schirin oeding

under a peregrine star


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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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Breaking Up | Breaking Open

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I’ve always enjoyed the small details of life. My favorite place is the forest floor in springtime: spring beauties, hepatica, ramps, fiddleheads, trillium, wild ginger in flower, dappled sunlight on emerging green. Those are the things that make my heart sing. I like vast views, too, but I’m always more apt to drop down, smell the rotting leaves that hug the earth, dig my hand into the organic matter, see the bugs and worms at work there, the mushrooms that enchant the soil. In life, though, sometimes, this causes confusion. The “big picture” gets lost somewhere up above, details begin to dominate, and the little things start to become disconnected from the landscape that houses them. I recently broke up with a person I was head over heels in love with, and entangled with. The breaking up, the deconstruction of our relationship, was a landscape opening up around me, and, in a sense, swallowing me. Looking up was, is, scary. It means placing myself; recognizing where I am, physically, emotionally, spiritually. I searched for minute details, saving graces, the little things that grow along the wayside and make the journey beautiful—trying to avoid seeing the vastness ahead of me. I found those little things, of course I did, but the more I looked down at them (or rather back at them) the more this vastness beckoned to me.

In the introduction to his book Portrait of My Body, Philip Lopate asks the questions that for a long time stopped me from starting this blog, “What gives me the right to assume my life is worth taking so seriously? Is it arrogance? Self-centeredness? Yes… but not entirely. We must remember that most writers have only their own story to tell. In my case, I can also report better through my eyes what the world looks like than by pretending omniscience. I want to record how the world comes at me […].” In my search for the courage to really be where I am, to put aside escapism and to rewrite my grand dreams, I am daring myself to share some of the stories that seem, to me, to be the least public of them all. Please take what you like from them. I think of this as an exercise in spontaneous storytelling, not a foray into autobiographical perfection.

In this new beginning, there are still a million questions that keep me turning my head back. There are a million answers, or maybe (probably) more, none of which are as satisfying as taking a deep breath and looking forward. There are still plenty of things that go bump in the night—but there are also stars, and the moon, to light the way. Rob Brezsny, whose Free Will Astrology I enjoy weekly, planted an idea in my mind many years ago. “The universe,” he writes, “is conspiring to shower you with blessings.” What an audacious thing to say! And is it true? There are certainly enough instances when it doesn’t seem so, enough times when things seem to be heading so stubbornly in the opposite direction that it is easy, almost obligatory, to laugh at his pronouncement. And yet. I believe he is right. Counting my blessings, even when I rely on someone else to sit me down and do it for me, has a way of putting me in my place (the place where I happily look out, up, and all around me to see that I am, in fact, in a good and beautiful place). Looking up, lately, I have been shocked by the many blessings that I have received. What I have received has reminded me to plan and dream and simultaneously plant myself firmly in the earth of this place.

Here are some things that have pleased me to no end lately. Things that have tickled me pink, and made my heart pitter-pattern. Things that have caused me to jump with glee and awe.

A dear friend of mine, who lives a bit too far away for my liking, has decided to tie the proverbial knot. I am so absolutely thrilled for the two of them—I can’t even put words to it. And what is more, I am bursting with pride, as they have asked me to officiate at their wedding. Love, love, love! What an honour (and responsibility…).

While the above is surely number ONE, there are a few more things, too. Lucky me! Another blessing is that I live in a city that, as it greens with spring and new life, is full of beautiful surprises. I’ve been reluctant to find steady ground here, having had the idea that I wouldn’t be here for very long, and that planting my feet wasn’t really “worth my while.” That’s something I am committing to changing. No matter how long I stay here, I want to feel close to this place, get a sense of its people and its stories. Yesterday, a bike ride revealed a long, verdant corridor of uncharted pathway, echoing the river. A desire path created not by the city but by people who wanted to walk or bike there. On one side, the river; on the other a forested slope, thick with spring ephemerals (like a flood of white trillium).

I am also, still, beyond excited and filled with happy anticipation for the six weeks I get to spend at the Omega Institute this summer… Being able to go there and take a course for six weeks is an unbelievable, unexpected gift.

There are plenty of other things to say, here. I’ll leave it at this for now, and spend a minute basking in the universe’s conspiratorial bounty. A thought for you, too—something that a friend gave me a number of years ago, written on a card that lives in my wallet.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate,

our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.

We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant,

gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?”

Actually,

who are you not to be?

xo

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I get to go back here this summer…