Trying to figure it out

Depending on the choice of milestones, I entered a new phase of life in March, in April, in May or in June. In other words, this has been an ongoing process, and now at the end of July I am still trying to figure it out.

The first milestone was my sixtieth birthday in March, which I wasn’t particularly interested in celebrating, because I was still desperately trying to finish work and I couldn’t possibly afford more than an extra glass of wine at that point. Nevertheless, I quickly realized that being a woman over sixty is actually a lot more fun than any other age I have experienced yet. I feel as though I have joined a secret club with the motto “I have no fucks left to give”. I don’t have to prove anything, I don’t have to please anyone, I don’t have to make any choices that will affect my whole life. I have already made all those choices. I find being a woman over sixty surprisingly liberating, although I am well aware that I clearly speak from a position of privilege. Recognizing that I have a very good life, though, I want everyone else to have a good life too, so my next goal is to find meaningful ways of contributing to making that happen.

Following my sixtieth birthday in March, the social security agency officially recognized me as a pensioner on April 1st and granted my claim to an “old-age” pension of my own (“Alterspension”: it’s actually officially called an “old-age pension”), not just the widow’s pension I have been receiving since Peter’s death. Now I have the card and all. But in April I still wasn’t finished working yet.

I had already turned in the forms to cancel my business license after April 30th, but until then I kept working and managed to finally finish the last of the translations for a book I’ve been working on since last summer (although I still owe them the final revisions), and I translated the Crossing Europe Film Festival Linz for the fifteenth and last time. In 2004, after the last opera production in Wilhering, Crossing Europe became our “family project”. While I took care of translations, Peter took responsibility for system administration, and the boys just did whatever was needed from them. When I checked the first festival catalogue from 2004, I even found the name Christopher Derieg Hütmannsberger on the long list of people thanked for their support, although no one has any idea now what Christopher might have done at the age of 13 to earn being credited in the catalogue. We joined the Crossing Europe family and Crossing Europe joined our family. Even when I had to continue our family project without Peter, I didn’t have to do it alone. With all of that, translating Crossing Europe for the last time as my last ever translation job turned out to be a bit more emotional than I had expected: step (for the last time) by step (for the last time) by step (for the last time) until I wrote the last bill (for the last time) the day my business license came to an end. Finished. For the first time in twenty-four years.

Finished? Yes, but …

First there were bills to pay, taxes and social security for the first quarter of the year (for the last time), things that needed cleaning and sorting that I had had to just ignore throughout April, regular payments to be transferred from my business account to my private account. There was the wonderful “Art Meets Radical Openness” festival, helping celebrate Christopher’s twenty-eighth birthday in Vienna with wonderful readings and concerts he helped organize – the first month of “freedom” flew by so fast I could hardly keep up.

Then June came. After submitting the application for retirement in September 2017, I started making a long mental list of all the things I would enjoy finally being able to do once I finally retired: cleaning up all the computers and installing a different version of Linux on each one, learning about non-commercial alternatives on the Internet, working on websites, deep-cleaning and renovating the flat, sewing, writing, answering emails, writing, reading, reading, reading … None of those things really happened in June, except that I finally signed up for Mastodon (anyone on Mastodon, please find me and worked my way through the first 200 pages of my new 1500-page Linux manual (I think I’ve finally grasped efi, but I still need to work on partitioning). What I did achieve, however, is that I finally paid off the last of my debts to the bank left over from trying to keep the Workshop going for three years. “Debt-free” is a very special kind of freedom, for which I am now deeply grateful.

What also happened in June is that I “officially” handed my work as a translator over to Christopher and my colleague Laura Freeburn from the US. I needed to do that, because obviously I am still a feminist theologian at heart, so I needed a ritual with symbolic actions and witnesses. Although it became apparent that I hadn’t done a very good job of “delegating” various tasks, I was happy with the way everything turned out in the end, especially thanks to Susanne Blaimschein, Erwin Franz and Rebekka Hochreiter (better known to my international family simply as Becky). For the “handover” I spent an entire weekend gathering together and sorting through all the books and artifacts documenting my twenty-four years of work as a translator.

The material remains of 24 years of translation work, moved from the shelves to the floor.

These were then all transported to Kunstraum Goethestrasse, where Becky arranged them beautifully on tables (when Christopher saw them, he blinked and announced sarcastically, “No, that isn’t even slightly intimidating!”), in between hanging up postcards from “my” authors and other cards, invitations and announcements I used to have on the doors of my office.

And then on Friday, 22 June, people actually came to celebrate with us! I presented Laura and Christopher each with a mug filled with teas and chocolates and good luck charms – and a USB stick loaded with pdf files, e-books and links, which I had collected over the years in search of quotations in English. I gave Laura a catalogue including the first text I ever translated for Stella Rollig, and then Laura gave me a copy of Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey (Emily Wilson is meanwhile a more recent addition to my personal list of Most Admired Women). Then I wanted to give Christopher a different book with my wishes for him, but when I saw the tears in his eyes I almost forgot what I wanted to say, so now I have no idea whether any kind of intelligible message ended up accompanying the book. We finished with a toast: “To the many words, to the other words, to all the words.”

To the many words, to the other words – to all the words.

My one special wish for that evening was for both of my sons to play a small concert for me, and after they granted that wish, I was finished: after that nobody wanted to talk about anything other than how amazingly talented my sons are. I had the impression that Christopher seemed to be relieved to be back on more familiar territory, on stage, holding his own mic and performing his own work. I was surprised and touched, though, when Patrick started his set by pointing out that while Christopher is taking over my work as a translator, Patrick is taking up a different strand from my life with his wandering. I am still grateful to him for pointing out that while translating was my job for twenty-four years, it was never my whole life.

So where am I now at the end of July? In between sorting books back into the shelves, long conversations with Patrick, occasional long walks with his dog, closing my business account, paying the last of my taxes, Death Cafes in May, June and July, still working in between on the last revisions of the last texts of the last book, watching Patrick set off on his way back to Calafou with three humans, two dogs and a lot of luggage in a small Hungarian car, washing sheets and towels (apart from brief intermezzos I have had a full house with a steady stream of visitors since Crossing Europe), just basic cleaning, responding to Christopher’s requests for help or advice, sorting through fabrics and patterns … I haven’t really even started yet with my to-do list for retirement. What is fundamentally different now, though, is that nothing is urgent. There is nothing I have to do right now or have finished by tomorrow morning at the latest. It will probably still take some time to grasp this new rhythm of life, but that’s okay.

I have time.

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Handover Celebration, 22 June 2018

Diese Galerie enthält 7 Fotos.


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Christmas now

It seems I have now reached that stage in life, where having both my sons here at the same time has become such a rare and important event that it supersedes all other claims to my attention. “Home for Christmas”: yes, we have become that trite and clichéd, and I won’t even try to deny it or attempt to frame it differently.

Patrick arrived from Catalonia by way of France somewhat earlier than I expected him, before I could even go completely to pieces worrying about him driving in winter (although I felt compelled to remind him to be careful because Germans don’t know how to deal with snow on the roads). As in August, he arrived with his traveling companion V (or Vie in French or Wie in German), the most adorable dog in the world. I was delighted to see them both, although my cats were considerably less pleased about welcoming another companion species into our lives and living space. Then Christopher arrived from Vienna on Thursday before Christmas, so that we could drive out to the Megaplex at the edge of the city to see the new Star Wars film together, following what has meanwhile become another family tradition.

On Friday Christopher thoughtfully offered to help me with the weekly shopping, since I would need to buy more for the holidays and would probably need help carrying it (especially the extra beer). The supermarket was a complete madhouse, of course, just before the holidays and with the prospect of no one being able to do any shopping for three whole days, since the twenty-fourth was a Sunday this year, but that was to be expected. Somewhere in the midst of the mayhem, somewhere in the middle of the juice and soft drinks section, it became clear that Christopher’s offer to help me only extended to helping me carry things home, not to helping me figure out what to buy. While I was trapped with the shopping cart at one end of the aisle and Christopher was on the other side of a large crate blocking the way, I tried to persuade him to pick out some kind of fruit juice, but Christopher, with an expression of alarm on his face, resolutely and verbosely denied any and all knowledge of the concept of fruit juice and especially of responsibility for fruit juice. As we debated fruit juice, decision-making and the nature of “help” from opposite sides of a large crate, out of the corner of my eye I noticed that the young man attempting to re-stock the shelves from this crate seemed increasingly amused. His amusement then spread to other people trapped between crates and shopping carts in and around the same aisle. I suppose being able to provide a little entertainment in the midst of manic holiday shopping is not a bad thing.

After Christopher and I returned from shopping and began to recover, he continued in Very Helpful mode and announced that he would cook lunch for all of us (“lunch” being a rather nebulous term at three in the afternoon). It really was a very sweet offer that I was happy to accept, even though it soon necessitated a major revision of my plans for the day, because as soon as he stepped into the kitchen, he started channeling his father. Just like Peter, Christopher in the kitchen enters into his own idiosyncratic bubble that follows its own laws of space and time that are clearly unrelated to any other laws of space and time. Negotiation is out of the question.

Between Christopher channeling Peter in the kitchen, Patrick perpetually busy doing something or other requiring his full mental attention and frequent mumbling, dog and cats negotiating barely tolerable interspecies coexistence, and me with intended Christmas preparations that seemed incomprehensible or at least irrelevant to anyone else – we were right back in our old life together. It felt so familiar that I wasn’t even conscious of it, until we got to the cemetery on Christmas Eve in the late afternoon. It was almost jarring to look up and see Peter’s name on the marble plaque, and I realized then that I had had the feeling for days that he was just in the other room, just as he had always been when Christmas preparations disrupted his normal routine. Peter has been dead for six years now, but with the boys at home, it almost felt as though I had forgotten. But he is not just in the other room, staying out of the way: he is, in fact, dead.

That hit me again on Christmas morning, when I got up to make coffee and found the stockings filled and beautifully arranged with a few little presents around the tree. It was so lovely and so unexpected that I just stood there and started to cry. And with the tears, memories came rushing in of what Christmas used to be like at our house in years past, when Peter was still alive and we could afford to surprise one another with generous presents. Although Peter always had difficulty coping with anything that disrupted his normal routine, he was a most generous and magnificent gift-giver. And when we were two parents, we shared the pleasure (and the organizational responsibility and the costs) of choosing presents for our children, for the whole family. Wrapping presents was mostly my responsibility, while Peter’s gift-wrapping attempts were mostly hilarious. Now it almost seems funny to remember how we thought we were being so restrained and anti-materialist about gift-giving, valuing the thought over the price of each gift. We could afford to think that way when Peter was still alive.

By myself now, I have a very strict list for Christmas. For our Austrian Christmas with Peter’s family on Christmas Eve, I pick out one book for each person – and thinking intently about each person to pick out exactly the right book gives me great pleasure – and on Christmas day we only do stockings, which are filled with chocolates, a package of cigarettes, a miniature bottle of alcohol, a lottery scratch card and more chocolates. That’s it. That’s all I can afford and all I can organize by myself. Since the most important part of Christmas now is the annual gathering of friends, I’m happy with my new traditions. This is my life now, and it is a good life.

Christmas at our house was different when Peter was alive, and becoming conscious of that difference can sting sometimes. But that was then, this is Christmas now.

And although I’m not sure how I became that kind of mother (or even how I quite feel about it), having my sons home for Christmas is now the very best present possible and all that I could wish for.

This year Amy keeps an eye on what’s going on in the kitchen.

New Year’s Resolution: Stop being so maudlin!

(That’s me channeling my sister.)

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I hate it when my role models die.

When I heard the news that Herlinde Pissarek-Huddelist died, I packed up my children, took them to the playground, and then completely ignored them as I sat on a bench on the side, smoking one cigarette after another as memories welled up. I was lucky the boys were past needing constant supervision by then.

When Johanna Dohnal died, I stopped working and decided to clean the kitchen to keep moving in the face of a huge wave of memories. I was so far away in my mind that I didn’t immediately notice when I caught a loose piece of wicker from a basket under my fingernail, but eventually the whole fingernail had to be removed to get it out, and then the wound got infected on top of that. Attempting to write at least a few lines to add to the tributes to Johanna Dohnal thus became quite laborious and physically painful.

When Natalie Magnan died, I started pacing frantically back and forth from one end of the flat to the other, but all I really wanted to do was curl up on the floor and howl like a frustrated toddler: “Noooooo! I still neeeeeed her!!” I was so distraught by the realization that Nat and I would never laugh together again, I didn’t even know what to add to the tributes and memories that started cropping up all over the Internet.

After Sara and Jim called to let me know that June Lawlor had died, memories of June starting flowing: trips to England with Peter, visits at Forge House, the whole Lawlor family taking us in and giving us a chance to rest and heal when we needed it most …

Although my brother had told me about June and Michael Lawlor before, the first time I met them was when they generously came to our wedding on 31 December 1986 to stand in for my parents, who couldn’t make it to Austria.

This time, though, instead of just disappearing into my memories (and risking physical injury by becoming detached from my material surroundings), I decided to go to Kemble for the memorial. It turned out to be exactly the right decision, but also in ways I had not expected.

After telling any number of people in Linz enthusiastically about June, to explain why I needed to go to England for the memorial of my brother’s mother-in-law, as I was preparing to travel I realized I had not been back to Kemble since before Peter died, and we always drove (and argued all the way). In the end, I managed to make sane and sensible travel arrangements for myself alone, despite the vagaries of British public transportation, but I was annoyed that I found myself missing arguing with Peter again. Missing arguments with Peter is still one of the most disconcerting experiences of being a widow, I find. But I got there, Jim met me at the train station in Kemble, and we walked together from there to Tralee, June’s house, where I was generously given June’s room to stay in for the weekend.

Although I knew that June had eventually sold Forge House some time after Michael died and moved to a different house, Tralee surprised me. June’s presence was still strong and comforting in the house, but all the different pictures and reminders of Michael in different places reminded me of how long June had lived as a widow too. Little notes posted in strategic places were a poignant indication of the experience of dementia in the end, but one of them, a note from June’s brother Wilf, struck me most powerfully: Wilf had written about how June had managed to bring the spirit of Forge House to Tralee to create another very special place. The note was hung up in the kitchen, as though June needed reminding of that herself at the end of her life, especially as it was placed in close proximity with her name and date and place of birth.

Yet for me, these were important reminders too: everything I have been struggling with over the past five years, June had already coped with – in her own wise and witty and loving way. The whole time I stayed at Tralee, it was as though I could feel June’s spirit enveloping me with reassurance and encouragement. Every morning when I woke up, the first thing I saw was a mosaic she had made. A round mosaic hanging on the wall, it was filled with all different shades of red, all the different symbolic significances of red, with a golden spiral winding through it, but the spiral was not smooth or even or symmetrical. This crooked, uneven spiral is a widow’s path; it is the path of a wise, strong woman, whose life did not end when her partner died. Tracing this spiral every morning with my eyes, it felt like June reminding me, “Yes, it’s hard. Go on. Yes, it hurts. Keep going.” When I got out of bed and turned around, the pictures of Michael that June had hung on the wall of her bedroom reminded me yet again, “Yes, it’s hard. Go on. Yes, it hurts. Keep going.”

Three strangers staying the weekend at Tralee quickly formed a small, temporary community as we shared our stories, exchanged memories of June and her family, and found our way into taking over small responsibilities for preparing the house and garden for some eighty visitors who came to the memorial on Saturday to celebrate June’s life. Listening to all the ways June had touched people throughout her life was inspiring, motivating – and exactly what I needed at this point.

This past half year, it feels as though I have been struggling to resist feeling overwhelmed by a sense of loss. The Workshop is gone, and now I’m just working to pay taxes retrospectively for the extra money I had to earn to keep it going in the end. I’m tired of translating, I’m tired of working with English, I don’t feel I’m doing a good job, and working only to pay taxes for something that’s gone just feels defeating. The greatest turmoil after Peter’s death has calmed now, and no one I am responsible for is currently in an emotional crisis. No Workshop, no one to take care of – what am I doing? What do I even have left to offer? What can I possibly contribute to making the world at least a little bit better, at least in the little world I live in?

It surprised me how much less useless I felt at Tralee, but I came home feeling inspired, motivated, strengthened. For that, I am so deeply grateful.

“She whom we love and lose is no longer where she was before.
She is now wherever we are.”

Thank you, June.

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La Ultima

Christopher leaving Linz wearing his father’s smile.

Yesterday Christopher flew to New York with Peter’s last instrument. Everything went smoothly, and both Christopher and the instrument arrived without mishap or complications. The instrument is now in good hands, and it will be played, heard, appreciated as it should be, and Christopher is set to enjoy a few days in New York and then a few days in Michigan with his cousin and my sister’s adorable little granddaughters, celebrating Amelia’s first birthday only a week late, just a year after I was there to welcome her into the world.

So theoretically it’s time for me to breathe now, unwind, pick up the pieces and put myself back together. What hit me? I think perhaps I just wasn’t prepared for all the memories and associations and emotions that getting the instrument to New York triggered for me, and I ended up feeling more than a little overwhelmed.

As Christopher and I walked calmly to the tram stop yesterday morning to get to the train that would take him to the airport in Vienna, in my mind’s eye I kept seeing Peter dashing madly down exactly that same street with a large viola da gamba in one hand, a large suitcase in the other, just barely in time to jump on the tram, but without time to buy a ticket first, so all the way to the train station, he was prepared to explain to a ticket controller that he would be happy to jump off and buy a ticket, if only someone would hold the gamba and the suitcase and keep the door open for him … Peter had to be on exactly that tram in order to just barely catch the last train that would get him to Vienna in time to just barely catch his flight to Australia. It was so quintessentially Peter to cut it that close. As much as Christopher physically resembles Peter, I was very grateful yesterday that he is different enough in character to insist on leaving the house in good time to easily get him to the train station with enough time to enjoy a cigarette before the train arrived that would easily get him to the airport with plenty of time to check in and go through security and probably enjoy another cigarette somewhere in between.

Walking down the street with Christopher and the instrument, my mind was flooded by memories of traveling with Peter, two small children and at least one, if not two large instruments. Between my need for extra time to get my bearings and Peter’s phobia about ever having to wait, traveling together was never anything but extremely stressful. In all the years of our life together, I don’t think we ever got to an airport without both of us being absolutely livid and barely on speaking terms. I don’t think we ever reached a ferry on time. We argued about packing, we argued about arrangements, we argued about how much time we needed to get from point A to point B, we argued about Belgium: as many times as Peter drove from Linz to the UK, he seemed to forget every single time that once you drive all the way through Germany, you still have to cross all the way through Belgium to get to the ferry, and although Belgium is a small country, it’s not that small. I remember Peter shouting out the car window, “What is the point of Belgium?!” and me seething in the passenger seat, “I told you we should have left earlier!” We argued about tractors: Peter invariably insisted that unless there was a tractor on the road, we would easily get to the airport on time, and I invariably insisted that there was always a tractor on that road to the airport. He was incapable of quietly standing in line and patiently waiting for further information. He always had to try something else and I always had to question his sanity. In all those years of mad traveling escapades, I would never, ever have even dreamed how much I would some day miss that, all of it.

Traveling without Peter is certainly much more calm and sane, but I miss the adventures, I miss the surprises. I miss the unexpected arrangements Peter was able to make, which really shouldn’t even have been possible and were probably against regulations – some regulations somewhere, as the statement “I’m sorry, sir, but that’s against regulations” seemed to become almost a familiar greeting, whenever Peter was in the US. Life with Peter was not always easy, but it was never boring. I can cope on my own now, of course I can. It’s just not as much fun.

And somehow I missed mentally preparing myself for what this instrument – “La Ultima”, as a friend called it – would mean to me, how many memories and emotions it would evoke.

This was the last instrument Peter was working on when he died, a Stainer gamba, but it wasn’t quite finished. Thanks to an introduction from Bernhard Costa, Claudia Unterkofler came to Linz, collected all the work Peter had done on the instrument along with his plans and notes on Jakob Stainer, and finished it. I was grateful to be able to pass on Peter’s work on Jakob Stainer to a talented young woman, who had already been in correspondence with Peter about his work on Stainer, so that she can continue it with her own work.

When I heard the instrument played for the first time, it felt like hearing a farewell from Peter at last. The last conversation that Peter and I had was about his mother, how worried he was because she was so ill and in the hospital, and I promised him then that I would look after his mother until he returned. Peter never had a chance to say good-bye to me until Claudia finished the instrument and it was played for me, but I heard him then.

Hearing the instrument played the afternoon before Christopher took it to New York reminded me at the same time of another instrument, though, a very special gamba that Peter made in 1988. When I was pregnant for the second time, when we were reassured that it was not another ectopic pregnancy and everything was fine, Peter and I were overjoyed. We were certain that by Fall we would have a beautiful baby daughter, and we already knew her name. In this feeling of euphoria, Peter wrote her name on the inside of the instrument before he put the top on it and dedicated it to her. Then, just at the end of the first trimester when everything seemed fine, one day her tiny heart just stopped beating and the pregnancy quietly ended in emptiness. After the nearly fatal ruptured tubal pregnancy the year before, Peter had been too busy keeping me alive to be able to mourn the loss of the baby we had hoped for, but his sense of loss was that much greater this second time. I remember watching helplessly as he worked obsessively on that instrument, pouring all his grief into it and his fear that we might never be able to have children of our own. I remember hearing the instrument being played for the first time, around the time the baby would have been born, and as the tears streamed down my face I thought that even though our baby didn’t live long enough to be born, she still has a voice, an incredibly beautiful voice that will live on.

At some point – last year, the year before? – Patrick remarked that there is another symmetry in our family now: Peter is with our daughters, and our sons are with me. I don’t know where our daughter’s gamba is now, since Peter and the musician who had it came into conflict years ago, but now I like to imagine it might show up again someday and end up being played together with Peter’s farewell gamba. It’s a lovely fantasy at least.

After he arrived in New York, Christopher wrote to me that everything went remarkably well on the journey. Far from being a burden, the instrument seemed to make everything easier, as people were especially nice to him, let him board the plane early, made an effort to accommodate him with the instrument. I suggested he should thank his father for that. Getting the instrument ready to travel, I thought several times that it’s a good thing I don’t allow ghosts in my house (as I sternly informed my mother in a dream some time ago, when I ordered her to get out), or Peter would have been driving us all mad. I had the feeling he wanted to keep tweaking the instrument, polish the varnish here, turn the peg there, check the soundpost again … Would he have been satisfied with the instrument? Certainly not: Peter was never satisfied with his own work. Of course he wasn’t – nobody gets to be really good at what they do by just being satisfied, and Peter was certainly very good, even though he couldn’t allow himself to think so.

That leaves me feeling highly conflicted, though. Have I done everything I possibly could to ensure that this last instrument proves to be a credit to Peter’s legacy? I’m not an instrument maker, not even a musician, which means that my possibilities for intervention are severely limited. I have had to depend on other people, knowing all the while how much Peter, being the control freak that he was, would have hated that. But the hard part about being dead is that you can no longer change anything in your life, you have to let other people do it for you.

Christopher arriving in New York wearing his very own smile.

I am reminded of a very moving statement by a young woman at a Death Cafe in Linz some months ago. She described her conflicted relationship with her father, but said she often talks to him since he died, and then she smiled and said, “He has learned a lot since he died.” Peter did not finish his last instrument himself, and having to take over the responsibility for it has always made me feel terribly insecure, worried that he would not be happy with my choices, with the results, and watching Christopher leave with the instrument seriously exacerbated my insecurity. So I hope that Peter has also learned something since he died and that I have as well. This is about letting go. The rest is not up to him or to me.

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Time passing, children growing

At a wonderful party out by the harbor in August, I was very pleased to run into Peter’s youngest godchild, who was there with his parents, having just returned from their summer holidays. I was quite startled, however, to see how tall he is now, nearly as tall as his mother. It seems only a moment ago that Peter and I met him for the first time. And in that brief moment, I see him again as a newborn in Peter’s arms, as an excited toddler during a trip to the mountains, where Peter taught him to say “moo” to distinguish cows from dogs and to toss pebbles into the water (or Peter’s glass of beer), as a three-year-old sitting on his father’s shoulders and reaching down to help his father hold the urn with Peter’s ashes in it, as a four-year-old having a “man-to-man” talk with Christopher in the garden, as Christopher and I sought to fill the emptiness of the pain of loss with love for a small person …

Clocks display numbers marking the passing of time, the hours, the minutes, the seconds, the arbitrariness of which is most evident this time of year, when we have to change all the clocks, and various clocks confusingly display different times for a while. Calendars display numbers marking the passing of days, weeks, months, years, but they cannot capture the moments marked by emotions. There is a more concrete, more palpable, more emotionally appropriate measure, though: How tall Oscar is, is how long Amy has been dead.

Peter & OscarA week or so later, I was pleased to see Oscar again, when he spotted me standing near the bar outside at Solaris one evening and told his father he wanted to say hello. I feel pleased and deeply touched that he seems to feel connected to me, even though he doesn’t remember why. I asked him, but he doesn’t remember promising me five years ago that he would always tell me what is really important. Nevertheless, he has always kept that promise. For three short, long years he was such an important person in Peter’s life, and it was a joy to see them together. I think – or perhaps simply hope or just imagine – that feeling is what keeps us connected, but I am grateful in any case that the connection exists.

How tall Oscar is, is how long Amy has been dead. Amy would have been fifty this week, and I can only imagine how much fun it would have been to tease her about it, just as it would have been fun to tease her about becoming a grandmother at the age of only forty-seven. We celebrated what would have been her forty-seventh birthday by bringing her newborn granddaughter home from the hospital that day. Her granddaughter will celebrate her third birthday this week.

Time passes, children grow. My little neighbor from upstairs comes down to visit me. Only a moment ago, her mother was worried that she wasn’t walking yet around the time of her first birthday, but now she walks down the stairs by herself, holding her soft stuffed rabbit in one hand, a wind-up mouse to entertain my cats in the other. She is a few months older than my sister’s first granddaughter, so she is already three. She goes to kindergarten, where they have been making lanterns for the lantern procession on St. Martin’s Day, and she can sing the lantern song beautifully. And she has so much to tell me, I can hardly keep up! But as I listen and we pet the cat together, I feel the moments slipping away too quickly, far away in Michigan, where Amy’s meanwhile two granddaughters are growing up with the understanding that “visiting Grandma” means taking a trip to the lake, where grown-ups then stand oddly sad and silent for a moment. Only a moment.

Meeting GeorgeIn less than two weeks it will be five years since Peter died. Two months after that, George will celebrate his fifth birthday. George, my first “borrowed grandchild”: How tall George is, is how long Peter has been dead. Frantically, I try to remember when I last saw George, and I worry he will forget me, if I can’t get myself organized enough to spend time with him at least once a month.

I have no sense now of how long or short a time five years might be. I cannot account for the moments that have passed since the policeman came to my door. Sometimes it feels a lifetime ago, sometimes it feels like barely an hour has passed. Were it not for George growing, I would have no measure for how long I have lived as a widow. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter though.

In the end, Oscar, Evelyn, Lisbeth, George, Amelia and all the other children growing are the only measure that matters, the only measure that even makes sense at all.

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Purple Normal

In February I had the great privilege of being able to spend two weeks in Michigan to help welcome my sister’s second grandchild and spend time with her first grandchild, who is now – delightfully, inimitably – two years old. When my godson and my goddaughter-in-law came home with the new baby, two-year-old Evelyn quickly picked up her parents’ conversations and began insisting, “Gotta get back to normal!” Joseph pointed out to her that it is a “new normal” now and asked her what that looked like. “Purple!” declared Evelyn with perfect conviction.

Purple Normal – that sounds like a worthwhile goal to me too.

So this is me now, looking for my own Purple Normal. It wasn’t here yet, when I first got home. Apart from struggling with jet-lag after a seriously awful flight home, I had too much work waiting for me, which I had frivolously announced I would be happy to take on immediately upon my return. And I was faced with having to say good-bye to Paddy again.

After walking (yes, literally walking) from Vienna to Nancy in France last year, Paddy returned unexpectedly in the fall to take a break from his travels, recover physically and try to process all his experiences. Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on how you look at it – he arrived just as I had made the hard decision to give up my office and the Workshop. It was extremely fortunate for me, because I can’t even imagine how I would have coped with everything by myself, as Paddy ended up endlessly fixing and carrying and sorting and driving around to pick things up and drop things off. Yet it was also deeply unfortunate for him, because the Workshop, the way I had been running it for three years, was exactly the space he needed at that point, and not being able to give him that space – actually taking it away from him – felt very painful, selfish, uncaring. As supportive as Christopher and Paddy both were, I was repeatedly haunted by the feeling that in giving up the Workshop, I was forcing them to say good-bye to their father again. In the end, the last ever production in the Workshop was most fittingly a recording Paddy made there of himself singing Dick Gaughan’s “A Father’s Song”, which he had learned from his father. After I handed over the keys and we left the Workshop forever, he put it online:

To prevent the kind of cross-platform tracking now thankfully prohibited by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the embedded video has been removed. Please find Patrick Derieg on YouTube and listen to his cover version of „A Father’s Song“ by Dick Gaughan.

After I moved my desk, my shelves, my lamp into my new office in what used to be the boys’ room, Paddy camped out part of the time on a mattress on the floor where my beautiful office used to be. On top of barely being able to find a place to sleep after a hard day of work sometimes, he was hit hard by all the organizational chaos and emotional turmoil that the decision to give up the Workshop ended up entailing. He also got stuck with the cellar. One thing I completely failed to take into consideration was the necessity of extensively reorganizing of my household in order to somehow accommodate and integrate all the material and emotional remains of 30 years in the Ehrenletzberger House, which included making room for, among many other things, Peter’s bookkeeping that I am still required by law to keep for three more years. The cellar was the most obvious choice for that, but since we had never cleaned it out or sorted it in any way since we moved into this building in 1991, but just kept stuffing more things into it, the cellar was a seriously daunting challenge. So on top of forcing my sons to say good-bye to their father again, I also had to force them to re-visit and work through their entire childhood, in order to decide what to discard and what to reorganize, which felt heartlessly unfair. Although Paddy did all the preliminary sorting, every time Christopher came back from Vienna, he found himself confronted with his childhood and having to make impossible decisions: Keep the beloved basketball books or not? What do we do with all the old Magic cards we spent a fortune on years ago? And boxes and boxes of notebooks …

When the cellar proved to be more than Paddy could cope with any longer by himself, Peter’s sister Moni came to the rescue – and what a rescue it was. When I came home from an exhausting weekend of clearing out the Workshop and found that she had not only neatly stacked all the leftover boxes in the living room, she had actually cleaned the entire flat as well, tears welled up in my eyes. Finding something I can do to surprise Moni and make her happy in return, has now become one of my primary goals.

On the side, however, when we had all had more than enough one Sunday, we decided to take a break, so Christopher, Paddy and I got in the car and drove out to the Megaplex at the edge of Linz to see the new Star Wars film, which we all thoroughly enjoyed (and Paddy and I later enjoyed watching all the old Star Wars films together after Christmas). On the way there, as the boys were remembering when we all went to see the marathon screening of the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy with Peter, I remembered the conversations Peter and I had then about how irresponsible it would be to take the boys to watch films until 3am, when they had school the next day. We agreed that it should be ok to be irresponsible parents sometimes, thinking the boys would be more likely to remember a special occasion like that than just another sensible day at school. It seems we were right.

Although I don’t want to seem ungrateful for all the wonderful help and support I have received, I have been dealing with boxes and boxes of things now since September, and I am thoroughly sick of boxes. Boxes in and out of the cellar, boxes back and forth through the flat, boxes out the door to the collection point, boxes in through the door with yet more stuff to be sorted, boxes in and out of shelves … Paddy did a heroic job of sorting and fixing things while I was in Michigan, and I was pleased and touched and sometimes even quite excited by his interest in my books that he came across in the process, but then Christopher arrived with yet more boxes – boxes of Paddy’s things that had been left at Christopher’s house when Paddy left Vienna last year. And when Paddy and I started trying to sort through those boxes, things started emerging that had already happily left this house before: Peter’s things that Paddy was keen to take into his own home four years ago, but at this point Paddy no longer has a home. Again and again, this feeling of déjà vu: I already did all of this four years ago; why do I have to do it again now? And again and again, all the symbolic reminders of all that Paddy is leaving behind. What talismans will keep him safe now?

Then Paddy left again the last weekend in February. Driving this time, not walking, taking not only his guitar, but also a laptop with him this time, but still no phone. He is now the same age that his father was, when Peter and I married, and as was true of Peter when I first met him, there is no guessing where Paddy may end up or when I might hear from him again. Saying good-bye was so hard and I miss him, but it was always clear that Paddy would not, could not be part of my Purple Normal. He has to find his own. He will find his own.

Between moving my office, cleaning out and closing the Workshop, reorganizing my entire flat, Michigan, saying good-bye to Paddy … this state of permanent upheaval has gone on far too long now. I need to find a satisfactory routine, a rhythm of living that sensibly accommodates working and – and whatever else there might be in life apart from working (just wandering back and forth wondering what I’m doing doesn’t count).

Enough. It’s time for Purple Normal now.

This is purple

This is purple (thanks to Paddy)

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It’s time

It’s time.

In the midst of an unrelated exchange recently, I suddenly and quietly said to a friend, “I’m going to give up the Workshop now.” He stopped, looked into my face and asked, equally quietly, “Does it hurt?” When I whispered, “yes”, he hugged me and I left quickly as the tears started to flow.

It’s time.

This hard decision has been growing for some time now, as various factors have come together. My three-generation flat-share has come to an end, as my flatmates have moved into a place of their own to get ready to welcome a new baby, so that leaves me with an empty room at home, a space I have never really occupied for myself. Much to my surprise, my beautiful desk, my lamp and my bookshelves will actually fit into that space, and the lovely women who built the desk for me are still here, willing and able to help me dismantle the desk and newly assemble it at home. After carrying the costs of my office and the Workshop by myself for four years, I have to admit that I am quite tired of barely having anything left to live on and having to rely on the generosity of my in-laws to be able to get by at all sometimes. And I am tired of ultimately carrying the responsibility by myself, as even with all the enthusiastic contributions to the Workshop from all the people using this space, I have not been able to establish any continuity, so the responsibility inevitably always returns to me. I’m tired, and I can’t afford to become completely exhausted.

The last straw, though, is the construction site in the courtyard below, which has been growing louder and busier since August. After years of standing forlornly vacant and neglected, the old tax office building on the other side of the courtyard is finally being renovated for the Art University. Although I am very happy for the Art University, I wasn’t prepared for the “staging area” for the construction work to be crowded into the little courtyard just outside my windows. With all the noise and activity and reverberations from extensive drilling work, I’m feeling increasingly claustrophobic and stressed.

It’s time.

After receiving notice about a change in the building management two years ago, I was talking on the phone with my mother-in-law, who was in the hospital again, about my worries that I might be forced to give up my office and the Workshop, depending on possible new plans for the building. As we spoke, I moved close to the window, where the reception is better, and at some point noticed my hand resting on the wall. I said then to my mother-in-law that I would just rely on this building. Over the years it has rearranged itself several times so that I could stay, so I decided to trust the building to let me know when it is time for me to go.

It’s time.

I have been in this building for thirty years now, since I first came to Linz in 1985. I was living here when I met Peter, and then he moved in with me. After we married and moved to a proper flat of our own together, he set up his workshop here, and when I started my own business in 1994, I took over the third room in this corner, which has been my office since then. Thirty years is more than half my lifetime. Yet what are a mere thirty years in relation to the five hundred years that this building has been standing here?

I stand by the window with my hand resting gently on the wall and add the thirty years of my story to the long history of this house. I trust that my story will merge with so many, many stories of past and future generations to become part of the spirit of this house.

It’s time.

After Peter died, the question quickly arose as to whether I should just close his workshop and work from home in Urfahr, but I could not bear to even contemplate that possibility then. To begin with, I needed my office more than ever at that point. This has been my space since 1994, the place where I feel most secure and sheltered and certain, sitting at my beautiful desk, surrounded by my most important books, reassured by my work that enables me to earn my own living. At the same time, I could not imagine just giving up Peter’s workshop and office to some random person or enterprise that might come in, spread out, fill up the space. The rooms are too intimately connected for that. Opening the Werkstatt am Hauptplatz in November 2012 proved to be the ideal solution, and I have never regretted the decision.

With the Werkstatt am Hauptplatz, the Workshop, I created a new space, filled it with new life and new energy, and despite the financial burden of it, all of the people who have come into this space have made my life so much richer. Yet this has also changed the space. It is no longer Peter’s workshop, where various people spent long hours talking with him while he planed and carved and built his instruments. More and more, people who come to the Workshop now never really knew Peter, if they ever even met him at all. When there are events in the Workshop now, when I give my usual introduction, more and more it has the sense of: “Once upon a time there was a violin maker who worked in this space …” When I stand in the Workshop to speak, I am no longer Peter’s widow, first of all, but now I am simply Aileen, the person responsible for this space, the person to talk to here.

With reassurance and encouragement from so many kind, generous, thoughtful people, I’m working on not seeing the decision to give up my space in this building as an act of surrendering in defeat. Although I was not able to “grow” a community attached to the Workshop, so to speak, other projects, initiatives, inspirations, and even other spaces have grown out of it, and a broader network has formed, of which I will still remain a part. I have established that even though Peter is dead, I am still here, very much alive and still an active participant in the life of this city. Instead of constantly pushing at my own limits, I hope that reducing the responsibility I carry will now allow me to become more active in other areas, where I hope that I can be useful. Just because I will be working from home in the near future, I have no intention of becoming a recluse.

It’s time.

For even longer than I have been in this building, I have worn a ring in the shape of a snake on my right hand. It is a symbolic reminder that sometimes it is necessary to let go, in order to make room for something new, and as old as the ring now is, it also reminds me of how many times I have already had to do that. For months now, I have spent so much time staring off into space while twisting the ring around my finger, trying to reach a decision, but it is time to stop twisting the ring around my finger now: I can do it again. As I was packing up my rucksack at home to walk to the office the other day, my mind already whirling with what would be waiting for me there, I happened to glance up at the picture of Peter hanging in the hallway, and suddenly I had the feeling he was smiling at me from the picture, nodding in reassurance: it will be okay.

I am not giving up in defeat, I am not abandoning the memory of Peter and his workshop and our life here together. I am simply putting down a heavy load, so that my hands, my mind, and my heart can be open to whatever may come next.

It’s time.

my office

my office

Veröffentlicht unter Aileen, General, work | 2 Kommentare

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