Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Button Tea

Today has had, thus far, two perfect episodes of happiness in it.

The strange thing is that they are complete opposites of each other.

The first was the happiness of spending time with little girls. The second is the happiness of not spending time with little girls.

My four-year-old granddaughter, Kat, got up early this morning (5:45, far earlier than I would have liked), but there is something magical about sharing early morning time with her while the rest of the family, and the rest of the world, is asleep. We read library books (my favorite from the stack this time is Ella and Penguin: A Perfect Match by the team of author Megan Maynor and illustrator Rosalinde Bonnet, a book I wish I had written). And then we had a tea party with button tea.

I love buttons, so I pounced on a huge stash of them for a pittance at the church yard sale last summer. There is no better way to spend a pre-dawn hour than sipping button tea with Kataleya.

The second episode of happiness began when the terrific nanny I hired for three hours, Brooke from Superior Nannies, transferred the car seats into her car and whisked Kat and Madi off for fun adventures elsewhere. I'm not even sure where exactly they are going. Perhaps the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), which has a most inviting child-friendly museum in a stunning setting. Perhaps the main branch of the Boulder Public Library. Perhaps meeting up with Kat's best friend, Danielle; Brooke has worked for their family, too.

So here I sit at my desk, sipping not button tea but Twining's strawberry tea, brought back to me from England by my friend Rowan. I'm burning the hot-apple-pie candle made by my high school friend Patricia. I've caught up on email. I'm writing this blog post. Shortly I'll curl up on my couch to read the papers for the Young Philosophers Symposium I'm attending at DePauw University in Indiana next week. There is no better way to spend a few afternoon hours than doing work that I love, completely undisturbed.

It's been a hard-won victory for me to learn how to love being with little girls when I'm with little girls, and to love being by myself when I'm by myself. But today the balance is perfect. Today (well, except for one stressful hour of little-girl meltdowns right before Brooke arrived to rescue us), I'm (mostly) managing to love what is, while it is.

Hooray for that.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Creative Joy in Hard Times

My main goal for the year, as I've announced here, was to have ten hours of creative joy each month, where I'd record these hours in a lovely little Moleskine logbook, with the rule that a log-worthy creative-joy hour had to have something extra: not just ordinary joyous creative work, but work made even more joyful by conscious enhancement of the joy - writing somewhere special, writing with a friend, even lighting a candle at my desk in the dark of the early morning.

Until September I met and exceeded this goal every single month, except for one, when I fell short only by half an hour. Not bad!

But then in September my life fell apart. And it turns out that you lose interest in strategizing how best to increase creative joy when your life lies in flaming ruins around you.

And yet . . . and yet . . .

The first half of September was a joy-devoid nightmare. But then came the SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) conference for which I had to: 1) provide five insightful critiques of manuscripts submitted by attendees; 2) deliver an hour-long break-out session on writing the transitional chapter book; and 3) give a closing keynote address on how to live a joyous creative life. I had no choice but do these things, which meant I had no choice but to work for at least ten hours preparing to do them, and then actually doing them. And guess what? It was SO joyous to be working again at all, at work that I love with my all my heart, that I decided I could write those hours down in the logbook, even if I didn't light a candle while doing them.

The first half of October wasn't nightmarish, but it was definitely slothful, as I gave myself credit for merely getting through each day with a modicum of grace and cheer. But then my wonderful editor, Margaret Ferguson, sent me not only the proofs of NIXIE NESS, COOKING STAR (the first book in my forthcoming After-School Superstars chapter book series), but the edited manuscript for VERA VANCE, COMICS STAR (book two in the series). Hooray! More work that I actually had to do! And work I would love doing!

So for the past ten days, I've lit my candle each morning and worked through the proofreader's queries on NIXIE and Margaret's editorial suggestions for VERA. Even better, the candles I've been lighting are made by a high school friend of mine who now makes the world's most aromatic and beautiful candles and sells them in an Etsy shop: SoyCandlesbyPatricia. I lit her Full Moon candle on the days leading up to October's full moon and followed Patricia's instructions to set my "positive intentions for the coming month" and "make a wish during the light of the full moon."

I'm burning her Hot Apple Pie candle right now - ahhh!

My creative joy total for October now stands at 11 1/2 hours.
I think my October full moon wish is going to come true because all I wished for was to keep creative joy in my life, even in hard times.

In fact, it's come true already.

Monday, October 22, 2018

The Challenge of Not Resenting Happy People

Many of you know that my current life project, in a season of intense dread and despair, is to be a role model . . . to myself. I am trying to show myself how to survive terror and tragedy with courage, grace, and even a measure of good humor.

This plan was particularly helpful lately, when I decided that Role Model Claudia had to help Desperately Suffering Claudia face one of her biggest challenges: how not to resent people whose lives are vastly easier than mine right now. Of course, just because someone's life LOOKS easier doesn't mean that it IS. But, actually, I have extremely good evidence that many of these people do have spouses in excellent health, grown children who have brilliant successes and their own flourishing families, all of them close, loving, and by all accounts as happy as happy can be.

It's hard not to hate these people sometimes.

Or at least: it's tempting to try to avoid spending any time in their company. I find myself wanting to spend time only with other broken people, other hurting people, other people who are stumbling right now in their own dark wood - not people who are gaily scampering through sunlit, flower-strewn meadows.

But then Role Model Claudia decided that she had to show Desperately Suffering Claudia how to resist this temptation. I have MANY happy friends. I can't give up ALL of them. And you know what? I love these friends, I really do. And even more important right now, they love me. I can't shut them out of my life. I have to let myself love them, and let them love me.

I don't want to turn myself into an embittered person who begrudges joy to others, consumed with envy at their good fortune. That really would be a guaranteed way to create a life that is pinched and shrunken, feeding only upon its own misery.

So I've been accepting invitations from happy friends, rather than making up excuses for why now isn't a good time to meet. We've had wonderful, heartfelt conversations about the joys in their lives and the sorrows, too - and the sorrows and joys in mine, as well. I don't NEED to resent other people's joy because - guess what? - I HAVE A JOYFUL LIFE, TOO.

I have good health, apple crisp, books to write, books to read, candy corn, walks on crisp October mornings, friends I love, and friends who love me: sad friends, happy friends, sad-and-happy friends.

 Just like me.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Overwhelmed with Work Projects? Try a Work Smorgasbord!

Lately my to-do list has been long, and my energy for tackling it has been low. All of the tasks on the list need to be done, but few of them have a clearly defined deadline, especially one that shrieks out, "DO ME TODAY!" So it's easy to procrastinate, postpone, and otherwise put off any work on these projects, instead filling my days with the soul-sucking alternative of endless Sudoku (my besetting vice), Facebook scrolling, and (worst of all) self-Googling to see if maybe I won some prize somewhere in the last ten minutes I wouldn't otherwise be aware of.

Although this may be a by-product of depression, it's also a guaranteed cause of depression, and battling it is, for me, a guaranteed cure (or at least alleviator) of depression.

My favorite strategy for defeating this kind of wretched stuckedness is to create a work smorgasbord for myself. It goes like this.

I make a long, full list of all the things I need to get done. Here's what I have on the list for today:

1. Read the proofs for Nixie Ness, Cooking Star.
2. Decide which books I'm going to order for my online course for Hollins University in the spring (this means figuring out the basic structure of the entire course - scary!).
3. Order the books.
4. Write my Learning Committee report for the church council.
5. Read a friend's book manuscript to give her the critique I promised a month ago.
6. Read the ARC (Advanced Reading Copy) of a book for which I've promised to give a cover blurb.
7. Start a new book! I have to start one sooner or later, or I won't have a next one!
8. Send in the application for the Denver Festival of Stories to be held next March.
9. Read five chapters of Homer's Odyssey for a study group I'm in.
10. Write a blog post.

I'm sure there are more things I should be doing, but if I did any of these ten tasks, I'd be better off than I was with NONE of them even faced, let alone finished.

Once the list is made, I pick any one of these - any one will do! - and spend one hour doing it. Or part of one hour doing that task, and the other part of the hour doing another one. Any work whatsoever on any goal whatsoever is good enough - is indeed splendid and amazing and totally to be celebrated.

That's it:  the whole entire work smorgasbord plan. It's as simple as simple can be. But for me, it's magical. I don't worry about picking the most urgent or important task, or the one I'm dreading most. I just pick one, period. Usually I pick the smallest one, or the easiest one - or just the one with the most appeal right this minute. That's not cheating. It's totally allowed. Or so says me, to me.

Then I turn over my hourglass and get to work.
When the hour is done, I feel so pleased with myself, sometimes I even do - gasp - a second hour!

In fact, this afternoon, I accomplished a first reading of the Nixie proofs AND wrote the church council report (only one paragraph, but hey, that's all it needed to be, and now it's done, done, DONE), and in a few minutes this blog post will be done, too. Tomorrow I'll return to the task list and see what I choose for another dedicated hour. Before I know it, I'll have nibbled my way through the whole list.


Monday, October 8, 2018

Five Episodes of Happiness a Day

Now that the exhilaration of the SCBWI conference and the Boston excursion are behind me, all that lies ahead is . . . real life. Ordinary everyday life. And ordinary everyday life that is extra-hard for me right now because of family challenges. I'm struggling with what the children in Noel Streatfeild's wonderful novels (Ballet Shoes, Skating Shoes, Dancing Shoes) often call the "Nothing-nice-will-ever-happen-again" feeling.

So it is time for me to return to some of my past tried-and-true tips for day-to-day survival.

One that worked well for me in years gone by is planning for every day to have in it five episodes of happiness. These can be big or small. There is nothing wrong with small! They can be sources of happiness deliberately added to my day, or things that would have transpired anyway, but now observed and appreciated more fully and mindfully.

Usually I have three episodes of happiness already guaranteed:

1. Lying in bed for an extra ten minutes in the morning, feeling the cool breeze from the open window, snuggling more deeply under my warm covers, allowing my body to awaken, expressing gratitude for its functionality, and anticipating the cup of hot chocolate I'm going to have once I depart from bed.

2. A walk with dog and friend in any weather, with constant expressions of appreciation for how beautiful the mountains are in sun, mist, clouds, rain, snow.

3. Reading a good book before bedtime. It might be a title selected for a book group, or something I need for an academic project, or a new book by an author friend. If I'm especially sad and stressed, it might be a book I've read a dozen times before, where every line is dear and familiar to me. Last night it was The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare.

The other two episodes of happiness require some additional effort on my part: doing some work I especially enjoy (writing!), lunch with a friend, decluttering a drawer (ooh!), a phone call to someone I haven't talked to for a while. For today, I have three special things planned: lunch with my beloved church friend Skippy at her elegant retirement-community dining room; baking apple crisp (yum!); and a meeting of my New Voices book group tonight, where we read books from other cultures and countries (tonight: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by India's Arundhati Roy).

So that makes six episodes of happiness for today, though really just five, because I have to admit I forgot to do the extra bed-snuggling this morning, though I COULD leap back into bed and do it right now. But five is a good number.

A day that contains five episodes of happiness is a good day, even if it's a sad day.

It's certainly a better day than it would have been otherwise.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Brief Boston Bliss

My older son, Christopher, is our family's expert on extravagant celebration.

When he was about to turn 21, he decided that the perfect place to have his first legal drink would be the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, seated next to Cole Porter's piano. I thought this was an excellent plan. So I cancelled class for that day (my students pronounced this the best-reason-ever to cancel a class), and off we flew to New York to accomplish this mission.

This month Christopher turned 30. He decided that the perfect way to commemorate this momentous milestone would be to see his beloved Boston Red Sox play their most hated foe, the New York Yankees, at historic Fenway Park. I thought this was an excellent plan, too. So off we flew to Boston this week, met there by my younger son, Gregory, who now lives in Chicago, to explore this storied city together.

It was all ridiculously decadent and expensive. And it was all worth every penny.

I spent my college years in Boston, so it's a city I love dearly. We walked 25,000 steps (10 miles) the first day, from the famed Citgo sign by Fenway Park all the way to the Bunker Hill Monument, focusing on the Freedom Trail that includes Paul Revere's house, Old South Church ("One if by land, two if by sea"), Old Ironsides, and more. Of course, as a children's book author I had to make a pilgrimage to see the Public Gardens' duck statues in honor of Robert McCloskey's Make Way for Ducklings.
The second day was rainy: the perfect day to visit the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. There I paid homage to Renoir's "Le Bal a Bougival"; a poster of it hung in my Wellesley dorm room through my four years there.
We toured the Winnie-the-Pooh exhibit, where we could walk right into Ernest Shepherd's sketches for his brilliant illustrations.

I sat on the stair from the poem "Halfway Down":

Halfway down the stairs
Is a stair
Where I sit.
There isn't any 
Other stair
Quite like
Finally, we spent all day Saturday touring Fenway park, meeting one of the players (Blake Swihart), and watching the Red Sox lose to the Yankees (WAHHHHH!). But nothing could spoil the pleasure of the three of us being able to share that day together.
The picture makes me smile in part because I am so NOT a sports fan. This was the first time in my life I ever wore spirit wear for any team (the T-shirt borrowed from Christopher for the occasion); I had never heard of a single player on the Red Sox team and knew no lore about the team whatsoever (except for the Curse of the Bambino, of course). But it didn't matter. I was there with my boys, and we were having fun.

That's all I want any more: just to have little bits of joy, and appreciate them as fully and fiercely as I can while I have them. And that's what I did this week, for three sweet days in Boston.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

A Bone Marrow Transplant of JOY

Last weekend was the 42nd annual conference of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators), held at the lovely Denver Marriott West hotel in nearby Golden.

It was one of the happiest weekends of my life. It was also the most healing. At first I thought it was like getting a massive blood transfusion after the hemorrhage of my recent life. But then I decided it was more like getting a bone marrow transplant of pure unadulterated joy: joy implanted into the very core of who I am.

Our co-regional advisers, Kim Tomsic and Jerilyn Patterson, gave me the great gift of inviting me to present not only a break-out session ("Structure and Sparkle: Writing the Transitional Chapter Book") but also the closing keynote address ("How to Have a Wonderful Creative Career in an Hour a Day"). It was bliss to turn from my troubles to talk about what I love best in the world: how to write my favorite kind of book for young readers, and how to live the richest, fullest, happiest creative life.

I've given lots of talks in the course of my long career, including lots of inspirational talks, or at least talks I hoped would inspire their audience. But this closing keynote was the one most ripped from my own heart, and so I think it touched the hearts of those present in a different way from anything I've ever done before, or could do again. It was one of those unrepeatable life moments that I will treasure always.

My talk, in outline, was pretty simple: 11 tips for a happier creative life. I'll list them here, and they look quite skimpy in their bare-bones formulation, but each one was embroidered with honest confessions, funny anecdotes, and brilliant insights from many other published writers.

Here they are:
1. Little things add up to big things. I shared my hour-a-day writing system and displayed my three hand-crafted wooden hourglasses: one hourglass, one half-hourglass, and one eight-minute hourglass-shaped timer. I quoted Anthony Trollope, as I so often do: "Nothing surely is so potent as a law that may not be disobeyed. It has the force of the water drop that hollows the stone. A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules."

2. Follow through. Keep the promises you make to yourself. I quoted this ditty I learned as a child:
"Bite off more than you can chew, and chew it. Plan for more than you can do, and do it. Hitch your wagon to a star, keep your seat . . . and there you are!" I owe everything I've ever achieved in my life to this one, to my ability to keep on cheerfully trudging.

3. Set DELICIOUS goals for yourself: not just goals that are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, and Time-Bound), but goals that will give you a tingle of happiness just thinking about them. I gave as examples my goal for 2017 of submitting something somewhere every single month, and my 2018 goal of having ten hours of creative joy each month. I warned against cutting corners on these goals that matter so much: how could I have let myself be tempted this past summer to cut corners on JOY?

4. Instead, lower your standards for things that don't matter. Here, I confessed how little I care about personal appearance (e.g., I never use a hair dryer: my hair, worn in the same style I've had since high school, can just dry on my head) and housekeeping, plus offered a bunch of practical tips for streamlining tasks at the day job.

5. Even when it comes to things that do matter, our own creative work, don't make it harder than it has to be. I railed against America's culture of overwork, with its constant complaints of busyness that are really just disguised bragging, offering some pointed examples from personal experience. Don't compete for the hard work prize!

6. Don't compete for the misery prize, either. Because here, when you win, you lose. I contrasted two writers with memorable advice for aspiring authors: Annie Dillard (The Writing Life) and Brenda Ueland (If You Want to Write). Annie says writers should be like Seminole alligator wrestlers, grappling with our prey half-naked, risking life and limb, citing the case of one drowned, half-eaten wrestler: "It took the Indians a week to find the man's remains." !!!!!  In contrast, Brenda says, "you should feel when writing  . . . like a child stringing beads in kindergarten - happy, absorbed, and quietly putting one bead on after another." I choose to take Brenda Ueland for my writing role model, not Annie Dillard.

7. Speaking of competing, use envy as inspiration. My mantra: don't envy, emulate. I don't envy others' achievements (well, of course I do, but I try not to); these may have been purchased at a price I'm not willing to pay. Instead, I keep a list of people whose whole lives are worthy of my envy: lives lived every day with creative joy. If we compete to have the happiest, healthiest, sanest, most joy-filled life, and we win (or even just benefit from the striving), that's a prize worth having.

8. Document and celebrate achievements. I showed my beloved little notebook, where I keep a list of each month's "Nice Things and Accomplishments."

9. Be careful what stories you tell yourself. Some examples of favorite stories I tell myself, about myself, are "I'm never sick" and "My planes are always on time" (both true - except when they aren't). I shared other pages from the beloved little notebook where I face my problems head on, scribbling thoughts to myself on the page, usually discovering that things really are going to be all right, or at least reasonably okay. I'm a master of avoiding wallowing through stern - but loving - self-talk.

10. Give yourself permission to be happy - and to admit that you are. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, "There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy. By being happy we sow anonymous benefits upon the world." He is also the one who wrote, "The world is so full of a number of things/ I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings." AND: being happy does NOT mean having a life that is easy or pain-free. I quoted the beautiful ending of The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson, when Trotter tells Gilly, "Life ain't supposed to be nothing, 'cept maybe tough," and Gilly says, "If life is so bad, how come you're so happy?" Trotter replies, "Did I say bad? I said it was tough." Yes, yes, yes, yes, YES!

11. Finally, give generously and receive gratefully. I've never not responded to someone who sought my advice on how to write a children's book, and I've met so many wonderful people as a result. Only once did I blow someone off, ten years ago, when I gave another, similar SCBWI talk and someone contacted me afterward to ask if I would be her mentor. My life was in flaming ruins at that time as well, so I just couldn't take on another thing. But she persevered, emailing me a second time, and this time it was easier just to meet with her than to think of a reason to say no. So I did, and - of course! - she became one of my life's dearest friends, who is now serving as my "raft buddy" (her words) as we both try to stay afloat on our current stormy seas. Giving IS receiving. They are one and the same. And SCBWI itself is a model of how much we all gain from fostering a thriving writing community together.

That was my talk. I gave it from my heart, and the ballroom full of attendees gave me a standing ovation in return. I can die happy now, except that I'd rather go on living, even if life ain't nothing but tough.

As I reminded myself last weekend, a tough life can still be a joyful one.