Another learning experience

“Oh God, please, not another learning experience!” That sentiment circulates so often around the Internet in various contexts, and it usually makes me smile when I see it, but trite as it is, obviously there is also some truth to it.

Last October I learned that one does not simply take a bus to the hospital with a broken elbow without saying anything to anyone. Two weeks ago I learned that it is not an overreaction to call an ambulance in the case of a bleeding head injury with a brief period of unconsciousness, that it is not a brilliant idea to just sit there bleeding for two hours waiting for the neighbors to wake up, so as not to disturb anyone, and that all my neighbors can cope with seeing an ambulance stop in front of the house in the early hours of the morning without going into shock or hysterics.

Why is it necessary to learn these things? And why is it necessary to learn them from the “receiving end”? If my neighbor needed help, if she were injured or if the baby were sick, would I want her to just sit there waiting for the cats to wake me up? That is not even a real question: at any time, day or night, I would be upstairs just as fast as she came downstairs, once I finally managed to send her a text message that I needed help.

Need help: why is that so hard to say?

A week before that, I had had a conversation with someone one evening about rock climbing. At some point he had posted pictures on Facebook of himself climbing, which showed up unexpectedly when I was looking for something else, and the pictures somehow seemed so close, so disturbing, that I immediately closed Facebook again. I was annoyed with myself then, because I don’t like feeling timid or maudlin like that, so I asked him to tell me about it – as an “outsider”, someone who never met Peter and didn’t know how he died, is not acquainted with anyone from my household, and only met me as a minor participant in a local project. No context, no assumptions or projections about how I might feel about rock climbing, which is simply a popular sport that lots of people enjoy. It was a good conversation that evening, and at some point we reached the usual conclusion that life itself is fundamentally dangerous and anything can happen anywhere at any time.

That is, of course, also a trite cliché, and I would not have imagined it might be necessary to demonstrate to myself that there is, nevertheless, also some truth to it. A week later, I got up briefly, half asleep, at about three in the morning, and on my way back to bed, I somehow tripped and crashed head-first into the closet in the front hall (as the details are a bit hazy now, I hate to blame Hester, but I think our paths must have crossed as she went dashing back to see why I hadn’t gone straight to the kitchen to feed her her breakfast, which is what she immediately and enthusiastically expects as soon as I put on my glasses to get out of bed). At some point, presumably not long after that, I realized that I was not actually back in bed, but still lying on the floor in the hall, and with some effort I managed to convince myself that it would not be a good idea to just go back to sleep on the floor. Once I got myself back into bed, of course, I was wide awake, bleeding all over the place from a deep cut above my eyebrow, and feeling incredibly stupid and annoyed with myself. And I had no idea what to do about it, except that I really, really didn’t want to bother anyone.

Life itself is fundamentally dangerous and anything can happen anywhere at any time.

Eventually, I had to abandon not wanting to bother anyone. I resigned myself to sitting quietly in a comfortable wheelchair, as I was carried out of the house, transported to the hospital, moved around from one examination room to another, and finally put into a well designed hospital bed in a thoughtfully furnished hospital room. I was grateful to be there: grateful to be able to just stop trying to make any more effort to pretend to be in control, grateful to be able to entrust myself to the kind care of knowledgeable, experienced people. At the same time, though, I still felt acutely aware of how privileged I am to live in Austria, where I am still protected by a still functioning social safety net. This should not be a privilege. It should be the norm everywhere for everyone, because sometimes rock climbers fall off mountains, sometimes old women living alone with their cats fall and injure themselves, sometimes people experience violence in their homes, sometimes people have to flee from hunger, persecution, war … and in the end, we all have the same needs in common:

People in pain need to be given shelter and care so they can rest.

People in distress need to be able to trust others to sympathize and care for them.

People who need help need to be helped – without shame, guilt or embarrassment, but in keeping with human dignity.

Not just some people, who happen to have been born into the “right” circumstances in the “right” place at the “right” time, but all people everywhere, because life itself is fundamentally dangerous and anything can happen anywhere at any time, and anyone and everyone may need help at some point for any reason.

How hard can that be to learn?

Veröffentlicht unter General | 1 Kommentar

The Callousness of Commercial Holiday Marketing

On my way home from my father’s funeral so many years ago, I was stuck at Chicago Airport for what felt like an eternity. For hours I kept walking and walking in circles, outside for a cigarette, back inside, around the counters, back outside, through security again, then back out … As I walked, I kept finding coins on the floor, and finally I realized that it was because I was only looking at the floor. Every time I raised my eyes, it seemed that some poster, sign, banner leaped out at me, shouting, “Remember Dad!”, “Are you thinking about your father?”, “Don’t forget Dad!” And the tears started flowing again. Although it was only May, ads were already up everywhere urging people to BUY MORE STUFF for Father’s Day. My father had just died, I was trying to get home after his funeral, and the ubiquitous, insistent ads just felt cruel and unnecessary.

That memory came back to me most vividly a few days ago, overlapping now with a new grief: slowly waking up, drinking coffee and browsing through the newspaper, I was caught off-guard by a shiny magazine supplement in the paper, which had a few trivial, meaningless little articles about Mother’s Day customs squeezed in between endless ads for jewelry, chocolate, holiday cruise packages, expensive restaurants … Mother’s Day. And the tears started flowing again.

For myself, I have always rejected Mother’s Day. As an old feminist I refused to celebrate a commercial holiday that only reinforces old stereotypes of mothers sacrificing themselves for their families every day, except for that one day a year. It left my children in a somewhat awkward position in kindergarten and primary school, when they were faced with preparing crafts, poems, little essays for Mother’s Day, which they were afraid I wouldn’t like. One year in primary school, Christopher managed to write a very sweet little essay explaining why we don’t celebrate Mother’s Day in our household, because we are all supposed to share responsibility for household chores. I think his teacher was a bit startled, but I was delighted that he (at least theoretically) got the message. I was never oblivious to Mother’s Day, though, because we did celebrate it with Peter’s mother. It was her day, she enjoyed it, it mattered to her, so it mattered to all of us. A drive out to the countryside, a nice lunch with the whole family together, coffee and cake together in the garden – Mother’s Day was Oma’s day, and it was a joy to share in her pleasure in having a special day in her honor.

Now I will never celebrate Mother’s Day again.

My beloved mother-in-law died on Easter Sunday, not even three weeks have passed yet since her funeral. Our grief is still too fresh, and none of us are ready to be bombarded by commercial holiday ads urging us to BUY MORE STUFF, because Mother’s Day is coming. That just feels cruel and unnecessary.

Human beings need rituals and celebrations, I am convinced of that, and we all need to find the right celebrations and rituals that fit, that feel right. What I resent is the way this fundamental need is appropriated by commercialism solely to urge people to BUY MORE STUFF. I can imagine that the people who create these infuriating ad campaigns are aware of how they may cause pain or distress to some people for certain reasons, but I can also imagine how they calculate the number of people likely to be upset versus the number of people likely to BUY MORE STUFF, simply because we have lost a sense of how to really celebrate and compensate for that with superfluous material gifts.

As commercial holidays, “greeting card holidays”, seem to proliferate with ever new inventions of “occasions”, imposing old social roles that form a narrative of what is “normal” and invoking fundamental needs of belonging, of receiving recognition, of feeling connected to other people, as social media hysterically broadcast that it’s someone’s birthday every day, sometimes it feels as though there is little room left for developing one’s own rituals, for finding ways to celebrate that fit, that feel right.

Peter was never very good at dealing with imposed occasions, predetermined dates, although he always managed to come through at the last minute for Christmas and birthdays. As a most generous and thoughtful gift-giver, though, he preferred to choose his own reasons for giving gifts when they were least expected or most needed for whatever reason. Together we always laughed at occasions like Valentine’s Day, refusing together to give into arbitrary, meaningless pressure to acknowledge our relationship, although it is admittedly rather less amusing alone now. Following his example, I have tried to find other rituals for myself since his death. One of them is that I take a rose to him on my birthday, since he no longer brings me roses, and climb up on the little ladder at the cemetery to try to place a single rose securely in the little flower box below his niche. On his birthday then, I took a rose to his mother to thank her for being the mother of this son, who made my life so much better. This year, Peter’s birthday was on a Saturday, and since I was going to Vienna that evening to see a friend’s play and then go to Paddy’s farewell party, I was distracted and running late, and all the flower shops were closed before I could get to the hospital to visit my mother-in-law. I apologized to her for that and promised to bring the rose to her later.

I kept that promise a week later. By the time I arrived at the hospital with the rose, she had only brief moments of consciousness before drifting off to sleep again, so she didn’t really see it, but as I sat with her, holding her hand, talking quietly to her, I told her that I had brought the rose to her. I thanked her again for the son she had given birth to and raised, and I asked her to convey messages to him from me, since she would be seeing him soon. She opened her eyes a few times in between and gave me a beautiful smile. When she died the next day, so quietly, gently, peacefully, we placed the rose in her hands as we said good-bye for the last time. It seems that I brought the rose at the right time, after all.

Good-bye Oma

Good-bye Oma

In the years to come, we will all find our different ways of remembering Oma, develop our own personal and shared rituals of remembrance as we learn to live with missing her. They will be our own rituals, though, not imposed by arbitrary commercial seasons and “occasions”.

And no matter what kind of clever advertising campaigns callous and calculating marketers may come up with, I will never celebrate Mother’s Day again.

Veröffentlicht unter General | 1 Kommentar

Good Enough

“Hi, you’re on the guest list!” What a wonderful greeting to hear as soon as I walked through the door last night. Although it sounds trivial, it actually mattered very much to me. There is nothing better than hip hop music when you’re angry, and I was so angry all day yesterday, and at the moment I can’t really afford to go to the concerts I most want to hear.

These two things are related.

Yesterday morning, after I woke up late following an exhausting week and realized I had left my eye drops in the office the night before, it was conveyed to me by roundabout ways that an international journal, for which I have been translating for years, is no longer willing to pay my standard rate for translations. The reason given for a new rate far below even my special “starving artist/favor for a friend” rate was that another translator is willing to work for this rate, so it must be good enough. Take it or leave it.

Obviously I am in an extremely privileged position, because my immediate response would have been to leave it. I have more than enough work as it is, I don’t need this journal. Apart from the blatant arrogance of even thinking along those lines, however, the translation was to have been for an author I highly respect, someone whose writing matters very much to me, so it’s not that simple. At the same time, the terse message conveyed to me indirectly started raising so many, many questions in my mind. Over the meanwhile twenty-one years that I have been working as a translator, I have somehow managed to firmly establish myself in a very specific and specialized niche, but contemporary art and digital media art, social-critical theory and theoretical reflections on technology are not “profitable” fields, and funding for fields like these has been successively dwindling on every level for years now. Wherever funding might be available, accessing it means jumping through an endless series of hoops with twenty-page applications, multiple tenders, specific objectives with elaborate evaluation procedures, etc., etc. etc. – hard work that is obviously not funded to begin with. I am well aware of that, and I know all too well how many individuals, groups, small organizations, and even larger institutions are struggling to cope with this situation. What usually happens then is that people contact me, explain their situation and tell me how much they value and appreciate my work, but now they can’t afford to keep paying me the same rate. Then we negotiate. We work together to find a solution that both sides can just live with, and I continue to enjoy working with them and translating for them, even though it means I have to squeeze in extra work to make up the difference. The information that another translator is willing to work for a much lower rate, so that rate must be good enough, is not enough motivation for me to work more for less money. Some day I may be forced to do so, as so many people are, but privileged as I still am, I’m not there yet. Although I live in daily dread that I’m going to ruin my reputation by becoming unreliable with deadlines, communicating insufficiently or making stupid mistakes under pressure, at the moment there are still enough people who don’t just want an English translation, but specifically an English translation from me, that I’m not going to run out of work in the foreseeable future.

The issue of payment in combination with the absence of any kind of expression of appreciation, however, still provides no information at all about quality. I’m not so arrogant that I would simply assume that anyone working for lower rates does not translate as well as I do. I know perfectly well that that is not necessarily the case. English is common enough that there is certainly no dearth of competent to excellent translators, and for people just starting in the field, the competition is fierce. Being able – or at least (necessarily) willing – to work for lower rates may simply mean that someone needs no more than a laptop and an Internet connection in order to work. They may be working at home, in a cafe, in a park, in their car, but the crucial difference is they have no office, no infrastructure, no overhead. Isn’t that how everyone is supposed to be working today?

Obviously, that is not how I work, although theoretically I could. I live in the flat that Peter and I bought together, for which the mortgage was paid off the summer before he died. That means I have very low housing costs, which are covered by my widow’s pension. Rather than just retreating to work at home as a sad old widow with two cats, however, I still insist on maintaining the structures that I have created on the basis of what Peter and I created together. Just with my translation work alone, I support my office, the Workshop, and a number of people more or less attached to one or both of those. I pay rent, taxes, social security, telephone, electricity, heating, insurance and various other bills solely with the money I earn as a translator – and until recently also the salary and employer fees for my office helper, although sadly I could not afford to offer her as many work hours as she needs. It is admittedly a stretch, but I can just do it, and it still feels like what I need to do.

But again and again and again, I find myself questioning whether this is really what I need to be, should be doing, especially in the context of a message like the one I received yesterday. Despite all my efforts, this barely leaves me enough to live on. The reason it works at all is that I live in Linz, I belong to a network of people who look after one another in all the different ways that we are able to look after one another. I can go to concerts, performances, theater productions, because people put me on the guest list. Everywhere I go, people know what I like to drink and it happens often that someone else pays for a drink for me or simply shows up unexpectedly with something I need. What do I have to offer? Most of all, right now, I have the Workshop – not just the space itself, but also the idea of the Workshop. And every time I stand in front of a group of people and explain what I’m trying to do with the Workshop, I see an expression of understanding in their faces, affirmation, often something that even looks like hope: yes, we need spaces like this, bureaucracy-free, free of all pressure to “produce” something, a space that people can use without having to apply for funding, because all I ask in return for the use of the Workshop is that people figure out for themselves what the Workshop needs to keep it going, what I need to be able to keep going, so that I can keep the Workshop going. And the people who need this space never cease to surprise me with their creativity and resourcefulness, with their generosity.

Maybe I’m a hopelessly romantic idealist, maybe I’ve just been reading too much old feminist science fiction lately, but I still need to believe in the possibility of utopias, even if they only exist for a brief moment or only in a certain bubble. But they can’t exist at all, unless we can try them out.

One thing I have certainly learned from being a widow is that people need one another. We all need to look after one another, share whatever we can share – whether it is space or food or laughter or any of the many different gifts and talents and ideas we all have. After all, maybe it is the symbolic significance of the low rate of payment I reject: it may be “good enough” for an isolated, self-sustaining existence, but that is not good enough.

Christopher’s song for the Workshop: „We all need space to grow

werkstatt2_kl

Veröffentlicht unter Aileen, friends, work | Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

Peter’s Book

In the middle of November, in the midst of sadness and pressure, I just stopped for a few hours to look through the beautiful book again that Kris and Becky started putting together three years ago – just reading through the messages again, looking at the pictures and letting the memories flow.

In the midst of doubt, uncertainty, anxiousness, at once there is a moment of quiet contentment and a deep sense of belonging together. This was us in one of those moments.

In the midst of doubt, uncertainty, anxiousness, at once there is a moment of quiet contentment and a deep sense of belonging together.
This was us in one of those moments.

When Christopher was born, someone asked how we were doing with less sleep. Peter thought about it and then said, "We don't sleep as much as we used to, but we laugh a lot more."

When Christopher was born, someone asked how we were doing with less sleep. Peter thought about it and then said, „We don’t sleep as much as we used to, but we laugh a lot more.“

I only just made it home in time for Christopher's First Communion after my father's funeral. Peter learned then that there are times when the conventional "Mr. Fix-it" approach is inappropriate and absolutely unhelpful, and he learned to simply stand by me, quietly and sympathetically, and just let me grieve. Peter was always a fast learner.

I only just made it home in time for Christopher’s First Communion after my father’s funeral. Peter learned then that there are times when the conventional „Mr. Fix-it“ approach is inappropriate and absolutely unhelpful, and he learned to simply stand by me, quietly and sympathetically, and just let me grieve. Peter was always a fast learner.

There was always something just slightly off about this arrangement. Many years later, Peter finally realized that there are, in fact, more efficient and comfortable baby-carriers than the one we had. He was convinced at the time that it was a very clever thing.

There was always something just slightly off about this arrangement. Many years later, Peter finally realized that there are, in fact, more efficient and comfortable baby-carriers than the one we had. He was convinced at the time that it was a very clever thing.

We drove all around the west coast of Ireland with a tent in the back of our "little yellow shoebox" without ever finding a place to put it up. The only time we even moved it was to make room for a hitchhiker we stopped for, because we hadn't seen another car in days. We eventually covered most of Europe in that car together.

We drove all around the west coast of Ireland with a tent in the back of our „little yellow shoebox“ without ever finding a place to put it up. The only time we even moved it was to make room for a hitchhiker we stopped for, because we hadn’t seen another car in days. We eventually covered most of Europe in that car together.

Necessities: Telephones and cigarettes - Peter was never without them.

Necessities: Telephones and cigarettes – Peter was never without them.

Up to something: These two were always good for entertaining surprises.

Up to something: These two were always good for entertaining surprises.

Someone once said Peter did an excellent impersonation of a Scotsman.

Someone once said Peter did an excellent impersonation of a Scotsman.

Continuing the ever-popular game of "name that kid" that we started with the pictures for my sister's memorial service... I'm guessing this might be Moritz.

Continuing the ever-popular game of „name that kid“ that we started with the pictures for my sister’s memorial service…
I’m guessing this might be Moritz.

I'm not sure that my father ever actually made sense to Peter, but I'm happy they had at least a little time to get to know one another.

I’m not sure that my father ever actually made sense to Peter, but I’m happy they had at least a little time to get to know one another.

One of the things I loved most about Peter was the way he didn't take himself too seriously. He could be so silly, so absolutely ridiculous, and he never failed to allow me to enjoy the fun of teasing him. The morning before we went to the registry office, he suddenly decided to clean the kitchen.

One of the things I loved most about Peter was the way he didn’t take himself too seriously. He could be so silly, so absolutely ridiculous, and he never failed to allow me to enjoy the fun of teasing him.
The morning before we went to the registry office, he suddenly decided to clean the kitchen.

Two of a kind: From the beginning, Peter and Paddy always shared their own special world.

Two of a kind: From the beginning, Peter and Paddy always shared their own special world.

Jack and Uncle Peter: I always loved the way Peter was continuously delighted by all our nephews and nieces.

Jack and Uncle Peter: I always loved the way Peter was continuously delighted by all our nephews and nieces.

An Austrian father obviously needs to teach his son how to make Knödel.

An Austrian father obviously needs to teach his son how to make Knödel.

Father and Son: Whatever We Had I like to imagine how pleased and embarrassed Peter would be at the same time, because his son wrote such a beautiful song in his honor.

Father and Son: Whatever We Had
I like to imagine how pleased and embarrassed Peter would be at the same time, because his son wrote such a beautiful song in his honor.

Peter could always make me laugh

Peter could always make me laugh

Conspiring to do the family Christmas picture thing - not quite managing to take it seriously

Conspiring to do the family Christmas picture thing – not quite managing to take it seriously

When Joseph was baptized, Peter and I had just lost our second baby and couldn't imagine anything more painful. In retrospect, I'm grateful we could not know the future then.

When Joseph was baptized, Peter and I had just lost our second baby and couldn’t imagine anything more painful. In retrospect, I’m grateful we could not know the future then.

My three men

My three men

 

November is over now. Time to wrap up the book and put the memories away again for the time being.

Veröffentlicht unter Peter | 1 Kommentar

Trying to paint a ceiling with a broken elbow

 

Another first time: on Sunday morning I took myself to the emergency room at the hospital all by my lonesome. If there were tears in my eyes, it was because of the pain, not because there was a young couple ahead of me, where the man was pushing his wife around in a wheelchair, taking care of her and taking care of the formalities at the same time …

Since the project for this weekend was to clear out the old computer room, paint it, and refurnish it as an all-purpose workroom, I expected bruises, cuts, and scrapes. I seem to have thin skin (or something), because I bruise and bleed easily, so shifting a large quantity of large and cumbersome physical objects was inevitably going to leave physical traces. However, I certainly did not expect to stupidly trip over a friend’s foot trying to find our way into IKEA, and unlike Arthur Dent, when I went flying I unfortunately did not forget to hit the ground. At first I thought I was just a bit rattled, no damage to be concerned about, so we just continued as planned, although I was more than usually irritated that IKEA didn’t even have the shelves in stock that I needed, resulting in a major obstacle to my plan of finishing everything before the end of the weekend – only the first obstacle, as it turned out.

Almost empty

Almost empty

Since Laura and Becky had done an amazing job of clearing everything out of the computer room Friday evening (and so quickly that we had plenty of time to drink a bottle of wine together on the balcony afterward), and Otmar and I had lugged the rest of the furniture down to the cellar in the morning, when I returned from the unsatisfactory and unsuccessful trip to IKEA, three people had almost finished painting all the walls of the room. All that was left was the ceiling, so my delightful nephew Dominik stayed to help me finish that. Unfortunately, we started seriously running out of the specially mixed paint I had bought (“porcelain white”), before we had finished more than about a third of the ceiling. Since I still had some other white paint left, we decided to mix a little of that in, figuring it would be ok if the ceiling was a bit lighter than the walls. About that time, I was becoming increasingly aware of pain and realizing that I could not stretch out my left arm, so I just wanted to get finished. Dominik heroically kept up with me, standing on the ladder with a paint brush to fill in the gaps I was leaving behind with my increasingly erratic swipes with the roller on a telescope handle, and it was starting to get dark, so it looked ok.

Painting

Painting

In the morning light, after pain kept me awake much of the night, it looked anything but ok. The ceiling was a blotchy mess and there were white blotches around the top of the walls, where I had bumped into them with the roller. Had I been able to move my left arm, I would have started painting again to at least try to make it look plausibly even, but there was nothing I could do about it by myself, so I just sat down and cried. Then I started dithering about whether I should go to the hospital to have my elbow looked at or not. Since I haven’t had to go to the emergency room since before Peter died (which is, in itself, something of an achievement, I suppose), I didn’t even know the “protocol”: Should I tell someone (two friends later said yes, I should have told them), ask someone to keep me company, call a taxi? Or should I just quietly get on a bus and go there, since there was nothing wrong with my legs? I wasn’t even sure I knew how to get there, since Peter always took me in the car, but I looked that up and it was easy.

Once I returned from the hospital with a bandaged elbow and the prescribed pain pills, I started sending out SOS messages, beginning with whining to Christopher that I wanted him to make calls for me, because it’s even harder to ask for help when I’m in pain. By the time I had warmed up a frozen pizza to eat before taking a pain pill, Leo arrived and other people started responding. And what started out as a miserable, hopeless day just got better and better. Although it seems a waste of talent to ask a gifted graffiti artist to just paint a room white, Leo did a brilliant job of fixing the ceiling and hiding my blotches. After we removed the newspaper from the floor and mopped it (which hurt enough to convince me to just give instructions and not try to help after that), Leo and Benji brought the pieces of the old desk back up from the cellar and reassembled parts of it to fit exactly the way Katja had said it would fit (obviously, Katja knows what she’s talking about: she is an architect and understands spaces and how physical objects fit in them, so her plan for the room is working perfectly). They brought the white sofa over from the former boys’ room and assembled the available bits of the shelves – and the room was transformed. In the evening, Laura, Susanne and Elke took over absolutely the most helpful and useful task they could have done: they hung up my beloved pictures in the new workroom and then proceeded to rearrange and re-hang all the pictures in the flat. Despite all the piles of stuff that still needs to be sorted, now I just walk around seeing pictures that make me happy.

There is a reason for all of this: it’s time to start the next experiment in shared living space.

When I was young, “married with children” was certainly not the life I ever envisioned for myself, so for nearly twenty-five years I was repeatedly surprised to find myself in exactly that living situation. On the whole, I think it was a successful experiment, but it’s finished now. My children are grown, my husband is dead, so “married with children” is no longer my life. Now I have a different life. And the next step in that different life is that I will be sharing my living space with two new people. Over the summer I became acquainted with the woman who directed the theater production that took place beneath my office window, and consequently she and her little son will be moving in with me to start a “three-generation flat-share”.

As I have been sorting through over twenty years of accumulated stuff all day (things I can sort using mostly my right arm and sitting quietly in one place), I’m finding it surprisingly easy to discard things I really don’t need to keep, easier than I had imagined. That “sudden halt” feeling that results from spending time in a hospital waiting room and leads to (usually necessary) reflection reminds me that it’s better to take time for what is really important, that I can’t (and shouldn’t!) do everything alone, and also suggests that it’s easier to let go of things for a positive reason: in order to make room for two new people in my life.

And to start with, instead of a dingy old computer room, thanks to wonderful, helpful friends, we now have a bright, beautiful workroom.

New workroom

New workroom

 

Veröffentlicht unter Aileen, friends, home | 1 Kommentar

Thinking about changing spaces again

 

A clear sign that a building is alive and lived in, I believe, is when the spaces keep changing. All the time the boys were growing up, our flat was always changing to accommodate their needs and ours – even though I often felt (and complained loudly) that my needs were taken too little into consideration. The more drastic changes started after the boys both finished school, although they kindly left me a little time to catch up. First Christopher moved to Vienna in October 2010, and Paddy turned what had been “the boys’ room” into his own space, where he lived while doing his “service to society” (alternative to military service in Austria). Then in September 2011, just two months before Peter died, Paddy moved to Vienna too, leaving me with a not-quite-empty room full of memories.

Empty space left after Paddy moved to Vienna

And the spaces keep changing …

After Peter died, my attempts to turn the former boys’ room – or now simply “the front room” – into a writing/sewing room for myself had to be put on hold again, because it was more urgent and necessary to change the bedroom. Little by little, though, I have been taking over the whole flat for myself, and I am very happy living here, where I feel safe, comfortable and content, even though I don’t really spend much time at home. Since the mortgage was paid off the summer before Peter died, my widow’s pension now covers my housing costs. This is what makes it possible for me to afford to run the Workshop in the Main Square as my own private project, thus avoiding all bureaucratic regulations and restrictions, but it also means I couldn’t afford to move, even if I wanted to.

But does it actually make sense for an old widow living alone with two cats to occupy a four-room flat that used to be sufficient living space for a family of four + friends, when there are so many people urgently in need of affordable living space?

That question bothers me, and it keeps coming into my mind, especially every time I hear of people, particularly young families or single mothers, desperately searching for a place to live. Recently, though, it came up again in a completely different context and tied into other worrying questions as well.

I'm still working on taking this one over for myself.

I’m still working on taking this one over for myself.

On one of the blogs I follow („The Polished Widow„), I was startled to read recently that another widow who blogs about her experience married again earlier this year. She is a very young widow with a young child, and it was beautiful and touching to read about how she balances remembering her late husband and going on with her life now with her new husband, but what startled me was the way I suddenly felt old as I read that. Marrying again or rearranging my life with a new relationship is not an option I can imagine for myself, but do I really want to continue on for the rest of my life in this comfortable arrangement of living alone with two cats, keeping everyone else at a safe distance? Isn’t this exactly what makes me old?

As I have always been interested in different forms of community, in different ways of people living together or sharing resources and responsibilities, one obvious change that suggests itself is that I could share my living space. The possibilities for finding “flat-mates”, perhaps of different ages, from different situations, are virtually endless, and there is much that I find appealing about the idea. At the same time, however, I also find the idea quite daunting for a number of reasons as well.

First of all, where would I put all my books to make room for another person? Books have always occupied a significant amount of space everywhere I’ve lived, even more so since Peter first moved in with me after we met through our shared love of books and reading. It’s not just the books, though. Every room in this flat is filled with memories – along with the many objects that go with them. To what extent would I have to limit myself, constrain myself to the here and now to make room for someone else? Could I even do that, and would I want to if I could? Which memories, objects, spaces do I need to cling to, in order to be able to hold on to a sense of “this is me, this is my life”? Or which of them just hold me down, tie me to the past so that I am not free to live in the here and now?

Maybe it is still too soon to start trying out experiments in communal living now, but when will it be too late? If I feel too timid or insecure to embark on any significant changes in the way I live now, I’m afraid it won’t be long before I really am just an old woman too set in my ways to be able to open up my mind to anything new.

In the meantime, however, I really do enjoy being able to share space at least temporarily, both in the Workshop and at home. Being able to welcome guests, provide beds for “visiting firemen” (the phrase the Shanahans always used for visitors from out of town), hand over a key to friends and young people looking after my cats so that they can make themselves comfortable while I’m away: all of that gives me great pleasure – I just have to keep thinking now about whether it is enough.

 

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Family Resemblances

From the time he was born, people have always remarked on how much Christopher looks like Peter, and it has always annoyed me. When Christopher was little and I got tired of the same old jokes about the almost comical resemblance, I learned to respond with remarks like “Right, Papa on the outside, Mama on the inside”, but it wasn’t entirely true and it made no difference. When I took Christopher to city hall to get his own Austrian passport, I took Peter’s passport along with all the other documents, because the boys were both listed in it as his children. After checking the application, the documents and Christopher’s passport photo, the official opened Peter’s passport, looked at the picture and burst out laughing. I just sighed and said, “I assume you need no further proof that this man is indeed the father of this child.” She just chuckled and assured me that was clear enough.

Since Peter’s death, I often have the feeling that this situation has become even more exacerbated, less of a joking matter now. So often now, people who are missing Peter look at Christopher and their eyes go soft as they murmur, “Just like Peter!” Sometimes I feel as though I have to defend Christopher, point out again and again that he is not Peter, he is not “just like” Peter, he is Christopher – wholly and entirely himself. Christopher, however, generous and kind as he has always been, responds much more graciously, but also so politely that I can only guess how he feels about it.

John Derieg, 7 January 1930 - 11 May 1998. This picture is presumably from the mid-1950s.

My father at about the same age that Christopher is now – just minus the beard.

If I am quite honest, however, I have to admit that my irritation is not motivated solely by a desire to protect Christopher from projections and expectations that could burden or limit him. There is also an element of something else in it – something I’ll call jealousy, for lack of a better word. Other people see Peter in Christopher, because they knew Peter, yet when I look at Christopher, I see so much of my own father, which no one else can see, because no one else knew my father, who died sixteen years ago. I’m convinced that Christopher has my father’s eyes and his lovely dark hair, but more than that I feel that Christopher has much of my father’s temperament or character, and they certainly would have shared many interests, if they had had more time together. Sometimes I’ve felt that it seems so unfair that my father did not live long enough to see his grandchildren grow up. He would have enjoyed all seven of them so much. But at other times it can be comforting to feel that Christopher gives me a little bit of my father back again.

That being the case, I think what irritates me about the emphasis on the physical resemblance between Peter and Christopher is that it seems to obscure other connections, influences, similarities. While Christopher undoubtedly bears a visible resemblance to his father, Paddy has Peter’s keen sense of hearing and love of music, a very special bond that only the two of them shared. Sometimes I wish more people could see how much Paddy resembles Peter in different ways, affirm the strong connection between them and perhaps have a little more understanding for the loss that Paddy lives with.

Amy in conversation with Paddy some years ago. In one of the pictures my goddaughter-in-law shared, Amy's granddaughter is making the same face.

Amy in conversation with Paddy some years ago. In one of the pictures my goddaughter-in-law shared, Amy’s granddaughter is making the same face.

There is a reason why I have been thinking about this for several days now. A few days ago, my dear goddaughter-in-law posted new pictures of her adorable baby to Facebook. Along with the feeling of longing to hold my sister’s grandchild again, I had a feeling almost of shock as I gazed at the lovely pictures, because all I could see was a resemblance to Amy – Amy’s expressions, her gestures, her smile, her eyes … I had to force myself to refrain from commenting on each and every picture. Of course, seeing that resemblance unleashed a flood of memories and opened up that carefully guarded hole in my heart where I keep the pain of missing Amy, the ache of loss, the bottomless well of unspoken words from all the things I have needed to talk about with her since she died.

But when does it become annoying, limiting, oppressive to keep noting a perceived family resemblance? Is it something only I see because I miss Amy, the same way that people who are missing Peter look at Christopher and sigh, “Just like Peter”? I know there are other people in Evelyn’s life who love her and need her to belong to their lives as well, so I don’t want to impose my need to find traces of my sister.

Where does one draw the line between sharing memories and imposing them? At some point, children must surely have a certain right to choose whom they wish to be associated with or not. I am acutely aware of my own need to keep memories alive of loved ones now dead, but sometimes I think I need to remind myself not to forget loved ones still living while remembering the dead. To be able to learn to live with loss, you have to be among the living and fully alive.

 

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Establishing new traditions

When something happens for the third time, does that make it a tradition?

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I don’t even know now how it happened, but when Peter died two years ago, the house immediately started filling up with people – so many dear and kind friends, so many young people who had spent time as children or teenagers here, Peter’s friends, my friends, the boys’ friends, our friends. They took care of cooking, cleaning, washing, shopping, organizing; they took care of us. By the end of that November, of course, everyone had to return to their own lives, and I started learning to live quietly by myself with (at first) one cat.
When Christmas came only a few weeks later, it seemed, after Paddy brought the second cat, Hester, as a Christmas present for me and Ginevra, the house started filling up with people again. After our traditional Austrian Christmas with Peter’s family on the 24th, starting since then with a visit to the cemetery together, what used to be our somewhat chaotic English-speaking Christmas on the 25th became a gathering of friends – and it felt so good. That first Christmas without Peter turned out to be so enjoyable that everyone came back again last year, and that was so enjoyable too that we did it again this year. Being able to open up my house and turn over my kitchen to any friends who feel like cooking and gathering here feels like such a privilege, an amazing gift for which I am deeply grateful.

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Just sitting there on Christmas day, surrounded by lovely people having all kinds of conversations, I thought again about how incredibly fortunate I am, especially to have so many wonderful young women in my life. As I have often said, as an old feminist I initially felt a bit disappointed to find myself the mother of two sons, but I learned fairly quickly that it is actually much better to have sons who get along well with girls. As my sons started bringing girls into my life, I was able to enjoy their company, appreciate their views, delight in all their accomplishments – yet without any of the tensions, conflicts and mutual disappointments that mothers and daughters so often have to deal with. And this happy advantage still continues. Some time ago, one of Christopher’s friends gave me one of the best compliments I have ever received, when she announced that one day she would have to marry Christopher so that she could have me as her mother-in-law. I promised her that she didn’t have to marry him, I would be pleased to be able to keep in her my life in any case. Since then I have been growing a circle of “quasi daughters-in-law” with or without a relationship to one of my sons. All these intelligent, interesting, thinking, creative young women, who have come into my life, inspire and encourage me and give me hope. Of course, not all of the young people I have come to depend on are women: my life also includes thoughtful, caring, generous young men – including my sons.
After Peter died, I would not have imagined that I would end up enjoying Christmas this much. It still amazes me, but it is a new tradition I would like to continue now. I’m not quite sure how it might work next year, since Christopher, Paddy, Agnes and I plan to be in Albuquerque then, but since I will need someone to look after my cats, I’m thinking I’ll probably just leave my key here and let what ever happens happen. Somehow there is something very appealing about the thought of all these lovely people gathering at my house even if I’m not there. It is reassuring to imagine that my house is simply a good place to be.

A house full of people

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November

Someday, in some distant future, I like to think that a time may come, when November won’t hurt. It seems hard to imagine that now, but it’s what I like to tell myself.

Returning to Linz the day before the second anniversary of Peter’s death seemed like a good idea when I booked my flight months ago, but I’m afraid I didn’t quite think that plan all the way through. Two years ago I was wholly and completely incapable of remembering any dates or times, so I was grateful for the notes posted for me in the hallway, telling me where I needed to go and when, notes I could simply read out whenever anyone called to ask about the memorial. Two years ago I could not remember that the memorial for Peter would be held on 22 November, that on 28 November we would take the urn with his ashes to the niche I had picked out for both of us. Now it feels as though I will never, ever be able to forget those dates again.

I had made plans for 13 November ahead of time, the same comforting, reassuring plan as last year: going to the cemetery together in the afternoon, a nice dinner with family and friends at Gelbes Krokodil, eventually ending up in Solaris, of course, with Paddy, Agnes, Christopher and more friends. That worked. What I wasn’t prepared for, though, was how hard it would hit me in the days after that, the whole flood of memories of exactly what I was doing at this time two years ago. For the past two weeks I’ve had the feeling there is gray film constantly running in my head, replaying memories on top of or behind everything else I’m doing or thinking in the present.

Actually, though, it might even be considered encouraging that I was so unprepared for that unexpected flood of memories. It means they don’t otherwise dominate my life. It means there is space now, two years later, in my life, in my mind, in my heart to reflect on and remember what happened, what was, what is no more. It means I can stop to feel sad now, because I’m not constantly struggling to just somehow keep going.

On 14 November, the day after the second anniversary of Peter’s death, I finally transferred the last installment to pay his income taxes, for which I am deeply grateful to Peter’s parents, because I could not have done it without their generous help. The only thing left now is the last instrument Peter started and Claudia Unterkogler finished, which is only waiting for a case to be made for it so it can be delivered. Then I am finished. I have completed all my “widow’s tasks”.

My “widow’s tasks”, dealing with “death & taxes & telephone companies”, all the many, many “first times” – sometimes the first year felt like the longest year of my life. It seemed interminable, insurmountable. As the first year spilled over into the second year, as my “widow’s tasks” finally became fewer, less urgent, less daunting, it was time to take up the next challenge of “rearranging my life” without Peter. It was also time to stop needing so much help and support and start taking care of other people again. It was time to get back to work and to earning my living again. New projects, new people, new interests also new low points, new disappointments, new loneliness.

So many years ago, I found the symbolism of the threefold goddess fascinating and encouraging. The three figures of the goddess with their respective colors – white for the Maid, red for the Mother, black for the Crone – stand for different phases of life, but not in a linear progression: like the changing seasons, there are different times in life, where the focus shifts, responsibilities and efforts change, the light is different. White is for those periods in life, when a freedom from ties and responsibilities is needed to reach a goal, to grow and change, a time of light and clarity, not uncaring, but unfettered. Red is for periods of caring, loving, nourishing, protecting, gathering in, a time of strong energy and strong bonds, like a flame with all its capacities for warming and for destroying as well. Black is the time of winter, like the black branches of trees that had to let their leaves fall, in order to survive the cold and the snow. Letting go, taking down, taking leave, retreating, death. And there can be no life without death, in all its many forms and manifestations, physical, emotional, global, personal.

Looking back, I would say that the first year of my life without Peter was red, the second was black.

Now my color is white.

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September

Five years.

Five years ago at the end of August, Peter and I were packing for a weekend at a spa out in the country. We had been there before, and we expected to spend a relaxing few days just lying naked on the comfortable lounges in the quiet sauna garden reading novels, so we packed more books than clothes. On our way to the spa, we stopped for coffee with dear friends and met a brand new person for the first time. That newborn person, who was to become Peter’s youngest godchild, is meanwhile about to start his last year at kindergarten as one of the important big kids ready to start school next year. He is an expert on tractors and screwdrivers, and he is learning to tie his own shoes.

While Peter and I were looking forward to just getting away for a few days in Austria, Amy was making similar plans in Michigan, and we had been exchanging messages about how much we were looking forward to it. She said she just needed a break too, she really needed a break. The short break that Peter and I took was good, enjoyable, restful. Whatever happened that weekend, though, that was not the case for Amy.

Two days after our return, I went to a meeting to discuss a paper I had been working on with a small group. I felt we were making good progress and I was happy and excited to discuss it. But then, in the middle of the discussion, my phone rang and I saw that it was Peter calling me. Normally I would never answer my phone in the middle of a meeting, but Peter would normally never call me in the middle of a meeting either. As soon as I heard his voice, it sent a chill down my spine. Peter just said, “You need to come home. Now. Your brother called. Something happened. It’s not your mother.” In the middle of the discussion, I quickly packed up my bag, murmured something about having to go, and started running.

The meeting that night was held in a pleasant little courtyard attached to an art space. I’ve tried to return several times since then, but it still feels oppressive and uncomfortable. No matter what else is happening there, I just feel the large tree, looming like a malignant presence, and no matter what anyone else is saying, all I hear is Peter’s voice in my head: “You need to come home …”. When I leave, I still feel an overwhelming urge to start running, as I did that night five years ago – running, sobbing, calling Amy’s name out loud like a mad woman…

Five years ago, when Amy made the determined decision to end her life, she radically changed mine too. I am not the same person I was before she walked into her garage and turned on the motor of her car. None of us are.

One learns to live with a traumatic and painful change, as one learns to live with a deep scar, an artificial hip or a prosthetic limb. What always surprises me, though, is that there are so many of us. Whenever I talk about Amy with other people, they often tell me their stories too. I would never have imagined that there are so many, many people living with the self-chosen death of someone close to them. Sometimes when I see groups of people standing around or just walking down the street, I find myself picturing the invisible scars, artificial hips or prosthetic limbs they have learned to live with, and I am reminded of one of my favorite posts on Twitter:

“Be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

 

A beautiful place to spend eternity

A beautiful place to spend eternity:
Remembering Amy Derieg Boehms
3 November 1966 – 2 September 2008

 

 

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