Forum Holitorium

Lake Therapy

The smell of the lake woke me up with a start from my torpor. Hell-oo! Reunited after months apart, we smiled in delight at each other, taking stock of how we had changed and where we now stood. An old friend, a very old friend. She is older than me, thousands of years older, and I am confident that despite all the turmoil yet to come as the climate changes, she will outlast me thousands of years more.

Michigan simply means big water, great lake. And that she is, the yardstick in my mind against which no European lake will ever measure up. Sunrises are more joyful when mountains don’t function like blinders, distorting your view and cutting you off from the infinite promise of light on the horizon.

Her closet is completely empty, yet every day she shows up in a different color, wearing new wave forms as accessories. Sometimes when she is feeling more introverted she even disguises herself as the sky. The newspaper tells me she is thriving again, her waves reaching out and lapping the beach after her retreat and all time low in 2013. This makes not just the birds very happy.

A scrap of paper is in my journal. On it is the quote: “Water will always find cracks it can flow through.” It is written in my handwriting, but I no longer remember where it came from. I find this saying comforting. Nothing is stagnant, everything changes, only patience is required. Put your trust in eternal movement. On the first page of my current journal, underneath where I wrote the date and place I started keeping it, I copied down these words: “Stop running after the waves. Let the sea come to you.”

It was just too far, though, for her to reach me. The cold stone mountains encumber and divide, you lose your perspective, you choke on the fumes that accumulate in the valleys. I had to run to her; I ran so hard I started to fly, tacking against the jet stream. Safely on her shore, the wind blasted my face, meaning business, rushing by, reddening my cheeks as I took my daily walk. I can be happy with so little: a friendly greeting, a strong espresso, a good book, a notebook and pen, a stroll along the harbor, a deep breath.

When I am doing lake therapy, I often ask myself what could possibly compete with this beauty, why I walked out on all this. The natural world is truly amazing. I am tired of people spending their time ignoring this. Be astounded by the dazzle of sun on the blue mirror of the harbor, the vibrant moss colored grass, the pointed call of a blue jay, the gnarled bark of a tree. This is the starting point for everything else: our ability to resonate with beauty. When we forget this, things go askew.

Po Valley or Bust

One of the beauties of traveling is not knowing where you’ll end up. It is often the places that you don’t plan to visit that leave a more lasting impression on you that your official destination. In the run up to this trip, I caught myself telling people that Torino was my main goal. It is a city I’ve been to numerous times before but mostly just popping in and out for a few hours to visit family. This time, I told myself, I would take a few days to devote myself to the city and truly discover Torino. As it turned out, I saw very little in Torino that I hadn’t seen before. The real discoveries lay along the road.

The first stop on our journey was in East Tyrol, a forgotten area of Austria with stunning views of the Alps. We stumbled upon Aguntum, a Roman settlement in the former province of Noricum. The museum and archeological site have been added to our list of places to return to another time. We had to continue on to keep our date with Ötzi, the Iceman, in Bolzano, a little ways over the border in Italy in the parallel universe of South Tyrol. The mummified corpse of a man who lived around 3200 BC was discovered in the Alps along the Italian and Austrian border in 1991. This was a sensational find because it included remnants of clothing, tools, and other objects he had with him – for example a goatskin coat, an axe with a copper blade, and birchbark containers.

What I find most fascinating is that Ötzi is covered in tattoos that correspond to the meridians used in acupuncture – and the tattoos were made thousands of years earlier than when acupuncture is thought to have been developed. Whenever I visit an archeological museum, see the range of tools, and think about what people were capable of doing thousands of years ago, it worries me how few of these skills most people learn today. Can you start a fire, make a shelter, make your own clothing, gather wild edibles? Why are these skills not deemed important enough to teach children anymore? Ötzi died because he was shot with an arrow and bled to death. He was found in an awkward looking position with his arm across his chest. According to the signs at the museum, this position is apparently one that could be used to stop the flow of blood, a kind of DIY tourniquet. Though it didn’t work, it shows that Ötzi had a certain amount of medical knowledge and knew what to do to try to save his own life. Why don’t we learn these kinds of things about our bodies anymore?

With all those questions reverberating in my head, it was good to take a walk on top of the Sacra Monte on Lake Orta, the westernmost of the alpine lakes in north Italy. What a peaceful place, one of those green and lush places where it is hushed and calm, where a stranger moves his motorcycle to make more room so you can squeeze into the only parking spot available for miles. It’s a place intricately tied to water, the most valuable gift of the Alps. Here I must confess: Torino is not really for me. It is a monumental city, a city built on secular power: the former capital of the Duchy of Savoy, reunified Italy’s first capital. Within Italy, Torino is an industrial center of power, the home of Fiat (cars), Lavazza (coffee), and Nutella (sweet hazelnut spread); all of these products fuel modern life for better or for worse. Yet I was happy to see the city pay homage in its own monumental way to the waters that nourish it, that make settlement and everything that comes afterwards possible. Two statues represent the most important rivers in the history of the city.

Near the confluence of the Po (above) and the Dora Riparia (below) rivers, the Romans built their colony Augusta Taurinorum.

What the Po actually looks like you can see below. Without it, there would be no risotto! We bought 6 kilos of risotto rice and have eaten it nearly every day since our return. The risotto highlight of the trip: risotto with leeks and apples. The risotto highlight of the week: risotto with bear’s garlic and walnuts.

Just as the journey there was full of delights, the journey back was too. We stopped in Asolo, a small village situated on a hill in the Veneto region that charmed us a few years back. It has attributes of many a pleasant spot to spend the night: a few streets that converge on a central square with a café from which you can watch all the action, a good trattoria with regional dishes, castle ruins at the very top of the hill that you can reach by walking along a path bordered by an orchard full of olive trees, and magnificent views of the snowy Alps to the north, the Po plain to the south, and cypress trees in all other directions.

British writer, traveler, and centerarian Freya Stark made her home in Asolo for years. Garden tours at the villa she called home are regularly available but require registration, so now we have another place on our list to examine more closely. I was relieved to return to Asolo and not find it turned into a tourist trap. The danger is there. We observed a loud group of Austrians from uncomfortably close to home descend upon the village (or rather ascend since they had to walk uphill to get to the center). About forty minutes later they were on their way down again, having “done” Asolo. It is a place that is perhaps a bit too beautiful for its own good but welcoming to the lingerers, to those who have the patience to wait out the day tourists and watch the sun set over the Po Valley.

Hope you know a nice spot to linger and enjoy the sunset!

On Craving, the Alps, and Frugality

This past week I started getting minor cravings for eggs and cheese for the first time since I went vegan for Lent. Most of the time it was not difficult to do without these foods because my normal diet includes an egg or two a week at most and cheese only once or twice a month when I go out to eat. Is my body telling me that it needs animal products? I don’t think so. I have felt full and healthy the past few weeks without them. The problem is that I am planning an Easter journey to a region whose traditional cuisine relies heavily on dairy products, a journey that will include visits to people’s homes where the choice will be meat or dairy. I stopped eating meat decades ago because the taste mostly disgusted me; plain milk has also always disgusted me. But with cheese, it’s different. When I stopped eating cheese, I went through a bit of withdrawal – when from time to time I ate cheese again, my body irrationally wanted more right away. Yet I felt better when I didn’t eat it; I was very pleased with the magical disappearance of hay fever and of a nasty rash and better digestion that occurred within days of eliminating dairy products. What is going on now, I think, is purely psychological. I know that I will be able to indulge in tasty forbidden food for the week after Easter. This is the craving of anticipation brought on by reading too many guidebooks and researching places to eat on my trip, a distraction from the delicious present. Last night we had slices of TC’s special sourdough bread with oatmeal stout toasted and topped with white beans and homegrown kale. Hearty and filling, a good way to bring to a close a day that greeted us with grey skies and snow clinging to the bushes and trees.

It pays to be an early riser because in two hours the snow had vanished. The scene was set for spring and a pecking at the window could be heard once more. We have been receiving visits from a strange bird that will sit on the windowsill outside and peck sharply at the window as if he wants to grab our attention. We look at him, he pecks a bit more, then flies away. He’s come by numerous times over the past week. At first I was worried he would fly into the window and hurt himself, but he has his routine now. What would he like to communicate? I’m rereading one of my favorite childhood books, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, a copy in mint condition despite being rescued from a paper recycling bin. In the book, the protagonist Mary is befriended by a robin who ultimately shows her the way into the locked garden. I can’t help but think of the robin when our new friend comes calling.

Besides visiting Yorkshire in this novel and China in The White Road, I’m also underway in the Alps in Werner Bätzing’s Die Alpen: Geschichte und Zukunft einer europäischen Kulturlandschaft. The book explains why the Alps should be regarded as a cultural landscape, i.e. one shaped by humans, and not untouched nature. The first traces of humans in the Alps date back to 85,000 years ago, and they have been there ever since. Bätzing has succeeded in writing a scholarly book that can be read by a lay audience, explaining the different agricultural systems in use in the Alps and their impact on the natural world. In the section I just read, there is a lot about cheese production. The Swiss came to specialize in large scale cheese production for export to towns, choosing to import grain instead of growing it themselves. Putting all their eggs in one cheesy basket, so to speak. I hadn’t realized how important Swiss cheese was on the journeys of discovery made in the sixteenth century. Hard cheese could be taken on board ships because it would last a long time. Sheep have also played a major role in transforming the shape of the Alps. The book describes them as genügsame, or frugal, animals. Yes, sheep make good use of what grows in rough terrain, and I in turn make use of every scrap of leftover wool to make small pouches, for example.

Hope you make the most of any rough terrain around you!

Making Room

Our friend Oh Deer is back, making herself comfortable outside the living room window and posing for the camera. She’s been by a few times this week, but I haven’t caught her munching on the bushes yet. Either the vegetation must not be tasty enough or she’s fasting for Lent.

It’s been a week of radically cleaning out our wardrobes so only clothes we feel good wearing still hang there, a week of culling books that no longer seem worth holding onto so there is space for more interesting books and art and music paraphernalia. I let go of that much too serious olive wool a-line skirt I never wore because it made me feel like a strict piano teacher as well as Czeslaw Milosz’s The History of Polish Literature that is laden with disparaging remarks about women writers. I also came up with the idea of hanging up my stash of yarn in empty tote bags instead of cluttering the floor of my wardrobe with random bags of yarn.

Getting rid of old things to make room for new things really works. The proof? Monday morning I got an email telling me that an item was waiting for me at the reception of a local hotel. This is what it was.

How should I read the book, a chapter or two a day to fully savor it, or at whatever tempo seems appropriate? Continuing to grow at a steady rate, my six row a day grey wool lap blanket has provided me with a new way of approaching a project, namely doing a little every day. Normally I dive into a project, sometimes finishing things very quickly, sometimes stopping and setting the project aside for days, weeks, months, before either picking it up and finishing it quickly or frogging it. Doing a little bit every day is very deliberate and bears witness to a certain level of self-assurance and faith in oneself: I can and will finish this project at a future point in time. A little every day provides an anchor. It is a gentle reminder of what you are striving towards. Large projects are good candidates for this approach. Small projects like the following bag are better done all at once. It’s from leftover cotton and bamboo yarn, and I kept the flow of objects going by giving it to a friend who appreciates such colors.

Yes, it might be good to read my new book chapter by chapter, slowly but surely, to recover from Don Quixote. When I started reading Cervantes’s famous novel in January, my initial response was that it would be a nice funny trip through the Spanish meseta. I stalled after fifty pages. Other more interesting books distracted me. A week ago, I made a final attempt to salvage my plan of reading DQ this winter. To no avail. The episodes recounted in the first hundred pages gave me a taste of what was to come, and I decided I am not interested in spending time in this particular fictional world. Since this is the fourth or fifth time I have tried to read this book, I think it’s time to let go, so I have scratched DQ from the list of books I want to read and replaced it with Dorothy Richardson‘s epic Pilgrimage, a series of 13 novels published in four volumes that tell the story of a woman coming of age in Victorian and Edwardian England. The collection of her short stories and biographical sketches entitled Journey to Paradise was one of those more interesting books that distracted me from Cervantes. Though Richardson is one of the great Modernist writers, she is frequently ignored, even though she experimented with stream of consciousness before Proust, Joyce, and Woolf wrote their masterpieces. Three of the four volumes are patiently waiting for me on a bookshelf in a familiar place thousands of miles away. When I find myself standing in front of them again, I’ll remove them from the shelf and free up some more space.

In the meantime, I have this book right in front of me about a contemporary pilgrimage to read. Edmund de Waal’s The White Road: a pilgrimage of sorts tells the story of porcelain, Waal’s medium of choice as a potter. It promises to be a mixture of memoir, travelogue, and history, which is right up my alley. After I finish my six rows tonight, I’ll open it up and set off on a new journey.

Hope you can make room on your shelves for new books and projects!

Marking Time in Maribor

The clement weather on Saturday was perfect for our first jaunt abroad this spring. Maribor is an hour away from Graz, just over the border in Slovenia. With its large pedestrian zone in the center as well as footpaths along the banks of the Drava River, it is a wonderful place to stroll and stretch your legs. The town became an important strategic point in the Middle Ages when a fortress was built to protect the river valley from marauding Hungarians. Close to the Alps and a site of viticulture since Roman times, its economy was based on trade in timber and wine. The over four hundred year old Stara Vrta, or Old Vine, grows along a south facing wall right by the river. Its grapes are still used to make wine highly coveted by the rich and famous. What interested me more was the sundial on a nearby building.

Maribor was one of the first places I visited after moving to Graz, and my main association with the city is of an avian nature: a large swan population makes its home on the Drava. Since my second grade teacher read us E.B.White’s The Trumpet of the Swan, I have had a thing for swans, but it wasn’t until I came to Europe that I remember seeing any in the wild. There are lots of cities in Europe where you can sight swans – Zurich comes to mind – but Graz is not one of them. Maybe they fascinate me because of the incredibly fluid way they move their necks. I wish I had as much strength and little tension in my neck as the average swan. There is such a grace and quiet pride in the way they arch their wings.

My favorite square is the sunny Slomskov Trg around the cathedral. It’s sleepy, crossed by two old men chatting, a gaggle of teenage boys jostling each other and competing to be the loudest in town, a woman yacking away on a cell phone. TC and I sat on a low stone wall and watched the busybody pigeons strut about. All of a sudden, as if on cue, every single pigeon flew off together in a rush of flapping wings. Well rested, we followed their suit at a more leisurely tempo, standing up and continuing our stroll.

Happy birdwatching and stretching your legs!

Driving Away the Winter in Me


Impatient precipitation is falling. Though snow rests on the ground, bushes, and roofs, I see raindrops disturb the puddles that have formed on the patio and hear the plop of drops from the awning, the snow already melting. The flakes were eager to turn to water as the air warmed. My surprise and joy upon opening the blinds is slowly giving way to the anticipation of a wet walk into town and the day’s activities.

At some point in the last two weeks, I turned the corner on winter. Maybe it was the Chinese New Year party I threw to ring in the Year of the Monkey. Six of us sat around together for hours, eating too many noodles and dumplings, drinking ginger tea from TC’s samovar and swapping travelers’ tales from recent journeys to points afar. It was the first time I entertained this year, coming out of my hibernation.

Maybe it was Mardi Gras and the start of Lent. Lent has a twofold purpose. First, it gives me the chance to focus on changing a behavior or two. This Lententide I am not eating any animal products except honey and am forgoing alcohol to see how it makes me feel. I have read a lot about the benefits of eliminating dairy and eggs and want to feel if it makes a difference or not. I eat cheese once or twice a month when going out to eat and whatever dairy makes it into baked goods. But now I am being strict. Second, Lent is a temporal bridge to spring. Trusting Phil the groundhog and my senses, I think spring will be here by the time Easter rolls around. Inspiration struck and made me realize how to use up grey yarn from the German island of Rügen: a winter lap blanket to warm my knees as I read. I knit six rows a day, and at this rate the yarn will be used up and the blanket finished by Easter.

Or maybe it’s simply a question of the light. The days are getting longer; that sudden surge of energy from within has come. I find myself diving into projects that have never quite gotten off the ground, one notable one being improving my Italian language skills. A free online course is providing me the framework I needed in which to get started again. The irregular forms of the passato remoto tense necessary to read Italian books are finally clear, and my vocabulary is growing every day. I dream of spring and summer trips to Italy, of making it through an entire book in Italian. Though there are other projects on the needles, Sunday it became clear what shape a sand colored cardigan with blue details should take, so I cast on. Maybe I will truly see an end to all those skeins of yarn in my stash AND the bottom of my wardrobe in 2016.

For our Chinese New Year’s party, TC and I bought red peppers and a package of hot chilis. Their color is such a welcome jolt this time of year – exactly like the fiery kick chilis add to a dish. Last night I added some to my ultimate comfort food – fried potatoes and onions.

Hope you find a way to drive away the winter in you – spring is on the way!

Living at the Sunrise

Funny how quickly I find myself addicted to watching the sun rise. The interplay of colors and clouds is never the same, will never repeat itself. Since no photograph will ever do it justice, it’s best to get up in time and experience it through your own eyes. My favorite this week started with an introduction that included all the colors of the rainbow.

It’s also funny how often I resolve to do something I enjoy involving a reasonable investment of time and resources and then find myself doing something completely different. Despite getting off to a good start reading Don Quixote and making a thin scarf, I channeled my energy this week into knitting a bunch of small projects to use up a motley assortment of leftover balls of yarn and finishing Time and Tide in Acadia. It’s the sunrise that distracted me, you see. Look at the colors of the felted bowls and especially the salmon entrelac squares on the zippered bag.

The book touched upon sunrises too. A passionate observer of the landscape and wildlife on Mount Desert Island off the coast of Maine, author Christopher Camuto practices “being indigenous,” as he puts it, walking its trails, exploring its shoreline by kayak and canoe, noting its rich variety of birds and animals, trying to appreciate “the eventfulness of every step you take.” The island was first inhabited by the Abenaki, whose name means “those living at the sunrise.” From the way he writes about his relationship to the island, I can’t imagine that Camuto feels any less connected to the place than its original population did. You do not need to be born in a specific location to become native to it. And you may be born and live in a place where you never feel like a native. And you can live in a place for many years and never feel native. And you can yearn to return to a place where you feel native. The world offers you many options.

The last chapter starts out with the sentence, “We travel to islands to be partly at sea.” It dawned on me that most of the places I would like to visit are islands. Perhaps the cotton bag above will accompany me to an island this summer.

Enjoy the colors and clouds in the sky wherever you are!

Time for Privacy and Indwelling

I am nearing the final section of Sue Hubbell’s book A Country Year: Living the Questions. A friend passed it on to me a short time ago, saying she didn’t need to have it by her any more and that she thought I might like it. It is the story of one year in the life of a woman who lives alone in the Ozarks and makes a modest living keeping bees and selling honey. Starting off with a quote by Rilke, the frequently cited “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves” one, the book pulled me in quickly. I have been reading it in small, nearly daily doses for the past two weeks. Hubbell writes clearly and sparely, honestly and compassionately about encounters with her neighbors, her bees, and the other animals and plants that surround her – coyotes, opossums, and monarch butterflies being a few of my favorites.

Yet the phrase that has struck me the most is her description of winter: “…it is a time for privacy and indwelling.” Yes. The word indwelling piqued my interest. It is a word I couldn’t define, yet I fancied I knew what it meant. I imagined it to mean being in oneself, being in one’s home, taking full possession of the space available to you, whether your body or your home. What indwelling actually means is slightly different. My Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines the verb indwell as meaning “to exist as an inner activating spirit, force, or principle, to exist within as an activating spirit, force, or principle.” This is followed by the noun indweller. I guess I could consider myself an indweller in my own home – I activate it, make the space come alive simply by my presence, right?

Another definition I invented of indwelling was not reaching out into the world but making do with what has been gathered and brought into the home. Using up what’s stored in the larder, working through the stack of books, knitting up what’s been lurking in the corners of your stash. All actions proper to winter. I feel my spirits are starting to limp not so much from the cold and dark but from the repetition of routine and the remarkable similarity the days are starting to have. One potentially uplifting similarity, however, is the sunrise and its time-lapse scattering of salmon pinks and smoky blues in myriad combinations. What’s more, this morning I spotted four of the five planets – I think it was just Mercury I missed.

Don’t forget to enjoy the sunrise and keep an eye out for visible planets!

Blue is All Around Us

Since elementary school, I have associated January with the color blue. One of my teachers – I forget which one – changed the paper background behind the large calendar on the wall each month, and in the fateful year when the combination of colors with months made such an impact on me, January was blue. Was the logic that your fingers turn numb when it is so cold, or that you notice the varying shades of the sky more as they contrast with the pale snow? Sometimes the snow appears blue too, like shortly after sunrise a few weeks ago by the Kenosha harbor.

Blue permeates my knitting this month. Super soft Austrian spun alpaca is taking the shape of a mottled blue shawl, while cornflower blue Icelandic wool contrasts with a faded, pale grey in my first two stranded project ever. A wonderful small sampler of different designs, the Julesokk pattern caught my eye during Advent. As a secret stripe enthusiast, I must confess I found the vertical lines more thrilling than the snowflake patterns themselves. I love the Latvian braid finish. All these shades and stitches reinforce the message from this picture found in the newspaper.

A nameless photographer captured this blue jay, one of my favorite birds. Though I didn’t see any during my recent visit to their habitat, I heard them calling from the neighbor’s trees. Few are the birds in the Northern latitudes that can compete with blue jays for their brilliant blue plumage. These intelligent birds have complex social relationships and often mate for life. Great fans of acorns, they feast on nuts and fruit and to a lesser degree insects. For now I’ll just have to be satisfied with seeing the flash of blue on the wings and crest of Cyanistes caeruleus, or Blaumeisen, as they are called in German and this household.

Despite appearances, I don’t have the blues, nor have I ceased to gravitate towards all hues of brown. My project to tide me over until spring is twofold this year. Like last winter, I have chosen a thick classic novel as my companion on cold, dark evenings. Instead of being irritated by a tubercular Prussian at a sanatorium in Switzerland, I will be laughing at the foibles of Don Quixote de la Mancha, a man who refuses to see things as they really are. He is an insufferable optimist and dreamer who insists on infusing the world with a meaning it doesn’t have (or only he sees). Sounds like a good counterpoint to the newspaper, doesn’t it? If the first 30 pages are any indication of the remaining 910, it will be a much easier ride into spring in 2016. The second part involves knitting the Winter Mists Wrap with the Schokotatze (chocolate paw) colored lace yarn mentioned in December. Since I am not a chocoholic, I’ve dubbed it my Espresso Scarf, for it will most likely warm my neck on the well beaten path to the coffee shop every morning.

Hope you are keeping the winter blues at bay in your own way. Happy reading, birdwatching, knitting and waking up to the beauty around you!

Janus’s Passage

One of the few ancient Roman gods with no Greek counterpart, two-headed Janus rules over doors (Latin ianuae) and covered passageways (iana), transitions and new beginnings. The English word janitor has its origins in the Latin ianitor, meaning doorkeeper or porter. I enter the new year through the passageway of January, looking back one last time before moving forward. The last week of December, I read through my journal entries, reflecting on the range of experiences I had had and the questions and wishes that arose over the course of the year. Of the many books I read in 2015, the ones that made the deepest impressions were My Two Italies by Joseph Luzzi, Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams, Yarn by Kyoko Mori, While Glaciers Slept by M Jackson, and A Tour of Bones by Denise Inge. Reading Inge’s book a few weeks ago, I was struck by the timeliness of the following passage:

“Living isn’t something outside you that you will do one day when you have organized your life a little better. It comes from deep in the centre of yourself. You have to let the life in there at the deepest part, and live it from the inside out.”

Last year was a year of decluttering and getting organized,  maintenance activities you need to do from time to time but no replacement for devoting yourself to your calling and to fulfilling pursuits. One year from now, how will I look back on and describe 2016 ? How will the year have unfolded? I refrain from making resolutions this year, vowing to listen to what wells up from inside me and to seek out a path that allows me to live “inside out,” as Inge writes. It will be a more intuitive year. As explained in previous posts, I set very specific knitting goals for 2015, which I achieved to a great extent. Interestingly, three quarters of everything I knit last year was a present for other people. As a reward, this year I plan on doing more knitting for myself, but there will be no targets to reach. Instead, I will listen carefully to the knitting muse’s directions on what kind of project to undertake. There is a common phrase in German ich lasse mich überraschen, I’ll let myself be surprised. Though I sense there will be much more blue in the future, this bag with a looped cable I recently completed is very brown.

Did you set any New Year’s resolutions? Hope your January is full of new beginnings, good books, and pleasant surprises!

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