chose is taken!” But she didn’t. And she had far deeper pockets that could defend her than I did.When I investigated further, I was told that book publishing and magazine publishing were considered different businesses and not easily confused in the marketplace. I could hire an attorney (with money I didn’t have) and try to intimidate her into changing her name, or I could coexist.I chose the latter, and we coexisted for a while. But imagine my horror when I found out (through Google Alerts) that her magazine company had created an umbrella “media corporation” by the same name and was now going to publish books.This time, I sucked it up and called an attorney. Even though I hadn’t registered my company name as a trademark, I had clearly used it first in commerce, which gave me some legal protection. My attorney talked to their attorney and they changed the name of their book publishing arm. But in all their marketing materials, and on the copyright page, they added “an imprint of ——— Media, Inc.” Legally, they were allowed, because the media corporation was not, itself, a publishing company.Publishing Jewish books is a niche, and it didn’t take long before there was mass confusion about which company was which, and who did what book. With the advice of a couple of attorneys, who thankfully talked to me at some length without charge, I learned that at this point, I had three choices: change my company name, take the other company to court, or agree to coexist.The first choice would require new everything: website, business cards, logo, print runs with the new name and logo, tax ID number, bank account, and so on. The second choice could easily run me $75,000 and I had a 50% chance of winning, in part because we had coexisted initially (appearing that I was okay with their use of the name). The third choice was not an option. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.So I did a ton of research. I sought input from others on the new name. I spent countless hours on the Internet, searching trademarks and each state’s and international business records to make sure I didn’t take someone else’s name. When I discovered that the domain name was available, I registered all the extensions. I built a new website, created a new logo, and set about building a new identity.And one of my first steps was to register the new name as a trademark. It was expensive because I registered first as an “intent to use,” then had to wait for approval, an opportunity for opposition, and then had to file a “statement of use.” I registered in three different classes, which includes not only book publishing, but magazines, gift books, cook books, audio books, ebooks, and some weird stuff like printing presses, typewriters[...]

On Getting Pregnant for the Tenth Time


I promised to participate in #gishwhes and apparently Misha promised someone else a SFW 2000-word essay on getting pregnant for the tenth time, and seeing as I’ve had a lot of practice (minds out of the gutter now), I figured I’d give it a whirl. A shot in the dark, if you will.I’m assuming that you’re familiar with the basics, since this essay is about getting pregnant for the tenth time, not the first time, so the previous nine times ought to have given you some life lessons. Also, you’re going to need to make sure you have all the right equipment. Like any science project—and any science teacher will tell you that human physiology is in fact science—it’s good to start with proper preparation. To that end, you will need a uterus. Preferably inside a living human. It doesn’t need to be you, but it does need to be someone willing, who has completely consented with full mental capacity and education up through and including high school, maybe even college, and at least two units of sex ed taught awkwardly by instructors who blush when they say body part names.Along with the uterus, which will function as a mobile baby home for the next ten months, give or take, you will need an egg. A human egg, not a chicken egg, because first, eww, and second, I’m unaware of any successful human sperm-chicken egg pairings although the idea of 3D-printing machines in everyone’s home is not in the too-far-off future and we can scan our feet with some nifty new app and 3D-print shoes to exactly and precisely fit our own feet, which would be, to coin a phrase, both a load off and an amazing feet (feat?), but I digress.The egg must be viable, meaning that it is capable of being fertilized, and sadly, one cannot test this the way one can test whether chicken eggs have gone bad or not. So we will have to assume it is until proven otherwise, though if the attempted pregnancy is unsuccessful, there is no way of knowing which of the many steps and processes were to blame. If I did know how to do this, I’d be writing a book, which I could sell for $29.99 plus tax and make enough money to retire early and set up a quaint B&B in Vermont, but I don’t, so I can’t, and I’m here instead, trying with all of my tact and diplomacy to help you through this on Twitter.It's okay to have more than one egg, because if one turns out not to be viable, then another might be. Although, if you have two and both are viable then you could wind up with fraternal twins, which is cool in itself, but doesn’t lend itself to easy shopping for matching outfits. If you have three eggs, and they’re all viable, well then, my friend, you have an organization and you’d better name them all Alice.The whole viable egg thing is really kind of like one of those carnival balloon-and-dart games, where you throw the darts and try to pop the balloons and it’s really hard when you aim, but if you just throw a whole handful of darts in the general vicinity of the wall of balloons, one just might hit and you’ve got yourself a prize. Except the carnival prize doesn’t have to be fed and changed and educated for the next eighteen-to-twenty-two years. Unless the carnival prize is a goldfish, but even then, you’re looking at a few years, not two decades. Are you sure about this baby thing? Sure you don’t just want to get a goldfish? Okay, well… On we go then.You will also need sperm. Lots of sperm, because they are like cats in a way, and never go exactly where you want them to go, and sometimes don’t go anywhere, but instead hang out, lazily flicking their tails like a Maine Coon sunning itself in that warm patch of light on the window seat in a cozy north-facing bungalow in an older neighborhood east of the Mississippi.Really, you want active, excited sperm, who are all ready to go, pumped up after that pep talk by that one charismatic coach who would give both King Henry V and William Wallace a run for their money, and who loves the kids too much to leave for[...]

PTSD: a poem


⁣​you hide
in shadows and behind 
darkened memories
looking for a weakness
a way in
a break in my flawed façade
just a crack
a whisper
the chance to turn
dream into nightmare
laughter to tears
hope into ruin 
love to loss 
you wait patiently
for me to fail
to forget to be
protective of this new life
the one I built
created with my own hands
a metamorphosis of self
a family to call my own
a home
a place to belong 
to be
you hide and wait
to destroy me
with nearly-forgotten pain
but I will not
will not let you
because this time
I have something
to live for

Copyright ©2017 
by Sheyna Galyan



I recently returned from my first trip to Israel as part of a tour group from my synagogue. I'm still processing it, but was able to capture some of what it meant to me in the following poem.TouchstonesFrom the concrete and glass of the airportTo the plastic and fiberglass of the planeCrowds and hushed whispers and sleep that would not comeIt was night and then it was morning—twice overThe first daysVenturing out into the heatI am awestruck by this city of stoneModern yet historicCreating new technologiesWhile honoring those who fought for this spaceFrom start-up to start againFailure is but a stepAlong the path to tikkun olamInspired by an ideaBrought to life with a speechAs we rise and sing.Tunes familiar and differentYet the same genuine smilesWe welcome ShabbatThough we speak different languagesTo say the same wordsWe want to learn and understand and knowWhat do you make from your life?Are you ever separate from the bedrock of this place?And it was evening and it was morning. The third day.Words of TorahWritten in sand, in stoneWho are we if we act based on what we fearInstead of who we know ourselves to be?On the shores of the MediterraneanWe look into the pastAnd see ourselves.Driven by a visionA thirst for both water and freedomHiding in plain sightFighting to make an idea manifestA homelandA makom kavua for am YisraelOne volunteer at a timeOne bullet at a timeWhile the giraffes look onI stood in this placeWhere they sang about peaceOnly to be silenced by a gunI touched the stoneAnd was movedThen it was evening and morningThe fourth day.A morning talk about happinessAbout haves and have-notsOne thing is clear: when we have ice kaféWe are happyFrom the serenity of biblical gardensWe share our gratitude by planting treesHope for the next generationWhile honoring the wallsThat keep us safeAs we travel deeper into the mysteryThe visions of the merkavahAs we place ourselves in the sefirotAnd ourselves become the TreePlanted long beforeAnd it was evening and it was morningThe fifth day.An oasis of beautyLeads to more stoneSolid walls of justice Through the gate that bearsThe language of our ancestorsAnd our new friendsA stone that proves we were hereIn ages past.I want to touch itTo connect here to thereNow to thenBut there is no needI am hereIn this placeIt is enough.Loud booms shatter the stillnessSmoke etches the skyAs hate wreaks more destructionWe watch, safe on our mountaintopAs the air shudders around usAnd we rememberPeace is a choiceIn every moment.Then with wine and chocolate and waterWe celebrate with our Muslim cousinsThere can be laughterAs we navigate the rapidsOf our lives.And a shared mealWith friends we hadn’t yet metBrings us back to our centerThe why of it allIt is the connections we makeThat bind us togetherAnd it was evening and then morningThe sixth day.From the youth of todayTo the leaders of tomorrowFrom the graves of those who came beforeWho left us to be the caretakersOf their children, their legaciesTo the stages that once teemed with Jewish bloodAnd now resonate with musicWe travel the last leg homeReady to embrace the stone at the centerThe heart and soulYerushalayimAnd it was an evening of lights and a morning of lightThe seventh day.We slip into a tunnelBeneath the heartSurrounded by stoneSilent with the weight of historyLayers upon layersIt serves as a reminderThat connection with the holyRequires we go deep.As we approach the KotelThe energy is thickWith prayer and emotionAll of life’s strugglesThat are too heavy to bearAre brought here to this wallSeeping into the cracksOur hopes and dreams and longingBecoming the mortarTouching stones worn smoothWith tears and caressesAnd words uttered in pain and joyNever meant for human ears.There are claims upon these stonesSacred places, sacred landsAnd the lines are neither simple nor clearTruth can be a mirageNot found on any mapAs the sun sets and rises againThe eighth day.A song of descents.Even as we r[...]



Today turned out to be a time of reflection on life and death and change and permanency. My own personal losses—parents, child—and losses affecting many more people.

I've always thought of myself as more of a skeptic. I like proof, two or more reputable sources, things I can touch or see or hear. But the losses I've experienced have taught me an unshakable knowledge that death is...not. I've had too many experiences—things I've felt or seen or heard—that can only be explained if there is far more to our existence, our reality, than what can be interpreted by our very human senses.

I am changed by every person who has come into my life, from the people I've met out in the world to the characters that come to life on book pages and screens. And even if they leave my presence, leave their bodies behind for me to bury, leave when the book ends or the screen goes dark, I am better for it.

And even if they are not in my sight or hearing or touch, there is a part of them, a permanence, an energy, that will never, ever cease. It will transform and return in some way. In the very physical sense I had of my mother holding my hand, or of my father squeezing my shoulders, or of my daughter watching while I painted my home office sunflower yellow. In the stories that seem to write themselves, the words that come unbidden in conversation, the urge to speak to a friend.

I am left tonight ever more certain that no one has actually, really departed, and that while I may sometimes feel alone, it is, in reality, quite impossible.

The story continues. It will always continue in some way. Energy can be neither created nor destroyed. Only transformed. And us with it.

Fear Not


My greatest fearIs that I’ll leave no traceThat I was ever here. And I know that fear is irrational. I have childrenWho are growing intoAmazing young adults. My partner would argueThat I matter to him.My friends tell meI make a difference. They make a differenceTo me as wellSo I suppose I can understand that. I was always the kidWho worked behind the scenesSo that someone elseCould have the spotlight. A lifetime of being told I wasn’tAttractive enoughThin enoughTall enoughSmart enoughPopular enoughTalented enough. A lifetime of being toldI wasn’t enough.I didn’t matterExcept to help others achieve greatness. The one thing that Brought me joyWas writing.Creating worlds and charactersPlaying out my fearsAnd dreamsAnd challengesOn paper, under different namesGave me an escapeFrom all the not-enoughness. But I didn’t share my writing.That would be taking the spotlightMeant for someone else. I wrote a bookAnd it got publishedBut it didn’t change anything. I started writingAnonymouslySafelyAbout things I was going throughAbout abuseAnd depressionAnd anxietyAnd trauma. People started to take noticeAnd asked to share what I’d written.I said yes but I didn’t understandWhy they liked it. It wasn’t happyOr inspiringOr hopeful. It was painAnd darknessAnd tearsShed alone. I wrote another bookAnd had fun sharing itBut still nothing really changedAnd the not-enoughnessFollowed me. Finally I steppedOut of the shadowsOut from behind the scenesAnd began to speakMy truthMy experiencesMy painMy longingMy fearsMy hopesMy self. And people respondedBy saying lovely thingsThat I didn’t understand. They said they wantedTo be here for meTo fight for meTo celebrateEach step I tookIn my own healing. They said I was strongAnd courageousAnd beautifulAnd talentedAnd inspiringAnd even things likeFunny and charismatic And quirky Though I think thatMight not beA compliment. I hear and see their wordsAnd I still don’t understand. If you knew meReally knew meMy failuresAnd mistakesIf you sawMy apathyMy ignoranceThe times I didn’t care enoughDidn’t try hard enoughDidn’t love enough You would not say these things. I don’t think I’mParticularly inspiringOr funnyOr beautifulOr strongOr braveOr talented. I see so many othersWho do so much moreThan I could ever do. My lifetime of experienceTells me that these peopleAre the ones who Deserve the spotlightThe admirationThe praiseThe love. And yet that leaves meHiding againCrying myself to sleepIn the hopesThat tomorrowI will feel worthyOf living another day. I don’t like that option. And what of all thoseWho feel as I doYet are unableOr unwillingTo speakTo share? Perhaps the truthIs hidden in paradoxThat I cannot seeHow others see meThe impact I haveThe difference I make. Perhaps the truthIs that I can only beWho I was born to beEven ifA lifetime of experienceTried to defeat it. I can only shineMy own light. All I can doIs follow the joyAnd do those thingsThat make me come aliveAnd shine. And if my lightShines on othersAnd they perceive itAs strongOr courageousOr beautifulOr inspiringOr loving Then it is no less trueBecause I know my own imperfections. And if I practiceFollowing the joySpeaking my truthSharing myselfThen perhapsI can catch a glimpseOf that lightAnd knowThere was nothingTo be afraid ofAfter all.[...]

On Family


Seven years ago today, I wrote about family, about finding it and losing it and recreating it. Seven years later, these words are still true.*    *    *I've been resting and talking and reading and trying to work through the fallout that inevitably happens when you try to go home again. In one sense, what I did was so easy. I flew on a plane to my mom's house several months after she died, cleaned it up, packed much, donated more, and drove home.In another sense, it couldn't have been harder. I flew to the house where my mom suffered and died, slept in the same room where nurses and aids and family and friends cared for her in her last weeks, sat in the same chair I'd sat in months earlier while stroking her still-warm body, only seconds after she'd left it behind on her journey. I relived every moment of our trip in December '08 and again in April/May '09, discovering priceless information about this very complex and very convoluted family that would throw me into a deep and sudden awe and compassion upon finding one treasure, anger and betrayal at the next discovery.But that's what family is for, is it not? To leave future generations with enough burning questions and obsessions that neither genealogy researchers nor therapists will ever have to worry about job security.In my family, in that house, with those memories, I'm still confused. Information I discovered that had never been shared with me before, information that made me see my parents with part-awe and part betrayal, not knowing in that moment if I loved them or hated them, but only knowing I couldn't walk away.My brother and I, who could barely be trusted to be left alone when we were kids, lest one of us injure the other seriously enough to require medical attention, went through 65 years of collected possessions, including possessions my mom had inherited from her mom and dad and from her mother-in-law. We opened every box, unwrapped every piece cushioned by well-worn newspaper or paper towel. It was a life autopsy of possessions and we, the examiners, separated and examined and weighed and tested every piece.Numerous times, most notably when I was eyeing the growing stack of boxes for me to take back home and then visualizing the interior of a minivan and trying to figure out how it would all fit, I would wonder why I had come to do this in the first place.Why?It seems instantly an easy enough answer. I wanted some remnants of my childhood, as did my brother. I wanted some mementos of my parents, ones that focused on the happy times. I didn't want my brother to have to do this all by himself. And I wanted to get the place cleaned out so it could be rented. Another family, new life, new dreams. I think Mom would have liked that.But was that really it? Digging through boxes and papers and clothing and endless amounts of plastic utensils and wet wipes and matches, the detritus of a life lived and loved and suffered and lost, what did I really find?I found that family is a need, not a noun. Family could have been brutal and unforgiving, it could have meant growing up battered in mind, body, and spirit, and it also could have been children's laughter on the swingset, a surprise trip to the zoo to put the blue elephant key in the box and hear the narrator tell you about what animal you're viewing. Family is the need to always display some photographs and never others, never quite explaining if the hidden ones are being sequestered away to be forgotten or in need of more precious protection than hanging openly on a wall.Family is a beginning and often, an end. Family is where we came from, that lifeline to who we were and how we came to be this way. Family is our excuse, our answered prayer, our legacy, our mark on the world. We love it and hate it, run to it and rebel from it.Spending one week immersed in t[...]

Four Lighthouses (or Why You Matter)


Many thanks to Teresa Romain/Access Abundance for the inspiration.Have you ever thought about what it's like to be a lighthouse? I have. Of course, I am a lighthouse, so I guess it's only natural. I'm nothing special. Wide and a little on the short side, I'm not even 100 feet tall, though I do sit on the bluffs overlooking a very large lake. The lake gets a lot of marine traffic, most of it well to my west. I'm on the eastern coast, where a few ships glide by and storms rarely hit. The main marine channel is along the west side of the lake, and that's where the bad weather tends to be the nastiest.There are three lighthouses on that side of the lake. On the northernmost point is a famous lighthouse that people travel from all over the world to see. It's everything a lighthouse should be: tall (181 feet), strong, with a very bright light. It's survived every storm without appearing to age a day. In fact, on the rare occasions that tourists come to visit me, I hear things about this lighthouse. That it almost never needs repair. That it is one of the most picturesque lighthouses in the world, part of it painted in a sleek black paint that almost looks like leather. That if you had a lighthouse fetish, just looking at it would make you weak in the knees. It even has a foghorn, loud and low. If there was such as thing as a badass lighthouse, this one would be it.The lighthouse just south of that is the tallest lighthouse on the lake, a whopping 204 feet tall. People love to visit it, and I hear that tourists can even climb the lighthouse, to see the view from so high up. It also is a picturesque lighthouse, a gorgeous tan color that never seems to fade or get dirty, topped with a brown cupola and gallery that make it look almost like it has long hair, which tourists say is adorable. But what I hear most about this lighthouse is that its light is so gentle and warm, nearly everyone who's ever seen it says it's like being smiled upon by the sun. This ginormous lighthouse has survived the strongest storms, including some straight-line winds that came through nearly ten years ago. The winds cracked part of the tower, but it never failed to light the way, and after only a little repair, it was even stronger than before.To the south, the third lighthouse is an enigma. It's not especially tall, about 160 feet, but it attracts tourists from all over just because it's nearly everything one would never expect from a lighthouse. Instead of a bright white light shining over the lake, its light is a bright blue, almost glowing in its intensity. And it is painted the most bizarre of colors, multi-colored polka dots visible along one strip of its tower, contrasting zig-zags along another, some sort of random paint splotches on a third, and, from what people have said, another strip is always something different. No one ever sees anyone out there painting, yet whenever locals revisit the lighthouse, it's always new. Tourists love to take photos in front of this lighthouse, and often find themselves letting loose and having fun, taking goofy photos of themselves and each other, often making new friends in the process.It's hard, quite honestly, to be a short, unremarkable lighthouse on the other side of the lake from these three other lighthouses. Most nights, I shine my unremarkable light onto water that is shipless. I wonder, more often than I'd like to admit, why I was even built here. It seems I'm never needed, while it's clear that the three lighthouses on the other side of the lake are both needed and wanted.I begin to dream about what it would be like to be wanted and needed as they are. I'd have to be taller—much taller—and brighter, and somehow stronger or more beautiful or weirder. I'd have to be different, something that both ships and tourists alike would appreciate. This thought consu[...]

To Fight or Not to Fight #AKF


Everyone goes through depression differently. There's no one cause, no one experience, and no one solution. But there are some commonalities.Aside from the typical symptoms of depression (lack of interest in usual activities, sleep disturbances, feelings of hopelessness or that one has let others down, changes in appetite, thoughts of self-harm or worse, etc.), there are some other commonalities:Worsening of self-esteemTendency to always see self in a negative wayFeeling at fault for everythingBelief that one deserves this depression as punishment for being at fault for everythingCertainty that one is a burden on friends and familyBelief that others will be happier if one is not there to drag them down Thinking that one is only ever taking from others and never givingFeeling ugly, unloved, unwanted, aloneThese are clearly untrue beliefs and thoughts, and I know that with every cell in my being. When I'm not depressed, that is.Somehow, the depression shifts even "provable fact" and twists it to its own end, which seems to be solely to hurt the one afflicted. It's a kind of mental invasion. And what do we do with invaders?We fight back. Of course we do.Back in 2007, when I was blogging anonymously as Rivka through a severe depression, I likened the depression to my own personal, internal adversary (unlike the more hopeful metaphor of wing molt from earlier today).In that adversary post, I wrote:it breaks me down and consumes me and spits out what's left, andI have this black cloud over my head or in my head and I can't see (both from here)[it] takes that and twists it all around, that I don't deserve success, that my faults are too many, that I'm simply not good enough (from here)I'm ... under the influence of my unstable emotions (from here)It left me questioning my contribution to my marriage, my contribution to anyone, my value to the world (from here)It's that I just feel less. Less everything that is meaningful to me, andIt diminishes everything important. It corrodes what makes my life meaningful and powerful and profound. It eats away at what makes me me (both from here)And yeah, I want to fight that. Fight it and win. Fight it and hope it never comes back, and if it does, fight it again. And again.There's an online campaign (initially launched as a t-shirt campaign for charity in 2015) started by Jared Padalecki, one of the stars of the long-running sci-fi show Supernatural, with the hashtag #AKF, standing for Always Keep Fighting. The t-shirt campaign raised money for three charities that all helped people dealing with mental illness (especially depression), self-harm, and suicide. Mr. Padalecki, who also shared his own bout with depression, stated the following on his personal interest in the cause:"On New Years Eve, my dear friend lost his battle with depression. This, unfortunately, wasn’t the first time i lost a personal friend to suicide, and it hurt me deeply, in a way that only a personal experience with suicide can. Though he wasn't the first friend I’ve lost to suicide, I sure hope he’s the last. I wish i had the chance to go back and tell them what they meant to me. I wish I had the chance to beg them to seek help, to keep fighting. I wish they knew that they were surrounded by countless others who struggle on a daily basis.I hope that this campaign, while raising money for a wonderful charity, can also raise awareness about issues that affect more people than we know. I hope it inspires people battling depression, addiction, mental illness and suicidal thoughts to be vocal about their struggles. I hope it helps people realize that they shouldn’t be ashamed of what they are going through, and I hope it helps people meet and find new friends that they can relate to. I h[...]



I took a shower today.To most, that wouldn't seem like a big deal, but when in the depths of a depression it is a Very Big Deal indeed. If you're familiar with Spoon Theory, it took almost all of my allotted spoons for the day. If you're not, it means that it took just about all the energy—physical, emotional, spiritual—that I had.Because taking a shower is not a single step. No, there's starting the water and undressing and getting used to the water (physical sensations on one's skin can be draining and painful during a depression) and selecting shampoo and the actual scrubbing (holding one's arms above one's head during a depression is tiring and can exacerbate feelings of vulnerability and weakness) and the rinsing and (for me) the same round with conditioner and then washing of the body (also sometimes emotionally problematic) and rinsing and turning the water off and adjusting to the room temperature and getting out of the shower/tub and drying (multiple steps here too) and dressing again, and it's SO MUCH. It's exhausting.I tried to think of the depression as a thick, sticky goo that coated me, something I could wash off in the shower. Under the water spray, that visualization didn't seem to work. Some part of my brain went off in the direction of the thick, sticky goo (depression) being an oil slick and I was some sort of bird variant, covered in the stuff. And that kind of clicked. I was stuck here, at least temporarily, in the depression. I was grounded (not in a spiritual, good sort of way). I couldn't FLY.But even then the oil slick seemed too easy to get out of, as if all I needed to do was find that magic anti-depression version of blue Dawn dish soap and I'd be all better. But depression doesn't work that way. Even with antidepressants. Or therapy. Or family and friends and loved ones.In the dozens of depressions I've been through, most of them in the autumn, I've learned that it's a process. And I do usually come out the other side stronger and wiser, as if the depression brought with it a gift, buried under the self-loathing and overwhelming sadness and fatigue. And as I combed through my hair, and gathered up the loose strands, the visualization took a different turn.I'm molting.Joe Smith, in an article on bird molt, writes, "Bird owners know that the “mood” or “personality” of their bird — whether it be a chicken, parrot or darling starling — can change dramatically during molt. The birds often retreat to quiet spaces, reduce their activity and just want to be left alone."Bald cardinal. Photo © John Benson/Flickr through a Creative Commons licenseSince I was very young, I've always had some affinity with winged creatures. To me they represented freedom, beauty, compassion, strength. To fly was to have a kind of freedom I'd only dreamed of at that time: freedom of thought, of creativity, of expression. Freedom to love and be loved.I was so enamored with flight that I bought and asked for books on flying airplanes and, at the age of 16 (the minimum age requirement), took and passed flight ground school. The next step was coming up with the $15,000 or so I needed at the time to start flying lessons. (My progress derailed from there.)Something about this metaphor gave me hope. That maybe this was a natural process, and my responsibility is to make sure I have a safe "molt." That I eat enough to sustain my energy. That I rest as needed. That I take the time I need to be alone. That I accept I will be out of sorts and off my game. That I recognize that for this period of time, my freedom will be curtailed, my beauty in flux, my compassion needing to be more self-compassion, and my strength sorely tested. During this time, I'll feel unable to fly, helplessly grounded, but appreciating tha[...]

Healing Through Music


I wasn't going to post this at all, and then I realized that that flies in the face of what I've been trying to do for the past nine years -- break the silence and end the stigma around depression.So here goes. My depression is back. Maybe only for a short stay. Maybe not. It's been here a week now. A devastating sadness -- "best friend died" sort of sadness. And nothing of the sort is going on in my life. My life is amazing right now, with more exciting things to come. And yet, my brain sometimes does its own thing.I'm doing things that I find helpful and comforting in a depression, and I'm also limiting the things that lead to overwhelm. One of the things I've done is compiled a list -- in a specific order -- of music. My "Feel Better" playlist. And I thought I'd share an annotated version with you today, in case anyone else finds it helpful.These songs are intentionally in this order, to be played straight through. I created it to form an arc, to start from where I often am, and gradually lead myself to a more powerful place.1.      “Crossroads” by Don MacLean“Can you remember who I was/ can you feel it?/ Can you find my pain?/ Can you heal it?”2.      “Angel” by Sarah McLachlan“There's always some reason/ To feel not good enough/ And it's hard, at the end of the day”3.      “Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M“If you feel like letting go/ If you think you've had too much/ Of this life, well hang on”4.      “Try” by P!nk“You gotta get up and try, and try, and try”5.      “Show Me the Way” by Styx“Give me the strength and the courage/ To believe that I'll get there someday/ And please show me the way”6.      “Crawl” by Thisway“Faces I remember, I'll still see/ And places in a memory, hold on to me/ I can't wait to crawl out of my shell”7.      “Making It Up As I Go Along” by Marie Wilson“Don't want to be scared/ Don't want to be weak/ Don't want to be the last to speak/ I'm gonna be brave/ I'm gonna be strong/ I'm ready to take it all on/ Making it up as I go along”8.      “Brave” by Sara Bareilles“Don't run, stop holding your tongue/ Maybe there's a way out of the cage where you live/ Maybe one of these days you can let the light in/ Show me how big your brave is/ Say what you wanna say/ And let the words fall out/ Honestly I wanna see you be brave”9.      “Come to Life” by Trent Dabbs“Let it breathe/ It will be alright/ There's gold in the ground where we're walking tonight/ Just sit back/ And watch it come to life”10.   “Perfect” (Clean) by P!nk“Pretty, pretty please/ if you ever, ever feel/ Like you're nothing/ you are perfect to me”11.   “With Your Face to the Wind” by Peter, Paul & Mary“Sometimes it takes the dark to let us see the light/ You can't have that victory unless you've fought the fight/ Sometimes it takes a winding road to lead us home/ While you're windin' 'round my friend just don't go windin' 'round alone”12.   “Home” by Phillip Phillps“Settle down, it'll all be clear/ Don't pay no mind to the demons/ They fill you with fear/ The trouble it might drag you down/ If you get lost, you can always be found/ Just know you're not alone/ 'Cause I'm gonna make this place your home”13.   “I’ve Gotta Be Me” by Sammy Davis, Jr. (Cover by Ryan Tedder & Contraband; Lyrics by Walter Marks) “I want to live, not merely survive/ And I won't give up this dream/ Of life that keeps me alive/ I gotta be me, I gotta be me/ The dream th[...]

Lessons From High School—30 Years Later


I went to my 30th high school reunion last weekend.Aww... Thanks for saying that I look like I couldn't be more than 18 years out of high school. That's sweet.Anyway, I had a pretty good idea who I was in high school. Or at least, I knew what I cared about (ethics, humanity's search for the divine, playing your best game with a badly-dealt hand, kindness to others, global respect, resilience of the spirit, the priceless value of life) and what I didn't care about (fashion, dating, gossip, makeup, social status, school politics).Which made me kind of a nerd. And a social outcast—a role I embraced wholeheartedly.My first three years of high school were spent with one especially good friend who had similar interests, exploring exactly those things that mattered to me, and by the end of my junior year, I had a pretty good idea of why I was on the planet. But then my best friend graduated a year before me and I had rarely felt so alone and adrift. Always the questioner, I wondered if there was actually an average number of french fries served with hot lunch, and began counting my french fries at lunchtime, to see how much disparity there was from day to day. I ate alone, people-watching in the quad, and simultaneously felt a longing to be accepted and a desire to get away from it all.High school graduation photo, 1986From exploring the mysteries of the universe to counting my french fries seemed to be a pretty long fall to me, and I filed my senior year away as "pathetic loser." When I graduated and went off to college, I didn't look back.I kept in touch with a very few close friends, including that one special friend, but high school held nothing other than pain for me. And so I largely ignored the reunion invitations as they came and went.A few years ago, I became aware that it wasn't that I didn't care about my high school years. It was that I was still running away from them. And I'd done enough work on myself that I knew it was time to put those ghosts of high school to rest, once and for all.I won't lie. I was scared shitless in the days before the reunion. That 17-year-old high school senior was afraid I'd be walking into the middle of the kind of cruel judgment that only teenagers can dish out. I was convinced they'd see me now as I was sure they'd seen me then: ugly, weird, worthless. I weighed barely 100 lbs. in my senior photo, recovering from several years of anorexia. Nearly thirty years later, after long years of doing battle with my childhood demons (there might be one or two still skulking around), I wore my scars in the form of distrust, social anxiety, depression, and weight gain. So now I was sure my classmates, many of whom were still trim and athletic and gorgeous (or appeared so on Facebook) could add "fat" to their assessment of me.And then a weird thing happened. A shift, both subtle and profound, as I prepared myself to walk back into the haunted memories of high school. I stopped caring. Really, honestly, stopped caring what they might think. Because I know the truth: I have come a long way in my healing, my growth, my embrace of my spirit. My body will follow; I trust that now. By fully embracing myself, self-care becomes a desire rather than an unwanted obligation. Change always has to come from within.When I graduated from high school, I was a mere eighteen months past seriously wanting to end my life. Now, thirty years later, though those intervening years were punctuated by death and unemployment and housing crises and medical challenges, I am living the life I've always wanted. I have a strong, solid marriage (25 years as of July, 30 years together), children (now teens) who still love to hang out with me, a 98-year-old house that I love being [...]

Naked and Afraid


Despite the tragic and devastating news from Orlando, there are still good, kind people in the world. I know, because I met two of them yesterday in Chicago's Midway Airport during what was one of the most embarrassing experiences of my life.Allow me to explain, and in some way, thank them.I was in Chicago this past weekend for the Printer's Row LitFest, doing authorly things like chatting with readers, networking with other authors, speaking on a panel about my complicated path to publication, and signing books. Saturday was hot and muggy, but I've been in the Midwest for 23 years, so I'm used to it by now. Sunday—the day I did my panel and signing—was gorgeous.I arrived at the airport at 3:00 p.m. Sunday for a 5:20 p.m. flight home, sailed through security (thank you TSA Pre√), and ordered a lovely tuna salad sandwich at Manny's at 3:30. And that's when everything went south. Kind of literally.As I finished my sandwich, I had a sudden and extremely urgent need to use the restroom. I grabbed my backpack and CPAP bag and found a restroom right around the corner. And the moment I went through the restroom door, I knew I wasn't going to make it.I've had IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) for over 23 years (one of my many diagnoses) and have been lucky that this had only happened to me once in public. Until now.I had zero control over the muscles I most needed and every step let more out. Mortified, I ran for the nearest stall and slammed the door shut. I threw my bags on the floor and tried to lock the door, only to discover that the lock didn't work correctly and I had to angle it oddly and smash on it with the heel of my hand to get it to fasten.I made it to the toilet but it was abundantly clear that some serious damage had already been done. Any of you who have had infants will likely remember diaper blowouts. This was an adult-sized version.Despite the copious amount of material in my underwear and shorts, and on the floor in front of me, not to mention on me, my body had more to do on the toilet, complete with pain and cramping that left me in a cold sweat. The thoughts that went through my head included:I should lose at least ten pounds with this.What happens if I dial 911 from the restroom?I wish I had paper on which to write "Do Not Use" and tape to stick the note to the door.With my bowels finally empty, I took stock of the situation, trying to quell the growing panic. It was 4 o'clock and my flight boarded at 4:20. I had no change of clothes with me; all my clothes were in my checked luggage (that's going to change for my next flight). All I could think of was to wash my clothes as best I could. Fortunately, I had a source of clean water under my bum. Unfortunately, I had a lot to clean up.I began to clean myself with toilet paper, grateful that there were two huge rolls in the dispenser. As I pulled the paper, the front panel of the dispenser fell down on me, so I had to pull paper with one hand and keep it on the dispenser roll with the other. Half a roll and a dozen flushes later, I was pretty sure I'd cleaned all of me that I could. Then I started on my underwear, trying to use the suction of the flushes to rinse them. It didn't work nearly as well as I imagined it might, and I filed that way. Do not use this trick in a book. Doesn't work.I'd have to throw out the underwear. Next, I looked at my shorts, which were—of course, because nothing should be easy—denim. I couldn't do this in the toilet. I nearly broke down and cried then. A few people had commented to me over the past few months that I seemed to be living a charmed life. Doesn't look much like a charmed life now, does it?I had only one recourse now: venturing out[...]

Bitter Herbs


I haven't written a blog post in over six months for a very good reason: I couldn't. I couldn't find the right words and when I thought I might have a few of them, I couldn't stop grieving. Yet somehow, once again Pesach (Passover) has given me tools with which to describe my leaving the most recent narrow place.It's interesting to note that when I write books, they're always in response to some Big Question. Destined to Choose was an answer I could live with to the question "Why is there evil in the world?" Strength to Stand was an answer to "How much intolerance must we tolerate? And if the answer is 'none,' aren't we also being intolerant?" But I've never been able to write my way through traumatic experiences. My third novel, No One to Fear, due out in 2017, is the first post-9/11 book in the Rabbi David Cohen series. It's the first time I've been able to write about 9/11. I haven't yet been able to write about my parents' deaths, and it's been twelve years and seven years, respectively. Last December brought another kind of trauma and I'm only now able to write about it without bursting into tears.September 2015 was filled with joy and book events. To my utter amazement, I found myself on TV, radio, in several newspapers, and around the Internet. For an introverted author, this was both exciting and terrifying. I flew to North Carolina (back when anyone could still use the bathroom most appropriate for them) for Bouchercon, the world's largest mystery/suspense/thriller convention for authors and fans. I met wonderful booksellers and readers and fellow authors through November.In early December I had another book event, one that I'd dreamed about for years: being the December spotlight author for the local JCC's Jewish Book Series. It was, in many ways, a dream come true. And it was sponsored by my home synagogue. The rabbi seemed excited, and at one point said, "We have an opportunity to celebrate one of our own." Except it didn't turn out that way. At all.I'm not going to go into details, because that isn't the point of this post. I'm also not going to name names, because that also isn't the point. (I ask that any commenters please not name names in the comments either. If you know me in person and want more details than this post gives, please contact me by email or through Facebook.)What that event did do, however, was open my eyes to a problem that I'd been avoiding and choosing not to see for years: the shul had let members of my family (and me) down repeatedly over 20+ years. I'm not talking about the occasional human oversight. I'm talking about an ongoing failure of communication, of actions not matching words. Of talking the talk but not walking the walk.My kids (now both teens) had no ties to the shul. No friends, no future there. My husband, save for a couple of individual friends, felt no sense of community. I was convinced that the problem was with me: if I just tried harder, I would be valued.But December's event made me realize that all this time that I thought I was eating a savory, substantial brisket, I was really eating bitter herbs, washed down with the salt water of my own tears.In an email I sent to the rabbi the day after that December event, I wrote, "The fastest way to drive someone away from Judaism is to make them feel like they have no value." I stand by that comment. We as human beings are hard-wired to belong. We need community (even us introverts).Since joining that congregation some 20+ years ago, I had often wondered—and worried—what if I really, really needed my Jewish community, and they weren't there for me? While they sometimes were there for me, there were far more ti[...]

The Awesomest Launch Party I've Ever Had (So Far)


The launch party for Strength to Stand at SubText Books in downtown St. Paul was a thing of beauty.It started with the cake, created by Taste of Love Bakery in West St. Paul:Which I threatened to kill, because there was a knife there. I mean, seriously, who gives a suspense author a knife?And a crowd started gathering before we even got started:I got to sign a bunch of books (and if you want to get one, SubText still has signed copies) as well as give away some author swag:And I talked for a little bit about how the book and characters came to be and then read a short section from the book:But we all know who the real star of the show was:[...]

Suspense and the David Cohen series


Destined to Choose (book 1 in the Rabbi David Cohen series) and Strength to Stand (book 2) are very different books in some ways. Destined to Choose might be best described as literary suspense (literary fiction with suspense elements) and Strength to Stand is an out-and-out thriller.  It's come to my attention that an explanation of why this is, and what's in store for the rest of the series, might be of help to readers.Let me start with a little bit of background. I first wrote Destined to Choose over a period of several years, culminating in its initial publication in 2003. In 2000, I'd shopped it around to other publishers, both Jewish and mainstream, and received some heartwarming responses. The vast majority of publishers loved it. The biggest problem was that I was an unknown author. The next biggest problem was that it was a niche book, too religious for some of the mainstream publishers, not religious enough for some of the Jewish publishers. Some publishers said they'd take it if I could prove myself with a few standalone novels first. Others said they'd publish it if it wasn't part of a series—if it was a standalone novel itself.Photo: thinkpanamaI actually received several book contracts for it, but I didn't like some of the things they required in the contract. At the top of the list was that I'd have to sign over rights to the series. If Destined to Choose didn't sell well enough for their bottom line, I would be legally prohibited from publishing any other books in the series with another publisher. This, as you can imagine, is the kiss of death for a series author. So I declined to sign them, and my attempts at renegotiation didn't go anywhere.Upon the recommendation of the founder of a small Jewish press whom I highly respected, I launched my own publishing company in 2002, taking great care to get everything right so that I could compete with the big guys. It worked, better than I could have ever imagined.At the time, I wasn't thinking about genre. I'd written the book that was inside me, the one that wouldn't leave me alone. David and Sara and Batya and Arik and Eli can be very noisy when they want to be heard. I'd written it also thinking that the primary audience would be the Jewish community, or those who were interested in Judaism. I thought of it as a kind of "scholarly fiction"—the thinking person's novel. A novel with depth and well-researched ideas from a distinctly Jewish perspective. To be honest, I thought that the Jewish community would respect "scholarly fiction" more than "fluff fiction," but the overriding drive was that I love books that make me think more than books that simply make me laugh.The very best piece of writing advice I ever received was, "Write the books that you want to read." I did exactly that. I'd published Destined to Choose with a small print run supplemented by on-demand printing, years before that became The Thing To Do. I didn't print the genre on the book itself because, honestly, I thought of it simply as "fiction." Then I started noticing some troubling things.Amazon had tagged the book "Christian fiction" until I wrote to them and pointed out that it featured a rabbi, who was rather obviously not Christian. They didn't have a "Jewish fiction" tag back then. (They do now.) Barnes & Noble was shelving it in the "Christian Fiction" section of the bookstore, where it wasn't getting noticed, or was getting passed over because it wasn't, well, Christian.Around the same time, a publishing organization of which I was a member offered an educational meeting about choosing the right genre. I [...]

Triggers, Critics, and Rosh Hashanah


It is two days before my newest novel, Strength to Stand, is released to the public, and I would have expected myself to be ecstatic. The book and I have both overcome so many odds to get to this point that the very fact some interested reader can hold it in his or her hand is nothing short of a miracle. Emotions swirl around inside me: gratitude, pride, humility, joy.Yet there are others there, uninvited guests who have taken up residence in the party room, scaring away the fun with their chilly presence: pain, despair, hopelessness, depression. I was certain I hadn't invited them, certain my focus was on the guests I wanted. I had every intention of getting autographs from hope, opportunity, and love. So why the downer?Because pistol triggers aren't the only kind of triggers that can leave a gaping, bloody hole in one's life.If you've spent some time on this blog, you know that I've come out about battling depression, among other things. I've also written a little about what life was like in my family, growing up. Over time, I finally learned that I have worth, that my opinion counts, and that the Torah actually commands us to love ourselves (though not in a narcissistic way). These are life lessons that we need to learn experientially, not intellectually. And for those of us who grew up with a lot of criticism or shame or violence, learning these life lessons may well be the thing that keeps us alive.But what these lessons do not do, unfortunately, is erase the pain or the shame or the scars left on our bodies and souls. And when something similar to those original assaults comes along, it can rip off the scabs, tear open the scars, and leave us hurting and weakened, right back in the center of hell.There's some interesting psychology around what are now called Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs). There are a total of ten (defined) ACEs, events occurring before a child turns 18, including but not limited to physical and sexual abuse, physical or emotional neglect, mental illness or addiction in the family, and divorce, violence, or death in the family. The ACE study has linked these adverse childhood events with later (decades later) physical and emotional health issues. The higher you score on the ACE Questionnaire, the greater the likelihood you'll have one or more of the health issues commonly associated with ACEs.Is it causal or correlational? The brain science behind the study does seem to show that it's causal. Long-term stress caused by these ACEs has a physiological effect on the development of the brain, thus leaving individuals at greater risk for health problems and reduced longevity. But it's not a death sentence. Science also shows that there are things we can do to help heal our brains.Nowhere on that list, though, is finding ourselves, willingly or not, in the middle of situations that resemble the original assaults we endured.We call those situations triggers, though that seems like a relatively innocuous word to describe all that scab-ripping, soul-tearing pain. Avoiding triggers is good. Becoming strong enough in ourselves that the triggers lose their power is even better.I'm not there yet. I will be. But not today.I got triggered this past week, which is probably what sent out the party invitations to the chilly, downer guests. Here's what happened, in a nutshell. I received a mean-spirited, snarky review of Strength to Stand from a review journal infamous for mean-spirited, snarky reviews. They described my characters in caricatures, wrote in hyperbole, and then accused me of writing stereotypes.Everyone else said that [...]

The Ups and Downs of Being an Author OR Check Your Ego at the Door


Be careful what you ask for, the saying goes, because you might just get it. That can be a problem.The problem isn't getting what you want. The problem is that once you have what you want, you want something different, something more.In an author's world, there is no such thing as enough. There's always the next book, the next review, the next reader, the next appearance, the next award, the next book contract. Sure, some few lucky writers have more than they ever could have dreamed of in royalty income. Their award shelf is sagging with the weight of having won every award given in their genre. Some might call that enough. But no true writer I know of has ever finished writing a book and said, "Okay, I'm done now. No more books."There's always another book. Which means there's always more reviews, sales, signings, award submissions. There's always a new opportunity to succeed. Or fail. Most authors do some of both.This past May, I was feeling pretty down, coming off the temporary high of seeing interior and cover files for Strength to Stand go off to the printer. This book was a long time in coming. I'd finished most of the book by 2006, with the exception of one scene that my editor wasn't buying. The manuscript languished as I put all my efforts into my day job and my kids. Years passed, and while I felt the pull to return to that manuscript, it wasn't until a good friend prodded me into rewriting that one scene, late in October 2014, that I finally picked up the mantle of author again.I was a writing machine for two months, the book coming together seamlessly. In January 2015, it was back in my editor's hands. By April, Advance Reading Copies (ARCs) were being prepared, and by May, I was four chapters into writing book 3 (No One to Fear) in the series. And then I did the Bad Thing. The Bad Thing that authors should never do if they want to keep their sanity. (No, not that one. The other Bad Thing.)I compared myself to other authors.I was skimming through Facebook and seeing posts from fellow author friends, some struggling with their work in progress (WIP), some also anticipating a new release in the fall, and then others who were awash in good news—every few days a glowing review or the announcement of an award won.If you've ever compared yourself to someone whose life's work is somehow related to yours, you know the inevitable outcome: when you compare yourself to others, you always, always lose. I am now convinced that authors should only ever compare their current work to their work from at least a year ago. No one else's. Ever.But the book industry thrives on comparison. "If you like x author, you'll like y author." The various bestsellers lists are all about ranking sales, and if you know anything about the book industry, you know that sales are not a factor of how good the book is. Rather, sales are a measure of how effective and broad the marketing campaign was (hint: $$$). But any author who is deemed a "bestselling author" will claim the title without asking any questions, and they certainly won't ask if they're now a bestselling author because of the quality of their work or because a well-timed publicity campaign followed by a few Goodreads giveaways happened to go viral and it could have happened to anyone.And then there are awards. The ultimate in comparison. Awards are supposedly an objective ranking of the best books in any given genre. But even this is suspect. Awards judges have biases, including sometimes a bias against Jewish books, no matter how well they're written[...]

Please join my street team!


I'm looking for a few good people. Or maybe a lot of good people. I'm looking to form a "street team," a roving gang of readers who can do things I can't for David, Sara, Batya, Arik, and the rest of the folks in the series. Here's how it works:What you get:Your very own ARC (advance reading copy) to read and enjoyUnfettered access to me (Sheyna) via email and, if enough people are on Facebook, a Facebook groupMy undying gratitudeGifts, giveaways, and discounts at my discretion (only available to street team members)A chance to be a part of something biggerWhat you need to do:Read the ARC. Note that there are errors in it. I'm aware of them, which will be corrected before the final printing.Do as many of the following FREE things as you can:Post about Strength to Stand on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Shelfari, BookLikes, The Reading Room, etc.)Review it on Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Library Thing (Goodreads is available now; others may not be available until closer to the on-sale date)Talk about it in Goodreads groupsInclude my book in a photograph of you or a friend. BONUS: post the photo on InstagramAsk your local bookstores to order it (they can pre-order), and if you go on vacation, ask bookstores at your destination to order itIf you see my book at a bookstore, tell the owner/manager what you love about it—they might not have read it and aren't familiar with itAsk your local libraries to order it (and libraries at any vacation spot you might be at) and tell the librarian about it, and why you like itTell any book clubs you know about itAsk your local book clubs, synagogues, churches, or other organizations to carry it in their gift shop (if applicable) and consider having me do a presentation, reading, and/or signingLet me know if you see any good reviews, or post about them and tag meTake a photo of my book in a bookstore and post it (and tag me) or send it to me and I'll post it (it's good publicity for the bookstore too)Vote for Strength to Stand as one of your favorite books on any contests, especially through social media"Like" my author page on Facebook if you haven't already, and encourage your friends to do the same. BONUS: Click on "get notifications" (hover over "liked") so you know when I post somethingComment on (don't just "like") my posts, which gives those posts greater visibility to othersShare my Facebook postsFollow me on Twitter (@sheynagalayn) and retweet my tweets. Encourage your friends to do the sameEncourage your friends to sign up for this newsletterAdd me to your Google+ circlesTalk to me about my book when you see me (I don't get sick of it, really)Follow my blog (Books and Beliefs)Come to my launch party, either in person or my virtual launch party on FacebookAttend my in-person or virtual events. There's nothing more disheartening than going to a signing and having no one show upWrite about my book or series, or interview me for your own blog, or ask me to do a guest post for your blogTell all of your friendsDo any of the following not-free things if you can:Pre-order my bookBuy copies to give as giftsBuy copies and donate them to fundraising auctionsBuy a copy to donate to your synagogue or church library (if applicable)That's it! Unless you think of more things, and then by all means, please do them. And let me know what you did, because I may add it to my list. Remember, authors don't make much money from bo[...]

Fiction: to describe or not to describe is the question


Less than a week ago, I had a conversation with another author in which she asserted that she can always identify an amateur author by the fact that they describe their characters upon introduction. I didn't respond. I was a little shocked and I didn't know what to say. She explained that she could be friends with someone for years and never know what color their eyes are, so an eye color description in a book was a tell, practically a sign screaming amateur. She went on, saying that in her first book, she didn't describe any of her characters. At all."But do they need to be described?" asked a second author, who'd joined the conversation.To answer that question, I have to pull out my favorite Jewish answer: it depends.I've thought about this, worried about this, even obsessed about this a little (okay, maybe more than a little) since the conversation took place. I know that I'm sensitive to it because my first ever bad review (to which I did not respond, thank you very much) was about my character descriptions. This reader (not a professional reviewer) even used the same trigger word, saying that descriptions are the mark of an amateur writer.I'm willing to take constructive criticism. Some of my beta readers actually wanted more description (body type, clothing, stature, facial features) because they couldn't picture the characters otherwise. Other beta readers took the opposite stance: "Why do I care what color her hair is? Get on with the story."I was (and am) adamant that some descriptors are important, even essential, for the reader to know. It's important for the reader to know that David (my rabbi protagonist) is clean-shaven, because there's this assumption that all (male) rabbis have beards. It's important for the reader to know that Arik looks Middle-Eastern (and in book 3, that will cause him a lot of grief).That said, I also have learned in my growth as a writer that the old instructions to writers, imparted in sage tones by prestigious-award-winning authors, no longer apply in today's reading climate. It used to be that description, whether of character or setting, was the place where an author's prose could have free rein to explore flowery language and poetic combinations of sounds when read aloud. But now? Now readers want action. They want dialog. They want, it seems to me, something more like a script.There's no description on TV or in the movies. What a character wears, looks like, observes in their scenery is just there. We know which cops wear suits and ties and which ones somehow manage foot chases in low-cut silk blouses and high heels because we see it. But we don't really process what we're seeing. We're too engaged in the plot and the dialog.Some readers (and some authors) think that not describing characters allows the reader to put him/herself into the story. If the protagonist is a redhead and the reader is a brunette, it's harder for the reader to imagine herself as the hero, is the argument. Lack of description allows the reader to fill in their own.I disagree. It's the opposite for me. Lack of any description leads (for me) to a difficulty in seeing and therefore connecting with the characters. I don't want to have to do my own casting for the story. I want to know what the author pictured. I want to be invited in, to feel like I'm there, and that's hard when all I have are faceless names on a page.But I'm also a visual person, and not all readers are. Perhaps, then, it's simply a matter of style, or taste. I like it whe[...]

Destined to Choose named award finalist!


I'm super-thrilled to share that my first book, Destined to Choose, has been named a 2015 National Indie Excellence Award finalist!

(image) Here's two things I've learned from this:

1. CELEBRATE! To celebrate this win, Destined to Choose is being offered for FREE as an ebook from Tuesday 5/19/15 through Saturday 5/23/15, and the paperback is 36% off at the publisher's website ( For those who don't know why it's 36% off and not some more "normal" number, it's a Hebrew language thing. In Hebrew, numbers are written with Hebrew letters. The number 18 is written as חי (chai), which means "life." The number 36, as a multiple of 18, becomes "double life."

2. STAY IN THE GAME! Destined to Choose was first published twelve years ago. Yotzeret Publishing re-released it in 2013 as a new edition with a 10-year-anniversary update to the Author's Note, a few error corrections, an updated interior design, and a new cover (which I LOVE!). That re-release made it eligible for the National Indie Excellence Awards.

I could have said, "You know, it's had a good run. Why invest the extra money to submit it for an award? After all, it hasn't won any awards yet." Reminder to self: it didn't win any awards because it was never submitted for any awards when it came out! Instead, I said to myself, "Self, submit this book! It has a shot at winning. It's a beautiful book, readers love it, and it meets all the eligibility requirements. And, there's still time before the submission deadline. You read about this award for a reason, so submit it already!"

And now here I am, eagerly awaiting the opportunity to put FINALIST stickers on my books. It's exciting. It's something I've wanted for a very long time. And I'm really pleased that I—and others—still believe in this book, because that paid off this week.

And just think: it's less than four months until Strength to Stand comes out!

Finding the Good: Parshat Vayechi


Today is my oldest son's birthday. This week's parsha (also spelled parasha) — Vayechi (Genesis 47:28 - 50:26) — was his Torah portion for his bar mitzvah, and he and I spent months examining and re-examining it, talking about it, occasionally arguing about it. He chose to speak about whether or not Yaakov was blessing his sons or rebuking them, and what exactly constituted a rebuke. He also chose to avoid speaking about how the legacy continues of the younger son receiving the older son's blessing (much to my younger son's consternation). You can read the full text of his d'var Torah here.Last year, the part that stood out for me was the passing on of one's legacy — knowledge, wisdom, beliefs, hopes, and dreams — from one generation to the next. Of course that made sense: my eldest was claiming his place in our community, accepting the legacy I and others were handing down to him.And this year? This year a different part spoke to me. That's as it should be. That's why we read it again and again, year after year. The text doesn't change, but we do. Where we are in our lives a year later allows us to see messages that we weren't ready to hear a year earlier.This year's gem is a short phrase that Joseph utters when his brothers beg his forgiveness after their father, Yaakov, has been buried. The brothers are worried that Joseph might still hold a grudge against them, and they send Joseph a message saying that their father (allegedly) instructed Joseph to forgive his brothers. And Joseph responds by claiming that he is no substitute for G-d, and further, in part:וְאַתֶּם חֲשַׁבְתֶּם עָלַי רָעָה השם חֲשָׁבָהּ לְטֹבָהAnd you intended evil upon me but G-d intended it for good... For many of us, our lives are filled with a succession of adversaries. Some are small and easily overcome. Some are lifelong struggles that, G-d willing, when we look back in our final days, we'll see that we finally triumphed against. Overcoming the messages from my childhood (particularly the notion that no matter what I did, or who I became, I'd never be good enough) was a big one. Dealing with my depression, which I did actually liken to the yetser hara — the evil inclination as an adversary — here, was another. Coming to terms with having chronic physical illnesses is yet a third.It's so easy to cry out, "Why me? It's not fair! Haven't I had enough?" It's even easy to look at others who have battled (or are still battling) cancer, loss of limbs, loss of their entire family in a tragedy, or other horrendous experiences and write off our own as not worthy in comparison. But pain is pain. Loss is loss. We're not in a competition. And I'm wondering if there's more to be learned from the adversaries I now face.Somehow, I drew the genetic straw that gave me physical limitations that are sometimes severe, and a few even life-threatening. I can imagine speaking to them, to the genetic code, to the physical health legacy passed down through my biological ancestors, and saying to them, v'atem chashavtem alai ra'a, Hashem chashabah l'tovah. You intended me harm, but G-d has intended it for good.And some day I will look back and see, clear as day, what the good was, and why this obstacle is so necessary to my growth.Shabbat shalom! [...]

Counting What Counts


Image: Flickr/Christine UriasLast night, while at a small and lovely New Year's Eve party with friends, we counted down to 2015 three times. Once, at about 10:30pm, to King Julien's (Madagascar movies) New Year's Countdown on Netflix. Once, at 11:00pm, to one of the local news stations that airs the New York countdown in real time. And once at midnight, local time. At the first two, I felt a bit like I was playacting. At the third, I had to blink back a few tears."You can never have too many countdowns," said Sharon, one of the hosts of the party.She's right.What made the first two countdowns seem insignificant had nothing to do with the discrepancy with local time. They seemed insignificant because I didn't allow them to have meaning. Only the third met my criteria for being "real." Which means I'm missing out on a lot of potentially meaningful moments. It's time to change my criteria.We celebrate a lot of transitions in Judaism. Marking time with lit candles, with specific prayers and blessings, we don't just wait for meaning to hit us; we carve meaning into the fabric of our reality. And sometimes it feels like playacting, and sometimes it's a deep, heart-wrenching shift from what was to what can be.We're not wired this way. Left to our own devices, the days blur into one another, weeks into months into years, with the occasional lit countdown ball or birthday greetings to remind us that another year as passed, another year we've walked the earth, another year gone that we could have made holy.As it says in Tehillim (Psalms): "Let us then know how to number our days, that we may obtain a heart endowed with wisdom. [...] Oh satisfy us in the morning with your kindness, that we may be glad and rejoice throughout all our days. Cause us to rejoice as many days as those wherein you have afflicted us, the years wherein we have seen unhappiness." (Ps. 90:12, 14-15).It's a mindful act, to attend to each day. It requires thought, focus, intention. Each evening deserves its own countdown, that "there was evening, and there was morning" — a new day, a new chance to start over, a new opportunity to be the person we are each intended to be.We don't just wait for meaning to hit us; we carve meaning into the fabric of our reality.My days used to be ruled by to-do lists, responsibilities and obligations to others, a never-ending litany of tasks like laundry and dishes, tasks that seemed to benefit no one in the long term, yet still needed to be done. Work was predominant in my life, and the fact that others were waiting, counting on me, was the only taskmaster I could hear, driving me on to the detriment of all else.This year — this day — is an opportunity to change that, to attend not only to my work, but to the rest of my self: my physical, emotional, intellectual, social, and spiritual needs. It's a new year. It's a new day. It's a new now.Let the countdown begin again.[...]