Stocking Stuffer Housekeeping

The Thanksgiving holiday meant I had a week with no obligations off the property. This hasn’t happened for a while, so I decided to make it a low RPMs week. I’ve done my daily writing sessions (nothing like a new duke to get my fingers flying), and made the grocery run, but other than that I am rolling around in my own private Idaho. Wheee!

For no discernible reason, I decided that I would add to my slack days a goal of getting one thing per day cleaned or tidied up that isn’t on the mandatory routine list. I got the top of the fridge cleared off yesterday (the cats love how warm it is up there). Another day, I organized some kitchen cabinets. My ambitions are minimal: Straighten out one shelf so the little spice bottles don’t come tumbling down whenever I open cabinet door. (That minimal.)

Get after all the folded up and stashed grocery bags. They are a fire hazard, Grace Ann, and you can recycle both paper and plastic.

Compost heap the outdated food gathering dust on the pantry shelves. The raccoons, skunks, groundhogs, and possums don’t know from expiration dates, and the nights are getting chilly.

My really big accomplishment was to put a hook on the outside of the laundry room door, so the cats can’t go in there. (Took me five minutes once I found the right size nail for the hole to guide the screws.) The door closes from the inside (another hook), but I never got around to the outside work-around when the ancient door-knob mechanism died years ago.

The results of my one-thing campaign are nearly invisible to anybody who doesn’t live here, but I intend to persist. It is lovely to not have to wipe paw prints off the washer and dryer every day. It is delightful to open a cupboard without fear of being spice-bombed. The kitchen feels easier to navigate without a hoard of grocery bags crammed between the fridge and the counter.

I might run out of steam tomorrow, but so far… I am liking this trend, for two reasons. First, I’m happier in my house. I don’t see the dirt the way some people do, but I still live here, and my environment has an impact on my outlook. The endless paw prints, the flying cloves… they take a micro-toll on my energy and joy, and why pay extra tolls?

The second benefit came as something of a surprise. This is the time of year when we’re bombarded with requests for donations, when we’re exerting ourselves to be sociable to people we might honestly rather avoid. We’re subtly nudged to be nicer, more generous, more grateful. Heaven knows the world is full of deserving causes, but as we head toward the end of the year, it can feel like one big Go Emotionally and Monetarily Fund Everything.

To donate fifteen minutes a day to the longer term dignity and peace of my dwelling, to be able to say, “That’s a little better!” about the place where I live, feels good. I am deserving of a pleasant home–everybody is–and taking baby steps to bring that boon closer reminds me that charity begins at home.

What will you give yourself in the coming weeks–we’ve all been very good this year, right? What would you like from others?

PS: Miss Dramatic hits the retail shelves on Tuesday. If you’d like an e-ARC, please email me at [email protected], and let me know which device you read on.

 

 

Happy Trials (sic) to You

I left the practice of law because a contract I’d held for twenty-five years (representing foster children in my county) was awarded to another vendor who had much higher prices, no experience in my jurisdiction, and no staff in my jurisdiction when all three factors were mandatory bid evaluation criteria.

Being told my services were inadequate was no fun, but I was so relieved to get shut of the political, crooked, grueling procurement process (my law school major was procurement law, and this process was black letter crooked), that I just wanted to be done. No farewell lunch, no flowers on the last day, just pack up the files and get on with life. (And a trip to the New Zealand Romance Writers conference lifted my spirits considerably!)

When my former husband asked for a divorce, I was sad and bewildered (“Did I do something wrong?” “No.”), but you can’t make another person happy, so best of luck, and off we go.

When I quit making a living as a musician, that was sad too. I was a terrible performer, but a pretty good teacher, and a competent dance class accompanist and pit pianist. I could not see myself having the stamina to succeed within the narrow band of abilities I had after years of practicing daily for hours, so… give up and move on.

I contrast these exits with my recent experience trying to find another barn where I can get back in the saddle. The first three places I’ve queried have “had no openings.” These barns are scrounging for birthday parties, but they can’t put me on a horse for an hour a week? I am, admittedly, a tri-fecta of what nobody wants in a riding student (and I make my situation plain when I query): Un-athletic, un-ambitious, and un-wealthy (by horse people standards), but still…

A Gentleman in Challenging Circumstances by Grace BurrowesI did not see getting voted off the horseback riding island coming. I’ve been a lover of horses since childhood. Long before I was a lawyer, musician, writer, or much of anything… I loved horses. I was a horse girl. I am still a horse girl (the only context where I will permit my very adult self to be designated as any sort of girl). I am not done looking for ways to get back in the saddle, but I’m a bit daunted. Not daunted enough to buy another horse (yet), but pretty close.

Have you ever been voted off the island? Not picked for any team? How did you recover? ARCs for A Gentleman in Challengng Circumstances still available. Just email me at [email protected] and tell me what sort of device you read on.

 

In the First Place

When I draft a scene, the initial result is often what writers call, “Talking heads in a white room.” I hear the scene first: What are the characters saying? What are the ambient sounds? Are the birdies tweeting as harbingers of budding attraction, or is conversation impeded by somebody doing a bad job of minor scales on the clarinet two rooms away?

I will read over the scene before I close the document and leave myself a note: Where are these people, Grace? What time of day? SETTING, please. The next morning, I begin by buffing yesterday’s new words and that’s when I focus on setting.

Setting matters. Setting can be full of micro-symbols (cooing doves), foreshadowing (why minor scales, and is there any sneakier instrument than the clarinet?), or create conflict. Is Lord Hopeless trying to propose while a marching band goes by? Is Miss Villainous pouring lies into Our Hero’s ear in the same beautiful lakeside folly where he first kissed Our Heroine three scenes ago?

Readers are mighty smart, and they pick up on all those cues.

After lacing in some setting and symbolism for once this week’s scenes, I bethought myself about the settings in my life.

I love to be home. It’s my favorite place in the whole world, though my house is more quirky than lovely. And yet, I rarely get my best writing ideas at home. My happy place for plotting is behind the wheel of my car. I associate my car with safety (hard to flee a natural disaster on foot), mobility, independence, purpose, competence… all good things. I’ve driven every major east-west interstate in the country, and invariably, I did that driving in silence.

I can think in the car, My mundane burdens–do I have enough cat food? Did I pay the power bill?–don’t stare at me from the corners of the room, and neither do the dust bunnies and other distractions.

Guess Who at Scott’s Overlook, Scottish Borders

When prisons start showing nature movies in the gym, the incidents of violence go down. The side of a prison that has windows will be less violent than the side that does not. Patients in hospital rooms with windows heal faster and with fewer complications than patients in rooms without windows. Even being able to SEE somewhere else–a different setting–has a beneficial effect on us. (Another reason that setting matters–readers get an imaginary glimpse of somewhere else.)

My theory is that we were hunter/gathers for much, much longer than we’ve been anything else, and we’re predisposed to benefit from regular changes of scene. We do better for wandering around a bit, and exploring the occasional detour. Since the pandemic forced us to huddle at home for three years, anxiety diagnoses have gone up 25%. Not a straight line correlation, but might be something causal in the mix.

Hence, my question: How, when, and why do you change scenes?

 

Shutdown Resolutions

I came across two ideas this week that feel related. First, in the Todoist (to-do-ist) newsletter, the topic was shutdown rituals. The eponymous app (which I have no idea how to use) is aimed at keeping remote work productive. For some people, living and working in the same place means clear boundaries between personal and professional identities take extra work, Having a shutdown ritual–good-bye, work day/hello, rest of my life–can help with that.

I have a shutdown ritual for the end of my day, but not for the end of my writing sessions, nor do I want one. I want my subconscious to know the writing tab is always open, and to be focusing on writing-related challenges (what keeps the couple in my work in progress apart?!), when I’m asleep, in the shower, or driving to the horse barn.

Then the second idea arrived, courtesy of author Charles Finch’s social media feed. Charles writes the utterly delightful Charles Lenox mystery series, which is set in Victorian England. He asked his readers: What are your-rest-of-the-year resolutions?

One of the casualties of the pandemic for me was my sense of time passing in discreet, orderly units. Days blended into weeks and months, some years went by, and now… I can mostly tell you what day of the week it is, and even get the date right too, but it’s still not automatic, and it should be. It used to be.

So I’m asking myself: What end of year resolutions will help me wish 2023 a friendly farewell? How can I use the next two months to fashion a shutdown ritual for 2023? I will get after my now dormant flower beds (yay for the first frost!), plant next year’s bulbs, probably do a wardrobe review, and take a break from writing this blog.

In the coming weeks, I’ll also be looking for ways to punctuate the farewells that happened in 2023. Farewell to riding horses (for now at least). Farewell to about 35 pounds (and may they please stay the heck gone and take another 35 with them). Farewell to hiding in the house to do my steps on the tread desk when I live in a gorgeous corner of the world.

Respect for ChristmasI will think more on this business of shutdown rituals and rest of the year resolutions. Both topics help me focus on being present in the time I have, in the situation I’m in, and that’s generally a good thing.

Do you rely on any sort of bell-book-and-candle routines to switch gears? Are you hoping to get some projects completed before the New Year arrives?

PS: For the whole month of November, my Windham Brides holiday novella, Respect for Christmas, is priced at $.99 on all the major retailers. This is Henny Whitlow and Michael Brenner’s tale, and one of my faves.

PS: If you’d like an ARC copy of Miss Dramatic, due out Nov. 27 on the retail sites, please email me at [email protected], and let me know what device you read on.

All Work and No Joy

I recall being about six weeks into my first full-time post-collegiate job, one that expected unpaid overtime, offered few benefits, and had tons of deadline stress, when it occurred to me, “This is what being grown up means. You work forty hours a week not including the exceedingly tedious commute, and if there’s any energy left over, you do laundry, lug groceries, and clean the nest. Welcome to adulthood?”

The business I worked for competed for government contracts, and it was plain to me that the point of all that competition was to keep the president’s sailboat in good trim and to ensure that his membership at the swanky country club never lapsed. I was absolutely bewildered to think that I’d slogged through seventeen years of education, part-time jobs, and more education to… hate my life?

I was lonely, bored, tired, broke, and supposedly on my way as a “successful professional.” This was all very bewildering. Matters improved somewhat when I ditched the Beltway Bandits for the practice of small town law. My motivation was as follows: I had become a single mother, and spending three or four hours a day commuting that I could have been spending with my kid was morally untenable for any amount of money. I was all the family my daughter had on hand, and she did not ask to be born. Time for me to Mom Up.

And yet, the practice of law was no great shakes either. I was good at the niche I’d found–foster care law–but far from happy in my work.  A case that ends up in foster care court means somebody has already dropped the ball, hard. But, I told myself, the work was meaningful. I could–if I was lucky and diligent–make a positive difference,

and besides, the bills had to be paid.

I think that was my parents’ Depression-era mentality talking–the voice that says any job is better than no job, and the bills must be paid–but I wish that voice hadn’t been so loud in my head for so long. Not until I started writing silly little love stories (I was fifty when my first book was published) did I get to a place where I felt my work was meaningful, sufficiently lucrative, and also joyful. 

The advice I gave my daughter, until she was probably sick of hearing me say it, was, “When you think about where to put your fire, do the thing you love so much, you are going to do it whether you get paid for it or not. Life is too short to hate your job, and much too short to ignore your passions.”

A Gentleman of Dubious Reputation by Grace BurrowesI have always, always loved to write, whether it’s composing an email or writing a twelve book series, but as a young and even middle-aged adult, I ignored what gave me joy, and particularly did not expect to find joy on the job. I’m paying attention to the joy now, by gum, and I am desperately grateful that I can earn my living the way I do.

What advice do you wish somebody had given you earlier in life? Or did somebody come along with a timely word that helped you change directions when change was needed?

 

Horse Sense

Me and my backyard Belgian, and yes, he was as big as he looks!

A neighbor asked me to horse-sit for her earlier this week. Because I know the horse who needed tending is a gentleman of impeccable manners, I agreed. When my daughter was in middle and high school, I had a couple horses in the back yard, pensioners who had earned a peaceful sunset, and who had no fancy requirements. I know the horse care drill from long acquaintance.

From time to time, I’ll see an old photo and think, “Sweetie and Pasha were the best. They were family and I miss them.” When Pasha trotted over the rainbow bridge, I found a Belgian draft gelding to keep Sweetie company, and when Sweetie also went to her reward, I returned the Belgian to the rescue from whence he’d come, per my agreement with them.

At the time, I was tempted to simply find another pensioner, and keep the backyard pony phase going, but… one fine day, I was doing the barn chores when only the Belgian was in residence, and with no malicious intent whatsoever, he kicked me in the thigh. Six inches lower, and he could have wrecked my knee, but he got me where I was sturdiest, and so my souvenir was simply a huge bruise.

And yet, that bruise made up my mind. In the lower part of my barn, the stone walls are two feet think. I have no cell reception there, and if that horse had been aiming to do me a mischief…

So no more backyard horses, though I’ve been so, so tempted. Trail rides around the neighborhood would be lovely, and I do love the beasts.

Fast forward to this week, and I’m looking after one well-mannered horse for a very short time. What came back to me was how much I missed the horse girl life–though we knew that–and also, how much dang work it is. Feed comes in fifty pound bags, period, and a trip to Southern States generally meant picking up a ton of feed, all of which I wrangled from loading dock to feed room to grain buckets. Hay bales are at least fifty pounds, and horses eat a lot of hay.

All that eating means wielding the muck fork and the honey wagon, every day, and then there’s the joy of frozen water pipes, frozen meadow muffins, de-worming, annual shots, the occasional boo-boo or sore hoof, the not so occasional bills, and and and. Add to this the idea that even modestly conscientious horsekeeping means three visits to the barn every day, without fail, and finding horse sitters for vacations or emergencies is mighty hard.

I look back on what had been a passion for me, and all I can think is, “Who was that woman with all that energy and focus? Do I know her?” Maybe I squandered my fire on manure and bran mashes, though I don’t regret any of it. Having horses kept me fit without trips to the gym, gave me wonderful company here at home, and modeled to my daughter that we stay loyal to our friends for the long haul, not just when they are winning ribbons in the show ring.

A Gentleman in Challenging Circumstances by Grace BurrowesI am grateful for a chance to revisit my memories, to know again the sound of a horse enjoying breakfast on a crisp fall morning, to turn at the gate and see that himself is already nose down in the grass… but I will also be relieved to end my temporary shift, wash the eau du barn from my Hokas, and turn the chores back over to somebody else.

Do you look back on any phase of life with bewildered admiration? With puzzlement? Are you maybe due some admiration right now? (Looking at you, Susan G….)

I’ve given away some ARC’s of A Gentleman in Challenging Circumstances (starts downloading from the web store on Tuesday, print is already available), but if you’d like one, I’m happy to send out a few more.

 

The Importance of Being Careful

I told my sister about how delightful I find my fellow volunteers at the therapeutic riding barn. Most of us are old horse girls, no longer riding, though we still love horses and know our way around a stable. We sometimes tell each other the same story more than once, and every few weeks one of us is off to have a knee replaced, to start physical therapy, or to consult with eye specialist.

I really enjoy these people, and when my sister heard that, she said, “Why don’t you plan something social? A brown bag picnic, a delivered pizza lunch. Doesn’t have to be off-site, but sounds like a fun group to spend time with.”

I was… well, not stunned, but taken by surprise. Sister Dear went straight to the logical next step in building friendships: We have a lot in common, we seem to be good company, let’s try expanding our footprint just a little. But those steps did not occur to me. Did not even wave from my peripheral awareness, and I’m supposed to have a good imagination.

Fast forward to the weekly raid on Petsmart, and two young women from my former barn flag me down. We caught up on all the news. Barn manager ridin’ buddy has just committed to getting her horse a custom-made jumping saddle. The investment will be pricey for somebody on a limited income, but it’s much cheaper (and safer!) than trying to train a horse with a sore back. Working Student ridin’ buddy is looking for a horse to lease, a move-up horse who can get her to the next level, but not hold her there when more levels exist to be conquered.

My impulse in both cases was, “I can help them with those goals…” Meaning I can write a check. When the community swimming pool sent out an email asking for volunteer board members, my thought was, “I can write pretty well, I understand contracts, I have a master’s in conflict. I could probably be useful to them…” On the one hand, my impulse to be helpful is genuine, and I do like to see organizations and friends (well, almost everybody) thriving.

On the other hand… I know squat about running a swimming pool, and nobody has asked me to sponsor their equestrian ambitions. At the same time, my sister’s suggestion–that I just hang out with potential friends–struck me as extraordinary.

It occurred to me that by being helpful, whether I”m offering financial support or contract drafting, I’m playing it safe. I use my checkbook or skills as a pretext to participate (albeit vicariously) in somebody else’s dream or challenge. My ego and my heart aren’t on the line, because I’m the donor, the cheerleader, the pro bono lawyer.

A Gentleman in Challenging Circumstances by Grace BurrowesI hope some of my magnanimous inclinations are motivated by genuine big-heartedness, but I have to admit that I’m also at a loss when it comes to those brown bag picnics and happy hour pizza parties. I am much less sure of myself in purely social situations, and I’m a warp nine introvert. What if I get it wrong? What if I can’t locate all the exits? What if I’m not near an exit when I need one?

Much easier to play it safe, keep it about skills and objectives, and nosh on the protein bars I always have in my purse. Easier and safer–or is it?

How do you play it safe?

PS: Lord Julian’s third mystery, A Gentleman in Challenging Circumstances, is now available in print. If you’d like an e-ARC instead, just email me at graceburrowes.com.

New Tricks

Gnomeo
PATH 2020 Horse of the Year

The therapeutic riding barn where I volunteer runs its lesson program in seasonal quarters, and I am proud to say I survived my maiden assignments over the long, hot summer. I’m back for the fall session, and in the mood to reflect on the experience.

I went a-volunteering when my last horse retired, because I wanted to be around horses. Oddly enough, at the therapeutic barn, we leave the horses alone as much as possible. The barn is a busy place, and if everybody who had a mind to petted every equine nose in sight, those equines would have no bodily privacy.

Before I started this volunteer gig, I hadn’t really considered that Thunderbolt sticking  his head over his stall’s half-door isn’t a license for me to make free with his person. If my job is to groom and tack, well, yes, then I have a reason to intrude, and I’d best do it as politely as possible. If not… then it’s not the pony’s job to accommodate my need to pet him.

Teddy–AKA Mr. Terrffic

This is an aspect of being around horses I hadn’t really considered before. This barn also turns horses out between lesson sessions for as many consecutive days as the calendar (and severe weather) allow. Meals are brought out to the pasture on those term breaks, and the horses have no work stress put on them whatsoever. They graze, swish flies, play with their buddies, and nap in the shade or the run-in shed for days on end. A true vacation from the downsides of domestication.

Which has prompted me to wonder what a true vacation at home would look like for me?

I’m also learning horse stuff I haven’t come across before, and I have been a horse lover since wee pals. I did not know, for example, that if a horse for some reason falls, and it’s necessary for him to stay down for his own safety (tangled harness, for example), then I can keep that beast on the ground by bringing my weight to bear (carefully) on the top of his neck. If he can’t toss his head up to begin the getting-off-the-ground process, he can’t get off the ground. Might have to use this in a book!

Mighty Mae

I’ve known for some time that I missed the social aspect of being part of a horse barn. The timing of my rides at my last billet (weekday mornings) meant I hardly ever saw another rider, much less an instructor, and the barn help was generally too busy to shoot the breeze. At this barn, I have yet to meet a volunteer or staff member whose company I don’t enjoy. My Friday morning gig in particular is full of older ladies whose years in the saddle are mostly behind them. Some of these women have been volunteering with this organization for thirty years.

We have fun, we commiserate, we tell our horse stories, and we cooperate around the challenge of making sure every lesson goes as well as it can. I hadn’t anticipated that I could find my horse people tribe at a place where I’m not riding, that I’d still be learning horse stuff even in a volunteer capacity, and that appreciating a horse might mean leaving him the heck alone.

Hmm. Have you learned any new tricks lately?

 

Breakfast with Uncle Bob

My family’s political views range all over the spectrum, from libertarian to liberal, with lots of issue-by-issue gradations in between. I was nonetheless surprised to get into a political discussion over breakfast (while out in Utah) with a brother-in-law with whom I expected to disagree.

I’m pretty good at disagreeing, and I was even before I spent decades making my living in courtrooms. I have a reflexive yeah-but capability, and general skepticism toward self-appointed authority figures, which probably comes from being the youngest girl-child in a large, opinionated, family. In sixth grade I took great pride in debating whether marijuana should be legalized from different viewpoints at different times of the school year.

I won the debate both times, which I considered all in good fun–on that issue, at that time, when nobody had any real intention of legalizing pot.

Now, political discussions seem so much more fraught, and we see so little respectful debate, or skillful, informed rhetoric modeled for us. We seen even less good faith problem-solving collaboration. Growing up, I read George Will and watched Bill Buckley, who could both be contentious and even pompous, but never snide or demeaning to somebody with opposing views.

So imagine my surprise, when Uncle Bob and I–who “should” have disagreed on nearly everything, right down the line–instead agreed on a lot sources of present societal difficulties. On topics as diverse as campaign finance reform, the Fairness Doctrine, age limits rather than term limits, off-shoring jobs, the federal budget, and what to do about wealth inequality, Bob and I were of largely the same mind.

We found differences in terms of, “So what do we do about these issues?” but we agreed generally on causal factors. Any skilled negotiator will tell you, that agreeing on a mutually acceptable definition of a problem is step one in getting parties to work together to resolve that problem.

So I was encouraged by the conversation, but also daunted. Why wouldn’t I expect that a guy who’s been part of my family for decades, a thoughtful man, one cares for our planet and the denizens thereof, would have some common ground with me? Maybe even a lot of common ground? I know better, and going forward, I hope to do better.

Where do you see people doing a good job of disagreeing without being disagreeable? I am interested in this issue not just as voter and former attorney, but also as a novelist. If my protagonists can’t learn to have honest, respectful differences with each other, then their happily ever after might not be ever after, after all.

 

Happy Trials

Last week I wrote about how a trip to southern Utah gave Lord Julian’s work in progress a boost, but since I’ve come home, I’ve seen a few other boosts as well. First, and maybe most significantly, I’m sleeping better.

Why? Because to get to the site of my family reunion (Capitol Reef environs), I had to go very short of sleep one night, and then less than a week later, I took a red-eye home, so no sleep that night, which I did not enjoy (see restless leg syndrome at 38,000 feet). I napped upon landing, but not for long, and now, a week later, my sleep cycle still seems to be enjoying a benefit. I’m sleeping well, not just thrashing around in bed while it’s dark outside.

And when I sleep well, everything goes better.

Another boost came from being at high altitudes (7000+ feet above sea level, which is high for me). I got good doses of Vitamin D without sunburning, and I probably made some extra red blood cells frolicking around up there in the thin air.

I got to trail ride with my daughter, something she set up for us that we haven’t done together for… twenty years? That did my heart more good than even abundant red blood cells. At one point, I got pretty rattled in the saddle. Because the horse ahead of us stopped, my mount had to halt at an awkward angle on a steep, narrow trail into a ravine. But I do know how to ride, the horse knew how to navigate the trail if I’d just leave him in peace, and we managed. Phew! and also, in a modest way, “We did it!”

Because I needed a pet sitter to look after the beasts while I traveled, I simplified my cat-care routine. Stripped it right down to bare necessities (well, the cats’ idea of bare necessities). Now, my pensioners do not expect private gourmet dining on separate plates in the kitchen, while the rank and file scarf the usual rations outdoors. I also cleaned out my fridge, because the pet sitter would be rummaging around in there, and … really, it needed doing.

I weathered the pandemic pretty easily, from what I gather, and that makes sense. I thrive on large amounts of solitude, I’m pretty self-entertaining, and I have a voracious reading habit. Then too, I was working from home before it was popular–I was one of the lucky ones. Nonetheless, all that hermiting caused my courage for adventures to Worth More Than Rubies by Grace Burrowesatrophy, and what courage I do have went to dealing with long haul COVID, economic uncertainty, and the stresses we all put up with for some very challenging years.

I’m reminded though, that adventures can bring happy surprises–good sleep is a very happy surprise–and that the courage well can be replenished in manageable doses, if I can just lure myself, even by baby steps–out of my comfy-productive ruts.

When was the last time you had to draw on a little extra courage? I’m still giving away ARCs of Worth More Than Rubies, though the ebook is also available from the web store, and the print version can be purchased from Amazon.