What To Do About the S Word

Later today I will scamper out to the grocery store–the nearest one is eight miles away–and load up on the usual provisions. For what feels like the zillioneth time in the past six months, I’ll undertake this exercise because the forecast is calling for half a foot of snow. Again.

daffodilsI’m OK with this, though, because I can see the date, and I can feel the days getting longer, and I can absorb that the sun’s getting stronger, even on the cold days. In other words, spring is coming, whether there’s snow in the forecast or not. In that spirit, here are ten things I love about spring:

1) Crocuses. I’ve seen them as early as January and as late as… this week, and they are always, always a welcome sight. In this same category, lump daffodils, anemones, forsythia… all the true harbingers who often get snowed on.

pepper2) Peepers. These are the tiny tree frogs who make that high-pitched cheeping on early spring evenings. They get snowed on too, but there always seems to be a fresh crop singing to their true loves the next year.

3) Flowering trees. Maryland does flowering trees beautifully, particularly the redbud and dog wood. They make my heart happy. Trees and flowers together–what could be lovelier?

Redbud trees24) Leafing out. It’s late this year–the oak trees aren’t even turning pinkish yet, but I can feel it coming.

5) Songbirds. Love waking up to the singing of the birds.

6) Fresh air. Especially those first few warm days, when you go outside, surprised to feel it’s nearly trenton_450as warm Out There as it is in the bathroom, and you open up the house even if it’s a bit chilly.

7) Flowers at the grocery store. Yes, they’re trying to get you to impulse buy, but where’s the harm in some “just for pretty” as they say around here?

8) Shedding. The horses actually start shedding in January, as the days start getting longer, but at some point, the hair loss becomes torrential, and it’s really, truly spring.

9) Lawnmowers. Some ambitious, yard proud neighbor has to fire up their equipment well before the grass is awake, much less growing, but the first time I hear it, I think, “Spring!”

Spring splendor10) Spring break. Why? I go exactly nowhere, if I even take a break, but many other people hit the beach, and when they go, they take BOOKS, and BOOKS, and BOOKS!

Marvelous! Your turn: What you love, love, love about spring….

To one commenter, I’ll send the Spring Splendor Gift Basket, from baskets.com.

Dancing to the Different Drum

EMU_0Once upon a time, I  ended up at Eastern Mennonite University, pursuing a Master’s Degree in conflict studies.

Conflict studies is exactly what it sounds like–you study all the ways we don’t get along, from war, to crime, to domestic violence, to bigotry, to bullying, to divorce, to… you name it. As a species, we’re  unique in nature for the scale upon which we kill our own kind, kill our mates, sacrifice our best and brightest to wars, and so on. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is not the smartest way to go on, so I thought I might learn a little more about the alternatives.

we have met the enemyI enjoyed my classes. One professor had pursued his PhD in South Africa as apartheid was dismantled, another worked with Basque separatists to avoid civil war in Spain. Another professor helped Columbians come up with sustainable alternatives to growing the coca plant, another developed peacebuilding strategies with the Department of Defense. These were saintly, interesting people, most of them full of hope and humor.

But one class in particular made me furious. This required course was called, “Disciplines for Sustaining the Peacemaker.”

They lost me at the word, “Disciplines.” To me, discipline is about force, about coercion and punishment. Of course, what was meant was “how to keep your balance when you’re dealing with upsetting stuff,” but the approach was for the professor to assign us angry-little-girlrequired practices–journaling, yoga (the sun salute, no less, which I do loathe), meditation, readings, exercise–which we were to attend to in the interests of self-care.

The idea was that by observing these practices, we’d somehow find the ones that would make us more resilient, wiser, sturdier, and better at our peacemaking. The reality was, by the end of the semester, the entire class of nice, well intended, tadpole peacemakers from all over the world was united in their willingness to beat the living peedywattles out of the professor and his grand ideas about spiritual and emotional fortification.

I got what I was supposed to get out of the class in that I ended up with a better understanding of how to look after myself. A large part of what sustains me is solitude. Unstructured time is also really necessary to my well being, preferably seven days a week of it, but I can limp along with four or five in the interests of getting my kid through college. I need humor, I need romance novels, I need companion animals and big, healthy trees. I like to journal, but I need my cats, I need those aromatic, hot, sweet cups of tea, and scented candles are important too.

connoisseurThese necessities were nowhere on the professor’s list (yoga, meditation, congregation, education), most of which either left me cold or made me cringe. I’m glad that prof has his list, but it was far more important that I learned my own.

In what area of life are you a nonconformist, a different drummer, the one who has to do it her way or not at all? How did you figure your way out?

To one commenter, I’ll send “The Connoisseur” from Wine Country Gift Baskets.

Timing Is Everything…

Winter sunsetWhen a couple hits a rough patch, one of the first questions the counselors will ask is, “What did you notice about your partner that first attracted you?” The question has several aims. The obvious aim is to start the discussion in a positive place, back when love was in the air (or in the bed, somewhere). A less obvious aim is to explore who is projecting what onto whom, so everybody can take responsibility for their share of the disappointments and problems.

I’m having a rough patch with winter. One gray day follows another, the temperatures are stinkin’ cold when they ought to be moderating. The most recent ice storm left my nice big pine trees in shambles. Some plan-destroying winter storm always lurks in the forecast somewhere, and worst of all, IT’S TAX SEASON.

horsecatAnd yet, I know winter will soon fade. That’s the beauty of a temperate climate. Just when I think I’ve fallen out of love with a season, it starts to slip away. The days are longer, the animals are shedding, Valentine’s Day leads to St. Patrick’s Day… In Shakespeare’s words, it’s time to “love that well, which thou must leave ere long” (Sonnet 73.)

Then too, it’s not winter’s fault I haven’t written much new material lately. It’s not winter’s fault that accounting is one of my least favorite things to do, it’s not winter’s fault I’m traveling next week and haven’t quite figured out the logistics. That’s all on me, not the season.

cat christmas treeHere are some things I loved about winter when it was 100 degrees out, going for a walk was a disgusting proposition, the grass had to be mowed every 72 hours, and the dogs were incessantly itchy.

NO BUGS. I love that there are no bugs in winter.

NO STINKIN’ HEAT. It gets so hot where I live that my computer needs it’s own little AC, the florescent lights in the kitchen give up, and the poor dogs plaster themselves to the cool of the floor for hours.

bird beederLOW HUMIDITY. The heat wouldn’t be so bad, but it literally sticks to you because of the high humidity.






THE FIRST CROCUSES.And just like that, I’m not quite as happy to see winter fade. godivaMaybe one more snowfall or snow day wouldn’t be so bad. Or two…

Has looking on the bright side ever yielded big insights for you? Does it make the present more bearable, or is it an aggravating exercise in trying to minimize your legitimate misery? And a simpler question: What do you look forward to on the hard days?

To one commenter, I’ll send a basket of Godiva Chocolate goodies.

The $5.00 Solution

Sitting is supposedly the new smoking. In other words, the more you sit, the greater your health is at risk. For a writer, this is bad news indeed.

get up and moveBut there is good news! To counteract the evil effects of prolonged sitting, you don’t need to sprint the low hurdles at four-minute-mile pace. All you need to do is GET UP. Stand, stretch, stomp your feet, play your favorite Pointer Sisters tune and move around even a little.

toadGET UP, every thirty minutes or so. That won’t guarantee vibrant health until age 100, but it will light a candle against the darkness of heart disease, stroke, obesity, chronic lower back pain, and all those other best friends of the Undertoad.

Well, says I, then I don’t have a problem, because I’m always hopping up and down—let this cat in and that dog out. Top up my tea cup, and have an inspirational bite of Ghiradelli dark chocolate. I’m pretty active in a sedentary way, says I.

Am I BSing myself about this?

What’s needed here is good information. My health is a significant limiting factor on a lot of the fun I intend to have in coming years. It’s hard to tromp around Scotland if my back is in bad shape, hard to even write a steamy hot scene if sitting has become uncomfortable. I really, really, really need every ounce of health I can beg, borrow, or maintain.

So I bought a $5.00 mechanical timer, plopped it down among the cats, sticky notes, books and incense holders on my writing table, and set it to 30 minutes.

timerWell, drat. I don’t get up as much as I thought I did. When I’m cooking on a scene, I’m happy to sit transfixed before the computer for well over an hour. When I’m in the writing zone, two hours is nothing…

This is a problem—with a $5.00 solution. So often in my life, though, I overlook this critical step: What is the magnitude of the problem I’m facing? Is it a big problem, a little problem, a different problem than I thought I had? Is it a problem at all?

knightThe last thing we want to do when we’re hit with the anxiety of a difficult situation is DO NOTHING to solve the problem, but instead, figure out what we need to know about it first. And yet, that simple, take-a-deep-breath, resistance to tearing off in the direction of a solution can spare us a LOT of misery and wasted resources.

I battle the same impulse when I’m writing. As soon as I have characters in my head, I want to write the story—even if I don’t know what the story is. The hardest part about writing for me, is turning the computer OFF, and giving the story space and time to develop.

lady_450Can you think of a time when you resisted the impulse to charge ahead, and instead gave yourself permission to stop and consider, gather a few facts, marshal your resources, and THEN decide what direction to charge in? Maybe you counseled a kid or a co-worker to give a situation time, or you withheld judgment and were later glad you did?

We’re celebrating the release of The MacGregor’s Lady later this week, so to one commenter (do NOT hesitate to comment), I’ll give an iPad with iBookstore gift card and trimmings or the e-reader of your choice.  

Magic Words

Once upon a time, when I was in the middle of a relationship that wasn’t going well, I heard the aphorism, “Weak people give up and stay, strong people give up and move on.” I have a vague recollection that the phrase is attributed to Maya Angelou, but I can’t find a citation to back that up.

Relationship BreakupMy friends had told me to “ditch the bum,” or “lose the user.” Their input struck me as judgmental, unkind, and simplistic. I’m not the easiest person to be in a relationship with, and I’d chosen “the bum,” after all–what did that say about their view of me?

But when I really needed some wisdom, those words–about moving on–popped up on my radar and gave me a nudge in the right direction. I had viewed ending the relationship as going back on all those “I love you’s,” and kicking the guy when he was down.

I hadn’t thought of bowing to defeat as courageous and wise until I’d heard it put in terms of having the strength to move on. There’s a big difference between the contempt of “ditching the bum,” and the painful wisdom of letting go of a relationship that isn’t working for anybody. I parted ways with the Dashing Swain, and have never regretted it (and I don’t think he has either).

harried momAt another point in my life, I was the exhausted, broke, overextended single mother of a toddler, trying to invest in a new relationship, and run ragged by the kid. My boyfriend (also a single parent) was tolerant of Her Highness, though one evening, she’d been a particular pill. Instead of telling me, as my dear family had, “you’d better get the kid under control or she’ll turn into a monster,” he put it this way.

“I wish for your sake that your daughter was more amenable to direction, and had a better sense that when Mom says something, she’d better listen. As much as you do for that child, as conscientious as you are in your parenting, and as wholeheartedly as you love her, you are entitled to her respect.”

THAT, I could hear. I could hear that a mom who’s trying hard is deserving of her child’s respect. The right words came at the right time, and Darling Child and I had some productive talks on the topic of mutual respect.

listeningHow something is said counts for a lot, but so does our ability to understand what’s motivating the speaker. My friends and family love me and are protective of me, and yet, I couldn’t hear that in what they said. I heard judgment and an implied threat: Follow this advice, or I won’t care about/respect you as much. Interesting, that though you love somebody, how you convey your love can result in that person feeling either judged or supported.

When did the right words give you a much needed and well timed insight? Some courage? Some relief from emotional pain? Maybe you were the one with the right words but you didn’t know it at the time?

To one commenter, I’ll send either a $50 Amazon gift card, or $50 toward the payment of your heating bill.


Outhouse Wisdom

I’m working on two nonfiction books in my spare time and spare thoughts. One deals with what I’ve learned about writing since becoming published. I add to this one as insights occur to me, or I come across good resources.

outhousesThe other book is broader, and its working title is “Outhouse Wisdom.” Everybody has a draft of this volume in their heads, though they probably have a more genteel way of phrasing it. I’m trying to keep track of the everyday lessons that have added up to smooth out my path, help me around the blind turns, and otherwise add meaning to my life.

Some of the lessons have arrived to me in clever phrasing. An engineer friend, trying to express a sentiment about some processes having to unfold over a prescribed time, said, “You can’t make a baby in one month with nine women.”

Love that. He said it better than I ever will.

Woman+in+BarrelAnother friend, a guy I’ve known all my life who builds houses pretty much single-handedly, and has never really left the valley where we were raised, came out with, “Everybody gets a turn in the barrel.” He meant we all have bad days, make bad decisions, look like fools.

I like how he said it better. His version is friendlier, and more homey.

Homespun wisdom is great fun for putting into the mouths of the Duke and Duchess of Moreland, or the occasional child character, but it’s also a real comfort to me as I muddle through my little life, occasionally stubbing my toe, bouncing checks, saying the wrong thing, and generally being human.

A few more:

You don’t want to be with anybody who doesn’t want to be with you. (From my dad.)

We’re here to learn how to love and be loved. (A long time therapist.)

wearing a barrel storyYou can get through nearly anything if a) your suffering has purpose, b) somebody’s enduring it with you, and/or c) you know it won’t last forever. (Me.)

Weak people give up and stay, strong people give up and move on. (Attributed to Maya Angelou, and not always that simple. I could do a whole blog post on this… hey, wait…)

OK, those are few of mine. What are the homespun lessons that you keep in a mental pocket to pull out when the Undertoad is having a good day at your expense?

To one commenter, I’ll give a complete signed series of the eight Windham novels in print, plus Douglas: Lord of Heartache.






The Road Is Long…

A frequent snippet of conversation with my daughter is her assurances to me that she will be self-sufficient soon, just another few semesters, another year or so, and she’ll be back on her own two feet.

Leaving-HomeI’m getting exasperated with her narrow definition of self-sufficiency. She left home at seventeen, and at various times, has paid all of her own bills. Her ethics are impressive—this young lady does not deal in falsehoods, no matter how convenient.

Logistically, she’s a marvel. She grew up in our one-Mall county, but moved to Seattle when she was eighteen. When Seattle was no longer so congenial, she packed up her stuff and kitties, drove across the country by her lonesome, and returned to Maryland. She handled the move to Denver with the same dispatch.

She buzzed through an accelerated AA program in veterinary technician stuff—hematology, anatomy, pharmacology—that makes my head spin, and now she’s tackling international relations, or some such thing.

atlasMorally, logistically, practically, managerially, she’s been self-sufficient for years. I contrast her situation to my parents, who have a tidy income, but can no longer drive, handle their own finances, or manage their weekly groceries. My parents are sad because even though they have no money troubles, they’ve lost the other forms of self-sufficiency. My daughter bludgeons herself, because even though she’s managing a busy life all on her own, she isn’t generating income.

What is this preoccupation we have with self-reliance, and is it over-rated? I can understand not wanting to be a burden, but are you a burden because what you have to give isn’t monetarily rewarded in our society? My daughter is acquiring an education, which she will use for the greater good. My parents are in their nineties, for cryin’ inna bucket, and deserve to simply be appreciated for having come this far in good style.

I want youI raise this topic of self-reliance, because it’s an area I need to focus on. I like being in charge of me, but being the virtual Mountain Woman of Western Maryland is a dicey way to manage an entire life. Everybody’s battery goes dead some time, and when mine is losing its juice, I’d rather call a friend to give me a jump than walk six miles into town.

So the question for the week is… If you were going to ask for help with one aspect of your life, to lean a little on others to carry a small part of your burdens, what would you ask for help with? The electric bill? The house work? The monthly invoices?

Is there a way to have that help without feeling guilty about it?

To three commenters, I’ll send signed copies of Douglas: Lord of Honor, which hits the shelves Tuesday of this week.

Shifty Grace

My niece Colleen had a pet rabbit when she was a toddler. I gather he was a buck bunny, substantial for a rabbit, and held himself in excellent esteem. Colleen once stuck her finger through the wire of his cage, and got a nasty bite for her troubles. When she tried to carry the bunny around, he used those powerful back feet to nearly claw through her clothes. He tried to get away–imagine that!

bunnyLike all bunnies, this fellow died, and my brother and his wife were concerned about Colleen’s reaction. She’d seemed attached to her bunny, and this was the first pet to buy the farm on her.

She was overjoyed. She could finally, finally carry the dratted rabbit anywhere she pleased, and he wouldn’t wiggle, or bite, or try to run off. She could safely pet him, she could put him down somewhere and he’d stay right there. When she couldn’t find her deceased rabbit the next day (he’d been planted beneath the forsythia hedge), she was quite put out and wanted her parents to get her another dead rabbit.

Who’d a thought?

happy babyYesterday, I flew home from San Diego, and found myself aboard a 757 full of screaming babies. Tiny babies, nearly toddling babies, girl babies, boy babies, and that kind of baby we’ll simply call a cute baby. They were all in fine voice, for hundreds of miles at a time.

I love a screaming baby. A baby who screams and carries on at great volume has a sense of his or her own needs, and when they’re not being met. The babies who trouble me are silent, failing to thrive, passive, and ailing. They have fractures nobody is willing to explain, and yet, they try to crawl–without crying. Gimme a healthy little screamer for a seat-mate and I’m OK with that. Dead bunnies are fine, screaming babies are fine.

In these unconventional viewpoints, there’s an awkward grace. Somebody needs to sit next to those budding Caruso’s on the plane, and I’m just the person to do it–cheerfully! And how much better for my niece, that she found something positive about her rabbit’s demise, rather than be afflicted with grief.

ornamentsBeneath both unconventional viewpoints lies a shift in frame of reference: I deal in babies who can’t even scream, my niece had been hurt and frustrated by that rabbit. Often, when I’m rolling on a book, it’s because my characters are able to shift each others’ frames of reference, and insight can wedge a boot in a previously locked emotional door.

When did your frame of reference shift, so that what you regarded as a burden became a benefit, or what you or saw as loss became gain? Maybe you shifted perspective about a person or a job, or… yourself.

And Christmas is upon us, so I’m giving away another e-reader of your choice–Kindle, NOOK, or iPad.


And THEN what happens?

My publisher is not one of the big New York houses, but rather, is the largest publishing house in the country owned by a woman. This has allowed Sourcebooks, Inc., flexibility and boldness larger organizations might find beyond their grasp. One of the benefits to me has been that instead of having to wait for more than a year to see royalties for many of my books, I’m paid within thirty days of when my publisher is paid.

sourcebooksThat’s a sweet deal for the publishing biz, and it lets me see in relatively short order–six months is a lot shorter order than 18 months–how my books are doing. This also means I have a royalty check coming in each month, and that feels good. As I get to the end of my backlog of manuscripts, that will slow down, but for the next year or so, I should be in a nice pattern.

Which leaves me with a question: Am I successful yet?

Which begs another question: How do I define success?

scrooge mcDuckPaying the bills and supporting my daughter is part of that definition, but my dear readers are seeing to it that for the near term, at least, that box is checked. So what does that leave? Saving up for retirement, because I don’t want to be a burden on anybody. Writing more good books, because I love to write, but assuming I can do that…

I also want to lose 50 pounds and otherwise get my health on a better footing. Writing  books can help me with this (thanks for the treadmill desk, friends!), but mostly this takes time and determination, which I have.

treadmill deskAnd I want to take care of the friendships I have, within my family and otherwise, because when all else fails, those relationships are all we have left, and all we have left to give. Of the three criterion–writing, health, and relationships–relationships are the big one, the one that deserves the most attention and probably gets the least, from me.

So… what’s your definition of success? Does that definition work for only you, or do you measure others by it, too?

To one commenter, I’ll give a Kindle paperwhite or NOOK, your choice.


The Grateful Dance

I’m a believer in floating holidays. You can enjoy black jelly beans on any Sunday, not just Easter; give presents when inspired to, not only on Christmas and birthdays. Call and Mom and Dad on weekdays and not just on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. I like the holidays—I like that we have rituals to remind us to celebrate, or mourn, or atone, and I really like eating good food.

candleBut I also like keeping a holiday spirit flickering all year round. So I’m having some Thanksgiving today, feeling grateful for (in no particular order):

 My dad, who turns 94 today, and is still maintaining his own household with my Mom (who’s soon to turn 90).

My health. I’m by no means as healthy as I’d like to be, but I’m healthy enough.

My imagination. When friends just can’t be found… they can be made up.

flagDemocracy. On its worst day, democracy is still a better bargain than a lot of the alternatives.

Flowers. Not sure why, but flowers have always been dear to me.

Cheese. I pretty much live off of it, some weeks.

Readers. Without them, a lot of my dreams would be demoted from hopes to wishes.

Dreams. My most worthwhile and enjoyable challenges all started out as dreams.

booksLiteracy. With the ability to read, so much has been made possible for me.

Pets—pups, kitties, horses… special comforts, all.


That I never again have to go to school unless I want to; that I never again need to ask anybody’s permission to go to the bathroom. (Issues alert.)

School. Without it, I’d be nowhere.

Sandra Shen

Sandra Shen

Music. When words fail… music speaks.

A roof over my head, complete with wood stove and running water.


That my daughter has a roof over her head, and health, and an education…

Antibiotics. Yes, I know they’re mis-used, but they save lives, too.

Writin’ buddies, because being a published author isn’t always easy.

FAMILY. I was lucky to be born into a terrific family and count my sibs among my best fallfriends.

Humor. When all else fails, a laugh will get you past the rough spots.

Seasons. They change just when I need them to, and give life a sense of moving forward.

Babies. No list of gratitudes would be complete without babies, grannies, and grandpas. Also aunts, uncles and cousins.

Eilean DonanTravel. An author thrives on new scenes, and new scenery.

And so much more… the ability to use a computer, to type my stories electronically. The sense of sight, hearing, touch, and taste, which bring me so much pleasure. Telephones that connect us all over the world. Sunsets and sunrises. Brownies…

small kitten And I’m grateful for the people who comment here. I’ll give away three $25 Amazon gift cards this week, because the Christmas shopping has started in earnest, and who can’t use a good book? So, what holiday would you sprinkle onto the upcoming week and why?