All Worry and No Play

Lately, I’ve been having trouble keeping my emotional balance. I’ve felt as if at the ripe old age of Pushing Sixty, PMS has come roaring back in all its cranky, anxious, snarky, restless, un-beautiful glory. This is a function of dealing with a parent in hospice, coming up on the first anniversary of my mom’s death, traveling, looming tax season, and of course, our current political dramas. (Why must they be so plural and so endless?!)

I refuse to malinger in this uncomfortable state.

My first prescription to settle my nerves is beauty. I want pleasures for my eyes, ears, nose, and tummy to soothe and reassure me. I’ve bought myself flowers, ordered a few more Paddywax candles (jasmine, gardenia, and tuberose), donned my All Scotland cashmere scarf, and tuned in to some Brandenburg Concerti.

It helps. I can’t control the Big World, but I can decorate my little corner of it, and fortify myself accordingly.

My next step in the direction of keeping my emotional balance will be to play. As a foster care attorney, I’ve come across the little known fact that predicting which foster kids will succeed and which kids will fail isn’t complicated. Two things earmark the likely successes, and they aren’t brains, race, religion, grades, physical health, height, gender, or any of the usual suspects.

The first characteristic of kids who can succeed after early trauma is that somebody modeled for them a healthy definition of love. This person didn’t have to be under the same roof as the child, but they had to be a regular, reliable, benevolent presence in the child’s life.

Delray the Wonder Pony

The other indicator found in children who are likely to soar after a rough start is… the ability to play, to have a fun time without getting in trouble. As a society, we don’t make play a priority. We have one of the longest work-years in the developed world, with the fewest holidays. We are not the most productive workers, either. The French, who have a shorter work day, work week, and work year, are among the countries who out-produce us. This would be the same French who just passed a law that employers can’t pester employees with emails outside of business hours.

In the foster care system, there is no money for recreation, no such thing as a budget for play, though for very young children, there are play therapists. Experienced foster parents know to listen for laughter, though, because when a child can honestly, joyfully laugh, they are on the road to overcoming their challenges.

So I’m keeping an eye peeled for what it looks and feels like when I play. I suspect horses are involved or maybe a piano. Heck, I might even have to join a book club!

What are you doing to stay on an even keel these days? When was the last time you laughed out loud? To one commenter, I’ll send a Paddywax “Jane Austen” candle.

 

 

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We’re not in San Diego anymore…

Traveling is good for sweeping out the cobwebs, getting a different perspective, and… learning to appreciate home. I’m winding up my visit to Dear Old Dad, and while most people would be reluctant to return to all thirteen of the degrees floating around back home in Maryland (it hit 70 in San Diego today), I’m ready to blow this Popsicle stand.

I will miss Dad (I’ve already arranged for my next visit), but there’s stuff here I won’t miss, such as…

Grocery store parking lots with only one place to return carts (right near the store entrance), which results in loose carts all over the parking lot. It doesn’t rain here to speak of, there’s no snow on the ground, but can we take our carts back to where they belong? Noooooo.

Grocery store aisles that are so narrow, you can barely get two carts to pass. If somebody pauses to take a gander at all those yummy cans of soup, the whole store goes into gridlock.

A local news report that includes FIVE weather updates, in a place that has, essentially, no weather. A half inch of rain quadruples the number of rush hour accidents, and temperatures five degrees below average constitute a cold snap. Erm… folks?

City streets that are so potholed and badly marked, you’d think you were dealing with…severe seasonal weather year after year, but nope. How does sunshine create enormous potholes?

A town in its sixth year of severe drought that restricts people to watering lawns twice a week. What’s with that? Why doesn’t severe drought mean there are no lawns left to water?

Without this sojourn to the Golden West, I’d probably never burst forth into an aria about shopping cart returns, the width of the store aisle in the canned food section, or the pleasure of never having to water a lawn during the droughts we also don’t have (or something)…. but I’m feeling mighty appreciative of those mundane realities now.

Maryland is not perfect, but it is home.

The last time you stepped outside of your familiar territory or ruts, what got on your nerves? Was there any aspect of coming home that left you sad, or any aspect of a much-anticipated trip that turned to drudgery?

To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of The Trouble With Dukes.

 

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Tuesdays with Stuey

blogxstarI’m spending the holidays with dear old, dear old Dad, who observed his 96th birthday in November. He lost his wife of 70 years in February and has been under hospice care since June. If you ask Stuart, 2016 deserves its bad reputation, even though he’s not sure who might be in the White House these days.

I’m trying to be constructive about this time under my father’s roof, and learn what I can from it. Some of my lessons are reminders, other are insights, others are hypotheses I’ll want to test when I’m facing hospice:

blogxbrubeck1) Have fun in this life. Dad can’t recall that he went to the urologist this morning, but he still knows how to play competitive cribbage. Why? Because he learned the game early and well, played it a lot, and enjoyed every game. He still delights in listening to Dave Brubeck’s “Time Further Out” album, often several times a day. It’s the soundtrack of his prime, and he loves it still.

2) Bacon and eggs is a great meal any time of day. Getting food into Dad has become a challenge, so he gets to eat whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and good old bacon and eggs works a treat more often than not. If you have fave meals, enjoy them to the last bite. Smucker’s seedless raspberry jam can be worth getting out of bed for.

blogxcribbagexboard3) Touch matters. All kinds of people interact with Dad to keep him clean, to prevent bedsores, to put drops in his eyes, to dress and shave him. This is clinical touch, and I’m sure he’d rather have less of it. Dad can’t stand on his own any more, so hugging him has become more difficult. I rub his back when he sits at the table, and every time–every single time–he says, “That feels good.”

blogxwelk4) Things change and that can be a huge blessing. Dad was a scientist and has hundreds of publications to his name. His laser-beam intellect was his light sword, how he provided for his family, (and how he avoided dealing with a lot of messy emotions). Now… what a mercy that he can’t recall that today is the anniversary of mom’s birthday, or that he can’t grasp how much his in-home care is costing him. As I was growing up, he viewed television as a tool of Satan. Now the high point of his week is watching reruns of Lawrence Welk on Saturday. trouble_450x2-1-450x728

5) Love is what really matters–as if I didn’t know that already. Dad has the means to see that his needs are met at home (for now), and he loves his little house by the sea. He loves me, too, and I love him, and that’s all that makes this hospice season bearable. Dad will die, but when he’s gone I’ll still be fortified by memories, wisdom, and insights he gave me. That’s the deal we get. What we make of it is largely up to us.

What did you learn this holiday season? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of The Trouble With Dukes.

 

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Christmas Comes Late

beautiful-christmas-tree3I didn’t get–as in comprehend, grasp, understand–Christmas until I was 28 years old. That year, the holidays found me eight months pregnant without benefit of spouse, and for nearly every day of those eight months, I had been “morning” sick. I was working full time, going to law school five nights a week, and fainting regularly.

I had not planned to become a single mom, but no form of birth control–even abstinence–works 100 percent of the time (just ask the Virgin Mary). With the help of a very good counselor, I’d chosen my path and was trudging along as best I could.

To say I was cbxxmasxtreexbeforeterrified is an understatement. I was catatonic with anxiety, what-ifs, and if only’s. I had never changed a diaper. Who was I to take on responsibility for a child, particularly when my nearest relative was hundreds of miles away, and my lifestyle–nose mostly to the grindstone–hadn’t resulted in much of a support circle?

I bounced from “I can’t DO this!” to, “Keep one end fed, the other end dry. How hard can that be?” to, “This will never work,” to “Fer cripes sakes, Grace, women have been having babies for zillions of years. Deal.”

And then along came Christmas, an exceedingly family-oriented time of year. I worked for a company that closed the last week of the year, so I had that one week to put the crib together, lay in baby supplies, and shop for those teeny, tiny clothes that nobody wears for very long. I have donksnever felt so alone as I did shopping for onesies over Christmas break, eight months along, with no ringer on my finger.

But then I realized, that was the Christmas story: A woman expecting unexpectedly, feeling unprepared, unable to tell old Caesar Augustus that the dead of winter was a lousy time to saddle up the donkey and deal with some bleeping census. No room at the inn, no friends with a spare couch, and nothing going as planned. paddyxxxheatherx1992_01xx1x

Christmas isn’t shopping expeditions completed, perfectly decorated cookies, and a bow on every present. It’s the spirit of love that cannot be daunted by darkness, cold, fear, or misery. Unto ME a child was on the way, and if love counted for anything, the baby and I would manage.

Nearly thirty years on, the managing is still a work in progress, but I no longer feel like Christmas is for everybody but me. I feel as if Christmas is every day, because every day, love matters, love wins, and love is what will get us through. Keep the cookies, I’ll take the love.

Was there a standout Christmas for you? One that was particularly tough or sweet? To one commenter, I’ll send a $100 gift card, though I wish I could send one to the whole world.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Reading Holidays

goodnight-moonI hope some books lurk among the gifts you’re giving this holiday season, and not just because authors need to eat and stay warm. Books are like superfood for the mind and heart, and we have the science to prove it.

Is there a young person among the folks you’re buying for? Children’s books will expose that lucky child to 50 percent more vocabulary words than prime time television will, and even more vocabulary than eavesdropping on a conversation between college gradates would. There’s some indication that reading early also increases academic intelligence later in life, so pass out those books like candy canes.

bundleReading improves memory, because you have to keep a lot of story details straight from one session with a book to another, and across hundreds of pages. If you exercise your memory, it holds up longer, and who wouldn’t want to recall a handsome duke?

Reading fiction makes us more empathetic. A skilled author will explain why people do what they do, and present character decisions and emotions in a light that can make even a dastardly antagonist somewhat sympathetic. The empathy muscle we flex when we enjoy fiction carries over to real life, and results in less judgment and more tolerance. What a gift to be able to give for just a few bucks!

cat_reading_bookReading an engrossing tale reduces stress. For most of us, that’s a “Duh!” but stress reduction includes lower cortisol (flight or fight) output and lower blood pressure. These findings make me wonder if part of the reason women tend to live longer than men is because women are far more likely to be in the habit of reading fiction. Just a thought.

Reading helps us sleep better, especially if we read physical books, or cut the blue light on our screens.

trouble_450x2If you thought that book you got for your sister-in-law was just a good story, think again. If you chose well, you gave her a means of improving brain function, increasing her vocabulary, sleeping better, being more tolerant and empathetic, and more relaxed. That was pretty nice of you!

So, of course, to one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of The Trouble With Dukes! Do you have a go-to Christmas present? Mine was Maggie’s organic wool socks this year–I love them–though I rarely go to a bookstore without picking up a book for somebody else, just because.

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It’s Only Natural

blogxarchedxbridgeI’m occasionally asked why I write Regency romances, and part of my answer has to do with loving life in the country. For Britain, the Regency was the last defined era before the majority of the population would reside in the cities. Up until about 1850, most Brits lived in the country most of the time.

As I do, and as I almost always have. Where I grew up, the woods came right up to the backyard, and where I live, my daughter could hop on her pony and ride the old logging trails crisscrossing the mountainside. I’ve always considered living close to nature a kind of wealth, and it turns out, I’m right.

12-victorian-couple-lee-avisonSpending time in nature is really, really good for us, even if that nature is just a city a park. Some bright psychological types from England’s University of Exeter Medical School took a look at the mental health of people who live near urban parks, versus those who don’t.

The parkside residents are healthier, and lest you think that’s because they jogged in those parks, or ice-skated, or exercised, think again. Even correcting for exercise, just living where you can see trees and squirrels and ducks makes you happier and less stressed. This also holds true after correcting for higher income, better education, and a good job (all of which also help with mental health). Having a park nearby gives you the same demographic boost to your mental health as would earning $20,000/year more.

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Dutch researchers analyzed data from 15,000 people living within half a mile of a park, and found lower incidences of fifteen kinds of ailments, including depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and migraines (compared to citydwellers who didn’t live near a park). The Japanese have a term, shinnin-yoku, which means forest-bathing. The medical and mental health benefits of a leisurely walk in the woods are so well documented, that it’s an accepted form of stress management among many Asian cultures.

blogxhydexparkxwinterOther researches are proving that greenspace can make a neighborhood less violent, and even videos of nature can make a prison less violent. I suspect most people who regularly walk a dog, or who’ve taken their kids to the park, don’t need the science to back up what their own intuition confirms: A walk on even the urban wild side is good for the soul.

blogxwildI hope on your Christmas list for yourself, you can work in a little bit of outdoor time, despite the cold and the busyness. You don’t have DO anything outside–not hike, not jog, not clean the gutters, not cut down the Christmas tree–just get out where the rivers like to run (Three Dog Night earworm!) and let yourself breathe.

Any other fans of nature out there? How do you get time away from civilization? To one commenter, I’ll send a 2017 Thomas Mangelsen calendar.

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To Wonderful, or Not to Wonderful

blogxmisfitxtoysStuff I don’t like about Christmas:

Conspicuous consumption at a time of year when many families are dealing with seasonal layoffs, high heating bills, childcare challenges, and the stress of holiday expectations.

Mall muzak. If I hear about grandma and that reindeer one more time…

The tsunami of sugar. I’m susceptible to sweets, and they are EVERYWHERE, and most of them have the audacity to be scrumptious.

blogxgingerbreadxhousePresents. I’m getting better about this, but receiving gifts is awkward for me, and I always worry that what I’ve gotten somebody isn’t right for them. I’m also haunted by that situation where somebody shows up with a gift for me, but I didn’t get them anything. Yikes!

Foster care meltdowns. The week between Christmas and New Year’s, foster kids fall apart, foster parents fall apart, even foster care social workers fall apart. The judges who have to hear the emergencies that week are often none too cheery, and who can blame them?

blogxthexmallDomestic violence. Christmas Eve is the second most domestically violent night of the year (after Superbowl Sunday in the city that wins). Combine financial stress, fatigue, high expectations, wassail, and for too many families, holiday punch takes on a miserable meaning.

Holiday shopping. Thanks be to the Almighty for websites, because the Mall is a non-starter.

blogxnewxfallenxsnowI’ll stop there, because there’s another side to the balance sheet. The winter holidays are also one of my favorite times of year, because…

Days and days of solitude and unstructured time. I get more writing done, more joyously, over the Christmas holidays than in any other two weeks of the year.

The theme of the great hope coming from humble, even unrecognizable beginnings, restores my perspective. Solutions to problems, conflicts, and miseries have germinated that we can’t yet see, but they’re coming our way, nonetheless.

blogxcandleFresh snow. Now there’s a metaphor to warm an author’s heart.

It’s a good time of year to be a stranger, no matter if you dress funny, ride a strange camel, or got stuck with a name like Belshazzar, Melchior or Caspar. The outcast, the extra guest, the uninvited visitor all get a place near the hearth ’cause CHRISTMAS.

Angels. I think of angels in terms of positive intentions, classic holiday tales, goodwill toward everybody, great memories, and other gratuitous goodness, but for other people, an angel is a handsome winged dude in a white bathrobe. Whatever your concept of free-form goodness is, it’s often in the air this time of year.

blogxtoysxwelcomeSo the holidays are a mixture for me, of the sublime and the challenging. I accept the challenges, while trying to focus on the sublime. What about you? How does the approach of the holidays sit with you? Do you look forward to them? Dread them? A little bit of both?

To one commenter, I’ll send an audio version of Lady Louisa’s Christmas Knight.

 

 

 

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This Is Your Brain on Thanksgiving

blogxgrinchI am so easily upset these days. I know we’re heading toward the holidays, the last part of the year when I can think, “Mom was alive 12 months ago.” It’s getting cold and dark, and the election we’ve been through (is it over yet?) was months and months of no fun for anybody. I’m angry at the media for putting profit above democracy. I’m angry at fourteen jillion levels of government for the North Dakota Access Pipeline situation, which is a study in how to spend a lot of money and hurt a lot of people while not resolving a conflict.

I’m upset about blah, blah, blah.

blogxtoadThen comes Thanksgiving, and as I sit on my toadstool and glower in all directions, it’s easy to think that stuffing myself with pie and mashed ‘taters (made with ranch dressing) is turning a deaf ear to a suffering world. I should be Doing Something, making noise, writing letters, making a difference!

Fortunately for me, those (generally useless) gestures aren’t going anywhere, and it turns out that being grateful is one of the most helpful differences anybody can make. The grateful brain sleeps better, and thus tends to be less anxious. The grateful brain is less prone to depression.

blogxfierceAnd being grateful takes very little effort. At the end of every day, I write down five things I’m grateful for. Some days, the list is silly: I’m grateful I got to hold a kitten who’s done nothing but give me the skittery side-eye for two straight weeks.

Other days, my gratitude is larger: I’m grateful for my two sisters, who are keeping such loving watch over my 96-year-old dad. I’m grateful for my dad, the only guy who has stuck with me no matter what, and I mean no matter what. I’m grateful for my daughter, the brightest, dearest light ever to shine in a mother’s heart. dante-heather-rainbow-206x300

The more I focus on these aspects of my life, the more I’m likely to enjoy increased attention span, enthusiasm, and determination. I’m more likely to be optimistic, which for a natural-born Eeyore like me, is a very good thing. Oddly enough, people who start exercising the gratitude muscle are more likely to exercise the rest of themselves. This too is an area where I have room to grow.

And the best part about gratitude is that our brains like it. When we do the “thank you” dance, our brains treat us to a shot of dopamine, which is the brain’s way of saying, “Great move! Do that again!” Instead of a vicious cycle, gratitude can become a virtuous cycle, and one that’s as socially contagious as any other fundamental emotion. louisa_audio

I’m still worried about the big old, troubled world, and determined to pull my share of the load, but I’m also grateful for more than I can say, including every person who reads and responds to these blogs.

What are your grateful for? To one commenter, I’ll send an audiobook copy of Lady Louisa’s Christmas Knight, which hits the shelves on November 29.

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Once Upon Dreary Time

blogxwornxoutxbearOne of the lessons you learn as a child welfare attorney is that neglect is harder to treat than abuse. Neglect–inadequate food, clothing, shelter, or emotional nurturing–often happens in a situation where parents are trying their hardest but life has conspired to make best efforts insufficient. It took me a long, long time to admit my own upbringing was characterized by some serious insufficiency.

The first and last time I recall sitting on my mom’s lap she shoved me off onto the floor because I wrinkled her dress.

blogxnightxlightI was afraid of the dark, but because I shared a room with three other siblings who weren’t afraid of the dark, the light was off every night.

Every night, I took blankets out to the floor of the hallway and waited until my siblings were asleep, then I’d turn on the hall light, and go back to bed. This went on for years, and my parents either didn’t know or didn’t care.

My neighborhood lacked children my own age to play with, and my sister was bored with me by about the time I turned eight (I was bored with her too). I can’t recall a single play date, or a time when a school mate came home with me on the bus.

schoolbus-driving-awayI missed the bus once after school in second grade, but my mother didn’t realize until well after dark that I hadn’t come home with my sister. I sat outside the school for several hours, wondering if I was just supposed to spend the night there, and go straight to class the next day–assuming nobody stole me.

I was never involved in extracurricular activities. My mom simply hadn’t the time to do any chauffeuring. I could take piano lessons only because I could walk to the piano teacher’s house.

blogxvelveteenxrabbitI recite this litany not to impugn my parents, who did heroically well raising seven children on a single income. I thought it was normal to have no friends, to do without affection, and to endure from one god-awful school day to the next, while being chronically sleep deprived. Other children had it so very, very much worse.

And yet, these deficits in childhood translated to problems in adulthood. I distrust authority, but can be suckered by charm. I’m not very good at building a support network. I struggle to keep healthy recreation in my life, and I’m overly attached to home.

trouble_450x2I also see, though, the benefits of having been lost in the Burrowes family shuffle. I’m fairly self-sufficient and self-motivating. I can entertain myself home alone for days. My imagination is a good friend now, conjuring dukes instead of dragons. I value my friends highly, whether they’re blog buddies, writin’ buddies, or auld acquaintances.

I think this year has been a challenge for all us. We’re tired, frazzled, and the economy hasn’t exactly put two chickens in every pot. Are there ways, though, that you’re better off for having slogged through the last twelve months? Insights you’ve gained? Issues you have in a better perspective?

To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of The Trouble With Dukes.

 

 

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Warming to the Idea

truckI drive a pick up truck.

I chose a Tundra because they have great crash test statistics, and I needed something that could pull a small horse trailer. More to the point, though, I like being an old lady who drives a truck. It’s me, and it’s not what small town lawyers or romance authors are supposed to drive. The truck connects me to when I was a horse girl, and gives me a certain confidence where winter weather is concerned. “Bring it,” I say to the snowy sky. “Trusty truck can handle it!”

arcticxseaxiceI was recently scrolling through my Facebook feed, though, and I came across the image at the right. We’ve lost a LOT of arctic ice. The next thought in my head was, “I’ve planned my last road trip in the truck.”

I don’t need to drive a truck, I just like to drive a truck–and that particular beat up, comfy old truck. But I don’t need to drive a truck as much as I need for polar bears to have a livable habitat. I’ve felt a little guilty for not driving a hybrid, especially when I putter around the UK, where hybrids are the rule (as is gas priced at $8/gallon). But that single image has kicked, “a little guilty” into “resolved to do something differently.”

Pictures really do have the power to change our minds. If the recent political campaigns have proven one thing, it’s that a mind made up is nearly impossible to change. Facts won’t do it, threats won’t do it, logic won’t do it. Exit polls showed that most people had chosen which candidate to vote for in September, and nothing changed their minds. Not emails, not hot-mic videos, not debates. We go to the trouble to make a choice, and it’s as if our brains can’t find reverse, no matter how unfortunate that choice might be.

We sift all incoming data, seeing only that which supports our preferred option. Perception bias means we also contort data, even to the extent of mis-remembering it, to better justify our first choice. The more you rant at me about how dumb my choice is, the more tightly I cling to it, and close my mind.

virtues_450x2-450x675Two things, though, can get me to peek at other possibilities even after I’ve made a decision: First, approach the topic with a sincere agenda to listen to me first, without trying to change my mind. If you show me that your mind is open, that you’re eager to acknowledge common ground and acknowledge what’s true and right about my position, there’s some possibility you might open my mind too.

Second, use pictures. Ditch the rhetoric altogether. Find charts, graphs, photos, and other visual evidence and let it speak for itself.

I will try to find a way to hang onto my truck–just in case we have a bad winter–but I’m also going shopping for a hybrid. I got the picture.

Has an image ever changed your mind, or given you resolve you lacked previously? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of The Virtues of Christmas.

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