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!)

What’s YOUR Superpower?

I’m off on a frolic some evenings, writing a historical mystery series set in the Regency. My main protagonist is Lady Violet, a widow of means with a penchant for getting into trouble. I’m only into the second book, so Violet and I are just getting to know each other, and the first things to strike me are some of her weaknesses. She’s working on a case of agoraphobia, for example. She’s also a little OCD about some things, which can make her a pain in the behonkis as well as a good investigator.

I’m trundling down this path in part because I enjoy reading historical mysteries. Captain Gabriel Lacey is my book boyfriend, Thomas and Charlotte Pitt scratch my Victorian itch, Charles Lenox scratches my other Victorian itch, and, and, and… If you like historical mysteries too, you’ve probably come across C.S. Harris’s Sebastian St. Cyr Regency mystery series. (Has smoochin’ in it!)

From the first book, Sebastian exhibits a combination of traits that make him well suited to sleuthing. He has very quick reflexes, astonishingly keen hearing, and excellent vision particularly in low light. His eyes are golden, and highly sensitive to light. Madam Author very, very cleverly gave her protagonist superpowers before they were popular by conferring upon him a case of Bithil’s syndrome. This is a genetic mutation found in some Welsh family lines, and the author’s daughter has a particularly robust form of the symptoms.

From a plotting perspective, Sebastian’s superpowers get him into and out of trouble. He hears things he’s not supposed to, sees things others can’t discern, and gets the side-eye when he’s trying to fit in. Like a lot of people with superpowers, he didn’t realize he was different until later in childhood, and the moment stands out in his mind.

Which of course led me to a question: Do I have a superpower? (Other than the ability to make good dark chocolate disappear.)

I think I do, though it’s hard to describe. I can yeah-but anything. You tell me God once destroyed the earth with a Great Flood and I will come back with, “Very sad business, but we got the rainbow out of that deal, and Mr. and Mrs. Noah had a ton (literally) of fertilizer ready to go when it was time to start over, and I bet they got some quality couple time in during those forty nights…”

You tell me being fat is unhealthy and I will tell you that as body mass index increases, the use of antidepressants goes down as does the rate of successful suicides. The two-party system can lead to power swings and entrenched conflict but the multi-party system can result in a minority calling the shots. I have always had this ability to think in dichotomies and counter-examples. As a kid it got me in trouble. As an attorney, it got me a lot of results for my clients.

I believe everybody has superpowers, and that those qualities are usually part blessing and part burden. I still have to figure out what Lady Violet’s superpower is, but I’m also interested in YOUR superpower. Do you have one? More than one? Is it a mixed blessing or purely a boon? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Amazon e-gift card.

PS: If one of your superpowers is reviewing books, and you’d like an advanced reader file for A Lady of True Distinction, please email me at graceburrowes@yahoo.com.

Oh, the Joys of Not…

I will soon have reached the “out of the courthouse” for a year anniversary, and it has been a wonderful year. There is so much I do not miss AT ALL about that lawyer job.

I don’t miss all the paperwork, though much of the paperwork had become electronic. The courthouse filings were electronic, as were my invoices, and my monthly reports. I had to report on how I spent my time down to the quarter hour, how my contractual activities benefited the Maryland economy (huh?), which cases went to court for what kind of hearing and when the next hearing was scheduled even though the date was purest conjecture on the judge’s part… And all of that information went into Deep Space, never to be seen again, but heaven forfend the reports were late.

This is exactly the kind of work I loathe–detailed, pointless, largely unverifiable, all for show. How on EARTH did I end up in a job where I was evaluated on the basis of this kind of baloney?

I don’t miss the courthouse itself. I was married in that courthouse, and I was on good terms with the people there, but a courthouse–except for marriages and adoptions–is mostly a house of misery. For every person who wins a case, somebody loses, and sometimes everybody loses. People lose their liberty at courthouses, and are consigned to the most brutal, violent, atavistic, bigoted system of incarceration in the developed world (and one of very few permitted to do business on a for profit basis).

Many of those people aren’t guilty, or aren’t guilty of as serious a crime as they’ve been convicted of (or plead guilty to). Many others did not get adequate representation because We the People do not fund  the Public Defender’s Office at nearly the levels justice requires. (While the prosecutors, for some reason, tend to do pretty well.)

I don’t miss the lawyers, though I got on well enough with most of them. I might miss them, but I have romance readers and authors to compare to them. Lawyers can have a quirky sense of humor, they tend to be philosophical about complicated questions, and most of them in my little jurisdiction knew how to be civil while representing opposing parties.

But those attributes pale beside the sheer joy of meeting with a writing buddy for book talk-talk, of trading some chat with a reader who wonders whether Bart is Priscilla’s father, of reading the comments on this blog, of seeing an author friend’s release day go well. I am grateful to the lawyer job for all the financial security it generated, I hope I made a meaningful contribution when I wore that hat, but ye gods, I DO NOT MISS IT.

What don’t you miss? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Amazon gift card. ALSO, I’ll be ending out e-ARCs for A Lady of True Distinction in the next week or so. If you’d like one, please email me at graceburrowes@yahoo.com, subject: True Distinction ARC.

 

Down to Specifics

Writers are often admonished to write vividly, to focus on the specific details that will bring a scene to life. As Anton Chekov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” We’ve all seen the moon up there in the sky, but when Chekov mentions the glint of light on broken glass, the scene becomes much more immediate–an alley, a deserted road, a trashy little backyard where something sad or bad could happen. Broken glass is a powerful, painful image.

Apologies benefit from specificity. If you can say exactly what you did wrong and how you are willing to take responsibility for it, your remorse is more trustworthy, and your wrongdoing is more likely to be forgiven. “I’m sorry,” is good. “I’m sorry I took the Prius when I knew you wanted to make a grocery run today. Give me a list and I’ll get it done right after dinner,” is much better.

Gratitude also benefits from specificity–and variety. I finish my day journaling, and fishing my journaling listing five things I’m grateful for. If gratitude is to work its mood-stabilizing, anxiety-reducing wonder, that list should vary from day to day. Not simply: My health-my family-my home-my safety-my privacy (I’m grateful for ALL of that). But rather, the ability to plant flowers, which requires cooperation from hips, knees, back, hands, and more. The phone call from my sister Maire that she made Just Because.. and so on.

And this time of year, I’m aware of a general rejoicing in the season, but again, to be more exacting about what’s making me so quietly delighted when I get out of bed in the morning makes the glee more vivid. I love the quality of the light in spring and fall especially in the morning and evening. The light is more contrasty, to use a photographer’s terms, more romantic to use mine.

I love seeing the bulbs I planted last fall, as days grew shorter and nights grew colder, waking up to the opposite–more light, more warmth. I love that I don’t have to wear as many clothes. I always dress for comfort these days, but in spring, I can shed layers. This is especially evident at the horse barn, where winter can mean bundling up and gradually peeling off layers as the lesson progresses, then peeling them back on, then layering up the horse in his blankets too.

I love to leave my balcony door open at night, so I wake up to the robins singing. Nothing says to me that the ecosystem is healthy like hearing birds first thing in the day.

The trick to being specific, though, is that it takes focus, it takes effort, and in the attention economy, the brass ring of profit goes to those who excel at distracting us from our own realities. That’s a form of thievery, in my book, and actively reclaiming my ability to focus, to experience the wonderfulness or the sorrow or the rage, is the very business of living the only life I’ve been given.

Name one detail–an impression, a memory, an experience, an object–that absolutely delights you or drives you absolutely ’round the bend. To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 e-gift card.

Take Note

I am indebted to Neil Gaiman’s writing masterclass for reminding me to keep paper and pen near at hand at all times. I knew this, but way led onto way, and I got out of the habit. And all times means ALL times. By my bedside, when tromping the neighborhood in pursuit of the daily step count, in the grocery store. Why? Because we know how the old brain-eroo works.

We have an executive mental mode for Getting Stuff Done. This cognitive approach is for solving problems, doing task-oriented work, and checking off to-dos. Then there’s the unfortunately named default mode, which is equally productive, but much quieter. We kick into  default mode in the shower, driving a familiar route (say, to the horse barn and back), and sometimes when sitting in meetings (or, um,  writers’ workshops).

In the default mode we are also Getting Stuff Done, such as bringing connections up from the subconscious (sometimes experienced as an aha!), deciding what we stand for, and making long-term plans based on our values. But default mode can be coy. If you don’t jot down the brilliant aha! or what-if, it can swim away never to be seen again. When you physically write the thought down, you signal to the brain that the concept has weight and merit, and the imagination–rather than forgetting it–will embroider on the idea further.

This carries over to the classroom, where we know that physical note-taking results in greater comprehension and retention than typing notes into a computer does. Why? Because the physical act of writing is fundamentally different from typing, and something about writing helps anchor thoughts in memory more effectively than typing does. Then too, when you write on paper, you are not simply taking dictation. You must paraphrase what’s presented, boil it down, and use your own symbols, sketches, and abbreviations to record it. You have to not merely listen, in other words, you must also think.

Writing by hand has other benefits in the classroom besides improving comprehension and retention. Students who write by hand are not sitting behind a physical device, fixated on the screen and keyboard. Class discussions evolve from the teacher-student dialogues common in computer-note-taking classes, into group-wide conversations of more depth and variety. That too, makes the material more interesting and memorable.

Many writers begin their days with what are called Morning Pages, a time to physically write about what’s on their minds or where they want their stories to go. I finish my day journaling, but I’ve fallen into the habit of journaling on my computer. I’m going to go back to handwriting those final thoughts of the day, as I did for years, just as soon as I recreate a space in my house where handwriting is comfortable (ahem). You know–a desk that isn’t commandeered by a computer?

Do your handwrite anymore? Why or why not? If you were going to re-introduce the skill, where would be a good place to start? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 e-gift card.

 

My Mother’s Table

My mother’s antecedents were Potato Famine Irish and Highland Clearances Scots, and she had vivid recollections of hard times as a girl growing up during the Great Depression. Mom’s reaction to this cultural and social legacy of hardship was to look after any strays or orphans who came her way.

Everybody was welcome in my mother’s house, the graduate students from Finland, Libya, Japan, and Germany; the goofy neighbor–a retired game warden–who always talked too loudly; the parish priests (dudes could eat); the lady from church who ran a hat shop that never seemed to sell any merchandise. Mom’s friends included an alcoholic mother of six who ran a hair salon in her spare room, every neighbor on our street, other professor’s wives, and anybody who needed a square meal.

The lessons I learned from her example–without even realizing it–were to try see the humanity in everybody and to regard novelty as interesting rather than threatening.

One of my dad’s graduate students arrived from half-way around the world to find her accommodations on campus weren’t ready. This woman was quite smart, but when I met her she was also extremely jet-lagged, her English wasn’t up to speed, and she had nowhere to stay. Mom of course offered her the hospitality of the house, but also asked her if she’d like to use the phone to call home at a time when “long-distance” was a big deal. This was probably the first and only trans-Atlantic phone call placed from our house.

This very smart, world-traveling tadpole scientist burst into tears. To my mom, Tuula was just a girl far from home who needed a place to stay.

The oldest siblings in my family are twin guys thirteen years my senior. The Burrowes were nine at dinner, but no matter who John or Dick brought home with them from practice, we wedged another chair (or more chairs) around the table. From infancy on, my evening meal was a place to listen to points of view other my family’s, to  hear accents other than the local Central-Pa back forty, and to learn from cultures outside my own.

I hadn’t realized what a broadening influence my mother’s generous spirit was until her  seven children were all reminiscing about her attributes, and we each had a story about Mom’s oddball friends, her welcoming spirit, and her tolerance for human foibles.

As a storyteller, I rely on the example of her open-mindedness and open-heartedness to feed my creativity just as she, all those years ago, cheerfully fed anybody at risk for missing a meal. She was a mother-at-large, who said, “I care about you,” with a plate of lasagna and sheets that smelled of Yardley soap.

Have you known any mothers-at-large? Dads-at-large? Are there oddball friends in your life? To one commenter, I will send a $50 e-gift card.

 

Mine, Mine, ALL Mine!!!!

The wild rumpus has begun! I made my first trip to the greenhouse for the season, and my second. Where I live, it’s time for the pansies to brighten up the yard as the spring bulbs rotate through their annual splendor. Not such a good year for daffodils (so far), but the crocuses have been magnificent. In honor of a milestone birthday, I finally bought some flowering trees, and the nice fellers are going to plant them for me next week.

Nobody else in my large family goes bananas over yard flowers the way I do. My parents considered the yard a place that had to be mowed, period. None of this weed-whackin’, yard proud, keep up with the Orndorff’s, stuff. We had a three-acre property, so  mowing was a big job (and riding mowers were for wimps, in my dad’s opinion). Mom had house plants, but she didn’t really do much outside other than a rose bush by the front door.

The yard flowers are my thing, and always have been. As a kid, I’d ramble through the woods and pick wild flowers, considering any bouquet with less than six different species a lesser effort. I love the fragrances and colors, but flower-gardening has other attributes of My Favorite Things.

Yard flowers are for pretty, and they get me outside into the fresh air. They make other people happy, even if it’s only in a fleeting, “Must be retired people living in that house,” way. I can undertake this activity by my little self, and I don’t have to leave the property to do it. Better still, nobody ever said to me, “I bet you’d enjoy stuffing hundreds of bulbs into the dirt.” I stumbled upon this joy all on my own.

Some years, I’m traveling for much of the planting season, and fall bulbs get the bulk of my efforts. Other years, I splurge on porch pots, or get experiment-y. I have yet to find a place on my whole two acres where azaleas are happy, but maybe this year…

Another aspect of yard-flower gardening that appeals to me is that it’s playful. Humans are the only species that stops playing in adulthood, at least in recent history, (and look how well that’s turning out). I would rather be like my cats and horses, having a morning yard-frolic on pretty days, messing with bouquets, and hearing the birdies sing. I do have a rule–I can’t buy any flowers until the ones I already have are planted–but other than that, I’m loose without supervision.

Wheeee!

Do you have a way to play that’s all yours? A frolic with no agenda other than your own joy? To three commenters, I’ll send signed copies of When A Duchess Says I Do (anywhere in the world), which goes on sale Tuesday. If you’d like a shorter read to tide you over until then, I’ve put my novella, The Cowboy Wore a Kilt, on sale in the website store and on several major platforms.

 

Let There Be Light (and Colors)!

One of the aspects of this time of year that I love most is the light. Maryland summers are often swamped with humidity, turning the hot summer sky more white than blue. In winter, we get weeks of unrelenting overcast, but in early spring, the clouds lift, the humidity remains low, the trees aren’t yet leafed out, and the sky–and life–are filled with light. Even more than moderating temperatures, the return of a bright blue sky lifts my spirits and wakes up my mind.

And then there’s the return of color. I’m crazy about spring bulbs, and this is their time to shine. Deep purples, bright yellows, and brilliant combinations abound. Then the flowering trees get into the act, and I’m am inebriated with visual joy.

And I am not the only one. The not-for-profit organization Publicolor uses the task of adding color to schools and public spaces as a means of teaching students skills for school, work, and life. They get terrific results in terms of graduation and promotion rates, but they also hear from principals that after a school has been freshened with bright hues, absenteeism goes down, graffiti stops appearing, and students report feeling safer.

If  you allow prison inmates to watch nature videos in the prison gym, disciplinary incidents decrease. If you give them a window so they can actually see the green and natural world, the rate of anti-depressant use drops by double digits (which doesn’t happen if all they get to see is the basketball court).

If you keep around you objects and images that visually represent your triumphs and accomplishments–graduation day pics, a diploma or award, your mentor beaming at the camera with you when you were nominated for some honor--you will be more resilient to stress.

According to a study done by Taskworld, if you work in a bright, colorful office space full of blues and greens and enlivened with some red and yellow, you are more likely to feel (and be) friendly, alert, efficient, and confident. Add some green plants, and productivity goes up even more. Go back to cubicle-hot-desk-open-plan gray and biege, and particularly for women, the result will be a sense of gloom and sadness. Men don’t thrive on those tones either, and the guys also aren’t so keen on purple or orange. White walls are a bad choice too, giving off a sterile, clinical vibe.

The point is, our visual environment has a tremendous impact on us even when we think we’re not noticing it. What you regard as a minor self-indulgence–some pictures, a bouquet of carnations, sprinkles on an ice cream cone–can make a significant difference in your mood and energy.  The same is true in reverse. The drab school hallways, grim prisons, dull offices, and boring nursing homes are stealing joy in the name of saving a buck. When joy is as close as a can of paint or a spray of flowers, I think that’s a false economy.

What are your happy colors and how do you keep them front and center where you spend your time? Are there places you’d love to take a paintbrush to? To one commenter, I’ll send a SIGNED copy of When a Duchess Says I Do.

Once Upon a Life

I happened into Eastern Mennonite University’s master’s curriculum as one of only three North Americans in a cohort of about about thirty students. This was delightful. I learned so much from my classmates, about listening, about tolerance, about humor and other vital nutrients for healthy people and healthy communities. One of my classmates was Babu Ayindo, and his focus was and is on theater, art, and storytelling to transform conflict into an opportunity for growth and healing. Babu is Kenyan, and the Rwandan genocide was very much a recent memory as he pursued his master’s.

I fell in love with Babu’s voice. He could relate how he got lost on the way to the convenience store, and I’d be enthralled. Here’s a short clip of him talking about the EMU program.

I hadn’t started writing romance yet, and my reaction to storytelling as a means of transformation was intrigued puzzlement. But then I realized that stories to shift perspective have been around probably as long as language itself. Name me a source of spiritual strength–every religion or indigenous culture, strong communities, strong families, healthy businesses–and stories will figure prominently in their traditions. My family got to group-texting this week about that time fifty years ago when my dad went to a costume party dressed as a frog… everybody hopped on the thread.

Then I came across this article, about the Inuit, who live in as inhospitable a climate as a people can, one that forces them into close proximity with each other–really close–for months at a time. They don’t hit their kids, they don’t yell at their kids. To the Inuit, that kind of “dominance parenting” models the exact behavior that nobody wants to see in an adult–and I absolutely agree.

Easy to say, but when something as simple as going outside without a hat can be a life or death mistake, how do they keep their children safe? How do they inculcate the values necessary to survive in a very challenging environment?

They tell them stories. They turn those stories in to parlor-plays. When the bad moment for the child has passed, they humorously play-act the consequences of the child’s undesirable behavior.  They model self-control and loving kindness. What a concept.

I’ve watched our political dramas over the past few years, and seen a struggle over what our national story will be, and who will get to tell it. Many people have referred to national politics as a “farce.” Effective propaganda is nothing so much as a false but convincing story loosely tethered to a few conveniently chosen facts. A parable that endures for centuries is another kind of story with very different power–it uses fiction  to aim at an eternal truth.

Once I started looking for stories, I realized how powerful they are and how a coherent culture depends on them for identity. I write romance in part because I believe the central story is vital to human survival: People who choose love and courage over spiritual compromise and safety will merit the happily ever afters—for themselves and for the cultures they belong to. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

What stories have influenced you? Do you see romance as standing for a different tale than I do? Has one story stuck with you throughout your life? To three commenters, I’ll send a SIGNED copy of When A Duchess Says I Do.