Are We THERE Yet?

tough week death valleyThis has been a tough week, at least for me. World events have not been cheering; I’m feeling overwhelmed with writing-related stuff that’s all very important, but it doesn’t get words on the page; a college age kid can put a strain on the old piggy bank just when I thought we were making some progress; and I’m tired.

Tired of being tired, in fact. I try to get up early to tend to the writing tough week emptyfirst, but if I didn’t sleep well, that means waking up tired, and THAT means I’m not efficient through the day.

So I hit this weekend on empty, and now is when I’m supposed to leave a fat smoke trail of words across the blank screen.

When I’m in an energy cul-de-sac like this, mood often deteriorates too. What I do manage to write is invariably awful (I’m sure Captive_artof this). Stuff I’ve been able to ignore for long periods (sagging dog fence) is abruptly a source of irritation. Things I can’t control (Amazon, the weather) worry me though I know that’s pointless.

Everybody hits periods like this, and they can spiral into a sense of irritable frustration from one end of the day, week, and then month to another. Knowing it’s temporary, knowing some of this is post-Scotland let down, knowing nobody cares about the dog fence doesn’t help. I’m not a device, such that binary logic and HTML put in one end creates a rational outcome at the other.

So I’m resorting to what I know does work. I’ve played the piano for the first time in months, I’ve watched The Scarlet Pimpernel (the first tough week pimpernellspy novel, and written by a woman), I’ve kept flowers nearby, and I’ve worked on the writing project I want to work on not only the ones I ought to work on. I listen to my consolation songs. I focus on what I’m grateful for right now, no matter what.

I’m in good health. My bills are paid for this month. My kid is doing better. My parents’ situation seems to have stabilized. I have friends. My last book was well received. Out the goodness of his heart, tough week Jim MalcolmJon Paul Ferrara sent me a glicee of The Captive’s cover that is simply gorgeous. I’m not scheduled to be in court for the foreseeable future. I will go back to Scotland in the spring.

This gets me through. I don’t expect to wake up turning handsprings tomorrow, I won’t be the goddess of sweetness and light, but neither will I pour more energy into railing against the forces of nature or the publishing marketplace. I do the things authentic to me, focus on those, and try let the rest of the world go by.

touch week day liliesWhat do you do when the world is too much with you, late and soon? How to you shake off a funk, a slump, or a terrible, horrible, awful very bad week?

To one commenter, I’ll send a $25 American Express Gift Card.

The One Who Got Away

jan flat tireFive years ago, I was broke, had no publication contract, and spent my days playing emotional whack-a-mole with challenges like the well pump dying, the state being late with my check, the kid losing her job, the truck’s spare going flat…

My consolation and coping mechanism was horses. I rode regularly, which kept me in great shape, and I had horses in my back yard, an enormous Belgian draft horse rescue and my daughter’s geriatric mare.

Mane Man 003Hay burners need hay, right? The guys at the feed store suggested a farmer up the road had exactly what I wanted–good stuff, but not too good, and reasonably priced. It took me a few weeks to get up my courage–I am shy, by the way–but one fine day my truck turned up the lane of the hay guy’s farm.

The hay guy was not shy. He was friendly, whipcord lean, about six foot four, with blue, blue eyes, and a merry, naughty smile. He was poetry on a hay truck, too, tough as nails, beastly strong, and could do anything with his hands. And my goodness, could he tell a fine story.

At the time I had been contentedly divorced for more than ten years, and in those ten years, I had not looked at a man. I wasn’t lonely, I wasn’t looking, I wasn’t even thinking about looking.

jan wall of hayI looked at this guy, I talked to him, I listened to him. He could toss hay bales with the precision of a major league pitcher and back a wagon to an inch with his eyes closed. He was a good listener, had a kind and open heart, and a great sense of humor. We casually mentioned getting together for lunch at the diner–I get together with various riding buddies at the diner–but I never nailed him down. Though I enjoyed every minute I spent in his company, when I moved my horses from the back yard to a stable nearby, I did not stay in touch with my hay guy.

In the intervening years, I’ve wondered: Why did I, a woman of notable particulars, turn my back on somebody who’s company I enjoy? Why didn’t I occasionally say hi as a friend? Why didn’t I drop in on one of my many trips past the farm, and explain that the horses had moved, but I’d like to stay in touch? Anything?

Cowboy silhouetteI’m not sure why I let the line go quiet. Maybe my intuition was working overtime, or my defense mechanisms. In any case, I let him get away, though in my mind, I owe that guy. He was a shot of happy over something as silly as buying a load of hay, he’d talked with me as old friends talk. I liked him a lot, and I’m pretty sure he liked me at a time when I was without many allies or resources.

And you know where this is heading. I recently learned that my hay guy lost the fight with cancer a few months back. Now there’s no dropping in on him, ever. No thanking him for being a bright spot in some tough years, no getting together at the diner. I’m endlessly sad for him, because he was as socialable and physically robust as a man can be, brilliant at what he did, a devoted dad and a gentleman. He should have had so many more years.

And he should have had lunch with me at the diner.

Who was the one who got away from you–friend, neighbor, coworker? Why’d you let them go? Is there somebody you should be meeting at the diner for lunch? To one commenter, I’ll send a $25 Barnes and Noble gift card or a signed copy of The Captive, your choice.

The Prime of Miss Grace Burrowes

Sorrel trakehner stallion gallops in fieldOne of the standing jokes between my daughter and me is that I’m a woman “in my prime!” I’ve claimed to be “in my prime!” pretty much as far back as she can recall, which is at least a quarter century. Despite graying hair, an expanding middle, slowing reflexes, and pretty much every evidence of aging, I’ve nonetheless claimed to be, “in my prime!”

horse bud weiser teamI’m 55, and by any life expectancy trajectory grounded in fact, that puts me in the second half of my life. This version of my prime is taking longer to do just about everything. When I fly across several times zones, it takes me at least a week to get my circadian rhythm straightened out (especially flying east), and I used to not even a notice a change.

horse puissanceIf I have a truly bad night of sleep, I’m dragging for several days. In college, I routinely skipped a night of sleep every week–counted on being able to do that, in fact, to keep up with work and studies.

When I undertake any domestic task–cleaning up the kitchen, vacuuming, getting after the bathroom–what ought to take an hour takes half the morning and forget taking on that stuff later in the day. I just plain don’t have the energy or focus I used to have.

horse steeplechaseI miss those wonderful years of imitating a human buzz saw, of knowing I was tired, but also knowing the fatigue wouldn’t have much impact on my productivity or recall. I miss being able to wrassle hay bales and feed bags without it making me sore for three days. I miss a truly clean (if only rarely) house that I scrubbed down myself.

But–took me a while to realize this–I don’t miss having three-day migraine headaches several times a month. I don’t miss being on blood pressure medication. I don’t miss measuring my self worth by the to do list, or going for a jog in 95 degree heat on my lunch hour because that’s the only time I could fit in exercise.

horse with queen mumI’m slower–lord, yes, I am slower. Slower to lose my temper, slower to let those thoughtless words go flying out of my mouth, slower to think I have the answer just because I have an answer. I’m slower to commit, slower to give up, and slower to judge. I have my non-negotiables, but they are fewer and quieter. They’re my non-negotiables, I don’t expect them to be anybody else’s.

horsecatAnd this slower, grayer, quieter person? I like her more than I did the faster, smarter, more productive version. She laughs more, she’s more patient and generous. She’s better at rolling with the punches and lending a hand. She’s easier to spend time with, probably a better friend, and maybe even a better mother.  I don’t know. I’ll have to ask my daughter (who is “in her prime!”).

So how’s you’re prime looking these days? In what regard are you better than you’ve ever been? To one commenter, I’ll send a $25 Amazon gift certificate.



No News is Happy News

RainbowA couple of weeks ago, I posted about the “Rainy Brain/Sunny Brain” attitude shifting game, and I’m dutifully clicking away at it every other day or so. In a few weeks, I’ll report my results (I’m also doing the mindfulness meditations).

I got to thinking about the extent to which negativity is thrown at us, even without our intending to focus on it: When was the last time you watched network news, and had a sense that the world is becoming a better place?

TigerI know why negative news gets top billing: If you want to survive, you need to know where the wars, disasters, crime waves, new diseases and other threats are coming from. This information is what our old pal Malcolm Gladwell would call “sticky.” The brain is wired to notice it and hang on to it.

I’m not living in the jungles of darkest prehistory, though, and the only saber-toothed tigers in my neighborhood look about six weeks old. Divergent (out of the box) thinking, creativity, joy, and spontaneity all require a certain confidence in life and THAT’S where I want to focus my fire.

orange kittenDid you know that in most major U.S. cities, violent crime has been dropping for decades? We are much, MUCH safer now than we were in the early 1990s, though theories explaining this happy development vary. Did you know that in the U.S, teen birth, pregnancy and abortion rates are at an all time low?

highland cowDivorce rates have been dropping since 1990 as well (scroll down to the Divorce Rates by State chart). The gender wage gap, or amount women are underpaid for doing the same jobs as men, has been steadily shrinking since 1980, and for young women, is down to $.07 cents per male dollar. When I entered the work force as a law school graduate with two undergraduate degrees, the disparity was $.36.

needs_450We have many reasons to rejoice, to be proud of ourselves as a society, to be hopeful about our future, and yet, I’m guessing most of the foregoing wasn’t common knowledge among my readers. For shame on those who think fear and anger sells, and that profit justifies a negative bias at the expense of truth.

Maybe this is why romance novel sales didn’t suffer in the recent recession. Romance novels, if well written, are about people who find the courage to change, who learn how to love and be loved, who create a happily ever after happy despite the odds. That’s a story well worth telling, and one many of us are living every day.

End of rant. What have you rejoiced about lately? I’m tickled pink because captive_295w-274x450Scotland can choose to regain its status as an independent nation this September by simple action of a civil referendum–no armies, no battles, no fatalities. THAT is how a nation should be reborn!

To one commenter, I’ll send a signed beach reading package of the Fab 5 of Romance releases, which will include, of course, The Captive.

Haste ye back!

I’ll soon head home to the States after a marvelous two weeks in Scotland, and I’ll be glad to get home. That said, I like it here! Yes, the elevators are tiny, and some of the hotels are more quaint than I’m used to (mostly the ones where Mary Queen of Scots was a guest before I got there), but I see a lot of differences that I like too. For example…

blog loch ness1)      The potties are ALL conserver models. Image what a difference this could make in California, where nearly forty million folks are on the brink of a chronic water shortage. Mind you, Scotland has more fresh water in Loch Ness than you’ll find in all of England, though Scotland also has one-twelfth of England’s population–and yet, they’re saving water.

scottish traffic2)      Electric and hybrid cars are fast becoming the norm. Gas is about $10/gallon for unleaded, and that has a lot of repercussions. Public transportation is excellent; “if it’s not far, park the car” thinking encourages walking (and better health and air quality); and people naturally carpool, combine errands, and try to leave the gas-beast in the garage. In Maryland, it is now illegal to open an electric car dealership.

3)      The men’s public restrooms, with few exceptions, have baby changing stations.

blog princes street gardens4)      When you use a credit card to pay in a restaurant, the waiter or waitress brings the little swiper machine to the table. You NEVER lose sight of that card. Same at other establishments. Fraud is much less of a problem as a result.

5)      Flowers. Maybe because the most readily available building material is stone—which can look bleak, indeed—nearly every business, house and cottage is graced with window boxes, porch pots, and walkway beds of brilliant, thriving flowers. I’ve never seen such enormous roses, never enjoyed so many small touches of floral self-expression.

blog benmore redwoodsRunning an open, healthy society takes more than water conservation, a national objective of energy independence by 2050 (they’re ahead of schedule), guys who change dipes, and commonsense solutions to credit card fraud. Even abundant flowers can’t guarantee that I’d like to live here, but I have a sense that I’m compatible with this place.

blog scottish teaThen too, they have big trees and lots of them. I need my big trees. Good quality sweets—shortbread and tablet—are ingrained in their hospitality. Even modest hotels provide shortbread in each room. I love a little treat every now and then.

They have scenery on top of scenery inside of scenery beside scenery, and I’m one for living in the countryside.

Scotland cannot be home to me—from the US, the UK only admits for protracted stays only students, IT professionals and petroleum engineers unless you already have a job here—but it can help me recognize the characteristics that attract me to a place or a society.

Has travel ever done that for you? Shown you what kind of people and places you’d like to have more of in your life? Maybe it works the other way: You’ve left home only to realize why you love it so much?

Though I’m still constrained from responding to comments, to one commenter, I’ll again send a $25 Amazon gift card.

The Brain Game

highland cowSo I’m in Scotland, which means my ability to respond to comments is limited, but I did want to pass along something I learned on the flight over here. I do not own a TV, so those little screens on the seat ahead of me fascinate me, and I spend most of the flight noshing on documentaries or playing trivia games.

highland piperI came across one program created by the BBC and narrated by Michael Mosely. The narrator described himself as a happy child who’d grown into an anxious, insomniac man. For years, he’d lain awake at night fretting over the state of the world, the next day’s to-do list, or the previous day’s activities. Increasingly, he viewed the future with foreboding and life as drudgery.

highland sheep worryingThis of course caught my ear, because I too, can get into ruts, and it’s no understatement to admit I view the world and other people with a certain distrust. I can be fretful and worried and heaven knows, my sleeping patterns aren’t ideal. I was curious about what can be done to reverse the bad sleep and bad attitude, if anything.

Turns out, there are steps to take to combat both pessimism and insomnia, and they’re simple. The first thing Mosely did was practice twenty minutes a day of mindfulness meditation. He sat quietly, eyes closed, and focused on his breathing. That’s it. No yoga contortions, no arcane diet, no biofeedback machine, just paid attention to breathing for twenty minutes a day.

highland sheep dogThe second change in his routine was to do a short brain-training game every day. It’s an easy, even fun game. He looked at panel of sixteen faces, the same sixteen, over and over. One face on each panel would be smiling, the other fifteen frowning. To play the game, he simply clicked on the happy face, over and over. To see the game he played, or to play it yourself, click here.

The point of the game to was encourage the brain to literally “look” on the bright side. After seven weeks, Mosely tested as more optimistic, and his sleep was greatly improved. Guess who’s going to try both the meditation and the brain game for the next seven weeks?

highland piggy bankI want to see if I can effect the same changes, but I’m also struck by how small, even silly changes made consistently can create larger shifts in our lives. For example, simply smiling can improve your mood. Petting a dog lowers blood pressure. If you sit a lot, simply getting out of the chair every 30 minutes increases life expectancy. Modest savings can grow into a comfortable retirement if the habit is kept up over time.

At a time in life when I can easily feel overwhelmed, the idea that little changes can yield big results is a great comfort. What small changes have you made, or would you like to make, in pursuit of a big result?

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

On the Road YET Again…

travel jetMore travel has been added to my summer schedule, because the Aged P’s need the company. As most of you will recall, the Aged P’s live in San Diego, while my home is in Western Maryland. This is not a summer camp I’m jumping up and down to attend, because before I even board the plane, I’m homesick. What will I miss?

travel marylandMy property. This is a big one, because it encompasses memories of walks with my daughter when she was small, the sight of my horses munching grass across the stream, many hours of planting flowers, and a lot of cups of tea on the porch while the country breezes blew my cares away and the trees and mountains assured me, “This too shall pass.”

I love this place. I raised my kid here, wrote dozens of books here, baked a lot of bread, burned a lot of wood. This is home, and I will miss it.

travel stargazersMy cats. They each have a story, a personality, a way to add something to my life that’s unique. Most of them have been with me for more than ten years, and their company is dear to me. I also love the wildlife here. In the past week, in my yard, I’ve seen a fox, skunks, raccoons, possums, rabbits, squirrels, lightning bugs, and much more.

The greenery, not only in my yard, but this part of the country. Things grow here, they have room to grow and all the sunlight, water and nutrients they need to grow. I get a sense of safety from that. This environment is well suited to supporting human life. Southern California has been overburdened with human life. It has not enough water, for starters, and without water… how can any sane person feel safe?

travel foxMy friends. I lack a wide circle of friends, but the few I have are wonderful. We get together as often as busy schedules allow, and a couple hours at Panera or the sandwich shop is enough to get my mental and emotional engines retuned and full of compression. Yes, new sights and new faces can have a salutary impact, but I’ll miss these faces, and these hugs.

My treadmill desk—silly, right? Not to me. I put that sucker together, and it sits in my line of sight while I write, an invitation to beat the sitting disease that afflicts too many writers. I can “exercise” in my jammies, while playing free cell, and swilling tea. How captive_295w-274x450cool is that? No threat of melanoma, no cars, no fumes, no strangers who expect me to step off the curb because they’re jogging and I’m only toddling. I will miss a rare opportunity to exercise that suited me.

Change is good for us. We meet new challenges, make new connections, learn and grow when we’re dropped into new environments. I’m glad to HAVE parents to visit, but I will be really, really glad when I can once again turn my sights for home.

If you had to leave home right now, with no assurances about when you’d return, what or who would you miss most? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed ARC of The Captive.


There’s No Place Like HOME

dog in car windowFor much of the past eight weeks, I’ve been traveling. First, I drove out to San Diego to see the Aged P’s, then I dropped in on a brother near Santa Fe, and paid a call on Beloved Offspring in Colorado.

Got home, did a load of wash, lassoed a cyclone of paperwork at the office, then took off for what I thought would be a jaunt in Italy. Within a week, I was flying back to Georgia with my sister (family stuff flared up), and I just returned from there yesterday.

UK Spring of 2011 006I have not finished unpacking–I’m too busy blissing over the pleasures of being home. My house doesn’t get a lot of attention from me. I often say it’s more of a camp site than a home, but I’m wrong. Home is my favorite place to be, for more reasons than I realized.

My computer screen sits at exactly the proper height for me, and my chair is a fancy ergonomic extravagance given to me by a friend on my birthday. LORDY, have I missed my computer set up!

My house is quiet. If a car goes by, the dogs and cats and I all look up. If there’s no traffic (which is for hours at a time), we can hear the stream that cuts through the property.

irisesOnce I get it aired out, my house smells good (to me, provided nobody’s visited the litter boxes lately). I can smell the new mown hay from across the lane and the enormous German irises in the vase by the door.

My books are here. My keepers, my references, the books I’m reading that are too large to tote around (The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume I, weighs more than four pounds).

dog chestnut log wallMy favorite things to eat are here, and nobody’s fussing about When Will We Eat, or What Will We Eat, or Where Will We Eat. I eat when I’m hungry, I don’t eat when I’m not, and I like to eat mostly raw food (except for good cheese and Ghiradelli dark chocolate squares) that’s light on wheat and sugar. This is not what’s offered at most restaurants, and holy Ned, does it make me grouchy to eat stuff I’m not jonesing for.

captive_295w-274x450Home is the thick chestnut logs that form the wall I stare at when the words are fighting me, but it’s also the control I have over this space, and over myself when I’m in it. I love my home, and I’m so very grateful to have a home.

What have you done with the place where you live to make it YOUR home? Is there a part of home you take with you everywhere (I bring my favorite tea, for example). To two commenters, I’ll send signed copies of “The Captive.”

The Best Vacation

Many of us are in that stretch of the year when we’re waiting, waiting, waiting for school denver snowto be out so we can shift into summer break mode. Maybe we’re waiting for the weather to get a clue–my daughter sent me pictures of Denver covered in snow last week. Maybe we’re holding off to go on vacation until we’ve built up more leave or more savings.

I made plans last fall to travel for italian coastseveral weeks in Italy this spring, and then to end my journey with ten days in Scotland. I browsed websites, I googled destinations, I looked at pictures and read catalogs. I talked to people about their travels and where they’d stayed. I racked up the credit card expenses for tickets and got them paid off before my departure date–a particularly nice accomplishment.

italian cookongI had great fun anticipating good food, new faces, new scenery, and some new vocabulary. Italian is a wonderful language, one usually spoken with energy and rhythm, and Italy itself boasts so much beautiful coastline, it’s a wonder there’s any population in the interior of the country.

All of this was new to me, and as it turns out, the fun of an experience, be it a vacation, a rock climb, a wedding, is only partly in the event itself. Much of the pleasure we derive from recreation lies in anticipating the fun. When you ask people who’ve tuscanyplanned a vacation how much they enjoyed it, and compare their answers with results from people who made a spontaneous or short-notice outing to the same destination, the planners will report having more fun.

eilean_donan_castle_scotland_0303This is true even if you give those people the exact same vacation itinerary, put them up in the same hotels at the same time of year. There really is a lot to be said for anticipation–ask any romance heroine long about page 178.

So what small or large pleasure awaits you later this year? What could you put on the calendar that you’d enjoy doing, and enjoy looking forward to? If I were to plan an author’s retreat in Scotland, what would you say I absolutely had to include to make the trip worthwhile?

To three commenters, I’ll send a signed copy of The Captive.




The Unlovable Triangle

Last week’s discussion of triangles put me in mind of another concept, one I came across in mediation training. The topic is usually referred to as Ahab, Brutus, and Charlie, or The Three Smugglers, and it goes like this:

desert islandIn the middle of a terrible storm, three smugglers wash up on the shore of a desert island, the survivors of three different shipwrecks. Ahab and Brutus are big fish in the smuggling pond, with lots of influence and connections and considerable brawn. Charlie is small fry. He doesn’t run a big smuggling operation, is fairly new to the game, and isn’t overly endowed with muscle.

custody battleThe island is a hostile environment, with wild animals lurking in the brush, and nobody sure where fresh water might be, or how much of it, much less how much food might be available. How does the balance of power shake out under these circumstances?

You might think Ahab and Brutus throw Charlie to the sharks, but in a lot of replicated, controlled studies, that’s not what happens. Instead of cooperating with each pampered catother, Ahab and Brutus direct their energy into making an ally of Charlie. If they can win Charlie’s cooperation, they’ll have an ally who gives them the strength to keep the other big smuggler in line, without taking on a partner who could turn into a threat.

As a family law attorney, this is frequently the dynamic behind a custody battle. Mom and Dad fight endlessly to win Junior’s vote, leaving the outcome of a serious and complicated legal issue in the hands of a child. Mediators use this concept to direct the process whereby embattled parties can resolve their differences.

love triangleElders have been known to manipulate or exploit their children using a Three Smugglers approach–dear granny keeps a family riot in progress from her room at the assisted living facility by doling out approval, inheritances, family history, or some other precious commodity in a manner guaranteed to divide the younger generations.

captive_295w-274x450Romance authors put Ahab, Brutus, and Charlie to use in love triangles, with the heroine pursued by two fellows (or the hero by two ladies), and result is virtually NEVER that the two pursuers join forces or ride off into the sunset. The trick is to put all three characters on some sort of desert island, where emotional, financial, or logistical resources are scare enough that even a relatively weak character can tip the balance of power.

Have you seen this dynamic in action? Where a relatively “weak” individual can keep a circus going because his or her influence could tip a balance of power between others?

To one commenter, I’ll send an ARC of The Captive, my July release, and the first book in the Captive Hearts trilogy.