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I’ve Got a Great New Word You’re Going to Love!

For my birthday, my husband did something unconventional this year. Instead of a material gift – a pretty top, a little bling, a nice dinner – he gave me some inspiration. It came in the form of a five-year-old NYT Magazine article, printed out on plain paper and placed into a clear binder. No frills, no professions of eternal love, not even a card.

On the cover was a picture of a grizzled and intellectual-looking Slav. The kind of man who writes novels, then gets put in prison for it. His eyes seemed to burn with subversive thoughts.

A. Doba

His name was Aleksander Doba, and he was not a writer, or any kind of artist for that matter. He wasn’t even really much of a thinker, at least not in the classical sense.

What he was, was a man of action with a mission. A nearly deaf, retired mechanical engineer who had kayaked alone across the Atlantic Ocean three times – the last being in 2017 at the age of seventy.

In his quest for conquering the ocean, thumbing his nose at all the nay-sayers out there, and vanquishing his own fears, he was forced to confront disasters that rank on a Biblical scale.

Like hailstorms of flying fish – “Do you know how fast they go? This does not feel good.”

Getting thrown from his kayak during a fierce storm (one of many he’s survived, sometimes barely, on the high seas) – “I woke up on the shore to the sound of screaming – my own.”

Hunger, sunstroke, sleep deprivation, salt-induced blisters and rashes, hallucinations, loneliness, and a level of fatigue that defies description – “I did it with no stuntman.”

You may be wondering, as I did, why my husband thought I would find kindship in Doba’s adventuring. I’m not a kayaker or extreme sports enthusiast of any kind. I’ve had a lifelong fear of deep water, and the thought of spending weeks alone, in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by sharks, gives me the heebie-jeebies. “Scaredy-cat” probably best describes my approach to anything from finding a spider crawling up my leg to partaking in quasi-life-threatening activities like riding rollercoasters.

And I would never, ever be so ridiculous as to claim that I could conquer my chicken-heartedness enough to do even half the things Aleksander Doba has done. He has a level of grit that’s present in only the true heroes among us, and I’m not one of those.

Hell, I’m not even Polish.

V. Dougherty
V. Dougherty

But there was something about the word Doba used to describe his outlandish journeying that holds the answer to why he and I may share more in common than it would appear.

That word was katorga. It’s a simple-sounding word, as far as Slavic words go. Three syllables, lots of hard consonants. The kind of word that forces your jaw open and pulls your face down when you say it. In Polish, it’s also the word for forced labor in Siberia. And over the years, as gulags in arctic climates have largely faded from memory, katorga has also taken on another meaning. Roughly, according to the NYT piece, it is an experience of suffering repurposed as contrarian self-determination, and one that gives an existential thrill.

When put this way, my husband’s unorthodox birthday gift begins to make more sense.

You see, I do have my own katorga. Mine begins every time I start a new novel – especially one that’s part of a series. It ends…well, it really never ends if I’m to be honest. Because like Aleksander Doba, I’m already thinking about my next odyssey before I’ve finished my last. I’m rewriting the bleak memories of my trials and tribulations as deeds of brain busting daring-do, existential thrills of the imagination.

Like when I invented a mind-blowing plot twist that I almost couldn’t write my way through, threatening to lay waste to hundreds of finished pages. That one took months to figure out.

Or when I decided a beloved character needed to die a horrible, agonizing death, thus risking the ire of readers. The wrong editorial decision can destroy years of work, putting into peril future books in the series.

I’ve run out of creative juice on some days and experienced a paralyzing crisis of confidence on others. At times, the monotony of editing and the line-by-line fixes of persnickety continuity problems has gotten to me. Errors that seem small, like when I discovered my heroine’s shoes were cream-colored at the beginning of a chapter, but lilac-hued by the time I described them again in the next chapter, can take a reader out of the story. Then it’s on to the next novel on their nightstand.

A finished product

I recognize that while harrowing to me, these are hardly the sorts of audacious feats that would inspire The National Geographic Society to bestow upon me its annual People’s Choice Adventurer of the Year Award, as it did in 2015 on Mr. Doba.

But in the place of such a distinction, I’ll happily accept simple encouragement from readers who seem to genuinely love my work. I’ll take pride in the reviews that spring up on Amazon and other platforms.

“I know I’m not the only one in your Cold Club, but I always feel like you’re writing something personal just for me.”

–Roger B.

Even when one of my books is by all objective financial measures a bomb, there is a psychic income I get from trying to figure out why more readers weren’t enticed to buy, from attempting to take corrective measures. Or from defiantly making the decision to continue with my original vision, hoping to slowly bring people on board.

“The writing is of great quality, beautifully descriptive when required, sparse when not, but the plotting displays a crepuscular style which risks leaving 50% of readers none the wiser as to what’s just transpired. It is possible to have hidden meanings and unforeseen plot twists without this much obfuscation – just ask John le Carre.”

–Tepid, 2-star Amazon review for Welcome to the Hotel Yalta
Artwork for “Yalta”

As for Aleksander Doba, his own sense of motivation comes not from awards, or even pats on the back from admirers, but from a common expression in Poland: “I do not want to be a little gray man.” It is a reminder to himself that he has no interest in dying in his bed.

With this ethos in mind, he begins the process of redesigning his kayak to withstand bigger waves and more violent storms, he makes lists of extra efficient foods to take with him and tries to invent new ways of exercising his legs, so that he doesn’t lose muscle tone (in the past, he’d tried swimming, but that attracted sharks). As he tackles the problems that vexed him, nearly killed him on previous expeditions, his fears and frustrations actually begin to subside. They’re replaced by a deep longing for the turtles he liked to commune with, whose shells he would tap as they swam by, and the birds who would land on his kayak, refusing to leave. Friends on the open sea.

He starts to look forward to seeing them again.

It is exactly this kind of re-imagining of our drudgery as triumph that makes those of us who are perhaps a little obsessive continue the fight. Katorga is a tyrannical mistress for sure, but we can’t help but love her, and wait like fools for the kind word, the wink, the nod she throws our way.

Doba with Olo, his custom-made kayak

As for Aleksander Doba, one of his katorgas did end up having her way with him. In February of 2021, he died while climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. It was not in an avalanche, or from exposure during a freak storm, or from a fall. After summiting, he asked for a brief rest before posing for a promised photo op. Then, according to eyewitness reports, he sat down on a rock and “just fell asleep.”

He did not die in his bed

I expect my katorga will have the last word on me, too, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Me in a very dangerous book store

Please indulge my katorga for a moment.

It is so exciting for me when the artwork for a new novel – or in this case, the redesign of an entire Historical Fantasy series – starts dribbling in. Especially after an epic fail.

The genre I thought I’d nailed in my original book covers – Epic Romantic Fantasy – turned out not to be so on the nose after all. The Breath series, with its themes of war, ancient cultures, enchanted archaeological digs, and yes, a pair of eternal lovers is so obviously Historical Fantasy when I look at it now.

This may seem like a trivial mistake – after all, Historical Fantasy is pretty much just a mix of Historical Fiction and Fantasy – but it’s critical that genres and sub-genres are communicated properly in the cover art. Otherwise you risk alienating readers who might have been looking for something more specific, as well as not identifying the readers who are hungry for your particular style of fiction.

New BREATH illustration

Endeavoring to get this right is exhilarating. It’s also a strangely vulnerable act – this empowering of a stranger to interpret a massive flight of fancy, turning ideas into a series of images that will hopefully capture the essence of a fantasy drama and beguile a potential reader.

Here’s a new on for SAVAGE ISLAND

That will capture the subtle, the romantic, and the mysterious. Enough, but not too much. If the art overdetermines the aura, it robs the reader of their own interpretation of the way a character looks and feels. Of how they walk through the universe of a story – its topography, its cities, its kitchens and bedrooms.

And finally, for OF SAND AND BONE

OF SAND AND BONE

Book 2 of the BREATH series (Book 3 if you count SAVAGE ISLAND)

Coming soon.

A Texas Sized Birthday Gift!

red Texas store signage

First, yesterday was my birthday. Admittedly, that is neither here nor there, except for the fact that Voyage San Antonio Magazine has devoted some space to me this month, and that’s the kind of birthday present a writer always welcomes.

You may be asking why I’m being featured in a publication called Voyage San Antonio when I have no connection to Texas – other than the fact that it’s in the United States and I happen to live here as a citizen. Let alone the city of San Antonio – a place I’ve never even visited.

The truth is, my connection with Voyage San Antonio magazine has everything to do with my connection to one particular Texan, my friend Michele Gwynn (check out Michele’s writing here). Michele and I have had a mutual admiration for each other’s creative endeavors for some years now. I love her Berlin based mystery series about a German dominatrix turned police detective, and she’s a fan of my Cold War Chronicle books, including The Bone Church and The Hungarian. I think it helps that she knows how much I like Texans, too. Truly every Texan I’ve ever met has been just delightful. Friendly, funny, comfortable in their skin, and rarely fitting neatly into the stereotype of highly partisan, social progress hating, gun-toting cowboy or cowgirl.

An aspiring Austin ballerina

One stereotype is most definitely true, however. Texans are an independent bunch and have been for a long, long time. Risk-takers, good campers, rough and tumble good-timers, too. There’s a reason why companies are moving to Texas from (former) start up hubs like California, and why so many small businesses pop up all around the state. It’s considered to have “uniquely collaborative entrepreneurial ecosystems” and that sort of ethos comes from somewhere.

I think we need no further than to look right here.

man riding brown horse during daytime

Texans are also magnanimous, and eager to fold you into their “republic.” I guess that’s one more reason why Voyage San Antonio would want to feature me in their gung-ho for Texas publication. Maybe, they figured I just might be the kind of girl who would fit in, or even be inclined to move there.

And they’re not wrong.

So, in honor of the Lone Star State, I’d like to share some of the Texas staples I love most:

Cowboys. I have a thing for them.

I love cowboy boots and cows, too, for that matter.

“Dallas” was one of my favorite shows when I was growing up.

Lyle Lovett is just the best! Listen to Lyle’s “That’s Right You’re Not From Texas (But Texas Wants You Anyway) right here!

I own a “Where the Hell is Possum Kingdom?” t-shirt from a (great) vacation I took in…wait for it…Possum Kingdom, Texas!

And I’m going to write that epic Western thriller one day. Swear!

In the meantime, please click on the link below and have a read!

San Antonio, here I come!

Me and my husband trying out being Texan

A Dispatch from the Middle

Quotes, in general, are a bit like little prayers for me. These bits of wisdom from people who are far more accomplished than I am, who have been through the wringer and have come out on the other side, help me look at things outside of my own headspace, talking me out of my tree one foothold at a time.

They are especially useful when I’m stuck, unsure of whether my big idea was ever a good idea or when I’m trudging my way through the middle of a story.

“If you’re in the middle of the ocean with no flippers and no life preserver and you hear a helicopter, this is music. You have to adjust your needs to the moment.” –Tom Waits

The middle is a notoriously thorny place to be. We rarely talk about hitting middle age, going to Middle School, being mid-route, the Middle Ages in glowing terms. Rather, the middle seems more often than not to conjure images of strife, darkness, confusion, and a general slowing down of progress. It’s the waiting place Dr. Seuss writes about in his book of the same name.

“You can get so confused that you’ll start in to race down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace and grind on for miles across weirdish wild space, headed, I fear, toward a most useless place. The Waiting Place…” he writes.

For a writer, the middle, “the waiting place,” is that stage in a manuscript where we no longer feel the wind at our backs, the way we did when we launched our tale or see the light at the end of the tunnel, the way we do as we’re marching towards our fireworks of an ending. The middle of a novel, trilogy, or series is a place that’s hard won, chapter by chapter. Because it is such a slog, so filled with intricacies that must tie the characters and plot points together in a way that makes sense, the magic that lights up the words, makes the world come alive for a writer and reader, can feel as if it’s fading away.

The middle is, after all, when most first-time fiction writers kick their dreams to the curb and give up on ever completing their novel. And when a reader might struggle to make it through a narrative that seemed promising at the start but got weighed down.

But the middle is so worth it. If we are conscientious and dedicated to remembering what made us fall in love with a premise, a theme, a story, a hero or heroine, the middle is where all the real growth happens. It’s the place and time where our characters discover who they really are, what they’re made of, and which potential lovers are worthy of their hearts. It’s where they fall down and make colossal mistakes, then have to figure out how to fix them. It’s where they lose their innocence and not only have to make peace with their discoveries, but must endeavor to turn trouble, even tragedy, into triumph.

“It is unthinkable for a Frenchman to arrive at middle age without having syphilis and the cross of The Legion of Honor.” –Andre Gide, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature

In my case, the middle has involved finishing the second BIG book in the “Breath” series, titled “Of Sand and Bone.” I won’t pretend; it’s been a daunting task. Not only does OSAB have to work as a stand-alone novel with its own beginning, middle and end, but it has to serve as the middle point for the series, pushing forward the machinations of the plot without losing the framework of the epic, and continuing to develop the characters who have a purpose and objective in all of the books. I have felt a bit like one of those variety show acts, where a guy comes on to spin plates with one hand, juggle with the other, all while skateboarding.

I think it’s been worth it.

Ultimately though, it’s you, the reader, who will be the judge. So, I leave you not with another quote, but a dispatch from the middle.

Cairo, 1902, deep in the middle of “Of Sand and Bone.”

By Yours Truly

“I have to get out of here,” I blurt out before Ripley or his father can even utter a greeting. “I’m going to go see my father in Aswan.”

Even I can see how jagged my movements are as I make my way through their sitting room, intent on going up and packing my things.

“Leila,” Ripley says. “What on earth?”

As happy as I am to see him, even Ripley cannot console me. “Nothing. Everything. I just miss him and, with all that’s happened, I think it would be best if I go.”

Dr. Davies looks to Ripley in distress, and I let my face fall into my hands. I’ve made a mess of this already, I can see, and the two of them must think I need an alienist. Steeling myself, I put my arms to my sides, trying my best to keep my lips from quivering. Poor Ripley steps toward me, but I put out my hand for him to stop.

“You should never have let her go to that hotel with you and the Lieutenant General, for goodness sake!” Dr. Davies says. “A woman, particularly of Leila’s delicate age, shouldn’t be subjected to—”

“Oh, Dr. Davies, for the love of God, I’ve seen more blood and death than you ever will in your one measly life!”

I gasp and bite down. “I’m sorry,” I mumble. “I don’t know what came over me.”

“Dad, if you’ll excuse us, I’m going to take Leila upstairs.”

I feel Ripley’s hands upon my shoulders and know instantly how wrong I was. I walk into his arms, needing every bit of his comfort, and he holds me better than anyone ever could.

“Yes, yes, of course,” I hear Dr. Davies say. “She needs to rest.”

That’s the last thing I need, I want to say. I breathe deeply into Ripley’s chest, where his heart beats, wishing it could be bare and that I could feel the raw warmth of it.

Ripley stoops down and hooks his arm beneath my legs, lifting me up. He carries me up the stairs and takes me to my room, laying me down upon the mint coverlet. Sweetly, he removes my shoes and places them next to my bed.

“What happened?”

“I don’t know.”

He takes my hand and sits at the edge of my bed just as I had done to poor Edna’s mother.

“I wish it was just that I was going mad,” I whisper. “A frightened girl who has seen too much for her sensitive nature.”

Ripley’s finger touches the hollow in my neck and my whole body comes alive to him. “A sensitive nature?” he teases. “Hardly.”

I tell him everything that happened at Mrs. Watson’s, the whole story coming out in a torrent. He listens carefully, stroking my head, and holding my hand.

“I feel as if we’re being haunted,” I tell him. “Like the stories in my books.”

He leans over and kisses me so tenderly. My temple, my cheek, my lips.

“What if we’re not the ones being haunted, but those doing the haunting?” I whisper. “What if, somehow, all of this is our fault?”

Ripley unbuttons his shirt and holds my hand to his heart. I want to bore through his chest and hold it, red and beating, in my hands. I want to crawl inside him and shelter behind his bones. But his eyes give me strength. The rivers of amber and blood within them rush and glimmer.

“Then I shall make it right. If it’s the last thing I do.”

A Plot Twist Worthy of a Coming-of-Age Novel

Key Largo

As of three weeks ago, I was done. I mean really done.

I’d written those elusive words – THE END – then hit the return key before. But this time I meant it.

After reorganizing plot points, rewriting chapters, cutting, splicing, even adding a scene or two, I typed the final sentence of Of Sand and Bone, the second Big Book of Breath (third if you count Savage Island, which is more like a little book). It’s the sentence that’s changed about three times since I finished the first draft some months ago.

I won’t be giving away anything if I tell you what I wrote, so here goes: But he’s gone and I continue to fall.

Pretty ominous words, and ones that seem to have carried over from my fictional world into my real life. Book 2 is closed, done, finito. And yet I’ve continued to fall.

The weeks after finishing a book can be sticky.

At first, there’s the big exhale, accompanied by the clean-up of what I like to call the after-birth of a novel. Stuff like contacting the copy editor, reconnecting with the cover and text designers, and pulling together marketing ideas and scattered thoughts about looming projects, like sequels.

It’s a time of fits and starts, frustration, and lack of focus. Even if I’ve got a dozen story ideas tucked away for just this occasion, there’s this feeling of depletion. I’ve given all I’ve got, and while proud of the work and relieved the story has made it to the finish line, a pervading sense of detachment and disorientation visits me.

So, I think up chores and run errands, follow celebrity meltdowns and watch my favorite YouTube channels for hours on end, all while looking busy. This, inevitably, leads to bouts of self-flagellation, egged on by all the secret wallowing and sloth. This feeling of no-can-do creeps up on me, as if starting a novel is akin to some bygone skill, like doing the splits.

That’s why, to my joy and relief, and maybe because of a few virgin sacrifices to the gods of procrastination, THE END of Big Book 2 coincided with my daughter, Charlotte’s, Big High School Graduation Trip. One made up of a whole, blissful week of Mojitos, beach sunsets, and Cuban music.

South Beach, Miami

Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? But hold on to your hats! Because like any story worth its salt, this marvelous excursion came with its own set of complications.

In addition to the drug-like draw of playing tour guide for a kid who earned this trip – straight As, varsity soccer, piano, guitar, you get the picture – and not having to think for one stinkin’ minute about my creative dysfunction, I also found myself having to truly confront the emotional journey of my eldest daughter’s pending adulthood. She’ll be eighteen next week, and starting college in the fall. While it’s not like she’s getting married off and sailing away to the New World on a schooner, likely never to be seen again, I also know it’s never going to be the same again.

So, in a plot twist worthy of a coming-of-age novel, I swapped being consumed by THE END of a fiction years in the making, with being overcome by the fact that this other epic story in my life, one nearer and dearer to me by far, was also coming to a close.

Seems like yesterday

Determined to squeeze every last drop out of everything that could possibly be squeezed, I made a silent vow that my daughter and I would do exactly what we wanted to do whenever we wanted to do it. That we would hold nothing back. I wanted her to remember this trip as a heady collage of firsts and lasts. Let’s be honest, I wanted her to remember me, us. The way we have been these past eighteen years.

First up, we did a lot of talking: about Roe vs Wade, the abortion debate that has been pre-occupying the American political and cultural conversation; what it’s like moving in with a stranger, the differences between Midwesterners and Southerners and East and West Coasters, whether the Pina Colada is superior to the Strawberry Daiquiri.

We dug our toes in the sand, and floated in the blue-green, salty water. We read YA novels, watched comedies, parasailed, and on any given night ate our body weight in fresh shrimp. I let my thalassophobic girl (she taught me that word – it means fear of the ocean) cling to me in the water, like she did as a child – especially after she almost stepped on a huge, live crab. We drove from Key to Key, “vibing” with the spirit of each island, gaping at colonial Key West architecture, but NOT going on the Hemingway house tour. “I don’t care about the desk where he wrote, Mom. That’s boring as hell.” We also eavesdropped on conversations, endeavored to use our paltry few Spanish phrases, ate tres leches cake at every opportunity, took in the balmy ocean air, let our hair curl up until we hardly looked like ourselves, and most importantly, got closer as we prepared to let space come between us.

parasailing despite vertigo

I suppose we sauntered and swam through our days as if under a spell of perfect mother-daughter love, and basked in every word spoken, every touch, precisely because we knew it wouldn’t, couldn’t last. Not like this. Not now.

My girl has some serious growing up to do, and she’s going to need me to step back. I’m going to need to step up more for her younger sister, now that it’s her turn to barrel head-on into her tumultuous teen years – developing serious crushes, making new friends, resisting and succumbing to temptation. And I’m going to have to start the process of figuring out just how my life will look when mothering becomes less of a full time occupation and more of an occasional volunteer position.

Key West

We came home last Wednesday night, and it’s always strange to return from a vacation midweek. Charlotte had school the next day, and I, ostensibly, had to sit down to at least try to work. Our spell wasn’t broken exactly, but we were no longer alone, nor immersed in a strange and exotic locale. It was time to pick up where we left off.

I cuddled my youngest daughter, and soaked up all of her stories about how her week had gone – which friend got on her soapbox, the test she’s sure she flunked, the long rehearsals for the school musical. My husband had shopped for the makings of one of our favorite family meals – spaghetti carbonara – and we all hung out in the kitchen and cooked.

The next morning, as my workday threatened, I did all of my usual avoidance rituals – the ones I’ve been hating myself for: surfing Twitter, doing laundry, cleaning the bathrooms, paying way to much attention to our dog.

When I couldn’t possibly justify another distraction, I said a short prayer, opened a file I hadn’t looked at in ages, and put my fingers on the keyboard. It’s not the idea file for Big Book 3 of Breath, which has either no title or seven potentials, depending on how you look at things. It’s for The Tower of Silence, a Cold War historical thriller I’d started months ago, but had to set aside in order to do edits on Of Sand and Bone. It’s a project I’ve been uncertain about, to tell you the truth. I’ve found it hard to get back into the Cold War after immersing myself in the Golden Age of Archaeology for so long.

But the words came out strong, like they’d always been there. An indication that maybe Charlotte isn’t the only one who might need a little distance, some fodder for the imagination. To be put out on a limb, to grow.

Moscow, 1959

Polina seemed different today. Her form was nearly translucent, like the oldest spirits from his childhood fairytales, and Rodki Semyonov, her loving husband, could scarcely hear her voice. It was a voice that had once been high and clear, with the pitch of a songbird’s. So distinctive he could pick it out even in a throng of people.

“What did you say?” He asked her, refilling her tea cup.

But she was done talking, and looked out their window onto the weedy grass of their courtyard, before vanishing altogether.

New Year’s Day, 1938, was the day they had come for Polina, and every other close member of Semyonov’s family. Josef Stalin had been the jealous sort, and when he discovered Rodki Semyonov’s particular gift for puzzle-solving, he decided his own personal detective was just what he needed. Of course, a wife, a mother, and two young cousins were considered both an inconvenience and a conflict of interest, as far as a man like Stalin was concerned. They were taken from Rodki and sent to a gulag, where his wife and mother were buried alive, and his cousins were either worked to death, or eaten alive by fellow inmates, depending on who you talked to.

Sunset on Key Largo

You Up?

As a child, I hated the dark. The way it made the air seem like a thing: an entity that could choke and confine me, make my cheerful room with its lavender-flowered wallpaper take on a sinister bent. I imagined the sinewy hands that could at any time stretch out from behind my curtains, tearing at my clothes and flesh. I saw disembodied eyeballs floating in my window panes – likely just reflections of light, but try telling that to a ten year-old. There were times when I quite literally believed I felt the presence of evil.

Given my chickenheartedness, I craved the most quick and oblivious surrender to the sandman. And once I fell asleep, I wanted to stay asleep. Waking would force me to face the terror of the night. The ghosts, vampires, demons, and monsters that I was sure lurked under my bed, in my closet, on my ceiling, in my very soul.

But falling asleep wasn’t always a grace.

I have vivid recall of the nightmares that plagued my childhood years. The hungry pool drain that would suck me into its abyss, the vicious swarm of killer bees that terrorized me and my poodle, the quicksand I would fall prey to in my backyard. Even in sleep, it turned out, I couldn’t always escape my fears.

But fears have a way of fading, not only with the crack of dawn, but with the passage of time. Like many school-age grinds – sitting through Catholic mass comes to mind – they can take on a very different character in adulthood.

In my youth, the struggle was with succumbing to sleep right after I’d turned out the lights. Those minutes that could feel like hours when I was wrapped in my cocoon of blankets, clutching my crucifix, and praying I’d make it until daybreak. Hoping against hope that I wouldn’t have to get up to pee, only to start the minacious process of falling asleep all over again.

In my adult years, especially since I became a mother, and getting up in the middle of the night was par for the course, there was a decided shift not only in my sleep patterns, but more remarkably, in the way I experienced the night.

When my children were babies, nocturnal wakings were jarring and often difficult. I was plain exhausted, yet would stir at the faintest noise – any indication that one of my infants was hungry, sick, or just lonely for company. I’d zombie-walk to their cribs, dragging my feet, wearing a thousand-yard stare, like one of the creatures I’d hoped never to encounter when I was a kid.

But once I caught sight of my squirming mound, the tiny fingers grabbing at the rails – my fatigue all but left me. The after-hours became a time that was just for me and my littles. I hardly thought at all about the more ominous qualities of the dark during those midnight calls. Whatever monsters had prowled my imagination in the years before my babies were born were no match for this mother’s protective impulses anyway.

Jan Saudek, Mother and Child

It was in those sleepless years, when my frights were obscured by love and biological imperative that my relationship with the dark began to change.

I guess it had to.

Even long after my children had grown accustomed to a heavy, uninterrupted slumber, my mind and body continued colluding to awaken me at the slightest noise. I’d end up being up in the middle of the night quite a bit. At first, this was a frustrating development. I’d been looking forward to a full night’s sleep for years, only to have it denied by…nothing in particular.

It became such a nightly phenomenon, that my husband began calling the hours between one and two in the morning, the time when I invariably found myself staring into the inky black, my witching hour.

By definition, at least according to Merriam-Webster, the witching hour is an hour when “supernatural events are thought to occur; the time late at night when the powers of a witch, magician, etc., are believed to be strongest.”

While I don’t feel particularly powerful or witch-like when I’m up in the night, I have found that time to be a source of magic. As a child, it was a macabre magic – melodramatic in its potential for occultist devilry, and utterly disconnected from more real-world dangers of nightfall. Ones like burglaries, house fires, and freak storms that might sweep a sleeping household away.

As a woman, a mother, my witching hour has been far more filled with the commotion of nature and small town life, than ghostly moans and chain-rattles. The din that drifts in through my open window includes the caw of a night bird, the croak of a bull frog, a train rattling by, maybe a distant siren, a screaming fox, a whoosh of wind, the shiver of a tree branch heavy with leaves. From inside the house, there are pipes clanging, floors creaking, the pitter of rain on our metal roof, laughter and music coming from my children’s bedrooms.

Sometimes, I’ll hear my phone ping.

“You up?” My oldest daughter, a night owl, will text me.

On these nights, my witching hour becomes a time of private jokes, sweet, childlike snuggles I would never get during the day, and secrets that come spilling out as if I’d cast a truth-telling spell. About crushes and crushing fears. What if I fail? Should I end a friendship that’s become toxic or try to reform it? How can I control my grimmest thoughts and impulses? Will I ever find someone to love me? As I whisper my responses, I quite literally feel the love in my heart as if it’s corporeal – heavy, magnetic, radiant.

My cover illustration for The Mammoth Book of Modern Ghost Stories.

Then, there are the nights my witching hour lives entirely in my head, producing hours of streaming content devoted to my specific flights of the imagination. Ones of captivating people fully versed in enchantments and intrigues, who go on to inhabit wild, bold worlds. The damsels in distress, superbaddies, warriors, wretches and libertines that stalk the ancient palaces, infinite deserts, and craggy mountains of my fantasies. Historic events are relived, reimagined, or entirely contrived. All of these threatening to find their way onto my blank computer screen come morning.

I make it to the Hugheses’ house without incident and fall into bed after the bare minimum of a toilette. My breath slows, my mind clears as if swept by a diligent maid. But soon, the empty room that housed my thoughts becomes filled again. Not with images from my day, my life, but with a foreign world that has always inhabited my dreams. A world of people and histories that I can’t possibly know, but who feel as intimate as my own beating heart. I hear a laugh, and a voice as devoted as a caress.

“It always takes you time to warm to me, you know,” he says.

“You’re one to talk.”

“Oh, no. I always love you from the first.” Tonight I don’t see him, but hear only his voice. Yet, he’s here. So close that I long to fling myself into his arms. To stay in my night world and never wake up.

— excerpt from “Of Sand and Bone,” coming this Christmas.

It’s That Time of Year Again

Time to have your mind blown.

Once a year, my friend Ricardo Lopes and I have a conversation. It’s a long conversation, often going on for three or more hours. And I love it! I look forward to it like Christmas, because Ricardo is one of those rare people whose curiosity knows no bounds. He’s well read, profound, unafraid to ask tough questions, equally unafraid of tough answers.

Ricardo’s podcast and YouTube series, The Dissenter, covers his breathtaking array of passions thoroughly and compellingly. From evolutionary biology to Japanese Manga, The Dissenter will unearth for you interests in topics you may have never even entertained before, presenting you with new fascinations and broader opportunities for connecting with others.

From guests who nearly everyone has heard of, like Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker, to academics, intellectuals, and artists with very specialized fan bases – anthropology, primatology, history – Ricardo makes the magic happen.

And this year, in what Ricardo’s listeners have called “the best one yet,” The Dissenter and I have what is nothing short of an epic one-on-one that goes up and down, snakes sideways, and flips in circles. We cover nihilism, the horror genre, depression, love, and writing fiction – just to name a few light subjects! No guardrails, friends. No walking on eggshells or pussy-footing around difficult themes. We talk about EVERYTHING, and do so with heart and nuance, I think.

But I’ll let you be the judge.

Please join us, and do follow/subscribe to The Dissenter. It’ll make you wiser, smarter, and ready to make a new friend outside of your comfort zone.

Conversations

I spent last weekend quite literally in the Cold. Up in the Rocky Mountains on a pair of skis.

My son and I flew out to Denver to ski with his girlfriend, who goes to school out there. I was just so touched and excited that they invited me along for the fun, even if I hadn’t skied in (gulp) thirty years.

At the Arapahoe Basin

Not only did I challenge myself physically and mentally by learning a new trick (or rather, relearning one), but I also felt like I was truly out in the world for the first time since Covid. While my family has traveled during the pandemic – to the beach, to a family wedding in California – it’s always felt insular somehow. Starting a conversation with a fellow traveler, coming too close to someone, often felt like a violation. Like we were putting ourselves and others in danger.

But if my trip to Denver is any indication of what’s happening all over, the lot of us seem to be renegotiating our rules of engagement. Most of the people we encountered over the weekend – on the plane, at the airport, in the city, on the slopes, were relaxed. They’d pierced their personal bubbles and were reaching out again in that friendly, easy-going way we used to all take for granted.

And it was glorious.

As I loosened up, settled into our weekend activities, I found that what I missed most about putting myself out in the world in an uninhibited way wasn’t the movies, the live music, the events, the restaurants – as nice as those are. It was simple conversation. The kind born of new experiences and encounters with strangers. Because every once in a while, you get the mind-expanding sort that have you pondering another person’s particular wisdom for days. Their struggles, their triumphs, their outlook.

And on our way home from Denver, we were blessed with exactly one of those.

The conversation was with a woman who sat next to us on our flight. She was the kind of lady who said, “I’m so sorry, sweetie,” if she accidentally bumped you, made plenty of room for the person sitting next to her (me), and had a general aura of…goodness.

We’d already shared a laugh about our hour-long delay, and gabbed about a TV show she was hooked on (“True Story,” starring Wesley Snipes and Kevin Hart – she says it’s fantastic!), but then, all of a sudden and out of the blue, some real magic happened.

“I’m from Virginia, originally,” she said. “I’m going home on vacation to see my siblings.”

“Oh,” I said. “How long have you been living in Denver? You move there for work?”

She took a deep breath and smiled big, shaking her head.

“I don’t live in Denver and I will never live in Denver,” she told me. “I live three hours away in a tiny little town called Moffat.”

My son was listening in. “I’ve heard of Moffat,” he said. “It’s in the middle of nowhere.”

He loves places in the middle of nowhere, especially ones surrounded by beauty. Living off the grid, building a home of his own and raising a family there is a dream of his. One of many at this stage of his life, as he tries on passions and prospective careers like Stetson hats. He got on his phone straight away and started Googling Moffat, showing us a picture or two.

“Yup, that’s it,” my flight friend confirmed.

(Moffat, Colorado, pop. 116 as of 2010 census. It’s got at least 117 now.)

“Where I come from, I was either going to end up dead or in jail,” she told me. “So, four years ago, I bought a one-way ticket to Denver. I packed only one backpack full of stuff, and left the rest behind. When I landed, I took a bus as far away from the city as I could get.”

I understand the appeal. I’d once bought a one-way ticket to Prague about five and a half minutes after the Berlin Wall fell. I sold my car to make it happen, and showed up on the doorstep of a great aunt I’d never met, hoping she’d let me stay for a few nights until I got my bearings. I know how life-changing such a decision can be; the way it transforms your perceptions of who you are and what you think you want. How it sends you down a dark, mystical path under the blanket of a sky filled with more stars than you’ve ever imagined in your whole life.

Still, I was flabbergasted at her revelation, and uncharacteristically at a loss for words. With her black, razor-cut jeans, funky, short hairstyle, and oversized sweatshirt, my flight friend did not look like the middle-of-nowhere type.

“Wow,” was all I could manage.

And she laughed.

“I know, right?” She said. “And let me tell you – we city people, we got everything right at our fingertips. The good and the bad. In Moffat, there’s nothing, and you gotta learn how to get your needs. When I moved into my cabin, it didn’t have water or electricity. I had to build it out. Now, I got power, and I’ve got water on the property, but not in the house yet.”

Double wow! Here was a city girl from a bad neighborhood, who was now a homesteader. And she was doing it alone! This is just the best of America, I thought. Fascinated, totally drawn in, I asked her what the community out there was like. I imagined eclectic sorts and cowboys – maybe a few hippies. Definitely off-the-gridders and a handful of end-of-the-world types who’d dug out bunkers and stocked them with canned goods and weaponry.

“It’s wonderful!” She said, all pride and joy. “I could’ve never done it without my neighbors. We’re like family and we have each other’s backs, cause only we know how hard it is where we are, and how great it is.”

“And you love it?”

“Girl,” she said. “I would never go back. Ne-Ver. For the first time ever I love my life! I mean, I miss my family – but I’m from Moffat now.”

She leaned in close to me as everyone started getting up, readying to exit the aircraft. “My friends at home tell me, I could never do what you did, and I say to them – You don’t even know what you’re capable of. I didn’t know. I just knew that with humility and gratitude and love anything was possible.”

She got up and pulled her bag down from the overhead – a simple, black backpack. I wondered if it was the one she’d packed up for her move to Colorado.

“That’s what I tell people,” she continued. “And I meet all kinds of people, because I work at a gas station. And even though I’m just in Moffat, I’m the highest paid assistant manager in the whole company – out of every single station they’ve got. Most people are nice when they come in, but you get the troubled ones here and there. One guy came in, hands shaking, needing his tobacco. But his credit card was denied, and he got so mad. He called me n*****. I said to him – You may not like my face, but I love your face, sir. Because that’s what I try to do: meet people where they are with love.”

I reached out to her with my hand, unthinking. I realized in that moment how unaccustomed I’d become to touching anyone except for my family and close, close friends. Covid had done that to me, to all of us.

“You’ve got to write this down,” I said. “All of it – even little things you don’t think are important. This is a great story and you need to share it.”

She nodded in that merry way of hers’. “I try to write in my journal as much as I can.”

I practically begged her to keep up with it. If she was too tired to write, she might do an audio journal into her phone (she does have a phone), or make a short video. I told her about Talasbuan, the Swedish forest family who lives off the grid, and hosts an enchanting YouTube channel that I follow like a groupie.

“Aw, sweet, thanks for saying that,” she said.

I told her I meant it, but I could tell that she was just too busy living her life to spend much time on documenting it. She was in the midst of that magnificent frenzy that comes from building something, becoming part of a tribe, being happy.

(This is a cabin in Moffat, although probably not her cabin.)

That’s why I’m sharing her story. My flight friend hasn’t the time or inclination to get it all down, but I do. Because our conversation has touched my life and righted me in that way brief, but important encounters do. The kind that pick you up, adjust your perspective, pull you away from a precipice you didn’t even realize you were standing on. She reminded me that anything is possible, and most of us don’t fit neatly into the slots we’ve been assigned by birth, media narratives, political plots, and traditional mythologies. We are all bundles of potential ready to be realized, firecrackers yearning to be lit. We just have to face the unknown, and walk by faith, not by sight.

Leaving Moffat, Colorado

Sweet Nothings Whispered in Your Ear

The Cold is getting hot and heavy this week with some amazing stories whispered into your ears by a group of master storytellers.

My friend Uvi Poznansky, a USA Today Bestselling Author who writes some pretty sublime historical fiction (“A Peek at Bathsheba” anyone?), has put together a terrific audio book event.

It’s called, “Be Mine Tonight,” and happens on Facebook this Friday and Saturday, the 11th and12th (that’s today and tomorrow). It includes a couple dozen of Uvi’s favorite authors, including Yours Truly. Not only will you have a very good chance to win some wonderful, beautifully produced audio books, but you’ll be able to chat with all of us, ask questions, have some laughs. We’re a good group of folks who get along great, and love to talk about history and love stories and epic battles, so there is about a zero percent chance that this event will be a bore!

Click here to RSVP!

And just to get you in the mood for love, here’s a short, romantic excerpt from the novel I’m featuring in this audio book event. It’s from “Breath,” the first book in my epic historical fantasy series of the same name.

“Breath,” By Yours Truly

Thousands of years ago, in The Rah’a

“Sherin,” he says. His hand is still on my cheek, holding my face like a piece of fragile pottery. “Do you accept my vow?”

I try to say something, but it’s as if I’ve set with the sun. I can feel my lips moving, but I’m not sure what words they’re forming. Thank the gods Nif knows.

“I can manage that,” he whispers. Then he bends toward me and presses his lips to mine.

I must have said, kiss me.

And he does as he did in the courtyard, and the cave, only more so. He kisses me with his tongue and his breath, his hands caressing my neck. He kisses me deeply and hard, as if he will never stop.

“Am I your wife now?” I gasp, as we break from each other. He touches his nose softly to mine.

“You were my wife from the first day I saw you.” Then he brings me close to him, holding me, my head resting at his throat.

Did you think that was all you were going to get?

Hell, no.

I’m this close to finishing “Of Sand and Bone,” which is the second book in the series, and I want to give you a taste of this one, too, although it will not be featured in the event for obvious reasons (it’s not out yet). But Emily Lawrence, the lovely, hugely talented, and downright mesmerizing actress who voiced “Breath” for Audible has just agreed to do the honors for “Of Sand and Bone,” and I’m so, so excited about that.

“Of Sand and Bone” By Yours Truly

On the Nile, the journey from Cairo to Aswan, 1902

Ripley booked us two cabins on the Dahabya Oriental, a lovely boat that holds ten passengers and more than twice as many crewmembers. All the comforts of The Shepheard Hotel and under a night sky, with a river breeze blowing through our hair.

It’s late and the last of our fellow passengers have gone below deck— – stuffed from a grand, French-inspired dinner of quail and perch, and soused with wine and brandy.

“On the Nile, nothing can be believed or depended on, they say.”

“Hmm. And who told you that?” I whisper.

I turn to him, nestling in closer, my hands gliding over the thin linen of his shirt, feeling the ripples of muscle and bone on his back. When he kisses me, it’s as if we belong to each other like darkness to night. His lips are as strong as the tide, and my heart booms in my chest. My breath is wild like the wind preceding a storm. His is rough like the sea.

“We should retire to our cabins,” he says.

“I’m afraid to. I’ll dream of you again.”

Last night, our first night on the dahabya, Ripley and I had the same dream. In it, we were lying on a bed of soft linens the color of rose periwinkle. We were naked, he and I, my brown body painted in bold hues that told a story. Of a desert, of love, of hands at my collar, as if holding up my head. A child’s face on my hip. And flowers. So many beautiful flowers the likes of which I’d never seen. It was something to behold, my painted body— – a work of art that could have held its own in the Italian Renaissance.

As for Ripley, he was not painted at all. His beauty was as raw as an uncut gem, a river, a mountain. We were entwined, Ripley’s skin even browner than mine. His body lithe and strong. His hair dark and curly. Yet it was him.

How NOT Keeping a New Year’s Resolution Turned Out Great!

I’m not one of those people who believes life will magically change just because it’s midnight on December 31st, and we’re throwing confetti in the air, and joining in an off-tune chorus of “Auld Lang Syne,” tipsy, with our arms slung around whoever happens to be standing next to us.

Our dreams, relationships, projects, doubts, fears, and unresolved messes all follow us into the New Year, stuck like a juicy piece of gum to the bottom of our shoe.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t love the symbolism of ringing in a New Year. Vowing to put the past behind us, starting anew with fresh hopes, raw and uncut, can make for a powerful covenant. And while New Year’s resolutions have a comical reputation for being short-lived, it has been my experience that even the paltry few weeks of virtue they might impel can result in lasting changes.

That’s why, as we come to the end of this year, I want to celebrate one of my favorite New Year’s resolutions. One that I ended up breaking rather quickly, but that nonetheless transformed my life, and gave me a great story to tell.

Several years ago – and I mean years ago, I decided, that at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, I would ditch one bad habit. I thought long and hard about which bad habit that would be, and spent several wine-enhanced nights trying to figure out the Big Bad I should kick to the curb. Turned out, I had plenty to choose from. There were relatively inconsequential habits, like my love of fried cheese, fried anything, really, or my resistance to attending parties peopled with more than just a few, close friends. Basically, low-grade irritants that were more of an eye-roll than anything else.

My bigger bad habits tended to revolve around what I’d call motivational issues. Things I did or didn’t do that would often act as impediments to getting what I wanted, or at least thought I wanted.

Like the fact that I love to swing for the fences. I don’t want to fall in love, I want to meet my one, great, true Wesley from “The Princess Bride” kind of love! I don’t just want to tell stories, I want to change people lives! I want them to live and breathe in the worlds I’ve conjured.

You get the picture.

Big dreams are great, don’t get me wrong, but in my wayward youth, it was hard for me to go for the ground ball, the run, the smaller moves that might get me to home base. I was resistant to reveling in the journey and finding myself surprised by, content with an outcome that may very well have blossomed because of my talents, good habits, and work ethic, but wasn’t exactly what my ego had in mind.

It was just this sort of hyper-drive ambition that I was eager to put the brakes on – just to see what would happen.

And I did great out of the starting block! I strolled rather than steamrolled through that January. I kept a gratitude journal, and gave myself frequent pats on the back for recognizing my little steps forward – the mundane, but necessary parts of any larger endeavor: phone calls, research, setting a schedule, organizing my work space. Decidedly unsexy efforts that might make day to day operations flow, but rarely provide the buzz of storyboarding yet another idea that I hoped could be a runaway bestseller complete with a three-picture movie deal.

By February, I was getting itchy, but still managing to stick to my resolution, albeit with diminished enthusiasm. I resisted the urge to start a new pie-in-the-sky project, but I did put it on the schedule for the following month, then eyed that day the way I did the last day of Lent when I was a third-grader; back in the days when I sat salivating for the moment when I could finally have sugary sodas back in my life, after long, dreadful weeks of water consumption.

March, however, was when I lost it completely.

My long-term love relationship had fallen apart, and I could summon no passion for my work. Every blank page seemed to stare at me in disappointment, any new idea sounded stupid when I tried to say it out loud. I was lovelorn, lost, and languishing, shuffling stoop-shouldered through my days, and carousing through my nights in a way that made sure I would be too dazed and dog-tired to give my failed love life more than a heavy sigh during the daylight hours.

I missed my old boyfriend, even if I didn’t want him back, and couldn’t see a life with him anymore. And every new date I went on seemed to fall into at least one of the following three categories.

Boring.

Random.

Creepy.

Finally, at the end of April that year, my father gifted me with a wall calendar. It was complete with lots of pictures of nature, which is what he loved, and I guess he figured it would cheer me up if I replaced my plain numbered calendar that had no pictures whatsoever, with a log that showcased snowy mountains, bubbling brooks, fields of wildflowers, and infinite deserts. What was lost in translation for my very Czech father was the fact that he hadn’t given me just any run-of-the-mill nature calendar. This one was tongue-in-cheek and parodied those mindful meditation calendars that were big back in the 1990s. The ones that attempted to kickstart your spirit with quotes like, “Every experience I have is perfect for my own growth.” The ones you want to take a Sharpie to. Or a Zippo lighter.

His little cultural misunderstanding did crack me up, and I opened the calendar to May, pinning it on my corkboard. Right there, staring at me, was a picture of a volcano on the big island of Hawaii. The quote at top read thus: “If you drop your keys in a river of molten lava, let ’em go, because man, they’re gone.”

After I finished laughing so hard that I plopped down on my kitchen tile, bruising my tailbone something awful, that’s precisely what I did. With the stroke of a pen, I fell off the New Year’s resolution wagon in a really big way, and just…let it go.

One of my bad motivational habits that I was attempting to curtail was what I referred to as “writing my directives.” Basically, this was a list of all the things I wanted in the coming year. There’s nothing wrong with writing down your goals, of course, and it works for a lot of people. The problem was with my approach. At that point in my life, I tended to go bonzai! with this list, because, I figured…why not? My lists could include anything from winning a Nobel Prize in Literature to being offered a round-the-world luxury voyage. Sky’s the limit! I rarely put practical things on there. Stuff like – put $100 in your savings every month, or learn how to cook three great dishes.

But this time I was determined that my list would have standards! I wasn’t going to be haphazard, lumping in personal goals with professional ones. It was going to be specific, with the intention of identifying the qualities of my perfect romantic partner. The only rule? Every item in the directive had to be positive. Nothing like, “I don’t want another mama’s boy.” Rather, the same sentiment should read, “I want a grown up. A man.”

And that was exactly what I wrote in the number 1 spot, even though I could think of so many more glamorous qualities for a lover. I suppose I figured that if I got that one right, the rest of my more castle-in-the-air conditions and character traits would follow.

When I finally finished the directive – and it took at least two hours. I looked it over and felt a little foolish. It seemed a bit like one of those Santa wish lists that included things like superhuman strength and a diamond-studded Ferrari.

“Here you go again,” I said to myself.

So, I closed the journal and put it away. Frankly, I forgot about it for a good five or six years.

It was only as I was preparing a gift for my husband on our very first wedding anniversary – our paper anniversary – that I came across my old journal, complete with my old list that was meant to build and attract to me, perhaps through a combination of alchemy, wishful thinking, and heartsickness, my perfect mate.

That man was handsome, but not like a movie star. He had quirks and enough frayed edges to make him interesting. He was charming, and passionate, and creative, and adventurous. His wit was wry, his whiskey was rye. Style, generosity, and courage were a must. People liked him, but he was no glad-hander. Most of all, he was the kind of guy a girl could rely on.

He was my husband.

In this case, falling off the wagon, allowing myself once again to channel my inner Lucy Ricardo, had been a boon, after all. And my broken New Year’s resolution had delivered. I’m not claiming it was my “directive” alone that got me the kind of love that’s kept us dancing through the mud, and the sludge, and the blood and bruises and warm, weak beer of the luckless years. I’m sure there was more involved than that.

Nor am I saying we should all double down and keep executing the same strategies that have lead us to heartbreak, ruin, or even just an extra five pounds. What I am suggesting is that if you make a New Year’s resolution this year and break it, it’s not the end of the world. Go ahead and laugh at yourself, revel in your foolhardiness, but then forget about it.

Because one day, you might look back and see that those indelicate, zigzaggy steps you took to get where you are, had their own logic. Some of your own broken promises – even the ones you cried about, that made you shake your fists and curse the sky – were a wink and a nod from God.

Happy New Year

This is Everything I Know About the Spirit of Christmas

We dolled her up good

I’ve been thinking a lot about the spirit of Christmas, especially as we go full throttle into the remaining days before the big holiday. When we’re still running from shop to shop for our hardest-to-shop-for relatives, scanning the epicurean websites for the perfect Beef Wellington recipe, and ogling the lights and festive decor with a childlike mirth.

I get caught up in the holiday blitz as much as anyone. It’s at this time of year, that I take “research” breaks during my work day to search for screwball Santa photos to share with Cold readers like yourselves. It’s purely an altruistic exercise, of course, even if I do it while playing the soundtrack to “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and getting up every once in a while to do a Snoopy dance.

The fruits of my labor

I lean in to the shameless manipulation of my emotions, as practiced by shameless commercial enterprises – I do. There’s little that’s beneath me – the more schmaltzy the display, the better! I only draw the line at Christmas sweaters.

But occasionally, as I’m reading the paper, or scrolling though social media, I come upon a humbling reminder that the true spirit of the holiday isn’t about how it makes me feel. It’s about birth and renewal, giving to others, and leaving a legacy.

The life of Eda Solome, age 100

Maybe it seems a little maudlin to be thinking about how we want to be remembered at Christmastime. The very nature of endeavoring to leave a legacy implies we won’t be around to bask in it one day. At this point, you might be thinking, “Come on, Vic, get back to the kooky Santa photos!”

But in this year of Covid, mortality has felt closer than usual. I’ve had some stark reminders that not everyone who becomes gravely ill or dies is loved and mourned with the same energy and devotion as the woman in the above obituary.

Not every soul gets the weepy stories and the gushing toasts, or the picture that gets pride of place on the mantel.

Grandpa Dougherty and the grandson who would have adored him

But deep in our hearts, even the grumpiest of us, with the most flagrant, bah-humbug postures hope to. We dream of being missed, cried over, reminisced about, and eulogized. We want to be remembered as having mattered. If not to humanity at large, then at least to the humans in our lives.

In that spirit, I have some suggestions for getting the Christmas spirit right this year. I’ve collected these from experience and tried every single one of them myself. I can say (okay, write) with complete confidence that even putting some of these directives into play has brought people closer to me. I suspect they’re a solid first step toward rebuilding relationships we may have lost, too, although I don’t have any personal data on that.

Regardless, these are sure to make you feel good, and that alone makes them worth a try. So, here goes:

Let’s go out of our way.

Forgive.

Reach out to someone who is lonely.

Examine our own foibles.

Let’s share dog pictures, make jokes, crack open those hard, big books we’ve been meaning to read, get off our phones, have long converstations, bake cookies, learn a new skill just for the sake of learning it, take a chance, say something that takes real courage, try to truly understand the other side of an argument, cuddle, romance our partners, resist the urge to tell the easy lie, and give ourselves the permission to rest.

Finally, if you do all of these things (or at least most of them), please reach out and tell me how it went.

Merry Christmas
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