I am a big fan of Victoria Dougherty and her Cold Noir Writing. Having met her in person in Prague, the city with a Cold War history, and scene of her amazing book “The Bone Church” , d…
Recently, I had a long and winding talk with friends about childhood dreams. We each told our story, prompted by a “Question of the Week,” which is the way we keep in close touch during the course of our busy lives. All of us are bound to answer, unless there’s a tsunami or something.
“So, I asked, What was your childhood dream?”
My friend Ellen chimed in immediately. She has always wanted to be a writer and is one. Fiction has been a constant in her life – throughout moves, changes in relationships, child-rearing and illness. It has never left her side and she cannot imagine herself doing anything else. Not even when she was a kid, and her friends wanted to be fairies, firemen or just super rich. When it was Ellen’s turn to float out her heart’s desire, she always said “writer.”
However, Ellen was the exception.
What was so interesting was how the rest of us did not end up actually pursuing our childhood dream, but somehow that dream informed our careers, our sensibilities and lifestyles. The dream may not have been a constant, like it has been for Ellen, but more a constant companion. That friend who’s always whispering, “Wanna go on a road trip?” “Are you going to go all the way with him?” “Let’s ditch school and go to the beach!”
When I was a kid, I wanted to be Carol Burnett more than anything else in the world. I watched her variety show every week, memorized her skits, wrote my own – even filmed a few of them on an old Super 8 camera (it wasn’t old then). Being funny, making people laugh seemed an honorable profession to me, one as worthwhile and noble as being a doctor or a teacher. At my darkest times, during my most Charlie Brown childhood moments, Carol was always there for me. And I wanted to do what she did – make people feel good afer a rough day or year.
Of course, my comedy dreams were not exclusively altruistic. I loved watching people spit strawberry milk out of their noses after one of my cracks, disrupting class, earning a smack on the head from Sister Margaret Ann. She was built like a wrestler, and her meaty palms were powerful – but it was so worth the headache, the ringing in my ears.
To this day, being called funny is the highest compliment I can receive. So much better than being told I look beautiful. When asked by a mutual friend what first attracted my husband to me, he said, “She had a real sense of humor. Most women I’ve gone out with like laughing at jokes but never make any.”
That made my heart flutter.
Yet somehow, even though becoming Carol Burnett was without question my fondest dream, I became a novelist who writes thrilling spy adventures and epic, heart-wrenching young adult love stories. All very serious stuff.
But I can’t deny that there’s a deep current of humor in everything I’ve ever written. Even my most somber essays on this blog – about death or faith or true love – tend to be embroidered with some manner of joke. I guess because of Carol and her influence on me, I cannot stand taking myself too seriously. In even the greatest heartbreak, I leave room for the absurd, the ironic, or downright hilarious, and have little tolerance for victim culture. Not because I don’t acknowledge that victims exist and that their pain is real, it’s that I feel succumbing to victimhood is toxic. As unhealthy as smoking five packs of cigarettes a day and washing them down with a fifth of vodka.
I see good humor as a trait of good character, not just a fun personality feature. During the course of my life, a person with no sense of humor has typically been my natural enemy in the wild. We circle each other carefully, and usually end up just backing away.
But while chasing off the sullen and tedious, my childhood dream has sucked into my orbit people who share my world view, and don’t even blink when I tell them that Carol Burnett has had the greatest influence on my life. Not Gandhi, not Martin Luther King, but Carol. They not only understand, but say, “I totally see that!”
Because they have had a similar journey.
My friends Nick and Jess both took some of the best parts of their respective childhood dreams and helped calibrate them for their growth and changing needs.
Jessica wanted to be a movie star, but became a tech entrepreneur instead. Those are seemingly unrelated careers on the surface of things, but if you could see how Jess lights up any room she enters you’d understand. She loves making the pitch, and hatches approximately three life-changing, sh*t-disturbing schemes a day. She is a charismatic and ethical leader.
“You are a movie star,” I told her.
Her husband, Nick, wanted to be a baseball player, but now writes baseball mysteries. His alter ego, Johnny Adcock, is an aging major league pitcher who supplements his diminishing baseball salary with high-priced gum shoe work – helping rich friends being blackmailed by murderous gold-diggers and such. By writing baseball mysteries, Nick has gotten to hang out with a crew of baseball players he’s interviewed for research. He’s played ball with them, drank with them, lived vicariously through them.
And maybe that’s what I’ve hit on here. The vicarious part. My friends and I – all creative people like writers, actors, and entrepreneurs – are a curious combination of wallflower and leader. We desire an inexorable amount of control not only over our own lives, but the lives or our characters or products, made-up people and gadgets we endeavor to use as avatars for our worldview, for being able to affect a mood, a belief, perhaps a childhood dream of someone else’s.
Of course, not everyone has allowed their childhood dream to stick around, and share space with with their more practical choices.
We all have friends who wanted to be musicians, scientists, chefs and never took one recognizable step in that direction. They seemed to have no invisible companion standing on their shoulder and telling them to take the dive. Not surprisingly, their dream died, and when you ask them about it now, they just sort of shrug or change the subject. Perhaps it’s because they’re unsatisfied with the path they chose, and don’t want to talk about it. Or maybe their childhood dream really did lose its allure. Like a second grade crush – based on a freckle-faced cousin’s ability to eat a worm without flinching – their dream became a bit embarrassing once they’d grown up a little bit. As a result, what they became in adulthood was a reaction to the old dream, an opposing stance.
Whatever the case, whether we fulfill them, absorb and repurpose them, or reject them outright, childhood dreams give so much more than mere career direction. They leave their mark. Some might say a scar. As for me, they are a fond memory, like a first kiss. I remember the taste of his lips, the thrill, the way his hand stroked my back and inched its way under my t-shirt just to feel my sun-kissed skin. But even that kiss, as intoxicating as it was, doesn’t compare to the way my husband leans into me and looks into my eyes, holding me tight. That’s the stuff truly realized dreams are made of.
I’ve been on a Sally Mann kick lately.
In the span of a few days, I binge-watched a recent CBS Sunday Morning segment, then a documentary about her life and photography. And if that wasn’t enough, I read her memoir, Hold Still, and reacquainted myself with her stunning body of work (at least what we have of it on our bookshelves) – from the controversial photos of her young children in Immediate Family to What Remains, her visual meditations on death.
And yet, despite how compelling I find her process and meticulous attention to detail, what’s stuck with me most is her philosophy of capturing the local, the immediate, rather than the highly conceptual, the wide-flung and international.
She talks at great length about being a southerner and loving the south – warts and all. In the way you love your family, even if some of them make you want to put a nail gun to your temple. Or theirs.
After having now spent a good deal of my adult life in the South, interpreting Sally Mann’s work and reading her life story has made me think about my own evolution in thought about my adopted home.
I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, surrounded by neighbors with last names like O’Malley, Dulik, Zito and Dumbrowski. And I’m a Yankee who moved south with many, if not all of the same prejudices that my northern peers excel at.
See if this sounds familiar: the South is racist, backward, quaint, overly-mannered, full of fake smiles. It’s uneducated, unenlightened, and uninterested in ever evolving out of its troubled past.
I won’t discount them. Stereotypes don’t appear out of nowhere in a puff of pink genie smoke. Like gossip, they hold some truth.
Except that the South is also beautiful in a weeping, classical sense. Lush. It’s air is like hot breath, and it’s people are neighborly, stubborn, courtly, and languorous.
When I dropped off an antique clock at a repairman’s in April and asked when I should plan on picking it up, the clerk said – I kid you not, “Why don’t you try back about Thanksgivin’ ma’am.” The place was as quiet as church. The man as leisurely as a sip on a Mint Julep.
As a compulsive storyteller and story-listener, living in the South has provided fascination and fodder for me. Like the Irish, Southerners are lyrical in their thought and speech, chronicling the local through verse, drama, a pick on a guitar.
Think Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, Frederick Douglass, Kate Chopin, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams. And this is only a sampling from the immediate post Civil War period – a time when the South was utterly devastated and had no business contributing to the canon.
Post war stars of the literati include Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, William Styron, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Anne Rice, John Grisham, Pat Conroy and Tom Robbins, just to name a few.
(Ok, I know I went heavy on the writers here, but what do you expect?)
It is because of the South that we have Jazz, Country and Rock-n-Roll music. Around the world, hearts ache, flutter and rejoice to the distinctly southern sounds of Johnny Mercer, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Lyle Lovett, Jimmy Buffett, REM, The Black Crowes and yes, Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Because there is a depth in Dixie, one that plays muse to those of us inclined to interpret and examine. Maybe sing a love song. It lies beneath the wrap-around porches and behind the polite banter. In the tiny, time-warp towns that dot the valleys.
It is evident in the writings of Thomas Jefferson, notably “The Declaration of Independence.” In perhaps one of history’s great ironies, this document, written by a southern gentleman and slave owner, includes what has been called the greatest sentence ever written:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Still, at least for Yankees, the Hollywood invented “Dukes of Hazzard” TV show seems a more typical example of southern culture.
Now, I’m not putting the blame squarely in the lap of un-watchable early eighties television here. It would appear the South’s reputation as a cultural backwater has been around for a while. It really took off in the 1920s, when Yankee writer H.L. Mencken penned a satirical piece highlighting the South’s inability to produce anything of cultural value. He became wildly popular after the publication of his essay, and his perceptions have stuck, taking on a life of their own and feeding the imaginations of coastal city rats.
Years ago, when I acted in a British play (“Grace” by Doug Lucie), I portrayed a southern woman. A theater critic (NYC born and bred) spotlighted my excellent southern accent while disparaging another actress whose cadence “seemed fake” to him. Only that I’d gotten my accent from TV and my fellow actress was a real live southerner from Alabama.
I’m not saying this to pick on the critic – not much, anyway. It’s just that we northerners think we know southerners the way people think they know Britney Spears. We’re vaguely aware that regional inflections exist, but are utterly incapable of distinguishing between a Texan’s drawl and a Virginian’s lilt. We snicker about the South’s preoccupation with the Civil War. The statues of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, the re-enactors.
“War, war, war,” if I can quote Scarlett O’Hara. Get over it!, we say.
But can you really blame southerners for their obsession? The Civil War was the pivotal event in our country’s history – the one that scarred us, shaped us, grew us up and made us who we are today. It happened on southern soil – the fighting and the bleeding, the burning, the gouging and the tears. Then the aftermath. The shame which lives on.
As Sally Mann points out, southerners are the only non-immigrant Americans who know what it’s like to lose. To return home in utter defeat…to crawl back to their families quite literally on their hands and knees. To have been on the wrong side of history and morality.
When you look at other cultures who have had to navigate devastating losses – the Slavs, the Germans, the Jews, the African-Americans – they share with the American South a fixation on who we are that’s difficult for your average Yankee to understand.
Here is my interpretation.
Yes, the South is the place of lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan. But it is also a place of self-reflection, of having to own up to devastating mistakes. Of trying painfully, desperately to change, without losing a sense of identity and dissolving into self-loathing and bitterness. Or violence.
Despite the specter of the past, or maybe because of it, there is a fellowship here that I never encountered in any place I’ve lived in the North. A sense of family and level of comfort between the classes and races that I admit took some getting used to.
Not because I didn’t like it, but because I simply didn’t expect it.
In many parts of the South, including my own neighborhood, the poor, middle class and rich still live on the same street. When there’s a big storm, we offer those who lost power a place to hang out. When there’s snow, we help shovel each others driveways. We know each other’s kids. We smile and wave at each other. We don’t lock our doors.
And yes, I mean “we” now. We’ve been here long enough that we can’t say “they” very credibly anymore. This is the place our children call home.
There are Confederate flags tacked in the windows of ramshackle country homes and there’s a proliferation of “Don’t Tread On Me” licence plates. Delusions of grandeur permeate every level of society. There is ignorance, and a simultaneous fear of moving on and being left behind. But southerners don’t have the luxury of placing themselves above it all the way northerners do. The way I used to.
Southerners have had to look one another in the eye for a long time, and deal with a disgraceful past. Clumsily perhaps. Imperfectly. But with a sense of “the local” that Sally Mann inherently understands. Her images of Civil War battlefields depict strips of land that have absorbed blood, death and despair, but remain luxurious. Reclining sensually, and with a weary grin, they tell our story.
All photographs by Sally Mann.
This week, yogi, writer and all around wonderful woman Britt Skrabanek had me on her blog as her April “Life Enthusiast.” I’ve reblogged the post below, but I urge you to go to her blog and follow. She’s just such a lovely, positive person who brings great heart and soul to everything she does.
Two months ago I asked my lovely readers to vote on a monthly series I had running for two years, The Life Enthusiast Chronicles. The series is all about what makes people from all over the world absolutely in love with life. The sole purpose of the series has always been to inspire and uplift.
Worried that maybe the series had gone on too long, I had to ask you guys this: Should the Life Enthusiast Chronicles continue?
You said yes. So, here we are.
I took some time selecting a Life Enthusiast for the comeback post, because it felt important to bring someone here that could reinvigorate the series with unabashed beauty. That person is Victoria Dougherty from Cold (and from Virginia).
I’ll proudly admit that I have had a girl crush on Victoria all the years I’ve been reading her writing, both on her blog and her fantastic novel I…
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I think any major life event involves an often far-fetched amount of conjunction, coincidence. This is especially true of war.
There is something about war that inspires double meanings, providence and twists of fate that are mythological in proportion. It is why true stories, when written under the auspices of fiction, sound too extraordinary to be real. Why I’ve chucked several scenes – even entire chapters – in my fictional endeavors because they were rooted too much in reality and therefore, somehow, didn’t ring true.
Just imagine the unfathomably harrowing story of Louis Zamperini in “Unbroken” and the skepticism a reader might feel if it was written as a work of fiction.
Italian immigrant and juvenile delinquent becomes Olympic runner alongside Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics. He goes to war. His plane crashes into the ocean. He survives some 47 days on a life raft only to be rescued by the enemy and become a prisoner of war. He’s tortured, beaten, shuttled from camp to camp and followed by an effete, sadistic tormentor who is fixated on him and his Olympic career. He narrowly escapes execution when the war ends. He comes home with PTSD and starts drinking heavily. He goes broke, his wife almost leaves him, but then he happens to meet the Reverend Billy Graham, stops drinking, stays with his wife, turns his life around and ends up devoting his life to helping others. In his golden years, he carries the Olympic torch as his former tormentor looks on.
Can’t you just hear yourself saying, “Yeah, right”?
Then, there are the stories of coincidence, like my friend Sophia’s. The ones that make us wonder if there isn’t a repeat cycle in the universe. If genetics and history, seemingly unrelated, are actually intertwined – first cousins, if you will.
Sophia, back in the mid nineteen nineties, was reporting on the civil war in Yugoslavia. As luck would have it, she managed to miss the only bus that could take her to the other side of the country in order to catch her train back to Prague a couple of days later. There she was, a young woman in her early twenties, walking alone in a war zone with little hope of finding refuge. She figured she’d have to spend the night in a ditch somewhere, and hoped the wrong people wouldn’t come across her.
But lo and behold, as she trudged down the dusty, pitted road, a car of three young men pulled up alongside her. They expressed concern for her safety and offered her a place to stay for the night, promising to drive her the next day to catch yet another bus that would get her to her train on time.
Well, Sophia hopped right into their car, and was taken to a farm about an hour away, given a comfortable room and told to come down for dinner. As she ate hearty Yugoslavian fare with her hosts, the matriarch of this family said to her, “What was your name again?”
Sophia told her, and the woman shook her head in disbelief.
“Is your father ___?” she asked.
Sophia smiled kind of sheepishly. You see, she’s from this really fancy European family – the kind that just about everybody has heard of. “Um, yes,” Sophia acknowledged.
Turns out Sophia’s father, as a soldier at the end of World War II, had found himself on the same dusty, pitted road, missing the same bus as his daughter, and was picked up by the brothers of the mother who’s sons had picked up Sophia. Got that? Sophia’s father was taken to the same family farm, where he spent the night in the same room as his daughter, and ate dinner with the family. It’s unclear whether he ate the exact same meal, but at this point, let’s just say he did.
Needless to say, Sophia called her dad that night and exclaimed, “You’re not going to believe where I am right now!”
Sounds incredible, doesn’t it? Maybe your saying, “Yeah, right.”
My own first job after I moved to Prague was on Political Prisoner street – newly renamed in honor of the many who were held there in a labyrinthine monstrosity of a building where I went to work every morning. A building where my own mother was held, though I couldn’t say in which room. Perhaps it was my office.
One day, as I stood at my tram stop with a friend, I watched an older gentleman pee his pants as we waited. He was angry, humiliated. He kicked the tram post, hating himself for his frailty and hating us for having witnessed it. He swore under his breath, mumbling. Shooting dirty looks. It was summer, so he had no coat with which to cover the large wet stain on his crotch or mask the smell of his urine. I wanted to help him, but I didn’t know how.
“Do you know who he is?” my friend asked me.
I didn’t. But apparently he was a former hard line communist bastard with a long list of offenses for which he was never tried. He had, I was told, made many innocent people pee in their pants. Not out of frailty, but fear.
And if my friend knew who he was, there was a good chance that someone else in the vicinity knew him, too. Maybe someone who’d been made to walk home from the political prisoner building, with a big, wet oval on his pants, reeking of piss, shaking with fright and shame.
In these real life stories, parables bubble up without the help of a historian or Bible scholar. These are stories that make us believe in karma, in comeuppance, in God. They are a map of the human spirit, showing us the way, giving us the chance to break out of the loop and change our destinies. Or perhaps feel the sting of our past, giving some measure of justice to those who we’ve harmed.
And they are the inspiration for our fiction, which tames, takes apart and interprets these larger than life occurrences. It makes them accessible, personal and helps us walk in the footsteps of another human being, nodding our heads, saying, “Yeah.”
Have you ever wanted to tour Paris with a fine arts painter? Moscow with an acclaimed journalist? Chicago with the former leader of a counter-cultural movement?
Or how about The Bone Church of Kutna Hora with an author of historical spy fiction?
Cold readers, I know I don’t shower you with diamonds and champagne cocktails. Nor do I buy you designer dresses or expensive watches. And it’s true – I don’t think I’ve ever once treated you to dinner at the fancy new restaurant in town.
But after today, you can’t say I’ve never taken you anywhere.
A couple of months ago, I was contacted by a company called Voice Map. Voice Map is an app for iPhones and Android devices that provides immersive audio tours written and performed by bestselling authors, artists, photographers, seasoned travelers, educators and journalists. You might hear about murder on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, nostalgia for the vanishing hutongs of old Beijing, or about a Gothic church in the Czech Republic that’s been adorned with the bones of some 30,000 dead Christians.
Voice Map asked me if I would be interested in writing and voicing some tours of my own and I gave them a resounding yes! Not only do I love to travel, but I love to share my adventures, tell my stories, and incite in my friends a passion for the places that have clawed their way into my heart and set up camp.
My first tour – one of many, I hope – centers around (you guessed it) The Bone Church of Kutna Hora, also known as the Ossuary at Sedlec. My thirty-six minute audio tour packs in a lot. I take you to The Church of the Assumption of Our Lady and John the Baptist – one of the great Gothic cathedrals in the region; we walk past a large Philip Morris outpost and I tell you all about the Czech Republic’s change from a communist country to a free market parliamentary republic, and then meander down the suburban streets of Sedlec, where I wax nostalgic about drinking too much Czech beer, sleeping under the stars at my father’s farm and translating a tragically comic communist propaganda play. We finish up at the Playboy Centerfold of my tour, savoring the eerie wonder of a sacred Gothic chapel decorated entirely in human bone.
I hope to provide you with the sort of travel experience that I would have killed for had it been available to me when I was still a world traveler. Before love and kids and soccer games and slumber parties took me on a whole different journey.
And don’t worry – you don’t have to pick my tour! I understand that a trip to the Czech Republic may not be on your immediate horizon. Voice Map has tours all over the world and are adding new ones at an astonishing rate.
All you have to do is leave a comment here on this blog post, briefly telling me about your favorite travel story – maybe it’s strolling under a full moon by the river Seine, floating in the Dead Sea or just hiking a trail on the outskirts of your home town. At the end of your story, you must provide me with your email address. THIS IS CRUCIAL, as I can only send you the link to your free tour if you give me a place to send it.
Trust me, this is better than a pair of earrings, or a new electronic gizmo.
This is bling for your soul!