life of m

Sustaining the Self and Beyond


Leave a comment

Waves on the same ocean

Everywhere I go, I take photographs of street art, graffiti, stickers, and images that capture a moment that seems important and meaningful in some way: a teddy bear sitting on a table or a stuffed dog or rabbit that has been lost (hopefully only temporarily) by a young master. A photograph on cobblestones with a face that no passersby will recognize.

I am not sure why exactly I am drawn to this form of expression. Perhaps, it has to do with its transience and anonymity. Much of these pieces will endure for only a short while and are often without authorship. Even those artists like Keith Haring, who has achieved worldwide recognition, have pieces that have been lost forever.

Or maybe it has to do with the connection that is created from one person to another in the act of expressing something, an emotion or a call to action. These acts may appear simple, but there is something deeply human in this action. It is like each word or image has a voice, and it is simultaneously saying, I am here. I exist. I am real. You exist, too, and you are not alone. In this moment, we are one.

Wandering around the city of Rome, which seems to be in a constant state of falling apart and being pieced back together, one cannot help but reflect on transience and mortality. The presence of so many foundations begs the question of the ever-elusive idea of the fountain of youth and immortality.

For some, having children is a way of ensuring their own immortality. Their genetics and their memory will live on in at least the next one to two generations, but then what? I have no memories of so many of my ancestors, without whom I would not be alive today. Without any human children of my own, how will I be remembered? Will I be remembered?

Does it matter if I am?

Susan Griffin (1992) wrote in A Chorus of Stones that we are each composed of the memories and experiences of those who came before us. I cannot help but wonder about this idea as I wander through European cities where so many Jewish people once lived and now perhaps haunt their former streets and homes.

As a child, I grappled with Judaism, particularly upon hearing about an incident where a temple barred a young boy from participating in a field trip when it was discovered that his mother was not Jewish and therefore by Jewish law, he was not truly Jewish either. At the very tender and impressionable age of 12, I was horrified by this story, which the adults around the table seemed to receive as quite natural. This moment marked the beginning of my shift away from the Jewish faith.

How could I support a religion that would seek to exclude its own members? Weren’t there precious few Jewish people left in the world? Why did it matter if one’s mother was Jewish anyway?

As a teenager, I engaged in heated battle with my own mother, claiming that I didn’t have to be Jewish if I didn’t want to be.

You are Jewish because I am Jewish, she would shriek back at me.

So it went, on and on, for years.

There seems to be a kind of obsession around the fundamentalist religions. I think it is not coincidence that so many people I have spoken with describe themselves as recovering Catholics. These religions expect and demand complete acquiescence some baffling discontinuities. Acceptance without question has never been my strong suit. I have a naturally fiery and stubborn disposition. If anyone dares to tell me that I cannot do something, it only serves to strengthen my determination to prove them wrong.

Can we escape from an identity built upon the lives of so many who came before us, whose memories and genes make up who we are today?

I am not so sure. At least, in my experience being raised in a Jewish family, I can very strongly relate to the myriad films in which Woody Allen obsesses over being Jewish while also grappling with his Jewish-ness.

In the beginning of the movie Annie Hall, one of his first lines (after bemoaning the briefness of life, which is over far too quickly) is a paraphrasing of a line from Groucho Marx: I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.

I think that for me, I might be more inclined to want to be a member of the Jewish community were they to accept someone like me into their fold. However, I have never felt at ease in this community. Growing up, I had the feeling that being Jewish was somehow a kind of competition to prove one’s ultimate Jewish-ness. I failed miserably at this competition, which was why I found it kind of ironic and also hilarious that I have been the sole Jew in so many of the remote corners of the globe where I have lived. This unique situation gave me the status as the “resident Jew,” and people would ask me on a regular basis to answer questions about the Jewish religion for them. I invariably failed this test as well. I knew many of the tenets and traditions of Judaism, but I could not for the life of me explain the rationale behind them.

Most of my answers went something like this: I don’t know. Someone decided to do this a long time ago. They probably had a health reason for doing it, which has now become obsolete. But because Jews are so adamant about upholding tradition, we continue this practice to this day.

I have failed my continued efforts to escape Judaism’s grasp. In groups, I share humor with a Jewish flavor. Then, I think about the idea that even the seemingly simple act of using humor connects me to my heritage. Aren’t most of the world’s comedians of Jewish descent? Or is this just another nod toward the Jewish comedian rulebook?

Can we create our own truly unique identity or has this identity already been designed through years of evolution, genetic predetermination and experimentation, and the passing on of energy, memories, and lived experiences?

Can we escape the blood that flows in our veins?

For many years, I convinced myself that this was possible, but the older I get, the more sensitive I become and the more drawn to the experiences of the people who came before me. If not for several courageous souls, I might not even exist in this form I have taken for this life. I can only write from my own experience, but I feel a deep emotion when I bear witness to the suffering that came to pass for so many Jewish people for so many thousands of years.

In our recent travels to Darmstadt, my husband and I noticed small brass squares that had been embedded into the sidewalk. While he attended a conference, I wandered the streets of the city and found more and more of these markers; there were many pairs and sometimes several all clustered together in one spot. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that on each one had been inscribed a person’s name, birth date, and the German words for taken and died, along with the year of these two events. I had to look up the German words, but the places where people had died were already familiar: Dachau, Auschwitz. I felt a haunting chill move from the earth up through my entire body.

Perhaps, it is not just that these people experienced a fate that could have befallen me had I lived in a different place in a different time. It may also be that on my own spiritual path, I have studied the ideas from Buddhists, yogis, and philosophers, who claim that we are all the same and thus we are all connected and responsible for each other. This question warrants further reflection. I can say that I do not feel the same haunting response in the depths of my being when confronted with other suffering. I feel sadness but not the same feeling that their fate could easily have been my own.

Has my own, often fiery, struggle with my heritage shown disrespect for the sacrifices of those members of my family who came before me? So many of those individuals perished for no reason other than being Jewish. They may have experienced their own struggle with the Jewish faith and/or not even considered themselves to be Jewish, but their identity was set nonetheless.

One of the presenters at the conference my husband recently attended in Rome suggested to me that in battling against the identity and teachings my parents had bestowed upon me, I was actually engaging with it.

The revolt is also a yes, he said. Even saying no is a link.

He used two hand gestures to demonstrate this concept. The first was to create two fists with his hands and knock those fists together. The second was to open each fist and link the four fingers of each hand and draw the link energetically apart, showing it to hold. Even as each hand tried to separate from the other, the link became stronger as a result.

In some ways, to be Jewish is to be an “other,” to be alone. I am an “other” for people of different faiths. It is no accident that Kyle sings the lines, “I’m a Jew, a lonely Jew, on Christmas” or that Jewish people joke about going to a Chinese restaurant on this holiday because the rest of the world is engaging in a celebration that is closed to us.

Perhaps, then, at the age of 36 I can accept that I am indeed Jewish and not just the “ish” part (another joke that I have enjoyed slipping into conversation about religion over the years).

This doesn’t mean that I want to go to temple or hang out with other Jews. Indeed, just as I may be Jewish, I am also an “other” in this community. I was drawn to the synagogue/museum in Rome, but I could not bring myself to go inside. Just the thought of going through security and standing inside the wrought iron fences that surrounded the building caused a strong sense of dread and imprisonment. Instead, I walked slowly around the periphery of the building, picking up rocks and taking photographs. It seemed appropriate; to be on the outside looking in, for this is a metaphor for relationship with the Jewish religion.

I am ever on the outside, looking in to the Jewish faith and reflecting on what it means for my own spirit and soul.

Similarly, as I walk in this body, I am ever trying to understand what is happening on the inside.

I know that this body I inhabit may be transient, but I have the sense that my soul and the energy that swirls around with me may endure. So I create my own artwork as I walk my own path, inspired by and made possible by so many others who came before me.

We are all little waves on the same ocean [but] I’m just a little pixel in the picture, the conference keynote speaker and composer, Sven Helbig, had said to those of us listening in the audience. What can I do?

What I can do is continue to paint and share my work with others so that we both may feel less alone.

Advertisements


Leave a comment

The belly of the beast

I received some interesting and hilarious responses to my first post about our adventures in Darmstadt. One friend wrote of Darmstadt that it was “the intestine city,” a description which has now begun to weave itself into our conversation as we have moved through our second day here.

 

We had a relatively restful night’s sleep, though I could hear someone walking around in the room above us and experienced a few waves of panic, hoping this would not turn into a repeat of the nightmare neighbor we recently escaped from at our first apartment in Brussels. Thankfully, a simple turning on of the air fan and earplugs solved the noise from above. My husband was elated at the opportunity to sleep through the night without interruption from the two feline characters who share our home. He practically did a dance he was so giddy (ok, he definitely did a little dance, and it was adorable). I really love this man.

 

The day before I had called down to reception to ask about the internet, so this morning it was my husband’s turn to call to see if breakfast was included in the price for the hotel (feel free to judge, but we are on a student and part-time editor budget). Breakfast buffet was indeed gratis, so we headed down to the dining room.

 

We were greeted by the sounds of men in the lobby speaking American English.

 

Where are we? I asked my husband.

 

The little placard in our hotel room had informed us that there were more than 50 options at the buffet, and I would say the majority included some kind of meat and/or dairy product. While I have been impressed to see many vegan and vegetarian signs posted on the windows of restaurants around the town, the breakfast buffet at H+ Hotel was decidedly leaning toward the carnivorous with omnivores a close second.

 

There were little signs telling us the names of all of the meat products in German and English.

 

Huh, bacon is bacon in German and English, I noted, not that either of us are going to eat any. I did wind up with a couple of rogue pieces of bacon in my eggs, however.

 

The soundtrack for the buffet was decidedly weird. When we first walked in, we were serenaded by a male voice, telling us, you’re in the army now. Oh, oh oh, you’re in the army now.

 

Ok, I thought. Why not?

 

I wonder what the + is for? I asked my husband when we were seated at a table on the patio. A truck had pulled up, and the workers we had seen putting up a relatively small hotel sign the day before were unloading a much larger one to put up today.

 

 

Seems a little strange to be staying at a hotel that isn’t actually labeled as such, but the patio is sure nice, I continued.

 

We sat beneath a beer tent with Pilsner written in various locations. The breeze was lovely. I found myself feeling anxious and hurried and took a moment to exhale fully.

 

I’m quite happy to sit, my husband said in response to my fidgeting. There’s no hurry.

 

Ok. So what’s with the weird music? I asked. You’re in the army now? Really? I never even heard that song in the United States.

 

The things you hear in the intestine, my husband replied.

 

After breakfast, we headed on foot into town to wander around before the start of the conference we were here for my husband to attend.

 

Here are some of our observations from our wandering:

 

People in Darmstadt are kind and helpful. Apart from being skeptical of our choice to take an extended holiday in “the intestine city,” expats and locals have been quick to offer assistance to the foreigners who clearly do not speak the language and have no idea what they are doing when they try to place an order at a restaurant or bar.

 

I took a photo of a house on one street, and a man walking toward us who lived in the house wanted to tell us all about its history in a mix of German, English, and enthusiastic hand gesturing.

 

 

People have adorable dogs in Darmstadt. This man’s dog had hardly any teeth but smiled as only a dog can nonetheless and was very gracious in allowing us to place our hands by its muzzle so it could smell us. My husband and I even got to give its head a good pat before it went running toward its house.

 

The man stayed and told us how the front façade of the houses on the street were from 1600-1700 while the houses built behind them were of newer construction. Previously, there had been farms and chickens. The man was not enthusiastic about the graffiti that had been sprayed onto the front façade of many of the houses, so I waited until he had moved on to take photos. I am fascinated by the culture of graffiti, street art, stencils, and stickers that I find in places I travel, and I take a ridiculous number of photos everywhere I go (my husband can attest to this because we will be walking and I will stop to take a picture without saying anything so he either walks several paces ahead before realizing I am not there or walks directly into me when I stop abruptly to take a photo).

 

 

Shoes seem to be reasonably priced, but my feet are too small to fit into even the smallest sizes. Score one point for my bank account.

 

Food also seems to be very reasonably priced. Our entrees at the Mexican restaurant Hacienda were each under 10 euros. The water we ordered was the priciest part of the meal. I really need to figure out how to ask for tap water in German.

 

When I asked for an insalata at a Kebap place, I received a salad large enough for several meals. My husband ordered a pizza funghi (mushroom pizza), which became lunch for him and leftovers for dinner for me. The total cost was also under 10 euros. Apart from swimming in the yogurt style dressing they seem to serve at restaurants (from my experience at two), the salad held up pretty well for lunch and then an early dinner.

 

There are a lot of advertisements for cigarettes, as well as little cigarette vending machines placed all over town, but we have seen very few people actually smoking. I am refraining from sharing any photos of these advertisements so as to not promote the agenda of any cigarette companies.

 

Blue and white striped shirts, bicycles, and hippie pants are in. At one point while we were walking, we passed a group of people and three out of the five were all wearing blue and white striped shirts. The two women who bicycled past us at this same scene were wearing identical blue and white striped shirts.

 

You fit right in, my husband told me.

 

Yeah, but my shirt is purple and blue stripes. I think there may be some kind of striped shirt conspiracy going on here.

 

There were a couple rogue pink and white stripe shirts and red and white, but otherwise blue and white were the colors of the day.

 

I am not habituated to walking around a city where the number of people riding bicycles seems to outnumber those on foot and easily rival the number of cars driving around. I have been the cause of several near collisions. Every time my husband has to repeat my name before I realize I need to step out of the way. Walking around on my home after dropping my husband off at the conference center, I have gone through several more slow motion close calls. It’s particularly interesting when the person on the bicycle isn’t looking where they are going because I do a kind of tenuous step the left and then the right, trying to guess which way they will move past me. I’ll get there.

 

We walked to a park with our carry out lunch and sat in the shade of a large oak tree to eat. With our shoes off, a cool breeze whispering by, we were completely blissed out. Well, mostly.

 

 

I can’t ever feel fully relaxed with my house in Alaska stress, I sighed. It’s always there.

 

It will sell, my husband assured me. There is no question about that, so maybe you could put yourself into that future where it’s all done and spend some time there. You could think about time as not being so linear. It’s what I did when I was in Alaska. It was so hellish that I would visit places in my memory. It’s more than a visit, though. It’s really experiencing it. It’s a more intentional embodiment of the experience. You really try to viscerally feel and relive it. It’s like the memory of being at my grandpa’s pool as a kid and lying in the sun. I could feel the heat of the sun when I embodied that memory. So, there’s no reason why you can’t go into the future, especially something like this when you absolutely know that it’s going to happen. You can think of it as reliving it before it happens. In a sense, it’s a kind of time travel.

 

As he spoke, I typed away on my iPhone, and my husband joked, did Richard really say it if Marieke didn’t write it down?

 

Earlier in the day, I had spent the better part of our walk to the town center typing his words while he spoke.

 

I had laughed and said, Dear diary, my husband says the most amazing things. (Insert the line: He’s ever so dreamy, and I could be a 1950s gal. well, it might take a bit more than a one-liner to get my frizzed out hair and big personality into that box.)

 

Well, I responded, I think it’s important to share, and it seems to speak to people. We’re not the only ones who struggle with this stuff.

 

True.

 

After our picnic, we headed toward the conference center where my husband would be spending the bulk of his remaining time in Darmstadt. It was an incredible building that was constructed around ancient looking stonewalls.

 

I used the restroom (because I never know if or when there might be another opportunity, and I have a thimble bladder), and then we parted ways for the next several hours.

 

 

I wandered around the city center for a little while and then headed back to the hotel for a cold shower, a few sips of whisky, and some quality time editing a dissertation.

 

I thought about my husband’s earlier musings about the city of Darmstadt.

 

I like that it’s that not pretentious, he had said. It knows it isn’t Berlin, and it’s ok with that.

 

I thought about this later on my walk back to the hotel. Darmstadt reminds me of Lowell and Boston. Boston is easy to love. It’s all right there on the surface. Lowell takes some dedication and persistence. It isn’t typically love at first sight, and it isn’t always a smooth relationship. However, if you take the time to get to know Lowell – I mean, really get to know it – you will find the full spectrum of emotions that accompany love.

 

Given time, I think I could come to love Darmstadt as well.