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Respecting the Space

I've been thinking a lot lately about how important it is to respect the space that we're in, as well as the things in it. There's nothing wrong with a mess from time to time, but overall, I look at unused desks piled with papers as disrespectful to myself and everything in the stack. I look at a sink full of dirty dishes as disrespectful to myself and everything in the sink.

One of my goals at work has been to keep my space clean. I failed incredibly at this last year, being so frantic that I would throw things into a pile in the corner, desperately just trying to keep any part of the surface of my desk useable. I don't have any more time than last year to organize anything or keep it clean - but I take the time. I prioritize that over everything else, because I want to respect my space, my time, my work, myself.

Copyright: Yancy Lael, 2017

Copyright: Yancy Lael, 2017

I have been helping to clean up the land at my mother's farm on the weekends. Some parts of the property haven't really been touched for over a decade. I've found trash, plastic, soda cans, old barbed wire… There's even junk out there from the last family who lived on that land, 25 years ago. No. Disrespectful. I'm cleaning that shit up.

My home is the biggest challenge for me at this point. I'm not often there, being at work and the farm most of the time. But when I see my office space filled with more clutter than any other space in the house (well, okay the garage is the worst), I realize why I'm struggling to keep up with the blog and get some freelance pieces out there. I'm not respecting - or even using, honestly - my work space.

The first area I tackled was my bedroom. I struggle with stress- and anxiety-induced insomnia and I realized, looking around my room, that I had started to bring my work in there. I had notebooks, calendars, and paperwork all over the place. Not at all a place for rest. I moved all of that out and haven't let myself do work in that room since.

I put off facing the office and living room because part of me doesn't want to face the mess. Part of me doesn't want to deal with all the stuff I need to sort through.

But it must be done. Every day I don't do it, I realize I'm not respecting myself, and I cannot let that continue to happen.

I've got to face it all and start respecting my space, my possessions, my home, and myself.

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Pay Attention

It always surprises me how challenging it can be to do the simplest thing - like pay attention to what's going on around me. Were we always this distracted?

I get thrown off by my cell phone dinging. I lose my focus when loud cars roll by or people spill into the office, talking loudly. I fall back into old habits of rushing not even always realizing that I'm doing it.

I'm trying to take a slower, more deliberate pace, especially at this time of year, when work is so stressful. I make time to write down my tasks in a date book every day, to help me focus on what I'm doing and where I'm going. I try to force myself to take breaks and to focus on taking care of my body.

Nevertheless, the rush creeps in. Just last weekend, as I was wandering the woods, looking for my owlets, I realized I was crashing through the brush at a rushed pace. Why on earth was I was going so fast?

Habit. Pure and simple. When I walk, I usually walk for fitness and am focused on what I have to get done when my walk is over.

But that's not the case when I'm owling.

Copyright: Yancy Lael, 2017

Copyright: Yancy Lael, 2017

I had to remind myself to slow down. I had to remember that I can't find those precious little creatures unless I walk very slowly and listen for their soft calls. I have to pay attention to every little thing around me.

I have to take notice of the magpies flying above. The way the wind is blowing. I have to look so carefully in the trees and listen with deep concentration so I can hear the owls' squawks.

All of this is a necessary reminder.

My bicycle commuting used to be this touchstone of focus for me. I can remember writing blog posts about how much bicycling slowed down my attention and helped me to appreciate the trees and flowers, how it allowed me to notice such "small" things like a beetle crossing the road - something I never would have seen from a car.

But all these years later, in another town, at a much faster pace, I have lost this sense of attention when I'm bicycling. I'm moving too fast. Hurrying too much. Trying to avoid the traffic, trying to get to work on time.

So now I must re-learn this lesson from the owls. Stop. Listen. Look around. Pay attention.

As I reminded myself of this last weekend, I stumbled upon a bush that was surrounded with owl feathers. I stopped, realizing my little owls had been there, probably not so long ago. My focus deepened, instantly.

Looking up for more clues, I found myself almost face-to-face with one of the owls. Right there. So close.

It took me several more minutes to realize that his sister was sitting right next to him, concealed by a branch. And another several minutes to notice his other sister just across the path from me.

There are a lot of things in life that sit quietly in the trees, waiting for us to notice them. It can be hard to see them. Hard to hear them. But if we remember to be deliberate and focused, we will take notice of the clues.

Go slowly. Listen deeply. Look closely.

Pay attention.

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In Mystery, They Remain

I spent last Friday evening looking for my owlet twins - with no luck. I roamed 40 acres of land and could not find a trace of them. I couldn't even hear their calls.

Disappointed, I thought I might not get a chance to see them that weekend. Until Saturday night came around.

After seeing their parents flying in the back pasture from the windows of my mother's house, I ran out with binoculars and camera in hand.

As I was snapping pictures, I thought I was imagining what I was seeing. Not two little fluffy white creatures…but three. What? Did I really just see that?

I turned on the video camera with its zoom lens and started watching the little owlet who had landed on a pile of hay (I was too far away to get a good view with the binoculars and certainly couldn't see well enough with my naked eyes). Another stood nearby. And then…sure enough, a third one flew in.

Copyright: Yancy Lael, 2017

Copyright: Yancy Lael, 2017

I could not believe it. What kind of blessing is that to have not one, not two, but three owlets growing up before your eyes?

I watched them in awe for nearly an hour. They were playing on a pile of hay that I had gotten it into my head to move a couple months ago. The pile had previously been sitting near the house (once a fort for my nephews) and had rotted over the winters into a pile of disgusting mush. I was so sick of looking at it that in March, I decided to haul it out to the back pasture, with my brother's help.

Well, I couldn't have moved it at a better time. The little owlets seemed to loved using it for hunting and flying practice. The short peaks made for perfect, modest "diving boards" (though they still face-planted an awful lot). They picked up chunks of hay and tried to lift them while flying (mostly unsuccessfully) to (presumably) strengthen their legs and build coordination, they went crazy over the buffet of bugs living in the decomposing matter, and most of all, I imagine, they were listening for the little mice who have since made a home in that pile, honing their ears for the day they will be hunting on their own.

They watched me watching them, often looking directly at me. Their parents fly away whenever I get within 300 feet of them, but the owlets are young enough not to care. I still remain at a distance, but unlike their parents, the young ones will allow me to observe from far away, occasionally looking my way to make sure I'm not coming any closer. Somehow, the mother and father owl will reappear in a nearby tree without my notice, flying away a second time when I get up to leave.

That Saturday night, as I watched and recorded videos, the sun cast a stripe of light straight down onto me and the owls. It was as if our little slice of the earth had turned to gold. I couldn't believe how beautiful it was. Did this happen every night, I wondered, and I was just too busy indoors to notice? Was it just this time of year, when the sun was at that particular angle in the late spring sky?

I didn't have time to ponder it much more - the light literally disappeared in less than a minute, casting the world into the last stages of dusk, that murky, beautiful gray-blue that emerges along with the stars in the sky.

Little Lyra flew across the field and into a tree at that point, nearly falling out, as she often does. She held on to the branch for dear life, falling upside-down, her wings extended. She looked like a giant, white, fluffy bat. I have seen her do this before and like always, she pulled herself upright again and caught her balance, sitting proudly on the edge of the branch, looking my way as if to say, "See? I got this."

Her brother, Sirius, soon followed her, almost landing on top of her, almost knocking them both off the thin branch that wasn't quite big enough for two birds of that size. Somehow, he managed to regain his balance and both remained steady on their perches.

Below them, their little sibling, the mysterious third fledgling that I had only just met that night, had perched on a fence post and was looking out at the mountains.

When I thought it was just two owls, I randomly decided that they were a boy and a girl (which may or may not be true). This mystery baby…I'm not sure yet. I suppose, in my gut, I think it's a girl. I'm a little stumped on what to name her. But I know she'll send me a clue when the time is right.

Just as the final light of day disappeared behind the mountains, the triplets' mother soared above them, landing in a tree several yards away. Always watching, no doubt. She and her mate are never far from those babies.

I love watching them. I love being reminded of what it means to really pay attention to something. I love the surprises in the world that we fail to notice because we don't go outside enough. Mother Nature is always waiting to remind us of her beauty.

But once the sun goes down, I have to surrender. After dark, I'm sure, is the best show of all - watching the owls hunt and fly and call to one another. But alas, I don't have their eyes. I cannot see in the dark. And illuminating their nighttime rituals with artificial light to satisfy my curiosity just wouldn't be right.

So in mystery, they will remain. I will get a few glimpses of them here and there - hopefully a lot more before these little fledglings move on to find their own territory. But what they do in the dark will stay in the dark, as it is meant to be.

As all mystery is meant to be.

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Flying Lessons

Over the weekend, I spent an evening sitting outside, watching the owls. To my surprise, I found out that there was not just one owlet, but two!

There is something about being in proximity to something wild - especially a predator - that thrills me. I came face-to-face with a coyote once and it was a moment I will always remember. Going outside at sunset with a pair of binoculars and finding the yellow eyes of an owl staring back at me is such a rush. And to find not one but two babies, recently. . . it was such a treat.

Copyright: Yancy Lael, 2017

Copyright: Yancy Lael, 2017

I sat and watched them for about an hour over the weekend. The father owl came and sat, watching them, for a few minutes, then he flew away. Afterwards, the little boy (I've randomly decided that they are a boy and a girl) flew from the tree he was sitting on and landed on the roof of a pole barn, a few hundred feet away.

Watching these sweet little creatures try to fly was hilarious, heart-warming, and adorable. I didn't see the little boy (who I named Sirius) land, but I heard it - a loud crashing sound on the tin roof of the pole barn. When he took his next leap, he literally collided with a juniper tree, getting his wing stuck in the branches for a moment, until he could maneuver himself into a better position.

After that, he and his sister (who I call Lyra), called to each other for a long time. Their calls are so sweet - not a hoot, hoot, as I expected. Little, baby squawks. They called back and forth again and again until little Lyra took her own journey into another tree, making a similarly clumsy landing.

It was such a happy time. The junipers and willows seemed so happy to be able to catch these little owlets and shelter them between jumps. And their parents were, without a doubt, watching them from nearby.

The next night, I went out looking for them, but could not find them. Until I stopped and listened. I heard them calling to one another again, and followed the sound of their calls. Sure enough, coming down a hill, I noticed Sirius sitting on top of a pole, looking over a field, as the sun went down.

I am sad for the day they will leave us, going out on their own to find their own territory. But for now, this summer, a time when they will remain close to their parents, I'll enjoy every second I get to spend with them.

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Fledgling

I find that there is no more dramatic, tragic, or triumphant stage in all this world than nature. Spending time outside feeds my soul in every way. I couldn't love it more.

I try to spend a good portion of the weekend outdoors - especially in places that are a little bit wild. That is mostly accomplished by visiting my mom's ranch, just outside of time. Forty beautiful, slightly secluded acres that are regularly visited by deer, skunks, badgers, owls, ducks, snakes, and coyotes. Even an occasional cougar.

Copyright: Yancy Lael, 2017

Copyright: Yancy Lael, 2017

For the past several years, there has been a Great Horned Owl living on the property. With my love of owls, I often take sunset walks around the property with my camera, hoping to catch a glimpse of him.

This year, my job was made easier by the fact that the owl found a mate and they have regularly made appearances near - and sometimes even on (landing on the rooftop) - the house. It's such a delight to see these powerful, beautiful birds swoop down from the trees just outside the window or to hear them hooting once the sun goes down.

A few days ago, my brother made a discovery: the owl couple had a baby.

What a wonderful surprise! Honestly, is there anything cuter than an owlet?

I heard the owls calling on Saturday morning and went out to see if the baby was up and about. I wanted to see her with my own eyes. As I approached the pond, the mother owl swooped down and landed on a fence post right in front of me. I was shocked - and so was she when she realized she had landed right in front of me. She immediately flew away and I laughed because she had come to sit right next to a plastic owl that we installed years ago to scare away the real owls and keep them from killing the ducks.

Whoops. I realized suddenly that it wasn't a plastic owl sitting there. It was the owlet!

I watched her throughout the day, stumbling around on the ground, trying to fly. Her parents swooped down on either side of her whenever she seemed to be in distress. At one point, she made herself a little bed in the grass near a fence and spent the better part of the day there. Her mother sat on the fence post almost the entire time, her head bent down, watching her little one. It was so sweet.

When I checked on Sunday, the owl family was gone. Back to their nest, I assume, with their little fledgling, who only has a little more time with her parents. Soon, she will be on her own, probably leaving the property and looking for her own territory.

The parallels between this journey and my own are clear. I'm in a state of fledge right now, too. I already have my own nest, but my nests have always belonged to someone else (meaning, I've always been a renter). I'm about to leave the nest I'm in and truly find my own territory.

But I think of those owls and how Mother Owl sat with her baby all day long, staring at her, making sure she was not disturbed, making sure she was safe from harm. We all have that force of protection in our lives. We may leave the nest, but we'll always be watched over.

When I think of the dangers that little creature faces - the neighbor's violent dog, coyotes, hawks, rattlesnakes . . . It's a miracle she was hatched from her little egg, and a miracle she made it to 9 or 10 weeks. It's a miracle she left the nest, not quite able to fly. It's a miracle that she's climbing fences and trees and building her leg and wing muscles. It's a miracle that she has gotten this far and that someday - very soon - she will be one of the most powerful predators in the area.

Life is holding her, taking care of her, like it does for all of us. Even when we leave the nest and have to establish our own territory. Our protector is watching from above.

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I know exactly how I got here

When I was 10, my parents decided to write book under a pseudonym - my first name and an ancestral surname. When I saw the name Yancy on their business cards above the word "writer," I knew with every fiber of my being that I was going to be a writer. I started my first novel the same weekend their business cards arrived.

I know exactly how I got here.

I wrote novels longhand in spiral bound notebooks all during my teenage years - because back in those days, families were lucky to have one computer for everyone. We had to share. It was easier - and more private - for me to write my romantic novels and mysteries in my notebooks, dreaming about becoming a famous novelist someday.

I know exactly how I got here.

Copyright: C. Martin, 2016

Copyright: C. Martin, 2016

My uncle gave me his old laptop - a funny name for the machines they had back then, which were really just smaller desktop models that weighed 20 pounds and only had one purpose - word processing. But hey, that was fine with me. It was all I needed. I started writing dozens of new novels on that machine, looking for the one that would capture my attention long enough for me to finish it.

I know exactly how I got here.

In the mid-90's, I was fortunate enough to get a real desktop computer of my own, which changed the game, entirely. Suddenly, with the speed of typing, I could pump out 10 pages a day if I was disciplined enough. I wrote three novels on that computer, certain that they would bring me the kind of publishing contract and  public recognition I was looking for.

I know exactly how I got here.

Oh, did I mention I almost never sent out queries to publishers? I was too scared for that. It felt so vulnerable to share my work with them. What if they thought I was a stupid, naïve little girl? (Well, I was.) I couldn't bear the thought. So my writing remained a secret from the world.

I know exactly how I got here.

In 2007 or 08, I took a big leap and decided to join all the other green bloggers around the world. A Green Spell was born and I was hooked. I made so many wonderful friends through blogging - some I'm happy to say I am still in contact with today. It was another world, back then - blogging was such an exciting platform for creativity and personal connection. Not so saturated as it is today. I loved it.

I know exactly how I got here.

In 2010, I took another leap and began selling the beauty products I had made to heal my skin. It was a big departure from the career in writing I had always wanted. But I enjoyed every second of it. There weren't nearly as many green bath and beauty vendors as there are today and people took notice of the care I put into my products. My shop and its blog, Five Seed (named after one of the streets in The Poison Box's fictional town, Salome - a novel I had abandoned by then), soon eclipsed A Green Spell, forcing me to put more and more of my time and attention there. Eventually, I knew I had to say goodbye to A Green Spell, a decision that was very difficult for me, but I was relieved to have more time to spend on Five Seed.

I know exactly how I got here.

It didn't take long for the market to become saturated with organic bath and body products. Competition became a genuine problem. And when a certain small business platform rolled out new policies barring natural beauty sellers from any mention of herbs, their history, and/or their healing properties, I was essentially put out of business. Sales went from the hundreds to less than ten in six weeks' time. Maybe there was a Plan B that I didn't see at the time, but I must have been pretty burned out because I let that disappointment end my business. And I can't say I'm sorry about it.

I know exactly how I got here.

The end of selling beauty products pushed me into another kind of production that I hadn't previously planned on: sharing the story of how I healed my skin. It started out as an idea for my blog, and then became a pamphlet. The pamphlet soon evolved into a book. Over 200 pages of what I had learned about skincare. The original plan was to make it into a PDF - and I had no idea how to sell something like that. But I soldiered on. I was quickly led to the world of self-publishing and my book became not only a Kindle book, but a real, full-fledged, paperback, as well.

I know exactly how I got here.

Suddenly, holding that paperback in my hands, I realized I had come full circle. I was finally an author.

I know exactly how I got here.

The next few years were filled with writing more books. Next came The Paris Diaries and Dear Me. I resurrected The Poison Box (to my delight) and then published Being Beautiful. As soon as Being Beautiful was finished, I knew I was done with my beauty books. I had been working on a huge series of beauty books prior to that, but I scrapped all those projects without a second thought. I knew what I wanted - I remembered what I wanted. And that's what I needed to put my energy toward.

I know exactly how I got here.

But the problem of my website still remained. After Five Seed closed, I made the quick and simple decision to set up a website under my own name: yancylael.com. That way, people could easily find me if they wanted to learn more about my writing. But I had to say goodbye to my old audience. Most were not interested in following me. I had gone from a natural beauty expert and product provider to a writer. A big leap for them. For me, though, I was just getting back to my roots.

I know exactly how I got here.

I started to notice that people were less engaged once I became yancylael.com. Was it because my name didn't evoke anything for them? Because I didn't have any cute titles like Five Seed or A Green Spell anymore? Because people weren't really sure what, exactly, I did?

I know exactly how I got here.

It didn't help, I'm sure, that I had a brief couple of years, during the promotion of Soulful Skincare and Being Beautiful, that I did beauty coaching and intuitive healing. I'm sure that had people a little confused. Was I a writer or. . . ?

I know exactly how I got here.

In the past year, I have tried to develop my website brand by calling myself what I am: a storyteller. Yet still, I feel a disconnect. Like something is not quite getting across. I often get the nudge that I have to perhaps remove Yancy Lael the writer from Yancy Lael the blogger, the seeker, the creative. As in, one site for publishers, for clients, for people looking for my books. And one site for people who want to connect more deeply with me and my stories and art. Perhaps I do need that website name that evokes something in others. Perhaps I do need to look in another direction.

I know exactly how I got here.

I believe in letting the wild world dictate what it wants. I believe in letting gardens find their own way to beauty and abundance. Hell, I wrote a whole book about leaving your skin alone and letting it finds its own way to health and beauty. Now how do I find that for my career? How do I let it go and let it find its wildness, what it wants to be?

I know exactly how I got here. But I'm not quite sure - yet - where I'm going.

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The Dirt in the Graveyard

This time in my life marks the passage of an anniversary - the anniversary of my dog's passing and the season when my legal ties with my ex were fully and completely severed.

Two years ago, it was.

It has been a whirlwind, ever since, scrambling to make ends meet, to alter circumstances that needed to be altered, to keep up with savage deadlines, to push myself to find my passion again.

The first year was the worst. I remember the pain of it so clearly. I thought my efforts would prove fruitless. I was so scared and lonely and everything seemed so far out of my reach. A home of my own. A book deal. A new dog. Another love. A child. I only kept pushing and walking and trying because I didn't see any other option than just giving up - which I wasn't willing to do.

I didn't notice that things had started changing... until I noticed. I started having memories of things that happened a year ago, and how sorrowful I had been. And I realized I didn't feel that way anymore.

I started to press forward with more enthusiasm and I realized I had some seriously cool dreams I wanted to pursue.

And that list of things that seemed impossible... The one thing that seemed the most impossible, the one thing I thought I would never achieve - buying a home - I have.

I'm signing the papers next week.

It's impossible, yet it's happening.

Last week was the official anniversary of my dog's death, and the symbolic ending of the home I had built with my ex. And you know what? I didn't remember the significance of the day until four days later. I didn't remember to think of my dog, or cry, or put out flowers for him. I was too busy remembering him in life and thinking about all the good times we had together.

I didn't have to mark the sadness or the loss.

There is a scene in the sequel of The Poison Box in which a character is having a difficult time dealing with the loss of a loved one. Mary observes this person and observes a smell on him that makes her think of a fresh grave.

I think there was a long time that the dirt from the grave of my old life lingered on me. Stale and musty and hopeless.

But it's gone now. The dirt I smell now is rich, damp, and fecund. Ready to grow all new things.

It is much like the place where I found a coyote who had died, just over a year ago. Last spring, the grass grew around the place where his body had been, as if it was protected by grief. But this spring, it is lush and overflowing with thick, green grass.

Eventually, the grave gives life again.

Copyright: 2016, C. Martin

Copyright: 2016, C. Martin

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Wildfires & Bonfires

I have spent the past few weekends helping my brother clear out the fire hazards at our mother's ranch. We live in an area extremely prone to wildfires and we all take that risk very seriously. One of the things we do in the spring is rake up all the pine needles, broken branches, and other flammable yard debris and we burn what we can and drop the rest off at the landfill, for chipping.

Copyright 2017, Yancy Lael

Copyright 2017, Yancy Lael

As I was out raking, pulling in more material to throw into the burn pile behind me, I thought about how much we depend on our management of the land. It wasn't always this way - the land used to be free to manage itself (which it did quite well). It let the fires sweep across its plains, its forests. There was a reason for those fires - they cleared underbrush and other plant life that was competing with established trees. It was a clearing out that made room for other life to succeed.

We don't tend to be too keen to let Mother Nature manage herself on her own, anymore. We have our cars, our homes, the roots we have almost literally put into the earth. We don't want the wildfires to sweep through our land. So we do our best to control that.

Nevertheless, things happen. Hurricanes. Earthquakes. Tornadoes. And yes, those fires sometimes rip through the land, despite our best efforts. As my brother and I threw branches and pine needles into the fire, we talked about our own hurricanes and wildfires - broken relationships, recent disappointments, and all the new growth that was coming into our lives.

I wondered, though: Who was the keeper, the watcher of these wildfires and everything that came after them? Who held and protected the voles, the badgers, the deer, when fire ripped through their land? Who held my brother's hand or mine when the fires swept into our lives? Who is watching us? Who is protecting us?

And of course, it was just the right weekend to be around a bonfire what with today being Beltane Eve. Just the right weekend to be pondering the protective mother energy of this universe and all the new life and new growth springing up around us.

I feel so certain that there is someone or something that holds on to us during the wildfires. We are protected through the burn. We often can't see until later how much good the fire will do for us.

And now…spring is here. It's the time of year when we'll start to see the new life springing up in the areas that were burned. We'll start to notice that yes, someone was holding us through that entire process (even if that process lasted many years - or even a decade or two) and just waiting excitedly to show us what was going to spring up from the ashes.

We are always held. Always protected. Always blessed.

Even in the fire.

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What's the value of a love story?

Copyright: Elizabeth Tsung, Creative Commons Zero License

Copyright: Elizabeth Tsung, Creative Commons Zero License

What makes a love story worth telling? What makes us want to read it? Is it a feeling of acceptance and connection that we long for? Is it the thrill of sexual tension? Is a romantic story just another way to experience an adventure, or to explore our culture's social constructions?

I often ask myself these questions, as a writer. While I enjoy a well-written, tumultuous romantic story, both in books and on the screen, I often question the need for another romantic story if I'm the one writing it. Is this story worth telling? I ask myself.

In all honesty, I feel that our culture fetishizes sex and romance in ways that make us a little lop-sided in love. We expect to give up so much of ourselves for another. We expect a partner whose love obliterates our problems. We expect sexy, perfectly choreographed love scenes in the bedroom and a perfect dance of domestic bliss in all the other rooms.

It's a fun fantasy, to be sure, and there's certainly nothing wrong with indulging in books and movies that feature these kinds of relationships.

But that's not what I want to write about. If I'm going to write about love, I want it to mean something. I want it to be real.

I'm not the kind of writer who wants women to fall in love with her male protagonists. At least, not in the usual way. I want my characters to be both achingly beautiful and completely wrecked. I want their laziness to be out there for the world to see. I want their grasping desperation visible to my readers. I want their weakness to be fully seen. I want it to be hard to love them, but also impossible not to.

Oafish, sometimes thoughtless Crue and his innate aggression that is occasionally put to good use. Responsible Dan who keeps everyone at arm's length. And Simon, prone to bouts of obsession and desperation that threaten his mental and emotional equilibrium.

The Poison Box was born for one reason: to tell Mary's story. I didn't sit down to write a love story. Despite all that, I found myself getting pulled into the very passionate stories of every character in the book, whether those stories included a romantic/sexual entanglement or not. By the time the book was finished, I felt it had evolved into a beautiful tapestry of love stories that all helped to tell the stories of the women in the book: from Mary to Ema, from Olivia to Ruth.

The second installment of this series, however, has evolved into something I didn't quite expect: a blatant love story. It is still Mary's story - it will always be her story - but this time, the story that is asking to be told is her journey into, around, through, over, and into again, a romantic relationship. Don't get me wrong - it's no Nicholas Sparks novel. Mary, my dark maiden, would never condone that. It's just not who she is.

And if you know Mary - hell, if you know me - you know she won't be riding into the sunset with her lover at the end of the book. To me, there's little beauty or satisfaction in that. I want to see the struggles. I want to know my characters have faced their shadows and that they're willing to face those shadows again and again, just as we do in real life. Sometimes, I find it even more romantic when people fail at love than when they succeed.

It's not pretty or stylized. It's not sexy or glamorous. It's just two ordinary people finding a peace between them even in all their mess. To me, that's sexy.

But is it worth writing? I still ask myself. What's the point of a book or movie or TV show that's mostly about a romantic relationship? Is that a subject worthy of our attention?

I'd say yes in most cases, having enjoyed my share of romantic stories. If it's my own story, I'd also say yes. I felt entirely comfortable sharing a snapshot of my last relationship in The Paris Diaries. I feel that anything that breaks our hearts and exposes us to another human being's deep passion strengthens and enlivens us.

So, yes. If that's what we get from a love story, then yes, it's worth sharing. If we can find ourselves in someone else's self-discovery (which is inevitable in a romantic relationship), then it's worth it. If our own passionate nature is heightened by a romantic story, then it's worth it. If our hearts break open, even just a little bit, by reading or watching someone stumble through the landmines of the heart, then it's worth it.What's the value of a love story?

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Passion is Everywhere

Copyright: C. Martin, 2015

Copyright: C. Martin, 2015

I thrive on passion. I think we all do.

I think we do ourselves a disservice by relegating passion to the bedroom. By trying confine it to one person, one relationship.

In reality, passion is everywhere. From the roiling flow of a river to the sound of thunder. From a roomful of excited students to the infatuation between a mother and her baby.

It even lives, I believe, in sadness, tragedy, and fear. There is passion in an earthquake, passion in illness, passion in a panic attack, passion in the way people come together when facing hardship.

When I was a teacher, this was something I yearned to teach my students. I wanted them to find the passion in music, art, poetry, books - and hopefully learn to see it beyond the arts. This was a harder task to achieve than I ever dreamed possible, but every now and then, it happened.

One of my favorite memories of that time was when I worked at a boarding school that served middle-school aged girls who were dealing with mental illness and psychological trauma. I made some headway with a book we were reading, but couldn't quite get them to the point of falling in love with art and literature.

One day, I brought in my DVD of The Phantom of the Opera and we started watching it. Each day, I found a way to work it into the curriculum and we talked about symbolism, and how music, choreography, and well-chosen words could add to the experience of a story for viewers and readers.

Those girls were mesmerized. With the issues they were dealing with, they strongly identified with the Phantom and were able to connect to the story even more deeply because of that. I would get goosebumps looking out at them as they watched the movie, and even more chills when we talked about the scenes we had just watched and they made connections, dug into the meaning of the story, and expressed their desire to write something similarly moving.

They got it. They understood the passion and they felt it.

Imagine if we all felt that the majority of the time. Imagine if we didn't relegate it to moments with a lover. Imagine the ripple effects that reverberate from us when we allow ourselves to embrace this passion for life (and for more passion).

The funny thing is, I don't think the events of life would change all that much. We'd still have the same love, the same tragedy. But we'd go deeper. We'd love deeper and feel deeper and connect deeper. We'd swoon just a little bit more. It would feel so good and so tender.

Our hearts would be broken open every single day. And it would be exquisite.

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The Terror and the Beauty

There is a place about 20 miles north of here that I have always loved to visit. A 300-foot gorge cuts through the earth from west to east with the beautiful Crooked River twisting through its base. For 25 years, I have passed over the Crooked River Bridge that spans this gorge on road trips and visits to Jefferson County. This place inspired me so much that when the vision of Salome (the setting of The Poison Box) came to me, one of the first things I saw was a 300-foot gorge cutting through town with the Two Thieves River running at its base and a beautiful, tall bridge spanning its width.

Copyright: Yancy Lael 2017

Copyright: Yancy Lael 2017

There is a raw beauty to this landscape, both the real one and the fictional one. Steep sides covered with brush and boulders, rushing water at the bottom, running on for miles and miles…

And each place has a dark history - from the young man who threw himself over the edge of the gorge in Salome to the dozens of men who fell to their deaths while constructing the Crooked River Bridge. There are even signs all over the area overlooking the Crooked River Gorge, stating that hundreds of dogs have leapt to their deaths, not realizing there was a 300-foot drop on the other side of the short wall, and reminding visitors to please keep their dogs on a leash to prevent such a tragedy.

Even in its beauty, the landscape is full of peril. Even in its grandeur, there lurks danger and even death.

Just as in life.

Over the past few months, several friends of mine - people in their 20's and 30's - have fallen gravely ill. Just like that. Out of the blue. Beautiful, healthy, young people stricken with health crises that are mostly attributed to people much more advanced in age.

A young man in our community was recently killed in a freak automobile accident. He was 18. We had just attended his graduation ceremony two months before. He was just beginning his life.

And then there are my own freak accidents - injuries and issues that popped up out of nowhere that violently shook my life or brought it to a near complete standstill.

But somehow, there is still beauty in it all. The danger, the threat, the risk cannot displace or diminish the beauty of the human spirit. The friends who weather their hospital stays with grace, who courageously cut off all their hair and keep their hearts open and soft even in the face of terrifying uncertainty. The community members who come together to honor a lost member. The family who stands together, hand-in-hand, to weather one of the greatest losses they will ever endure.

Each person, each soul, cuts their way through this world. We all leave our mark, somehow, just like the Crooked or Two Thieves rivers cut through the earth. In that beautiful way we make our mark, we also somehow find that we cannot escape the vulnerability of being human.

And the realization that that vulnerability is also beautiful in its own way.

Terrifying, but beautiful as hell.

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Writing Taught Me

Once upon a time, not so long ago, I grew up in the dawning days of technology. I was blessed not to have a computer in the house. There were no cell phones, and certainly no DVD players.

I, like all children at that time, had to find my entertainment in books and my imagination.

As much as I loved school, I would rush home every single day, impatient to stuff a handful of crackers into my pockets, grab my newest book, and run out to the backyard to sit on the swing and read for hours. Saturdays were even better - a full day of reading. I'd set up two patio chairs facing each other, and lay a beach towel over them, creating a little bed. There I would sit for 8 hours, oblivious to my little siblings playing around me, the dogs running by, my father mowing the lawn.

I was lost in the world of E.L. Konigsberg and John Bellairs. Witches, magic, history, mystery - I loved it all.

I was lucky to retain my love of reading even as technology began to creep into the house. As a teenager, I often chose a Nancy Drew novel over the latest Blockbuster rental or computer game. I could read through an entire book in 3 hours and I'd greedily dig through the family bookshelf, looking for more.

These books influenced me so deeply. By the time I was 10, I knew I was going to be a writer when I grew up. The first book I wrote, at that tender age, addressed what it meant to be a warrior for goodness, purity, and innocence. Reading and writing guided the development of my morality, my compassion, and my soul.

Copyright: Y. Lael 2017

Copyright: Y. Lael 2017

Looking back, I can see that the practice of writing helped me develop into the person I am today. I learned discipline and tenacity through my determination to complete the writing projects that I started. The characters that entered my dreams demanded to be fully realized, and for them, I wrote tirelessly, feverishly. I completed five full-length novels by the time I was 25 years old, honing that discipline, learning what it took to give my all to a project, developing a strong work ethic.

And though it took much longer to cultivate, books, reading, and writing also taught me courage. It took many years before I was brave enough to share my work with others and even more years before I dipped my toes into the process of submitting queries for publication. But just as before, my characters and my ideas were so insistent on being heard, I felt compelled to obey that call, even if only one baby step at a time.

I've remained faithful to my craft all these years later, taking what I've learned from writing to every job I've had. The lessons of determination, creativity, discipline, and courage have served me well across industries - from teaching to program coordination. And in the meantime, while pursuing publication, my writing practice has given me yet another gift: ingenuity. I've learned the very complicated ins and outs of self-publishing for the projects that don't want to wait for traditional contracts. I've learned how to format books, create book covers, and even how to create audiobooks, independently.

I've learned that having a passionate calling is a blessing. Our dreams and talents and the books we read not only make us who we are, but teach us all the lessons that we need to learn in order to become the best versions of ourselves.

And I have lived happily ever after (with many books and my laptop at hand).

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These Are the Trees

Copyright: Yancy Lael 2017

Copyright: Yancy Lael 2017

These are the trees.

 

The leaves of the tree command our attention. They are boisterous in the wind. Cooling and calming in the summer. Riotous in color during autumn. They love to show off. They love to talk to us and to each other.

 

They are the most noticeable – and beautiful – part of a tree.

 

But they are inconstant. Always changing. Subject to the whims of the weather, to the appetites of the little creatures that crawl upon them. Their green goes red, orange, yellow, and eventually brown. They fall off the tree. Die.

 

But underneath the ground, the unseen, unattractive, humble roots remain the same. Constant. Quiet. Always searching for nutrients.

 

The roots twist and turn, anticipating obstacles before hitting them, rerouting to find the easier path. The roots communicate with the organisms in the soil in whispered voices, trying to pass by without anyone or anything taking especial notice. The roots slip one way and then another, creating a web of opportunity and a platform of stability.

 

It is hard to break a root. They are thick, woody, and the moisture from the ground makes their woodiness even tougher. Harder to cut, break, or split. They are strong. Impervious to the whims of passing violence.

 

The roots run deep and wide. They don’t ask for or want attention or glory or appreciation. They do their job, tirelessly. Endlessly. Unflinchingly.

 

In between all of this stands the trunk. The quiet sentinel watching, listening, witnessing. In the middle of the spectacular pageantry of the leaves and the incredible strength and fortitude of the roots, the trunk sits in such determined stillness, you don’t notice his movements until years, even decades, have gone by.

 

Sometimes, he will twist and bend when searching for water and nutrients. As the years go on, he will increase in size, both in length and circumference, adding ring after ring, each invisible to the world outside, only seen in his death (or in very invasive exploration). He proudly displays the leaves above, letting them have all the glory. He is thankful for the roots below that sustain and steady him. He even offers support to those who need a place to lean, or furry creatures who need a way up, up, up, into the branches, safe from the perils that await it down below.

 

Ancient and slow. Green and hardy. Quiet and full of passion. Alive. So alive.

 

These are the trees.

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Giving Goals

Every January, I complete a series of journal prompts to help me get clear about my intentions for the new year. And every January, I get a little stuck on one particular prompt: Giving Goals.

 

I have always had very high aspirations for giving. I immediately think of giving hundreds (or better yet, thousands) to my favorite environmental and social justice non-profits. And in December, an end-of-year bonus, cash in hand, to someone in need.

 

But like many, I don't quite have that much to go around. That statement is not meant to highlight lack because I am certainly not lacking. I’m extremely privileged and blessed, and find myself surrounded by an abundance of possessions, food, and love, which is more than I could ever hope for.

 

Cash, however, is not always available to me, or to many who live in cities like mine, where rent is 55-65% of one’s monthly income. So many of us are just paying the bills and there can be a lot of guilt that comes up when we start thinking about the 10% tithing rule.

 

That’s simply not a reality for me at this time (though I know it will be one day).

 

So when I open my journal and work on these prompts, I find myself frozen on this one…filled with that guilt and a touch of disappointment. And year after year, aside from giving away $5 here and $10 there, with no real plan behind it, I find myself, instead, giving up on the idea of setting that giving goal.

 

As I faced this dilemma again in January 2017, I decided that I had to let go of my extremely limiting idea of what a giving goal should be. I threw away the confining 10% tithe and decided it was time to think outside the box.

 

Giving Is More Than Dollars and Cents

 

I already make an effort to give of my time and love, especially to my family. And that’s something that nourishes my soul, and, I hope, theirs, as well. What if my giving goal could include the letters and gifts I leave in the little mailbox outside my nieces’ and nephews’ front door? Or a goal to spend some quality time with each of them, one-on-one? It’s not a tithing of money to a cause, but is, nonetheless, an opportunity to expand my generosity.

Copyright: C. Martin & Y. Lael 2016

Copyright: C. Martin & Y. Lael 2016

 

Taking time to engage in national and community issues is another giving goal that’s emerging for me. As an introvert, I tend to lean inward, rather than outward - yet it’s important to put time and effort into building and maintaining a strong community (both locally and as a country).

 

For me, that goal looks like not just writing my representatives more often, but engaging on the phone (a challenge for me). It means attending volunteer events within my community. And it means calling my neighbors, shoveling the snow in their driveway, and engaging with them and other people within my immediate vicinity.

 

Let Giving Challenge Your Fear of Lack

 

As I started building this list of giving goals, I discovered more and more giving opportunities organically arise – things that were exceptionally specific opportunities that would allow me to challenge my perceptions of lack.

 

For example, I have a stash of supplies from my days as a bath and body shop owner worth at least $200. The end of my business was a very challenging, sad time for me and there’s a part of me that wants to hold on to those supplies, out of sentimentality. There’s also a part of me that sees the act of giving those supplies away as a loss – a second loss, which is hard to swallow because the loss of the business, itself, was such a blow.

 

But it has been three years now since I closed those doors. I have not had the opportunity – or even felt a pull strong enough – to re-open the business. So the supplies remain on the shelf, taking up space (both physical and emotional) and the days tick on by…

 

It finally occurred to me that I could add those supplies to my list of giving goals. What if I were to find someone who was just starting out, someone like me who is committed to creating high-quality, eco-friendly, organic bath and beauty products? Someone who is struggling to get her business off the ground and who would receive immense benefit from a couple hundred dollars of free supplies.

 

Suddenly, the act of giving those supplies doesn’t feel so sad, so sentimental. Suddenly, it doesn’t feel like a loss. In this light, it is expansion and abundance – a huge blessing to another person...and maybe even a blessing to myself, to be able to let go of these items in such a loving, positive way.

 

Giving goal: Bless others by turning your forgotten dreams into someone else's bright future. 

 

What if there were other ways to recycle my pain into another person’s blessing? After having to give up my home when my partner left a couple years ago, I have come to realize that I can gift some of the items I made for that home (table mats, decorative pillows, etc.) to someone else, making their home more beautiful and cozy. Perhaps I can even find a way to use my resources, time, energy, or money to help those that don’t have a home, at all – a critical issue in our area during an unusually harsh winter.

 

For the first time in years, I am excited about my giving goals. I’m no longer stuck in my self-made prison that defined giving as 10% tithing, or even occasional cash donations. Now I’m looking for those very specific things that are literally waiting for me to notice the giving opportunity…those things that came into my life that need me to use them as a blessing for someone else…those very particular qualities I have that will benefit others.

 

I feel no more dread, no more guilt, when I hear the phrase “giving goals.” It’s a game now, asking myself what treasures I can unearth to benefit another. This act, miraculously becomes a gift to myself, as well.

 

What giving goals did you set for yourself this year?

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The Fine Line

This is it. The moment we cross the boundary from darkness back into light. A time of life, of activity, of busyness.

 

There’s always a fear in me when we’re at the opposite side of this event – the autumnal equinox. While I love fall and the onset of the holiday season, I don’t do as well in the darkness, especially if the weather is particularly bad (as it was this year.) It is my instinct, as I think it is with most people (since we were biologically designed this way) to sleep more, rest more, listen more.

 

Unfortunately, I don’t feel like I have that opportunity when we’re in the dark side of the year. Schedules don’t change. Demands aren’t altered to make room for these seasonal and biological needs. The world keeps moving along, as fast as if it were the hot, long, busy days of summer.

 

But at this time of year, my energy matches the expectations of the world out there. I’m excited. I’m energized. I’m ready to hit the ground running.

 

This is such an exciting time, with all the plants in the world waking up, reaching toward the sky, getting ready to put on one of their two big events of the year – The Great Blossom. I love the air in April, when it’s filled with perfume, when every breeze carries a whorl of fallen petals on its breath. It’s like the earth is reaching out a hand to us, telling us how much it loves us, and how much it longs for us to love it back.

 

Copyright: Yancy Lael 2017

Copyright: Yancy Lael 2017

We’re just at the threshold now. Everything is suspended in one perfect moment of balance. But just one. After that moment (Monday, March 20th, 3:29 am Pacific Time), we’ll be barreling toward action, drive, production, creation. Gardens will be growing, the ground will be warming, rivers will be running high with snow melt. And it’ll keep going until we hit the next equinox and watch the earth go back into sleep.

 

This is our dance. It’s certainly a nice thing to remember at a time like this, when some of us might see the world as so wildly out of balance.

 

But we only get one moment. Then the pendulum swings again. Spring comes to the earth now, but some of us feel that we are just entering a long winter. We can look ahead, though, with hope, because we know that moment of balance will return, eventually. The air will be filled with perfume again, blowing those petals all around.

 

For just a moment.

 

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