This was the title of my second book—my first novel— which was supposed to be published 17 years ago. It wasn’t. After the success of Baptism by Fire, my agent was eager to have me write, “more books like that.” I wasn’t clear on how I was supposed to write more books about my daughter being diagnosed with a brain tumor and my coming to faith in the process. “Just write about family crisis stuff. You have a great voice for that. I can sell that.”
To me, this was not an option. Many writers do a beautiful job making their own family life their craft, but I could not. I just knew that if the everyday ups and downs of raising a family became wholly intertwined with my writing career that someone was going to come up short in the deal—and that the consequences would be irreversible. And so I decided then and there that I’d write fiction.
My agent, as it turned out, loved this book. He quickly put together an auction with a dozen or so of the top New York publishing houses. The clock was ticking. The bids were coming in by the day. Some dropped out, but others doubled down. Just a few months before there had been a movie (which I’d never seen) starring Gwyneth Paltrow called Sliding Doors that had used a similar device. This made people even more excited about Kissing Babies ; originality is great, but familiarity is even better, at least as far as Hollywood is concerned.
Then, in the final days of the bidding war, the publishers narrowed to four, then two, and finally—to none. “What does that mean?” I asked, still very new to the book world. I thought my agent would say we’d do another auction, with another list. But he did not. “Those were the best houses for you, so, I think that’s it for now. Maybe we’ll try again later. In the meantime, just keep writing.”
What else could I do. I didn’t want to make a career out of submitting a single manuscript— as if my life depended on that one story, that one idea. Maybe it wasn’t the right book. Maybe it wasn’t the right time. So, I figured I’d just write something else. Which I did. A lot of something elses.
During those years the publishing world changed pretty dramatically. Where once there was no self publishing, and then just an embarrassing strand of “vanity” publishing, finally, there started to be a real and viable self-publishing option. And so it was, in February of 2012, I got one of my divine nudges. It wasn’t about Kissing Babies, but rather The Pitcher’s Mom, a novel I had written a good five years earlier.
The Pitcher’s Mom had also had its share of close calls with big name publishers: but, in the end they all said the same thing: Women don’t read books about sports.
“Maybe that’s because you don’t publish books about sports from the woman’s point of view,” I’d tell them. But to no avail. So I published it myself, and now, four years later, The Pitcher’s Mom sells steadily, and to increasing numbers of both woman and men each year.
This past weekend I got one of those nudges again. I had to dig around a bit just to find an old paper copy stored in a box. I was afraid to read it at first: what did my writing voice even sound like back then? And the voices of characters I didn’t ever remember the names of. I opened the manuscript slowly and begin to weep. I read and I laughed and I held my chest for the beauty and the pain of it all, and I remembered why I had loved this book, and why I thought the world would, too.
So now I’m praying about whether to go back to the big NYC houses and start again, or just put it out through Stewart Press, and trust it to find its way. Here are the opening pages of the first novel I ever wrote, Kissing Babies. Please join me in praying that its time has finally come.
Josie Elizabeth Baird hasn’t slept all night. Two in a bunk is tight, but that isn’t it. They’d slept in the same slim, university-issued bed many nights before and perfectly, like teaspoons, her pale skin pressed against his pinto-colored flesh, the curve of her bottom pressed against his thick dark hair and more—no, it is not close quarters that keeps her awake, but him. The thought of him forever. The thought of him gone forever. The thought of a person walking the earth forever who was some part him and some part her and the thought of that gone forever, too.
Josie Baird is not a religious person; she was raised to claim her prizes in this lifetime. From the day she recited the alphabet at seventeen months, Bob Baird began laying out his firstborn’s life like a AAA road map from nursery school to the Ivy League. All Josie had to do was tilt her straight brown bangs into the designated task—spelling bees, swim meets, debate contests—and give it everything she had. There were no bride or princess costumes for young Josie Baird. When she was seven she went trick-or-treating as a barrister. Her sister, Shelly, on the other hand, was held back in first grade and was allowed to go as a bride both Halloweens.
Erik Emmanuel Martinez proposed to Josie three months ago. It was not in response to her news, but in the wake of three cans of treacly peach margaritas they had shared at an outdoor concert along The Charles on the occasion of their seven-month anniversary as boyfriend and girlfriend. In his heart he had meant it. But the way it came out felt like kids playing dress-up and they both laughed it off and went back to the soft folds of their blanket. Last week, when she told him, Erik did not repeat his proposal as she assumed he would. He simply pressed his hands around her waist and said that it was up to her.
At the first hint of dawn, Josie tiptoes down the bunk ladder oblivious to the fact that Erik is no more asleep now than he had been all night, he, too, tormented, as if by a sliver of glass gored in his eye by the word conceive. It is conceivable, is it not, that young people can have babies and love each other and life can be good? His mom and dad were only seventeen when they had him he could offer as evidence, leaving out the part that they had spent a lifetime working double and triple shifts so that Erik would not have their life, so that Erik would get an education, a real one, a college degree from “the best university in America” his parents had said almost every day of his naturalized life.
From the bed Erik hears the swish of parka sleeves, the jangle of keys. He has watched Josie getting ready to leave so many times he can recreate each movement in his mind. Next, she will pat her pockets to check for the telltale lump of mittens.
Josie reaches for the door. The brass clank makes Erik’s heart beat so hard and so fast he is certain it is audible. “Yo te quiero, Jos,” he mouths from the bed where still he feigns sleep. Josie stops, holds the door ajar, unsure if she has heard something. Erik fixes his eye on the cinder block wall and prays a single word: please.
Josie Elizabeth Baird takes one last look around the room and quietly shuts the door. In less than three hours, the clinic will open. Still, she is uncertain of what she will say when she gets there, and of who she will be when she returns.
A coltish young woman with straight brown hair and turquoise eyes fills out a card in the waiting room of the Back Bay Woman’s Clinic. It reads J. Baird. She writes it for anonymity, but finds herself enamored of how the blunted moniker looks on the page—the lean, corporate androgyny of it —and decides then and there to keep it that way. Lean. Corporate. Androgynous. J. Baird. Termination.
As night falls on the dorm rooms of Dunster House, J. Baird and Erik Martinez stare blankly at a cooking program on their 7″ TV; J. finds herself regretting, suddenly, that they’d gone in on it together. She rolls over, bending at the middle in such a way as to require far more width. Erik accommodates, draping his arm across her waist. He waits for her to take his hand. He waits several minutes before withdrawing it.
“Maybe I should go sleep downstairs tonight,” he offers.
“It was kindof a major day, alright,” J. responds defensively.
“I know, I just—” Erik stops, waits for her to meet him halfway. J. provides nothing.
“Alright, well,” Erik says hurdling down off the top, “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“I have a lot a work to do tomorrow,” J. says too quickly.
Erik kisses his fingertips and presses them to her furrowed brow. “Well, let’s just see how it goes then.” As he speaks, J. fixates on his thick, black, unkempt brows. They strike her, now, as alien.
A coltish young woman with straight brown hair and turquoise eyes leaves the Back Bay Woman’s clinic with a prescription for pre-natal vitamins. It is made out to Josie Martinez, a name she takes on faith. The early morning chill behind her, Josie hails a cab as if waving to a passing parade float. Erik’s first class is not until 11:00. If she hurries she can catch him.
As the noon bell peals through the quad, Josie and Erik nestle against the trunk of a liquid ambar tree. Eyes shut, lips together and crinkled upwards slightly at the corners, Josie rests in the split of her future husband’s jeans. She nuzzles her cheek to his flanneled chest, reassured by the wax and cumin scent of his warm skin.
“My parents are going to kill me, you know,” Josie says unafraid.
“Because of me, or the baby?” Erik says through unfazed eyes.
“Both,” she says, then falls silent. When she speaks again it is to make a confession.
“Ricky?” Josie says sitting up nervously.
“I’ve never even babysat before.”
Erik smiles and kisses the crown of her hair. “That’s okay,” he replies, and with boyish confidence adds, “I have.”
May they never be lonely at parties
Or wait for mail from people they haven’t written
Or still in middle age ask God for favors
Or forbid their children things they were never forbidden.
May hatred be like a habit they never developed
And can’t see the point of, like gambling or heavy drinking.
If they forget themselves, may it be in music
Or the kind of prayer that makes a garden of thinking.
May they enter the coming century
Like swans under a bridge into enchantment
And take with them enough of this century
To assure their grandchildren it really happened.
May they find a place to love, without nostalgia
For some place else that they can never go back to.
And may they find themselves, as we have found them,
Complete at each stage of their lives, each part they add to.
May they be themselves, long after we’ve stopped watching.
May they return from every kind of suffering
(Except the last, which doesn’t bear repeating)
And be themselves again, both blessed and blessing.
—Mark Jarman, from To the Green Man
In honor of the 22nd birthday of my daughter, Remy Choate Davis, who has been for many both blessed and blessing.
In celebration of the launch of my new book happy are those: ancient wisdom for modern life Amazon is giving away free copies to the first 20 people who respond to this giveaway!
I hope you get a free copy, (and hope if you miss the cut you’ll consider splurging on one anyway). This little guidebook is making my heart sing and I do so want to share the joy!
My new book happy are those is now LIVE for Kindle (or any e-reader)! It’s short (you can read it in an hour or so), it’s small (the paperback—which will be out by the end of the month—lays flat in your hand), and it’s filled with wisdom that’s been around long before you or I, and will be around long after we’re gone.
With so many of us starved for answers about how to navigate this thing called life, of how to find happiness in it, of how to live the life we were meant for, I thought that talking through this old poem called the first psalm (aka The Two Ways of Living) would be helpful. If you get a chance to read it—and I really hope that you do—I’d love to hear your thoughts.
If you buy it now, you’ll have plenty of time to read before kick-off Sunday!