Self-care, part deux!

So last time I talked about what I’ve given up or limited this month–Twitter, alcohol, sugar, etc. That is half the equation. The other half is what I’ve added. These are things I’m doing regularly and in most cases every day. I’ve been doing this for the last three weeks or so and the peace of mind is incredible. (Two other things I forgot to mention I’ve given up: the news and multitasking. I haven’t missed anything significant by keeping off the news, and I’m still getting everything done and I have even MORE time without doing several things at once. It also helps immeasurably with a sense of calm not to have eleven things on the go simultaneously.)

*Flow Magazine’s 19 Days of Mindfulness special issue. I had this one sitting in my TBR stack since I bought it a few months ago and this was the perfect time to whip it out and give it a go. Each morning I read that day’s essay and try to apply what I’ve read to help increase my mindfulness. This issue includes a small journal with numbered pages to encourage a daily practice of jotting down thoughts, so I clear my head in the morning by doing this when I read the daily essay.)

*Italian lesson. Grazie, Duolingo! If I ever need to walk up to a person in Rome and tell them they’re eating an apple, I’m all set. It’s fun; it’s practical because we want to go back to Italy, and working on another language is one of the best things you can do to keep your cognitive function sharp.

*Morning walk. I tend to do this anyway, but I’ve been extra committed, going even when it was so humid and hot it felt like walking in a terrarium. I’ve set the alarm for 7am because that’s when traffic is light, the weather is coolest, and the neighborhood rabbits are out snacking. (I count them as a way of practicing mindfulness on my walk. The record is 14!)

*Workout. After my walk comes a protein shake and a workout–25 minutes of weights, Swiss ball, and kettlebells. One morning my routine got shifted and my first thought was, “Well, I guess I’ll have to skip today.” AND I WAS SAD. Color me shocked. I’ve always hated sports and considered myself totally unathletic, but I finally realized THOSE were my problems. First, I’m not unathletic–I was just out of shape in spite of being slim most of my life. Second, sports is not the same as fitness. I LOVE being fit and strong; I just hate being around other people when I do it. No gym, no classes for me. When my daughter graduated from college, I claimed her generous attic room for my own and set it up as a very calm space to practice yoga and lift weights. (Hand weights; let’s not get crazy.) This is where all the yoga mats and kettlebells and free weights live, and it works perfectly for me–anyone taller would brain themselves on the slanted ceiling.

*Yoga. After I write, I have been heading back up to my workout space to do yoga, half an hour with the Down Dog app which I HIGHLY recommend. I left myself on the Beginner level for far too long, thinking I wasn’t ready to level up. When I was strong enough to flip from upward facing dog to down dog without putting my knees to the mat, I knew I was ready. This practice unravels all the knots I tend to acquire when I write.

*Meditation. After yoga, I pop down on my meditation cushion and give it ten minutes on the timer in the Calm app. (You’ll notice my smartphone is a big ally in my self-care these days.) Ten minutes is not a long time–anybody can do it–but I find it’s really making a difference. The other day I was in a potentially VERY stressful situation, but I kept scanning my body for tension, breathing into the tight spots, noticing when I was holding my breath, and pretty soon it was over and I was markedly calmer than I would have been otherwise. Progress!

*Mocktails. I don’t miss alcohol, but I do miss the ritual of prepping a special drink to enjoy at the end of the day with my husband. Enter the mocktail. I’ve been experimenting, and my favorite so far is a generous tablespoon of elderflower cordial over ice, finished with sparkling water and a slice of lemon.

*Feel-good entertainment. I’ve put a moratorium on anything too challenging right now. I love Wimbledon and the Tour de France, so most of my TV watching is taken up with those. I’ve also started on the Netflix reboot of QUEER EYE FOR THE STRAIGHT GUY which is so uplifting I almost can’t stand it.

*Daily Instagram post. One pic a day to document the mindfulness practice. Nothing aspirational or fussy, just a simple photo to mark the day and make sure I’ve been paying attention to what I’m doing.

You’d think with all these new/refined practices that my day would be jam-packed and I’d be rushing from work to yoga mat to mocktail bar. On the contrary, peeps. Without all the extra noise from Twitter, news, TV, etc. I’ve got AGES to get everything done. I’m spending more time connecting with the people I care about; I’ve read several books, and I’m perfectly on track to finish revisions next week. The house is tidy, and best of all, I have a level of relaxation I usually only find when I’m on a beach somewhere. It’s an absolute joy to realize I can DO THIS AT HOME. And to do it while I’m revising? A revelation.

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It is July 4

and I haven’t blogged in a bit because I am quietly and productively content. Contentment isn’t exciting; it isn’t eventful and it doesn’t demand that you sit up and pay attention. It just curls up calmly next to you and IS.

The last few months–okay, the last MANY months–have been consumed with writing and travel and social media,  yada yada, and it was time to reset. I had a manuscript that needed final revisions and nothing on the calendar. It was a perfect opportunity to regroup. So I have embarked upon a month of extreme self-care rooted in methodical work. Interesting to realize that work can be a component of self-care, isn’t it? That kind of surprised me too. But I LOVE my work, especially when I hit that sweet spot of a deadline with precisely the right amount of time to finish without burning myself out. Three weeks of twenty-page-a-day revisions is just enough to be exacting but not enough to make me frantic. (It’s the fourth Veronica book, due July 20, pubbing in March.)

In addition to work, I’m taking a Twitter hiatus. (If you’re on FB, you will see this as an automatically-loaded post, but I do not have a personal presence on FB at all anymore. The page is maintained by my assistant and I don’t see comments or direct messages.) I adore Twitter, but I am calmer and happier without it–and I have so much TIME. I will of course return when my month is up, but in a more measured way.

I’m also practicing Dry July which is exactly what it sounds like–no alcohol for the month, only I started on June 24 so it will be at least five weeks and probably more. I’m cutting drastically back on wheat and no sugar apart from fruit and a square of dark chocolate each day, not from any desire to be punitive to myself but because I feel SO MUCH better when I observe those guidelines.

So that’s what I’ve eliminated for the month. In my next post, I’ll talk about what I’ve added!

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If you aren’t signed up for my monthly newsletters…

here’s what you’re missing! This was June’s newsletter. The notes go out on the 5th of every month and your information is never shared. If you’d like to subscribe, please fill out the wee form just on the right-hand sidebar.

Dear Readers,

Happy June! I hardly know where to start. You know the beginning of A TALE OF TWO CITIES? “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”? Yeah, that was May for me. It began with the trip to Greece which I almost can’t even describe for you. I was absolutely overwhelmed with the sheer beauty of the place. We spent a week on Mykonos where I passed hours just staring at the sea, feeling every single care slip away. I have never been anywhere I felt so instantly at home as Greece, and I have never been so sad to leave a destination. The only way I got on the plane was to keep telling myself that I would come back.

A week later, my daughter was in a head-on collision with a concrete construction barrier. She totaled her car but walked away with minor injuries, and I haven’t stopped heaving with gratitude since. We arrived on the scene before the state troopers even got there, and something about sitting in an emergency room with your child’s blood on your clothes snaps everything into perspective. (I threw that shirt away. I couldn’t stand the idea of wearing it again.) She stayed with us for almost a week after the accident, and I had a lot of time to think about how times of great bliss and great trauma are equally good at stripping away everything that doesn’t matter. On the island, we lived in bare feet, our days pared down to sunshine and sea and fruit. After the accident, we didn’t care about anything other than making sure our child was okay. In both situations, everything else became wholly insignificant.

And those are lessons I want to hang onto moving forward. We can work and pay bills and take care of responsibilities, but that doesn’t mean that we need to get hung up on every little stressor. Is it as elemental as the sea? Is it as traumatic as life and death? Then maybe it isn’t something we need to spend time worrying about. Maybe it’s something we need to attend to without letting it disturb our equilibrium. Maybe we can handle it and move on without losing our peace of mind.

This month, I turn fifty. All my life I’ve been trying to become the woman I want to be. Because of May’s sharp lessons, I’m closer to her than I was before. I’m going to leave you with a picture of me, swimming in the Aegean, on one of the best days of my life. For a long time, I kept my arms and legs moving, thinking I needed to tread water to keep from drowning. I’ve never been able to float on my back, but I had been swimming for a while and was getting tired. I hated the idea of coming in; the water was just too beautiful to leave. So I held my breath and rested my arms and legs, prepared to sink under the water for a minute before I had to start swimming again. And then something unexpected happened: I bobbed right back up. As it happens, the Aegean is salty—so much so that it will buoy you up. I only needed to lie back and rest. I turned my face to the sun and listened to the sound of the sea and my own heartbeat in the shells of my ears. Nothing but peace. I’m keeping this picture because it reminds me of so much: the joy of that day, the smell of the herbs growing on the hillsides, the taste of the sea. But also because that was the day I learned that sometimes bringing yourself to rest and trust that you will be held up is the most valuable thing you can do.

Happy June, y’all!


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Last chance!

Just a quick note that today is the LAST DAY to get A PERILOUS UNDERTAKING for $1.99 on your favorite digital platform–don’t miss Veronica’s second adventure!

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Veronica on sale!

I LOVE this Veronica latte pic from @theartfulelle celebrating A PERILOUS UNDERTAKING–and right now Veronica’s second adventure is only $1.99 in digital!

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Quick hello

I’m dashing by with a quick apology for not resuming the blog on 5/16 as promised. The Greece trip was phenomenal–pics later!–but right now I’m taking care of my family. A few nights ago, my daughter collided head-on with a construction barrier and totaled her car. She has bumps and bruises but is recovering beautifully and we are so very grateful her injuries weren’t worse. Family has to be first priority now as I’m sure all of you will understand. (Heaps of thanks to those of you who have been in touch on Twitter. Your kind words have meant so much to all of us.)

Regular blogging will resume as soon as I can make that work.

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Leaving on a jet plane

I’m packing my bikini and putting the blog on hiatus for just a bit because we’re heading to Greece today! It’s the 30th anniversary of our first date next week and we both have milestone birthdays this year, so we’re heading to the Aegean to celebrate. The blog will resume on May 16–just in time for some royal wedding hoopla!

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“You sank my battleship!”

That was the war cry of childhood board games when I was a kid and it was the tagline of the TV commercials. (The fact that we had commercials for a board game was a little odd, come to think of it. But then, we had commercials for a mattress spring that everyone pretended was a toy, so life was weird in the ’70s.) Since this was before the advent of video games, we built empires the old-fashioned way–with Monopoly money. I am, it will not surprise you to know, a cutthroat Monopoly player. I basically just put multiple hotels on Baltic Avenue and wait.

My chess skills, however, are mediocre at best. I learned how to play very young–at least, I learned which way the players move. I never developed strategy and to this day, my plan seems to be not much more sophisticated than, “I’M GOING TO CHASE YOUR QUEEN UNTIL ALL MY PIECES ARE GONE.” I’m too impatient to play a long game which my husband exploits ruthlessly, usually by doing something unexpected with pawns.

I used to know how to play Chinese checkers and Parcheesi, but those days are long gone, and my husband and I have been banned from family Spades games on the grounds that we’re “too competitive.” (We actually stopped playing Hearts with friends because I could not comprehend a game where you are not trying to annihilate at all times.)

So it’s probably best that we discovered Forbidden Island. I was amazed to play for the first time and realize that EVERYONE PLAYS TOGETHER. It’s every single player pitted as a team against the game itself. It was a thoroughly new concept for me and, honestly, probably something I should have been given as an only child. “Oh, teamwork? What’s that like?” (You already know that I got the DOES NOT PLAY WELL WITH OTHERS box checked on my report card, right?) In any event, I very much enjoyed it and completely recommend for people with highly competitive family members–especially children. Save them while you can.

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Stuff I’ve Figured Out Along The Way

Every so often I repeat this post–one of my favorite pieces on writerly advice. First posted in April, 2013.

This is one of those blog posts that usually gets an appalling title like “Advice to Young Writers”. We’ll call it something more modest—like “Stuff I’ve Figured Out Along the Way”. These are bits and pieces I’ve collected, parts of the picture that I’m assembling as I go. I’m about to release my seventh novel; I’ve been published for six years. I am no longer the newest kid on the block, and I have picked up a few shiny pebbles along the road. And I’m posting them here because there’s a chance they might be helpful to someone else trundling along the same path.

  1. If you want to be a better writer of prose, read poetry. Poets are my gods. As I’ve remarked before, they say in ten words what I say in ten thousand. They are precise as surgeons, wielding their scalpel-words to hurt and to heal. It doesn’t take much—even a single poem a day can pierce your subconscious, raising your appreciation of rhythm, metaphor, and language.
  2. If you’re writing historical fiction, do your research. And then leave 70% of it out of the book. This is a bit of advice I gleaned from Persia Woolley’s book on historical fiction, and it’s brilliant. The criticism I hear most often of this particular genre is that readers bog down in the history bits. Yes, they love history or they wouldn’t read this type of fiction, but it must never supplant the story in importance. It is there to support the story, and if any fact—no matter how delicious—takes the reader out of the moment, it has to go. These are the cuts that hurt, but they are essential. There is an art to weaving fact into the fiction and achieving plausibility and readability at the same time.
  3. If a scene isn’t working, let another character drive the action. This is a piece of wisdom from Phillip Margolin that he shared when speaking to a Sisters in Crime meeting I attended donkey’s years ago, and I can’t tell you how many times it’s come in handy. Say you’ve written a scene that just isn’t working. Let’s further say it is between a mother and her teenage son and it’s about his girlfriend. The mother has reservations about the relationship. You’ve begun the scene with the mother haranguing the boy and he responded defensively. It evolves, quite naturally into a fight. Now, imagine you rewrite the scene and this time the son initiates the scene by telling his mother he can tell she has a problem with the relationship and he wants to clear the air. Instead of the expected dynamic of hectoring parent and sullen teen, you have a thoughtful teen and a responsive mother. The scene would be quieter, more vulnerable. Perhaps it would open them up to confidences, to mutual understanding. Now, that may not suit you at all, and all of this depends on the nature of your characters and how they need to respond to a situation, but it can absolutely shake loose a scene you’re having trouble with. It’s also a good strategy if you have a character who takes charge too often and needs to take a backseat once in awhile. And it’s fabulous if you’re suffering a wee case of block.
  4. “Write what you know” is bunk. This is the single worst piece of writing advice out there and it’s ubiquitous. It’s also limiting. Yes, I understand that you need to grasp something thoroughly to write it effectively, but this advice presumes that you can’t get to know something THROUGH writing it. And that’s how some very accomplished writers prefer to work. So toss this one out. If you want to write something and you don’t yet know it, be a Kipling mongoose and go and find out.
  5. The book you want to read is the one you need to write. Pretty self-explanatory. Don’t try to write something simply because it’s commercial or because “everyone is writing lesbian werewolf knitting circle romances”. Unless you LOVE lesbian werewolf knitting circle romances. In that case, rock on with your furry, fiber-loving, girl-on-girl self.
  6. Never take criticism from someone who doesn’t create. This is taken from someone entirely brilliant whom I have now forgotten—I want to say Aldous Huxley? Anyway, it’s worth repeating OFTEN. People who do not create are a species apart from those of us who do. They do not understand the work, the challenges, the vulnerability, the process, the discipline it takes to carry a project from idea to completion. This doesn’t mean they aren’t entitled to an opinion about your work; of course they are. They are entitled to have an opinion, to share it, to discuss it. But they are not entitled to have that opinion living in your head. Keep it out.
  7. On a related note, be careful about giving away your power. It sounds cynical and gross, but the truth is there are people who will be happy—nay, GLEEFUL—to find you have an Achilles heel and will amuse themselves by poking pins in it. So be careful about where you reveal your vulnerabilities. Do not show your work to just anyone; do not confide in everyone. Choose your confidantes with consideration. It takes discipline and willpower not to spill your guts to everyone you know and not to share your manuscript with anyone who will read it. Exercise that discipline and willpower—it will be well worth it. I’ve seen FAR too many people torn down by snarky critique partners or jealous writing groups. It can take a very long time to build that confidence back up again when someone’s sharpened their claws on it. If you share with someone and never come away feeling better about yourself, this is a very good sign that you need to move on.
  8. Just write. You can enter contests, create your website, attend conferences, go to workshops, find a writing group, join writers’ organizations, blog about your goals, tweet until you’re blue in the face. But NONE OF THOSE THINGS IS A SUBSTITUTE FOR WRITING. ONLY WRITING IS WRITING. If you’re not sitting down at your desk putting words to paper, you are not writing. You are posing. Stop it. Writing is discipline and craft and about 2% as glamorous as non-writers think it is. If you’re not willing to put in the work, you’re not a writer. And that’s fine—most people aren’t. According to a recent study—I want to say New York University, but don’t hold me to that—writing a novel exercises the same mental circuits and makes the same demands as writing a symphony. I loved reading that because it’s the first example I’ve seen that illustrates clearly what it feels like to write a novel. Each instrument has its own part to be written then the parts must be combined into a harmonious whole. There are themes and counter-themes to develop, ideas to explore and refine. Thousands and thousands of notes, put into precisely the correct order not just to make sense but to make art. Sounds daunting, doesn’t it? But most folks don’t walk around thinking they have a symphony rattling around inside and they’d write it if only they could find the time. But this is what you hear on a regular basis about books. (An NYT article from 2002 said a recent poll revealed 81% of all Americans thought they had a book inside them. I’d say after the advent of self-publishing that number is up even higher.) Here’s the thing—that book is going to STAY inside you if you don’t write it. So write it and stop talking about it already.
  9. You’re never as good or as bad as you think you are. We are creatures of extreme. We believe the absolute worst of ourselves and sometimes the absolute best. The truth is usually somewhere in between. Don’t let your head get turned with praise that is too fulsome, but don’t believe the worst of yourself either. Now, if you’re a person who NEVER thinks poorly of your own writing, you need to explore the middle ground a bit because if you never doubt then all I can say is: WRITING. UR DOING IT WRONG.
  10. Nice matters. Publishing is a surprisingly small industry. SURPRISINGLY small. You can show your ass all you want, but eventually people will compare notes and it will come back to bite you on that same ass. The editorial assistant you abused today can be an executive editor tomorrow with the power to refuse your newest project at the acquisitions table. The blogger you got into a flame war with on Twitter could get a job writing a review column for a major online magazine. You never know. I’ve seen people time and again think they were getting away from working with someone only to have that same person crop up again. Bad pennies abound in this business and they do keep turning up. Reputations MATTER. Make sure yours is a good one. If you act like you are terribly special and important, nobody walks around saying, “Oooh, it’s the terribly special and important author on the phone.” They roll their eyes and avoid you and tell their friends. And word travels. So, be nice. It costs nothing and generates a truckload of good karma that just might come back to help you when you need it most. Besides, the world needs more nice. Why not let it start with us?
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Lazy cooking

We’ve discussed my ambivalence about cooking, right? I mean, I don’t mind throwing together the occasional meal but UGH. EVERY DAY WITH THE FOOD. I am fine with eating the same breakfast for months on end. Currently this is 2% Greek yogurt topped with berries, slivered almonds, a few diced dried apricots, and a drizzle of honey accompanied by a piece of GF toast with almond butter a bit more honey and a BIG cup of Earl Grey. Lunches are some version of a ploughman’s–boiled egg or tuna, cheese, veg and fruit. I don’t mind the odd foraging for this meal, but DINNER. It’s the bane of my existence.

Until now. I browse food blogs which is odd for a person who doesn’t like to cook, I know. But I’m always in search of the ultimate dinner hack. (Sheet pan suppers, man. These are my JAM.) My absolute best new discovery is the easy marinades posts on Gimme Some Oven. The idea is to batch the process, whipping up five marinades at one time and creating freezer packs full of chicken breasts ready to go. I was a wee bit skeptical, but I snagged a big bag of chicken from Trader Joe’s and set to work, mixing tandoori, enchilada, teriyaki, honey mustard, and pesto. I managed to screw this up ENTIRELY since the recipes actually call for master mixes of spices to use for lots of different things and I just hurled the whole lot into a single marinade. Oops.

I was too tired at the time to worry about fixing it, so I slung them into the freezer and went about my life. One by one, I pulled them out and followed the SUPER simple instructions on baking. (I told you, SHEET PANS.) Every time they were delicious and juicy and 100 kinds of yum. It was the work of minutes to fling some vegetables onto another pan to roast alongside, and then I just whipped up some quinoa or rice depending on the flavor of the chicken. Beyond easy and worth the ten minutes of effort by a mile. (Imagine how delighted I was to find there are marinade recipes for pork and beef too! And if you’re a tofu kind of person, I should think these would be delicious that way also.)

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