I remember pestering my dad to tell me his story. I could tell it was big because he never talked about it. Then finally, when I was in Middle School, he told me how he’d watched his father die by Nazi firing squad in his own backyard. His father had been a political opponent of Hitler’s in their small community near Vilna and that didn’t go over very well. My dad’s mother died in a mass grave somewhere – either in a Communist or Nazi concentration camp – he wasn’t even sure which.
He spoke those words with an even tone – restrained. Without a single tear, or heavy sigh. It was what made his story so powerful to me. He told it cold. At night, I would put pictures to his story in my mind, creating a sort of slide show that would replay over and over again as I drifted off to sleep.
On my mom’s side, she and her parents fared better, but not by much. A world war and a Soviet takeover obliterated the life they knew and thrust them into a new existence of danger and intrigue – at least until they escaped to America.
I was well familiar with those stories – no prying needed there. They made their way into our dinner conversation somehow in some way almost every night – usually prompted by a report in the news. As a small child, I turned one of their stories into a heroic mind movie, replacing the characters – my family and others – with talking squirrels. My older brother had nightmares for years, stemming from being caught trying to escape Czechoslovakia with my mother. He’d jump up from bed, hands in the air, crying “Don’t shoot.” Consequently, one of my squirrels had the same affliction.
It’s been odd at times to think that I’m the only one in my birth family who hasn’t had a gun pointed in her face. I’ve certainly spent way too much time imagining what it would be like. I’ve wondered about my reaction both during and after. Speculated as to whether I could act under pressure and do the right, moral thing when push came to shove. I always hoped I would be the good squirrel.
I think it’s that hope, that speculation about circumstance and motive that has inspired me to write about this kind of stuff pretty doggedly – whether I’ve been immersed in the very adult world of spies or have been swimming through the rough seas of an emotional Young Adult novel. It’s the role I’ve taken on since I was a kid: people tell me their experiences and I process them, turn them up, down and around, try to make some sense of it all and eke out meaning.
It’s a beautiful process – like helping a troubled child navigate the loss of his innocence.
But lately, that child has been vexing me and I’ve found myself stuck.
For the first time in my life, I’ve been experiencing a form of writers block. It’s not that I can’t write. I have been writing and editing every day. I’ve just been feeling a bit creatively adrift.
“You need to recharge your batteries,” my husband said. “When is the last time you took a break to exclusively feed your imagination?”
Hmmm. The truth is, I can’t remember when. Doing something for pleasure that might spark my imagination – while I’ve completely agreed with the idea in concept – always seemed frivolous to me. Like I was wasting time.
And I have been in a constant war with time.
But reluctantly, I made the decision to take my husband’s advice.
I could’ve gone on long walks, to the movies, or put a dent in a “to read” pile that has grown as tall as an NBA basketball player, but none of those things were doing it for me. Just thinking about them was burdensome.
I needed something bonzai.
Then I remembered that a character in one of the YA novels I’ve been writing is a huge horror fan. A Walking Dead fan to be specific, and my editor, Kate, shares her obsession with that particular show.
I know as a writer I was not supposed to do this, but I actually wrote in my character’s Walking Dead fixation before I ever saw a single episode. I meant to watch it, and had every intention of becoming fully fluent in all things zombie before finishing my draft, but once again time got in my way.
“[The Walking Dead] has all of your themes,” Kate told me. “Faith, loss, redemption, destiny. Consider it research.”
Someone once told me that a writer always goes home to stir the creative gumbo. Home can be a place – literally. A visit to an old stomping ground, stalking the ruins of a childhood haunt. It can be a bottle of Jim Beam, even if you’ve long switched to Oban or given up the juice altogether. Or a call to an old mentor – the kind of glorious bastard who never lets you get away with any of your usual crap.
For me, I’ve come to realize, home is the end of the world.
Whether it’s Doctor Zhivago, Schindler’s List or a wild west style Armageddon filled with gun-toting rednecks, Dudley Do Rights (or at least Dudley Do Not-As-Wrongs), and of course, drooling, oozing, quasi-dead creatures with a rabid hunger for human meat.
I have always felt a sense of familiarity with the moral dilemmas that true-blue s**t storms can bring to the surface. In that world, gut-feelings trump intellect, muddled, over-evolved dictums on social order and political correctness become obsolete. Yet bonds strengthen. Love becomes cherished again. Evil, no longer shameful to identify. We lose our comforts, but reconnect with our primal instincts to fight, lead, follow, hate, worship.
We stop being so damned precious.
“Nowadays you breath and you risk your life. You don’t have a choice. The only thing you choose is what you’re risking it for.” – Hershel, The Walking Dead
In the rigmarole of chauffeuring my kids to their myriad enrichment activities, picking out paint colors for our bedrooms, trying to make it to the gym, and deciding on meals everyone in my family is willing to eat, my connection to the handful of things – people, principals, beliefs – that have the ability to bring me to my knees had become a bit fuzzy.
I’d immersed myself in all the stuff on the mid-list, as the past year had been filled with the kinds of important life events that can’t exactly be called horror movie awful, but involve careful navigation. Aging parents, a child’s growing pains, a rocky patch in a lifelong friendship. The truth is, I wanted to lose sight of the bigger things, take a break from Reality with a capital R.
In its own, funny way, The Walking Dead – this long, winding narrative about the possible extinction of the human race by means of a zombie apocalypse – has actually come to serve more as a reminder of reality for me than an escape from one.
Thanks to Rick and Darryl and the whole gang, I was able to put my nose back to the grindstone. Instead of another day of back to back zombie episodes (I’ve finally made it to Season 5), I sat down to some edits.
That went pretty well.
Next, I took a look at my epic YA love story – the one that’s really been giving me trouble. It was same-old at first, and I wanted to bang my forehead into my keyboard. But I read on and actually added a sentence or two – good words, the kind that sparkle. Nothing revolutionary there, but a start.
Then I sat down to write this post.
On her face was a configuration of emotions – serenity, wistfulness, sorrow. She had an end-of-the-road look about her.
“One of my best friends is dying of cancer,” she said. “It could be any time now.”
I told her how sorry I was, and she sort of smiled and went on to tell me, truly, one of the loveliest stories I’ve heard in a long, long time.
This friend of my friend’s – we’ll call her Marilyn – had several years ago been embroiled in a horrible divorce. She and her husband, whom we’ll call Jake, had cheated on each other, called one another every possible, filthy name in the book, had fought over their bedroom furniture, collection of DVDs, even all the family photos they’d collected throughout their marriage. It was brutal and ugly and they were both at fault. They let down themselves and their children – a pitiful end to a union that had undoubtedly begun with the ambitious, heart-stopping words most of us married people spoke at our weddings: “With this Ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.”
Even when the divorce was finalized, and the anger had begun to subside, it seemed all that remained of that original promise was shame and bitterness.
A couple of years after the dust from their split had settled, Marilyn was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent treatment. She was hopeful that would be the end of it, and set about going on with her life – sweating through Spinning class at our gym, driving carpool for her daughters. But three years later, she received her worst and final diagnosis – that of terminal ovarian cancer. This friend, daughter, and mother of two teenage girls had only months to live.
At this point you might be asking, “Isn’t this supposed to be a lovely story?”
But wait! Don’t quit reading now. I acknowledge that was the horrible part. The park your lawn chair on the railroad tracks, pop a cold beer and wait for the inevitable portion of this saga.
The lovely part – no, lovely doesn’t even begin to cut it. The magnificent part, the miraculous part, came in the immediate aftermath of Marilyn’s diagnosis. When she called Jake, her ex-husband, and told him the news.
I’ll just cut to the chase here, because Marilyn and Jake did exactly that. What happened next was that Marilyn and Jake fell in love again. And not just in a friendly, hand-holding, I’m really sorry you’re going to die way, but a balls-out, heart wanting to explode, Harlequin Romance, listen to Lionel Ritchie records together and cry kind of way.
Jake took over all correspondence about Marilyn’s condition – sharing bits of news with friends and family members, asking for prayers. He whisked her away to fancy dinners, shuttled her to doctor’s appointments, guided her on long walks, helped her to the toilet.
Her illness has progressed pretty rapidly since those early months and Marilyn has become frail. Jake now brushes her hair and reads to her. He pushes her wheelchair to their daughters’ games, and has moved into hospice with her – holding her all night.
“Are you sure you didn’t make all this cancer stuff up just to get laid?” One of Marilyn’s friends joked.
And days ago, Jake surprised Marilyn with a trip to the oak tree under which they were married. He had to carry her, as Marilyn is down to only about 60 LBS now. She can no longer eat and is basically starving to death.
Under that oak tree, Jake and Marilyn renewed their vows. “To have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.”
“They just forgave each other,” my gym buddy told me. “It’s as simple as that.”
Marilyn’s illness brought everything into relief for them. The fact that they’d been crazy about each other once and then proceeded to screw up massively. Anger had replaced love, and even when they’d wanted make up, take back the terrible things they’d said and done, it felt too big. Like they’d gone too far down a very dark road and there was no going back.
Only there was.
And when they did go back, it was instant, sublime – a bolt of lightening illuminating the night sky. They needed no couples’ therapy or promises to never hurt one another again. They simply didn’t have time for that.
“You know what this has taught me?” My friend said. “None of us have time for that.”
It’s a radical statement. Aren’t we, according to the experts, supposed to examine our feelings, work our way to acceptance and forgiveness, negotiate the new terms of our bandaged relationship?
Seems like a colossal waste of time when you look at it. Isn’t the nature of forgiveness to let go completely – put it behind you and embrace the love that’s left. Build on that, do it right. We all know what right looks like, feels like, what it should be. It’s as plain as delighting in the flavors of a favorite dish, taking in the boundless glory of an ocean view. And we know damned well the pitfalls we need to avoid. We can name them like state capitols: jealousy, selfishness, entitlement, neglect.
Don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not saying we should welcome back a spouse who thrives on slapping us around or a friend whose betrayal cost us dearly. One who shows no sign of remorse or change. Being a doormat is not what forgiveness is about.
Sometimes forgiveness is just about letting go and moving on alone. Wishing someone no ill, even if they’re still a son of a b***h and will probably always be a son of a b***h.
But I do think we can all learn a few things from Marilyn and Jake’s extraordinary love story. Even if we’re not facing a death sentence. Instead of patching things up, they opted to start fresh. They made a conscious decision to love one another regardless of the mess they’d made of things years earlier, and in the process gave their girls and each other a most unequivocal gift. Something few of us are able to achieve.
Forgiveness with no footnotes, no terms.
Love, pure and simple.
I’ve been listening pretty obsessively to the Dusty Springfield station on my Pandora app lately. It plays a lot of Stan Getz, Bobby Darin, and of course, Aretha Franklin, to whom she’s often compared.
I love Aretha. With a voice at once like a piano and a trombone, few performers are as worthy of their icon status. And Aretha tells a marvelous story. I’m with her, standing at the kitchen sink and gazing out the window when she’s looking out onto the morning rain, reflecting on how she used to feel so uninspired. Just as when the chorus swells and she sings about feeling like a natural woman, it makes me want to take my husband in a close embrace, touch my forehead to his, sway to a song only he and I can hear.
There aren’t many singers who can bring you into a story like that. Who can take you on a three minute journey, leaving you wistful, with an emotional hangover worthy of a novel.
Yet time and again I find myself gravitating more towards the Dusty tunes.
Musically, Dusty and Aretha are pretty close cousins – at least when you compare Dusty’s soul period to Aretha’s body of work. And it’s not just because they were from the same era and shared back up singers. There’s a very strong and bluesy, gospel-infused similarity to the way they approach a song. At times, Dusty, can seem like Aretha’s sister from another mister – a fellow outlier with something inside her that can’t be contained. Less a light, than a full-out solar flare.
But what I like most about Dusty Springfield is that she was always changing, evolving, trying on a new costume. She moved from early sixties “Gidget-style” bop, to smarmy-sexy Burt Bacharach tunes, and then, yes, to Aretha-laced soul like “Son of a Preacher Man.” All with equal elan. And with a preternatural Dusty-ness.
Aretha was always Aretha, which is damned amazing. But I struggle to imagine her belting out a Eurythmics song, for instance. And I suspect Dusty could knock that one out of the park. She could do a cool and artsy “Sweet Dreams,” or a mournful, but electrified “Who’s That Girl.” All without losing her essence.
I bet Dusty could put a whole new spin on Madonna.
Hell, she might even pull off a Celine Dion, but without the cringe factor.
Dusty’s “Heart Will Go On” might’ve implied a bit of violence – a drunken night, bitter words, rough sex. Even her most syrupy ballads had an undercurrent of love gone wrong. You could imagine her as the girl who was left crying in the dark, mascara running down her face after her lover left, slamming the door behind him. Or the woman who’d had too much sex with too many men. She wanted to be wanted more than she craved the actual wild thing, but got sucked in again and again. Maybe he would call this time? If not? Pass her a drink.
Her heart would go on.
And Dusty could do a killer Aretha – a feat not many white women, or black women for that matter have been able to accomplish with such casual grace. As a working class British lesbian, she could embody the voice of a black American preacher’s daughter.
I love the versatility, the audacity of Dusty’s easy switch from British to American to pop to soul to disco to 80s British reinvasion. Collaborating with The Pet Shop Boys, then showing up on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack helped her stay relevant in a way few performers were able. The sixties, for most, were such a hard act to follow, but Dusty was on the charts until only a few years before her death from breast cancer in 1999.
She is to me the definition of true, multifaceted talent.
But what do I know? I’m a writer. And I approach music like a writer, which many music lovers might object to. A true aficionado might say Aretha is the superior talent because she can only be Aretha. She is the epitome of style – a very specific style. A woman like Dusty Springfield dabbles too much. Like Eva Cassidy. She’s neither here nor there, but everywhere. She’s an actress more than a singer. And yeah, ok, story’s important in a song, but it’s not everything. There’s some great music out there that makes no sense at all and completely ignores a basic three-act structure, a true tunehead might say. Just look at Ornette Coleman. Thelonious Monk. David Byrne. The B-52s. House music.
All true. I’m not above grooving to a nonsensical song. Or even one that tells a bad story but has a catchy beat. I’ve got Duran Duran and The Best of Disco on my iPod, after all.
But unlike the men Dusty sings about, I love her best of all.
My name is Victoria and it has never felt right to me.
Not when I was a kid and my friends called me Vic or Vicki, nor when my family called me Vikinka or Viktorka or any derivative of my more formal moniker.
Right around when I hit college, people stopped calling me by nicknames entirely and Victoria was settled on for good. While it was definitely more consistent, it still felt neither here nor there.
It’s funny, even after the long-form “Victoria” became pretty much the only version of my name people used, there was a whole cadre of people who just always got my name wrong. For reasons I can’t explain, a lot of folks have simply called me Veronica – even after I’ve corrected them numerous times.
They say, “Right, right, it’s Victoria – of course. I’m sorry Veronica.”
Or maybe not so much.
About a year ago, my mother made an illuminating admission to me. She told me how much she hadn’t wanted to name me Victoria at all. How after I was born, she could hardly even say my name. And when she did, no matter how hard she tried, no matter how many ways – Vic-toria, Vic-tor-i-a, Vic-tor-ia – the name always tripped out over her tongue tinged with a note of bitterness.
I’d had a brother named Victor, you see. He’d died of the flu the year before I was born. So, back when I was a baby, and my mom’s suffering was still so fresh, my name was simply too painful for her to say.
It may seem strange that my mom gave me the name Victoria in the first place – that perhaps it was some form of masochism on her part. Because really, couldn’t she have given me another name?
My mother said she’d wanted to give me an Italian name, actually. After fleeing communist Czechoslovakia, she’d spent several months in an Italian refugee camp. Her belly felt my first kick in the countryside near Positano, and my other brother, John – eight years old at the time, had his baptism in Rome. She made many friends there while she waited for permission to come to America. Italy was the first place that made my mom smile after Victor’s death.
And Italy was her stepping stone to America.
My mother had spent most of her life dreaming about a life in America. But not merely for the usual reasons – freedom of speech and expression, freedom to travel, social mobility, freedom from random imprisonment and other forms of persecution, etc. My mother’s reasons were more personal.
America was where my mother’s parents, Bedriska and Victor lived. They’d fled Czechoslovakia when my mom was only six and my mother had spent twenty years pining for them. She’d risked her life and her surviving children’s – mine (in utero) and John’s – to escape from behind the Iron Curtain.
My mother wanted desperately to have a relationship with her parents. They had loomed so large, for so long in her imagination. She had envisaged what it would be like baking kolacky with her mother, shopping for a dress, just being held by her.
She wondered what her father’s muscular hands might look like opening a difficult jar of pickles, or feel like if he were to stroke her hair. Both of my grandparents were physically imposing – my grandfather, an Olympic hockey player, was built like a Sherman tank. Victor was a name that suited him very well. My grandmother, tall and beautiful, could have been Greta Garbo’s sister. Bedriska – Fredericka in English – was a name she owned.
In those first few, heady months they were back together, my mother was starstruck by her parents. Everything they said held tremendous weight. My mother had come from a communist country and out of fear had hidden her opinions all of her life. And here, in this new, free country, her parents had opinions about everything and shared them willy-nilly. They talked about which politicians they preferred, their plans for the future, things they liked and didn’t like about their adopted country…
And the names they wanted my mother to bestow upon her unborn child.
My grandparents were determined that my mom should name me after her sisters, Victoria (named after my grandfather) and Helen. At the time, Victoria and Helen were still stuck behind the Iron Curtain, and my grandparents – perhaps – felt an homage to them was in order. My grandmother and grandfather had never met my deceased brother and I don’t think it occurred to them that the similarities between Victor and Victoria would cause my mom such grief.
And at the time, my mother didn’t have it in her to speak up for herself. So, reluctantly, with a forced smile, she agreed to name me Victoria Helen.
My mom’s story of how I came to be “Victoria” explains a lot, especially in terms of my own ambivalence towards my name. Honestly, even now when people ask me how I prefer to be addressed – whether by Victoria or Vic or Vicki – my inner voice always answers, “I don’t really care – pick one.” Then I say out loud, “Victoria is fine.”
And while name issues have played a pretty insignificant role in my life, I do find it interesting how my mother’s unspoken feelings about my name seem to have affected my own perceptions about what I am called. Victoria has always felt like a name that was thrust upon me instead of given me.
And I think about how differently I feel about the names of people who are dear to me. My husband, Jack, my children.
I remember seeing my babies’ names for the first time, written down on an official document at the hospital shortly after I gave birth. It was a powerful experience to behold their names in black and white. It made them real. I remember my husband running his fingers over our son’s name and saying it aloud with tears in his eyes.
Our daughters’ names felt no less significant. We’d spent months going back and forth about what to call them. With each of our children, we waited until they were born and we’d looked into their murky eyes before deciding which name to give them. Naturally, we’d narrowed it down to two possibilities for each sex, but we wanted to see our babies first – just to make sure we were making the right choice.
And each time it was so clear.
They could have had no other names.
It just makes me ache that my mother was denied that experience. That my name is a forever reminder of her greatest heartbreak – my brother’s death, instead of her greatest triumph – her courageous escape from Czechoslovakia.
And I hope that being able to choose her own American name – even if it was a direct translation of her Czech name – was in some way a consolation. Georgiana is her American name. And she does love it. Jirina, her Czech name, only exists for her now in the old country, on her old documents, on a list of Czech political prisoners from the 1950s and 60s. It endures in the abstract for my mother, like an old address.
As for my name, I still don’t really care much. It means something, I suppose, when I see Victoria Dougherty written on the cover of my novel, but I might use a different name when I publish in the Young Adult category next year.
If I do, perhaps I should ask my mother to give me a nom de plume. Something Italian.
Here on Cold, she’s also offering us an exclusive (sort of) interview with her main character, a naive, twenty-four year-old pacifist named Maggie.
But first, here’s a summary of The Bridge of Deaths – you know, just to whet your appetite:
In the winter of 2009-2010 a young executive, Bill is promoted and transferred to London for a major International firm. He has struggled for the better part of his life with nightmares and phobias, which only seem to worsen in London. As he seeks the help of a therapist he accepts that his issues may well be related to a ‘past-life trauma’.
Through love, curiosity, archives and the information superhighway of the 21st century Bill travels through knowledge and time to uncover the story of the 1939 plane crash.
The Bridge of Deaths is a love story and a mystery. Fictional characters travel through the world of past life regressions and information acquired from psychics as well as archives and historical sources to solve “One of those mysteries that never get solved” is based on true events and real people, it is the culmination of 18 years of sifting through sources in Denmark, England and the United States, it finds a way to help the reader feel that he /she is also sifting through data and forming their own conclusions.
The journey takes the reader to well-known and little known events leading up to the Second World War, both in Europe and America. The journey also takes the reader to the possibility of finding oneself in this lifetime by exploring past lives.
“An unusual yet much recommended read.” – The Midwest Book Review
An Interview With a Pacifist:
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not saving (the world, clients, your mate)?
I have to choose one favorite thing? There is so much in life that is simply magical, thrilling and important. I belong to a Peace activist group in the London area and we are not shy to express our complete distaste for all violence. My life is however not in any way limited to being a Peacenik and if there is a good party or fun weekend trip with friends, I have been known to miss a protest or two. I am only twenty-four and as much as I am sure we live many lives, I am not about to waste any good fun to be had in this one. Ah my mate, Bill does need a lot of saving doesn’t he? I really thought he’d be just a fun time when we met, I did not expect to feel so complete with him, not that I would have imagined or designed him that way as ‘the perfect mate’ mind you. I had dated a few foreign blokes before, but not from across the pond, he is lovely though.
What is it about Bill that makes you crazy in a good way?
There is so much that is frustrating and endearing. He keeps his thoughts so hermetically sealed, that I have to dig and pry to get answers don’t I? After all he is the one with the nightmares and the phobias, but I get to do all the digging. No room to be the saved damsel in distress here, I get to grab Bill by the hand and guide him kicking and screaming to meet his fate, well I exaggerate, perhaps not screaming but a bit of kicking.
Do you sometimes want to strangle your writer? Thrash her to within an inch of her life? Make them do the stupid crap they makes you do?
I certainly do not want to give any spoilers here for the end of the book, but well, yes I would have liked my freedom and adventure to last a bit longer. And I did drink quite a lot of Sauvignon Blanc didn’t I , so yes for every hangover let’s trash M.C.V.
I love Scandinavian fare because of my mom. Danish food and desserts are the best.
Tell me a little bit about your world. What are your greatest challenges in that world?
London is a great town, we have so many good museums and restaurants. I love how alive and quiet it can be. When I walk in certain areas I can tap into so much and I do not mean just history, but the fun stuff, like scenes from great films or knowing that musicians I love lived in certain places, and got the very ideas for the songs I love right there in Soho. Like Cat Stevens or as Bill would immediately point out Yusuf Islam; I mean when I go to Soho and walk down Denmark Street and Charing Cross road, right by where I met Bill at Foyles I can imagine how Cat Stevens drew from all that to write the songs that I love so much. See it is not just in history where a suspect mind and discernment is important, Bill was so sure that Cat Stevens was a militant aggressive person and he is actually the absolute opposite, but of course the media distorted his comments during the whole Salman Rushdie Satanic Verses thing and when the counter statements were made it was not in the front pages, but rather the back ones. When I showed Bill how something so relatively recent could be so distorted I think it really helped open his mind to all we were investigating from 1939 and the plane crash.
Describe yourself in four words.
Cautiously Optimistic, happy, hopeful and discerning.
What do you do for a living?
I counsel teenagers, I help them look into themselves for that feeling of security and sense of self rather than to be outwardly influenced by others. I work with very typical teens, nothing heavy just growing issues you know. I am such a free spirit (perhaps that should have been one of my words above) that the powers that be know I would not be strict enough with certain cases, got into a bit of a mess a few years ago… well that is neither here nor there, no sense in giving it any more energy, just help them choose classes and such a Guidance Counselor, I don’t like labels and I believe they have all the answers inside themselves, they just need to tap into them.
What do you fear the most?
War, actually the apparent inevitability of many horrible wars. If only we were clever enough to learn from the past right? But I guess that would be every pacifist’s worst fear wouldn’t it?