Monday, February 22, 2021

What I Learned from Living in the Crimea


Aerial view of the coast of Crimea near Yalta

Since the corona virus and the subsequent lock down hit the US last spring, I’ve been thinking a lot about the four months I lived in the Crimea in the spring of 1994. Crimea was a Russian-speaking area of Ukraine when I lived there, but since March 2014, it is part of Russia.

It was one of the defining moments of my life. When I returned home, I would never look at my closet brimming with clothes, full grocery store shelves, reliable electricity and water, and my genuinely easy life the same again. And whenever I hear a few words of Russian, I feel homesick.

My experiences in the Crimea help me keep perspective when life gets tough. 


A Crimean party for a dog's birthday. My late Russian professor Lyudmila and myself.

What I learned from living in the Crimea (the short list):

1.  Appreciate the simple joys of life: One day my host father brought home a single orange (fresh fruit was very rare), and my host sister, who was six at the time, ate each segment slowly, as if it was an expensive piece of chocolate. I have learned to appreciate the small joys each day last year: eating food from my backyard, going on walks, and laughing at Mr. Bean antics with my teenage sons.

2. People rise to the occasion. I love the stories of how Russians secretly stood against communism through their music and art. (I think of Achmatova's Requiem, an elegy poem to her husband and son, both arrested by the NKVD.). They became adept at making jokes about Soviet propaganda (when I was there, every joke had a spy in it). Here in the States, I have enjoyed seeing how creative people can be in turning this difficult situation to good: making Youtube movies, repairing or fixing up their homes, baking bread (although I wish they’d leave some flour and yeast for me!)

3. We have lost the illusion of control. We have enjoyed a very long time of peace and prosperity as Americans. So we begin to think we can plan on our lives only getting better. But the truth is, so much of life is out of our control. I’ve been trying to be thankful for each day and what it brings. I wonder if saying something like “If the Lord wills…” when we talk about future plans will become more common.

4. Separating my happiness from world events: When I saw one of my Russian professors in 2014, Russia had just taken over Crimea. She said, “I left as a Ukrainian, I return as a Russian.” She has lived through communism, perestroika, Yeltsin, and Putin. But she continues to find joy in her life, enjoying her time with her grown children and teaching foreigners like me to speak Russian. Just because the world is going crazy doesn’t mean you have to let it make you crazy. Find joy in the things you can control: your relationships, your work (even if it’s working around your home), and making great art.

 Goodbye Party for my professor Irina (center) in 2014. I'm joined by Rachel Humphrey Fleet (left) and Darcy Franzen Syme (right), two other American students who studied in Crimea.

What about you? How do you keep your perspective and joy when life is crazy?

Photo credits: Crimea photo from Vimeo. All other photos are my own or from Rachael Humphrey Fleet, Jennifer Steele, or Darcy Franzen Syme.


Monday, February 8, 2021

MMGM: Macy McMIllan and the Rainbow Goddess

I actually picked up this book because the Middle Grade book club on Goodreads was reading one of Shari’s other books, and this one sounded good. I am always glad to support books that feature kids with disabilities, where the disability is not the whole story. 

And if you like novels in verse and contemporary middle grade with all the feels, you will love this one too. Bonus points: Shari is a longtime Blueboard member like me.

Synopsis from Amazon:

Sixth grade is coming to an end, and so is life as Macy McMillan knows it. Already a "For Sale" sign mars the front lawn of her beloved house. Soon her mother will upend their perfect little family, adding a stepfather and six-year-old twin stepsisters. To add insult to injury, what is Macy's final sixth grade assignment? A genealogy project. Well, she'll put it off - just like those wedding centerpieces she's supposed to be making.

Just when Macy's mother ought to be understanding, she sends Macy next door to help eighty-six-year-old Iris Gillan, who is also getting ready to move?in her case into an assisted living facility. Iris can't pack a single box on her own and, worse, she doesn't know sign language. How is Macy supposed to understand her? But Iris has stories to tell, and she isn?t going to let Macy's deafness stop her. Soon, through notes and books and cookies, a bond grows between them. And this friendship, odd and unexpected, may be just what Macy needs to face the changes in her life.

Shari Green, author of Root Beer Candy and Other Miracles, writes this summer story with the lightest touch, spinning Macy out of her old life and into a new one full of warmth and promise for the future.

What to love:

1. Great POV character: I loved seeing the world through Macy’s eyes. Her deafness was part of her, but not all of her. Her range of emotions from anger to sadness was very relatable and authentic.

2.  Iris! There are a lot of MGs where the main character meets and learns something from an older generation. But Iris is truly her own person. She had great insights into people. Ex: I don’t know that anyone is exactly who they say they are. I loved how she provided a soft space to land for Macy as she navigates her changing family and friendships. 

3. Realistic family issues: I think a lot of kids will relate to Macy’s mixed feelings about Mom getting married after it just being her and her mom. However, I did wish at times that the adults showed more understanding to Macy. The emphasis was mostly on Macy to adjust, rather than her mom to ease the way for her.

4. Cookies! There’s nothing like cookies, especially ones that send warm messages (think the language of flowers, but with food). I also really enjoyed the recipe at the end for sugar and spice cookies. Yum!

5. Nods to all my favorite reads: Green wove in references to a lot of my favorites from The Tales of Desperaux to Les Miserables. This added a lot of depth to the story, and if readers haven’t read all these books, I hope it will inspire them to check them out for themselves.

Content issues: 

*Iris is the “Rainbow Goddess” of the title as she was named after the Egyptian goddess. For families or children that are sensitive to references to goddesses (my son found it very upsetting at a certain age), it's not a major part of the story, but you might want to preread. 

*Iris doesn't know her father. This is mentioned briefly and would be something for parents/teachers to discuss.

It’s always fun to read a fellow Blueboarder’s book. If you like MG fiction that tugs at your heartstrings, you will enjoy Macy McMillan!

If you'd like to read more middle grade reviews or join in the MMGM fun, go to Greg Pattridge's Always in the Middle blog.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

ISWG: The Critique Sandwich

I once heard a local author, who won an Oregon Book Award, speak. During the Q & A, someone asked him about getting critiques on his work. He said something to the effect of, “I just give my book to people who I know will say they like it.”

We all laughed.

It’s true for me. I would love to just give my work to people who say they like it.  Wouldn’t that be nice?

In SCBWI, they advise us to use a critique sandwich when giving critiques. The bread—what you say first and at the end—should be something positive. The criticism should come in the middle.
It is not bad advice. I wished I had known about it earlier. As a special ed teacher, I am often in the position to give bad news.

And I try hard to follow that advice as a critiquer. I always start off with something good.

But when I think about the critiques I have received, I see that sometimes I get a thick slice of bread on the sandwich, sometimes a thin slice, and sometimes no slice at all.

When I first get them, I love the thick slices of bread the best. I can pat myself on the back. I’ve done a great job; I just have a few minor things to fix.

If the bread is thin, I’m a little less confident. Now it’s usually major things to fix, but I still feel like it’s possible. I don’t have to start over or anything.

It’s when (and not often) that I’ve gotten critiques with little or no bread that I usually felt defeated at first. I may even want to give up entirely. I have been known to shed a few tears as well.

In fact, I have a manuscript right now that I’m stalled on, because I’m still processing the feedback I’ve gotten on it.

But I’m trying to be patient. I know in the past, it takes time to see the breadless critiques for what they truly are: a gift. Since I haven't been lulled by lots of compliments, the comments stand out more. I take them more seriously. I am more apt to make major changes. And that is what makes the difference.

I’m apt to forget the nice words, but I don’t forget the critical comments. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s criticism, especially when it’s given to me straight, that make me step up my game and want to be a better writer.

So although I’d rather just hear that someone likes my work, I know it’s better for me as a writer if I hear someone doesn’t.

Still, I won't be ordering paleo sandwiches any time soon.

What do you think? How do you like your critiques? What kind of critiquer are you?
*I didn't answer this month's question, because I didn't think I could make a full blogpost out of it. But, yes, ISWG is my online writer's group. Even when in-person events were occurring, I found it hard to get to them consistently, so thank you to you all for your supportive comments that keep me going!
I also have to shout out to Marvelous Middle Grade Monday, which is my online kidlit reading club. Finally, I found my tribe of adults who read kids' books. 
What about you? Have you found friendships online through the blogosphere? 

To sign up or read more Insecure Writer's Support Group posts, go HERE.
Photo by Erin Wang from Pexels