Letting go


I came across this poem, “Letting Go”, by my sister Christine Ruth Wiebe. It’s a Christmas poem and I know it’s after the holidays now, but reading the poem triggered some memories I want to share, and I want to share the poem, too.  It’s just a week after I published my book, BIRTH MOTHER.  Now that so many people are reading my book, I am starting to getting used to the idea of other people knowing the intimate details of that earlier time in my life. I just wish so much that I would have had the courage to share the story earlier. With my sister Christine, for example, and my other sister, my brother and my mother. Why did I hide my thoughts and feelings from them about this part of my life?  It was not until my second child’s thirteenth birthday that I told him about his brother — lost to us, out there somewhere in the world. Why didn’t I talk with my friends — my first husband — anyone?   Why did I lock my story up inside for decades?

Keeping a secret from your dearest ones cripples intimacy, and consumes enormous amounts of personal energy.

Christine passed away in 2000 without ever hearing more than the bare outlines of my experience, and the rest of the family also knew very little.  I am very happy, though, that she and the son I gave up for adoption had the chance to get to know one another, because he found me in 1996, when he was 27 years old.

And I am thankful that when my son found me, my heart had been opened and prepared for the reunion. This was thanks to the imagination, vision and encouragement of a special naturopathic doctor and two psychotherapists, retreats at Kripalu Retreat Center and Shalom Retreat Center, intensive journaling, yoga, and my husband’s love.

So here’s Christine’s poem:


This is how it should be:
Christmas vacation, and I am six;
Daddy and I are driving outside the city
to a great hill with untouched snow.
Sun warms the car.
I climb up the tracks Daddy makes
hearing the crunch each time the first time.
We stand at the top, just Daddy and I, breathing,
and the sparrows laugh.
“I’m afraid,” I say.
But then we’re sailing
and I’m safe on a narrow strip of wood
clinging to his broad back,
a solid thing in a swaying world,
and I’m laughing and wishing
we could fall like this forever
into the sun sparkles and whipping wind
and the white snowdrift
waiting to embrace us
over and over and over.

– Christine Wiebe

September 19, 1985

Self-publishing on Kindle

An illustration from my book, Birth Mother

Why did I self-publish my book BIRTH MOTHER? Why did I publish first on the Kindle e-book reader?  How easy is it to self-publish an e-book?

Here’s the story.  About two years ago, I began sending out my book proposal to a half-dozen carefully selected agents. Some did not get back to me, and others responded very tardily, with regrets. I was in a big hurry to get my story out in the world. Also, I said to myself, “Self, no matter who publishes your book, you’ll have to do your own marketing. Why not self-publish?”

There was a time when self-publishing carried a similar stigma to bearing a child
“out of wedlock”. But now some women choose in a mature and responsible way to become pregnant outside of a marriage or long-term partnership, and are respected for their decision.  Likewise, writers today can publish without being in a committed agent-publisher-author relationship, and can speak about their self-published literary children openly, without fear of being pitied or scorned.

I began by typing “self-publishing” into Google. I read some of the self-publishing blog posts. I examined a variety of tools for self-publishing, both e-books and print books.

I decided to start with an e-book because the process seemed faster, and because, being my own proof-reader, I knew that there were still a lot of typos in my book which I could discover over a period of months, and correct at my leisure, before committing my story to irrevocable print. (Although with print-on-demand, the books are printed as they are purchased, so at least the scope of typographic errors is contained.)

I decided on the Amazon Kindle e-book format over the Nook, or Sony Reader, because I would get to keep 70% of the proceeds, and because the book would henceforth be in Amazon’s prodigious catalog.

Publishing for the Kindle was tolerable and only took a few hours, albeit spread out over several months.  First, at https://kdp.amazon.com, I opened a Kindle Direct Publishing account.  Then I did what the site said to do:

  1. I saved my Microsoft Word file in filtered HTML format
  2. I downloaded Kindlegen for my Mac, and tried to follow the steps to convert my file to an e-book. I couldn’t figure it out.
  3. So I hauled out my PC, downloaded Mobi PocketCreator (PC only), and used this tool to convert my file to an e-book.
  4. I downloaded the free Kindle Previewer to check out how my book would look on a Kindle. It looked OK.
  5. I clicked the button on kdp.amazon.com called “Add new title”, which revealed a short form, with the expected questions, such as book name and description.
  6. I was given the opportunity to upload my converted file.
  7. I was asked for my cover file and I realized that I had not made one.  But there were some simple guidelines, and using PhotoShop, I created a cover image using an illustration by the amazing Chicago visual artist Ellen Greene. I arranged permission with her to use the illustration.
  8. Then the day finally came when I clicked the  “Upload book” button.
  9. A few days later, my inbox was graced with a missive from Kindle Direct Publishing: “Congratulations, You’ve been Published!”  I clicked on the link in the email, and sure enough, there was my book, on Amazon.
  10. My next step was to send out an email to my family and friends, and post on Facebook and this blog. That was December 28. As of today, I’ve sold 17 Kindle e-books, and one Amazon Prime Account reader has downloaded the book for free!

What is a “birth mother”?

In 1975, with "Snowden", planning my Mexico trip

When I announced my new book after Quaker worship Sunday morning, everyone present drew a blank at the meaning of the title, BIRTH MOTHER.  I used the term “birth mother” as that was the popular term in 1976, the year in which my book was set, in referring to the biological mother of a child who also has an adoptive mother. Six years earlier, when I signed the adoption papers in January of 1970,  the popular terms were “unwed mother” or “natural mother”.

I was instructed to write “final surrender” next to my signature on the adoption papers. Later, this term morphed into “placement”. Today it might be something else, I don’t know.

You can read more about the terminology and history of adoption in Wikipedia.

BIRTH MOTHER is available for the Kindle.

A print copy will be available in a few months, and I’ll post here and on Facebook to let you know.

Birth Mother

Birth Mother by Joanna Wiebe

My first book, BIRTH MOTHER, available for the Kindle, opens in the weeks preceding Christmas 1975.  I longed to celebrate the holiday with my family in Hillsboro, Kansas, but the relationships were tense.

Why, after having a baby out of wedlock, did I take new lovers like I was sampling chocolates?

What did my worldly lifestyle lead people to think about our Mennonite Brethren family?

And, when was I ever going to begin to have a personal relationship with Jesus?

Six years earlier, on Christmas eve 1969, my son Matthew William was born. Three days later I gave him to a social worker. Soon he was in his new home, in the process of being adopted by a loving Western Kansas family.  As I understood the law, adoption meant “final surrender” and I would never see him again.

Since then, the holidays always triggered bleak, black states of being. Now as the 1975 festive season approached, I attempted to solve my problem by launching a Christmas road trip to Mexico with my current boyfriend and my dog, Perfect Master Lord Shiva. However, my dog was soon run over by a truck, my van’s transmission broke down, my friend left me to go back to school, and I was out of money.

After a 7.3 earthquake, I disappeared into the social chaos of Guatemala City, playing a temporary role as La Maestra with a street gang, embracing a dark, dangerous, and all-absorbing way of life.

A journal of my journey toward wholeness, my book BIRTH MOTHER includes drawings and Mennonite and Guatemalan recipes. The book includes descriptions of the closed adoption process in Kansas in 1969, and my experiences at the Salvation Army Home for Unwed Mothers in Wichita, Kansas.

If you are an Amazon Prime member, you can read this Kindle version at no cost. Others can purchase the Kindle version for $2.99.  I am working to make a hardcopy version available on Amazon later this year.

If this book resonates with you, please be in touch and write a review on the Amazon page for my book!

The incredibly perfect cover illustration is by Ellen Greene, an artist born and raised in Lawrence, Kansas, and a friend from our homeschool association when our family lived in Chicago. 


Mayan Numeral, by Joanna Wiebe, an illustration from Wild and Precious Life

I am almost done copy-editing my book, Birth Mother.  I’ve been doing this task for about half a year. It is amazing how much time it takes to copy-edit 60,000 words.  Of course, as I edit, I keep re-writing parts, too, and that doesn’t make it go any faster. Not that there is any rush, except for my desire to be done with the project and move onto another book.

For I have decided to write a detective story! When we were on holiday in Jamaica this past September, the blonde Brooklynite and I were reading detective stories poolside at the Negril, Jamaica Rockhouse Hotel.  I was poring over the activities of Mma Precious Ramotswe, the first female private investigator in Botswana.   The blonde Brooklynite was reading classic detective fiction.  I had lots of time on my hands, there in that poolside deck chair, between reading bits about Precious from Alexander McCall Smith’s The Full Cupboard of Life, and waiting for Richie the bartender to bring me more lime slushies.  In that plethora of free time I began mentally playing with my theory that almost anyone is capable of crime, given the right circumstances.  Later, I realized that one of my friends would make the perfect model for an interesting and unusual detective. I announced my interest to the blonde Brooklynite who then proceeded to give me for Christmas an array of classic detective fiction in paperback, as well as a nice hard-backed copy of The Classic Era of Crime Fiction, all from her own library. The die was cast.

All moons redux

All moons, all years, all winds,

reach their fullness, and pass.

Blood flows to its silent thrones of power and authority.

The radiant gods

measure out our hours of celebration;

our days under the benevolent sun,

our nights under the stars.

And until time ends,

in vigilance,

these gods we have trapped within the stars,

look down us, our suns, and all our structures.

from the Chilam Balam de Chumayel, translated from Spanish versions, by Joanna Wiebe

Today on the train on the way to work I addressed the issue of this translation again, and came up with the version shown above. This is the poem which I intend to appear at the beginning of my book, Birth Mother, as a dedication.

I am much happier with this version than anything I have done previously. It’s shorter, for one thing, and flows a little better. Most of all, I think I have done a better job of capturing the thought in the last sentence.  Here are these batch of gods, supreme beings, all powerful and authoritative, whom we have drawn to us by our neediness. So they are attached to us and our stars, trapped in a way, by their ceaseless caring for us, but at the same time, they are above and beyond us, our suns, and our every concept of every thing.

My cousin Rhoda

My mom wrote to say that Rhoda Janzen’s father Edmund Janzen and my mother’s mother (Anna Janzen Funk) were first cousins. So Rhoda and I are…what? third cousins? I am not surprised. As I have mentioned before, Mennonites all seem to be related in some way or another.

Mom also sent me a link to a Mennonite Weekly Review review of Rhoda’s book, mennonite in a little black dress, and my friend Ruth gave me a link to the review in the New York Times.

It gives me pause to read the reviews. When my memoir, Birth Mother is published, how am I going to handle the comments about me and my life, my mother, my Mennonite Brethren childhood, my writing, my friends, my choices? I have written my truth with as much integrity as I can muster. Very early in this process, when the idea of speaking the truth about my life seemed overwhelmingly scary, my friend and doctor Paul Epstein gave me this sentence from Thomas Paine, which I still have in my kitchen:  “But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.” But then what?

The other day I went into Waldenbooks and stood for a long time in front of the rack of best-selling books, imagining what it would be like to have MY book on the shelf along with The Lost Symbol and Going Rogue. I felt kind of panicky, to tell the truth.

Nonetheless, I am looking for an agent.