The Complicated Art of Simplifying Things (Repost)

Another re-post, pulled from the old Bold Strokes blog. It turns out, I’m pretty good at advice. I’m less good, sometimes, at following my own words of wisdom.  This is a perfect example. Whether or not it really counts as simplifying is debatable. But I’ll take the reminder to focus on what matters, what brings me joy. I’ll take that any day of the week.

The Complicated Art of Simplifying Things

BY AURORA REY

built-to-lastI think there’s a switch that gets flipped when we approach middle age. For some people, it’s all about more—more money, more toys, more thrills before youth slips away. For others, the switch flips the other way and there is a burning desire for less—less stuff, fewer demands on our time. I’m definitely in the latter camp and, like many people closer to forty than thirty, I’ve found myself looking for ways to make life simpler.

Whether clearing away excess clutter or ridding my closet of clothes I’ll never wear, part of this desire is tied to having less stuff. Another part is about authenticity, which is partly about stuff, but also about focusing on people and relationships that are meaningful and resonate with who and how I want to be. And, last but not least, it’s about deciding how to spend the most valuable resource of all—time.

Which all sounds a little hokey, I know. But hear me out.

A little over a year ago, my partner and I bought a little farmhouse out in the country. We decided to trade our downtown existence for fifteen acres and no neighbors within a thousand feet. We cancelled our cable; we started talking about chickens and goats. One of us (me), became enamored with the idea of keeping bees. Sure, we’d have to keep our day jobs, but life was going to be simple and we were going to love it.

The irony of moving out the country is that it requires a lot of equipment. You can’t really tend fifteen acres without a tractor. It’s alarmingly easy to spend five hundred dollars on dirt. Canning is fun, but definitely not child’s play. Don’t even get me started on how much attention farm animals require. And while I definitely have fewer tchotchkes than I used to, I now have more power tools.

So, I’m not sure we’ve mastered the art of simplicity, but we are a lot happier. I like the exhaustion of a day tilling the garden. Tomatoes you pick an hour before you eat taste a thousand times better. And I don’t think I’ve ever been more relaxed as I am sitting around a fire, drinking wine and looking up at the stars.

I think the moral of the story is that simplicity isn’t always simple. Sometimes it’s more about mindset that minimalism. It’s about figuring out what’s important and focusing on it. It’s resisting the allure of things that seem shiny but will suck your energy and leave you feeling unsatisfied. It’s understanding those things aren’t the same for everyone and accepting there are a thousand ways to be happy. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s learning that finding the love of your life isn’t about finding someone just like you, but finding someone whose version of simple (or complicated or happy or satisfied) fits with yours.

Which brings me to Olivia and Joss, the protagonists of Built to Last. Over the course of the novel, the characters embark on a similar journey. Olivia buys a farmhouse in an effort to break away from the artifice of her upbringing and family, but quickly realizes she got a lot more than she bargained for. She navigates the world of DIY with relative ease, taking pride in her work and doing things her way. In the end, though, she has to learn that making a home is about a lot more than paint chips and finding the perfect stove.

Joss, on the other hand, believes she’s mastered the art of simple goals and straightforward priorities—family and work, in that order. She’s convinced she has it all figured out, until Olivia shows up and drives her to distraction. She has to confront her own notions of what it means to be family, and whether happily ever after counts if it comes in a package you don’t expect.

It’s Gonna Be May

I said going in that April was the cruelest month. I didn’t want to, really, because April is my birthday and brings the first true tastes of spring. It also, however, brings a crescendo of admissions events, awards ceremonies, honor society inductions, and course registration. Oh, and crises. The students-who-haven’t-gone-to-class-since-spring-break variety.

I’m talking about my day job here. I still have one of those. I like it mostly, but there are a few times of the year that it takes far more out of me that I want to give.

Despite knowing this going in, I scheduled myself to finish the first draft of Spring’s Wake by May 1. This would give me a couple of weeks to do a read-through before sending it off to beta readers. I’d hit my weekly word targets every week since the start of 2017. I wasn’t about to fail.

Only I did.

I was mildly on track for the first half of the month, despite all-weekend admission events. It went downhill from there. Not all bad, mind you, but out of control. A couple of days of fun plus my ex’s wedding (notably non-traumatic) took up lots of time. Having a weak middle and a pacing problem in the manuscript made those last 15,000 words or so beyond painful.

In short, April made me her bitch.

It got so bad that I spent the better part of a Saturday morning in a crying, sniffling heap. Andie pet my head and reminded me that April sucked.

Right.

So, the manuscript still isn’t done, but I think I can whip it into shape. The end of the semester is in sight. I discovered the amazing *NSYNC play on May and giggled. A lot.

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I’ve decided that, for next year, I’m going to do whatever it takes to have essentially no writing obligations in April. That way, anything I accomplish is bonus. For now, I’m just glad the worst is over. And May? You’re going to be my bitch.

The Personal Is Political: Local Edition

I’m pretty sure that my Facebook and Twitter feeds now consist of equal parts 1) the latest horrifying thing proposed or said by the new administration, 2) instructions on who to call and what to say to protest said horrifying things, and 3) happy and/or cute things designed to help us all keep our sanity. Oh, and the occasional “Aren’t you overreacting?” (But that’s another post.)

It’s encouraging to see so many people fired up and banding together, but it’s overwhelming. First, there’s the fact that I’m an introvert and arguing makes me sick to my stomach. Second, there is so much going on, it’s hard to decide in any moment whether one should be defending science, women, queers, people of color, immigrants, free speech, reproductive rights, the environment, education…I could go on. I have seen some great lists to stay organized, which help, and some great encouragement to remember self-care.

The latter is especially important. The fight will be long and we can’t afford to burn out. That means I fully intend to embrace romance novels and videos of baby sloths and moments of zen and big glasses of good red wine.

It also means I’m going to throw myself even more into work I can do in my community. Take, for example, the Advocacy Center, my county’s agency that provides service to victims of domestic violence, childhood sexual abuse, and sexual assault. It also provides education and prevention training. I’m on the board and we are currently working to purchase the building, a move that will provide financial stability when funding fluctuates.

It’s good and important work. Now, however, it’s critical. The budget that Trump has proposed cuts all grants tied to the Violence Against Women Act. All of the funding. Gone. Now, it’s not a done deal and I’ll be part of plenty of calls to demand it get put back in. And don’t worry, I’ll be imploring all of you to do the same.

But in the meantime, I can put more time and energy into our campaign. I can donate a couple more hours a month to make sure that this vital service in my community is supported and promoted and valued. I can do concrete and tangible work that has impact and makes me feel good. It feels less daunting some days to do that than call my senators. In the grand scheme of things, it might even help win over more hearts and minds than my Facebook posts. (Especially since I’m pretty sure that most of my family that disagrees with me doesn’t look at my posts anyway.)

So in these hard times, I’m adding my own call to action into the mix. Find something close to home that you care about and give it your time and maybe some of your money. Make it personal. Because your experiences and your contributions are by definition political, now more than ever.

Ring My Bell

I admit it. I’m a sucker for positive reinforcement. And I don’t mean those grand rewards for hitting some major goal. I mean the most basic Pavlovian type system–small, frequent, consistent treats tied to specific behaviors.

Example: I love Scrivener. I love that I can see my whole outline. I love that I can move scenes around with ease. But I swear I’d use it if it offered nothing more than that little bar that goes from red to green as I reach my daily word goal. And the big bar of the manuscript total? Swoon.

I’ve decided I’m so into positive reinforcement, I should try to apply it to more areas of my life. Case in point: exercise.

A few years ago, I was in the best shape of my life. I wasn’t skinny; I don’t think I’ll ever qualify for that adjective. Still. I was a bit lighter than I am now. More importantly, I had stamina and flexibility. I did two to three dance classes a week, I walked more days than not. I felt fit and limber and it was lovely.

And then life happened. A bad ankle sprain kept me from dance class. A new relationship sent me into a state of happy nesting, complete with lots of great meals and wine. And I started writing.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happier than I’ve ever been. And I love that writing has become an almost-daily routine. I’ve got three books published, a fourth written, and a fifth in progress. I’ve made friends with other writers and readers–a whole magical community of people I didn’t know existed a few years ago. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Not even for pencil skirts and skinny jeans and a strong core.

But who says I can’t have it all?

No one, but I’ve not actually been good at doing it in recent months.  But it’s January and a good time for leaf turning and all that. Which brings me to Pavlov. I decided that uber fitness goals, while nice, don’t have that Pavlovian je ne sais quois. I needed something more immediate. Small. Preferably shiny. Enter stickers.


You heard right, stickers. I went to the craft store (for another, slightly more legitimate purchase) and raided the scrapbooking aisle. I got stars and flowers and little owls. And now, each time I exercise, I get a star in my planner. I’m not going to lie, it’s almost laughably satisfying. I’ve got five stars and an owl (for weekly word goals) so far in January. Not to mention 15,000 words of my new manuscript and spaghetti arms from flailing around to belly dancing videos.

Laugh if you want. I am (laughing at myself, that is). But I’m not ashamed to take all the help I can get. But that’s another life lesson (and another post). What about you? What gives you that extra little oomph? Or, as good ole Pavlov would say, what rings your bell?

To My Family and Friends Who Voted for Trump

First, I’m not about to yell at you or call you names. No, really. I’m not a yeller by nature. Besides, I also know doing so will make matters between us worse, not better. And I’ve committed to making things better. So I’d like to give you some context and ask for your help. Okay? Okay.

Let’s start with the premise that you voted for Trump/Pence in spite of, not because of, their hate-laced, misogynistic, xenophobic, and homophobic speech and actions. If you’re in the “because” category, we probably don’t speak anymore and you’re unlikely to happen upon this. But I digress.

Here’s the thing. You may have voted the way you did for a million reasons. I’m not going to try to haggle with you over all those reasons. But whatever those reasons, the reality is that you voted for a man who bragged about sexually assaulting women. A man who thinks it’s okay to psychologically abuse and use shock therapy on LGBTQ kids. A ticket endorsed by the KKK.

That baggage is now yours. You don’t get to pretend that isn’t part of the platform your voted for. You don’t get to assume that I or anyone else will give you the benefit of the doubt. In our eyes, in my eyes, you are now suspect.

I know that seems unfair. It is. But it’s no more unfair than a Muslim woman being expected to denounce radical Islam every time someone of Middle Eastern descent commits a crime. No more unfair than a black man being pulled over for driving through a white neighborhood. And, to a lesser degree, it’s no more unfair than me having to decide whether or not to come out every time the plumber or the lady at the nail salon asks about my husband. So welcome to the club.

I know, it feels like I’m yelling. I’m not. I’m laying the groundwork to ask you to do something really important. I’m asking you to be vocal. Be vocal about the things you don’t want me to assume about you.

Don’t tell me you’re okay with marriage equality. Tell your friends and coworkers and the guy at the gym who makes a comment about faggots. When someone you know makes a racist or sexist joke, call them out. If you don’t know what conversion therapy is, find out and speak out against it, up to and including a phone call to the Vice President you chose.

It might feel like I’m asking a lot. I am. But I want to believe that however much you and I disagree on matters of trade or taxes or even national security, we are both on the side of decency, humanity, and equity. I want to believe it so badly. And it’s the only way I know how to start reconciling the cognitive dissonance that has consumed me for the last few days.

And it matters now. It matters so much. I’m not being dramatic when I say that people feel–physically, literally–unsafe. I do. And I’m a middle class, feminine-presenting, white woman. I’m about to visit my mother in Louisiana and I’m dreading it. I’m afraid. (And I feel guilty for being afraid, but that’s another post.)

The stakes are so high. And you, more than me or any of the other liberal queer folks who are freaking out right now, have power. You’re in a position of influence that I don’t enjoy with other conservatives. You can draw a line in the sand between yourself and the people who are setting fire to the rainbow flags on people’s houses. Because if you don’t, those people will feel even bolder, thinking that they are somehow in the majority. That their hatred and their violence is acceptable.

We can’t let that happen. You can’t let that happen. I beg you. Please do your part so that doesn’t happen.

The Gifts We Give Ourselves

Today, my friend Nell shared–eloquently, thoughtfully–her recent struggles with a pernicious variation of writer’s block. She talked about about a recent reading she did that involved a feeling of detachment from her writing. It was something along the lines of thinking: hey, that’s good/did I really write that/will I be able to write that way again? (She said it way better.)

My response to her was a lesson I learned from Minnie Bruce Pratt. I had the amazing fortune to take a course with her once and, in a meeting about my writing, I lamented the need to buckle down and write every day. She promptly corrected me, saying that writing should be a gift I give myself. No matter what else is going on in my life, no matter how unimpressed I may be with my words in the moment, writing is essential. It’s part of who I am. It’s something I should not–cannot–live without.

After sharing this nugget of wisdom, fate–in the form of Facebook memories–reminded me that five years ago today I danced at the Westcott Street Festival. And by dance, I mean belly dance. And by belly dance, I mean on a makeshift stage in front of an audience in broad daylight. No really.

My first reaction was to smile. It was an amazing day. And then I felt badly. I’ve not danced in earnest much since that day. It started with a sprained ankle, probably the worst sprain I’ve ever had. (I actually sprained it two days before the festival and probably shouldn’t have performed but really wanted to and likely made it worse in the long run.) So I took some time off to heal. Then A. and I started dating and we were living an hour apart and it became so easy to skip class if it was a night we could get together. Then I got a new job and moved to Ithaca. All good things. Great things. But they were such good things, I made less time for things like dancing.

I tried to get back to it a couple of times. My last attempt came just as I began writing in earnest. The forty-five minutes I had each morning devoted to exercise became my writing time. And, as noted above, I’m not about to give that up.

So exercise in general, and dancing specifically, fell by the wayside. And all my talk about getting back to it has come in the form of “I need to make myself.” Do you see where I’m going with this?

Here’s the thing. I was never a good dancer. But for a couple of years, and during a difficult time in my life, I was a dancer. It made me feel good–body, mind, spirit. It made me feel sexy and good about my body and brave and silly and quintessentially feminine. So I came home from work today and I danced. And I was painfully reminded that, while never really good, I was way better than I am now. But I did it. And I told myself it was a gift.

I don’t know if this will work, but I’m going to try it. It fits in nicely with my life goals of being grateful for the little things, self care, general sassiness, and Ann Taylor pencil skirts. (I know I shouldn’t be focused on the last one, but I have some really cute ones that are too snug right now.) I’ll let you know how it goes.

What gifts do you give yourself?

How do you solve a problem like Aurora?

My family dynamic is…unique. Without going into all the details, let me just say that, as a child, I often felt like I was being parented by committee. And even though I wasn’t a bad kid, there were many family meetings held to figure out what to do with me. These meetings were no joke. Our family meetings come complete with agendas and adherence to Robert’s Rules of Order. In hindsight, I know that I was fortunate to have aunts and uncles who cared for me, but the situation wasn’t without its challenges.

The most recent of these family meetings, which I didn’t attend, included discussion of the fact that my mother had requested and received a copy of my latest book. Since she lives in an assisted living facility and doesn’t possess much of a filter, there was some concern that she’d create an awkward situation by over-sharing. Since I had been more than a little hesitant to share it with her in the first place (a common sentiment among romance writers, I’ve learned), I swallowed my irritation that this warranted inclusion on the agenda. It was fine until I was copied on the self-congratulatory email my uncle sent about encouraging my mother to finish reading, then promptly throw my book in the garbage.

My first instinct was to quietly acquiesce. The intent, surely, was not malicious. And the last thing I want is for my mom to find herself in a difficult or awkward situation because she was trying to be proud of me. That gave way to anger and a desire to hurl pithy insults. Tempting, but not really my style. I settled on a terse request to have the book sent back to me, complete with an offer to pay the postage.

All of this unfolded over the course of a weekend during which two members of our local community died suddenly. I wasn’t close to either of them personally, but both their lives were cut tragically short and the impact of the loss will be felt for a very long time. As a result, I was left feeling selfish and petty for letting such a trivial thing get to me in the first place.

This morning, I had a conversation with a colleague about the death of one of the individuals and he noted that seeing the outpouring of memories and love made him think about his own work and his legacy–how important it was for him to do something that made a difference.

That conversation gave me a much needed moment of clarity. It helped me to see that, while my own indignation may be irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, the issue itself isn’t. There are people–people in my own family–who believe that stories of love between two women are unseemly, if not downright dangerous.

And for every one of them, there is someone else who still lives in secret, or in shame, because those other people exist and are vocal about their disdain. This morning, I was reminded of why I write. Those are some of the people I’m writing for.

I write to celebrate love. I write to give myself and others happy and uplifting stories that mirror our lives (or maybe slightly idealized versions of our lives). I also write so that those who are still living in secret or fear might read my books and feel a little less alone.

I refuse to let good intentions or rationalizations diminish the meaningfulness or legitimacy of my work. I also refuse to let them bring me down. This weekend also reminded me that life is short and never certain, and that living with joy is the best thing we can do for ourselves and each other.

I decided that, when I get my mom’s copy back, I’m going to donate it and a copy of all of my books to the public library in my hometown. Boom. Instant joy.

And for Once It Might Be Grand

In my tiny Catholic high school, each senior got a full page in the yearbook–our senior photo and a quote of our choosing. Most girls picked something philosophical that made them feel smart, or a line out of a country song. I, in the throes of my Beauty and the Beast obsession, selected a line from Belle’s opening song.

And for once it might be grand
To have someone understand
I want so much more than they’ve got planned.

The choice caused a bit of a stir in my small circle of friends. I was the valedictorian, after all. I’d gotten a scholarship and would be attending a good college (in the North, even). Everyone fully expected me to be successful. And, most likely, to find a nice boy and get married and have babies. For a girl in south Louisiana in the 1990s, that was pretty much what one aspired to. So what could I possibly mean? What else was there?

At the time, I struggled to articulate what the “more” was supposed to be. I wasn’t in the closet. Well, unless you’re referring to the clueless closet. But I knew. I knew there was something that I–even with my healthy imagination–could not yet fathom.

At the GCLS awards on Saturday, as I sat listening to tributes and acceptance speeches and looking around the room at literally hundreds of lesbian (and bi and trans and ally and queer) women, that quote hit me like a giant cartoon anvil to the head.

I’d found it. At seventeen, I didn’t even know it existed. And, oh, but it was grand.

Spending three days surrounded by writers and readers and lovers of lesbian literature filled my heart. Knowing I am a legitimate, published author–a member of the Bold Strokes Books family, no less–made me both happy and proud. Seeing so many smart, talented, wonderful women recognized for their work filled me with joy and gave me something to aspire to.

After the awards, there was a dance. Dressed in my flouncy new dress, I kicked up my heels and had a fabulous time. I did the macarena. I led the conga line. For reals. I also danced with Lee Lynch (you know, to Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now,” like you do.) I joked that my polka-dot dress make me wild. I think the dress helped. The vodka tonics did, too. (Thanks, Maggie and Fiona!)

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Photo credit: Nell Stark

I like to say that life is too short to be self-conscious. I’m better at actually taking that advice sometimes more than others. This was definitely one of those nights. Sprinkled with fairy dust. Magical.

So to everyone who was there–in person or in spirit–thank you. Thank you for being an amazing community and for welcoming me with open arms. Thank you for for helping me become what seventeen year old me could only begin to imagine. It’s so so very much more than I had planned.

The Power (and Brilliance) of Observation

Last night, we went to see David Sedaris. Every now and then, he’s almost too much, even for me. Mostly, though, he’s completely and utterly hilarious. Either way, he is perhaps the most brilliant master of observation I’ve ever read. Whether talking about the vagaries of mental illness or extolling the virtues of his Japanese culottes, Sedaris has a way of capturing both the minutia and universality of life experiences. And, damn, but that man can turn a phrase.

I can’t help but think of my own writing when I read (or listen to) something really good, David Sedaris good. I like to think I’m skilled with detail, that I string together a nice sentence. But sometimes I feel anything but skilled. Sometimes writing is slogging, flinging words onto a page to get through a scene that needs to happen. The hope of course is that, when it’s the latter, the revision gods will smile on you and the whole thing will get better, tighter, and more compelling.

Really, though, the hope isn’t good enough. Whether it takes five drafts–or fifteen, or fifty–good writers aren’t satisfied until the words work. And I don’t mean work as in fit together coherently. I mean WORK. Every paragraph needs to move the story forward, make the characters more real, make the reader laugh, make the reader think. (Fortunately every paragraph doesn’t need to do all of those things simultaneously.)

As I finish up the first draft of Crescent City Confidential, I’ve found myself doing a lot of flinging words onto the page. I’ve been whining a lot, too, about said flinging. I’ve made peace with the fact that this is part of the process. But I remind myself never to lose sight of the fact that it isn’t good enough. Sure, it’s a start. Good writing, though, is a lot more. I’ve sort of always known this, but it’s good to be reminded. Especially now that people put up time and money to read what I write. Not to take myself to seriously or anything, but it’s different than when I wrote for myself or friends or some writing class.

I’ve got a couple more weeks of slogging and then I get to dive into revisions. It’s daunting, but an exciting part of the process. Almost as satisfying as seeing that word count go up during the initial writing. And while I don’t think I’ll ever reach the level of David Sedaris, I can try to channel him now and again. Eavesdropping, taking better notes, reworking a page a dozen times. I wonder if Andie will buy me a pair of culottes…

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Winner winner, chicken dinner

Confession: I’ve never been obsessed with winning. It might be that, as the chubby and awkward girl, I was often picked last for sporty type things. It might be because, even when I made the softball team in high school, we didn’t win a single game all season. Truly, with the exception of Jeopardy and Scrabble, I’m not competitive about much of anything.

Still. It’s fun to win. Yelling bingo at the American Legion when you take your mama out on a Friday night. Knowing the answer to final Jeopardy when your partner doesn’t, especially when she’s kicked your ass all night.

In that spirit, then, I shall give you the fun and fluffy blog post I promised, complete with your very own chance to win. First: a semi-absurd work story. Second: a book giveaway.

First, the work story. As many of you know, I work in higher ed. I’m an assistant dean in a business school. As such, I’m on lots of committees. Shortly after taking on the chair role on one of these committees, I successfully navigated a policy change despite opposition from a particularly obstructionist administrator. I was so impressed with myself, I arrived at our next meeting and opened with my (albeit very bad) rendition of DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win.” While thrilled with the result, my colleagues did not appreciate the pop culture reference. My attempt at being a badass was decidedly not a win.

If you ever need a chuckle, imagine me attempting to sing this to a bunch of white people in their fifties.

You’re welcome.

Now for the winning! The release of Built to Last is less than a week away (at least it is if you’re buying it from the BSB store, which you totally should). I’m giving away two copies–one ebook and one signed paperback. Want to win? Leave a comment here with your favorite win (or most hilarious fail). Enter by noon EST on April 4 (my birthday!) and I’ll pick two winners at random. Feel free to include a link to your own epic winning soundtrack!

Built To Last cover