Today is the BIG day!

On and off for the past six years, I have been researching and writing a book that is very dear to me. And at long last, the Kindle version of Circles is available on Amazon.

Circles - A Family Memoir
Circles – A Family Memoir

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B013BV5CWU

For readers who prefer to read a hard copy, that version will also be coming on line soon.  I’ll post the link as soon as I have it.

Circles tells the story of Gisèle van Waterschoot van der Gracht, an amazingly talented artist from the Netherlands, who happens to be my aunt.

Many of my interviews took place right here
Many of my interviews in Amsterdam took place right here

During World War II she hid her Jewish friends in a tiny apartment on the Herengracht, one of Amsterdam’s main canals. Clean water, food and fuel of any kind, were scarce. Her circle lived in constant fear of discovery, but she never allowed danger or privation to stifle her independent courageous spirit. Thanks to Gisèle’s resourcefulness, they survived the Nazi occupation.

Looking at family photos with Gisele
Looking at family photos with Gisele

My father, John, Gisèle’s first cousin, was a member of the Canadian Army division that liberated the Netherlands. Dad had her address and when he got a day’s leave, he went to visit her. Gisèle’s living conditions and her gaunt appearance made him so uncomfortable that after a brief stay, he made excuses and left. She could not believe it when he returned later that same day with all the supplies he could carry.

Dad’s battalion soon moved on to the Belgian refugee camps and the two cousins never saw one another again. However until his death in 1982, he and Gisèle stayed in touch through letters. Afterwards, my sister and I took up the thread.

Visiting Gisele
Visiting Gisele

From our correspondence and during multiple visits with Gisèle, I learned more about her background and her legacy. She married and went with her husband, Arnold d’Ailly to Greece. They lived part time in a restored monastery on the island of Paros, and this is where she began painting circles. To her, circles represented the resilience and continuity of life. She also referred to her groups of painters, writers, friends and family as her circles.

How much more Dutch can it get?
How much more Dutch can it get?

She admired talent, warmth and intelligence – and always looked for heart. She lived to one hundred years of age, but her curiosity and whimsical view of life never waned. My aunt believed that the path to happiness is most easily travelled when we are generous with our possessions, talents and gifts.

Joanna and Hanneke in Amsterdam
Joanna and Hanneke in Amsterdam

And on the topic of generosity – an international cast helped me through the entire writing process. My family top the list – without Jorge, Carlos and Maggie’s support, I could not have even begun this project. My publisher kept me on task and on time – thank you Lee. Friends from the Netherlands, from Canada, the U.S.A. and Mexico all lent me their time and expertise.

Jorge, Gisele and Joanna in her studio
Jorge, Gisele and Joanna in her studio

I feel it is significant that Circles has been released in 2015, for this year marks the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War Two; Circles lends itself to reflection about that time, about the present state of our planet, and about ourselves.

The Road to Roermond Revisited

As the publishing date of my book Circles looms ever-closer, my mind travels back to my travels through the Netherlands

Researching the story of my Aunt Gisele took me down many roads, and few were as delightful as the one I took last year to Roermond – a small city located 175 kilometers south of Amsterdam.

A tree-lined Dutch roadway
A tree-lined Dutch roadway

In my reading, I have come across the name often and indeed this place played an important role in the Gisele’s life. Her parents lived there during different periods, as did she. Her mentor, Joep Nicolas, had his studio in Roermond, and this was where she learned the art of making stained glass panels.

DSCN0964

I felt so lucky to be invited to the opening of a retrospective of Joep Nicolas’ work at Roermond’s principal museum, Cuyperhuis. Flags flew along the entrance way into the city because Princess Beatrix was to inaugurate the event. In the Netherlands, security is tight around the royal family, but I did see Her Royal Highness, from a distance.

The royal flags flying in Roermond
The national standards flying in Roermond
Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands
Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands

Inside, a large collection of Nicolas’ stained glass windows and paintings were on display, including two fine portraits of Gisele. There were vintage family photographs and also several interior and exterior shots of the studio. I was pleased to re-acquaint with  Joep’s grandson, Diego Nicolas, and to meet Mariska Dirkx. She and her husband Dick van Wijk are the current owners of the property. He is a renowned sculptor and she is the gallery curator.

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Galerie Mariska Dirkx has been an art studio for over 120 years. She invited me to visit the following day.

Galerie Mariska
Galerie Mariska

Nestled into the historic city walls of Roermond, and surrounded by a whimsical sculpture garden, the actual studio has been modified very little since Joep Nicolas worked there. Mariska showed me all around and allowed me to take photographs.

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As I clicked away, I saw a small door at the back of the upper mezzanine of the studio. “People hid in there during the Occupation,” Mariska said.

This small door could tell many stories
This small door could tell many stories

With other new friends, I also visited Roermond’s Munsterkerk. The stained glass windows of this centuries-old church were destroyed during WW II bombing, and my Aunt Gisele re-made the ones at the back of the altar.

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The only downside of the trip to Roermond was the drive there and back. Not that it wasn’t pretty – it was charming – but I felt terrified, wedged in between powerful Mercedes, BMWs and gigantic trucks barreling along at speeds of 120 to 140 kms. They zipped in and out of the lanes with just inches to spare between their bumpers. OMG! I wondered if we’d make it!

Pretty scenery
Pretty scenery
Nail-biting traffic!
Nail-biting traffic!

Nonetheless I did manage to get a couple of nice pictures. It is a tribute to my new Nikon that the shots were not just a blurred mess!

My vocabulary in Dutch is growing a little each day. I can ask for the train station, bathroom and menu now. I must say, Ik wens je een prettige dag – Have a nice day – doesn’t roll off the tongue too easily, but I do have a few of the other greetings down pat.

And during the paralyzing road trip to Roermond and back, I heard some expletives that aren’t fit for print.

So…  Ik wens je een prettige dag!

Inch by inch

My first book, Drinking From the Well, had its merits. However I realized that to become a better writer, I needed to find either a magic wand or some sound, practical advice. With that in mind I attended writers’ conferences and workshops. And I devoured books on writing.

Now, eight years later, I have writing students struggling in the same way. I cut to the chase and get them past the magic wand fantasy. Then I give them a sampling of what I have learned about good writing.

Start Strong     What is this story about? I have to let my readers know ASAP. No deep secrets are necessary.

Write One Inch at a Time     Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird has sage advice for writers. But the most golden of all her golden nuggets is: write just one inch at a time. To complete an inch of writing isn’t too daunting. I figure we can all manage that. Then another, and another.

Get Over It     Keep it simple. Simple writing is persuasive – and simple means getting rid of extra words. My worst enemy is: very. I used to think that very added emphasis – but it doesn’t – we all need to keep our sentences free of clutter.

Cut off the right arm     Strive for simplicity and clarity in writing. Does exceptional writing have to be more? More metaphorical? More lyrical? I have written some  lines that I loved, but when they do not support the story, I have to banish them and it feels like I am cutting off my right arm.

Write With Authority     Everyone has heard the maxim: Write what you know. If I want to come across as an authority on the topic of my book, I have to research, research, and research some more.

 Be Authentic     But no matter how much I learn about any given topic, if I can’t sound like myself when people read me, my story will be as ho-hum as a beige wall.

Keep it Palatable     Even the most serious topic must have some levity or readers will just give up.

Finish the First Draft    Even if I write it wrong, I need to finish my first draft. Only then, do I know what I have to fix. When I wrote my novel, The Woman Who Wanted the Moon, I was close to the finish line, yet I knew I would have to rewrite the ending. Nonetheless, I finished the first draft so that I could see when, why and how my protagonist started demanding the change.

Show Up      I have learned that consistency is king. Writers have to do the work – every day –even when we know we will probably end up rewriting everything we are grinding out. We still have to show up, put in the time.

Finish. Period.     Remember the first nugget mined from Bird by Bird– write an inch at a time – you’ll get there! The book I have recently finished reading, Without Reservations, by Alice Steinbach is 295 pages long. Each page has about 5 inches of close-to-perfect prose – that’s 1,475 inches – roughly 123 feet or 41 yards. Keep in mind that the font and spacing are miniscule. How did she finish?

*** PS     If you read this post earlier and are wondering about the name change??? Well, another tip is: never post anything you write in the wee hours of the morning. Often times parts of it will not make any sense in the cold light of day!

Bad taste, Bashing and Bullying

I do not pretend there are no problems in Mexico – there certainly are – as there are in every country.

But I am fed up with all the Mexico bashing. To me, the mudslinging and lumping blame on Mexico – for what ails our northern neighbor – is in bad taste and it is bullying.

Bullies in the schoolyard pick on kids who are smaller and less able to defend themselves. They push them down, hit them, steal their lunches and insult them. This is devastating for the victims.

On the international political scene we see rampant bullying. In fact, the most in-the-news bully actually has U.S. presidential aspirations.

In a recent speech, Donald Trump said that Mexico exports drug dealers, rapists, and others who have an adverse impact to the United States. He said that – clear as a bell.

In Mexico and all of Latin America, his statements have been received with outrage. So much outrage that last Thursday Univision said that because of the offensive comments Trump made about Mexico and Mexicans when he launched his campaign, it was breaking off with the pageant organization – of which Trump is an owner.

“We have seen the work ethic, love for family, strong religious values and the important role Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans have had and will continue to have in building the future of our country. We will not be airing the Miss USA pageant on July 12th or working on any other projects tied to the Trump Organization.”

Bullies get furious when their victims fight back. Like other bullies, mogul Donald Trump does not like the fact that his target has defenders and they are kicking back where it hurts – in his case – the money belt.

Trump would not back down from the statements he made about Mexico, but now says his comments were twisted. He wants to take legal action against Univision for breach of contract. Whine, whine, whine!

The mayor of Doral, Fla., the most recent location to host the Miss Universe Pageant, said Univision is right not to air the event. In an interview with Fox News Latino, Mayor Luigi Boria said, “What he said about Mexicans was wrong, it was rude. The whole Latino community should care about what he said about Mexicans. We are all part of the Hispanic community. I agree with the Mexican community, they deserve respect.”

Boria said Trump must apologize. “He better retract what he said before this grows even bigger.”

Trump warns that terrorists can swarm through an “insecure” USA –Mexico border. He suggested that Mexico should build (and pay for) a second wall to keep terrorists from harming “Americans.”

Ahem… Mr. Trump, those living on either side of the USA –Mexico border are all Americans.

Terrorism is commonly defined as: violent acts (or the threat of violent acts) intended to create fear perpetrated for an economic, religious, political, or ideological goal, and which deliberately target or disregard the safety of non-combatant ethnic, political or religious groups.

If you ask me, the definition of bad taste and terrorism has been Trump-ed.

Such a friendly-looking fellow...
Such a friendly-looking fellow…

 

Curve Balls, Dreams and Sandy Koufax

On a hot, humid summer night in Merida, it is most enjoyable to sit in the stands of the breezy Kukulkan Stadium and watch the home team play. The hot dogs are tasty and the drinks are cold… and that is about all I can tell you about baseball. I have never been very interested in watching any kind of sports.

But last night I dreamed that Sandy Koufax would be playing this season with Los Leones, and because I am an English-Spanish language writer, the Diario de Yucatán sent me to interview him. I don’t even remember ever talking about him with anyone. His is just one of the random names I have heard in my lifetime. So where the dream came from, I have no idea.

Pondering that question when I woke up at 6 am, I scurried over to my trusty HP, and once it had also woken up, I checked out “the man of my dreams”.

Born in 1930, it seems that he is still alive, and at 85 lives in Vero Beach Florida.

He made his debut for the Dodgers in 1955. Despite his amazing pitching ability, as one of the few Jewish players in baseball, he encountered bigotry from opposing players and even within his own clubhouse.

His bio says he had the ability to throw an “overpowering fastball and knee-buckling curveball.” In the early 1960s, he had one of the most prevailing pitching runs in baseball history, and he won three Cy Young Awards and one Most Valuable Player trophy. He dazzled in the national spotlight when he set a World Series single-game record with 15 strikeouts in 1963, and again when he threw a perfect game to wrap up a record fourth no-hitter in 1965.

And 50 years ago, Koufax made headlines for adhering to his faith and sitting out Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. He returned and lost the following day, but won Games 5 and 7 to clinch the championship for his team, further cementing his status as an icon to both his religious community and Dodgers fans. To pull a Koufax – meaning to do the right thing when faced with a dilemma – entered the American lexicon.

Despite his string of amazing performances, Sandy Koufax pitched in pain due to arthritis in his left elbow. Tired of constantly taking medication and concerned about his future health, he stunned the baseball world by announcing his retirement on November 18, 1966. He was just 30 years old.

Koufax had a short career but in 1972, he easily earned enough votes from the Baseball Writers Association of America, and became the youngest player inducted into the Hall of Fame.

“I can’t picture people talking about me 50 years from now,” he said in a 1965 Sports Illustrated interview. That has proved untrue; the same magazine has declared him number one on their list of “Favorite Athletes of the Century.”

I truly believe that “everything happens for a reason”, and I can’t wait to find out why I dreamed about Sandy Koufax.

Talk about being thrown a curve ball!

sandy koufax 2

Writing and Intercultural Living…

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