Forum Holitorium

Month: June, 2016

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!

The Orange Road

This week I finished reading two books received as gifts. In a previous post, I talked about The White Road by Edmund de Waal, a sprawling story of the obsessive quest to make porcelain. I have zero interest in porcelain, but the book vibrates with de Waal’s enthusiasm for the subject. The most interesting parts were those in which he talks about why and how he creates his art and what he associates with the color white. Porcelain, he concludes, comes at a great cost, and he honors those who have made it possible to work in this finicky medium by telling their story, describing one of his motivations for writing this book as a journey to pay dues to those who have gone before him.

Inspired by his exploration of white, a color I associate with paper, rice, swans, the moon and snow, I am knitting a new sweater for myself. My first striped project will alternate two cotton yarns of different off white shades. Earlier this year, I described why I associate certain colors with different months. May is orange, and June is blue, but it wasn’t until June 1 that I finished my previous journal (green for April) and started writing in a new orange notebook. Though I am a little off with coordinating month and notebook, I have been very drawn to this warm color lately: my journal matches my v-neck and the cover of the second book I just finished reading, Amazonen der Arena: Zirkusartistinnen und Dompteusen (Amazons of the Arena: Circus Artists and Female Animal Tamers) by Stephanie Haerdle.

One of my secret dreams has always been to run away and join the circus as a contortionist/trapeze artist/tightrope walker. Knowing this, a friend presented this book to me last summer. It profiles strongwomen, female animal tamers, female circus directors, and stuntwomen in the circuses of Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I started it but soon put it aside, disappointed because my desired circus careers weren’t highlighted. Fast forward to a week or so ago. One of my projects this year is to read biographies of women who have done unconventional and extraordinary things. Restarting the book, I was captivated.

The world of the circus, writes Haerdle, was probably the first where women were able to work on an equal footing with men. All positions were open to women, who were able to earn a living as well as escape from the strict social control of the day and live however they wanted: on their own or with a husband, partner, or children. One of the strongwomen profiled, the Belgian Athleta, performed feats of strength with her talented four daughters, while most of the animal tamers remained single, preferring the company of their troupes of lions or polar bears to human society. The fearlessness and audacity of women like Hélène Dutrieu (stunt driver and pilot) and Mauricia de Thiers (stunt driver of Autobolide fame who suffered numerous injuries but kept performing) are phenomenal even by today’s standards.

So now I’m dreaming of the circus again, the circus as a symbol of unrealized visions I have for my life. We all have them collecting dust in a corner. Instead of the white road to porcelain or the yellow brick road, I am seeking out the orange road, the road to my inner contortionist.

Hope you dust off some of your idling dreams!

Putting Two and Two Together

Yesterday I read about a film on Wendell Berry, a writer on farming and being rooted to a place whose works I really should have read by now. He is quoted as saying in the film: “Things that belong together have been taken apart. And you can’t put it all back together again. What you can do is the only thing you can do. You take two things that ought to be together and you put them together. Two things. Not all things!” This idea grabbed me. Isn’t this creativity in a nutshell? Isn’t this the key to writing? The key to life? The key to effecting a change in the world? We can’t do everything – not at once, of course, and actually not at all. We are beings with limited time, energy, and materials. But we still can do an awful lot that can make a difference. We have two hands, two knitting needles, two cymbals to crash together and start there. Integration occurs: from the Latin integrare, to make whole. Then we have one again, which can be combined with another one. And so it goes on and on, this process of organization and unification.

The poor dead mole (one) was alone when a passerby chose to honor its life and passing with a sprig of lavender (two). This integration had already occurred when I happened to stroll by with my camera, and now the picture of the mole’s sidewalk wake (one) reminds me of the dead mole I saw this weekend (two), leading me to worry there is a virulent mole illness going around because in my whole life, I have never seen two dead moles within a four day period. As much as I delighted in being able to examine the polydactyl paws of the mole up close, they do more service to the world underground. Most likely it is just coincidence and there is nothing wrong with the mole population; I’m just paying better attention: from attendere, to give heed to, to stretch toward.

It is a good thing I paid attention, stretching toward that mole when I embarked upon my walk because by the time I got back, no trace of it remained on the sidewalk. My thoughts too had meandered on to flowers in various stages of blooming and decay, to blackbirds digging under leaves searching for dinner, to the lack of cows in the pasture. Perhaps I should have lit a candle for the mole in the little chapel down the road, but the thought didn’t cross my mind in the afternoon sunshine.

Ripples of roses

Flowing over wood fences

As they peak in June

Happy integrating!