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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The Big Black Moment

blogxfabioI spent yesterday with the lovely authors at the Washington Romance Writers Chapter of the Romance Writers of America, and one the topics that came up was the Big Black Moment.

This is the point in the book where all hope is lost. Tremaine has mounted up to leave town, though he and Nita love and respect each other. Ashton’s lady love has trusted him to keep her safe, and she’s facing a murder trial instead. Asher MacGregor has put Hannah on the boat for the Boston because she must return to America to keep her grandmother safe.

This moment in the novel has some defining characteristics. First, the individual characters might survive, but unless somebody is very, brave, resourceful, and lucky, the relationship is doomed. Second, a significant part of the courage that’s called for is the ktremaine_450x2ind of courage that can deal with loss.

Tremaine, a guy who started the book fundamentally self-centered, is ready to die for the sake of Nita’s honor. He has to part with that footloose, man about town persona, and put his meaning where his mouth is.

Ashton has to give up the last pretense that he’s not the true earl, taking advantage of privileges reserved for the peerage in order to save Matilda. When Asher MacGregor sends Hannah home, he gives up on ever having a family with her or an “heir of his body,” which was the sole motivation for his return from Canada.

ashton_450x2-450x675Each character has to give up on what he knew, absolutely, was important to him at the beginning of the book. All three end up with a happily ever after though, and that HEA would not have been possible without risking the death of something important–a dream, a self-image, or even life itself.

My year has had too many losses. My mom, my law practice, several dear old pets… even my daughter’s marriage sometimes feel like a kind of loss, though I certainly approve of her swain. I’m starting to think about next year, about what I want to do with my time, resources, and energy.  I’ve been wobbly and uncertain for much of this year, but putting one foot in front of the other anyway. One does.

Next year, I want to walk toward what makes me happy (writing more books!), and what has meaning for me (friends and family, but also service and learning). I’m not sure what that looks like, but the cogitating process has begun. Black moments can impart new life to dreams, new hope to a weary heart. On this day, when we invite darkness to arrive one hour sooner, I want to start walking away from my black moments.

What are you walking toward in 2017? To one commenter, I’ll send an audio edition of Lady Maggie’s Secret Scandal, which went on sale earlier this week.

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Look Forward, Angel

blogxsunsetI concluded a long time ago that having something to look forward to added a lot to my life. Better still if I have somebody with whom to look forward to the goodies in my future. I understand that living in the moment, rather than fretting over or glorying the past and future, is a product of emotional maturity. The moment can be scary and trying, and so some daylight on the horizon also has value.

I’m looking forward to the beautiful sunsets that come during the colder half of the year.

I’m looking forward to the first snow flurries.

I’m looking forward to burning the Christmas-scented candles, especially cedar and balsam.

I’m looking forward to that lovely feeling when the truck’s seat heater kicks in against my lower back. Lordy, is that a luxury.

trouble_450x2I’m looking forward to the launch of The Trouble With Dukes on December 20. I haven’t had a traditional title published since February, and there’s extra excitement putting a book out with a publishing team.

I’m looking forward to a writer’s conference next month. I attend these things hoping to learn something–anything, no matter how small–about effective writing. I usually come away having met new writin’ buddies and learned about the craft and the business, too.

I’m looking forward to launching my website’s store pages. This has been a behind the scenes project over the past six months, and my fingers are crossed that my readers will find it an easy way to connect with the books, and with some of the products I haven’t wanted to make available on the retail platforms.virtues_450x2-450x675

I’m looking forward to planting more bulbs. For the couple hours I might spend planting them in late fall, they yields weeks of pleasure when they come up in spring.

I’m looking forward to seeing some family members later this year.

To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of The Virtues of Christmas. What are you looking forward to?

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Over-Exposured

thinkingx_fast_and_slowI am reading a scary book: Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. The premise of the book, amply supported by research, is that we’re not as rational as we believe ourselves to be. We in fact have two mental modes. One is rational and works something like this:

“It’s lunchtime and I’m hungry. I would really like to have five pieces of cake, but I’m overweight and not interested in dying prematurely. Then too, the cake at this restaurant was stale the last time I ate here, and they don’t have cheesecake on the menu, which is my fave. Guess I’ll have a shrimp salad and split a lavender creme brulee.”

blogxorchidWe believe that’s how we make most of our choices, because those are the choices we’re aware of. The trouble is, processing every decision, from what to pay attention to, to what reaction each stimuli merits, would be the work of ten brains plus two, and we’re each only issued the one. That brain has developed all manner of quiet pathways that are busily deciding Stuff for us, all unbeknownst to us, owner of said brains.

Take for example, the exposure effect. This has nothing to do with David Beckham’s naked chest, so git your mind outta the back seat. Way Back in the Jungle Day, we learned to notice anything different in our environment, because different could mean deadly. When that different thing–a newly fallen tree, a peculiar species of orchid, a fish we hadn’t seen before–kept showing up without doing us any harm, we figured it was benign. Benign fixtures became part of what helped us sort out the next oddity from what was trustworthy, and thus familiarity became associated with being good. Or that’s the theory.

blogxfishFast forward to those clever folks with nothing better to do than study human nature… and you get an experiment like so: For thirty days, every day, the morning newspaper on a college campus had a little box in one corner with five strange words in it and no explanation. (The words were real words from an obscure language). After a month, regular subscribers were asked which words they thought were associated with benign concepts, and which ones were probably terms for unpleasant concepts. Overwhelmingly, the more often the word had been published, the more likely it was to be considered a “good” word.

Now do you see why this book is scary? Extrapolate that to Google ads, Facebook ads, campaign coverage… and no, we don’t have to consciously focus on information for our busy little Jungle brains to start recognizing it and deciding (without our awareness) that virtues_450x2-450x675it’s benign.

This is part of the theory behind propaganda, effective advertising, and Montessori schools. Put anything in our environment consistently enough, and if it doesn’t hurt us, our brains are wired to start seeing it as benign. The conclusion I draw for myself: I must ensure that I remain aware of what’s in my environment, so my oh-so-helpful jungle brain doesn’t allow the exposure effect to steer me in directions I don’t want to go.

What’s one thing you’d like to get out of your immediate surroundings? To one commenter, I’ll send a copy of The Virtues of Christmas.

 

 

 

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Hearing Ourselves Think

dream-of-a-fall-dayYou’re reading on a beautiful fall day, maybe on the porch or by an open window–because the day is so lovely. Then your neighbor–the yard proud folks across the street–start up their leaf blower. Not to be outdone, the gal next to them has to do her weed whacking at the same time. What are beautiful fall days for, after all?

When the weed whacker and the leaf blower finally fall silent, you rejoice. You feel bodily and emotional relief, and will wish a Very Bad Fate on the next joker who fires up some piece of equipment.

blogxramxdassxsilenceYou’re experiencing the benefits of quiet, which are physiological and emotional. Silence helps lower our blood pressure and increase blood flow to our brains, it promotes the generation of new brain cells, reduces stress, and fosters creativity.

Noise, by contrast isn’t such a good thing. Loud noise wrecks our hearing of course, but even noise that’s not loud enough to hurt our hearing does damage. We learn to tune it out–which means we’re also tuning out things we should be listening to, like classroom teachers. We become “attentionally deaf” instead of aurally deaf.

blogxyourxwordsSudden noises (think of a jackhammer starting up, stopping, starting up; car horns; engine backfires), provokes our stress response, and if we endure too much of that, the results can affect our heart health, sleeping patterns, even our basal metabolic rates.

I didn’t start writing fiction until my daughter moved out. She’s a quiet person, but when she got her own apartment, the house became all but silent. A cat scampering across the kitchen, the well pump cutting on and off in the basement, a dog barking two farms over… that is the extent of the noise in my nest. I can daydream and compose stories in peace.

I’ve wondered if half the benefit of meditation isn’t simply that we tend to find quiet places to attempt it. Same for reading. We can read in noisy environments, but most often, we read where it’s quiet. We garden where it’s quiet. One of the reasons I do not like the gym is because it’s NEVER quiet.

bell_if-i-only-had-a-duke_smallWhen it comes to silence, I’m wealthy, compared to most people. My office is quiet, my house is quiet. I drive between the two for the most part in silence, or I might listen to traditional Scottish music, which is hardly truck-thumping stuff. I sit out on my front porch with my first cup of tea of the day, and often, not a single care goes by.

in this raucous, noisy, contentious season, where do you have silence? Where could you add some to your weekly routine? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of Lenora Bell’s “If I Only Had a Duke,” which is about a lady who only seems quiet-natured….

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Sorry, Ma.

blogxslippersOn of my earliest memories is of my mother’s heeled slippers clack-clack-clacking on the linoleum floor of the kitchen first thing in the morning. I slept downstairs on a sort of English-basement level, while upstairs, every morning, without fail clack-clack-clack. Clack-clack. Clack-clack-clack-clack-clack.

I couldn’t sleep through it, only in part because this was a loud noise with an unsteady rhythm. My mom also never stopped moving. Clack-clack. Clack-Clack-Clack. Clack. Mom kept moving to deal with uncomfortable emotions. She vacuumed off her frustration, folded laundry to gain a sense of order over anxiety. She cooked to compensate for the lack of nurturing in her own life. As a kid, all I knew was that she made a lot of noise.

blogxvacuumWell into her eighties, Mom walked several miles a day, and even at ninety, she was quite steady on her pins. My mom was the energizer bunny, while I’m the ultimate spud. I excel at sitting, though I know it’s a deadly skill unless moderated by frequent movement.

I love writing binges that go on so long, I can barely recall the last time I used the facilities. Mentally, I scurry around constantly–reading this, writing that, editing the other. I read in bed at night, and keep reading material in my purse, and in other Frequented Locations. But mostly, I love to write and write and write.

I’ve often said that in many ways, my mother and I just were not a good fit.

blogxlaundrySo…. this week, the book I’m working on demanded a break from me. While my Welsh duke was off brooding me up some more scenes, I got caught up in election coverage, in dire weather explanations, and in flame wars on matters about which I can do not one thing.

Friends, I am humbled to report that on Tuesday of this week, I vacuumed my living room out of sheer desperation. I got out the contractor bags and went after anything I could trash. I did big laundry–throw rugs, pet blankets, you name it. In short, the day I couldn’t get on my mental hamster wheel to play with my toys of choice (dukes, draft newsletters, ad design software, blog posts, revisions), I turned into my mother.

sophiexaudibleI want to call up my mom and say, “I get it, Ma. I get it.” I suspect my mother is laughing her behonkis off, which is fine–our mother/daughter bond now includes connection by virtue of a vacuum cleaner cord. My living room looks a little better, and I came up with a holiday short story you’ll soon be able to download from the website for free.

Have you ever turned into the very person who used to pluck your last nerve? Ever said the same thing they used to say that you never wanted to hear again?

To one commenter, I’ll send an audiobook of Lady Sophie’s Christmas Wish, which went on sale this week, while I was busy vacuuming.

 

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Not Just for Pretty

blogxbeachxresortI think I’ve mentioned the Rat Park Experiments at some point on this blog, but allow me summarize: Accepted science for decades has been that addiction to substances changes our brain chemistry, such that we’ll consume our substance of choice until it kills us. To prove this, some heartless soul (who has racked up a whole lotta bad karma) put a bunch of rats in a cage and gave them a choice: drink regular water, or take a hit off the water that’s laced with morphine.

Little beasts morphine-watered themselves to death in very short order.

blogxbeautifulxflowersAlong comes another scientist, maybe one who’d been living in his parents’ basement, and reasons, “Well, if all I had to do was stare at the walls or do morphine, I’d do morphine too. What if….” He set up what he called a Rat Park, with room to roam, raise little rat babies, hang out, work out, do the equivalent of rat-karaoke, solve little rat-puzzles, and otherwise, live the rat-life of Riley. These rats also had a choice of morphine water or the regular stuff, to go with their haute rat-cuisine.

No addicted rats at the Rat Park. Some of them would occasionally do a hit of the joy juice, but none became addicted.  Not any. None. Zero. We’re good.

blogxsevresxteaxpotIn other words, the difference between life and death for these rats, was not the availability of a powerfully addicting substance, but rather, the environment the rats lived in. When their environment was fit for kings, the rats eschewed the behavior of their brethren trapped in a world of crowding and boredom.

Malcolm Gladwell in, “The Tipping Point,” wrote about something called the Broken Window theory.

If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes.

blogxbeautifulxcatThe idea here is that nobody comes along and whispers in a kid’s ear, “Hey, let’s break some more windows.” The simple fact that the environment includes one broken window will result in more vandalism.

Environment matters in ways we probably don’t understand. If you go out to eat, you’ll make fewer trips to the buffet if you simply sit so your back is to the buffet itself.  What we see, hear, smell, taste, and tactilely encounter affects how we act and feel. Beauty, rest, recreation, and social pleasures aren’t selfish indulgences, at least in moderation. They are necessary for our wellbeing.

This is why, when you drive up to my house, you will see FLOWERS in my yard. Why I sleep on the lovely flannel sheets my sister gave me last Christmas, why I finish many of my days writing in my journal with a purring cat in my lap. I want loveliness around me, so I have more loveliness inside me.

How do you put a little loveliness in your day? To one commenter, I’ll send a Scotland With Grace dram glass–just for pretty.

 

 

 

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