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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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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The Borrowers: Student Debt

For a big chunk of my childhood and teenage years I lived in a mid-sized university town in Canada. My mother taught at the university, and I spent a fair amount of time wandering around libraries, student lounges, and green spaces on campus, pretending to be a mini-student. I remember that there was a popular cafe, run by grad students, right in the middle of campus. It was an old brick house with a patio. Sometimes, I would meet my mum there, and we would have a bite to eat on the patio. One of the exterior brick walls of the cafe, abutting the patio, was covered in numbers written in chalk, many of them running into multiple-digit lengths that were beyond the comprehension of my twelve year-old math skills. I kind of admired their colourfulness. It was neat that students wrote stuff on walls. (I’ve always had a thing for graffiti.) At some point, when I was older, maybe fifteen or so, I realised what those numbers actually were. Written way up high, above the scribbled, colourful digits, were the words: Wall of Debt.

The numbers represented individual students’ debts and loans, accrued over their years as undergraduate and graduate university students. I don’t remember any exact figures from the wall, but, looking at current student debt stats, I’m sure many of them floated around, and even more above, the $20,000 mark. And that’s just Canada. In the US, undergraduates who finance their education wholly via loans can expect at least this much debt in just three or four years, let alone tacking on two or more years of graduate studies. As a young person planning to enroll in a graduate degree program next year (and excited about it), these numbers turn my stomach.

Let me take a step back, though. I’m a twenty-four year old woman without a high school diploma. I homeschooled/unschooled the last two years of high school (actually, I spent most of those years either travelling or working on biodynamic farms). I don’t have a lot of money. In 2008, I applied and was accepted to a small, private American college based on a portfolio, rather than a GED, SAT, or high school transcript. Thanks to this portfolio, I received a full scholarship. I now have a B.A.—and, more importantly, I received an absolutely superbe, enlightening four years of intensive study. And all that for the cost of room and board (which isn’t negligible, but also doesn’t add up to a $20,000-$40,000 debt). I graduated with zero debt. Most of my fellow students didn’t share this experience. During my time at college, I didn’t generally stop to consider how much money I wasn’t spending on my education; I couldn’t hang a price-tag on my experiences, no matter how many zeros I tacked onto the figure. Nevertheless, debt was real: at the beginning of every semester, most of the other students were summoned up to the financial aid office to figure out their loan and grant packages. Figures were floated by me at the dinner table. I felt lucky, and relieved. I also felt increasingly angry that my friends were being faced with enormous financial burdens that might just slow them down on their way to pursuing their dreams. Financial burdens that would follow at least some of them into their fifties and sixties. Because yes, 2.2 million Americans over sixty still owe money on their student loans.

The debate about student loans is pretty wrung out. It’s not a useless debate by any means, but the fact is that as the conversation carries on, millions of students go further and further into debt. It sucks. I’ve been slow to wake up to this reality. It’s easy to set it aside when you’re “getting a free ride.” I feel deeply thankful to my alma mater, and when the time comes that I can give back financially (more than the tiny amount I send to the annual fundraiser), I will, without a doubt. You might wonder why I say that, since all the student debt might look like the college’s fault to begin with. I think in many cases that’s true: the quality of the education isn’t on par with the cost. But I went to a school that did its best with what it had: minimal endowment, a tiny student body, and no big-name corporate sponsors. Every on-campus student was guaranteed a work-study job, and those with higher need were eligible for actual pay-checks. That’s quite a feat, for a small school, especially one that’s geographically located in the most “inconvenient” place (when it comes to finding work as a student, anyway). And have you heard about schools divesting their fossil fuel stock holdings? They did that, too, and they were the third college in the U.S. to do so. All that is something I believe in. (Though all the while I wish the college had had more scholarships, grants, and alternative funding available.)

But for now, I get to plunge into the experience of financing my graduate degree head first, with no experience, and no thick skin, whatsoever. Oftentimes, in the conversation about student debt, the example of free education in Europe is brought up. I was born in Germany, and spent part of my childhood there. I’m an EU citizen, which means that I could take advantage of free education in the old world. There are plenty of reasons why I probably won’t do that, which include that the education I am seeking just isn’t available in Europe. It’s a longish story… But back to free post-secondary education. It’s great, right? Well, I’m not sure. It’s a tough call to make, especially because I seem to be arguing against tuition. The thing is, though, that a university education isn’t right for everyone. It’s not a class thing (or, it shouldn’t be), or a judgement call on my part. I know plenty of people who were much happier, and more successful, learning outside of the university environment—in some ways, I am, too. The problem with free education is that while some people who should have access to post-secondary ed. really can’t afford it, some people can. There is value to this kind of learning, and as much as some of us would like to avoid putting a price-tag on it, there is one. It’s inevitable, since we live in an economy based on, um, yes, sadly, cold, hard, cash. And so, those who can pay, should. In my opinion, the best way for universities and colleges to handle the gap is to adopt the work-college model that is used by some schools in the U.S. There are only seven registered work-colleges in the U.S. Really? Come on, right? I know most schools offer some work-study positions, but these colleges take it to a whole new level. At some schools, like Berea College in KY, all (ALL!) students work 10-15 hours/week, and thus are able to pay off all their tuition as they study. This translates to zero, or very little, debt. I went to one of those work colleges, and while we only worked 4-8 hours/week, it was an interesting, enriching, and educational component of my time at school. Yup, working taught me stuff! I love the fact that we basically had to work while we studied. I think this is smart in an obvious kind of way. (Oh, and by the way, I had to work even though I had a scholarship. I think work should be part of everyone’s education.)

Now that I’m looking at grad programs in the U.S. and Canada, I’m saddened to see that, from the small handful that offer the degree I’m interested in, a number suggest that first year M.A. students not work. The course-load is too heavy, they write, to make time for part- or full-time work on the side. This is just wrong. The course-load should accomodate work. I’d gladly add an extra six months or a year onto my degree if it meant graduating without debt and, even better, working in my field of study and earning money while pursuing my degree. I’m not interested in an insular education that demands I detach myself from the rest of the world and live in temporary and unrealistic stasis, dependent on a fake income that will later come back to haunt me. I love learning, and I love the concentrated amalgamation of resources and experience that is a university. But I also love to work. And I don’t believe that I should experience undue stress (and pressure from faculty who believe that working students cannot focus fully on their studies) because of this. For now, I am trying to be optimistic about the process. I’m excited about the prospect of doing an M.A. (M.L.A., actually, for those who might ask), and I’m trusting that the details of financing my education will come together without too many hiccoughs.

I’d be curious to know about other people’s experiences with the big Wall of Debt. Do share, if you feel so inclined. And thanks for reading! xo

Enter at your own risk.

Enter at your own risk.