31 January 2024

Down the hall, R is talking to yet another plumber, builder, tiler or otherwise highly skilled person about our dream bathroom. I am hiding in my study with a heat pad on my bloated abdomen. I can hear laughter and snippets about moisture resistant tile replacement and retractable shower heads (I may have misheard here). R has done his research, stacks of catalogues sit on his desk, measurements transferred to 3-D software. We have nowhere near the money required and I have given up weeks ago. But he is persistent, in fact, downright dedicated (quite a fitting alliteration here). In the end, I just look at the figures of the latest cost estimate and do a quick calculation including our life expectancy, the energy required for cleaning the inevitable mess during renovations, the plans I have for spring and summer and shrug my shoulders, which is a kind of no but I think it only reinforces his determination. As long as we won't starve, has become our mantra here. I could add a handful of other ones, mostly involving costs of caring when we have to succumb to ill health in our very old age when we won't make it up the stairs to this fancy bathroom any longer, and sometimes I say these out loud, which is when he explains about the walk-in shower and the handrails. And in turn, I want to feel young and foolish and so I give another shrug, this time as a kind of yes.

Nothing is decided yet. There will be more visitors with cost estimates and I'll make coffee for each one of them while R does the talking.

Initially, this was my idea. A good 12 months ago. And while I was selling it to R, the long string was set in motion, of diagnostics and possible surgery and weight loss and more weight loss and not being able to eat properly and ah well. We are helpless in our boring waiting period here, so now, a mission in the shape of a bathroom.

I stop eating early afternoon because it takes so much energy to digest and as most days, this is painful, I want get the worst behind me by the time I go to bed.  During the night, if I cannot sleep or wake up, I can feel my intestine trying to get the job done and I can place my hand on the bloated, slowly shifting  lumps here and there. I jokingly told the gastrologist that it reminds me of the time when my unborn baby was kicking. He nodded, told me he has heard that description before. Anyway, guess what I have been dreaming about. I woke in a sweat. 

On Monday, I have what is called a dynamic MRI where my intestine will be examined in action. As I often say, I'll try everything once.

But what I really wanted to write about was why on earth do I blog in English when my native language is German.

When I met R, my English was limited, seriously limited. He politely claims that it was great but we both know better. As mentioned before, I was not a good student of modern languages in school and the only need for a basic knowledge of English was to pass the tests and to understand what the lyrics of my favorite pop and rock songs were all about. Mostly though, these remained mysterious riddles I could not figure out. Take "troubled water", I mean, what on earth? 

Within a year of meeting R, I found myself in his family's dining room after Sunday lunch asked to perform "Deliverance" without words - this particular version of charades, acting out film titles, is a family favourite. To this day, I could not tell you what deliverance means in German and I still have to watch that film. I failed but everybody chipped in and I did much better with "Casablanca".

It went on from there. English became my emotional language, obviously, but R's family was so different from my own, so loud and active and welcoming, not always pleasant, not always kind, but a challenge I was eager to accept. I have never looked back.

Now, after so many years, we are both bilingual and occasionally, try to switch to German, but we are too used to speaking to each other in English, we never last for more than a sentence.

For me, English and German are good for expressing different things. Everything that has to do with love I find better expressed in English. When my child was born, I sang mostly English lullabies to her. Everything that is intimate for me is in English. The only exception is translated poetry. That's a hopeless area. No way. Rilke cannot be read in English. I know that Brecht tried while in exile in the US but it's not for me.

Currently, R watches German tv shows downstairs while upstairs, I watch UK channels and netflix. We meet afterwards and report on the shape of things.

Yesterday, he watched some heavy duty thriller about corrupt Swiss bankers while I reported on Lionel Ritchie and Michael Jackson writing "We are the world" and how they kept on talking about starvation in Africa and how this song will turn life for the children of Africa around. We then had to shake our heads and lamented because, Africa, in case we forget, is a continent with close to 1,5 billion people, living in 54 countries, speaking close to 2000 different languages. The Ethiopian famine took place in Ethiopia, an East African country the size of France and Spain combined. The famine was a result of drought combined by wars between various anti- and pro-government factions. At the same time, many African economies were thriving and continue to do so, broadly speaking. But that's another story. Anyway, the song is stirring enough and I admit I have sung it many times, sometimes even together with others. However, the last choir I was in decided against it and opted for Something inside so strong (Labi Siffre) instead.

28 January 2024

the monster

Vulnerable, no, not vulnerable, what's the word, fragile. Yes, fragile. I would have never before used this word - fragile - in any context to describe myself. Not ever. But there's always a first, isn't there. And so this is it now while I am on the red sofa looking out into then garden, the trees bare, the bright sunlight on the hazel catkins, the sky a cold frosty blue. I want to close my eyes and wake up on another Sunday afternoon in, say, May, with lush greenery and roses and insects and budding pears and and and. Instead, I fall asleep and wake with a start, a bad taste in my mouth, disorientated, telling myself, this is Sunday afternoon, January, you are on the red sofa, looking out into then garden. Waiting for it becoming real I am still in a fuzzy state, could be anytime, anywhere. Is this what dementia feels like? Not knowing where you are, what you are looking at? Slowly, very slowly, I swing my legs over the side of the sofa, lift myself up as if my body was ancient wood about to crack and surprise myself by being able to stand, swaying, yes, but solidly nevertheless. My feet moving forward. Coffee? Should do the trick.

Once upon a time I used to feel invincible, reckless even, thinking it was all down to choice and willpower. You are just exhausted, I tell myself. Give it a few more days of rest. This day last week, I begin to say and cannot remember or rather, cannot begin to imagine who that person was only a week ago, walking through the snow, laughing and talking, cheering, chanting and clapping, at the end of the the anti-nazi rally in our quiet town, singing Beethoven's Ode to Joy with 30,000 others.

Now. That feeling of being hungry, very hungry, and nauseous at the same time. Too tired to eat.

All I do manage is to read, to listen. Even to laugh. For now, enough. Focus on what I can do. So much.

I hear a monster breathing, I hear the breath of democracy weakening. I am glad that you are all here and want to blow its new life into it. I hope it is not too late.

Elfriede Jelinek, (Austrian novelist, playwright, and poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004) this week when tens of thousands were demonstrating against right-wing extremism in Vienna, Austria

26 January 2024

15,000 to 900

You wake up in the morning and while you are still delighted that being retired means no pressure, no rush, you get up anyway. You are so used to not staying in bed. And then there is this morning stiffness. You know it will pass more rapidly if you get up and move.

Over breakfast, you listen to the news and your heart sinks, the familiar dread begins to come to the surface, together with this urgency of what you should, need to do. You wait for the first bit of music between two features. Your rule, dance to the first bit of music you hear in the morning, still applies.

Next, emails, messages, a new commission, work. You agree on a deadline, tell yourself that you do not need to start right away, but then you do it anyway. By lunch time you realise that you have been sitting and working in front of a keyboard for hours. You stretch your stiff back and neck. All good. After lunch, you quickly sort the laundry and tidy up a bit, make the beds, that sort of thing. You check the bird feeders and spend a while clearing stuff in the garden. You go for your walk, you turn on the 1000 hrs outside app. You come back just before sunset and after dinner, you make some jam before you go back for a re-edit of the new commission.

You attend a zoom meeting on how to handle racist agitation and neo-nazis in public. You share your experiences during the recent rallies you attended. You note down the dates for more of these meetings, public debates and upcoming rallies in your area. You clean the kitchen before bedtime, put the dishwasher and the washing machine on timer for early tomorrow morning attention. You sort out some paperwork for an upcoming doctor's appointment. It is after midnight when you finally got to bed.

You repeat this, with slight variations, library visits, shopping, meeting people, another rally against neo-nazis, cycling into town along the river, cleaning the house, long calls with friends and family, the odd medical appointment, stretching and quick yoga sessions, for the next couple of days, weeks, every day. You are amazed how much you can do, retirement suits you, you tell yourself, you are getting fitter every day. You increase your daily steps to 15,000 because it feels so good.

And then one morning, you have lost the ground beneath your feet. In fact, you are so exhausted, you cannot get out of bed. You sleep the best part of the day and the night. And the next day. Your ears are ringing, your head is throbbing, your eyes ache, you want the blinds down. The room is turning when you try to get up. You have been here before and before and before. You know what this is, you have overdone it. You need to rest.

But first, you really should rewrite this replacing all the you with I.

20 January 2024

On a quiet day you have to develop your imagination of enduring love.



There I was, traipsing through the snow, searching for winter wonderland, for beauty and calm and yes, meaning. But all I came up with - at first - was, when will all this shit melt away (spoiler: by tomorrow midday)? Why are people driving on roads packed with snow? Who invented these tiny sledges? What happens to kids when they lose one mitten, do they go home and get another pair, do they go on making snowballs with one hand? And importantly, will all the single mittens I have picked up and stuck on fences and gates be found and reunited with their twin? 

Eventually, I got used to the sound of my crunching feet and the swishing fabric of my parka, some of which, so the label says, has been made from recycled plastic bottles. This is when my mind begins to float freely.

The power of quotes, the power of snippets, short sentences, paragraphs, often taken out of context. I rely on it heavily, I copy and paste and collect them in blog post drafts for future use - but then I forget, they just sit there, too many. Occasionally, I read them and ask myself, why did I save this or what does it mean now. I also used to cut out bits from newspapers, collect them in a heavy concertina folder. But since we read the news online, this has become dated. I looked through that folder recently and chucked out stacks of reports and reviews and opinion pieces on the Iraq wars. Even longer ago, I used to be one of these mothers who would send newspaper cuttings and handwritten quotes on postcards to her daughter away at uni, lest she forget about the importance of life's meaning according to mum. 

Sometimes when I am clueless or sad or lost with it all, the big shebang of living and coping and understanding, there can be just that one quote, one short sentence from a writer, a poet, a blogger, an artist, peasant farmer, politician, priest, thinker or non-thinker, that lifts me up, enough to feel, yes, here it is, this stream of understanding, connecting me to others, some dead for thousands of years, some far away, but human nevertheless, then, now and in the future.

As I walk I look at these neat houses, wonder who lives behind these windows. I am four streets from my own, so in good German tradition, this is foreign territory, where you nod politely but otherwise mind your own business. 

Most of these houses are well over 100 years old. With one or two exceptions, renovated with great attention to detail and history. I am watching the exceptions, some have been empty for years, one is slowly disintegrating and I am reminded of Mary Moon and the falling down house she observes on her walks.

The wish for permanence, that things should be as they used to be, always were, is perhaps just a childish reaction to the human experience that change is the only constant in our lives. My life has been marked by many changes since I left my (3rd) childhood home at age 18.  My current address is the overall 14th so far, or maybe the 19th, depending on whether I paid rent/mortgage or squatted for a while. When I filled out my pension application, I was asked to state my address as of May 1990, which was at address number ten, in country number five, on continent number two. It has no bearing on my pension. The question is merely to ascertain whether I lived in the east or the west of Germany before reunification. But I wonder what they make of it or whether someone in the pension office even knows where that country is.

But now I am here, have lived here for the longest period of my life, in a place I would have called a boring suburb in a country I once left in disgust for good. As I walk on to where the winter version of the farmer's market is happening, I am approached by a group of cheerful young people handing out leaflets about their housing co-op project. We talk for a while, I eventually tell them that I was involved in setting up and lived in a housing co-op many years ago and that it's still going strong. They scrutinize me with polite disbelief, how come, they seem to think, she looks like a middle-class old woman.  I smile and leave them to their leafleting, dream on, I think, but also: good luck to you.

Where was I? Quotes. Here is today's selection:

Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing. (Arundhati Roy) 

You have to develop your imagination to the point that permits sympathy to happen. You have to be able to imagine lives that are not yours or the lives of your loved ones or the lives of your neighbors. You have to have at least enough imagination to understand that if you want the benefits of compassion, you must be compassionate. If you want forgiveness, you must be forgiving. It's a difficult business, being human. (Wendell Berry)

Enduring love comes when we love most of what we learn about the other person and can tolerate the faults they cannot change. (Louise Erdrich)

17 January 2024

dreadful white stuff


This was yesterday. Benign scenery, we walked for a while and it was sort of nice. 

Right now, it's snowing heavily. The more serious snow, the kind that stays on the ground, which is frozen. I grew up with long winters like that and always disliked it, all of it, the skiing, the tobogganing, the ice skating, the snowball fights, the wet mittens, the frozen toes, the runny nose, the amount of time needed to get ready to go out, to come back in. In this part of the world, however, the valley of a very large river, snow doesn't come often and never for long. But the people freak out nevertheless. Schools are closed, public transport shuts down, that sort of stuff.

The strangely good news, the forecast for next week is almost tropical, with temperatures way above even for a normal January. 

I had the pleasant experience of yet another colonoscopy, this was number 10 over a period of almost 20 years. It's not my favourite pastime but needs must etc. I was introduced to a new term, the so-called burned-out stage of this chronic inflammatory disease. Apparently, after 20 years of coping and struggling with inflammation in the various regions of my formerly healthy physical self (ears, eyes, lungs and colon) my body has handed over the large intestine and basically said, there you go, I've done my bit, taken all the drugs, followed all the guidelines, you win, I give up. 

End-stage or “burned-out” ulcerative colitis is characterized by shortening of the colon, loss of normal redundancy in the sigmoid region and at the splenic and hepatic flexures, disappearance of the haustral pattern, a featureless mucosa, absence of discrete ulceration, and narrowed caliber of the bowel.

So basically, the days of careless eating whatever and whenever I want to are over for good. In fact, they have been over for a good while but now I've got it in black and white. I am still eating food, I still enjoy it, but I have become one of these tiresome fidgety eaters, picking and separating food stuffs on my plate. R has started to make cooking for me into an art form, will not accept that I could happily survive on porridge and various other gruel-type things, alphabet soup and apple sauce. 

There's still more diagnostics to come, a couple more suspicious symptoms to clarify, and there's still talk of surgery. This is not something that scares or surprises me. I am an old hand at this.

My sister send me a book to read for distraction in these, as she finds, trying times. You will find this book is very moving and eventually uplifting, she claimed. She is serious. The main character, a successful young writer, is coming to terms with a diagnosis of terminal colon cancer and hides from his partner in a retreat center (scenic, forest, lakes etc.) to search for the meaning of his life, while she, the partner, suffers a miscarriage. When I got to this stage, I skipped to the last page, where she has left him for his best friend and he is moving to a houseboat for his final peaceful days, but with a potential life saving cure on the horizon or something like that. I read it diagonally. You've got to hand it to her, my sister knows what it takes. 

Olaf says hi!

12 January 2024

09 January 2024

frost on the ground


Today just after 9 am, the sun was just coming up from behind the hills in the east, the temperature was -8 Celsius. I was cycling back from a doctor's appointment with the icy wind in my back, thankfully. Back home, it took close to an hour to regain feeling in my fingers. There was much howling and gnashing of teeth while R dipped my hands back and forth into warm and cold water the way my mother did when I was a child. I never liked the cold. And I had slept badly with weird dreams, there are a couple of medical tests ahead of me that I try - not always successfully - to keep cool about. 

Meanwhile. Thoughts.

All these angry recreational activists who take themselves so seriously and think they have to be angry all the time get on my nerves. Nelson Mandela was not angry. He said that the moment he lost compassion for his guards was a difficult moment. He always remained human, even in prison. Many activists today no longer understand that. They think it's enough to be upset about something. It's a huge misunderstanding that activism is all about the activist's state of mind. Anger can be a driving force, but otherwise it tends to get in the way because it clouds the view.

Düzen Tekkal

When you think of it, my brother told me on the phone, things in Europe have been positively medieval in recent years. We've had the Plague, the death of a queen, rising bread prices, now the peasants are revolting in Germany, religions battle against each other,  if we don't watch out, we may have to go to war against Sweden for 30 years again (the Thirty Years' War was a series of wars fought among numerous European powers in the 17th century, caused, inter alia, by peasant uprisings and religious dissent with the Swedish ruler Gustav Adolf a main driving force).

I think it's important to remember that a decisive factor for the functioning of a democracy is the opposition - inside and outside of parliament. The challenge of democracy is that even those who would have voted for a different party, wanted different decisions or different personnel remain loyal to the collectively binding framework, the constitution, the legal rights of citizens. Loyalty does not mean agreeing with everything, it means recognizing things for what they are: politically legitimized decisions against which, if you disagree, there are ways of taking action, at least in democracies, both inside and outside parliaments. We can vote, we can take to the streets, we can argue, we can write, we must do all of these. Early on, when I was maybe 12 years old, my father explained to me what he called the cycle of power. A democratically elected government enforces decisions, applies them administratively, is reflected in the effects of these decisions and has to work its way through them. In an autocratic state, the power cycle runs on privileging certain groups and on violence and intimidation. In Roman times - and my father was a fan of early democracies - there was the Forum, an important public place for debating and arguing during democracies - and for hangings during the times of tyrants and dictators, no less. And before the Romans, the Greek had the Agora, same thing, a central public space for all to debate, buy and sell their goods, make art, share ideas, test theories, explain and teach (never mind the public role of women at the time). Novices in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries must learn the art of debating and listening. You can watch them here. I, on the other hand, simply post something on a social media channel and think I have made a serious contribution to world peace.

And after all that, I was foolish enough to go out again into the freezing cold because R insisted. The light, the light, he called out to me. We walked uphill this time, real snow on the ground and caught the last bits of sunshine way over the hills to the west.





06 January 2024

books 2023

I am a reader, I've been reading forever and I read everything, cereal boxes, advertising flyers, bus ticket stubs, novels, science manuscripts. For many years, I also sold books and to this day, I haven't been able to stop slightly rearranging and tidying shelves in bookshops I visit. (But from observation, I know I am not the only one.)

This here is weird and I don't think I'll do this ever again, these graphs and stuff, but intriguing nevertheless.

Library Thing is my digital library, R gifted me a lifetime subscription when I was first diagnosed with the shitty disease. It's now free for all.  

According to my yearly reading review, a new feature, I've read 71 books in 2023, 15 of these thrillers. My mother would be disgusted.

Admittedly, I did not finish all of them, but that's my prerogative. The time when I would feel guilty for not reading a book to its end are long over. 

03 January 2024

Like all other sensible people I decided to not do the thing with new year's resolutions. I am old enough to know that it'll never work, I'll never stick to any of it and by week two the latest, won't remember a thing.

Then my rebellious streak woke up and here we go:

  • Listen to one Bruce Springsteen song per day, starting with his oldest release and working your way through to near present day.
  • Read one poem every day. Currently following Pádraig Ó Tuama (Poetry Unbound transcripts).
  • Read, not listen to, printed not online pages every day, a chapter, a short story, whatever. Currently one story per day from Antarctica by Claire Keegan
  • One to two hours outside, walking, cycling, gardening, whatever, at least every day, come rain or shine.
  • Keep the daily food intake record the gastrologist asked for months ago. 
  • Keep the weight record the gastrologist asked for months ago. Weight loss record.
  • Reply to missed calls, emails and messages asap, not months later.
  • Reply to blog comments.

In past years, I chose one author I was interested in or liked or was curious about and read all their work in chronological order over the year. I haven't yet decided for this year, Margaret Atwood or Joseph O'Connor or Janet Frame, not sure.

It's a work in progress.

01 January 2024

We need to desire, not fear, the future.

To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;

from a longer poem by Mary Oliver

Here we stand at the beginning of another year, an open book in front of us. We think we know most of  what it holds. After all, we are elderly, we have seen it before. And yet. Isn't it terrible that the only utopia we can offer the younger generation is the prevention of a catastrophe. Pretending all is well we wrap our world in absorbent cotton that leaves out everything that contradicts it. 

We need to remain sober, patient people who do not despair in the face of the worst horrors and do not get excited about every stupidity. And we have to want to win. We need the best strategy, the best people, the best policies, we need all our strength, resistance energy and must not shy away from getting our fingers dirty.

There is hardly a group that has as much influence on world history as the indifferent. And the remarkable thing is that nobody speaks of them. Their passivity has made the most radical upheavals possible. The indifferent accept everything as it comes. They are neither in favour nor against.

The indifferent are almost more dangerous than  ideologues because they are difficult to predict and just as difficult to track down when they disappear after a disaster they have caused.  It is often said that the indifferent make it easy for themselves by looking the other way when things become inhumane and then playing the innocent lamb afterwards. But as an indifferent, you have to make an extreme effort to repress and fight against all the humanity within you that has not yet died off.

Being committed is not synonymous with a dangerous, pleasureless life, quite the opposite. It is a dynamic life in which boredom has no place, the brain is always active and the antennae become sensitive to a better future, which helps not to destroy the present, the mother of the future. We all know those moments when we want to say: As an individual you can't do anything anyway, and anyway I can't see through it any more...?! These are excuses. Of course the situation is confusing, and anyone who gets involved can also fail. But this risk,  is simply part of it.
Rafik Shami


These days, I don’t imagine a different planet; I imagine what ours could look like if we collectively acknowledged its loss. To clock what is gone is to clock all we can still save. A world where we are mad, but we’re working out of love.

Erica Berry


If we save the world, a big old hypothetical ‘if’, what was the reason that we did that? If we did it because of fear, what happens when the fear is gone? But if we save the world because of wonder, wonder persists after the danger is gone. We’ll be more likely to protect future generations again and again afterwards.
Dara McAnulty


 One of the few things I have learned in the short time I have been alive is the reliability of patience.

Devin Kelly


It needs to energize us with a rage
that roars unchecked through the blood
and bring us begging to our knees;
this planet is the only place we have to live,
this one small foothold
we need to fall in love with it again.

See it exotic and wonderful,
pick up the loose stitches, tether ourselves
even tighter to the sky, perfume the wind
with the smell of lust, pour ourselves
into the sea. We must take root
in the aquamarines, the greens, and endless
violet sunsets living at the end of love.

from a longer poem by Jean O'Brien