Where Your Treasure Is…

I’ve spent something like 25 years of my life officially wearing the label student (albeit often part-time), but I hated primary school.

I defy you to find a child who can enjoy an educational experience when it’s delivered by an angry nun with a yardstick in her hand, one end of which is stained red–with magic marker I presume– because that’s hilarious to a six year old?

Junior high and high school were a little better, because by then the damage was done. I’d learned that if you behave and get good grades, the authorities mostly leave you in peace, and that is the best outcome you can hope for from adults in power.

Not exactly readin’ ,writin’ and ‘rithematic.

By the time I hit junior high, though, I had also crossed paths with Mrs. Karolyn Louise Miller Rossi. She was tiny–four foot ten–had a booming voice, big hands, and a tremendous affection for young people. She was a first-rate musician, and because she took me on as piano student, I had a lifeline to hold onto from the age of eleven onward. My horse was a lifeline (thank you Mom, and the whole McCarthy family), books were a lifeline.

These joys safeguarded my spirit. They were my passions, and as I sit here half a century later, don’t ask me about the Pythagorean Theorem (something about square roots and a hippopotamus?), though I still know 90 percent of the music theory I learned, as well as the music history. The motor skills have gone, but the love of music is as strong as ever.

I am still riding horses, and when I can no longer ride them, I will doubtless go to the barn for groom-and-graze therapy.

I am still in love with books and the power they have to connect, comfort, and entertain.

As I listen with growing trepidation to the whole debate about what we should teach our kids in school, I’m also wondering about how we teach them. We forget the overwhelming majority of what’s driven into our temporary storage buffers in the classroom, but we don’t forget what got us excited, we don’t forget our passions. I recall my father railing at me as I nom-nommed through an undergrad degree in music history, “But you need real skills in this life! How will you support yourself as a musician?!”

At the time, I was paying all my bills and my tuition playing the piano. I quit piano shortly after that–I wasn’t a competent classical performer–and added a political science degree to my syllabus. I switched from accompanying ballet classes to pay my rent to dipping ice cream in the university creamery and washing glassware in the food science labs.

In the eyes of those around me, my passions–the things that have sustained and defined me for a lifetime– were tolerated little hobbies, side hustles at best.

Why don’t we respect passion, especially the passions of women and children? Why don’t we support them? Why is the periodic table of the elements (I defy to you to list the noble gases) more important than devising your own brownie recipe?

All of which is to say, your passions–Sue’s dogs, Teenie Marie’s music, Tina’s cooking, somebody else’s houseplants or scrapbooks or fridge magnets–all have my respect and appreciation. Thank you for making the world a more interesting and worthwhile place and for persisting in what matters to you.

Who or what safeguarded your spirit growing up, or in recent years? Any regrets or do-overs come to mind on the topic of your passions?

 

 

When You’re Happy and You Show It

One of my favorite lunch spots is a little cafe across the Potomac River in a nearby West Virginia college town. The fare is reliably good and the outdoor patio is shaded and lovely. Think blooming flowers, a stream running through a stone-lined channel, and hand-hewn stone walkways and steps. (And a nice dessert menu is always a plus.)

I met an old friend there for a meal earlier this week, and not two minutes after she’d sat down, our waiter, a serious, substantial, bearded young fellow, spilled a glass of water all over the table. Fortunately, the table was one of those iron mesh, heavy items of furniture that will do structural damage if it’s ever hurled from a trebuchet. We got past that, and the fellow came back around to take our orders.

He didn’t immediately grasp what “half-sweet iced tea,” was. He forgot to offer straws. He wrote out on his little pad–word for word–each item we ordered. This guy was determined to bring to the job every iota of focus and dedication he possessed.

I found him delightful. He was trying so hard, and getting the challenges of a demanding and largely thankless job mostly right. (And yes, I tipped accordingly.)

My friend and I enjoyed our meal, solved the problems of the universe, splurged on ice cream for dessert, and generally had a good chin wag. Our waiter stood patiently by the table waiting to settle up, immediately after passing us the check. Right by the table, eyes front, as if he expected to be called upon to recite Browning’s Incident of the French Camp from memory.

Not long before we left, a couple of our waiter’s friends took a table a few yards across the patio from us. How did we divine that these were his friends? Because when he beheld the occupants of that table, he leaped–went spontaneously airborne–from the top of a flight of stone steps to land flat-footed next to their table. A round of manly-man greetings ensued, as well as some obligatory bro-bro about beer, food, and the upcoming weekend.

That leap was gorgeous, not in a balletic sense (rather the opposite), but for the joie de vivre, spontaneity, and sheer glee it conveyed. I wanted to clap, I wanted to tell him to do it again, I wanted to… well, I’m blogging about it, because that one act of unselfconscious saltation was so wonderful to behold. A small thing, maybe, but for that otherwise serious young man to be so exuberantly glad to see his friends and to show it was enormously human.

Have you encountered spontaneous expressions of joy in your travels? Have you ever felt the inclination to express any? I’ll add three commenters to my Lady Violet Pays a Call ARC list (even though the title is already on sale in the web store).

 

Emotional Support Beast

I have always enjoyed cats. They are pretty, a touch mysterious, lithe, soft, ruthless, and very protective of their young. And they purr–what’s not to like? From earliest childhood, I’ve known the sensation of soft paws landing on the bed in the dark, followed by a deliberate circling and settling in on the covers. When you are a child terrified of the dark, that self-possessed, warm presence feels like the visitation of an angel.

My family knows of my feline inclinations, and thus in the middle of the pandemic, a relative who was also in the middle of a divorce (what fun–NOT) called me. “Can  you take Augustus? I’m really sorry to ask, because he’s not an easy cat, but we can’t come up with a plan for him, given that we’re both moving we know not where, and Gus doesn’t like upheaval.”

Gus is a mature, neutered male cat, but he does not take the neutered part very seriously. He loathes other cats, dogs, alterations of routine, changes of diet, noise, the scary out of doors, and birds who dare flutter past the window. Had he ever met squirrels, rabbits, or mice, he’d probably take dim view of them too.

Gus expresses his frequent displeasure by peeing–on everything. If another cat approaches him, Gus delivers a sound drubbing and then goes on a ram-pee-ge. The walls, the floors, and if he’s vexed beyond all bearing, upholstery. Gus has taught the universe many urinary lessons, and no vet has been able to find a medical cause for this charming behavior.

He’s a beautiful cat to look at–one quarter Siamese, big innocent eyes, lovely brindle and white markings (that’s him in the top photo), and I swear a hair analysis would reveal him to be a male tricolor (virtually impossible). Because he is gorgeous, but also a man of such particulars, he has several failed adoptions on his resume.

The pandemic filled up shelters, and this contrary cat had no good options. “Send him to me. I have some ideas.”

Gus arrived shortly thereafter, looking ready to visit pee-magedon on any who touched him. It took a little while, but he’s now king of the whole upstairs, which he rules in solitary splendor, but for my regular intrusions. He has a litter box in every room, the run of two big permanent-access balconies, five cat towers, and–from me–an embarrassment of affection.  Should any feline fool breach the citadel, Gus sorts ’em out with much noise and batting of paws, and–I think–he delights in doing so.

He hasn’t taken a rage-whiz in ages. A happily ever after for one wee beast. But what about for his personal body guard, chamber maid, chief cook, personal shopper, and chin-scratcher?

In recent days, I’ve found the news upsetting–seems like the news has been upsetting for years now. My usual wind-down routine at the end of the day is to read Golden Age British detective mysteries. Ye gods, the prose… the humor… the world building. But even my cherished Ngaio Marsh series hasn’t been disconnecting me from my worries lately.

Enter Gus. Now that he’s happily in charge of his world, he allows of the occasional frolic, and, lordy, that cat can frolic. If I get out the squeaky-feathers toy at the end of the day, Gus will fly around the bedroom, killing it to death, performing airs above the carpet, and generally being ridiculous.

Five minutes of Feathers, and I have usually laughed out loud, engaged in silly talk with my cat, and become completely absorbed in one variety of fun. If  I do this (and read my storiestoo, of course), I can let the day go much more easily. The cat who couldn’t find a home has made my home a happier place for me.

How are you managing worry and fretfulness these days? Any new coping mechanisms presenting themselves?

PS: Lady Violet Pays a Call is now on sale in print, and from the web store in ebook!

A Kiss by the Sea (for FREE!!!!)

This being beach season in the northern hemisphere, I thought I’d add to your virtual seaside reading list by putting my novella A Kiss by the Sea on free download in the web store. I am too busy right now with Lady Violet  and her friends to get together a fancy cover and do all the formatting and uploading for the retail sites, so have a freebie on her ladyship and me–because who can’t use a little more happily ever after?

If At First You Don’t Succeed

Jane Friedman is a publishing industry pundit who actually deserves the title. She’s been an editor, manager, author, educator, and more, in both traditional and independent publishing contexts, dealing with both fiction and non-fiction. In this week’s newsletter, Jane mentioned the concept of a “bias for survival.”

She borrowed the phrase from a tweet by Ben Orenstein who was cautioning new and aspiring pod-casters to manage to one priority: Make it through the first year. Apparently the overwhelming majority of pod-casters don’t, so his advice was to set up everything with sustainability in mind. Not market share, not monetizing content, not reach, not audience growth. Forget the metrics and spreadsheets, forget the immutable truths and eternal verities. Focus on what you need to do to sustain what you’ve started.

If you can’t stand to deal with Facebook’s ad interface, let it slide. If you have no idea how to use Canva for graphics, don’t drain your battery trying to learn now.

I wish somebody had offered this advice to me as a new author. I was bombarded with admonitions that I HAD to have a website, I HAD to be on social media, I HAD to be on MORE social media, I HAD to give away tens of thousands of free books. I HAD to have critique partners, and I HAD to take every marketing course any young guy who’d written two books had ever put together.

Madness. Fortunately, I was still working the lawyer job full time, and I’d also spent about twenty years single-parenting. At some point, I figured out that what I had to do was write more books. That mattered. The rest might or might not help sell the books, but that ship doesn’t leave port until I load it up with books. And fortunately for me, the writing is the part I enjoy the most, and because I love it, I can keep at it. Lucky me!

I went through the same kind of epiphany when I was working full time and going to law school five nights a week. Half-way through the first semester, I realized that the key to survival–not top grades, not brilliant law review articles, but survival–was getting enough sleep. Before I worried about briefing every case, finding a study group, or reading the whole bibliography, I focused on getting enough sleep.

I lasted the distance, and could support my daughter fairly well as a result, but my critical strategy wasn’t anything I’d found in First Year Law Student Tips and Tricks lists. Those resources tend to be focused on success, but for me, it’s often wiser to focus on sustainability. If this task is important to me, how can I make sure I’m still doing it well and happily a year from now? Five years from now?

Not brilliantly, maybe, but well and happily?

Where have you chosen a bias for survival and sustainability rather than the road to world domination? Is there any advice you wish you had heard earlier in life?Any you’ve heard lately that seems to resonate?

No giveaway this week, but I have put my novella, A Kiss by the Sea, on free download in the web store. This story originally appeared in the Bluestocking Belles anthology, Storm and Shelter, so if you bought that collection, you already have this tale.

 

 

Awe for One

Five of my barn buddies entered a horse show at a venue about an hour from my house. In horse show terms, that’s right next door, so I buzzed on down to the showgrounds and prepared to be a rail bird, rooting for the home team.

A dressage competition consists of riding a set pattern of movements (a test), and you compete with everybody else riding the same test. The tests get harder as you go up the levels, demanding more strength, agility, and complex communication between horse and rider. You can see the kind of stuff the cool (and well funded) kids do on this compilation video.

It’s harder than it looks, for both horse and rider. Getting to the point where you and your equine partner can do the fancy lengthenings, pirouettes, and sideways movements takes years. Sometimes, you think you’ve found the horse who can take you all the way to the top, but the poor beast goes lame or has an accident or, or, or.

I wandered around the show grounds–a venue where I’ve competed, show mom’d, volunteered, and managed shows myself–and felt a sense of nostalgia. I watched people of all ages, from early teens to significantly older than I am, all focused on laying down the best test they were capable of, from beginner to international hopeful levels. The horses were braided and buffed, the riders were in regulation attire, the facility was beautiful.

What came over me was a sense of awe, to be in the presence of that much dedication, that much talent, that much determination and love for horses. The spirit of goodwill among the competitors was palpable as was the support from show management and the judging staff.

I like Wordsworth’s Composed on Westminster Bridge because it conveys some of the sense of what I felt. Old William, an avowed pastoralist, was hustling through London during the brief Peace of Amiens, on his way to France to meet a half-grown daughter he’d never seen.  Crossing the Thames at dawn, his poetic soul got a gut-punch of meaning and beauty from a very unexpected urban quarter.

To ride well, especially in competition,  is physically, emotionally, and mentally challenging, and all around me were athletes who had made significant sacrifices for the chance to trot their stuff around those arenas. I never felt as an equestrian that, “I coulda been a contenda,” but watching those horse and rider teams, I did feel part of a legacy that is in the main good and beautiful. (I can’t say that about all equestrian sports.)

I find value in being at once humbled by something vast and touching, and also exalted to be in its presence. I’m reminded of how amazing life can be and how lucky I’ve been, in so many ways. Those hours at the horse show were good for me, and my riding has been more focused and–I dunno?– reverent for what I experienced there.

Have you encountered any moments of awe lately? Are there any that shine in memory like a gorgeous beacon? I’ll add three commenters to the ARC list for Lady Violet Pays a Call.

Do You Know?

The Do You Know Scale is a set of twenty questions devised by child development scholars to assess how much children have absorbed about their family history. The research suggests that the more children know about how Mom and Dad met, where Grandma grew up, and what jobs Mom and Dad had in high school, the more confident and self-directed those children are.

Doubtless, a certain amount of the self-esteem and confidence exhibited by the higher scoring children results from growing up in families where adults have time to tell legacy stories, and in families that have avoided the bitter divorces, cut offs, and feuds that can obliterate oral history.

But some of the value of family tales lies in the stories themselves. I thought I was the first single mom in the history of the Burrowes family.  Then for a graduate school class, I had to create my family genogram, a diagram of begats and married-tos. As I was jotting down names and symbols, I was reminded that my Dad’s mom had been widowed at age nineteen with a one-year-old baby to support as World War I came to a close. She went on to divorce the philandering party-boy who became my grandfather, so she was a single mom twice over fairly early in life.

Her mother had also become a single mom, when my great-grandfather traveled out west supposedly in search of oil. What great-grandpa did find was a second wife, with whom he joined in bigamous matrimony, while his legal wife and two small daughters in upstate New York thought he’d expired under mysterious circumstances.

On my mother’s side, my great-grandfather lost his wife when she was only 35 years old. His oldest child (my grandma) was all of seventeen at the time, and she married pronto rather than become the unpaid governess to all of her younger siblings. For various reasons, on both sides of my family, the single-parenting gig was in evidence well over a century ago, and at several points since.

I thought I was an outlier, but in fact, I was am just another Burrowes. There is comfort in this knowledge. If my family story was limited to what I could observe about my parents–Mom was a registered nurse who stopped working for a paycheck when the babies came long, Dad was a tenured professor back when tenure was still a thing–then my definition of a Burrowes would be quite limited.

With more of the family canvas colored in, I can see that my kith and kin include drunks, a bigamist, a frontier doctor, a Main Line Philadelphia pastor, and an ambitious transplanted Scot who helped defend Londonderry from Irish Jacobite forces in 1689. (His name was Henry.)

I will make it a point going forward, to be sure my daughter knows these stories. She’s all grown up, but if I don’t pass on the family tales, she and her progeny will be poorer for my oversight.

Does your family pass on stories? Are there any they tell about you? Any that surprised you the way all those single parents surprised me? I’ll add the names of three commenters to my ARC list for Lady Violet Pays a Call.

 

Making Scents

Authors are told to use all five senses to draw readers into a scene. We are to describe what characters see, taste, touch, hear, and smell. I tend to go a little light on the visuals, and often have to sketch those in during revisions. I’m pretty good with sounds (musician…) and I could probably do more with taste and texture. I am naturally drawn to the sense of smell, though.

I believe the historical world had far more olfactory variety and punch than we are used to today. Herbs and spices, medicinal plants, and homemade remedies took the place of our disinfectants, medicines, soaps, and cosmetics, and most of the historical concoctions would have had the pungent impact lent by fresh ingredients.

Hygiene was different 200 years ago, at all levels of society, and diets were much richer in fiber. Heating, lighting, and transportation were all odor-intensive, and getting any scent out of clothing, hair, or upholstery was a matter of some expertise and effort.

Neurologically, the olfactory part of the brain sends its impressions straight to the amygdala, our emotional memory storage unit. Other senses take a less direct route into memory, so smells tend to be more evocative than snippets of music or the feel of fuzzy socks. In terms of activating memory, smell is a superpower, and as an author, I need all the superpowers I can get.

As little old me, though, I am sometimes slow-witted. All around my house, honeysuckle is blooming in the hedges. This year must be ideal conditions for honeysuckle, because I just want to stand in the yard, close my eyes, and breathe through my nose. I am transported by that light, intense fragrance to a place where all is joy and benevolence and ease. If I could find a honeysuckle perfume that lived up to the natural article, I’d wear it.

When I first moved to this house decades ago, somebody had planted beds of mint and lemon balm near the kitchen door. Those beds faded, and I replaced them with annuals, but I well recall the pleasure of sitting on the porch and breathing in the fragrance of summer (and natural insect repellent).

For more than ten years, my dad’s research focus was flavors and fragrances, and that too might influence my natural affinity for scents. I do wonder, though, why  it took me until this year, to plant petunias in my kitchen-door flower beds? To plant a lavender border against the side fence? To pick some of that lavender and have it sitting in a whisky glass by my little writing corner?

I know fragrances bring me joy and take me out of my overly busy mind to delight in the natural world. Why haven’t I done a better job of keeping that joy at hand? Sachets and potpourri, even scented candles, can help, but this is a lovely self-care job I have fallen down on. I hope I do better going forward, because the joy is real, and I need that too.

Do you have a favorite scent? A favorite means of keeping pleasant scents in your day? A favorite memory that’s evoked by a particular scent? Watch out how you comment, because I’m choosing a signature fragrance for Mrs. Matilda Merridew, our heroine in Miss Dauntless (pub date November).

Across the Lone Prairie

I did not get much done this week.  Hats off to anybody who did.

I rode my horse a couple times (slowly). I finished a draft of a Christmas novella, and I impressed my cats with my profound (and imaginary) wisdom as a constitutional scholar, and with my facility for fricative foul language (and alliteration).

Other than that… low rpms. And I realize that part of what took so much wind from my sails is that I have not bounced back from the pandemic, still, yet, some more. Skills I took for granted a few years ago faded during The Big Stay Home. One of those skills is ignoring the news, and just getting on with the next task. Oh, well.

I also once upon a time excelled at road-tripping. I’ve probably crossed the USA twenty times, and driven all the major east-west routes. Now, I’m out of the habit of driving long distances. To compound my new-found timidity, my previous road trips were mostly made in a nice, big (gas guzzling) Tundra pickup.

I loved my Tundra. I felt SAFE in my Tundra, and I had great visibility in my Tundra. Who needs sat-nav when you have a Tundra? Nah me!

Road-tripping in my twelve-year old Prius is admittedly a different experience than it was in the dear old (now morally untenable) Tundra. But more than that, I’m simply out of practice dealing with four-lane traffic, high speed merges, and unfamiliar terrain. My road warrior skills, which were formidable, have atrophied.

I want those skills back. I derived too much benefit from cross-country romps to allow that activity to slip from my list of recreations. I learned history, I developed story ideas, I enjoyed the scenery. I got a real break from the routine without getting into an airplane.

So this week, I took a little step toward rebuilding my long haul skills. I drove over to suburban Philly to see some family visiting in that area. I did this drive in baby steps. By that I mean, I stuck to scenic byways, better known as paved farm lanes. I did a carefully constructed (using paper maps, thank you very much) lily-pad route, county by county, that avoided I-95, and I drove only in daylight.

I made three wrong turns, but recovering from wrong turns is one of the skills a road warrior must have, especially if she thinks sat-nav is for sissies (or people who can stand that thing yammering at them while they are trying to drive).

And from this baby step, I take consolation. If I can manage to putter for hours along a cow path and only make a few wrong turns, then some fine day I might once again go barreling across Western Kansas with the Duke of My Next Story riding beside me. That is a cheering thought.

Have you ever had to reclaim a lapsed skill? How did you go about it? Are there any you’d like to brush up now?

 

In a Word

On the way to the horse barn this week, I found myself tooling along behind a cement truck. When I was a small child, I did not know the correct name for this vehicle, because the family term was, Putty-Putty-Ment-Mixer. I have no idea who coined that appellation, but my siblings all know what it means.

They similarly know that my mother, among others, used the term bombosity to refer to the backside, and she was also fond of the term ish-kabibbles to mean, “Oh, what nonsense.”

My father, when intent on sternly admonishing an errant child, began his tirades with, “Now look, chum…” and chum was accompanied by a downward poke of the index finger, extended from an otherwise closed fist. We don’t have come-to-Jesus moments in the Burrowes family, we have now-look-chum moments.

My siblings would also know who Tanya MacBride is. In our family she is legendary, also imaginary. My mom was at some academic cocktail party, widowed for the evening once again by that notorious strumpet Science (meaning my dad was off in the corner rhapsodizing to some colleague about tri-ethyl-methyl-butyl-mercaptan*), and a visiting professor asked Mom who she was. She was a pretty redhead, that’s who, but she told this guy she was Collen Burrowes, and her stage name had been Tanya MacBride.

Tanya, according to my mother, had been a prima ballerina in her heyday, and danced with all the major international companies. Swan Lake was her favorite from the classic repertoire, and I forget whether Nureyev ever partnered her. If he didn’t, his loss.

This was a complete fiction woven by my mother and a few servings of Old Blabbermouth. She never told her conversation partner that she was having him on, but the next day, in tones more bewildered than contrite, she explained to my father what she’d done. He thought her tale was hilarious. From that day forward, anybody in my family having an alcohol-inspired flight of grandiosity (or mendacity) was having a Tanya MacBride moment.

Authors are supposed to capitalize on the power of words to evoke associations and connections. The best example I can think of is Mary Balogh’s character, Wulfric, Duke of Bewscastle. He is described as  silver-eyed and elegant, and his signature word is “doubtless.” If Bewcastle opines that you will doubtless want to do such and such, he’s telling you in duke-speak: Do it, or get your affairs in order.

One of my alma maters is Penn State. If you stand at  a busy intersection in any major city and sing, “Fish Heads, fish heads, roly-poly fish heads!” loudly enough for twenty minutes, some Penn State alum of a certain age will yell back, “Eat ’em up, yum!” It’s a stupid little dark nursery-rhyme song, but it can also unite two strangers with a mere dozen words. Language, used skillfully can create bonds in seconds, and evoke memories from half a century ago.

Does your family or your workplace have unique vocabulary? Have you seen authors use signature words (or expletives) with particular skill? I’ll add three commenters to me ARC list for Lady Violet Pays a Call.

*the compound that gives skunk spray it’s distinctive odor, detectable by the human nose at the level of parts per billion, and thus used to scent natural gas so leaks are obvious.