Friday, August 16, 2019

Are We Allowed to Live Joyful Lives Even If the World Is Filled with Misery?

My ongoing project is to have a joyful life despite everything. I think I'm doing pretty well at it. Even through several years of horrifying health and legal crises for beloved family members, and nonstop hideousness for my country and the world, most of the time I chug along cheerfully. I take daily walks, giggle with friends, sing praise songs at church, write lots of books, articles, and blog posts, and ride with my two little granddaughters on the Carousel of Happiness in the nearby mountain town of Nederland.

But now I'm asking myself: SHOULD I be doing this? Is it permissible for me to whirl around on the Carousel of Happiness when so much of the world is submerged in the Sinkhole of Misery? What RIGHT do I have to be happy? How DARE I be happy?

I'm pretty sure the answer is yes, I'm allowed to be happy, and you are allowed to be happy, too. Indeed, some of the people I know who have the hardest and most heartbreaking lives are also the happiest people. The Declaration of Independence says that we are endowed by our Creator with an unalienable right to at least try to be happy. I believe more rather than fewer of us should dare to exercise this right.

And yet. . . . isn't this callous? and complacent? and unbearably self-centered?

Well, my claim that we're allowed to be happy even in a world filled with misery does NOT mean we are allowed to be indifferent to that misery, or willfully ignorant of it. We should work together to make the world a happier place for everyone.When it comes to our near and dear, those to whom we've made specific and heartfelt commitments of care, we should make heroic efforts to secure their happiness, even at considerable sacrifice to our own self-interest.

Here, however, writer Anne Lamott reminds that "Horribly, [happiness] is an . . . inside job for the few people you love most desperately in the world. We cannot arrange lasting safety or happiness for our most beloved people." We just can't. But, oh, we wish we could! And we do - and should do - our best to make them as happy as we can.

I'm doing my best in this regard right now.

 My husband is in a care home, totally incapacitated from advanced Parkinson's, unable even to squirm around enough in the bed to reach for the phone if it's inconveniently positioned. I visit him every single day, bring him favorite meals, do his laundry, keep him company.

One son is enmeshed in the criminal justice system. I've taken out a Home Equity Line of Credit, secured against my house, to pay the estimated $100,000 of his lawyer fees.

I support organizations that do good in the world: Oxfam America, Physicians without Borders, people working for justice for those imprisoned in cages at our southern border. I'm sure I should be doing much more on all these fronts.

But I don't think I owe my husband, or my son, or anyone ever, a duty to renounce all joy in my own life. Some people may simply be psychologically unable to have joy in such conditions (some days, some weeks, some months, that's totally me), but I don't think they - or I - have an obligation to live joylessly.

I could try to justify this claim by saying, which is true, that my being happy actually helps me help others more. Cheerful givers are preferable to sullen givers; the cheerfulness is itself another gift. Far from thinking we have a duty to be miserable, Robert Louis Stevenson even said, "There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy. By being happy we sow anonymous benefits upon the world."

In giving ourselves permission to be happy, we thereby give others permission to be happy, too. I hope my example of being happy despite caring for my loved ones will give my children and grandchildren permission to be happy years hence when their turn comes to care for me. Isn't that what all of us want for our loved ones, even if we feel a nagging unease about wanting it for ourselves?

Rides on the Carousel of Happiness used to be $1 per ride. Now they're $2. It's still a huge bargain. The man who hand-carved the carousel's animals was a Vietnam vet who decided, after experiencing the horrors of that war, to spend the rest of his life just making people happy. I imagine that in the process he made himself pretty happy, too.

The motto of the Carousel of Happiness, which you can find on their T-shirts, is "Don't Delay Joy."

So: don't delay it.

It's okay to be happy. The world is a better place, for you, for me, for everyone, if it has more happiness in it.

Truly, it is.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Getting Excited about TURNING SIXTY-FIVE!

Five years ago this month I turned 60. With great jubilation I proclaimed that this was the start of Act III of my life. As everyone knows, Act III is the best act, when all the dramatic questions that have been put into play in the first two acts are answered in the long-awaited climax. As Chekhov famously reminds those engaged in playwriting, if you have a gun hanging over the fireplace in Act I, that gun needs to go off in Act III.


Now, five years later, all I can say is that Act III did not turned out as planned.

What happened instead was . . . life. Two little granddaughters born to parents who would almost immediately divorce with enormous hostility and bitterness. A husband who would be diagnosed with Parkinson's and end up, almost entirely immobile, in a nursing home. A son entangled in the unbelievably cruel and barbaric American criminal "justice" system.

And then me: puttering along writing my little books and giving motivational talks about how to find joy in your life despite everything. (Despite Everything is the working title for my memoir, if I ever write it.)

This month's birthday makes me officially a senior citizen (even if Denny's has already been giving me senior discounts for a decade now). I can officially count myself as a Wise Old Woman. Some women friends my age host "crone" ceremonies for themselves.

Maybe this is the REAL start to Act III of my life?

No. I can't just pretend that the last five years didn't happen. They did. They made me not only older and wiser, and older and sadder, but older and kinder, too.

But this IS the real start to something big and important - actually to lots of big and important things!

1. I can now get half-price tickets to ride on Boulder's fabulous buses. With yet another car wrecked this past week (this time, for the first time, in an accident that was NOT MY FAULT, unlike all the others), my plan is to reduce my amount of driving drastically. I will walk everywhere! I will take the bus when it's too far to walk! I will save money, sanity, and THE PLANET!

2. I have Medicare now, which is not a big deal for me as I already had excellent low-cost insurance through my former employer. But now I get. . . . Silver Sneakers!!! I've never gone to exercise classes, still haunted by the horror of high school P.E. But although I'm a faithful daily walker, my arms are feeble and flabby, and my balance and flexibility are poor. So I'm planning to trot myself into Boulder's fabulous rec centers to work on all of these things FOR FREE!

3. I'm going to become a vegetarian, which I should have done decades ago - actually, which I DID do decades ago but then lapsed, as I hate to be a Picky Eater. I seldom eat any meat even now, but I can't say I'm a vegetarian as I also seldom eat any vegetables. I'm more of an English-muffin-tarian. But I'm going to start finding ways to like eating vegetables - starting with shopping at Boulder's fabulous farmers' market. I bought myself a vegan cookbook and plan, terrible cook though I am, actually to COOK SOMETHING FROM IT!

4. I've become addicted to the Duolingo language-learning app, with the goal of reviving my many years of high-school and college French. Current plan: find myself a cheap airfare to Paris and go there ALL BY MYSELF (the best!) during some gray and gloomy month (my FAVORITE!), and spend a week eating baguettes slathered with butter and jam - and wandering the streets alone - and writing poetry in cafes while sipping hot chocolate. I AM GOING TO DO THIS!

And maybe  .  . . just maybe . . . Act III will start to develop its own strange and lovely momentum.


Saturday, July 27, 2019

Another Adventure in Newness, Coming Right Up

No sooner had I decided to restructure my Year of Newness ("The Year of the New, Halfway Through") than a great big newness challenge dropped conveniently into my waiting lap. I've noticed that enticing things drop into my lap more often when I sit myself down with my skirts spread wide, signaling to the universe my readiness to receive its treasures. The universe sends me more unexpected gifts when put on notice that I'm actively expecting the unexpected.

This past week I finished the edits on Lucy Lopez, Coding Star, the third title in my After-School Superstars chapter-book series, where each story takes place in a different month-long camp.

Book One: Nixie Ness, Cooking Star (cooking camp).

 Book Two: Vera Vance, Comics Star (comic book camp).

Book Three: Lucy Lopez, Coding Star (coding camp): Cover to come!

Now I had to figure out what the camp should be for Book Four.

As I did promotional events for Nixie's book, I solicited camp suggestions from each audience. Two weeks ago I sent the list to my editor, for her to share with her team at Holiday House. This past week I got their verdict, which just happens to coincide with my own secret yearnings.

Book Four will be set in.... drum roll... sign-language camp!

Just as I initially knew nothing - NOTHING AT ALL - about computer coding, I currently know nothing - NOTHING AT ALL - about sign language. But I learned from researching coding for Lucy's book that I actually like learning things. I especially value unearthing nuggets of wisdom from some specific area of study utterly new to me.

As I sat in on coding workshops and listened to coding teachers, I learned, for example, that "There is never just one solution to a problem" - ooh!! - and "If what you're doing isn't working, TRY SOMETHING ELSE" - another huge epiphany moment for me. I also learned that far from coding's being alien to who I am and how I think, it's actually extremely congenial. I love making lists! I love planning my life sequentially! I love trying to be crystal clear in my language about what I want done! Coding totally fits in with all of these things.

So now I'll have the adventure of learning about American Sign Language. I'm eager for any and all suggestions of how to begin. I can't wait to see what nuggets of wisdom it will offer - nuggets that I can then share with my characters - and my readers.

And myself.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The Year of the New, Halfway Through

My overarching life/career goal for 2019 has been to make this The Year of the New. As I officially become a senior citizen, I wanted to prove to myself that I could still learn new tricks, take on new challenges, and have new adventures.

I settled on six main new things I was going to do, all career-related, as work does bring me such consistent joy:

1. Teaching my first-ever online course;
2. Writing my first book on a topic on which I initially knew absolutely nothing;
3. Making my first serious effort to promote my books;
4. Writing my first verse novel;
5. Making my first real attempt to publish my poetry;
6. Writing and submitting my first shorter-than-500-words picture book.

The year is now half over, so it's time to take stock on my progress-in-newness.

I taught the online course, a graduate course on the figure of the young female author from Little Women to The Poet X, for Hollins University in Roanoke - and I adored it! I had no idea online teaching could be so much fun. Admittedly I had a small class, just five students, and fabulous, brilliant, highly motivated, witty and wise students - but I bet I'd find students like that in future courses as well. So now I plan to do this again - and again!

I researched, wrote, and revised my third-grade-level chapter book set in an after-school coding camp: Lucy Lopez, Coding Star. That was also a joy, and I'm pleased with how the book came out. I still don't love doing coding myself, but I did love learning about it, especially once I hired a patient and encouraging eleven-year-old tutor to sit next to me at the computer.

I made special efforts to promote Nixie Ness, Cooking Star, including purchasing, and wearing, a chef costume. I'll post again the picture of me wearing it, because I need to get as much mileage out of this costume as possible!
Now I'm going to turn my creative efforts toward the verse novel, and I'm extremely excited about that.

But I'm NOT excited about trying to publish my poems, and I'm NOT excited about trying to write and submit a picture book. I'm just not.

So. . . . I'm not going to make myself do those two things.

Now, I do value keeping promises I make to myself. For 2017, I worked very hard to keep my promise to myself to submit something, somewhere, every single month. For 2018, I worked very hard to keep my promise to myself to log ten hours a month of creative joy.

But this year... well, the choice of exactly SIX new career things has started to feel so arbitrary to me. It lacks the simplicity of, say, deciding to do one new thing every single month. And even as I compiled the list back in January, rounding it out with the last two items, I felt no particular yearning to do those things. They felt like . . . chores. And one of my goal-setting rules is that my goals have to be DELICIOUS. I have to feel a tingle of happiness just thinking about them.

Instead I'm going to luxuriate in the writing of the verse novel. I'm going to take my time with it - itself something new for me, who usually trots along diligently at my hour-a-day, page-a-day pace to my destination.

I'm going to write the poems for the verse novel in lots of new places. When I turn 65 next month, I can purchase half-price bus tickets from RTD, so I'll take myself once a week to Denver and find charming cafes there that cry out to have poetry written in them.

Maybe I'll find new pastries to eat while I write! And new kinds of gelato!

I'm still committed to this being the Year of the New, but with the year halfway through, I'm going to try a more loosey-goosey approach to Newness.

And that in itself will be . . . new. 

Friday, July 12, 2019

Valentine to Grand Lake

I'm back from three days in Grand Lake, Colorado, the western gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. I took my boys there every summer when they were growing up, and we always did everything the exact same way.

First stop on the drive there from Boulder: the old-fashioned 5 & 10 in Estes Park to buy some little junky toy. Next stop: the Rainbow Curve overlook in Rocky Mountain National Park to greet (but not feed) the chipmunks. Next stop: the Alpine Visitor Center at the top of the world, in the bleak and beautiful tundra above tree line. Final stop: grilled cheese sandwiches at the Dairy King in Grand Lake. 

For the next few days, we would dig in the sand of the tiny public beach, and browse in shops along the wooden boardwalk in this small town, and eat at the few restaurants (NO chain restaurants at all in Grand Lake), and buy new Beanie Baby friends, as well as outfits that fit Beanie Babies (complete with tail holes!) at a little shop named Bunny and Clyde's, and sit on the porch at Grand Lake Lodge with its stunning views of Grand Lake and Shadow Mountain Lake.

This week I was there again, now with my grown son and my two little granddaughters. We stopped at the 5 & 10 and this time bought junky dress-up shoes. There were no chipmunks at the overlook, but we did see one in Grand Lake (Kataleya named him Alvin). We didn't stop at the Alpine Visitor Center because we had already had a lengthy stop along Trail Ridge Road to marvel at a herd of elk extremely close to the car. And we loved the grilled cheese sandwiches at Dairy King so much that we ate there two days in a row.

We played in the lake, choosing to go there in the early morning when we had the beach to ourselves, and it was so quiet and serene.
We made sand castles.
Beanie Babies are out of fashion now, and Bunny and Clyde's is no more, but we bought rubber duckies at the Quacker Store with hundreds (or at least many dozens) to tempt us. 

And we sat on the porch at Grand Lake Lodge, looking down at Shadow Mountain Lake.
I accepted a few new developments in Grand Lake. There is now a wonderful playground in the town park, a true delight. We stayed at a new inn at the edge of town, where you can sit outside on the lovely deck, making s'mores at a blazing fire right at your table. And of course, now I'm there as a grandmother, with two beloved granddaughters fathered by the man who was once my little boy.

Some change is good. But oh, it's bliss to be in a town with no chain restaurants, where the grillled cheese sandwiches taste EXACTLY the same as they always did, where you can park right next to the one itty-bitty beach, and just dig in the sand to your heart's content. 

Maybe some day I'll go there with my great-grandchildren, too. 

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Your Book Won't Get Revised Unless You Revise It

This post is the sequel to my earlier post, "Your Book Won't Get Written Unless You Write It."

Three weeks ago I finished the full manuscript of my third-grade-level chapter book set in an after-school coding camp: Lucy Lopez, Coding Star. I am pleased to say I finished it by my deadline and promptly sent it off to my brilliant editor and brilliant writing group.

They gave me comments right away. Guess what? Just like every book I have ever written throughout my long career, this one NEEDS MORE WORK!!

The big surprise for me was that the part that is looking good is . . . almost all the bits about coding! The parts I was most worried about were pronounced clear and engaging. Whew!

The parts that aren't looking so good are . . . the character arcs for the protagonist and her sister (it's a sister story), and how they drive the plot. These are not small or inconsequential elements of a book.

At first I panicked. Well, first I sulked, then I panicked. Even though this will be my 60th published book for children, I had suddenly forgotten exactly how one goes about revising a book. The scenes that were already written seemed, well, the way it actually happened. How could I change them so things happened some other way? How on earth would I even begin?

Then it came back back to me. You begin. . . by beginning. As Arnold Bennett writes in his delightful 1910 self-help book, How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day: "Dear sir, you simply begin. There is no magic method of beginning. If a man standing on the edge of a swimming-bath and wanting to jump into the cold water should ask you, 'How do I begin to jump?' you would merely reply, 'Just jump. Take hold of your nerves, and jump.'"

So I took hold of my nerves and went through the page-by-page comments from my editor and writing group friends and inserted them into my master copy of the manuscript, adding them with ALL CAPS so they would stand out. I also added ALL CAPS notes of my own. There were all the things that needed to be addressed in the course of the revision.

Then I made seven handwritten pages of responses to these comments, starting with the question, "What IS Lucy's character arc?" and moving on to "How does the tension BUILD?" and "Other things to do. . . 1) Differentiate Mom and Dad more - how? 2) Foreshadow the end-of-book Coding Expo; 3) Clarify the teachers' role; 4) Simplify the camp logistics...."  and more... and more...

Then. . . I began. I just began. I changed a bunch of things in Chapter 1 that affected the shape of the rest of the story, and then I started to work on the rest of the story. Each time I sit down to work more on the revisions, I read over what I've already revised to gather confidence. Look how much better Chapter 1 is now! Look how much better Chapter 2 is, too! Surely I can find a way to deal with the problems in Chapter 3...

So, just as my book won't get written in the first place unless I write it, it won't get revised unless I revise it.

And the best way to revise it, dear sir, dear madam, dear anybody, is simply to begin.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

More Fun with Book Promotion

As many readers know, I am currently trying harder to promote my books. In fact, I'm trying harder to promote this brand-new sweet little book:
I'm not sure that any of my strategies are paying off, but I'm certainly having fun with them, and there is no downside to having fun.

I did my blog tour - fun!

I ordered bookmarks - fun!

I did an "Instagram takeover" arranged by my publisher, Holiday House, for Nixie's launch day- fun! My own favorite of my posts for the "takeover" was where I shared photos of my first failed attempt at making the homemade dog biscuits the kids make in the book, side by side with photos of the second, much more successful attempt.

I have worn my new CHEF COSTUME several times in public, including at a delightful launch party for the book at the delightful Denver children's bookstore, Second Star to the Right.
I looked mildly ridiculous, but undeniably jolly. I gave out starry prizes for my cooking-themed trivia questions and served extremely delicious cookies, including my signature ginger snaps. (And if you say you don't like ginger snaps, then you have never tasted mine.) So that was VERY FUN.

Finally, I had a chance to do an interview for the podcast Beyond the Trope, and it turns out that doing interviews is fun, too. I sound smarter and better than I thought I would, so I've listened to it several times today, thinking, ooh, this person sounds smarter and better than I thought she would! So here's a link to it, in case you want to hear me talking about the big, deep philosophical questions I explore in Nixie Ness, Cooking Star, and the forthcoming Vera Vance, Comics Star.

It was ALL fun. Maybe I'll sell three more copies of the book through all my efforts. I bet I will!

But in any case, I had fun.

And there is nothing more fun than having fun.