People, like nature, go through seasons.

Knowing that we wanted to travel through the holidays, Chris and I chose to go south to the Alpine region of Austria known as Tirol. We were happy to be able to bring Chris’s sister Monica with us who was on holiday break. The goal was to embrace the cold, winter weather, and learn to appreciate its majestic beauty rather than try and flee from it, which is usually my first choice (cold weather prompts more complaints from me than anything else, besides maybe lack of sleep).


In the six days we spent in Austria, the quiet landscape undulated under differing variables of light and snow, inviting us to look again and again at the steadfast mountaintops above. Tucked into a mountain pass at an elevation of 1200 meters, the yoga retreat center where we stayed offered a chance to just relax and ‘be.’ There was no rushing, just the slow mornings that we like, a fun outdoor activity in the afternoons, and good conversation with warm meals in the evenings.

So 2012 didn’t go out with a bang for us there as it did in Berlin where the remains of thousands of fireworks are still lying in the streets. But the year’s gentle passing suited me. For all of its excitements and opportunities, it was a difficult one. Chris and I lost several family members, faced frighteningly definitive career-choices, and undertook one enormous move to a new country. I have a feeling similar to finishing a particularly long and difficult run — glad to have it behind me, pretty sure it has made me stronger, but knowing that there will be some soreness and hoping it will subside before the next training day arrives.

It’s easy for me to obsess about things I could have done differently, ways I could improve for next time, but this year I’m resisting the urge to make any resolutions. Anyone who has written a dissertation can tell you that making your own work schedule requires enough of an exercise in self-determination for 10 years worth of resolutions and I don’t have the stamina to pile more on. Better to work on letting some things go.

I’m comforted by the knowledge that no challenge lasts forever. And if winter can be this beautiful, the weary periods in our lives can also have their moments of grace. I imagine this: the peace and strength of a mountaintop exists in all of us, no matter the shifting patterns of our thoughts and emotions, or the wild winds of the world around us.

Here’s looking forward to a new year and a new season of life.

frau holle in volkspark friedrichshain

At every year’s first snow fall, I think of Frau Holle shaking out her feather beds from her home above the clouds. I took a walk this morning through the Volkspark to visit her at the Fairy Tale Fountain and met some woodland creatures along the way!


Unlike Cinderella, Snow White, or Rapunzel, Frau Holle is a character from the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales that hasn’t migrated to America. Let’s face it, her long, pointed teeth probably made her an unlikely figure to be featured in a Disney film. And because she’s both frightening and benevolent, she doesn’t quite fit as neatly into the character binary that most fair tales follow. She’s not evil and scheming like a wicked stepmother or haggard old witch, but she’s certainly not the blushing princess either. Instead, her supernatural capacities reflect the all-encompassing gravity of mother nature as well as the prehistoric Muttergöttin, to whom she’s likely related.

Our ancestors were quite astute, asking their children to imagine her thoroughly shaking out her numerous feather beds when the first snow flakes start to fall in the sky. It requires a playfulness of the mind to draw a parallel between domestic exertion and the soporific quiet of a white winter landscape. Any Nebraska kid who’s felt the welcome release of a good snow-day in the middle of final exam week can tell you that snow is the ultimate excuse for a day of unexpected leisure. But remembering Frau Holle might keep you on track when watching the snow dance in the air outside your window starts to seem preferable to, say, trudging out through the cold for 30 minutes to spend a wet afternoon in the library. After all, although she’s connected with the seemingly involuntary passing of the seasons, Frau Holle famously rewards hard work and punishes lassitude.

Here’s a short rendering of her story based on the Grimms’ 1812 edition:

There once lived a widow with two daughters, one who was lazy and another who was hard-working, but despite the difference in their attitudes the mother favored the lazy one. (The lazy girl, was in fact her own daughter, whereas the diligent worker was a step-daughter — go figure). One day the busy girl went to fetch water from a forest well and when leaning over to reach for the bucket that had fallen inside, she herself toppled down to the bottom.

Instead of reaching a cold, watery pit, however, she found herself in a beautiful sun-lit meadow full of many different types of brightly colored flowers. She walked wide-eyed through the blossoms until she came to an oven sitting there in the middle of the meadow and full to bursting with loaves of hot bread. The bread said to her: Take me out! Take me out! I’ve long been finished baking and if you don’t I’ll burn up! The obedient girl took all the loaves of bread out of the oven and then walked on.

She eventually came to a tree full to bursting with apples hanging from all of its limbs. Shake me! Shake me!, it said to her, all of these apples are ripe! The girl did so, and all of the apples fell to the ground. She then continued on until she finally came to a small house where she spied an old woman looking out of the window. This woman was fearsome to behold, because of the uncanny teeth I mentioned before, and so the girl started to run away, but the woman called her back. She introduced herself as Frau Holle and promised that if the girl would behave and do whatever was asked of her, she could live with the old woman in her little house, which was actually above the clouds. The girl felt that the woman had spoken very nicely and so she agreed. In Frau Holle’s house, she helped the old woman to shake out the feather beds causing it to snow in the world.

But although Frau Holle treated her well, the girl still missed her family greatly and ultimately asked if she might go back home. The old woman agreed and as the girl was leaving she showered her with a golden rain that remained on everything it touched. Seeing her step-daughter return home with such riches, the stepmother immediately sent her own daughter into the well to procure the same results for her favorite child. But, as one might expect, the indolent girl did not take the bread out of the oven, or empty the tree of its apples, or shake the feather beds. When Frau Holle finally sent her home, instead of showering her with gold, she let black pitch rain down on her. And, try as she might, she could never wash it away.


I know it’s best to try and avoid the pitch, but Frau Holle’s work up there is certainly creating a cozy distraction. Ah well. If I were telling the story, the good girl would have to pull off a piece of that fresh-baked bread to enjoy with a crunchy apple from the tree, and while she shook out Frau Holle’s beds she’d be singing “White Christmas.” So I’m making myself a hot chocolate and bundling up on my couch with a book on media theory. When we’re lucky, work can feel like play.


time traveling

The impalpable sustenance of me from all things at all hours of the day;
The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme–myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme:
The similitudes of the past, and those of the future;
The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings–on the walk in the street, and the passage over the river;

– Walt Whitman Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

A cold fog has settled in Berlin. It seeps underneath your jacket and reaches deep down in your chest. Every morning I think it might be better to stay inside our cozy apartment writing and reading than to venture outside, but Chris has been in Belfast the last few days at a conference and deflecting all hope of contact with the outside world doesn’t seem like a good idea, especially not when the sun is going down just after 4 pm. All this could combine to make early on-set winter blues a distinct possibility.

So I wrap myself up, throw my laptop bag over my shoulder and ride the U-Bahn to Potsdamer Platz. This is where I’ve been carrying out most of my research. A large branch of the state library is just down the street, the art library sits behind a church around the corner, and the film archive floats above the square in a beautiful glass and steel structure at its center (the Sony Center). I board the glass elevator with artsy tourists that step out on the second floor where the film museum is located and feel very important as I stay put and watch the courtyard recede beneath me. I’m headed to the upper floors–to the archive and the library. This futuristic building is my time machine.

With newspaper clippings of film advertisements, reviews, and press releases from the 1920s spread out on the white tables of the archive’s reading room, I am transported back a past that no longer seems that distant. In Weimar Germany movie stars may have been a new thing and film premiers unprecedented, but the excitement and the mild derision accompanying them is not such a far cry from what we encounter with the movies today. Some people are willing to take film seriously, most are happy not to, but nearly everyone is eager to see what amazing spectacle its technology will offer next.

Today as I’m working, music and cheering rise up periodically from the courtyard and I notice people beginning to crowd up to the fences around a long stage constructed before the Sony Center’s theater entrance. Countless posters lining the stage inform me that the commotion is related to the premier of the last installment of the Twilight Saga and I’m guessing that the stars must be planning to make an appearance. It’s such an energetic juxtaposition: the thrumming energy from the people below me waiting to catch a glimpse of heroes they know won’t arrive for another 6-7 hours and the fresh faces of now-anonymous starlets in gracefully sloping hats looking eagerly out of the yellowed pages of an Ufa catalogue dated 1923.


When the archive closes early, as it always does on Fridays, I encounter more of this city’s brand of strangeness back down on the street. Weaving my way toward the back of the Christmas market, I run up against an old section of the Berlin wall that they’ve left standing in remembrance of its course through the once-decimated square. This one is tucked away behind a building and not flocked with tourists like most of the sections left here are. Rounding the corner, I’m startled by the contrast between its craggy surface and the modern simplicity of the train station first erected after unification.


Clearly it’s not just the festive Christmas market on the corner that lends the sense of happening to this place. I’m half-curious to stick around and take in the chaos surrounding the Twilight premier, but I have no idea what the timeline is, and I’m anticipating Chris’s arrival in Berlin tonight much more than I would a glimpse of Hollywood glamor. My fingers begin to fumble with the cold, and I find it’s not a hard decision to leave. I hurry down to the underground platform and catch the train home. Speeding off into the future.

who stands there moved

Art is creative long before it is beautiful. And yet, such art is true and great, perhaps truer and greater than when it becomes beautiful. — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (trnsl. John Gearey)

Last weekend Chris and I traveled to Strasbourg, France to meet his little sister Monica who has been studying in Toulouse this semester. There I was fascinated to re-encounter many of the cultural elements that I associate strongly with Germany, half-timbered houses, Flammkuchen, and Brezeln, here with French names and a place in French history.

That the city has changed hands repeatedly throughout its history is obvious. A short walk from the charming neighborhood known as “le petit France” brought us to the Strasbourg Cathedral, the subject of Goethe’s famous essay “On German Architecture,” (1772) which, with its defense of Gothic design, sparked a debate about German national style that lasted well into the nineteenth century. Goethe, the super-celeb of German lit, urged his country to reclaim this style as its own and cease modeling its buildings on the Greek tradition that was the trend throughout Europe, particularly in Italy and France.

Nationalist overtones aside, Goethe’s essay on the Strasbourg cathedral is one of my favorite pieces on aesthetics. It’s not that I’m so head-over-heels for Gothic architecture, but (ok, not surprisingly) I find something liberating about Goethe’s stance against the academic precepts of his time. Having been educated to believe in the supremacy of classical architecture with its geometrical clarity, Goethe writes that he first went to the cathedral expecting it to be primitive, disorderly, unnatural, cobbled together, and overwrought. Nonetheless, he found himself transfixed by its myriad of painstaking details collectively unified in the crescendo of its incomprehensible presence.


Drawn into an imaginary exchange with its long-deceased architect, Goethe describes himself returning to the structure at all hours of the day to watch it transform with the undulations of light and shadow. As he observed its lines fade and solidify in the shifts from dusk to dawn and back again he experienced a blissful cognitive struggle to take in the architectural elements that seemed as multiple and yet as harmonious as those found in nature.

Goethe’s essay encourages us to let ourselves be inspired by art and architecture even in cases where it doesn’t live up to what we might call (or maybe hope to call) our aesthetic standards. He suggests that we are better off following our own instincts about what is meaningful to us than by accepting what convention might tell us is good. Consider it. You may not have to feel guilty about your guilty pleasures at all. In them there is a need of yours being fulfilled, a question of importance being asked, even if not so smoothly or eloquently. In fact, Goethe insists that art is bound to get messy and disorderly in precisely those moments when it moves forward to encompass greater truths about our existence. In first allowing ourselves to be moved we not only take part in the joy of living, but clear the way for meaningful contemplation and understanding. I am grateful for the reminder to both create and appreciate boldly!


All Saints

When I take a peaceful happy step, I take it with all my ancestors. — Thich Nhat Hanh.

We didn’t celebrate Halloween this year at all. It’s not a traditional holiday in Germany and what’s made its way over feels like a cheap commercial import. Instead, in honor of All Saints Day, a christian holiday that is recognized by protestants and catholics in Germany, I decided to take some time to reflect on the passage of life as well as the beauty of my favorite season with a walk through the cemetery near our apartment.

I went at noon when the light was turning the autumn leaves into a great kaleidoscope that reflected against the smooth surfaces of the polished headstones, and, sheepishly, toted along our heavy camera, hoping that the visitors there wouldn’t find it disrespectful to take pictures in such a sacred space.


I tried to steer clear of where family members were bending over to tend to the graves of loved ones. Mostly they didn’t notice me as they were busy tending to their plots, pulling away fallen leaves and filling little flower boxes with spindles of erica and boughs of pine to symbolize eternal life. Still, I felt compelled to search my memory for suggestions on cemetery etiquette and recalled a second-grade field trip where our teacher showed us how to make headstone rubbings with crayons on large pieces of white butcher paper. We came back to the classroom to compare graphics and dates as if we had been on a kind of scavenger hunt.

This made my current excursion seem less bizarre, but, still, I haven’t heard of anyone collecting gravestone-rubbings since then, and I would find it a little weird to come up to the grave of a family member and see a stranger bent over it with a crayon or a camera.

Ultimately I decided that if I was discrete I could justify taking (and sharing) a few pictures. After all, I certainly wasn’t looking for ghost stories. I wasn’t hoping that the camera would pick up the impression of some stray spirit like an uncanny lens-flare visible only once enlarged later on my lap-top monitor. Instead, I was interested in the history that I expected the cemetery would reveal, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Architectural elements that demonstrated intense care followed by, in many cases, profound neglect gave me a tactile sense of the passage of time in the 164 years since the cemetery had been dedicated. Some markers of family plots show not only the signs of the natural world reclaiming the memorializations of loved ones past, but the scars of war and destruction that have come to be a part of Berlin’s cultural identity.

Nonetheless, history’s relentless force is quiet here; its terrors are subdued by the more palpable struggles of individual people to hold on to happy memories of loved ones against the irreversible reality of loss.

In such ambivalent territory, I find it difficult to know how to conclude this small observatory exercise. My historical-analytical training might send me in a different direction, but instead I’d like to preserve the experience as I lived it: as a moment of appreciation for the love, compassion, and work of my ancestors all over the world and throughout history.

I will try to make the most of my inheritance.

Prague is the new Paris

Prague: view from St. Charles Bridge

They say that spring is the time for romance and Paris is the city of love, but I have to differ on both accounts.

Astronomical Clock (installed in 1410)

Spring typically sends me flying in a hundred different directions.

Enthusiastically, I go running outside, pack up old winter clothes, and give the apartment its annual scrub-down. It’s invigorating to be sure, but I find that romance requires a more contemplative spirit.

You need an unfamiliar chill in the air to tuck you closer to your partner’s side, to urge you to share in a second glass of red wine after a brisk evening walk, and to lie in a little longer in the mornings. Instinctively, I think our bodies start to sense it: the long cold winter is best endured with the one you love, and autumn is the critical time to reconnect!


Perhaps intuiting this back in July, Chris surprised me on our anniversary with a reservation for an October weekend in Prague, a city neither of us had visited and which I now have to say counts as one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen.

Old Town Square: site of weekend markets since 1100

I’ve got nothing against Paris, per se, but visiting Paris is like going on a date with someone who makes sure you know you’re out of your league. You spend the whole time hoping you measure up. Prague, on the other hand, takes care to sweep you off your feet with one enchanting moment after the other. You start to take on its celestial glow and feel like a more charming version of yourself.

First of all, there is the architecture. A good little modernist like me should eschew ornamental style, but Prague coaxes me to wildly transgress. Its gothic spires overwhelm and impress. Harmonizing examples of art nouveau encourage a youthful sense of wonder. Gilded baroque and rococo facades emerge around unassuming corners that catch the breath and invite a smile.


In the last twenty-some years after the collapse of communism millions of people have visited Prague from all over the world, but nonetheless the city feels intimate and secluded at this time of year. The ‘hidden’ Wallenstein Garden, for instance, seems to spill out magically behind its enclosed wall. I got a kick out of the nearly empty Kafka museum, and the astounding collection of marionettes for sale and on performance throughout the city proved delightfully uncanny. When we got hungry we ate hearty goulash and decadent sweets. When we got cold, we drank hot wine.


At night we stumbled upon a performance of the Four Seasons in St. Nicholas Church in the Old Town Square. It felt as though the city’s rich history unfolded in front of us like a story-book with each building, street, and experience suggesting a surprising new chapter.

Vivaldi in St. Nicholas

As a result, we were able to leave behind the stresses of moving to a new continent and reclaim the spirit of adventure that made this year seem like a good idea in the first place. And for me — no matter the setting — romance is best described as a shared adventure.

die Anmeldungsbestätigung

We are in Berlin! This wonderful, exciting, surprising city. After a cocktail in Simon-Dach-Straße last night I gushed to Chris: Sometimes when I walk around here I think I’m in paradise! (You can see for yourself in these photos from our walk today.)

But it took me a while to cozy up to Germany again. In fact, from the uncomfortable moment when I thought we weren’t going to get Olive through customs, I began treading on the brink of panic and wondering how naive I’d been to move here.

It wasn’t just the gruff-manners of some Berlin residents, the famous “Berliner Schnauzer,” which on one occasion brought me close to tears when I was trying to buy ice cream. How tragic to be brought down so low while attempting a happy indulgence!

Obviously rude people shouldn’t be allowed to sell ice cream.

I had less acute but more persistent difficulty with the necessary task of plodding through multiple public offices in order to register myself and Chris, and, on occasion, Olive. Despite Kafka, I had forgotten what it was like to have to argue my way through German bureaucracy.

With most city and state officials, and many private ones, I’ve found repeatedly that it doesn’t matter how many times you double or triple check your collection of certified documents. Upon presentation of these materials something will be found missing, or incomplete, or incorrect. My impression, confirmed by others, is that ‘official’ requirements here are often not clearly laid out, and it’s common to get different advice/responses from different officials on different days. As Chris noted, “this makes the DMV look easy!”

The good news is that instead of giving a straight-forward refusal to your oh-so-humble request (“l’d like to declare my place of residence in your city please”) officials like to spend a few minutes to shake their heads and explain the severity of your misstep, before waiting with forehead twisted impatiently for your response. If you’re like me, the elaborate show of exasperation will bring about your quick apology and prompt you to sprint for the door. But you can’t run away! You have to stand your ground!

Methods I’ve employed:

“Yes, I understand the frustration, but I’m sure that this is not what I was told by X.” [enter name of probable city authority]

“You’re right I don’t have that document, but I do have this…” [pull out random paper, preferably with official-looking seal]

or — if you’re desperate, “what do you suggest I do to prove to you my eligibility? I’m sure I can return with a letter from X.”

Perhaps not wanting to deal with you again, they will eventually sign and stamp your paper with a customary: “Well, I’ll let you through this time…” Read: You better realize that I’m doing you a favor.

Since being here I have successfully concluded these exchanges with: customs, the Bürgeramt, an insurance provider, the university, two cell phone providers, the local bank, four libraries, and an all-important archive, which [thank God!] was graciously welcoming.

For a person who typically avoids confrontation, I have to say, it’s liberating to stay in the ring and throw a few punches. The heavy-weight bout, my dissertation research, has yet to feel like a win, but I let myself enjoy these small early victories. Walking up out of the subway into Karl-Marx-Allee, I feel I’ve earned my little niche in this vast, impressive city.

a maybe manifesto

Anticipation is uncomfortable when it stretches out and out beyond the reach of your imagination. You can live in this state for a while, knowing that changes are undoubtedly coming, but not sure when, or how. But even for the most dedicated mediator or yogi, which I admit I’m not, this state will start to wear on you. You will want action. You will want real physical change to thrust you out of the fog of ephemeral hypotheticals.

They may materialize as follows:

  • Maybe — you should just walk away from your Ph.D. right now. (You’re four years in but it’s never too late to start living the life you want to live, right? —and what was that life like exactly?)
  • Maybe — you will write a dissertation that reignites your faith in art’s potential to forge spiritual bonds between people, across time and space. You will write with enough intellectual panache that cynics, like me, can actually believe it.
  • Maybe — you will realize that no one will read said dissertation and choose to write a novel instead.
  • Maybe — your husband will get a job with that tech company that even your grandmother knows and you’ll be compelled to move to the ocean…
  • Or wait, no, there’s another opportunity, this one’s on the opposite coast, maybe there?
  • Maybe — you will decide that a novel is too cliche an ambition for a disgruntled Ph.D. student and decide to become an organic farmer instead, maybe in one of two coastal options?
  • Maybe — you will put your research and writing skills to use for nifty non-profit that supports arranging travel and hotel accommodations for people trying to visit elderly relatives that live a great distance away. (This idea occurs to you in the park after a sun-burned hitchhiker has knelt in front of your too-friendly dog and scratched her ears while telling you his story about making his way from Seattle to St. Louis to see his mother in the hospital in Mississippi. The non-profit hare emerges only once you have achieved a safe distance from prospective client and are no longer contemplating potential exit strategies should this vagrant pull a knife.)
  • Read a crappy novel. Reconsider prospects for your novel — (surely you can come up with something better than this?)
  • Maybe you will have a baby.
  • Maybe two.
  • With these two kids in tow can you finish your Ph.D. and still get out with enough time to make something of your life before your children are grown and your hair has turned completely gray, or maybe not gray, but maybe that white color that your mother has worn for the last few years?

Long ago you swore that children would not be your only accomplishment in life, motherhood not your only identity.
If you get pregnant today you will have your first child at 30.
If you wait until after you’ve made some headway on your new career path…?

It turns out like this: your husband doesn’t take either coastal job. Instead, you will get exactly what you dreamed of when beginning your higher education years ago. You are both going to move abroad for a year together, an unconventional honeymoon while you conduct dissertation research and continue to contemplate possible futures. So now here you are preparing to move to another continent where you’ll struggle to speak the language and to maintain your ambition to do something worthwhile, even if, especially if, you decide it’s better, after all, not to wait to try for the baby.

This is where I’m standing. I’m in no position to throw myself a pity party for the great unknown that awaits, there’s still hope for the future, but on the other hand, I’m old enough now that new missteps can no longer be swept away by the momentum of youth. What we do matters and it’s time to get serious.