The Answer Is Yes

Once upon a time long ago, I was married to a nice guy who was a distance runner. This person completed marathons at under-six-minute pace, which was highly competitive at the time. For a lark, he ran (and won, and set records for) the occasional 50-miler. He was not built like a gazelle, as most ultra runners tend to be.

But this guy gloried in fitness, found peace and tranquility in righteous sweat, delighted in the day-after aches and pains. While we were together, I did some running at the 5-10k fun run level, and hated every step of it. I simply could not get my mind off the misery of exertion, no matter how fit I became. My former spouse, by contrast, had solved that riddle. According to him, after a certain point in the training, the challenge became mental, not physical.

Gee, that’s kinda like enduring a pandemic, isn’t it? The challenge is to manage anxiety, boredom, Zoom-fatigue, political tensions, loneliness, monotony, and that nagging sense that the goal posts keep moving. We did spring lock down, we did the summer bump, we hit the fall surge in September, and now… what the heckin’ heck? Vaccines for most of us are months away, if they work, if people will get them, if we can make enough of them, if if if…

When I was hamster-wheeling on those gloomy thoughts, I came across this helpful post from creative thinker Austen Kleon, who points out that when he’s making his art, there is no finish line. He gets a project done, but six more are lined up behind that one. He learns a new skill, and there are eight others he really wants to master as well.

Parenting has an element of that no-finish-line. You get the kids raised and out of the house, but you never stop doing what you can for them, and then grandkids come along, and great-grands, and the caring never ends. Same–I hope–with education. We graduate with a degree, and also an awareness that our ignorance remains vast and learning is a life-long process.

And I am cheered to think, that if I approach my writing as a process without visible end, and my parenting as a process without visible end, then I probably have some pretty well developed reserves of mental and emotional stamina when it comes to other long-haul challenges. Right now, I am in good health (for me). I am earning enough. I am in comfortable enough surrounds, and I am happy (also cranky sometimes, but happy).

If I ask myself, not, “Is the world ever going to come right, and if so WHEN?” which has no solid, happy answer, but rather, “Am I managing well enough right now?” the answer is yes. That, I think is what my distancing-runner spouse learned to focus on. Lap by lap, mile by mile, I’m managing well enough right now that I can keep going.

Do that long enough, and the other questions will eventually take care of themselves. Do you have some mental tricks or tips for coping with life these days? For coping with life generally? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 e-gift card.

Traveling Much in Graceland

I’ve been challenged this year in a lot of ways, not the least of which is creatively. To think new thoughts, we need to give our minds new content to chew on. That is a prime directive among the people who research innovation and break-through thinking. To figure out that Lady Louisa Windham had written a racy book, I had to go to a convention full of librarians and books and publishers in a city I’d never visited before. The idea “popped” into my head after three weeks of stewing, and three straight days of talking, seeing, and thinking about books in a way I hadn’t previously.

I did not know what Hamish Murdoch’s defining trauma was (The Trouble with Dukes) but once upon a time I did read–and love–the story of Ferdinand the Bull, a peace-loving fellow caught in a bad moment taken out of context. From the children’s classic to Regency romance was a short hop, but it was a hop in a direction that required connecting two very different genres.

So here’s 2020, and the only places I’m hopping are the same old grocery store, the same old bank, and the same old horse barn. For extra excitement, once a month I go to the same old gas station. The sideways and inside-out ideas are not exactly flooding to the front of my imagination.

So I am digging into biographies (Byron at the moment), taking Zoom writing classes, and casting around for ways to dive down not the rabbit holes Amazon’s algorithms think I’ll be most likely to consume, but the ones that might teach me something interesting that my readers would enjoy seeing wound through a good romance.

The current frolic has to do with champagne–how it’s made, when it became popular, why the British took to it more avidly than the French at first. (Because–this delights me–the British used coal-fired furnaces to make their glass bottles, while the French were limited to wood fires. The result was a British bottle that could safely hold much more effervescence than its weaker French counterpart. Wheee!)

I’ve been thinking a lot this year about how we’ve become so politically divided, and I’m wondering if the algorithms of “most likely consumption” aren’t partly to blame. The Amazons, Netflix, and Googles of the world don’t give me one nanosecond to think about what off-the-beaten-track idea or topic might interest me. I watched three episodes of Mrs. Bradley’s Mysteries, so I MUST want to watch thousands of episodes of Midsomer Murders next. Right? RIGHT?!!! (I tried Midsomer and did not like it.)

If all we’re exposed to is what we’re apt to binge watch, and not what stretches our imagination or piques our curiosity, we lose the habit of considering new ideas. We become algo-blind to the world’s variety and contrasts, and out of shape mentally for the effort it takes to look for challenges and novelty. One of the most delectable series I’ve watched is the Nicolas Le Floch mysteries, set in the final years before the French Revolution. The algos would NEVER have found those stories for me, and I only came across them because Joanna Bourne passed them along to me.

When you’re tired of the same old, same old, how do you discover new entertainments? Have you come across any pleasant surprises in that regard lately? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 e-gift card from the online retailer of your choice.

Like a Kid Again

So there I was on my weekly sortie to the horse barn, and a little snow squall blew through. The temperature was hovering around 40F, so nothing was going to stick, but the wind was ferocious, and the day FELT cold enough to snow.

When I realized, “Hey, it’s snowing!” my heart leapt up. My pleasure in the moment was spontaneous, but as predictable as winter itself. I love the sight of the first snow flurries and always have. In my family, there’s an oft-told story of one of my brothers, calling home from some far-away young adult adventure, and the pretext for his call was simply to crow to my mother, “It’s snowing!”

When I got home from the horse barn, I found an email from one of my sisters warning me that if a box of bulbs showed up in the mail without a note, that was her Christmas present to me–early enough so I could plant them before the ground froze. I typically plant several hundred bulbs each fall, and the thought of having yet still more to play with maketh me to smile. That my sister knows me well enough to add to my bulb stash is another cause for joy. (And if I run out of room on my own two acres to plant bulbs, I go freestylin’ up in the woods.)

Why do I like to plant flowers? Since childhood, I have enjoyed playing in the dirt. Flower gardening means I  can be outside, away from life’s vexations, puttering around with simple tools in hopes of making my springtime a little cheerier.

Reading was also a childhood pastime. My father believed that television was the devil’s invitation to idleness and mental passivity, so we were forbidden to watch TV on school nights (unless the Grinch was on, or a Charlie Brown special… Dad made a few exceptions). But we were allowed to read anything we could get our hands on, and I recall at least one summer when my mom got me to the library often enough that I read through every musical biography they had.

All of this puts me in mind of what a very experienced foster care supervisor told me years ago: We know which kids will probably succeed following a foster care experience, and which kids are more likely fail. Two factors separate the successes and failures in most cases. First, somebody showed the successes a healthy definition of love, and, second, somebody also saw to it that those kids had a healthy definition of play–recreation, messing around, having a good time, and enjoying themselves.

In the current situation, I can see how absolutely vital it is that I have the time and means to play. To hug a horse, to delight in snowflakes smacking me in the face, to curl up with a good book (Captain Lacey, represent!), or to while away an hour digging in the dirt restores my soul.

Do you play as you did in childhood? Is there a form of recreation you enjoyed earlier in life that you hope to get back to? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Amazon gift card.

Are We There Yet?

As I write this, Maryland is reporting its highest daily increase in COVID cases ever–by a big margin. At the grocery store yesterday, the paper goods aisle was more empty than stocked, and our schools state-wide have gone back to remote learning.

Not this again. But we know what to do–stay home, mask up, wash up. We’ve  figured that much out.

I’ve spent the past week attending a virtual writer’s workshop, and to hear the voices of people I know, inside my own house (coming through my Zoom screen) was disorienting because for months, that hasn’t happened. I haven’t associated with any of my familiars (except a few outdoor lunches with Graham). No writers conferences, no trips with my sisters. Nada.

It is important to properly prepare for your Zoom meeting.

And my situation is not unusual, except perhaps in that I live alone in the sparsely-populated countryside. I can walk for miles around my neighborhood and meet nobody in real life. (My neighborhood is rife with Regency characters not visible to the naked eye.) So the challenge for me, as we head into the big, bad winter, is how to connect up.

My six siblings have been a lot more text-y in recent months, and for major topics (one brother with a young daughter asked the sisters about playing with dolls), we’ll take it to email. One sister with progeny in Denmark is a pretty adept Facetimer. My Zoom skills certainly improved this past week, and I will propose to my sibs that we play Brady Bunch in my personal Zoom meeting room.

I’m seeing more content from my family on social media, and with my sisters, at least, we do occasionally talk on the phone–very occasionally. I suspect this winter we’ll resort to the phones more frequently, along with more email threads. I would not normally interact with my family all that much, but enforced isolation, a looming threat to everybody’s well being, and sheer loneliness will likely result in a different–and better–family dynamic.

How are you preparing for the COVID bonus rounds nobody wanted to see? In particular, how are you staying connected with the people you care about, and keeping the love going? How are you dealing with anxiety, and when this is all over (we will get through this!) how will you celebrate?

Because stocking up on books should be part of everybody’s coping strategy, I’ll send a $50 Amazon, Kobo, Apple, or Barnes & Noble gift card to one commenter–your choice of retailer.

 

Ten Things

I have stayed productive this week, the way my mom used to stay busy as a means of coping with anxiety. I’m not writing new words lately, but I surely did buzz through Lady Daisy’s copy edits, and I found a cover image for Andrew, and I got both Gareth: Lord of Rakes (republished version) and the Holiday Duet uploaded onto the web store… I’ve done my daily steps like a boss, kept an appointment with the derm (and the liquid nitrogen keritosis zapper), and read a ton of amazing manuscript pages for an upcoming writer’s workshop.

All of which helps me feel more able to cope with a daunting world. And yet, staying busy is just one coping mechanism. For me, it also helps to have things to look forward to, and lots of ’em. The smiley faces on my calendar remind me that life is sweet, I have friends and writin’ buddies, my work matters, and I have reasons to rejoice. What’s on my things to look forward to that list?

A new Difficult Dukes title from Loretta Chase comes out Dec. 1, 2020: Ten Things I Hate About the Duke. ANYTHING written by Loretta Chase is cause for joy on my TBR shelf.

I’m having lunch (take out, consumed outside, sitting six feet apart) with my friend Graham. This solves all the problems of the world in about two hours flat.

The first snow flurries. We had the first frost last week. Next comes snow (but not the day I have lunch with Graham, please)!!!

Bridgerton!!! The first episode airs Christmas Day, so move over John Thornton, Mr. Rochester, and Darcy, because you have excellent company and lots of it.

Closing on the sale of my daughter’s house. We had three offers within 72 hours, and for that, I am so grateful I could just about swoon.

The blooming of my amaryllises. I have one that’s on its fourth bloom, but I’m sure I will acquire amaryllises as well. I find flowers more irresistible than ever in winter.

Spotting my first cardinal of the winter.

Baking homemade bread. I do this when it’s REALLY cold, which is also the only time I allow myself hot chocolate. Winter is for comfort food.

Climbing to bed at the end of each day with Gus (has the best purr), and a good book. I consider ending my day this way one of the greatest luxuries known to humanity. I’m reading a biography of Thomas Hardy at present–the Victorians were mighty peculiar.

And, lest we forget, next week’s publication of The Truth About Dukes. Both the Library Journal and Publishers Weekly gave Robert and Constance’s tale starred reviews, and at least for me, that never happens, so I’m doubly excited to see this story hit the shelves. What are YOU looking forward to? To three commenters, I’ll send signed print copies of The Truth About Dukes!

 

The Most Honest Medicine

Mrs. Bennet, the fluttery, ineffectual, anxious mother from Pride and Prejudice generally comes across as a comic figure, one whose foolishness stands in high relief to Lizzie’s common sense and insight. And yet, it’s Mrs. Bennet–the fool–who puts her finger on the central injustice in the book: Longbourn is entailed to the heirs male, as most large estates were, and the five women who call that place home will be left with nothing when Mr. Bennet dies. That is, plainly, absolutely not fair, and when Mrs. Bennet says as much, she’s ridiculed.

That injustice was central to Jane Austen’s life. She, her mother, and sister were cast upon the charity of her brothers when Mr. Austen died. One of those brothers was quite wealthy, and yet, the household established for the three women was humble. Why didn’t Jane or her sister simply marry? Three of their sisters-in-law died in childbirth, one after her tenth lying in. Wasn’t Regency society just a wonderful place for women?

Mrs. Bennet said what Jane could not: To be a woman forced to depend on male honor is terrifying.

Fools can get away with speaking the truth, and those who ought to take note can dismiss the fool as a fool, and ignore the truth. I’ve been struck in recent years by how much good news reporting John Oliver and his ilk can do–shining the unflattering light of truth in many directions–while calling what they offer humorous commentary. Other late night fools have done likewise, and we listen to them. They educate, annoy, provoke, and amuse us, but we listen to them.

When I first worked in a newsroom, I was taken aback by how dark the humor was, but then I got used to it, and eventually came to appreciate it. The foul language, cynicism, and inside jokes became a sort of fortification against all the misery peddled as news.

The same thing happened in the foster care court room. Over the years, the bailiffs, clerks, and attorneys all developed a kind of humor that you couldn’t grasp if you hadn’t put in those years with us. The quips were occasionally nasty or vulgar (also sometimes brilliant) and a shorthand way of saying, “This is a sad, tough place to work, but at least we work here together.”

We haven’t had much to laugh about this year, but still, there is humor to be found. Where have you been finding a good laugh (or a bad one), a chuckle, something to smile at, despite that truth it might convey?

To three commenters, I will send signed UK versions of The Truth About Dukes. These are big, pretty paperbacks (kitten not included) and I will send them anywhere in the world. (C’mon, Nov. 10!!!)

 

Once Upon a Pandemic (reprise)

So the prognostications are, the pandemic is going to smack us harder than ever this winter. Pandemic fatigue, indoor socializing, and weather the virus likes will conspire to prolong our misery. Well, phooey.

I’m put in mind, though, of the Great Depression, which lasted ten years by most estimates. My parents both recalled the Depression, which began in their childhoods, as a pleasant time. What’s up with that?

On Dad’s side, it was a time when his parents got along (they eventually divorced, long before it was popular). Grandpa was in charge of handing out subcontracts for the Long Island Railroad, and because businesses were desperate for his goodwill, he had better job security (and more perks) than at other times in his career.

On Mom’s side, her parents had to travel from Spokane, Washington, to Bangor, Maine, with four kids, because jobs for her mining engineer father were thin on the ground. She liked seeing the country, oddly enough. A road trip was just a big adventure to her. Imagine that.

For a time, her family doubled up with an uncle’s family, and all the kids bunked in the same room. She loved it, loved having more family around, loved having a chance to grow close to her cousins. Her family never was particularly well off, and from her childish point of view, the Depression didn’t make them much more poor.

I suspect my parents looked back–past Vietnam, Korea, WWII (Dad was in the Navy, Mom was a nurse) to a childhood that by comparison, was at least a childhood. The adults fretted over jobs, groceries, and places to live, the children just carried on. In both cases, they carried on in circumstances that to them, offered significant consolations.

I hope when this pandemic has subsided, we too will look back and see some consolations. For years, I prided myself on not owning a TV, not watching TV, not no TV, not no-how. Welp, there’s a pandemic on now. I’ve discovered British mystery series in the past six months, and I enjoy them. I suspect some people will always have a pandemic play list, pandemic comfort food carry out, and recall pandemic Zoom calls with Grannie.

Some news announcer got suspended last week because he inadvertently flashed his co-workers in a Zoom meeting. That is a boo-boo we can ALL  chuckle over, because now there’s such a thing as pandemic humor.

This is not a fun time, but in small ways, we are all making it as bearable as we can. For me, that means DCI Vera Stanhope and Inspector Lynley are my new friends. I’ve also visited with my neighbors while out walking more in the past six months than in the previous six years. For one of my writin’ buddies, pandemic coping has meant crocheting so much she’s opened up an Etsy store and is generating some craft income.

It’s not ALL awful, is it? How are you making it bearable, or what do you think you might recall about this time with a smile? To three commenters, I’ll send signed copies of The Truth About Dukes.

 

The Joys Have It

I normally end my day with a journal entry, all about my illustrious doin’s, how many steps I got in, what books I worked on. Not exactly late breaking news, but the process of reviewing and documenting the day helps me say good job and goodnight. I also list at least five things about that day that I’m grateful for.

That’s a good exercise for hitting re-set on my gratitude-o-meter, but I’m also aware that I’m tired of this danged pandemic. I’m tired of politics, financial upheaval, the publishing industry shooting around the room like a deflating balloon, and Not Being Allowed to Go to Scotland (I’m really tired of that).

So I’ve added another exercise to my sign-off routine. I ask myself: What did I enjoy today? It’s easy to know what upset me–my ignorant neighbor, Amazon’s “quality” dashboard, social media trolls, my sore thumb–and negativity has an insidious stickiness that makes dwelling on that stuff too easy. So I’ve been focusing instead  on all the little joys, and they are myriad.

I have a cat named Oscar, a young male, all black. He is soooooo soft, softer than mink. He’s a shy guy, but he likes to be petted, and I have delighted in our growing friendship. I cannot touch his fur and be tense. He’s that soft and sweet.

The sunlight this time of year is to me the most beautiful of all seasons. There’s something especially clear and lovely about mid-autumn sunlight, and it makes me think of my mother, who associated that light with “the night before the first frost.”

Then there’s my daily cup of jasmine green tea–one cup only, though I could swill this stuff by the gallon–and how it never fails to taste special. I have to watch my caffeine consumption, but I would sorely miss this little indulgence if I had to give it up.

Another joy is the big, red dinner plate dahlias growing by my driveway. They are bold, bright, and coming on strong when all the other flowers are going peaked and wan on me. I want to be like those dahlias, a late season bloomer who doesn’t know when to fade into elderly obscurity.

I delight in my flannel sheets. My sister gave them to me and I can’t wait for the nights to cool off enough so I can bust ’em out and get snuggly. I’m still riding the horse only once a week, but the time I spend with old Santiago is peaceful and dear. I get off him with a sense of, “We still got it, dude!” when all we do is walk, trot, and canter (both directions!).

Mondays are my pizza day, when I let myself start the week with a pizza slathered in black olives and extra cheese. It’s my one occasion of carby-cheesy bliss each week, and it never fails to restore a sense of abundant pleasure. This is all it takes for me to look forward to Mondays. Wish I’d figured this out decades ago.

My days are full of joy and pleasure, but it’s easy to lose sight of my riches. The big, bad frustrating world is still there, and it’s still my responsibility to do what I can do battle the darkness and overcome the forces of eeee-vil, but I will be a more effective warrior if I also remember and delight in my joys.

What is delighting you these days? To three commenters, I’ll send a $25 Amazon gift card.

 

 

Constructive Disagreement

As we trudge along toward the November election, I’m sensing as I cruise social media and chat up my neighbors, a crushing fatigue with divisiveness itself. Bashing the Libs/MAGAs/NWLs/Whoevers doesn’t FIX anything. It saps our energy for grappling with even issues we can almost all agree need serious attention–homeless veterans, gun safety reform, or climate change, for example (and those are three areas of broad consensus among all voters, by the way).

We get so blinded by labels that we lose the ability to debate ideas independent of the people espousing them. Conflict expert Julia Dhar’s TED talk does a great job of unpacking how to separate identity from idea, and focus instead on the start of all constructive debates–the big areas of broad agreement. One exercise she suggests for limbering up our “start with agreement” muscle is to think of a topic on which we have changed our minds.

Welp, lessee… When I started doing child welfare law, I thought social workers were without question a good resource to involve in a troubled family’s situation. Good social workers know good stuff–about community programs, about how to discuss hard things without riling the people involved, about how family problems become a Rubik’s cube of can’t afford, don’t know how, and too beat down to try again. Send in the social workers!

I wasn’t all wrong and I still think social workers are a great idea. But when a community’s default response to an unsupervised child or wandering grannie is merely to dial a hotline, the whole concept of community, much less neighborhood or family, is weakened. There’s a balance to strike, between we are all in this together, and knowing when problems should be put into the hands of the professionals.

It took me a while to see that having that emergency hotline is a good thing–but it can come at a subtle and far-reaching cost. If it’s social services’ problem (or the cops’, or the HOA’s) it is no one person’s job, and the nature and quality of the solution becomes immediately limited by the institution called in to deal with it.

I came to see much of the child welfare system in the same skeptical light. I went into the task thinking I had some solid answers, but closer acquaintance with reality turned my answers into questions. I was a better child advocate for that leavening of skepticism. I had a more open and creative mindset, and when is that ever a bad thing?

When have you changed your mind, or come to see a hard answer as a less than perfect solution? To three commenters, I’ll send $25 Amazon gift cards, because the holidays are coming, and we have all been so very good this year.

(Which reminds me… This month’s Deal is a Republished Regency holiday novella duet for $1.99 in the webstore. Details here.)

 

A Friend in Social Distance

One of my writing heroines is author Jennifer Ashley. If all she’d done was write The Madness of Lord Ian MacKenzie, she would have my undying respect, because that book took the romance genre is a new and wonderful direction. (Autism spectrum historical romance hero, done beautifully.) Jennifer has also weathered many industry storms, she shares her time and wisdom generously with other authors, and she has perfected the art of being herself on social media.

Much there to admire, and one of her recent Facebook posts was along the lines of, “I walked 2.5 miles this morning and it was nothing’. There was a time when that would have been an unthinkable challenge. I’m proud of myself for how far I’ve come!” That attitude, of being proud of an achievement many other people might think was a big so-what, fortifies me to go on my own 2.5 miles walks and be proud of myself.

Joanna Bourne is another personal heroine. To look at Jo, you’d think, “Sweet little old lady. She probably knits baby blankets for her myriad great-nieces and great-nephews, and makes her own organic low-sugar jam.” Meanwhile, Jo has lived (as in for years at a time) in seven different countries (including Nigeria and Saudi Arabia), has a master’s degree in marine biology, bagged two RITA awards, and can tell you stories about life in the foreign service that will make your jaw drop.

She’s also a brilliant, generous, funny, highly creative writer, and when I was a tadpole author, she offered me much steadying advice and writin’ buddy friendship. I found my balance as a writer much faster and with much less drama than I would have otherwise because of Jo.

I am a rabid fan of writing coach, agent, author, and teacher Donald Maass. He is passionately devoted to helping authors turn good books into better books, which is a thankless and exacting task on a good day. Don works enormously hard at what he does, which means unique among the writing coach crowd, his material is always being refreshed. Unlike many, he’s not giving the same workshop (for more money) that he was tossing out ten years ago.

As I spend day after day after day at home, I am still fortified by my associations with these people and others like them. Some I bounce across on social media, some I can visit by reading their books. Some I can email, and I am so very, exceedingly grateful that technology allows me these contacts. I am alone, and I’m never alone, and the company I’ve met along the way continues to cheer me.

Whom do you admire? Is there anybody in particular whose company has cheered you along the way this year? To two commenters, I’ll send a signed print copy of My Heart’s True Delight.