October 31, 2017

Bzdury: The next chapter of the Poland Project

Two years ago, The Poland Project found me.

I think there are ideas that you discover, and there are ideas that find you. Writing
 a novel based on my grandparents’ experiences in World War II feels like the latter.

After my mother handed me that stack of brittle yellow typewriter paper, I translated my grandfather’s memoirs. I read books about the war. I took a fiction writing class, then another. I bought a new computer and fancy writing software. I visited Poland.

The only thing left to do was write.

I’m generally confident with words
. I like the way my voice sounds in work emails and PowerPoints, and my mom still calls me for the perfect phrasing for thank-you cards.

But when I wrestled myself into a chair, put my fingers onto the keyboard, and tried to write about Poland... I faltered.

Suddenly, I forgot how books worked. I pounded out paragraphs and was embarrassed by how bad they were.

My inner critic was bilingual, shouting at me for writing “Bzdury!” Nonsense.

Reading novels wasn't fun anymore because even the bad ones were so much better than anything I was writing. The gap between my taste and my skill was a chasm, and I fell in.

At the recommendation of several people, I picked up the book “Bird by Bird,” by Anne Lamott. I’m currently reading the chapter titled “Shitty First Drafts.” That’s exactly where I am in my own writing process.

I am also in the process of forgiving myself for not being a good fiction writer. This isn’t false modesty; it’s the liberating humility of admitting that I don’t know what I’m doing and I need help.

I write like a journalist, hurrying to the essence of the scene and pushing my characters through doors without stopping to smell the air outside or examine the doorway. Only occasionally do they remember to knock.

I write like a social media user, a character count ticker running in my head. When it hits 140, the extra words turn red. I remove them.

I write like a blogger, inserting my voice into scenes that aren’t about me, and grasping at some insight that people similar to me might find relatable.

I don’t know how to write like a novelist.


This morning, I made a big commitment. I signed up for a year-long, intensive writing program through The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Several friends had pointed me to this program, and I kept dismissing the idea: It’s too expensive. Too time-consuming. I’m not qualified. There are only eight spots, and it fills up fast.

I decided to try, telling myself that if the class sold out before I could register, it just wasn’t meant to be. I’m one of the lucky eight.

Starting in February, I’ll trade my free time for the support of instructors and fellow writers. My evenings and weekends will fill up with class assignments and hours with my hands on a keyboard and my mind in World War II Poland. I know there will be times when I ask myself why I’m doing this.

I’m doing it for my grandparents, who wrote down their stories so they could be remembered. I’m doing it for my mom, who has shared vulnerable pieces of herself with me so I could better understand our history. I’m doing it for my kids, so they know the pursuit of dreams is a lifelong journey.

Mostly, I’m doing this for me. I wanted to finish this book before April, in time for my 40th birthday. Instead I’ll turn 40 as a student, learning how to refine my voice for writing the next chapter. That’s exactly where I want to be.

October 5, 2017


I just finished Whole30, which is a 30-day commitment to not consume any sugar, alcohol, grain, dairy, soy, or legumes. What does that leave? Veggies, meat, fish, fruit, nuts, and more veggies.

This is the second time I’ve completed this endeavor. The first time was two years ago, and I wrote about it with the breathless enthusiasm of somebody discovering how to eat “real” food for the first time.

This time, I was a little more cynical.

I’d been around this block, and I knew where I ended up. I kept a few of my Whole30 habits, like ditching artificial sweetener, but I skipped the part about reintroducing foods slowly and celebrated my first weekend off the program with pizza and moscato and maybe some ice cream.

I know.

It took me two years to muster up the courage to try again. I knew there was a kernel of magic in this program, something that I wasn’t finding in my attempts at weight loss through calorie counting and carb cutting and intense exercise. I remembered the peace and well-being.

I also remembered the things that were hard last time: the days of physical withdrawal punctuated by crushing headaches. The social isolation. That time I cried in IKEA because I was hangry and I couldn’t eat anything there and I didn’t know which bookshelf I wanted and why was I foolish enough to go to IKEA on a Saturday along with 40,000 other people?

I started with some skills up my sleeve. I knew the lingo; R2D2 is not just a droid, but also Whole30 shorthand for “Round 2, Day 2.” I had favorite recipes on Pinterest and Lara Bars in my pantry. I had an Instant Pot, and I knew how to use it.

My secret weapon is my husband Sam, who would never post a blog like this, but was 100% committed to Whole30 and knocked this thing out of the park.

What we did

We cooked really tasty food. Our kitchen was simmering with fragrant coconut milk curries, veggie-laden soups, and tender roasts falling apart in the Instant Pot.

The kids ate the same dinners as us 90% of the time, with an occasional hot dog night when we were eating something too far outside their comfort zones (or I didn’t want to share the bacon-wrapped scallops). They tried new recipes and fell in love with kalua pork, Felix dubbing himself the Pork Monster. 

It was easier than I remembered. The headache lasted one day instead of five, I felt more energy by the end of the first week, and I knew to stay away from IKEA.

We didn’t cut ourselves off from fun. Friday cocktail night became Friday Netflix night. Saturdays, we went out to dinner with friends. It felt strange at first to order grilled fish and unsweetened tea while our friends enjoyed burgers and bourbon, or tacos and margaritas, but these outings are about the company. We talked, we laughed, and we woke up without hangovers the next day.

Sam and I learned an important lesson from last time. We didn’t think of October 5 as the end, but the beginning of our next healthy chapter. We had long, thoughtful conversations about which pre-Whole30 foods and behaviors we’d welcome back into our lives, which ones we’d enjoy in moderation, and which ones we are tossing overboard. Friday cocktail night is special enough to bring back, but vodka soda is the default drink instead of sugary cocktails. Ice cream is a thing we occasionally take the kids out for, not a staple we keep in our freezer. Pizza is a once-a-month treat instead of a weekly one, and only the good stuff. Frozen pizza is dead to us.

My results

I lost 13 pounds and reduced my waist by 4 inches. I can’t fit into any aspirational jeans and my body doesn’t look remarkably different, but I can see a change in my face.


My complexion is where my Whole30 results are the most obvious. I took this “Look how tired I don’t look” selfie at the end of a long work day, when I was still feeling fresh and bright.


The biggest benefits aren’t visible from the outside. My energy is steady, and I don’t crash in the afternoons anymore. The mental fog has lifted and I’m able to think through things – including my own emotions – with focus and clarity. I feel present in my body in a way that I didn’t before.

Fixing my nutrition didn’t fix my life. But it's a start.

I haven’t felt like my shiny, sunny self for several months. My summer trip to Poland was a bright spot, but I fell into a darker place after returning home. I can’t point to a single thing that’s causing this, but a combination of emotions stirred up by turning 40 next year, parenting a pre-teen, writing a World War II novel, witnessing the American political and cultural climate, and trying to figure out how I want to live in this world.

We all have things that we use to fill the holes in ourselves. Some people exercise, some people buy things they don’t need, some people do drugs. I eat. Food is my shortcut to pleasure, followed by regret and shame. It’s an emotional roller coaster that distracts me from real issues that are trickier to sort out.

Eating vegetables and meat for a month didn’t solve my problems, but it did give me the mental clarity to better understand them.

The first time I did Whole30, I felt triumphant. I wouldn’t use that word to describe myself today.

After Round 2, I feel awake. I feel self-aware. I feel ready to move forward.

July 1, 2017

Day 11: Closing acknowledgements

The final blog of my Poland trip is dedicated to my traveling companions. As I sit in a Warsaw hotel on the eve of our flight home, I am overwhelmed with appreciation for them.


She learned the Polish words lody (ice cream), niegazowane (non-carbonated water), tak (yes), nie (no), and dzienkuje (thank you).

She became instant friends with her second cousins, a sweet pair of girls whose English vocabulary far exceeds Evie’s Polish.

She tried new foods, much more bravely than I did at her age.

She befriended Polish dogs, even though she’s always been more of a cat person.

She helped us as navigator, key master, coin carrier, and unpacker of things.

She sat politely in rooms full of adults speaking a foreign language, through dinners that went on for hours. Her patience grew a little thin toward the end, but I was impressed by how long she lasted.

She embraced castles, old churches, and historic sites with genuine curiosity and respect.

She did as she was told, even when it meant ceding the MacBook to me in the middle of a Sim's wedding so that I could write my blog.

She made me laugh every single day.

My Mom.

She left the comfort of her condo in Fargo for 12 days of foreign travel, with the extra baggage of a broken foot and the emotional weight of returning to the country of her youth for the first time in 20 years.

She remained calm (at least on the surface) when I drove our 6-speed Skoda wagon along fast-moving highways, over narrow mountain roads, and into the most improbable of parking spaces.

She introduced me to cousins who became friends, shared stories of times long past, and helped me understand where our family came from and how we fit in.

She was always supportive of stopping for lody.

With a cast on her foot, she navigated narrow apartment stairways, uneven garden paths, and old cobblestone streets.

She sent me and Evie off for some adventures on our own, but she found creative ways to join us and do the things that mattered most. I’ll always remember our guided golf cart tour of Krakow.

She accepted help when it was difficult to do so.

She showed her kindness and generosity every step of the way, from reconnecting with long-lost friends and family to befriending our Ukrainian hotel maid.

I am honored to be in the middle of this 3-generation traveling party.

Evie and my mom both came here, not just with me, but also for me. For that, and for them, I will always be grateful.

June 29, 2017

Day 8-9: Zapraszamy

I blame the lack of yesterday's blog on Polish hospitality. At 2 a.m., full of food and wine and good cheer, the only words I could find were Polish ones. Specifically, one, which I learned this week: Zapraszamy. The literal translation is "We invite you," but it means so much more.

Here is what I have learned about Polish hospitality. 

I've learned that my mother's insistence on feeding guests copious amounts of food and beverage isn't a personality quirk; it's a cultural norm.

No matter where we go, we are greeted with a spread of food. It doesn't matter if it's a meal time or not.

Welcoming nighttime snacks at my aunt's home

We visited some relatives at 3 p.m., which is fruit and dessert hour.

Polish strawberries are in season; I can't get enough of them.

It's not just the food that flows abundantly, but the conversation too. Our coffee visit spilled over into late afternoon, at which point it was time for sausage, bread, and home-infused plum vodka.

Sausage, bread, and vodka hour needs to become a thing.

All of this visiting made for a late dinner at my other cousin's house, which of course had more food and abundant wine.

And more wine.

The amount of care that goes into feeding guests isn't lost on me. My cousin grilled hamburgers and hot dogs to help my little American girl feel at home, and his wife made me a special portion of vegetable salad without onions.

My aunt made a special trip to the farmers' market across town in search of jagody, a tiny forest berry that is perfect in pierogi. They are similar to American blueberries but smaller, more flavorful, and can only be picked by hand from the forests where they grow.

Not my photo, but it's helpful to illustrate the difference.

Jagody got the Evie seal of approval.

I am not sure of all the protocol of being a good Polish guest, but it seemed right to help our hosts finish the open wine after dinner. Even my mother, who normally prefers early bedtimes and sobriety, stayed up until midnight drinking with us. 

I grew up without really knowing my extended family. My parents fled Poland illegally, and were not allowed to return throughout my childhood. My grandmothers and a couple of cousins visited us in America or Western Europe a few times, but the language and distance barriers made it hard for me to keep close relationships. The last time I was here, it was 1993 and I was a moody teenager.

I am overjoyed to discover that my relatives don't hold a grudge about those lost decades. They seem as happy to have us here as we are to be here. I have received invitations to return here, to bring my husband, to visit cousins in other parts of Poland and Europe. I'm getting Facebook friend requests from long-lost relatives, and I am hearing the warmest word that I've learned on this trip: Zapraszamy

June 28, 2017

Day 7: Things I learned about driving in Poland

There are three speeds on Polish highways:     
  1. 147 km per hour in the left lane while the Mercedes driver behind you flashes his lights because you’re driving too slowly
  2. 68 km per hour in the right lane behind an enormous tourist coach from Greece or a semi truck from Slovakia
  3. 0 km per hour because there’s a little old man ambling through the crosswalk with a cane in one hand and a cigarette in the other

If you get off the highway in search of ice cream without a destination in mind, you might find yourself stuck behind this guy:

My mom snapped this photo from the passenger seat.

But you might also find views like these:

Polish cows, or krowy

In big cities, you’ll have to share the road with trains, pedestrians, and cyclists.

Which lane would you choose? 
Parking on the sidewalk is just fine.

Do what you need to do.

Waze works in Poland, but the navigation narrator has a different voice and doesn’t even try to pronounce street names.

Charming road signs will tell you when you're leaving a town, unlike American signs, which give no sense of closure:

Farewell, Zakopane.

Even more charming signs will warn you about horse-drawn carriages:


If you see a Karczma by the side of the road, it’s a place that serves traditional Polish food.

A "bar" is a restaurant.

Even the sketchiest roadside convenience stores probably have fresh bread and more meat options than the average American deli:

This place had a surprisingly fancy meat counter.

Gas station convenience stores sell hot dogs and candy, but they're just a little bit different.

At the end of a long day’s drive, there’s nothing like arriving to a house full of relatives and a home cooked meal. 

Relatives not pictured; stay tuned for tomorrow's blog.

June 26, 2017

Day 6: The Next Stop on our Tour is Zakopane

We did not go 135 meters underground into a salt mine, nor did we go to the top of a 1,120 meter mountain. In spite of our plans to do both, Earth kept us on her surface today.

On our way out of Krakow, the three of us attempted to visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine, one of the rare tourist destinations in this area that my mom had never been to before. After transportation hassles too dull to account here, we learned that the wheelchair-accessible tour only ran twice a day and we were either 2 hours late or 6 hours early. My mom could not climb 800 steps on a fractured foot, and leaving her behind for 2 hours was out of the question.

I felt bad about not researching the mine tours more carefully before showing up there.

Traffic made our 2-hour drive to Zakopane into a 4-hour one. By the time we arrived, it was probably just as well we hadn’t stayed longer at the mine. Everyone was weary. Even good-natured Evie, usually up for everything, asked if she could skip dinner and have some relaxing time alone.

While my tired tween recharged, my mother and I ate our fanciest meal of the trip; she had traditional flaki which she hadn’t tasted in almost 20 years. She stopped cooking it after my dad died; she didn’t see the point when nobody else was there to enjoy it with her. I tried a Polish duck dish, but couldn’t bring myself to have tripe with my mom.

After dinner, Evie wanted to take a cable car to the top of a mountain, but we got lost and walked in circles for half an hour before realizing we were too late. Instead, I bought her cotton candy and pizza, and I felt bad about not researching the cable car schedule more carefully.

There’s a group of Americans staying at our hotel. They’re on a two-week guided tour through Poland. I'm a little jealous. They don’t have to drive winding mountain roads in silent prayer to the patron saint of manual transmissions (St. Frances of Rome) or figure out how to open the gas tank of a rental car. They don’t have to know when things are open or how accessible they are. These tourists have paid someone else to sort out the details, and they just show up and enjoy. I asked a couple of them for directions to the mountain cable car, and they shrugged: “We just got dropped off there.”

Then I look through the pictures of my day and remember where I am and how I got here.

I’m in a charming town in the scenic Tatra Mountains.

There are carts on every corner selling hunks of delicious cheese.

My daughter didn’t get to a mountaintop, but she did have some moments of pure joy.

My mother didn’t get to explore the salt mine, but she did get to eat ice cream with her granddaughter and traditional Polish food with her daughter.  

I even got a non-selfie photo of me, the first of my trip.

I’m not a perfect tour guide, but I think I’m doing OK. I am going to allow myself to be proud of how far I have gotten us, and how much fun we have had.

St. Frances, I hope you’re ready to help us get to Lodz tomorrow, where my aunts and cousins will enthusiastically greet us - and take over as tour guides.