Embrace Differences

I love to travel. Why you ask? Is it the cramped airplane seats where if the person in front of me drops their seat too far back, their head is almost resting on my lap? Is it because of the free pretzels the flight attendant whips at me as a snack during the flight? Or perhaps, it’s the dry air that saps all the moisture from my hair and face no matter how little time I’m stuck in the winged aluminum can?

It’s none of those things.

It’s the food, the landscape, learning about the history, and the people who live there. For me it’s seeing how other people live: that small window that is raised where I get a momentary glimpse as a visitor of how other people’s lives in countries differ from my own.

I’ve had watermelon juice in India for breakfast (yummy!), boiled potatoes in Portugal, pastries in France for breakfast (dessert for breakfast would never be a problem for me!), dried cod in Iceland (not for me), and cheese pie in the AM before I boarded a returning flight home after visiting relatives in Greece.  Breathtaking landscapes can be found everywhere whether that’s Vic in Iceland (bring your Parka!), The Adirondacks in New York State, or the pristine and protected beaches in Ocracoke, North Carolina.

The food and landscapes make things interesting for me. But the history of a country provides the framework for understanding the people who reside there. Before I visited Portugal, I had no idea they had an earthquake that destroyed most of Lisbon in the mid 1700’s.  When we were there, you could clearly see the division between the old part and the new part of the city that was rebuilt.

It was also in Iceland on a bus tour that I learned there were 70 active volcanoes on the island. Sure, I knew about the geysers and that much of the island is fueled by thermal energy. But I had no idea how extensive the volcano system was in Iceland. Suddenly it was clear as to why before we travelled there, a volcano had erupted (Bardarbunga) that resulted in part of the island being closed to visitors.  A few years earlier, a volcano had gone off in Iceland creating chaos at European airports that resulted in delayed and cancelled flights throughout the continent. We mistakenly believed an eruption was not likely while we planned our trip because one had recently occurred. We were wrong and found out only after we purchased our tickets. We still went – but some sites were closed to visitors.

I was surprised the first time I visited London, England as I had been told that the “Brits” tended to be unfriendly and cold. I was perplexed when, for my husband and I, this was not our experience. We found Britons were right from the start, willing to talk to us. We had a lengthy conversation with a cab driver on the way in to the city from the airport who told us many details about the city. Years later when we travelled there again and made a failed attempt with our Oyster Cards to get through the gates to the tube, several people stopped to help us figure out whether we needed to tap or swipe the cards even though they themselves were attempting to make trains to their destinations.

I travelled to India for work more than a decade ago, and I had never felt so protected and well taken care of by people I had never met before. The company I worked with provided a car to pick me up at the airport and my co-workers called me the first day I arrived to ensure I had everything I needed at the hotel. (I had travelled for more than 24 hours, so what they got was probably a disjointed, garbled conversation because I was napping.) Their phone call alone, probably doesn’t seem exceptional.

But it was a Saturday when I arrived in India. The other purpose for that first call was to make a plan as to what I wanted to do the next day. Yes, you read that right: A SUNDAY.  Two women from the Finance section of the company willingly gave up their Sunday. And their commitment to me wasn’t simply a little breakfast and a toss back to my room; no, they spent the full day with me showing me their city, taking me to the market, helping me negotiate prices to purchase some souvenirs, and then took me to lunch. At one point as we passed a river, one of my colleagues turned and pointed in the direction of what looked like a canyon and said, “That was a river.” I was surprised by this as I had never noticed so clearly the impact of global warming.

When my husband and I travelled to Philadelphia, we saw the Liberty Bell. But what I remember most of that trip was a re-enacted lecture we saw at one of the sites. I don’t remember where it was, or the name of it as it was several years ago. But it was a showcase of American History and touched on the American Revolution, the War of 1812 between Canada and the United States, and the American Civil War. The lecture was not one of the grandness of America but it was about the hard fought rights of liberty and democracy – and the ongoing fight for liberty for all that continued hundreds of years later for Native Americans, to abolish slavery, and with the Civil Rights Movement. Their was honesty within the history lesson that’s stayed with me years later.

I’m not an American. I’m a Canadian. But as I left the auditorium the building blocks of America swept through my mind and I felt misty eyed and tired on behalf of my neighbours.  Because they have a long and complicated history, with many hard won battles, and their people continue to fight for the ideals of freedom.

With each country I travel to, I find many people are typically keen to stop and help a visiting stranger in providing directions, offering advice, or starting a conversation with a stranger who is travelling alone so they’re not so lonely. We are different. But in many ways we are also the same. The differences shouldn’t separate us. It offers us the opportunity to share and to learn from one another.  That’s what makes this, “A Wonderful World.”

Keep Writing.

I have a confession: I sometimes get discouraged with this writing quest.  The epic battle for me commenced some seven years ago when I finally sat down with my weapons: computer, paper, pens; and a notebook to scribble writing-related-to-do lists, ideas for stories, and sometimes a part of my in-progress manuscript. (Oh, how I love thee Staples, supplier of writing essentials!) I had decided that was it: I was going to commit to writing.

In my early twenties and early thirties, I picked up writing a few times and then quickly threw it aside at various points in my life foregoing the writing adventure because it seemed impossibly difficult with a zero chance of success. I did not have a Journalism Degree. Neither had I majored in English Literature. Those were the people who wrote books: Not Administrative Assistants.  So I focused my aspirations on my full time job and with making time for family and friends.

By my late thirties multiple personal struggles had battered me but did not break me: changing jobs multiple times, my father’s death from lung cancer, and my brother’s accident that left him paralyzed transformed my outlook on life and made me realize whatever you want to do – do it now. Tomorrow is always the unknown.

After that, I diligently plopped my butt in my chair in front of my computer and within a year I produced a manuscript. I sent the manuscript to Literary Agents and some Publishers. They all rejected it. Then I thought perhaps I needed some help and recruited an Editor.

I thought I was on to something. I thought my stuff was funny and brilliant. My husband never finished reading the draft copy of the manuscript I gave him.  That should have been a clue. And what did the Editor say about my version of the next Time Travelling Best Seller? Well, it was far from being a Best Seller with more comments and red through the Word Document than I care to mention in this blog post.

What little ego I had, was bruised. (I swing wildly between 5% of the time thinking I’m the next J.K. Rowling, to the other 95% of the time wondering: What the heck am I doing?) Discouraged, I stepped back again. I spent some time licking my wounds and feeling sorry for myself. But oddly enough, I never stopped writing.

Then, I began writing short stories, accumulating a few, and then thought about creating a manuscript based on the stories that I’d created. I put a collection of short stories together and once it was complete, I went through the time-consuming process of researching Publishers that might consider it. I tailored each package based on the submission guidelines, shipped off the packages, chewed my fingernails, and waited. My second attempt to be published with a Publisher and I was rejected. Repeatedly.

BUT. There’s always a BUT. One Publisher sent me a hand-written rejection and the part that I (perhaps naively) focused on in the letter was this:

“But I would encourage you to keep working on this, and to keep showing it to other publishers.”

I received his letter around Christmas in 2014. When I read that part of the rejection, I danced around the dining room table. I’ve never been sure if my writing is good or not. And even today, doubts still linger. However, from the Editor’s hand-written few words on that note, I decided I would pick the strongest story in 1500 Words or Less: A Collection of Short Stories and send it off to a neutral third party (the Editor I had used to review my first manuscript was a friend) to get an honest opinion of my work. I paid for the review, critique, and revisions that came with it.

When I received the detailed write-up from this neutral third party I noticed she pointed out flaws in the story: incorrectly chosen words, punctuation errors, and she provided recommendations on how to improve the story. Overall though, she loved it, and thought I was a good writer.

The validation from the Editor provided some confirmation that I should continue with my writing. I would love to say that 1500 Words or Less was published by a big name Publisher. But that would be a lie. And above all else, I pride myself on telling the truth.

After more than a year of submissions, I decided to self-publish 1500 Words or Less. I would like to say my self-publishing endeavour became an overnight success and I became a New York Times Best Selling Author. But that would be the Fiction Writer in me that wrote that line in this blog post.

What have I accomplished in my quest to write? I’ve written MANY short stories, some better than others, and some of those tales even found homes in Literary Journals. I’ve created two different blogs with one that ran from 2016 to 2017 titled, Pushing Boundaries; the second is this one, Tortuous Tales. Then there is the research I’ve had to do on each Publisher, How to Draft Cover Letters, Synopsis and Query Letters. Finally, while my knowledge in this area is very limited: I’ve learned a little on how to market my stories. I’ve self-published three short stories on my own, and the collection of stories titled, 1500 Words or Less.  I’ve learned a lot.

A couple of months ago burnt out and high-strung after facing an onslaught of personal upheaval that lasted for nearly six months (because that’s the way it goes), I placed twenty pieces of paper in a hat. There were ten pieces of paper that said, “QUIT” and another ten that said, “KEEP WRITING”.  I know this next part sounds ridiculous. But I took the hat and shook the pieces of paper around. While I was doing this, I was emotionally distraught with anger and sadness at finally slamming the door on my impossible dream.  With twitching fingers, I grabbed the piece of paper and opened it to crinkled words expecting to see the word: QUIT.

But that’s not what it said. I breathed a sigh of relief when the Universe said, “KEEP WRITING”.

I know the Universe hasn’t decided that I’m a super-talented writer weaving magical words together that will reshape borders and save lives.  But maybe the Universe knows what I might have already known before I reached in and grabbed that piece of paper: that for me quitting is no longer an option. My life has already been rewritten, and I must KEEP WRITING.

I kept that rejection letter from the Publisher from 2014. Occasionally I’ll pull it out and read the words again. I also kept all the other template rejections as well as the ones that said, we enjoyed/were impressed by your writing. The template rejections remind me of how hard I’ve already worked, and how much time I’ve already committed to this endeavour. On other days when I doubt myself, I’ll find and read again the personally written rejections where the Editor ultimately rejected the story, but thought my writing was still good.

I also kept that piece of paper that said, “Keep Writing.” It’s taped on a wall next to my computer. It serves as a reminder that I had one day where I thought of giving it up and how unhappy that thought made me feel.

It also encourages me to always: keep writing.

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Common Sense Factor

“It is a matter of common sense. Surely, you know that.” His eyebrows are arched and his nose is elevated as he says the words that are drizzled with disdain towards her. The sound of his voice vibrates in the air as if the echo is meant to offer more credence to his know-it-all statement.

“Common sense is subjective, Nathaniel. It’s open to interpretation. It’s based on one person’s perspective and is the accumulation of one’s experiences. But everyone is shaped by different life events.  A rich man or woman can tell someone who’s poor, they shouldn’t steal food because they’ll break the law, and if they get caught, they’ll go to jail. But for someone who’s starving, common sense says that if they don’t eat, they’ll die.”

“You are talking about a specific case. But we are not talking about individuals; we are talking about the general population. It should be the common man’s experience that allows a person to make a decision. That is common sense.”

“You mean – the common sense of an affluent, white man’s experience?”

“I did not say that.”

“Funny – you talk like a pompous white man from the early 1900’s.”

“Why do you believe that?”

“Well, why did you say, I did not say that? You could have said, I didn’t say that.”

“Contractions are a lazy person’s way.”

“They’re more efficient, effective, and relatable. Contractions get the job done without taking up more space than needed. Also, they make words more relatable to the general population.”

His arms are clasped behind his back and he stiffens at the general population comment. “Never begin a sentence with, also,” his voice crackles sharply at her.

It’s exhausting this conversation; watching every word spoken to a man who believes himself the expert on all matters. “Why?” she asks tilting her head.

“It is not proper English. When speaking with others they make assumptions based on your language skills? They will believe you are daft.”

“Daft!” she shrieks with final exasperation.  “Where am I? What time period are you from? So, what you’re actually saying is: I’m dumb?”

“Dumb is a word said by those with little vocabulary skills.  If you are seeking another word – perhaps – dim-witted, would be a better choice?”

A shrill laugh escapes from her. She rubs her right hand over her eyebrow to smooth out the twitching in her eye that commenced with this conversation with Nathaniel. This exchange has already lasted longer than she wanted it to and there appears no hope of a quick resolution on the horizon. “So far you’ve said….”

“Never, begin a sentence with so,” Nathaniel’s cheekbones twitch. She’s sure the twitching in his face is because he’s trying to suppress a smile.

“So,” she starts again emphasizing the word more than ever this time around. It’s as if she’s picking a scab on his leg, and yes, she’s doing it deliberately trying to make it bleed by picking it. “You believe that common sense is derived from a common man’s experience, that contractions are a lazy person’s way, and that I’m dim-witted because I begin sentences with also, and so?”

“The point of my observations about your use of language was simply to instruct you. You must be aware of how others would perceive you in conversation.”

“Others? You mean, you?”

“Well, I don’t mean to sound arrogant…”

“Oh no, why stop now?”

“I do have an Intelligence Quotient (it is better known as the IQ test) that ranks in the same levels as Einstein.”

“Oh, do you? Well, I have a common woman’s brain. And I like it that way. I think it keeps me more likely to assume my position isn’t always correct, and open to other people’s perspectives. You know,” she smiles at him for beginning the sentence with you know because she’s certain he won’t like it, “it makes me more common, and hopefully, a little more connected to others.”

Ellis Island, 1938: He’s A Seventeen-Year-Old Man

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When my husband and I visited Ellis Island last November, I found something I wasn’t looking for there.

What I was looking for, was the first time my great-grandparents arrived and settled in the United States from Greece. My grandfather I knew was born in 1921 in the United States Midwest, and I knew he had several siblings who were most likely older than he was, and I made a feeble attempt to go back twenty years. I figured it wouldn’t be that hard – I would simply go back and search the early 1900’s and late 1800’s for their surname. My rational was this: the last name is fairly unique so it couldn’t be that hard to figure out the first names of my great-grandparents.

But there were MANY people listed with the same surname. And as I had no idea what my great-grandparent’s first names were, it made the task even more difficult. Frustrated, I decided simply to search the passenger lists for my grandfather’s name. My thinking was this: If they travelled back and forth and crossed at Ellis Island as a family and my grandfather was listed as a child with them, perhaps I would know my great-grandmother and great-grandfather’s given names based on association.  (From what I recall, my grandfather’s parents were well off.)

I never found this information. But what appeared before me was incredible. At least, it was to me. His name appeared on a list of passengers in June 1938 with his date of birth and the State he was born in. (It’s frustrating that I know so little of my grandfather’s life, in particular, because he lived next door to us for the first ten years of my life.) But I remember clearly his date of birth and that he was born in the Midwest.

My grandfather was a seventeen-year-old boy. As I sat at the computer and blinked at the screen, I mumbled to my husband, “That’s weird, because I know he fought for Greece in WWII.” It hadn’t occurred to me that even though my grandfather was born in the United States, he might have visited Greece now and again.

As I sat there, I had a vision of my grandfather in 1938: He was a young man with hair slicked back, holding a cigarette between his fingers, (my grandfather was a chain smoker) and he might have made some jokes with his brother that was travelling with him as they waited with thousands of other passengers at Ellis Island.

My grandpa’s whole life was before him. What did he think about back then? Did he meet my grandmother yet? Did he know the long shadow of war was descending across Europe?  Hitler had already risen to power in Germany in 1933. Did they already hear the deadly knock of machine guns and cannons going off again in countries that had barely recovered from the First Wold War?

Or was it simply a trip to visit his parents and other siblings that were located in the United States? Had he decided to relocate to Greece again? So, this might be a final hurrah, a last trip to drink with friends and family, go to dances, and meet young ladies and see where things might go from there?

I don’t know anything about this time frame in his life and little to nothing in terms of what he lived through in the war. And now, grandpa’s been gone for almost twenty years, and my father’s been dead for nearly ten. One night in my late twenties, when my father was alive, he tried to describe the details of what my grandfather had told him he’d lived through in the camps when he was captured by the Germans. I shut it down hastily.  I didn’t want to hear it. It was too dark, too sad, to be discussed. (No excuse, I know now, but it was the night before my marriage.)

My brother did a speech once when we were in primary school about my grandfather’s experience in WWII.  I know that my grandfather told me he was captured a few times by the Germans and managed to escape each time. What I didn’t know – that my brother told me a few years ago when he was still alive – was that one of the German soldiers released him.

The only other story that lives in my mind is this one: My grandfather said that when he was a prisoner in one of the camps the German soldiers took them out for exercise and would march them around in a circle. There was a woman in the group and she fell down once, and two soldiers helped her up. Then the same woman got to her feet and started walking again, only to collapse a second time. The soldiers once again, helped her to her feet. Walking again in a circle with the other prisoners, she collapsed a third time. This time the soldiers did not help her up. They shot her.

I wish I would have listened better. I wish I would have asked more questions. What I didn’t realize as a child was the finality of life – that when a person leaves, they take those stories with them. And just like dust, the life, the stories, the experience of that person dies with them, and is scattered in the wind as if it never happened.