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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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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Urban Ecotones & Other Music

Yesterday I did my running along some old railway tracks in my neighbourhood. The tracks are old, older than most of the houses that line them, and are still in regular use. Trains, mostly freight trains, rumble their way over these tracks on a daily basis. Right next to the tracks are backyards, hugging each curve of the rail-line, like they’re trying to eek out some space for themselves. Between yards and tracks there is a narrow paved path—an urban success in our car-focused culture— a bike trail, or walking/running path. Some good souls (the city, perhaps?) have planted a foot-wide strip of earth with black-eyes susans and daylilies. The tracks are a place where two worlds meet. Studded among private homes are old industrial buildings that served the railroad at some point in the past. Most of them are still operating today, producing steel beams or street signs, but have been reduced to the status of mom-and-pop factories, the kind that have ten employees, and are housed in buildings from an era when industrial structures still has some beauty and human-scale to their design. I feel most at peace far from traffic and houses. In a meadow, or in the woods, or in the places where both meet, the ecotones, the in-between places that are hard to define and even harder to recreate, once lost to settlement. And still, as I try to make a study of this small city in which I find myself, the language of nature comes up again and again in my mental descriptions. Humans, I think, still have a deep-set tendency to imitate the patterns and rhythms of the natural world. That is, if they allow themselves freedom from preconceived notions of industrial efficiency and “modern” design. It’s special, too, to see the way people interact with their landscapes in an urban setting. Planting the tiniest gardens between tracks and fences, sunflowers that eventually tower over these fences start conversations between passers-by. Yesterday, my running route led me by several backyards where signs had been stuck into newly greening grass: Idle No More. Put there for who to see? Runners, bikers, walkers, train conductors. Thank you. When people take ownership of their homes and neighbourhoods, even in small ways, magic happens.

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Last year’s pictures of the tracks. It’s not that green yet…

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