Looking for Love in a Mad World

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Heart-shaped stone I found in 2000 on the shores of Gallipoli, Turkey, site of World War I battle

I’ve been so troubled by what’s going on in Gaza and the Ukraine, that I’ve been glued to the news on TV and my Twitter timeline. I’ve been neglecting my writing, which I love to do. It’s hard to fathom why people want to kill someone else.

When I became a clinical social worker decades ago, I thought if only a person had love, they would be fine. If they had a tortured life, I was sympathetic, empathic, thinking again that somewhere along the road they hadn’t received enough love. I learned very quickly that people are more complicated than that. I ran into children that had no conscience. I remember one child who strangled a rabbit to death with his bare hands. He was the child of heroin addicts. He was probably conceived by his mother while she was under the influence of drugs. His father’s semen was probably similarly affected by heroin. This was a child who showed no emotion; he was damaged and sad to say, no amount of therapy was going to change that.

Today, we are bombarded by bad news. I hunger for a time when life seemed simpler, not that it was. There were still atrocities in the world, but we didn’t hear of them. We didn’t have the same depth of coverage, nor did we have social media.

Through the power of social media today, I love that we are connected, but it also means that bad news travels fast.

Despite the horrors on my TV screen, I still have hope. Like the beautiful heart-shaped stone I found on a trip to Gallipoli back in 2000. There on those sandy shores where a bloody battle ensued during World War I between the Turks and the Anzac forces (Aussies and Kiwis), I found hope in the shape of a stone. It lay there, still, reminding me of all the hearts that were lost and broken. It was a mad battle in a mad world. But when I visited with a group of Aussies and Kiwis, it was peaceful. Just the sound of the wind and the waves rippling on the shore.

Yes, there are too many out there who have no conscience, or are misguided, or are extremists with no tolerance for anyone with different views. They’re out there, and they make our lives miserable.  But there are also plenty of wonderful people with love in their hearts. I’m going to continue to look for love in a mad world. I hope the news isn’t getting you down, or unhinged. I hope you have love to fall back on.

In fact, I’ve written a love story, one that crosses timelines. In my novel, A CRY FROM THE DEEP, there are no wars, no explosions, just people trying to make a better world and finding love in unexpected places. Call me a dreamer. Are you a dreamer, too?

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WRITING PROCESS BLOG HOP

When you read all those wonderful books, do you ever wonder about the writer? Where the ideas come from? What a writer’s day is like? What makes them tick? Are they as crazy as their characters, or do they draw from some other well? The writing process blog hop will give you some idea, if you hop along with me.

Thanks to Karen Dodd, for inviting me to take part in this fun event. I met Karen, who lives in West Vancouver, several years ago at the Surrey International Writers Conference. Her enthusiasm for the craft of writing and her positive attitude meant that we became fast friends. Her debut novel, Deadly Switch, is a suspense that grips you from the first page and doesn’t let go. You can read about her writing process here.

Besides sharing with you how my writing brain works, I’ll be introducing you to some writers that have inspired me with their stories. Pamela Cable, J.P. McLean, B.C. Stone and Margaret Strack, will be following me with their blog posts on July 14th.

Now for the questions.

WHAT AM I WORKING ON?

Always something. At the moment, I’ve just finished

My Baba, Lukia Mazurec

My Baba, Lukia Mazurec

revising my grandmother’s story, No Time For Tears, covering the war-torn years between 1915-1929, in what is now western Ukraine. I’m also anxious to revise a novella, The Blue Nightgown, a coming of age story, and The Rubber Fence, a novel about a psychiatric intern, who is so obsessed with her patients on a ward where shock treatment is too often prescribed, that she doesn’t see that her own marriage is in trouble.

HOW DOES MY WORK DIFFER FROM OTHERS OF ITS GENRE?

I’m not sure how to answer that. I do know that I tend to incorporate a lot of characters in my stories. I’ve always complicated things for myself, so why should my writing be any different? My novel, A Cry From The Deep—that’s coming this October—crosses genres. It has romance, history, suspense, adventure and a ghost. My protagonist, Catherine Fitzgerald, is a single parent and a diver, who struggles with the demands of motherhood and career and the question of what went wrong in her own love life. I was a family therapist for over twenty-five years, so some of my ideas, training, and experience creep into my work, and once the words tumble onto the page, I pick up the thread and go with it. So, in that sense, there’s a lot packed in; my novel is close to 400 pages

WHY DO I WRITE WHAT I DO?

a cry from the deep-ebook coverThere are a lot of reasons, but I can’t not write. I’m compelled to get my fingers on the keyboard. Some works are inspired by family anecdotes, like the story of my grandmother. A Cry From The Deep was inspired by an attempted collaboration of a screenplay years back. We couldn’t come up with a story that worked, but I couldn’t drop the seed that was planted, and kept fussing until I found one. As for The Rubber Fence, it is loosely based on my work on a psychiatric ward a lifetime ago. I’m also anxious to get back to a murder mystery I’ve started. The inspiration for that came from something a friend said over coffee. Had to do with a smell and my imagination took off. Ah, and then there’s my poetry. If only the clock had more hours on its face…

 

HOW DOES MY WRITING PROCESS WORK? 

I want to say it doesn’t, as I fly by the seat of my pants. I never know quite where I’m going. Oh, I have some vague idea of beginnings and endings but it’s all the stuff in between that comes together without an outline. I start writing and basically ask my characters to take me there. Something they say or do leads me to the next step and the next. If I pay attention, my characters have a way of letting me know what holes I need to fill. If that sounds airy-fairy, it is what it is. I wish I could map it out clearly before I start, but it’s not my style, and I know that I have lots of company in this regard. But having said that, No Time For Tears was guided by the facts my mother left behind. And so for this one, I did have an outline.

I try to write each day, something fresh, or a revision, or both. Then I usually spend the morning reviewing what I’ve written the day before. I keep going like that until the end, and then give the whole story a rest for a few weeks, sometimes a month, then start over in the beginning. I’m always shocked at how much padding I’ve put in and how much I have to delete. I am a believer of writing is rewriting and more rewriting.

Now, let me introduce you to my guest authors and bloggers. Do check them out. You won’t be sorry.

PAMELA CABLE

When Blogger.com was still around, I met TelevengeCoverHiResPamela Cable there. I read her novel Southern Fried Women and was so impressed, that I decided to stay connected.

Born a coal miner’s granddaughter and raised by a tribe of wild Pentecostals and storytellers, Pamela King Cable grew up in Ohio where she caught ladybugs and fireflies, ran barefoot, and practiced cheers in her driveway. Today, she is still fascinated with ladybugs and fireflies, sometimes wears shoes, and talks about the day she traded in her pom-poms for a beat-up typewriter.

After living over a decade in the south, she returned to Ohio where she continues to cheer for the Buckeyes. She is a multi-published author whose most recent novel, Televenge, has attracted national attention from Fox News, CBS Atlanta, a major Hollywood film producer, as well as book bloggers and media outlets all over the world. Writing fiction steeped in Bible-belt mystery and paranormal suspense, Pamela has gained a reputation for piercing the hearts of her readers. She has taught at many writing conferences, and speaks to book clubs, women’s groups, national and local civic organizations, and at churches across the country.

You can find Pamela Cable at http://www.pamelakingcable.com or http://www.southernfriedwoman.blogspot.com

J. P. MCLEAN

Awakening cover for DStevan256x400I met Jo-Anne a year or so ago, when she came to Campbell River, B.C., to share her experience of self-publishing with my writers’ critique group. I found her to be generous with her time and information and so encouraging. When I read The Gift: Awakening, the first in a trilogy, I was stirred by both her imagination and her prose.  She has since written the other two books, The Gift: Revelation and The Gift: Redemption. When you pick up her novel, you will be surprised to discover what the gift is, one many of us have dreamed about having.

J. P. McLean says she’s been neglecting the vacuum, the dog leash and kitchen duty since she began telling lies and making up stories. She calls it writing fiction and indulges in it most days from her home in the Gulf islands on the coast of British Columbia.

You can find JP McLean at www.jpmclean.net 

B.C. STONE

I stumbled across Bryan’s blog Belmar coveronline. I was immediately enthralled by his style and critical thinking. He writes posts on various books and authors with such clarity that his musings are both accessible and thought-provoking.  Murder at the Belmar, has more than a touch of Hollywood in it and a dead body in a glamorous hotel. Who doesn’t like that? And don’t you just love this cover?

B. C. Stone is also the author of Coda in Black, and Midnight in Valhalla. He is currently working on Peril in Paradise, the third entry in the Kay Francis mystery series. He lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Prior to writing novels he worked as a librarian at the University of New Mexico. You can find his blog on books, writing, and related matters, The Vagrant Mood at: http://vagrantmoodwp.wordpress.com

PEGGY STRACK

A STOP IN THE PARKI connected with Peggy on Linked-In. I noticed that she was a speech and language pathologist, and since I had worked with that profession in the past as a family therapist, I was intrigued that she was also a writer. I read A Stop in the Parkand loved the skill and compassion Peggy showed in her writing about a martial couple struggling to make sense of their relationship

Peggy Morehouse Strack writes popular fiction about challenges people face in the fast-paced and often daunting contemporary world. She published her debut novel, “A Stop in the Park,” in 2012. It is the story of Michael and Jaime Stolis, a disillusioned married couple who yearn to escape the trap of the modern American dream. It was selected  as a Readers’ Favorite International Award Contest Winner in the Reality Fiction Category in 2013 and received this review from Kirkus, “Strack writes with clear, thoughtful, and passionate prose, making for a tense and compulsively readable story of family redemption.” Peggy is currently editing her second novel and will be seeking agent representation in the near future.

Peggy  is a speech-language pathologist living in Saratoga Springs, NY. She has two adults sons and enjoys an active lifestyle that includes hiking, kayaking, and skiing. She is a contributor to “The Write Draft” Blog: http://thewritedraft.me

If you are interested in reading any of these author’s books, you can click on their titles or book images above.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Comments, always appreciated.   

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A FATHER LIKE NO OTHER

My dad, Peter Klewchuk, was a father like no other, though I’m sure many can say that about their own dads. He wasn’t a perfect man, but as perfect as they come. When I look back at his journey, I see a man who didn’t ask for much, even though he had lots to offer.

His was an immigrant family—three brothers and one sister—living in a two room house in Stony Mountain, a penitentiary town, about eleven miles outside of Winnipeg, Manitoba. He and his brothers slept on one bed, in a horizontal fashion. His sister slept on three chairs placed together. They may have been poor, but they all excelled in school.

Stony Mountain Classroom, Dad is standing against the blackboard, 2nd on the right.

Stony Mountain Classroom, Dad is standing against the blackboard, 2nd on the right.

Peter was always at the top of his class, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have problems there. When he drew a map by hand, too beautiful to believe, the teacher strapped him, accusing him of tracing it. He was also left-handed, another no-no, and he paid for it with more smacks across that hand when he forgot to use his right.

And then, in grade nine, he made a mistake that cost him any further educIMG_5659ation. After recess, instead of returning to class, he went to play ball in the school basement. That ball reverberated  through the floors and into his classroom. He and his friend  were strapped severely for that infraction.

Dad  decided that was enough, and even though he loved poetry and literature, he quit school that day. His friend wanted to quit, too, but his dad told him that wasn’t an option. Mr. Blackburn, my dad’s teacher—the one who’d strapped him—came to my dad’s house, and begged him to return, even promising to tutor him after school. Dad was stubborn. It didn’t help that my grandfather, thinking he could use another pay check, encouraged his son to work alongside him in the town’s stone quarry. Life was even harder after that, and my dad almost died when he got caught in the quarry’s chute.

IMG_5667By the time he reached his late teens, he was tall, dark, and handsome. Girls chased him, but he wasn’t the type to take advantage. A lover of music, he played the violin by ear, as well as the banjo, and saved what little he kept from his quarry earnings to buy both instruments. He was also a natural athlete, teaching himself how to swim in the gravel pits, and ski on the local hill on barrel staves.

When he married my mother at the age of 28, it was 1938, and the depression had taken its toll. What little money he’d earned and saved, he’d passed on to his father, who had promised him the land next door to the family’s two-room house. He never got it. What surprised me about my dad was that despite the breaks, he was never bitter. An honorable and honest man, he believed in the Ten Commandments, and always treated his father with respect right to his dying day. I never heard an unkind word from him. Just disappointment over not finishing school.

So, Mom and Dad toiled all their lives, taking jobs that meant working seven days a week and then some. They scrimped and saved, and Mom and Dadby the time the 50s rolled around, they were doing pretty well, with a rooming house and another piece of property they rented out. Dad still worked at the meat packing plant inserting salt brine in pork bellies, but he never lost his love for the written word, and would quote Tennyson, Wordsworth and Kipling to me, poems he’d memorized in his school days and had never forgotten.

One thing though. He was as unlike his father as day is to night. He was gentle, full of humor, and love. He showed that by sharing his delight in noticing the new growth on a balsam tree in spring, diving with me for rocks that we’d throw into the sandy-bottomed lakes of Manitoba, tickling me when I tickled him, teaching me to throw a ball and drive a car, and sending me all those newspaper clippings when I moved west with my family.

He may not have left a mark on the world, but he left a mark on me. It’s almost twenty years since he passed, and I still tear up when I think of him and how much I miss him.

If there is something I can impart to others about this coming Father’s Day, it’s to treasure those you love, to take the time to stay connected, as life takes them away all too soon.

I love you, Dad! Happy Father’s Day, wherever you are.

How about you? Any tributes to your dad that you’d like to share? Any special memories?

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Write What You Don’t Know

I’ve heard it over and over again—write what you know. That makes sense, as writing what you don’t know is more difficult in many ways. As an author, how do you get inside your characters, or describe the places where they live or work if you know nothing about the jobs they do, or their communities?

On the other hand, how lovely it is to explore other ways of living, being, working. What a creative challenge it is for the author to get into the mind of someone who has other interests, other goals in life, and gives you a different constellation in which to travel. When you write what you don’t know, you have to let your imagination fly.

It seems best-selling author, Toni Morrison (here in conversation with author Junot Diaz) agrees that it’s often better to to write what you don’t know. 

Though I’ve enjoyed the journey, writing what you don’t know requires not only imagination, but a lot of research. It’s the main reason my novel has taken a long time to write, but I have to underline, it’s been fun.

If you have a peek at my bio. you’ll see that I get bored easily, and as a result changed jobs and occupations often. It stands to reason then that my characters’ pursuits would be different from mine. How else was I going to feed my insatiable curiosity?

Catherine Fitzgerald, the protagonist in A CRY FROM THE DEEP, is an underwater photographer. That’s something I’ve never tried. So not only did I have learn about the business of taking pictures underwater for a living, but also about the ins and outs of scuba diving (without doing it myself, as I’m too cowardly to try).

Chesterman Beach, Vancouver Island

Chesterman Beach, Vancouver Island

However, I do understand something about her passion for the sea, as I’ve snorkeled. I can hear some divers out there guffawing. I know it’s not the same thing. Swimming on the surface of the water has little risk, but at least I can say that I’ve been sufficiently entranced with what lies underwater to delve further.

For research, I went out one afternoon with a group of scuba divers and grilled them about their sport. I also talked to instructors and owners of dive shops, and visited countless web sites for specifics. After reading some of my chapters—which include some diving scenes—a member of my writers’ critique group (who was a diver) expressed surprise that I had never tried scuba diving, as the underwater scenes were believable. What helped my writing was—as I mentioned above—my love of the sea. I am fascinated by what lies beneath, and that love and fascination propelled me to investigate what I didn’t know. Loving the sea as much as I do gave me an in to my character’s passion, her mindset. From there, I wove in everything else.

Here’s another great article published in Writer’s Digest entitled, Why You Should Write What You Don’t Know by Brian Klems.

Have you written about subjects you know nothing about? How far have you stretched yourself? And what do you think about write what you know vs. write what you don’t know? Would love your comments.

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Cover Reveal for A CRY FROM THE DEEP

I’ve neglected my blog for the past month, as I’ve been figuring out when to publish my romantic mystery, A Cry From The Deep. If you’ve been reading my blog, you know that I’ve rejected a few book covers for one reason or another.

The one I’ve chosen illustrates a woman from another time. She’s the vision Catherine a cry from the deep-ebook coverFitzgerald sees in both her nightmares and underwater. The phantom beckons, but what does she want from Catherine, an underwater photographer, who’s on assignment to photograph the discovery of one of the lost ships of the Spanish Armada? How these two women from different centuries intersect, and why, lies at the crux of my story. A love without end underlines it all.

As I’ve learned, it’s not easy picking the right cover. I’ve seen publishers and successful authors try out a few before settling on one. And even then, it’s not unusual for an author to go back and change it again. A cover speaks volumes. It hints at the story inside.

As for when my book is to be released, I’ve struggled with that as well. It’s basically ready, but then I’ve noticed how careful traditional publishers are in deciding when to launch an author’s book. I’ve learned that spring (a time of book fairs) and fall (ready for Christmas) are best, though I’ve also noticed that there are exceptions to the rule. J.K. Rowling and James Patterson have brought their novels out in summer, when supposedly everyone’s at the beach or traveling. So, maybe it doesn’t matter.

Though my book would make a good beach read, if I got it out now, before I’ve had a chance to read my proof—which arrives sometime this week—I could be making a terrible mistake. I’ve read that it’s a good idea to read your proof twice and have someone else read it as well, not only for any grammatical errors that might’ve been overlooked, but also for sense. So, living by the adage, “haste makes waste”, I’ve elected to publish it in October, a supposedly less hectic time for the reading public. One never knows though, does one? I’ve also started a Facebook page for my book, where I’ll post more about my process and inspiration.

I’d love your comments on my cover, and also on whether you think there’s a good time of year to publish a book. I’d love to hear from authors or readers about any of the above.

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The Challenge of Book Covers

When I was writing A Cry From The Deep, I never gave any thought to a book cover. That’s not unreasonable given that I had to write the novel first. Mine took longer than most because I chose to write about subjects that I didn’t know much about. Also, since I had fully expected to go the traditional route of finding an agent for it, and then a publisher, I figured the publisher would come up with a cover when the time came. I never thought I’d have to figure one out for myself.

So, after realizing I was better off self-publishing, I began to seriously look at what constituted a winning book cover. I looked at bestsellers—mostly romances, since mine is a romantic mystery. I also watched A TED presentation of designing book covers. And I recalled what I’d learned from one episode of the TV series A Work of Art, where artists had to design a cover appealing to readers. It couldn’t be too busy; it had to give some sense of what the book was about; and it had to be eye-catching. You’d think after all that study, choosing a cover would be easy, but it wasn’t.

As my protagonist, Catherine Fitzgerald, is an underwater photographer who is bothered by a spirit underwater, I knew I wanted water on my cover.

From 123f.com

From 123f.com

I gave my short synopsis to Jun Ares, a book cover designer, whose work I’d admired. He had designed some wonderful covers for my friends, author Martin Crosbie and author, Karen Dodd.

Ares came back with two images, both of which I liked. A great start, I thought.

I showed them to my family and friends and found that each cover had its supporters; in fact, the likes were evenly divided between the two.

That was fine, but their comments concerned me.Some said, the woman on the shore looked like a Harlequin novel, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but my book wasn’t that type.

From istockphotos.com

From istockphotos.com

And the other image, of a contorted woman underwater, suggested a murder had taken place – wrong again.

When my filmmaker grandson suggested finding an image that would fit my story better, I did a search and found one I love on a photo site.

It’s perfect, as the spirit in my story has red hair, and is beckoning, much as she does in my novel.  I bought the photo and sent it to Ares, who had the brilliant idea of adding the Claddagh wedding ring which figures largely in my story. So, I’m a happy camper. Whether it appeals to readers or not, it’s too early to tell, as A Cry From The Deep won’t be available until fall. I’ll show you the one I’ve chosen the next time I post.

Even though it’s been said (by  author, George Eliot, in 1860), “don’t judge a book by its cover,” most of us do, as a cover gives some hint about what’s inside.

As an author, have you been happy with your cover(s)? If not, are you thinking of getting a different one? Some authors have printed two different versions, just to ensure a wider readership. And as a reader, how much does a book cover influence your book buying decision? I’d love your thoughts, so please leave a comment.

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Jumping into the Fray of Self-Publishing

It’s spring! What better time to jump into the fray of self-publishing. It’s a time to blossom, so I’m going for it.

Yes, I’ve decided to self-publish my book, A Cry From The Deep, a romantic mystery. I resisted at first, because it’s a hell of a lot of work and money. Also, I know there are so many books out there, at last count, over two million on Amazon alone. Yikes! You have to be half crazy to think your book is going to stand out in that pool. But then again, as my husband says, cream rises to the top. I’ve got my fingers crossed, that my story will resonate with readers.

Magnolia Blossom by Diana Stevan

Magnolia Blossom by Diana Stevan

To be honest, I wanted to go down the traditional road—be validated in that way, get that agent and book publisher behind me, cheering me on—but though I’ve had interest, it’s not to be, and maybe that’s a good thing. I can pick my own cover (daunting, as I could pick the wrong one), and any books I sell, well, the little money that the majority of authors make these days, at least more of it will find its way to my pocket.

As for not having the traditional cheerleaders behind me, there’s no guarantee they’d be there anyway in today’s publishing world. Traditionally published authors now have to work almost as hard as self-published authors in getting the word out. They can no longer rely on their agents and book publishers for that kind of support.

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Cherry Blossoms at Van Dusen Gardens, Vancouver
by Diana Stevan

 

What bothered me most about self-publishing was the fact that the market is flooded with books that haven’t been edited properly. A lot of vanity published manuscripts. As an avid reader myself, and married to someone who also reads a great deal, we are both aware of how many badly written books there are for sale. How is the reader to know what’s worth buying? At least, with traditional books, you know the story has been vetted. What I’m hoping for is word of mouth, still the best way to get your book noticed.

So, having respect for the written word, I’ve taken a number of steps to ensure my book debuts in the best shape possible. And while I’ve been doing that, I’ve been consulting books like Martin Crosbie’s How I Sold 30,000 eBooks on Amazon’s Kindle , Anne R. Allen and Catherine Ryan Hyde’s How To Be A Writer In The E-Age, and Jonathan Gunson’s Bestseller Labs website.

I also talked to J. P. McLean, a writer who threw all caution to the wind and  self-published a very imaginative The Gift trilogy. She very generously shared with me her process.

Star Magnolia Tree in our garden by Diana Stevan

Star Magnolia Tree in our garden by Diana Stevan

Here are my steps:

1)     I’ve been so blessed to have my story critiqued by River Writers, a group I belong to in my community:  Kristin Butcher, a prolific and award winning children’s and YA writer; Jocelyn Reekie publisher and writer of children’s and YA books, Shari Green YA writer with a great blog, and Janet Smith, who is writing a science fiction novel.

2)     I’ve also shown my novel to a number of beta readers who’ve given me their thoughts. One of them, Karen Dodd, has recently published her own debut book to great reviews.

3)     I’ve had it macro edited by Marnie Wooding, who’s worked for a publishing house in the past and gave me great notes on my story.

4)     And then I had it copy edited by Laurie Boris, a beautiful writer herself, just to make sure I wasn’t putting out crap with spelling errors and poor grammar.

5)     Then, came the book cover. How I’ve agonized over this one, pouring over books on Amazon, looking at bestsellers, romances, trying to find what works and what doesn’t. Time will tell whether what I’ve chosen is the best one to illustrate what’s behind the covers. My book designer is finalizing the touches.

6)     And formatting. I’m currently in the process of getting that done through Quantum Formatting Services.

7)    And then I’m planning on getting it printed through CreateSpace, which gave me a free ISBN number. And I’ll get it on Amazon’s Kindle, too. Yahoo!!!

8)     But I still haven’t decided exactly when I’ll publish both the print and e-book versions. Will it be May? As I look at my magnolia tree, already blooming, I’m wondering if I can get it out before summer sets in and everyone has already bought their beach books. Or maybe I’ll wait until fall.

If you have any questions or comments about my process, I’m more than happy to let you in on my journey. Also, if you have anything to add, I’d love to hear that, too. Thanks.

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Ukraine and the Russian Bully

from www.infoplease.com

from www.infoplease.com

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t be using my blog to write about politics in the Ukraine, but what is happening there is very dear to my heart. My grandparents and parents came from there and I’ve been spending the last two years writing my baba’s story.

For those of you who haven’t been following the news, Putin, the president of Russia, and a Russian bully, has raised his power-hungry head now that his puppet, Victor Yanukovich, the corrupt and former prime minister of Ukraine, fled in the night, taking many valuables with him. Some estimate that he and his son have siphoned off as much as 70 billion dollars from the Ukrainian people. He left Kiev after he’d authorized soldiers to gun down peaceful protesters demonstrating against that corruption, leaving 82 people dead and countless injured.

It was then that Putin struck, right when the country of Ukraine was at its most vulnerable, grieving for the loss of innocent lives and struggling to put a new government in place. He struck hard and illegally, by invading Crimea, an autonomous republic of Ukraine. Since then, with the Russian propaganda machine in full swing, he’s also managed to seed violence in eastern Ukraine, where many Russian-speaking Ukrainians live.

Though I was born in Canada, I carry the Ukrainian culture in my soul. As a child, every Sunday, my baba and I would take two buses to go to St. Mary’s the Protectress Ukrainian

from www.ukrainianchurchesofcanada.ca

St. Mary’s The Protectress church in Winnipeg
from www.ukrainianchurchesofcanada.ca

Greek Orthodox cathedral. There, at the end of the two-hour mass, the congregation would stand and sing the Ukrainian national anthem—Ukraine Hasn’t Died Yet. To outsiders, singing that anthem in Canada might sound peculiar, but the church population was largely immigrant and what they had left behind was still very much a part of them. I had never been to the Ukraine but hearing the song sung with such passion, I couldn’t help but get shivers up my back. On occasion, it brought me to tears.

At the kitchen table, I heard stories of the hardships that my baba and her family had faced under Russian and Polish occupation. After too many wars and the prospect of more hunger after surviving the famine of 1921, she had emigrated with her children to Canada in 1929.

In my teens, I began to hear stories about those who had stayed behind. On our family bookshelf, that contained a Funk and Wagnall Encycleopedia, various health books, and copies of The Reader’s Digest, was the book The Black Deeds of the Kremlin. It gave details of the Great Famine of 1932-1933, now known as Holodymyr. This extermination by hunger had been brought about by Stalin’s punitive collective farm practices. This book contained horrific  pictures of Ukrainians dying of starvation. Their half-alive bodies were thrown into pits full of those who’d died before them. Estimates of Ukrainians who had perished under Stalin’s ruthless command range from 3 ½ million to 7 million. Think 12 Years a Slave and Nazi Germany and you can begin to get the picture.

When you think that Ukraine today, the bread basket of Europe, is the third largest grain exporter in the world, it’s shocking to think that at one time the farmers were not allowed to eat what they produced, or allowed to eat enough to survive.

Taken in 1988 in Lutsk, Ukraine

Man in the Orange Raincoat, taken in 1988 in Lutsk, Ukraine

When my mother took me, my husband, and our children to Ukraine in 1988 to see the village she came from, it was still under Soviet rule. Gorbachev was in charge. We were not free to go where we wanted. We had to have a Soviet guide, even when we visited the family graves. At one point, when we thought we were finally alone, walking about the streets of Lutsk, a city 16 km. (10 miles) from Kivertsi, a man in an orange raincoat showed up and started talking to us. After that, he followed us for a while. We were not sure who he was, but we had the sense that he was checking to make sure we weren’t instigating anything that would not meet with Soviet approval.

The relatives, who lived in the area and came to see us at our hotel in Lutsk, had to leave their passports at the front desk. When we sat down with them in our sparse hotel room, they would not talk of life there. They whispered and pointed to the ceiling and the small table between the twin beds, indicating a hidden microphone. Only later, on the street, away from Soviet ears, would they speak candidly about their hardships.

In a Lutsk jewelry shop, an elderly man overheard me talking to my mother in Ukrainian. It was obvious to him, because of my western dress, that I was not from Ukraine. He asked me where I had learned to speak Ukrainian. I told him I had learned the language from my baba. His eyes welled up in gratitude that his language was living on and being promoted elsewhere.

By this time, I had noticed that the Ukrainian language was slowly being obliterated from the public. All government documents were being translated into Russian.
Even the church mass we attended was in Russian. As I was an actress, I asked our Soviet guide if I could see a Ukrainian film. She arranged for me to see a film about the famous Ukrainian composer Lysenko. I was disappointed to hear the actors speak in Russian.

Then, later when I visited  Lviv, a beautiful city with Austrian-influenced architecture, I met a medical student who told me that there was an underground movement of intelligentsia—academics and professionals—who were planning to demonstrate about the Russification of their language.

So, given Ukraine’s history, is it surprising that Ukrainians would rather join forces with the European Union than with Russia? Much of its ongoing economic struggle has to do with the power Russia has wielded over Ukraine. Its people only have to look across the border at Poland to see that residents there enjoy a much higher standard of living.

But now that Russia is on the march, can Ukraine, with the help of the Western World, stop this bully? Will diplomacy and sanctions work?

I’d love your thoughts. For now, I’m hoping and praying for peace.

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Taking Stock

With a month to go before spring IMG_4329raises its lovely head. I’ve been taking stock. My husband, Robert, and I just got back from touring Machu Picchu and a trip around the Horn of South America, so it’s been a good time for reflection.

I was all set to self-publish my novel, but met an outstanding author on the cruise, who put me in touch with her agent, also outstanding.  So, I pitched my novel to her. She was intrigued and wanted to see my manuscript. Now, I’m waiting for her to get back to me. Hurry up and wait. The nature of the biz.

My Baba, Lukia Mazurec

My Baba, Lukia Mazurec

Meanwhile, I’ve completed the first draft of my baba’s story and need to start pitching that one as well. It takes place between 1915-1929, in what is now Ukraine. So, of course, the battles there have kept me glued to the TV. My heart goes out to all Ukrainians  who are hoping for a better life.

I’ve also been fortunate to audition for a couple of wonderful projects, one, a movie of the week, the other, a pilot for a new TV series. It’s been a chance for me to brush up on my acting. Carol Rosenfeld’s wonderful book, Acting and Living in Discovery, has been a big help.

Besides all that, I’ve been watching the Olympics and learned once more what it takes to be successful in any field.  Surprisingly, the athletes who failed to get a medal taught me more about success than those who got one.  Most of us know that to achieve any goal it takes passion, perseverance, and hard work. And even with that, you can still fail at getting what you want. I saw athletes fall or make an error—due to nerves, a nick in the ice, or a skier or speed skater falling down in front of them. Yes, they Olympicsfailed to get on the podium, but I also saw them pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and keep going. It’s heroic.

To do your best at whatever you try is worth celebrating. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.” Also, better to have tried and lost, then never to have tried at all.

Our human potential is boundless. We are all more than we think. What do you think?

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Philip Seymour Hoffman – A Brilliant but Tortured Artist

Philip Seymour Hoffman

from imdb.com

I was relaxing in a hotel room in Miami a few mornings ago, when my husband, Rob, looked up from his newspaper to say, “You won’t believe who just died. One of the great actors.”

Hearing Philip Seymour Hoffman had overdosed on heroin was a shock even though we knew he’d had problems with drugs from the past. We’d looked up his biography online, because we were so enamored with his work on film and stage, and had seen most of his films.

To us, he was more than a star. He was everyman, and those were the kinds of roles he picked, those were the kind that made him so memorable. He didn’t shy away from the truth in his work. When I saw him play Willy Loman in Death Of A Salesman in 2012 on Broadway, I not only left the theatre sobbing, but the play and its tragedy stayed with me for awhile afterwards as I walked to Times Square and met up with my husband who was waiting for me there on the second floor of MacDonald’s. I fell into his arms crying. That was how much Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance had affected me.

That final scene between father and son, played by Andrew Garfield, was that powerful, even though I’d seen the play twice before and I was watching two famous actors flex their acting muscles. In that final confrontation, I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman put everything into it. Perhaps his father’s background as a salesman had informed his performance, but whatever it was that propelled him to show us his character’s heart and vulnerability, it came from a deep well of emotion. One that perhaps eventually took him from us.

Love Liza

from imdb.com

In  fact, I had written about his wonderful work in my blog before, about his film Love Liza. Strangely, the title I had chosen for that post was The Curious Appeal of Tragedy.

His death and legacy reminded me of Heath Ledger and how he’d also died of an overdose, in his case, an accidental one of prescription drugs for pneumonia and insomnia. I recall crying while watching his final scene of Brokeback Mountain, in which he brilliantly portrayed a man in love, a man whose heart was broken. Heath Ledger was another actor who was generous with his feelings. His sensitivity, like Hoffman’s, was probably hard to manage. Like in Hoffman’s death, drugs won, we lost.

Since we heard the news, questions have arisen about celebrity and fame. Celebrity is not all what it appears to be. Fame does not feed the soul.

And as a wonderful article through Flavorwire by Michelle Dean points out, we think we know the famous from what we read in the tabloids and what we observe on the screen or   as in this writer’s case, what she observed on the street. But the famous are just humans like us, struggling with life’s challenges. The major difference is they have little place to hide.

On Broadway, on Feb. 5th, at 7:45 pm, the lights were dimmed for a minute in honor of Philip Seymour Hoffman. He was a brilliant but tortured artist. He’s left behind a prodigious body of work, but also a grieving family and fans. May he rest in peace.

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