Europe, Part 2

When I last blogged, I had just gotten to L’viv. Or rather, I had gotten to L’viv the night before, crashed early because I was starting to get the travel-weary sniffles (which have since evolved into a travel-weary persistent cough), and then spent the morning doing some work for the BP and catching up here and on the Facebooks because I like to imagine people wait with bated breath to hear what I’ve been up to.

So, L’viv. I really liked L’viv.  Eve had told me before I went that it was her favorite city in Ukraine, and I can understand why. The girls in Kovel had told me people would be more smiley there than what I’d probably encountered in Kyiv. They were correct, so that was pleasant. Also, there’s a lot of really beautiful old architecture. I knew from reading the guidebook Eve loaned me, along with some other travel information about L’viv another friend had emailed, that the city’s architecture was inspired by a lot of classical Western European style. Still, after Kyiv and Kovel (which are not particularly similar – Kovel is much smaller, feels more slower-paced, and still has a significant amount of old Soviet style buildings since so much of the original buildings were destroyed in the World Wars and the 20ish years of Ukrainian independence haven’t quite been enough to redesign the city), I was surprised by how being in L’viv felt in some ways more similar to Spain, where I’d been not long before, than to the other Ukrainian cities I’d been to. But only in some. I was still just as illiterate in L’viv as I am in Kyiv, which is to say only slightly less illiterate than I was in Kovel, where I didn’t see transliteration or English translations on anything.

Full disclosure: my first night in L’viv, I was not my best self. I was tired and hungry (so, of course, cranky), and starting to get a little sick. After settling into the hostel, I went out to find food. I spent probably thirty minutes walking around, being too intimidated to go into restaurants if the only writing I could see from the outside was in the Cyrillic alphabet. (I got progressively more comfortable with trying new restaurants as my days in L’viv went by.) I got turned around a few times, unsure of whether I was going in the right direction, how far I’d gotten myself from the hostel, whether I’d be able to find my way back (spoiler alert: I did!). A few times, I was close to crying in frustration.

I suspect that a lot of what happened in L’viv will end up in the BP in some form, and that’s all sort of swirling around in the part of my brain that deals with creative writing. It’s processing, turning things over, hopefully figuring out how to blend it all into narrative, making some distinction between what will influence my story and what will influence Isabella’s, etc. So, while my intent had been to post a lot more here about the experience, I’m afraid I can’t just yet. But, I can do a few observations and ideas I’ve been turning over.

Having the L’viv part of the trip be solo was really good for me. I hate reading maps because they’re hard for me (too abstract if I don’t already have a sense of the place’s layout, so I get easily confused   by them, which is counterproductive and frustrating). In order to get around L’viv, I had to become comfortable with a map. For me, that meant tracing and re-tracing paths, stopping to pull the map out and check my location fairly often. In the beginning, it meant taking about 3 hours to do a self-guided walking tour that the suggested itinerary Miranda sent me estimated at about an hour and a half. It meant having to be okay with looking like I didn’t know where I was and didn’t know what I was doing. But, I learned my way around L’viv – or rather, a small part of it.

Other ways it was good – without someone to guide or translate for me, I started paying closer attention to the signs I couldn’t read. I started learning how to read the Cyrillic alphabet (that street signs in the city center had transliteration into the Roman alphabet was helpful) phonetically. There are still some letters whose sounds I don’t know, and some that take me a second to remember, but by the end I found I could sound out a lot words, even though I didn’t know what they meant. At any rate, now I can recognize the words for restaurant (important when you have a tendency to get hangry if you go too long without a meal) and museum (important when you’re doing historical/ethnographic research in a region), along with some others. I got more comfortable walking into shops and markets and cafes and figuring out how to communicate what it was I needed to purchase. I got better at taking my time at restaurants, with letting go, just a bit, of the sense of urgency or whatever it is that moves me from task to task quickly. I got better at relaxing.

After L’viv, Eve accompanied me to Latvia. The port Isabella sailed from when she left for the US is in present-day Liepaja, Latvia, and I wanted to recreate, as much as I could, the first part of her immigration journey. I would have never otherwise thought to go to Latvia. But, let me tell you, it is a gem. More lovely old architecture (though you can still see the traces of Soviet rule in some parts of Liepaja). Beautiful countryside. Inexpensive amber jewelry all over the place. We did three nights in Liepaja and two in Riga, so we got to experience a bit of the small town/big city difference. We got all the research I needed to do in Liepaja done in the first day, basically (though we went back and did some extra on the second day), so then it was just vacation time. Eve and I don’t see each other often; we haven’t lived in the same place since high school, and we’re rarely back in Atlanta at the same time. Getting travel time with her was really, really nice. It would have been nice to have nearly anyone to travel with, but I’m especially grateful it was Eve. She travels much more than I do (major understatement alert), so having someone who has more experience with showing up in another country and making it work was comforting. But also, we got in some good friend time. Pretty much the best possible research-travel-buddy situation I could have asked for.

I’ve taken a lot of pictures on this trip, and I’ve posted some (by far not most) of them on facebook. For those of you finding this post NOT through FB, here’s the link to the album.

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Homeland

I’d promised people back home that I’d try to be better about updating the blog while I’m traveling, and so far have failed. I’ve been gone two weeks, and this is the first time I’ve felt focused enough to attempt to put into some kind of coherent format the things I’ve been experiencing and all the feelings attached to them.

So, I arrived in Kyiv June 13th, in the evening. I’m thinking of Kyiv as my home-base for this trip, as that’s where Eve lives, and I’ve been leaving stuff there while I go off on side adventures. This having been my first overseas travel experience, it felt like a small miracle to first arrive, and then for my checked luggage to arrive, and then to find Eve waiting for me just outside the baggage claim area. Something I was struck by immediately as we were on the Skybus on our way from the airport to the metro station, and even more so once we got to the neighborhood where Eve lives, is how green the city is. It is most definitely a city – it has the energy of many people living and working there, and that’s something I associate in the US with places devoid of any kind of natural scenery. When I return to Atlanta, for example (and especially in the more recently developed suburban areas nearby), I’m always longing for trees. Kyiv has plenty of them, and that’s something I’ve found comforting. I also found it the same in Kovel when I was there earlier this week.

I went to Spain for a week, meeting up with friends from KU. That trip is, perhaps, the subject of its own blog post. For now I’ll just say that the trip was, on the whole, wonderful. And that being there with my friends from Lawrence reaffirmed for me that it is because of them that Lawrence has become a home.

Following Spain, after one day back in Kyiv, I took an overnight train to Kovel. This was my first real time traveling by train. I didn’t hate it. Something that surprised me, though, was how overcome with emotion I was once it sunk in that I was traveling to the place where my grandfather’s father was born and lived the first twenty years of his life. I was also surprised by how badly I wished I could communicate that to the women in the compartment with me, who did not speak English. (And, of course, I do not speak Russian or Ukrainian, something I am more and more coming to regret.) It felt very odd, and a little lonely, to be experiencing this BIG THING on my own, to not even be able to say to anyone “I am going to the place from which my family comes. None of us have been back in over one hundred years.”

At the train station in Kovel, I was met by a man with whom I’d been in touch through the Catholic church. Many months ago, I’d written to the church on a whim, asking whether they possibly had any records from the time my family lived near Kovel. One of the priests passed my letter along to a historian, Mr. S, who wrote back with some historical information about Poles in the area. By good providence, this man had also written a book cataloging Polish cemeteries in the region, and was able to describe the grave of my great-great grandmother. He and a priest from the church met me at the train station, and I was taken to the monastery and given a room to stay in. Later that day, they, along with the man’s granddaughter and a woman who could act as an interpreter, drove me to the villages (one of them no longer in existence) just outside of Kovel where Poles had settled in the nineteenth century. Mr. S led me through a cemetery overgrown with weeds and wildflowers to the center, where my great-great grandmother is buried.

maryannapaprockheadstone

Mr. S. and the priest said some prayers, I’m not sure whether they were in Ukrainian or Polish, over the grave. I think, from the rhythm, that it was a series of Hail Marys, but I’m not sure. I was unprepared for how emotionally charged that experience was for me, as well as for the devastation and loss I felt when Mr. S pointed to a clump of trees and explained, through the woman interpreting, that another Polish-settled village used to exist there, but had long since been destroyed.

The following day, L. (the woman who had interpreted the day before), her young son, one of her students, and Mr. S’s granddaughter, picked me up at the monastery and walked with me around Kovel. L had to leave after helping me take care of some business at the train station, though she promised to return for me the following morning and help get me back to the station and on my way to L’viv. The two teenaged girls stayed with me until the late afternoon, taking me to the local history museum and explaining a lot of historical and cultural information. We walked around much of the city, and they pointed out landmarks, such as monuments and notable churches. I feel I cannot here do justice to how valuable this experience was for me, and not just in a self-serving, “this will be good for my book,” way. Something I was hoping this trip would accomplish would be giving me a sense of how the place from which my family comes has evolved in the time since they’ve left, and being able to spend the day with people who were born, raised, and continue to live in Kovel did that. Also, as I am generally a bit cynical about human nature, spending the day with the girls, as well as the general helpfulness of L. and Mr. S, and the hospitality provided by the priest at the church, reminded me that not everyone does things only for their own benefit. It reminded me of the importance of human connection.

So far, this trip has also made me reconsider beliefs I’d had about the area from which my family hails. Because we are ethnically Polish, and have always referred to the place as Poland despite the fact that it was part of the Russian empire while my great-grandfather lived there, was Soviet after the second world war, and has been Ukraine for the past twenty years, when I’ve run across information on the area written from the Ukrainian perspective and referring to years of “Polish occupation,” it was my inclination to think “Polish occupation? That’s not right. The land is Polish; everyone else is the occupier.” But after spending Wednesday with L. and the girls, and learning more historical context regarding the Ukrainian people and the movement for national sovereignty, I’m rethinking that stance. (Of course, as an American, I also can’t help but think about US settlement occupation of formerly Native lands, but I’m not yet sure what to do with those feelings.)

One of the most important things that has developed from this trip so far is that I feel re-energized about the BP. This past school year was difficult. Between studying for comps, my general tendency to over-commit to English department responsibilities, and then the challenge (albeit a lucky one) of needing to put in research time in preparation for this trip, I hadn’t actually written anything for the book in a long time. And, truthfully, I’d been worried that once I get through comps, I wouldn’t be able to get back into writing, that I wouldn’t be able to turn my focus to it again, that I would have lost the initial momentum I’d started with. But, right now, all I want to do is write. I’m quickly filling up the journal I brought with me specifically for taking notes on the trip. I’ve begun re-reading previously drafted sections and making notes for revision. I’ve been brainstorming ideas for further development of sections I’d begun earlier, and for new sections to draft, both in the historical fiction and the memoir components.

I’m in L’viv right now, and any second now I’m going to go out and explore some of the historical sites and take pictures of the stunning architecture, and maybe eat some of the tempting pastries people are selling on the street, now that I’ve gotten down all the new thoughts I have for the book. I’m sure there will be some as the days go on.

 

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Casual Observation

This morning, I stood in the lobby of the building that houses the English Department at KU, my place of employment. I was bent over, stacking a box of books onto a hand truck. From behind, the voice of a man I did not know said,  “You must have been a dancer. Were you a dancer? You have a dancer’s body.” I was with a small group of friends, three other women with whom I’d been setting up for a book sale. And yet this man seemed to feel entitled not only to interrupt the conversation we’d been having, but to make the focus of conversation his public observations about my body. I told him that, no, I was not a dancer. He insisted that I had the body of a ballet or modern dancer, and I replied that I took dance classes in my youth  but was never a serious dancer. He wanted to know for how long. He wanted to know which types. He wanted to know whether I’d ever gotten en pointe. I told him: about four to six years, probably; ballet and tap and jazz; no, I was never serious enough about ballet to dance en pointe. To that last one he said, “Good girl.” He repeated his observation that my body was suited to ballet and modern dance. He said something about the way I was, just then, as he’d walked up, “performing manual labor.” I said something noncommittal and vague, the kind of thing I say when I am uncomfortable with the amount and kind of attention being paid to me but feel pressured to make the person paying me that attention comfortable. To not alienate or enrage him. He followed closely behind my friends and I as we wheeled the hand truck full of books through the lobby, continuing to explain his casual observations about my body. He used that phrase. From casual observation.

Several minutes later, once he had gone his separate way and my friends and I continued to set up for the book sale, I near-shouted, “That was not okay. It was not okay for him to talk about my body.” My friends agreed. Yeah, that was real weird and That was creepy. One said I wondered where that reaction was.

I wondered that, too, once she said it. Why didn’t I react in a way that let him know I was uncomfortable, or that communicated to him that his comments were inappropriate? Why was my reaction to accommodate him, to placate him, to endure my own discomfort and delay my own rage so as not to make him uncomfortable? I did not feel threatened by him in any tangible, immediate way. This was not about safety. It was about falling in line. It was about how unfortunately commonplace it is for women to receive public commentary about their bodies or their appearance. It was about the fact that we are, on the whole, expected to accept such commentary, when it is “positive,” as a compliment, to be grateful for it. It was also, to a not insignificant extent, about the fact that he presented his comments in such a matter of fact way that my immediate reaction was to accept that he –  a stranger, a man who knew nothing about me except what he thought he could tell as he approached me  – had some kind of authority which entitled him to hijack my conversation with friends so we could talk about my body.

Now, belatedly, I am enraged. Enraged at him for making me uncomfortable, for treating me, or, more specifically, my body, as a commodity of some kind, open to assessment. Enraged at the paradigms which have taught him that making a public comment about a woman’s body is acceptable and taught me that I must absorb them. And I am disappointed in myself for suffering through my discomfort, for not asserting my right to not have my body treated as public property.

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Caring For Your Friend or Family Member with PCOS

I have Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). I was undiagnosed until I was almost 28 years old, mostly because when I would go to doctors and ask about things that I later learned were symptoms and fairly common markers of PCOS, I was brushed off and essentially treated as if I didn’t know my body as well as I thought I did.

A quick biology lesson: When a woman’s ovaries are preparing to send a little egg forth into the world of her fallopian tubes and uterus, a cyst forms, from which the egg is eventually released. In a woman with PCOS, the ovaries get all excited, forming multiple cysts and then, often, getting so confused that they don’t send any of those little eggs out into the broader world of potential baby-growing. And what that means is that the woman’s hormone balance is thrown off, because there’s no ovulation to signal the ladyparts that it’s time to shift to laying off the production of some hormones and upping the production of others.  And that can lead to all kinds of mayhem, depending on the specifics. In my case, there’s virtually none of one of the lady-hormones (I can never remember whether it’s progesterone or estrogen I’m low on) and a bit too much of the dude-hormone testerone, hence the acne that persisted until my doc put me on an appropriate birth control and the more serious Italian-lady ‘stache than my sister’s which, unfortunately, is irreversible. So, I thank god – or more, accurately, the manufacturers of Nad’s brand products for lady facial hair removal – for wax strips.  But I digress. Other things, such as terrible irregular periods and a persistent weight problem and never feeling quite right, things I’d tried to talk to doctors about for years, only to have them tell me that I didn’t know my body as well as I thought I did, they were part of it, too.

The thing I can’t fix with medicine or cosmetics is that, like many women with PCOS, my particular hormone cocktail has seriously effed up my metabolism, which is why I stayed overweight even when I was working out for an hour or more, 5-6 days a week, and eating a low-fat diet. Frequently, women with PCOS have insulin resistance, sort of similar to diabetics, but with less-immediate catastrophic effects. I’m not going to go into shock if my sugar level spikes or drops too low, and I’m not likely to need to have limbs amputated or to go blind if I overindulge in chocolate too often and don’t take insulin shots. (Although, it’s worth noting that some sources on PCOS say that the insulin resistance can leave women at higher risk for type-2 diabetes.) But, eating too many carbs, especially refined carbs like processed sugars and most grain-based flours, will have an immediate effect on my metabolism, which will affect my weight and my energy. And this is the major challenge for me.

After some crying in my Doctor’s office, and talking to another friend with PCOS, I started reading a bunch of information on nutrition, and how different foods affect our bodies and whatnot. And I went through a sort of trial and error period, where I eliminated a bunch of carb-y foods, and then added some back in and gauged how they affected me, and then cut them back out if there was any negative effect, immediate or delayed. Over about 8 months, I lost about 40 pounds. But, more significantly, I also lost the near-constant exhaustion, and I felt better, physically, than I’d thought would be possible. I should clarify that I never felt sick before, but I’d felt off. As if my body was this thing I was dragging around, trying to get to do things, and it didn’t wanna do them. Now, I could feel that it was working efficiently. I had energy. I was sleeping well, for the most part. I had an easier time concentrating on my work (writing, teaching).

I had two really good years, and then I moved away from the place I’d come to consider home, and relocated to start a PhD program. And that move came with extenuating circumstances which left me in a pretty serious depression that made it harder to remember how to take care of my body. So I started “slipping” – eating things I knew would make me feel not-good, and ignoring the signs my body was giving me that I’d learned to recognize as meaning “please stop.” So, I gained a bit of weight – about 9 pounds, which may not seem like a lot, but, let me tell ya, I’ve had a fuck of a time trying to get it back off post-depression because I was eating not-okay again for so long that my body lost the efficiency it had developed over the two very healthy years. And, I’d lost a lot of the will to eat the way I wanted to, or rather, to resist eating the way I knew would make me feel bad. And also, I’m more tired, and my sleeping is worse, and I can tell that my body and I aren’t running at top efficiency yet, even though I’m eating better now and I’m still exercising regularly.

Another challenge has been my environment. I have a hard time resisting some of the foods that I know make me feel not-good. Foods that are pretty much guaranteed to eff up my system are refined carbs – processed sugars and most grain-based flours, also starchy carbs like rice and potatoes. But here’s the thing – I am Italian and Polish, mostly; I am hard-wired to want to eat pasta and bread and potatoes. It’s the least fair thing about having PCOS, as far as I’m concerned. And, if you’ve ever seen me around chocolate, you know I have a reaction to sugar that is like I imagine crack is for people who use it. I cannot eat these things in moderation. I probably could, if there weren’t other factors affecting my current stress level and will-power, but I can’t do moderation right now. It’s all or nothing. I wish that weren’t the case, but, for now at least, it is.

Recently, a friend who also has PCOS and I were talking about how hard it can be to eat the way our bodies need us to eat when we’re in social situations where people offer us the foods we shouldn’t eat. She said that it was unfortunate that women with PCOS don’t have one of those memes like that “How to Care For Your Introvert” one that’s been going around. Spurred by that conversation, I’ve started a list of tips for people who are friends or family members of a woman with PCOS, based on the situations I have found hardest to navigate.

1. Don’t gift or offer her foods that you wouldn’t give to a diabetic.  As a general rule, you can assume that candies, baked goods, and other sweets made with refined sugar are on the “no” or “only in very careful moderation” list for a woman with PCOS. Don’t worry about me feeling left out. If I want one of the treats you’re having, and I know I can “afford” to have it that day, I will ask.

2. If you offer her food and she declines, by all means, do not say, “Are you sure?,” and definitely don’t offer to send some home with her for later. For me, it usually takes all my strength to turn down foods I want to be eating but know will make me feel sick. So, when someone asks a second time, I’m in a more vulnerable position than I was before, and also now I feel guilty because you clearly want me to have that food. And so I’m more likely to take it, and eat it, and then feel bad. Believe me, no one understands the desire to share food with people they care about more than me. I am an Italian grandmother just waiting to happen. I love feeding people; it’s one of the ways I know how to show that I care. But know that when a woman with PCOS turns down proffered food, it does not mean that she is rejecting or isn’t appreciative of your offering of love. It means she’s prioritizing the needs of her body, and you should respect that.

3. Understand that the choices she makes about food are probably based on intimate knowledge of her body’s specific needs, and on what else she’s eaten that day. Relatedly, understand that she may need to turn down short notice dinner invitations, especially to join in on meals at restaurants (or in your home) that are likely to have a heavy carb component. I plan my meals carefully on a daily and weekly basis to make sure that I have plenty of options for foods that are low in the carbs that negatively affect my body so as not to throw off my metabolism and high enough in the ones my body can handle that I won’t be constantly hungry. I also know that things go better for me, generally, if I load most of the carbs I do need into the earlier part of the day, and have a dinner that’s even lower in carbs than my other meals. Sometimes, I indulge in treats, which, if you’ve been my friend and in social situations with me over the past few years, you have seen happen. I realize that may lead people to think “Oh, she can have that thing she says she can’t have after all,” when often, what it means is that I planned for it, very carefully, by budgeting my other carbs throughout the day. It’s sort of akin to budgeting money – if I know there’s a treat coming up, I can choose to “save” for it. Sometimes (too often, in recent years), as I’ve mentioned above, I’ve been in situations where I indulged a bit against my better judgment. That’s more likely to happen in situations like the ones explained in #s 1 and 2, above, which is why those two are so important.

An ex-boyfriend of mine, before making any short-notice suggestions about food, would ask “How’s your budget today? Do you have room for such-and-such?” Questions like that are good in situations where you want to invite your PCOS friend/family member out/over for a meal or offer a treat but also want to be considerate of her nutritional needs. “Can you have X right now?” feels a lot more inclusive and considerate, and also leaves more room for a guilt-free out, than “Let’s go get X for dinner.”

4. Do not say things like “A little bit won’t hurt you” or “You’re so thin anyway, what’s one cupcake?” or “But you need carbs. Where else will you get your energy?” As mentioned above, I and many other women with PCOS have to plan our carb intake very carefully. And, in my case, it took a lot of reading up on nutrition and paying very careful attention to my body to learn how different foods affect me. The simple truth is that oft-cited general nutrition guidelines (like the food pyramid and weight watchers points) don’t actually apply to my body. So, unless you are a nutritionist who specializes in the care of women with PCOS, or my personal gynecologist who is intimately acquainted with the specifics of my condition, I’d prefer that you don’t assume you know how foods will and will not affect my body. (Actually, that’s a pretty good rule for people to follow with anyone, regardless of whether they have PCOS.) Also, because of my long pre-diagnosis history of doctors telling me I was wrong about what I thought I was feeling, I am particularly sensitive to hearing people’s assumptions about how my body works. I find it insulting and condescending.

5. Understand that food affects more than weight, that the choice to eat this way is about wellness, in a holistic sense. While it is true that the reason I originally changed the way I eat was for weight loss, the gains from it in terms of how I felt physically and emotionally went far beyond shedding pounds. Often, when I turn down food and feel compelled to explain why, I say “It will make me feel sick.” And yet sometimes people still try to talk me into it (see #s 2 & 4), which made me realize that maybe when I say “I will feel sick,” people hear “I will have mild indigestion” or “I will feel uncomfortably full” or “I will feel bad about myself because I am obsessed with my weight,” as if it’s just a temporary effect I’m worried about. And, while all those things are partially true, “I will feel sick” also (and mostly) means “My energy level will be off, and I’ll likely have a harder time sleeping over the next few days, and if I do this too many times I’m upping my risk for type-2 diabetes, and knowing that will make me feel guilty.”

6. Understand that she’s walking a thin line of being constantly aware that her body is not ‘normal.’ Part of the reason I give in to indulgences when they are offered to me is that I don’t want to be left out. And that’s a big part of why I’m left vulnerable and frustrated by things like “A little bit won’t hurt you” and “Are you sure? How about just one small slice of cake?” The more I’m pushed to accept food that my body can’t process well, the more I feel I have to defend or explain myself, and the more I’m reminded that my body is not like most other people’s. And that makes me feel pretty isolated, and there’s all that cultural baggage attached to “difference,” which I know better, intellectually, than to take seriously, but which I can’t yet help feeling emotionally.

These are the situations I find most challenging, and things I most need my circle of friends and family to understand. It’s also somewhat dependent on the severity of my condition (which is moderate). Anyone else out there with PCOS want to chime in with other do’s and don’ts?

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Blog Hoppin’

My good friend, poet Jen Schomburg Kanke, tagged me in her round of The Next Big Thing Blog Hop. It’s a pretty great idea; a sort of chain letter for writers to talk about what they’re working on. And, no one’s threatening bad luck or being left out of heaven if you don’t participate. No guilt! A list of all the writers who have participated thus far is here.

What is the working title of the book?

A Loving Mother, A Devoted Wife

It’s a line from the obituary of my great-great aunt, Isabella Paproski Wlladych. The reason why I’ve chosen it will, I hope, become apparent below.

I usually refer to the book as “the BP” for “Big Project,” though. That’s what I called it before I was forced to think of a working title, so it’s sort of a nickname for the book.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

A few years ago, I was visiting my mother in Atlanta, and she was telling me some family history stuff. That’s a pretty standard occurrence; my mom is the family genealogist now that my grandmother is gone. Anyway, there are facts and stories I’ve heard many, many times, and a lot of it is hard to keep straight, and the “stories” are more like a report of facts. I’m interested in story stories, drawn to character and narrative, so I have a hard time keeping track of the begats and timelines I’ve heard so many times. I’d gotten in the bad habit of tuning out if it seemed like Mom was going down the path of listing our forebears’ names and explaining when the family who’s been in America since the 1600s moved their tobacco farming operation from Virginia to Kentucky and whatnot. But this one day, she said something like “And then of course there was that whole thing with Wujek killing Ciotka’s lover,” just nonchalant like this information was something I already knew and also was not shocking,  and I was like “What?! Back it up.” To make a long story short, I found out that afternoon that in the early 1920’s, my Polish great-great aunt and uncle (“wuj/wujek” is “uncle” in Polish; “ciotka” is aunt) were part of a love triangle/murder scandal. I also learned that Ciotka had left a child behind in Poland, a child whose father was not her husband and whom she bore out of wedlock when she was fairly young. In her mid-teens, I think.

I wanted more information, but we simply don’t have much. I was also very interested in the language Mom used in telling me the story – the murder was a result of Wujek’s “Polish temper;” it was a “crime of passion;” Grandpa had once told Mom that Ciotka had been “wild” – as well as the language used in the newspaper articles covering the murder – Wujek was acquitted on “self-defense;” Ciotka was scolded by the judge, who called her a “weak-minded woman.” So, in addition to wanting to know more about what happened, my feminist hackles were raised, and thinking about the story itself brought up a lot for me in terms of gendered expectations for behavior, especially in terms of sexuality and temper, and the ways I’ve seen those play out in my own family.

I started out trying to imagine the circumstances of Ciotka’s affair, and of that first “illegitimate” pregnancy. Ciotka and Wujek had gotten divorced by the time he killed the lover, but they eventually remarried each other. One of the questions that I think is guiding the book, or at least my drive to write it is, How does one get back to a place of trust after such betrayals? Originally I thought I’d be writing a novel of historical fiction to try to answer that question. (For me, all fiction starts in a question: How does such and such happen? What would it be like if . . .?) But it took me almost a year to actually start writing it, and I soon realized that all the questions I have can’t adequately be approached from that angle, and so I started writing nonfiction sections as well, about my own discovery process as I try to uncover more information, and a lot of that is also about my relationship with my mom and where I fit into my family, since I so often feel constrained by the things I mentioned above re: gendered expectations of behavior. But also, once I started writing the historical fiction sections about Ciotka’s relationships with these men in her life (husband, lover, father of her first child), I drew quite a bit, as far as the emotional content, from a relationship I’d been in around the time that I’d first learned about the story. And so once I realized that, I started playing with that more consciously, and another thread of the book became about that relationship – really, I guess, my relationships with men more generally, and the extent to which the way I deal (or don’t deal) with that aspect of life is grounded in what I’ve learned about relationships simply from being a woman in my family.

What genre does your book fall under?

Mash-up? I used to say when I tried to explain the project that it was historical fiction and contemporary memoir braided together, but really, it’s more like it’s smashed together, because a lot of the individual chapters move back and forth between the two, or have them next to each other, layered over each other.

Also, when the book was still in its very early stages (I’d say it’s in it’s middle stage now), I was taking a hybrid genre workshop with Joe Harrington*, and that had a lot of influence on the way the book has continued to develop. I’ve got some documents and pictures in there, and a lot of the sections don’t look conventional because of the way the text is spaced on the page**.

When I have to define a genre for the book (like when I’ve applied for grant money for research travel), I say it’s a historical memoir.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Meryl Streep for my mom, I think. She’s classy, and she’s almost as beautiful as my mom. I don’t know who I’d cast for me. That’s too hard. Ethan (the name I gave to my ex in the book’s memoir sections) would be Ryan Gosling. Not because the real-life Ethan is anything like Ryan Gosling, but because I’ve just decided that I’ll play myself, and this way I get to make out with RG. Really, I want the Ryan Gosling from the feminist Ryan Gosling meme. Yes, definitely him for Ethan.

I think Michelle Dockery for Ciotka. Maybe Adrien Brody for her lover who gets killed, and Lee Pace for the nicer version of the story I wrote about the father of her first child (we have no information on who the father actually was, whether the relationship was consensual, etc., so I wrote several versions that are in the book). Liam Neeson about 10 years ago for Wujek. I’ll just assume all of these actors can do a Polish accent.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

That’s tricky, since it’s only about 1/3-1/2 drafted. For now, maybe it would be:  It’s more than DNA.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Still in process. I wrote the first 8-10 chapters in a period of very intense production, about three months, because I was in that workshop and I was on fire. I’ve written maybe 6-8 more since then (a lot of them are short), but I’m at a bit of standstill for a few reasons. One is that I’m studying for my PhD comprehensive exams, which basically takes over your life. And also I’m at the point where I have to travel for research, which I’ll be doing this summer.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I’m not sure how this question is different from the one about where the idea for the book came from. But, in a word: Mom.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

I’ve been told I write a good sex scene. “Hot but not smutty,” or something like that, is what someone in my workshop said.

A few of my favorite writers who will (or have been asked to) answer these questions next week:

Heather Frese

Stefanie Torres

Louise Krug***

Callista Buchen

I can still tag one more person! So, if you want to play, message me (or leave a comment for me with the url to your blog, if you can’t contact me through email or facebook), and I’ll add you.

*If you don’t already know Joe’s work, you should check out his book Things Come On: An Amneoir, which is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read.

** A chapter that does this was published as a stand-alone story by the kind folks at Connotation Press, here.

*** Louise’s memoir, Louise: Amended came out last Spring from Black Balloon Publishing, and you should also read it, if you haven’t already.

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This is Just My Face

Today, as I was boarding the K10 connector to get to my writing center shift at the KU Edwards campus, the driver said “Smile!” at me, in a pretty reprimand-y tone. I just stared back at him, with what I hope was a clear “Mind your own goddamn emotions” look on my face, before paying my fare and moving down the aisle.

I found a seat near the back, where I sat seething and thinking about other times I’ve been commanded by strangers to display an emotion different from what they thought they read on my face. It’s happened too many times over my 33 years to count or even remember them all. I just know that the first time I read something – an article or blog posting floating around the internet – about how often strangers (most frequently men) tell women to smile, I thought “Yes! Exactly! What is that bullshit about?!”

Here’s the thing: when someone, especially someone I don’t know, commands that I smile, my first reaction is guilt. As in “Oh, no! I’ve made this person uncomfortable because they think I’m not happy. How inconsiderate of me!” But then I feel indignant, because what the hell business is it of theirs if I’m not happy? I believe that people are generally expected to have and display certain emotions, and that so much of the specifics of such expectations is dictated by gender. Women specifically are expected to be pleasant, acquiescent, welcoming of attention, happy. We are not supposed to be angry, and we sure as hell are not supposed to be sad or frustrated or impassioned if we don’t want to be reminded of how irrational we are because of our uteruses making us all cray-cray. A persistent issue for me, one that’s quite frankly taken a lot of time and therapy to work through, is remembering that it is not my job to accommodate other people’s emotions, that I don’t have to feel the things that other people want me to feel, that I don’t have to sublimate my emotions to theirs. It used to be that when I was commanded to smile, I would do so, holding a fake grin on my face until the smile-police could no longer see me, feeling as unnatural as if I were caked in make-up. Gradually, I began giving a quick half-smile and then letting my face revert back to its natural state, which only felt a little terrible. Now, I stare back and, if there’s time and/or the person commanding the smile isn’t someone from whom I need a service (such as driving the bus that takes me to my job) and/or I’m not caught completely off-guard, I’ll say “No,” when what I mean is “You are not entitled to dictate the way I display emotions. You are not entitled to control how I feel.”

I happen to have a face that does not naturally look happy, or even slightly amused or pleased for that matter. I’ve been told that my “thinking” face looks serious, in an “I’m pondering major world problems” way. I’ve seen it in photos. It can be pretty intimidating. After a now-ex-boyfriend told me that he spent the first month or so of our relationship having to remind himself fairly often that I probably wasn’t mad at him, just thinking, I tried changing my “default” face to look “happier.” And then what happened was that I got hit on more, so I gave that up after a week or so. But it made me wonder: am I (and other women) commanded by strangers to smile because it makes me (us) look more accessible? Is that what’s underlying this whole phenomenon of (mostly male) strangers telling women to smile – the expectation that we be ready for and welcoming of unsolicited male attention, so that we might better fulfill our prescribed roles as objects of use for pleasure? I’m not saying it’s a conscious motivation, necessarily. So little of the assumptions we make and expectations we hold regarding gender rarely are conscious. But I do believe that’s what makes them so insidious.

One morning last spring, I was at my University’s recreation and fitness center. When possible, I like to get in a workout before I teach. It helps wake me up, and the endorphins I get from cardio help keep my mood balanced throughout the day. Usually, by the time I finish a workout, I am a sweaty mess, and in a fantastic mood. So this one morning, I went downstairs to the locker rooms to shower and get changed into my teaching clothes. As I walked toward the women’s locker room, a young man, probably an undergraduate student, coming out of the men’s locker room said to me “Smile. It can only get worse from here.” I bet he thought he was real clever. I bet he also thought the comment wasn’t in the least presumptuous. (Presumptuous shit men have said to me at the gym could be a whole other blog post.) I gave him the stare before continuing into the dressing room. But, as I showered, I thought about what I wished I’d said to him. It went like this: Actually, the worst part of my day, the part where I had to drag myself out of bed before I was ready to wake up, load my heavy bookbag on my back, and walk up the hill to campus, is over. Right now I’m high on exercise endorphins, and I’m about to go teach, which, by the way, is something I love doing. Also, I’ve got a pretty rad lunch packed for today. But even if these things weren’t true, it is absolutely not your place to assume that you know how I’m feeling right now, or how I will feel for the rest of the day. So, unless you’re about to take my picture, don’t you dare tell me to smile.

 

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Okay, okay, I’ll start a blog

My good friend JSK suggested I start a blog so she can tag me in the “Next Big Thing” Blog Hop that’s been going around among writer friends. I checked it out, and it turns out that participating means I get to answer a bunch of questions about my writing. And, well, there are few things that will spur me into action like answering questions about myself, so here we go . . . .

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