Forum Holitorium

Month: October, 2016

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.


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!