For Whom I Long

That perfect line
Where sea and sky meet
Is where you’ll find me
Waiting, an eternity,
My sweet.

I wrote this poem when I was in my early 30s, experiencing the first of what would be many challenges in my marriage to a man I had met when I was 21. I was convinced I had made a terrible mistake by marrying my husband, and I became obsessed with the idea that my true soul mate was out there somewhere. I imagined him as my warrior mate in a past life, who was now off in some distant horizon, and that one day, in another time and place, we would be together again. I knew this because I could feel his presence in my soul as a longing so deep and intense it ached.

Then a therapist told me that my longing was a coping mechanism to get through my current reality. I was crushed. There was no soul mate.

I told my best friend. She shook her head and looked sad. “You’ve always had more imagination than anyone I know,” she said. “Remember when you got a crush on the Polish guy that worked at the liquor store just because he smiled at you?”

In my first, short-lived marriage at age 17, when things got hard, when they weren’t fun anymore, I left. I did not want to deal with having to fix, heal, or help another person. I wanted someone to fix, heal, and help me. I got tired of laundering his dirty socks and underwear, and of hearing his words slur more as the night wore on and he drank beer after beer. I wanted nothing to do with any of it.

In my second marriage, I resolved to stick it out, to endure, to think of others beside myself. I didn’t want to be that person who kept bailing when things got tough.

So I stayed, and as we moved through the roller coaster that was our marriage, I learned some things. Soul mates don’t have to be husbands or lovers, they can be our best friends, and marriage is hard, hard work. Yet I could grow in this marriage, with this man, and learn to love him in the depths of my soul.

And I have. Each birth, death, joy, sorrow, blessing, and hardship we face together entwines us more. If I am destined to live another life, it may be him for whom I long.

Here is a powerful scene about the excruciating ordinariness of life, and the difficult realities of marriage, between the characters Big Daddy and his son in the Tennessee Williams’ play turned film, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (you can stop watching after about 1:15 minutes to get to the grit of it).

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Resolve

Every day life tests our resolve. Two weeks ago, I posted that my goal over the next year is to practice greater self-acceptance. The other day, I found myself wavering in that goal.

I took a much-needed day off from work, and so I picked up my 11 year old son from school. Before we even got in the car, he asked to go to his friend Jack’s house. I didn’t know Jack or his parents, plus my son mentioned that Jack’s mom wasn’t home from work yet. No way was I going to let him go to a strange house with no adult supervision. I said no, but told him to have Jack’s mom call me.

Back home, I got involved cleaning my grandmother’s old mirror that I’d taken down from the loft over the garage. As I was prying thumb tacks off the back cover of the frame with a butter knife, my son tells me, “Jack is coming over in a few minutes with his mother.”

What?!

I looked around me. Dirty dishes in the sink. School papers, bills, and newspapers strewn about. Piles of shoes thrown near the back door.  Dried cat food stuck on a dish. Loose ends that needed tying up from a remodel – and that was just the kitchen!

I wanted to throttle my son, but I was too busy panicking over the horrible first impression I would make on Jack and, more importantly, his mother. The impression of a disorganized, scattered, messy mother who is too busy indulging in personal activities, like fiddling with a 50 year old mirror, to keep her house in good order.

I should add that my son goes to parochial school, where a large chunk of the student body come from families who are well off. I’m just an ordinary, middle-class educator married to a blue-collar guy, who sometimes struggles to pay the tuition. Our house is in an older, working class neighborhood that I sometimes fear may be going down the tubes.

My inner demons kicked in: Will the mother look her nose down on me and my home? Will she think we’re not good enough for her son?

Then my goal came back to me. So what if my house was messy? I preferred self-care and creative projects to cleaning on a day off. We might not live in the best section of town, but our 1930 colonial was charming and in a friendly, down-to-earth neighborhood that we enjoy. That was what mattered, not the opinion of a stranger.

I thought back to the family with five girls that used to live in the little ranch behind me when I was a girl. Their house was the place to hang out. They had a Roly-Poly, a round, wooden contraption with bench seats and bars to hold onto while someone rolled us around the yard. There was an underground fort where we would bunker down, in the pitch black, and pretend to be hiding from danger. Their basement was finished into a recreation room where we would put on plays for their parents. The girls’ dad made us homemade potato chips, and on Halloween night he would pile us into his station wagon and drive through a nearby cemetery while we screamed in terrified delight.

In retrospect, they probably didn’t have much money, and their house was way more messy and disorganized than mine, yet I loved being there. The chaos was part of the charm.

Suddenly, I was excited that Christian’s friend was coming to hang out at our house. If he and his mom saw me as messy and scattered, all the better. To hell with perfection!

They arrived, and I invited the mom inside so we could get acquainted and exchange phone numbers. Her eyes scanned the kitchen, just as they’d scanned the neighborhood.

“We’re at the tail end of a kitchen remodel,” I said, feeling the need to explain the plywood backsplash over the counter, the lack of trim by the floor, and the box of silverware on the kitchen floor.

“It’s cozy,” she said, leaving me to decide if this was an insult or a compliment.

Then it dawned on me: I knew nothing about this woman. Not where she lived, where she came from, what her story was. I was making all kinds of assumptions based on my own insecurities. Hadn’t I resolved to end this bullshit?

I smiled at her, and felt warmth and acceptance spread through me. “Thank you.”

The Road to Self-Acceptance

I used to be a self-improvement junkie. From self-help books and journaling, to daily meditation and yoga, I was forever striving to become the best I could be, but somehow always falling short.  Now that I’m older and wiser, I am so over it.

It takes tremendous energy to always be striving toward a better version of yourself. Almost as much energy as learning to love and accept yourself as you are, flaws and all. Of the two, I am convinced the latter is the greater use of our energy, and the more difficult, which may be why so many of us prefer the former.

Evolving  toward our highest potential is a beautiful thing. Sadly, too many of us start our journeys of growth and self-discovery from a place of lack instead of love, convinced we’re not good enough as we are and that we therefore need to strive and change to be better.

My entire life has been a struggle to feel good enough, to appreciate myself for who I am – the good, the bad, the quirks, and even my God-given strengths and talents. Did it start in the womb, with my 17 year old mother “disgracing” the family by having pre-marital sex and getting knocked up with me? Can shame be passed on at the cellular level? Does the stain of being the black sheep seep into one’s offspring?

Or could it have started with my father? He never could seem to accept me for who I am. He still corrects my speech (not how I say things, but what I say) and seems overly concerned with how I make him appear. There are digs about me acting like my mother, as if being like her in any way means that something is wrong with me.

What about those small moments that add up over a lifetime, such as when I was eight years old and sitting on my friend Jenny’s front steps with her and a group of girls. Someone mentioned the new landscaping around the front walkway of Jenny’s house and I, in innocence, said, “My parents said they copied our landscaping”, which they kind of had given it was identical and we lived directly across the street. Not that I cared, but my parents had taken issue with it.

Unbeknownst to me, Jenny’s mother was listening inside the house through the screen door. All of a sudden, a voice hissed, “You little devil. How dare you say that. Get off my property.” Stunned and afraid and ashamed, I left without saying a word and spent the rest of the day sitting in our garage watching the girls play. The residue of that day has stayed with me all these years.

I don’t know how my lack of self-acceptance started, but the days of feeling like I have to act a certain way, say things a certain way, dress and wear my hair a certain way – I could go on and on – to fit in and be accepted by others are slowly coming to an end. I am getting too old for such bullshit. I want to experience myself fully for the first time in my life, to know what it feels like to appreciate and accept myself as I am, right in this moment. I want to observe my thoughts, words, and actions without judgment, even the “bad” ones, and to naturally be myself first in every situation, instead of adhering to my tendency to adapt myself to others’ opinions of who and what I should be.

A funny thing that has been happening lately that has prompted this shift. All of the things I’ve learned and thought I understood in my self-improvement heyday are rushing at me, seeping into me as primal, mini-revelations during which I think, Oh my, God. This is what it meant. Now I get it. Now I really, truly get it, in my soul. I couldn’t explain the revelations if I wanted to because they go beyond words to a deep knowing.

What a gift! The world is opening up to me and I’m ready to dive into it.

How to Embrace Rejection and Keep Writing

Rejection is inevitable if you want to be published, so thicken your skin, baby. 

On September 14, 2017, I crossed a big-ticket item off my bucket list. Not only had I completed a 75,000 word romance novel, a bucket list feat in itself, I submitted it to Harlequin Historical Romance for consideration. Pressing the submit button gave me the most amazing sense of joy, accomplishment, and lightness. I had poured my heart and soul into that story and its characters on and off for years. Now I had let it go and the results, mercifully, were out of my hands.

Evolution of a novel
A few years ago, I sent the manuscript in novella form to Harlequin’s Undone line, an eBook division. Two years later, I received an apologetic email from an editor stating that they had shut down the line and only recently realized the email account linked to it was still active. They encouraged me to submit to another line, which meant I needed to expand my story by about 50,000 words.

Inspired that an editor had emailed me for any reason, I lengthened the manuscript and submitted it, this time to Avon Romance. They never got back to me, which serves me right for betraying Harlequin! In retrospect, my query letter and synopsis were pretty awful and I should not have sent a sex scene as the sample of the best scene in the manuscript. I still cringe (and giggle) when I imagine the horror the editor must have felt when she read that scene, if she bothered to read it at all.

Learning from those mistakes, I revised the story rather extensively, wrote a new query and synopsis, and submitted them along with the first three chapters, as requested, to Harlequin. Three months later, I received the best rejection ever, which was a rather detailed and constructive critique of my story. I was so grateful that someone had actually read what I’d written and taken the time to respond! (See rejection letter below if you want.)

Using that critique as a guide, I am back to work on a new historical romance novel. A colleague who has been published suggested that I work with the original manuscript. He read Harlequin’s critique as saying that they thought the piece had promise with some changes. I read it as I should start all over. Regardless of one’s interpretation, it feels right to start fresh with a new story line and characters.

Embracing rejection
I have learned so much from the experience and process of writing and submitting that novel and I want to share it with you.

  1. It takes an incredible amount of time, energy, and perseverance to complete a 75,000 word story. Passion alone will not see you through to the end, though it helps. Kudos to those of us who actually do it, regardless of whether the piece is published.
  2. Be willing to be vulnerable and put yourself and your story out there for the world to see. Some of the feedback will be helpful and encouraging, some will not. We have no control over that, so let it go. Develop an open mind and thick skin. The former will help you sift through the criticism and use it to grow and improve; the latter you will need to keep from wallowing in anger or self-pity and giving up.
  3. You will fail, be rejected, make mistakes, and want to give up. DON’T!  Listen to the criticism, embrace the rejections, and use them to make you a better writer!
  4. The more you write, the more you read, and the more open-minded you are to constructive feedback, the better you’ll get at  writing. Even your worst writing is not wasted! All is practice for what comes next.
  5. Try to assess your writing objectively, especially when revising, editing, and taking in feedback. Don’t become so attached to a word, phrase, scene or character that you can’t see reason. Killing your darlings is a skill set in itself. Get comfortable with it.
  6. Fear not rejection! Fear never having tried in the first place. Enjoy the writing process, look forward to submitting your work, and consider your rejection letters to be badges of honor! They mean that you have written something you care deeply about, submitted it, and taken another step toward your dream. How many people can say they’ve done that?

If you have any words of wisdom you would like share about writing and publishing, please leave them in the comments section!

For those of you interested, here is the rejection I received from Harlequin (a huge thank you to that editor!):

Dear Kim,

Thank you for submitting Sweet Irish Kisses for our consideration. The story has interesting characters and you have a lively way with words. However, regretfully it is unsuitable for publication on the Harlequin Historical list at the current time.

Here are some areas for you to think about, should you choose to submit again.

Character Motivations: 
This story has lots of very exciting, dramatic plot points that we thoroughly enjoyed. However, while they are dramatic, it’s unclear why your characters are choosing to behave in this way, on an internal, emotional level. For instance, your heroine chooses to engage with your hero very quickly, when she might, perhaps, be naturally more suspicious, and in particular the kiss does feel a bit out-of-the-blue. Equally, your hero does not seem to question this. You might like to think about layering in your characters thought processes further, so that we can see why they are acting in this way. Establishing layered, deep-seated, internal motivations for this will make your characters more believable and engaging.

The Alpha Male: 
Perhaps tying in with the above, and indeed the matter of emotional conflict, it’s crucial that a Historical hero is powerful and commanding, regardless of his economic background. While your hero is very likeable, he doesn’t quite fulfil the fantasy of the above traits. It’s important than in his interactions with every other character, he feels thoroughly in charge; it’s also important that he feels motivated by his emotional conflicts, rather than external situations. We would suggest that in future, you focus your hero on his more commanding traits, who embodies that aspirational alpha male which readers look for in the series.

Emotional conflict driving the twists and turns of the story:
The main area to work on would be the emotional conflict between your hero and heroine. With this submission, there is a lot of focus on your characters immediate, dramatic behaviour, and as mentioned above, without much motivation. This is preventing the reader getting straight to the heart and the emotional impact of their backstories and conflicts. We’re sure there is a wealth of potential emotional conflict that prevent these two from coming together, however, it is the external intrusion of external circumstances that forces the twists and turns in their relationship. Emotional conflict is vital to any romance as it is this that pushes characters through their story and provides the grounding for their emotional turning points so that they can evolve and develop as their relationship does.
Digging really deep into their past hurts and using this to creating that ‘will they, won’t they’ tension throughout the story will keep readers turning the pages. To develop this there needs to be an almost insurmountable emotional obstacle within both characters that stops them being together. It is then important for your reader to see both your hero and heroine overcome their emotional concerns through their relationship and come to a happy and emotionally satisfying resolution at the end of the story.

If you are interested in pursuing Historical as a series to write for, we would recommend exploring the series guidelines and reading as many books from the Cherish series to be able to deliver on our series promise. A few excellent recent examples are Lord Hunter’s Cinderella Heiress by Lara Temple, A Pregnant Courtesan for the Rake by Diane Gaston, and The Wallflower’s Mistletoe Wedding by Amanda McCabe.

We are sorry to disappoint you on this occasion but hope you find this feedback helpful.
Thank you for your continuing interest in Harlequin Mills & Boon.

Yours sincerely,
Editorial.

Everything’s Gonna Be Alright

this-too-shall-passMaybe it was my new header photo, taken in Jamaica by one of my students, that inspired me to recall the Bob Marley song, Everything’s Gonna Be Alright. The lyrics popped into my mind yesterday while I sat at the kitchen table paying bills. Outside, dark clouds covered the sky and nearly two feet of snow covered the ground. I should have been depressed, but I felt hopeful.

For a long time, I’ve felt rather hopeless and stuck. I won’t bore you as to why, but suffice to say that if there is a purgatory on earth, it seemed I was in it. Then on this dreary day, hope and Bob Marley’s lyrics filled me. The sense that I was reaching the end of a dark period has been slowly infiltrating my psyche of late, and in that moment I felt the light at the end of the tunnel beckoning me. I am embracing this light with open arms and resolve that I am worthy of it. This last is important because if we don’t feel worthy of something, we are far less likely to get it.

We all go through mini, and sometimes extended, purgatories, stuck and dark periods from which we can’t seem to escape. Maybe they are needed to process trauma or grief. Maybe they are an incubation period for new growth. Maybe they exist so we can appreciate the beauty of life when the light returns.

If you’re feeling stuck and/or hopeless right now, take heart: This, too, shall pass. The light will return in your life and everything will be all right. If you don’t believe me, take Bob Marley’s word for it.

How can anyone not feel happy listening to this song? Thank you, Mr. Marley, for sharing your beautiful spirit with the world through your music.

Walking In The Woods Alone, Sort Of

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I’ve heard it said that walking through a pine forest helps clear our negative energy.

If a woman screams in a forest, and there is no one there to hear her, does she make a sound?

There’s a beautiful stretch of woods adjacent to my father-in-law’s tree farm that my husband and I like to walk through. It’s mostly town-owned private property that leads to a reservoir. In 26 years, I have never walked these woods alone. I’m too afraid a bear, coyote or human predator will kill me. Yesterday, however, my husband wasn’t in the mood to go and I, feeling reckless,  decided to walk alone.

My father-in-law, as usual, was up at the farm sitting in his car when I drove up. He likes to do that in winter, and will sometimes sit there for hours. I guess he’s watching over the place, since no one lives in the old, uninhabitable house anymore, though an occasional bum likes to trespass. I chatted with him for a few minutes, then set off in the woods, taking the walking stick I leave leaning against a tree with me.

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The farmhouse that has been in my husband’s family since the mid-1800s.

I’d been walking for about a minute when a man in a turquoise blue running suit came charging toward me on the trail. He looked to be in his early 30s, dark hair, olive skin, a complete stranger. For a moment, I panicked. I had walked these woods at least a hundred times with my husband and had rarely seen another person. How had he bypassed the no trespassing signs and limited access? Could my father-in-law see him through the leafless trees? Should I turn and run back to the farm?

He ran by me without saying a word. I kept walking. At one point, I turned and looked back. He had stopped short of the farm’s driveway. It kind of looked like he was getting ready to run back my way. Again, I panicked. Should I run to the safety of my father-in-law? Stop it, I told myself. How are you ever going to conquer your fear of walking in the woods alone if some guy in a turquoise running suit is making you paranoid? He’s probably some harmless dude trying to get exercise.

I kept going, back straight, head high, stick in one hand, phone in the other. I called my husband. He didn’t answer, so I couldn’t tell him that he’d been wrong, that I wasn’t safe in these woods alone, that some strange man was running loose in them. I kept going, occasionally checking behind me for a flash of turquoise.

I continued on, past the reservoir, down the steep hill, and through the trail that led to a pond. I stopped at the pond and took a couple of photos with my IPhone. That’s when I saw the deer, a herd of six. They saw me too, stopped, ran a little ways, stopped again as I started walking, and then took off in the opposite direction. It occurred to me that I knew how they felt – unsafe, like at any moment a predator might attack. Poor, beautiful, hunted deer.

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If you look closely, you can see a couple of the deer.

With the pond behind me, I started on a trail that led back to the farm. On the right was a hill that looked like the perfect place to stage an ambush. Alert again, I took off my hood because it limited my line of vision. This action made me think how my husband never wears a hood when we walk in the woods, no matter how cold it is. I’ll pull it up over his head and within a minute, he takes it off. Was he maybe on alert when he did this, trying to protect his family?

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Ambush?

I couldn’t help but wonder if the man in the turquoise running suit was lying in wait for me, either over the hill or around the bend. I thought long and hard about this, and realized I wasn’t afraid anymore. If he was waiting, I’d be ready for him. Which turned out to be a good thing because sure enough, when I rounded the bend, there he was, running toward me. I didn’t panic this time. Progress! He ran by me, again without saying a word, which really was rude. I mean, how do you run right by someone in the middle of the woods and not even acknowledge her?

Soon I reached the clearing that led to the farm. I laid my walking stick against the tree and glanced about for my father-in-law, who was no longer sitting in his car. I figured he must have gone into the garage to warm up by the wood stove. I thought to go in and tell him about the man, but decided to leave instead.  I got into my car, feeling strangely empowered. I’d done it. I’d conquered my fear of walking in the woods alone, with a strange man running around in them no less.

We can overcome our fears by taking one giant leap or we can do so by taking smaller steps that slowly embolden us over time. For now, I choose the latter.

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I don’t know about everyday, but I think I can handle once a week.

As My Grandmother Lays Dying

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My 93 year old grandmother was placed on hospice care this week. Her daughters and grandchildren are rallying around her, trying to provide her, and ourselves, with comfort during her final days. She has been blessed with a long, healthy life, with a patient, steady husband of over 60 years, who predeceased her, with four daughters who love her, and with a bevy of grandchildren and great-grandchildren who think she’s a hoot.

Watching her live out her last days, I am reminded of what a blessing it is to grow old. I think of the people I have known who passed too soon. Maybe it was due to hard living or a genetic condition. Maybe it was through an accident or unexpected illness. Maybe it was through violence or suicide.

We owe it to them not to spend too much time lamenting our gray hairs, wrinkles, sags, aches, pains, and memory lapses. We owe it to them to be grateful to be alive, and to make the best we can of our lives, whatever that might look like for each of us. We owe it to them to take good care of our health and well-being. We owe it to them to nurture and value our relationships with the people who truly matter most in our lives, and to whom we matter most.

As my last living grandparent lays dying, I feel grateful to have known not just her, but all of my grandparents, and three of my great-grandparents – one of the benefits of having been born to 18 year old parents. As the end of an era draws near, I carry with me into the future the memories, stories, and words of wisdom they have shared.  As my grandmother lays dying, I am reminded of how much I want to live a long, healthy, happy life, and to be surrounded by people I love, who love me back, when I lay dying.

It is up to us to lay the foundation that leads to this circle of love. Some of the questions I ask myself when faced with a decision about what is most important are:  Will this matter when I’m on my death bed? Will this person be by my side when I’m on my deathbed, if he or she is still alive? Will I regret this when I’m on my deathbed? The answers always guide me to what matters most.

May we always remember who and what matters most. May we value our selves and each other well into old age. May we be kind and compassionate to our elders. And may we always be young at heart.

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Here is a (most inappropriate) toast my gregarious grandmother used to say (sometimes to gales of laughter, sometimes to abject horror, depending on the company) when she had one too many glasses of wine: “Here’s to the old lady who lives on the hill; if she won’t give it to you, I will.” I love you, Gram.