TOK - a rehash

I attended TOK Winnipeg on Saturday. Held at the Manitoba Museum Auditorium, the free, public symposium was surprisingly not well attended. Is that because ‘free’ is too good to be true, or because it was poorly advertised? It’s unfortunate because the speakers were engaging and dynamic—the topics relevant and important.

What is TOK? From the handout: “TOK, the digital magazine of Diaspora Dialogues, publishes fiercely honest, freshly original writing from our cities, and from around the world.”  

Stories reflect a search for identity. I can relate. Much of CanLit, when I was growing up was about isolation on the prairies and the weather. There were no stories of immigrant girls like me. I tried hard to be invisible by fitting in. It worked. . . sort of.   But as I continued to search for my stories, I realized I had to write them myself.

Here’s a mishmash rehash of my notes—(the ones I can read).
Young people today are more city-based and want to read about their experiences. (MF) 

We reflect ourselves in our stories. (DAR)  

Independent presses are important to these new voices. Winnipeg is a hub for publishing these new stories. (NJS) 

CanLit is a dusty, old castle, while others are out in the meadow enjoying sunshine and new growth. (SK) I love that metaphor! Our home is in our art. 

There’s an international demand for Canadian settings. 2020 Frankfurt Book Fair will highlight Canadian authors, exposing them to eighty thousand new publishers. (MB)

Stop hiding like there’s something wrong with you. (MF) 

Audio books are a big growth industry and there’s a new course at Ryerson specializing in this. (MB)

What does ‘literary’ fiction really mean? What is ‘genre’ fiction? (DAR, SK)

What is CanLit? Answer is in “Refuse.” Stop succumbing to someone else’s definition. (NJS, MB)

When pitching her logline, SK bypassed the Canadian publishing scene and went straight to a pitch-fest in NYC. Learn by doing. (SK)

Always ask writers how they make their money. (MF)

DAR didn't know who he was until he was older. Inspired by the things that were absent. Intergenerational trauma must be healed by reconciling with fathers. Graphic novels show, don’t tell. (DAR)

Believe in yourself. Do the work. Be excited about yourself. (SK)

“Unless the lion learns to write, the tales of the hunt will always reflect the truths of the hunter.” MF

Interview your relatives. Get their authentic stories. (MF)

Do people really have conversations about balsamic vinegar?” (IC)

Canada: founded on oppression and genocide. (MF)

Connection between hip hop and country music: both tell stories. (MF)

It’s ‘story’ that makes us different from other life forms. We learn history through story. (MF)

Robert Sawyer said, “You can’t punch your way to Utopia.” Self-determination begins with self-description. Fiction can show us a better way.  (MF)

Just a brief summary of a day of thought-provoking presentations.  I'm feeling empowered knowing that the next generation is telling their stories with energy and conviction. 

Trails of Summer

It’s been a great summer here in Winnipeg—one of the best. (But then, my memory’s spotty and every precious summer is the best.) No mosquitoes—except the one that got me on the ankle the other day. No forest fires—although we had a couple of hazy days from eastern fires. No tornadoes—although Alonsa, only an hour west of here, had a bad one with a fatality. But here, in my southwest corner of the city, summer’s been near perfect. 

I’ve enjoyed every moment of it and spent happy hours biking the Harte and Grand Trunk Trails. Great summer for berries and I’ve stashed away containers of saskatoons and chokecherries. 

If there was one word to describe this summer for me, it would ‘biking.’  I’ve been trying to convince myself that I can do a more ambitious bike trip along the Baltic next summer and have discovered that I love it. It’s so much faster than walking, but slow enough to experience nature. . . like flowers and clouds.

Now if only I had a dog's nose...

Lessons from Mom

Mom was tiny…under five feet…but she had a big life. After all, her father was once a landowner with a windmill back before collectives and kulaks. He dreamed big…until the liquidation of kulaks crushed his windmill, his family and finally his life during the Great Terror.

Mom reached her tiny adult height at the age of twelve. The orphaned kids moved from Siberian exile to the prosperous Third Reich. But life under Hitler was no better than life under Stalin. Mom worked long hours in a munitions factory in East Prussia, then spent the winter months of 1945 trying to flee the Red Army. She failed. After spending two and a half years in a forced labour camp in the Ural Mountains, she kept putting one foot in front of the other until she ended up here in Winnipeg. Winnipeg in the mid-50s welcomed big dreamers—even little women—and Mom had enough life savvy to prosper.

While she never became fluent in English, she understood finances. Interest payments were evil. Mom never owned a credit card—never understood their purpose. All those years of powerlessness gave her a steely determination to never be poor or hungry again. Within twelve years of arriving in Canada my parents owned a mortgage-free, new house; soon after that, a cottage. We always had a car and a truck—later, a boat and a snowmobile. Zero debt. My parents traveled back to Europe, down to Florida and often to BC.  Mom worked hard for those material things. They were important to her. But she could never regain the family that she’d lost.

As a child, I resented her workaholic attitude and miserly ways. After all, there’s more to success than just material goods. In many ways, I was under pressure to also have material success. To study literature and strive for an artistic career was beyond Mom’s comprehension. I let her down. She once complained, “I never survived Siberia so that my daughter could freeze on the streets of Winnipeg.” (I worked as a mail carrier to pay the bills that my literary ambition could not.)

I never knew how hard it would be to achieve my writing goals. But my mom taught me to never give up. And on this, the seventh anniversary of her death, I remind myself to keep going—to keep chasing that dream—step by step, word by word, book by book. And for that determination, I thank her.

Is it really dead?

Gardening teaches us many things that we can apply to other areas—especially in a writer’s life. One thing I’ve noted of late is that dead things are sometimes not really dead.  

We humans can determine death by listening for a heartbeat, but what about with plants? When a potted plant doesn’t get enough water and shrivels up, is it really dead? Maybe or maybe not. Sometimes a bit of TLC will revive it. But when it’s really dead, no amount of water or care will help.  

Some of my manuscripts hide, comatose, in rarely opened drawers or computer files. Maybe words, once written, also die without light...or should I say...without readers. 

On the other hand, maybe the comatose stories…like Sleeping Beauty…just need someone who believes in them. Some of these stories just might respond to some TLC.  A bit of revision—some cutting, some new scenes—maybe there’s still some life in them. Maybe they’ll still grow into a story worth sharing. 

As for my neglected hanging basket. I think it’s dead. 

Genealogy and Story

I attended a genealogy conference in Calgary on the weekend. It was great to connect (and re-connect) with people who share a similar history and interest in their immigrant families. I met up with several people from my 2004 roots tour of Ukraine. It had been life-changing to walk the land of my grandparents, to imagine my mother playing near their windmill and to admire the industrious storks who still prefer the highest points for their huge nests.

Many conference attendees families lived in similar scattered villages of Eastern Europe—including the present-day countries of Russia, Ukraine, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. These ethnic German families endured expropriation, collectivization, famine, war, exile, homelessness—often through Stalin’s terror and/or Hitler’s ambition.  Others left earlier and were able to avoid the hellhole that Eastern Europe became in the  twentieth century.

Some of these people, like my parents, chose to suppress their memories when they came to Canada. Others, lost touch with extended family members because of the extreme chaos of war. Documents and photographs were destroyed or lost. Family history could not be passed down to the next generation. 

Now I have a confession to make. I haven't been overly interested in genealogy. All those dates and the impossible-to-decipher handwriting of old or foreign languages blurs my eyes and mind.  I’m more interested in story and in what makes people tick. Genealogy is an incredibly useful tool for exploring the past—but for me, it's not an end in itself.

I very much appreciate the effort that genealogists put into gathering, organizing and translating the documents of the past. The old maps and maze of online data sources shine light on yesterdays otherwise swallowed up by the force of time. Family history is like a puzzle and finding all the pieces is one thing...but putting them into a complete picture...well that's the fun part. 

          While in Calgary, I attended workshops about East Prussia, about the EWZ files, about the 1930 purges and more. Dave Obee's talk about the Great Terror was especially engaging because my grandfather was arrested and shot in 1937. With enough research, and hopefully some travel, I'll continue to try and morph those dates and names into story. I'm grateful for groups like SGGEE who help me on my journey. These are my people. 

Reserve Visit

I had an opportunity to visit a reserve here in Manitoba this past week and found the experience quite interesting and a tad terrifying. The terrifying part refers to the hoard of horse flies—the locals call them bull flies—that swarmed my vehicle as I slowed down to park. I felt like I was in a Hitchcock movie. While I did get used to the constant hum of the flying brutes, I never got used to their size or their number. 

Once I put a cover on my head, I was braver about checking out my surroundings. An acquaintance of mine, teaching at the modern, handsome Lawrence Sinclair Memorial School, had invited me up to do a science lesson and a book reading. Her suite in the recently-built teacher residence included a spare bedroom.  

About three hours north of the city, on the western shores of Lake Winnipeg, Jackhead is a tiny community of about two hundred people. There are no stores or commercial businesses on the reserve—just a nursing station and a K to 9 school. There’s a mix of new and old buildings and construction dominated my impression of the community.

It’s a beautiful location. I visited the beach area twice during my stay to watch the pelicans. Of course, I had to collect a stone or two. After all, stones tell stories, and there are stories in Jackhead that need telling. I told the children, that those are their stones—their stories—and that they need to ask questions and listen to the answers. 

It was curious that while my friend's front window looked out over the school and a new structure being built to specialize in counselling for traumatized children—the back window faced a crumbling church, St. James Anglican, leftover from a bygone era. An overgrown cemetery looked beautiful in the June evening light as a crow posed, like only crows can, on one of the crosses. 

The students themselves were a delight—and as bright or as needy—as any I’ve encountered in my classes here in the city over the past few years. In spite of the bugs and the long gravel road, this was a fun and educational adventure. Kudos to the hard-working staff at the Jackhead school. Summer holidays well-deserved for everyone. 

Happy May Day!

A few days ago, I picked pussy willows along the Harte Trail. I’ve not picked them this late in the season before—this—my fifth spring of retirement.  I’m enjoying every slow, energizing moment of it. The backyard trees—all grown up now like my children—are still bare, with maybe a slight thickening of buds, but no hint of green. Still, expectation of growth surges through my veins like tree sap. 
Some call this hockey playoff season. 
I call it spring. Finally. 

East Prussia

ASVG file created by Matthead
I’m trying to understand East Prussia—past and present. Here are a few facts I’ve gleaned through my reading. East Prussia is now divided into three countries: Lithuania, Russian Federation and Poland. The Lithuanian part used to be known as Memelland with the main city being the port of Memel. Today it’s called Klaipeda.  The Russian Federation encompasses the former Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) and the former East Prussia’s northern parts. Poland gained the southern two thirds of East Prussia. These political divisions were finalized in 1946. Stalin was eager to have access to a warm seaport on the Baltic. (Now, of course—with the 2014 annexation of Crimea—Russia also warm seaports on the Black Sea. Millions of Germans were displaced. Growing up, most people of the church we attended were displaced Germans from these areas. It’s not until recently that I’ve begun to research and understand the politics behind their relocation to Canada.

I’m eager to visit the former East Prussia. The trip I’m planning involves cycling along the Baltic through three countries. It should be a good way to explore the landscape that my mom and her family traveled as they tried (and failed) to escape the Red Army. But I plan on going in September, not January. 

From the book, Als die Deutsche weg waren, (After the Germans left), I get the distinct impression that the Russian Federation is not a prosperous place. It’s a wasteland—its current citizens resentful of being forced to live so far from the rest of Russia. Only Kaliningrad received a facelift, commemorating it’s 750thbirthday, back in 2005. Putin knows that many Germans are nostalgic for the old city and tourism is a big draw. I plan on celebrating my birthday this year by watching a World Cup Soccer game on TV to be played in Kaliningrad. 

The Norfolk Pine

I visited the Assiniboine Park Conservatory on Good Friday to say my goodbyes to Winnipeg’s version of a jungle. It’s a place my mom and I liked to frequent—a chance to breathe tropical air during a dry prairie winter. Healthy, mature trees will need to be chopped down to make way for the future Diversity Gardens. 

Along with twisted old figs and rubber trees, there’s a pair of tall hundred-year-old Norfolk Pines that won’t survive a transplant. Speaking of transplants, the pines transplanted me to a favorite book from childhood—Mutiny on the Bounty. The mutineers, (remember Fletcher Christian?), and their Polynesian wives settled first on the remote island of Pitcairn in 1790. Then in 1856, many of the Bounty ancestors transferred to the more livable Norfolk Island. The British had used Norfolk, since 1788, as a penal colony.

Norfolk Island was originally ‘discovered’ by Captain Cook and named after Lady Norfolk. The Norfolk Pine, featured on the island’s flag, is a popular export. 
Cook thought the tall pines would make good masts for the sailing ships. I wonder what the wood of the hundred-year-old Norfolk pines here in Winnipeg will be used for?  
By the way, Norfolk Island (part of Australia) is 1600 kilometers east of Sydney and more than 6000 kilometers west of Pitcairn Island. 
The current population of Norfolk is about 1500. They speak English, along with Norfuk—a dialect similar to Pitkern—spoken on Pitcairn’s Island.  

There’s an art project underway at Assiniboine Parks Conservatory. Helga Jakobsen pins electrodes to plant leaves and then uses a computer program to translate the electrical impulses into sound. She’s monitoring the plants’ reaction to the big change coming in the days ahead. Maybe she’ll hear the Norfuk dialect. 

All those beautiful plants—making music and being part of history. It makes me want to slow right down and listen. 

About Kintsugi and life

Death lurks all around.  I’m at an age where it’s not unexpected. 

I find this freeing. What am I waiting for? The time to live is now. So even though it’s a gloomy morning and the promise of spring is filled with the promise of snow, sleet and strong winds, I’m feeling energized. Every time I hear of another death, I’m reminded of what a gift it is to breathe, to see and to live.

I’m wanting to forget about perfection and make more mistakes. What’s the worst that could happen? Make a fool of myself? Done that. Hurt other people? Done that. Fail? Done that, too. Being broken is the state of being human.

File:Tea bowl, Korea, Joseon dynasty, 16th century AD, Mishima-hakeme type, buncheong ware, stoneware with white engobe and translucent, greenish-gray glaze, gold lacquer - Ethnological Museum, Berlin - DSC02061.JPGSo here’s to living dangerously on this gloomy March day, somewhere between winter and spring. Hope springs eternal. (Alexander Pope)

Yesterday, on the CBC, Michael Enright interviewed MaggieO’Farrell (author of the memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am and other novels). They talked about her encounters with death and the randomness of life. 

And when he asked her about writing a memoir, as opposed to fiction, she compared it to the Japanese art of Kintsugi, taking a broken object of ceramic and putting it back together with powdered gold or silver, and creating a new object. I love that metaphor.  Life as Kintsugi, creating art from shattered lives.

Billy Graham and Dad

Graham in a suit with his fist clenchedBilly Graham died last month. He was 99, born back in 1918—the same year as my dad.
For me, there’s another connection between Billy Graham and my dad. Back when I was an impressionable youth in the suburbs of Winnipeg. . . it wasn’t the Hitler Jugend influencing my outlook on life, (as it did my dad’s), it was the Church. And I took it all very seriously.
As I young girl I prayed fervently for my father—a Lutheran—seen by my fellow Baptists as needing redemption.  I decided to take it to Billy Graham and wrote him an impassioned letter where I shared my fear that my wonderful dad would not make it to heaven with me. 
Someone in Billy Graham’s company wrote back:  yes, they would pray for my father. I saved that letter for years, trusting that my dad would be taken care of. Eventually, that prayer came true. But by then, I’d found my own—faltering, but empowering—way outside of the narrow-minded Baptist faith.
I was in grade six when I attended a Billy Graham Crusade at the old arena by Polo Park during Canada’s Centennial year. I remember the hymn, “Just as I am,” sung at a crucial time, as thousands streamed to the front to be ‘converted.’  And then the song, “I have decided to follow Jesus.”  No doubt it was a well-choreographed script.
Music performed during the Crusades was often heard at our house. (I even used a recording of “How Great Thou Art” by George Beverly Shea at my mom’s funeral only a few years ago.) Maybe it was because Billy Graham endorsed Johnny Cash that we got to hear his songs on our record player. (Beatle’s music or top ten hits were not permitted.)
The families of my church and youth came together like a beautiful choir during the Billy Graham fever—united by an evangelical fervour. Considering these families were recent immigrants from a Hitler-dominated Europe, was there perhaps a kind of nostalgia for mass rallies which promised something bigger than the individual?
 Billy Graham’s legacy is huge. He held rallies throughout the world—East and West Germany (including Nuremberg), Soviet Union, Great Britain, Africa, India, Korea, Japan, and Winnipeg. Attending a crusade was often life-changing—creating, at the very least—a life-long impression.
He was a powerful orator and had an impact our family. But today I squirm uncomfortably in the church pews of his influence.

Letter from August

Two summers ago, I visited the Okanagan where a cousin of mine lives. Born back in the Soviet Union, she’s the last survivor of the original group of nine family members who came to Canada back in 1953.

My cousin showed me a postcard from my uncle. . . my mom’s little brother. I call him Albert in my stories, but his real name was August. August Ristau.

When I returned to Winnipeg after my trip out west, I regretted not making a digital copy of that flimsy, faded postcard. Yesterday, I received a hard copy in the mail.

August sent this card on January (or is that February?)  17th, 1945. It says: 

Dear Brothers! 
Many greetings from my prison camp. So far, things are going well for me and I wish the same for you. I hope we can see each other again soon, in our homeland.  
Greetings from your brother, August.

The date must be January, because by February, Kreuzburg, East Prussia would be empty. All the Germans were fleeing for the Baltic port of Pillau, trying to avoid the approaching Soviet Army.

No one heard from August again.  But this postcard does give me an address to search for when I visit the former East Prussia next year.

Today’s my mom’s birthday. She’d be 99. On her 26th birthday, back in March, 1945, the Red Army captured her and dragged her back into the Soviet Union. Sometimes I feel discouraged about the publication challenges I’ve encountered after writing these stories. But then I look at these faces and I become determined —all over again.

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