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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

A St. Nicholas Day Secret – Just for You

You have the right to remain silent

You want to know a secret? Something to tuck in your pocket and save for a special day?

Say…Monday, December 6th, which also happens to be St. Nicholas Day, one of my favorite days of the year?

Hang on for just a couple of more minutes. First, let me tell you about why I love St. Nicholas Day, despite the fact that here in America, where I grew up, St. Nicholas Day isn’t typically treated as a very big deal.

See, in our Czech immigrant household, it was a big deal. On the night of December 5th, my grandparents would instruct me to put my shoes outside of my bedroom door before I got tucked into bed. I’d dig into my closet and find the biggest shoes I owned – usually a pair of snow boots. Since I lived in Chicago and there was often already a few inches of the cold, white, fluffy stuff on the ground, I could get away with not setting out my regular school shoes for this occasion (a measly pair of standard issue Hush Puppies).

So, on the morning of December 6th, I would open my bedroom door to find my boots overflowing with candy!

See, St. Nicholas Day is sort of like Czech Halloween. And if you happen to be in the Czech Republic for this charming holiday, it’s about twenty times better than if you celebrate in the U.S.A., even if you go all out with candy-filled boots.

My experience of St. Nicholas Day during my years in Prague went something like this: On the night of December 5th, as I strolled the old, cobblestone streets (and most people made sure to be doing so on December 5th), I was sure to run into a peculiar threesome. That threesome included St. Nicholas (Mikuláš), who’s sort of like a Slavic Santa, an Angel (anděl) who represents the Good of the world, and a Devil (čert) who’s Evil personified. I would encounter dozens of these three amigos, as they roamed the alleys and avenues dressed in spiffy costumes that ranged from heavenly to downright terrifying.

Typical, baby

I would watch, enchanted, as they haunted the streets, stopping children and asking them if they were good in the past year – kind of like a certain American Christmas character who makes a list and checks it twice. If a kid knew what was good for him, he’d say yes and sing a song or recite a short poem – think elementary school talent show caliber. These little rising stars would be rewarded with candy or other treats, which were meted out by the Angel, who would smile sweetly and tell the kid how terrific his performance was, even if he sucked lemons.

Of course, there were always going to be some cheeky little sh*ts who flipped off the angel and pretended to be possessed by the devil or something.

In that case, at least according to the strictures of the holiday, bad kids were put in the Devil’s sack and taken to hell. Or if they weren’t go straight to hell bad, maybe just annoying bad, they would get a bag of potatoes or coal instead of candy. I, personally, never witnessed the hell sack, but I imagine the mere threat of such a merciless disciplinary action was enough to keep most of the kiddos in line. I mean, just look at the face on this devil. It’s the stuff of nightmares! American kids would get on the horn to the police at first sight of such a creature, then demand double the candy for their trauma.

But I digress.

You better not pout, you better not cry…or you’ll be put in a sack and taken to HELL.

Finally, that very night before bed, children would put their shoes out in the expectation of even MORE candy come morning!

What does this have to do with you, you might ask?

Well, in honor of St. Nicholas Day, I’m going to give you a very sweet deal – whether you’ve been good or not. You don’t even have to sing a song or recite a poem for me…unless you really want to (feel free to send me poems and songs – I’d love it). And there’s absolutely no chance that I’ll throw you in a sack and bring you to hell. Swear!

Starting on Monday, December 6th, and going through Friday, December 11th, Books 1 & 2 in The Cold War Chronicles, The Bone Church and The Hungarian, will be going on mega-sale! Not only will the ebooks be available for $1.99 each, but paperback and hardback versions will also be on sale! Trade paperbacks will go for just $12.99-13.99 and gorgeous hardbacks for only $19.99! This is the only time all year that trade paperbacks and hardbacks will be on sale, so stock up.

The Bone Church on Nook, iBooks, etc.

The Bone Church on Amazon (this is the best place for paperbacks and hardcovers)

The Bone Church on Kobo

And

The Hungarian on Nook, iBooks, etc

The Hungarian on Amazon (this is the best place for paperbacks and hardcovers)

The Hungarian on Kobo

Big stories! Big, big sale!

Don’t forget to put your boots out!

red and white polka dot rain boots
Okay, my boots weren’t quite this big

The Cold Annual Thank You Note

Every year in the Cold, I like to take stock and think about all of the elements of my life – great and small – for which I’m truly grateful. Things like people who expand my worldview, places that visit me with a sense of well-being, awe, or thrill, or those itty-bitty curiosities that act as a sprinkle of pepper on our daily routines. Flavors and happenings which remind us that no matter where we are on our journey, we are still capable of feeling enchanted.

My little enchantress

This is by far my favorite essay to write all year – if it can even be called an essay. It’s more of a list, one that I assemble over a period of days or weeks. But I aim to infuse a bit of poetry into it, take you on something of a magic carpet ride. To bring the spirit of Thanksgiving to you, no matter where you are in the world, and how grumpy or lost you may be feeling.

So, my dearest Cold readers, my fellow travelers, strap on your seat belts and get ready to give thanks. To come away from this inventory of goodness feeling lighter and heavier all at once, perhaps seeing the beauty in imperfection, and the imperfection in beauty, or simply reveling in being indelibly human.

Here we go.

I’m grateful for ideas. Ones that come and go like mayflies, or blossom long and fragrant, like English Lavender. Even the ones that turn out to be very bad ideas are worth a nod. Those, too, have helped me grow, look at a problem anew, and that’s the whole point of an idea, as far as I’m concerned.

I’m also grateful for our children’s friends. Their mischief, irony, A + triumphs, and capital T troubles, are a meaningful part of our lives. I’m honored they’re willing to share them with us, and hope they’ll always look back on their nights of hanging out, or pigging out at our abode with a special fondness.

Just hangin’

And I just love the scent of my dog’s, paws. Thank you, Barney! They smell like Fritos, popcorn, and fresh grass, all mixed together. I’m so charmed by the way he places them on my shoulders when I pick him up, as if we’re about to two-step at a Middle School dance.

Let’s not forget to add curly-headed dames to this tally. I’ve got two in my house (three, including myself). In literature, such women are daring, even dangerous. Think Emma Bovary, Jane Eyre, Katniss Everdeen, Claire Fraser, and Holly Golightly. As I watch my daughters mature, take on new adventures, I see bits and pieces of all of these women in them, and it makes me so excited to see how the stories of their lives will unfold.

Curly 1
Curly 2

Gorgeous, brazenly colorful autumns, the sun and wind conspiring together to make a glorious day, and pictures taken by the Hubble telescope, all fill me with such a sense of wonder that I’m left agog. The infinitude of such scenes moves my spirit, offering me, if only for a brief time, an unshakeable belief in the existence of God.

Yet, I’m also grateful for doubt, for when agnosticism takes hold of me, because it keeps my faith alive. It forces me to revisit my rationale for belief and stops me from ever feeling smug or complacent.

The kindness of strangers – here’s another glimpse of pure virtue to be thankful for. Like the woman who pulled up next to me and my family when we were caught in a downpour on the streets of Charleston. She dug an umbrella out from her glove compartment, passed it to me from her window, and said, in her sweet, Southern lilt, “My goodness, take care! You need this far more than I do.”

Sincere apologies – given and received. They strengthen bonds thought to be broken, humble us, and give us hope for the future. Thank you to all who have said “I’m sorry” and meant it, as well as to those of you who have accepted my apologies.

Beautifully designed porcelain tea cups are so dainty and sturdy all at once. There’s nothing I would rather drink out of, except maybe a 1930s style martini glass. To that, I raise my chalice in thanks.

Happy Hour with vintage glasses

I’ll toast Bugs Bunny while we’re at it, too! How many characters withstand the test of time, and can make us laugh whether we’re three or one hundred and three? He’s the GOAT (that’s teen slang for Greatest Of All Time). And since we’re on the subject of slang, I’ll throw out some of my favorites from this generation’s phraseology. One’s that make me feel grateful to be in the know:

Basic – a boring, “normal” sort of person. As in, “She’s just so basic. I mean, she’s not even into Harry Styles!”

Dope – very cool, super. “That dress is so dope!”

Tea – gossip, as in “Okay, spill the tea. Did you kiss him?”

My curly-headed dames with straightened hair and attitude – plus slang.

For those few, lucky days we get to spend in our pajamas, I am much obliged! Preferably the flannel kind with cozy designs, like red checks or honeybees. Add to that a pair of furry socks, and we’re in business.

I had the good fortune of stepping down an old, wooden staircase, recently, too (although not in my pajamas). They were in a hundred and twenty year-old school house and were of the sort that shine and creak. I felt such a sense of gratitude for the timelessness, nostalgia, utility and simple elegance of the experience. Part of me wanted to run back up just to descend them again.

Hammocks, fairy lights, wild and hairy herb gardens, stone paths, statues of St. Joseph, and birdbaths all make up the kind of backyard I can live in. A space that’s graced by simple beauty with an aura of romance. I am thankful for every component except the mosquitos.

Can’t get much better than this.

Perfect recipes, peacocks, all phases of the moon, snow globes, spider’s webs, late night diners, bouquets of balloons, gas lanterns, fondue, stained glass, men who aren’t afraid of style, women who don’t think of men as something in need of fixing, fake-frosted, artificial Christmas trees, nunneries, Kafka quotes, french fries fresh out of the fryer, and water slides all make me damned happy to be alive, prompting me to smile, fist bump, even break into spontaneous dance moves from time to time. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Most of all, and it’s not even close, I’m grateful for simple connections with others. For the ability to love and be loved. For people like you.

Happy Thanksgiving from my family to yours.

Transformation, Transcendence, and Realization: The Spirit of Halloween Has a Greater Impact Than We Might Think

In just a scant few days, the lot of us will be dressing decidedly unlike ourselves: as ghosts, vampires, mythological figures, and cultural icons. We might watch a scaaaary movie – the kind with a soulless, masked fiend who won’t give up until he’s plunged an axe into some teenager’s head. Or a sentimental one like “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” if we’re not the blood, guts, and night-terrors types. The children in our lives will undoubtedly beg us to take them to one of those haunted houses or corn mazes that pop up around this time of year – and we’ll pretend to be above all the jump scares. At the very least, we’ll settle in, and enjoy some crisp, fall weather, complete with a bit of moon, some howling wind, and fistfuls of candy.

As you may have inferred already, Halloween holds a special place in my heart. It’s spiritual, whimsical, a little naughty, romantic, commemoratory, and creative; a loaded hot fudge sundae of all the things I love. Plus, its aesthetic pretty much lasts for a whole season. I know at our house, we start to set the pumpkins on our porch around end of September, and add some spooky elements to the yard no later than October 1. Those might come down a few days into November, but the pumpkins stay put until December 1, for sure.

That’s not a real spider

But there are some elements of Halloween that have historically continued all year long at Chez Dougherty. Namely, the costumes and make-up part.

Transformation has always been a theme in our family, a phenomenon that has long outlasted those halcyon days when our children were little – the “I want to wear a princess outfit every day” and “Why can’t I go to school wearing a hat and have a whip tucked into my belt?” years, when our brood looked like some insane mash-up of a Renaissance fair and The Village People.

She wore this outfit every day for almost a year
Ditto with the Indiana Jones get-up

For the most part, we took for granted our children’s propensity to indulge in comically preposterous versions of themselves, even when to outside eyes they were beginning to look a little old for all of this dress-up business. With a snicker and a shrug, we fed them a steady diet of the accoutrements they felt were essential to their persistent quest for transformation: the special fx make-up kits, the wig collections, the colored contact lenses (in red, white, black, spiral – yes there is such a thing as spiral and it’s creepy as hell), the “man of the wilderness” accessories (going well beyond clothes and camping equipment, to include axes, fire-starters, bows and arrows, and other stuff I’m not willing to put in print), the vintage military uniforms, the second-hand clothing stores and online boutiques dedicated to ancient couture. The wild, wacky, beautiful, frightening, hideous, overtly feminine, and unapologetically masculine all merged and disjoined kaleidoscopically at our house.

Yet it’s only recently that my husband and I have fully come to realize what a big part of our family life involved this kind of play, and the effect it’s had on how our kids perceive themselves, and have grown into their own.

It was just last week, as a matter of fact, that I had a revelation as I started putting together a few photos of Halloweens past. It’s the first year that we’ll have no active trick-or-treaters in our house, and I wanted to take a little trip down memory lane. And while I knew that my kids had always been great at creating smart and hilarious Halloween costumes, and that they could be, shall we say, sartorially eccentric at times, I was struck by just how many costume and make-up shots we’d collected over the years. Ones that had nothing to do with Halloween at all, and were snapped pretty much on any old Tuesday.

As I arranged the pictures in chronological order, I started to see patterns emerge. Elements of style that our kids had built all on their own, on their terms; ones that were reflective not of poses meant to obscure who they were on the inside, but rather, bring it out.

Ensemble after ensemble enabled our children to see themselves in the best possible light…

Our son in vintage coat and tails during our trip to Prague.

Or invited them to delve into their darkest fears…

Beaten-up make-up perfected at theater camp

I was moved by how psychological many of these imaginings were, aiming to mess with perceptions, and uncover hidden emotions. The way they revealed longings, conflicts, and ways in which our children may have felt misunderstood.

Josie two-face

At times, I recognized them crying out to be seen as how they hoped to be, or would be, if allowed to exhibit their true selves; young men or women capable of heroism and daring-do, even when it went against the grain of what their friends were dreaming for their own lives.

Our son at 12, wearing his grandfather’s World War II Marine Corps uniform

Their costuming played with class, sex appeal, moral and ethical dilemmas, as they explored character traits and careers, trying on aspects of their personalities that might trend towards the dangerous, the alluring, the disruptive.

blonde bombshells

But what hit me hardest, took my breath away, was how over time, they each developed their own singularities, picking and choosing from years of envisaging and creating, until they found what fit. What helped them stand apart in a crowd, or just hold their own in our boisterous family. What made them fit in, too, becoming a unique puzzle piece in a larger picture filled with peers, friends, cousins, sisters, and brothers.

How fantasy became reality.

The man of adventure and wilderness, the smart sophisticate, the artist lost in her thoughts and her world, now stand in relief next to the older photographs of their burgeoning selves. I can see the pieces were there all along, and were, perhaps, inevitable from the start.

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