A Thousand Miles

Thanksgiving is a few days away. I’ll spend it with my husband, calling our kids who live too far away to visit, remembering our mothers who have left this world. Neither Terry’s nor my mother lived to enjoy this day, but we did. And we remember and give thanks for the good times when my mother was healthy and his mother still had a steel-trap memory. We forget the bad times when my mother was dying from lung cancer and his mother slipping into dementia.

For years, the two mommies, Terry and I celebrated a string of wonderful days. Mother’s Day, within a week of my mother’s birthday. His mother’s birthday in September. Our wedding anniversary  on May 11. We joined together in a group celebration with presents for each special day.

My mother was a reader, so any mystery, thriller or suspense story found its way onto her bookshelf. I’m a reader, too. I saved many of her favorites after she died. More I donated to the nursing home/rehab center/hospice where she spent her last days. Terry’s mother never met a crossword puzzle she couldn’t conquer.

We think of them all the time. We miss our mother’s who worked long and hard as single parents to raise us with solid values, a love of helping others, caring personalities. We remember times when we were good and bad, when we did or said things that hurt. We’d take back those words were it possible, but our mothers were bigger than both of us. They understood when we lashed, well, more me than Terry, and forgave us our thoughtless behavior.

On Thanksgiving we will fix their favorite holiday foods, cook more than we can eat at any one sitting and put aside leftovers for meals and snacking. We will tell stories we’ve told each other many times before. We’ll call the kids, tell them the same stories and keep tradition alive. We don’t have to be together to share memories. We just have to be willing to tell stories we don’t want forgotten.

I invite all of you to join us in spirit. Tell your parents, children, siblings you love them. Thanksgiving is coming soon. Say a special thanks the woman who gave you life. Without her, you wouldn’t be here. And if you weren’t here, you’d deny your friends and family the pleasure of your company.

When Terry and I take a walk before dinner, once again we’ll think how we’d walk a thousand miles to talk with our mother’s one more time.

Book Review: Zombies, Cats, Barack Obama and So Many More

The Zombie, the Cat, and Barack Obama: Featuring appearances from The Illuminati, Osama Bin Laden, Larry the Downing Street cat, Queen Elizabeth II, the Cheshire cat and a host of characters.The Zombie, the Cat, and Barack Obama: Featuring appearances from The Illuminati, Osama Bin Laden, Larry the Downing Street cat, Queen Elizabeth II, the Cheshire cat and a host of characters. by Christopher Antony Meade

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have no idea where to begin this review. I rarely laugh out loud, but Christopher Meade’s revealing of the truth as he sees it behind some of the most perplexing current conspiracy theories made me wipe my eyes. I’ve loved satire from the time I first read “A Modest Proposal” and realized Jonathan Swift shouldn’t be taken literally.

Meade presents the reader with a zombie, a cat that actually likes the zombie, a different cat that lives at 10 Downing Street, Barack Obama, Queen Elizabeth II, Adolph Hitler, Osama Bin Laden and the Three Little Pigs in a mash up that absolutely works. Finally, we learn the truth behind Obama’s heritage. I think we do.

This slim volume packs more irony, humor and improbable relationships into fewer than 100 pages than any fiction writer I’ve read. At least I think he’s written fiction.

Read it. Enjoy it. Laugh out loud. Think. You won’t be disappointed.

New blog address

I apologize to everyone who follows my blog. I recently worked with a great web designer to migrate my website to a different platform. I left Go Daddy for WordPress. Little did I know that when this blog migrated, it looked like many of the posts were new. They aren’t.

I will not be adding new posts to this address. http://betsy-ashton.com/blog/

I know so many of you were very active over the last few days commenting on older posts, and I appreciate your enthusiasm. I’ll try not to “spam” you with older posts in the future. The next new post on the new site will be tomorrow. The topic will either be book fairs, Booktrope, Don’t Swim Toward the Sharks, Trolls or something else. See you all at the new place tomorrow morning.

 

Unwind

Such a simple word. Alas, not enough people truly unwind today.  Most of us are strung too tightly. We think we are unwinding when we stop for dinner, until we realize we are staring at a screen too much of the time. Many eat with the television on, which dampens conversation. Many more have to have phone surgically removed from their hands.

What does it take to truly unwind? Do we need to escape to a sunny beach someplace, where drinks are served with little umbrellas and the air is full of the scent of sunblock? Some unwind by hiking. Others like hanging out at home, lying on porch mats and generally enjoying life.

The first and third work for me. Years ago when I was younger, hiking was my greatest getaway. Just me and my dog, a German Shepherd/Malamute mix. We would take off on Fridays after classes ended or work was over for the day, exploring various trails in California. A couple of nights in the wilderness, disconnected from electricity and phones, sleeping under the stars where no city glow hid the Milky Way, set me back on my feet with a peaceful mind.

As I’ve gotten older and somewhat wiser, I lust more for a sunny beach or hanging around my own house, cutting myself off from screens. I find I can unwind just about anywhere. I can slip into mindfulness and savor the moment. Sometimes, it’s enough to shut down early, whether I’ve finished my writing or not, and move to the deck to sit in the sun and read. Or watch birds flit through the trees. Or boats move through the cove. Or all three.

The point is, you unwind where you can and how you can. You have to make time for it.

I have a dear friend who claims he’s wired not to unwind. He throws himself into everything and rarely takes a few hours off. Is he balanced? No way. He thinks being mindful is a waste of time, even as he occasionally walks on his green way. I’ve tried to work with him, but he’s adamant. He’s wound too tightly to relax. Probably. I know he’s wound too tightly for me to help him.

What do you do to unwind?

Unwind

Such a simple word. Alas, not enough people truly unwind today.  Most of us are strung too tightly. We think we are unwinding when we stop for dinner, until we realize we are staring at a screen too much of the time. Many eat with the television on, which dampens conversation. Many more have to have phone surgically removed from their hands.

What does it take to truly unwind? Do we need to escape to a sunny beach someplace, where drinks are served with little umbrellas and the air is full of the scent of sunblock? Some unwind by hiking. Others like hanging out at home, lying on porch mats and generally enjoying life.

The first and third work for me. Years ago when I was younger, hiking was my greatest getaway. Just me and my dog, a German Shepherd/Malamute mix. We would take off on Fridays after classes ended or work was over for the day, exploring various trails in California. A couple of nights in the wilderness, disconnected from electricity and phones, sleeping under the stars where no city glow hid the Milky Way, set me back on my feet with a peaceful mind.

As I’ve gotten older and somewhat wiser, I lust more for a sunny beach or hanging around my own house, cutting myself off from screens. I find I can unwind just about anywhere. I can slip into mindfulness and savor the moment. Sometimes, it’s enough to shut down early, whether I’ve finished my writing or not, and move to the deck to sit in the sun and read. Or watch birds flit through the trees. Or boats move through the cove. Or all three.

The point is, you unwind where you can and how you can. You have to make time for it.

I have a dear friend who claims he’s wired not to unwind. He throws himself into everything and rarely takes a few hours off. Is he balanced? No way. He thinks being mindful is a waste of time, even as he occasionally walks on his green way. I’ve tried to work with him, but he’s adamant. He’s wound too tightly to relax. Probably. I know he’s wound too tightly for me to help him.

What do you do to unwind?

Carrots Don’t Talk Back

Years ago, one of my friends decided to leave Hollywood and move to the Denver area to raise organic carrots. He got tired of the political garbage someone in the film industry had to endure, so he decided to become a farmer. No experience. No real plan. But, he had a good reason: Carrots don’t talk back.

For those of us who enjoy peace and quiet, the idea of being surrounded by nature can be too delicious to ignore. But carrots? I. Do. Not. Like. Carrots. Except in stews. Otherwise, those orange vegetables don’t pass my lips. I don’t know why. Maybe I’ll blame my mother for always having Bugs Bunny carrots in the fridge. I remember them to be woody and tasteless. The smaller carrots you buy in bags are only a little better. When I do eat one, it’s generally a delivery mechanism for dip.

Back to peace and quiet. Two men taught me about loving peace and quiet. One was the man who fled Hollywood. I didn’t go with him, nor did we stay in touch. I never figured out if he found what he was looking for or not.

The other is my husband, Terry, who taught me to stop and smell the roses. Forget pollen, just slow down. Hear the wind. Listen to the bees. Enjoy the sun. Terry didn’t realize that was he preached was living in the moment, a Zen teaching I’d been practicing for years before we met.

I guess I needed more practice, because Terry often reminded me that I was wrapped too tightly and needed to relax. It took time to recommit to meditation and enjoying life. We live on a lake and from fall through spring we can the cove where our house is located. Within a week or two, we’ll not see the water. Once the trees leaf out, we live in a tree house, virtually unseen from the dock.

Quiet gives way to the sound of children splashing and jet skis roaring in the cove. I love the children and tolerate the jet skis. I remind myself that jet skis are revenue for the businesses at the lake. Still, couldn’t they muffle the sound just a few thousand decibels?

Until fall comes again and the jet skis return to their trailers, I’ll sit on my dock, enjoy the sun, read a few good books, and wonder what it would be like to live surrounded by carrots that don’t talk back.

How do you relax?

Ghosts

While I believe in ghosts and spirits, some that go bump in the night, this is about ghosts of memories.

Last Sunday my husband, Terry, (he’s the man to the left of me) and I stopped at Pinehurst before we continued on to Augusta and The Masters. This is a golf mecca we played many times over the years with our friends, Art Elias and Betty Unruh. We hadn’t made reservations, so when our car turned naturally into the hotel we always stayed in, I knew I’d see ghosts. Art’s been gone for five years, and every time I think about playing golf I remember the lessons I learned from him

Art taught me to keep my head down, to follow through and never to question his score. He had a habit of being on the green in four, down in two, and carding four. Yes, he cheated. We all knew it, and he knew we knew. He did it anyway, and we let him get away with it.

Terry and I walked around the village of Pinehurst, where at every corner I saw Art. I pictured him fussin20160403_171504g because his wife, Betty, and I loved to shop. She loved buying as much as she loved shopping; I was a bit more about browsing…

Art would have loved a new shop that’s opened up.
Actually, two shops. Given Book Shop sells recycled reading; The Roast Office is a coffee house. Art loved puns. I think he’d approve.

20160403_172149One shop had a sign that would appeal to Betty, the queen of the cat ladies. We all know kitties lie. This owner calls it as she sees it.

Over a drink before dinner outside on an unusually mild afternoon, Terry and I talked about how much we miss Art. We miss Betty, too, but somewhere in the five years since Art died we’ve grown apart. Some friends drift away. I wish this foursome had stayed together longer.

 

Close Captioned

CCI don’t know about you, but sometimes I need close captioning in my life. Or for my mouth. I try to watch what I say. I really do, but “occasionally” I suffer from blurt mouth. You know the feeling. That moment when what you meant to say gets garbled by what you actually said.

To protect myself, I perfected a series of ways I could go through life “close captioned for the cynically impaired.” In essence, I learned how to fake it.

Take those innocuous words that protect you from stepping all over your tongue or other people’s toes. Words like “really?” (CC: Are you out of your freakin’ mind?) or “Indeed” (CC: I do believe that is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard). Lest I overlook our fine Southern friends, a well placed “Bless her heart” speaks volumes.

Back in college, where I spent 13 formative years, I learned how to take notes in lecture halls while sound asleep. I perfected the skills of writing notes, back in the days of cursive, keeping my eyes open and sleeping behind both activities.

This came in handy in the corporate world when we were forced to sit through tedious meetings. Whoever gave upper management the idea that two hours of PowerPoint slides was a great way to excite the workers into doing something was delusional. I usually sat with three or four other female managers, none of whom dared look at each other for fear of falling out of our chairs and rolling on the floor in deranged laughter.

I remember one meeting where the VP droned on so long that I kept nodding off. Revert to previously acquired skills. My colleague was studiously writing down what I thought was everything the bloody idiot was saying. She’d look up, brow slightly creased in concentration, and then write something in her notebook. I glanced over and bit my lip to keep from falling out of my chair and rolling on the floor in deranged laughter. She was listing every Beatles song title she could remember.

We all learn to cope in our own ways. Sometimes it’s listing song titles; sometimes it’s napping with eyes wide open; and sometimes it’s thinking up snarky things to put in whatever work I’m currently writing.

If you hear me utter, “really,” or “indeed” or “bless her heart,” you have an instant translation guide right here.

Do you go through life closed captioned for the cynically impaired?

And why the kitty in the header, you ask? Because more posts get read when they feature a kitty. So there. Bless my heart.

When the Going Gets Tough,

the tough go shopping. At least that’s the old cliche. Retail therapy doesn’t work. I’m much less of a shopper today than I was ten years ago, so I have to do something else when the going gets tough.

This week, the going got real tough. Bad things happened to a young man I think of as my son.  Bad things also happened to his father as a result of the bad things that happened to his son. I won’t go into details. What happened is personal, but I want to share my reaction to it.

It all began on Wednesday, when I received a brief video of the young man, followed by a call from his father. We talked for a while until his father had a plan. I rang off so they could execute said plan.

I couldn’t function for two days. I tried to work, but I couldn’t concentrate. I meditated in short stints, because I wasn’t able to clear my head enough to find some peace. Finally, after accepting the reality of what was going on in my two friends’ lives, I took the only “next step” available. I cleaned my house.

And I cleaned, and cleaned and cleaned. My husband and I dug into tasks we had been putting off. Small things, really, but each one left behind a positive result. I didn’t fall into a Martha Stewart moment and redecorate my house from top to bottom. I didn’t even take my baskets out to the deck to power-wash them as she would. I washed and scrubbed and dusted and polished until the only scents in the house were Pledge, Mr. Clean and Comet.

My husband took over the bathrooms. His scents were Lysol, Scrubbing Bubbles and Windex. And his bathrooms sparkled. No one cleans a bathroom like a veteran. He learned how to scrub toilets in the Air Force. Thank you, U.S.Government.

And now we are done with spring cleaning from 2014!

By the time we were finished, my heart was at ease and I had accepted that the results of my friends’ problems might not end as I wish..

This morning I finished the laundry. More scents: Tide and bleach. Again, I could see positive results from doing the laundry. Empty laundry hamper, fresh sheets and towels, shirts drying on a rack in the laundry room. I only wish the fitted sheet hadn’t attacked me.

What do you do when the going gets tough?

Serenity

Serenity can be so difficult to find in the hustle and bustle world we live in. Everywhere we turn are screens beckoning us to take a look at something. I have too many screens in my house:  three televisions, two cell phones, three computer monitors, one tablet, even digital clocks that remind me every second of the current time.

Sometimes I need to get away. In my previous post I wrote about the 5-minute spring break and how poetry serves me well when I need solitude. I also turn to photos of very peaceful places. Over my desk I have a print of Mabry’s Mill, an old grist mill up on the Blue Ridge parkway. It’s many shades of green foliage, weathered brown building and water spilling over the wheel whisper, “come sit a while, relax and listen to the birds.”

The picture at the top comes to me from a dear friend in India. It’s Buddha with the sun behind the statue. Whether in India, Thailand or Japan, the image of a sitting Buddha brings me such solace, such a sense of peace of mind. This one is particularly poignant because the sun is behind it.

026 (1)Serenity can be as close as my yard. Earlier this year, we had a wonderful rain, which washed the remaining leaves of my dwarf Japanese maple a bright red.

While I love world travel, I find I need to find serenity closer to home.

Where do you find serenity? Do you need to travel to find it, or do you look closer to your feet to find something wondrous?

How I Found Mad Max

Perhaps the title should be “How Mad Max Found Me.” I’m often asked by book clubs how I come up with my ideas. That’s both an easy and difficult question, because inspiration can come from a shopping list dropped at Kroger’s or a single child’s clean sock lost in a gutter in Blowing Rock, NC. But Mad Max has a distinct path to her literary birth.

Originally,  Unintended Consequences was about a husband and wife who undergo horrible changes when the wife is hit by a car and suffers an traumatic brain injury. It completely changes her personality. Written from both his and her points of view, I though I was so clever in depicting the wife’s descent into drug addiction and psychosis, and the man’s as he became more and more troubled by his wife’s behavior. Yawn.

I struggled through multiple (try at least 10) revisions, but I was never satisfied with the way the story shaped up. I fought to keep the twin perspectives, even though they weren’t working. And then one morning about 3am, I woke to a voice shouting in my head: “This is MY story, damnit. Tell it my way.” Well, yes ma’am.

Max had a way of grabbing my attention. At the beginning, she was a minor character. As soon as I took her “advice” and began writing from her point of view, the story sprang to life. She gave me latitude to let her be snarky when necessary, soft and tender when necessary, vulnerable at times. No spoiler alert necessary for the next sentence, because it’s revealed on the back cover. When her daughter is murdered, she comes into her own, buries her grief to be a strong grandparent and help solve the crime.

Max took hold of me. By the time I began Uncharted Territory, or as I call it, Max 2, I knew her inside and out. She still hasn’t revealed her complete personality. She reveals only what is necessary for the current narrative.

I live with her every day. Beginning a new Mad Max book is like inviting a good friend in for coffee. She blows my mind by what she is willing to do to protect her family. I wish I were like her, but only a little bit of Betsy is in Mad Max. I think a lot of Mad Max has made her way into me.

Searching

Humans are always searching for something: the Holy Grail, le mot juste, the perfect piece of chocolate. Some searches are lofty, like knights of the Round Table seeking the Holy Grail. Others are personal, like writers looking for the right word in the right place, le mot juste. With a nod of the head and tip of the hat to Gustave Flaubert, nothing is harder than reducing long rambling ideas to a succinct phrase that perfectly describes what we need to say.

As a writer, I only start writing when I start editing. For me, the first draft is always a pouring forth of everything possible that could go into a book. Time for a confession, I’m trying to go from being an eighteen-draft writer (yes, you read that right) to a ten-draft writer. I work with a couple of terrific critique peeps who never let me get away with sloppy phrasing or the wrong word. I love editing. I really do. I work hard to write prose that flows, create characters that draw the reader in and twist plots to keep the reader off base. I write a series where I have to be sure I don’t change the hair color of a character–except for a teen who changes hair color as often as she changes tee-shirts. I can’t change character names, relationships, ages without explaining the switch in focus. I’m fortunate that I have a strong book-club reading public that catches me on every oops, always after the book is in print.

I have yet to suffer from writer’s block, because I’m always searching for time to capture a new idea. I have a cyber file of fragments, synopses, rejected sections of novels. Those rejected chapters live in a file called “parking lot,” where I park stuff I cut from one story or another. I will most likely use them in short stories I will publish myself.

My other personal search is for the perfect piece of chocolate. Well, not really, but a good piece of chocolate is reward for a hard day at the keyboard where I polish, rage, polish again and pound my head on my desk, until that right word pops up and smacks me on the forehead. Love those times, which used to be rare but are becoming more common. Like once a year.

And now you are wondering what the image at the top of this post means. It’s all about searching. I was driving home one cold, rainy day in late January through a monochrome world. Gray skies, black bare trees, large black birds sitting, watching. I pulled to a stop and watched birds land and take off. They were huge. All black. Bigger than a crow or raven. These were black vultures, carrion feeders, that abound year-round where I live in Southwestern Virginia. I find them beautiful. Many people don’t, probably because they look wicked, evil almost. These are part of nature’s garbage disposals, eating road kill.

I watched for about twenty minutes. I don’t know why. Perhaps the birds and I were searching for something. I’m not sure what it was, but the birds were fascinating and beautiful in their blackness.

What are you searching for today?