May Newsletter: Ice Cream and Hope

So there I was, feeling good.

I was in the grocery store for maybe the third time since February, buying ice, salt, frozen strawberries, and the other ingredients of home-made ice cream. My headphones were in my ears, playing Terry Pratchett’s Maskerade, and my own mask was fogging up my glasses.

I carried my bags out, nodded to the hand-sanitizer lady, and emerged into the green, breezy warmth of May in Sofia. Big, white clouds piled themselves above the hilly crowns of the chestnut trees. Swallows dove and starlings chimed. People walked between the apartment buildings and neighborhood stores, but the playground was still roped off. I removed my mask, attempting to neither rip my glasses nor my earphones off my face, and made for home.

The whole scene should have scared the hell out me.

Warm breezes? Fluffy white clouds? Last spring, buying ice cream would grip my guts with dread. I remember stopping by the frozen food section and feeling the depression settle over my shoulders like a wet woolen sweater. I remember an earlier May, another playground where I ate ice cream with Pavlina and the girls, when I was dying of cancer. That was four years ago, almost to the day.

Don’t worry, I won’t go into any more details of how I got sick. If you want to know more, I wrote about it here. Suffice to say that spring is a hard time for me. For the past three years, the period between March to June reminded me of this very painful and frightening time, and that made happiness hard to keep hold of.

Except that this year, we’ve been in quarantine the whole season! I haven’t been teaching classes in the same office, or eating at the same restaurants, or doing any of the same stuff I was doing four years ago. This time, when I went shopping for ice cream, I was wearing a face mask. The playgrounds are closed. We had been rushing forward, and disease knocked us back hard. That does feel familiar.

The good news is that the recovery also feels familiar. In Europe, the first wave of the coronavirus is receding. Bulgaria’s kindergartens and restaurants have reopened after nearly three months of complete lock-down. There have been two deaths in the past 24 hours and seventeen new cases. We’re planning to reopen hotels. It’s still too early to drop all caution and go back to normal, of course…

But I find I don’t want to. I don’t like a lot about the old normal. I don’t want to return to the Cult of Busy and the Fear of Missing Out. I don’t want to spend half the day in transit and half the weekend worrying about whether I’m being social enough. I made ice cream with my kids during the lock-down*! I wrote poems about budgies and helped them with their homework. I had more snowball fights this spring than ever in my adult life.

Of course the coronavirus is a disaster. It has killed hundreds of thousands of people. It’s knocked global society back hard. But if that feeling of being knocked back is very familiar to me, so is the knowledge that I’m lucky to be alive to think about what comes next. Four years ago, I went in for surgery and came back to consciousness with new priorities. I promised myself I would do more good with the time I had been given.

Then I began the great, good work of recovery.

What does your recovery look like? What will you do differently now? Let’s make a list.


Apparently, my recovery looks like focusing even harder on writing books. My webpage and twitter stream look pretty barren this month, but I finished the beta version of Wealthgiver. I also spent more time on personal emails than I have for a while, and I’ve had some really deep and interesting discussions there and on Zoom. I’ve talked with experts on biology, physics, and Thracology, as well as colleagues and mentors in the sphere of writing. I feel as if I’m growing. My Thracian wordlist is undergoing some major metamorphosis, let me tell you.

Here’s a fun example:

Zi-issa ax issti zălmossa.

“The truest face is the mask.”

Doesn’t that look nice? All sinister and hissy? And here’s the “classical Thracian” for the same sentence.

Ax sa źi ísas ḗsti źälmós sa.

Now that’s sinister, hissy, and needlessly complicated! Just the aethetic I’m going for! Umlauts, baby!

I want to play with my Thracian some more, so without further ado, here’s what I liked this month:

Ronja the Robber’s Daughter: Astrid Lingrin + Studio Ghibli + Birmingham accents = good wholesome fun. As a father, I wish Ronja spent less time leaping back and forth over deadly crevasses. And those harpies are top notch.

Octonaut: Underwater adventures where the biology isn’t bad and everything has bunny-noses and beady little black eyes, including the carrots. Why are there spaient submarine carrots? It’s just one of the many mysteries of the deep.

Feierabend by Grossstadtgeflüster: I don’t know what she’s singing about, but she’s super into it.

Yggdrasill by SKÁLD: These guys are are into it too! Urðar brunni!

85 by Andy Grammer: Damn that backbeat! Mm’mm whappa mm!

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner: It has a good twist ending and a claustrophobic tomb-robbing scene that just about makes up for the characters’ sarcastic sniping.

Maskerade by Terry Pratchett: This is one of the first Diskworld books I read back in high school. I didn’t realize it until now, but it set a lot of my expectations about helping other people and writing. Those expectations weren’t entirely borne out, but maybe that’s just a sign I should become an erotic witch-chef instead.

Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold: Holy Russian Space-Gods this book is a work of art! It is a pleasure and an education to see Bujold take her character through a high, a low, and lower low, then back up for a quick trip to the store to buy eggs, and then its back down we go! Forget that nonsense about the three act structure and the hero’s journey, Miles has an ego-shattering revalatory insight like every third chapter! God damn but I want to write like this! Just read it.

Rising Strong by Brené Brown: I always enjoy Brown’s books because she’s approaching being a good person from the opposite direction as me. She talks about her childhood and her basic fears and desires and none of it rings a bell for me, but then she’ll come out with “judgementalness is caused by resentment, and the antidote for resentment is boundaries.” I don’t agree with her about everything, but she really seems to have a-

The Judging Eye by R. Scott Bakker: (Aspect-Emperor #1): It wasn’t as good as the books of Bakker’s previous series in this world, but it’s still pretty damn good. The tangly depths of scene description and character emotion don’t go quite as deep. The author’s thoughts on judgement are interesting, but they don’t quite ever get where they’re going. And I didn’t care much about the teenage prince of Rohan. But all that crawling through the black catacombs of an ancient and corrupted civilization? Mmwah!

Next month I’m working on the sequel to Protector. So anybody got some recommendations for spy thrillers, the Italian Renaissance, nano-manufacturing, and meditations on trust?

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