Forum Holitorium

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!

Septentomology

Tuesday as I was eating lunch on the terrace, I felt something on my arm. It looked like a cross between a yellow pipe cleaner and a multicolored toothbrush. But it was as alive as me: a male caterpillar that one day will transform into a rusty tussock moth (Orgyia antiqua).  My new friend received a free ride from the table to the mint, where I presume he felt a bit more at home than on the polyester tablecloth.

A few days later I was visited by another small creature, this time one that landed on my thigh. He seemed to be quite comfortable and unbothered by the movements of my arms as I worked on my knitting, so I let him stay until he left of his own accord. Can any readers identify what type of bug it was?

Yesterday I received a third visitor. The last name of one of my great-great-grandmothers was Mosca, the Italian word for fly. I recall this when pestered by the nervous comings and goings of a fly, trying to muster up compassion and understanding for its erratic nature and establishing a link between my life and that of my nearly least favorite insect (in unpopularity only surpassed by the mosquito). Rosa Ausländer wrote a poem entitled “The Fly” that has started to rehabilitate this insect’s status in my eyes. The poem ends with the following lines:

ihre unermüdliche Sucht    /     its untiring obsession

nach Flug und Flucht         /      to fly and escape

Wiederkehr und Verweilen    /    Return and stay

ihre Liebe zur Wiese deiner Haut – / its love for the meadow of your skin –

rührt es dich nicht            / doesn’t this move you

The dry season of little knitting is over; every week a new project leaves the needles as I try to use up my stash of yarn. The shawl above matches the stowaway eggplant that somehow managed to hitch a ride home from the market amid the heads of lettuce. The cowl below turned out to be much larger than I expected and is in search of a good home – but what a nice pattern.

Friday I would have had a perfect front row seat to view the penumbral lunar eclipse, but for the first time all week there were clouds in the sky that obscured the view of the harvest moon, the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox (for a song about the full moon, listen to this one by Robyn Hitchcock, who incidentally is known to sing of insects). Two nights before, I had captured the following image of the nearly full moon.

Wishing you pleasant encounters with insects of all kinds and clear skies to see the moon!

My Viennese Songline

Café Nil, Siebensterngasse, seventh district. This is where any visit to Vienna starts. Turkish coffee with cardamon, maybe hummus with bread or lentil soup if I need more nourishment, a slice of basbousa for a bit of sweetness. A group of community radio people introduced me to Nil shortly after I moved to Austria 13 years ago. Then I rediscovered it a few years back when I spent one weekend a month doing Luna Yoga  just around the corner. Now whenever I come to town, I throw out my anchor at Nil, have a coffee, and wait until my breath settles into the rhythm of the city.

On most visits, yoga and friendship keep me occupied in the seventh and eighth districts. Yet there is usually time for a stroll through the first district, the place where the lines of Austrian power intersect and tourists flock. I come from the direction of the MuseumsQuartier, walking by the statue of Maria Theresia. Having crossed the Ringstraße, I approach the Hofburg Palace, the center of Austrian imperial power until 1918. Today the huge complex hosts a number of museums and is also the residence of the president of Austria. (Since this position is currently vacant, you might be able to stay there if you come to Vienna in September – maybe it is listed at Airbnb?) The only part of the Hofburg I have actually visited is the wing where the Austrian National Library is located. A collection of historic musical instruments awaits visitors with a hankering for lutes, harpsichords, crumhorns, and ranketts (also known as sausage bassoons).

Vienna is a paradise for statue and doorway enthusiasts – and admiring them is free. Just brush up on your Latin first for the full experience. I continue my walk and brave the passage full of tourist trinkets for sale, traverse the main courtyard, go past the Spanish Riding School and its lucrative Lipizzaner horses, and finally come out of the dark into the light of Michaelerplatz.

The Romans were here, of course. For around 350 years, Vindobona was a military post on the Danube where the Limes, the line delineating the edge of Roman influence, crossed the Amber Road, the trade route between the Mediterranean Sea and the Baltic Sea. At its peak, it had 30,000 inhabitants. The center of Vindobona is just a short walk northeast of Michaelerplatz. Excavations from 1989-1991 revealed the foundations of Roman houses that were part of Canabae, small civilian settlements that developed next to military posts and provided them with goods such as food and clothing. Since Roman legionaries were not allowed to marry, their partners and children lived here. What would it have been like to stand here two thousand years ago, long before men from the lands of the former monarchy dressed up like Mozart and peddled tickets to classical music concerts?

Though I am not a fan of monumental statues, I have always felt drawn to this fountain by Rudolf Weyr entitled Macht zur See (Power at Sea), which also watches over the lively action on Michaelerplatz. The woman looks very confident, relaxed, in charge as she strikes a pose while dancing on the bow of the ship – souverän, you could say in German. Now it’s time to leave this square behind and continue along the periphery of the Hofburg, past the Lipizzaner stables, past the doorway flanked by two huge stone women seen in the film The Third Man. Eventually I arrive at the steps leading up to the Albertina, one of Vienna’s many excellent art museums. And here they are, the statues representing the rivers of the monarchy. I give my regards to the statue of the Mur before returning to the MuseumsQuartier and the seventh district.

Have a nice stroll along your personal songline!

In the Cards

Last summer, my father was diagnosed with posterior cortical atrophy, or PCA, a rare progressive degenerative disease which affects the visual center of the brain. A person’s sight gradually declines to the point of functional blindness and ultimately his or her visual memories erode. Up until last summer, I had no idea that there was a visual type of dementia. I had never thought much about all the different functions our brains normally perform effortlessly without our conscious control. The more I learn about how complex the human body is and how refined all the pathways that control life processes are, the more I marvel that we are able to do anything at all. If I had PCA, one of the saddest losses for me would be to lose the ability to respond to colors.

Our brains love to fill in the blanks and have a remarkable ability to provide missing information gleaned from previous experience. This deck of cards would not be an appropriate gift for a person with PCA. Though the eyes remain healthy, the brain can no longer accurately interpret and process the constant flow of visual information. Imagine not being able to recognize everyday objects or the faces of people you know, not being able to read, not being able to reach and grab the cup of coffee on the table in front of you because you are unsure of how far away it is. One of the most bizarre problems my father has is called simultanagnosia. Let’s say there is a donut, a napkin, and a cup of coffee on a table in front of a person with simultanagnosia. Looking at the table, he notices there is a cup of coffee and a napkin but doesn’t see the donut. He hears a familiar voice and turns his head in the direction it came from. A minute later his gaze returns to the table. Where is my cup of coffee? And where did that donut come from? Now he sees the donut and napkin but can’t locate the cup of coffee to take a sip. As I get glimpses from time to time into the strangeness of his condition, I am impressed at how my father keeps his cool with all the vanishing and reappearing of objects he is confronted with daily. Talk about having the cards stacked against you.

PCA is very rare, affecting one in twenty people with dementia according to some sources, and there is a paucity of research on the disease. There is no evidence that PCA is hereditary like early onset Alzheimer’s disease, but it is a potential worry on the radar that I usually do a good job of not feeding. But still. From time to time, I think that it would do me good to take up drawing as a hobby to build up some more “muscle” in the visual center of my brain. Earlier this summer, I finally bought pencils and a small sketchbook with the idea of making a quick drawing of the cup of coffee I drink each morning. On June 23, I made one atrocious pencil drawing of a coffee cup that resembled a fighter fish with the eyes of a frog swimming in a bowl. The notebook has been collecting dust on my desk ever since. Guess I will stick to playing the foreign languages, yoga, and meditation cards – all activities that may reduce your risk of dementia.

What else is in the cards? Autumn has already entered stage left. It is noticeably darker in the evenings and I need more sleep. I also feel the urge to do more breathing exercises when I practice yoga. The knitting needles are no longer idle as cooler early mornings and nights gently remind that the wool and alpaca season is coming soon. Have you felt the change of seasons yet?

May the cards only be stacked in your favor!