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At the Car Dealership, Thinking about Time

My relationship with time continues to evolve. On the one hand, I recognize at age 72 that even under the best of circumstances, I don’t have all that much left. I read somewhere that people like me are in the fourth quarter. We just don’t know how far into it we are.  So just in case that airhorn sounds soon, I don’t want to be caught off guard with important dreams and wishes unfulfilled. 

On the other hand, I am amazed at how relaxed about time I am. I think I am more aware of that now that I am working on another book, because there is always the temptation to pack a maximum amount of writing into a day.  But I haven’t been doing that at all. Sunday I took the whole day off to drive up Vancouver Island for the day. Monday, I spent a half a day combining a two-hour walk around a local lake, with lunch, and dropping a friend at the airport. She kept mentioning how aware she was of how much time this was taking away from my writing, and I guess it boils down to needing a much wider sense of productivity in my life. I want to produce happiness, vitality, pleasure, companionship, health, not just words. It was time far better spent than writing all day. Tomorrow my son comes to visit me in Victoria for a week, and much as I love finding out what’s going to happen next in my new book, I don’t care if Iwrite a word while he’s here.

Right now, I am sitting at the Toyota dealership getting my Prius serviced. They asked if I wanted a taxi or bus voucher so I could go home and back, and for a hot moment I considered it. Then I realized I don’t mind waiting for my car. I don’t really want to go home for an hour or two. Just sitting for a while and walking over to the mall across the street to pick up a few things I’d need to stop for in the next day or two anyway both seem like a pretty good use of my morning. I’m listening to some oldies on the sound system in the lounge, singing along (only in my head out of mercy for others) and having fun remembering back when. And of course drafting a blog post. It probably wouldn’t have occurred to me to do that today, and writing these posts is one of the most reliable ways I have to get in touch with myself.

I think about expressions like ”taking time,” and ’making time,” and i want to laugh at how much we cannot do either. We don’t really even ”have time” or to “not have time” to do things. We don’t own it that way. Time moves along and we move with it doing our best, or not, to bless this gift of life by using it in ways we value.

It’s not just waking hours that count.  It’s feeling at home in one’s day, whatever that means at the moment. I don’t think I have ever been in partnership with time in quite the same way I am now. I want a full life but I see no need to fill up my days. When I manage simply to be here now, I notice how full they simply are.

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Rush

There’s nothing more exciting than a rush. There are rushes of emotions, rushes of experience, rushes of insight. Forget the bad rushes.  The good ones are what make life birth itself again.

There are several rushes in my life now. I am back living in my favorite place, one block from the cliffs at Dallas Road in Victoria (photo of a part of my walk below). I walk almost every day for a while there to center myself, and I am always overwhelmed with gratitude and joy that I am here now. That I am still alive to the sea air and the sound of the waves, and the cliff faces, and the piles of bleaching logs, and the pebbled beaches, and the colors, and the brightening sun, and the sounds of people, dogs, gulls. 

There’s another rush now, because I have reached the point in my new novel where the characters are starting to come alive, where they tell me what they are thinking, where they tell me what to write. It’s what always keep me going, this sense of surprise. Today, for example, my main character revealed to me how angry she was at her husband, how ready she was to respect herself by not finding her identity in his wake, and she makes more sense to me now. The subsequent story will follow on the energy her voice is generating. The husband will be revealing himself too. I just have to wait for it. 

I don’t know about other authors, but when I begin writing, I use the first draft to find out who my characters are. First drafts for me are about thoughts and dialogue. Even a complete first draft is, I think, maybe 60% of the way to the finished product. I draft quickly, and then I worry later about things like the weather, or whether my characters are walking in the park or eating while they talk or think. I care even less if it is breakfast or lunch, and if breakfast, whether it is pancakes or eggs and how the eggs are prepared. I don’t care if they are hungry enough to eat or if they just pick at the edges. By the time you read the book, all those details will be there, but it is the discovery aspect of the first draft that thrills me the most. 

Wow!  I just didn’t know until the fight in the hotel room broke out that my protagonist and her husband  were that much at odds. I didn’t know until she rationalized her own affair how much his philandering affected her self esteem. I didn’t know that she was contemplating leaving him. I didn’t know until she broke away from her mother how strongly she felt about not letting anyone else dictate her life, and how she would have to defend herself against that again in her relationship with her husband. Yes, these are real people, so I am reading things into their story, but there is another kind of truth that a writer has to reach for when the known facts simply run out, when it’s up to me to make the facts make sense.

I have set something powerful in motion and I can’t wait to see what happens next. That’s what makes it a rush. The final rush will be sharing it with you with a cover around it. Don’t hold your breath. Right now the creativity is enough. Kind of like the wind blowing in from the sea today.  Who knows where it goes?

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Categories of Time


When I was still teaching, I always appreciated Convocation Day at my college, which occurred immediately before classes started in the fall.  I don’t mean that I liked sitting in a room listening to administrators telling the faculty  about this and that.  That was often excruciating, and I was really glad for a side door when the lights went down. What I liked about it was that it signaled a return to structure in my life. From then until Christmas, I knew on most days where I needed to be and what I needed to do.

The lack of structure between semesters always presented challenges, but a far greater challenge for me emerged when I became a novelist and started filling every available hour on a book. I was glad to have absolutely nothing I had to do in the summer and on breaks, because it meant I could write, write, write till my eyes swam and my knees buckled when I stood. 

It wasn’t good for my health or anything else about my life. Having too liitle to do and doing too much of one thing are both hazards, and I developed a way of dealing with this that has served me well not only while I was working but even today.  I call it “Categories of Time.”  

The concept is simple. I make a list of four to six activities that are essential to what I see as a balanced, satisfying life. Then I commit, from the time I wake up to the time I go to bed, to spend at least one hour on each. As long as I fit that hour in, I can spend the rest of the day distributed however I wish among all the categories. Of the roughly 16 hours a day I am not sleeping, I still have 11 that have no strings attached. 

In the past, when I was actively writing, my categories looked like this:  Writing, Exercise, “Laurel Maintenance” (anything from taking a shower, to paying bills, to grocery shopping), Promoting my Writing Career, and Wasting Time. Yes, I even built in the requirement not to be productive 24/7. 

Then, as long as I did my hour of each, I could do whatever I wanted. This worked amazingly well for me because it would get me out of my desk chair if it got to to be mid-afternoon and I had done nothing but write. Four more categories before bedtime! Gotta get to the gym, gotta get those bills paid, gotta work on a blog post, even gotta play solitaire, or watch a movie.  I stayed healthy, happy and, most important, well balanced by following this truly unburdensome approach to time. 

I have very little I have to do for the next few months, as I don’t really need to start thinking about my fall cruise assignments until the end of July. Working on a new book, though, sets off alarm bells because I know, combined with no daily structure and no real demands on my time, how obsessive I can get. 

So the other day I figured out the Categories of Time that are going to get me through this spring and summer.  They’ve changed a little as my life has changed and also because my sense of what is important has been altered by the events of the last few years. Here are my 2022 categories:

Write

Exercise

Connect with Others

Learn Something

Laurel Maintenance 

Waste an hour

Yes, it really works. Right now, if someone were to ask me “How was your day?” I can answer the best and happiest  way possible:  Balanced.  Try it!

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Feels Like Home

The downsizing I did to move to Canada called for some ruthless shedding of possessions. Among the deepest cuts I made was in my kitchen. I had awesome top-of-the-line cookware in all shapes and sizes. I had beautiful dishes and glassware.  I had gadgets galore, and some small countertop appliances. I loved all of it, but it simply could not come with me into this chapter in my life. 

I made only a few exceptions to my ‘’get rid of it” mentality.  In past years I was lucky enough to live abroad three times, once in Oxford, and twice in Florence. All three times my rental digs had  cheap tableware that gave me no pleasure to use.  As a result , each time I made a few purchases to use there and then bring home. The first time in Florence it was two hand painted salad bowls from a small boutique.  The second time it was matching pasta bowls. In Oxford, it was a pair of Edinburgh crystal wine glasses from Harrod’s I got on a trip to London. Over the last twenty or so years since then, they have remained among the things I most treasure (see photo).

One box of things I wasn’t ready to give up came with me to Victoria. Since I arrived in the middle of 2020, that box has sat in the storage unit I have for things I don’t need at the moment. I’ve pictured in my mind the beautiful things that are there, and I was always glad I kept what’s in it, but everything has seemed so tentative that bringing my own dishes to a temporary rental just wasn’t something I was going to do.  

Until now. 

I am back in a place I rented for a few months last year, and I plan to be here at least until the end of the year. I’ll be gone for shorter periods here and there, but this is as settled as living gets for me. There is something about this place that feels magical. Maybe it’s the location one block from the sea cliffs. Maybe it’s collective good vibes in a heritage house, accumulated in a century of good people living here. Maybe it’s the sweetness of the owners, who live upstairs over my ground floor apartment. Maybe it’s the flower garden I see out my window as I write. It’s a funny little place, a bit weird in its layout, and with the quirks that come with age, but being here has put me in a completely different frame of mind.   Here is a photo I took last summer. The window next to the porch is the one I look out from in my living room.

Yesterday I drove to storage and pulled out my dishes. I used one of the salad bowls today, and it was so affirming to be connected again to my life story, to be reminded of my through lines, and if I dare say, to appreciate my own excellent eye for beautiful bowls. 

They belong here because I belong here.  They remind me of where and who I have been, and will be with me as I move forward into what I will become. 

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One Door Closes…

 I leave places a lot, especially now that I don’t have a permanent residence.  I’m not sure I could even reconstruct a list of all the place I have left since the ”Big Leave,” which was pulling up roots in San Diego and moving to Victoria.  I don’t mean places I spent one or two nights, but places where I moved in long enough to set up my computer and unpack my blender and popcorn maker. Places where I bought several bags of groceries and hung up some clothes. 

I love being settled into a new place.  Walking out the door into a new environment, a new chance for discoveries big and small, is a genuine psychological boost, but I get a different kind of pleasure out of the last few days before I leave a place.

I have spent the last month and a half in a condo on the edge of Victoria’s Chinatown, and I leave tomorrow.  I am 99 percent packed, which means in the last day I have handled and thought about  pretty much every item I brought here. There’s something about winnowing down that focuses me, because once again I see how, even after having gotten rid of almost everything when I left San Diego, I still have too much. 

How do I know this?  Because I am at this moment acutely aware of what I never used. A few days back, yet another suitcase of clothing that I liked and was perfectly fine went to a local charity shop because it’s surplus, plain and simple. I am also very aware of exactly what I still own, a state it is easy to lose track of when you stay in one place and still have room to stash what you keep buying. 

In the last two years I have developed a simple test for possessions. I ask myself when considering buying something:  will this sit in your little storage unit where you can’t easily get at it, or will you haul it from place to place every time you move?  Those are the only two options, and I don’t buy much anymore because neither sounds that great. 

The other thing I take perhaps a slightly weird pleasure in is figuring out how to walk out of a place with zero remaining food.  My meals get very strange toward the end—tonight’s dinner was a bowl of frozen blueberries and sweetened goat cheese, and lunch was a salad made with almost every last tidbit in the fridge.  I do have avocados and some Parmesan cheese to take with me tomorrow, so I am hearing the “fail’ buzzer in my head. Really, the empty fridge is just a fun game anyway. 

So now I am sitting here, cupboards, closets and drawers empty. After I do a little cleaning  tomorrow, it will be as if I were never here. That’s something to think about too, how we vanish from the places we leave. How the only thing we really take everywhere is ourself. How tomorrow I will bring myself somewhere else and be present there. 

And that brings me to the last thing I learned in the place I leave tomorrow. I wanted to live in this area at least for a little while since I moved to Victoria. I envisioned in particular all the Asian restaurants I would try, and I did close to zero of that. A few days ago, I thought about all the great menus I’d read in windows, all the opportunities I let pass, but then I wondered who I thought this restaurant-going Laurel was.  I brought the essential, authentic me to Chinatown and she eats at home. I didn’t waste opportunities. I was just being myself.  With a little Chinese take-out here and there. 

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Wanna

Sometimes I dig deep into my diary entries (over 400 by now, starting in 2008), to see what was going on in my life at some random point in the past.  I came across this little ditty I wrote over ten years ago, and I had to laugh at how apt it has remained. 

There once was an author Corona

Who said of her new book “I’m gonna…”

Write it, she means,

But then life intervenes

For so long she now says, “I don’t wanna.”

Well, okay, these days I do kinda wanna. I haven’t written a word of what I hope will be a successful attempt at novel number six, but I have actually made several passes at a narrative structure  and I think I have one that will work. The characters are starting to talk, and the drama is starting to build. I have reached the point where I can’t hold it all in my head, so I have two choices—do a brain dump and think about something else, or start writing it down. The first option seems hopeless. I guess I am writing a novel. See you when I surface!

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Coming Down With a Book


”I am done writing historical fiction.” Yes, I did say that most emphatically after my last published book, The Mapmaker’s Daughter, came out eight years ago. Many people looked askance, as if I couldn’t possibly mean it, that I just needed a break, that writers never stop writing.

Going through the publishing and marketing aspects of producing a new novel sucked a lot of the thrill out of my last two books, and I still feel physically ill thinking about having to go through all that again. And then there’s the little problem of inspiration. I think of a few dozen stories a year that would make good novels, but all of them have fizzled out in my head without writing a word. There’s no mystery why—a historical novel is a staggering amount of work. Many ideas are fun for a few hours, as I think through how I would tell the story, but none have left me in helpless thrall, demanding to be written. A character has to get her claws in me, bother my sleep, whisper in my ear at inopportune times, refuse to go away, before I reach the point where, as Dianne Ackerman so beautifully puts it, I am ”coming down with a book.”

Well, I think I am indeed coming down with a book. There’s a remarkable woman who will not leave me alone. But the big question for me is why it has taken me so long to get started, since I first fell in love with her story a year ago.

Fear That’s it. Plain and simple. I sat outside yesterday at a Victoria coffee house, on a bright spring day, and when I least expected it, fear ambushed me. It wasn’t fear of the publication woes I described above. I haven’t even thought about what will happen to the book once written, and I wouldn’t describe my reaction to publishing as fear as much as loathing. It is the magnitude of the project that makes me weak in the knees.

A book is hundreds of pages long, and the author has to write every word of it. When I get the first few pages drafted, they seem so paltry. It’s a matter of breaking the writing down into doable bits, then adding each one to the total, and eventually I get to the end. I know this, and I know I am up to it because I have done it before. But page one is a daunting prospect, and page ten, or twenty, isn’t a whole lot better..

It’s not really the writing itself that most scares me. I love to write. I love the utter joy of finding the right words, the thrill of seeing a story take off and become more than I ever imagined. I really can’t wait to start experiencing that again. Maybe my biggest fear comes from loving writing a bit too much. I know how much a novel takes out of me. I reach a point where my world is the book, and the world I actually live in starts getting out of whack. I forget to exercise, I miss mealtime, I neglect my friends, I have to remind myself to brush my teeth and shower, I don’t watch where I’m going because I’m listening to my characters talk.

Finding out what’s going to happen next, letting the characters surprise me, or experiencing a place that feels more real than the room I am writing in—all of these and more are very seductive, but as the late Sharon Kay Penman advised, while we are writing about the past, we have to remember to live in the present. I am loving my present. I love Victoria and Vancouver Island, I love being with my friends, I love going to the pool and gym, I love going off on leisurely ambles in forests and on beaches. I don’t want to get crazy. I want balance, but creativity tends to thumb its nose at balance.

Can I write a book and have the life I am enjoying now? I guess I am about to find out if I can keep the crazy from taking over. i lie awake imagining dialogue, planning scenes, making decisions about the narration. The first words on the first page can’t be far behind. I hope I’m ready for them.

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Islands

Quick—what image first comes to mind when you hear the word ‘island”?

For many people, myself included, the first visual is something tropical, with astonishing turquoise water, palm trees and white sand.  A week ago, as I made the sunset flight—so short we barely had time to climb—between Vancouver and Victoria, I stared out the window at an entirely different sort of island.  These were so densely forested to appear almost black, most without a single light to suggest human presence.  How radically different this was from the Caribbean I had just left—beautiful and fun, but so thoroughly humanized. This would take some getting used to. 

The first time i saw the Island View exit on the highway through the Saanich Peninsula, I thought it was just another example of naming something to sound more romantic and exotic than it really is, like calling tract homes villas or estates, or pretending there is a river or a bay where these only exist in some marketing firm’s imagination.  

Then I went there.  The Gulf Islands visible from shore are dark, hauntingly beautiful enigmas, most with names that signify nothing, because nature doesn’t need the labels we give it. i have been back many times since, and it has become one of my favorite places.

Today I made my first trip back to Island View Park (see photo above), and I was starkly aware of how much had changed in my head since I walked here last summer Today I struggled to be in synch with it because I am struggling to be in synch with everything.


It hasn’t been an easy transition back to Victoria. I was randomly selected for Covid follow up, which made me unable to call up friends and suggest an immediate get together. Oh well, as my friend Annie said, perhaps a soft, buffered landing is better anyway after such a huge and lengthy adventure. 

She was right, of course.  One thing I dread about a return from an adventure is the sense I must account for it somehow. I truly don’t know what to say about all the different environments I was in and the wide array of challenges i faced, and trying to think of how to hit the highlights is exhausting. And besides, I am really more interested in what I have missed by being absent from my friends’ lives for so long that I’d just prefer to pick up where we left off. 

But as I walked today along the pebbled beach at Island View, I thought there is something more going on. With the exception of a few cruise companions for short periods, since I said goodbye to my tour guide in  Montenegro in September, I have been alone. Yes, on the ships I did make a few friends I think are keepers, but the typical day found me off on my own from morning to night On the ships, I ate dinner alone most of the time (Covid rules, and my personal concerns influenced this), and when I didn’t have an escorting gig in port, I wondered around on my own. This made the months I spent in the Caribbean feel very different from any other cruise assignment I have had. 

As a result, my authentic life has been lived inside my head, and I am fine with that. One of my alter egos is a hermit. But the hermit life is not what being in Victoria is about. I really like a number of friends I have made, and my reluctance to break through my self-imposed exile for people who are important to me is surprising.  I guess there are a lot of different kinds of islands, and I have been on my own personal one for so long it  has become my sanctuary, and I feel protective of that. 

I thought that when I first came back to Vancouver Island I would feel a rush of affinity with it. Instead, I feel stuck on my own island, with unresolved business, personal worries, and an inability to just be in the moment, which has been so central to what has made me happy here. I guess that is the nature of any transitional period. I have “moved ” in a sense, and I should expect that to be mental, physical, and psychological  work both in relation to what I have left behind and what I have entered. But I wish I felt a little more of the magic….

I think stepping off my island is crucial now. Just a coffee, or a movie with a friend (hooray—theatres are open!) may crack something open and let the comfort of being here find its way in. All I know is that everything changes, and I will change too, and that has been the driving force in my life. Who knows what is next? I will have to come off my island to find out

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Grounded

When I was a teenager, “grounded” was the state I most dreaded being in. Today (a little more than half a century!) past my teens, and on my first day back in Victoria, the word takes on a beautiful glow.

I first came to Victoria in September 2020, and left for my five-plus months of travel almost exactly one year later, so I hardly had a chance to feel as if this were really my new home. But surprisingly it is. True, my associations with every square inch of it aren’t deep, as they are in San Diego, but every street I crossed, every building I remembered on the taxi ride from the airport into town, called to me, asking if I remembered them.  And I did. And I knew that I would be seeing them again and again, because this where I live.  

As I wrote those words, I realized that “this is where I live” is still not exactly the same as “this is home,” but in my head, it is still quite a step for me to have a place I really want to be. No, my wanderlust  is still—well, lusty—but I think I can be grounded here. I can see how I can be present here, how I can grow, how I can take on new challenges.  How I can not be bored, or stagnant, or feel as if I am wasting one minute of this precious life. 

This morning, my walk was a song about being here.  As I walked along the Inner Harbour (see photo above), I said hello to so many things.

Hello, morning sky.

Hello, steamy breath.

Hello, wool socks and boots.

Hello, Emily Carr sculpture.

Hello Empress Hotel.

Hello, Cafe Milano, with its awesome pumpkin scones year round.

Hello, squawking birds.

Hello, puffer vest.

Hello, hands in pockets

Hello nip on my cheeks

Hello totem poles.

Hello, hello, hello…..

I embrace this huge, wonderful hello, and ask “what’s next?” with the wonder of someone who has lived long enough to understand that “grounded” can be a blessing. 

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Dear Feet, I Love You

Many years ago, I was in a shoe outlet with a friend. We were exclaiming about how cute a particular shoe was, when she added, “until you see it in our size.”  And it was true. We pulled out the size 9, and it was clunky and ridiculous. 

I’ve been told that the most popular size (meaning, I assume, the median size for women) was a 7 or 7 1/2 when my adolescent feet exploded into a 9, and I have spent the decades since thinking of my feet as big. I’ve also been told that 9 is now average, and I’d have to agree that the paucity of size 9 at shoe outlets suggests that that may be true. Still, my girlfriend is right, that so many shoes—and tennis shoes are the worst— just don’t cut it in that size.

Still, for many years, I have admired my feet. I look down at them and am amazed that something so small in proportion to the rest of me can do such a bang-up job of holding me up and moving me around. The strength of those bones, the power of those muscles and tendons is remarkable—a fact I sometimes have trouble appreciating when this awareness comes in the form of a briefly excruciating arch cramp. Maybe I should treat this as a plea for attention rather than a nuisance.  

I am writing about this because I have noticed recently a deluge of articles relating to Covid weight gain, Covid flab, and other developments that are causing great unhappiness as people struggle to get back in the clothes with which they once ventured out into the world. Most articles focus on how to lose weight, how to get back into an exercise routine, or other approaches where the insidious subtext is how we have let ourselves go.  The likelihood is that many of us were dissatisfied with the old normal as well.  We had fitness or weight goals in early 2020, that now may seem hopelessly out of reach. If we wanted to lose 10 pounds before Covid, or up our regular exercise,  now we may need to lose 20 or 30, or drop the weight on the resistance machines, just to start getting back to where we were. 

And then, I also see evidence of a pushback against this thinking.  I read articles that point out that self-love doesn’t have to mean getting back into one’s old clothes or old shape. Self love can mean noticing how well your body has served you, and thanking it by knocking off the criticism. Self-love can mean more targeted improvements, like greater flexibility or increasing stamina for activities you enjoy. Self love can mean wearing sleeveless shirts in hot weather even if your upper arms look flabby.  Self love can mean realizing you don’t owe it to the world to wear makeup, or a bra. Self love can mean throwing away the Spanx. Or it can mean doing none of the above. Self love must be authentic, and mine will be different from yours.

I will probably dislike a greater proportion of photos of myself as years pass, noticing how many are “spoiled” by making me look more wrinkled or fat than my self-image will tolerate. Here’s a baseline photo of me (including feet) still looking pretty good at 71, taken in Montenegro last fall.

Maybe I can learn to see as fabulous the older self i am becoming.  Who knows? But right now, as I move through the world, I can observe myself still moving, still smiling, still reveling in being alive.. I can look at myself after a shower and grimace at the sags and dimples, or I can say; “good job!” Thank you, from vital organs on out to the muscles and bones, to the skin which takes a beating to protect it all. Take care of it. That’s all my body asks of me. 

I can vow to take good care of the whole me I am now—body, mind, and spirit. That’s what self love is