Laughing all the Way

Sometime in the next 60-90 days, I will try my last foreseeable case in Maryland’s family law courts. I am ready to be done. In a field where few people last ten years, I’m pushing 25. Time to let somebody else carry this torch, while I get acquainted with more dukes and dunderwhelps.

I’m pondering what lessons I can take away from my tenure representing foster children. If I don’t have me an exit interview, nobody will. I want closure, for one thing, but I also want to memorialize any insights that might help those following after me.

One take-away that was dropped into my lap by a supervisor at Social Services years ago was this: We know which kids are likely to do well after foster care. We can spot them fairly easily because they have two characteristics. Their later success has nothing to do with grades, good looks, skin color, church attendance, intelligence, work habits, or any other typical indicator of success. Not. One. Thing.

The kids who will eventually thrive had two factors going for them. First, somebody modeled to them a consistent, healthy definition of, “I love you.” Might have been a clarinet teacher, an older sibling, a grandparent. Somebody was there for them on the hard days, holding them accountable on the dumb days, and celebrating with them on the good days.

The taxpayer devotes very little money to ensuring foster children are loved. We tend to their needs in terms of care, but love… can money buy that? Many children are fortunate to end up in foster homes where love is available, but one quarter of foster children nationwide end up in foster homes where abuse or neglect reaches the point where the state sees it. (And we do pay for that.)

The second factor that identifies a foster kid headed toward success is a healthy definition of play. Can this kid have fun–belly laughing, whooping-up, gotta-hug-’em, fun–without getting in trouble? Without hurting somebody? Without breaking the law?

We also devote very little money to having fun, but most foster parents instinctively pick up on this one. They know which kids can’t laugh when they walk in the door, and six months later, they notice that a kitten and some string had the kid rolling on the floor.

I am hopeful that as a society, we’re on the verge of realizing that work–while it can be meaningful and enjoyable–does not make us free. Love is a nutrient that we need every bit as much if not more than the basic food groups and a safe place to sleep. Laughter pays certain bills no paycheck ever covered.

And for me, as I head into a time when I have even more control over what I do with my day, I’m thinking about who loves me, who I love, and what my definition of a delightful day is. What makes me laugh? With whom do I share that? One answer is: My characters make me laugh, and I share them with you.

What makes you laugh? What made you laugh as a kid? What made you smile inside as a kid? When was the last time you got the giggles?

To one commenter, I’ll send a print version of Marquessess at the Masquerade, which hits the major platform shelves April 17, and downloads from the website store on April 13. . 

Here come all the flowers!

I don’t know about your 2017, but mine was a slog. The water was high in just about every direction at some point during the year–family, lawyering, authoring, health–though not everything came all together, thank heavens, and nothing rose past the level of a simple challenge.

This week, I’ve had an inkling that life is moving on. Spring is arriving, and that, more than a date on the calendar, reassures me that 2017 isn’t going to hang around forever in spirit. I’ve noticed Stuff, like how quiet the house is when the forced-hot-air heaters aren’t roaring. The first of the yard flowers–crocuses and daffodils–are starting to bloom. The light hits from a different angle during my writing hours. One fine day recently, I could open the house up, and hear the wind in the pines and the morning bird symphony as I tackled my pages for the day.

This is one of my favorite times of year, when it’s milder weather, but the bugs aren’t out yet, and the trees have no leaves so the sunshine can reach everywhere. It’s the vernal version of Indian summer from an anticipatory perspective. I’ve gone to bed with a headache a few nights lately, which I’m guessing has something to do with a stand of pernicious Bradford pears somewhere upwind. Even this makes me happy,  because it means winter is easing its hold.

Putting in my first four flats of pansies makes me happy, and the impatiens aren’t far behind. Having to change the kitty litter less often (because kittehs play outside) makes me happy. Having the sun up as I awaken makes me happy. The titles that in my head have been “Spring 2018” for most of the past year are finally barreling toward publication, and that makes me really happy. (That’s a working cover for My Own True Duchess.)

I see not one but two winter storms in the forecast. We got a foot of snow last week, the biggest dump of the year for my neck of the woods. The hard part isn’t over, but the waters of cold, darkness, and fatigue are receding. Yes, I know I’ll be bellyaching about the bugs, the heat, the snakes, the humidity, the jungle that is my yard, but for now I look forward to the warmth and light, just as I looked forward to the coziness, peace, and snowfalls of winter.

What lifts your spirits this time of year? Or do you mourn to see winter passing and dread the hotter months? To one commenter, I’ll send a $25 Barnes and Noble Gift Card.

The Good-bye Gaze

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love well that which thou must leave ere long. (Shakespeare Sonnet 73)

The primary reason I’ve remained in Maryland for the past thirty-plus years is that I’m admitted to the practice of law only in Maryland. I’ve never sat for any other bars, never had a need to. But I also know that I tend to attach to places rather than to people. My mom had to move around a lot growing up during the Depression. She and my dad raised all seven children without once changing our address. I raised my daughter a mere four-hour drive from where I grew up, and she too, knew only one childhood home.

That daughter, though, has fallen in love with Oregon. As luck would have it, Baby Brother is tired of Montana winters, and thinking of moving to Oregon. He’s a master carpenter and sometimes general contractor, and we got to talking about my house. Every major system in this house–plumbing, heating, electric, windows–needs attention, despite regular maintenance over the years.

So I took pictures to try to explain to my brother some of the projects I’m facing here, and a funny thing happened when I saw my house in photographs. Yes, the floor needs refinishing, but that is the original tongue-and-groove yellow pine floor laid down by somebody who was probably born when King George III was still on the throne. That wall of exposed logs is American Chestnut, and we aren’t making any more of those since the Chestnut Blight came through a hundred years ago and wiped out the species.

I started scrolling back through my pictures, and instead of a tired little homestead, I saw beauty. I even saw splendor, and peace. I saw thousands of flowers down through the years, some dear old horses, and more cats than I can count. I saw a little girl who was mostly happy here, and a Mom was mostly happy too.

My brother’s advice was to move on. To leave the fixer-upper phase to somebody with the skills to tackle it.  But how can I leave this home that has sheltered me through so much? This little house where I’ve written so many books, where I’ve retreated from a hard, tiring world to the one place that is mine to make as I please? This has been the very best home for me, for these thirty years.

I’m going to fix the house up, both because I want a decent place to live for the foreseeable future, but also because when the time comes that it’s no longer the best home for me, I want to hand this property on to somebody who will fall in love with it as I have.

When you’ve faced a major transition, a move, a job change, a marital upheaval, what steps do you take to keep your balance amid the change and amid the emotions change engenders? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed quartet of the Windham Brides books.

Why Lucky Balls Are Better

So, March 17. St. Patrick. Chased the snakes away from Ireland. Or something. There’s chocolate cake involved (rumored to include mashed potatoes), so I don’t question the day too closely.

March 17 is also St. Gertrude’s Day, and SHE is the patron saint of cats. If you weren’t raised Catholic, patron saints can seem a little hinky. St. Jude is the patron saint of hopeless causes. St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost things.  There’s a list, and you can shoehorn your situation onto it, using St. Jude, for example, as a saint to invoke in the case of a failing relationship or a car that won’t start on a frigid morning (I’ve done both). St. Jude must be a very busy guy.

One of the earliest “prayers” I learned was, “Dear St. Anthony, please come around. My glasses are lost, and cannot be found.” I still have the pair of glasses I’m rockin’ in the picture to the left. Seemed like St. Anthony took his “lost things” job seriously, because invariably, if I said the St. Anthony prayer, my specs would turn up.

But was the force at work St. Anthony, or something else? A bright soul by the name of Lysann Damisch from the University of Koln, Germany, decided to test the impact of a lucky charm on performance. She set up a putting challenge, and told half the golfers that they had been given “lucky balls.”

Stop snickering, this is science–German science, no less.  The golfers with lucky balls performed 35 percent better than the golfers with regular balls. She did another experiment, asking people to bring along their good luck charm when they worked on an anagram quiz. Again the people with the charm did much better on the test than those without a lucky charm. They also worked longer on the tough questions, had more confidence in their abilities, and assessed their skills as more impressive than the non-charmers did.

My mother believed in the power of St. Anthony, so when she sent me to hunt up my missing glasses, her expectations were that I would find them. The first couple of times that  “St. Anthony” came through for me proved that he was the right guy for the job, and thus my confidence and determination were elevated on subsequent quests.

Saints might well be intervening, but it’s also the case that magical thinking is enormously powerful. If you believe you sleep better with your special teddy bear, you will sleep better. If you think Friday the 13th is unlucky, it probably will be. And who knows. If you think St. Jude can bail out that failing relationship, he just might. Think of all the professional athletes with their goofy rituals. They made it to the pros with those rituals, while the rest of us washed out in the sandlot.

Were you raised with any “good luck” rituals? Do you have a good luck charm? Maybe you have other ways to boost confidence and inspire determination? To one commenter, I’ll send a one-pound box of Irish Potato candy.

A Thirst for Lemonade

Later in life, my mom lost most of her sight and most of her hearing. That was not fun, but it inspired her to continue her four-mile daily walks as long as she could, because her gross motor skills remained in good shape well into her eighties. If she’d kept more vision and hearing, she might have neglected her walks (and the low-impact socialization they offered, and the great supply of Vitamin D) for the sedentary and solitary pleasures of reading or watching her beloved Padres baseball team.

She could tell in the opening games of the season which pitchers and batters were likely to have a good year, which ones weren’t coming out strong. How? She couldn’t hear the blah-blah-bah commentary, she couldn’t see the stats at the bottom of the big hi-def screen. All she could evaluate were the player’s game, his body language, his physical attitude. From diminished faculties, she became more astute, and held onto mobility much longer than many of her peers.

This concept of turning defeat into victory is a common theme in romance novels. I’m reading The Sins of Lord Lockwood by Meredith Duran (and loving every page). Lockwood begins the story as an impoverished, charming, bon vivant earl, though we learn he’s determined to marry for money because hundreds of employees and tenants are depending on him to rescue the earldom’s finances.

After a time, Lockwood reappears as a man who has endured brutal, prolonged trauma about which his wealthy wife knows nothing. He still looks like the charming earl, but inside, he’s coping with a heap of PTSD, shame, bewilderment… He needs everything–the charm, the humor, the toughness, the courage–to earn his happily ever after with Anna. Though he’d rather cling to either bitterness or denial, he instead finds a new way forward that neither the bon vivant nor the survivor could have envisioned.

One of the child-welfare professionals I respect the most wanted very much to be a dad, but never became one. This is not a perspective we hear much about–a man bereaved by childlessness–but I’ve never met a clinician with more heart for children, and more determination to have a positive impact on behalf of children.

I see a confluence of two factors in these very admirable characters and people who can make lemonade out of lemons. First, they are determined. Mom couldn’t hear the baseball games, but if she tilted her head at a certain angle, she could see a lot of the action. She got really, really good at analyzing what she saw.

Second, they are creative. My childless friend is the only PhD social worker I know, and in fact heads up an academic social work department. He doesn’t have children, but he has mentored hundreds of child welfare social workers instead.

I want to be determined and creative in the face of life’s lemons, and I want those kinds of people around me when the going gets tough, which it often does. Have you noticed somebody mixing up a tasty batch of lemonade? Have you had to brew any yourself? To one commenter, I’ll send a copy of The Sins of Lord Lockwood.


From Courtroom to Courtship (in 343 pages)

I am very fortunate that single motherhood befell me at a time when that didn’t mean my ruin and my child’s doom. It did mean a lot of hardship for my daughter, and some stress for me, but I was in good health, had access to good medical care, had good earning capability, and–most important of all–had and have the love of a wonderful family to support me.

So, a-mothering I did go and I have never regretted it.

Every week in the courtroom, I see other single moms who aren’t as lucky. Maybe they’re too young to have developed any earning capability, maybe they don’t have loving family, maybe they have mental illness and low cognitive functioning and a history of trauma… I represent their children, but I also feel for those moms.

This is part of what motivated me to write Charlotte Windham’s character for A Rogue of Her Own, though I won’t spoil the specifics. Charlotte cares too, and at time when her concern sets her apart from her peers in an inconvenient way.

In the same courtroom, I see Dads fallen on hard times. They didn’t control their tempers, or their drinking, when control was imperative. They are serving time. They are behind on child support payments, or they simply remained distant from their own children because of conflict with Mom. Every one of these guys would say they love their kids, and I believe them.

When it comes time to visit those children, though, the local Department of Social Services has no after hours visitation facilities. Working parents must visit during working hours… This can be impossible. As low-wage workers just starting a new job, with no leave, no seniority, no money for transportation, cutting out work a few hours every week to ‘see the kids’ can mean losing the job.

Losing the job can mean going back to jail, losing the apartment, losing the chance to ever parent those children. Missing visits ALSO means losing the chance to ever parent those children. What’s a parent to do?

And this conundrum too, informed my developed of Lucas Sherbourne. He’s so convinced that his responsibility as Charlotte’s husband is to be a financial mover and shaker, somebody who brings prosperity to the whole valley so Charlotte’s ducal family won’t look down on her for marrying him. He really is a sweet guy, but his version of partnering Charlotte–and her version of partnering Shebourne–needs about 343 pages of work.

I don’t always get such meaty themes to give my books substance. Some books are mostly for fun, others have gone a little too dark (looking at you, Michael and Brenna). A Rogue of Her Own is by no means a dark tale–not at all. But the books where I know what my theme is, what values conflict is keeping my characters apart, tend to be the easier books to write, and the ones the readers both like and remember.

So I hope you enjoy A Rogue of Her Own (comes out Tuesday), because authoring this story was very satisfying. To one commenter, I’ll send an audio version of Charlotte and Sherbourne’s story. If you were going to write a novel, what theme or conundrum would you want to explore? What social question might your characters view from conflicting perspectives?

In Other Matters

The first time I was aware of being an Other—an outsider, a freak—was in my early teens. A friend and I were riding our horses in rural Pennsylvania and we passed either an Amish or an Old Order Mennonite school house. The children were outside, and as a group, they lined up to laugh and point at my friend and me. We were apparently a hilarious sight—to them.

Or at least I think that’s why they were laughing at us. I do not speak Pennsilfaanisch Dietsch, so I couldn’t ask them. I have never forgotten my sense of bewilderment, though, to be riding along on a pretty day—something I’d done many times—and abruptly become an object of group derision. I was uneasy, possibly even frightened—of laughing children.

I’ve had the same sense to a lesser degree elsewhere in life. I defy you to tell a lawyer joke that doesn’t include an undercurrent of meanness toward lawyers, for example. I get classified as an other because I’m a lawyer, because I’m female, because I’m old (oldish, compared to my late parents), because I love words. In fifth grade, the othering—we call it bullying too sometimes—became so vicious, my mother put me in a different school.

Sometimes the message is subtle—there are no clothes that fit me in the entire lady’s fashion store, despite the fact that I’m within two sizes of average in many styles. If you’ve seen internet trolls at work, you’ve seen a desperate, ugly, public attempt to label somebody as an Other, and inevitably (our brains work this way) as lesser.

I didn’t realize how pervasively this dynamic had soaked into my life until I was at a Romance Writer’s of America conference a few years ago. In that milieu, to be my age, my gender, my size, doing what I do, dressing the way I dress, expressing myself the way I do, with the degree and type of smarts I have  (and even my kind of not-so-smarts), is NORMAL.

Right down the list, I fit in with that crowd, even in the ways I don’t fit in. To be in my mid-fifties before I had an experience of being professionally normal is a miserable reflection on the narrow bandwidth society approves of in most regards, but I’m still glad I got a taste of professional life without deflector shields.

I’m going to watch Black Panther, where I might be a slightly Other member of the audience. I travel to froeign countries, where again, I’m an Other. I have slogged through decades in the courtroom, in the last county in Maryland to appoint a female judge to the bench. I figure the more I look for opportunities to be a benign, curious stranger, the less and less I’ll be an Other, and the more we’ll all just be people.

Where have you been an Other, where have you seen somebody treated as an Other? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of Kelly Bowen’s latest release, A Duke In the Night.

Goal Posting

I often think I’m closing in on the end of a book, think I can see that “through line,” wrapping up, the MGM orchestra finishing on a lovely triple-forte kiss… but oops, I need a scene showing what happens to the bad guy. So I write that scene.
And I also need a scene to wrap up the subplot.
I write that scene.
And I also need a scene for the secondary hero to leave town so the next book is set up.
And I write that scene…. The goal posts keep moving. Winter can pull the same maneuver. We get a few temperate days, I open the house up, start the day with tea on the front porch… then more snow in the forecast. Happens three weeks in a row, then five weeks in a row.
My day job has done the same thing. Three years ago, I thought I was done with courtroom representation. I’d hired good people and enough of them that I could stick to the administrative work, troubleshooting, and emergency back-up appearances.

The good people went elsewhere, and twice, I’ve had to suit up and get back on the horse. This is Not Fun. I’m finding that every time I have to raise my deflector shields after adjusting to life outside the courthouse, it’s harder. I’m that much more tired, that much more impatient to be free of the whole business.
And that sense of having to get back on a horse when I’m saddle sore, has been dogging me lately. A combination of the winter blahs, the lawyer-blahs, the homeowner blahs, the body-owner blahs. I know Canada has provincial holidays this time of year, because the late-winter blahs are that much a thing.

I’ve bought myself a Daylight, because I know it helps my mood and energy. Its primary function is to regulate my circadian rhythm, so the dreary days don’t tempt me to push bedtime ever later.
I’m also declaring Monday a Goof Off Day. I’m not going into the office, probably won’t write new material, might get some housework done (this is such a novel activity, it can qualify as a diversion).
I’m keeping flowers in the house, bright reds and yellows. I’m re-reading my keeper authors. I’m trying to be conscientious about getting on the tread desk, though that is ever a struggle.
Mostly, I’m relying on the calendar. Today we got a couple inches of snow. Tuesday, it’s supposed to be in the seventies. Spring is coming. I just need to hang on. I’ll get the book written (again), I’ll find my balance in the courtroom (again), and spring will arrive.
How do you cope when the winter-blahs or the job-blahs, or the I-thought-we-were-done-with-this blahs hit?
To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of  A Rogue of Her Own.

If You Can Do It For Joy…

First, thanks to everybody who commented last week. You overwhelm me with your interest and with your insights. I’ll continue working through the comments between ice storms and power blinks.

I’m also continuing to work through my “Write Better, Faster,” workshop, and this week’s exercise is to keep track of how we’re spending our time. Not only are we writing down what we’re doing, we’re writing down whether it’s essential, a high priority, a desirable activity, or a non-essential task. Finally, we’re keeping track of how we feel about the various to-do’s we’re doing.

This is tedious, and finding the time and motivation to make one more list has been a struggle. Interestingly, the presenter puts great emphasis on the need for adequate sleep. We haven’t yet discussed adequate rest, rejuvenation, or joy. We will doubtless get to that–the presenter is very knowledgeable and thorough–but I think I might need theremedial sessions on that topic.
As I read down my time log, I’m struck by two things. First, so much of what goes into a day is non-negotiable. We must procure groceries, we must tend to hygiene, we must deal with the bank, we must get the scripts filled, we must eat, we must show up for that day job.

Second, so little of what I do in my day occasions joy. I’m grateful for my many freedoms and privileges, I’m grateful to have a meaningful day job (well, most days I’m grateful…), I’m grateful to have food to eat (really grateful), but the reality is, I can’t eat what I want to eat (not without life-threatening consequence). I can’t miss court (not without profession-threatening consequences). I can’t blow off taking out the trash or putting gas in the car.

Most of my days aren’t awful. They hover between boring and OK, with some tedium or some pleasantry thrown in. I am very, very lucky and I know it. But I also see that list of chores–most of what I do is a chore of some sort–and I see the emotional monotony it invokes, about a much bigger chunk of my time than I would have suspected.

Which leaves me with why I write: I love to write. I’m happy when I write. I’m not content to do it, or OK with it, or comfortable with it. I love to write. Doesn’t matter if it’s a blog post, an email, or a scene for a novel (wrote a hot scene today–wheee!), I was born to write. If I can get some writing hours in most days, then all the other duty-do’s are bearable.

Writing is the one item on my list that has words like “Yum!” and “Lovely!” beside it, every time that activity is on my time log. So as I move into 2018, I want to make sure I get that writing time in, no matter what.

What were you born to do? What’s the activity on your schedule that would almost always have a smiley face beside it? Can you do more of that?

To three commenters, I’ll send signed copies of A Rogue of Her Own


Strong and Graceful

I believe in love. I also believe in education, so I’m enrolled in a class titled, “Write Better, Faster.” Speed doesn’t interest me–Margaret Mitchell wrote one book, shifted significant discussions, and retired wealthy–but the part about writing better…that caught my eye.

One of the course instructor’s first points is that when we focus on our strengths in addition to our weaknesses (not instead of), we often see astonishing benefits. She cited a study done by the Gallup Institute (of Gallup polls fame), involving reading speed. A group of school children were all given the same instruction on how to improve reading speed. The slow readers doubled their reading speed (from an average of 70 wpm to 140 wpm) which is a fine result. The fast readers increased their reading speeds up to ten times, some of them reaching speeds of 2900 wpm.

To get a sense of how fast that is, those fast readers could zip through a 90,000 word manuscript in about 32 minutes, but because they were already fast readers, the likelihood of them ever being put in the path of speed reading instruction was slim to none.

We don’t teach to our strengths.

One of the realizations I’ve come to early in this course is that I had to stop and think–hard, at length–to even identify my strengths, while my weaknesses are… I have a list right here. I’ve been carrying that list around since childhood, adding to it a lot more frequently than I cross anything off. While we see our weaknesses as susceptible to improvement, we tend to badly underestimate the effort necessary to address them.

This half-empty mindset can make for a lot of frustration. The data is, when we spend our days focused mostly on what we do well, what we love to do, what comes naturally to us, we’re happier, healthier, more productive, more creative, more energetic, more resilient, and better learners. That seems like common sense, but life–in the form of bills that must be paid, children who must be raised, and employment situations beyond our control–has a way of obscuring common sense.

I also think this is a gendered issue. Women are culturally expected to put their own needs behind those of family and co-workers, and thus doing the blah jobs, ignoring our own boredom, and forgetting what a great day feels like, goes with the gender terrain for many of us.

I hope to widen the portion of my life that comes from my strengths. I want to be a happy camper, same as everybody else, but I’ve also learned that when we have that great privilege of playing and working to our strengths, we’re much more likely to make progress tackling the weaknesses.

What’s something you absolutely love to do and do well? Is there a way to do more of it?

To three commenters, I’ll send signed author copies of A Rogue of Her Own.