Lapjchen

Again…I need to make shoes. Like people of the forests since time began, I’ll chop down three or four birch saplings.  I’ll need seven long strips of the inner fiber of the bark, the bast. I’ll weave them around a wooden block roughly the size of my feet.  It’s winter, so I’ll weave the shoes a bit wider, so I can wrap lots of strips of cloth around my feet, to keep them warm inside my new shoes. My lapjchen. This is a nice pair. I did a good job. I hope they last the week.

This pair of shoes, also called lapjchen, or lapti, was given to my mother Katie Funk Wiebe by my Great Aunt Neta, when mom visited her in Moscow in 1989. From 1945 to 1953, Aganeta Janzen Block and her four children worked in forced labor camps in Siberia. These were the type of shoes they made for themselves during this time. The shoes didn’t last long.
 

What is the taste of amniotic fluid?

1926, Saskatchewan, Canada: my grandmother Anna is on the right; her mother-in-law Susanna is in the middle

My red-haired grandmother Anna Janzen Funk was born March 15, 1895, in Friedensfeld, Sagradowka, southern Ukraine, one of twelve children in a Mennonite Brethren family. The Mennonites were about 18 percent of a German minority of some two million in Russia.  She and my grandfather emigrated to Canada in 1923, and the picture above was taken three years later.

When Anna had just turned 22, in early spring of 1918, she was working as a baker’s helper at Bethania Mental Hospital, near the Dnieper River. The Russian government had collapsed and now the Bolshevist regime was in power, attempting to transform revolutionary theory into soviet reality. Their army (the Reds) had taken over the area, seizing livestock, food, and household goods, killing and razing estates. The White army battled the Reds back and forth across the Ukraine. Also at this time, Russian peasants were vengefully confiscating the Mennonite farms, and, led by Nestor Makhno, participating in massacres against the Mennonites.

Anna’s family had disappeared.

Just a month ago, about 30 Red soldiers had stolen all the extra clothing from the male Bethania Mental Hospital patients. Now it was a Sunday morning, and the revolutionaries were back, warmly dressed, slurping soup in the dining room. As fast as she could slice bread, the soldiers grabbed it. Anna rushed into the spacious, bright kitchen with its tiled floor and huge stainless steel kettles to get a new batch of bread which the kitchen girls had just pulled out, and to ask them to punch down the rising dough and form it into more loaves to be baked.

She heard a sharp knock on the back door of the kitchen.

When she opened the door, she was startled to see two dozen soldiers from the White army, who had been able to cross to Bethania on the frozen Dnieper River.

“Let’s have lunch!” they demanded. What was she to do?

The Reds were having their soup in the dining room at that very moment!

As she stood on the doorstep, the bright sun lighting up her coppery hair, she squinted at the hungry White soldiers, many of them her own age or younger, and rubbed a floury hand over her forehead. She could see that their uniforms and boots were muddy from their scramble up the thawing banks of the Dnieper River.

There’s Anna on the back step at Bethania, the flour dusting her forehead, breath condensing into clouds, facing those hungry, rough young men. Perhaps one of them reminded her of one of her lost brothers. Whatever sparked it, in that moment, she took courage. She used what she had—her bright hair, her confident smile, and her memories of her disappeared family —and spoke.

Grinning, she scolded the White soldiers as if they were her brothers: “Boys, do you think I will let you in the house with those boots! Scrape the mud off completely! Knock again when those boots are clean, and I will give you a nice meal.”

Disarmed, they smiled and cleaned their boots. Anna quickly brought the trays of fresh bread into the Red group, eagerly encouraging them to fill their pockets for later, opened the front door for them and shooed them out. As she saw the last Red soldier’s back going through the front door, she motioned silently to the kitchen girl to let the Whites in for their meal.

I have read that children in the womb can taste what their mother is eating. The food flavors the amniotic fluid. I imagine those days in 1924 when Anna carried my mother, she would have been eating borscht with sour cream, and many other delicious Russian recipes she brought with her to Canada.  But there was another flavor that Anna passed on to my mother — a taste for courage and creativity.

Letting go

Snowscape

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:

LETTING GO

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. 

At the Red Bicycle

At the Red Bicycle

Ordering a bacon gorgonzola burger with fries

watching the lead singer screw his mike stand together

and the keyboardist hunch over his keys.

The mustard walls are stained on purpose to look old.

Two of the bar lamps are missing.

The waitress has five children at home.

She’s smiling at me as she lights the candle on my table.

Words fall from the ceiling: estrella, nunca, besos.

The plastic floor is revealed in long fingers of sunlight

A patron with a cane rocks across the floor to the door and out.

After waiting an hour for my family to join me here,

I’ve ordered a bacon gorgonzola burger with fries.

I’m drinking my second glass of cabernet

Waiting to get a feeling of freedom.

Could I be free?

Or am I trapped in the Amazon?

At the Red Bicycle II

Here is my bacon gorgonzola cheeseburger.

The patty glistens under the flows of cheese,

The translucent  ribbons of onion,

The  intelligent pig.

How do they get those pickles so wavy?

How can I be like that small girl next to me, twisting her striped legs under the table, picking her nose, knocking over her water with a straw between her teeth, examining the children’s menu like the Holy Bible.

At the Red Bicycle III

Wondering why my family isn’t here.

I’d have to stop writing if they were here,

So why do I care?

Chords from the keyboard overwhelm the ceiling words.

Nothing I have ever eaten is as good as these French fries,

hot and soft, with chewy salty edges.

My phone batteries are completely dead and I can’t call them any more.