Saturday, August 31, 2013

Life Lessons From My Dog: Taking One Day At A Time

For so many of us, as life unfolds, it begins to feel a little like a game of chess. It is never enough to plan for tomorrow; we must stay several moves ahead of the game, planning out aspects of our lives to the umpteenth degree. Parents plan their children's academic careers while their children are still in diapers. Teenagers begin their lifelong battle with anxiety over becoming a failure before they have a chance to enter puberty, and adults (if they are "smart") begin to plan their retirement before they are old enough to buy alcoholic beverages legally. We live so far in the future in our planning, in our hopes, in our worries, we tend to miss out on the important little things that happen around us each and every day.

I will be the first to admit that I have been caught up in the future's game before. It is an easy enough habit to slip into. I always loved the game of chess, and even as a child, I was a natural at the strategy it required. I was never annoyingly competitive the way some people are. I just loved the challenge of out-thinking and out-maneuvering my opponent; surprising them with moves they could not anticipate. I loved learning from my mistakes and my losses, which were many in the beginning but grew fewer and farther between as I gained experience.

I would focus on the game and make sure at all times, I had at least seven moves planned out ahead of where I was. I always tried to anticipate my opponent's response to each of my moves, planning in turn what I would do next. It was an exhilarating mental exercise. I used these skills when I went to college, and I applied them when I entered the work force. I had every move of my future planned out perfectly, but then life happened.

The one big difference between chess and life is that chess has rules that every strategist must follow. Your opponent can't knock your pieces off the board or smack you in the face with them. He or she can, but they can expect to be banned from the game. Life on the other hand is not limited by such restrictions. There is no etiquette when life knocks you on your rear-end. It just happens, and all the planning in the world...all of the strategy...cannot prepared you for what you weren't expecting. You have one of two options when this happens. You can fold...give up...admit defeat...lay down your king and walk away, or you can pick yourself up...wipe off your bloody knees...allow yourself a good cry (if you are me) and start a new course.

I have been knocked down so many times in life, I have a pillow tied to my bottom for good measure. I plan for the future. Don't get me wrong. I dream of things both big and small. I am a writer. I weave the impossible every day. What I try very hard not to do is allow myself to become so focused on tomorrow that I miss the beauty each day brings. The simple little miracles that uplift the heart and keep you from being eaten with regret if and when tragedy strikes.

No, I didn't attend a self-help seminar to help me reach this moment of clarity, and I didn't gain any wisdom from staying at a Holiday Inn Express. I learned the importance of living each day to its fullest and taking each day as it comes by living my life with my dog, Peanut Pumpkin Pie.

Peanut is a silly billie girl. She gives me more reasons to laugh in a single day than anything else. She is my happy place, and I have written about her many times, to the joy and perhaps annoyance of others. I have shared her adventures, her antics, her wisdoms and her copious photos. What I have not shared...what has remained my private struggle...has been the many times I have faced losing my precious little girl.

I have always known my time with Peanut would be too short. Dogs don't live as long as people. We are only gifted with their unconditional love for a short time, but I had always planned on it being at least 15 years of bliss. That was my minimum. The first time I was faced with the possibility of losing her because of her health, Peanut was 3, and I was still a wreck for weeks after she pulled through. She was up and playing with her toys; I was balling my eyes out about how unfair life was. The second episode wasn't much different. She was fine, living each day as a new day while I was looking into the dark, unknown wondering when the terrible day was going to come along and destroy my happiness forever.

Then, it was my turn to scare my family with illness. That is when I discovered what it meant to take one day at a time. I won't go into the details of my illness. It really doesn't matter. It was long. It sucked. It required surgery. That sucked. I was out of work for two months recovering. All the while, my Peanut was there by my side. Each day was a new glorious day for her. It didn't matter what tomorrow brought. Today was the best day. Mommy was home. I wasn't leaving. That was all that mattered for her today.

Peanut knew I was sick; catastrophically sick. When she brought me toys, it wasn't so we could play some rowdy game of tug-o-war or "it's gettin' me". It was so I could rest the toy in my hand, and she could groom it, because somehow she knew that was all I could handle. My recovery was hard, but Peanut helped me get through it one day at a time, without dreading the next day. The next day didn't matter. All I needed was to get through the day I was in.

Peanut and I got through my illness together. We have gotten through a great many things one day at a time since those days. I have never forgotten the lesson she taught me.

The last time Peanut got sick, I was faced with the possibility of her dying. Her liver and gall bladder were damaged by toxins in a high end dogfood, and we didn't know if her little body would pull through. I spent every penny I had to save her and then some, wracking up a massive bill with her vet. We did everything modern veterinary medicine offered as a solution. All we could do once the medicines were given and action was taken was wait and pray. I had a choice. I could either fall to pieces and miss whatever time I had left with her, or I could take it one day at a time and relish each moment Peanut and I had together. I chose the later of the two choices.

Peanut wasn't well enough to play, but I wanted her to have as much interaction with me as I could give her, so I carried her everywhere. I sang songs to her; songs I had made up over the years that had her name in it. I brushed her. I rubbed her ears. I caressed her. I did all of the things I could think of to make her feel the full measure of my love for her. I took one day at a time, and I made sure each day was as full as I could make it. I endeavored as much as was humanly possible to lay down the worries of tomorrow, and I just took one day at a time. Peanut and I are still taking one day at a time.

Life has bopped me in the face so many times since I learned Peanut's valuable lesson. It feels sometimes like life is challenging my ability to just take it one day at a time. Some days it is easier than others, and there are those moments when I find myself reverting to those old habits of plotting my moves far into the future. Then little Peanut comes along with a toy or a scrunchie or a happy sock, begging me to remember the joy in the day that God has given me. I look at her smiling little face I find so utterly irresistible, and I lay my strategizing down once again. I never regret the surrender; at least I haven't so far. It has gotten me through too many other challenges that life has thrown my way.

Leave it to a dog to teach mankind what true happiness is all about.

If you enjoyed this blog post, don't forget to "Join this site!" on the right of the page. Also, check out The Case of Jack the Nipper Book 1 in the Chronicles of Mister Marmee, available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The Case of the Wayward Fae, Book 2 in the series, is coming soon.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

What is Written In the Stars

For millennium, mankind has looked to the stars for answers. We have sought guidance for our future and validation for our decisions going back as far as our written records can capture. It is an age old habit. Even in this modern era of iphones, tablets, social media, and instant communication, we still look to the stars to validate our worth, and we use the same stars to validate the worth of others. If you don't believe me, go to the nearest big name online store, and see if the stars don't tell you something.

As a writer, I know the stars have value. I am not talking about horoscopes and fortunetelling. I am talking about those wonderful star reviews that are attached to every published work. Every writer who puts their work out on the market watches those stars as if their very life depended upon them. In some small way, it does. The life of their work depends upon those stars. Poor reviews can break an author, just as much as great reviews can make them. Every author hopes for 5 star reviews. We shout to the world when they come in. We are slightly less enthusiastic when the number reduces to 4. We are delightfully silent when the number of stars falls to 3 or less. To most authors such lackluster reviews are hardly worth mentioning. In fact, many believe they should be hidden in some dark corner of the world where no one can see their dim light. But I say, there may be something written in those stars that is worth our notice.

Back during the gold rush, everyone was looking for the giant hunk of gold that would make them instantly rich. Few people paid much attention to the tiny flakes of gold that drifted by on the currents of the rivers and streams where they panned. Those flakes and specks were hardly worth mentioning. They were hardly worth the effort to chase after them. After all, what could they possibly be worth?

The industrious few who had the gumption to sift through the muck for the gold dust and gold flakes others ignored or rejected were able to make a comfortable living for themselves. They weren't afraid to accept a less than perfect outcome, and they didn't give up. They may not have "struck it rich", but they did well for themselves.

I still remember the first time I got a 4 star review. When I read what was written by the person giving the review, their praises were so glowing, it made me wonder why not 5 stars? Then I decided to see what was written in those stars. I looked at the other reviews the person wrote. What I saw surprised me.

The ratings this person gave were very dim elsewhere. 2 and 3 stars were the most this person ever granted. I received the highest rating for any book or product. Those 4 stars were a precious gift....the highest compliment that reviewer could bestow. I felt the full measure of that honor as I once again poured over the words that were written about my book. It didn't matter how many stars were was what was written in the stars that counted. I was humbled. I stopped counting the stars and started reading their message from then on.

Later on, after my first 4 star experience, I was searching for a book on a particular topic. Research for another novel. I found a book that seemed to have exactly what I was looking for, but it only had a single review. It was a 1 star review. I had learned my lesson, and sought what was written in the stars. As it turns out, the reviewer loved the book! They had accidentally hit one star instead of 5, and the system would not allow the person to change it. They wrote the most glowing review. Had I not looked beyond the number of the stars to the message behind them, I never would have seen what I needed to see. I wound up buying the book, and I celebrated that decision when I read it.

I have received several 4 star reviews for my first novel, and so far, that is the lowest I have received. I do not expect however to remain unscathed by the disgruntled reader who does not like what I have written. If I have learned nothing else in life, I have discovered you cannot please the world, and in a day and age of social media, the world has the right and the empowerment to make their opinions known. The best thing I can do is receive it graciously.

I have grown to celebrate each review for the gift that it is. Evidence of one more reader who took the time to sit through my work; whether they liked it or not. Whether they could follow the language of my novels or not. The fact that they made it to the end of the book is a joy in and of itself. They finished it. They didn't throw it away when they reached page 10. There is something to be said in the completion of a book.

I welcome the stars in all their number. Even a single star sheds light on the world. Never forget that as children, we wished upon the first star of the evening. We weren't afraid of the solitary star, shining all alone in the sky. We shouldn't be afraid of it now. It has so much to tell us.

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Sunday, August 4, 2013

Finding the Beauty In Numbers

In this world, we put a tremendous amount of emphasis on numbers. Whether it's a corporate business or the world of marketing and selling a book, it is all pretty much the same. The numbers are what we tend to focus on. They are the lifeblood of what we do, or so we tell ourselves every day as we pursue them. The bigger the numbers, the better we feel about things. More twitter followers. Bigger book sales. Higher ratings. The list goes on. We get so wrapped up in the numbers, however, we begin to lose sight of what those numbers are made up of. We forget that each hash mark on our tally sheet represents a soul...a living person.

In my day job, I have been buried by someone else's numbers; someone else's goals. There have been days when I have wondered how I was going to keep my head above the water, much less find time to do the one thing I love to do above all things. Write. It was an impossibly bleak situation, or so it felt. I will not recount how many tears fell for me; I admit only that they came and with abundance. I felt a sense of despair overtaking me, and I did not like it. I thought all was lost to me, until I was saved by a number of my own. It was a single, solitary boy.

A friend of mine from high school bought my book "The Case of Jack the Nipper" for his young son to read. His boy loves mysteries and he loves cats, so my book was the perfect gift to give. My friend is currently serving in the military overseas so his time with his family is currently shared over Facebook posts, Skype, and video clips. My friend posted on my Facebook page a video of his son reading the first few paragraphs of the first chapter of my book. His words were halted as he sounded out vocabulary that was unfamiliar to him, but as the sentences unfolded, something incredible happened. I found the burdens on my heart lifted.

I always thought the greatest gift I could receive as a writer would be a prestigious writing award or my name on the New York Times Best Seller List. Those aspirations are wonderful, and I look to them as future goals. They are part of the numbers game every writer plays a part in. When I played the video of my friend's son reading the first few paragraphs of my book, it ceased to be about numbers and became something more. I had received a greater honor with this young boy's introduction to my book. He was not just another tick mark on my tally sheet. He was a soul...a person. He represented the very reason why I write. The inspiration behind my words. He's not a number to me. He can't be. Not now, not ever.

As a new author, my numbers are small. I am not afraid to admit it. The world is just beginning to open for me, and I am just starting to navigate the waters that are required for my craft. Readers and fans are starting to find my book, and as I add to my list of offerings, that number will grow. Today, however, in my smallness, I find myself grateful for my adversity in someone else's numbers. It helps me to remember how precious each person is who adds to my own.

Numbers are important in this great, big world of ours. We live by them. We die by them. In the world of books, the bigger your numbers, the greater your chances of success. I understand the mechanism behind the numbers. We don't have to be blind to what's behind the numbers, however ~ the individual souls who take joy in the stories we weave for them. I will forever keep the image of my friend's son before me, struggling through the words of my book, seeking to lose himself in the world I created. I never want to forget that with each book sold, there is a heart behind it, longing for escape....longing for entertainment....longing for a connection to the world they have yet to visit. Or better yet, longing to reconnect to a world they lovingly visit over and over again.

Click here to read The Case of Jack the Nipper by H.L. Stephens. Available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other fine book retailers on the web.