Still Not There Yet

In my years as a divorce mediator, I watched many families go through the struggle to find a “new normal.” As with any process involving grief, the usual experience was messy.

One factor contributing to the mess is the need to reassemble the production line of family functioning. Whereas in a combined household, the eleven year old might be the tech wizard, Dad the czar of tax filings, and Mom the person who made sure oil changes always happened on time, in separate households, those functions have to be reassigned or at least rescheduled. The shock for Dad of having his oil light come on, or for Mom having to drop everything to get the taxes filed can be enormous.

Those speed bumps can feel as if they symbolize a failed marriage, a failed adulthood, enormous loss, and an unkind universe. And there is shock after shock for all involved. The rule of thumb most counselors apply is that a divorce is a three-year quest for a new normal that actually feels normal.

And all of the adjustments must be negotiated while Life Goes On. It’s draining and bewildering, and as I try to get beyond fourteen months of living pandemically, I’m struggling with a lot of the symptoms divorcing families deal with.

For a long time, the only day of the week I had to keep track of was Tuesday, which was barn/bank/grocery day. Other than that, the day hovered somewhere between Saturday (I don’t have to go anywhere or do anything in particular), and Workday (the writing, Grace. Do the writing…). I learned to keep extra masks in the car and purse. I added hand sanitizer to those locations are well.

Now the masks and hand-san are on auto-pilot, but I’m struggling to keep track of a busier calendar. Not a busy calendar, not compared to Before-Before, but busier than I can handle without focused effort now.

At this time last year, I didn’t have to fret over whether I owed distant family a visit, because I could not visit. I didn’t have to decide whether to attend writer’ conferences, because there weren’t any except on Zoom. I didn’t have to fret much about the political news, because the pandemic shoved most of that baloney into the wings.

I feel like my sat nav is busted, the maps I can find are out of date, and I haven’t driven this route in years. I’m finding some comfort in the things that have not changed–I tended to my flower gardening Then, I’m tending to to it now. I rode my horse Then, I’m riding him now. I wrote books Then… I’m trying to write books now, or at least work on book stuff, but this is not how I imagined After This is Over.  It’s a lot messier, though tidying up the mess is a job I’m happy to have.

How are you doing? What’s helping? What’s a particular challenge? The first 20 people who comment get an ARC copy of Miss Delectable, because maybe that’s something I can do help.

Rest and Be Thankful

The title of this post is taken from a route in Scotland that passes over the Arrochar Alps in Argyll and Bute. The soldiers who built the original military road across this terrain in the 1750s erected a stone at the highest point, etched with the words, “Rest and be thankful.” The name stuck, and now the scenic overview is referred to “the” Rest and Be Thankful.*

I had occasion to rest and be thankful myself this week. I finished the rough draft for Miss Delightful, a September release. I’m a trifle ahead of schedule, but not as much as you might think. Between revisions, copy edits, proofreading, and formatting, the time will pass quickly.

And no sooner do I complete that draft, than I’m asking myself, “What about the sixth Lady Violet book? You can’t publish the series until you write that. Best be about it, Grace. Or you could write the third Mischief in Mayfair book, because there are THREE cousins that we know about so far. You could least find cover art for that story, come up with a title. Don’t just sit there looking dazed and bewildered!”

There is always another book to write or revise, always research to do, and many worthwhile undertakings have this treadmill-like quality. My mother had to figure out what to feed nine people at every meal for decades. She might send her dinner guests on their way after a spectacular feast, then turn around start defrosting tomorrow’s hamburgers. There’s always another performance, lecture, meal, sermon, or workday that will need our efforts.

But if I never pause to celebrate–another draft complete!–then I am missing a significant part of the joy of being a writer. I did something–I wrote a book! Well intended people work very hard toward that same objective and never achieve it, but Miss Delightful is in the starting blocks and headed for publication. Rest and be thankful!

When a reader leaves a positive review, they are encouraging me to take a moment and be pleased with my books. When we send an appreciative word to the kitchen, we are asking the cooking staff to pause in their very busy work and take a bow. When we tell a kid they did a good job, we’re encouraging pride and joy. These things–joy, a sense of accomplish, permission to bask in a completed task–matter.

They are an antidote to burnout and an empty well. They are an honest and kind expression of appreciation. A verbal pat on the back says, “I see you, I see how hard you work, and I am grateful for your tenacity.”

Last week I wrote about the downsides of grit, but this week, I’m thinking of my own failure to appreciate what grit can produce. Rest, Grace, and be thankful–THEN write another book.

Who has appreciated you, whom do you appreciate? Is there an occasion to rest and be thankful in your life? Three commenters will go on the ARC list for Miss Delectable.

*Wikimedia attribution for that pretty photo: By Richard Harvey – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2725097

 

 

And Yet She Did Not Persist

I’ve always been a little leery of the praise heaped so lavishly on the concept of “grit,” stick-to-it-tiveness, persistence. I respect people who honor values that dignify life, especially in the face of adversity, but I also know that I tend to cling to my decisions a little too tenaciously.

If I said I’d graduate with two bachelor’s degrees, then wild unicorns could not stop me from bagging both sheepskins, even though I could plainly see the music history degree was a testament to a closed chapter of my life. I have never, in fact, overtly used it (Valentine Windham scowls at me).

I have stayed in relationships too long, stayed in jobs MUCH too long, and I will probably stay in this house too long, if I haven’t already. Sticking with the practice of law meant I missed the indie publishing gold rush. Living in this house means I spend thousands just managing the danged trees. The cost of a relationship beyond its expiration date is hard to even think about.

But I am “not a quitter.” Sometimes, that means I’ve been a fool instead, wasting my fire on people, institutions, and situations that are no longer a good use of my resources if they ever were.

I’m also leery of grit-is-the-answer because it supports two myths, the first being that of individual agency. If you just persist–climb every mountain, ford every stream!–if you are determined enough, you can move mountains. But if you’re Latina, you will be moving that mountain at a wage, on average, about 55 percent of what a white male would be paid. If you’re quite short, major league basketball is not going to make you an offer no matter how persistent you are.

Yes, you can be the first in your family to cart tons of dirt across the valley, but all the time and energy you spend moving that mountain is then not available to tackle the institutional barriers making your wheelbarrow much smaller than the other guy’s. As long as some people–by institutional design–get the tiny wheelbarrows, and other people get bulldozers, fewer mountains will be moved overall. The myth of grit, while professing to support the moving of mountains, can actually keep the biggest, highest mountains exactly where they are.

My other peeve with grit is that is valorizes suffering in place over the courage to admit a screw up, the courage to backtrack, or to rethink and assert the right to quit.  In some circumstances, grit prioritizes rigidity and stoicism over self-reflection, flexibility, and humility. This isn’t working, can be one of the scariest, most freeing admissions we can make–also one of the saddest–and I probably haven’t made it often enough or soon enough.

So how do you know when it’s time to rethink a decision, let go of a plan, or admit defeat? When does grit become more problem than solution for you? Chime in below, and I’ll put three more names on my ARC list for Miss Delectable.

 

Float This By You

As I resume some of my pre-pandemic life (riding the horse more, catching up on doc appointments), I have a sense of dwelling a short distance from my body.

I’ve already noted in this space that pandemic living resulted in some odd behavior changes for me. I stopped whistling, and I am a pretty dedicated whistler. I stopped stretching, even casually, as in touching my toes while waiting for my tea water to boil. I stopped laughing at the ridiculous antics of eight-week-old kittens.  Stopped wearing my most colorful socks and went instead for cozy pastels all year round.

My sense is that I withdrew into a state of low self-expression, and became emotionally non-permeable. Worry, anxiety, and anger were not going to get in, and courage was not going to leak out. I kept the hatches battened down, and now… the hatches are kinda stuck. Small challenges–might run out of milk!–are occasion for much strategizing even though I still have an entire gallon of milk in the fridge.

I need time to get my groove back, but I also need to do the things I know to do to be me. One of those things is to invite novelty into my life. My imagination cannot think new thoughts if I never give myself new experiences or perspectives to chew on. This week, I rode a different horse, for example. Santa boogered up not one but two of his feet, so I did a lesson on Waldo, a handsome bay Hanoverian gelding whom I have known for fifteen years…. but never taken a lesson on.

My take away from that lesson was, as long as I focused on listening to the horse instead of anticipating a spook, bolt, buck, earthquake, market crash, new pandemic, or meteor collisions, we had a fine time.

And then I tried something called floating, which is essentially sensory deprivation in a warm bath of concentrated Epsom salts. Somebody at the barn recommended it for stress relief and reduction of inflammation. I like a good massage, but cannot find a massage therapist I click with, and besides… a massage in a mask has little appeal. So a-floating I did go.

I did not reunite with my missing soul, or think up the best story premise ever. I tried a little something new. My myriad small aches and pains might be somewhat mollified for the present, and I did enjoy it. I also had to find my way to a new location (I do not use Sat Nav), had to deal with people I’d never met, had to manage when I left my towel in the car (What, me? Distracted?), and generally had to be present to my own life. It’s a step in the right direction.

Are you having to treat yourself any differently lately? Planning any new adventures? I’ll put three names on my ARC list for Miss Delectable, which launches in the web store in May, and on the retail outlets in June.

I Will Book No Complaint…

My oldest sister and I got to emailing about books. She recommended Children of Ash and Elm, an exceptionally engaging history of the Viking Golden Age, by Neil Price. This tome caught her eye  because the author is such a protean thinker. He’s interested in everything from the maritime Silk Road (never heard of such a thing), to the Viking diaspora (never heard of that either), to paradigms of piracy (who knew?), to the socio-political ramifications of opium addiction then and now, to… Yikes already!

I passed along to my sister one of my favorite books, Being a Beast, by Charles Foster, because he strikes me as having the same sort of enormous, busy, elastic mind as Mr. Price. Foster is a lawyer, veterinarian, and PhD expert on medical ethics. He synthesizes all that stuff through the lenses of various wild species, and comes up with an eloquent prayer for the planet and for his own species.

This ability to leap across apparently unrelated topics and find connections just awes the livin’ peedywhaddles out of me. This is vision and creativity and insight. I marvel at such gifts and wish the people who have them long, joyous, well documented (and well compensated) careers.

The discussion with my sister led me to remark that our own father had often insisted that the life of the mind was the one most profitably cultivated, because it was “all you’re left with,” in the end. This was a guy who was still sitting on PhD committees into his eighties, and who was winning cribbage games the day he died at age 96.

I honestly found that comment a little sad–Dad, what about the love? What about the love for those of us who don’t get to keep our minds until the end? What about the love from my two sisters, who upended their lives to look after you and Mom when you couldn’t look after yourselves? You were left with that too, Ph-Dude.

But I also realized that never once–not one time in my whole life–had I heard either of my parents complain of boredom. They were both always reading. Mom read “good books,” Dad read science, science, and more science. Time and National Geographic were scattered around the house from my infancy. For two people who didn’t travel much beyond the Lower 48, my parents went on many literary flights. I’m sure there’s much they could have whinged and whined about, but their choice was to stay interested in the greater world, and creatively nourished with reading material.

Through books and reading and other people, they were fascinated by the wonders of creation rather than by the temptation to  lament Mom’s rheumatiz or Dad’s research funding problems. I need to give them credit for that example, both as it relates to having a constructive outlook, and as it relates to feeding the soul with the written word. They got that spectacularly right, and I have had both a bearable pandemic and a delightful livelihood to show for it. As we approach the Mother’s Day and Father’s Day observances: Thanks, Mom and Dad for the books and the good example.

Two questions: What did you or your parents get right, without any fanfare or drama? Also: Read any good books lately? To two commenters, I’ll send signed copies of the very pretty large print edition of How to Catch a Duke. The books are surprisingly lightweight and compact, and I do like that cover!

That Time I Screwed Up

All over the publishing industry we hear tales of the many times an author with a great book had to offer their work all over town, only to be turned down over and over.  A Wrinkle in Time got the thumbs down from 25 different publishers. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone had ten rejections, then a publisher’s eight-year-old daughter told him to back it. Chicken Soup for the Soul had more than 100 rejections.

Oops.

Venture capital firms also sometimes keep track of companies they had a chance to fund, and passed over. One outfit famously admits to having turned up its nose at Google, Facebook, AirBnb, Apple, Fedex, PayPal, and Zoom (among others). They call this their anti-portfolio.

Oops squared.

I’m not a New York editor or a venture capitalist, so I don’t have an anti-portfolio of best sellers or blue chip stocks, but I did get to thinking about that time I bought a horse… I’ve purchased many horses, but I hit a horseless stretch when my long-time trainers and friends moved to Florida. After a few years of no horse and no riding lessons, I decided I was ready to get back in the saddle. My old trainers found me the perfect horse.

Dante was (is!) a wonderful guy. He’s a cross between a Thoroughbred and a draft breed, which can result in a big, twitchy wingnut, OR it can result in a mount with athleticism , good sense, and a comfy build. Dante got all the right genes, and I was delighted with him.

I was not delighted with riding in sub-freezing temperatures, without a familiar trainer to help me learn to communicate with my new horse. I wasn’t motivated enough to ride alone (and that’s not safe), and it became clear I had acquired a very expensive animal that I no longer had the chops to fit into my life. With the help of my friends, I found him a wonderful, forever home, though that process was protracted and not easy on the horse.

The decision to buy Dante was an oops. When I face it squarely as such, I can look at why I made that mistake–I missed my ridin’ buddies. I hadn’t found any other tolerable exercise, I was lonely for a time when I had had a greater sense of physical competence. Riding got me out of the lawyer/writer two step and around people who shared my values. I wasn’t buying a horse so much as I was trying to recreate some much-missed joys.

I haven’t purchased another equine since making that mistake. I have a wonderful lesson horse, whom I do not own but am welcome to spoil, pet, ride, compete, and hug. My barn friends now are not quite the close-knit circle I was part of before, but they are good folks and I am always glad to see them.

In my headlong rush to cope day to day, I sometimes don’t have the time to reflect on missed opportunities, bad decisions, or mistakes, but I think that exercise can be revealing. I’ve found a way to be in the saddle that works for who I am now, and I will also think long and hard before I ever buy another horse.

Do you ponder your boo-boos? Are there some lessons you had to learn the hard way? To three commenters, I’ll send signed copies of How to Catch A Duke!

 

 

Scribble and Nosh

When I left the practice of law, my writing schedule developed a certain mass. I would work on new pages in the morning, a secondary project in the afternoon, and what I called production (copy edits, looking for cover art, updating the website) or marketing/social media tasks in the evening. I got a lot done on a good day.

Several years on, I’m still pretty productive, but that afternoon project is increasingly also a production task rather than a writing task. The publication rights for the entire Lonely Lords series plus a few novellas have reverted to me (yay!), and that has meant a lot of re-reading and re-packaging (not so yay), for books that are in their sunset earning years.

Mary Fran and Matthew CoverSome of the shift to more upkeep and less output has been because of those older books reverting, some has been because I cannot travel to the places that inspire me the most plot-wise. I have noticed though, that a different kind of writing project has nudged its way onto my schedule.

I now have what I call “nosh” projects. My Lady Violet mysteries are one example. I intend to write at least six (one more to go), before I start publishing them. They aren’t on any announced deadline, they aren’t romances (though there’s a romantic arc), they aren’t likely to earn as much as my romances do. I just kinda felt pulled in that direction, and I have had fun writing these stories.

I’m also writing something I call My Book Hates Me, which is intended as a consolation and inspiration for other authors. It’s non-fiction, part how-to-write, part memoir (much that abets me as an author I learned in courtrooms and practice rooms), and a no-particular-order sort of discourse. I may never publish it, and I go for days sometimes without opening the document. I hope I finish it, I hope it sees publication, but there’s value simply in working out what I want to say and collecting it in one place.

To allow myself projects that aren’t on the path to producing income, that have no real schedule, that proceed by inspiration or not at all, is a change for me. Maybe as we move into a post-COVID or less-COVID phase, I will resume the previous schedule. There aren’t that many older books left to revert to me, and travel is once again looking more possible.

But I like these nosh projects, I like feeling as if some of what I do during the day is simply an open-ended frolic. It’s writer-stuff, but not revenue-stuff, and maybe that’s a healthier way to ply my trade over a long term.

Do you have nosh projects? Hobbies that could generate income but don’t have to? Were you raised by people who indulged in nosh projects? To three commenters, I will send signed paperback copies of How to Catch A Duke, which comes out this week!!!!

Positively

I am not much of one for positive thinking. “Look on the bright side,” has always sounded to me suspiciously close to, “Your suffering does not matter, if it’s even real, and even if it is real, I don’t want to hear your whining because why should anybody care about your little woes?” My grown-up head knows that, “Look on the bright side…” is intended as a consolation, a counterweight to whatever feels overwhelming and gloomy, but my emotions do not always correspond with my venerable age. A shocking revelation, I know.

I am just as twitchy about the old, “You can’t change what happened to you, but you can control what you DO about it,” thinking. Sometimes, that’s valid. Just deal with bad luck or unkind fate, and soldier on. But other times, “what happened to you,” is the result of an institutional harm. More women are seriously injured in automobile accidents than men, despite women being the better drivers, because cars are designed to keep men safe at women’s expense.

You can go to all the rehab you want after that accident, get counseling, and cope with the PTSD, but keeping the focus on you “controlling what you do about” the accident obscures our deadly complacence as a society toward women’s safety on the road. Stop lecturing me about self-advocacy and my individual choices when you ought instead to be lecturing profit-driven car manufacturers about their responsibility for dead and maimed women.

I could go on. Suffice it to say, rose-colored glasses get a big old side eye from me. A little more pessimism in the planning stages of some of our social media enterprises might have saved us all a lot of angst and invasion of privacy.

But then I came across this post from Fred Wilson whose thing in life is venture capital. (I don’t know beans from Shinola about venture capital or non-fungible whatevers.) His point is that if you’re given a choice between rooting for the Celtics or dissing the Knicks, rooting for the Celtics is the better option. Criticism and analysis have an important place, but not as a universal default. The universal default should be what we’re enthusiastic about, what we treasure.

I am highly critical of social media, but I treasure this blog. Doing business with some of the larger book retail platforms is an exercise in enduring frustration and disrespect, but a couple of the smaller platforms are absolutely delightful to deal with.

If I let negativity be my default–and there’s tons of conditioning pushing us in that direction–then a) I’m pretty miserable, and b) I lose sight of much that is legitimately joyful, and c) I’m likely to connect with only fellow doomsayers and reinforce my grouchy, anxious tendencies. Phooey on that.

So let’s keep the comments simple: What are three things that give you joy? I’ll start: This blog, spring flowers, a hot cup of jasmine green tea. Big joy right there. Your turn. I’ll add three commenters to my ARC list for the June release, Miss Delectable.

 

 

Under Advisement

One of the tools a novelist uses to tell a story is the reflection character. This person can be a sidekick, mentor, antagonist, companion animal… all of the above. The possibilities are endless. The reflection character’s job (and there’s often more than one reflection character in the cast) is to illuminate the protagonists’ progress as they inch and stumble their way along the arc from a safe, wounded mode of living to a courageous, risky–loving–approach to life.

On a practical level the reflection character is a way to put into dialogue a lot of the musings and fretting that would otherwise take place only inside a protagonist’s head. Dialogue is generally more engaging then straight narrative or description, so that’s a crucial role. The reflection character is also fertile ground for the next book’s protagonist. The character’s asides, anecdotes, and advice all give the reader little hints of coming attractions.

And in the past year, I’ve had less access to my own personal reflection characters. I haven’t hung out with family, and they–being the people who knew me when–often have insights about my upbringing that nobody else can offer. I’m not around other writers at conferences or retreats. I’m not talking to strangers as I travel overseas and gain insights into myself and my home culture. I don’t even get to hang out with my horse or my ridin’ buddies as I used to.

I am at risk for living a less examined life of late, because I have to do all the reflecting on my own, and yet, I’m not completely at sea. In addition to online resources–such as they are–and my own capacity for insight, I’ve also collected a store of wisdom over the years. Some of this advice came from long-ago therapy sessions: If you need it to be happy, you need it.

Another old chestnut from therapy: Anger usually sits on top of another more vulnerable emotion, such as fear, betrayal, or grief.

Some goodies I collected while studying conflict or lawyering: Defining the problem accurately is half the battle of solving it. A non-anxious presence can also be half the battle of solving a sticky problem.

And some gems came to me from friends and family. My dad passed along this insight, which I think goes near the top of the Most Useful Stuff Dad Said: If you face a tough decision, you might not know which choice appeals most strongly, but you can usually tell which option has the least appeal. When in doubt, pay attention to what you know you don’t want.

As a young female adult, I found that guidance particularly useful. I had not been socialized to pay attention to my own needs, wants, or druthers. But I could tune in pretty easily to the things I dreaded or despised. I could gauge future regrets more easily than future joys, and so I backed into some good decisions.

I could go on–learn to spot forced choices and what motivates them. Always pace yourself for the long haul. Don’t waste your fire on people who don’t appreciate you.

I still have reflection characters in my life after all. What about you? What would you say is the best advice you’ve ever been given? The worst advice? To three commenters, I’ll send e-ARCs of the $.99 novella anthology, Shelter and Storm.

 

Stop, Thief!!!

So there I am, in the shower, which I consider a place of refuge because No Tech, and No Stress (I know how to take a shower), and into my head gallops a little ditty called Erlkönig or Elf King. Goethe wrote the poem based on folklore; Franz Schubert turned it into a lied (art song), and my mother learned to play a piano version when she was a girl.

It’s spooky music, all minor and full of tremolo, and a spooky tale. A father is riding through a stormy night, inclement weather bearing down, a sick child in his arms. The child–maybe delirious?–sees the Elf King, who tempts the boy to join him in fairyland. The father reassures his son. It’s just the shadows, it’s just the whisper of dry leaves, it’s just the swaying of the willows in the darkness… and all the while, the music is growing faster, modulating up a half step, becoming louder.

Old Schubert knew his stuff. The Elf King claims he’ll snatch the child by force, though the father has arrived at safety at last. But too late! Dad finds to his horror that the child in his arms is dead. In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.

I get to that part, and I just start crying. Why must das Kind be tot? That’s an awful song. Who writes this crap? Half a million Kinder are tot from this stupid virus, and I hate that. And why did this song accost me in the shower when I haven’t thought of it for years?

Then I’m dreaming–I don’t dream much–and the gist of the story is, an autistic child cannot speak until the music starts, and then the lyrics pour forth. What is going on here? Crying in the shower, dreaming? Grace Ann? Is this birthday business? Signs of spring? A new book germinating? Inquiring minds are flummoxed.

Then I’m scrolling through social media, and I see somebody has posted a St. Patrick’s Day version of their church choir doing a virtual rendition of Be Thou My Vision, which–irrespective of theology–is a great old hymn. I sing along, scaring the cats.

Speaking of cats, I’m out on the front porch, feeding the Vandal horde their daily ration of wet food. When Sunny Gets Blue pops into my head, an old torch song I haven’t heard since college. I serenade the cats, and again I’m curious: Where is this coming from? Yeah, I have a music history degree, but that thing is 40 years old…

And then I think: I got my vaccination. I got the one and done vaccination, and this rubbishing, stupid, idiot, detestable pandemic stole my music, and I didn’t even notice. It’s normal for me to cry to sad music in the shower. It’s normal for me to dream music. It’s normal for me to sing–hymns, torch songs, pop tunes. I’m not any good, but I love music.

And I have not sung, danced to, or dreamed music for the past year. Oh, that is an abomination against nature that is. That is thievery of the worst sort, because I did not realize my heart’s pocket had been picked. For shame, damned virus. For shame upon you.

What has the pandemic stolen from you? Are you seeing any signs of hope? To three commenters, I’ll send an e-ARC of Shelter and Storm.