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The day after the Inauguration, I had a long conversation with someone who was fighting despair. He was obviously a smart guy, educated, well-spoken, reasonable. He was trying to make sense of what was happening on the national political stage and come up with a plan to fix it, and he was failing. His failure, to which I imagine he is at least somewhat unaccustomed, was causing him a lot of distress.

I told him, “This is an unprecedented and chaotic time, and there isn’t a simple easy fix. No one knows what is this is going to lead to in the future.”

I want you to pause and let that sink in: No one knows what is going to happen.

Seriously. I don’t care how smart any one individual is. They do not know what is going to happen. Most of them do not even have all the facts. Unless X-men mutant powers have suddenly manifested around the globe, nobody knows what the future will bring. They can guess. They can analyze. They can plan. They can string together a line of facts with speculation. But they cannot know.

Why does this matter?

Fear has two sides. On the one hand, it can be an effective weapon. It can galvanize us into action, overcoming the impulses of laziness, denial, and apathy.  It can help us develop courage and integrity. It can act as a loud warning siren that something has gone wrong in the world around us.

But if left unchecked, fear can spiral out of control. It can deepen into despair and defeatist thinking. It can overwhelm and paralyze. It can lead a person into believing there is nothing they can do.

And spending too much time dwelling on and being terrified by an unknown future can lead to this spiral of despair all too easily.

How do we combat this? By aggressive self care, by acknowledging that we do not know what the future will bring, and by empowering ourselves by focusing on concrete actions we can take.

But Amy, I hear someone say, what good are my actions? They won’t make any difference.

And to that person I say, I understand how you feel. We are, each of us, tiny specks of sand being blown by the winds of history in the making. It is an uncomfortable feeling.

But you are wrong. Over and over again in this blog, I have written about the importance of the individual’s choices, about how we impact the world around us, about how living a mindful and examined life matters. And that has never been more true than at this moment.

What you believe matters. How you choose to conduct yourself matters. Acting with integrity matters. Reaching out and supporting your friends, your communities, your families, that all matters. Staying engaged and informed matters. Donating matters. Becoming engaged in the political process matters. Organizing matters. Protesting matters. What you create as an artist matters.

You do not have to conduct a very deep dive into history to find concrete examples of how these things have impact: various independence movements; women’s suffrage; the Civil Rights Movement; the LGBTQ rights movement; the Tea Party. And that’s just off the top of my head. These sorts of things are usually messy and often deeply imperfect, because we as individuals make mistakes and are deeply imperfect. But over time they can change the status quo. Our actions do matter.

And if the fear is strong in you right now, know you don’t have to do it all, and you don’t have to do it alone. That is why organizing is so important, because when it works well, you become more than the sum of your parts. You support each other. You don’t have to be an expert on every single issue. You can take breaks. You can focus on your strengths and not beat yourself up so hard over your weaknesses. You can raise up your voices together, and a million voices are a hell of a lot louder than one single voice.

As Dylan Thomas so famously wrote:

“Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Fight against despair because it will lie to you. It will tell you your integrity and your principles no longer matter. And that is simply not true.

Who you are will always matter.

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Well, 2016

I tried to write about 2016 this past week and I couldn’t do it. I wrote some words, but then I thought, these words don’t matter to me, and I let them languish unpublished. Instead I spent most of the week alone, reflecting and resting and, perhaps most of all, listening, giving myself the deep focused listening I craved.

When I think of 2016, the first memory that comes to mind is a day in early August. I was lying on one of those vaguely uncomfortable exam tables in a small private room at Urgent Care, wearing jeans and a thin cotton hospital gown. I was cold. I was frightened. I kept accidentally beginning to cry, not a loud sobbing with lots of tissues but more of a silent scream where I’d suddenly find tears plastered to my cheeks. My head hurt so badly, I was so confused, my brain kept betraying me again and again. I was alone.

I was waiting for my CAT scan to find out if my brain was bleeding. If my brain was bleeding I’d go in for brain surgery. At least that was my understanding from the brief forbidden peek on the internet I’d allowed myself. If I went in for brain surgery, who knew if I’d come out. It didn’t sound particularly promising. I knew I’d do whatever the doctors said without asking questions because I wasn’t capable of making any important decisions and there was no one else there to help. At that moment, it was out of my control and all I could do was sit and wait and try to hold myself together even though it felt like I was watching my brain disintegrate.

I wish somebody had been with me then. And I know some of you reading this right now are wishing you had been there, and in my imagination I edit it so you were there holding my hand. There is some comfort there. But at the time, of course, I wasn’t able to imagine things, and I couldn’t even access or control my own thoughts properly, and I was very alone, and I thought: “This is what people mean when they say everyone dies alone. I never realized quite how horrific that idea was until this moment.”

But I didn’t die. Instead I got some valuable practice, and maybe next time I’ll do better. Maybe next time I’ll find a small core of peace inside myself. Maybe next time I’ll have more grace.

When I think of my 2016, I think endurance. I endured, and I’m proud of what I accomplished. I made some difficult decisions that led to big changes that I believe will make my life better down the line. I suffered from the worst injury of my life and I didn’t give up. I learned a lot. I didn’t close down, and I held onto my vision of a brighter future. I found moments of joy and connection even in the midst of tremendous struggle. I went to great lengths to take care of myself and to respect myself, and I feel like, even though it was very hard for me, I did a better job of it than perhaps I’ve ever done before. I’m very tired, but here I am.

I didn’t like 2016, but I’m grateful for the time I’m getting, even when it really sucks. I feel lucky to be here.

For all of you who had good years, I’m so glad. You keep my hope strong. And if you had a bad year, I admire you for hanging in there, and I really hope the next year is better for us both.

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I’m sitting here typing this on the longest night of the year. After this, the nights will be a few minutes shorter, and then a few minutes shorter again. At some point in the not-so-distant future, it won’t be dark at 4:15 in the afternoon. The sun will make it till 4:30 and then even 5:00.

I can’t give you words of comfort about the state of the world because I don’t have any right now. What I can give you is comfort on a more personal level.

Every year I make a photobook of highlights from the year that’s just gone by and give it to myself for Christmas. This year I didn’t want to make one. I put it off, and then I put it off some more. I thought it would be depressing. 2016 was such a challenging and difficult year for me personally, what photos would I even have to choose from? But finally I forced myself to sit down and start the job by telling myself I could always just make a whole book of cute Nala pictures. No one else might enjoy looking at a book like that, but I would like it.

What I found, though, as I started putting photos onto pages, was that there was still plenty to be happy about in 2016. My book wasn’t a lot shorter than usual, and it wasn’t a lot sadder than usual. There was still joy and love and silliness to record on its pages. There was still hope.

And I realize, when I think back on the year, how much of my joy derives from the people I care about. It’s been easier than usual to forget this year because there was a lot going on, and much of that was disappointing or ugly or just plain tough. But when I think about the year, I don’t just think about all the hard times. I also think of all the people who were there through the hard times.

I think of friends in the Bay Area who took me out, who danced with me, who listened to me without judgment, who fed me sushi and waffles and peanut butter pie. I think of those friends who supported me moving to Seattle one hundred percent even though they were personally sad I was leaving. And I think of the phone calls and messages since I moved, and how those friendships haven’t gone anywhere.

I think of my friends at Rainforest who helped me figure some stuff out. I think of my friends in LA who I hadn’t seen in years who welcomed me back into their lives with open arms. I think of my high school friends with whom I shared a special reunion. I think of my friends at Worldcon in Kansas City who looked out for me since my health wasn’t good.

I think of my friends in Seattle and how humbled I have been by their kindness and generosity. I had only been living here ONE MONTH when my life completely fell apart, and you all stepped up to the challenge, even though many of you barely knew me. I can’t think about it without crying. Your willingness to show up and be there for me and help me means everything to me. And there were many people supporting me from a distance as well. You showed me how good people can be and how little it sometimes takes to make a huge difference in someone else’s life. You have forever changed my experience of the world.

I think of my close friends, my inner circle. The ones who know me best, who know my faults as well as my strengths and love me anyway. The ones who walk beside me as we share what we think and how we feel. The ones who understand the less obvious things about me, the ones who validate my feelings, the ones who I trust. I feel so lucky to have met you.

And I think of Nala, of course, who is loyal and sweet and mischievous and empathetic. And who was so scared of being left when we’d moved to a new state that she learned how to grab onto my legs with her front paws while standing on her back paws. There is no one more concerned about my welfare than that little dog, and she brightens my life every single day just by being herself.

When we go through hard times we learn a lot, both about ourselves and about the people who are around us. What I learned this year is that even when everything is going to hell, some people will be kind and they will be true. And there are an awful lot of people out there who love and care about me, and who I love and care about back.

On the longest night of the year, I think about all of you, and then it doesn’t seem so very dark.

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Best SF/F Reads of 2016

And I’m back to talk some more about books! This time I’ll be discussing SF/F novels I read and liked this year. Most of the titles I’m going to be talking about are fantasy. A few of them are alternative history, and one of them is post-apocalyptic. I’ve been feeling a little sad I haven’t been reading more good science fiction lately, but hopefully next year! And I did read some really great fantasy novels this year, so there are compensations.

My Real Children, by Jo Walton. SF alternate history

This book is fascinating to me because I feel like it shouldn’t have worked but for me it totally did. The premise of the novel is that it follows the life of a single female protagonist who makes a key choice rather early on in the novel, and then the books splits into two potential life (and world) paths and follows them both to their conclusions. The book focuses very intimately on the life of this one woman, and in a lot of chapters, nothing much happens. You’re just watching this woman live her life in two different trajectories, with all the normal life minutiae you would expect. So why is it compelling? I think it must because of Walton’s deft characterization and selection of minutiae, and the interest of watching the world unfold in two distinct ways.

SPOILER: My one main quibble is that the branching-off decision is about a man, namely, whether the protagonist will marry him or not. While I think this is a super realistic branching off point for a life, I wish the entire narrative hadn’t hung on this choice in particular. Still very worthwhile to read if this premise sounds interesting to you.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson. Fantasy

I love this book so much. I know not everyone did, so you might want to take a look at the synopsis or maybe try out the first chapter before committing (which I am assuming you’re doing anyway), but I was spellbound by it. The protagonist isn’t the most likeable ever, which I see as a feature since I enjoy flawed characters. Plus given her history of being deeply affected and afflicted by imperialism from an early age,  I feel like her development and the decisions she makes are completely understandable, if sometimes tragic. The worldbuilding here is ambitious and fascinating. Probably the least successful component is plot, and even that is not bad but does drag a bit from time to time.

This novel is the first of a series (or a trilogy? I’m not sure) but in my opinion stands on its own.

City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett. Fantasy

City of Blades, by Robert Jackson Bennett. Fantasy

Last year everyone was talking about how great City of Stairs was. They wouldn’t shut up about it. And yes, it turns out I agree with them. The sequel/companion novel City of Blades is also strong, although by necessity lacking the freshness of worldbuilding that was part of what made the first installment so stunning. The worldbuilding and characters both shine in these books, and the mystery/spy plots are fun to follow.

Wylding Hall, By Elizabeth Hand. Fantasy

I keep thinking about this novella even though I read it many months ago. I think it’s one of the most effective haunted house narratives I’ve ever read. I like the framing device of having many first-person accounts of what happened after a period of years have passed. The handling of music is also deft and realistic, which I appreciate.

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson. Horror.

Speaking of haunted house stories, I finally got around to reading this classic. And big shocker, it’s a classic for good reason! I didn’t love it as much as I loved We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which is possibly one of my favorite novels of all time, but it was pleasingly creepy and well crafted.

Farthing, by Jo Walton. SF alternate history/cosy mystery

This mystery, which takes place in an alternate UK that made peace with Hitler, is so charming. Okay, and horrifying in that the reader has a front-row seat on watching fascism descend on Great Britain. Not a novel that is AT ALL RELEVANT right now, oh no. This was like reading a top-notch Agatha Christie mystery with added social commentary, aka Amy awesomesauce.

For reference, the second book in this trilogy is fine although not as good as this one, and the third one, well….not my cup of tea and doesn’t have what I consider to be a plausible resolution. But the first one is excellent!

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, by Meg Elison. SF

This book is so dark. It is so dark you might not want to read it. But if you are willing to slog through depressing most-of-humanity-is-shockingly-terrible level stuff, this post-apocalyptic novel is probably worth it. The premise is that most of humanity was wiped out by some plague, a disease that killed a lot more women than men. Atrocities ensue. Our protagonist is a female nurse trying to survive the end of the world. If this sounds bleak to you, that’s because it really really is.

The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin. Fantasy

The Obelisk Gate, by N.K. Jemisin. Fantasy

Everyone was talking about how great The Fifth Season was last year too. It turns out I agree again! In this case I’ve really enjoyed Jemisin’s work in the past so I wasn’t surprised.

What can I say to encapsulate these novels? Well, they’re dark. Not as dark as The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, though, not that that’s saying much. The worldbuilding is excellent. The characters are flawed and compelling. (Are we sensing any trends here?) The plotting is a teensy bit uneven, but not enough to seriously impair my enjoyment. There is a really fun reveal in the first book. I can’t wait for the last book in the trilogy to come out!

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Rumbullion, by Molly Tanzer. Fantasy

This is a weird little book. And it is transgressive in the most enjoyable ways. A young aristocrat attempts to discover what actually went on at a party of his that went askew. This book is part reaction and speculation from said aristocrat and partly an archive of the letters he collects while trying to get to the bottom of what happened, and reveals are skillfully woven throughout. If you’re in the mood for something out of the ordinary, maybe give this book a shot.

Ficciones, by Jorge Luis Borges. Speculative

Well, after hearing about Borges for–ten years, maybe?–I finally got around to reading some of his stories. They were both what I expected and not what I expected. The prose was on the dry and academic side; its style reminded me a bit of Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. Also pretty much no women to speak of. And rarely are the stories very character-focused. No, these stories are almost purely idea stories, and they really are jewels of that genre. There’s also a fair amount of metafictional aspects at play here, which I tend to enjoy. Borges leaps through all kinds of intellectual hoops and experiments with a particular flavor of magical realism, and it is very enjoyable to watch him play. Overall these stories aren’t emotionally moving on a deep level, but occasionally one of them sneaks up behind you and packs a wallop. The rest of the time it’s pure enjoyment to watch a great mind wrestle with interesting questions and fresh metaphors.

And that completes my review of my reading in 2016. Overall I feel like it was a decent year reading-wise, in spite of various challenges. Looking forward to seeing what new gems reveal themselves in 2017!

My Top Reads of 2016

It’s time for my year-end reading wrap-up posts. It’s been a weird year for many reasons, but over the course of the year I’ve still been able to read about the same amount as last year, so that makes me happy. As does talking about my most interesting reads!

First, some stats. I’ve read 56 books this year, and I expect I’ll probably read a few more before the year ends. About a third of the books I read were speculative fiction for adults, about the same as last year. Only 20% of the books I read this year were YA, which is less than usual, and I also read much less nonfiction than last year. The difference was made up in literary fiction and mysteries. 79% of my reading was by women, so I guess my theory that my ease in reading lots of women writers is because of my YA reading is only partly true. And 23% of my reading was by writers of color, which isn’t as good as last year but still not horrible. Given everything else that went on this year, I’ll take it!

In this post I’m going to talk about YA, literary fiction, and nonfiction. Then I plan to write another post all about the speculative fiction I read this year. Some of these titles are new and some are not, but they are all new to me.

YA titles:

Complicit, by Stephanie Kuehn. YA contemporary

I read this at the beginning of the year and so my memory of it is a bit fuzzy. But what I do recall is that it has some interesting unreliable narrator stuff going on, which I tend to enjoy when done well. Also some sibling stuff, which I also tend to like.

The Spectacular Now, by Tim Tharp. YA contemporary.

Apparently a movie has been made that is based on this book, and it’s supposed to be pretty good, but I haven’t seen it. What stands out to me about the book is its voice. Also it’s really dark, and it’s dark done well.

The Walls Around Us, by Nova Ren Suma. YA magical realism

This book is so messed up, and I mean that in a good way. It’s beautifully written, and kind of strange, and you should just go read it right now.

Enter Title Here, by Rahul Kanakia. YA contemporary

Disclosure: Rahul is a friend of mine. This is his debut novel, and it features an unlikeable female protagonist who kicks butt (and who, incidentally, I like in spite of (or is it BECAUSE OF) her unlikeability). It also has some metafictional aspects that were fun.

Still Life with Tornado, by A.S. King. YA magical realism

I really like A.S. King’s work, plus by looking it up just now I’ve realized I’ve missed a title, so I’m feeling much joy. In this book, the protagonist begins meeting versions of herself at different ages as she struggles to come to terms with an abusive home life and what it means to be an artist. It’s kind of off-beat, and I love it. My favorite YA read of 2016.

Mystery titles:

The Peter Wimsey Mysteries, by Dorothy Sayers

I’ve been reading these during my convalescence, starting with Whose Body? Since I’ve already read almost every mystery Agatha Christie wrote, these are the next best thing. They are not overly taxing while still being interesting, which is not an easy feat. Lord Peter Wimsey is not my first choice of sleuth (he’s more in the Columbo school as opposed to the Poirot school that I like best), but he’s definitely been growing on me.

Nonfiction titles:

The Geek Feminist Revolution, by Kameron Hurley (essays)

Would this book have made this list if the election had gone differently? Unclear. Hurley does write one mean essay. But I have found it to be of especial comfort given current events.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (memoir)

This book is beautiful and raw and it hurts to read and you should read it. It isn’t an easy read but not all reads are meant to be. 

Literary fiction titles:

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

This is one of those novels that could be classified as literary or speculative, and was shelved in literary because of Atkinson’s previous work. It follows the life (or rather lives) of a female protagonist born in England shortly before World War I. Every time she dies, the book loops back and starts her life again, so we get to see all sorts of possibilities. You probably have to love this conceit to enjoy this book, and I do love it when it’s done well and isn’t too painfully repetitive. Atkinson did a good job on that front, and the book captured my imagination.

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Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood

I’m slowly chipping away at Atwood’s significant oeuvre, and this one did not disappoint. What she does here with voice and tense and POV is interesting and masterful. Set in Canada soon before the Civil War, a young doctor tries to determine if an imprisoned female servant is innocent or guilty of a double murder that happened many years before. It unfolds somewhat slowly but I found it to be entirely gripping.

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout

This is a cycle of stories, all of which in some way or another feature the character Olive Kitteridge. In some stories she is the POV character, in some a supporting character, and in others she merely shows up in passing. In this way we get a multi-dimensional view of who this woman is and what her life has been. Strout is insightful about human behavior and has a keen eye for convincing details. One of my favorite reads of the year.

The Hours, by Michael Cunningham

One of my other favorite reads of the year, so much so that I wrote a love letter blog post to this book. I want to read it again, along with Olive Kitteridge. I feel like one time was not enough for either of these books.
All right then. Next time I’ll write about some speculative fiction I read this year. And in the meantime, let me know what books you most enjoyed this year. I could particularly use some YA recommendations, but all are welcome.

The road ahead

When I started this blog, I made the explicit decision that I wouldn’t talk about politics.

Of course, one could argue that everything is political. I have written from time to time about feminist ideas, and I talked about my own efforts to read more diversely (something that is just as important as ever). I also talked about the importance of voting. But I have not written about candidates or elected officials, I have not talked about bills or policies, I have not talked about political headlines from the news.

Instead I have written about meaning and change and grief. I have written about friendship and relationships. I have written about getting to know who each of us are.

I have written about living an examined life. Most of the people who read my blog, you get that, and it is what you strive for as well. I know that because you have come up and introduced yourselves, you have talked to me at parties, you have written me emails and comments.

But we are not only individuals; we intersect with the larger world. We are part of groups and communities, cities and states and countries. We cannot live an examined life without considering those connections. We exist in an interdependent system. None of us live outside politics. Some of us have more of a choice than others, but in the end, while we can try to ignore politics, politics will not ignore us.

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I’d say hard times are coming, but hard times are already here. They’ve been here all along, and they are getting worse. Hundreds of hate crimes have been reported in the last week. HUNDREDS. Many of these are happening in schools. President-Elect Trump has appointed a known white supremacist as his chief strategist. People are worried about increased violence to and the loss of civil rights of Muslim people, Jewish people, people of color, LGBTQ people, women, immigrants, and the disabled. People are worried about losing access to health care, and some of these people will die without it. And there is more. Much more.

John Scalzi, our preeminent science fiction blogger, said, “I think it’s going to be bad. I hope that the bad falls within historical norms. I wouldn’t count on it.”

Which means we have to prepare. Now is the time to take care of medical procedures, to stockpile medicine, to take a self-defense class, to learn about computer security, to get an updated passport, to plan ahead. Now is the time to get to know the people in your local communities, to make phone calls and write letters, to donate and volunteer, to learn how to be an ally and intervene, to get your ducks in a row. If you’re going to protest, now is the time to get your gear, learn your rights, and set up your logistics. Now is the time to pay attention and stay informed, to support responsible and in-depth journalism, and to remind yourself of what you believe to be right.

What if this is all absurd overkill? Well, I certainly hope it is. But there are enough signs that say it isn’t that considering this kind of stuff is only practical. In addition, many of these actions are generally good things to do whatever the circumstances. They are also the kinds of actions that are easy to put off. So now is a good time to stop procrastinating and actually do them.

So this, then, is my call to action: Stop procrastinating. Plan ahead. Do some good stuff. Take care of yourselves, and take care of the people around you.

And above all, don’t stop caring. Living an examined life is not always easy, but it is always, always worth it.

The State of My Brain

In some ways having a brain injury isn’t so different from any other injury. It’s about the long game. It’s about keeping up the spirits so you can give your body the time it needs to heal without going completely insane in the process. It’s about figuring out how to meet your basic life needs while dealing with new restrictions. It’s about finding the things you CAN do to distract yourself from the things you can’t do.

That being said, it has been three months and I still can’t work on fiction. That this state of affairs does not make me happy is an understatement. I ignore it as much as I can because of the importance of the long game, but it chafes. A writer writes. I am not writing. This state of affairs feels wrong. I keep grasping at it and coming back with empty hands.

I also cannot dance, and I cannot play most board games. I can’t do anything that requires large amounts of concentration or that is particularly mentally taxing. I am very tired most of the time and I have to take naps most days. I don’t deal with stressful situations as well as usual, and I try to avoid them when I can. I am supposed to experiment with activities, but if I miscalculate, I have relapses that last several days and are fairly miserable.

But. I can drive again, which is huge, and I can read the majority of the time, which is even better. I can keep the practical aspects of my life going indefinitely at the capacity I now have, which is a big relief. I can get out of the house. I have plenty of lovely social time. I can take care of Nala. Sometimes I feel pretty okay.

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I have a lot of time, although not as much as you might think, given all the time I must spend sleeping and napping and resting and deliberately not focusing too much on any given thing. So maybe it’s not as much that I have a lot of time as that life is moving at a different pace, and it is much slower than what I am used to. I can only do a few things per day so I must choose carefully.

Sometimes I feel upset about my limitations. I want to be a better friend, a better writer, a better human being. I think, why can’t I just do this? Why can’t I just handle that? But I try to think as little as possible about this as well. I am doing the best I can, and that’s what I try to think about instead. My focus has to be primarily on me, whether I like it or not.

I thought I’d be all better by now. I am not, but I am better enough to look back at how I was doing before and feel appalled. In August, I’d reach for my brain and it was as if there were a wall preventing me from accessing it. I’d batter myself against the wall, frantically trying to break it down, to no avail. I tried to keep up as good a front as I could, but I don’t know that I’ve ever been so lost.

I can reach for my brain now and it is there. Even on bad days. There is no longer a wall. Even though I’m tired, even though I’m not writing, even though my life revolves around being careful. I appreciate my brain so much.

It is an ongoing process, this convalescence. It is boring and frustrating and uncomfortable. It is also humbling.

But every day there’s at least one bright spot. A book, a show, a doggie snuggle, a message, quality time with someone I like. It’s about the long game, and these precious things remain.