G is for Geography

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As part of a recent Washington Post survey asking Americans what they thought the U.S. should do about the current conflict in Ukraine, participants were asked to identify Ukraine on a blank world map. You can see the map here; each dot indicates someone’s guess. Red means you’re warm. Blue is cold.

The upshot of the article is that the less able the respondents were to locate Ukraine on a map, the more likely they were to support the idea of American military intervention there.

Such a conclusion leads to plenty of pretty interesting and potentially disturbing implications, but the WP does a pretty fair job of covering those, so I’ll leave them to it.

I was more than a bit distressed, however, to notice the number of respondents who plunked their cold blue dots smack in the middle of America’s heartland. One should not infer from this that anyone is silly enough to think Ukraine is actually in Nebraska, but rather that the Americans who put their dots there (or in Florida, Iowa, Tennessee, Colorado, or Alaska) can’t locate the United States on a world map at all.

I did an exercise like this in one of my classes several years ago. Preliminary to a unit in which the students were going to be reading The Kite Runner, I gave them each a blank map of the world and asked them to identify Afghanistan with a red X. Only one student got it right — and when I told her she was right, she laughed and said, “Really? I totally guessed!”

We were already at war in Afghanistan. Some of these students had friends and even family members there. But not a single one of them knew where “there” was.

It’s true that none of those students actually put their red X anywhere within the United States, but a couple of them did put them in Canada, and one or two in South America. And these were college students. Not just college students but honors students.

Americans in general really are notoriously bad at geography.

I don’t always know where countries are either, to be honest—no high horse here—but I like looking things up. When something’s going on in a place I can’t already identify on a map, I go online and find it.

But in looking up where my grandparents came from, I got pretty confused.

(You were wondering what all this has to do with my WIP, weren’t you?)

My grandparents were Polish. I’ve known that all my life. And I assumed, logically, that that meant they came from Poland. A logical assumption indeed, but wrong. In fact, on both ships’ manifests, they’re both listed as Russian.

I went in search of a map to find the cities they were from, but as it turned out, those cities are both in Lithuania.

Needless to say, I was pretty confused.  It was a real game changer for me, to discover after all these years that we were actually Lithuanian.

Except we’re not.  Or not exactly.

As it turned out, the problem was that I knew nothing at all about Polish geography, history, or psychology. I was looking at a present-day map of Poland and assuming that it was the same now as it always had been. Anyone looking at a present-day map will find the cities of Wilno and Kowno (aka Vilnius and Kaunas) thriving just fine, well within the borders of Lithuania.

But when my grandparents came to the U.S., Poland didn’t look like that.  In fact, at that point, Poland didn’t exist at all.

Until the late 1700s, Poland was quite large. But in 1772, the surrounding kingdoms (Prussia, Russia, and Austria) divided it and each took a big chunk. Then in 1793, Prussia and Russia each took another chunk, and in 1795, the three countries divided the remainder among themselves, and Poland as a country was no more. It was not reinstated until the end of World War I, and its borders were shifted yet again during World War II.

My grandparents were born in what was known as the Russian Partition, but they never identified as Russian.  They were ethnically Polish, and that distinction was a source of great pride among Poles.  Their country, during the period from 1795 to 1918, existed within their hearts.  They were Polish just as surely as they would have been if there’d been a country to actually hail from.  But there wasn’t, so on official documents, they were listed according to the nationality of whichever kingdom had absorbed their land.

Poland as we see it on a map today has only existed for about seventy years, and it’s only 120,726 square miles in size—less than half the size of Texas.

So now you’re wondering, maybe, what the current situation in Ukraine has to do with all of this, and why the Ukraine situation is relevant to my WIP.

The answer is this: Poland borders Ukraine, and in fact much of Ukraine was once part of the original Poland. Some of the same land that was disputed and partitioned in the 1700s is the same land that Russia is once again interested in today.

And I don’t know about anyone else, but I think it’s important to know where it is.

F is for Flash Drive

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How, and how often, do you back up your work?

I use a flash drive. Also known as a thumb drive, jump drive, or memory stick. It looks like this:

FLASH DRIVE

I actually have about eight or ten of these little guys, in various colors and with varying capacities, from 1 gig up to 32 gigs. The 32 gig one contains nothing but pictures; it’s a sort of 21st-century photo album.

But the red one has my novel on it. And a week ago, I lost it.

I wrote a post several months ago in which I mentioned how obsessed I am with backing up all my work, but as it turns out, even with best intentions and backups of backups of backups, none of my most recent work was backed up at all.

In fact, as far as my laptop is concerned, the last time I backed up the whole flash drive was in May.

I spent all of last summer researching and writing. Months’ worth of work. Gone.

It reminded me of the haiku:

     With searching comes loss

     and the presence of absence:

     “My Novel” not found.*

I remember the first time I read that haiku, a good fifteen years ago, and the way it froze the blood in my veins to even imagine such an error message. I never thought it was funny.

And here I was, literally, novel not found.

I do have a hard copy of the collection, which I printed out in October, but none of the new writing or revision work I’ve done since then is backed up anywhere.

I recalled all the times I thought, “Oh, I’ll do it later.”

Later is too late.

“Well, when did you last have it?” asked my practical husband.

I didn’t know. I was too panicked to think. A week ago, I thought. Maybe a week since I’d seen it or used it. I was grading papers all week.

Of course we took the house apart in search of it. Tom crawled around on the floor shining a flashlight under all the furniture. Nope. We looked under every rug in the house (Scrabble, one of our cats, has a habit of stealing things off tables and hiding them under the rugs). Nope. I checked the washer, the dryer, the laundry basket, and every pocket in everything I’d worn for the past month while Tom checked every cranny of both cars. Nope. We even sifted through the vacuum cleaner contents.

Nothing.

“Check the couch cushions,” he said.

“I did,” I said.

My kids helpfully suggested I use the hard copy of the novel as a reference to rewrite the whole book. “That’s a sure way to find it,” one of them said. “Because you know as soon as you type the last word, it will turn up.”

Thanks, guys.

The search went on for three days.

On the fourth day, in utter desolation, I went upstairs to my office. I rarely go up there these days because ever since I injured my knee a week before Christmas, the stairs have posed a big challenge. But I wanted to be alone, and that’s the best place to find me when I don’t want to be found.

I decided to lie down and just go to sleep. But the sofa cushions were crooked. I lifted one to straighten it, and poof, there was the flash drive.

I remembered Tom’s words, three days before: “Check the couch cushions.” But I hadn’t thought to look in these couch cushions. I don’t go up here. How did it get up here? No idea. I don’t care.

Who knew it was possible to hug something so small?

 

*You can find this haiku and a whole list of related ones here.

E is for Eighteen Crossroads

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This one was a given. My A-Z Challenge theme is my work in progress, and Eighteen Crossroads is the title of that work.

Easy-peasy.

Why eighteen? Because there are eighteen MCs: Aniela and her husband Josef, eight of their children, and eight of their grandchildren. Nearly all of the stories are told in the first person. (There’s a reason for this—but man, it’s a challenge!)

Why crossroads? Because each story is about a “crossroads moment” in the life of its MC. We all have such moments. Sometimes we have a choice, and sometimes the choice is made for us. If you read yesterday’s post, see if you can figure out Daphne’s. Is a choice made for her, or does she make a choice herself?

Some of the crossroads intersect quite obviously with those of other characters, as Daphne’s does with her mom’s. But in most cases, they’re more subtle than that.

In the book’s original conception, all of the MCs were also going to be eighteen themselves—I mean, eighteen years old—because eighteen is a time when many of us find ourselves at a crossroads of some kind. But then a couple of characters wound up just remembering events that occurred when they were eighteen, and others found themselves at crossroads that had nothing to do with being eighteen at all.

And I realized two things: 1) Not all of our most significant crossroads moments occur at eighteen (in fact, one of the biggest such moments in my own life came when I was 42), and 2) Just because you’re a writer, that doesn’t mean you have total control over your work or the characters that populate it.

But anyway, there you have it— Eighteen Crossroads.

D is for Daphne

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C is for Chrusti

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My maternal grandmother, Apolonia (Pauline) Bobrowski Urynowicz, came to the United States in July of 1907, just like Aniela. In fact, she’s the inspiration for Aniela, and thus for my entire book, which is a composite novel.  In a way, I’m writing it in her memory, even though the book itself is fictional.

A composite novel is generally comprised of a series of interrelated short texts that may or may not be limited to short stories. In my case, the book will also contain other texts, including a few of her recipes.  I can think of no better way to keep her memory alive.

One of my favorites has always been her recipe for what my mom always just called crullers. In Poland, depending on the region, they’re called faworki, chrusty, or chrusciki, and in the United States, they’re generally known as bow ties or angel wings.

But my grandmother called them chrusti (with an i), so to me, chrusti they are. It’s pronounced HROO-stee. (The singular, chrust, is pronounced HROOST.) They look like this:

(I wasn’t able to find any pictures of my own, so these will have to do).

I’ve seen many, many recipes for these, both online and in hard-copy Polish cookbooks, but although the final product looks the same, none of the recipes is the same as my grandma’s. I have no idea what quality the results of any of those others might produce, either, but no matter what they look like, I’m very sure they can’t possibly taste any better than hers.

Here’s a picture of my grandma’s much-loved and well-worn recipe, which I wrote down in haste while actually making them with her in the winter of 1976, the year before she passed away:

CHRUSTI RECIPE PHOTO 1

As far as I know, it’s the only written-down version of her recipe in existence.

And that’s the thing, right? One of the primary purposes of the whole novel, even though it is a novel and not a memoir, is to draw attention to the way memories form, the way we hold our ancestors close though whatever historical connections we can find.  Not just me, but all of us.  And one of those is always, or should always be, the ritualistic preparation of traditional foods.

So here, in the spirit of keeping her memory alive, is my grandma’s recipe in full. If you choose to make it a part of your own family’s tradition, I ask only that you keep her name attached to it.

Grandma Pauline’s Chrusti

Ingredients:

1 cup milk

½ stick (1/4 cup) butter

6 egg yolks

½ cup sugar

pinch salt

2 T vodka or rum (vodka is traditional—we use rum)

3 cups flour

confectioner’s (powdered) sugar

oil for deep frying

 

Procedure:

Warm milk and butter just until bubbles form around the edge of the pan (do not allow to boil). Remove from the heat and allow to cool until the pan is comfortably warm to the touch.

While milk is cooling, beat the egg yolks with the sugar and salt until thick and lemon yellow. Stir in liquor of choice.

Add half of the warm milk mixture to the egg yolk mixture in a steady stream, stirring constantly.

Mix in half of the flour, then the rest of the milk, then the rest of the flour.

Knead until the dough no longer sticks to your hands. (A little additional flour may be necessary, but don’t add too much.)

Roll out the dough very thin, about 1/8 of an inch thick, on a floured board. Use a pizza wheel to slice the dough into strips about 3” long by 1 ½ inches wide (measurements do not have to be exact).

Make an inch-long (or so) slit lengthwise in the center of each piece, and pull one end through the slit.

Deep fry, a few at a time, in hot oil (375 degrees). Drain on paper towels. Sift powdered sugar over them, or shake a few at a time in a paper bag of powdered sugar, while still warm.

These get stale very, very quickly. Best to make them when you have a lot of people around.

Makes around eight dozen.

Great with coffee or tea.

B is for Bedczynski

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I’ve always been interested in and proud of my Polish heritage. When I got my first car when I was seventeen, I put a Polish coat of arms sticker on the back windshield.  A stylized eagle hovering over the ramparts of a castle.  I loved it.

Jump forward a few decades. In one of the very first stories I wrote for this book, long before I even knew it was going to become part of an actual book, the main character’s name was Catherine Bedford. Her name came to me out of nowhere, and I knew, as soon as it popped into my mind, that this was her name. There would be no changing it.

When I realized her Polish parents needed a Polish name from which Bedford might have derived, Bedczynski popped into my head. It wasn’t a name I’d ever heard in my life, but again, I knew, as soon as I thought of it, that this was the family’s name.

Of course I promptly did a search for the surname Bedczynski.   Now, remember, this name was totally invented. It’s MY name, in a way. I made it up out of thin air. So I wasn’t surprised when my search turned up no hits. In a way, I was relieved, and I gave it no further thought.

But last summer as I was working on another story, I needed a name of a town for another character to be from, and it was in this search, on a page of maps of Poland in 1907, that I unexpectedly found a listing for Będziński .

I invented the dang name and spelled it wrong? What?

So I clicked on it . . . and found that it’s a region (not a name, per se)—and the page that came up showed not a map, but a coat of arms for that region. My heart stopped when I saw it.

The coat of arms is the same one I had on the Poland sticker on my first car. I put that sticker on the car in about 1976. I remember it vividly. And now I find out it’s the freaking coat of arms for Będziński.  Creeeeepy!!!

BEDCZYNSKI COAT OF ARMS

But wait—it gets even trippier.

The coat of arms page contained a list of towns that have coats of arms, with live links for each.  One of them was a place called Bobrowniki.

Really? Really?? Bobrowski was my grandmother’s maiden name.

Of course I clicked on it. And guess what? Bobrowniki is a township in Będziński .

Goosebumps. It still gives me goosebumps.

I’m telling you–this book was meant to be.

_______________

Coat of arms image by Bastianow (vector version) [Public domain or <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5″>CC-BY-SA-2.5</a>%5D, <a href=”http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APOL_powiat_b%C4%99dzi%C5%84ski_COA.svg”>via Wikimedia Commons</a>

A is for Aniela

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I wavered between two possible themes for the A-Z Challenge, but after deciding there were plenty of grammar gurus out there already, I’ve chosen to blog about my work in progress, a composite novel titled Eighteen Crossroads.  

It’s kismet that Aniela’s name begins with A, since her story establishes the foundation of the whole cycle. Her spirit resides in nearly all of the characters who populate the rest of the stories in the collection, so it seems right to begin the Challenge with her.

Her story begins with her arrival in America in July of 1907. She’s eighteen—spunky, spirited, confident, and capable.

Since Poland was divided (or “partitioned”) in 1795, the area she hails from (Kowno) belongs to Russia.  This means she’s legally Russian, but she’s ethnically Polish. (Nobody in the United States who claims Polish roots is really Polish if they or their ancestors came to America between 1795 and 1918, since politically, Poland didn’t exist at all during that period.)

Like most other ethnic Poles of the time, Aniela is concerned with the perpetuation of a Polish national identity in the absence of a physical country to call her homeland. She doesn’t want to be American—she wants to be Polish in America, since it’s illegal to be Polish at home. America is the land of the free, she reasons, and therefore she should be free to be Polish if she wants to. But her desire to cling to her Polish identity conflicts with the American societal expectation that first-generation immigrants jump into the Melting Pot.

The whole cycle explores this challenge: the development of an American identity made up of other national identities belonging to immigrants who don’t necessarily have any desire to abandon them. The collection tells the stories of three generations as they variously embrace and reject Aniela’s version of the American dream.

What is an American, anyway? Is one American because one has settled here and is raising a family here? Or is American identity involved with something more?

A-Z CHALLENGE!

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I’ve finally done it—I’ve lost my mind.

You haven’t heard from me in months—not since the bleach debacle—and now, here I am, committing to writing and posting every single day for a whole month!

But the A-Z Challenge just looked like too much fun to pass up.

Here are the basics:

Participants will post every day (except Sundays) for the entire month of April. Each day’s post will correspond to a letter of the alphabet. It all starts tomorrow (well, now today—April 1) with the letter A, and it’ll finish up on Wednesday, April 30, with the letter Z.

Brief posts. Engaging posts. Useful posts.

Well, that’s how I’m envisioning it, anyway.

Are you ready for this?

Am I?

A Writer’s Creed

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I write stories I love.
I connect with the readers who love my work.
I joyfully trade my time and creative ability for payment from those who love what I create.
I take steps each day to live my dream and make it real.
I am a writer.

This is the latest and possibly final version of The Writer’s Creed that Holly Lisle and a number of her students have been fine-tuning over the past week or so.

A couple of students suggested that we each write our own version of the Creed, one that works for us as individuals.

I liked that idea.

One suggested that “all of us working at this magnificent dream should put it on our web sites, too–with Holly’s name at the end, to give credit where it’s due.”

I like this idea, too.

Which is why I’m doing both.

I like the idea of a creed.  It’s not something I’d ever thought of before.

My dream has always taken a back seat during the school year. This year I vowed to myself that it would be different–but it hasn’t been. I’ve written barely a word in seven weeks. Not coincidentally, my semester is in its seventh week.

It may seem ironic that this is precisely why the fourth line of this version of the creed works especially well for me: “I take steps each day to live my dream and make it real.”

I don’t. Or anyway, I haven’t been, not for the past several weeks.  When I’m working, I work.  I don’t write.  As those who follow this blog know, I haven’t even written much here, and certainly not according to the schedule I’d envisioned.

Holly’s Creed reminds me that I made a commitment to myself.   It reminds me that the dream is waiting, that it’s been waiting for forty-five years, that I’m not going to live forever, and that I don’t want to die without having finished, and without having published, this composite novel that I’ve already been working on for far too many years.  It reminds me that the stories contained in this novel, the stories I’ve already written, are not the only stories I have in me.

I promised myself this summer that I would no longer limit my writing only to summer and winter breaks, that I would find a way to write during the semester as well.  But I haven’t written a thing in weeks.

So this is not just a creed.  It’s a motivator.  A reminder.  And to me, an imperative.

It appears here in this post, and in one form or another—my own version—it will also find a permanent home elsewhere on this blog.  And I’m not just going to put it up on my website. I’m going to tape it to my bathroom mirror.

I confess, though, that I am a bit uncomfortable with the payment part.  It’s hard at this point for me to imagine being paid for my writing, or to imagine even including any mention of payment in my Creed.  But one day this book and other stories will be available for sale.  And I will accept payment for them with gratitude, and probably a certain degree of amazement, a la Sally Field (“You like me!  You really like me!”).

But in any event, here is my creed:

I am a writer.
I write stories I love.
I strive to connect with readers who will also love my work.
I will receive payment for that work with humility and gratitude.
I will take steps each day—not just during summer and winter breaks—to make my dream a reality.

***

Are you a writer?  Do you have a creed?

WIP: Why I’m Writing this Book

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Someone asked me why I’m writing this book, and whether it’s a biography of my family.

There’s an easy answer to the second half:  No.

But it’s actually more complicated than that.  It’s true that I was inspired, and the book is inspired, by my mom’s family.  But it’s not a biography, nor is it a memoir.

I started with what my mom’s family started with:  Two young Polish immigrants coming to America in 1907.  The young woman comes in July; the young man, in November.  They’re both from the same part of Poland (the Russian partition), but from different towns; they don’t meet until after they arrive in America.  They marry in June of 1909 in New Jersey, where he works as a boilermaker for the railroad, and they have a couple of children.  Within a few years, he’s transferred to Jackson, Michigan; they live in a small bungalow in town and have several more children, and then in 1926, they move to a farm on the outskirts of town.

This much is all historically accurate.  My maternal grandparents did all of these things, and in these time frames.

But from that starting point, nearly everything in Eighteen Crossroads is entirely fictional.  Josef and Aniela don’t have the same number of children as my grandparents, nor the same configurations of children (x-many boys, x-many girls, born in x-years).  None of the second- or third-generation characters in the book are real people, and even where some version of some of the events in these stories did actually take place, those events have been fictionalized.  In most cases, they didn’t really happen, and in cases where they did happen, they didn’t happen to these people in these places.

For instance, one of my uncles did serve in Patton’s Third Army during WW2, and I’ve been told he fought at the Battle of the Bulge (a time and place in which one of my stories is set), but I know no more about my uncle’s service (or his life) than that.  I’m sure none of the events in the story in which the main character finds himself in those basic circumstances are remotely similar to the actual events of my uncle’s life.  It would be an incredible (and unlikely) coincidence if they were.

Similarly, I know my grandfather was conscripted into the Russian army, and that he was injured in battle due to a fall from a horse—but I don’t know when or where, or even in what conflict, he fought.  He did die as a result of his refusal to allow the amputation of his leg due to gangrene, and he did say that he came into this world with two legs and he was jolly well going to go out with two legs (actually I think the “jolly well” was probably tacked on by my mom), and my character Josef in the novel does all of these things.  But the fictional character isn’t my grandfather, and the story is not my grandfather’s story.  The fictional Josef is a different Josef altogether.

The point is, this novel is a work of fiction, and the characters who populate it are also fictional.

I am not writing it to tell my own Polish immigrant family’s story.  But I am writing it to tell a Polish immigrant family’s story.

Which leads me to the other half of my friend’s question:  Why am I writing this book?

My purpose is to explore issues of both human identity (removed from national identity and/or language and custom) and the formation of American identity as it develops over several generations.  I’m fascinated by the well-known “generation gaps” that seem so inevitable between parents, their children, and their grandchildren, even as the human condition–that is, the general experiences involved in simply being human–remain unchanging from one generation to the next and also across races, creeds, and cultures.  Why is it so hard for most of us to imagine our parents as eighteen-year-olds, or as children?  What defines family, other than genetics?

In the book, Aniela struggles with the difference between the American “Melting Pot” and what Poles referred to as “Russification” in the 19th and early 20th centuries, which was enforced by law.  There’s also a marked contrast between Poland and America, both politically and socially, as America was a country in need of people and in search of an identity, while Poland at that time (or more accurately, Polonia) was comprised of millions of people in the diaspora who identified as Poles but had no country to call home.

And finally, two or three or four generations removed from the immigrants themselves, do the American descendants of those immigrants have any connection at all to their ancestors’ roots?  — and should they?

The exploration of these questions, and others, is the reason I’m writing this novel.

And also . . well . . it’s fun.

Why do you write what you write?  What inspires you?

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