There’s No Place Like Home

I am back from more than three weeks of travel around Great Britain. The washing machine is working its magic as I type this, my first cup of “home tea” is brewing, and I am very, very glad to be once more in my personal typing chair. I am also very, very glad I went a-touring. I connected with family and with family history, and I learned a lot.

One of the primary reasons I travel is to see my familiar surroundings with new eyes, and this trip did that for me, though the results weren’t always cheering. Compared to the UK, for example, where I live is no melting pot. In Scotland, I heard accents from six continents, just as I toddled around the hotels and village shops, let alone the tourist sites. At home? I don’t even hear many regional American accents, and that’s a sort of poverty that probably afflicts much of rural America.

I saw no guns in the UK, unless they were antique firearms in glass cases. The UK has transitioned from having a gun-centric squirarchy in days of yore, to embracing different norms where firearms are concerned. I saw no guns at the harbors, on the ferries, in the airports, or the major train stations. Again, I view the proliferation of guns in the US as an indication of a sort of poverty, though several members of my family are gun owners (and I am not clamoring to “take their guns”).

The UK is way, way WAY ahead of us in terms of climate responsibility. Scottland is a net exporter of wind energy and ahead of schedule for achieving 100 percent renewable energy. Food, to the greatest extent possible, is locally sourced. That means it’s fresher, and while produce might not look quite as appealing on the shelf, the taste is better, the nutrition is better, and the carbon footprint much smaller, to say nothing of what various EU pesticide bans are doing to reduce toxicity to the consumer or the environment.

I saw areas in the UK that I’d like to improve on, of course. Handicapped accessibility lags in the UK tremendously, in part because it’s hard to retrofit castles (and their medieval villages) without destroying the original structures or the National Trust’s budget. The EU bears the scars of centuries–approximately fifteen of them–of religiously motivated killing, right up to the Troubles in Ireland. The future is looking more encouraging, but I often reflected on how lucky the US was to be “born” after the Reformation, and to have a built separation of church and state into its foundation. We’re still working out the details on that one, but the basic concept is sound.

The British monarchy and aristocracy continue to be sources of great contention, particularly when their extravagant living is compared to the meanness of life for the masses, where famine, clearances, enclosures, game laws, and other brutal aspects of modern history still linger in cultural memory. Again, I am glad the US has no overt hereditary royalty or peerage to try to wrestle into harmony with a democratic constitution.

Much to think about. It’s LOVELY to be able to handle money without peering twice at every coin, lovely to be able to understand people easily the first time they speak, lovely to be home, and beyond lovely to be ensconced in in my little house with my cats.

If you were to change one aspect of your home turf, what would it be? To three commenters, I will send an e-ARC of Love and Other Perils, which goes on sale October 8.

Too Many Castles

So I’ve bounced over from Ireland to Scotland (a forty minute flight between Dublin and Edinburgh), and I am having an enraptured time. Whenever I visit Scotland, I feel a sense of wonder and joy, in part because it’s just so danged pretty, and in part because it’s Scotland. History here, as in Ireland, goes back thousands of years before the pyramids, and everywhere you look somebody’s story—the Picts, the Vikings, the Jacobites—has left venerable footprints.

I envy the Scots the unifying influence of a long, shared legacy, but I also realize history can be too much of a good thing. Which castles should be saved? Which should be allowed to continue their slow march toward a death from natural causes? How many “historic stately homes” can the sightseeing public or the taxpaying public support, and what should be done with the extras?

On this visit, we paid a call at Traquair House, the oldest continuously occupied home in Scotland—continuous, as in since the early 1200s—and one of few that preserves the Catholic side of the whole violent mess we call the Reformation. Mary Queen of Scots slept there, and her rosary and crucifix are on display.

We also called at Abbottsford, Sir Walter Scot’s home, and one that claims to be the most important writer’s residence open to the public anywhere on the globe. Without Sir Walter, we might not have stumbled upon the notion of historical fiction (he turned hist fic into a global phenomenon), so of course his house ought to be preserved too.

My favorite place so far has been Ellisland, a humble farm worked by Robert Burns for a few years in his late twenties and early thirties. He built the farmhouse and many of the existing dry stone walls himself, plowed the ground and designed the house. His years at Ellisland were among his most productive, and the property is beautiful, even if the ground wasn’t all the fertile. I’d like to see Ellisland preserved for future generations too, and besides, it has a resident self-appointed feline welcoming committee of one which immediately ensures National Treasure status, right?

Americans move on average 11 times in our lives, and I’m on track to match that number, but my story has taken place mostly in two places: The one home I lived in between birth and age eighteen, the home where I’ve raised my daughter.

And yet, the place I lived when my daughter was conceived, the little apartment where she began life, the blasted summer rentals in San Diego where I was forced to spend several childhood summers… they are part of my story too.  My dad always pointed to the house where I and six siblings grew up as, “the place where it all happened,” but it turned out to be just one scene in his long, long story.

If you had to preserve one location for posterity as the place to tell your story, where would it be? Why? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Barnes and Noble gift card. (Which reminds me, keep an eye on my new Deals page, and feel free to nominate a book for discounting.)

 

 

Cleaning Up This Town

Apologies for skipping last week’s blog post. I was caught between jet-lag and travel-logistics, having just flown into Ireland. WHAT a beautiful country, so beautiful in fact, that I remarked to a local that I didn’t think I’d seen a single piece of litter outside of a major city.

There’s a reason for that! A reason why billboards are mightily discouraged, why flowers are on abundant display, and why the beaches are immaculate. Some bright soul took the basic Irish penchant for tidiness and launched the Tidy Town competition. This contest is divided into nine divisions based on the size of the competing entity (small village, medium city, and so forth), and the rules go like this:

Each town takes on its eyesores, civic problems, and social shortcomings as best it can with a combination of volunteer, donated, and municipal resources. If somebody’s shed is doing the Big Oggly right by the road, the hardware store might donate the material for a new roof, the garden center might spring for window boxes and flowers, and a dozen pensioners and teens might provide the labor to turn the eyesore into a quaint rural fixture such as postcards are made of.

The prize for winning a tidy town award is a chunk of cash, and part of the submission is a plan for what the town will do with that money. One place might need a tot lot, another might propose (and did propose) to change EVERYBODY’s lighting–public and private–to LED, thus saving money in the long term and benefiting the environment.

The contest is judged by trained volunteers who pop in on each contestant several times a year unannounced, and the consolation prize for the losers is an honest, thorough report on the state of the town, both positive and negative. If your town wins a Tidy Town award, your property values will increase for at least several years immediately following.

I like this idea a lot. It’s a way for people not central to the work force–the unemployed, post- and pre-employed–to jump in and make a difference. Neighborliness between businesses and residents, different areas of town, and different walks of life is encouraged. Resources are shared and community relationships are strengthened. Some potential exists for the competition to make things worse–squabblers are going to squabble–but the Irish have found this program to have overwhelmingly positive results.

If I were on my local Tidy Town committee, and I took a look around at what we need, what would be at the head of my list? The question is complicated because, though I’ve lived three miles outside the same dot on the map for nearly 30 years, I still don’t know the place very well. Oops.

If you were turned loose with a Tidy Town challenge, where would you start? What would you prose to do for your neighbors with the prize money? (And can you imagine a series of small town romances based on this premise?)

To one commenter, I will send a $50 Barnes and Noble gift card.

What Do You Know?

By the end of the day, my little store of gray matter has usually thought all the creative, impressive, look-out-world thoughts it’s going to think for the day (if any), and I turn to reading and mental recreation. In that mood, I came across Anne Lamott’s TED talk, “12 Truths I Learned from Life and Writing.”

Her fifteen-minute homily got me thinking. What do I know that’s worth passing along to other people? What matters to me? If I were stranded on an island with twelve other people, what could I contribute to our store of useful knowledge?

One thing I know that isn’t taught widely enough is the process for collaborative problem solving. The steps go something like this:

  1. Develop a neutral, mutually acceptable statement of the problem.
  2. Collaborate to research and compile every relevant thing known about that problem.
  3. Brainstorm (works best if begun individually) every possible solution.
  4. Choose a solution or combination of solutions to implement, bearing in mind that unforeseen consequences are likely to require further problem-solving.

That’s a deceptively short description of a process that can end wars, save marriages, or keep communities from violent hostility. I’ve seen it work, I know some of parts of the iceberg submerged under those headings, and I use this wisdom a lot in my own life. What is the real, true, simply stated problem I’m up against? Do I have the information I need to solve it?

And so on.

Another aspect of my knowledge toolkit is what I call my Prime Directive, often honored in the breach: When all else fails, and before anything else, be kind and tell the truth. I regard that as the definition of honor–be kind, tell the truth–and it solves myriad moral and behavior conundrums if I will recall and pay attention to it. When I wander from this tent pole, into snark, into prevarication, into self-deception, I  invariably wind up tangled in a mess of darkness.

A third eternal verity that has served me well, handed down from my mother, is: Don’t make decisions when you’re tired. Sleep on it. Sit with it. Resist the relief if making any old decision just for the sake of being done with the uncertainty. Let time work its magic, and be patient. (I am NOT patient.)

I could list a few more, but I’m more curious about what’s on your list of eternal verities. If the nice TED Talk people came around and said, “We will immortalize a 15-minute speech given by you on any topic you think would be a helpful addition to humanity’s store of knowledge…” What would your script focus on? What you ask your audience to think about? What do you really, truly know that’s worth passing along?

To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Barnes and Noble E-gift card.

But I’m Not Heppy

I usually conclude my day with an entry in a typed journal, and part of that exercise is listing five things specific to THAT DAY that I’m grateful for. It’s not enough to list my family, my health, a safe place to sleep, enough to eat, and meaningful work. Nope. That exercise is fine for a thank-you list, but it doesn’t benefit the mind and mood as will a specific, particular, unique list.

So one day this week I was grateful for the dahlias growing against my back fence, that go into full bloom just as other flowers are wilting. Another day I was grateful to be able to post the trot without stirrups (on my horse) half-way around the arena. Not long ago, I could not do that for six steps.

Then I hit a situation that had me saying MANY bad words. The little community bank I’ve used for years got bought by a multi-state conglomerate, and the progression has been one of increasing frustration and worse service. The bank lobbies are now retail sales floors, complete with big screens flashing relentless ads in your face as you try to talk to a teller without everybody overhearing your business and seeing it laid out on the waist-high counter that “encourages customer interaction.” Mid-week, I got a call from the bank that because of their mergers and acquisitions, they’d be changing my business account number on September 14.

Have a nice day.

I receive direct deposits from at least fifteen separate sources in the last week two weeks of the month. Before they will put money into a new account–even if I pinkie-swear that it’s just another Grace Burrowes account–they have to do test-deposits that I verify, and if I don’t verify them timely, my account is flagged as suspicious. In other words, I am hugely inconvenienced by the bank’s little merger problem, and oh by the way, I will be traveling out of the country for much of September to places without reliable internet.

So one evening this week, I made not only a gratitude list, I also made an Annoyed list. The old bank’s cavalier assumptions about my business operations, the new bank (I’m changing banks, you bet I am) wanting me to magically modify the forms the State of Maryland uses for corporate documentation. The kindly reader who told me she gets all my books off a pirate site. The heat, the flies, the rate at which feral cats reproduce…

And having made that list, and seeing that nothing on it was The End of the World, I felt better. First world problems from top to bottom, happy life problems. Nothing I can’t handle. But I needed to stop and say, “This stinks. That’s not fair. The other makes my life harder and is STUPID.” Smurfing along, pretending I wasn’t cheesed off, wasn’t working. Having a little pout, making some dirty faces, and writing down my grinch-list helped. Then I could go on to the gratitude list and go back to being cheery.

How do you process the terrible, horrible, awful very bad days, so you can let them go? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Barnes and Noble e-gift card (Christmas is coming, right?).

 

When Only Ludwig Will Do

I got stuck this week in a FB argument… the kind of stuck that means long after I’d bowed out of the thread–a discussion of the proposal to make gun owners buy liability insurance–I was still waging a yeah-but battle in my head with a troll who isn’t worth the bother.

I know why this particular moral Venus fly-trap caught me.

I once upon a time represented a kid in foster care court. Little guy was two when he was shot in the chest by his four-year-old sibling. The result was paralysis for the victim from the sternum down. The weapon belonged to an off-duty cop who left it in the unlocked glove compartment of his unlocked cruiser, the safety off, and the gun loaded. Another kid found the gun, and left it in the two-year-old’s home. Mom and Dad were upstairs when this happened, big to-do, investigations all over…

The cop got administrative leave. The child got life in a wheelchair, peeing through a catheter. His family could not afford to make his home wheelchair accessible, his sister became a CNA so her second and third unpaid jobs could be looking after her brother. I can rattle off tons of cases like this, and get myself all worked up over each one of them.

I have all this baggage, I pack it around behind me in a little red wagon of vicarious trauma, inborn advocacy skills, and un-howled outrage. For the most part, I manage pretty well, but occasionally, I lose my balance, and some trog on social media can temporarily hijack my peace. I’m better now, thank you, in part because I went to ride my lesson horse and that guy makes everything better, but also because I focused my imagination on Ludwig Beethoven.

Dear Ludwig was not long on charm, his family was barely respectable. He wanted to study with Mozart, but nope. Then he hoped to study with Haydn–another nope. By the time he was thirty–many nopes later–his hearing was going, and oops–Napoleon was leaving a literal trail of destruction across Europe. Not such a good time to be peddling tunes to the idle rich. Beethoven idolized Napoleon, bought into all that liberty, equality, fraternity stuff… until Napoleon crowned himself Emperor and showed himself to be (among other things) a vainglorious, warmongering, bloodthirsty hypocrite. Who knew?

So there’s Beethoven, scrounging hard for work, deaf, politically disillusioned, no longer able to perform in public, no love life worth a mention, his family either troublesome or not exactly supportive… the guy had a right to cop an attitude, but what does he do? WHAT DOES HE DO?

He writes the Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125. If he had written only the finale to that one work, he’d have added transcendent glory to the human condition, but he also wrote the Appassionata, the Pathetique, the Eroica Symphony (No. 3), the Emperor Concerto, the Fifth Symphony, the Eighth, the Pastoral Symphony, the Seventh… ye gods, ye gods. An entire age worth of artistic glory, from the pen of one cranky, disabled, not very happy guy.

And he did most of this while unable to hear his own creations. Stop and cry about that for a minute. I cannot wrap my mind or my heart around fortitude of that magnitude, I can only be inspired by it.

I get down. I have bad days, I feel overwhelmed, and I need to hide and rest from time to time, but on my worst, worst days, I think of Beethoven. I think of Beethoven–deaf but still writing works of immense beauty for the rest of us to hear–and I know that hope and joy can shine despite all odds to the contrary.

Who or what is your Beethoven? To one commenter, I will send a $50 Amazon e-gift card.

 

Five Deadly Sins

Last week, I was pondering how I move forward, particularly through big changes. I’m a slow and steady type when it comes to transitions. I suspect this is a lingering “potato famine” outlook that’s partly family culture (both parents grew up during the Depression), and partly my nature. I have done some really stupid things in my life because I threw caution to the wind, relied on dodgy characters, or otherwise shut down my warning systems. So I’m more cautious now, I hope.

I have also come up with a few Shoulder Angel Commandments as I’ve walked the author walk. These come under the category “advice to myself,” which I haven’t always taken. The first one ought to be obvious: Never criticize another author’s work in any venue that could possibly, possibly become public. That means I don’t review another romance author’s novels, don’t comment on them on Goodreads threads, don’t join the kaffeeklatsches that can arise at conferences. Firstly, I haven’t time read everybody else’s books (and commenting on a book without having read it is a no-no for me). Secondly, my opinions would not be, or be viewed as, disinterested, so why go there?

Another rule of thumb for me is to trust my gut when it comes to my stories. Editors are trying to craft a book into the most commercially appealing product it can be, in hopes that approach will sell the most copies. I disagree with that philosophy (politely, I hope). My approach is to create stories that are the highest possible quality and the most authentic to my brand. I figure if I start trying to pump extra humor into my stories (humor sells!) or up the action level (action sells!), I might find a few new readers, but I will lose old friends, who love the kinds of stories I can write from the heart, without contortions intended to appeal to a shifting market.

Another well worn chestnut is: Rejoice with those who succeed, commiserate with those who struggle. In other words: Don’t compare. Writing is such a peculiar business, with mediocrities hitting the big time, and geniuses toiling in obscurity. To get too attached to outcomes, (beyond can I please pay my bills?) is the road to misery.  This is unlike lawyering, by the way, where the most highly skilled lawyer usually–given reasonable facts and a sane judge–wins. It’s unlike music, where the most skilled musician usually gets the gig. It’s more like health–where you do the best you can, and genetics, chance, bad luck, and environmental factors that arose twenty years before you moved to town, can all affect your fate.

Which brings me to my writerly prime directive: Stay focused on the work. Write the books. Write the best books I can. Write another best book I can, and another. Ignore to the extent possible the industry gossip, the reviews, the who got a bigger advance, the who topped the charts, the who is having a flame war on social media. Readers pay me to write books, and I love to do that, so I write the books. Networking, promotion, my cyber footprint, my social capital…none of that supposedly necessary stuff gets any of my attention until after I’ve done my allotted writing (and often not even then).

Has your chosen path resulted in some Shoulder Angel Commandments? How did you come up with them? Do you ever ignore your own advice? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Amazon e-gift card.

In Transition

There I was, in the Portland Airport stocking up on healthy (chocolate) snacks for my red-eye flight back to DC. Late on a Saturday night, the concourse wasn’t exactly humming with activity. The lady who rang me up was friendly, and asked about where I was headed and how my time in Oregon had gone. Because nobody else was in the shop, I asked her, “So how are things going with you?”

Writers do this. We invite complete strangers to confide in us.

She looked at me like, “I’m going to answer honestly even if you were only being polite,” and told me she and her hubby had just made the decision to buy land near a town up along the Columbia River gorge. She was a-quiver with both joy and anxiety, because this step involved leaving a happy situation for a potentially happier one–some loss, but also many dreams germinating. I Do Not Sleep on Airplanes, so I had a lot of time to consider this little exchange.

I thought about life transitions, and how I tend go about them. I’m struck by how SLOWLY I make most changes. It took me three years to get free of the practice of law after it became clear my services were no longer needed by the State of Maryland. When my former spouse proposed, we had a year-long engagement…. just because. When I started writing novels, it was–again–years between “I’ve written a book!”and “Maybe I could get this thing published?”

My style with a big change is cautious and noncommittal, which contrasts with my oldest sister’s approach. Once that lady makes up her mind, STAND BACK. She focuses on what has to be done to get from point A to point B, and knocks out that list boom-boom-boom. I have the same list, but I’ll take care of one or two items at a time while sticking to my general routine.

This topic is likely on my mind because several family members have lately asked, “When are you going to get the heck out of Maryland?” My daughter left thirteen years ago and has come back three times (once to look at a sale horses). I no longer practice law such that admission to the bar matters, I can write books anywhere. What is keeping me here, where I have no family, no job ties, and my house is approaching the money pit stage?

I will continue to visit Oregon (and the Portland Rose Test Garden), trying to hit every season as I do, and nosing around for areas where I feel at home. I will continue to whittle away at my property’s feral cat challenge, and I will continue to debride my house of the stuff that magically accumulates after three decades in the same location. But I’m probably not going anywhere soon. Probably.

How do you change course? How do you know a major change is coming up, and have you ever pulled one off particularly well (or not well)? To one commenter, I’ll send a copy of the RITA-award winning Duke in the Night by writin’ buddy and all around lovely person Kelly Bowen.

All Together Now

Every few years, my extended family gets together for a reunion. The past two or three reunions were held in San Diego, so that my parents could participate without traveling. Mom and Dad are both gone now, so when the momentum began to rise for another reunion, we considered a lot of different locations.

My brother Tom has been the organizing force for our gatherings, and about a year ago he started up the dialogue: Where should we meet? Jackson, Wyoming? Banff, Canada? I am the only family member living “back East,” so getting together someplace in the west made sense. We eventually settled on the Oregon coast—new territory for all of us.

Then comes the discussion of who will bunk with whom, who can carpool from the airport. Closer to the reunion we start planning Big Events. This year, a bunch of us went out on a fishing boat. Another group did a five-mile hike. One brother put on breakfast for the whole tribe, a sister sprang for a pizza night. Working out these logistics adds more fun to the anticipation.

When we get together, it’s a chance for a lot of the young people to put names with faces, and faces with tall tales. (I am famous for that time when, at aged five, I decided I needed to know how much my head weighed. Picture seven people trying to get out of the house in the morning rush, one bathroom, and me locked in there with a bathroom scale and a hand mirror. Thank heavens for mothers who know how to pick a lock with a bobby pin.)

Over a few slices of pizza, I found myself explaining to my brother’s almost-grown children that our dad never attended any of bro’s Little League games—not ever. Didn’t know what position my brother played, never attended practices. Same Dad did not attend high school or college graduations for his younger children, never came to a piano recital of mine. I passed along this information not to slam my dear old dad (who was a fine parent in many ways), but because my niece and nephew have a very involved father—maybe too involved?—and not enough context about why that is.

I approached this reunion a little grudgingly. I love my family dearly, but I do not love transcontinental flights, I do not love losing my writing momentum, I do not love big gangs of people—not even big gangs of people I care for very much. I’m intimidated by the logistics of driving around unfamiliar terrain, I’m always nervous about spending money on travel.

But I am so GLAD I went, so grateful these kind, interesting, busy people all took time out of their schedules to spend a few days with me. These reunions are the primary way we maintain a family identity, and the only way I see many of my nieces and nephews, much less my siblings and their spouses. So I left the reunion already looking forward to the next one, which is a wonderful compliment to my family.

How do you maintain the ties that bind? Is there anybody you’d like to get together with more often? Any gatherings that have out-lived their usefulness? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed ARC of Forever and a Duke.

Hot Times!

So we’re having a heat wave in Maryland, with heat indexes nudging over 120F in Baltimore. We rarely go a summer without some triple digit days, so this is not all that unheard of, but it is uncomfortable. I rode my lesson horse on Thursday morning, got off, and realized I had exceeded my heat tolerance.

I know what to do when that happens, so I did it–sponge baths, cool clothes, AC, lots and lots of room temperature water in steady sips rather than chug-a-lugs–and respect for the residual fatigue. As I sat right in front of my fan that evening, revising a scene, I was aware of how much pleasure and contentment I got out of the very simplest comforts.

A breeze. Cool water. Soft, lightweight play clothes… when the night cooled off enough I turned off the AC and fans, and oh… the quiet. The absolute, lovely, calm quiet (and the symphony of cicadas, crickets, and other bugs enjoying the quiet with me). Early Friday morning I raided my yard for those high summer favorites, dahlias and gladiolus. They are so bright and cheery, and if it’s too hot to go outside, I can bring some outside into my kitchen.

Winter has the same effect, of elevating mundane comforts to the sublime–warmth becomes precious. A cup of hot tea a benediction. A soft woven scarf becomes the most prized accessory. A shoveled walk is a thing of beauty and safety. A  calm, sunny day is a reason to rejoice, even if it is frigid.

A heat wave is a bad thing. It causes suffering and even death, but in my case, it also caused me to stop running around, to sit quietly and be glad I had the privilege of indulging my limitations. For much of my life, I have been a soldier-on-no-matter-what single working mom, and that is no way to get through a heat wave or a cold snap.

What stops you from excessive busyness? Illness? Weather? Migraines? Family? Is there a time of year when you are more likely to overdo or slow down? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed ARC of Forever and a Duke!