26 May 2017

A hot day. Let's call it summer. The wisteria has finally recovered, busy new growth has almost completely overtaken the frost damage. All of the roses are in bloom, the first veg are harvested. I am married to a gardener.

The sun was not yet up, and the lawn was speckled with daisies that were fast asleep. There was dew everywhere. The grass below my window, the hedge around it, the rusty paling wire beyond that, and the big outer field were each touched with a delicate, wandering mist. And the leaves and the trees were bathed in the mist, and the trees looked unreal, like trees in a dream. Around the forget-me-knots that sprouted out of the side of the hedge were haloes of water. Water that glistened like silver. It was quiet, it was perfectly still. There was smoke rising from the blue mountains in the distance. It would be a hot day.
Edna O'Brien (The Country Girls)

The past couple of days have been filled with sheer exhaustion and huge portions of the day I just spend sleeping or dozing. I try to not think why this is so.
And yet, I am so restless.
I hear my mother's voice somewhere from deep inside of me, her disgust with my lack of dedication, the way I just do nothing, letting myself go. In an attempt to shut her up, and like the good daughter I was I am not watching tv before sunset. She would certainly also disapprove of my laptop even if I showed her that I mostly work and read on it. Proper literature, serious news media and all.

In brief moments of absurd clarity I realise that I am no longer the person who needs to be afraid of her judgement. It's only a memory. 

24 May 2017

"Altruism and empathy are what binds us together, and what defines us. We should let no one distract us from this central fact of our nature: neither terrorists nor those who, in response to them, demand that we slam our doors in the faces of an entire community or an entire religion.

Our humanity, in both senses of the word, is on display all over Manchester. You can see it in the queues at the blood donor centres, in the hotels and the private houses that have been thrown open to people stuck in the city after the concert, in the messages posted on social media to help people find missing members of their families, in the donations that thousands of people have made to support victims of the attack, in the taxis giving free rides to hospitals and homes.

But it’s not just Manchester: almost everyone, everywhere, behaves like this. And it is when horrors such as the bombing strike that we remember it. Our task now is not to become the society the terrorists want to create.

So let us celebrate what we are. Let us stand in solidarity with the victims of the attack, while ensuring that justice reaches the perpetrators. And let us not allow either a tiny number of psychopathic murderers, or those who in response to them wish to suppress our humanity, to distract us from the magnificent facts of our nature."

George Monbiot

20 May 2017

basically, it's a gamble

Things are falling apart around me, on sick leave since forever.  I think I need a plan.
As a start, I need to remember what day of the week it is and also, the actual date, the month, what season and what the next meal will be.
Next, I must put that phone call out of my mind, the one where my boss (the much lauded super important research scientist) told me yesterday that - as I am obviously neither getting any better nor any younger - he has started not only to advertise my position but to interview my prospective replacements.
I also need to laugh about the email from his secretary, the one where she invites me to attend the first interview on Monday at 9 am.

I have never wasted much time thinking of what my life would be 'later' when I am no longer working, when we're old. Not in any detail. Of course, there were the wild dreams of travel, years of travel, working odd jobs along the way, visiting places, people, ideas, getting wiser, more grey hair and maybe having slightly less energy, becoming more modest in our physical adventures. Stuff like that. Airy fairy stuff.
Whatever. But my health, I took for granted. Never wasted a thought on it.

But none of that really matters.
Early this morning I sat on the floor in a corner of our bedroom, blowing my nose after a spell of furious sobbing and kicking and hissing at life in general and me in particular when R opened the window wide and said, oh look, blue sky.
That's when I ran out of excuses. And the day has been quite lovely so far.

There have been many days like this one in recent years, reminding me that basically, I can be a positive confident person and that there is no place in my life - tough as it is at times - to be upset about losing my job and worrying about reduced financial means or moaning over someone's outrageous attitude to my illness and all that shit.
I still love a good cry, though.

16 May 2017

For a short while after my mother's death I would wake up with a start, thinking, what if she can watch me now, all the time, day and night, everywhere, what if she can read my mind, hear me talk, see me get hurt and how I hurt others, lie to people, cheat with my taxes, eat the wrong food, make mistakes. What if she finds out that I am glad she is dead, that I am relieved, that I can sleep much better now.
Will she be upset, sad, angry? Will she punish me, lash out at me, make my life miserable? What price will I have to pay for deserting her?
I was 40 years old, scared, the way a child is scared of being found out.

But it was only for a short while.

Often when I think of her now, I see her walking alone behind us the day my brother's youngest child was baptised. For weeks, my brother had been negotiating with our parents whether they would find it in their hearts to both be there. Regardless.
But no. They were adamant and in a bizarre way, for once in total agreement with each other. Either him or me, either her or me.
My brother cried, briefly, my father decided to get out of the picture and my mother got her hair done. That sounds harsh. It was exactly that.

The day was glorious, a perfect summer's day in the Franconian countryside, a baroque church in a small village among rolling hills, a long line of tables under the thick, cool canopy of walnut trees, singing and laughing, food and wine. And later, after too much food, a walk down to a small river. Setting off in small groups, talking, joking, children running ahead, the adults passing babies and toddlers from one set of arms, shoulders to the next.
My sister puts a hand on my shoulder and whispers, look back. I turn and there she is walking all alone, already some way behind us, my mother in her elegant suit, her expensive handbag, her high heels, despite her condescending smile she appears almost lost, helpless.
I look at my sister and I swear, we are about to turn and walk towards her. I can feel her pulling us, her two dutiful daughters, coming to her rescue, keeping her company, making her life bearable - or at least trying to.
No, my sister takes my hand. No, let her walk alone. Leave her, she is almost shouting at me. We are running now. When we reach the river, my sister has stopped crying.
Much later, my mother carefully sits down beside us and lights a cigarette. Silently.

15 May 2017

I didn't make it. All that aqua cycling and deep muscle fitness building, the physio sessions, the hydro jet massage, the pep talks on proper posture (incl. exercises) and how to run a conference without too much unhealthy sitting down, the practical lessons on how to load a dishwasher after spinal surgery and why pillows can be bad. In the end, I just caved in, my legs folding under me ever so slowly. And whoosh, I am out. Regulations, my dear. So sorry.

And now more diagnostics.
May be this.
May be that. 
Maybe just bad luck.
Try not to think ahead.
. . . what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us in the act of sickness . . .
Virginia Woolf

10 May 2017

Week two of the rehabilitation program and the earth is still turning. Today I actually walked out of the building in relatively high spirits, delighted with the prospect that I if I can manage seven hours of this, I may be able to  attempt working four hour days in my office again. Eventually, i.e. in the distant future three weeks.

I drove home, a cheerful sun was shining at last, I let myself into the house and promptly collapsed onto my bed. But hey, I am barely half way.  Many - tons of - more exciting hours of physiotherapy and muscle rebuilding and nerve stimulation and whatever else are ahead of me.

Walking of course is still a euphemism for what is actually happening when I lift one leg in front of the other. It does look like it from a distance, in slow motion, for a short while. Which is better than nothing. And I can get from A to B.
As of today, I am trying out a snazzy looking but rather complicated velcro concoction that I strap around my ankle and foot - with no noticeable effect (yet?). There is a selection of alternatives, which I am going to work my way through under the watchful eyes of a jolly occupational therapist who is also going to bully my employer into providing an electronically height adjustable desk with matching state-of-the-art desk chair. If the next session with the good rehab doctors results in them considering me fit for work (incl. getting there and back), that is.

The coffee is decent, the food is disgusting but luckily, I can bring my own. The company is delightful. Today, I spent one hour with three bus drivers, we were cycling in a pool of hot water up to our necks, talking about our surgeries and the best ways to get our spouses to do more or less all of the heavy lifting before racing each other to the finish. I won, which means that I can choose the music for the next session in two days time. (The bicycles are stationary. The music was hard rock.)

So, all in all, life is surprisingly different all of a sudden.
While shit happens all over the place.

And now for something completely different:


04 May 2017

the butterfly thief - a poem by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner

read the story of this poem and the background to it here on Kathy's blog. 

30 April 2017

"I can't be a pessimist because I am alive."

Let me start with a bit of music from Iceland. Just because.

The word of the day is rotten. I feel rotten. Physically that is, the mix of symptoms is yuk. Could be anything. Could be nothing. Probably something. I shall not be asking dr google again. Instead, I will just continue on the endless path through the complicated maze of diagnostics reserved for people with autoimmune diseases.
I could dwell on it in detail but apparently blogging about illness is not the thing to do. In terms of clicks and readers. But that's not why I blog anyway and it doesn't stop me from rejoicing about every single comment, wonderful readers.

So, against all trends and warnings, I shall just mention that I am spending this sunny Sunday lying on the sofa, distracting myself watching British tv thrillers, reading spy novels, solving cryptic crosswords, booking expensive flights to Portugal in eight weeks time - as one does.

And yet, yesterday evening, we cycled along the river just before sunset. The air was blue and pink and still and clear, the water was moving gently. People smiled. All was well(-ish).
If I can do that I can fly to Portugal. Not?

Last Friday, I had my first day at the rehabilitation centre. This is going to be hard and great fun. In my worst dreams I see myself failing dramatically, as in passing out and exiting the place on a stretcher. In my best dreams, I am walking out of there in three weeks time like a young deer, skipping and jumping. I am already deeply in love with the staff of experts and miracle workers. Anyway. Three weeks.

A few nights ago, I watched I am not your negro (because reading James Baldwin as a teenager changed my world) and from my distant and insufficiently researched and highly opinionated vantage point, aka high horse, Baldwin's argument here (from his 1965 debate speech at Cambridge University’s Union Hall) explained to me why that trump geezer got elected after eight years of Obama.
To punish, to show all those liberal and open minded and diverse people who's boss after all.

Tell me I am wrong, tell me I am ignorant. Whatever. (But watch the film if you get the chance.)
"I remember, for example, when the ex Attorney General, Mr. Robert Kennedy, said that it was conceivable that in forty years, in America, we might have a Negro president. That sounded like a very emancipated statement, I suppose, to white people. They were not in Harlem when this statement was first heard. And they’re not here, and possibly will never hear the laughter and the bitterness, and the scorn with which this statement was greeted. From the point of view of the man in the Harlem barber shop, Bobby Kennedy only got here yesterday, and he’s already on his way to the presidency. We’ve been here for four hundred years and now he tells us that maybe in forty years, if you’re good, we may let you become president."
read the source
watch the clip 

27 April 2017

my grandmother, three weddings and two wars

summer 1914
Look at the young woman sitting in the front right, my grandmother in her white dress and her fancy shoes with the pretty bow, she just celebrated her 22nd birthday. A few weeks ago, the archduke of Austria and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo, an event that triggered the first world war. I wonder how much she cared about it. There, in her picturesque little Franconian hometown. At the time of this wedding, the war has already begun. Five of the men are in uniform. Did they worry? Did they feel enthusiastic,  heroic or even patriotic? The two brothers of my grandmother are not in this picture.  Maybe they have already joined the royal Bavarian army of king Ludwig III, who pledged allegiance to the German emperor, maybe they are well on their way to fight in the battle of Lorraine.
I find it hard to imagine that Franconia at the time was not part of Germany, that all the schmaltzy stuff, the gossip and stories about the glamorous lives of the Bavarian kings, the sugar coated Disney castles by the lakes shadowed by the grand panorama of Alpine mountains, where today the tourist buses queue for parking, was at the center of adulation of my grandmother's youth.
During WWI, with her brothers and her father in uniform, she managed the family's hardware shop, the blacksmith's forge, she became a coal merchant and a haulier. She often talked about this time, she was happy, the war and the men (who put her in her place) were far away. And she was good at her job.
Her hometown did not suffer any damage. Her brothers returned unharmed. She handed over the business to them in excellent shape and got ready for what was considered her real life.

summer 1919
The war over, five years later, here she is at her sister's wedding to the owner of the local brick factory.  An excellent match for the town and the two families. Franconians tend to think that way. Newly married herself, she is standing behind the groom, who initially had asked for her hand in marriage but she turned him down (too slick, never liked that mustache, she claimed). Instead, she holds on to her own precious catch, my grandfather, who read law in Munich and was already on his way to become a judge. This was not a love story. I don't think she looked for one. She wanted - and found - status, financially and socially. Everything was going to plan.
The wedding party is gathered here in the courtyard of her sister's future family home. My father has many stories of childhood holidays in and around this courtyard, climbing onto the kitchen window ledge to ask for a slice of fresh sourdough bread with jam, chasing chickens and piglets across the cobblestones, carriage horses being fed and watered, bicycle races with cousins, lanterns illuminating summer evenings with family gatherings, charades, amateur theatre and singing.
My great grandmother looks tiny, as if she is hiding (5th from the right in the front) but I am sure, she was on top of the world, both her daughters now in good and prosperous hands. And that short fellow - with his ears sticking out - standing next to the bride, he became the great tragic love of my father's sister. Since childhood and forever. But she wasn't even born yet and their sad story would not unfold for many years. 

summer 1939
Leaping forward twenty years and another war is on the horizon. By now, my grandmother has achieved what she set out for - and more. Her husband (not in this picture) has climbed to the top of the career ladder, the family is living in the house that she designed herself (where my father is living now), she has a large garden, an orchard and a maid. She now has three children, the third, my father, an unfortunate and unwanted late surprise. She is standing behind the bride of her younger brother. Her first born, my godfather, beside the bride, is wearing the uniform of the Reich Labour Service, a compulsory duty introduced by hitler for all young people aged 18 to 25. He was in his last week and due to start university in the autumn. Next to him, his sister, my wild aunt. Her tragic love story already heavy on her heart.
Behind the groom, we see the groom from the previous picture and his wife, the young bride from 1919 now wearing glasses, their three teenage children in the row below her.
My great grandmother, much aged, sits beside the groom.
Where were you?, I ask my father. He cannot remember. And your father? He probably had to be elsewhere. As usual.
The young people in the second row, my godfather, my wild aunt, their three cousins next to the groom, they all went to war, one way or another. One did not come back, Hardy, third from the right. He is missing in Russia.
But today, everybody in this picture is dead.

23 April 2017

Another morning. I made it. Life shifts and changes gear once again and there is a pale sun shining on the frost damaged garden. We lost a row of potatoes, most likely. The wisteria looks like a badly hung curtain in need of a wash but blossoms are opening up in between. I just did my silly duck walk down to the river and back. I am alive it seems.

Thank you all for your kind comments, you are wonderful. 

Nights always shift everything out of proportion and no, it doesn't help knowing how this has been researched and confirmed by neuroscientists. But once in a while, I think I need to face the darkness with its terrors.
I mean, it's not as if I have much of a choice. My mother was an addict, she spent every night fighting her demons with whatever came in handy. When I was 13 and nervous about a school exam, she slipped a valium into my hand the night before, this will help dear, take it at breakfast.  She was never up when we left for school and I forgot. It only happened once. A while ago, I asked my siblings, did she ever offer you anything as well? It was a difficult conversation, fraught with jealousy and despair. As adults, we think, how dare she. As her children, we think she cared and why her, why did she not offer me one as well and all that fierce competition for her tiny morsels of affection.
We will never speak about it again. But at least that memory is no longer one of my night time terrors.

But there you are, this road is not open to me and so I work my way through my stash of distraction methods and valerian tea if the darkness roars too loudly. It all sounds so easy now as I write it down. It is not. As you know.

Yesterday was Earth Day. Which really is silly because, every day is earth day. We just forget. It's easier. I saw R off to our local march for science. He rarely does go for the crowds but this matters. Later, I met him halfway when he cycled back home along the river in the freezing cold wind.

And here is a short video of Emmanuel de Merode, director of Virunga National Park (Republic of Congo - a place I want to visit in my next life) training for today's London marathon where he is running right now to raise funds for this amazing sanctuary.

If you have the time and want to watch this documentary about Virunga, I think it's still on netflix.

Sometimes I wish I could type 'help me' into google. I wonder whether this is a sign that I am spending too much time online. Or maybe I want to stop thinking and feeling for a while. Hand it all over to a robot running on binary. Or whatever.

I am not joking.  It's just that I cannot sleep for a million reasons.

17 April 2017

When I look across our quiet street from the windows beside my desk, I can see a row of terraced houses built in the 1950s. Our neighbourhood is one of the economic miracle housing estates, hastily built and quite ugly, semi-detached and terraced. Most houses have been revamped by now, some several times over. Larger windows, broader front drives, sun porches, small greenhouses, PV panels on the roof, insulation, all the mod cons of our fabulous times.
There is just the one in the middle that looks old and kind of drab but with a wonderful front yard full of flowers. Ever since we moved here almost 20 years ago, an elderly man has been living in it and we have tried completely unsuccessfully to be neighbours. I greet him every time we meet and he steadfastly looks right through me. It's not just me, he talks to almost nobody around here. Rumours are that his wife walked out on him, taking the children. Many years ago. Before my time.
He is a man of habits, obviously retired. In the mornings, I see him dumping his teabag in the compost bin, after lunch he wheels out his bicycle for a short ride, occasionally, he takes the bus to town dressed in his trench and wearing a hat. In the summer, he has a man in to do the garden and once a week, a young woman comes to clean. He must be quite old now, in his 80s, I guess. I last saw him on Good Friday walking carefully along the flowering lilac bushes at the end of the footpath.
But for the last two days, his blinds are down, the curtain of one of his upstairs windows is half drawn.
I think he died. Or is in hospital. Someone arrived and let himself into the house yesterday.
I don't know this man but I am shaken by waves of anxiety.
We are mortal. We may think we know it. But we don't.
I made R check his blood pressure twice today. 

I am working on losing that fear of having back problems forever, I am not very successful. I am not in agony, but for reasons totally out of my control I think I should deserve no pain whatsoever. The other night I watched a talk by one of the eminent medical specialists who peddle their expert knowledge on the media incl. books and dvds and stuff. He looked impressive and fatherly standing there, first on his left and then on his right leg, demonstrating how this stance improves the strength of the entire back and that we should all brush our teeth standing on one leg. Then he had the audience bounce on their heels and after another 20 mins of positive vibes and hilarious exercises,  I felt a lot better. Also, his purple trainers looked good in combination with his little round belly. On his website, he provides impressive statistics and after 20 years of proofreading medical research papers, I have developed a considerably awe of statistics. Rather: I haven't a clue. If two thirds of my fellow citizens suffer from back pain at least once every year, I should be able to handle this. That and the fact that only two percent of back pain events require surgery. Plus, I think I am owed extra credit in that category, having had spinal surgery twice in the space of 21 years.
So on good days, I am slowly getting there. As regards the back. We went walking in the woods twice now and I survived. Yesterday, I slipped and fell on my bum, hard. And I survived.
As for the other symptoms of which the ongoing weight loss seems to be most alarming to some, I quietly list them as per instructions for the next medical appointment.
They don't bother me as much as they do R (I am as brainwashed as the next woman when it comes to surprising weight loss) but overall, things are a bit all over the place and I am grateful for a world of distractions.

15 April 2017

We may not have an anthem

we may not have a flag
we are the world of
people who move,
people who move on

we are called migrants
immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers,
stateless, no papers,
on the run...
we are, they say, a diaspora
we are, they say, between cultures
or a mosaic of cultures
sometimes we are, they say,
rootless cosmopolitans
or citizens of nowhere

sometimes they say
or we say
we are in exile
but that asks us to imagine we are spending all our time
looking back over our shoulder

we are
supposedly in a limbo
lacking something
that everyone else has got
and the only solution is for us to join in the anthem
and grab the flag
only then will we become the real deal:
a full human being

up until then they say we are divided, split people
people who are less than whole
just hanging, suspended
in a state of longing for what’s been before
and longing for something here
that we can’t ever have
no matter how hard we try

but there’s no need to try:
this ‘true state of being’
that can only be true
when it’s a Not-migrant, Not-immigrant
state of being that we have to long for,

we can say we are the travellers and movers
the sometime settlers,
the migrants, the immigrants,
the diasporas,
we exist
we live, we work,
we eat, we breathe
we may look after others
we may be looked after
we may find love
love may find us
but we don’t need shame
we don’t need guilt
we don’t need to hide
we don’t need to apologise
we don’t need to beg or grovel

we are the world of
people who travel
we are people who leave
people who move,
people who arrive
Yes we can say
we have arrived
but we may leave again
and arrive again
you cannot sum us up
as purely of one place
simply because we are in that place
your snapshot of us may say
we are here
it may say we are there
here or there
there or here
but in a life
we might be both here AND there.
in a family across generations
parents, grandparents, children
we might be both here AND there
there AND here
and we are not less for being so

Michael Rosen, yes, THE Michael Rosen who wrote We're going on a bear hunt and all these wonderful poems for children to keep a clear head and get on with the wonder of life.

13 April 2017


The link to the video is here.

10 April 2017

Killary Harbour/An Caoláire Rua (Atlantic coast Ireland) 2009

Reclining on the blue leatherette space chair, I fiddle with the remote control for a while, figuring out which way to lift the various leg support options and how to keep my back straight, where to plug in my phone and how to avoid getting the headphone cord tangled up with the iv drip tube. I put my flask of chamomile tea on the little side table, together with the container of porridge with fresh blueberries R made earlier (I eat it cold in the end, my bp was too low to wait for someone's help with the microwave), the paperback (I never opened) and the stack of consent forms I had signed earlier.
And for the next eight hours I am surrounded by calm, kind efficiency. By people who wake up in the morning and get ready for a meaningful day, taking blood samples, adjusting infusion speeds, monitoring bp and heart rate, who run down aisles and hold hands and untangle cords and show off their colourful socks to make me smile. All day I was showered with dedication and purpose (which in my case was to administer the next round of monoclonal antibody therapy). I loved them all.
There I was, feeling broken and pretty useless, my life's purpose and dedication gone out the window (at least for the time being) and for a moment, I wanted to shout, don't waste your beautiful, efficient energy on me, I've had my share, go and look for what needs fixing so much more urgently.

But believe me, at the same time, I urgently wanted them to spend it all on me and me alone. And yet:

We already have everything we need. There is no need for self-improvement. All these trips that we lay on ourselves—the heavy-duty fearing that we’re bad and hoping that we’re good, the identities that we so dearly cling to, the rage, the jealousy and the addictions of all kinds—never touch our basic wealth. They are like clouds that temporarily block the sun. But all the time our warmth and brilliance are right here. This is who we really are. We are one blink of an eye away from being fully awake.

Pema Chödrön

06 April 2017

If we want to support each other's inner lives, we must remember a simple truth: the human soul does not want to be fixed, it wants simply to be seen and heard. If we want to see and hear a person's soul, there is another truth we must remember: the soul is like a wild animal - tough, resilient, and yet shy. When we go crashing through the woods shouting for it to come out so we can help it, the soul will stay in hiding, but if we are willing to sit quietly and wait for a while, the soul may show itself. 

Parker Palmer

02 April 2017

Mostly, I am angry and I am the first person to point out that it's not something to dwell on. And I couldn't even identify a particular reason. I just get mad at about everybody and everything.
Like a ten year old I am looking for the icky nasty whatever to blame and lash out at.
Seriously, I almost feel like laughing. This must come to an end. If only I wouldn't be so mad about it.

Spring is exploding around us and the garden is in top shape thanks to none of my personal efforts. Although I did move the lawn mower around for a while yesterday while R pointed out all the bits I missed. There is fresh asparagus waiting to be cooked, rhubarb ready to be picked for a crumble, the pear trees in full flower and so on.

My physio program is showing excellent results, I feel like Michelle Obama when I stretch my upper arms. Alas, the right leg remains a stubborn and pretty useless piece of unresponsiveness.

Tomorrow, my boss wants a telephone conference and I have been rehearsing one hundred ways to tell him that my health is none of his business. But I will probably cave in and let him walk all over me as usual.

It doesn't matter, really.

This here is the current president of Ireland, Michael D Higgins. He is just a nice guy, a published poet as well. His role is basically ceremonial and representative, his political influence is marginal, a bit like royalty. Here, we see him at a funeral, consoling the son of a Coast Guard pilot who died when a rescue helicopter crashed two weeks ago during poor weather conditions.
I wish every country had a president like him. Anyway, this picture makes me feel less angry.

Picture source: Eamonn Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

29 March 2017

Europe is currently bound to the North by populism and to the South by refugees drowned in the sea. To the East, by Putin's tanks, to the West by the Trump wall. In the past by war, in the future with Brexit. Today, Europe is alone more than ever but its citizens do not know it. Europe is, however, for that reason the best solution (. . . ). Globalisation teaches us that today, Europe is inevitable, there is no alternative. But Brexit also tells us that Europe is reversible, that you can walk backwards in history, even though outside Europe it is very cold. Brexit is the most selfish decision ever made since Winston Churchill saved Europe with the blood, sweat and tears of the English. Saying Brexit is the most insidious way of saying good-bye.
Europe is not just a market, it is the will to live together. Leaving Europe is not leaving a market, it is leaving shared dreams. We can have a common market, but if we do not have common dreams, we have nothing. Europe is the peace that came after the disaster of war. Europe is the pardon between French and Germans. Europe is the return to freedom of Greece, Spain and Portugal. Europe is the fall of the Berlin Wall. Europe is the end of communism. Europe is the welfare state, it is democracy. Europe is fundamental rights. Can we live without all this? Can we give this all up? For what?

from a speech by Spanish member of the European Parliament Esteban González Pons on the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome on 25th March 2017

Seriously, Theresa May, you have no idea what you've signed away.

26 March 2017

No supernatural powers
Need be invoked by us to help explain
How we will see the world
Dissolve into the mutability
That feeds our future with our fading past:
The sea, the always self-renewing sea.
The horses of the night that run so fast.
Clive James

After seven years I am almost used to living with this disease. Almost. In other words, I am not and I doubt I ever will be.
But there is such a strong desire to relax into this state of imperfection, of all the quietly murmuring threats and sudden periods of unrest, of never quite getting there, of frayed edges and dark holes I might drop into at any moment.
I want to feel all this without being frightened, without feeling diminished or less alive. Living with a chronic illness does not mean that my luck has run out. It's just a different kind of luck for me now.
There have been times - and now is one of them - where I have been so washed out and overwhelmed by symptoms and additional events and all the tests and treatments etc. that doing normal stuff ever again seemed almost impossible and as a result, it took me weeks and weeks to regain my confidence.  Last week the physiotherapist praised the way I can now spread my toes and hold my leg.  When afterwards I tried to explain this to R I could not find the same enthusiasm for what suddenly felt like only a minor achievement. After all, the recovery from the spinal surgery is as good as completed. In moments of weakness, I let out brief sobs of frustration, as I may never recover the full use of my right leg again but it feels more like a small mechanical glitch (as long as I can cycle). But in the bigger picture, the one where ANCA vasculitis rules, this is truly nothing.

No cure, only The Cure:

This  morning on the phone to S, I overheard R mentioning for the first time the possibility of me never going back to work.  I am not so sure, I shout.

24 March 2017

to expand the definition of ‘us’, and shrink the definition of ‘them'

When Bill Clinton was elected for the first time in 1993, a friend from the US sent emails to everyone she knew.  She wrote that this was a new beginning after years of darkness and that she was so delighted. When Bush was elected eight years later, she wrote emails again, expressing her dismay. When Bush was elected the second time round, she apologized to all her foreign friends for letting the free world down.

In 1999, I actually shook Bill Clinton's hand. Nothing to get excited about, I was part of an invited group of onlookers (the things you do on a Saturday afternoon) and he decided to mingle unexpectedly. He was much smaller than I had imagined, his nose was big and red and I didn't think much of the speech he gave. In fact, I had come to listen to another speaker.
Anyway, I am neither here nor there as regards Bill Clinton.

But when I listened (on the radio) to his eulogy at the funeral of Martin McGuinness a few days ago in Derry, he got to me. It was a moving speech, full of humour and great feeling, personal and honest. Not some scripted garble read from a teleprompter. It's only 11 minutes long but worth listening to. And I couldn't help but compare. With that nasty excuse of a president across the pond. Whom I cannot imagine spending sleepless nights on peace negotiations in a small country across the pond, whom I cannot image to even have respect for someone like Mandela. To work for a future where we need to expand "the definition of ‘us’, and shrink the definition of ‘them'". 

For the record: I have never been a friend of Martin McGuinness, have no great sympathies for Sinn Féin or the IRA, be it historic or recent or any of the splinter groups. But I have even less sympathies for the loyalists, the various protestant parties and paramilitary groupings and ancient orders.

Info on strange words in the eulogy:

  • Taoiseach (pronounced: teeshock) = prime minister of Ireland
  • President Higgins = Michael D. Higgins, current president of Ireland
  • Gerry = Gerry Adams president of Sinn Féin, life long companion of Martin McGuinness, both were active leaders of the IRA during the Troubles in Northern Ireland
  • First Minister Foster = Arlene Foster, leader of the (protestant) Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland. Both her father and herself as a teenager survived bomb attacks by the IRA. 
  • What the sitting Taoiseach said in the US  = St. Patrick was an immigrant
  • Ian Paisley = Protestant religious leader in Northern Ireland, life long active (and vicious) opponent of any peace process in Northern Ireland became friends with Martin McGuinness when they were both elected as leaders of the Northern Ireland government in 2007. 
  • John Hume = former leader of the Northern Ireland Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), co-recipient of the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize.

21 March 2017

just a dream

We are on a ferry travelling to Heligoland. The ferry is crowded and noisy and we have a hard time keeping track of each other. On land, I have an appointment with a surgeon who makes two large incisions in my abdomen. His operating theater is the back room of a pub. He remembers something he must get and puts a large brown sticky bandage on my abdomen.
I wait for a while but I know that he is not coming back. I get up and try to find R and the friends we have been travelling with but the crowds push me towards the railway station and I take a train home.
When I walk into the house, R and all his things are gone.

I rarely remember my dreams. This one felt like a cold wind when I woke from it and I had to get up, wrapped myself into a blanket and went downstairs where R was going through his early morning teacher routine (listening to the world service, reading on his phone and drinking black tea). Like a child who cannot keep a secret I blurted out my dream and he looked at me and said, it's just a memory of your mother, go back to bed.

In the late 1980s, my mother repeatedly tried to kill herself - unsuccessfully. I wasn't there, I have no idea how serious she was, how much of it may have been due to whatever mix of drugs and drink she was trying to shake off. I had left all that behind me years ago. I was safe and sound living in paradise.
My sister eventually forcefully persuaded her to spend some time in a fancy clinic on the North Sea coast and when she returned home after several weeks, probably sober and with good intentions, my father had packed up his stuff and left like a thief in the night.
Years later during one of our rare visits she told me that while in the clinic, she had read a travel guide to paradise and had made inquiries about airline tickets and vaccinations, putting all her hopes of recovery, of saving her marriage, into visiting the daughter who had abandoned her and who was now living in a tiny African country.  And while she told me this, she started to cry and then she pulled the travel guide from the bookshelf and threw it into my face and I left. That was not a dream. That was how we communicated.

Heligoland is a rather dismal place, a small island in the middle of the rough sea, crowded with day visitors buying duty free booze. At least that's what it looked like in the summer of 1978. But i was seasick and supposedly chaperoning a group of troubled teenagers. A job I got through the student union.

18 March 2017

just one day

Spring is just around the corner. The spuds are in the ground. Pulsatilla, almond trees and the little quince tree are busy flowering. The hedge is greening and the blackbirds are messing through the compost. Sitting outside for my solitary lunch today I spotted a butterfly, a painted lady (Vanessa cardui) just like the five we released last summer and decided that it had migrated back to us. And why not.

I am in a strange place. Hovering in between my spectacularly crashed house of cards, aka rehabilitation program, and the dreary reality of upped meds and a week of diagnostic testing ahead of me incl. hours pretending to read meaningful literature on my phone in waiting rooms.

In other words, the immunologist suggested I was not exactly fit enough for three weeks of six hours/day of physio and massage and jogging under water and whatnot and gave me the sternest of looks across her monitor and a short snappy lecture on treatment priorities and the dire potential of my current display of B - symptoms.  Of course I crumbled like a stale pretzel and almost apologised.

Part of me feels like a fake (what if these symptoms are only figments of my imagination?), while the remaing pitiful rest is trying to run away from admitting that I may have asked for too much.

That whole patience stuff? I'll never get it.
Whereas R - bless him - insists that I have been here before and will crawl out of it again,  successfully (with the help of the next round of monoclonal antibody therapy).

Meanwhile. I cycle along the river. Thirty minutes (or 6 amazing km) at a time pushing against the wind.  I may not be able to walk with two legs but who cares. Keeping up appearances. My mother taught me as much.

PS. I am not in pain any longer. Not really. Just finished week 12 of sick leave and the German health system based on the principle of a society of mutual solidarity (as opposed to charity or lottery or profit margins) is paying 90% of my salary. However, the required paper work is incredible. Who reads all these forms? Is this meant to be a new form of therapy?

14 March 2017

Ireland is a tiny country, somewhere to the west of the UK. No matter what, the number of people who think Ireland is just the same as the UK, who think it is actually a part of the UK, baffles me still.
So do the romantics, the people who have visited to see the land of their ancestors or the concept sold by Irish pubs worldwide or whatever, and found shamrocks and strange dark beer with creamy tops and maybe some deep Celtic mystery, but more likely leprechauns and jolly dancing and all the other stereotypes.
I was one of them, many years ago. Now, I only want to visit and when I do, I fall in love with it, landscape, people and all, and want to move back, immediately. But my Irish man will not hear of it.  He does have the bigger picture. Believe me. He loves Ireland, too.
Ireland is complicated. But Ireland is European, fiercely European. And Brexit is not. And that is going to be a huge problem. Something to be afraid of. Because there is the matter of Northern Ireland, that small upper right hand corner of the island of Ireland. And I ask myself these days, does Theresa May actually have any idea?

To illustrate my point, first Seamus Heaney (Nobel Lecture 1995)

One of the most harrowing moments in the whole history of the harrowing of the heart in Northern Ireland came when a minibus full of workers being driven home one January evening in 1976 was held up by armed and masked men and the occupants of the van ordered at gunpoint to line up at the side of the road. Then one of the masked executioners said to them, "Any Catholics among you, step out here". As it happened, this particular group, with one exception, were all Protestants, so the presumption must have been that the masked men were Protestant paramilitaries about to carry out a tit-for-tat sectarian killing of the Catholic as the odd man out, the one who would have been presumed to be in sympathy with the IRA and all its actions. It was a terrible moment for him, caught between dread and witness, but he did make a motion to step forward. Then, the story goes, in that split second of decision, and in the relative cover of the winter evening darkness, he felt the hand of the Protestant worker next to him take his hand and squeeze it in a signal that said no, don't move, we'll not betray you, nobody need know what faith or party you belong to. All in vain, however, for the man stepped out of the line; but instead of finding a gun at his temple, he was thrown backward and away as the gunmen opened fire on those remaining in the line, for these were not Protestant terrorists, but members, presumably, of the Provisional IRA.

Second, Martina Anderson, Member of the European Parliament, today (I am generally not a friend of Sinn Féin, her party, but she does have a point):


09 March 2017

Dear universe,

I feel so ashamed for having been such a moaner recently. Every morning, I wake up with the best intentions and by midday, I have lost the plot, again. Let me assure you, I do know that there is much going on and yes, I could, should concentrate on the bigger picture. You deserve better from me, much is at stake. I don't quite understand why it is a struggle right now for me but there, I admit it.

I don't want to sound ungrateful, after all, the evening sky was magnificent, all these towering clouds after the rain storm.  

But please, I want to have more courage, trust, and oh, dignity. Let me figure out how to be a decent human being again. A woman not afraid of changes and ageing and illness, but someone with the confidence that her body knows how to cope and recover. Allow me to face my fears, to stop cowering and pretending that by not looking at them - square in the face, so to speak - they will disappear. 
(Still, reading The Great Gatsby again in one go last night was a wonderful distraction. Thank you.)

Also, while I have your attention, let me find my place again, you know what I mean. My place in this chaotic world.

I promise to try my best from now on. So please, would you nudge me in the right direction? 

Thank you.
the stranded beetle

PS: The grape hyacinths are lovely this year. Well done.


07 March 2017

Paula's House of Toast

Almost straight after I started blogging, I found Paula's House of Toast, a treasure trove of poetry and the most exquisite photography and by-the-way observations. 
Her posts made my heart leap and open my eyes to the intricate beauty of nature again and again.

In April 2015, she wrote
There's nothing like a sudden calamity to bring things into perspective.
The calamity was a brain hemorrhage and she died some weeks later.

Her blog is still online and I hope it will remain there for ever as a celebration of Paula's gifts and insights. You can get lost there, reading and thinking for hours.
The blog is here. 

Today, her partner posted a link to a review of Paula's poetry and oh my, she was an amazing poet.

…We, who boast of souls, can't countenance
the gray and small, the commonplace and humble.
Yet watch the squirrel flow along the fence,
feet grazing the pickets, impossibly nimble—
he does not amplify his self-display
in social media, or leverage
his brand, consultant-honed; does not employ
a life coach, guru, shopper, trainer, mage.
Undisturbed by thoughts of betterment,
he gazes back at me through window glass
with such a pure and cold indifference
that it could swell and fill the universe,
replacing profit, noise, ambition, greed
with something truer than the love of God.

06 March 2017

(just for fun, soundtrack of a wild year)
I went into a bit of a huff last week. Sliding into a dark pond covered in duckweed, knowingly and yet, the way it makes you feel. Guilty and couldn't care less at the same time.
Oh poor me and so on. But shhhh, nobody was looking.

And then I cycled. Twice. Short cold windy distances. Terrified I should do harm to my back. But, oh the freedom.
This is me with my first proper bicycle, in 1964 the summer before I started school, I am six years old.
This is my grandmother (never granny) with her bicycle in her hometown. She is maybe 12 years old, so this picture was taken 60 years earlier, 1904 or thereabouts. She never learned to drive, never had to. Every Monday and Thursday, she cycled into town, on the cobblestone pavement, for market, butcher, baker and gossip, until she was well into her nineties.

My application for the medical rehabilitation program has been approved, starting next week Wednesday, six hours/day, five days/week for three weeks. I expect nothing short of miracles. Seriously. Or else. (I am scared shitless it will come to nothing and I shall remain a stranded beetle forever).

04 March 2017

What would your superpower be? To be able to show people that we are linked, not ranked.

Gloria Steinem in today's Guardian.

01 March 2017

This is what the good people at the inner sanctum of rehabilitation programs for women approaching 60 told me on the phone today:
Our assessment has been sent out to you by post today. Details on our decision are not communicated by phone or email.
Jeez, I am not good at waiting. 

If they refuse, R reassures me, we'll get you into it privately, we'll have something figured out by the end of the week.
I have seen worse cases, my GP tells me, believe me.
Be patient, the physiotherapist lectures me, peripheral nerve damage repair can take a year or longer.

In my mind I am calmly frantically considering early forced retirement.
My bicycle could be ready tomorrow.

28 February 2017

Let's take a look at Ludwig and Margarete, my father's great grandparents. Don't they look serious? Yes, of course, having your picture taken was serious and momentous. I wonder what was the occasion. Maybe they were just showing off their status.
The book in her hands is a small collection of poetry and sentiments, one for each day of the year. It's downstairs on my bookshelves somewhere. Someone long ago used it as flower press, whenever I open it, small trembling bits of disintegrating flora flutter to the ground.

My grandmother always and with pride mentioned that Margarete was from a mill estate on one of the meandering Franconian rivers. I found this picture of her childhood home on wikipedia:

My father tells me that as a child he used to cycle there with his friends during the summer, to watch the water mill and look for tadpoles. After the war, it was a hotel for a while, with a popular beer garden. Today, the big house is a retirement home.
When Margarete lived there as a child, the online census data of the kingdom of Bavaria also lists 13 cattle on the property. My grandmother always mentioned Margarete's father, the old W, the big mill owner and butcher. In Franconia, you do show off your wealthy relatives. It's all part of who you are.

But doesn't Margarete look exhausted, and much older than her husband (who was in fact seven years her senior). Between 1859 and 1874, she gave birth to nine children, six boys and three girls and lost two of them during the typhoid fever epidemic of 1872.
Ernst Friedrich, her fourth son, ran away from home when was 17 yrs old and according to my grandmother's handwritten records, he emigrated to the US that year. I think I found him, a tin smith, a painter, a carpenter, working first in New York and later for the railroad in California. Shipping records list him arriving in 1887, as 'Norwegian' albeit with German as his native language, his father and mother living in Bavaria. The last census records tell me that in 1930, aged 60, he lived as a lodger, single, in employment, in Los Angeles. If it is indeed him.

I have no record of Margarete's death but judging from that photograph, she probably did not live to a ripe old age. 

Ludwig, who looks slightly pompous here, certainly well fed, comes from a long line of prosperous metalworkers, blacksmiths, locksmiths, you name it. The oldest record of the family business that I have found dates back to 1562 and Daniel, Ludwig's eight-times-grand-father, registered as a blacksmith at the same address where my father's cousin are living now. Ludwig died when he was 64 years old, which was well above the average life expectancy at the time. (His oldest son, Karl, inherited the family firm, where my grandmother, Karl's oldest daughter, sharpened her business skills during WWI.)

Ludwig was well off. And Margarete must have been a good catch. I wonder, did they fall in love? Or was it all a shrewd bit of matchmaking? I suspect the latter. We are in Franconia, after all.

27 February 2017

Slow life report seven weeks after surgery. The birds are very noisy and busy. I counted three (3!) of the 100+ snowdrops of previous years in bloom. When I accused R of of having dug them up last summer he did not deny it. In fact, he gave his usual spiel about useless plants taking up valuable space. I grow veg, he says.
Seriously. This is what the world has come to.

At this stage, I am ready to sell my soul for an evening in the old armchair, all crooked and rolled up, legs hanging over the side. Instead, I watch an old Endeavour episode, lying on my side, while R tells me what I am missing from the plot because, well, it is a completely different angle.
Last night, I watched American Honey, which you can watch from all angles and still find amazing and sad and strangely hopeful.

But. But. But. I am able to walk down to the river and back and every day, I add another very tiny loop through our quiet neighbourhood to extend the distance.  I am allowed to sit for an hour max at a time (albeit no sofa or armchair). Twice a day, I diligently do my exercises as directed by the physiotherapist. I even cook dinner occasionally. In fact, I am discovering the many things a person can do while keeping an upright back but without twisting or bending: ironing, hoovering, washing the kitchen floor, cleaning the bathroom sink (but not the bathtub or the shower), moving tomato/pepper/aubergine seedlings into larger pots, cleaning the fridge - all suddenly delightful activities for a formerly and still somewhat stranded beetle.

Also, at some stage next week, my bicycle will have been fitted with state-of-the-art saddle suspension and elevated handlebars and I shall be able to cycle again - only for short flat and therapeutic distances, don't hold your breath here.

However, the right leg remains stubbornly limp and I continue to walk the sloppy way of a duck that has one paralyzed foot (wait, that's me). The outlook is meagre but apparently not hopeless which is why we are waiting for a letter from the powers that are, aka health authorities, in reply to my request for a specific rehabilitation program. In my dreams, I am already there but in reality, there are all sorts of obstacles. It's complicated. I am impatient. I want this to be over. I want things the way they were three months ago. I know, silly.

21 February 2017

Maeve died on Sunday morning. She was 103. For the last couple of weeks, so we've been told, she was mostly asleep. And on Sunday morning she did not wake up. We were expecting this. She did not suffer. Her life ended. It is sad and comforting at the same time.

Maeve was the oldest sister of my beautiful mother-in-law. A strong, gutsy woman. I have written about her here.

Now there is only Nuala left from that generation, the second oldest sister and she is not well, both in mind and body. But she is looking forward to the funeral mass. Nuala is a devout catholic, she believes in miracles. She speaks to her saints regularly on all our behalf. I have a stack of mass cards from her. Proof that she prayed for me. That my soul is safe.

When my mother in law was dying (much too soon, much too cruelly), we were instructed to not say a word and nobody did. And so she was never told that she had pancreatic cancer, that she had only months to live and that we all knew. Even her husband, the love of her life, the ever charming JC, he would not, could not tell her. Not to himself, either.
For short while, I was furious but what did I know, me, the heathen foreigner.

But of course she knew. She prepared her death carefully.

Often, when I close my eyes, I see her on that Sunday morning when I opened the door, her smiling face, would you wait a little while, love, while I finish talking to Sean (the family lawyer). And after Sean had shook my hand and left, I combed her hair and held her hand while we watched mass on the closed circuit tv.
On Sundays, I was always the first visitor and I would leave when the next family member arrived. The grandchildren came after lunch, alone or in twos, bearing paintings and flowers, being ever so good and adorable, everybody loved granny. My father in law had the evenings and on one of these, he brought a priest along and they quietly renewed their vows.
During the week, I'd sneak in a short visit on my way home from work to exchange gossip and take instructions about the dogs or the garden or what to take out or put in the freezer.
And then driving home in the rain, waiting at the traffic lights by Blackrock shopping center, crying while the rain washed over the windscreen and Walking in Memphis on the car radio.

And then that day when I could not reach her any longer, when all I could do was moisten her lips with that lemon scented sponge. For a brief moment, she opened her eyes and said, thank you Maeve. That's when I stepped back. For the next few days, I minded kids, prepared endless pots of tea, cooked dinners nobody really ate, answered the phone, looked after her dogs and did whatever was necessary so that her daughters, her son, her husband, her sisters and brothers could be with her while she was dying.

Later that week, when we visited her laid out in a bed of flowers, surrounded by the letters and paintings from her grandchildren, R showed me her wrists. She had asked for them to be slashed after her death. Why? I asked. To be sure, he said, she was afraid. Just like we are. Afraid of not dying and afraid of death.
For a moment, I felt a sharp pain washing through me.
But we were young then and our lives were stretching out in front of us, endlessly. What did we know of fear, of death.

18 February 2017

and this

Tens of thousands of people marched through Barcelona today calling on the Spanish government to immediately take in thousands of refugees.

 Photograph: Manu Fernandez/AP

16 February 2017

Another mysterious wedding picture from my father's stack of photographs. I can identify three people, my grandmother in the back next to the bride, the little boy in front is her first born and I think she is pregnant with her second child. Her mother, my great grandmother is seated holding on to her handbag in the front on the left.

The date is 1923. I made a copy of this picture and sent it to my father and we had a longish conversation over the phone. He does not recognise anybody else. We agreed that it must have been a once-removed wedding, a distant cousin from my grandmother's side, maybe not even a relative. The groom seems to be a fair bit older than the bride and I think the elderly mustachioed gentleman in the front row could be his brother.

My father thinks it was most likely a day trip, hence the large handbag and the absence of my grandfather. This was before the time of family cars. Living and working in a small provincial town required maybe a truck, tractors, definitely a couple of horse drawn carriages for the business, but families had no need to drive around in cars back then. It is definitely a rural setting. The towns had much better road surfaces. My father thinks his mother and grandmother probably hired a car with a driver for the day.

In the past weeks I have emailed this picture to every country hotel and restaurant within a 150 km radius from my grandparent's address at the time. I found only three country house hotels, as they are now called, with the same (or a similar) name as this 'The golden cross inn', but no, it's none of them.  The managers of all the other country inns and hotels of a similar age that I contacted must think I am slightly mad. One in a rather godforsaken spot replied with a lunch voucher for two.

I also contacted a couple of historical societies and received a few polite replies from what I assume are retired teachers who basically confirmed what my father said over the phone: forget it.
The name of the proprietor is incomplete and I haven't even started to look into this.
Rural Franconia was not dramatically affected by  the war, so it is unlikely that the building was bombed or burned down.  My brother suggests I write to the local papers. Maybe.

This picture is utterly Franconian. I can hear the accent and the noises from the kitchen.  I imagine that they will all sit down to eat Fränkische Hochzeitssuppe (beef consomme with lots of different vegetables and semolina dumplings), Tafelspitz mit Meerettich (beef with horseradish and apples), Eiernudeln (home made egg pasta, fat ribbons), Apfelküchle (apple pie), Franconian wine, the locally brewed beer, coffee for the women. I wish I could sit down with them.

15 February 2017

Halfway through February. The open bedroom window. Birdsong since well before daybreak. Gorgeous birdsong. Now, after I watched R cycle off to work, with his energy and purpose like a sparkling cloud surrounding him (or maybe it was just his shiny red anorak), I am back in bed waiting for my day to find purpose and for my body to gather energy.
I could occupy myself. I could distract myself. I could make a plan, write down all the little tasks and schedules that are waiting somewhere for attention (or not). And in time, I will do all of these. Because that's what will get me through the day. 
But right now I am trying to not remember process what two experts told me yesterday after they had banged their little hammers onto my knees and ran their needles along my legs. Namely, that nerve cells do not regrow. That unlike all other cells in our bodies, nerve cells when damaged are kaput for ever. That muscles need nerve cells in order to function. And that while muscles can be tricked into activity even when nerve cell damage has occurred, extensive damage can also imply permanent paralysis.
Theoretically speaking, I am fucked.
But hey.
It's only one foot and most of the leg attached to it. Actually, one of the experts was quite enthusiastic about cycling, could be possible, he nodded, probably easier than walking. Eventually. 

So here is the plan: In time, slowly, slowly, I am going to get those muscles, hell, all and any of my muscles, into tip top shape, I swear it, here and now.

(As of today, I am on sickness benefits, i.e. my salary is paid the working masses.)

This bit of music, simply for the name of the band:  

14 February 2017

I've had some serious health issues in my time. (As if I haven't mentioned this before.) More than one expert told me in the last six years that I am lucky to be alive, that kind of stuff.
Also, in my almost 60 yrs I have been through some gruesome pain (however and thanks to the heavens above, the almost fatal issues are mostly pain free but just carry the potential to finish me off). The pain that tormented me to date has been due to more benign causes, accidents, inflammations, that whole dental catastrophe, not forgetting childbirth (- which was actually sublime, pain incl.).

I used to feel proud of my coping skills. OK, proud is probably not the correct term, let's say I used to be confident about being able to cope. Eventually, after the jitters and the panic stations, I am not perfect. But. Always falling onto my feet in the end. Breathe in breathe out, that kind of attitude.

Fear, yes of course, I know fear. Before and after fear. I may have lived the comfortable life of a white middle class college educated happily married woman with really decent health insurance (socialist to some), but I have also flown in an airplane that was evacuated upon landing because of a bomb scare (the bomb was discovered on the plane hours later), drove downhill in a car with failing brakes (gears, gears, gears), presented my battered German passport to uniformed men with bloodshot eyes and very large machine guns, got stuck in a lift for an eternity, almost drowned in a freak surge, got showered in sharp glass when the train window I sat under was shattered by one of several massive rocks that missed my head by a fraction, ran out of a burning building, that kind of fear.

The summer before I started university I went wild. Nothing seriously bad or too illegal, mostly tasting-freedom-like-never-before wild. Part of that freedom was a brief love affair with a poet. How could I, with an A in German literature, resist a poet? (I would now, looking back, but not at the time.) 
After the first week, he sent me this poem by Bertolt Brecht, handwritten by himself on fancy paper:

To be Read Mornings and Evenings

He whom I love
Has told me
That he needs me.

That's why
I take care of myself
Watch my step and
Fear every raindrop
Lest it strike me down.

It was only a brief fling, his own poetry was somewhat unconvincing and he also quoted too much Rolling Stones lyrics.  But I always loved that Brecht poem and two years later, I actually stood in Blackwell's Bookshop in Oxford and read it out loud and in English to R, who, in his dirty mountain boots and his wild hair swirling around his head, looked quite out of place in the poetry section but grinned at me just the right way.

Anyway, my point is: I am now officially terrified, scared shitless, of all the raindrops and the way I cannot move my right leg properly and whether this rehabilitation will be a failure and too late and I could go on and on.

11 February 2017

We woke up to strange white stuff covering the world outside. We decided to stay indoors and my old friend vertigo arrived for a visit. I could dwell on how I pushed all the misery buttons at once, incl. weeping and gnashing of teeth, but, well, old hat.
After lunch, big white sheets of sleet were coming down outside. The man who had consoled me earlier started to make marmalade from scratch in the kitchen. I sat down with him while he separated the pips from the flesh. I lamented that I have to be better by Tuesday for my appointment with the rehabilitation center - on which I am focussing all my hopes and dreams right now - and he put his sticky hands and arms around me, which was nice, and assured me that whatever happens, it will not be the end of the world.

Then I listened a couple of times to Frazey Ford singing about the Indian Ocean. The best ocean on the planet, I loved it from day one and cried very very hard when the plane carried us away from it for the last time.

10 February 2017

Today, I was walking past the bus stop where I first taught S how to get home from school by herself. She was a skinny little 10-year old waif, shy and quiet in public. All afternoon I have tried unsuccessfully to remember what school bag she had at the time. But I remember the yellow jeans and the lilac sweater and her hairband. I can see her standing at the bus stop ready to come home just as I taught her during the days in the previous week when we travelled together every day. I am watching from across the road behind that big tree as the bus comes along. She doesn't know I am there but she is doing all the right things, carefully and seriously, the way we had practiced.
In those days, I was probably the one who was scared most.
Come to think of it, I still am.

09 February 2017

you fool

The old bastard is back, sneaked up quietly and suddenly last night.

"Surprise! Hello?!
Here I am again. Did you miss me? Did you think I would stay away while you kept yourself busy with physiotherapy and all this silly walking around the garden, slowly building up stamina every day?  
It looked like a nice old game for a while. You had me in stitches.

Well, here is the thing. I want it now. Your energy, attention, your ridiculous concept of health and recovery. Hand it over. There's a good girl.

Remember: I am your chronic disease. We are buddies forever.

Dole out the cortisone for all you want, go on, you do that now,  but it will just patch things up, poorly and let's not forget my special treats. Yes, clever girl, the side effects. 

I rule supreme."

07 February 2017

grandmother, never granny

My grandmother died in 1995, a few weeks short of her 103rd birthday. On the motorway driving home from her funeral, we had an accident and as a result I had to have spinal surgery, the long term effects of which are probably -  to some extent - the reason why I had to have this somewhat similar surgery almost five weeks ago.

It has nothing to do with my grandmother - it was a freak snowstorm, poor visibility and the usual speed limit transgressions on German motorways - but I had to get this in somewhere, self pity and still not able to walk properly etc.

Here she is in 1905 on the day of her confirmation, 13 years old.

and here with her siblings, three years later:

She is the oldest and all through her life she maintained a close relationship with her sister and her brothers. Indeed, she bossed her nieces and nephews around just as much as her own children and grandchildren. These two boys are the brothers who started the family feud after WWI. Hard to imagine. My father told me this morning that as a school boy he would cycle from one uncle's house to the other's, delivering messages and papers to sign, eating two dinners and bringing home treats for his mother, each bigger and better than the other. His uncles adored my grandmother and were always there when she needed help, but never at the same time.
There is no proper explanation for this feud. They had different ideas about the business, one was the crafts man, a skilled blacksmith who eventually became quite famous for his ornamental iron work. The other one was the manager. But that surely is the perfect combination for success? At a push, my father suggests it could all be due to their wives arguing and competing in the stifling social circles of the 1920s in a provincial town. There is a second and a third generation working hard on keeping it alive these days.

This is my grandmother in 1914, she had left school for good and was now attending a 'finishing institution' for young women in Augsburg, where she was to be instructed in the various important social graces incl. designs for dinner settings and pastry baking.

The beginning of WWI put an end to this. Her brothers went to the front and she came home to run the family business with her mother.  I am not sure about the role of her father, I think he was ill. From what we have been told, she was a very successful businesswoman. And she loved to talk about that time, how deftly she handled the competition. Often she told us that she 'showed the men' that a woman could be just as successful and ruthless if not more so. And ruthless she was, all her life.

By the time WWI was over, she was getting on, she was almost 25, with her brothers back running the business (and arguing about it), she had to concentrate on marriage. And as the oldest daughter of a successful local merchant and land owner, i.e. money, there was a fair selection of suitable candidates, despite the effects of the war.

When I was a small girl, I often sat in her kitchen, drinking black tea with hot milk, dipping in one of the very hard biscuits she kept in large tins, while she counted her suitors on the fingers of her hand, giggling like a shy young girl. There was the teacher who unfortunately was slightly cross-eyed, the pastor with an overbearing mother, the forester who always tried to look under her skirts when she was cycling past his house in the woods (why was she cycling there? I would ask, to check whether he was meeting other young women, she replied briskly), the son of the local brick factory owner (he later married her sister) and so on, until this dashing one arrived, posted to the province to run the finance department, with a law degree from Munich and a truck load of bespoke furniture. He was the best catch, obviously. Never mind that he was 17 years older, he came with dramatic career prospects and the war was over. They married in 1919.  Their honeymoon was a trip to Vienna on a pleasure boat on the Danube. Every afternoon, so the story goes, my grandfather went for a swim in the river to exercise his healthy athletic body while she had to sit and watch him. Until one hot day, she had enough of this showing off and jumped right off the boat to join him.

With my grandfather's next promotion came a house - that she designed and built. Or rather, supervised as it was built. People still shiver when they talk about it. My father moved back there after he left my mother in 1988. He lives there now among his father's bespoke furniture, a place full of stories.

Anecdotes and memories, hearsay and family folklore. I am no closer to my grandmother than I was when I was small and scared of her. She was a hard person, no cuddles, no wiping away of tears and there were many. She always had work for us, picking fruit, sorting through the apples and quinces in the basement, folding laundry, drying the dishes. No treats or sweets. No time for fairy tales or lullabies, instead, she read to us from her favourite tabloids, Grace Kelly, Jackie, Frank Sinatra, Maria Callas, all the adventurous European royals, her voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper when it came to pregnancies and betrayal, divorce and - shock! - adultery. Most of it I did not understand (what does pregnancy mean, grandmother?) and she was not a person you would ask.

Once before I started school, when my mother was going through a bad patch, I was to stay with her for a few weeks and after the first few days and tears, I decided I would leave and walk back home by myself (about 50 km). All night I tried to remember the exact route and the names of the villages along the way and after breakfast, I packed my toys and told her I was off. She opened the door and never said a word. My aunt picked me up from the bottom of the road hours later.

And yet, I know she was proud of us, proud of me. She would never ever say it to my face, of course not. When S was born, her first great-grandchild, she softened, danced through the room holding her, singing and laughing.