What I Learned at Summer Camp

Once upon a time, I decided to get a master’s degree in conflict transformation from Eastern Mennonite University. The work is meaningful and there’s plenty of it, so why not? I ended up in a cohort of about 25 students, only three of us from North America, and that in itself was an education.

One of the classes I had to take was a graduate seminar on The Literature of Conflict Transformation. Sounds dull! Litty-chure and I are not on the best of terms–where’s the happily ever after?–and the reading list was several dozen hefty titles. To chomp through it, we would have been reading a big book every three days or so.

The prof had other ideas.

He told us we should at some point read the whole list, but he asked each one of us to choose three books we wanted to report on to the whole class. Each week we would cover three or four books in a two-hour round-table discussion. The professor himself took three of the larger texts and handled the first week’s presentations. (EMU’s conflict program does not hold with the notion of professorial deification, one of its many outstanding qualities.) We divvied up the rest of the list so everybody got at least one “first choice,” and everybody got at least one doorstop.

Then the fun began. The entire class was composed of people who either had experience or aspired to become experienced, at handling difficult conversations. These were world class listeners, with big hearts, great humor, tons of creativity, and tremendous passion for their causes. The Muslim professor and the Hindu social worker debated the further use of non-violent protest in India. The Palestinian Christian raised in the camps and the Israeli journalist debated the road to peace in the Middle East. The middle-aged pastor and the twenty-something prison reformer went after stabilizing post-war societies…

If ever voices should have been raised and angry words flung, these were the topics likely to provoke that behavior.

It never happened. With thirteen other people intent on keeping all exchanges constructive and civil, any two students in the class could tackle a tough topic and know the backup team would dive in to correct over-steering. This wasn’t tone policing, it was re-framing, storytelling, personal sharing, and questioning in such a way that nobody was disrespected, and no topic was off limits. We laughed a lot, we cried some, we sat in silence from time to time. We learned lessons more precious than I can convey, and–oh, by the way–we familiarized ourselves with the conflict transformation canon as it existed at the time.

Nobody wanted the class to end.

Scott Peck, of ye old The Road Less Traveled fame, would say we stumbled upon an experience of true community, and he’d be right. The professor was brilliant, the class was brilliant, and we are ALL brilliant, given the right support and healthy processes through which to express ourselves.

Was there ever a class, a book group, a church retreat, a lunch bunch that you didn’t want to end? What made it special? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 gift e-card.

 

On My Dignity

I recently read an interview with activist Alicia Garza, and she was asked what freedom looks like for her as a member of a minority in America. In her response, she used the word “dignity” over and over. For her, a future of freedom for all of us is a future where we are each entitled to personal dignity. That resonated with me.

When I read Garza’s comments emphasizing dignity, I realized that’s part of what’s often lost for me in environments like Facebook, where a snarky meme invites snarky comments, and snarky comments degenerate into insults, and then the really vicious trolling starts.

Psychologist John Gottman, Ph.D, has developed a protocol for assessing which marriages are likely to end in divorce, and his predictions are 94 percent accurate–after observing most couples for as little as an hour. The one characteristic that spouses headed for the skids will evidence–without fail–is that they attack each other’s dignity. Name-calling, insults, mockery, mimicking, cold shoulders, indifference to suffering… once these get into the marital water supply, the results are almost always deadly for the relationship.

I am worried that these same signs of disrespect are in our social water supply, and they are wreaking the same havoc, but a survey conducted to assess the state of civility in the US finds that 93 percent of us think we have an incivility problem. But for a small minority, we ALL don’t want this contempt and sniping to go on, we recognize that it’s dangerously unhealthy.

What can I do to make sure I’m part of upholding civility rather than destroying it?

I’m thinking about that, and while I ponder the answers, I’m making a personal commitment to stay alert for what’s disrespectful and what insults somebody’s dignity. No more piling on the snarky-funny meme comments, no more going lawyer-Grace-of-doom on some thread. In the words of one my former judges, I will disagree without being disagreeable. I need to watch it, lest I fall prey to the temptation to indulge in the acerbic, belittling, argument that is the very thing I loathe.

Nobody ever changes anybody’s mind with those tactics anyway, and my priority should be to contribute to the solution of shared problems, not to get the most likes. Geesh.

What I like about focusing on dignity is that I think most of the people I disagree with, no matter where they come down on the issues, would concur that they want to be treated with dignity too. We can agree on that, and from there, we can respectfully explore what else we might agree on, or why we disagree on how to solve various problems. But if we come out swinging, we both lose, and the problems only grow worse.

How do you hold the line against incivility? How do you keep that shoulder devil from getting you into trouble? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed print ARC of Forever and a Duke.

 

 

I’m FINE…

I have had a wonderful spring, and I do mean wonderful. In April, When a Duchess Says I Do launched quite nicely. I wasn’t sure how Duncan’s understated charm or Matilda’s damsel-in-check would go over with the readers, but no worries! In May, I published A Lady of True Distinction, another duke-free HEA that the readers seem to be enjoying. This month, Theresa Romain and I teamed up for the novella duet, How to Ruin a Duke, and it’s off to a great start.

But wait, there’s more! I was privileged to attend the 2019 Festival du Roman Feminim in Paris at the end of May. I added a couple days onto the front of that trip for jet lag, a couple onto the back because PARIS, and had a great time.

On June 8, about a week after I got home, I joined the Virginia Romance Writers in Richmond to give the keynote speech at their annual award luncheon–what fun!–and then it was on to the Historical Novelists Society of North American for their annual… oops.

Wait a minute. I got it into my head that the HNS meeting was the weekend of June 15-16, but it was actually the weekend of June 22-23. When on Thursday of the wrong, earlier week, I woke up and realized I did not have to tool down the interstate to play in DC’s beltway traffic, did not have to rush off to impersonate an extrovert again, did not EVEN have to put on my comfy-but-professional conference get ups… I about cried.

I was SO relieved to have a weekend at home with my cats. I slept in, I wrote stuff, I wore my play clothes, I might even have done some housework, (but let’s not get carried away). I thought I was having a good time, hitting my wickets, balancing travel and home, work and leisure, but I was way off.

I have known for maybe ten years that I’m not as physically resilient as I once was, but with less difference between my peak performance and my valley performance, it’s easier to convince myself, “I’m fine” when in fact, I’m bushed. I’m knackered and I need solitude, rest, and unstructured time to get back on track.

I think some of the reason I overshot my capacity is because I am not working a day job anymore. I still put in long hours, but I’m at home, and that doesn’t “feel” as much like exertion–but it is, especially mentally. Another factor is that I’m no longer plagued by a menstrual cycle (thanks be to the Almighty Powers for that). When I was younger, I had to keep an eye on the calendar and plan, however subconsciously, for bodily realities. Now, I tend to hydroplane when it comes to monitoring my mood and energy.

So I’m looking around for different trail signs than the ones I used to rely on to tell me when I’m approaching my activity limits. One is that the house gets unkempt. I’m no kinda housekeeper, but when my schedule is relaxed and I have enough energy, I do tidy up the nest. Another is my joie de plume. If I’m eager to open up the Work in Progress, I’m probably in a good place.

If I’m mixing up my dates, going for weeks without downtime, that’s probably not such a good idea. How do you tell when you’re approaching overload? To one commenter, I’ll send a print ARC of Forever and a Duke!

 

A New Broom Sweeps Quietly

I am still toting around my iPhone 8, and I’ve dodged several op system updates since I bought it. It handles phone calls and texts, I can surf with it in an emergency. It tells time. That’s all I need it to do (and I’m thinking of getting a mechanical watch). I consider most apps spyware and religiously avoid them.

I consider myself a closet Luddite. I’ve reached the age where most change has gone from bothersome to burdensome. Then I came across this post from Ozan Varol, who is a smarty-pants kinda guy (think astrophysicist goes to law school). He and his family still order DVDs through Netflix–the kind of DVDs that come in the mail. They found they enjoyed the movies more if they had to search and surf for which one to order (none of this also-bought baloney stealing all the rabbit-hole fun from the process), wait for it to arrive, and unwrap it from its packaging.

The “convenience” of having their choices limited by algorithms, and the “efficiency” of instant gratification stole a lot of the joy from the process. Reading that, I was reminded of something one of my daughter’s friends observed: Innovation is often next to useless, but it’s marketed so effectively, that we come to believe it’s necessary. The broom, for instance, worked nearly as well as the vacuum cleaner, was much quieter, lighter, cheaper, and had a smaller carbon footprint.

The vacuum cleaner offered a slight improvement in cleaning result, and maybe it saved time, but it cost us quiet and did some environmental damage. Computer technology advancements now seem to mostly consist of shaving another few ounces off the machine’s weight, and making it “faster.” As if finding 250,000 hits in a quarter second is a big deal compared to finding them in half a second, and as if I lack the strength to tote around four extra ounces of hardware.

Is popping something into the microwave really a better way to prepare a meal than “by hand,” with friends or family pitching, while good smells fill the kitchen and everybody’s mouth waters? Where does the saved time go when we nuke a pre-made veggie bowl? To reading the kiddos a bedtime story, or to spending another half hour at the office?

The point of this semi-rant: I know a lot of people who must have an e-reader’s expandable type if they are to continue to enjoy books. Innovation can be great. But few innovations are all good, and sometimes the

Compact edition of Oxford English Dictionary–sold with magnifying glass.

losses associated with updated technology–privacy, quiet, breadth of choice, the joy of anticipation, good kitchen smells–are ignored as the benefits are foghorned at high decibels.

Is there a part of life where you refuse to innovate, where you still do it the old-fashioned way at least some of the time? What benefit do you get from that decision? I feel as if I ought to send a broom to one commenter, but with a $50 e-gift card, somebody can buy a broom and order some DVD’s through the mail.

 

A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Change

I’m pondering stories for the remaining Dorning brothers, and as usual, getting my hands on the external conflict–the real, interesting, substantial force pushing the couple apart–is a challenge for me. I know whatever that force is, it has to embody the worst fears for the characters involved. The characters will have to face the one choice they’ve promised themselves they will never, ever consider.

In other words, the external conflict demands that the characters change if they are to earn their happily ever after, and usually the change required is a change of heart. Darius Lindsey had to break away from his father’s view of him as a largely failed, worthless, powerless man. To cite a more recent book, Quinn Wentworth had to learn that love is a force more powerful than money.

In every case, at the start of the book, our hero or heroine has very good reasons for believing as they do. They have evidence–a lifetime and a whole society’s worth of eyewitness evidence–which they then spend years confirming, with the selective zeal of the confirmation bias. (We notice what confirms our beliefs, we ignore or invalidate whatever conflicts with our beliefs.)

If changing a mind (or a heart) was as easy as confronting that mind with facts, then the loyalty of Darius’s staff, the regard of his siblings, his success as an estate manager, should have fixed his little self-esteem problem by page 3. Same for Quinn–his siblings stuck with him though every hardship, Duncan taught him to read out of simple kindness, and Quinn himself cannot be bought off lest his family be ashamed of him. He should have figured out that money isn’t as big a deal as love.

But nope.

If my characters are to re-open a painful question that they’ve firmly settled in their minds–settled for very good reasons–somebody has to come along who can say, “I know you well enough to understand why you think the way you do–you are plenty smart and I respect that. Your conclusions made sense at the time, but here are some reasons why a different decision would be an improvement now.” (And in a romance, one of those reasons will be, “No HEA unless you reverse engines.”)

So instead of asking about what pushes my characters apart, maybe I need to ask what long-held (mistaken) belief they will be able to give up, if somebody convinces them they are lovable despite all their mistakes and wrong turns. (Valerian Dorning, Emily Pepper, I’m looking at you.)

Even writing that sentence, I’m hesitant to ask the same question of myself: What long-held (mistaken) belief would I be able to give up…? Changing my mind–changing me–is a scary prospect, one that involves admission of mistakes and regrets, but one that also holds out the hope of more joy, freedom, truth, and love.

Has anybody changed your mind or your self-image? Is there a shift in perspective trying to nudge its way into your awareness? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 e-card.

 

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night…

So there I was, driving my trusty ten-year-old Prius (“It can pass a gas station but not much else…”) down to Richmond to join with writin’ buddies at the Virginia Romance Writers’ annual awards luncheon. I hadn’t left my house until about 7 pm, and I was pretty tired and grouchy. Part of my grouchiness was because I was taking Route 15–nobody sane drives I-95 south on a Friday evening in summer, or ever, really.

The day was cloudy, so by about 8 pm, the glorious Virginia countryside was shrouded in darkness. Bummer. And then it started to rain, which after dark in my little pee-pee car is my absolute NOT favorite. I wound past Warrenton and on through Culpeper, getting more tired and out of charity with myself when an enormous burst of light filled the night sky.

Fireworks? In Mid-East Cowpat, VA?

Another great burst of light exploded, and another and another. Seems I’d hit the great metropolis of Orange just as the local carnival was putting on its big display–and it was quite a display. As I drove past the carnival grounds, I was reminded of all the times I’d been a kid at a carnival, my precious tickets clutched in my hand as I chose my fun, that funnel-cake scent filling the summer air.

I can’t watch something that spectacular and not be impressed–with human ingenuity, if nothing else. Fireworks are purely for enjoyment, purely a spectacle. I drove on, and oh, lookee! The lightning bugs were out down around Boswell’s Tavern. I do love the lightning bugs.

I bethought myself to see what CD I’d left in my CD player the last time I’d used it (sometime in 2018), and it was Iz Kamakawiwo’ole’s “Over the Rainbow/Wonderful World” medley. Gorgeous composition. Played it three times back to back and sang along. Got to my hotel room and snuggled in with the latest Jennifer Ashley Kat Holloway mystery–I am so enjoying that series.

One random event–the fireworks display–jolted me out of my funk, and from there, the positive vibes grew. As I drove home today (dry roads!), I was in a much better frame of mind. What fun to meet new writin’ buddies! How lovely the countryside is when blanketed in summer green! How wonderful to have arrived safely home after all that driving, and isn’t a cup of tea just the most delectable treat ever?

How to Ruin a Duke by Grace Burrowes and Theresa RomainI try to end my day listing at least five things I’m grateful for, but this little road trip through VA reminded me that gratitude has more zing–more power to lift mood and reduce anxiety–when it’s specific to our immediate situation. Of course health, family, friends, job, a safe place to sleep are all wonderful, but those unexpected fireworks were wonderful in a more immediate sense.

And that led to noticing the lightning bugs, the brilliance of a well crafted historical mystery, the pleasure of comfy bed, the flowers by the Gordonsville visitor’s center, and much more.

What small, unique-to-this-day thing are you grateful for right now? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed print copy of How to Ruin a Duke AND a $50 e-gift card.

 

 

 

When You’re Smiling…

Look closely and you can see people along the rail at the top.

Americans are apparently somewhat notorious for smiling, compared to other cultures. I was warned by several Francophiles not to expect big cheery grins in Paris, and those warnings proved useful. What I did get, when I walked into any shop, approached the information desk at the subway, or started my day at the conference, was a hearty, “Bonjour!”

The hotel desk clerk said it as I wandered by, the lady in the breakfast dining parlor said it to every guest, the guide who took us around Versailles said it when he met us, though he also offered a friendly handshake. My sister had been told the same thing: Don’t smile your way through France. You will probably look foolish, and for sure you will look American.

One explanation for the Smiling American is that ours is a wonderfully diverse land. Fewer than 10 percent of those dwelling in France are immigrants, and about half of those immigrants are from neighboring European countries.  The US, by contrast, has

Facade of our hotel

the largest immigrant population in raw numbers of any nation (about 47 million compared to France’s 6 million), and those folks total more than 14 percent of the whole. Then too, our immigrants are from Everywhere.

Add to that how often Americans move–on average, 11 times throughout life, compared to the Europeans’ four times–and the great cultural diversity of even our native-born citizens (didn’t your mother bake a chocolate potato cake every year on March 17 in honor of St. Patrick? My mom did.), and we’ve ended up with a situation where it can be pretty handy to have a non-verbal signal for, “I’m not here to make trouble.”

So we smile, and I LIKE that we smile. Nearly 20 percent of French people smoke, and nearly 30 percent of their student-age population smokes. In the US, we’re at about 14 percent overall for smokers, and for college students it’s even lower. I like that too, but I didn’t realize our countries diverge on this issue until I noticed that at nearly every sidewalk cafe I passed in Paris (I passed dozens), somebody was smoking at a table.

I had a wonderful time in France, but I also came home appreciating that I no longer smell cigarette smoke at American restaurants. I smile a lot in the course of a day out here. I see tons of people in the US from all over the world and they smile at me too. We’re footloose compared to a lot of other societies, and that can mean we see a lot of different How to Ruin a Duke by Grace Burrowes and Theresa Romainterrain in the course of American life.

It has been easy for me lately to see what’s amiss with my country, not as easy to appreciate its many good and dear qualities. A time away has helped me hit re-set in that regard, and has me smiling (like an American) a little more than I was before I went away. What do you like about where you are right now?

To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 e-gift card. And if you’d like a review e-book copy of next week’s novella duet release, How to Ruin a Duke, just drop me an email at graceburrowes@yahoo.com.

 

 

One at a Time…

So, lucky, lucky me, I’ve recently attended the Festival du Roman Feminin in Paris (Festival of the Romance Novel). If you ever get a chance to go… GO. I had a marvelous time, met many wonderful people including both authors and readers, and I am so very glad I went.

I was in France once before, 40 years ago for a few days. I don’t recall much about it, except a general sense of awe. Now my sense of awe is more specific. I’m in awe of the history, the natural beauty, the integrity of the culture, the reasonably priced fresh good food, and the kindness of the people. Everybody has been unfailingly gracious, patient with my four words of French (all mispronounced), and good-humored.

I’ve noticed something else about the little slice of France I’ve seen that I also respect tremendously: People here do one thing at a time, with a very few exceptions. If they are sharing a meal with a friends, they aren’t also checking texts. If they are walking down the street, they walk down the street, they don’t talk on the phone at the same time. They enjoy their food, they interact with their children (who are much in evidence), they occupy some of the ubiquitous benches along the parks and boulevards, and to a much greater degree than my American neighbors, they simply enjoy the park without getting out a device and tapping a screen.

In one of the largest cities on the planet, the pace felt slower to me than it often does in my sleepy Maryland backwater town. Waiters don’t hover to chase you away from the table when you’re done eating, cars wait for pedestrians to get out of crosswalks, museum staff take the time to make sure your questions are answered. And yet, the French, with their 35-hour work week, five weeks of annual leave, and a dozen federal holidays, are a more productive work force than we hard-charging Americans are.

My sense is, this culture is both more focused and more relaxed than the one I live in. I like that focused/relaxed approach better than the scattered/anxious tone I can slip into at home, even when I’m in the solitude of my own home. To be around other people who can maintain focus on a conversation, who can eat good food slowly, who can walk down the street without setting land-speed records, helps me be more relaxed and focused.

I have really, really enjoyed being in Paris, which surprised me. I associate cities with hurry, noise, and over-stimulation, but I have not found that true of Paris at all. My data sample is tiny, of course, so I will doubtless have to return to Paris to gather more information.

Is there someplace you simply enjoy being? Why? The people, the landscape, the food, the weather, the entertainments? Would you live there year-round if you could? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 e-gift card.

The Golden Hours

For photographers, the golden hours are immediately after sunrise and right before sunset. The angle of the sun imparts a quality both sharp and mellow, luminous and sentimental, to images created then. I’m aware of a golden hour quality in my life now, of the sunset variety.

Every time I go to the riding stable, I’m grateful that I can still sit on a horse. I might never look competent on the right lead canter again, but I can get into the saddle and be joyous nonetheless. When I plant my flowers in spring, I’m aware that a back problem, tight finances, who knows what, might mean next year’s flowers won’t be half so spectacular. In fact, my flowers might never be as grand again, so I enjoy them immensely while I have them.

I’m reading like nobody’s business these days, well aware that some of my readers have had to give up print books because failing eyesight required the enlargement options on an e-reader. Other readers have trouble reading as much as they’d like because even holding an e-reader can become challenging after a time. I’m not facing those limitations yet, and so I delight in each book I can physically read (even Churchill’s mammoth biography).

One of these years, I expect to get the lecture about Type II diabetes, and though I try to be conscientious about food choices, there’s little arguing with genetics. So I relish abundantly being able to have a dash of cream in my tea and that little square of dark chocolate at mid-day.

The pattern is one of loving well that which I must leave “ere long,” and while I’m aware that I’m in the second half of life, I feel as if the joy and wisdom of these later hours are more than compensation for any losses. I went to Australia and New Zealand last summer because I would probably never have that opportunity again. I’ll be in Paris later this month because of the same reasoning. Putting off adventures or challenges until they are more convenient isn’t my default strategy any more.

Maybe this is a phase, a golden hour before darkness falls, but it’s a happy phase and full of its own kind of wonder and discovery. At my present age, both of my parents still had thirty years of good living ahead of them. I hope for that kind of a sunset, and this recent upwelling of gratitude and focus means if I do get those years, they will be as wonderful as I can make them.

And if I don’t get those years, all the more reason to head off to Paris NOW.

What’s your next adventure or challenge? Is there one you’ve been putting off? Looking forward to? One you had to  give up on? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 e-gift card.

 

Rampaging Joy

I’m aware of puzzling dichotomy at work in my life lately.

I am angry almost ALL THE TIME these days. I’m angry at those elected to public office who haven’t a clue how constitutional government is supposed to work–nor, apparently do many of them they care. I’m angry at social media, destroying our privacy for profit while expecting us to believe they are building “online community.” I am angry at much of what passes for journalism, I’m angry that our dear old Mother Earth is in such peril. (Happy Mother’s Day, Earth…), I’m really angry at people who profess to value the family while doing everything possible to make the average family’s situation harder. So much to be angry about.

And yet, I’m also aware that I’ve never been personally happier. Every possible variety of pleasure  is mine in abundance. I have a toddler’s pleasure in the simple things–ice cream cones, flowers, and clean sheets. I have a grown-up’s pleasure in adult recreation, such as cantering around an arena on horseback just because I still can. I have an attorney’s pleasure in reasoned, informed debate, and a writer’s pleasure in making my living doing something challenging and meaningful that I love.

I hope it’s not a pleasure reserved to the elderly, but I am also wallowing in good books. Churchill’s biography, long-form journalism, social commentary, my keeper author’s new romance releases,  all those historical mysteries I mentioned last week… whatever I want.

Wheeeee!

I even take a certain delight how free I am to quarrel with our present realities. I’m not exhausted by single parenting, not weighed down by child welfare cases, not battling a major health issue such that all of my reserves are taken up with basic survival. How amazingly lucky I am to be at a point in life where I can acknowledge my emotions, experience them, and decide what (if anything) I want to do about them. This is a very great luxury, though it shouldn’t be.

In the world according to Grace, we all have the skills and mental freedom to acknowledge our feelings, however uncomfortable, confusing, or inconvenient they might be. I know that in real life, that’s not always the case, and much misery and mischief result.

So here I am, pulled toward gratitude and joy on the one hand, and pulled toward passionate indignation on the other. I don’t recall any other time in life–not adolescence, not new-mothering, not mid-life, when I’ve been at the both ends of such a spectrum simultaneously quite as thoroughly as I am now. The connecting thread is that I’ve arrived to a passionate phase, when I can delight in having sprinkles on my double-dip and be appalled at our plastic footprint. Both, fiercely.

I hope this makes for some great books, because I am surely having a grand, interesting time.

What–despite everything–is giving you particular pleasure these days? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of A Lady of True Distinction, which is available in print now, and goes on sale as an ebook on Tuesday. (Wheeee!)