The Invisible Year

Lonely teddy bearBefore a household can be licensed to accept foster children, the parents must complete hours and hours of training. They learn about foster care law, about the physical requirements for a foster home, and how the child welfare system works. Not until they’ve had a few children come and go, or possibly come and be adopted, do the foster parents pick up on the child’s invisible year.

bear-cub-playing-with-teddy-bear-bigIf a child who has seemed to make a good adjustment to the home starts running into inexplicable troubles, I’ll ask the foster parent, “When was the child originally removed from Mom or Dad?” Often, we’re coming up on the anniversary of the day when the child was taken from all he or she knew–for better or for worse–and placed with strangers, perhaps never to go home again. Maybe we’re coming up on the time of year when Mom or Dad was sent to prison, and the child hasn’t seen that parent since.

polar bear and cubOr the day approaches when a sibling, formerly place with the child, went off to a psychiatric facility. Even with children too young to know how a calendar works, these milestones can create annual behavioral and emotional problems.

I’m no different. I’ve concluded I perk up in the fall because I sleep better in cooler weather, but it’s also the case that when I was five, six, eight and eleven, my entire summer was spent away from familiar places and people. My dad did visiting professor schticks during those summers, and thus mom and the kids schlepped along to places with very little for the kids to do except watch the summer slip by and miss friends.

many cubsMaybe I perk up in the fall because some part of me still associates fall with “when I get home, my very favorite place to be in the whole world, and away from this wasteland of my father’s choosing.”

I raise this topic as the winter holidays approach. Is there any one among us who doesn’t have some powerful memories of the holidays, or the dark days, or cold days? One friend lost her husband holiday bearwithout warning shortly before Christmas. I can’t imagine, even twenty years from now, that December won’t occasion some very mixed feelings for her.

The heck of it is, for me, I’m often unaware of the landmines buried in the calendar. My daughter was born in early February. Three days of induced labor, followed by more fatigue and anxiety than I knew I could manage, and every year… I get a little testy when everybody else is ordering flowers and picking up their fave dark chocolate assortment. Then I’ll realize I need to get Beloved Offspring a card (at least), and some crankiness, inability to focus, and weepiness abruptly makes sense–in hindsight. I’ve had twenty-five years to pick up on this pattern, and I can still be surprised by it.

pooh and eyore at ChristmasSeparations–death, divorce, children disappearing to college–and traumas can pepper the year with quagmires we don’t see until we’re stepping in them. Similarly, we’re uplifted by the robins or daffodils, though their arrival coincides with when we began dating our present spouse, or when we conceived a long-desired first baby.

The year is divided into months, but it’s also divided into memories. Are there any dates or times of year that have particular significance for you? Any with associations that catch you by surprise? If you were going to add a personal holiday to the year, what day would you choose, and why?

To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Amex gift card.

 

A Christmas Wish

blog world peace One of the many things I like about the holiday season is that we’re encouraged to think of our unmet needs or dearest wishes. Usually the prompt is innocuous, “So what’s on your Christmas list?” But how often are any of us asked what we really, truly want at any other time of year?

If you’re like me, your usual response to that question goes one of two ways. I want peace, prosperity and good health for everybody—I do mean EVERYBODY.

But if you catch me in a more practical moment (though I think world peace is very practical), I’ll probably tell you I’d love a pair of nice, warm organic wool socks, or that anything small, handmade and pretty will blog organic socksalways be welcome in my home. Sachets, soaps, dried flowers, cottage-decoration stuff gladdens my heart when I think of the person who made it or gave it to me.

As an author, my version of world peace and heart-made crafts is slightly different. I want my books to find their way into hands and hearts that will love them, and I want my books to stay away from the people who will be disappointed with them or upset by them. If that means I have fewer sales, then I’m happy, as long as the readers are happy.

blog Taz tieThere’s a catch with that Christmas question, though. When somebody asks, “So what do you want for Christmas?” You will get another Looney Tunes tie unless you say what you really, honestly, truly want. So here’s an author’s Christmas list, in case you’re ever wondering what an author–any author–would like during the season of appreciation and goodwill.

If you like a book, talk about it. Share it, lend it, recommend it, post about it on social media. Review it if that’s your inclination, drop the author an appreciative note. Let the librarians and book store owners know the book is by one of your keeper authors. Sign up for the author’s newsletter, and connect with him or her on social media. That’s at least ten gifts you can give your favorite authors that cost you nothing, and will mean the world to them.

blog wish listReaders are bright people. They know a recommendation from a friend or family member when it comes to books is likely to be a better match for them than even the much respected Amazon also-boughts. The author has to write an excellent book, but by and large, the readers are the ones who find the right hands for those books.

Lady Needs coverI feel selfish for putting this in a post, because I’m abundantly blessed with lovely readers and a big store of organic wool socks. (World peace might take a while, I get that.) But as somebody pointed out to me recently, sometimes, to have your heart’s desire, you MUST ASK FOR IT.

So I’ve made my list, and taped it on the fridge for anybody to see. What’s on your list that’s hard to ask for, or that might take a while?

To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Amex gift card. Christmas IS coming, so is the cold weather, the heating bills, the holiday food bills…

 

 

“When you have to go there, they have to take you in…”

blog pub flowersIn the bad old days when the British wanted to suppress rebellion in Catholic Ireland, they didn’t forbid attendance at the Mass. They knew what happened during that rite, who would be there, how long it would last, and where people went afterward.

They closed down the pubs instead.

DRNA1017, Cafe Grecco, Hamburg, 19th Century German coffee houseMany sociologists attribute the French Revolution to coffee, not because caffeine turns us into wild-eyed political radicals, but because the coffee houses created a place outside the watchful eye of the monarchy, where ideas could be exchanged, groups assembled, and plans hatched. Coffee houses, clubs, and pubs were thick on the ground in Georgian London, serving the same function in commercial, artistic, political and literary circles.

blog irish pubWhen I was in high school, one of my dad’s graduate students, an Irishmen, commented on how lonely Americans were compared to what he’d seen elsewhere. “You have no third place,” he said. “You have work and home. You try to make church that third place, but it’s church, where you’re supposed to act a certain way, believe certain things, and show up at a certain time. You need a good corner pub in every neighborhood, and you’d solve a lot of your problems.”

blog cheersThink of “Cheers,” of the sense of community and acceptance that fueled the show through nearly a decade of silly episodes, and you get his point.

For some that third place is the gym. Crossfit thrives not only because of a different approach to the physiology of fitness, but also due to a different approach to the gym community. For me, for some very tough years, that third place was the horse barn. My routine was built around those three or four mornings a week when I’d schlep an hour to barn.

dante heather rainbowThis is where my instructor would start a lot of lessons by asking, “So how’s the writing going?” and a tired, dull, work-oppressed day would turn smile-ly. My ridin’ buddies knew me, and I’m still in touch with the friends I made at that barn.

In any community, there’s a price of admission–buy a pint, keep your fists to yourself. Don’t criticize the gun laws. Bring your knitting, even if you haven’t learned to purl yet. Read the book we’re discussing, or at least pretend you have.

But for that relatively low price of admission, you get in return an open door policy, and often, and open-hearted policy. I can’t help but think if we had more of these third places–away from the pressures of home and work, easy to get to blog book cluband easy to leave, flexible hours of attendance–we might do better than a 36 percent turnout at the polls, and we might not be so lonely.

Do you have a third place? If you were looking for one, what would make you feel welcome? Have you read any romance novels that have as their series connector, a third place, or experiences shared at at third place?

To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 American Express gift card.

 

 

The Lusty Month of November

blog bear in bedThe days are getting shorter, cold weather has made its first appearance in many parts of the country, travel can become more difficult…. but last night’s extra hour of sleep reminded me that I LOVE much about this time of year. I’ll limit myself to ten things:

1) That extra hour of sleep. LOVE IT, and really needed it this week.

blog autumn leaves2) My dad turns 94 today. He’s living at home with his bride of 69 years (and some help). In some ways, he’s contributed more to my welfare in his great old age than he did when he was going full bore as a scientist and university professor. LOVE that guy!

3) The sound of leaves underfoot, the scent of fall.

4) Planting bulbs. This is my niche as a gardener, and on my property, there’s no bad place for a daffodil or tulip to come up.

blog pumpkin pie5) Pumpkin spice everything, the quintessential flavor of late autumn.

6) Amaryllis and poinsettias. They make me HAPPY, and I love sending them to others.

7) The baking, or lord, the baking.

8) Heating with wood. It’s renewable, healthier from a respiratory perspective, and very centering.

blog amaryllis9) The long, dark evenings mean more time for reading and writing.

10) The holidays and snow days mean more time for reading and writing.

I could go on–more time to see family, a chance to rest from the yard work, Christmas cards for those of us who do them… all good things. What do you enjoy about the coming time of year? To TWO commenters, I’ll send a $25 American Express gift card.

Never Having to Say You’re Human

apology  I recently hurt somebody’s feelings, implied she wasn’t doing her best, and that the results were unacceptable. I wish I could explain away these harsh sentiments, wish I could say I was righteously justified. But…. nope. There was no need to couch the situation as I did.

 I think what made my comments so painful to hear was that all I focused on was the mistake. In other words, even if this person worked long and hard on my behalf, had the best intentions, and did  an excellent job in many areas, none of that mattered. “You let me down,” I implied, “and there’s no excuse for that.”

There’s always an excuse for stumbling–we’re human. We forget, we get tired, we miss things. Our best efforts may be bumbling, haphazard, anxious, or ambiguous. Whatever else is true, a single boo-boo, or typo, whether it’s on a page, or in a relationship, is not the sum of the person, the prose, or the relationship. I know this as an author, but I lost sight of that.

sorryWe’re here to learn how to love and be loved, says me, and meanness in any guise runs counter to my Starfleet directive. I’m fortunate that the person I wronged heard and accepted my apology. I elevated the problem over the person, and for that, I will always be sorry. Why did I do that?

I lost perspective because I’m tired, sometimes overwhelmed, and oh, what a coincidence, human. Right there, right where I screwed up, is where I can reconnect with the person I wronged and with my better intentions.

I had to think about this, about what I was apologizing for, and why I’d felt so wronged in the first place. When I got upset with the situation, I did not do as the conflict managers are taught to do, and come up with a neutral definition of the problem. Instead I started blaming, finding fault, and accusing.

very sorryDrat and bother. I hate it when I do that. The situation is behind me now, but I’m chastened and also mindful that I popped off at somebody because I need to look after myself a little better. Fewer to-dos, more good nights sleep; fewer accomplishments and more kindnesses.

When was the last time you stepped in it and had to apologize? Was there a time when you didn’t and wish you had? What stopped you? When did somebody apologize to you, and get it right?

To one commenter, I’ll send a $25 American Express gift card.

Beware the Deadly Vending Machine

tigerAsk any author to summarize a book review that’s 95 percent positive, and the author will probably lead with the half a sentence of criticism, or the one phrase that wasn’t stellar praise. This is an example of a well documented phenomenon of the human brain called the negativity bias. We focus on bad news, accord it more weight than good news, recall it faster and in greater detail.

tooth fairyThe negativity bias is easy to explain. The cave man or woman who treated every rustling in the bushes as a potential saber-toothed tiger lived longer than their neighbor, who anticipated only the Tooth Fairy lurking in the undergrowth.

But not a lot longer. When average life expectancy was less than 35 years, problems such as heart attacks, strokes, dementia, and arthritis were the fate of only the privileged few. And yet, if you live in a constant state of upset because the modern equivalent of saber toothed tigers are pouncing at you from the newspapers, the high stress job, the commute, the finances, and everywhere in between, then the down side of the negativity bias becomes obvious. Our long term health goes utterly to pot when our panic responses are hammered constantly.

vending machineWe’re scared of ebola, right? It’s a nasty, awful virus, but the fact is, in the US, you’re more likely to die of a vending machine falling over on you than of ebola (as of this writing there has been one fatality in the US from ebola). We’re scared of another financial crisis, of the wrong people getting into office next month, of viruses, big government, big business, and having big behinds.

The neuroscientists and neuropsychologists have taken their theories in an interesting direction: Have we created a jungle full of saber-toothed tigers, both real and imagined (treat the Tooth Fairy like she’s your deadly enemy, and she just might treat you the same way), because we’ve only recently understood how stuck in the past our brain chemistry is? The media, politicians, law enforcement, and much of the financial industry rely on our negativity bias, as does, indirectly, the health care industry. How will that infrastructure stay in business if we don’t jump every time they report to us that the bushes are rustling?

tiger under umbrellaNow for the good news: The negativity bias can be overcome. If you persistently focus on what’s positive, good, encouraging, reassuring, and happy in life, your brain settles down. The negativity bias is still wired into your circuits, but it’s not running your life even when you’re trying to catch a good night’s sleep. As your stress levels drop, your long term health outcomes improve.

dude you gotta protect meBad news is bad news, and should be taken seriously and dealt with. Nonetheless, a steady diet of fear, mayhem, and anxiety is first of all, a misrepresentation of reality for most of us, and secondly, likely to kill us all a lot sooner than any saber-toothed tigers.

So how do you stay positive? How do you unplug from the negativity noise and smell the abundantly blooming roses? To one commenter, I’ll send a $25 Amex gift card.

 

 

It’s Good to Be the Queen

COFW posterI’ve spent the past few days at the Central Ohio Fiction Writer’s conference, where I gave two talks. The first was on tweaks writers can use to clean up their prose, the second was on lessons learned five years into the published author game.

Writing with a goal of publication is hard, for at least two reasons. First, the aspiring author likely faces years of rejections and “failure,” if the goal is traditional publishing as opposed to self publishing. Even if the goal is self publishing, the author can still fail in the sense of not finding the right readers for the story. I’ve met people who’ve pursued that goal for fifteen years, and were still slogging away when last I heard. So there’s an element of uncertainty about a writing dream, the same as with any dream.

Kiss and TellThe other source of difficulty on the aspiring writer’s path is that it might all be for naught. Even if the aspiring author hangs in there, and hits the workshops, and pitches good manuscripts to all the agents and editors, she may NEVER find the right match. All this trying, and enduring, and dusting herself off may be for NOTHING.

To have no sense that your suffering is moving you toward a goal, and no guarantee that you’ll ever get there, is miserably daunting. What keeps so many people on the path to publication is that to some extent, they don’t  walk that path alone. Romance writers in particular support each other, boost each other along, and help each other. Most of us, I’m convinced, really do believe in love. Really. Do. That we value each other, that we value each others’ dreams means, when we come together, the gathering can acquire an element of shimmering, luminous hope.

unicatI’d not realized until this weekend, that just by being who I am–an author who found a publisher after a few years of scribbling away–I create hope in others coming along behind me. I’m proof their dreams can come true, proof they’re not silly to think that in their retirement years, their child-rearing years, their mid-career years, they can yet aspire to another career.

Wow. Many of them haven’t read my books, and never will. They care only that I survived the uncertain years, and I’m hoping they all do too.

unicorn prettySo I’m listening to the storytellers’ stories, offering all the encouragement I can, but it occurs to me: We’ve ALL survived the uncertain years. As parents, spouses, employees, bosses, and more. We ALL have encouragement to offer each other, we all have the capacity to guard each others’ dreams when the road is long. When that spirit of a shared journey prevails, it’s amazing what leaps of courage and feats of endurance can result.

So I wish to each of you, good friends along the journey. Who’s dream could you guard? Your children’s? Your spouse’s? Your siblings? When were you somebody else’s example of a journey successfully completed–because you have been. You absolutely have been.

To one commenter, I’ll send a $25 American Express gift card.

What I Like About ME

Kiss and TellLately, the lawyering has presented a few challenges. I can’t seem to get enough rest, the family has contributed some stress, and the IRS doesn’t seem to realize I did, indeed, pay my 2013 taxes and have the documents to prove it. In the middle of all this I’ve put the contemporary novella, Kiss and Tell, up for pre-orders–my first attempt at pre-orders of one of my own titles.

I’m also coordinating with three other authors to get “Christmas In the Duke’s Arms,” a novella anthology, on sale by October 15, and I have copy edits, galleys, and revisions breathing down my neck for publications through next April. Oh, and I’m writing another historical trilogy, and a Scottish contemporary novella.

CHITDA coverSometimes, if feels like I live life clinging to the rotating blade of a high flying helicopter. When that feeling tries to choke off all joy, I take a step back, and look at what I LOVE about my life, which is a nearly endless list.

I love to write. I simply, plainly, unrelentingly do. Blog posts, books, workshop materials, emails. I’m happy with my hands on a keyboard.

I love where I live–rural, but not that remote. I have big trees, a freshwater stream right down the middle of my property, a lovely bank barn, tons of yard to landscape when I get the urge to plant flowers. I’ve lived here nearly 25 years, and I love this little property.

UK Spring of 2011 006I love being in charge of my own businesses–the writing and the law office. I’ve worked for three different Fortune 100 firms, and gadzooks, was that ever NOT for me!

I love my companion animals, love that I can afford to look after them. They are great company, and far more comfort than they are obligation. I hope they feel the same way about me.

I love my bed–well, I do. Growing up, I slept on a narrow sort of daybed/cot. Now I have a nice, big bed that I love. Much reading happens there, and dreaming. Love my beddy-bye!

I love that I rarely have to set an alarm. I get up when I’m done sleeping much of the time.

Needs a few cats...

Needs a few cats…

I love that I’m an author at a time when interacting with readers is so easy. My readers are the BEST, and hearing from them and getting to know them is not something authors could do as effortlessly even ten years ago.

I love that I can do my writer job swilling tea, toddling on the treadmill, or with a cat curled in my lap. This is luxury at its finest.

I love wearing socks, barefeet, or slides 90 percent of the time.

flameI love how supportive and collegial the romance writing community is. It’s an entirely different model from most business communities I’ve participated in, and for me, far more healthy, agile, innovative, and resilient.

There’s tons to love about my life, even if I have to spend 45 minutes on hold with the IRS. Compared to all the blessings, gifts, and joy I have, that irritation shrinks to the mere nuisance that it is.

Your turn: Why is it GREAT to be you? Because in some regards–probably not all–but in some regard, it is!

To one commenter, I’ll send a $25 American Express gift card.

The Opposing Argument

mona lisa with a catI realized early in life that I was born with the gift of a destructive a eye. When I look at a piece of writing, a relationship, a painting, I have a natural talent for seeing what’s wrong, what’s weak, what’s not quite right. My brain just goes this way, and it’s a good skill to have from a survival standpoint.

The person who can sense what’s off, what’s missing, what’s not ringing true is a person who’ll be half-way out the door or up a convenient tree when trouble erupts. And yet, an instant’s reflection will reveal the burden such an outlook creates: Sometimes, nothing’s wrong, nothing’s amiss. Sometimes, three books aren’t better or worse than each other, they’re merely different varieties of “all good.”

treeOther times, I’ll miss the entire lovely forest for the one slightly ailing tree. For a lawyer to be able to trash an opponent’s arguments is all in a day’s courtroom work. For a writer to polish a rough draft takes the same approach. But who wants to live in a world where all that’s noticed is what’s wrong or in need of repair?

I need to balance my critical eye with joy in creativity for its own sake. I’m at a Celtic festival this weekend, and at first I thought it was the crowds making me want to go hide, but then I realized I’m also reacting to the sheer abundance of creativity. Four stages are going pretty much all the time–and every musician I’ve heard here is very good if not spectacular.

celtic11Tent after tent showcases the work of skilled craftsmen and artists, and they’ve all put years into learning how best to create the wares they’re selling. Athletes are competing, dancers, pipe bands… All around me are polished, lovely, and impressive creations of skill and beauty. I have to let go of my “Yeah, but…” or my, “If only…,” let go of the part of me that want’s to pounce on flaws, or I’ll be the bad fairy at my own party.

I think this is pretty common–for a strength to have within it the potential for not a complementary weakness, but an even greater weakness. To be gobbled up by a saber-toothed tiger (or opposing counsel) is no fun, but neither is life spent up a tree, afraid the tiger will climb up after me.

Paisley_Pipe_Band_2011Do you have a natural, reliable, go-to strength that sometimes gets in your way? A weakness that deserves some appreciation? How does it fit with the rest of your family, and what  would life look like if you put that skill aside for a day?

To one commenter, I’ll give a $25 American Express gift card.

Reliable Change

flower openingI recently attended a writer’s workshop, where the subject of how we change came up. The essence of a romance novel is the change the main characters undergo, from living a small, safe, predicable life at the beginning of the book to living a life based on love instead of security at the end of the book. Along the way, change is a tough, scary business, at best.

I’ve needed to make a change. My weight has kept going up. I don’t overeat by any normal standards, but my metabolism is wicked efficient, apparently. Nothing I’ve tried has worked–not running, not working out, not calorie restriction, not acupuncture, yoga, not nothing, not no how–and yet, when I back off the vigilance at all, the pounds come flying on.

Transformation1Something my sister said a few years ago, when she was a group leader for a weight loss program, has stuck with me: “It’s hard to lose weight, it’s hard to keep it off, but it’s also hard to be overweight.”

Is it EVER. People don’t see you, they see your spare tire. They don’t hug you, they hug your flub. They don’t measure you by your kindness, sparkling wit, snappy repartee or peachy dancing, their first impression is of your appearance.

muffin catSo… it’s hard to be overweight. You can’t scamper around Scottish hiking trails as easily, acquit yourself as well on horseback (Hyde Park stables won’t rent you a horse if you weigh more than 170 pounds–ask me how I know that), or shop for clothes as cheerfully. Then there are the emotional burdens. Being obese not fun.

So I decided to try, try, try again. This time, when I hit that, “BUT I’M HUNGRY” wall (I pretty much live on that wall), I told myself, “You can be hungry, or you can be fat. Not fair, not easy, not a reflection on you, but those are the cards you’re holding, and you’ve done the being fat part for a while. How’s that working’ for ya, Grace?”

just a little huskyWhich has led to the third aspect of change: After an insight and a decision, change requires sustained action. I’ve tried long and hard to get the weight down before, weeks and weeks, and months and months, with little to show for it. This charge up the hill started about mid-summer, and I’m down a few pounds. That surprises me, because I’m not sure the physiological realities are any different, but this time, I’m seeing results.

HEDINGHAM-SHOOT-276Maybe the insight is the difference. As my sister put it, I’m choosing which challenge to take on, and accepting (oh, that word), that this aspect of life will BE a challenge for me, no matter what. Maybe I’ll fall off my destrier in the next week, but maybe not. Maybe mind, body and behavior have found a way to bury the hatchet, and I’ll be happier for it, even if I’m also hungry much of the time.

When you’re trying to make a change, what helps? What knocks you off the horse? Is there a change you’re particularly proud of?

To one commenter, I’ll send the first first four books in Joanna Bourne‘s Spymaster series.