Forum Holitorium

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!

The Unbearable Heaviness of Books

Fragment from a recent dream: I discover two Vintage International paperbacks lying on a table, one of Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native and one of his Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I comment on how I enjoyed reading both in my 12th grade English literature course (which is true) then wake up.

I have been obsessed with books lately, yet not in the normal bibliophile way. An avid reader since the age of 4, I have always been drawn to the printed word, and the feel of a book in my hand is second nature. My first dollars were earned shelving books at the public library; my next job involved bibliography searching and cataloguing new books in a college campus library before I moved into retail and worked at a used bookstore while finishing my studies and deciding What Next.


This recent obsession with books, however, is different. Though I do not actively collect books, I am a book magnet – and the attraction is mutual. They appear in my wake, congregate on the coffee table, wait for me to pick them up, turn their pages, absorb the wisdom they have to offer.  When I visit a person’s home for the first time, I am inevitably drawn to the bookshelves, my eyes narrowing and shrewdly assessing the book situation. I read an interview with Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho in which he said that he keeps his books in closed cabinets so visitors do not know what he reads. A bit paranoid, perhaps, but the paper company we keep is indeed revealing.

For the past year or so, I have been trying to free myself of material and mental ballast. We need so much less than we think we do. I practice yoga because it helps me experience a feeling of lightness and spaciousness within my body, a sensation I associate with health and well-being. I have been trying to create a similarly unencumbered space in my home by removing excess things. Since books are the category of objects I have the most of, I have been working on radically reducing their number.

At one point in the past year, I decided to employ a different tactic than choosing what books to get rid of. Instead, I told myself I could keep one book for every year of my life. Out of the several hundred books on my shelves at that time, I only found 25 that I deemed important enough to carry close to me the rest of my life – with a comfortable margin for this core collection to grow! This exercise made me see how I view many of my books as temporary companions and has helped me loosen my grip on and let go of dozens of others.

I have come to realize that the books we place on our shelves represent projections of who we wish to be. It is a good practice to periodically reexamine what dreams are staring down at us from the shelves and potentially weighing us down with unrealistic expectations – and then take appropriate action. The shelf above, for example, constantly scolds me for doing nothing to make good on my wish of learning Polish and Russian well enough to read literature. Yet this wish was formulated in a past that no longer has much of a connection to my present. Isn’t it enough that I can already read books in three foreign languages, I plead with the Polish textbooks, who respond with stony silence and disappointment at my audacity to reject More and be satisfied with Enough.

May the books on your shelves be supportive and not reproachful!

A Castle with Peacocks

The novels of Thomas Hardy tend to start and end with a character traveling along a road. I thought of this each time I ventured outside the castle in Franken, Germany, where I spent last week doing yoga and watching peacocks. During one of my walks, I sat down at a crossroads along the approach to the castle, pausing and wondering which way I should go next.

Paths converge and diverge. The road that rises up to meet you might lead you farther afield. Doors and gates that open and reveal secret gardens and other enticing sights may suddenly close with a bang behind you, blown shut by the mischievous wind. How many times did I walk by the castle’s vegetable garden, wondering when the splendid ruby Swiss chard would land on my dinner plate? After several days of fervent wishing, I was finally treated to a delicious chard quiche for lunch.

As you approach the castle, wheat fields give way to an orchard and the vegetable garden before you enter a long avenue sheltered by trees. Each time I looked down it in the direction of the outside world, I heard the sound of horse hooves and saw a coach rapidly approaching the castle. What was it like to arrive here in centuries past? What went through the mind of poet, translator, and professor of Asian languages Friedrich Rückert as he came for a visit in the nineteenth century?

The rain created a rather dreamy atmosphere. One morning I looked out my window at the back courtyard and was greeted by mist rolling in. Unlike in the Middle Ages or Renaissance, it was warm and dry inside. I loved walking up and down the spiral staircase, which was housed in a tower and whose wooden steps delighted my bare feet. The many windows let in ample light, and there were flowers and statues and other treasures to discover on every windowsill.

The most fascinating sight, however, was the peacock show, performed live every day all day. Like with storks, my appreciation of peacocks dates back to my years in Poland, where I enjoyed watching them strut around Lazienki Park in Warsaw. Schloss Eggenberg here in Graz is also populated by peafowl (peacock just refers to the male; a female is technically a peahen). The main castle courtyard is the home to two males, two females, and five chicks. While I knew that peacocks can fly and like to hang out in trees, I had never seen a peahen with her chicks. When the chicks are two weeks old, they are able to fly and huddle under their mother’s feathers during the night, when peafowl roost in trees to protect themselves from predators. The chicks I observed were all old enough to seek shelter in the branches of a tree.

There are two species of peacocks, the Indian peacock (Pavo cristatus) most commonly encountered in the zoos and parks of Europe and the green peacock (Pavo muticus). Whereas the Indian peahen is a dull brown so as better to camouflage herself and her chicks, the Indian peacock is the Prince of the avian world. Instead of purple velvet and lace, he sports shimmering blue feathers, zebra striped feathers, scale patterned feathers, feathers with a round pattern reminiscent of eyes called ocelli, and tan feathers – at the same time. This crazy color combination is all about looking pretty to attract the opposite sex.

Then there is the peacock’s call. When a peacock cries, I am struck by the same sense of joy and urge to smile as when I hear a Canada goose honk. Wake up, open your eyes, notice the beauty around you, the peacock says. Since it is the national bird of India, it seems appropriate that my week of yoga was accompanied by these representatives of the pheasant family. I had the luck to spy a feather with an ocellus in the courtyard.

Keep your eyes open for a beautiful feather of your own!

The Summer of Unexpected Events

This summer has been marked by a number of unexpected events. A particularly momentous one was this week’s delivery of three monster zucchini that may have crossed with other squash in the vicinity: 7.25 kg / nearly 16 lbs. I sense that August’s menu will be green.

The Paul Robeson tomato plant I bought on a whim in April has produced exactly the same variety of tasty heirloom tomato that I normally buy at the market. I am not adept at matching name with appearance because most full grown tomatoes are not identified by variety at the market where I do my shopping. This surprise is a pleasant and tasty one.

There has been a severe drought in knitting this summer. The only project I have finished is a linen purse that matches everything and brings me joy whenever I look at its simple form. I wish I were skilled enough to put in a lining to help it keep its shape better. Maybe it’s not so bad after all – I am putting fewer things inside so as not to stretch it out, which is ultimately better for my shoulders!

If you had told me in May or June that this would be the summer that I finally started seriously reading poetry, I don’t think I would have believed you. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to devote more time to the lyric literary genre – this wish goes back to my teenage years. I just never seem to be able to break out of the mindset of prose and make time for poems.

There is a receipt in my copy of the Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke dated May 30, 2009. It reminds me of what I had forgotten: I bought it at Libreria Minerva in Trieste, less than an hour away from Duino Castle where Rilke was inspired to write the ten elegies. How fitting. While walking along the cliffs above the Adriatic Sea, he heard a voice say what became the first line of the poem: Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen? Who, if I cried out, would hear me from the orders of angels? Ten years, one world war, and several bouts of depression later, Rilke finished the work in 1922.

There have been moments when I wanted to cry out in frustration at the challenge of moving back and forth between the literal meaning of the words and the images Rilke uses in the hope of coming up with an interpretation of the verse. Poetry is truly another mode of using language to describe the world that is radically different from everyday speech and prose. As I learn to read poetry, I am practicing another way of deciphering the world.

Rose Ausländer, another poet I am reading intensively this summer, wrote the poem below that features the following insect spotted in my flowering savory. I had thought this would be the summer of feasting on all the herbs growing on my patio, but I have rarely taken the time to pick anything but a few leaves of mint here and there to put on top of bowls of strawberries. At least the bees are happy.

May the unexpected events you encounter be pleasant ones!

Dienen II

Ich habe Flügel und

viele Gestalten

 

bin Biene und Mensch

suche Blumen und Worte

 

Ich diene meiner Königin

der zärtlichen raubstarken

im fleißigen Spiel

 

Ich kann liebkosen

und stechen

taufrisch-himmlisches

Erdengeschöpf

 

Service II

I have wings and

many guises

 

am bee and human

seek flowers and words

 

I serve my queen

tender strong as a robber

in a busy game

 

I can caress

and sting

dew fresh heavenly

creature of earth

Nice Mon Amour

The first Christmas I spent away from my family was in Nice. I was 34 and my aunt and godmother had died of pancreatic cancer in April, a handful of sand slipping through our fingers in the short span of three months. When someone you love fades so quickly, when you look into the face of death, it shakes you and questions you can’t afford to ignore start haunting you. What do I really want? What have I always dreamed of and still haven’t done? What will I regret not having done if death were to come calling on me soon? One of my answers was spending time on the French Riviera in winter. So I bought myself a train ticket to Nice.

Sometimes you need to do things for yourself that the people you love do not understand at the time, things that are connected to the private realms within you that normally remain out of sight yet steer you along your path through life. That year was a year of transition and often painful transformation, and it was clear that I needed a time out to nourish my soul. Nice symbolizes a time I dared to take care of myself and make a dream become reality.

I started my day with a coffee and a stroll along the Promenade des Anglais, appreciating how winter felt and envying the Niçois who could do this every day, sitting and staring at the Mediterranean in all kinds of weather.

Christmas on the Riviera was so markedly different from what I had known before – palm trees decked out with white lights, oranges ripening on the trees, the Christmas market serving up socca, the ultimate in street food, a chickpea flour flatbread baptized in olive oil. This ancient city has a remarkable wealth of art and I was able to go to museums devoted to two of my favorite artists, Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall. No city on the Mediterranean would be complete without mosaics, and this mermaid and merman are still working hard to keep things in balance.

Nice has recently been catapulted into limelight because of the painful events of Thursday evening. I feel it is important to revisit and share my positive memories of Nice to affirm the beauty of that city and to prevent all the negative images flooding the media from sticking to it. My heart goes out to those who were on the Promenade, those who lost someone they loved, those who stared into the face of death and are now asking themselves those important questions.

A few years back, I had a conversation with an unhappy, grizzled, chain-smoking man who stated that the world would be a better place if more people listened to the music of Georges Moustaki, the great French singer-songwriter who died in Nice in 2013. I agree. Here are the original French lyrics to one of his songs followed by my English translation.

 

Le Temps de Vivre

 

Nous prendrons le temps de vivre

D’être libres, mon amour

Sans projets et sans habitudes

Nous pourrons rêver notre vie

 

Viens, je suis là, je n’attends que toi

Tout est possible, tout est permis

 

Viens, écoute ces mots qui vibrent

Sur les murs du mois de mai

Ils nous disent la certitude

Que tout peut changer un jour

 

The Time to Live

 

We will take time to live

To be free, my love,

Without plans and without habits

We will be able to dream our life

 

Come, I am here, I’m just waiting for you

Everything is possible, everything is allowed

 

Come, listen to these words that vibrate

Against the walls of the month of May

They tell us of the certitude

That everything can change one day

 

Listen to some Moustaki and take good care of your soul!

Giving Words Away

My American history teacher in high school was one of my favorites. He was a small-framed Greek-American man who rode his bike to work every day (very odd in my hometown) and wore short sleeve button-down shirts and a bow tie. He taught us as if we were college students already and refused to set the bar lower. The history of our country was important and you were expected to learn it. I can still remember my two term paper topics. The first was the Chicago race riot of 1919. At the time, I was incredibly disappointed that I had been assigned that topic, but in retrospect I am happy because it taught me something about an important event that had happened close to home. The second topic I chose myself: the Peace Corps. I interviewed my high school principal, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Iran, and my mother, who had served in Thailand. I remember my history teacher telling my class how important poetry is and that he always read poetry before he went to sleep at night. I have always been more of a prose person, but a part of me has always thought it would be good for me to devote more times to the lyric literary form.

Another of my favorite teachers in high school was my English composition teacher. One of his favorite quotes was by Kafka: “A book must be an axe for the frozen sea inside us.” (…ein Buch muß die Axt sein für das gefrorene Meer in uns.) This weekend I heard an axe of a poem by Rose Ausländer. Instead of violently chopping through the ice, it rapidly warmed up and melted something frozen within me. Here is the poem, first the original German and then my English translation.

 

Noch bist du da

 

Wirf deine Angst

in die Luft

 

Bald

ist deine Zeit um

bald

wächst der Himmel

unter dem Gras

fallen deine Träume

ins Nirgends

 

Noch

duftet die Nelke

singt die Drossel

noch darfst du lieben

Worte verschenken

Noch bist du da

 

Sei was du bist

Gib was du hast

 

You are still here

 

Throw your fear

into the air

 

Soon your time will be up

Soon

the heavens will grow

under the grass

your dreams will fall

into nowhere

 

Still

the carnation gives off its scent

the thrush is singing

You may still love

give words away

You are still here

 

Be who you are

Give what you have

 

The next step is to make more time for poetry, a type of writing I have always found challenging because it isn’t as linear and logical as prose. You can’t go directly from point A to point B; like an onion, you have to keep peeling away the layers to get at the meaning. You can’t gulp down poetry, you really have to savor it as it melts on your tongue like a piece of bitter dark chocolate. Since the pace is more relaxed, summer seems like a good time to get into the habit of reading poetry. This summer a friend and I are attempting to read through Rilke’s The Duino Elegies at a rate of one elegy per week. We are up to the third of ten elegies and I am confident we will finish by fall – unless I get too distracted by the two volumes of poetry by Rose Ausländer that I found at the public library.

Hope you find a good poem or give away some words of your own!

Happy 240th Birthday

There have been a string of Rundgeburtstage (round birthdays) as they say here, where the second digit is a 0. A bicentennial baby, I’m preparing to celebrate one myself in a few months. The circus part of “bread and circuses,” the European soccer tournament, has been overshadowing life here for the past few weeks, feeding off of the abundance of nationalist feeling surging across the continent and its surrounding islands. When forced to squeeze myself into this simplified framework, I default to supporting Italy, who was unfortunately eliminated from the competition by Germany on Saturday. But soccer is not real life, and the country whose citizenship I have by jus soli (citizenship granted based on being born in a country) and – just in case that wasn’t enough – jus sanguinis (citizenship granted based on your parents’ citizenship regardless of where you are born) is celebrating a round birthday this year too. The United States of America is generous in granting citizenship; it is possible based on either jus soli or jus sanguinis principles. In contrast, no European country currently grants citizenship by jus soli. We are a nation mostly made up of immigrants, our multiple identities and different backgrounds strands of myriad colors that when woven together form a thick, rich tapestry. Our diversity is not just a reality: it has the potential to be our greatest strength. If we decide to let it be.

The Fourth of July, Independence Day: the day each year that my parents packed up a blanket and lawn chairs and me into the green Plymouth Volaré station wagon, drove the short distance to the lake, and set up camp near the Veterans Memorial Fountain to watch the fireworks over Lake Michigan. (This unseasonal picture is the only one I could find in my files and does not reflect the reality of any July in Wisconsin I have ever experienced.) Though it is an inward looking holiday about celebrating pride in being a citizen of a specific country, as I frolicked about the fountain, my thoughts reached outward into the future. I dreamed of being old enough to travel and explore the world represented by the fountain, wishing I could go to every country and learn every language. In Water and What We Know, Karen Babine describes her own personal songline, in allusion to the Australian Aboriginal songlines, encouraging me to reflect on where my songline goes, what locations along the path I travel are loaded with meaning. My songline goes by the fountain, where a seed named wanderlust was planted and took firm root. Perhaps it is significant that the fountain was dedicated less than two weeks after I was born. We are the same age.

Dharma gates are numberless

I have a birthday wish for my country as it navigates its way through the turmoil of 2016. Speak softer as you carry that big stick, knowing that exercising restraint can be a compassionate and effective use of power.  As you sift and winnow through the daily flood of information, keep a clear head so you can separate fact from fiction, truth from lies. Remember that part of your mission is to insure domestic tranquility and that a gun is not the right tool to get this particular job done. Preserve jus soli, which literally means “right of the soil,” and protect the ground beneath our feet and all our natural resources from pollution and exploitation.

May you live up to your ideals!

Spreading My Wings

Europe is like that: go a mere two hours away in any direction and you may find yourself in an entirely different landscape and climatic zone. Head northeast from here and you end up where the Alps give way to the Pannonian steppe. Forming part of the border between Austria and Hungary, Lake Neusiedl, or Neusiedlersee, is the westernmost steppe lake and is located in a closed drainage basin. Unlike most lakes, whose waters flow into rivers that ultimately meet the ocean, it loses water only through evaporation and seepage. Most of its periphery is protected by a layer of reeds within which a rich variety of birds feel at home. The small town of Rust touts itself as the “city of storks and fine wine.” Intense sunshine and headache made me focus on the former, not the latter.

An association in Rust works to maintain adequate habitat for storks, and near the main square where the town meets the lake, benches in the shade face a protected area where you can sit and admire the birdlife. A stork taking off, flying, and landing is a sight to behold. Egrets, ducks, greylag geese, and many other birds I am not expert enough to identify go about the business of their lives here.

Before I spent two years living in Poland, I was mostly indifferent to these birds who showed up in folk tales dangling babies from their beaks. During my travels around that country, I encountered these birds in the wild, spying them flying above or strutting their way through fields, and their lanky grace and staccato clattering call delighted me. When they clatter, they often bend their heads back to touch their bodies (contortionist storks, anyone?), and like with swans, I envy their suppleness. Though their numbers have diminished because of pesticide use, loss of habitat, and encounters with electrical wiring, they don’t seem to hold it against us and choose to live side by side with humans, often nesting atop houses. They are thought to bring luck in many parts of central and eastern Europe including Austria and Germany, where they are humorously referred to as Meister Adebar. A Storchbiss, or “stork bite” is the word for a birthmark on the back of the head.

Yes, Lake Neusiedl is a fine place to be a bird, especially a migratory one. When you migrate, you depend on the wind to blow you where you want to go to conserve your strength. The wind constantly rustles and rushes through the reeds, furnishing a soothing soundscape that the still, shallow water does not. The sound reminds you that come fall you will shake your feathers and fly off to warmer climes. In the meantime, the screen of reeds hide so many attractive spots where you can hide from the gaze of stork cameras and humans, who mostly prefer not to sully their shoes tramping through the wetlands.

Trees play a supporting role in the landscape, and their shade is much appreciated as the sun beats down. The air is much drier and more pleasant than in Graz. Despite being underneath the final approach path to the airport in Vienna, the air at the lakeshore energizes and invites you to take a deep breath. Water, then reed belt, then vineyards as far as the eye can see – which is not too far because the foothills of the Alps lurk on the horizon to the west and north. To the south, where the storks will head in a just a few months, the eye rests on blue sky, puffy clouds, and shapeshifting dreams.

Hope you can spread your wings under a blue sky!

Musings on the Mur

This week I decided I would be better off spending less time bellyaching about not being where I would like to be and more time actively engaging with where I am. To use the language of the book I just finished by Karen Babine, Water and What We Know, it is time to stop regretting my not being in the homeplace, “where you return, no matter the occasion…where you go to remember who you are and where you will find those who will remind you of where you come from…where you go to remember what is really important and what is chaff.” It is time to start asking the two central questions of her book: “What does it mean to live in this place, on this particular day? What do we see when we look?”

The Mur River flows through the center of Graz, yet I have always felt the city is divorced from the Mur; it doesn’t feel like it is a true river city like Budapest or Paris or Ljubljana. Is it because the river is so much lower than the streets that you need to walk down a flight of stairs to get to its banks? The paucity of cafes and restaurants at river level? The strong current that makes you think twice about dipping your feet in it? Last summer a 15-year-old drowned in the river after he went in to cool off.

There was a time when I used to bike into the center every day on the riverside bike path. There was another time when I used to stroll along the path on the opposite bank. I do not spend much time in that part of the city anymore and forget that I can get close to wild (river) water whenever I like. This past week I took two walks along the Mur. As soon as I walked down the steps to the level of the river, the rush of water drowned out the traffic and city noise immediately.

The first walk was Friday evening. Even though the path was crawling with people of all ages out enjoying one of the first summery evenings this year, it was still possible to find a peaceful place where I could contemplate the river. The second walk was yesterday morning, when I was the only person out and about.

Babine makes a distinction between lake people and river people: as a lake is self-contained and complete, lake people don’t seek anything beyond the shore and have found what they need. River people are always looking for more and are compelled to keep walking. When I gaze at the Mur, I think of how all the water rushing by that started up in the Alps will ultimately reach the Black Sea. I imagine how it first flows into the Drava in Croatia, how the Drava then flows into Danube in that same country, how the Danube finally empties into the Black Sea. Rivers are the circulatory system of Europe, ensuring cultural and economic flow. Or at least they used to. When I look at rivers, this is what I see: source and confluence, past and future.

At heart, I am a lake person; maybe it is the influence of all these rivers I have lived near over the past 15 years that has kept me moving and looking for more: the Vistula, the Rhône, the Saône, the Moskva, the Mur. Crossing a river has always been an exciting experience, yet more exhilarating is how the wind off the lake sweeping down from the north whips my face, chilling me awake. But I digress.

What does it mean to live in Graz on this day? Summer has finally arrived, neatly coinciding with the solstice and full moon on Monday. Out with the summer dresses and skirts. What do I see? Sun warmed tiles that kiss my bare feet. Thriving strawberry plants that yield luscious berries. A linen bag taking shape quickly. A small lake in a glass of organic wine from the Penedès region in Catalonia. A fascinating new book on the history of women producing textiles.

 Enjoy seeing and being exactly where you are!

Silver Lining

Clouds generously sharing rain everywhere, every day, every time it starts to warm up and it seems like I am finally going to catch up with summer, who is still in the lead. The gap widens, so I tell myself stories to keep up my spirits. I pretend that I live in Scotland, where this would be normal summer weather. Or project into the future to autumn when I will wear an incredibly heavy cardigan I have nearly finished knitting, one that will keep me very warm. Or wrap myself up in a wool blanket and end up taking a nap. Or stuff myself silly with strawberries topped with a few grinds of black pepper and a splash of balsamic vinegar. Or ponder the allure of Minnesota and the north for Karen Babine, author of Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life. Nearly halfway through the book, I stop and catch my breath. Babine tackles topics that move me, that excite my interest. One’s relationship to the place we are from. The legacy of our grandparents. The power of water. The stories we tell ourselves about who we are, where we are from. The color green.

I have been to Minnesota four times. The first time was on a road trip with a friend while I was still in high school. What remains are memories of listening to a Nina Hagen mix tape on the drive up, of touring Minneapolis’s art galleries, of eating delicious Ethiopian food with my hands. The second time was a perfunctory visit to check out the University of Minnesota. The third time was an afternoon side trip from Superior to the delightful city of Duluth, a city lucky enough to be perched on Lake Superior that I hope to return to some day. The fourth time was to attend a seminar on posterior cortical atrophy at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. All urban experiences of Minnesota. I know nothing of the landscape Babine passionately describes. Reading this book is taking a journey to a real place filtered through her perception, and I am having a good time on this vacation. The name Minnesota comes from the Dakota language and means “somewhat clouded water.” It’s fitting to read these essays under a very clouded sky.

Yes, on a rainy day like today, I’m forced to accept the terms and conditions for living intimately and in harmony with this element. Babine writes: “We want to be surrounded by all the forms water can take because humanity is not predictable and constant. We want the ice, we want the snow, we want the rain, the hail, the flood-even when the presence of water is destructive, it still reminds us that water is a give and take, and we can’t always have it good. We want the humility that water brings. It reminds us that things can always be worse.” In another chapter, she narrates her experiences “on the fringes” of the major 1997 flooding of Fargo-Moorehead and Grand Forks-East Grand Forks by the Red River. We tell stories to make sense of events larger than ourselves and to put a finger on what has changed in us as a consequence. I think of what just happened in Orlando and how important it is for those who survived to tell their stories about what they experienced in the hope of making sense of it all.

Hope makes an appearance in this book as Babine seeks to understand the effect that the mythology of the American West had on her ancestors who lived in South Dakota. As I type this line, hope resurfaces with the sun, which has already started to dry the tiles on the patio. One day the tomatoes will ripen into a blushing red and it will be warm enough for me to wear this cotton sweater and and attempt to blend in with the sand.

Don’t lose hope as you wait for the sun to come out again!

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