On Greece, Rome, leaning against ancient temple columns, and . . . oh yeah, a new book coming soon!

To my horror I realized today that it’s been over two months since I’ve posted here. The past couple months of teaching high school–with my students taking the AP English Literature exam (scores are released this weekend–biting my knuckles), helping with Junior Prom (I got to be the MC announcing students, but I held back from using my full <announcer voice, voice . . .voice>), getting the school’s literature and arts book published (thank you, Amazon), helping students write graduation speeches (“Why aren’t you mentioning me?”), and grading finals (did they answer all the questions? Just slap a 90 on that.)–well, all that took every last minute of my days.

Then, the last day of school on June 14, my husband and I took off for sheer indulgence to celebrate our 31st wedding anniversary, since we’ve never really celebrated any of our past anniversaries beyond eating a piece of cake. We left our family, flew to Rome–just the two of us–and took a cruise to the Greek isles. It was my first passport, our first cruise, our first major trip anywhere. (People on our ship asked us if we took “practice” cruises before, and I just stared at them, not realizing that’s a thing. Matching t-shirts on cruises are also, sadly, a thing.)

Some of my students, after hearing where I was going and responding to my pictures on Facebook, said, “Man, you must be RICH to go on this trip!” (Forgetting that we’re school teachers in America.)

I replied with, “Not by any stretch. I’m working a second job for two summers to pay for it, we planned our port excursions on our own to save money, loaded up on the breakfast buffet before we left the ship so we didn’t have to eat until we got back for dinner, and for souvenirs we collected sand in test tubes and rocks off of beaches. In Rome we found a grocery store and bought local food for meals, paid only for two guided tours (Delos and the Vatican) and otherwise purchased guide books or just sidled up to other tour groups to listen in on what we were seeing in Athens, the Colosseum, Olympia, etc. We didn’t purchase the drinks package on the ship (picked up our own soda off-ship), walked for miles every day or took local buses and trains instead of taxis, and THAT’S how you afford a Mediterranean vacation!”

I never imagined I’d actually write a paragraph as I did above. Such a trip never was a possibility, only a dream. Yet it happened (after a GREAT deal of planning and saving). I’m still surprised we went through it, and that nothing horrible happened as a result. (I’m guilty of believing that if I try to do something fun, the cosmos will come back and bite me later. It still may . . .)

If you’ve read my books, it’s no secret that I borrow from ancient Greece and Rome: architecture and ruins, leadership and armies, “bread and circuses.” I’ve researched a great deal of their societies to create my own in the Forest at the Edge series.

In Book 6, Flight of the Wounded Falcon,  I gave Perrin and Mahrree experiences I’d never had (ok a little wish fulfillment in my books). I also gave them a way to remember it:

 . . . Mahrree gazed again at the large painting that nearly covered the wall in their little gathering room. For their anniversary a few weeks ago, Perrin had asked a landscape artist to create for them a painting of the ancient temple ruin where they had trekked so often.

The Shins had expected a small picture, but the artist, knowing how much they loved the site, created an immense painting of breathtaking realism of the entire area, with details and colors that left both Perrin and Mahrree speechless.

But the best part was that she had included both of them in the painting, smiling and leaning on either side of a pillar at the top of the stairs of the crumbling temple. They were only a few inches high, but even then the detail was astonishing.

They discovered later that the artist had been surreptitiously following them. Their grandchildren, in on the surprise, had found occasion to ask them to lean against things so that the artist could quickly sketch them at the correct heights. . . .

On nights like this, Mahrree stared at the painting and wished she and Perrin were at the ancient site again, as they had been dozens of times, all alone. . . .

The last time they did it was just a few weeks ago, for their 44th anniversary, just before they’d been presented with the glorious painting.

When Dave and I paid off the trip and realized we were actually going (although I kept thinking, Some disaster will strike and we won’t go; Greece will slip into the ocean, Rome will erupt in a giant volcano, I’ll get a horrible stomach flu . . .) I told my husband that all I wanted were a couple of pictures of us leaning against an old pillar. He hasn’t read the books (although I’ve used him on several covers) so he was a little confused by my request, but he was willing. (I wish you could see his, “Are you serious?” expression. After 31 years, I’ve seen it MANY times. He’s learned it’s just best to go along with things to keep me happy. That’s why we’ve been married for 31 years.)

On the island of Delos, we asked a man with a camera like mine to take our picture. (Here’s a travel hint: always find someone with a nicer camera than yours to take your picture; people with only phones have no idea what they’re doing.) The wind wasn’t too helpful, but the excitement–for me, at least–wasn’t blown away as we posed at the Temple of Isis (not the current ISIS, but an ancient one, fortunately):

Two days later we were in Olympia where the ancient Olympics were held for a thousand years, and whoa–more columns to lean against! So again I recruited a photographer, and my husband gave me that same puzzled look, then gamely leaned against another column:

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I see these photos from just a couple weeks ago and I still can’t believe that I was allowed to visit some amazing places. I still marvel that I’ve been allowed to have nine children, to teach high school students, to write an entire books series, to meet so many marvelous people . . . sometimes life is just too good.

No, I amend that: very frequently life is just too good. When you stop and analyze it, and realize what opportunities it gives you, it’s overwhelming. We have to sit in the grass and just whisper, “Thank you.”

Even if the cosmos does decide to come back one day and bite me in the rear because it’s my turn for a new trial, I’ll still have had all of this. Too much, and too good.

Oh, and did you notice what I put in the title about a new book? IT’S TRUE! I’ve written a prequel about the first High General Pere Shin and the servants of King Querul, and it’s nearly ready to be published! (Ok, so I had a few minutes here and there the past three months, and surprisingly I produced a new book with that time.)

I plan to release it this summer, now that my life has slowed down a little, so watch for updates and a LOT more posts about The Walls in the Middle of Idumea, a Forest at the Edge Prequel.

And no, you do NOT have needed to read the series to read the prequel. In fact, I think it’ll be a good lead-in to the rest of the series, especially since it’s only about 180 pages (not as daunting as some of my other books). So if you have any friends that have been interested in reading, tell them they can begin here!

The Walls in the Middle of Idumea–coming very, very soon!

Book 7 teaser–He still had a foundation, and something new could be built for him

I go walking a few times each week, and yesterday went exploring a quiet, tracked lane by myself. It’s not hard to lure me into the woods, and I was surprised to soon find myself on a peninsula with untouched fields of wild blueberries and black berries.

And I also found boulders!

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I felt like I had stumbled into Edge!

But what I found at the end of the peninsula surprised me most of all: ruins.

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I know this area has been inhabited by colonists since the late 1600s, by Native Americans for far longer than that (they’re the ones who dined on blueberries and lobsters hundreds, if not thousands, of years before anyone).

But these stones took my breath away. My first thought was, “This foundation’s still standing!”

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With a little weeding (ok, getting those trees out might take a little longer) and some reshifting of stone, another house could feasibly be built there. Carefully fitted, these stones had remained solid for who knows how long.

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Today I told my archaeologist daughter about what I found yesterday, and in ten seconds she sent me a link: I had “discovered” the remnants of Fort Foster, built in 1776 during the Revolutionary War to keep East Machias, Maine, safe from the British.

A forest, boulders, AND a fort?! I HAVE found Edge!

As for these stones, I don’t know how long they’ve been there; because the fort was mostly berms, these stones were likely part of some settlement structure before or after.

But they gave me goosebumps. Through years, through storms, through prosperity and poverty, this sure foundation has remained. 

I thought about the horrific flooding in Texas, and I have no doubt that when the waters finally recede, and the devastation is fully realized, there will be something that remains: solid foundations. Marking where homes and lives used to be, and perhaps inviting lives to rebuild again.

In fact, in every devastation I’ve seen people face, as long as they have a solid foundation–a rock upon which they’ve based their lives–they can continue.

I was so struck with these images that I ran home and added new lines to Book 7 which I thought was finished. But, like everything, there’s always room to keep building and growing:

So often he’d found it hard to see himself, as if he were looking deep into his soul and was terrified by what he’d find, but tonight he wanted to see what was there. And what he saw someone a little lost but finally on the right track. He also saw his grandfather looking back at him.

He suddenly remembered the ruins of their burned house outside of the fort. Despite all that had happened to it, the foundation was still there and strong, and something new could be built upon it.

Then he understood. He still had a foundation, and something new could be built for him. ~Book 7, The Soldier in the Middle of the World, coming October 2017

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How a Pepperidge Farms cake revealed that everyone is obedient to something, if they realize it or not

My friend “Sally” has a brother who openly belittles her for being “blindly obedient” to her religion. Privately, Sally struggles to think more charitably of “John” who she thinks is a jerk.

One summer their parents invited Sally’s family and John’s family to share their condo at the beach. They agreed until they found out—too late—that each other’s family would be there. So Sally, her husband, and three kids decided to try to be cordial to Jon, his wife and two kids.

But things started off rocky, because while John and his family arrived at the condo on Saturday, Sally and her husband has responsibilities at their church and didn’t want to miss it. Normally they avoided travel on Sundays, but to keep the family peace, they left after church and arrived at the condo that evening.

It wasn’t good enough. John greeted them with, “You and that stupid church of yours. I swear, you’re so blindly obedient to it that you fear to miss even one day? Check-in to the condo was yesterday, you know. You were supposed to be here then.”

Sally was determined to be kind, even though it was silently eating her gut. She had called the condo earlier and they told her check-in started on Saturday, but they could check in at any time that week.

However, Sally gritted her teeth and said, “Thank you for getting the place for us.” She decided not to further ruin her Sabbath by getting in an argument about her “blind obedience.” Jon had quit religion when he was a teenager, and thought Sally was ridiculous for giving up her Sundays.

The next morning, Sally got up to make her kids their favorite muffins. She dumped the mixes in the bowl and proceeded to whip the contents into a froth.

“Whoa!” John exclaimed as he came in the kitchen. “That’s not how you make muffins!” He snatched the bowl out of her hands, picked up the box with instructions, and said, “Look—it clearly says, ‘Mix gently until just moistened.’ Can’t you follow directions?”

She grabbed the bowl back, trying not to feel like a twelve-year-old again. “I know what the box says, but some months ago one of my kids made muffins, overmixed the batter, and we discovered that we much prefer that texture. Whipping improves the recipe, and this is how we like it!” She purposely whipped the batter even more, just to shock her brother who stormed out of the kitchen mumbling, “She can’t ever get things right . . .”

The muffins turned out exactly how Sally and her family liked them.

That day the weather was rough, so instead of spending it at the beach, the families hit the shops. Sally and John took their kids in different directions. One store on the boardwalk was particularly aggressive in trying to get parents to buy their children an overpriced stuffed animal they “made” themselves, then paying an extra $10 for that animal to wear a t-shirt from the beach. They advertised loudly that the bears were the item to have that year, and the employees went so far as to herd families into the store.

Sally and her husband purposely steered their kids away. They had a budget for the trip, and told each of the kids how much they could spend on them. “That bear, all by itself,” Sally’s husband told their kids, “would take all of your souvenir money. One toy for all of you? But instead of a bear that wears a t-shirt, how about each of you get a t-shirt for school? The shop over there has a deal, and you could each get three shirts and still have money left over for churros.”

The decision was easily made, because churros are the best, and when they went back to the condo at dinner time they had a dozen t-shirts for the whole family. They’d stopped at the grocery store to buy supplies for dinner—grilled cheese sandwiches, carrots with dip, and a favorite cake for dessert.

Sally wasn’t surprised when they entered the condo and found John and his family already there, each of his kids with one of those bears, each with the extra $10 t-shirt.

One of Sally’s kids said to her cousins, “My parents said those were too expensive. We bought us t-shirts instead.”

As the cousins examined each other’s purchases, John smirked at Sally. “Too cheap to buy them stuffed animals?”

“Not at $50 each,” Sally scoffed. “Our kids would stick them on a shelf then never play with them. I thought it was a useless purchase for us.”

John scoffed back. “But it’s what you do at the beach! You buy them expensive souvenirs. That’s what credit cards are for.” Sally and her husband didn’t believe in using credit cards.

John also predictably made fun of their grilled cheese sandwich dinner, (“But it’s our favorite!” Sally defended) and when someone knocked at the door, John announced, “There’s our dinner from the ‘Happy Harbor’.”

John’s kids frowned as his wife paid the delivery boy. “But we hate seafood,” they complained.

“Seafood is what you eat at the beach,” John told them, and set out their elaborate dinner of shellfish on the table on the back porch, so that any passers-by at the condo could see the bags advertising the most expensive restaurant in the area.

Sally quietly made two more grilled cheese sandwiches and slipped them to John’s kids who wolfed them down before their parents announced that their seafood feast was laid out and ready.

Sally’s family sat at the table indoors, not needing to show off their sandwiches, and perfectly satisfied to not have to dig their dinner out of shells like their cousins, whose complaints could be heard from outside.

When it was time for dessert, Sally pulled out of the freezer their favorite: two frozen Pepperidge Farms cakes. John came in from the porch and frowned at the cakes she was removing from the boxes. “You’re not cutting those up frozen, are you?”

“Of course I am,” Sally said. “They taste like ice-cream cake like this.”

He grabbed the box and pointed at the words. “Look, right here. You’re supposed to defrost it in the fridge, first. Man, you can’t get anything right, can you? I’m taking my family out to the Ice Cream Shack for a proper dessert.”

“But that place is pricey!” Sally exclaimed. “One scoop of ice-cream costs more than an entire cake.”

“It’s supposed to be pricey. It’s the beach and it’s supposed to be the best! And don’t cut that cake while it’s frozen!” Enraged, he took his family—and his credit card—out for the evening.

That’s when it hit Sally, and she told me later, “I realized at that moment that John belittled me not for my ‘blind obedience’ but because I wasn’t obedient to what he thought was important. His fury at my cutting a frozen cake was only a hint at a much bigger problem:

He, too, was exceptionally obedient—to what the world expects of him.
His insistence that I follow the directions on the boxes?
Obey the boxes.
His buying those expensive bears because everyone else was?
Obey the crowds.
The ice-cream?
Obey the marketing.

“The trip became easier after that, because I finally understood my brother; he was scared of what people would think of him if it found out his sister wasn’t obedient to the world he worshiped, and he was terrified to not be seen what he thought it demanded he be doing.

“I realized that all of us are obedient—wholly devoted—to something: maybe it’s a team, or a political party, or a religious organization, or a movement, or even ourselves that we set on a pedestal and worship.

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That’s not necessarily wrong or bad. But it is if we don’t realize it, or if we didn’t make that choice consciously.

“John didn’t recognize how blindly he followed the trends of the world, and worried that everyone was watching to make sure he did everything he was ‘supposed’ to do at the beach. But I doubt anyone even noticed him and his family’s ‘obedience.’

“Yes, I’m obedient to my church, because I’ve researched and lived by its teachings, and have discovered for myself that it’s the best way for me to live my life. That’s how we’ve done everything, from muffin mixes to how we spend our Sundays.  There’s nothing blind about my obedience. Nothing blind at all. I’ve chosen what I’m obedient to, and it’s brought meaning and peace to my life.

“Unfortunately, I’m not sure my brother can say the same thing.”

But Jaytsy knew what she did love, and it was glorious to no longer worry about the world’s opinions. ~Book 4, The Falcon in the Barn