The Courage to Talk Softly and Walk Alone

blogXquietI watch TED talks grudgingly, because TED doesn’t pay the presenters. Not a dime, for some of the best ideas on the planet–while TED does quite well as a brand.

And yet, the quality of TED’s content lures me, and this week I caught a presentation by Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

Susan became a Wall Street attorney, despite knowing that she loved solitude, loved working on her own rather than in corporate lockstep, loved tranquility rather than confrontation. When she realized how badly her life and her needs had disconnected, she spent seven years (hmm) researching introversion and its role in our culture.

686816-002.jpgWhat she found resonated with me from little on up. These days, most of us work in “open plan” offices. The open plan is cheaper to heat and cool, cheaper to build out, and–I’ve heard this from more than one executive–gives management a sense of being able to police workers without even leaving the glass-walled corner office.

Sir Walter Scott's Work Space

Sir Walter Scott’s Work Space

The open plan also promotes collegiality, collaboration, and innovation… according to management. According to controlled studies, it promotes contagion. Period. I suspect some of the sick leave is a function of the fact for the one-half to one-third of the population who are introverted, that open plan is sheer, unrelenting hell. No privacy, no quiet, no protection from gratuitous stimulation, and what do you know, it closely resembles many of our classrooms.

Why are we doing this? Why create environments that can’t work for one third to one half of the workers or students forced into them?

blogXwinXfriendsSusan’s theory is that we went from small towns and frontier communities, where character mattered, and you knew your neighbors and coworkers, to post-industrial situations where you worked with strangers, and didn’t spend much time with your family. In an office situation, the person most adept at persuasion, at being heard, at charming, became the role model. The effective salesman controlled the environment and got the biggest rewards, and those folks are almost always extroverts.

And yet, the extrovert., the good talker, the charmer, has NO advantage when it comes to generating bright ideas, and is actually a WORSE manager than the introvert, in general. The extrovert will get all excited about ideas, and put their spin and stamp on the ones they like, and will squelch the quiet members of a team. The introvert is far more likely to listen, support, encourage, and yield the floor when somebody’s on a roll.

We have an extroverted CEO (from an advertising agency) to thank for the largely debunked group-think known as brainstorming. Brainstorming actually results in fewer good ideas than does working individually–but the guy in the corner office was all for it, so brainstorm, we did. Multitasking enjoyed similarly groundless good press for years because the boss told us it enhanced productivity (it doesn’t).

heir_244wSo we have, in many cases, the wrong leaders for problem solving purposes, and we’re asking people to work in an environment that for many will reduce the quality and quantity of their output. But two-thirds to one-half of the population is not introverted. For them isolation behind a closed door is sheer torment.

What works for you? Is your professional environment designed to get the best out of you, and does your boss listen and encourage or dwell too much in What I’m Gonna Need You To Do mode? To one commenter, I’ll send an audiobook version of The Heir, a story about a guy who loves peace and quiet, but loves his lady more.

 

Goodnight, Gracie

blogXpuppyOne lesson I have to learn, over and over, is that without adequate rest, my whole house of cards come fluttering down. I had to learn this in law school, which was a working full time/in class five nights a week, four year marathon, and I’ve had to learn it several times since.

Now, we’re finding that sleep is when we get rid of those nasty amyloid plaques that are associated with Alzheimer’s. Sleep is when we shuffle information from short to long term memory. In sleep, we integrate complicated information with what we already know. The brain also uses sleep time to decide what information can be forgotten, allowing us to better grab onto important stuff.

blogXsleepyXkittenI’m still not as skilled at resting as I’d like to be. I tend to have several book projects going at once. If I run out of juice on one, I can switch to another. If I run out of juice on all of them, I have website projects I can work on. Busy, busy, busy… and if all else fails, I can get on that infernal, perishing, blighted, benighted, rubbishing tread desk, and at least walk while I play solitaire.

In the back of my mind though, I wonder at this-near compulsion to be productive. Some of it comes from financial anxiety, some from a mind hitched to a restless imagination, but some of my hamster-wheeling is just an old bad habit.

blogXwheelI want to live a long, healthy, productive life, so I’m making an effort to protect my rest and get the hamsters under control. A few steps I’m taking:

I use the f.lux program to cut the blue light from the computer screen at sunset, so my brain starts getting ready to sleep.

I turn off all devices an hour before beddy-bye, and read a print book to signal that lights out is approaching.blogXeyore

I don’t use my phone for ANYTHING after lights out except to check the time, and if I must do that, I hold the phone as far from my eye-winkers as possible (at least fourteen inches, to keep the blue light input down).

I try not to set an alarm in the morning, if I can get away with that.

My friends and family know that short of a dire emergency, no texts or phone calls after 9 pm MY TIME.

marriage_450During the day, I get up and get out of the writing chair regularly, whether to hit the tread desk, work in the garden, or meet a writin’ buddy for lunch. Sleep is only one kind of rest, after all.

Rest is too important to neglect. Without it, I’ll have no health, no imagination, no progress on my projects, and yet, few of us–women especially–are encouraged to make rest a priority. This is me, encouraging you: Make rest –all kinds of rest– a priority. You’ll be happier, less anxious, healthier, and ultimately more productive.

Are you getting enough rest? How do you recharge? To one commenter, I’ll send signed copy of A Duke and His Duchess, a story about two very tired young parents.

Once Upon a Motherhood

 

motherXduckWhen I judge a romance writing contest, one of the questions I ask some entrants is, “How has your heroine changed in the course of this book? Yes, she rescued her billionaire boss; but inside, how is she a more substantial person than she was 367 pages ago?”

A shorthand way to ask the same question: How will she be a better mother at the end of the book than she would have been at the beginning?

mother-lion-and-cubI don’t think you have to bear children, raise children, or even like children to contribute motherlove to a word badly in need of it. One of the most reliable expert witnesses I’ve worked with in the child welfare courtroom had no children, but was passionately–and successfully–devoted to making the world better for children.

So what do I mean by motherlove?

I mean the difference between the tender-hearted, sweet, passionate protectiveness we all feel for a new baby (provided the diaper patrol has recently been on the job), and the rugged humor of an adolescent’s mother. Any mom raising teens knows that enforcing reasonable boundaries can be noisy, dramatic, and painful, but somebody’s gotta do it or college/steady employment/creative success won’t happen.

rideXonXmomA mother worthy of the name knows that parenting and the body’s anticipation of it takes a physical toll, not only in pregnancy and gestation, but in exhaustion, anemia, inconvenience, and reproductive considerations that include safety, privacy, expense, and discomfort. Whether you’re devoting yourself to the care of your own child, or your brother’s kid while dad’s in rehab, you’re paying a permanent, physical price for standing in the shoes of the mom or mom-to-be.

catXwithXbunnasYou might get a greeting card or brunch out for your troubles, some years. You WILL get–and have been getting for years–wage inequality, loss of career momentum, and greater financial insecurity in old age. These wrongs are largely perpetrated by, and clearly benefit, the same sons, husbands, and dads buying us the smarmy cards and blueberry pancakes. Oh, I could rant…

But, when you love like a mother loves, you also get a grasp of the big picture beyond your self-interest. You make friends with optimism, hope, pragmatism, and resilience. You get some much-needed immunity from the social imperative to always be attractive and nice. You learn–oh, mama, do you learn–that if you don’t take care of yourself, the whole circus tent comes down.

PaddyXXXHeatherX1992_01XX1XAgain, I’m not saying children are the only way to grow a heart capable of these feats, but I do believe that once you’re approaching the world from the posture of a mom as I’ve described her, you’re in a position to make one heck of a big, important contribution.

So thank you, to anybody who has made such a contribution, whether to a child, an elder, a stranger, or a stray dog. We will never have too much motherlove in this world.

To the first twenty commenters, I’ll send the signed Grace Burrowes book of his or her choice. Whose love has changed you for the better or helped you grow?

It’s Only Love

ObsessionNora Roberts has had 191 New York Times bestsellers (and counting) among her 214+ published titles. Her books have spent a combined total of more than 200 weeks at the number one slot on the list (nearly four years), and 58 of her books debuted at No. 1. Her April 12 release, The Obsession, had, at last count, more than 1000 five star reviews.

How many of her books have been reviewed by The New York Times book reviews?

That would be…. two. .

Some of this is because book reviews are largely men reviewing the works of men, even though most readers, authors, and publishing industry professionals are women. There’s a glass wall in publishing, albeit things are slowly changing. I don’t think the primary barrier between romance and the rest of the (publishing?) world is about gender, though. Eighteen percent of romance readers are male, and increasingly, men are represented among romance authors, too.

cowardly-lion-ozI think the issue is courage. Romance novels are about courage, and about how love gives us the courage to be the best people we can be. Not the richest, not the handsomest, not the smartest, not the most popular, but the most highly evolved–morally and spiritually–that we can be, given our circumstances.

You can have a romance novel without sex, but you can’t bring that story to a satisfying happily ever after, unless somebody has dug down deep for the courage to grow, change, and take risks. Very often, those risks involve rejecting the values society embraces–being nice, playing it safe, remaining loyal to the company, clocking that overtime, maintaining appearances.

OfficeXmemeThe need to put romance down, and ignore its enormous commercial success (half of all paperback sold are romance), is because romance sends a scary message: You, little old you, are worth fighting for. Your happiness and your wholeness matter. You are worth sticking with. You are beautiful in the ways that count. You make a difference, taking the grandkids to the park, dragging your spouse to counseling, organizing the bake sale, changing your sister’s tire. That stuff matters, a lot.

Not your IQ, your bank account, your six-pack abs, but your heart.

eve_450If you derive your sense of self-worth from inside, from being comfortable in your own skin, and living by your own ethical standards, you can’t be bought. You can’t be controlled by criticism or shaming, you can’t be intimidated into putting in a sixty-hour work week. You might work those hours, but you’re doing it for love, not wealth or a corner office.

If you derive your sense of power from money, might, or great looks, then the romance novel’s subtext should threaten you. All the money, outward beauty, and power in the world doesn’t stand indefinitely against love.

That’s what I believe, and that’s why I write romance. Why do you read romance? To one commenter, I’ll send a copy of Lady Eve’s Indiscretion, a story about a woman who tried to hide from love behind a cloak of propriety–and found herself any way.

The House that Grace Built

HahnXcherryGrowing up, I adopted a pattern of behavior that I could only discern in hindsight. If my mom was good at something, if it was a priority for her, then I stayed away from it. Mom was a consummate homemaker, a great cook, terrific hostess, pretty, charming, petite, and devoted to maintaining a castle to be proud of. My older sisters came closer to sharing those priorities than I did, but even if I’d had those domesticating genes, if I wanted to be seen as an individual, I needed to find a different path.

I don’t know HOW to use make up, for example. Never learned, can’t see why I’d want to–unlike Mom, Maire, and Gail. I’m not much of a cook, though I’m way too good at baking, Mom, Maire, and Gail shared the cooking thing. To the extent I’m making lifestyle choices, that’s my business.

morningI’m finding though, as the day job ebbs, that I’m in my house more… and I’m in my house in a different way. I don’t plunge into a writing weekend knowing that come Monday, I’ll have to go back to the office. These days, I might not go back into the office until Tuesday. Or I might zip through on Monday, grab what I need, answer mail, and take most of Tuesday at home. My home is becoming more than my permanent camp site.

Years ago, when Darling Child was underfoot, I used to go nuts with flowers around the yard. I’m going nuts with flowers this year, in part because gardening is a good way to get out of the writing chair. I’m also doing it because I love to look out my window and see flowers. Love it.

I bought a rocking chair.

blog cat cozy woodstoveWhy did I buy a rocking chair? Because the late mastiff and the bull mastiff ate the rockers off the one given to me when my daughter was born, and the golden retriever has appropriated the couch. The only places to sit comfortably in my house have been the writing chair, and well, the, um, reading room.

Now there’s a literary symbol for ya. I hadn’t realized this until recently. I was only here to eat, sleep, write, and do laundry, in a sense. My office is prettier than my house… yikes!

louisa_244wIt’s time I made my nest affirmatively lovely. The yard is the immediate priority, because of the season, but I have ambitions for the house too. I’m going to pretty this place the heck up, maybe even invite some people over for a meal.

What a concept.

Look around your house and your yard. What would your mom think of it? What would your younger self think of it? If you were stuck there for six straight months, would you change anything?

To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of Lady Louisa’s Christmas Knight, a story about a daughter who thought she wasn’t that much like her mom.

 

 

The Best is Yet to Be

Grace on Delray the Wonder Pony

Grace on Delray the Wonder Pony

I stopped riding horses about six years ago, purely as a function of economics, and bad things started happening to me immediately. I was lonely for my riding buddies, I gained weight, my joints hurt worse than when I’d been riding, my outlook became less sanguine. I was no longer a horse girl, and I’d loved that part of my life.

I wrote, which I also love. I lawyered, and when the finances picked up, I started visiting the UK. But my health took a hit when I stopped riding that I still haven’t recovered from…. Sitting for long periods is lethal, I’m an overweight, post-menopausal, hypothryoid poster granny, and my jobs involve a lot of sitting.

This is a problem.

blogXrunningXshoesWhen it comes to my wellbeing, the stakes go up from here on out. If you’ve seen this short video by fitness coach Mike Vicanti, you know what I mean. At my age, flexibility, strength, and aerobic endurance, become life or death, and certainly quality of life, matters. If you can’t get in and out of the tub on your own, if you can’t touch your toes, you’re not that far from assisted living. Yikes!!!

blogXlavenderI am determined to be healthier at sixty than I was at fifty-three, and you know what? It’s looking good so far. I am getting on that stupid, dratted, perishing, rotten tread desk. I’m more conscious of what I eat, I have less work stress (buh-bye courthouse!), and all along the way, I keep an eye out for wisdom that fits my circumstances.

The scent of lavender helps us sleep better–I’ll try that!

The benefits of exercise are cumulative–I’ll try walking in fifteen minutes sets!

Quiet helps the brain recharge and even grow new cells–I’m good at quiet!

The older I get, the larger my collection becomes of insights and information that boost me in the right direction. The older I get, the less I’m plagued by other people’s expectations for me, and the more I can fashion a life that works on my terms. The older I get, the less I’m willing to let anybody steal my fire.

blogXmaggieI don’t much care what I weigh or how I look–though I’d rather not scare small children with my appearance. I care that I have good enough health to look after myself and do the things I love with the people I love. I have little energy compared to many, and time will take a toll. But I’m determined as all get out, creative, persistent, and motivated.

Better, healthier days coming–wish me luck!

In what ways are you in a better place than you were a few years ago? In what directions do you aspire to make more progress? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of Lady Maggie’s Secret Scandal, a story about a lady who thought she was all out of options–when the fun part was just about to begin.

 

 

 

Snowflakes on Roses…

blogXsnowXonXrosesSnowflakes on daffodils, rather. And tulips. As I write this, it’s danged snowing–not flurrying, not spitting, not nothing but the real deal. Two to four inches of No Lilacs for You, Grace. Well, dadgummit.

BUT, it’s a great day for writing. I love weekends for writing because none of the day-job world intrudes, my editors won’t email me, the phone is very unlikely to ring. Just me and His Grace (Hamish MacHugh was promoted to a duke last week. poor schmuck). To be able to write with little likelihood of interruption is bliss.

blogXpansiesAnd while the weather might be a little wonky, it’s also the case that spring is under way. The oak leaves are in that red, fuzzy, here-we-come phase; I picked a big vase of tulips from my yard yesterday; and this week I AM PLANTING PANSIES. That’s not all I’m looking forward to. Other rainbows on the horizon:

I’ve signed a three-book deal with Hachette/Grand Central. Hamish’s story will probably be out toward the end of the year, and I’m also working on a novella that will take advantage of his Scottish connections.

OnceXUponXFinalXCoverOnce Upon a Dream comes out next week–Sedgemere and Anne are a terrific couple (and Josephine is a terrific duck). That my name is appearing on the same cover with Mary Balogh boggles my mind and warms my heart. That’s just one big wow, for me.

My two families are getting together–sorta. My dad and two sisters live in San Diego, and my Burrowes-family is planning a major reunion there this summer. I’m one of seven children, and there are great-grandchildren–do the math. Big party. What makes it even more special is that the Romance Writers of America annual conference is in San Diego the same week. I’ve already started filling out my dance card in terms of brekkie with writin’ buddies, lunch with writin’ buddies, and so forth. Might even get to a workshop or two… maybe.blogXsamXinXaXkilt

Later in the summer, my Scotland with Grace tour heads to SCOTLAND!!! (What a coincidence?) I am so very, very much looking forward to sharing Scotland with some reading and writing friends. That’s like… I don’t know, the Duke of Bewcastle inviting me over to share chocolate cupcakes for breakfast? I can’t find the analogy happy enough to convey what a combination of good folks and good times in Scotland means to me. I hope it at least becomes an annual event, and I’ve already gotten interest in next year’s tour.

All of which is to say, yes, it’s snowing. That’s today. The bigger sophie_244wpicture is good times, good friends, good travels, and good books.

What’s ahead on the calendar that delights you? What do you wish you could put on the calendar, or–there are snow days in life–what do you wish you could eliminate from your calendar?

To one commenter, I’ll send a copy of Lady Sophie’s Christmas Wish. Sophie desperately wanted some peace and quiet, but what she ended up with was MUCH better than that.

 

 

Freedom’s Just Another Word

HappyXBesomIn the past ninety days, I’ve lost two cats, a kitten, a dog, a large part of my lawyer-job.. and my mom. My grown-up brain knows that most pets have shorter lives than their owners, parents in their 90s probably aren’t going to be around another ten years, and lawyer jobs come and go. Of all these losses, my mom’s death is the one I could see coming the best, and it still wrecks me.

peteyXcroppedI’m weepy, irritable, restless, foggy, sad… you know the drill.

There is probably a gift in all this loss, especially in being told that the foster children in my county will soon be represented by somebody else.  For nearly 23 years, that job broke my heart–not only for the children and families, but also for the social workers, and even for the folks in the state office. They were usually barking at me for this or that undotted i or uncrossed t, but I also know the program office was harassed by clueless politicians and nincompoop audit requirements. Their jobs weren’t any easier than mine–and they had to wear office attire and punch a time clock every day.

And in each case of loss, the patient wasn’t going to get any better. The job wasn’t going to ease up, Mom wasn’t going to ever dance again, Sarge wasn’t going to beat lymphosarcoma. Say bad words here.

sargeXandXteapotWhen I’m not grumping and grieving, I’m left with the hope that I’m facing opportunities behind the grief. Travel to Scotland is easier when I have only three animals instead of seven. To be gone for a month is much simpler when I don’t have to mother-may-I every trip with the program office, and know–just know in my bones–that at 2 am on some fine Scottish night, I’m going to get a call from a foster kid who’s run off, and my number was the only one still in her phone.

I’ll have more time to write if I’m not lawyering–lordy, will I!–and as my first editor put it, when I have a bad day as an author, no babies die.

Now there’s a heck of a perspective.

virtuoso_244wAnd yet, I want Sarge, Petey, Button, and Besom back. I want my mom to have a few more good years. I want to be the one to say when the lawyering is done… and I’m not getting what I want.

I might be getting what I need, though. We’ll see. I still have animal friends, including an elderly horse in Florida. He’d better watch out for stray alligators.

How do you cope with unexpected losses? I’ve done some big de-cluttering, I’m walking more, and I’ll see more of my family later this year–all of my family. Any do’s or don’t occur to you? I’m all ears, and giving away a signed copy of The Virtuoso, a story about a guy who lost the one thing that he thought made him special. (He was wrong.)

 

Peace and Quiet Wisdom

blogXarthurWhen I read diaries, letters, and memoirs from the Regency period, I’m always struck by how erudite the prose is. Whether it’s a soldier’s memoir from the Napoleonic wars, a woman’s letter to her daughter, or Wellington’s dispatches, they had a thoughtful, articulate, considered turn of phrase–and mind–that I surely do not find in most emails.

I think part of the difference between a Regency essay and the emails I send out by the dozen has to do with the modern brain, or what’s left of it. We pop from answering emails to texting our kids, to consulting the weather app, to taking a call from the vet, to adding pet food to the shopping list on our phone, to resetting our fit bit, to…. We might feel as if we’re being productive and Getting Stuff Done, but the neuro-scientists tell us our frenzy comes at a high price.

blogXphoneThree quarters of the world has access to a smart phone. This percentage is higher than the number of people who have access to potable water. Phones can make us safer–they function as 911 on the go, 24-7 roadside assistance, flashlights, emergency contact lists when we’re in distress… all good stuff.

But what we call multi-tasking is not good stuff, from a physiological standpoint. To the extent that we’re never safe from our phones, tablets and computers, we’re constantly goosing our levels of adrenaline and cortisol. Our poor brains can’t focus, can’t recall, and are all too easily nudged toward irritability and aggression. When we stare at a screen all day, we don’t sleep as well–more cortisol and adrenalin.

readingXbyXcandlelightOur brains on iBusy come to resemble the brains of people suffering PTSD. Humor flattens, relationships suffer, and the go-to palliative–social media–can actually make us more lonely.

Our grandparents, and my Regency sources, didn’t have these ailments. True, they had tetanus, rabies, cholera, plague, and worse, but their minds enjoyed a kind of health we likely can’t reproduce outside of spiritual retreats. Their mail came once a day, if that. Communication happened most of the time face-to-face. Quiet–dense, deep, quiet–was the norm for most households outside daylight hours.

soldier_244wThey could focus, on a task, on a question, on the person at the table with them. They could plan their response to any epistle for hours, if not days. They could blow out the candle at night, secure in the knowledge that nobody four time zones away would send a text which–come fire, flood, or famine–the phone will display while it beeps and glows to make sure we give it our attention that very instant.

Where do you find peace and quiet? When do you unplug, or when could you start building some unplugged time into your week?

To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of The Soldier, because what Devlin St. Just suffered a result of war–bad sleep, irritability, inability to focus, memory problems–is what too much iTasking can do to us.

A Friend Indeed

blogXnestWe hear about empty nest, that phase of life when the kids are grown, the career has topped out below where we thought it would, and the house isn’t nearly as paid off as we’d hoped. By our mid-forties, we can be dealing with a lot of disappointment, and unmet expectations. 

Turns out, we might also be dealing with more loneliness between the age of 45-65 than at any other time in life. Think about that. Think about how horrendously isolated we felt in middle school, how hard the first freshman term was, how tough moving to a new city was… and that stretch between 45-65 can be even harder. 

blogXholdingXhandsThe reasons include a spike in divorces when marriages hit 17 years, a lousy economy that keeps us working more and socializing less, smaller families, a job market that means we move frequently to remain employed or climb the career ladder, among other factors. Our peers start to die on us as we’re pushing fifty, and our energy for anything–much less being social–can start to decline.

But letting friendships lapse is not smart, according some of the science on the subject. Loneliness can be as bad for our physical and mental health as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day, carrying significant extra weight, or drinking too much. Lonely people are more likely to die early, suffer a heart attack or stroke, or suffer compromised immunity than are people who have friends.

Ginger kitten, Butch, 9 weeks old, with Cavapoo pup and Lionhead rabbit We’ve long known that having a support network is critical in recovery from many major illnesses, and that the stereotype of the entirely self-reliant rugged individual is a set-up for all kinds of misery if taken to extremes. Lonely people are prey to feelings of anxiety and hostility, and social withdrawal can become a downward spiral.

All very daunting… and for most of us, avoidable. Meeting a writin’ buddy or a reader for a cup of tea might be just as important for my wellbeing as getting on that old tread desk, and it’s a lot more fun. Dropping an email to my sister takes five minutes, and probably does me as much good as some of those supplements I buy. Taking yard flowgarethXnewXcoverers to the neighbor costs me nothing, but gives us both a smile. 

I’m not naturally social, but when I read these studies, and consider that I might live to be 100, the importance of creating and maintaining friendships become obvious. 

Who is your best friend? Are there good friends you haven’t heard from in a while? Have your friends ever come through for you in a way that surprised you? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of Gareth: Lord of Rakes  (seen here sporting his new print cover). His lordship desperately needed a few good friends…. and it only took him 400 pages to find them.