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Enduring Love

It’s Valentine’s Day, and love is in the air! As a romance novelist, the joys of new love are my bread and butter. That first moment when their eyes meet, the first breathless, heart-pounding kiss, the first amazing sexual encounter. And let’s not forget the happily ever after ending.
If only! I hate to have to break it to you, but there’s no such thing as happily ever after. The chemicals in your brain go back to normal, and you lose that feeling of being a giddy teenager with a sugar rush. The new love feeling wears off, and you’re left with this person that you’re still getting to know, who is not the perfect mate you may have thought they were. They may still have all the endearing traits that you fell in love with, but they also have habits that get on your nerves, and vice versa. Sometime around this stage, you either walk away or buckle down for the long haul.
A new relationship is a new pair of red shoes with four-inch stiletto heels. They feel good walking around in the store, they make your legs look sexy as hell, but only time will tell if they’re going to hurt you.
An old relationship love is the pair of boots you’ve had for years. Low-heeled and slightly scuffed, they’re molded to your feet. You can wear them all day in comfort, and they are still a pair of hot boots.
This is enduring love. It is not worse than new love, nor is it better. It is just different. As a veteran of a twenty-five-year relationship, I feel I can make this comparison. After living together for twenty-two years, my (now) husband and I decided we would be better off financially if we were married. Not very romantic, I know. Sorry. We had a small wedding on the courthouse lawn, and at the end, the magistrate said “You can kiss your bride.” My new husband looked at me with slightly misty eyes, whispered, “I love you”, and kissed me. Boom! Red high heels again!
That’s the beauty of enduring love. The day to day grind may wear on the relationship, numbing you to the fact that you have this wonderful person in your life. It’s comfortable and sometimes taken for granted, fading into the back ground like the furniture. But in the midst of this, your eyes meet across the room, and suddenly the chemicals go into overdrive. The sparks fly between you, and its new love all over again. These moments are what make it all worthwhile.
It’s not perfect, and it’s not easy, but, to me, at least, it’s worth it. Enduring love requires commitment and stubbornness. There have been arguments, or down right fights, but afterward, there’s the joy of making up. There have been good times, and horrible times, but through it all, we both know that the other has our backs. We also know that with a look, a touch, the flames will spring back to life, and make it feel like new.
I know it’s not always this way. Some people are just not meant to be together. If you’re lucky, these relationships will die a quick, natural death. If you’re not lucky, well, that’s a whole different story, and not one for Valentine’s Day.
This is what happens after “The End” of the romance novel. I’m convinced that my characters will fight and love and ignore each other at some point in their lives. Daily life will wear on them, but the fire will still be there, banked but still alive, waiting to burst into flames. They will endure.
With luck, so will all of us.
Happy Valentine’s Day!

 

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The Story of a Tree

IMGP9532 (3)One of my hikes around the county with my camera inspired this story. I took a photo of a tree for my friend, Merianne, who likes “interesting trees with a story behind them”. Although not a particularly good picture, she liked it, and it spoke to something inside of me. Connie, the friend who showed me the house, mentioned in passing that the former residents held ice cream socials there. The rest grew from my imagination, and a desire to give the tree, and my friends, a story.

A little tree was planted in the yard of a big house, a long time ago. It was coddled and petted at first, because it was traumatized by having been dug up from where it had sprouted from a seed and moved here. It was carefully watered and staked against the winds that would blow it over. Time passed, and autumn came. The little tree’s leaves turned brown and fell off, and were blown away by the wind. Winter arrived, with the snow and cold, and the little tree slept, but its roots were growing, stronger and deeper, taking water and food from the ground around it.
In the spring, the world, and the little tree woke up, and everything turned green. The new grass grew, and the flowers bloomed, and the little tree put out new leaves, more than it had last year. At the big house, a new bride was carried, smiling, over the threshold. Soon, at least by the way trees reckon time, a new baby was born. This baby was followed by others, and before many years had passed, the big house rang with the laughter of children.
All the time, the little tree grew bigger. Its branches grew longer, and thickened, and spread shade over its part of the yard. The children played under it — little boys with toy soldiers, and little girls with their dolls. A swing was hung on one of the tree’s branches, and the children played there for hours on end. Men came with saws and trimmed the trees branches, but it was winter and the tree slept, and by the time it woke in the spring, its wounds were healed and it put out new growth and cast shade again.
There were parties held beneath the tree’s canopy — ice cream socials and Sunday dinners. The children grew up, and courted under its branches. A wedding was held there, and another, and the children were gone. No one played under the tree, and the swing hung empty. But before too long, there were other children, babies on blankets one summer, and toddlers on the grass the next. Soon the swing was in use again and the children were big enough to climb into the trees branches.
Then, one crisp autumn morning as the tree was preparing for its winter sleep, wails of grief split the air. The man who had once carried his bride into the house was carried out, feet first. He was followed by his bride, now bent with age and sorrow, supported by her adult children. As was customary in times of mourning, the neighbors brought food to the family. The picnic set under the tree was subdued, the children shushed when they became loud.
Soon after, one of the younger families moved into the house with the old woman. The tree slept as the children played in the snow around it. Even nature seemed to be mourning the man who had died. The snow turned to ice and the family’s vehicles couldn’t make it to the house. This arrangement of families only lasted until summer. The house was old, outdated, and hard to heat; the family wanted something newer. Men came with trucks and moved the family’s possessions out, and the tree passed the summer in the silence of the empty yard.
For a few years, someone came to cut the grass, but eventually that stopped. No one trimmed the trees’ branches and, one by one, they sickened and died, falling unheeded to the ground. The branch that held the swing fell and ropes, swing and branch lay rotting in the high grass. The wind tore off part of the roof, and the elements had their way with the house. One day, a great splintering sound was heard, and the back of the house caved in, leaving a gaping hole where there had once been a bustling kitchen.
So it stands today, the front a testimony to the grandeur it once possessed, the back a ruin, open to the elements. The tree stands in a weed-choked yard, fallen branches littering the ground beneath it, but still reaching for the sky.

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Hope in a Morning Glory

I spent most of last Saturday on my hands and knees in the yard, trying to undo six months of neglect in one day. I made some progress, not nearly enough, but I really didn’t expect to. A lot of weeds can grow in a summer. I found one small morning glory that shouldn’t even have been open that late in the day, buried deep in the weeds. It gave me hope that something had survived my neglect. While I was crawling around, it occurred to me that this was something I needed to write about. Not my yard, but the reason it got in such a mess. Not because it’s my story, but because this is a conversation everyone needs to have. So this is my story of a summer of depression. You won’t find very much romance in it. Sorry.
If you’ve read any of my previous blog posts, you know that gardening is one of my passions. I put my garden in this spring, and then everything…stopped. My work schedule changed. I went from night shift to day shift and back to nights, all in six weeks, and my body clock refused to re-set itself. I couldn’t sleep. I tried every over-the-counter sleep remedy known to man, and drank gallons of coffee to stay awake when I had to work. I walked around in a sleep-deprived daze. After three episodes of heart palpitations, chest pains, and shortness of breath, I went to the ER and endured a stress test, only to be told there was nothing wrong with my heart.
During this, I was withdrawing into myself. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, not even my husband, and most phone calls went to voice mail. I sat at my computer and played endless games of solitaire, because the characters in my head had stopped talking. Through the window beside my computer, I watched my flower beds turn into weed-infested thickets. The worst part was, I knew what was happening and felt powerless to stop it.
The breaking point came one day when I was standing in my kitchen, looking at all the dirty dishes and too exhausted to do anything about them. I looked at the knife block, and thought, ‘Why not? It would be so easy.’ Spoiler alert: I didn’t do it. I didn’t even pick up a knife, not even to put it in the dishwasher. I called my doctor and made an appointment, then called my niece and told her what was going on. The hardest part was talking to my husband, who lost a son to suicide. He listened very quietly, then asked what I needed. I cried and told him I didn’t know.
The point I want to make by telling this is that depression is a cunning disease. It isolates you from everyone, an insidious whisper that tells you that no one cares, that no one wants to hear you whine about how bad your life is, when they all know it’s not bad at all. Every time a celebrity takes their own life, the posts go round social media, “If you’re depressed or thinking about suicide, call someone.” It’s a nice sentiment, but it is unrealistic. Depression binds your voice, makes it nearly impossible to reach out to anyone. The posts should say, “If I see a change in your behavior, I’m going to call you.” This is hard to do; in polite society, we are taught to mind our own business. Believe me, being pushy and nosy is easier to deal with than the path of emotional destruction left by a suicide.
This post has been one of the hardest pieces I’ve ever written. Contrary to what the Facebook meme says, even in the south, we don’t put crazy on the front porch and give it sweet tea. We still try to hide mental illness, as if it is something to be ashamed of and not the disease that it is. If we are going to eliminate the stigma attached to depression, we have to talk about it, not ignore it. We have to drag it, kicking and screaming, out of the darkness of our minds where it hides, and expose it to the light of the world.
Now everyone knows about my particular brand of crazy. I don’t use that word in a derogatory sense; laughing at myself is one of my coping mechanisms. I’m glad to be able to say that, with an increase in my depression meds, meds to help me sleep, and an impending switch back to day shift, I’m doing much better. I’m writing again, not as much as before, but it’s coming. I’ve picked up my camera again, worked on my yard, and cleaned my house. Okay, I’ve sort of cleaned my house, but it’s better than it was. But there’s always the knowledge that the dark voice is still there, waiting for an opportunity to come to the front again.
Like my one little morning glory, I hope this story can be someone’s beacon of hope. If you know someone who is suffering from depression, reach out to them. More than likely, they will tell you that they’re fine, but make the effort to let them know that you’re there for them. If you have this disease, please, please reach out to someone. It can be treated. The nasty voice is a liar, and you are not worthless. Your gifts are too great to be hidden in this horrible darkness. Let them out into the light.

 

Acts of Faith

This time of year, most of my energy goes toward planting something. I have flower and vegetable gardens that have to be cleaned up, because I didn’t do it in the fall, cultivated, and planted. It takes a lot of time and effort, but in a few short months, when I’m eating that sandwich with tomato still warm from the sun, it’s worth it all.

I’m pretty sure the average person doesn’t see any connection between gardening and writing, unless it’s writing books about gardening. To me, they are very similar.

When the gardener plants a seed, she (or he) has faith that it will grow and flourish. To help assure this, she makes sure the ground it is planted in is fertile, adding compost and organic matter, and that it gets plenty of sunshine. The first tiny leaves emerge, and it is cause for a small celebration, if only a “Yay!” in the gardener’s mind. She waters it when it doesn’t rain, and makes certain it has the proper nutrients it needs. She is on the lookout for bugs and disease, and takes steps to prevent them at the first sight. Then, after what is usually a few months, she enjoys the fruits of her labor, either flowers or food.

A book is like a seed, a small germ of an idea in the writer’s mind. At some point, it grows strong enough to be written down, either on paper or computer. The more it grows, the more it needs, in the form of time and research. Any imperfections and continuity issues are ruthlessly deleted. It is spellchecked and grammar checked, beta read, edited, rewritten, reedited, sometimes multiple times. Finally, it is deemed ready, and the writer can enjoy the fruits of her labor: publication, reviews (hopefully good ones), and money, if she is very lucky.

I write in my garden, going over a story in my head while I’m pulling weeds, or staking tomatoes, or any of the other things that have to be done. I garden while I write, a pen and paper nearby to make a to-do list as things pop into my head. Writing and gardening are perpetually intertwined with me, two aspects of my personality that are not easily separated. Sometimes it is a struggle; the bugs win, the plant dies, the story withers in my head, but I keep going. Both writing and gardening are acts of faith on my part, faith that the seed will sprout and grow, faith that the story will grow and flourish. Faith that sometime I will be able to relax on my porch and read glowing reviews as I watch my lovely garden grow, with nothing more to do.

Alas, that last sentence is the biggest fantasy I have ever written! There is always more to do: another weed to pull, another story to tell, another flower to deadhead. But I have faith.

Whispers of the Past

On Saturday, an old friend took me on a tour of the Pensacola community where she grew up. I had only seen her in passing for the past several years, and the opportunity to catch up and look at old houses was too good to pass up. Her house is only a twenty-minute drive from town, but as I drove the curvy road, I couldn’t help but think what it must have been like when the only mode of transportation was horses. It would have taken much longer.

To get there, you drive across the mountain, then the land opens up into a long, wide valley. The road follows the river most of the time, and the view is spectacular. The valley floor is cultivated, with hayfields, corn fields and gardens, and the mountains are covered in forests, and these days, houses. At one time, this little community was a boom town, at the height of the timber industry. The railroad came here, and the original depot is now a private home. Just driving through, you get a sense of the past.

The houses she showed me are all in various stages of decay. Some are worse than others. One sits in the middle of a hayfield. At some point, it was used as a tobacco barn, and the braces and tier poles are still inside. One is collapsing in the back, a jumble of boards and windows. Another is somewhat kept up, the yard mown around it and the lilacs in bloom, but the windows are broken and the inside is full of junk.

One look will tell you that these were the homes of the affluent, people who made their money logging the chestnut timber these mountains were famous for. But in the early 1900’s, the chestnut blight hit. The trees died, and the biggest part of the timber industry died with them. The big houses were expensive to maintain, they were hard to heat, and gradually, the families moved out and they fell into the ruins we see today.

There are no ghosts here, but if you be very quiet and still, you can almost hear the past, whispers of sound right on the cusp of hearing. The swish of long skirts, the laughter of children, the sounds of grief-stricken crying. The stories are still here, of ice cream socials, of adultery and murder, of birth and life and death. You can almost hear them. Almost.

Or maybe it is only my imagination.

Romance Novels vs. the Real World

Romance novels, by their very nature, are about sex. Even the ‘clean’ or ‘sweet’ romance novels have implied sex. It is implied to take place after the book ends, when the formalities of marriage have been observed, but it’s there. It’s always great sex, too, weaving its way in and out of the twists of the plot, sometimes believable, sometimes laughable, but always great.

I know that these novels are a fantasy. The heroines are always young and curvy, the heroes are always tall and muscular; no one wants to read about Bob, with his beer-belly, having sex with his wife, Babs, who’s less than perfect body is the result of having given birth four times. The sad fact is that real life, especially real life sex, just isn’t that interesting to read about.

Does that mean that these books should have no basis in the real world? I don’t think so. Maybe the overall fantasy is left intact, but little details can be added to make it more believable. For example, legs are always smooth and silky. Really? Unless a woman wears a skirt every day, odds are good that she has let shaving her legs go at some point. Never once have I read a description of the heroine’s legs being stubbly! Another detail is underwear. Just once, I’d like to read about her wearing ratty undies because it’s been a crazy week and the laundry has piled up.

The heroes can be just as unbelievable. I can remember one story where they had sex in his hospital bed; among other injuries, he had four broken ribs. I speak from experience when I say that sex was the last thing on my mind with one broken rib; even breathing was a struggle. Maybe men really are that different from women, but my husband agrees with me. Sex, even sex with a new girlfriend, would not be top priority.

So, does this mean I’m going to start writing about Bob and Babs? Probably not, unless the story presents itself in my head. It does mean that there may be emergency calls from work that spoil the moment, unfortunately timed leg cramps, and perhaps, less-than-sexy panties. The goal is to insert a little reality without completely ruining the fantasy. It will be up to the reader to decide if I have pulled it off.

 

 

Immortality

Serial killers fascinate me. My current work in progress has a serial killer, which called for a lot of research. Not long ago, I found myself sitting up half the night, reading online about Jack the Ripper. Of course, this led to more reading, comparing him to other serial killers in history. What we call serial killing is not a new phenomenon; it is as old as humanity. The Ripper wasn’t the first serial killer; before him, the world had known the likes of Countess Elizabeth Bathory and Delphine LaLaurie. He wasn’t the most prolific; either of the aforementioned women killed more than he.

The Ripper mystique lies in the fact that he was never caught. Had he been, his name would have just been another footnote in history, known mostly to the English, and people like me. He would have been added to a list that includes Bundy, Fish and Holmes, and the names of the women he murdered largely forgotten except by those closely connected to the events. Instead, his victims have gained immortality.

The women he killed were considered by most to be the dregs of society. If they had died naturally, it would not have been noticed, save by a few friends and relatives. The terrible way they died secured them a place in history. Any book, film, TV show, or Google search connected to the Ripper murders will put names to their faces. While the same is true of any victim of the more modern killers, the mystery is missing from their stories. This alone assures the Ripper victims their place in our collective memories.

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In the mind’s eye, I can see these women where they lived and died, on the dirty streets of London’s East End. Behind them, cloaked in shadows, is the killer, perhaps the gleam of his eyes and blade showing faintly in the light of the gas lamps. Their faces are plainly visible for all to see, while his is lost in the darkness. Forever.