Welcome, Peepers!

I’ve been rolfed (loved it), and had lots of other body work, and something the rolfer said stuck with me: When pain comes, we almost can’t think of anything else. When pain leaves, we often don’t notice.

I think she was right about minor aches and pains, the stiff shoulder gradually eases, the sore foot is better a week later. I had migraines for years though, and I can assure you, when I woke up on day three, and that sucker was finally crawling back under the rock from whence it came, I noticed. On those rare occasions when I could kick one early with caffeine, I noticed all over the place.

But picking up from last week–what are we looking forward to?–I’m focusing now on what I’m putting behind me. I heard spring peepers last night for the first time, and that reminds me that winter is drifting away. For this year, I’ll soon be done with entire weeks of unrelenting overcast. That weather pattern got so bad in Maryland this year that I bought a DayLight to shine at myself first thing in the day.

I’ve turned in the three books I owe Grand Central publishing–my first New York deal!–and the process has gone well so far. I won’t have to write those books again, and it’s onward and upward to whatever series lies ahead. (Suggestions welcome. I love Percival and Esther to pieces, but haven’t they meddled enough?)

I’ve settled in to the wrap-up phase at my law office. I’ll probably be going to court for another year at least, but the burden will be lighter and lighter, and oh… the stuff I can get rid of. Emotional, physical, logistical. It’s good to be the dowager queen.

I’ve been through the one-year anniversary of my mom’s death, which is a milestone. Life is moving on, and that’s exactly what she’d want for me.

I recall a line from Anne Lamott, when she was talking about how to help a friend who was in the absolute Slough of Despond, somebody who’d been overwhelmed for too long, and was too tired to even pitch a hissy fit about the unfairness of it all. (Warning: the context was both political and religious.) For many paragraphs, Anne prosed one about the glories of creation and the wonder of life, and the stages of grieving, but she also noted that sometimes, all you have to offer is…. “Mornings are nice.”

This for me remains mostly true. Mornings are nice. Each day comes around offering some mystery and potential, some joy and some challenge, and that day says hello to me with a morning. The day might also present a lot of drudgery and disappointment, but on first impression, there’s always some potential there too, and if nothing else, another night is behind me.

What have you put behind you? How are your mornings nice? To one commenter, I’ll send a print version of Dukes in Disguise (the ebook version being on sale for $.99!).

 

 

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Five Things

I have a theory about emotional endurance, about how we persist in the face of the tough stuff, and about how good folks can be ground to dust by hard times. My theory goes like this here:

Three factors tempt me to give up when I’m overwhelmed by my situation. First, if I think my suffering will never end. That’s really tough, because never is the rest of time. Second, if I think my suffering is serving no purpose. Unproductive suffering is such an abomination to our sense of justice that we become creative trying make our suffering meaningful. Third, if we’re entirely alone with our burdens. Being alone is itself painful for many people. Being alone with misery is a heartache added to an indignity.

There’s more to my theory, but to the extent I can stay connected to others, avoid dead ends, and make escape hatches, I can mush along fairly well. Another aspect of keeping on keeping on, is to have good stuff to look forward to. Such as…

Spring. Can’t wait to see all the flowers blooming, to feel the warmth of the sun on my face.

The Romance Writers of America gathering in July. It’s a ways off, but this is when I get to hang with my writin’ tribe, buff my craft, and hug and be hugged.

A writer’s conference out west that I’ll be attending in March. Nothing but craft, craft, craft with all kinds of talented presenters.

A panel on February 15, 2017, at the Darien, CT, library. I’ll get to say hi to my editorial team in New York on the way up, and take a break from the lawyer job for a couple days.

Finishing the manuscript I’m working on. Charlotte Windham and her Welsh upstart nabob should get their happily ever after right about St. David’s Day, appropriately enough.

I could go on. I have books coming out in March, April, May, and June (have to write this one. Details, Details), and July. I expect to get some family time in the next six months. There’s a trip to the UK later in the year. There’s the next Mary Balogh coming out NEXT WEEK.

When I dwell on all these goodies adorning my calendar, the present day does not seem so daunting, nor so solitary and inescapable.

So what are you looking forward to? To one commenter, I’ll send an audio book of Lady Jenny’s Christmas Portrait, the laassst of the Windham family series to come out as an audio book.

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But I don’t know what to DO…

Anybody else feeling fed up, cranky, tired, ready for winter to be over, politics to be over, tax season to be over? I can’t recall a time in my adult life when we were all so unrelentingly upset. The election, the economy, the media… Keeping folks upset has apparently become a subgoal on too many agendas.

I saw one author on social media going into a righteous spiral because another author, who shared her views on certain issues, refused to go into a righteous spiral…

Except… one of the things they teach you in conflict 101 is that our first, most effective tool in a highly conflicted situation is a non-anxious presence. I don’t know why I noshed my way through a master’s degree in conflict management somewhere along the way–you’d think law school would have cured me of the need for education debt–but I did, and I have never regretted it.

My teachers and fellow students were people who’d dealt first-hand with unraveling Apartheid, settling civil wars, making peace in genocidal conflicts, re-integrating child soldiers, and finding constructive uses for gangs in Los Angeles. My little traumas in child welfare court were pee wee league compared to the troubled waters these people had sailed–and sailed with astonishing success.

One of the primary take-aways I got from the whole master’s program was the utter non-negotiability of self-nurture if you find yourself in a conflicted situation. Especially in these trying times, it’s a gift to the community when you keep flowers on the table, listen to your upbeat play list, re-read a comforting keeper, and go out of your way to greet your fellow dog-walkers. Look for the aspects of your immediate environment that help you feel positive and focus on them.

If there aren’t any, time to redecorate your environment.

I have moral convictions and firm opinions on many topics (surprise!), but when I’m standing up for those beliefs from a place of calm resolve, I’m more likely to get a fair hearing than if I fire off a rant from panic and shredded nerves. If I”m calm, confident, and respectful, everybody around me is likely to catch a case of calm, confident, and respectful from me.  That’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it.

If I’m shooting around the room backward, with flames pouring from every orifice…

So if your instinct is to unplug, to get out the crafts, to limit your social, keep the playlist handy, and take cookies to the old folks home, good on ya. Happy warriors win battles too, and happy, well rested warriors probably prevent wars, without anybody even realizing it.

My two. How are you keeping your balance in these interesting times? Or how are you regaining your balance if you’ve lost it? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of Ashton, Lord of Truth… because Matilda learned to stay calm when she’d rather have lost her buttons.

 

 

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The Best Laid Plans

January 25th is “Burns Night,” when the Scottish diaspora (and those of us who like Scotland) celebrate the birthday of Robert Burns. Burns was ahead of his time, as a democrat, feminist, humanist, and linguist. One of his most often quoted lines is, “The best-laid schemes o’ Mice and Men/Gang aft agley.” (Or oft go awry, in the Anglicized version).

You can read the whole poem, To a Mouse, but the jist of it is: Burns, who was a farmer, was out plowing a field under one autumn. In the course of his efforts, he unearthed the burrow of a field mouse. Mrs. Mouse had worked long and hard to make a safe, snug winter haven for the Mouse Family, then along comes Robert, trying to keep his family safe and snug, and it’s disaster for the Mouses.

Burns was writing about what the conflict resolution professionals call “unintended consequences.” No matter how many what-ifs you think through, no matter how carefully you craft an agreement, chances are, something unforeseen will crop up, and the perfect solution will result in more problems.

This is why, in the case of any conflict of substance, imposing solutions from outside the situation generally fails in the long run. At the first opportunity, those who don’t like the decision will point to these unintended consequences as proof everlasting that the decision was wrong (even if it was objectively brilliant). Decisions made with the input of those affected tend to hold up longer, which is why judges always, always try to have parents rather than the court come up with the schedule in a custody case.

In a juvenile justice setting, a restorative justice approach makes the victim and the offender, along with their support systems, come up with the punishment and the reparation. Not surprisingly, offenders who’ve been through an RJ process have a much lower recidivism rate than in the traditional system. Victims report that RJ results in more resolution of trauma symptoms, and better attention to the damages they suffered as a result of the crime.

Beside durability, the other benefit of participatory problem-solving is that by thrashing through an issue together, learning to see the person behind the position, parties in a sticky situation usually develop some trust and respect. This can save the day when those unintended consequences pop up, as they invariably do.

Tartan, plaid seamless pattern.

Unintended consequences can be positive. I started taking riding lessons as an adult because I was badly depressed, and that was one physical activity I knew I’d get myself out of bed to pursue. Unintended consequences of that solution included making some lifelong friends, developing a big area of common ground with my daughter, and learning how to manage a large, complex competition without losing my cool.

Conflict really can be an opportunity. Have you ever been faced with unintended consequences–positive or negative? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of The MacGregor’s Lady (and please consider stopping by our post-Burns Night Facebook party on Thursday evening).

 

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All Worry and No Play

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

I refuse to malinger in this uncomfortable state.

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

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

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

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

Delray the Wonder Pony

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

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

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

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

 

 

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We’re not in San Diego anymore…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maryland is not perfect, but it is home.

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

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

 

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Tuesdays with Stuey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Christmas Comes Late

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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The Reading Holidays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It’s Only Natural

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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