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An Eye on Embracing the Creative Life

Eye, Creative, Galaxy, Collage, Flowers, PaintBritt Skrabanek and I started blogging at right about the same time – coming up on eight years ago now.  We first bonded over love stories. About how falling for our mates had taken us by surprise, as we’d both been outliers who looked at the world askew, and perhaps hoped to, but didn’t expect we’d ever find that special someone who made us feel like we’d come home.

Next, we connected over writing. We’re both compulsive storytellers and fiction authors who follow our muses – sometimes blindly, and into genres that are alien to us. We are suckers for the unknown, the mystifying, the curious, the strange. Boy, do we love the past, too. Poking around the shadowed corners of history, trying on the styles, the ethos, the triumphs and tragedies of bygone eras.

And, of course, we have our lifestyle interests. Britt is a yogi, tea-drinker, and all around life-enthusiast. Me, too. Except for the tea. I like it fine, but I prefer coffee. That seemingly insignificant difference – tea vs coffee – is also what distinguishes our blogging styles.

While my blog, COLD, focuses on writing and my own personal crusades, esoteric pursuits, and the unshakeable belief that our struggles make us better, stronger (coffee), Britt’s blog is made of pure optimism and joy. Adventure. She writes about what brings meaning to her life and features kindred souls, who don’t merely journey, but quest (Earl Grey anyone?).

vintage dressOf all the people jumping on the blogging bandwagon back when we started – when blogging was hot and new – she and I are two of only a handful who have kept on blogging, writing, and embracing the creative life. I think it’s because she and I both have a strong vision for what drives us, puts a fire in our bellies. For us, blogging isn’t just a platform, but a practice that has helped us write better, think better, be better…and ultimately connect with people all over the world.

So, when Britt reached out and told me she was starting a podcast, I knew she was serious. That eight years from now, her podcast would still be going strong – so unassailable is her vision. She’s just that passionate about squeezing every drop of juice out of life.

And I was honored that she asked me to be one of her first guests.

Episode 05 Image 1 - IGI urge you to sit down, put your headphones on, make a cup of tea, or a pot of coffee. Pour a glass of wine if you like. Join our conversation. We talk about what it means and what it takes to embrace the creative life. It’s a damned inspiring conversation, but we also get into what all of this really entails and don’t just stick to the fantasy parts of it.

If you’re thinking of diving in and living a creative life of your own, or if you already do – hell, even if you have no interest in embarking on the creative life yourself, but enjoy being a voyeur, you’re going to love this experience.

Embracing the Creative Life: Listen Right Here 

love your enthusiasm podcastAnd if you haven’t bought your copy of my latest creative endeavor, I invite you to do so. “Breath” is epic. This is a big book that’s sort of like an ancient “Game of Thrones” meets “The Time Traveler’s Wife” with just a dash of “Indiana Jones” thrown in for good measure. I know, you’re thinking What? That sounds awesome, but a little weird. To that I say, Um, yeah, and how long have you known me?

The world of “Breath” awaits you!

Two souls. Infinite lives. A quest across history.

In the ancient past, in the now lost Kingdom of Rah’a, a young woman named Sherin finds herself in mortal peril after her family succumbs to a deadly contagion to which she is immune. Alone and afraid, she is cast out into the desert in search of a safe haven.

But the plague continues to ravage her region, forcing survivors to band together. Some form haphazard tribes, others violent gangs. Through her wits and courage, Sherin captures the attention of two very different men: Nif, a desert warrior who leads a nomadic tribe, and Roon, a powerful soldier for the crumbling sultanry.

As cannibalism, torture, thievery and war blight the region, alliances shift and terror reigns. Despite all of this, Sherin finds herself falling deeply in love with one of her suitors, sensing a mystical energy between herself and the man to whom she is so passionately devoting herself.

The forces of destruction enveloping them, an extraordinary destiny begins to unfold before the lovers, ensnaring them in a fate that traps them in an endless cycle of death and rebirth. It will propel them through history, from the earliest of civilizations to the present day, where they must struggle to save humanity from the same fate that befell their ancient civilization, or risk losing one another forever.

Readers have called Victoria Dougherty’s new “Breath” series “haunting” “beautiful” and “breathtaking storytelling.” Discover why this thrilling and romantic new fantasy will have you up all night turning pages!

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We’re having a “Breath” launch party!

 

Click here to get “Breath” for your special launch price!

 

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It’s time to dance, throw confetti and howl at the moon! That’s right – today, we’re having a “Breath” launch party! There will be fun, there will be music, there will be a great book deal for you all, and there will be a contest!

The “Breath” series is epic. It’s a big book full of history and love and magic and most of all, people with whom you will fall in love! It’s sort of like an ancient “Game of Thrones” meets “The Time Traveler’s Wife” with just a dash of “Indiana Jones” thrown in for good measure. I know, you’re thinking What? That sounds awesome, but a little weird. To that I say, Um, yeah, and how long have you known me?

Once you grab your special launch price download of “Breath,” you’ll be eligible for some “Breath” swag that will include a signed trade paperback library of all my novels, a signature “Breath” mug in a sweet gift box (it’s a gorgeous mug, btw), and a $25 Amazon gift card.

All you have to do to enter the contest is email me with a link to either your “Breath” proof of purchase or a link to your review of “Breath” on the platform of your choice. Cold readers who leave a review will not only be entered into the contest/giveaway and receive my eternal gratitude, but will also get an original “Breath” short story sent to your inbox!

Here’s where you send your email:  victoria@victoriadoughertybooks.com

You’ve got until three weeks from today (that’s June 19th), at which point I’ll put all participants names in a hat (yes, an actual hat), and will draw one lucky winner!

EP135: Picking names from a hat - YouTube

“Breath”

By Victoria Dougherty

Each of us has a before, and an after…

In the ancient past, in the now lost Kingdom of Rah’a, a young woman named Sherin finds herself in mortal peril after her family succumbs to a deadly contagion to which she is immune. Alone and afraid, she is cast out into the desert in search of a safe haven.

But the plague continues to ravage her region, forcing survivors to band together. Some form haphazard tribes, others violent gangs. Through her wits and courage, Sherin captures the attention of two very different men: Nif, a desert warrior who leads a nomadic tribe, and Roon, a powerful soldier for the crumbling sultanry.

As cannibalism, torture, thievery and war blight the region, alliances shift and terror reigns. Despite all of this, Sherin finds herself falling deeply in love with one of her suitors, sensing a mystical energy between herself and the man to whom she is so passionately devoting herself.

The forces of destruction enveloping them, an extraordinary destiny begins to unfold before the lovers, ensnaring them in a fate that traps them in an endless cycle of death and rebirth. It will propel them through history, from the earliest of civilizations to the present day, where they must struggle to save humanity from the same fate that befell their ancient civilization, or risk losing one another forever.

I’m offering “Breath” to you all for the launch price of $3.99. It will only be at this price for one week – I want you to get your copies. After that it will start creeping up to its regular price of $9.99.

Click here to get “Breath” for your launch price!

And yes, now it’s time to dance!

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Photo by Hulki Okan Tabak

We’re going to dance to a song I love. “Desert Rose” by Sting not only captures the mysteries of the desert and of desert people – and Nif and Sherin, our lovers in “Breath” are most certainly desert people (at least in their first lives), but it’s also something you can lose yourself to. This neo-classic makes me want to spin like a whirling dervish, belly dance, and at the end of it all, fall exhausted onto the sand and laugh. It’s beautiful, it’s haunting and it’s romantic. All of the feelings I hope my epic new series will inspire in you.

And since this is a party, I’m offering up the secret recipe for our official “Breath” series cocktail, invented by none other than my drinksmaster husband, Jack. Mix it up before you sit down, put your feet up, and dive into “Breath.”

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Take a fancy glass of your choice (I prefer an ancient jeweled goblet found deep under the sand in the central Sahara Desert), fill it with a potion that’s 1/3 pomegranate juice, 1/3 lime juice, and 1/3 good gin. Add five drops of a virgin’s tears (she must be pure of heart, too, and breathtakingly beautiful), and garnish with cardamom pods. Voila!

Warning: If you drink too many of these, time-travel may occur! Victoria Dougherty Books is not responsible for anyone who becomes lost in the past or the future. 

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That Post-Mother’s Day Glow

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This Mother’s Day was probably the best one I’ve had in my life. We didn’t go out, and I didn’t even get any actual presents, but it was hands-down such a thoroughly enjoyable day that I’m still aglow from the whole experience.

You’d think I would have gotten some kind of fawning letter from my kids – one telling me how I’ve inspired and nurtured better than any other mother in the whole universe! And I did it looking hotter and at least ten years younger than even the Hollywood matriarchs who make us lose our minds over their poise and seemingly effortless childrearing. The Angelina Jolies, Victoria Beckhams, and Kim Kardashians.

Or that my not-so-little-anymore babes practiced a song, a poem, or other creative homage for weeks and performed it in our living room. Not a dry eye in the house.

Nope.

All we did was sit down and watch videos taken on an “old fashioned” Sony camcorder. They were of our children when they were mostly infants and toddlers and rough and tumble kiddos. I think the iPhone came along when our oldest was about five, and as we’re not exactly early adopters, we didn’t really put away our Sony until a full five more years after that. In short, we had a lot of videos to go through.

And I have to tell you that it was the most bonding family activity we’ve ever undertaken. More than going to the amusement park, or to the beach, or on a road trip. It was a full-on totally absorbing experience that each of us committed to with an equal amount of enthusiasm and engagement. Not one of us wanted to tear away – not even our oldest, who at eighteen, looks for any excuse to get out of the house and taste freedom.

We sat close together on our couch, huddled around the little machine, watching a screen that was hardly bigger than a watch face. We giggled and marveled at how each of their personalities had already emerged so early on. We recognized facial expressions that were still common, patterns of speech and thought, dispositions.

Our youngest, Josephine, always fluttering about like a little fairy. Spry, imaginitive, content in her own company. While the other two fight, make up skits, play games, she can be seen dancing in the background despite a notable absence of music. Or walking naked and unaware, a scoop of ice cream in her hand and a pair of felt antlers on her head.

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Our middle child, Charlotte, eager for gold stars, for laughs, for love, for the spotlight. “Me! Me! Me! Me! Me!” She sang at age 3, as she jumped up and down like she was riding a pogo-stick. But later, ever so tenderly, she was seen caring for her younger sister – checking her diaper for poopy, and advising the grown-ups as to how to best comfort the baby when she was fussy.

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Then, there’s our oldest, and oldest soul. Eamon’s innate sweetness and sense of adventure were on display in every family scene. As he dug for pirate treasure on the beaches of the Carolinas, built a fort that was so good it was taken over by a bear, said “I love you” with complete abandon.

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Eamon will be leaving our house this coming fall and I can’t get enough of him. He, of course, has had plenty of me ;).

As we were watching the last video on Sunday evening, just before Eamon and his sisters were going to start making burgers for our Mother’s Day dinner, he said to me, “This is the last Mother’s Day where we’ll all still be living under the same roof.”

I didn’t want to get teary-eyed, but I did. Not right then – I didn’t want to wreck things. It was later, when I lay in bed, staring out into the dark and saying my prayers.

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Travel Tours for the Housebound

Amazon.com: MCS MBI 13.5x12.5 Vintage Travel Scrapbook Album with ...

Most of the people who read Cold, are what my friend Barry would call PLUs.

People Like Us, are any group of individuals who are interested in roughly the same topics of conversation. Like people who are Cowboys fans, love Jimmy Buffet and enjoy Scuba diving. Pretty sure we know what they’re talking about over cheeseburgers in paradise.

In our case, a PLU not only refers to fiction lovers, but folks who are wild about history, exotic places, and quirks of culture. Doesn’t matter if you’re Democrat or Republican, Christian or Jew, Elvis or The Beatles. If you’re into the aforementioned subjects, you’re in.

Cold PLUs in particular share a fundamental curiosity about what’s not right in front of us. It isn’t because we don’t care about the view from our own backyard and the current events shaping our everyday lives. It’s just that we want to understand them through the lens of what has been or what is in various places around the world and amongst diverse peoples. We’re eager to see where our stitch is made in this grand tapestry.

But right now, my fellow PLUs, it seems some of our interests are inaccessible to us: namely, foreign places and cultures. And since we’re lamenting not only the loss of our actual vacations in the coming weeks and months, but even the day trips and weekend excursions that used to help keep our wanderlust sated, I thought we might do a little work-around.

Through the modern magic of YouTube, we can not only cross borders, but transcend the boundaries of time and space! And while real, live travel is great – it’s been the seed for several of my novels – YouTube is a pretty good substitute. It’s been a Godsend to this housebound mother-of-three fictionista. There are lots of places I’ve written about over the years that I haven’t visited personally, but have seen through the handheld cameras of tourists who have been kind enough to upload their home movies onto internet video platforms.

Given that we’re all housebound right now, I thought it might be a fun idea for me to act as a tour guide of sorts and take us on a handful of these virtual trips together.

This will be a curated video travelogue of some of my favorite places in the world, embellished with a few, short, history-infused blocks of fiction. Just to get all of our interests folded in.

The good news is, you don’t even need to put on a fresh coat of lipstick for these outings. Hell, you don’t have to shower or change out of your PJs. No TSA lines or weird intestinal bugs from the street food you’ve consumed either. Best of all – these trips are FREE.

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Our first stop is Athens. I know this ancient city pretty well, as I lived and studied there in college. Today, I thought I’d take you back to Athens in 1924 – a few years before my time. This was during the Golden Age of Archaeology, when the modern world was utterly transfixed by the ancient past. Let’s walk around a bit, shall we?

That was incredible, wasn’t it? And we didn’t even have to break a sweat.

If you don’t mind time-hopping just a bit more, I’d like to take the hydrofoil from Athens to Monemvasia, just like I did when I was a twenty-one year old co-ed. Just kidding – no hydrofoil required! This time we’re going by way of a snippet from my second novel, The Hungarian, which took place (partly) in Greece in the mid 1950s. Just as a funny aside, the following conversation was very similar to one I actually had with a Greek gigolo who approached me on the beach. He wasn’t romantically interested in me, I should add. And even if he was, I had no need for or interest in paying for a male escort. He said he’d overheard me talking to my friend and wanted to “give me some advice.”

The rosy sun skimmed the water, as if dipping its toe to test the temperature. The simple beauty of the sky made Lily smile. It was one of the few uncomplicated things in her life right now. The sun, the water and Etor, the hotel gigolo, who sat beside her imparting his particular brand of wisdom.

           “A woman should never travel alone,” Etor chided. “Especially one of childbearing age.”

           Lily chuckled at how he could sound like a prim schoolmaster, all the while sporting a most fashionable pair of chartreuse swimming trunks that left little to the imagination. She tossed her head back, enjoying the tickle of a lone droplet of sweat that rushed down from her neck and into her cleavage.

           “I’m not alone,” she teased. “I have you.”

           Etor had taken to joining Lily around sunset, sitting cross-legged on the rocks, as they watched jellyfish bob on the swelling surface of the Pélagos Sea. His lined face was still handsome, but Lily figured he was only a couple of years shy of retirement, as men half his age courted the attention of the same vacationing Countesses who used to buy Etor’s supper and handmade Italian shoes. The ladies were only a decade or so older than the bronzed Cretan now, and stared with growing resentment at the silvery roots of his auburn hair.

           “You need a man,” Etor asserted. “A Greek man. The Americans can’t handle you.”

Vintage TWA Trans World Airlines Adv. Postcard GREECE "Acropolis ...

Next stop: Italy – the seat of the Roman Empire, the birthplace of the Renaissance, the land where pizza was invented. I’ve wandered her oldest roads, touched the foot of Michelangelo’s David, was nursed back to health from a terrible flu by a sweet, silent cadre of nuns at a monastery outside of Rome, and was blessed by Pope John Paul II during an audience at the Vatican.

But that was twenty-five years ago, not one hundred and twenty-five. Maybe, we’ll discover it hasn’t changed all that much.

And now, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to take you to Vatican City, again during the mid 1950s, courtesy of The Bone Church.

Felix bowed his head, and the Cardinal led the way into an early Renaissance building, its interior decked in blue-veined marble. The Cardinal’s office was perched on the third floor corner, one of many rooms that comprised his suite of apartments.

For Felix, visiting the Cardinal’s apartments was a bit like coming home. The artists whose work his father had so admired from a distance – Caravaggio, Pisanello, Daret – were mounted in heavy gold frames. Michelangelo had painted images of the apostles on the wall alongside the banister, one of the few artifacts left unmolested during a seventeenth-century renovation.

Felix’s first glimpse of those same apostles hadn’t been in the books of his father’s study or on his initial visit to the Cardinal’s office some years before, however. It had been in his mind’s eye when he was little more than a child – a reverie that he’d tried to convince himself was the result of an overactive imagination. Felix was a boy of nine and skating alone on a pond in the Blansko forest, when a still, mental image of Simon the Zealot, disciple of Jesus, avenging priest of the temple, appeared before him. Felix mistook him for a neighbor at first and began skating towards the figure when St. Bartholomew emerged from the snow. As Simon whispered into Bartholomew’s ear, they faded away into a jumble of tree roots.

Back then, Felix had explained away every prescient dream and strange, wakeful image, the way a dweller in an old house might justify the creak of footsteps when he knew no one else was home.

Found: Vintage Italian Postcard – Rome 1898 | An Italian Canadian Life

Our last stop today is Cairo, Egypt. I’ve never been there, but I’m writing about it anyway. The second book in my new “Breath” series, tentatively titled “Of Sand and Bone,” takes place largely in Cairo in 1902. A friend of mine, a Chilean artist who’s travelled there many times, assures me, “It’s much as it was before.” But perhaps that’s something we can verify together…

Last, but not least, I give you a brief excerpt of the work in progress I mentioned, “Of Sand and Bone.” It’s one that must rely entirely on my imagination – one fed by the journey’s I’ve taken to Cairo through fiction and film. I hope I’ve done it justice.

As we spill out onto Ramses Square, a musical racket of chants, footsteps, arguments, and laughter comes at us. The clim-clam of camels moseying along with the elegant trot of horses pulling a carriage rolls in the background like percussion.

“It’s like nothing at all has changed,” Father marvels. He walks on as gape-mouthed as a first-timer.

“It hasn’t been all that long we’ve been gone,” I tell him. “I’m sure the Pharaohs think the same when their spirits come down from the heavens to visit their pyramids.”

He takes me close and squeezes my shoulders. “You and your ghosts.”

One thing, of course, has changed irrevocably, and I know it’s on his mind. He’s wondering how we’ll ever live here without my mother. Unlike me, he doesn’t believe in ghosts. To him, gone is gone.

“What’s so splendid about Cairo is that nothing ever really leaves here,” Clara says, as if sensing what I’m thinking. “It all becomes absorbed into her fabric. Such an old city, but the desert that surrounds her is even older, and its phantoms, too, find their way here.”

Hugo’s Brougham pulls up and the men in tarbushes go to work again, loading our bags up top and bowing deeply, then helping us ladies inside the carriage. I get side-glances from all of them, getting a firm reminder that here in Egypt I’m not quite Egyptian enough for the Egyptians. They can look all they want. The desert has always felt like home to me, and my blood is every bit as old as theirs. Older, my mother would have insisted.

Only one of them looks on me not only as if I belong, but with deep affection. It’s Horus, Uncle Hugo’s coachman.

“Little Leila,” he says, utterly breaking decorum. “You’ve come home to make more mischief for me, I see.”

“You’re hardly one to talk,” I tell him.

It was Horus who once drove me into town center when I was only yay high knowing full well I was determined to sneak into one of my mother’s incendiary feminist readings – where children were most certainly not allowed. The adults were required to make a big stink out of it, of course, but they were all just blowing smoke. Horus was docked a day’s pay, which was snuck back to him by my mother the following week, once things had settled down.

I give him a wink and he flinches in horror as if it’s the evil eye.

Inside the carriage, I feel like I’m back in London all of a sudden. It’s a new one, with plush, creamy velvet and gravy-brown tassels all over.

“Ach!” Clara waves her hand and gives one of her famous eye-rolls. “A gift shoved down our throats by Hugo’s grandfather. It was after one of the cousins came to visit and clearly complained about how he was brought about town. The old rig was just fine.”

“Hmm, just fine, yes,” Hugo says, though it’s quite plain he enjoys his new toy. The old rig was only a buggy.

“It’s very handsome,” I whisper to him, and he takes a puff off Father’s pipe to keep from smiling too broadly, then comments on how fine a tobacco my father has brought with him.

While I’ve never minded roughing it at all, it is lovely to sit in comfort and get reacquainted with Cairo. I lay my arms on the window ledge and balance my chin onto my hands enjoying the street circus.

We pass men playing big bass drums hung around their necks. They’re singing a song, but I can’t make it out. One of the many folk songs sung on the streets as often as small talk is exchanged.

Men, and even some women carry baskets on their heads. But it’s only the men, all pouch-bellied, who sit sprawled on rickety chairs, smoking hookahs and watching the crowds. Their heads are wrapped in thin, white linens that have all seen better days. They sit playing dominos on stone tables that look as if they were dragged in from the pyramids.

A small wooden Ferris Wheel, cranked by hand, is set right in the middle of the road, forcing us to go around it. Only about four benches on it, each fit for one, rocking and jerking with each turn. Makes the riders – men, of course – chuckle. When each one reaches the top, they spit over the side, prompting a strong rebuke from Horus.

Lines and lines of merchant stalls, their proprietors dressed in skull caps and tunics striped like pajamas. Each and every one of them has a bushy mustache as thick as a fur collar. Except for one. He is clean shaven and catches my eyes as we pass. He looks right at me like he knows me and holds up a small statue barely the size of his hand. It’s a rather distinctive looking thing, and I notice its bird head and lion’s mouth straight away. Then the clawed talons. Those seem to be clutching a flower.

An Ox cart passes between us going in the opposite direction and I strain to keep my eye on the man, but it’s no use. By the time the carriage has passed, the merchant is gone and I feel as alone as I felt on the day Mother died.

Vintage Postcard of Cairo Mosque Sultan Barkuk $20.00 – Schofield ...

Until next time, stay safe and distant, but remain close.

 

You Are Cordially Invited to an Ancient Party

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Place: Your Imagination

Time: Thousands of Years Ago

Since parties are out of the question for the time being, I thought I’d offer you a bit of a virtual gathering. This one is ancient. It’s a short excerpt from my forthcoming novel, “Breath” and details a sumptuous party held in celebration of my heroine’s betrothal.

Breath_Kickstarter_paragraphheaders_WIP01-1_STORY_small“Breath”

by Yours Truly

(Coming May, 2020)

It’s a cool night, and our hearth is blazing, sparks whirring up into the black, and vanishing like magic. Part of me wishes I could vanish into the night sky. My palms are damp and cold and my fingers tingle unpleasantly. I place them on my lap and force a cheerful smile for our guests, which they return along with a nod of respect. I must look alright, then.

The train of my mother’s tunic, all rosy, ripples behind her as she makes her way across our roof garden. She takes a goblet from Yina’s hands and shares it with an elegant, long-necked woman who I will one day be calling auntie. This woman tells my mother how excited her nephew is about the prospect of taking a wife, assuming all goes well tonight. My mother laughs and waves her hand with an impressive aura of confidence.

Breath inspiration book 2 fashion

The night is overflowing with garments made of bold desert hues. Jugs and platters are arranged on our finest eating cloths; ones embroidered with pretty images of grapevines outlined in delicate gold thread. The musicians play from our central courtyard three stories below, stomping their feet to a beat on a patio of mud brick built by my father’s hands. The sounds of harps and reed flutes waft up along with the strong perfume of the royal purple lulas I’ve been growing for the occasion. Those are just beginning to blossom, and haven’t yet unfolded into the decadent flowers they’ll become. When they do, their scent will be stronger than smoke and reach all the way to the ziggurat, I’m sure.

We lounge on pillows, as our guests pick from an array of barley cakes, mustard greens, goat, fowl, and mutton. Sauces that hint at sweetness, but are overcome by the taste of blood. I know them well. Pastes of organ meat and crushed nuts are smeared over flatbread. My favorite! Mulberries and pomegranates spill over clay bowls painted with symbols of fertility – horses, hunters, gardens, breasts the size of engorged udders. I look at my own bosom, and sniff. Can’t imagine they’ll ever be like those.

A chorus of women – lizard-skinny and full of gossip – are rolling cuts of roasted meat in finely chopped herbs that leave a green, furry ring around their lips. Splaying around our hearth fire, they point their toes as they stretch, cupping their breasts and giggling. My new clan. I wish I could like them a bit more, but every new bride feels that way at first. Or so I’m told.

“Godly, just godly,” one of the ladies says, chewing with her eyes closed in rapture. Her nostrils flare explosively as she speaks, and even more so when she takes a deep sniff of roasted flamingo.

The strum and pitter of good conversation conceals the growls from my stomach. So I lay back, like the ladies, pretending I’m accustomed to a life of leisure. Yina, taking pity on me, sneaks the odd bite of heaven into my mouth as she rushes by, filling cups, replenishing platters. She doesn’t trust the other slaves we borrowed for the occasion.

All along, my prospective husband’s uncle watches me. One of his eyes is larger than the other and he fixes it on the buds of my breasts, not at all taking care to be subtle. Dressed in fine linen, bone white, he seems safe and dangerous all at once, like a garden snake.

Sahjaloh, Uncle,” I say, nodding.

A bride never uses the names of her would-be husband or his family until the wedding. It’s considered very bad luck. But it’s so hard in this case since his name means “one-sided” and has a peculiar connection to his face. I say his actual name to myself only once – Arik –to keep it at bay.

“Mala, your father tells me you make linens as fine as your mother’s.”

A dare, a test. Every little thing is. I lick my lips and take a good swallow.

“Only because my mother is such a fine teacher, Uncle,” I say, but the name Arik keeps rising up like a ghoul.

I blink hard, trying to gauge how well I played it, and meet eyes with a young man on Arik’s – the uncle’s – right. His son, I think. Well-built and a full head bigger than most, with fresh skin, smooth like mine. It’s possible he’s only a couple of years older than me. With long, wavy hair that falls down his back and eyes the color of a golden ripe apricot, he seems out of place. Like he belongs to another world, another people. He smiles and I glance away before I’m tempted to smile back. That wouldn’t do.

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“And you garden, I’m told. A wishful pursuit for one who lives on the edge of a desert,” the uncle mentions casually.

“A girl’s life is made of wishes.”

“That it is,” he says. “It’ll be a wish fulfilled if your womb makes life as readily as your hands.”

I realize I’ve been speaking with those hands and fold them into a tight ball at my waist.

“Is it also true you kick stones with the boys and run like a gazelle?”

The uncle crows and crams a soft lump of mutton into his mouth, its juices running the length of his forearm.

“If I’m being chased, Uncle,” I tell him.

He stills for a second and I can’t even breathe. I’d wanted to sound sure of myself, but with enough modesty and regard for my elders. No one wants to invite a diva into their house, then have to whip her into shape. Literally.

I’m tempted to apologize for being too offhanded, but Arik’s eye twinkles and he roars with amusement. Even the gossiping ladies start to hoot, shielding their mouths with a swathe of linen, like they’re so dainty. The young man looks at his lap, biting his lip. I try on a grin – not too pleased with myself, I hope.

The uncle unfolds, stretching and groaning. Sitting up tall, he slaps his hands on his ribs. It’s his job to set the tone of the evening, which he does with a wordy speech about the many virtues of my would-be husband. He begins – incredibly – with a flowery monologue about the qualities of the top of my husband’s head (round like a melon, with an abundance of hair).

He moves from there, as thorough as any man who loves to hear himself talk, and expounds on the merits of my husband’s face and neck (handsome and foxlike, aquiline nose, and so on) then his broad shoulders, chest, hard belly, and strong hips.

He doesn’t shy away from describing a remarkable set of genitals – in detail, his big eye boring straight into mine the whole time! No one dares to snicker, especially me, although when he describes the gem quality jewels pierced into my husband’s foreskin (at the very tip of a member the size of a calabash, he tells us, giving a big wink while stroking the neck of a jug of wine, no less!), the ladies struggle not to fall to pieces. I only survive the ordeal by imagining the uncle squatting over a chamber pot, just as Yina advised me. She’s been through this ritual three times, after all, and has suffered through all manner of innuendo – including a detailed description of her parents’ wedding night once! She knows how to fight fire with fire.

The uncle keeps his comportment, staying deadly serious, and I have to admire him for that. His son strums his fingers along his thighs and glances away. I pinch my thigh hard to keep it together – an eager, enthralled look upon my face, I hope. An expectant bride never wants to look like a prude.

After a long and hearty clearing of his throat, the uncle continues to describe a pair of sturdy legs – like the trunks of a tamarix – all the way to my future husband’s feet (stronger than the most well-made sandals, he says, and I think he could have done better than that) and finally, his toes. Seeming to grasp for something properly marvelous to say about those, he ends by assuring us they were the most beautiful and manly toes he’s ever seen.

“Nahoor,” he says, concluding the speech with his blessing.

 

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Stay safe, stay distant, but remain close…

Back to the Days of Promenade

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Since my gym closed in response to COVID19, I’ve been walking a lot in my neighborhood.

I live in a semi-rural area, so the houses in my neighborhood aren’t all lined up in a neat row, the way the were in the suburb of Chicago where I was raised. A lot of the homes in our area are old, too, and aren’t exactly on uniform plots of land. Some are on an acre, others on so many acres you can’t even see the house from the road. While it’s charming, this kind of layout doesn’t really lend itself to the sort of backyard barbeque and stoop culture that some cities and suburbs enjoy. We’re not living a “Little House on the Prairie” life per se, but we do have to go out of our way a bit to visit with the people who live close by.

Before the pandemic, when I would go strolling down the streets of my ‘hood, I would usually spy one – maybe two- of my neighbbors walking about. And that’s assuming the weather was good.

Over the past ten days or so, since we’ve been told to try and stay home as much as possible, the country roads near our house have come alive. People are strolling hand in hand with their spouses, running, throwing a ball with their dogs, taking their kids for a bike ride, pushing baby carriages, catching up with one another – at an appropriate distance of course.

It’s occurred to me how very nineteenth century it all feels.

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Back then, diseases like cholera, rubella, measles, small pox, and typhus were simply a part of life. A frightening part, as the tiny local graveyard in the vacant lot at the end of my street can attest. We took a family stroll there two evenings ago, reading the old tombstones – some of them dating back to the Revolutionary War. One tragic young couple from the 1870s buried all five of their children before succumbing to an unknown illness themselves, and just a few weeks apart from one another. Four of their children died before the age of two, and one lived to adulthood, dying at the age of nineteen. I guess COVID19 is fairly tame by comparison.

A century ago, the vast majority of folks prayed and read their bible daily – for strength, for courage, and guidance. There are no atheists in a foxhole, the saying goes, and all of life was something of a foxhole before the widespread use of vaccines. Today, in my very loosey-goosey faith group on Facebook, I’ve seen a big uptick of people using prayer apps. I, myself, have been listening to Pray as You Go every morning.

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But despite the obvious dangers of those bygone days, it was also a time of neighborliness, contemplation, outdoor play and patience. Patience to read a difficult book, learn a new skill, cook a meal from scratch.

“I’m going to teach myself to sew,” my neighbor, Kate, told me as we chatted on my daily walk yesterday.

I spied her talking to another friend, Dianna, who was out walking her dog. Dianna lives on the other side of the railroad tracks that separate our homes, and our daughters have been hanging out since they were yay high. I swear, though, I don’t think I’ve seen her in months. Life gets busy that way. Anyway, Kate was crouched at the end of her driveway, planting pansies in a big wooden barrel. “I hear the deer don’t eat these, but if they do, no biggie. I’ll just plant something else.”

My youngest daughter, who hates art class, has been drawing up a storm. She and her older sister, who’ve been at each other’s throats this past year, spontaneously, without me having to force them, made homemade churros together. When finished, the fried pastries looked akin to turds rolled in cinnamon sugar, but they tasted great.

“Today’s my painting day,” my middle daughter, the one who actually looooves art class told me. She dug out her paints and brushes from underneath her bed and blew the dust bunnies off them. To my surprise, all three of my children have been practicing piano and guitar without my having to issue threats or bribes. Sometimes, they even seem to enjoy it.

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Don’t get me wrong – my kids are dying for this to end! They haven’t all of a sudden embraced the life of “Outlander” the way the time-traveling characters of that book and television series did. They miss their friends, their soccer games, all of the plans they were so looking forward to. My oldest will have to forego prom, graduation, and Senior Beach Week. To his credit, he’s philosophical about it.

They all are – except when they’re not.

“If Harry Styles is cancelled in June, I’m going to jump out the window,” my middle daughter informed me, while mixing her paints.

Only Barney, our Boston Terrier, seems to be having the time of his life now that the whole pack is home 24/7.

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I’ll be honest, I can’t wait for this to end either, but my frustrations are a bit less on the social side. I’m worried about the health of our older generation, and the long-term economic impact on us, our friends, the world. We’ve got my mom living with us, after all, and we’re looking at our oldest going off to college next year.

But if I can put those fears in a box, one I place high up on a shelf and keep well out of my sight, I find in my heart a genuine appreciation for the slowness of life under quarantine. Of having the time to dream again, and really mix it up with our friends and neighbors – even if it is at a bit of a distance. I’ve reached out to people I usually only connect with on birthdays, and have made sure to check in on those of my friends who live in Europe and Asia.

There is a tenderness to the way in which we are regarding one another. All of us are scared, and considering austerity measures. But we’re all in this together, too.

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I don’t know how much of this sentiment – if any of it – will linger on after this current crisis has abated. It’s likely that in our day to day lives, we’ll go back pretty much to the way things were.

But maybe, just maybe, we’ll have read a complex story that changed our perspective, had a long conversation that brought us closer to someone we’ve been taking for granted, took up a new hobby, spoke to a friend or family member who we’d fired from our lives.

That, in and of itself, will have made this functional journey back in time worthwhile.

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Creative Relief for the Quarantined

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There’s a great deal out there – from microbial to financial – that’s causing a lot of anxiety right now, and most of our usual ways of letting off steam are currently unavailable (at least if we have any sense). We’re discouraged from going to the gym, the restaurant, the pub, dinner parties, coffees, concerts. Even libraries are off limits for heaven’s sake.

We’re being forced into a Jeffersonian life of walks in nature, reading, listening to podcasts, Audible books, music, and hanging out almost exclusively with our nuclear families. Who would have thought, say three weeks ago, that a trip to the grocery store would come to be both dangerous and strangely exhilarating? Makes me feel like that girl in the horror movie who is compelled to enter the room where the killer is lurking and ready to plant a saw in her face, but she MUST GO IN because there may be a crying baby to save, or a gun with a silver bullet in there!

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For those of us who are parents and work from home – which is a lot more of us now than there were last week – we’re faced not only with still having to get all of our work done, but with unprecedented interruptions from our little and not so little angels.

It’s true, that being a bit of a hermit does in some ways give me an innate advantage over some of my more social peers during this time of self-quarantine. Not only am I used to being isolated, but I’ve trained myself over a period of years to be disciplined when working from my home office. It’s also true, however, that the mortal enemy of the writer – someone who is nourished by solitude and watches movies like “A Quiet Place” with a certain dreamy-eyed sense of envy – is the interruption.

It’s hard for me to get too frustrated with our precious distractors, the way I tend to do in the waning days of summer vacation. They’ve been forced into seclusion, too, and many of them are disheartened over the cancellation of sports activities, clubs, and even, potentially, rights of passage such as prom and graduation. I’m actually pretty damned impressed with how they’re handling it so far. They’re taking it in stride, much like the British did during the Blitz. I watch them wandering around the house, filming TikTok dance numbers and funny memes, adjusting to the current state of things with remarkable aplomb.

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Of course, we Cold War kids had our own problems. In our case, we looked potential mutual nuclear annihilation right in the eye with a heavy dose of punk rock attitude. If there was going to be an apocalypse, we were going to go down screaming and swinging, dammit.

But what’s hard about the current offensive measures we’re being asked to take in our fight against the coronavirus, is that they’re…defensive. The British marched on through their days with a stiff-upper-lip-business-as usual-demeanor, even as German flyboys streaked across their skies and bombs rained down on them.

The immediate generations after World War II used defiance as their weapon of choice. When the hot war turned cold, they sock-hopped, discovered The Beatles, went to Woodstock, flew to the moon for the love of God, played air guitar to anthem rock, created a cinematic and literary revolution, then discovered the action film, partied like it was 1999, came up with rap and hip hop, and pioneered the technology that’s transforming our world.

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In our war against this new biological enemy, we’re being tasked with something else: We must turn inward, find meaning, come together, re-evaluate, invent and innovate, as well as behave our way out of this. And I believe we will. In some respects, this may well be a much needed pause in our busy, distracted, partisan, selfie-obsessed lives.

We all must do our part. The real heroes of this epidemic will be on the front lines – medical professionals risking their own health in order to ensure the health of their patients and the greater population. There will be those of us who find ourselves out of work, and will have to scramble, improvise, do anything we can until some degree of normal jump-starts our work lives again. Entire business sectors will be under water, at least in the short term. Already, we have a friend in the hospitality industry who has watched helplessly as his revenues evaporate. To the extent we can, we should extend offers of help and mean it.

In our down time, and let’s face it, there’s going to be a lot of it, we have the opportunity to reflect and find beauty and a sense of gratitude about our lives. On the bright side of all this, we will fare much, much better in the current crisis than any other generation in history. We will be able to react, get accurate information, and self-correct in real time both faster and better than we could even fifteen measly years ago.

I know that’s easy to say, but more difficult to absorb and feel. That’s why I want to extend to you what my husband and I like to do for each other when we’re experiencing times of high stress and low certainty. We send one another – usually through text or email, even though our home offices are right next to each other – bits of artistry, enchantment, humor, and grace that we call “morsels of positive affect.” Positive affect, according to psychologists and other peddlers of emotional well-being, refers to “one’s propensity to experience positive emotions and interact with others and life’s challenges in a positive way.”

Morsels of positive affect, at least in my experience, can be a big help in getting us over mental humps and slumps. Of jarring us out of descents into self-pity, and stopping us from “awful-izing.”

So, that’s what I hope to give you today: a bit of positive affect.

I’ll start with inspiration from some of the artists I follow on Twitter, if I may…

“fire-hollowed house, the lawn laden

with nameless blossoms” –Joseph Massey, poet

Joseph offers some of his poems for free on his website.

Yo-Yo Ma has been playing #songsofcomfort such as Dvořák’s “Going Home”, and if you’re not on Twitter, you can watch and listen right here.

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has asked PBS to stream his new series, “Baseball”, for free and beginning immediately right here.

My small contribution to quarantine begins with an exclusive short story I’ve written for my forthcoming “Breath” series.

Breath

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Two souls. Infinite lives. A quest across history.

Nif and Sherin are Ninti, beings both human and divine, who share a deep and powerful love that puts them both in mortal danger, while propelling them towards an extraordinary fate that ensures they will live infinite human lives…and suffer an equal number of deaths. Together they must solve a mystery that spans the ages, or risk losing one another forever.

The following “Breath” story takes place in rural Virginia, and involves a brief encounter with the villain of the series, who is also an immortal Nin’ti.

Easter’s House: A Breath Story

I plan to have more for you in the coming days and weeks. I’ll try to cull great content from my universe of weird, glorious, sublime outliers, as well as offer some of my own creative work for all of us to chew on as we wait this out.

Yes, we live in an age of reality TV, and often silliness seems to rule the day. But there’s a lot of wonderful, soul-nourishing content out there, ironically thanks to the very same internet and social media platforms that we curse.  With any luck, most of us can come out of this more resilient, wiser, kinder, more connected to those who matter most, and with our hearts and imaginations re-booted, perhaps even re-engineered.

More to follow…

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How I Ended Up at the KISS Concert

Processed with VSCO with c1 presetI was a little young when the heavy metal glam-rock band, KISS, became a phenomenon. I knew enough to be able to name its members and could sing the refrain to exactly three of their songs: “Lick It Up”, “I Was Made for Lovin’ You”, and “I Wanna Rock and Roll All Night (And Party Every Day)”. I was also vaguely aware that they made a movie of some sort. It was called “KISS Meets the Phantom” or something like that. I never saw it, but I remember watching the commercials for it on TV and thinking, “Hmm, that looks freaky.” Basically, KISS was to my young self what the Kardashians are to me now. I knew they were big; I knew a lot about them through cultural osmosis; but I wasn’t a fan, per se.

Yet, when my friend Susan reached out to me a few weeks ago with a text that read, “KISS is coming to Charlottesville – wanna go?”… despite the fact that I didn’t want to shell out over $100 for a band whose music I didn’t listen to, and who sang in a genre I wasn’t particularly fond of, I said, “Sign me up!”

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I should back up right here and tell you a little bit about my social history over the past twelve years. Namely that it’s pathetic, and I’m not using even a trace of hyperbole here. For most of my life, I’ve been an outgoing, sociable person who had a certain grace with conversation and was able to make friends pretty easily and with a wide variety of people. Growing up as a bit of a cultural outlier as the daughter of Czech immigrants in an Irish-Catholic neighborhood, I got pretty good at operating outside of my comfort zone and seeking common ground with peers. I got so good at it I even married an Irish Catholic and feel perfectly at home in his predictably large, boisterous family.

As an adult, I moved not only all over the United States, but also studied, worked, and lived in several countries in Europe. In fact, as I sit back and take an inventory of people with whom I’ve had friendships, or at the very least have successfully broken bread, or shared a drink with, it’s a roster that reaches well beyond the usual parameters of racial and ethnic diversity. It’s a list that includes, but is not limited to, nurses, doctors, teachers, plumbers, war photographers, men and women in uniform, journalists, diplomats, hippies, bartenders, hair stylists, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, a handful of tech zillionaires, three British hooligans, a mobster, a nudist, a car salesman, an erotic film producer, an ex-con turned musician, a sculptor, a Hari Krishna, a Baha’i pioneer, an antiques dealer who found a way to have herself declared legally dead so that she wouldn’t have to pay taxes, a pro athlete or two, a forest ranger, a professional gambler, a fashion designer, a vacuum salesman, a hobo, a Greek gigolo, and a Bollywood star who played the villain in a James Bond movie. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I used to be able to talk to anyone.

Even when my husband was offered a job in Mumbai, India, I didn’t blink about moving our young family there and didn’t feel the least bit intimidated about the prospect of making friends and finding a community. In fact, the only reason we didn’t end up going was because our third and youngest child was born so sick that we simply couldn’t leave our home in Charlottesville, Virginia.

I guess that’s when my social problems started.

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At first, my self-sequestering was circumstantial. Our daughter’s illness put our family in crisis mode and pretty much anything that didn’t revolve around her survival and our family’s ability to cope, was put on the backburner. The only relationships we had the energy to maintain were with family and people who already were like family. Essentially, the near and dear we didn’t have to put any additional work into. They knew us; they loved us; they got us.

On the rare occasions when I did leave our house – say, for school field trips, or for other child-related social obligations – I truly felt like an alien. I distinctly remember sitting in the back seat of a Honda Pilot, on the way to a science museum for my son’s field trip, and listening to two good friends of mine having a casual conversation in the front seat. I recall having neither the desire, nor the ability, to join. And I remember wanting to cry.

The peak of our crisis mode lasted about a year, but our daughter needed a great deal of attention for five solid years. After that, things normalized for us, as she began living like a healthy child. We were able to go on dates, and hit the beach for a week in the summer. I was able to focus on work more, and start making up for lost time. It’s a huge blessing that I love what I do. Writing isn’t a chore for me, it’s a profound pleasure that has the added benefit of helping me sort through my emotional conflicts.

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But it’s also something that I do almost exclusively from my home. With the advent of social media, which corresponded roughly with the start of my daughter’s illness, I was suddenly able to have relationships with readers and colleagues that were entirely online and didn’t require me to meet anyone anywhere ever.

And while I fully expected to get my social mojo back once our lives had attained some level of balance and security again, the fact is…I didn’t. For several New Years in a row, my resolution was to get out, make new friends, and accept more invitations.

Only I didn’t.

Our home became a gilded prison cell. One that was filled with all of the people and things I loved most. Our food was great, our cocktails greater, our music was excellent – why would I ever want to leave?

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Then, about five years ago, a friend of mine – the mother of one of my son’s buddies – recommended my novel, “The Bone Church”, to her book club. I have a personal policy of not strong-arming my friends into reading my fiction, and think writers who don’t have that policy end up having a lot of resentful friends. So, I was really touched that she did that, and hadn’t expected it at all. This warm and fuzzy feeling, however, was quickly replaced by burning shame when she said to me, essentially, I like what you’ve been writing, so I thought I’d give our friendship one more try, even though you pretty much dumped me. She didn’t say it exactly like that – she was much nicer about it – but the meaning was clear, and I was absolutely dumfounded. I wanted to scream, “No! No, I didn’t dump you! I swear!”

But I didn’t do that either. The truth is, I didn’t even know how to explain my hermit status to her, so I just said, “Um…I never go out.”

That friend ended up moving to Texas, but in the years since that incident, I really have tried to get out more, meet new people even. Usually with mixed success. My social isolation has put me out of synch with the ebb and flow of a conversation that isn’t on the written page. On paper or computer screen, I can pause, reflect, and construct a joke. All of the things I used to be able to do spontaneously, and in person. In recent years, when I’ve forced myself to go out, it’s been clear to me and others that I’m more than a little rusty. This has set up a vicious circle of promises to myself: I will talk to people more; I will make an effort to make friends! The promises are quickly followed by discouragement and failure. I talked too much, said the wrong thing, came on too strong. I had become… weird.

Once again, I would find myself falling back into the cozy embrace of my house, my family, my core group of entrenched simpaticos. I would stop accepting invitations, and by and large, they would stop coming. What began as a fear that I would never recover my social life and skills, grew into a feeling of grudging acceptance that this was the new normal: the outgoing woman I was in my teens, twenties and even into my thirties was a gone girl.

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Then, a couple of weeks before Christmas this year, my son was invited to a party hosted by the parents of a school friend. It was a raucous mix of teens and adults, and most of the grown-ups hit the open bar pretty hard. The next morning, when our son began regaling us with stories of our tipsy neighbors, he mentioned that three different sets of parents – flush with alcohol – made comments about the fact that we never go out and aren’t a part of the community.

This hit me hard. Worse than sitting in the back seat of a Honda Pilot fighting tears. Even worse than having a friend think I ghosted her. This was coming from my kid, who had discovered what I thought I had largely kept secret from him. I was surprised at how contrite and embarrassed I felt.

But like all hard truths, it opened up an opportunity for me to take a cold, critical look at myself – “a moment of clarity, as the counselors say. I saw the chances I’d lost – to perform a kindness, to try something new – and became painfully aware of the way my walls had gone from providing me protection to closing in on me.

This year, just days after my son attended that party, I made my New Year’s resolution once again. Only this time, it was a vow. Instead of swearing up and down that I was going to go out more in that eye-rolling way unserious people swear they’re going to quit smoking, give up sugar, quit their dead-end jobs, I made a covenant with myself to become a social animal again. Whatever the invitation, unless I had a genuine conflict, I was going to say yes! No excuses, no exceptions.

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Since January 1, 2020, I’ve been at a birthday party, two dinner dates, a UVA basketball game and a wine and cheese get-together that I actually hosted at my house!

And last Friday night, I found myself making devil horns at the KISS concert, accompanied by a friend who never gave up on me.

It was freakin’ awesome!

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P.S. I don’t make my in-person neighborhood friends buy my books, but my reader friends are a whole different story, so here’s are some links ;).

Savage Island – new release! (ebook on sale through Valentine’s Day for .99 cents)

The Bone Church

The Hungarian

Cold

Welcome to the Hotel Yalta

Oh, and here’s 19 seconds of KISS for your enjoyment!

Truth and Dare: The Dangerous Allure of the Horror Story

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Don’t worry folks, she’s a pro at this make-up stuff.

My middle daughter, who’s fifteen, is pretty crackerjack at horror make-up. Ever since going to theater camp when she was eleven and taking a special FX class, her Halloween costumes have been killer.

But it’s my twelve year-old daughter who really loves horror. She binge-watches anything from Twilight to the Halloween franchise, devours Stephen King, and writes her own stories all the time – often from the point of view of some deranged, but charming psycho. Nothing goes too far or is off limits for her. Not demonic possession or vomit-inducing gore or heinous monsters or wicked cults. And she sleeps like a baby at night. Go figure.

Jo pre Halloween

This girl is fearless.

I watch her with a mix of envy and awe. I’ve always been fascinated by horror. The sneaky way in which it toys with our psyches, revealing even the most oh, so rational of us as frauds. The ones who put ourselves above the supernatural and claim to be too smart for religious magic, sorcery, or any paranormal mystery. Things like ghosts, telekinetic powers, space aliens, witches, and the undead. Some of us brush off the whole phenomenon of scary stories, claiming to be indifferent to the dark charms of a chiller, thriller toni-i-i-ight.

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The infamous Michael Jackson’s Thriller hand from theater camp.

And yet who of us hasn’t at one time or another fallen for the jump scare, or feared the unwholesome, insidious threat of the evil spirit, the hungry creature under our bed? Even the most poker-faced literalist, if pressed, will admit to being afraid to sleep alone for a night or two after being exposed to a particularly eerie yarn.

So, I want to challenge you a little if the reason you don’t like horror is because you find the genre a bit cornball. Horror, second only to Romance, is the most maligned genre in fiction, after all. Rarely taken seriously, and treated more like a carnival sideshow.

But I charge that horror is as integral a theme for our psyches as the love story, and it doesn’t really matter whether it’s presented in the form of schlocky genre fiction or serious literary endeavor. In the end, all horror stories serve the same master: An instinct to solve mysteries, seek out danger for the sake of mastering our fears and our environment, tame the monster within or without. To investigate, adventure, crusade, and when necessary…run like hell. Horror, even at its campiest, shows us the ways in which we can be complicit in our own demise, can fail in the face of a situation that calls for courage, or can rise to the occasion as a hero, yet still end up with an axe in our skulls.

Heady stuff. And not for the faint of heart.

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Theater camp special fx “beaten up” face. This one actually gives me the chills.

My youngest daughter’s obsession with horror is a daily reminder to me of how much I’d love to write a truly great horror story, yet lack her courage to do so. To write the sort of tale that shifts the ground beneath my feet would put everything I have in peril – emotionally, philosophically.

Perhaps that sounds a bit dramatic, but I wouldn’t be the first to feel this way. Think of Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, and my personal writing heroine, Mary Shelley.

It’s Mary Shelley’s writer’s journey that resonates so strongly with me. Not her private journey, which was a hell of a mess involving an extramarital affair with her future husband, poet Percy Blythe Shelley, and the eventual suicide of his wife. They suffered social ostracization, financial troubles, and the tragic death of their love child. Later, two more of their children died shortly after birth, leaving only one who survived. Percy’s young death by drowning, a final blow, came once their personal storm seemed to have passed.

What I’m seduced by is her audacity as a writer, evidenced in the now famous dare between Shelley and her heavy-weight writer husband and their friends, a group which included Lord Byron, author of Don Juan, John William Polidori, who wrote the first modern vampire story, and Claire Clairmont, Mary’s step-sister.

The story goes that on one rainy afternoon in Geneva, in 1816, Mary and her literary cohorts passed the time by telling ghost stories – scaring one another and nearly frightening poor Claire to death. A sufferer of “the horrors,” Claire frequently fell into fear-induced states of hysteria and was said to have nightly, ghoulish nightmares. Feeling emboldened, they decided on a contest between them to see who could write the most psychicly savage horror tale. One that cuts to the bone and would leave them up at night having cold sweats. Would make them question who and what they are.

Although Polidori’s short story, “The Vampyre” gave an impressive show, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has endured as a classic.

Knowing a bit about Mary’s life as a gifted outlier, I imagine it took guts for her to delve into psychological horror. Here was a young woman born to an anarchist father and a radical feminist mother during a time of strict adherence to propriety. She was fed a steady diet of rebellion and contradiction laced with conflict growing up, and had a great deal to unpack. It’s not hard to see the funhouse mirror reflection of Mary’s life in her Gothic tale: the brilliant scientist who orchestrates the complete destruction of his life by giving life to a being made of corpses. That could be her marriage to Percy Shelley. The price she paid for love and infamy.

Her tall, powerful creature of rare intelligence is rejected by his creator, who regrets his mistake of playing God, and goes about wandering the earth in search of someone, something that could love him, becoming more cruel and destructive with each disappointment. Mary’s own life was riddled with as much rejection as it was acclaim. Rejection by her father, her step-mother, polite society. She paid a dear price for travelling Europe with a married lover, feeding her imagination, her desires, and her intellectual vanity.

Jo killer

My little horror-writer was already a monster at age six.

“I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.” –the Monster

“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel…” –Frankenstein

I can see Mary as both of them, and feel a rare sense of awe for the depths of her courage. For looking herself in the eye and allowing those words to flow. She tempts me to face the cracks in my own carefully, painfully constructed world.

So, what is my fear you might ask? The cold darkness within that won’t let me go there, to write what is to me a horror above all horrors?

It’s a simple fear, really. Like Mary’s monster, I fear estrangement. That beyond us there is nothing. No other worlds, no soul within, no light, no force of good compelling us to follow the moral law. The black of night without tantalizing mysteries, the golden light of day without a hint of tomorrow. Hopelessness. That’s what I fear most.

But maybe this fear in and of itself is a great, cosmic dare not unlike the one between Mary and her friends. The dare my daughter has taken. One that growls at us, taunts us for our weakness. “Don’t just look it in the eye, girl,” it says. “Stare it down.”

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The Greatest Twenty-Year Hangover

It’s not Valentine’s Day.

In fact, it’s perilously close to Christmas and the New Year. You know, the time when we reflect on what the past 365 days has brought us and what our hopes are for what’s coming ahead.

I guess that’s why I’ve been thinking about love an awful lot. Because in 2019, not only did I launch the first novel in an epic new Fantasy Romance series I’m writing, but my husband and I celebrated our twentieth wedding anniversary!

On July 31, 1999, our closest friends and family descended upon Chicago, Illinois and gathered at a quirky little venue that was built to be an exact replica of the famous Maxim’s de Paris restaurant. We had a party to end all parties, and the rest is history! But let’s not get ahead of ourselves quite yet. Like any self-involved respecting ​Bridezilla, I’ve got something to say about my big day!

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Putting the finishing touches on my dress.

I should start by saying that Jack (my husband) and I chose the Chicago version of the famous (and infamous) Paris restaurant because it seemed to channel our love story. For one, it was an intimate space and forced a small guest list consisting of only the people closest to our hearts. Beautifully decorated in an authentic Art Nouveau style, it evoked not only Paris, which we both loved, but another great city that was at the forefront of the Art Nouveau movement – Prague – which also happened to be the city where we met.

Our ambition for our big day was to throw the greatest dinner party any of our guests had ever attended! Great music that would make people want to get up and shake their booties to everything from Sinatra (My Kind of Town, of course) to Prince (Let’s Go Crazy), food that was NOT the usual wedding fare – in other words good and very French, and terrific company. The kind with whom you can cry in your beer, have soul-scraping conversations, let your guard down.

I don’t know how well we succeeded for sure. Nobody’s going to tell you they had a crap time at your wedding, after all. But I can say that we drank the bar dry, my sisters-in-law had a handstand contest in the bathroom, one of our guests went home with the bartender, another guest popped the question to his girlfriend (they’re still together!), and we were up all night long singing, dancing, telling dirty jokes, reminiscing and urging new friendships between people we’d always been dying to introduce to one another.

Some of our friends still talk about that night.

This is the real Maxim’s and this scene looks a helluva lot like our wedding.

​It was crucial to us that our wedding offered the unexpected to the people we most loved. We wanted it to be as much about them and their memories of our nuptials as it was about us and the life we were launching together. We figured, after all, that we were in this together.

Even the photographer we chose was a woman who specialized in candid shots. We didn’t want a bunch of posed photos to look back on. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with those, it’s just that when we flipped through our wedding album…oh, say, twenty years later…we wanted to see pictures of people in mid-conversation or mid-cringey-dance-move. Gesturing wildly, or looking intently at the whoever was holding the floor. In short, we wanted our wedding photos to be prompts that would jog our memories, enabling us to remember that night in detail. Because we expected it to be a night of pure, unadulterated joy. And it was.

I can honestly say I have never had more fun than on the night of my wedding. It was so worth the killer hangover.

wedding 1999But I won’t bore you with any more of my goofy nostagia. There’s a really good chance that like most brides, I’m the only one who truly finds my wedding all that interesting. What I will do is share with you an essay that I wrote a few years ago. It’s about how important story is to a long-lasting love affair like a marriage. It’s one of my most popular posts ever, by the way. The one so many people have responded to with their own love stories. That’s why it means so much to me. The way it was received by men and women alike is quite literally the reason I decided to write a series that put the relationship between two lovers at the heart center of the story.

Love Stories by Yours Truly

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The bride striking a 1940s vintage glam pose

Some years ago, about a week before my wedding, I was at work listening to a radio show on a topic that was understandably on the forefront of my mind: marriage. On this show was a man being touted as the preeminent expert on Holy Matrimony – a guy whose name I can’t remember – but a fellow who’d been studying the institution for decades and could tell with startling accuracy and within minutes of meeting a couple whether they would still be married in five years’ time.

I sat listening with my ears pricked up, as this guy was the real deal. Enough to make him the focus of an entire segment of NPR’s Talk of the Nation for two solid hours.

Obviously, Mr. Marriage (as I’ll call him for the sake of this essay) had a lot to say on the topic. He talked about respect being the cornerstone of a lasting relationship, the importance of morality within the confines of a union, the way couples should fight, and how a pair of lovers must always take up the challenge to evolve together. All very sensible and true on an intuitive level.

But what caught my attention most was his assertion that story is an essential element to a life-long love affair. In other words, what seems to matter in an intrinsic way is not that a couple has gotten together but how a couple has gotten together.

The story of us – of how our love takes flight – appears not only to be the spark that ignites the fire we need in order to sustain passion, but the one that foments friendship and trust, and gets us through some of the dark, dark times that visit us during the course of our lives. Things like illness, child-rearing debacles, job loss, snoring, opposing tastes in television shows, and a mother-in-law moving in.

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This is actually my grandma – I miss her. My mom does live with us now, though.

In my interpretation, Mr. Marriage was explaining how courtship – the process of wooing an amour by gestures large and small (i.e. the candy and flowers routine) – plays a vital role in spinning that magic web we call true love. Courtship, like a good story, tantalizes. It promises so much, but threatens to take it away at any time. At its heart, courtship makes a couple earn each other’s affection and intimacy. It is the inverse of a hook-up.

I was reminded of the symbiotic relationship between love and story very recently when a friend – a new friend who I’m just getting to know and with whom I’ve found a lot in common – asked me to share with her the story of how my husband and I got together. She and I are both writers and we also happen to write about love in various ways. Neither one of us are romance writers, per se, but love in its many forms is definitely a shared theme of ours.

She and I are also both happily married, and have confided in one another about how love took us completely by surprise. It’s not like our previous relationships were all that great, and neither of us came from what popular culture would call happy families. We had to piece together on our own what we thought a blissful union might look like.

But somehow, as if by osmosis or destiny, it happened for us.

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“You may kiss the bride…”

Before I began telling her my love story, I took a deep, meditative breath. It had been a long time since I’d recounted the tale of how my husband, Jack, and I had fallen in love. In all honesty, I’d put that narrative on the back burner while he and I focused on some pretty big things, like having babies and making sure we could feed them.

But damn, we do have one helluva story, and it wasn’t until I told my friend about how we met and went nuts about each other that I realized what a critical subtext our love story has been in getting us through some very challenging episodes. Things I’ve written about on this blog – obvious things like dealing with one of our children being born with a catastrophic illness and surviving the financial train-wreck that hit a lot of folks around 2008. But also the smaller things like moving from city to city, starting a business and deciding how much autonomy to give our children.

So, yes, I will tell our story. But if you’ll forgive me, I’ll give you the condensed version. The fleshed-out, nitty-gritty version makes me blush and withdraw. It’s also too long for a mere blog post.

It involves a chance visit to a foreign city,
A meeting in a four-hundred year old, candlelit pub,
Some dirty poetry,
A Christening,
Several dozen anonymous postcards,
New Year’s Eve,
A jazz club,
Fried chicken and champagne on a cliff side,
The kind of mushy language most people pretend to despise,
And a belief in destiny.

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In color!

Of course, after the swashbuckling part, the early wonders of discovery, the heavy breathing, we pretty much replaced our candy and flowers routine with the meat and potatoes of our relationship. Less poetic perhaps, but warm, comforting, sweet. Our nearly twenty-year love story has been a very different adventure than our courtship.

It has involved believing against all odds,
Not blaming each other for things that have gone awry,
Doing our part,
Mustering every bit of energy in order to conjure romance amidst ruin,
Ignoring bad moods,
Having sex even when we don’t feel like it,
Bragging about each other’s accomplishments,
Dancing close in our kitchen when it all gets to be too much.

We could’ve never gotten through the latter list without the former. And I guess that’s what Mr. Marriage was talking about. Over and over, his research pointed to how the foundation of a relationship requires a sense of transcendence, a belief in the overall good of the love that has bloomed. There is a reason why we call the one we’ve been looking for Mr. or Ms. Right. Right implies virtue, honor, truth. And according to Mr. Marriage’s research, an attraction built on betrayal, for instance, has a hard slog ahead. Such a union has no anchor, and over the long run often devours itself from the inside. After all, what do you say when someone asks you how you met? “Well, my first wife was at Little Gym with our two year-old, and I, uh…well…you know. I guess I just couldn’t help myself.”

Story, it turns out, can sink you as well as save you when it comes to love.

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Five of my seven sisters-in-law

In fact, story is so crucial to the long-term viability of a relationship that it can actually be the determining factor as to whether a troubled marriage can or cannot be salvaged. When asked how he knew when a marriage was definitively over, Mr. Marriage said this, according to my memory: “In my experience, a marriage is beyond repair when you ask the couple how they met, and they cannot conjure any joy, even a smile from recounting that tale. If they can still tell that story with even the tiniest glimmer of fondness for how things transpired, there’s hope.”

That is a powerful truth to behold, and one we might want to consider in the broader context of our lives. As we endeavor to create new stories this coming year – whether it be with spouses, friends, colleagues or acquaintances, we may do well to remember that the promise of love, of what is right, strikes at the core of our very humanity. And the narratives we are spinning today through our actions, words and impulses will have a tremendous influence on our future well-being.

Charleston Christmas Card 2019

Dougherty Christmas card, 2019. It’s been a great story so far.

 

 

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