What Are You Worrying About?

Flickr Creative Commons photo

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?

 

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A Memory of Potato Salad

I am making potato salad this morning, from a cookbook that is so tattered and well-used that I have to rubberband it together to keep all the pages in.  The cookbook is one I’ve mentioned here before, Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine, given to me by my grandmother when I married (my now-ex) thirty years ago.  Her handwriting on the fly leaf is fading, but visible, and I feel her with me when I cook.

In fact, this morning as I assemble the ingredients for what really is one of the BEST potato salads of all time, I’m suddenly and inexplicable transported to a day that must well over a decade ago.  My grandmother and my mother-in-law, whom we all called Mama sat in my blue-painted dining room together. They had not had much time to chat before, though I knew how alike they were—both devoted to God, both beauties. That afternoon, they were both quite well-dressed in the way of Southern Women, wearing skirts and good jewelry, their hair nicely done.  One white, one black, both of them exquisitely beautiful, even at their advanced ages.  They sat spoiling Sasha the terrible terrier who charmed every old woman in that room and then spent the evening farting pungently and snoring in pure happiness from all the tidbits they fed her.

Why do I remember that day, in particular? I must have made this potato salad fifty times, a hundred.  But this is the day that rises up, whole and shimmering. The sun shone through the lace curtains and music was playing from the kitchen and I was making potato salad with Fern, Mama’s sister. (My memory stutters suddenly—was it Fern? Or Vivian? Which sisters came with her? I narrow in on that kitchen I so loved, with two windows, and that day sun was shining through the elm leaves. Fern, so tidy and smaller than the others. Yes, that’s who it was.  She taught me to how to boil the potatoes whole, then let them cool so the peeling is easier.

I don’t remember the reason for the gathering—was it an anniversary? Someone’s birthday? Why did Mama and her sister come all the way to Colorado? It was the only time they made the trip. The reason escapes me.  I don’t remember who else was there.  Only Mama and my grandmother and Sasha and Fern.

I see their laughing faces.  I see Sasha begging with her fu Manchu beard and bright eyes—a dog who lived sixteen years and it wasn’t quite enough still.  I have the sense that I knew my marriage was doomed already, that there had already been a lot of trouble, but my husband was there, too, barbequing maybe.  Almost certainly in charge of the music.

Today, my potatoes are ready and I set them in the sink and run cold water over them.  The potato salad today is for my nephew, home for a couple of weeks after joining the Navy.  I wonder how it will all look to him now, after eight months away.  My parents will be there, and I’ll bring my granddaughter back home with me, to sleep over so her parents can go to the fair.  Will I remember this day, a decade from now when I make this recipe?

Who knows? Not me.  What I do know is that the potato salad is delicious, that Mama and Grandma would be thrilled with my grandmotherness—and my darling Amara– now, and that Fern would be pleased to know that I remember her showing me that trick.  Recipes are tradition and love and the very ordinariness of repetition.

I hope you’re cooking—or eating–something today that makes you remember people you love.

Do you have a dish that conjures up memories of people you love, or a day you like to remember? 

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Find Me In Anaheim!

I’ll be signing copies of The Garden of Happy Endings, The Sleeping Night, and possibly How To Bake A Perfect Life (which is up for a RITA this year!) in Anaheim next week at the GIANT literacy event staged by Romance Writers of America every year.

The event will be held on Wed., July 25, from 5-8 p.m. at the Anaheim Convention Center.  Nearly 400 authors will be participating, and this year, we are not in alphabetical order. To find the authors you wish to meet, you will need a map, also available at the site.

I will be sitting at table 403.  Hope to see you there!

For more, including how to park and other practical details, click here.

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Colorado Springs On Fire

A mountain wildfire started in a canyon nearby the westside of Colorado Springs Saturday.  I noticed the weird pink light in my house and snapped this picture from my office window, of the smoke plume rising above the city:

Note the ridge at the base of the smoke column.  That marks the canyon, the wild side. On this side, the city begins.

Forest fire.  Not shocking because it has been deadly dry this year and there have already been two big fires burning, north and south of us. Also, it seemed as if it would be contained to the mountains, where there are few people and fewer structures.

But I don’t remember a fire on the Front Range in my life time. Also, though it is very shallow, I was sad because I adore this hiking trail. It’s only a few minutes out of town, and a nice 7-mile loop that has plenty of good ups and downs.  I’ve hiked it dozens of times, including when I got lost with my friend Chrysauna and we had to hike another three or four miles into Crystola.

For four days, we’ve all been watching it like it was a movie on the horizon.  It’s hard not to stare at the horizon, gauging the progress, the direction–is it better? Worse? Will it gobble Manitou Springs? Woodland Park?

Yesterday, this morning, it seemed better.  I wondered if we were all just settling in, getting used to it.  I got up early–at 4 am–to write so that I would not be distracted by the latest news. I spent some time in the garden before I turned on the television or the Internet.  It doesn’t help the world if I am freaked out.

When I finally turned everything on, the fire seemed a little less extreme. The smoke wasn’t so bad. Some evacuations had been lifted. I had a couch being delivered for my basement and decided to go look for some lamps and pillows to add some color. When I got to the Shops at Briargate, this is what I saw:

By the time I came out of Pier One, 20 minutes later, the light playing inside the smoke clouds was extraordinary, so I fetched my camera and ambled around the city vantage points to shoot the fire.

No more than 30 minutes later, I shot this pic from Cottonwood Park, virtually the same view as above, just a bit south.

This one was shot from the UCCS campus, maybe 5 minutes south of the shot above, and only 10 minutes at most.

This one was also on the UCCS campus. Notice the woman in black has a substantial camera, but she’s not shooting photos. She’s biting her thumbnail.

The smoke cloud was doing amazing things at this point.  The vantage point was extraordinary, and I was feeling this little bubble of creative pleasure.  I shot a series of pictures:

Beautiful, right? All that light and the starkness of the telephone pole.  I might have laughed a loud a little.  Some people in the parking lot had brought snacks.

A change of perspective might be in order.  This is the full view of the telephone pole.  See that street? The teeny tiny cars?

I drove another three or four miles, directly west.  Everywhere, people were lining the streets, taking photos on their cell phones (while driving!!) and I can’t tell you how many fender benders I saw.  Dozens. The weary police were asking people to pay attention while they were driving.  Please.  I made myself focus on my own driving and the driving of people around me (thanks to my dad, the ex-state patrolman who taught us that it takes two to make an accident).  I still very nearly got rear-ended at one point, but that was a little later and you’ll see why.

My next stop was just shy of Centennial and Garden of the Gods, where I often have coffee with my friend Heather.  Across the street is Ruby Tuesdays, where I spent many many Fridays.  That was where I spotted this:

Until then, my photo trip had been just that, an artist date of sorts, a chance to shoot the very rare conditions the fire has created. When I spied the flames, my skin rippled.  It was like knowing you’ve cut yourself, then looking down to see blood spurting out from an artery.  I drove another two blocks to a better vantage point, in the parking lot of an office building, and shot this series:

(To show you I was not close…er…sort of.)  Remember, this fire had been burning for four days and had not posed a threat. This is a close-up:

Remember the ridge in the first photo? The line of defense the firefighters had held for so long?

There it goes.  And more:

Emergency vehicles of all kinds were racing down the main drag, so it seemed like time to get out of the way.  My loop included going home via Woodmen, so I headed up Centennial.  a couple of blocks up, i found myself in very heavy traffic.  Very heavy.  It was way too much to be only gawkers, but it wasnt until I spied a woman in a fully packed Subaru that I realized more neighborhoods were being evacuated.

Because would you want to hang around with this?

My trip home from there was nightmarish.  That cloud of smoke descended and engulfed us.  Ash and flakes fell on the car. By the time I made it home, I was shaky and newly educated. Fire moves fast.

The flames engulfed those neighborhoods. No one knows how many homes are lost. Or where the fire will go next or…anything.

We are quite safe here. Please don’t worry about that.

More anon.

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A Return To Blogging

I took a little sabbatical last week, and one thing that came up is that I miss my blog. Not the blogs I write for other sites, about whatever their message is, but my own, inward/outward blogs about walking through my life and my work and my garden.  It is said that blogs are dying, that no one reads them anymore, but I do. So do you or you wouldn’t be here.

I have let myself become distracted by a thousand other tasks, distracted away from a form I genuinely enjoy and feels wise to me.  In fact, the quest for wisdom, the desire to understand what wisdom is, what it means to be wise, to be an elder, a wise woman, has been dogging me lately.   Natural, perhaps when a grandchild arrives and you see the future, a future that will not always contain you in this particular form.

The fast, short updates of Facebook and Twitter have shifted attention away from blogs/columns, but while it can feel good to keep up to date with the day to day happenings of people via those methods, there can be no exploration of ideas in those forms, at least I don’t know how to do it.

spring slopes

What I do know is that this slightly longer form, a column or blog, is perfect for me to mull an idea, think about something, share them with you, my reader.

So I’m going to commit to blogging again here.  I don’t know how often….maybe once a week sometimes, maybe every day.   We’ll see.  There is much afoot in my world.  A baby and books and walking and trips abroad.   I am interested in exploring the idea of wisdom and might come up with a year-long project to see what that looks like.

We’ll see.  For now, I wanted to let you know I’m returning to this form.

 

I am tired this morning. It's  Friday, bright and sunny. I've had a good week--lots
This is an in-progress drawing that's been living on my desk the past week. It
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Lately, I've been reading the diaries of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn to help create

A baby, an appendix, and a book…oh my!

Since my last post, these are the things that have happened in my world:

Amara was born over two days.  It was not an easy labor for mama, but I was very honored to be there and watch my first grandchild make her way into the world.  She was born February 18, and this is a picture from that day:

 

Two days after she arrived home, my beloved Christopher Robin fell ill. We first believed it was food poisoning, so he gave up all food and slept for a day.  The next day, I decided it might be appendicitis.  I was right.  It was a very terrible case of appendicitis, about as bad as you can get and still survive, and he spent four days in the hospital, then another ten days at home in bed.  I made periodic trips to kiss Amara, but mostly, I urged CR to drink more tea, and eat eat eat eat….!

On the work front, I’m juggling three projects: the first is the arrival of The Garden of Happy Endings as a real live book in stores and ebook readers near you on April 17.  There are signings, conferences, blog tours, giveaways, and I hope you’ll check them out. I will have a schedule up next week sometime.  I love this book very much, and hope you will, too.  It showed up nearly whole, throwing down a gauntlet that kicked my rear all through the spring and summer last year. There are gardens and dogs and sisters and a woman who became, through her courage and questing, one of my favorite characters ever.

Second project is finished: the rough draft of my online serial novel The Mirror Girl, the first book in a three-book YA urban fantasy/sff series is finished!

The third is the book for next year, involving all manner of research and food and the losses we think we can’t possibly survive, and the people who help us through–fathers and friends, animals and love affairs, hobbies and work we love.  Very engaged and excited about this book.

And it might be true that time I might have spent blogging has been spent kissing the downy cheek of a little girl.

Wouldn’t you kiss her, too?

This is the view from my window just now, with dawn coming from the east
My old dog is pacing this morning as he often does these days. He's a
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By now, most of you must know I have a new book out, The All

Stove Atrocities

This morning’s post to The Lipstick Chronicles.  What household jobs or areas are repugnant to you?

Photo by Ax|d-Works

 

I have an old stove—a dull cream model with ancient electric rings and a black front.  It’s serviceable, but little more than that.  I hate it when the sun comes streaming through my kitchen window and illuminates the splatters of grease across the control panel and the aged dust stuck to the inner hood.  I’m sure I must have wiped it all down when I cleaned the kitchen last night, but it looks like something out of a hoarder’s episode.   Dust from the wings of cat-murdered miller-moths mixed with flutters of dog fur mixed with kosher salt mixed with that creeping cooking sludge I can never quite identify.

READ MORE >>>>>>>

This is the view from my window just now, with dawn coming from the east
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One of the hardest things about starting a new book is the awfulness of it.

the deliciousness of notebooks

photo by Bright Meadow

I just spent a half hour wandering through the Moleskin website.  This is a very clever company, which has found a way to reframe a a tried and true product and turn it into a modern brand, and is now doing quite well with all sorts of minor updates, none of which veer far from the original.  I’m not a business blogger, but if I were, I’d spend some time with this product.

My pleasure in Moleskins is purely as a consumer.  I’m a lifelong journaler and a compulsive notebook collector.  Despite iPads and laptops and phones and all the other wonders of modern technology, I still have an actual paper notebook with me at all times.  I still keep my journals in notebooks (even if that means I print out pages I’ve written on the computer and glue them in), and I travel with notebooks.  I like to keep one for each book I work on, a place to write out the tidbits I need to remember to look up, a place to write lists of things I know about a character or plot thread or backstory.

As notebooks go, it’s very hard to beat Moleskins.   I have been a big fan of Clairefontaine papers since a trip to France some years ago with my friend Sonia.  The joy in Clairefontaine is the smoothness of the paper, which is hard to describe unless you’ve felt your pen sailing over the surface, unimpeded, like a swimmer slicing through water.   I see that they are offering a notebook similar to Moleskin now, but there are some details that are not quite right.

Moleskins are a writer’s notebook. They bend right.  You can turn them inside out and they don’t fall apart.  I can glue dozens of things to dozens and dozens of pages and the elastic band will still hold it all together.  The paper is good quality, and I can buy them in blank or graphs or lines (graph paper is surprisingly satisfying), a plus when I’m using them for different purposes.  Blank pages are best for travel, since I like to sketch sometimes in a travel journal.  Lined is best for journals.  I love graphs for the freedom of adaptation, but almost never choose them.

I love the stitched pages.  The sturdiness of the covers. The pocket in the back. Even those last few pages that can be torn out easily if you so desire.  It’s as if someone knew how a person journals and designed a notebook just for her.

Do you have a preference or love for a particular journal or brand of notebook?  Do you have different notebooks for different purposes?

Last night, as I unloaded the dishwasher, I realized I've had my blue glass dishes
My old dog is pacing this morning as he often does these days. He's a
The first Monday of the new year, and once again, I am not home. This
One of the hardest things about starting a new book is the awfulness of it.
As part of rehab for my brand-new bionic knee, a physical therapist comes to my

Finished!

As I type this, a summery breeze is blowing through my office window.  I can smell lilacs.   The new book, HOW TO BAKE A PERFECT LIFE is finished at last…written, rewritten, given to agent and editor for thorough reads, then revised some more, and returned.  It is on its way.  I’ve seen a mock up of the cover, and will post one when I get a final.  This is always a bittersweet period, when it sinks in that I actually have finished, and I won’t be living with these friends again. They’re on their way into the world.  I’m glad, but also a little blue.

So now I’m catching up on the multitudes of tasks that have fallen by the wayside while I immersed in this book.  Catching up on email from readers (please be patient with me if you emailed and I haven’t yet responded–I answer them all myself and it takes time, but I will get to every single one of them), catching up on blogs, catching up with friends I haven’t seen in a couple of months.   Walking. Studying Spanish.  Reading. Dancing.

What I’m really doing most of the time is packing and repacking in my head.  My goal is to make it through England and Spain, four weeks, with one carry-on and a backpack.  So, no more than two pairs of shoes.  One fleece and one turtleneck and one rainjacket.  A dress that packs very well, some leggings, and scarves to accessorize.   I’ll let you know how it goes.

I’ve been walking many miles every week, aiming for at least 30, and only making that rarely.  This week, I had the exuberant pleasure of dancing with Carlos AyaRosas, one of the founders of Nia, who is retiring this year.  Under other circumstances, I would have cut back on the dancing to give my body a chance to adjust to the extra walking miles, but how could I forgo that chance?  No way!

It was deliciously exhilarating! Carlos is a very physical dancer, and a great teacher, with an entirely different style than our (beloved) Loretta Milo.  The workshop was two hours and we danced our heads off–the kind of dancing that makes you forget everything and sweat away all stress and fill up entirely with joy.  I have been faithfully attending at least one, and sometimes three, classes a week since I began eighteen months ago. I always learn something new about my body or the music or how to count something that had eluded me before, but dancing with Carlos and his wife, who looks like she might be half-fey, coming out of the trees just to teach us to dance, and having the pleasure of watching Loretta and some of the other black belts lose themselves in the dance was…pure flame, pure notes, pure love.  I wish you could all have been there with me.

Have you ever tried something new that ran away with your heart?

HOW TO BAKE A PERFECT LIFE by Barbara O'Neal Available TODAY in trade paperback from
from Publisher's Weekly How to Bake a Perfect Life Barbara O'Neal, Bantam, $15 trade paper
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Playlist for THE SECRET OF EVERYTHING

I’ve had a good number of requests to post the playlist for THE SECRET OF EVERYTHING, and here it is.  I had no idea there was so much music in this book, honestly, but music is always playing in my head (and Tessa’s!), so I suppose it is no big surprise.

I had a soundtrack that kept growing and growing and growing as I worked, and this is most of it. Not all songs showed up on the actual pages, of course.  And not all the folk songs have names I know.

Orphan Girl, Emmy Lou Harris

The Garden, Mirah

Dark on Fire, Turin Brakes

Ballad of an Outlaw Woman, Annie McCUe

Our House, Crosby Stills Nash and Young

Deja Vu, CSNY

Helplessly Hoping, CSN

It’s a Beautiful Day, It’s a Beautiful Day

Bombay Calling, It’s a Beautiful Day

Guinevere, CSN

Long as I Can See the Light, Creedence Clearwater Revival

Hanging on a Star, Nick Drak

Chasing Cars, Snow Patrol

Friend of the Devil, Grateful Dead

Truckin’, Grateful Dead

No Sleep Tonight, Faders

Superman, Three Doors Down

Rescue Me, Aretha Franklin

Mother of God, Patty Griffin

Turtle Blues, Janis Joplin

All You Rolling Minstrels, Fairport Convention

Tessa’s List of Happy Artists

Entire Motown List

Beatles

Sound of Music (also Natalie’s favorite)

Kirstly McColl’s Tropical Brainstorm

Cat Stevens, Teaser and the Firecat

I would love to have made you a playlist so you could download the whole thing at iTunes, but I haven’t a clue how to do it.


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When I was a child,
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HOW TO BAKE A PERFECT LIFE by Barbara O'Neal Available TODAY in trade paperback from
First: we're working behind the scenes on the Barbara O'Neal and Barbara Samuel webpages, which