schirin oeding

under a peregrine star


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Dog Days

There’s a time when summer climbs to its peak, hot and sticky sweet, and that time is now. The university semester, in a counterproductive attempt to echo the progress of the season, also peaks right around now. Exams heap up, papers, projects, and last minute presentations appear out of the haze of heat. The farm calls out for attention, too. Cucumbers and tomatoes want harvesting from the greenhouses that are hotter than a sauna at noonday. The potato beetles are settling in for a long chomp. There’s something about the heat, though, and all the pressure of school and growing food, that sets the mind to dreaming big. My mental list of projects grows (especially during long lectures in the hot bowels of the uni castle). From cooking and fermenting (kraut, kombucha, ginger beer, and sourdough), canning and curing, to sewing, to putting pen to paper again, FINALLY, and writing stories. Call it escapism, but only if you must.

These dog days of summer, when the sun hesitates to set fully before 10:30 at night, are a time of incubation. In the spring, I’m full of energy. Lengthening days and greening fields reset the rhythm from winter’s introspection to springtime’s outward dance. Everything seems juicy and revelatory. Summer, on the other hand, offers us the long view. Vegetation slows down its explosive growth and begins to ripen. Fruits turn heavy on the trees. The bees are busier and more focused than ever. The heat makes us less hungry, and, like the bees, more focused on storing for when winter sends its cold winds our way again.

The wheat and barley fields are dry and golden. The outline of each grain head becomes crisply defined against the sky.

I find myself starting lots of sentences with, “I wish I could…” But we have to take life one step at a time, don’t we? Otherwise we’d be doing cartwheels. And in this heat, that’s hardly recommendable.

Mary Oliver has just the right words, as is so often the case.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

Black Forest lady

Berries in a bowlBlack emmerSummer beesSwimming

PS- Capture summer in a bottle by making a simple St. John’s Wort tincture.


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Swimming Lessons

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Life at university has felt like a series of dips into a deep, deep pool. The bottom is still murky, but the possibility of diving, deeper and deeper, is exciting. There are gems and secret doors, portals, to be found. It’s a process of exploration, and experimentation—of again and again refining my ability to notice and see.

What drives someone to keep studying (at a university, in this case)? A professors asked a group of us students this question sometime last week. Is it money? Is it the possibility of a brilliant career? Is it an inability to imagine other options? Or is it a deep hunger, a ravenous sense of curiosity? Take your pick, and I’ll take mine—and perhaps you can guess that it’s the latter.

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Here are a few dives into this deep pool—a few little gems (and splinters):

(All these pictures are, like the words, glimpses of this place. It’s all Germany—bogs, and lakes, and gummy bear cakes.)

In my economics lecture, we were told, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Most people in the lecture hall took this as a given—isn’t it something economists have believed for almost ever? Nothing, no nothing is free or comes without trade-offs. Still, there was a rumbling that went through the hall. A little huff of disappointment, maybe. Aren’t most of us still trying to be optimists? Somewhere to my left, a hand popped up and a small-ish voice said, “And what about sunshine? And love?”

(And yes, well, who cares if the asker is right or not. There must be room in our hearts for a little nebulous selflessness.)

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On a disoriented bike ride that was supposed to take me from the university down into town, I pedalled, accidentally, into a field of brilliant flowers. Cosmos, sunflowers valiantly blooming away the October blues, dahlias, malvas, zinnias, statice, sky-blue cornflowers. A little sign hanging from a post read, “Pick your own flowers.” Underneath the sign hung a little jar with a coin-sized opening. Two knives were provided. I got home with a backpack full of flowers, of course.

I discussed weather with a new friend from central Africa. We’re sitting outside, and I’ve stripped off shoes and socks. The grass is damp, but warm enough for autumn, thanks to the sun. He laughs. At home, he tells me with a smile, it’s never less than 20 degrees Celsius. I impress him with my story of living in a canvas yurt during a northern Vermont winter. I describe the feeling of blinking in weather so cold your lashes freeze together in an instant. I gleefully count layers for him: scarf, mittens, hat, sweater, thermals, woolen socks (2 pairs, maybe), felt-lined boot or mukluks… I get enthusiastic about ways to avoid frostbite. I suspect I adore winter. Together, we worry about this upcoming season in Germany: will it be too cold (him)? will it be unspectacularly balmy (me)?

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I go to class in a castle. It’s got an undeniably magical quality to it. Most people are blasé. They shlump around from class to class, trailing backpacks, coffee mugs, textbooks, stopping to smoke their cigarettes in hasty puffs. I, on the other hand, get giddy just thinking about it. Yeah, childish, perhaps. I might get over it. But I doubt it.

Little inklings of homesickness, every once in a while, have left me breathless. I’m falling for this place, but there’s still the essence of who I am—mostly, it’s a yearning for specific people, or trees and trees and rocks. Distance. Wildness. My cat. A certain smell almost moves me to tears. Woodsmoke still clinging to a sweater I haven’t worn in a year. I crave a spectacular October frost, the kind that leaves everything covered in diamond dust. And at the same time, there are a dozen or more hands reaching out to me wherever I turn, and for this I am so grateful.

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Travels with My Grandfather

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My grandfather and I, on the occasion of his 86th birthday, have taken a trip together, to an island in the former GDR. It’s just the two of us, this time, which gives the house, and us, a slightly rattled feeling. Perhaps we’re a bit wistful, too. The rest of the family is at work, or at school, or both. Most of the time, he does the talking. He has things to say, and I, it turns out, know very little. Sometimes, I make valiant attempts at interjection, sliding sidelong a comment into a conversation—no, a monologue—I know nothing about. War, for example, or communism, or West Wall cement.

We ride our bikes very slowly through the seaside savanna: pines, oaks, sea buckthorn bright and heavy with orange berries that are too tart to eat before the first frost (though I try, anyway). I compose letters in my mind, or small poems about sand and wind. Erosion. How difficult is it to ride a bike and write, at the same time? (Wasn’t there once a man who could bike backward while playing the violin?)

Somewhere along the way, we curve toward the coast and end up among a handful of other people who have stopped here. Nearly 5 kilometres of tumbling evidence faces us: blocks and quarters and raised up ziggurats, slotted windows with steel bars across them, a battalion of broken glass and doors as far as the eye can see, everything sinking into the beautiful, fine sand. The ocean is less than 100 meters away, and has already consumed the most obvious leavings of former inhabitants. People, all of them of a certain age, are milling about, taking pictures and putting their hands to their eyes, tilting their faces up to try to take it all in. They ask each other, “Where were you, when—?”

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How much of a place should we know in a lifetime? Or should the question be, how many places? The book I dropped unwittingly into my backpack for this trip is all about Ecuador, the Galápagos Islands. So I sit in the Ostsee sand reading about green sea turtles and Johanna Angermeyer. All the while, it seems like my very soul is engaged in some kind of a sparring match with reality. Where the heck?, it asks, and all I can meekly reply is, I don’t know, either. It’s the kind of sparring match that involves broomsticks not swords, because it isn’t a battle so much as a push against the settling dust: somewhere in the corners of my mind, beneath bits of twigs and stones, somewhere under notes written by people I do remember, toenail clippings, plum pits, there is a tilting stack of place memories (not all of them my own). Where was I, when—?

Are our memories evidence like bricks and mortar? Years of my grandfather’s stories have made me weary of history. Not history as in stories, his stories, our stories, but history as a fully-formed, decisive thing. Unchanging, unmoving, unyielding. I think, now, that history is a soft and supple creature. Sometimes, when it lives in edifices and tumbling rows of apartment houses, it seems to speak for itself and we perhaps fool ourselves into thinking we understand. But trees are better witnesses to history than many people. Emptiness, the absence of something, sings history, too.

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My grandfather suffers no fools, but because we’re related, he’s familially obligated to put up with my unknowing. My questions tap, tap into dark corners: I simultaneously want and don’t want to know about the war because every story unleashes another one, and another one, and after a while it hurts to listen. I try sticking to small questions, like a map-maker, attempting at a bigger picture by way of bloodless detail. This rarely works. I ask practical questions, like How and Where. In the end, though, what I want to know is Why. But for Why, there are no answers that satisfy us. We comfort ourselves, and each other, by asking, over and over, “Where were you, when—?”


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Newly Minted

I resisted doing the blog thing for the following reasons:

1. It’s been done. And what could be worse (and more unavoidable, apparently) than being unoriginal?

2. I was lazy. I say “was” simply because I am no longer lazy. I’m not. Really. Ever.

3. I couldn’t figure out how to make my blog look as fancy as all the other nifty blogs I read. I still haven’t figured it out, but I am working on getting over it/not having blog-envy/being satisfied with (hopefully temporary) blog mediocrity.

4. I run out of things to write about.

Whatever the case may be. I am happy you’re here. I’m here, too, and so that makes two of us. It’s a party. I just celebrated my twenty-forth birthday, and by way of celebration, I made all kinds of resolutions (like you do), and this blog is step seventeen or something in keeping them. Another one is running three times a week. I am well on the way to success on that one, actually. Though I have yet to get over the pointlessness of running nowhere. I’m not very zen. Nevertheless, springtime is providing a variety of entertainment on my tri-weekly runs: green grass, flowers, melted ice. And the feeling afterwards is fantastic. As they say, it’s “type two” fun: the kind that’s great when it’s over. I’m preparing myself physically for a month of haying by hand (with scythe and rake) at 45˚ slopes in the Swiss Alps. That is not a joke. This will be followed by wall building as well as long-distance bicycling. The “long-distance” part may be up for interpretation. I say 200km is far. Like everybody else, all my resolutions are three parts self-improvement, and twelve parts self-entertainment. Adventure-seeking. Thrill-seeking? Perhaps. (Though Tuesday morning jogging is far from it, I admit.)

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Switzerland (2011): Tools of the Trade