Midwinter Masque

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” ― Anaïs Nin1491782_10201811969594893_1408112862_n (1)

Many of the things I write in this journal, I write to remember. Not just as a place to preserve moments and photographs for the future (although there is that), but the very act of writing it down is a way to relive the experience, transferring it onto the page.

Earlier this month I went to New York to visit my friend, Nancy Hightower. Part of that visit was a party we had been planning together over the last few months: A 12th Night Midwinter Masque at the fabulous East Village townhome she rents from fellow writer, David Edison.

On our invitation, here’s how we described the evening:

At All Hallow’s Eve, the doorway in between the worlds is opened, beginning a season of magic, of faerie revelry, of dreams and inspiration. With the winter solstice and the lengthening of days, that season of liminal spaces begins to close, marked by Twelfth Night, an end to the holiday season and a final faerie celebration. We invite you to dress in your favorite holiday finery, don a mask (or you can choose one at the door), and enter the liminal space for one final magical celebration.

An air of anticipation swept across the facebook pages of friends. As the date approached, people posted photos of their masks–some elaborate, some whimsical. In the dark, gray space after the holidays, people seemed to be looking for a little magic. I was.

An article by eco-journalist Russel McLendon circulated earlier this winter introduced many Americans to the Danish tradition of “hygge“:

Denmark endures dreary winters with the help of an arcane cultural concept known as “hygge.” It’s not an easy word for outsiders to pronounce — it sounds sort of like HYU-gah — and it’s even harder to translate. Hygge apparently has no direct analogue in English, and related words like “coziness,” “togetherness” and “well-being” only cover a fraction of its nebulous definition.

I love this concept. I love the opportunity to create an inviting space where people can celebrate togetherness and coziness. I like to think that our Masque was a hygge, something many of us need in the cold of winter. Nancy and I had frequent online chats to discuss decorations, ways to transform the apartment into a winter fairyland.

The Forest Room (photo by Nancy Hightower)

Friends made plans to come in from out of town: Philadelphia, Boston, Washington D.C., Dallas. David Edison decided to attend at the last minute, flying in from San Francisco. Everything was coming together.

Then snowstorms and freezing temperatures hit the Midwest and East Coast.

After a few hours of delay, I thankfully managed to fly out of O’Hare before the storm hit NYC. That night Nancy and I stayed up until the wee hours hanging snowflakes and stringing white lights, creativity punctuated with much needed laughter (and delirium).

Snowflakes & sparkles (photo by Nancy Hightower)

Other friends had to adjust their travel plans because of the weather, but everyone made it! Theodora Goss came in from Boston and Brooke Bolander made it from Texas.

Prepping in the kitchen with Brooke Bolander (photo by Theodora Goss)

The four us put the final touches on the party: preparing food, setting out drinks, lighting candles.

Nancy Hightower, Valya Lupescu, Brooke Bolander, Theodora Goss (photo by Marco Palmieri)

A few more friends arrived early to lend a hand, and the magic took over.

Ardi Alspach, Shveta Thakrar, Marco Palmieri and D. T. Friedman (photo by Nancy Hightower)

With the snow and the cold, we weren’t sure just how many people would venture out, let alone dress up and wear masks. We hoped that they would all find places to sit and gather, taking advantage of all three floors.

Stephen Segal enthralls his audience with a dramatic reading from Tyra Banks’ Modelland. 😉 (Photo by Marco Palmieri)

Trudging through the snow, on buses and trains, our guests arrived.

Kristen Mangione, Devin Poore, Rajan Khanna, Veronica Schanoes (photo by Marco Palmieri)

Nearly all were bemasked. Many arrived already in costume, while others came bundled up with clothes to change into.

Mikolaj Habryn, Brooke Bolander, and Liz Gorinsky (photo by Nancy Hightower)
Rajan Khanna, Theresa DeLucci, and Pritpaul Bains (photo by Nancy Hightower)

The doorbell kept ringing and groups kept appeared at the door. Like the TARDIS, David’s apartment seemed to swell inside to accommodate everyone.



Marco Palmieri, Cam Rob, and Myke Cole.

After most people arrived and settled in, Nancy and I could finally relax and enjoy the company assembled, and what a fabulous, motley group it was!

Shahriar Shadab and Katelan Foisy (photo by Nancy Hightower)
Ellen Datlow, David Edison, Christopher Michaud (photo by Nancy Hightower)

Hours flew by in a glittery haze of masks and laughter, eating and drinking, talking and sparkling.


As our guests left, we invited them to take a key and write upon the attached wooden tag what they would like to unlock in 2014–a small way of bringing home a little of the magic of the Masque, a talisman for the year ahead.


Then, in the early hours of the morning, those who remained sat on the softest of rugs and finished off muskat and marshmallows, chocolates and vodka.


The Masque was a wonderful gathering of writers, editors, artists, musicians, witches, and wanderers; and together I think we succeeded in transforming the apartment into an otherworldly realm.

For those of us who so often dwell in the fantastic landscapes of our own imaginations, it was nice to have a cozy space where we could gather together with our creative tribe to escape the winter.

In Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White writes, “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.” Such true words in that children’s book. At the Masque, I had the good fortune of being in the company of several people who are both of those things. For that I am so grateful, and I look forward to the next time we are together.

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Holding Summer In Your Hand

I’m not much of a beach person or a swimmer, but I like summer; and I love what summer brings: conversations in the shade, wine on the patio, warm nights with music playing softly.

In Chicago, the days can be sweltering, but sometimes we get lucky. Sometimes we get summer days that are bright and comfortable, the kind of golden-hued days I remember from childhood– filled with laughter and imaginative adventures late into the night. The best summer days end when we tumble into bed exhausted and fully satisfied, our bodies tired and our hearts full.

So much of last summer was shadowed in heartache because of the failing health and deaths of my grandmother and grandfather. There were moments of happiness and moments of beauty,  but they were tempered by a longing for days when Baba and Dido were healthy and strong.

babadidosquare We are approaching the one year anniversary of my Baba’s death, and it’s still hard to believe she’s not sitting across the kitchen table from my Dido in the Ukrainian Village, serving him some of her delicious varenyky or a slice of torte with his coffee, maybe indulging him as he asks for more peaches or pickles.

I think of them all the time, and I feel them around, especially my Baba. I believe that she still watches over us–her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. She was a caretaker and the matriarch, and I can’t believe she would let death stop her.

Our lives move so fast; we orbit around one another, busy until something forces us to stop. If we’re lucky, it’s a happy occasion that reminds us to notice the circles of which we are a part.

This summer I am trying to be mindful of those moments of  joy in the company of family, tribe, and kindred spirits. There have been several: a 4th of July family bbq, visits with friends in the backyard, campfire chats, margaritas after swimming, lunch with out-of-town friends, and thoughtful conversations over wine as the sun comes up.

I began this post with the intention of writing about specific highlights so far (camping with the kids and friends, lunch with Gene and Neil, Neil’s Ocean reading and time spent with the illustrious Cat, my first Readercon and the wonderful people I met there). Each one was a cherished moment, and together they have shaped this summer into a remarkable one so far.

The remaining weeks of summer stretch not too far into the future, and autumn waits close by to take its place. Before the leaves fall, there are a few more trips to be taken and adventures to be had, good books to read (some written by friends), wine to drink, stories to be written, and children to play with.

“Hold summer in your hand, pour summer in a glass, a tiny glass of course, the smallest tingling sip for children; change the season in your veins by raising glass to lip and tilting summer in.” ~Ray Bradbury, DANDELION WINE

Lunch with Neil Gaiman and Gene Wolfe, Chicago.
At the train station with Marco Palmieri and Sam J. Miller.
At the train station with Marco Palmieri and Sam J. Miller, Boston.
Another marvelous Readercon dinner.
After our interviews with Gil Roth for his Virtual Memories Podcast (Nancy Hightower, Theodora Goss, Valya Dudycz Lupescu)
Camping with friends.

Champagne and S’mores

If Chicon7 was a village of science fiction fans and creators meandering from panel to party to presentation; ICFA34 was the fantastic equivalent of Cheers, a bar where you could usually find a seat, the faces were familiar, and the more time you spent there, the more likely it was that everybody would know your name.

Sofia Samatar, me, Nancy Hightower, and Kat Howard.(Photo by Jim Kelly.)
Sofia Samatar, me, Nancy Hightower, and Kat Howard.(Photo by Jim Kelly.)

My first time at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA), I was grateful for the presence of a few friends; for even though attendance was in the hundreds rather than thousands, it was still easy to feel overwhelmed in a crowd where so many people already knew each others.

ICFA Group picture by the pool. (Photo by Bill Clemente)
ICFA Group picture by the pool. (Photo by Bill Clemente)

Neil Gaiman was one of the Guests of Honor this year, and my first night in Orlando, I found myself at a dinner table with familiar faces (Kat Howard, Maria Dahvana Headley, Peter Straub, Neil and Amanda, as well as a few I had only known online, among them Charles Vess, John Clute, and Ellen Klages). We had a thoughtful chat about WWII survivors and their secrets/stories on the walk over to dinner, and a lively conversation full of laughter over dinner and wine. I could not have asked for a more wonderful beginning to ICFA.

The evening ended as did so many at ICFA, in the hotel bar with new and old friends. However that first night we were treated to a performance of Radiohead’s “Creep” by Amanda on her ukelele. The bar was silent as the small crowd listened. The song choice seemed perfect in so many ways.

Amanda Palmer at ICFA (Photo by Andy Duncan)
Amanda Palmer at ICFA (Photo by Andy Duncan)

Although I had planned to be a quiet observer this first time around, Nancy Hightower asked me to fill in on her panel “Transforming Fact to Fiction” after she had two cancellations from flu-stricken authors not in attendance.

Nancy and I. (Photo by Andy Duncan)
Nancy and I. (Photo by Andy Duncan)

Together with Nancy and Greg Bechtel, we had a lively 8:30am panel on Thursday morning. That was also where I met the amazing Sofia Samatar, whose novel A Stranger in Olondria, is due out this month (take note: Pre-order your copy form Small Beer Press today!)

Team Heliotrope: Nancy Hightower, Maria Dahvana Headley, and Kat Howard.
Team Heliotrope: Nancy Hightower, Maria Dahvana Headley, and Kat Howard.

The rest of the weekend followed in a happy blur of luncheon talks, panels and readings, poolside introductions, and late-night bar conversations.

Bespectacled with Peter Straub. (Photo by Ellen Datlow)
Bespectacled with Peter Straub. (Photo by Ellen Datlow)

I am grateful for the opportunity to spend time with Nancy, Maria, Dora, Peter, Gary and Stacie, and happy to have met so many wonderful people: Greg and Sofia, Francesca Myman and Liza Groen Trombi from Locus (to which you should subscribe if you don’t already), Katherine Pendill and Helen Pilinovski, Andy and Sandy Duncan, and others.

Nancy, me, and Katherine Pendill at the Awards Dinner (Photo by Bill Clemente)
Nancy, me, and Katherine Pendill at the Awards Dinner (Photo by Bill Clemente)

The last night of the conference was the Awards Banquet, a rather gala affair where writers, editors, and academics donned suits and gowns to sparkle, sip cocktails, and celebrate.

ICFA Group picture by the pool. (Photo by Bill Clemente)
ICFA Group picture by the pool. (Photo by Bill Clemente)

Following dinner, everyone moved poolside. I had spied a set of chairs around an unlit firepit earlier in the day…

The firepit in daylight.
The firepit in daylight.

My hope was to retire there after dinner if given the chance.

Around the fire (before the s'mores).
Around the fire (before the s’mores).

The server was kind enough to light the fire. I ordered a drink and was happy to sit and people-watch. Friends popped by to sit and chat, then moved on. At one point, Neil came by, and I mentioned that there was only one thing missing from a nearly perfect moment: marshmallows. (I made a mental note for next year.)

Neil went on to visit with other friends, but a few hours later he returned with friends…and marshmallows!

S'mores! (Photo by Andy Duncan)
S’mores! (Photo by Andy Duncan)

Apparently Sarah Pinborough had never had s’mores, and someone had been kind enough to run out and purchase the necessary ingredients. Sarah, Neil, Peter, Maria, Kat and others gathered around and shared the spoils.

It was the perfect way to end the evening. Marshmallows and cocktails, conversations and joyful hugs. I went to bed so full of happiness.

The next morning most people were leaving, and those of us who remained eventually met up in the lobby where we sat on laptops and phones, reconnecting with the outside world.

Until the tornado. Yes, tornado.

A few of us took refuge in the windowless inner room of the tavern restaurant, well-lit with emergency lighting even when the power went out.

In the restaurant to ride out the storm, a.k.a. "tornado bunker."
In the restaurant to ride out the storm, a.k.a. “tornado bunker.”

Liz Gorinsky, Lara Donnelly, Maria, Nancy, Sofia, Greg, and I were treated to champaign and potato chips, salad and sandwiches by the attentive servers. Dora eventually joined us, and we rode out the storm safe in our little bunker, sipping champaign by lantern-light and talking.

The tornado passed, and we disbanded to our separate flights home, dinners, and downtime. Power eventually came back on, and we came together for last time in the bar, this time joined by Jeff and Anne VanderMeer in the large booth in the back. I was excited to get the chance to leaf through Jeff’s Wonderbook. Nearly complete, it is a masterpiece in image and text about the craft of writing.

Then an early morning flight, and my first ICFA was over.

I believe in the importance of communities: creative, social, etc. We have the ability to choose our tribe, to invite into our circle people with whom we connect, people who make us laugh and inspire us to be more. When I came back to Chicago from Germany in 2009, I was hungry for a community of writers. I am so grateful to have found them.

We may not reside in the same cities or even the same countries. We may see each other in person only a few times a year, but we savor those connections. So much of our time is spent alone at our laptops or with notebooks in hand, but places like ICFA remind us that we are not alone. They allow us the time and space to reconnect with our tribe of mad creatives. It makes the tweets and emails, pictures and blog entries even more real when we know that eventually there will be hugs and champagne and sometimes even s’mores.

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