30 March 2016

The German translation of Good Friday, Karfreitag, means Friday of grief or lament or wailing (kar is old high German for any of these).
It was a rainy and cold Good Friday this year.  We went to Dachau.
On the way, we had one of our minor squabbles, the way you argue about anything and nothing when you have been married for a long time. We hissed back and forth for a while and then went silent until R cracked a joke and I tried to remain insulted. That's the way we try to hide being nervous.


Two days earlier a friend had given me a beautiful soft pashmina shawl and as I walked across this bare stretch of gravel, I wrapped it closely around my head, hiding inside as much as possible, afraid to be found out. I was ready to deny everything: that I am German, that my grandfather was a nazi, that I loved him when I was small, that my mother was afraid of ghosts all her adult life, ghosts of her childhood in nazi Germany and ghosts of a war that she desperately wanted to forget, a fear she drowned in addiction and hate and cruelty. But none of it has any significance in this place.
And yet, they are my scars and my responsibility. 

The dimensions of this place are overwhelming, trying to fathom the numbers, the lives lost and the suffering, I felt like running and for a while, I lost sight of R and hiding my crying face even deeper inside the shawl I walked around like a lost child among the Chinese tourists texting on their cell phones right below the no phone signs, the Italian families with balloons and prams, having an impromptu picnic on the steps to the infamous wash house, next to another sign in four languages asking to respectfully refrain from eating or drinking. 

No, I did not point it out to them. I did not feel equipped with that kind of indignation. I was inside a black cloud of wailing and lamenting and I did not feel ready to lift my head ever again.

You can spend hours and hours here, reading and gathering information and watching footage and going through thousands of photographs and documents. And we did. We stayed for a very long time. At least that.
And everywhere reminders of what we need to know, especially now, about hate, about xenophobia, about racism, about fascism. These are not innocent times, we must allow history to teach us, we must be aware.

23 March 2016

Brussels 23rd March 2016
 picture credit Valentin Bianchi/AP     
The stars now rearrange themselves above you
but to no effect. Tonight,
only for tonight, their powers lapse,
and you must look toward earth. There will be
no comets now, no pointing star
to lead where you know you must go.
Look for smaller signs instead, the fine
disturbances of ordered things when suddenly
the rhythms of your expectation break.

Dana Gioia 

We are packing - or rather, I am packing our going-away-for-easter stuff in between short breaks or vice versa, while R is being noisy in the kitchen, listening to the radio, from time to time he shouts something or other upstairs that I fail to understand. I don't understand anything right now. 

21 March 2016

study to be quiet

My GP would say that there is some activity. A misleading expression I think but nevertheless. I am not yet ready to see her for a sick cert. This is my day of grace, my employment regulations stipulate a doctor's certificate from day three onward and I usually settle on day two. A compromise of sorts. If I give you one day off the record you give me one too. But only in my mind.
Whatever the activity, it is diffuse. I am restless. I drink herb tea and eat three small chocolate easter eggs. I cough a bit. I sleep for long hours during the day and more all night. I am cold and I am hot. It is whatever it is. 
I want to lie down. I want to get up and sort the laundry. I make phone calls. I empty the dish washer. I need to lie down. There are mixed messages here. Or maybe it's just me.
When my father calls his voice reaches a plaintive pitch, howareyou and dontsayanything, all in one sound. We quickly move on to compare our agendas. Mine so disappointingly open and disorganised while he knows when and where and with whom he will have lunch in six weeks' time.
I lie down again and listen to the gurgling sounds from my busy abdomen, my heart beat skipping here and there and the almost reassuring booming noises from my inner ears. All that life.
I close my eyes and recall my daughter's tanned face, her skype smile from this morning. I drink more herb tea. Birch leaves. Lemon verbena. I walk to the window and watch R for a while, putting down potatoes. So much energy. I need to lie down again. I try not to fall asleep.

18 March 2016

Occasionally, not often, moments of clarity when it all makes sense. Not beautiful sense, no eureka moment, just a clicking into place, the voices in my head briefly full of meaning, forcing me to stop for an instance, facing what I am running away from most of the time. I still do, I should know it better by now, but who am I to fool. Every morning a short period of blissful nothingness where I am just me, or what I like to think is me. Before reality wakes me up.
It's nothing dramatic. I can handle it. I am fine. But I wonder when did it start that I took my life for granted, with all the safe comforts that have crept up on us over the years. There was always ambition, curiosity, energy. Stuff I wanted to do, see, influence, change. Endless.
I was ambitious and I was busy. Things were going on, I was always making plans, small projects, travel, visits, ideas, work.
It feels like another lifetime now. I was another person who felt this strong conviction of being a maker, a doer, someone who could influence and achieve simply because I wanted to.
Whereas now. Constantly having to remind myself of this. Over and over and over.

By hard work I cannot make it happen, by being good I cannot make it happen, by self-sacrifice I cannot make it happen, by being clever I cannot make it happen, by being more creative I cannot make it happen. My previous ambitions, reliant on skill and will, are rendered mute, inert, of no interest.
By no effort or will can I change the terms. All I can do is change the approach.
Marion Coutts (The Iceberg)

17 March 2016

I have no problem
I look at myself:
I have no problem.
I look all right
and, to some girls,
my grey hair might even be attractive;
my eyeglasses are well made,
my body temperature is precisely thirty seven,
my shirt is ironed and my shoes do not hurt.
I have no problem.
My hands are not cuffed,
my tongue has not been silenced yet,
I have not, so far, been sentenced
and I have not been fired from my work;
I am allowed to visit my relatives in jail,
I’m allowed to visit some of their graves in some countries.
I have no problem.
I am not shocked that my friend
has grown a horn on his head.
I like his cleverness in hiding the obvious tail
under his clothes, I like his calm paws.
He might kill me, but I shall forgive him
for he is my friend;
he can hurt me every now and then.
I have no problem.
The smile of the TV anchor
does not make me ill any more
and I’ve got used to the Khaki stopping my colours
night and day.
That is why
I keep my identification papers on me, even at
the swimming pool.
I have no problem.
Yesterday, my dreams took the night train
and I did not know how to say goodbye to them.
I heard the train had crashed
in a barren valley
(only the driver survived).
I thanked God, and took it easy
for I have small nightmares
that I hope will develop into great dreams.
I have no problem.
I look at myself, from the day I was born till now.
In my despair I remember
that there is life after death;
there is life after death
and I have no problem.
But I ask:
Oh my God,
is there life before death?

Mourid Barghouti 
(translated by Radwa Ashour)

The school boys from down the road. AnnenMayKantereit.

13 March 2016

The Greek philosopher Epicurus lived a very long time ago (he was born 2357 years ago on the beautiful island of Samos where people fleeing war and persecution and poverty are arriving everyday, if they survive the short crossing in these overloaded rubber boats having paid several thousand euros for the privilege. Should you ever find yourself in one of the many harbour bars in, say, Kusadasi in Turkey, and you fancy a quick trip to one of the Greek island so enticingly shimmering on the horizon while you sip your sweet chai, all you need to do is walk down to the pier and pay 40 euros for a round trip ticket. You get on to the shiny white ferry and let the wind ruffle your hair while you look at the blue sea and the fading Turkish coastline. That's your privilege because you own the world.). 
Anyway, Epicurus, he wrote lots of wise stuff. I know of him because my father insisted on a classical grammar school where the bored teenager I was then - dreaming of Woodstock and Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones - would spend hours translating and reciting and interpreting ancient Greek literature. I may give you a run down of Plato's cave allegory one day. But that's another story.

A friend of a friend died last week. Suddenly and quite avoidably. He thought he was strong and invincible and he never really needed to see a doctor before. Men tend to be like that in my experience.
He was wrong or maybe fate was waiting. Who knows. It is dreadfully sad, one way or another. 
And we who knew him, we who hear of his unexpected death, we are all now silently contemplating our health, our plans, our futures, our children's futures, our lives stretching in front of us.
Ten more summers? Fifteen? Two? Or is this it?

In his Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus wrote:

For life has no terrors for him who has thoroughly understood that there are no terrors for him in ceasing to live. Foolish, therefore, is the man who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect. Whatever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer.

11 March 2016

Idomeni is a small village in Greece close to the border with Macedonia. At the moment, about 13,000 people, mainly Syrians and many of them women and children are stranded there since Macedonia has closed the border. They are stranded in the rain and mud with only very basic support from NGOs, individuals and a pretty helpless UNHCR. 

Menawhile, European politicians have decided that the seemingly never ending streams and constant images of people fleeing war and poverty has a negative effect on their powerful positions. People in Europe, they say, are sick and tired of seeing all this misery. Not our fault, they say. Don't come, they say. Turn back, they say. We don't want to share our wealth with you. We don't want you to mess up our good life. We don't want to help you. We had enough, we are shutting the doors.

So they are working on a clever deal with Turkey, which will involve shipping contingencies of desperate people back and forth like containers loads on heavy goods trains. 
This is the same European Union that was awarded the Nobel peace prize, btw.

Idomeni is another word for shame.

Just two images from today's papers:

07 March 2016

After a weekend with tooth ache I went to the dentist and the sky did not fall down. He was very reassuring and even made me a little drawing of the gap between the two molars that got infected because the world is not fair.
I think I will survive. But. Of course, I don't believe he is right and that my last remaining upper molars are quietly rotting away in all their shiny whiteness.
Still hurts but I am ever so cool and brave and grown up. Last night I read about Napoleon and the battle of Austerlitz until the dawn chorus set in. Not in my wildest dreams etc.

04 March 2016

I am now the age my father was when he retired. He was offered a golden handshake in one of those corporate takeover scenarios. It took him a year to settle his things and then he walked away from his old life and disappeared for a while. Many years later, he told me about those months. Mostly reading, walking, cycling, museums, listening to music, photography, lots of sleep, he said (he forgot to mention the women). My parents never met again. Lawyers did the talking. Phone numbers were changed several times. The biggest mistake of my life, he often tells me, marrying that woman. I used to shout at him then. Don't speak like that, I am your child and so on. But he never listened to me anyway.
The last time I met my brother, his face went white for a second. You look a lot like her with this haircut. For a moment I thought . . .
I turned to my father and asked, do I look like her? How much do I look like her? Tell me!
I have no memory, he replied. That woman is dead and gone.


My parents on their wedding day. 1954. Not quite nine years after the end of WWII. Two young scientists with big ideas and bigger plans. Soon life caught up with them.

01 March 2016


not all is lost

Human infants as young as 14 to 18 months of age help others attain their goals, for example, by helping them to fetch out-of-reach objects or opening cabinets for them. They do this irrespective of any reward from adults (indeed external rewards undermine the tendency), and very likely with no concern for such things as reciprocation and reputation, which serve to maintain altruism in older children and adults. Humans' nearest primate relatives, chimpanzees, also help others instrumentally without concrete rewards.

These results suggest that human infants are naturally altruistic, and as ontogeny proceeds and they must deal more independently with a wider range of social contexts, socialization and feedback from social interactions with others become important mediators of these initial altruistic tendencies.

from: Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello, The roots of Human Altruism, British Journal of Psychology, Vol. 100, Issue 3, pages 455-471, 2009