Kombucha in the Urals: A Month of Memories

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(ZME Science: Image of Kombucha, Colorado State University)

The first time I tasted kombucha I was throwing up in a trashcan in a mountain town in western Siberia known for its natural anthrax growth and for being that last remaining gulag stronghold. I had what was called “the Russian flu,” at the time and my friend, a Russian native, insisted that this stuff–that tasted like a mixture of warm spit and cherry juice–could “heal my bones.” And because my bones ached like they’d been crushed by the violent and rickety wheels of the Tran Siberian Railroad, from which we’d embarked only hours ago, I drank it down. The homespun vodka he’d laced it with helped me to bypass that unique kombucha flavor–the feeling of something lumpy that had already been digested by someone else–and I just kept drinking until the fizz died down and the bits of fermented brown mushroom disappeared down my throat. If it isn’t lumpy and warm, it isn’t really kombucha. Not the Russian standard, anyway.

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What’s weird about this memory (besides the fact that it’s totally disgusting) is that it was sunken deep inside the forgetful part of my brain until another friend, in a mountain town in eastern Pennsylvania, dug it up about 20 years later. I was no longer a 16-year-old American, hiding my wishfully clandestine MIG photos from the tiny inept KGB officer that was assigned to follow our group around in the drippy, humid Siberian air in a trench coat. I was 30ish now. The June heat in Pennsylvania didn’t keep the sun aloft until well past midnight like it just halfway between the Arctic Circle and the Black Sea. It was dark by 10pm flat, I had four children now, a husband, I had owned two homes already, I went to college, I had written my first novel. I’d been a writer for more than a decade, in fact. Something I’d promised my Russian friend I would become as soon as I returned home to the United States. Russia tells so many stories, he told me. Just choose one and dance with it.

I remembered a lot about Russia, but I didn’t remember the taste of kombucha until my farmer friend, the one with dirt always under her fingernails and who thought hair brushes were for sissies, shoved a tinted glass mason jar in my face. Try this. Tell me if it’s authentic.You’re the Russian expert. Am I?

The foam from the greenish mountain fungus floated to the top, spilling over the ridge. The scent of sour feet singed my nostrils. Once again, I was sickened, but something inside me was also curious. It was like slowly recognizing an old relative at the family reunion. Something about this encounter made me clutch the jar in both hands and bring it to my lips. This is familiar! I said, cocking my head to the right. I know this!

And that instance, there she was. Russia. She was standing in front of me, smirking, laughing. You’re still a wimp. I drank it down. I threw  up. I was home.

This is generally how I run into her again. Not the friend. We’re actually not even friends anymore. Politics took care of that. But Russia–we’re connected. Friendship has nothing to do with it. It’s all about family reunions. It’s about where my ancestors came from. Where my ancestors fled from, if you want to know the truth. It’s about why I get recognized by Slavs a mile away. Not because I smell like authentic kombucha (I’d have even less friends), but because like the mushroom, Russia sprouts in my life and makes connections at the weirdest times. Family reunions.

So, since I’ve spectacularly failed at my own monthly blogging challenge, friends, I wonder if I might be able to deflect from my failure by demanding a challenge from you: Write about a sensory memory that draws you back somewhere far, somewhere you’d thought you’d left behind long ago. What smell, touch, taste, smell, sight draws you back? Let’s make what’s left of January the Month of Memories.

Write and share, and drink your pansy American kombucha. But that pretty little fizz ain’t remotely authentic enough to change anything. Sorry to break it to you, tough hippies.

July 4th

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It’s the 4th of July and the cloudless sky is filled with flickers of distant bursts of red, white and blue explosions. The puffs they leave behind float in trails above the rounded maple and the tall stately oak trees. Pennsylvania celebrates the independence it birthed 241 years ago. In a handsome brick building with a spire like a church building, the men who signed the Declaration of Independence stood around in tights and wigs, hyped up on dreams of keeping their money safe from the King’s tax demands. Future generations would add more depth to their original desires for financial freedoms. The common man would add the demand for racial equality, immigration and women’s rights, fair labor laws and a security program for the disabled and elderly. We would improve upon the original ideas of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. It’s not likely that the men who presented it to King George anticipated that the great-great grandchildren of their slaves, North and South, would one day demand freedom or that women like their wives would have the power to vote. But things have happened despite the wishes of the “founding fathers”. Thank God. They were geniuses, no doubt, but they were far from ideal human beings. They did have the forethought to anticipate change, and for that, I really love them.

As I drove home from a small 4th of July celebration with only my family, I couldn’t help but notice a much lesser number of flags hanging on front doors and porches and a decidedly less enthused America remembering its revolutionary past. I don’t care who you are, if you think America is in a good place right now, you’re not paying attention. There’s an overall sense of apprehension, a heaviness, about where we are going and what the future holds for this imperfect nation we love. People aren’t celebrating our heritage and independence like we did even a year ago today. We’re less proud right now. A great many of us are ashamed of our present image in the world, of our ghastly president who acts like deranged baboon. How did we get here? is a statement I’ve heard repeated continuously since last November. The countdown to 2018 and 2020 is ticking pensively every day in millions of worried minds across the nation.

We’ve done so many great things in our history. We’ve done so many horrible things too. Our present is proof that we are capable of great mistakes. My prayer is that life gets better for People of Color, for immigrants, for members of the LGBT community, for women and children and for the men who support them in every way.  For all Americans. My prayer on this 4th of July is that God will free of us our present state and present leadership and give us statesmen like Lincoln or FDR, or better yet–a stateswoman–and that we’ll remember that it’s the tired and the poor who have really made us great, the workers and the worn-down patriots who volunteer to defend the freedoms we aim to realize completely. Our greatness has never left us (contrary to some political sales gimmicks) but our pride is deflated.

God bless us all in 2017, and God bless America.

Creating Authenticity in Your Characters

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It’s no secret that Hemingway is my favorite writer. From the very first day, during my freshman year of college, when the sun was shining clear and warm through the English department window and I was waiting for my grumpy, eczema-encrusted advisor to give me advice about dropping my “lame duck degree” as he called it, I had decided Hemingway was “it”. He understood things. He said them in a way that sounded like they were coming from my own head.

I was bored and there were no cell phones then, so I picked up my Norton’s Anthology of American Lit and it fell open to “A Clean Well Lighted Place” and I started to read. I knew that my professor didn’t like Hemingway and I loved my professor. She was wonderful, and she encouraged me, every time we spoke about literature, to “always keep writing.” But the minute I began to read Hemingway, I knew why she didn’t favor him over Tennyson, which she had us read often in class. She didn’t favor Hemingway, because he wrote from his brokenness and Hemingway was very broken. But he expressed his losses, his sadnesses, in such beautiful words, and I found that I would read the same line two and three times just to get the feel of the sentence on my tongue. This is how you know you’re reading a writer who writes the way you think: The words compel you to study them and read them over and over, to look for that “thing” that’s capturing your attention so. You know, without a doubt, that you’re finding yourself in there somewhere. Maybe not even in the setting or the characters, but in the cadence of the writer’s voice.

My life was a pretty broken one, too, even though I was a good kid who didn’t drink, swear, or sleep around. Still, something about Hemingway’s words lodged inside my writer brain and stayed there. I wasn’t partier, like Hemingway, and I certainly am not a risk-taker, like he was either. I didn’t hunt large or small game, or brag. Pride has never been a talent of mine. But I was not like the other students at my small Christian college. I realized that immediately, when I discovered that most of them had never been the designated “bloody Mary mixer” at the family Christmas party when they were seven years old. They all spoke quieter, too, with soft Southern voices and did their nails every night. I had a Southern mother who did her nails, but I grew up in southern California, where beauty was cultivated by the sun and good food, not from lacquered nails. The goal was always to wear make-up so that it looked like none was there and that you were healthier than everyone else in your company. I had four parents, each from a different culture and religion, and I had lived in five states by the time I was 18, and I had family who were alcoholics and religious fanatics, so yeah, I came from brokenness, too. Weird, beautiful brokenness, that I would not trade for anyone’s else’s perfection or quietness or lacquered nails. That’s all just a form of brokenness anyway. I’m glad that I know how to mix Bloody Mary’s better than most people I know. It’s all muscle memory now.

I still have brokenness. We all do. This is something that Hemingway understood from the time his mother dressed him in little girl clothes and made sit for family portraits that way.  He understood that he was broken even more when his leg got all shot up in Italy during the Great War, when he loved an older woman while he was recovering, a nurse, and she rejected him, because he was young and didn’t know anything and couldn’t possibly take care of her. And unlike so many other writers of his era, he knew that he couldn’t do anything about changing that broken past, so he used it to carve out good writing. People were drunks. People had affairs. People were depressed. People prayed. People hated and people loved. But the sun was still shining and the weather split through the humanity of all that. Just when he shocks you with a characters’ addictions, he lets the sun shine through the arguments and conversations, and he reminds you, me, and him, that the world still spins despite our human recklessness.

“They sat together at a table that was close against the wall near the door of the cafe’ and looked at the terrace where the tables were all empty except where the old man sat in the shadow of the leaves of the tree that moved slightly in the wind” (Hemingway)

See how he makes the wind enter into the story and he creates shadows and light with it? He reminds us that Nature is bigger than we are, even as much as we believe we can control all things. I love how he did this. I have learned that if you can bring the wind and light, rain and fresh mountain air, into the movements of your characters, they will take better shape. The sun will give them their size and the crunching autumn leaves will give their walk rhythm and your reader will hear them coming.

So, when you’re writing something new, after you’ve finished the general narrative, stand back and look at it. Literally, stand up. Get out of the seat. Print a few pages. One chapter, maybe, and read out loud to yourself. Where is Nature missing in your piece? How are your characters’ senses effected by their natural surroundings? That will make all the difference in how you describe them. It will give them life just as Nature is literally giving us life at this very moment. That’s reality entering your fiction and allowing the reader to identify with it. Then, the brokenness of your characters, and their redemption too, will have more authenticity and won’t just look like you’re trying to affect something real. They will be real, just as you, who writes them, is real.

References:

http://www.url-der.org/a_clean_well_lighted_place.pdf

Characters Matter

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A couple months ago, I announced that I was going to quit writing. Some of you don’t care (so, why are you even reading this?) and others wonder why. I know it probably sounds, to some, like I’m a bit erratic, that I’m sudden in my creative movements. But I’m really not. There was a reason, and it was a long time coming. However, I’ve started to write again, because honestly, it’s part of me and what I’ve been doing (paid and unpaid) since 1996.  The world has gone kind of crazy, too, so I feel like I have to say something about that. As a teller of tales, how do I exactly stay away from big stories–good and bad?

Even though I’m “back” now, I’m back kind of reluctantly. Not because I’m reluctant to write. I love writing. It’s what I do. Even the very day I decided I was to “quit writing” I went out and bought a huge notebook and it’s filled now, along with two others, with notes on things I was thinking about. I’m sort of like a turtle. My shell is quite tough; you can even run over me, and I’m likely to be remain intact. But, I have to bring my head in, from time to time, to protect it. I bet even Nora Roberts takes a vacation, even though rumors say she doesn’t.

I get punched (mostly by family, long time friends and fellow writers), and I take it all in, all the guilt and all the shortcomings. They’re all my fault (even when they’re not), and I embrace them, but I embrace them within myself. I stew there and return when I’ve cut away some bits of me of that bring me discomfort.

I have endured some pretty virulent attacks from writers at a former publisher I worked with, because I challenged their “unique” approach to publishing. It wasn’t working for me and most of their hundreds of writers. I posted a pro/con list. I was, essentially, blacklisted. I was called a liar and a lot of other things by people who knew me and didn’t. There were some terrible things said, friends who still had my back told me, but I left right away, retreated into my shell early, so I don’t even know what the worst things were. That made me delete several hundred social media contacts in self-preservation. I shaved a good portion of my personality and left it on the cutting floor. It’s blown away by now. I’m really not sure how else to deal with such things. It seems the best option, the quietest way to stop the noise.

A cousin of mine had words with me over the summer about a post I wrote about parents raising their kids to be bullies, or at least, not dealing with their children who are bullies. My children are only half-white. My daughter’s bullying experience was because she was not white, and I expressed this. My cousin shot me down. She said I was wrong. Bullying has nothing to do with racism, all kids–especially mine–needed to experience a little more hardship. She said this even though we’d never met in person, even though she’s thousands of miles from me.  I stewed, but I didn’t say anything more about it. I retreated.

The presidential campaign happened. The same cousin made her thoughts on “the other side” quite clear. If you disagreed with her, you were just an unreasonable, nasty person. I stewed. A lot of people disagreed, because they felt they hadn’t been heard.

The election came, she made a statement that hurt me, though it was aimed nowhere near me. I took it personally, because I chose to and because it related to how I felt about the election results at the time. I unfriended her. Not because I didn’t want her around anymore, but because I assumed she would be better off without me. She’d made it pretty clear for several months, that I was no longer part of her inside circle, that I was on the opposite side of her fence. She didn’t appreciate that assessment from me, “If you’d come down off your high horse, you’d realize that no one cares what you think. Your words don’t matter.”

There was a lot more, but that last line I took inside with me to my shell, and I went silent. I had no desire to write anything. I don’t mind defending others. I have no fear, whatsoever, about that, but I hate coming to my own defense. She’s right, and I knew it. No one cares what I have to say. I’m not important, but I don’t pretend to be or think I am either, so I didn’t get sad. I just didn’t have any feeling about any of it anymore, and I quit writing.

I have a degree in Cognitive Studies. I have several years of experience teaching, tutoring and offering behavioral therapy to people with autism (mostly on a volunteer basis). I figured I could do that from now on and leave the writing to people whose words are important. However, I have a neuromuscular disease called Myasthenia Gravis, so leaving my house consistently is, also, not practicle, so guess what? Guess who’s still inside her shell, but inside with her laptop? I can handle critics and reviewers. I love a good editing from someone who wants to shape my story well, or who has good advice on what scenes and characters to cut, but I don’t handle personal attacks well. I don’t usually fight back, but I do lose some of myself each time. I can’t help it. I was just grown this way.

Yes, for the seven people who care, I’m still writing and I’m still submitting and I’m still trying to figure out how to customize my personal Facebook page so sharply that it prevents about 80% of my readers from seeing what I’m saying. My existence offends people sometimes, and I’m kind of tired of that, so those who know me in the flesh will see less of me. And those who know me online will see some of me. But those who read my stories will see more of me. It’s there where you will find me, and that’s probably how things will stay. This election year has taken a lot out of me, and a lot of other people I know, too. After a time inside the shell, I’ve realized that I’d much rather write than talk, and I definitely don’t enjoy posting at all, but I will do that sometimes anyway. After all, social media is where everything is now, like it or not.

I am finishing up The Embers of War series, my prose is in a new Feminine Collective anthology called Love Notes and I have a new women’s commercial fiction piece that I will be submitting to a couple of agents soon enough. It takes place in the land of my childhood, southern California, where my imagination wants to go when I need warmth and free smiles. We shall see what becomes of it. Thank you to those who have stuck around. My characters have much to say, and they’re grateful for the attention.

The End.

Love Notes From Humanity: The Lust, Love and Loss Collection

 

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My poem “Sapling” is in this stunning collection, Love Notes (available at Amazon), created by so many talented writers and friends. Happy month of Love, everyone

“I believe that every one of the writers and the words that they are willing to share with you, dear reader, are a gift for all of humanity.”–Julie Anderson, Publisher, Feminine Collective

 

(From the publisher)

Love.
It’s the complex chemistry of a blind heart and a dreamy mind.
Love is a shapeshifter. Love walks along the same path as hate. Love makes us whole. Love makes us weak. Love drives us to insanity. Love can be a curse. Love is a miracle. Love is a universal language.

This collection of poems takes the reader on a journey through the complexities of that simple four letter word.
Curated by FeminineCollective.com, many from this collection have been published on the site since its beginning. Others you will read are new pieces that were written just for this collection.

The writers of these poems are award-winning Authors, Journalists, Bloggers and Activists, while others are previously unknown artists. The voices of the forty-four contributors are diverse. The poems are a collective made from a global community. The authors are from Canada, Central America, The United Kingdom, The United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, South Africa and The United States.

Written by women and men, between the ages of fifteen and seventy, each poem is unique in every respect. They are raw and unfiltered accounts of each poet’s feelings regarding, the love of a child, the loss of a family member, sex, dating, marriage, divorce and finding love for one’s self.

The Poets:
Julie Anderson, SA Smith, John Michael Antonio, Jacqueline Cioffa, Richard De Fino, Nicole Lyons, Stephanie Ortez, Dori Owen, Dave Pacailler, Elizabeth Regen, Natasha Alexander, Ericka Arthur, Margret Avery, Paakhi Bhatnagar, Susan P. Blevins, Nan Byrne, Lela Casey, Natalie N.Caro, Rebecca Charlotte, Rachael Convery, Sandy Coomer, Kelley Cooper, Wendy C. Garfinkle, Megan Garner, Katherine Grudens, HastyWords, Darla Halyk, Clementine Heath, Tennessee Hill, F.K. Jadoon, H.M. Jones, Veronica Mattaboni, Peter M. Olsen, Jessica Rinker, Kim Sisto Robinson, Icess Fernandez Rojas, Brianna Scott, Tabitha Stirling, C. Streetlights, Rachel Thompson, Valerie Vaughn, Tiffani Burnett-Velez, Elizabeth Kirkpatrick Vrenios, Catherine Zickgraf.

Free Books and Writing News!

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Hey, My Dear Readers, all my novels are free on Kindle from 2/2-2/6/2017, as is one short story and a novella. I have some new stuff coming out soon, so if you’re interested in diving into WWII Berlin with a tormented 19-year-old woman, or trying to sort out reality vs. fiction with a Holocaust survivor at the edge of the Cold War, or vacationing in 2007 Central Europe with a woman who’s on the run from a life she never wanted, in the meantime, you can head on over to my Amazon author page and check these stories out amazon.com/author/tiffaniburnettvelez

Graciela and Abuela

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I am who I am because of Graciela and her bright red sash and because of her Abuela, the old woman with the melted candlestick.

The old woman who used to braid her granddaughter’s hair in log rope twists and drag the candle down the aisle at the old Spanish church and pray to the La Virgen for the day when her life would be worth something. She added wax and remolded it when it was still warm from midnight prayers, keeping it there, keeping the promise of baptism against her breast.

Do you renounce Satan? I do, I do.
Do you renounce this world and all its lies? I do, I do.

And the candle melted and the prayers fell down the sides like blood from a broken heart…(Read more at The Feminine Collective)

New Kindle Short Story Coming Soon!

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I made an announcement, not too long ago, that the Embers of War would be published by FC Publishing, but that has changed. FC is a WONDERFUL publisher, a fantastic literary voice for women everywhere, but Annalise Bergen, and the others, will be published in a different capacity. More info on that to come (but you should all keep reading FC!). In the meantime, a short story by Yours Truly is coming soon to Kindle. Some of Annalise Bergen’s neighbors, the other women of Berlin, have spoken up and you’ll get a brief window into their lives in this short, World War II thriller.

And it will be released in Spanish as well!

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Free Webinar: How To Make a Living As An Online Freelance Writer, Part I

Freelancing

A lot of people have asked me over the years to guide them through their freelance writing careers. I’ve been doing this since 1996, so I’ve learned a lot of tips and skills for making a living as a freelancer. If you’re interested in learning more about it, as well, register for my webinar below. Bring all your questions, doubts, and a good pencil, because you’ll walk away with more notes than you imagined.

Please register for my FREE webinar next Wednesday, How To Make a Living As an Online Freelance Writer Part I: Using Services Like Upwork, Guru and Fivver on Jun 8, 2016 7:00 PM EDT at: 

https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/2775153429909709313

Have an MFA or a degree in English? Sick of your non-writing day job? In this webinar Amazon bestselling author, and 20 year veteran freelance writer, Tiffani Velez, will reveal some very important tips for launching a successful work-from-home Writing Career.

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

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