My old dog is pacing this morning as he often does these days. He’s a thirteen year old chow mix who has arthritis in his hips and shoulders (not helped by the leap he took from a second story window as a young pup, or the time he went through a plate glass window in terror over fireworks on New Year’s Eve and ran like hell for miles, only limping home at four in the morning with a sheepish expression). He’s not completely deaf, but not far off. He sometimes stops now in the middle of the room with a bewildered expression, and I know he forgot what he was doing. Since I’m familiar with this, I tell him to go back where he started and his purpose for going to the kitchen will come back to him.
The point is, he’s old and getting really old right before my eyes. The pacing started recently, just a restless, endless circling of whatever floor we’re on. He can’t get comfortable. He has all the supplements and the painkillers and a special drug for Cushings and….well, none of it is going to keep him alive forever.
The first Monday of the new year, and once again, I am not home. This is the fourth January in a row that I have not been home. This year, I am in San Antonio, awaiting the birth of my second grandchild who is in no rush at all, though everyone else is. Her sister said plaintively, “Can I see my baby sister, please?” expressing how all of us feel.
Last year, it was a wake for Christopher Robin’s mother, a gathering with the New Zealand arm of the family. The year before was her sudden death and the need to attend to all the duties that entails, and her funeral. (We were very glad we’d made the trip to see her the September before.) And the year before that was a long trip to New Zealand to see the family there, and tour the South Island, which is still one of my favorite trips ever.
This year, it’s quiet. I have been playing many games of Minnie Mouse Concentration, and a matching game called Hiss, and Candyland. The girl has gone off to school and we are in the puddles of quiet left behind. I miss her chirping little voice, but I do have to work and I need a good long walk. A trailhead beckons from not far away. In the summertime, it would be too hot and I’d be afraid of the ants that seem to attack my feet when I come to Texas, but in the winter, the snakes will be sleeping and if I wear shoes, the ants won’t annoy me.
My American-school trained self wants to START FRESH this Monday morning, wants to start writing something meaningful on the clean chalkboard of the new year. And yet, the universe has been arranging something else for me the past few years. Instead of getting busy, getting back to work, I have been dropped into situations where my access to actual writing is blocked, and instead, I read a lot–in cars, on planes, in the long evenings. I stare out the windows to landscapes that are not my own, and I see something new, a bird, a tree, a sky. On Saturday, it rained all day, just a slow gentle drizzle, but all day. That happened a lot in England two years ago. It does not happen in Colorado.
Instead of getting busy, I’m getting filled up. Which might be just the right way to spend a week or two at the start of a busy year.
Later this week, I’ll write about my favorite books and binge watching in 2015. For now, what are you all up to this fresh Monday of the fresh new year?
Here it is, that week between Christmas and New Year. This is when many businesses are shut down or only operating on half-staff. There’s nothing much to take care of, all the shopping is done. As a girl, out of school and often stuck inside because of snow and cold, I would read and read and read. As I got older, I often started planning the upcoming year–things I wanted to do, see, accomplish.
This year, I’m in San Antonio with my son and daughter-in-law and the mighty Amara. We are waiting for the New Baby, due in six days. I’m here to help the family with practical things like cooking, picking up, smoothing the transition when baby sister actually arrives. I’m here to spend time with my darling girl, too, of course. I’m so relieved to realize that last year, I was afraid our relationship would become frayed with distance, and it turns out it has not. I’m lucky enough to be able to have the resources to fly down here regularly, a job that is flexible enough that I can take the time off, and an agreeable son & DIL.
I’m thinking about the new year and what I’d like to accomplish. I have an ambitious schedule of writing for both Barbara and Lark (I know my Barbara readers have been sad about the long delay between titles) and some other things brewing. I’ve made some changes in my work life to give myself more time to exercise and see IRL friends now and then, but mainly, this year is focused on the writing. SO many exciting things are happening, including the really fun project I’m doing with Serial Box publishing. (More as I know actual release dates.)
A marketing person said to me, “Sounds like your spirit social media is blogging,” and she was right, so that’s on agenda, too. I’m handing off some of the stuff I don’t like and spending more time here. I hope you’ll join me for talk about writing, books, life. Painting. Probably cats. Here is a cat for today:
I am a grouch this morning. There’s no other word for it. I didn’t sleep well because my knee was hurting and I have this restless leg thing happening after the surgery that’s quite annoying, and I don’t FEEL like doing my work, but there’s a lot piling up and it needs to be tackled.
Also, there are about 27 jillion errands that must be run. My mail has gone missing in this weird little Twilight Zone transfer of addresses and I can’t seem to get it straightened out, so my poor daughter in law has to keep forwarding it to me. Then it gets sent back to her. Rinse and repeat. There’s a box with books for my eldest son that’s been sitting here since Christmas. I spent the weekend running around doing fun things, but then I got super tired and haven’t recovered. Yesterday I forced myself to go swim because I need to get my aerobic capacity back after six months of doing almost nothing to take care of that. (Also, my core strength is not what I’d like and that needs work, too.)
I’m still healing from getting my legs chopped in half then put back together again, and it’s a long road. It’s a good road, but like any long journey, there are times you stop, weary of the same landscape, wish for rescue by helicopter. There’s no helicopter here. Just me and my precious body, on the road toward feeling better.
This morning, I should be writing, but I can tell you right now that’s probably not going to happen. I’m tired and resentful of life roaring back at me so hard, and I’m not quite ready to leap in with such intensity. Because I am a writer and I set my own hours, I do have a certain amount of freedom to step back.
Instead of coming into my office to write, as I planned, I moved things around. The new bottle of gesso I bought last Friday found its way into my hand and I found a brush in the other and I glossed some paper with it, just to play. Some little something started to breathe in the midst of all that irritability. As the paper dries, I pull out a photo of a tomato that I want to paint, and look for the right paper, the right size and weight, and I’m starting to draw. Later, I’ll add a little bit to the small journal of watercolor pages that seems to be a long, long love letter to my darling girl. I miss her terribly, and this is helping. Last week, we had a long, rambling, cheerful chat via Facetime, the first time she’s been really engaged, and she didn’t want me to “leave her house,” and showed me thing and blew raspberries and laughed when I kissed her. At one point, she said, “Nana’s stuck inside the iPad,” which has been haunting me slightly ever since.
All of this inner drama is why I haven’t been writing blogs as I promised. This morning I realized that is dishonest. I’m not always cheerful—far from it, actually. My life doesn’t always flow smoothly, and things show up in clusters—the urgent need to replace my knees, my parents’ ill health the past year, my beloved granddaughter and her wonderful parents moving 800 miles away—and I struggle to keep an upbeat attitude.
I have no wisdom today except that I’m going to take some pleasure in this little cabinet I bought to keep art supplies more orderly:
I’m going to paint and write something on those gessoed pages. I’m going to listen to music and see if it will speak to me about this book, and I will take a long nap. I am tired. I am healing. I am human. That is what I need today.
I’m in recovery from a knee surgery last week, so not really coherent enough to write a long post. I’m in that strange convalescent phase that means I drift along like a bottle on the sea, admiring that swath of sunset or the way the light catches on my cat’s whiskers but nothing much more. In the back of my mind, I’m working on my next Barbara O’Neal book, which is taking on a life of its own and going places I didn’t expect, but that’s fairly normal for my process.
I have discovered Scandal, which everyone told me to watch and told me to watch and told me to watch, and once I got past the first episode, it was great. What else would you recommend?
Oh, my monthly column will be up at Writer Unboxed tomorrow, called originally enough Not Writing,about my favorite subject, filling the well. Come on by.
Have you ever had a few weeks of forced inactivity? How did you fill the time?
I’m in the midst of an enormously fertile period. I’m writing in several genres, including a non-fiction project. This morning I awakened to write the next scene in a book that will eventually become a Barbara O’Neal book. There is soup and a lost child and dogs, but the underpinnings of this work have been very dark and hard to digest. It suddenly seems ready, however, so that was where I poured my energies this morning.
I’m also working on a non-fiction book for a British publisher (to be distributed through MacMillan in the US) on writing romantic fiction. The offer came out of the blue, but as I’d been in teaching mode through the spring, it was exactly the right project for me to write on the side, coalescing some of my ideas into a form that can be digested more easily than my exuberant but scattered blogs here.
There is also the matter of Lark, who keeps coming up with new ideas and concepts for her ongoing work in two arenas, The Otherlands and Going the Distance. Look for more on both of those series in the near future (the 1st installment of The Otherlands will be published sometime in January, an exact date to be determined when I clear the decks and finally finish the line edits.)
All this work! You would think I’d be going crazy, feeling overworked and overwhelmed, but quite the opposite is true. I have not been so in love with work in many years, and as I was sitting in my chair yesterday, watching it snow and doing some research reading into foster children, I did pause for a moment to realize I feel like I moved to a new land. I’d been chiseling work out of the hard granite, chipping away a nugget at a time, and it took a lot of hard work and time to do it.
Suddenly, and I do mean suddenly—at the very end of May—I have moved to a completely different place. This is delta bottom farmland, rich with silt and sunlight and the perfect conditions for growing hearty fields of crops. My mind feels utterly engaged, my heart excited. I get up and go to work every morning at 4:30 without complaint, even with eager intention. My daily production rates have tripled and show signs of quadrupling. I’m back to the younger me who wanted the world to go away and leave her alone so she could write more, more, more.
And I don’t really know why it happened. Was it the switch to getting up early? I think that has helped. I am enormously productive during that 90-120 minute block. It’s as if I’m giving myself an extra work day, every work day. My evenings were never, are never particularly productive. I watch television. I might read, but am often too tired to do any serious reading. I putter around after dinner, and for ages I’ve been ready to go to bed around 8, but would hang on for whatever reason. For about a year, I’ve been practicing the early work, but it really took root when CR decided he wanted to try swimming in the early morning. Now we both want to be asleep early and get up early together, and on days we decide not to get up so early, we get those extra zzz’s. Healthy.
The other thing that I’ve done is give myself permission to totally play in my work, take chances, see what happens. I’ve done some novellas, purely for me, playing with the form, seeing what I like. I’ve made a big return to romance in the new adult and young adult series, but the books are very different from each other. The young adult is soft science fiction, highly romantic and with epic adventure undertones. The new adult is very sexy and lots of fun, but has a serious undertone, too: Jess has to find out who she is—and that means making mistakes, discovering her history and deciding what things matter most to her. It’s also set in part in New Zealand, which you all know I’ve fallen in love with. The Otherlands is deeply rooted in my love for the sff genre and I carried it around with me for ages before I realized that I could just….go ahead and write it. I also have an entire 5 (6?) book series planned as a tie-in/continuation of the St. Ives historicals, all growing out of our travels to England and New Zealand.
And don’t forget the women’s fiction. I love it a lot. My new book, The All You Can Dream Buffet, is one of my favorites so far. I love the characters and the setting of a lavender farm, and these women who have all had life challenges. It was engrossing and required a huge amount of research and recipe testing, and it went back and for the between my editor and I several times, but the end result is one I am very pleased with. I hope you will be, too.
I believe this fertile, wild productivity is the result of me giving myself permission to do that play. I can do it because of indie publishing, and I don’t have to worry that I’ll starve or that I’ll flop at a new publishing house. I can take big chances, play in a lot of different arenas. Because I’m the one taking the risks, and I don’t need to sell 50,000 books to break even. Because I am more in charge of everything, I don’t feel that creeping anxiety that plagues all working writers over how many books are selling here and there and everywhere. I am much freer to write the books arriving today. I am very deeply enjoying the balance between my work for traditional publishing and my own publishing, a luxury that I couldn’t have imagined even five years ago.
This is not everyone’s ideal scene, I get that. I have friends who need and like to focus on one book for a couple of years at a time. I also have others who like writing lots of books, but mostly in the same arena. That’s fine. My brain has always loved variety and mix-ups and new challenges. Sometimes I’ll fall on my face, but that’s fine, too. So far, the fields are growing very well, producing a good many crops. I hope I will be wise enough to recognize when/if winter arrives and asks me to rest.
Do you like to write in many arenas or focus on one? Do you find there are wildly productive periods in your life, and less productive ones?
PS I’m pulling away from blogging so much elsewhere and will be spending more time here. Hope you’ll join in the conversation.
Christopher Robin loves fresh peas with a passion he usually reserves for milk chocolate. He will eat a solid pound of them, steamed and salted and buttered. I enjoy the meditative aspect of shelling them, sliding open the pod, pulling a string, skimming out the contents of the cold jackets. He also added them to store-bought chicken soup. I ate a lot of them before they even made it to the steamer.
What I noticed this time is that the peas look very like Shrek’s ears. Do you suppose they might have provided inspiration for the artist who conceived the ogre?
Yesterday, I took Amara to the park. We walked most of the way. I couldn’t help but think of my grandmother, walking with me in a dozen parks and on hundreds of city blocks and country roads and shopping malls and small towns.
It is February which means I have survived the worst month in Colorado, which is always January. The days are short, ending claustrophobically even before I’ve started dinner, and it is often bitterly cold. The worst is the boring weather–indifferent, icy sunshine pouring from a frozen blue sky, day after day after day. I ache for snowstorms in January, or cloudy days, or something to break up that endless blah cold. It isn’t that I hate winter. I just hate boring January.
And then February arrives and the earth tilts ever so slightly toward summer, and the days progress minute by minute toward dinnertime, then catch it. In February, it can snow a lot, soaking the ground in readiness for spring. If we’re lucky, crocuses might start popping up. The tree branches start to swell.
My gardener’s heart turns to catalogues, oh torturous exercise! Look at those plump tomatoes, those tender flower sprouts, even the clogs and knee protectors. I want to go turn the compost just to smell the earth. I spy the seedling trays and tug them off the winter shelf, wondering when I might be able READ MORE on The Goddess Blogs>>>>>>
This morning, I ran the vacuum over the living room carpet to pick up the leaves the animals have dragged in. It wasn’t the most thorough job—just a spit-shine because the baby is coming over and I don’t want her putting leaves in her mouth.
For some reason, as I moved the footstool aside, I thought of how much I used to worry about things being messy when my boys were young. I’m not mis-remembering; they were often really messy—piles of clothes to be washed or to be put away, toys and shoes and coats and books everywhere. It was a crowded little house, four rooms in a row downstairs, two big rooms upstairs, and four people cozied up in there with various hobbies and interests and friends.
Only I never let my friends come to my house. Ever. We had a writing critique group and we always met somewhere else. I was embarrassed about the old carpets, some of which had been salvaged from a hotel renovation; the ancient kitchen (truly, for awhile it was the worst kitchen in the world) and the constant clutter that I could sweep away on Saturday and would reappear on Sunday, exactly as it had been, as if the objects all had souls that animated them and they moved around at will.
This morning, with twenty years between me and the woman who worried about those carpets, it struck me as tragic that I’d been so worried about what my friends would think of my housekeeping that I wouldn’t let them come over. They lived in newer places, all of them, but my own house was a charming old beauty, full of light and my special quirky loveliness. Not everyone’s taste, but comfortable, welcoming. How did I not understand that?
It is the same unfounded worry that makes us all, as teenagers, exaggerate some imaginary or real flaw—a big nose or skinniness or fatness—into some Major Thing That Everyone Is Noticing. When actually, they are so worried about their own flaws they don’t even see ours.
Which led me to wondering what I worry about now that might be just as tragic. What impossible standard am I setting?
It’s not so much about appearances these days. For one thing, there are no armies of seven year old boys racing through the house, and I don’t live in that small, charming old house, but a spacious suburban sweetie that has plenty of space to put things away. I still have to clear the clutter away regularly, trying to find the kitchen counter or the surface of my desk, but even if my friends come over and see the big mess, I don’t think they won’t love me. They do.
I feel a certain freedom in my physical appearance, too. I accept it, flaws and all, even if I don’t like pictures of myself all that much sometimes.
What I do worry about, all the time, is about attaining a certain level of perfection, of No-Flawness, maybe like Snow White or Belle, that would render me then a Really Wonderful Friend and Human Being, on every single level. Kind, always. Never lazy. Never grumpy. Always well turned out, instead of sometimes running to the grocery store in yoga pants with my hair in a ponytail. In my imaginary perfectness, I would never drink too much coffee and give myself indigestion, or too much wine and give myself a hangover. I’d eschew sugar and bad fats and eat clean and green. I would listen earnestly to someone who wants to talk out a problem and probably be able to balance my granddaughter on my hip while stirring a pot and writing a novel, all at the same time.
But if I were that woman, who would even want to be my friend? I mean, seriously—would you? I wouldn’t!
In Sharon Salzman’s book Real Happiness, she writes about the Buddhist practice of Lovingkindness as a way of loving ourselves and others unconditionally. Science tells us that it can be learned, she says.
“It is the ability to take risks with our awareness—to look at ourselves and others with kindness instead of reflexive criticism….to care for ourselves unconditionally instead of thinking, “I will love myself as long as I never make a mistake.”
That phrase, “reflexive criticism” caught me. I recognized the action instantly, that meanness, that monkey-mind judgment that so often shows up with a really nasty undernote and narrowed eyes and passes judgment on something or someone or myself.
Anna Quidlen says we begin the work of authentically becoming ourselves when we let go of being perfect. That sounds really lovely to me right now, a person who has been worrying about things for decades, only to find most of them weren’t worth a single moment of my precious hours.
So today, I’m just going to go with imperfection. I’m going with love, that simple answer to every question. Every question. Love. Toward me and my work and the people around me and even the people who irritate me, and maybe in that way, my heart will be more open to the everyday, to my friends and my children and the lady at the grocery store who shoves her cart in front of mine, and even, maybe, myself.
Can you think of a time when you worried a lot about something that ended up not mattering very much? Are there things you worry about now that it might be better to put down?