January 1, 2022: we woke to find a mildly venomous spider scuttling around the living room floor. Not the most auspicious omen for New Year’s Day, even in Australia! We were hoping for a break following the unexpected trials of 2021.
The year didn’t start off badly. After months of suitcase living in 2020, we were just grateful for the prospect of a year with a functional household and a fixed address. We even felt brave enough in March to fulfill my lifelong dream of visiting Tasmania. Chilly turquoise seas, rugged highlands, and lush rainforests redolent with leatherwood fully justified my childhood fascination with the place.
Fresh memories of the wild sustained me through a second quarter spent in sterile medical facilities. A worrisome breast cancer symptom kicked off a dizzying diagnostic carousel of appointments, evaluations, and increasingly intense imagery (stop the ride, I want to get off). If that weren’t enough stress, I had a high-priority deadlined project at work. It actually provided a welcome distraction, although I doubt teammates ever guessed that behind my energetic smile, all I could think was are malignant tentacles snaking out from my bra right now, poisoning the rest of my body? Am I squandering the last months of my life on spreadsheets? Between May and July, I had:
5 diagnostic appointments.
4 core-needle biopsy holes.
3 hours in an MRI tube.
2 hook-wires inserted.
1 surgical excision.
…and thankfully zero breast cancer! The final pathology report brought inexplicable relief after months of anxiety, and fierce empathy for people who get a different answer.
Like my dad. No sooner had I recovered from my surgery (no running for two weeks! Agony!) when my much-beloved father received a wholly unexpected cancer diagnosis. That news terrified me more than anything from the previous few months. My worst-case scenario was ductal carcinoma in situ, a highly treatable early-stage breast cancer. Dad’s type of cancer and tumor size threatened a far grimmer prognosis. With most of Australia plunged into another COVID lockdown, I wasn’t confident how soon I could fly back to see him. But apparently I hadn’t expended the family’s cancer deliverance budget: Dad’s tumor was a rare variety that hadn’t metastasized. Although he needed major surgery to remove the tumor—and spent a month in the hospital with post-operative complications—he’s now recovering strong, with no further treatments required. In that regard, 2021 was a great year, because my family survived it (from a pragmatic evolutionary standpoint, we can’t ask for more)!
Reckoning with mortality twice in swift succession altered my perspective, and made a COVID lockdown from August to October seem trivial. While many people complained of boredom or confinement, I found joy in every quiet corner of my existence. I watched a family of noisy miners raise their chicks in a nest across the street. I learned to play Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag on the piano. When my father mentioned how much my photographs brightened his hospital stay, I turned my allotted outdoor time into safaris, seeking motes of wonder to share with him. I explored whole miniature universes right in my neighborhood! So what if I couldn’t venture more than a few kilometers? I wasn’t squashed in a machine, or having needles shoved through my flesh, or shivering in pre-op because the nurses had absconded with my socks before confessing that the surgeon was running hours behind schedule. Being alive and healthy was enough.
Besides, to a moonlight author, lockdowns are just bonus writing time! 2021 proved an unexpectedly good year for my creativity. I had a short story published in a literary journal for the first time, and enjoyed a terrific podcast conversation with an environmental journalist who’d discovered my 2015 cli-fi novel, Blue Karma. Rediscovering wildlife photography afforded a delightful new medium for scientific storytelling, so I refocused this blog to embrace it. Nature writing feels like an organic extension of my fiction, which has always featured strong environmental themes. It also gave me motivation to resume blogging after more than a year.
Why the hiatus? It may not be a popular thing to admit in a publishing culture fixated on strong brands, but I’d tumbled into an authorial identity crisis. YA no longer felt authentic for me, being too far removed from adolescence and too disconnected from contemporary teen culture. But my attempt at “literary” adult science fiction felt soulless. After writing two manuscripts that I ultimately decided not to publish, I stepped away to reboot. My sister, an avid mystery reader, suggested trying her favorite genre. So I spliced in a little sci-fi DNA and engineered a hybrid whodunit full of spirit, suspense, and style. It’s the most fun I’ve had writing in ages. The project also reminded me why I chose the indie author path: freedom to experiment with fictional forms. Details coming soon, but I anticipate publishing a new book this year.
Perhaps that’s a more positive interpretation of our eight-legged harbinger. Many indigenous traditions, from my native North America to my new home in Oceania, cast spiders as creators and world-builders. Hopefully releasing the critter outside, unharmed, started the year with a sprinkle of good creative karma. Here’s to spinning new stories in 2022!