Forum Holitorium

Lenzingtide

Happy spring! Though I peeked my head out of the cave in February, I retreated back into my lair until spring arrived. The German word for spring is Frühling (früh = early). In Austria you often hear the word Frühjahr (“early year”) as well, most commonly in connection with Frühjahrsmüdigkeit (“spring fatigue or lethargy”). This refers to the tiredness many feel this time of year attributable to hormonal changes that occur as the body emerges from winter mode and wakes up again. The flip side of spring fever, I suppose. Another older word for spring that mainly appears in song and poetry is Lenz, short for the word Lenzing (“long day”) that was formerly used to name the month in which spring begins. The days are indeed longer this side of the vernal equinox, allowing more time to appreciate color.

Colors that recur provide comfort and connect us to the season cycle. Currently I see yellow all around me. March is yellow with forsythia, the shrub shown at the top of this page that does things in reverse by flowering before producing leaves. March is yellow with primroses peppering the lawn. Though the flowers and leaves are edible, keep your hands off Primula vulgaris – it is under protection in many European countries including Austria. March is yellow with daffodils and tulips, the favorites of many a gardener.

Yellow is the cover of Julia Cameron’s book The Right to Write. It made its way into my collection years ago. I am finally reading it in an attempt to answer the question: What role should writing play in my life? Yellow is the color of a tattered folder holding sheets of paper whose blank sides can be used to print knitting patterns and rough drafts. And yellow is the color of cotton yarn on the needles taking shape into a runner for the pine dresser of my dreams.

May you enjoy the many shades of yellow around you!

Reentering Roman Territory

Dear readers, I have emerged out of hibernation, my Winterschlaf (literally winter sleep). I think you will be happy to hear that I am carving out a space for writing once again. My refuge of snow and ice has melted and I find myself back in Felix Austria, tracing a triangle between Graz, Klagenfurt and Vienna. Today I found myself heading to the small town of Tulln an der Donau for what I thought would be a peaceful stroll along the banks of the Danube in the late winter sunshine. By the time I got there, the sun had gone into hiding behind the clouds. Despite the chilly, damp weather, the journey was well worth it, for I received a gentle nudge to return to the Forum Holitorium from this famous man on horseback.

On the river walk in Tulln, Marcus Aurelius sits on horseback, contemplating the sleepy Danube in front of him. The area of Tulln was already settled before the Romans arrived to build the camp of Comagena along the Limes, the frontier that marked the edge of the Roman Empire and followed the curve of the Danube River. Little did I expect to find traces of the Romans on the menu today. The Roman Museum was still closed for winter, but I was able to admire the Römerturm (Roman Tower), one of the oldest buildings in Austria that dates back to the 4th century. It is also one of the few antique structures north of the Alps preserved in its entirety and has been used as a repository for weapons as well as a storehouse for salt.

Besides the Romans, Tulln’s other historic claim to fame dwells in the realm of myth. An event memorialized in the German epic the Nibelungenlied is said to have taken place in Tulln: King Etzel (otherwise known as Attila the Hun) proposes to Kriemhild, widow of Siegfried, in Tulln. They marry and live not quite happily ever after down river in the land of the Huns. There is a statue with a fountain on the river walk commemorating this momentous occasion. My previous exposure to this Germanic saga was limited to a theater production of Friedrich Hebbel’s Die Niebelungen, and I must admit it extinguished any interest I had previously had in reading the German sagas. The Nibelungenlied is a medieval crime story about the murder of Siegfried and his wife Kriemhild’s avenging of his death. I find revenge one of the silliest and most immature actions on earth. My eyes start to glaze over at the mere thought of trying to keep all the plot twists straight. Instead, I prefer to shift my focus to more peaceable creatures like this cute little rat that looks upon the scene of Etzel’s proposal to Kriemhild and laughs.

May only peaceable creatures cross your path!

Refuge of Snow and Ice

My wish came true: the refuge of a real winter, first a thick slab of snow smeared across the land, and now for good measure a cold pack of polar air to press it down and flatten us against the earth. On a day like today when it is -2 F / -19 C while the sun is shining, you are forced to keep your focus on the essential: keeping warm, guarding the flame inside you from any gusts that might extinguish it in a flash. Everything insignificant and trivial vaporizes and is carried away by the wind just like the steam fog that forms over Lake Michigan when cold dry air meets relatively warm moist water. The cold humbles me and encourages clarity and concentration.

The light at dawn casts a bluish tinge on the snow, imbuing it with a magical, eerie sheen. I have never been to Scandinavia, but my daily contemplation of the harbor has led me to imagine that there is a similar quality to light and shadow in lands further north, in settlements hugging the curve of the great water that has the upper hand on our planet. In such an atmosphere, the existence of elves and fairies seems more plausible.

Perhaps I have an affinity for birds because the cold does not stop them from their daily routine; they appear indifferent to contact with the frigid water. But where they have feathers, I must layer myself in wool and alpaca and be sure to keep dry, mere mammal that I am.

It was a fitting morning to start reading Gretel Ehrlich’s book The Future of Ice: A Journey into Cold, a meditation on the significance of winter and cold in our lives and musings on what we will lose when climate change melts the glaciers and dilutes winter, further untethering us from the cycle of the seasons. What is the relationship between weather and our consciousness? One answer the book has given so far: the impermanence of weather mimics the shifting nature of our thoughts.

Whereas yesterday the wind tried out different patterns on the water, today the surface of the harbor is frozen. Who needs diamonds when the skin of the ice sparkles and dances in the sunlight? In such cold, thoughts and intentions, wishes and dreams readily crystallize and become tangible, easily identifiable. The cold will recede eventually, the snow and ice will melt, and the water will ripple and flow once again, tousled by the wind. I take refuge in the winter, pausing for a moment with the sun and taking stock of my life, clearly delineating both what has come to pass and what I wish for the new year.

May you experience moments of stillness, peace, and insight!

 

The Perfection of Mornings

The sun is visible again. Wind, rain, and grey vanished in the night while I wasn’t looking. The sky before dawn reverted to the normal procedure for welcoming a sunny day. Yet another last hurrah before winter sets in. Some days it is easier to appreciate the perfection of mornings. Today is one of those days; in fact, it is impossible to ignore the perfection of this particular morning.

As I peered through the gnarly hair of the tree, dusty rose and lavender bands rose from the waters.

As the hours of daylight continue to shrink, reducing their surface area to keep warm, sunrise is after 7 AM. I can position myself at the best table in the coffee shop for soaking up the rays that manage to reach the earth. This was the first morning in awhile that I could bask in the sun. Its power to warm everything in its path never ceases to amaze me. I touch my hair and feel how much warmer it is on the side of my head facing the window as I type these lines.

For the first time in days, dampness did not cling to the morning air and I took a long walk. What a perfect way to welcome the new moon.

The wind through the rigging of hibernating sailboats and the waves breaking on the rocks were singing a duet while the pines stood watch. An image of Tibetan prayer flags flapping in the wind arose in my mind.

The camera can handle all the brilliance of the sun that my eyes are not capable of beholding. Somewhere in this line of light, the moon hides between the earth and the sun, invisible once again.

May you be open to perceiving the perfection of all mornings!

Anchoring Myself

Each sunrise over Lake Michigan that I have experienced in the past five days has been progressively more dazzling. In her book An Unspoken Hunger, Terry Tempest Williams writes, “There are the patterns that awaken us to our surroundings. Each of us harbors a homeland, a landscape we naturally comprehend. By understanding the dependability of place, we can anchor ourselves as trees.” This is what I know deep in my bones: come morning, there is a fiery orb rising in the east over the ever rippling water, regardless of whether I can see it or not.

Like well-kneaded bread dough, this autumn is stretched out and refuses to break. What a joy that I did not arrive too late to enjoy the golden play of light. Moving inland, I took a walk through Petrifying Springs Park.

A letter surfaced from my grandmother, who was a great lover of nature and the Wisconsin woods. She wrote to me one fall many years ago: “The leaves are doing their annual dance to form a golden carpet.” The dance is mostly over for this year, but the carpet remains. My inner child revels in hearing the crunch of leaves at every footfall.

I ease myself into my natural rhythm of life here on the shores of Lake Michigan, greeting the sunrise by the lake, writing in my journal and catching up on good reading at my favorite coffee shop, taking a stroll along the harbor to the rocks across from the red lighthouse. After months of activity and change, this routine is welcome and healing. My ship has reached its home port and I ready myself for hibernation.

Everybody knows that the road leads to the spare snowy beauty of winter, that’s how it goes…But for now, enjoy the gift of a lingering autumn or at least a walk in the woods!

Turning Forty in Vienna

When I wish to hide behind words, I respond to the question of what brought me to Austria by saying because my birthday is the Austrian National Holiday, or Nationalfeiertag. In 1965, October 26 was declared an official holiday to commemorate the day in 1955 that the Austrian parliament issued its Declaration of Neutrality. My birthday won out over May 15, the date in 1955 the Staatsvertrag (Austrian State Treaty) was signed that declared Austria a free and democratic state, the date that foreign minister Leopold Figl made his famous statement: Österreich ist frei! (Austria is free!).

A few weeks ago, I was asked anew what I thought of Austria. Evading the question, I replied that I have been here too long. More than a quarter of my life, to be precise. I have been learning German for more than half of my life and started wishing I could speak German more than three quarters of my life ago. The Austrian variant of the German language has sent down roots in me so deep that their removal would be painful. This language has become an integral part of me, shaping my thoughts. English is home, and German is Heimat. What linguistic abundance I enjoy! I would like to officially retract my statement. As long as Austrian German is spoken, I have not been here too long.

A sassy, literal answer to the question “Wie bist du nach Österreich gekommen?” (How did you come to Austria?/What made you come to Austria?) is on the night train from Poland. Early on May 1, 2003, I arrived at Südbahnhof (R.I.P.), Vienna South Station. My first experience of the famous Ringstraße that curls around the center of Vienna was the traditional parade celebrating Worker’s Day. That September, I moved to Graz for what I thought would be a brief period of time, intending to eventually relocate to the capital. Which still hasn’t happened. Nevertheless, I have come to know the city quite well over the past 13 years and am always looking for an excuse to spend time there.

For my fortieth birthday, I treated myself to two days in Vienna, meeting up with friends, strolling around the center, drinking coffee, browsing in bookstores, talking to a chimney sweep in a silly white hat, lingering on the Schwedensbrücke bridge over the Danube Canal and gazing north toward the hills as the sun set and commuters rushed home in anticipation of a day off. As part of the National Holiday celebration, the Austrian military displays its equipment to a mostly uninterested public. I was happy to walk by this helicopter and discover that I had left danger behind me and was heading in the opposite direction – a good sign for the upcoming decade.

What is a stroll around Vienna without a close inspection of a statue or two? I found a serene mermaid in the atrium of a shopping mall. What is a visit to Vienna without a good long coffeehouse session writing in my journal and luxuriating in the feel of a marble tabletop? I spent a few hours at my favorite café.

Austria’s National Holiday is not a patriotic extravaganza. Instead, it has become a day people like to go for a hike. One Austrian, two Italians, and this American spent a couple of hours meandering through the autumn woods and golden leaved vineyards just south of Vienna in Gumpoldskirchen. The cultivation of grapes and production of wine in this area are yet another testament to the far-reaching influence of the Romans.

Wishing you a pleasant walk in the woods and golden autumn!

Paper on Fire

As dusk approached on Sunday, a fire was started at the party my friends were hosting to celebrate fall. I came laden with a bag full of offerings: cards, letters, notes from college courses, poetry written as a teenager and young adult, drafts of letters never sent, written revelations to myself, random scribblings. How long did I squat next to the fire, feeding it what I no longer need, watching page after page turn from white to brown to black and migrate into ash? Words on paper can vanish so quickly.

As I go through papers and my collection of half and mostly empty notebooks, I am impressed by how many writing projects I have started and never finished. Why is it so difficult to continue working on a writing project until it bears fruit? It’s not like I am the kind of person who generally never finishes what I start. Discipline is also not an issue; I write every day in my journal for at least thirty minutes and have also managed to keep this blog going more or less on a weekly basis. Over time, it has become clear to me that I need writing like I need fresh air and movement and friendship. No, I still haven’t found a satisfactory answer to this question.

Writing = pen + paper + adequate light + a hard surface + idea. A very simple equation. Not only do notebooks multiply in my presence; like groupies, scraps of blank paper congregate around my desk, begging for acknowledgement, quivering in the hope of receiving an autograph, of being entrusted with an important message.

The fire was so intense that for a good hour after I had finished stoking its flames with paper sacrifices, I could still feel its heat on the back of my hands. Bathed in sweat, I felt as if I had just been in a sauna fully clothed. One of the party guests asked cautiously what exactly I had been burning. You look so joyful, he said. Yes, I think my eyes must have twinkled the whole time, reflecting the fire’s gaze as I annihilated written records of my past.

In the end, fall is not just a time of celebrating the harvest; a truly balanced fall involves getting rid of what is no longer required and clearing a space for the future. The fruits all gathered, plants are cut back or removed entirely from the earth. I am tidying up the garden in my mind, preparing for the emptiness of winter. My hope is that by getting rid of enough paper, I will have created enough space so that new projects that materialize can grow to maturity.

All the best in preparing your real or imaginary garden for winter!

Elemental Experiences

Last weekend I retreated into the green folds of the Alps and had the pleasure of meeting a writer whose work I admire. It was by chance that I discovered the work of Ulli Olvedi. While scanning the books on the shelf at a café last summer, I came across her book Wie in einem Traum (Like in a Dream), the story of a young Nepali girl who becomes a Buddhist nun in her quest to follow her own path through life and find answers to the fundamental questions we all ask. I was immediately impressed by the clarity of the Olvedi’s prose and the compassionate depiction of a strong female character. Since then, I have read several of her other books  – both fiction and non-fiction. And then I found out that she was going to be giving a seminar on Tibetan healing meditation at a center for Buddhist studies just a few hours away. How could I pass up the opportunity?

The seminar dealt with how to keep the energies of the five elements in the Tibetan tradition (earth, water, fire, air, and space) in balance so as to prevent illness from occurring. It is believed that illness starts at the level of subtle energy before it manifests itself physically in the body. A typical meditation exercise involved focusing our attention on an experience we had had with a specific element and observing the feelings that arise. When I meditate, I usually focus on my breath or on the sounds around me. Visualization is a bit of a challenge for me, but it helped that the subject of meditation was my own embodied experience and I could drawn on other sensory memories.

sun-and-moon-and-stars

At the end of the seminar, we received a kind of homework assignment: to reflect on our own unique relationship to the five elements. Which element is the strongest in me? Water. Which element am I striving for? Fire. Which element provides me with support? Earth. These are my initial responses, but I would like to explore this topic in greater depth.

May the constellation of elements in your life be in balance!

Postcards to Myself

Toward the end of this month, I will reach a milestone and celebrate a “round” birthday, one ending with 0 and starting with 4. It has been a pivotal year full of reflection on my past, interpretation of my present in light of that past, and deliberation about the course I would like to steer from here on in. The past week has seen me cleaning out my postcard collection. I will keep those I am sharing here because I still feel closely connected to them. At too many moments in my past, I have been prone to behave like the woman in Frau auf dem Söller (Woman on the Terrace) by Carl Gustav Carus, staring intently at something of interest in the distance and remaining passively seated and perfectly composed. Perhaps it’s time to bring my chair closer to the action.

As a child, I was fascinated by the pioneer mythos, the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Oregon Trail, the novels of Willa Cather. Strong, independent, optimistic people forging their way forward, doing what they needed to do, banding together and helping each other out. This painting, The Song of the Lark by Jules Breton, provided the title for Willa Cather’s wonderful coming-of-age novel about a young American woman from the west who becomes a successful singer in the east. It is one of the very few Künstlerromane, or novels that describe an artist’s development, that follows the path of a female artist. I plan on rereading it soon.

I bought this card while I was a student in Madison, Wisconsin, and it has been displayed on the wall in many of the apartments I have lived in over the years. It’s true, you know. Out with the musts and shoulds that hamper us from moving forward. Time to make up rules of my own – or better yet dispense with them entirely.


Henri Matisse has always been one of my favorite artists. I love how he uses line and color. His female subjects are always incredibly relaxed, as is this Odalisque au coffret rouge (Odalisque with a Red Box).Another painter I love for his choice of color is Marc Chagall. The fantastical depictions of dancers, musicians, lovers, circus performers, animals and other curious creatures capture my interest. This postcard is entitled La Danse (The Dance), an activity I can’t seem to stop engaging in.

The darkest period of my life was the time I spent in Moscow. On a visit to the Tretyakov Gallery, I came face to face with Zinaida Serebryakova’s painting At the Dressing Table. Self-Portrait, which jolted me out of my depression. Her eyes laughed at me and said don’t take it all that seriously, your world falling to pieces around you, take care of yourself and keep smiling and things will be OK. She was right. Thank you, Zinaida!

I used to say that by the age of forty, I wanted to have at least two sheep. Sheep seem very serene, plus I love wool and want to belong to a herd of my own. In August, however, I had an epiphany that made me realize that there is another domesticated animal that would be a more suitable ally: the animal at the center of Pablo Picasso’s La Chèvre (The Goat). Goats are inquisitive, energetic, and playful. In the next decade of my life, I aim to cultivate my inner goat and leave behind any dream of pursuing animal husbandry.

Faithful readers are well aware of my affinity for water but may not realize how much I have regrettably cultivated a dislike of fire. Like with goats, I want to become better acquainted with this element so curiously imagined by Giuseppe Arcimboldo in Feuer (Fire).

Though I have lived in and traveled to many places, there is only one that will always be Home with a capital H. I like this postcard so much because it is trying to sell my hometown as a site of tourism pre-HarborPark, when the scar of industry next to the harbor was still clearly visible. See you soon, K-town!

Enjoy listening to the stories that the postcards you have collected have to tell!

And We Observers, Always, Everywhere

I fell in love yesterday, love at first sight, with a pine tree. It was a lopsided tree with branches reaching in all directions except towards the path. Es bleibt uns vielleicht irgend ein Baum an dem Abhang, daß wir ihn täglich wiedersähen/There remains for us perhaps a tree on a slope that we see every day, Duino Elegy 1. My hand on its rough bark, I was struck by the clarity and honesty of this feeling, all the while accepting that we could not stay together unless I were to remain perched on a rock high above the sea, warmed by the sun and drunk on the resiny smell of my beloved. Tempting as it is, my destiny is leading me in another direction.

I finally did it. After thirteen years of wanting to visit Duino, Italy, and walk along the cliffs south of Duino Castle, the place where 104 years ago Rainer Maria Rilke heard the first line of what became the Duino Elegies, I found myself on the Rilke Trail, rereading the first lines of the poem about angels and the terrible power of beauty. It was a dazzlingly beautiful day yet with no dread in sight, just sailboats on the blue Adriatic and green brush and trees growing on the white chalk cliffs. The castle was built on the ruins of an ancient Roman military fort. As I walked along the trail, I became slightly unstuck in time and imagined what it must have been like to walk along these cliffs two thousand years ago in a linen or wool tunic, delighting in the warmth of the sun on my bare forearms, breathing deeply. Looking, watching. Ich bleibe dennoch. Es giebt immer Zuschaun./Nevertheless I remain. There is always watching. Elegy 4.

Hiersein ist herrlich./Being here is marvellous. Elegy 7.

This summer, a friend and I vowed to read through Rilke’s The Duino Elegies in the original German. And we did it. When you tackle a difficult work, especially one in a foreign language, the task of the first reading is simply to orient yourself in the text. Upon finishing it, I decided I needed to reread it and focus on a few main themes in order to make sense of the work and come up with a coherent interpretation of my own. So now I am in the middle of this rereading of the elegies. I love how Rilke comes back again and again to the importance of observing, of watching, of learning how to see the world (this is also a topic in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, which I intend to revisit this winter).

Being in Italy is always a treat for my senses, especially taste and smell – the best coffee around, sweets laced with lemon and pine nuts that are not cloying. But I am trying to focus more on cultivating my sense of vision, actively looking on more and observing what is going on around me. Paying attention creates a connection between me and the world. When I am lucky, I feel as if I can share in the joys and sorrows of those around me and have tapped into the stream of life. In Palmanova from Caffeteria Torinese: the excited children running around in anticipation of the fun to be had over the weekend as amusement park rides were being set up on the main piazza. In Aquileia in the basilica: the creatures of the deep captured for millennia by the careful creators of mosaics. In Grado: the local Gradesi working hard to cater to the swarms of tourists still arriving to enjoy the summery weather while dealing with the milestones in life (the basilica was the site of at least one funeral and two weddings on Saturday).

May the act of observing connect you to the stream of life!