The Season of Dreams

dickIn a few weeks I will be 57, the age at which my dear brother Richard had a stroke. This guy is a PhD nutritionist, and was out for his obligatory morning jog when he began having trouble completing sentences. Yes, he was on blood pressure medication which he took religiously, and if he wasn’t at his ideal body weight he was a few pounds below it. 

In other words–the picture of health. Exercised regularly, watched his diet like a very well educated hawk, went to the docs and did what they told him to do. And if his wife hadn’t realized immediately what was going on, we would probably have lost him. 

Since the stroke, Richard has written a book, become a master of foxhounds, ridden in competitive horse shows against people one fourth his age, and generally recovered in fine style.

alanXrickmanXcroppedThe part of growing older nobody likes is that our health becomes unreliable; rather, our health is unreliable–always has been–but now we know it.  

There’s an up-side to this. 

In every other regard, my fifties have been a better time for dreams coming true than any other time in my life. Why? In part because I have a lot of resources I didn’t have earlier, though I’m certainly not at my wealthiest these days. I do, though, have more control over how I spend my time. The parenting demands have ebbed, the professional learning curve is very manageable. 

classI have a small group of true friends, people who’ve known me not since the start of the semester, but for decades. Friends who give it to me straight, and–better still–these friends are drawing on decades of their own life experience when they offer me advice. 

I have wisdom, albeit nobody ever has too much of this resource. I grasp concepts like projection (when people accuse you of having their own faults); and blaming, shaming, minimizing and denying–other means by which responsibility is shifted from the person who ought to own up to it. I get how important it is to define a problem if it’s to be thoroughly solved; and I certainly don’t have much energy invested in my appearance.

virtuoso_244wIf health were guaranteed for the first century of life, I might miss the advantages I have now–terrific, precious, no-short-cut advantages when it comes to living the life I was born to live. Health is not guaranteed. Never was, but as the day inches closer to sunset, I can see that, and decide what I want to do with the remaining light. 

That’s a good thing. It makes my dreams more precious, my blog posts more precious, my dogs and cats and brownies and books more precious.It makes YOU more precious to me, too.

What about your life has become more beautiful as sunset approaches? What is better, more free, more peaceful? What dreams tempt you now, and why aren’t you going after them?

To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of The Virtuoso, a story about a guy who thought all his dreams were lost to him forever.   

It’s Called “Earthing…”

I read recently about something called “earthing.” Proponents of earthing (which consists of standing barefoot in the grass or on bare earth) claim it benefits everything from the immune system to heart health. The optimal practice is to get your feet in contact with terra firma for forty minutes a day.

I also came across a study in a wonderful book, “Last Child in the Woods,” that claimed for every hour an ADHD kid spends outside, their ritalin prescription can be reduced by 5 mg.

 Hmm. I betcha it took a Ph.D. or three to conclude what every kid under the age of eight ought to know: Messing around in the great outdoors is good for us, and if we can do it in bare feet without getting stung by something obnoxious or otherwise injured, then so much the better. From an evolutionary standpoint, the conclusion makes sense: For the first three million years of homo sapiens’ tour on earth, those of us who thrived in the out of doors were the ones most likely to survive to reproduce.

 It’s interesting to me that in my third book, “The Virtuoso,” (Sourcebooks, November 2011) a significant part of the action takes place out in the country. Lord Valentine Windham is a piano virtuoso who is suffering an odd malady of the left hand. I suspect it’s a variant of carpal tunnel, but then too, it might be an affliction of some arcane manly humor that comes into play when a fellow is recruited to be the hero in a romance novel.

 Lord Val believes his music to be his defining accomplishment. He’s played his way through family trauma, loss, joy, and all manner of upheaval. He’s forbidden to play at the start of the book, but this leaves the door open for him to once again learn how to play as he did when he was boy growing up with four brothers.

 He builds a fort with his friends, though it’s in truth a stately old manor house that he restores.

 He camps with his buddies for much of the summer and cooks over an open fire.

 He does a lot of his bathing in the farm pond beyond the woods (skinny dips, if you want to get technical).

He kisses a pretty lady in those woods, and falls in love with the pretty lady in her flower garden.

Not surprisingly, what Val and Ellen get about each other is that each requires a life that allows for a great deal of creative self-expression. For Ellen, the flower gardens serve that purpose, for Valentine, it’s his music.

He learns to love again, despite not having his piano handy to say the hard things for him. She learns to trust again, despite her conviction that she has to manage her troubles without endangering anybody else.

I have to wonder now in retrospect how much of their healing took place because they were around each other, and how much because they were in daily, happy contact with the good earth and the great outdoors. Think I’ll go stand out in the grass and ponder this question.

What about you? Spring is coming: Do you thrive on regular doses of nature, or are you one of those who manages quite nicely without poking your nose outside unnecessarily?

What Ails My Valentine?

            A blog commenter recently asked me what, exactly, was wrong with Lord Valentine Windham’s hand that it became so inflamed? Was his whole problem psychosomatic?

            Physician David Worthington, Viscount Fairly, intimates as much, and Valentine supports that diagnosis when he notes (to himself) that the first twinge of pain came when he closed his hand around the symbolic clod of earth that began the process of burying his brother Victor.

            In fact, Valentine has buried two brothers, and hasn’t really let go of the keen grief resulting from either death. He’s lost two more brothers to the inexorable grip of happy marriages, and his oldest brother, Devlin, has also removed two hundred miles north to the West Riding.

            Valentine has been holding onto to a lot of bewildering losses—no wonder his hand aches.

            Except… This is one of my early manuscripts, and as such, has been significantly pared down from its original first draft… pared down by, oh, say 50,000 words. That means there’s half a book I’ve written about this story that you haven’t read, and buried in that half a book is more information about Val’s ailment.

            As a child, trying to keep up with his older brothers while skating, Val had a fall on an outstretched hand (FOOSH). He hid the condition from Her Grace, and by the time His Grace figured out that his baby boy was injured, the affected wrist was healing. His Grace pronounced it a bad sprain (it was a fracture), and tried to tell himself that stoicism even in a five year old is something to be proud of. (Her Grace would have known better.)

            In modern medical terms a FOOSH is one condition that can create a predisposition to carpal tunnel syndrome. Val’s symptoms—worse inflammation around the thumb and index fingers than the other fingers, abatement of inflammation following rest—are consistent with a diagnosis of carpal tunnel. Repetitive stress can play a role in carpal tunnel, but so too, the literature suggests, can chronic emotional stress.

            So maybe Valentine had a case of carpal tunnel that resolved with rest.

            Or maybe it was a matter of him having to let go of what ailed his heart before his hand would heal. I’ve been around a lot of dedicated pianists, and as a group, I’ve noticed they tend not to suffer ailments of the hand—to the contrary, many of them ply their instruments with breathtaking skill very late in life (Eubie Blake, Marion McPartland, Arturo Rubinstein, Dave Brubeck to name a few).

            To answer the question then, I know Valentine’s ailment was at least physical, but David Worthington was right too: Illness can have its origins in the emotions of the heart, and healing can originate there too.

 Have you ever endured an ailment you suspected was more of the heart than the body?


The Virtuoso’s Play List

For each book featured in a newsletter, I’d like to answer a question that either came up frequently on the blog tour for that book, or should have come up frequently and didn’t. The Virtuoso being about a musician, I expected to be asked if I listen to music when I write. It doesn’t say so on the website, but I have a Bachelor of Music degree in music history and my instrument was piano.

When Lord Valentine was acquiring his skill at the keyboard, the entire repertoire of Mozart, Haydn, Handel, CPE Bach, and some J.S. Bach would have been available to him. Over in Vienna, Beethoven would have written all but his ninth symphony, and pianist and composer Muzio Clementi would have been touring to packed houses.

So what did I listen to when I wrote “The Virtuoso?”

Unless you count the contented snoring of my bull mastiff, I listened to silence.

In hindsight, I think I would have been happier had I pursued a college degree in composition rather than musicology, because even more than I liked to create music, I liked to listen to it being created. When I listen to music, my ear is not passive. I take apart what I’m hearing the way an art historian might assess a painting, even the mass produced art hanging in a hotel room.

You hear a string quartet, I hear a cello getting too bossy and a viola hiding under the second violin. I hear magnificent close harmony, or a bass line going muddy as the tempo picks up. In other words, I listen analytically.

I cannot turn this off any more than I can turn off the senses of taste and touch. It’s work for me to listen to music, just as it’s work for me to write. I enjoy both—enjoy them tremendously—but both take focus and effort.

Composer G.F. Handel

So, no, I do not listen to music when I write. That would be like trying to dance and write at the same time—nigh impossible for me. But—and you knew there would be a but—when I was writing “Lady Sophie’s Christmas Wish,” time was of the essence, and a Christmas feel for the book was also of the essence. To help me get a sense of Christmas into the book, I listened to Handel’s “Messiah” (the Christmas portion) almost incessantly when I wasn’t writing. I hummed it, I sang it, I whistled it—and happily “lost” the CD once the book was written.

The neat thing about that work is that even in the Regency period, it was popular Christmas music. Hearing the oratorio over and over, knowing my Regency characters would have been thoroughly familiar with it, helped the story flow more easily.

If there’s a question you’d like to see addressed in a future blog, send it along and I’ll try to work it in. If YOU had written the Virtuoso, what might you have listened to (beside my snoring bull mastiff)?