The Rest of the Story

For several years in my late thirties and early forties, I was married to a distance runner. This guy’s life was largely structured around his trips to the gym and his runs. He’d run marathons, or course, but he’d also run ultra-marathons. The oldest ultra-marathon in the country happens in Western Maryland—The JFK 50 Miler—and my former spouse won it a half dozen times.

He might—justifiably—consider those wins the accomplishment of his lifetime.

JKF 50In some ways, we could not have been more different. The longest race I’ve run is a 10k, and I’m not ashamed to say that I came in behind an 80-year-old machine by the name of Carl (who finished the JFK when it he ran it later that year).

By the time I married Marathon Man, my former spouse had been running for 35 years. He’d run through the upheavals of early adulthood, through graduate school, though marriage and the arrival of four children. He’d run through more graduate school, through cross-country moves, through a divorce, and into mid-life. One year, he ran the JKF, then the next week, turned around and ran Boston.

leopard springMind you, this was before Nikes were invented, before gait analysis, before hydration studies or wicking athletic fabrics. This guy was, in his own words, “tough as nails.”

He ended up with a case of bronchitis after Boston that went on for weeks, and may have permanently weakened his lungs. Oh, he finished—I don’t know that he EVER dropped out of a race—but even his toughness hit its limit.

leopard sleepingHe’s still wicked fit, but that experience, of pushing and pushing and pushing until he darn near broke, taught him the meaning of an axiom every distance athlete eventually learns, “Rest is a part of conditioning.”

Rest is not optional. It isn’t just for when you’re sick or they’re repainting the weight room. Rest is not only for the lazy, it’s an integral part of reaching your greatest potential in any endeavor.

polar bear restingI’m still trying to get this one under my belt. I know when I’m rested, I’m MUCH more efficient, whether my task is writing, lawyering, bookkeeping (bleah!), riding my horse, or running errands. I also know EVERYTHING needs rest—bodies, flowerbeds, dreams, relationships, muscles, children, marriages, everything (maybe blogs too!).

Kitten sleeping on guitarI know this, and yet, I’m not adept at finding that rest, and enjoying it. Maybe it’s the potato famine haunting my genes, the anxiety of a single mom, the worry of an author fairly new to the publication game, but how and when to let go and rest is something I’m still learning about.

What do you need a rest from? How will you get it?

To one commenter, I’ll send a $25 Amazon gift card.

Just One Look…

My Facebook feed draws from a wide circle, which is endlessly useful for those times when I want to distract myself from the “To write” list. At present I’m working on next year’s Christmas story (waves to Dante and Lady Joan), a little Christmas tale for this year (waves to Westhaven and Anna), galleys for Douglas and Guinevere (I would douglas_4501-204x327wave, but they seem, um, busy), and some other deadline.

Oh, yeah! I’m getting The Duke and His Duchess ready for audio production, download to be available on Valentine’s Day. Suffice it to say, I’ve been clicking on links I might ignore if I felt less in need of diversion. One of them led to a blog post about a small moment between two soccer moms. First Mom was having the classic bad day–up all night with one sick kid, tagging bases all morning with the healthy kid. Skipped brekkie and lunch, hit some drive through, and was at soccer practice in time for the prodigy to make the bell.

While First Mom stood on the sidelines, wolfing down a burger, another mom came by, looking well put together. The moment ensued, with neither woman saying anything. Second Mom looked First Mom over, and apparently did so wearing an unpleasant expression, then went on her tidy, trim way.

snarky catWhat has taken me aback is not that the First Mom, who apparently carries some extra weight, felt undeservedly shamed by the appraisal of the second–at least temporarily–it’s that commenters on the blog have been rabidly defending the woman with the silent scowl (you’re judging her when she may not be judging you at ALL!), rabidly attacking the defenders of the same woman (she has no right to draw conclusions about a person’s worth based on what they’re eating!), and so on, with much scolding, criticizing and taking of sides.

What I take from that vignette is that when we judge, particularly when we judge emphatically and repeatedly, somebody probably made us feel judged (and wanting) first. We lose our grip on compassion when we need it most–when somebody’s in such a miserable place that negativity radiates from them and makes us feel criticized and belittled without a word being spoken.

At that moment when our self-respect threatens to collapse, we need compassion for ourselves–I too have scarfed up less than optimal nutrition on those bad days–but we also need it for the people who look mean and nasty when they’re simply walking around a kids’ soccer field.

smiling kittenAnd this too: At the moment when First Mom might have said, “Please don’t be too hard on me. I have one sick kid home with my exhausted husband, one whining that he doesn’t want to miss practice, no time for myself, and no friends I can call at the last minute to bail me out,” all it took was a look to keep her quiet.

Just one look, when just one smile might have turned the entire day in a different direction.

When did somebody smile at you, commiserate, lend a hand, and turn the whole day around? To one commenter, I’ll send a $25 Amazon gift card.

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of Creativity, Innovation and Change…”

The title is a quote from qualitative researcher Dr. Brene Brown, Ph.D, a social worker whose area of interest is vulnerability and shame. At a recent writers’ workshop, somebody suggested I give a couple of Dr. Brown’s TED talks a listen, and if you want to do likewise you can find the first one here (The Power of Vulnerability), the second here (Listening to Shame). They’re short, well organized, and like all the TED talks, interesting.

bye bye perfectSo I gave ’em the old listen, and… they’ve been stuck in my mental and emotional buffer ever since. One of the concepts Dr. Brown brings up is the notion of being worthy of love. When someone is ashamed–not oops, guilty, because they owe somebody else an apology, but ashamed–they feel unworthy of love. Guilt is usually described as “I made a mistake,” and shame as “I AM a mistake.”

Painful stuff, and potentially crippling. Shame feeds that sense of unworthiness, until everything that goes wrong in your life is somehow your fault and your fate, and you barely want to stir beyond the narrow boundaries of familiar turf because all that awaits you is more humiliation and failure. Your life becomes an exercise in diminished expectations and pain management, even as you appear solvent, healthy, and in control of a nice future.

I am recently returned from two weeks in Scotland and week long writer’s workshop–I was out of the law office for THREE WEEKS, though arguably, at least half that time was spent doing author stuff. I had a terrific time, in Scotland and at the workshop. I met interesting people, saw wonderful sights, ate good food, and got a break from the tedium of my usual ruts.

At Glencoe, enduring the awful weather and the dreary scenery...

At Glencoe, enduring the awful weather and the dreary scenery…

And yet, I was aware of having to remind myself; It’s OK to enjoy yourself! This journey to Scotland is something you’ve planned for months, scrimped for, and looked forward to. IT’S OK TO ENJOY YOURSELF.

Same with the writer’s workshop. My inclination was to hide in my hotel room, working, working, working on my current deadline (next year’s Scottish Victorian Christmas story), but criminy, Grace Burrowes: When else was I going to be able to hang out with other writers, shoot the writer breeze, and pee and moan about my work in progress? When I got home to my cats? Geesh.

So I took baby steps–had a drink before dinner one night, instigated some laughter at dinner another night. Asked somebody to take my picture at Glencoe so I’d have a tangible reminder: I was here in this happy place of my ancestors. I’ve posted pictures of ME on Facebook–in all my chubby, grey-haired, fashion-averse glory. I also let myself pout and sulk when it was time to come home, because this too, is part of permission to be worthy of happiness.

lady_450I have a long way to go, in terms of feeling worthy of all the joy that can be mine, but I’ve made a start. I’ve already planned another trip overseas next spring, where I will hang out with readers and writer buddies, have the occasional drink, and instigate some laughter at dinner.

What is the baby step you can take in the direction of granting yourself happiness?

To one commenter, I’ll send an advanced reader copy of “The MacGregor’s Lady,” the third story in the MacGregor Scottish Victorian series.


Two Roads Diverged In a Yellow Wood…

Among child welfare professionals, there’s a saying, “Neglect is harder to treat than abuse.” I’ve found those words as true as they are sad. When maltreatment takes the form of something bad that happens to a kid, we can tell that child, “This is wrong, it should NOT have happened. You were betrayed…”

yellow woodBut when the child was left home alone for too long, never made to feel safe, never provided regular meals, the result is… a mess. These kids are not sure what a grown up is for, because they have no frame of reference that says adults provide supervision and safety. Often, a badly neglected child can’t tell you she’s tired–she might be exhausted, but she’s never learned to hear or monitor the internal signals that say, “My body needs rest.”

In the same sense, such a kid might not be able to register “I’m hungry,” or even, “I’m full.” They’ll eat whatever’s on hand, and not stop until they’ve made themselves sick.

The good news is that most children can learn to listen to their body’s signals, to heed signs of fatigue, hunger, and satiety. They can gradually accept authority, provided that authority also provides safety, reasonable routine, and age-appropriate information. Better still, they can build on those skills to learn to accurately label the emotions they’re feeling, which is a skill many of us fail to master even as adults.

Less traveledI usually think of myself as having little in common with child welfare clients–my childhood would be the envy of many–but I recall clearly when a friend said to me, “Nobody explained much to you as a kid, did they?” She asked me this, because I’m very much a doubting Thomasina. I will not take you word for much, unless I’ve established that I can trust you, and that you’re competent, knowledgeable and have good intentions toward me. I figure stuff out for myself, thank you very much.

And my friend was right. I am the sixth out of seven children, and neither of my parents had time to explain to me why the alphabet has 26 letters, why some are vowels and some consonants. Why do we call it small talk? Just exactly how does one tie a shoe?

Like those foster kids, I had no clue there were parents who regarded it as part of their job to ‘splain things. Never occurred to me such parents might exist, and that’s not entirely bad. I have learned much because I don’t take other people’s knowledge at face value.

But it’s not entirely good, either. Explaining life to a child is part of a parent’s job description, and unless I twigged to the deficit in my own upbringing, I was at risk for perpetuating the deficit in my daughter. I’m glad my friend was perceptive about my upbringing.

wordsThese gaps in our interpersonal vocabulary are hard to spot, but once you realize you’re on the receiving end of a cause-and-effect that wasn’t ideal (like my parents being too busy to explain things), repairing the damage is a form of coming home. I use this dynamic in my books a lot–the hero is often the first person to put together for the heroine why she functions (over functions) or hurts or is afraid in a particular way. She does the same for him, and more important, each does it for the other in a way that can be heard.

“Why” you are the way you are can lead to coming home to yourself. Who helped you find a path home?

I won’t be able to respond much to comments until later today, but I will respond–promise. To one commenter, I’ll send a signed ARC of Lady’s Jenny’s Christmas Portrait. (Already!)



The Pen is Mightier…

I hadn’t been representing foster children long before a wise social work supervisor passed along this gem: “In the helping professions, without good supervision and good self-care, you can easily come to resemble the population you treat.” I pondered that, and came up with case after case where…

Child writing threeThe social worker seldom returned phone calls, turned in shoddy and late paperwork, had excuses for everything, had to leave promptly at 4:30 p.m. to get to happy hour no matter how many clients they’d blown off that day and otherwise engaged in shaming, blaming, minimizing and denial when it came time to figure out why the case was going nowhere.

Those social workers and therapists (and LAWYERS) are by far in the minority, but they’re out there. They’ve come to resemble many of the parents whose children end up Child writing twoin foster care, and even some of the children themselves–they’re not pulling their share of the load, they take no responsibility, their talk sounds like “victim” talk.

Imagine you’re fourteen years old, you have mental health issues, the state has kindly taken you out of a situation where you’re not getting any help and stashed you in a “group home” (ORPHANAGE), with other kids as troubled as you are. The staff at that group home may be well meaning, but also overworked, underqualified and underpaid; moreover, they’re dealing with clients who are brilliant at creating drama. Meanwhile, your parents and your case worker are both playing the “blame the (traumatized) kid” game to the exclusion of helping the kid. What do you do?

Child writing oneThis is part of the reason these children get a lawyer. They call me–even in four point restraints they have a right to call me–and after they’ve vented and brought me up to speed on the issues of the day, they all get this suggestion: WRITE IT DOWN. Write down every time they leave a message for me, the social worker, the social worker’s supervisor, their therapist, anybody whose job it is to help with the case.

Write down when and why their parents don’t show up for visits, when the social worker/attorney/counselor blows off a visit with short notice or no notice.

In other words, take one leaf from the social worker’s handbook–document EVERYTHING–and, more importantly, let everybody know you’re doing it. There’s a difference between a teenager leaving this message, “This is Joey. Call me back…” And a teenager leaving this message, “This is Joey Smith. My case notes show I’ve called you four times in the past two weeks, and your supervisor twice, to discuss changing schools….”

Anne FrankThe written word assures the child that they’re not crazy–six unreturned phone calls (not counting my three calls to the same folks) to people paid to help the situation is rotten social work–and that’s a significant pattern when it comes time for court. But simply writing down what’s going on also radically increases the chances the case will move in a positive direction. Such is the mightiness of the pen, even when wielded by a disempowered child.

How do you “speak truth to power,” and hold somebody’s feet to the fire when they’re not pulling their share of the load? Why is it so hard for us to do this?

To one commenter, I’ll send a $25 Amazon gift card.

Ten Things I Love About…

After nearly two months of travel, I’m home, and in some ways, I’m having an “It’s a Wonderful Life” experience. I am so happy to be back in my funky little farmhouse, it feels like on one level, I’m back in my life because of where I am. Ten things I love about being home:

counter culture1) My pets are with me. They have an emotional impact on me that’s hard to describe. I need them for grounding is the best way I can put it.

2) I can raid the yard for flowers whenever I please. This week’s special is hydrangeas.

3) I can wear summer writing clothes (nightie and flip flops) ALL DAY LONG.

hydreangeas4) I can work on my books ALL DAY LONG (some days).

5) Nobody eats my Ghiradelli dark chocolate squares when I’m not looking.

6) Nobody comes trundling around at 1 am and says, “Are you still up?”

7) I can pop into town and meet friends for brekkie, lunch or dinner–or all three if I feel like it.

ghiradelli dark choc8) When I walk outside in my bare feet, I’m in cool, green grass right off my porch–and nobody has to water the lawn, ever.

9) I get to sleep in my own bed (with my personal sleeping kitty, Chloe Upstairs).

10) There are no lines to park between in my driveway, and no neighbor will come around asking if I know who owns that truck with the Maryland tags (seriously).

moonriseI could go on and on… The wild raspberries, the peace and quiet, the full moon rising over the ridge behind the house, the yard-visit with the neighbors when I take Sarge for a walk after dinner, the deer browsing the edges of the hay fields, the sound of the breeze swaying through the maples as night falls…

I love not only my life, but my life in this place.

What do you love about where you live? What do you think you’d miss most if you had to leave it?

To one commenter, I’ll send an audio version of “The Bridegroom Wore Plaid.”


Moments and Memories

From the moment an author dips a toe into the waters of professional aspiration, he or she will hear about the need to plan a writing career. We’re supposed to Set Publication booksGoals/Write Them Down/Display Them in a Prominent Location, Develop a Business Plan, Develop a Marketing Strategy, BUDGET Our Publications Expenditures, Set Word Count Goals, Improve Our Craft, Be Accountable to a Critique Group…

Huh? And here I thought we were supposed Write Good Books.

I’m not much of one for planning on paper, but being around my parents has made me realize that I am a strategizer. Maybe this comes from being a single mom, maybe it’s part of every introvert’s tool kit for protecting her privacy, maybe it’s genetic, but part of old peopleme is usually engaged in figuring out what needs to be done now, what needs to be done by dinner time, and what the most efficient path is through those wickets.

In my elderly parents’ situation, I cannot plan much beyond the next twelve hours, and this is… bewildering. Dad might have a sleepless night, which means I won’t get as much rest either. Mom might wake up with another urinary tract infection, which means civilization will stop all progress until I make another trip to the pharmacy.

And yes, this is how many people (parents of small children in particular) live for years, but with the elders, the stakes go way up. On any given day, they can end up back in the hospital—or die. They can fall and break a hip, forget the name of their best friend, or stop hearing well enough to answer the phone.

My friend’s advice from a few weeks ago—look for the Zen moments, the small explosions of joy and beauty—makes more sense to me now. More than at any other time of life, all my parents can count on is the moment.

It’s all any of us can count on, but my parents’ awareness of that reality is like that of soldiers in a war zone. Every flower may be the last one they smell, every cat the last one they pet. Every opportunity to apologize, the last one they’re granted.

flowers from the stormMy dad is losing ground on several fronts, but one thing he says frequently to my mother is, “I love you, Mama-dear.” And she replies, “I love you, too, Stuey.”

THOSE are sentiments to get a couple through any wicket. They will do as last words, most important words, most frequent words, and only words.

What are the words you want to have when everything else is gone? The words you can keep and the words you can give when it’s down to moments and memories?

To one commenter, I’ll send an audio copy “Laura Kinsale’s “Flowers from the Storm,” a story about a couple that found love when words were few and hard won.


Life in the Moment Lane

As all and sundry probably know, I’m in elder care mode this month. Dad is 92, Mom 89, and they are valiant, uncomplaining people, who–somewhere along the way–learned to enjoy being waited on. Then too, each has bouts of confusion, each has physical frailties, and to put a cherry on top of this sundae of challenges, Dad has lost the ability sundaeto sleep through the night.

I’m fried. Later this month, another sibling will rotate into the on-site care provider slot, and then another, but my hitch has been emotionally challenging–these are the people who’ve always been there for me, and now they’re…. sometimes not there are all. And it has been physically challenging–I’ve been at the emergency room at 5 am, up and down all night, and responsible for stepping and fetching to the drug store what seems like daily. Also managing the housework, the meals, and other mundane tasks that my mom alternately tries to “help” with, or outright sabotages.

The difference between the present situation and caring for small children is two-fold. First, we can’t look forward to that proud, difficult and baby-smilinghappy day when the kindergarten bus comes by, and competence in the big world starts easing our responsibility closer and closer to self-sufficiency. This situation can go on for another ten years, and the trajectory is toward ever increasing need and grief.

Second, when a parent is out and about with small children in tow, we see the situation plainly from 50 yards away. “Parenting in progress–either help or stand clear.” Nobody in the grocery store knows I’m so tired and anxious, that trying to park my truck in their stupid little urban So-Cal parking slots is inspiring me to bad words. I’ve coped with situations in the cookiespast few weeks that have honestly horrified me, and there’s more of same in store for me and my loved ones. This doesn’t show, and there’s nobody smiling at me sympathetically at the playground or in the produce section.

A good friend put it this way: When it’s family, you have no choice, but you can look for the Zen moments–the flowers, the puppies, the new babies who beam a smile right at YOU, your favorite oldie coming on the radio as you’re struggling to find a parking space you can fit your truck into.

At the gourmet carry out, the nice guy threw in a half dozen scrumptious chocolate chip cookies for free. The home health nurse verified Dad’s vital signs, and then asked, “But single candlehow are you?” When the CNA started and ended her shift, she hugged Mom, and I could practically see Mom glowing as a result.

We’ll get through this, one moment at time.

What are some of your moments? Times when the kindness of strangers, the benevolence of the universe, the perceptiveness of friends and loved ones lit a candle for you when you thought you were plumb out of matches?

To one commenter, I’ll send an audio version of “The Bridegroom Wore Plaid.”


The 92-Year-Old Question

I’m watching my 92-year-old dad adjust to a diagnosis of congestive heart failure (he’s not too concerned), and while I want to focus on how to keep Dad comfortable and functional, an equally important question is how he managed to last so long and end up in such good shape.

Rain+Play+81Stuey Burrowes is a cerebral sort, a bench scientist with a lifelong fascination for how the living cell goes about its business. I came along when he was nearly forty, and on my watch, he was never a vigorous athlete, though he and Mom took many after dinner walks, and push-mowing an acre of grass is not to be sneezed at. He never “worked out,” and he did smoke for thirty-some years. He’s fond of alcohol, caffeine, and dairy products, and though I never saw my father drunk, I’m not sure he was particularly sober at certain points either.

sand castleDad has stratospheric levels of cholesterol (he doesn’t worry about that either, and hasn’t for decades), but excellent blood pressure and a tendency to salt his food first and ask questions later. He loves good chocolate, and he’s deucedly skinny.

Good genes are part of the explanation for why somebody who never focused on optimizing his health is outliving practically all of his contemporaries, but I think another part of the explanation lies in Dad’s career path.

From very young adulthood, Stu was encouraged to pursue his interest in science. He was wonderfully mentored, and his wife (a mere girl of 89 years) did not begrudge him periodic bouts of preoccupation even at the dinner table, long hours at the lab, and fairly frequent travel.

In short, Dad could, to a significant extent, follow his bliss. He got to do what he wanted to do, and was still doing it to some extent clear up into his 80s. When he’d “talk science,” he’d put me mind of a little kid. Put two young children together who’ve never met each other, and for the most part, they’ll be flying dragons, sailing their pirate ships, and blowing up the Death Star within minutes.

leaf jumperThat’s Dad, but his toys were the relationship between testosterone and red cell count anemia (there is one), and the flavor altering qualities of light on dairy protein. Dad was passionate about his science, and frequently and enthusiastically reinforced for indulging that passion by the decade.

I want writing romance novels to do for me what I believe science has done for my father. I also want to know what in this life—if anything—turns you into that kid who will play flying dragons for days, or the girl who will sword fight her shadow until her biceps are burning.

Or what do you think your passion would be, if you had the chance to pursue it?

To one commenter, I’ll send a $15 Amazon gift card.

And the Moral of the Story…

Once upon stormy but not dark afternoon, I was driving back from managing a horse show, happily anticipating a hot shower and the cool, clean sheets of home, when traffic slowed, then came to a halt.

A big tree had blown down and lay mostly across the road. This being a country road, several country boys climbed out of their trucks, and began to Consider the Situation.

I climbed out of my truck too, and stood where I could hear these fellas.

“If I had my chainsaw, I have that sucker off the road in no time.”

“My brother-in-law has a winch on his duel-ly, but he’s up in Jersey this week. That thing would haul this tree clean into Frederick County.”

“We got a four-wheel-drive tractor at home, and it will move some tree. I guar-an-damned-tee you it will.”

Meanwhile, a few of the less prepossessing vehicles disgorged female drivers. The season being high summer, the fallen tree was fully leafed out. A gal who drove a Prius began to snap off the smaller branches from the topmost part of the tree, which lay a-thwart the shoulder.

Back at the trucks, Blue Ford F150 allowed as how his missus would bring him his chain saw, but she was still at work. The other gents, inspired by this swift thinking, got out their cell phones. Alas, we were in rural Maryland and in the shadow of a mountain. No signal to be had.

By now, several ladies were ripping away at the hapless tree, carrying stray limbs from the travel lanes, busting off other limbs as best they could with their bare hands and shod feet.

Dodge Ram said he had a buddy who lived not two miles off. The buddy enjoyed the distinction of having a brother who belonged to the local volunteer fire department, and surely, surely, that fine organization would know what to do about a fallen tree.

Ms. Prius and her cohorts had relieved the tree of much foliage and many smaller branches by this point. Their efforts revealed that by crowding onto the shoulder, a car might be able to scoot around, provided its tires could negotiate a couple of not-so-large branches, and its paint job could endure a close encounter with wet leaves and twigs.

The ladies got back behind the wheels of their vehicles (as did I), and the little Prius managed to get past the tree.

As the Prius drove off, the guys stopped talking. Another pee-pee car came tiptoeing around the tree. When I nudged my Tundra past that tree, the guys were heading back toward their respective trucks.

Does this situation point to a difference between male and female problem-solving? To the differences between people who drive trucks and the people who drive pee-pee cars?

I like to think it might. The guys were focused on solving the public problem of a tree in the road, the ladies focused on the personal problem of being late for soccer practice (or whatever).

Or maybe the Prius lady was particularly determined, and no generalities need apply. What I was aware of, was that doing something to get me moving toward home, was more satisfying than jawboning about woulda-coulda’s.

This little twenty minutes out of a summer evening has stuck with me, though I’m not sure what I’m supposed to learn from it. What do you make of it, and have you ever found yourself with a similarly tenacious, but not quite comprehensible memory?

To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy “Lady Eve’s Indiscretion.”