schirin oeding

under a peregrine star


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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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Impostor Paints Picture

“As it is, we are merely bolting our lives—gulping down undigested experiences as fast as we can stuff them in—because awareness of our own existence is so superficial and so narrow that nothing seems to us more boring than simple being.  If I ask you what you did, saw, heard, smelled, touched and tasted yesterday, I am likely to get nothing more than the thin, sketchy outline of the few things that you noticed, and of those only what you thought worth remembering. Is it surprising that an existence so experienced seems so empty and bare that its hunger for an infinite future is insatiable? But suppose you could answer, “It would take me forever to tell you, and I am much too interested in what’s happening now.” How is it possible that a being with such sensitive jewels as the eyes, such enchanted musical instruments as the ears, and such a fabulous arabesque of nerves as the brain can experience itself as anything less than a god? And, when you consider that this incalculably subtle organism is inseparable from the still more marvelous patterns of its environment—from the minutest electrical designs to the whole company of the galaxies—how is it conceivable that this incarnation of all eternity can be bored with being?”

~ Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

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(I’ll spend no time recounting what has happened since the last post. Why? Why not? It’s too much to tell, here, and more than enough of it has seeped through to all future words you’ll find here. I’ll keep consistently wallowing in inconsistency, I promise.)

Paying close attention to details has always been a skill of mine. Maybe it’s my superpower? It’s my refuge from the almost constant feeling of being out of place. At my college commencement a few years ago, our speaker introduced us green grasshoppers to the thrilling (ahem) official term for this feeling: impostor syndrome, she called it. Way to send us off into the world, you say? Well, why not. The fact is, I’ve found this definition delightfully useful. And flattering, since she put herself into this same category I immediately assigned myself to. Impostor syndrome: it sure put a handle on this feeling, which I safely say I’ve had almost my whole life, of being a foreigner somehow mistaken for someone else (someone who should be here, in this place). Don’t get me wrong—it’s not about feeling excluded or uninvited. It’s the feeling, which many of us have, of having been undeservedly included in some inner circle. Of looking out from the inside, rather than looking in from the outside.

When we watch something, we’re generally not participating in the same way we would be were we not consciously watching. We become impostors in a slightly different sense. Actually, it probably boils down to obsessive constant vigilance. (Two words that always make me think of the Harry Potter character Mad-Eye Moody. Remember him?) It’s fun to indulge in this obsession every once in a while—though I try to leave it behind on a healthily regular basis, too—especially when exploring new places.

I’m thinking about all this as I wander the streets of one of my favourite cities: Portland, Oregon. It’s hot and breezy, and the air is tinged with the scent of jasmine and buddleia. A homeless man (by the looks of him) is picking unripe rosehips from a rose bush by the side of the road and popping them into his mouth, one at a time. He chews slowly, eating around the seedy centre, which he spits out with an enthusiastic “Thwack.” His hands meander over the rosehips left on the bush, deftly examining them before choosing another one. On the other side of the street, small wooden tables crowd the sidewalk. It’s before noon, and men with sylvan tattoos and Converse sneakers drink coffee, while women in short skirts and bare backs sneak sidelong glances at their Iphones. An old dark blue Volvo pulls up beside me—no rust: it’s the West Coast, after all. On its roof, rolled up tightly and bungee-corded to the roof-rack, are carpets and black rubber dry-bags, the kind usually used for camping. The car itself is stuffed to the roof with duffle bags and boxes of books, stray volumes propped unintentionally open at some page or other. From the rear-view mirror dangles a tightly wrapped bundle of smudging sage, its edges already singed. Colourful feathers crowd the dash. A man emerges, smoothes one hand over his hair—which is long, gathered in a ponytail that reaches the small of his back, and used to be blond.

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I started listening to recordings of Alan Watts when I was about sixteen. A friend gave me a collection of CDs, long, meandering Watts oratories that I listened to over and over again. I think it was in these recordings that I first learned about what Watts refers to as “witnessing.” I spent weeks trying to perfect this method of imagining myself floating a few feet above myself, just watching. What ended up happening, in the process, was that I learned to pay better attention to the world around me. It’s a skill that’s come in handy often. The world, in fact, is endlessly entertaining.

The long-haired man from the dark blue Volvo makes his way to the sidewalk, where he walks over a tiny literary detail in the pavement. Someone, at some time, scratched the words “Wow = Me” into the setting cement. Certainly better than “Woe = Me” isn’t it? I like it. He ambles off into a nearby building and is gone. The Volvo stays behind, windows rolled slightly down, metal crackling in the mid-morning heat. A few steps further down the street, someone has parked an old VW Westfalia—hands down one of my favourite cars. This one’s acid green, rusty in spite of its California plates, and bedazzled with bumper sticker upon bumper sticker upon bumper sticker.

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The poet Mary Oliver said it best, or at least, most simply:

Instructions for living a life.

Pay attention.

Be astonished. 

Tell about it. 

The tiny details of the every day are indeed the secretest (a word? why sure it is.) and simultaneously most accessible of messages from the universe. They are the dialogue between the semi-permeable realm of magic and enchantment that hovers just behind us and the tangible world we think we live in. These details are, if nothing else, fodder for stories. And stories are the building-blocks of our lives, so what better way to begin a story than by paying attention?

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PS— Don’t think the magic is real? Try thinking about it this way.


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Running With a Gal From Brooklyn, Potential Sugaring & Stitching It Together

The gal from Brooklyn is, in fact, a sixty-ish ex-marathoner, psychology professor who I almost ploughed into while running this morning. I slowed to a walk beside her and we got to talking. And ended up crossing the river, and walking through the woods, chatting—not running, just walking quickly at this point—before parting ways half an hour later. I love these chance encounters. They lift me right up ever time. Just a few days ago, on my way home from work, I stopped to pet my favourite neighbourhood dog, a lassie names Laddie who lives with a very old woman with a beautiful, big garden. During the early spring, she had tapped an ancient maple tree that flanks her land. Walking by and seeing the sap flowing always left me feeling elated, light, so happy to see that even in a city, people like to live with their hands in the soil and their hearts with the trees. (I should also start keeping count of the number of backyard chicken coops I’ve come across!) So recently, when I was petting her dog, she came around the corner and we said hello. I asked her about her tree, and she shared with me that it has been there since 1915. Since before the telephone lines were strung from the central posts to the adjacent houses. Today, the phone line snakes its way around and through the upper branches of the majestic maple. An afterthought. We talked about maple syrup, sugaring, drinking sap cold, right from the bucket. She offered that I could tap the other maples in her yard, if I am here next winter. One is plenty for her, she told me, but I was welcome to make good use of her tiny, urban sugarbush. Sweetness of maple, kind words.

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I’ve been teaching myself to sew lately. Thankfully, I work with a group of helpful, experienced sewists, who are always willing to advise me. So far, I’ve made three tank tops, a dress, a voile t-shirt, and an enormous linen travel bag that will accompany me on board a few planes this summer. I also snagged some Liberty print quarter meters last weekend, and hemmed them into scarves. Liberty carries a certain intrigue: my grandmother, I’ve been told, used to make the trip from Germany to London, where she would stock up on the classics. I found my first Liberty fabric, in the form of a blouse, during a beautiful trip to San Francisco a few year ago—in a thrift shop. A lucky find! I relish the experience of sewing. I’ve been a knitter for a few years now, having been well-taught by my mother and a fiber-artist friend and former college teacher of mine, Jody Stoddard. Now knitting and sewing have taken on almost the same kind of satisfaction. The ability to make something wearable, usable, something with longevity, beats out lots of other ways to spend my time.  I’ve been sewing mostly for myself these days, getting the hang of things, and wearing my mistakes. Knitting, on the other hand, is something I do for other people, most of the time anyway. When I knit something for someone else, I think about them while I work at it. Hope that whatever I make them will protect them, keep them warm, and give them the feeling of being held. One can never have enough people to knit for. xo

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My next sewing project with be out of this sunny stuff.

PS- Things have suddenly turned to deep spring here. The weather gods have forgotten the subtle transitions they usually tempt us with. Instead, bare feet and short sleeves are on the agenda these days. Magnolias, tulips, daffodils, forsythia, and many other spring flowers are exploding into bloom everywhere I look. People are sunbathing by the river, sitting on their sweaters, shed eagerly as they soak up the sunshine. We need this, beauty all around, warmth, life. I know I do.

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