It’s been a few years, and there’s a chill in the air. When the time comes and my current books are launched, they may have to include a new paragraph on the copyright page. To whit:

Dear Reader:

This whole work is about me — my story about as much of the world as I’ve experienced. The world is vast. Imagining, let alone claiming, that I’m trying to speak for or in the voice of you or your family or your kinfolk, tribe, culture, religion, conspiracy theory or whatever you identify with or as — well, that’s about you and the alchemy of storytelling. If you find yourself in this work and dislike what you find, don’t make it about me. Write your own story. That’s where you’ll find what you’re looking for.

— the Author


Why they’re so awkward — and why we’re stuck with them

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

One of the main characters in Otherwhere, the novel I’m writing, is presented as gender-indeterminate. I’ve been using they/them and it’s hella awkward. I’m a skilled craftsperson striving to make my prose as clear as possible, and some of my readers still say it’s confusing.

Otherwhere is an SF novel involving a world of three gender categories, so this is pretty key. As a reader, I get impatient with having to learn rafts of vocabulary to get along in an invented world, so I chose to go with the now-familiar they/them substitution. I included the neologism “themself” because it seemed strange to have a self-reflexive pronoun be plural when the character it referred to was obviously singular. It mostly worked.

As a reader, I get impatient with having to learn rafts of vocabulary to get along in an invented world.

Then I changed my mind. I admitted to one of my readers that I was making a point. We all know that they/them is an imperfect solution. I wanted to prove how imperfect it is. I was proving it — but was it at my story’s and reader’s expense? I’d invented names for the third gender category (par for children and twane for adults); it now seemed logical that I should do the same with its pronouns. I wanted something simple and easy on the English-language ear and tongue, and I settled on eh/em/ans. Then I went to work.

And discovered that I wasn’t done with they/them as neutral third-person singular pronouns. Let me show you:

Vesca frowned and looked at her hands, thinking. “Have you ever met someone who just does what they want, without hesitation? When you challenge them, or take exception, if there’s injury of some kind, they apologize and make amends if they can. But this woman … she wasn’t like that. She didn’t seem to feel she’d done anything wrong. No one in her community would give her a child, so she took one. From a stranger, so no House in her community would be offended. She talked like it was logical … clever, what she’d done. Like we were stupid for not seeing that.”

Now, the rule I’ve put in place in my world and my novel is that, until a character has been formally introduced, their pronouns must be third-gender/neutral. I tried replacing they/them with my invented pronouns in the paragraph above and found myself thinking, Wait. Who am I talking about? The meaning of what I was writing had changed — because it turns out that, although using they/them as singular pronouns is natural to English grammar, it is necessary and specific to ONE situation. In the paragraph above, Vesca is talking about an indeterminate, hypothetical someone, not an “actual” person, and they/them is absolutely correct. We use they/them as impersonal personal pronouns: referring to persons but still belonging to the group that includes it, this, and that. We use they/them when it feels rude to use “it.”

We use they/them when it feels rude to use “it.”

That’s why using they/them as gender-neutral singular personal pronouns feels awkward and wrong: because we’re coming from a place where this usage is wrong. In conversation, where we have an actual person in mind, we can manage it. In writing, where our minds are already working full-time on suspending disbelief or following a train of thought, this new usage is especially challenging.

However, we’re stuck with it, because invented pronouns are even MORE awkward, especially in writing. Rereading my draft, I found myself struggling with my own inventions, because, unlike the few-and-far-between nouns I’d invented, the pronouns called attention to themselves constantly. I believe this has been my difficulty with invented vocabulary all along: it’s a visual-mental distraction that burdens the reader with too much decoding, thereby disrupting understanding and sympathy.

That’s why I changed my mind and changed em/en/ans back to they/them/themself.

Invented pronouns are more awkward than they/them, especially in writing. They are a visual-mental distraction that burdens the reader with too much decoding, thereby disrupting understanding and sympathy.


Tears are the waters of truth. As in labour, they flow to ease delivery. 

Truth will out; to stifle it completely means a death. Arriving, it pains; abandoned, it dies. Protected, it has a chance. It will teach those who receive it what they need to know to raise it up. Truth transforms.

Truth is so strong. Even the worst parents produce miracles, while the best parents release into the world something steady and ready to repeat itself. Truth is also vulnerable, dependent as it is on cracked vessels to carry it. Despite our best efforts, it gets twisted, it frays. When the truth is that we’ve botched it, the tears are scalding, hot as fire. Bitter truths still bless our attention, though. When the blood is washed away and the broken body carefully wrapped, we will receive the same truth again, more softly, in a shower of sorrow.  

Therefore, respect tears, yours and other people’s. Respect them especially when they come in anger or relief, or inexplicably. Don’t suppress or ignore: interrogate. Pause the conversation and ask yourself — ask the weeper — calmly, curiously, without fear or haste: “Where are these tears coming from?” 

Spread your hands and prepare to catch the birth of truth.

Photo copyright LauraPeetoomWriterOnline, 2020

With thanks to Kathleen Sutcliffe, BA, MDiv, RMFT, RP, for asking the question.

The Tough

When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

Great saying — except the “tough” often don’t know when to stop. If you suggest they take some time off and rest, they say, “Yup, sure. Will do.” And then they don’t.

I’m Fine!

Some people have trouble understanding that psychic distress is real (i.e., has measurable effects) and universal (i.e., if you are a living creature with a brain, you will experience it). These people are “fine” and “just have to get this done”; it’s only other people who feel anxious and overwhelmed. Their quaint belief is sustainable as long as the stress has a deadline. (The job gets done and everyone gets a rest.) It’s different when the stress is long-term and without a definite end. In such times, how do you show the Energizer bunnies and never-say-no types that they really do need to check out for a while?

Honestly, Buddy …

You’ll have to be direct, because a stressed-out person doesn’t do subtlety. To avoid sounding accusatory it helps to call out observable effects — impatience, irritation, brusqueness, mistakes in what they’re doing, mishearing what others are saying. If there’s blowback, validate their feelings (“I can see this really upsets you”; “I understand you may not want to hear this right now”) and reassure them of their value: “You’re an important member of this team. We can’t afford for you to burn out.”

It’s a Blizzard Out There

I find it useful to avoid psychological language. Lots of people discount psychology altogether or think it doesn’t apply to them, and will tune you out the minute you start talking about feelings. Try weather analogies instead. Compare the current situation to a hurricane or ice storm — any climactic condition that interrupts business as usual and impedes our habits. Liken the brain to a house or a car or anything that might take a licking in such weather. Rest, recreation, whatever is grounding and spiritually or mentally restorative: this is like putting shutters on the windows or making sure the tank is filled and the windshield wipers are working.

Because a storm is what we are experiencing now, during this Covid crisis. NOTHING IS NORMAL, and our brains are working overtime, making adaptations all day, every day. Eventually, our brains will recognize the patterns of the new normal and will be able to work more efficiently. In the meantime, we’re going to be feeling anxious, overwhelmed and exhausted — whether we are aware of it or not.

Aware = Care

The key point is awareness. Our “tough” friends (lots of our “emotional” friends, too!) are often unaware of their own anxiety; indeed, some of them don’t understand anxiety at all. They confuse it with worry and are blind to its effects on their behaviour. Again, under ordinary circumstances we can chalk this up to “personality” and make the necessary accommodations. But in a crisis, unacknowledged anxiety can cause serious problems. Because anxiety is really uncomfortable, even painful. The anxious person will do anything for relief — act rashly, pick a fight, lash out. Those actions cause damage which then takes precious energy to rein in and repair.

People who are aware of their own anxiety, on the other hand, have their inner traffic lights on yellow. They approach tricky situations cautiously and give others the benefit of the doubt. They check their first reactions and balance them against the facts. They remember their manners!

Take a Rest; Then Bring Your Best

The emotionally aware can really help in times like this, by calling out (lovingly or at least non-judgementally) any anxiety-driven behaviour they observe and offering clear and acceptable ways for the colleague, friend or family member to take a break and take care of themselves.

But be careful, you emotional geniuses: Your gift can quickly become a burden. Expect a point at which you must stop helping others and care for yourself for a while. You might find it difficult but it’s a matter of survival. Say to yourself, “Just because I understand it doesn’t mean I’m responsible for it.” Picture the concern or situation or person as a book. Close the book and put it on a mental shelf. You can always pick it up again later; in the meantime, take a bubble bath, go for a run, hug a tree or smash some tennis balls against a wall for a while — whatever it takes to settle your insides and clear your mind.

Friends, we need to pace ourselves. Because this is a marathon we’re running.

Tense Time

This is on my mind.

We’re living in a tense time. Unable to live our lives in the usual way, we are missing the conscious and unconscious ways we feed, comfort and satisfy our deep selves. This means we’re going to encounter one another’s inner wailing infants much more often. Wailing infants can neither hear nor understand words. Apologies and explanations are useless. If you have tried and failed to appease someone who is really upset with you, don’t take it personally. Don’t respond with anger, impatience, annoyance. Be the grown-up. Respond with love.

Depression Is a Subtle Liar

Depression and its flip side, anxiety, are familiar to so many of us these days. Some struggle every day, others periodically; some experience them as a result of trauma or circumstance. Maybe you know these challenging states of mind yourself; maybe you know someone who is struggling. I wrote this for them and for you.

Depression is a subtle liar — the serpent in the garden of your mind. Its goal is that of any evil, which is the opposite of life. Its subtlety is that it lies upon your nature and your circumstances. Whatever depression can find to turn against you, it will use.

You might be relaxed, taking time to do things or simply inclined to wait until you know what’s urgent, what’s important, and what doesn’t matter. Depression will turn that into: I’m lazy. I’m disorganized. I’m a screw-up. You might be the first to begin an assignment, the group organizer, the one who keeps it all on track. Depression will turn that into: I’m a tyrant. I ruin things. People hate me. Your life might be going great, with a cool new friend or a stimulating new job, with a new place or a new hobby. You’re moving at a clip and depression’s lost in the dust. Then, as soon as you slow down, like a mosquito or a leech depression will settle and begin sucking the joy right out of you. And when circumstances are difficult? Depression will give you a great big push as soon as you start to slide downhill. 

Depression loves negative emotions. When they arise for healthy reasons, depression will turn their medicine into poison and fertilize them with its shit until they take over the whole garden. Depression’s favourite is shame, and its companion, guilt. In a healthy place, shame and guilt tell us that we have done wrong and spur us into making it right. Depression’s shame and guilt, in contrast, paralyze and sicken us. Depression also loves anger. Used rightly, anger also makes right what is wrong. Depression, on the other hand, uses it to destroy — and then turns your remorse to shame, a double whammy.

Depression will turn your strengths and gifts into burdens. Depression will inflate and solidify your weaknesses until they seem too big and too deeply rooted to tackle. Depression perverts the truth. You deserve love and kindness. If you feel otherwise, then depression is at work. Your friends and family care about you and welcome you however you are feeling. Their words and actions are true; depression’s interpretations are false. You are alive and you have a future. Depression whispers otherwise; but the truth will make you free. 

Sounds grand but I’m quite serious: a few truths about being a human being will help you counteract depression. To whit:

  • Truth Human beings need regular, nourishing food and water; need sleep; need exercise; need cleaning and care and hugs. Give yourself these things every day. Every single one. Whether you feel like (you deserve) them or not. You have a body and depression does not. You for the win!
  • Truth Human beings are creatures of earth and need to connect to earth things: sky, trees, water, flowers, animals. Connect with the earth every day, no matter what effort it takes (deliberate effort, if you live in a city) or what the weather is or how tired you feel. You can make decisions; depression can only influence them. You for the win!
  • Truth Humans are makers. Creators. Producers. Accomplish something every day, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem. Some days, all you can manage is doing the dishes — so be it. That’s something! You can imagine a future; you can see the horizon. Depression just squirms around blindly. You for the win! 
  • Truth You are not the depression. The more you practise the first three truths the more you experience the fourth one. Slowly, like water dripping on stone, a space gets made inside where you feel you

Now, lots of people struggle with mood disorders — with medication and without, with meditation or prayer and without, with counselling and without. When you look for information it is easy to become overwhelmed. Depression will use that against you, making you feel too confused to wade through it all and, also, amplifying your inner critic: Medication is dangerous. Meditation takes too much focus/is weird. Counselling doesn’t work/is too expensive. So let me declare a fifth truth: You need and deserve help. Practising the truths above will shine a light through the fog of fear, anxiety and weariness that depression casts and help you a) find the right help for you and b) reach for it. 

You for the win!

© 2020 by Laura Peetoom 

Internal Filing System Coughs Up Trick!

That trick I mentioned earlier popped up in the kitchen the other day! Little Sister, this is for you.

I was making pasta primavera and needed a little more butter to smooth the sauce. I didn’t want to take it from my butter pot because toast crumbs (Little Sister has celiac disease) and so I used my cheese slicer to harvest a few curls from the clean half-pound in my fridge.

cheese slicer - photo/picture definition - cheese slicer word and phrase image
A “cheese razor”

Have you met this sweet little tool? In Dutch and Swedish, it’s called a “cheese razor.” That’s very apt, because it makes razor-thin slices. And great butter curls. I’ve also tried to make chocolate curls with it but chocolate, being harder at room temperature than cheese and butter, tends to crumble under the pressure.


Next time your sensory organs are assaulted by the lingering evidence of a skunk’s most caustic emission, recite this mantra inwardly: “burnt bacon and coffee grounds, burnt bacon and coffee grounds.” After a while, the urge to gag will pass away.

Poison Ivy on the Trail

Yesterday I spent about four hours outside, walking through meadows and woods. How I love September—“September the Golden” is how I think of this month, with the goldenrod in full bloom, early-turning foliage all yellow amongst the green and the maples not yet taking over with their eye-catching red. The new school year begins and people get a gleam in their eye: the engine of intention switches from idle to drive; that first brisk breeze of autumn comes in at the window and whispers, “Now.” I should say, however, that on this particular day that breeze was still afar off and the air was d—-d hot and still and, frankly, if it hadn’t been for my duties I would have been at home and resting comfortably inside. Nature rewarded me for seeing to my duties, however, with her wonderful and mysterious nourishment, as is her way…but I digress.

Thanks to Jim Yaki, whom I have never met but whose
blog contains some good photos of poison ivy and
not-poison-ivy in various environments.

One of the early-turning plants, is, most thankfully, poison ivy. Avoidance of poison ivy is a persuasive reason to stay on-path in a woodland park; in this park, the path through the meadows was mowed or maintained to about 2 m wide, so safe for dog and man. Poison ivy loves to lurk in meadows, shaded and disguised by grasses and shrubs and, increasingly, by dog-strangling vine, which (in a painful case of out of the frying pan, into the fire) may be out-competing even this. Anyway, in September, poison ivy becomes much easier to spot, the leaves first becoming mottled with yellow and even the widest leaves down-drooping from the stem or bending from each side of the central vein in that characteristic way; then, in a little while, turning red as a rash.

With the purpose of instruction, my trail mentor led our little group off-path, along a one-leg-wide defile; I spotted the ivy first, and then my mentor showed me a neat little trick: instead of trying to avoid the plant that had stretched across the path, she stepped right on it. She went on doing this until we were out of danger. This solves the problem of where to put your foot if stepping over an ivy plant, since, in a case like this, until you’ve emerged from the ivy patch stepping over or past one plant means putting your foot in another; or it makes you so unbalanced you’re at risk of swaying or tumbling into another plant inadvertently. I’m happy to report that my bare ankles got home unscathed (though I really should rinse off the soles of my shoes).

My Little Sister Visits

One of my two little sisters was visiting this summer, and as I was preparing some food she observed me performing some little kitchen trick or another. “That’s a neat trick,” she said. “Do you have more? Could you teach me?” Those may not have been her exact words—understand that this is a dramatization for purposes of illustration.

“Honey, I have plenty of tricks up my sleeves,” I (perhaps) replied, “and I would love to share them with you. Trouble is, my internal filing system is so persnickety. I only remember these tricks when I need to use them.”

“Perhaps you could write them down as they occur to you, then,” said she (or something to that effect). 

An ideal way to commence would be with the trick I was using at the time: but alas, I cannot remember what it was. (Do you see what I mean about the filing system?) So I’ll offer you one of my favourites, which comes up often, in both mixed and feminine company, having to do as it does with the washing of clothes. Here it is:

Cleaning Grease Spots from Washable Clothing
I have used this trick even with old grease spots in thrift-shop clothing, and it always works. 

First, you need a bar of old-fashioned Sunlight laundry soap. It’s deep yellow and comes in a paper wrapper, usually in a high, hard-to-reach spot in the detergents aisle of your grocery store. This is a fat-based soap, and it works (said my mother, when she taught me this) because grease resists water and needs to bind with another, more soluble grease in order to be carried into the water and away.

1. Spot-dampen the grease stain with a wet rag. This is important because once the fabric is wet you may not be able to see the grease stain anymore. Spot-dampening limits your area so that you don’t miss the stain at the next step.

2. Wet your bar of Sunlight. Rub the bar directly on the stain or over the whole dampened area. This will not harm ordinary, washable clothing: I’ve used this method on some silks as well, with success.

3. Launder the article as usual. With heavy, dirty stains—from a bicycle chain, for example— you may have to treat and launder twice: once by hand, when the stain is fresh, and once again with your regular laundry.

To conclude, a note to the makers of Sunlight Soap: please, please don’t stop making it!

PS. Sunlight is also good for scrubbing up after you’ve refitted that bicycle chain.
PPS. Searching for an image for the original post, I found some alarming comments that indicated this soap was no longer available. A few months later I saw fresh packages at my local grocer’s. Thank you, Unilever!