Baby Grace

training wheels oneSomewhere along the way, I came across the notion that learning proceeds in four stages.

First, you know very little, but you’re also unaware of the extent of your ignorance. Like a kid with a new toy, your rocket around, delighting in the two or three facts or abilities you’ve mastered. I played the C scale by the hour when I started piano lessons–it was magic to me, and I was only dimly aware that dozens of other scales (if you count all the different minor scales) were yet to be mastered.

Second, you become aware of those other scales, of the distance between that C scale and the Emperor Concerto, and that distance training wheels twomatters. Your reckless glee fades to something more humble, maybe even to a sense of failure, because you’re not as a good as you thought you were.

Third, if you don’t quit, you stagger beneath the realization that you don’t know jack, and you may never know jack. Your ignorance far outpaces your learning, and probably always will. This phase is where we decide to either double down and learn the daylights out of a subject, or we walk away, appreciative and somewhat skilled, but far short of passionate. In this phase, we’re often more competent than we perceive, but we can training wheels threelack confidence.

Fourth, your persistence and passion pay off. You’re extremely competent, and you know it. You’re so competent, everybody else pretty much knows it too, and probably pays you to exercise your skill or talent.

As a child welfare attorney, I’ve paid my dues. I’m no genius, but I know my craft. As a writer, I feel I’m hovering between stages two and three–I know some good stuff and I’m working hard, but I have a long way to go. As a mom, I’m not a novice, but does anybody ever master parenting?

With the release of Trenton: Lord of Loss, I’m a self-published writer, firmly back in stage training wheels fourone. I know very, very little, but my glee is boundless: Look Ma, no publishing house! (Though I’m still working with a traditional house on other projects and don’t foresee that relationship ending.)

Intellectually, I know I’ll hit bumps as a self-published author, maybe some really big, mean bumps. I’ll probably fall off my bike a time or two, but in my heart, the sheer joy of embarking on a new journey, of packing  my PBJ, clean socks, a canteen and a book and heading out the door is delightful. It has been decades since I’ve started a new adventure, and given myself permission to succeed, fail, or both, so long as I get moving in pursuit of a dream.

Freestyler Emma McFerran

Freestyler Emma McFerran

This is… what’s the word? It’s on the tip of my…. this is FUN!

If money were not an issue, if health were not an issue, if you could march out in pursuit of a dream, what would it be? And if one of your dreams is posting a blog on this site, then please email me. I’ll be traveling a lot in the next few months, and an occasional guest post would be a big help.

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

 

Queen of the Road

flagstaff AZI must tattle on myself: I am having the best time rolling across the country in my trusty truck. Wednesday, I was rhapsodizing about the forsythia and redbud in southern Virginia, today I delighted in the snow storm that hit Flagstaff, AZ. (I love that town. Seven Starbucks, moose crossings, a Barnes and Noble, and that terrific mountain…)

burnsMy truck looks like a couple hobos with their dogs have been living on the floor of the passenger’s side. An oil portrait of my dad occupies the seat next to me (long story). I’m listening to my Jim Malcolm CDs over and over, singing about “Robin was a rovin’ boy, rantin’, roooooovin’, rantin’, rooooooovin’, rantin’, roooooovin’ Robin!!!” (A poem Burns wrote about himself, but he’s dead so I can sing it any way I please, right?)

When I tire of caterwauling about Robert Burns, I’m listening to the Romance Writers of America national conference workshop CD, and hearing such gems as Jude Devereaux complaining that politically correct heroes (“May I please make love to you for an hour and half?”) are a deplorable development. If I tire of that, I can roll along in silence for a couple hundred miles and arm wrestle my imagination for some plots to go with novellas I’ve recently obligated myself to write.

grand canyonWhat FUN! And then there’s the scenery. I did not have time to visit my old friend the Grand Canyon, but I did stop in to see one of my brothers near Santa Fe. On the way home, I’ve booked a night at La Posada, the last of the grand railway inns of the Southwest, in Winslow, Arizona. (Might have to take a selfie standing on a corner, of course.)

La PosadaWhat I’m NOT doing is being a lawyer, racking up words as an author, or dealing with people who expect me to solve their problems. I wasn’t sure why I decided to drive cross country (again) rather than fly, but the decision has borne wonderful fruit so far.

Still don’t know what I’m going to do with Daniel Banks, though. Fortunately, I have the 2700 mile daniel day lewisdrive home to get that one figured out, right?

If you could travel anywhere, where would you go? Would you take anybody with you? Stay for a long time? A mere week? What would you do while you were there?

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

 

Oh, Happy Day!

darius_4502As most of you probably know, Romance Writers of America announced the finalists for the 2013 RITA awards, and Darius: Lord of Pleasures was among those selected in the historical category. (If you’d like to see all of the finalists, they’re here.) The historical category finalist list reads like a cross between my keeper shelf and my TBR pile, so I am very pleased to be in this company.

The winners are announced at RWA’s National Conference in July, and it’s an exciting, tense, fun evening for the finalists. The author, accompanied by the book’s editor, goes up to the microphone in a room full of 2000+ peers and industry professionals. A few minutes are allotted for the author’s comments, and a very pretty metal statuette is presented to each winner. Much applause, a few tears, a few drinks and many congratulations.

RITABut wait a minute. The editor is there, but where is the publisher, the person who ultimately made the decision acquire that book rather any one of thousands of others? Where’s the copy editor, who caught more typos and wordos than Carter has liver pills, and where’s the proofreader who caught her fair share as well? Where’s the production editor, who kept the manuscript moving through an entire chocolate factory of transformations, from story to shelved book?

And let’s not forget about the Art Department, who came up with an eye-catching cover; book making, who somehow changed bytes into books; the sales folks who talked that book into retail outlets; the publicist, who led the cheers for the book as if her name were on the cover; the foreign sales agent who sold the book in Japan among other places; the formatters who have to tweak the file so it loads smoothly onto at least a half dozen different retail ebook platforms…. the booksellers, the bloggers and reviewers, the admin staff holding the universe together, the web geniuses who present the book so beautifully on the website…

giantsDarius might be my story, but it’s not my book. It’s our book–all of us who put it together, read it, talked about it, boosted it on its way to this recognition. So, thanks to you, thanks to my book team, thanks to RWA. Thanks, thanks, thanks.

Newton’s quote comes to mind, though writing a romance novel is by no means an accomplishment comparable to his contributions to science: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

My story; our book. Who are your giants? The guy who keeps your car running? Your day care mom? Your kid’s counselor? Your sister-in-law? To five commenters, I’ll send signed copies of Darius: Lord of Pleasures.

 

If You’re Happy and You Know It…

I stumbled across an article this week on happiness, which is a topic of interest to romance authors.

happy little girlAt some point in the romance novel, every main character is presented with a choice: Stick with your old coping mechanisms, and go back to being half alive and lonely, or grow some courage, do as love commands rather than as safety or pride compels, and go for that Happily Ever After. (The villains, by the way, often get the same choice, and cling to their revenge, victimhood, and other baggage (until they get their own book, of course).)

It’s a fine theory–happiness through happy puppy and kittenmoral and emotional courage, with a big dose of hormones thrown in–but most of us aren’t living in the pages of a romance novel. What do we do to bring happiness closer? Turns out, little things mean a lot. Sunshine, sweet fragrances, a good night’s sleep, hanging with your pets, listening to your playlist, cultivating happy people, lending a hand to the folks around you, keeping your relationships real, ditching the miserable job, and simply being grateful all have a major impact on happiness.

happy beastsAnd yet, what’s the advice given most often to young people? Set goals, focus on your career or your education (not relationships), work hard, look sharp, and Amount To Something.

I did this. Worked through two college degrees, got the Washington DC 80-hour a week job (slept in the dark room at work when I had to!), and then charged into law school five nights a week while still working more than full time–and of, course, I worked out at least three nights a week and seldom slept more than four hours a night.

happiness-quote-05A few years of this, and I Amounted to Something called a mess (esquire variety).

Never did it occur to me to ask myself if I was happy. The answer would have been either “No,” or “What’s happy got to do with anything?” I didn’t know what else to do. I was exhausted, lonely, and scared. Not until those miseries resulted in some really dumb decisions did I stop, find a good therapist, and admit that I’d created a life that was killing me.

happy kid puppyThe good news is that most of us thrash our way clear of these cul de sacs of inexperience and ignorance. As we get older, we get wiser and happier. We eventually take notice that Life is Short, and we find the courage–the love of self and family– to make changes in the direction of happiness. We emphasize pansiesrelationships, we volunteer, we plant flowers, we get a dog or a cat (or a horse!), we hang out with nice people (on blogs, even), we read happily ever after stories, and bounce along to our favorite music.

It’s not complicated, but it is profound. Were you ever in danger of amounting to an unhappy mess? Why? Or is there somebody in your life who needs permission to be happier? For one commenter, I’ll send a spring bouquet FROM YOU to the person of your choice.

What To Do About the S Word

Later today I will scamper out to the grocery store–the nearest one is eight miles away–and load up on the usual provisions. For what feels like the zillioneth time in the past six months, I’ll undertake this exercise because the forecast is calling for half a foot of snow. Again.

daffodilsI’m OK with this, though, because I can see the date, and I can feel the days getting longer, and I can absorb that the sun’s getting stronger, even on the cold days. In other words, spring is coming, whether there’s snow in the forecast or not. In that spirit, here are ten things I love about spring:

1) Crocuses. I’ve seen them as early as January and as late as… this week, and they are always, always a welcome sight. In this same category, lump daffodils, anemones, forsythia… all the true harbingers who often get snowed on.

pepper2) Peepers. These are the tiny tree frogs who make that high-pitched cheeping on early spring evenings. They get snowed on too, but there always seems to be a fresh crop singing to their true loves the next year.

3) Flowering trees. Maryland does flowering trees beautifully, particularly the redbud and dog wood. They make my heart happy. Trees and flowers together–what could be lovelier?

Redbud trees24) Leafing out. It’s late this year–the oak trees aren’t even turning pinkish yet, but I can feel it coming.

5) Songbirds. Love waking up to the singing of the birds.

6) Fresh air. Especially those first few warm days, when you go outside, surprised to feel it’s nearly trenton_450as warm Out There as it is in the bathroom, and you open up the house even if it’s a bit chilly.

7) Flowers at the grocery store. Yes, they’re trying to get you to impulse buy, but where’s the harm in some “just for pretty” as they say around here?

8) Shedding. The horses actually start shedding in January, as the days start getting longer, but at some point, the hair loss becomes torrential, and it’s really, truly spring.

9) Lawnmowers. Some ambitious, yard proud neighbor has to fire up their equipment well before the grass is awake, much less growing, but the first time I hear it, I think, “Spring!”

Spring splendor10) Spring break. Why? I go exactly nowhere, if I even take a break, but many other people hit the beach, and when they go, they take BOOKS, and BOOKS, and BOOKS!

Marvelous! Your turn: What you love, love, love about spring….

To one commenter, I’ll send the Spring Splendor Gift Basket, from baskets.com.

Court’s Adjourned

sleeping kittenFor the next several months, I’m not scheduled to be in a courtroom. I haven’t had a break from litigation that long for twenty years. To have my loyal minions handling matters will cost me in one sense–nobody should have to do that work for free–but I woke up today a lot more aware of the benefits of remaining out of court:

1) I sleep better, and what’s more basic than sleep? I sleep better for two reasons. First, the cases coming up on this week’s docket are not haunting me as the docket draws nearer, and second, I don’t have to pop up and leave the house on court mornings, irrespective of whether I got adequate sleep.

2) I eat better. I have the energy to prepare hot food when I’m not spending as much yoga cattime in the office, and I need the break in the kitchen from sitting at the computer for long stretches.

3) I use my treadmill desk more consistently. I’m appalled to report recent findings along the lines of: If you meet the recommended guidelines for physical activity, but spend the rest of your day planted on your backside, that activity generates very little benefit. Movement must be more frequent to be beneficial. In court, we often sit for several hours at a time. At home, between the tread desk, the tea pot, the animals, and the mechanical timer, I’m off my backside even on writing days.

4) I make faster progress on my writing projects, and the results feel more satisfying. When I can focus on drafting a novel in a couple months, the story stays with me, goes to bed with me, wakes up with me, and the scenes seem to flow more easily. When the process is interrupted for three or four days, the writing feels more like work, more like “that other job.”

headboop5) I spend more time with friends. Where I live, lunch with a buddy often means driving for an hour each way, and if my day is consumed in the office, I don’t feel I can take that kind of time away from the writing–nor do I have the energy.

I could go on–I take better care of my house, I get outside more, I’m a better companion to my animals, I’m more likely to call my family for a phone visit, I have a better sense of humor, I do more reading… all good things.

The courtroom work is meaningful, and in one sense, lucrative. In another, it has a taken a toll I’m hoping to stop paying. I reach that conclusion without touching on the nature of the cases themselves, some of which will haunt me to my grave.

Long weekendSo the question this week is… How do you know when it’s time to give up a good thing? To say good-bye to the nice guy who should never have been more than  a friend, to look for another job even though you like your co-workers well enough where you are? When do you know, even though you’re not exactly miserable, you can’t be happy where you are, and it’s time to move on?

To one commenter, I’ll send… A Wine Country gift basket called, “The Long Weekend.

Dancing to the Different Drum

EMU_0Once upon a time, I  ended up at Eastern Mennonite University, pursuing a Master’s Degree in conflict studies.

Conflict studies is exactly what it sounds like–you study all the ways we don’t get along, from war, to crime, to domestic violence, to bigotry, to bullying, to divorce, to… you name it. As a species, we’re  unique in nature for the scale upon which we kill our own kind, kill our mates, sacrifice our best and brightest to wars, and so on. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is not the smartest way to go on, so I thought I might learn a little more about the alternatives.

we have met the enemyI enjoyed my classes. One professor had pursued his PhD in South Africa as apartheid was dismantled, another worked with Basque separatists to avoid civil war in Spain. Another professor helped Columbians come up with sustainable alternatives to growing the coca plant, another developed peacebuilding strategies with the Department of Defense. These were saintly, interesting people, most of them full of hope and humor.

But one class in particular made me furious. This required course was called, “Disciplines for Sustaining the Peacemaker.”

They lost me at the word, “Disciplines.” To me, discipline is about force, about coercion and punishment. Of course, what was meant was “how to keep your balance when you’re dealing with upsetting stuff,” but the approach was for the professor to assign us angry-little-girlrequired practices–journaling, yoga (the sun salute, no less, which I do loathe), meditation, readings, exercise–which we were to attend to in the interests of self-care.

The idea was that by observing these practices, we’d somehow find the ones that would make us more resilient, wiser, sturdier, and better at our peacemaking. The reality was, by the end of the semester, the entire class of nice, well intended, tadpole peacemakers from all over the world was united in their willingness to beat the living peedywattles out of the professor and his grand ideas about spiritual and emotional fortification.

I got what I was supposed to get out of the class in that I ended up with a better understanding of how to look after myself. A large part of what sustains me is solitude. Unstructured time is also really necessary to my well being, preferably seven days a week of it, but I can limp along with four or five in the interests of getting my kid through college. I need humor, I need romance novels, I need companion animals and big, healthy trees. I like to journal, but I need my cats, I need those aromatic, hot, sweet cups of tea, and scented candles are important too.

connoisseurThese necessities were nowhere on the professor’s list (yoga, meditation, congregation, education), most of which either left me cold or made me cringe. I’m glad that prof has his list, but it was far more important that I learned my own.

In what area of life are you a nonconformist, a different drummer, the one who has to do it her way or not at all? How did you figure your way out?

To one commenter, I’ll send “The Connoisseur” from Wine Country Gift Baskets.

The Super-est Super Power

camels far awayIn part as a function of last week’s post, I found myself recently muttering, “My super-power is that I’m getting out of bed today.” I wasn’t ill (no more ill than usual), I wasn’t injured, but I was facing a double work load in court because of snow the previous week, hard cases on top of impossible cases, an office ceiling leaking like a tropical grotto, and the effects of chronic insomnia on top of book worries.

single camel dawnA hard day, not a bad day, but as some of last week’s comments proved, we get into stretches of very hard days, hard weeks, months, and years. Sometimes, the people around us try to help, and sometimes, they say the exact wrong thing at the exact worst time.

You cry, you rage, you get beyond crying and raging because that’s time you could spend sleeping, or meeting obligations–maybe even reading a good romance novel. If you’re lucky, you hang onto the hope that your suffering is productive, that it won’t go on forever, that you’re not entirely alone with it.

camels into nightIf you’re really lucky, you come across the stories that nourish your hope. One of my favorite hopeful stories comes from Robyn Carr, whose Virgin River series of small town contemporaries put her at the No. 1 slot on the New York Times bestseller list.

AFTER she’d hovered at mid-list and below for TWENTY-NINE YEARS. When I’ve heard her speak about her success, she has no answers. After the first decade or so in publication, her writing didn’t change much. The editorial input, covers, plots, were all fairly similar or industry-standard all along the way. She thinks maybe 9-11 had something to do with it, making a small town, love-and-honor theme more appealing than vampires and were-demons.

happy camelWho knows, but she had two things going for her: tenacity, and a love for what she did. How long was Mandela in prison? How many times do most people fail to lose weight before they succeed? How many toads and toad-ettes do we kiss before we find a keeper? How many years do you tell that difficult kid you love him or her, while you pray like mad and hope for the best?

Tenacity is the good stuff. Tenacity is to me an implied characteristic of faith, hope and love, but it’s the gritty end of those virtues, the old-woman incarnation of them, and the most powerful.

camel oasisSo tell us a story about when you merely trudged on, and the clouds lifted. About when giving time time was your big insight, and it worked. About when the courage to get out of bed was all the courage you needed, but you needed it over and over again. Where did and does your endurance comes from, how to you guard that flame?

The Scottish Gourmet basket was popular. Let’s do that again.

That Which Thou Must Leave Ere Long…

cat in the snowI’ve been watching the social media posts this past week and wondering if some people have forgotten how to read a calendar. It’s February, which is squarely in the cold part of the year for half the planet. People are complaining that they’re so done with winter, over snow, and sick-of-this-weather.

I’m not sick of this weather. Granted, as fifteen inches of snow fell, my power stayed on, but my woodstove was primed and I know to stockpile water for when the power does drop. In anticipation of a storm that hit Wednesday night, I did my banking, bought my groceries, did the laundry, and then enjoyed several days of solitude and productivity.

cat and dog cuddled upI’m am still loving winter, very much.

I’m still glad there are no bugs. REALLY glad.

I still love how quiet a snowy day is, and the snow ploughs sound like jingle bells to me.

I love how bold the birds become–they’re snitching from the cat feeder on my porch these days.

I like hanging out with my cats. In warm weather, they tend to leave for the barn, the yard, the stream. In cold weather, they take turns hogging the heat exhaust on my computer or napping on top of the fridge.

I love snow days. Love staying home to work on books instead of going to the office or the courtroom.

fresh breadI love spending the day in my jammies.

In summer… fuzzy socks and flannel sweats just don’t have the same appeal. Hot tea doesn’t comfort the same way, and my lambswool/angora blend purple scarf (from Scotland!) must be tucked away with lavender sachets rather than worn perpetually around my neck. In summer, the dogs are miserable and even though the days are longer, the leaves on all the trees make the house darker inside.

hot chocolateFresh, homemade bread tastes better in cold weather, hot chocolate does too.

When the season changes, I’ll find things to love about spring and summer, but for now, I’m ‘loving well that which I must leave ‘ere long.’

What do you handle easily that seems to flummox other people? What challenges have you sailed through, to your own surprise, or to the surprise of others?

Scottish Comfort basketTo one commenter, I’ll send a $25 Amazon gift card AND The Scottish Comfort Basket from The Scottish Gourmet (shortbread, clotted cream fudge, tablet–no haggis).

 

Timing Is Everything…

Winter sunsetWhen a couple hits a rough patch, one of the first questions the counselors will ask is, “What did you notice about your partner that first attracted you?” The question has several aims. The obvious aim is to start the discussion in a positive place, back when love was in the air (or in the bed, somewhere). A less obvious aim is to explore who is projecting what onto whom, so everybody can take responsibility for their share of the disappointments and problems.

I’m having a rough patch with winter. One gray day follows another, the temperatures are stinkin’ cold when they ought to be moderating. The most recent ice storm left my nice big pine trees in shambles. Some plan-destroying winter storm always lurks in the forecast somewhere, and worst of all, IT’S TAX SEASON.

horsecatAnd yet, I know winter will soon fade. That’s the beauty of a temperate climate. Just when I think I’ve fallen out of love with a season, it starts to slip away. The days are longer, the animals are shedding, Valentine’s Day leads to St. Patrick’s Day… In Shakespeare’s words, it’s time to “love that well, which thou must leave ere long” (Sonnet 73.)

Then too, it’s not winter’s fault I haven’t written much new material lately. It’s not winter’s fault that accounting is one of my least favorite things to do, it’s not winter’s fault I’m traveling next week and haven’t quite figured out the logistics. That’s all on me, not the season.

cat christmas treeHere are some things I loved about winter when it was 100 degrees out, going for a walk was a disgusting proposition, the grass had to be mowed every 72 hours, and the dogs were incessantly itchy.

NO BUGS. I love that there are no bugs in winter.

NO STINKIN’ HEAT. It gets so hot where I live that my computer needs it’s own little AC, the florescent lights in the kitchen give up, and the poor dogs plaster themselves to the cool of the floor for hours.

bird beederLOW HUMIDITY. The heat wouldn’t be so bad, but it literally sticks to you because of the high humidity.

THE BEAUTY OF A FRESH SNOW FALL.

THE FUZZY BEASTS.

THE JOY OF THE HOLIDAYS AND THE RELAXED WORK SCHEDULE THEY BRING.

THE SENSE OF LOOKING FORWARD TO THE NEW YEAR.

THE STARRY, STARRY NIGHTS, THE BRILLIANT SUNSETS.

THE FIRST CROCUSES.And just like that, I’m not quite as happy to see winter fade. godivaMaybe one more snowfall or snow day wouldn’t be so bad. Or two…

Has looking on the bright side ever yielded big insights for you? Does it make the present more bearable, or is it an aggravating exercise in trying to minimize your legitimate misery? And a simpler question: What do you look forward to on the hard days?

To one commenter, I’ll send a basket of Godiva Chocolate goodies.