On Stillness

In early December, the fella and I decided to take a “for real” vacation. We hadn’t done this in, well, we couldn’t remember. To us, that was a good indication of how badly we needed to take some time off. Because my job gives me a month of furlough (sort of), and he had use-or-lose vacation days, we took the plunge.

We planned a week at Tybee Island, a tiny barrier island down on the Georgia coast that I’m sure is booming in summer. In December, it’s quiet as a tomb. And that’s exactly what we were looking for.

The last couple of years have been a real whirlwind. I’ve done some things I’m really proud of (like starting a publishing company called Blue Crow with one of my dearest friends). But it’s also been a really stressful time that often felt like a life-size game of Jenga. (“Let’s keep pulling out pieces and see when Lauren crumbles!”) I took on too many projects, didn’t say “no” often enough, and ended up feeling overwhelmed 99% of the time.

One day I told my fella I was afraid I was becoming a workaholic. He said in his calm, non-confrontational, kind Midwestern way: “Well, you do stare at your screen until the moment you go to bed.”

So that cinched it. I planned a week away for us. Loosely planned, mind you. We’re two people who don’t need a vacation agenda. We don’t leave with a bullet list. We just go someplace that sounds interesting that has some things we haven’t seen before–and we seek out some stillness.

Stillness is something I’ve needed for a long time. I used to find it when I worked for the National Park Service. Most days I could go about my ranger duties and find some quiet in my tasks: trails that needed upkeep, elk that needed monitoring, remote campgrounds that needed surveying. It was a long drive sometimes, from one outpost to another, but that meant a drive along the Parkway when it was bursting with fall color, or a hike on a remote trail that needed a little TLC. Sometimes on my walks I’d stand still and watch leaves fall all around me like snow. Or listen to elk bugle in the meadow, or listen to the rippling stream under the footbridge where I stood. I felt closer to the earth, grounded, like I belonged there, too.

Now I have to go out of my way to get that feeling. I leave my office to take short walks. I sit out on the deck and listen to the twittering cardinals and nuthatches. I keep my bird feeders full so there’s always a crowd. I plant flowers and try to keep them alive, because it feels good to have my hands in the dirt.

While on Tybee, we took walks every day. We wandered along the beach at low tide, watching the sandpipers. We ambled through town by the lighthouse and the battery. And then we found a little park with a trail that wound through the shrubs and the live oaks, a curtain of Spanish moss overhead.

And in that park, we came across a Great Blue Heron wading in a pond. We followed the path towards him, quiet as cats, and stopped when we were about ten yards away. I’d never seen one so close before. I could see the different shades of blue in his feathers, the tiny crest on his head that flapped like a cowlick in the breeze. The heron stood still as a statue, and we did, too, inching as close as we could without disturbing him.

It felt good to find that stillness again. To savor that moment and think only of that long-legged bird and its patience, escaping from the cacophony that lives inside my head most days. Most days, my head feels like a pinball machine, a dozen different thoughts banging around in my skull, pinging and colliding and competing for my attention. My to-do list feels like it stretches through two time zones. The high-priority tasks are daunting. The hours seem short and the days seem few. During my commute, I try to piece together my free hours, trying to find the most efficient way to use them, plan how to squeeze as many tasks as I can into my remaining hours before bedtime. And the next day, I do it all over again.

My month-long “vacation” has emerged as a time where I can play catch-up. I’m writing a book. Editing two more. (That all sounds like work, you’re thinking. And you’re right. It is.) But I’m also carving out time to read books for fun, and try painting again, and do some things that let me quiet my mind so I can tell myself I do not have to be a workaholic. It’s always been hard for me to find balance—I fling myself into a new project and get completely consumed by it, and feel like I don’t have time to do leisurely things like read books and do yoga. But I have to do those things, because they are the balance, and they quiet my brain. They are the stillness.

I was lucky the heron allowed me to get so close to him, to watch for a few minutes, and remember what solitude and stillness feel like. I’m even luckier to have a fella who was happy to take a moment to escape with me to the quiet place—because I know not everyone would stand there for a full ten minutes and watch a bird with me. But sometimes I think the world might be a kinder place if we all took a few minutes each day to seek that healing stillness.

When We’re Old, We’ll be Badasses

 

 

Last weekend I went to a writers’ conference with my partner in crime Katie. (Some of you know that with our powers combined, we are Blue Crow Publishing.) Appearing as “exhibitors” meant that we spent most of the weekend stationed at our table, doing a mix of mingling, crowd-watching, and talking with some amazing writers. In the slow moments, our conversation wandered towards our own book projects, new ideas, and whining about what we call “old lady pains.” 

“My sister put a hole in my head,” Katie said, pointing to her forehead. “She removed an old lady wart. The technical term is barnacle.”

“As in the hull of a ship?” I said. 

“Exactly. Like an old beat-up ship. She wouldn’t even schedule an appointment—made me plop down as soon as she spotted it. My sister is so mean.”

(For the record, Katie’s sister is a dermatologist. We’re not talking about a random person with an x-acto knife. Still.)

I told her my back hurt in weird places. She said she had to dye her hair more often to avoid “dishwater blonde.” I dyed my own hair recently, to cover up the appalling amount of gray that I know exactly who caused, and my fella said it looked “magical.” It damn well should have looked “magical” for the amount I wrote on that check to the hairdresser. (That’s the day I learned to ask “how much will this cost?” even when you trust a person with your life. And your hair.) 

Since then, the gray has come back and I’ve since decided to call them mermaid hairs. Let’s just change what we consider “magical,” shall we?

My fella and I often talk about what we’ll be like when we’re old. Will we wear ugly cardigans? Will we bark at waitresses and talk to ourselves as we wander through the house? Will we blurt out all of our thoughts like we’re earning a merit badge in ornery? 

Katie and I, sitting at that table, wondered the same thing. “Will we go out of the house wearing tacky pants because we have no one to tell us how bad they look?” she said. Who would save us from ourselves and our bad fashion choices? Would someone tell us our lipstick was too red or our hair was too blue? Would anyone tell us when we were yelling in a quiet room? Would we have to stop drinking bourbon and stop eating ice cream because our bodies were rioting against us? Things were starting to look bleak.

A couple hours later, a statuesque woman with white pixie-cut hair strode up to our table. (I’ll call her Sarah.) We asked her what she wrote, and Sarah said, “Well, I was a journalist, and I’m working on a memoir. I’m like a hundred and twelve years old, but back in the sixties I was a stringer.” This woman wore a black leather jacket, had an earring in the top of her ear. She looked like she could arm wrestle both of us and win. “Back in Miami, I was covering the fire, and I met a guy from Newsweek in a bar…”

“This story is already amazing,” Katie said. “Go on.”

The woman went on to tell us that she had been a local reporter, sent to Miami to cover a story. She’d strode right up to the guy from Newsweek and told him, “I could write for y’all,” and he said, “Okay, send me something.” She went on to tell us about her Ph.D. in Rhetoric, her research into the Loray Mill Strike of 1929 and Ella May Wiggins. “That new book about it,” she said, doing a big thumbs-down, “He didn’t do enough research. He said there wasn’t any information out there about her, but the woman had six children. Please.”

She wanted to write the real story, with her journalist’s eye. “She was a real woman,” Sarah said. “Not just some folk hero.” 

Sarah was feisty, and witty, and dropped just enough cuss words to make me smile and think of my grandmother. When she hurried off to her next session, promising to send us her manuscript, I turned to Katie. 

That is what we’ll be like when we’re old,” I told her.

“Total badasses?” she said.

“Absolutely.”

 

 

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com. Special thanks to the NCWN conference, which was a total blast to be a part of. We can’t wait to see you all at the next one. 

 

 

Why Write Romance?

When people ask me what kinds of books I write, I struggle a little with the answer.

Romance? Women’s Fiction? Romantic comedy? Romantic suspense? Suspenseful romance? How on earth do I categorize these things?

I used to not want to say “romance”—I tried to place myself in some other category. Saying “romance” raises eyebrows. Creates a cloud of disdain. Makes my parents shudder when we’re in a public place. There’s still some stigma, is what I’m saying. I thought I wouldn’t be taken seriously as a writer. People would say, “THIS is what you did with a graduate degree?”

But here’s the thing: I love a good romance. I love stories about people falling in love—from the awkward first moments, to the part where you can’t get that person out of your mind, to the part where you go from hiding secrets about your deep dark self to making yourself completely vulnerable and finally letting that person into your world.

And then being let into theirs.

I love the clumsy, messy, hilarious moments that collide with the heart-pounding, gut-wrenching times that make you feel like you’ll surely vomit on your shoes.

After some awkward conversations at family dinner tables, a few friends who said they skipped over some key pages, and an uncle who said, “I try not to think of you as the narrator,” I’ve come to this conclusion:

I’m proud to write romance novels. I will happily write funny, messy, complicated love stories all day long. And if someday, I do get to do that all day long, I’ll consider myself pretty damn lucky.

We could talk for hours about what separates “romance” novels from “women’s fiction” novels (and why is it “women’s fiction” and not just “fiction”? And how do you categorize these stories, anyway? Where is the line? And does that even matter any more?), but when I think about the books I’ve enjoyed the most, they all have one thing in common: at their heart, they are a love story. I have a lot of favorite go-to romance writers. I’ve got a soft spot for the paranormal (I’m looking at you Jeaniene Frost) and for comedies (Hi, Jennifer Crusie and Alice Clayton). I love reading about some swoon-worthy heroes that set my cheeks on fire. I’m picky, though, I’ll admit: I have a high bar. There are a lot of tropes out there that I don’t want to read, and a lot of red flags that will make me close a book faster than you can say, “cliche.”

My brief list of horrors includes but is not limited to: ditzy women, helpless heroines, misogyny, cruelty for entertainment, woman as object, and woman who falls for man who perpetuates any items on this list. Jennifer Weiner wrote a fabulous piece for the New York Times called “We Need Bodice-Ripper Sex Ed” that encapsulates a lot of my thoughts, and she’s much more articulate that I am.

So why do I write romance novels?

To write against those horrible tropes, of course. Romance, as a genre, is constantly changing. I’m delighted every time I discover a new writer who’s penning smart-mouthed bad-assed heroines who aren’t afraid to tell their partner what they want, who won’t settle for being some prize to be won, a wild creature to be tamed. I don’t look for that in my real life (see above terrible tropes), so I certainly don’t fantasize about them.

I want to see women save themselves. Sure, I like to read about women finding their heroes and stumbling into love, and I like some old school swept-off-her-feet action (yes I wrote a scene where my heroine is thrown over the hero’s shoulder and taken away in a fireman’s carry, by an actual fireman—but she was being a doofus and needed to be stopped from making a terrible decision, and damn, was she stubborn). I like to see a guy come to the rescue to a point—because yes, we all need a little help sometimes, and if a dashing man does it once in a while, I’m happy about that—but in the end, I want to see a lady save herself and solve her own problems. The best relationships are partnerships, after all, so sometimes she needs to save the fella, too.

And for heaven’s sake, enough with the alpha-holes. I get so aggravated by this trope: a guy who’s an absolute asshole, alpha-male taken to the extreme. (I can appreciate a take-charge attitude, but let’s not go off the deep end to the point where there’s malice and degradation, please.) These always involve a woman who swoons over him and is helpless to bend to his will—and enjoys the blatant misogyny. This one doesn’t compute for me. I get the bad-boy thing, I do—I am hopelessly in love with Wolverine—but why fawn all over a man who treats you badly? A bad boy with a heart of gold? Okay, sure—I can get behind a good redemption story. A bad boy with an iron fist? No thank you. Why perpetuate cruelty? Why make it seem like that’s acceptable behavior—or worse, desired behavior in our male counterparts? We expect more from our lovers, spouses, and partners. So why not raise the bar in our fictional men, too?

So yes, I write romances. I write about people stumbling into love, and getting all sweaty, and falling apart, and coming together, and going head-over-heels stupid for each other. But I also write about people making each other better. Connecting with each other in ways that extends beyond where the parts fit together. Because that’s what happens in the best relationships—and dare I say the ones we dream of and fantasize about. So I’ll continue to write novels with steamy seductions and strong-willed women who find men who know how to treat the the way the deserve.

We need more stories out there where women save themselves—where sexual satisfaction comes because a lady feels valued and respected, and not in place of it.

There’s a lot of ugly in the world. We could use some more love—like, the real kind that lasts.

How to Talk to Birds

cardinal

If you know me at all, you know I’m a huge bird nerd.

This spring I set up two new bird feeders (ok, I totally MacGyvered two of them with some duct tape and caps from spray cans, but they do the trick). They’re right next to a bird bath that our stray tuxedo cat keeps knocking over, and right by the bedroom windows. I felt this was a selfless move, because it meant my fella could watch birds all day while he works from the “home office,” which is a big desk by the windows.

What I didn’t take into account was how the birds’ pleasant twittering would quickly turn to raucous squalling when the territorial disputes began. Now when the cardinals start chirping around the time my alarm goes off, it’s not uncommon to find my fella covering his head with pillows and muttering something about closing windows.

This idea was 95% genius.

It might mean a little less sleeping in, but it does allow me to get my fill of cute little bird habits: like the way titmouses hop along the edge of the birdbath searching for just the right spot to dive in. Or the way that pairs of cardinals traipse in the flowers and carefully feed each other the prize seeds they’ve found. Or the way that magnolia warblers burst out of the trees long enough to swipe a seed in a fly-by. I think I understand why cats sit by windows now.

So all of this birdwatching was bound to give me a new idea for a book.

I signed up to be a vendor at Asheville Zine Fest, which meant I really needed to make a couple of new zines to take with me. I make these every now and then—miniature books that fold out like maps or fit together like puzzles. I don’t get to do a lot of letterpress printing these days, but events like the Zine Fest give me a good reason to sit down and make some things by hand.

 

carving woodcut

 

So of course my yard full of peeping, twittering visitors inspired “How to Talk to Birds,” a miniature book that includes 6 birds that have been visiting my yard this year. I was itching to do a woodcut again, so I carved a 7 x 10 inch block and printed it using my baby Vandercook printing press. I experimented with some digital printing on handmade paper for the book covers, and stitched these together with thread. They were a hit at the Zine Fest, and I think my favorite moment was when a lady carefully unfurled the whole book to see all of the birds, and then realized their corresponding bird calls were printed on the back side of each page. Then she read it out loud and made the bird sounds, like the “purty-purty-purty” of the cardinal and the “ankh-ankh-ankh” of the nuthatch.

 

 

“My friend just had a birthday,” she said. “She’ll love this.”

That’s one of the best compliments in the world, you know, to have someone buy something you made to give to someone they love. It sort of makes this whole process worthwhile. That might have been just the thing I needed to kick me out of my retrograde funk—getting my hands dirty, smelling some ink, and making a stranger smile with a tiny book of birds.

Want to see more of this? Check out my page at Patreon.com, where I post videos, tutorials, works in progress, desktop calendar (sometimes with birds) and more. And of course, you can find bird prints and this mini book in my Etsy shop.

 

 

Top image (cardinal) is courtesy of Pixabay.com. A huge thank you to the folks at Asheville Zine Fest—thanks for all your hard work, and I can’t wait to see you next year.