Category Archives: life

Tripping Stones

All over Germany, there are these Stolpersteine – Tripping Stones. They’re cobblestone-sized and -shaped brass plaques set into the pavement in front of houses where victims of the Nazi regime once lived. Not only Jews, but also homosexuals, gypsies, socialists and, as here, people with mental illnesses or disabilities who were “euthanised” in the course of “Aktion T4” because they were less than perfect. One of them was a relative of mine, a cousin of my great-grandfather. I hadn’t known.

Stolperstein Paula Köhler

Here lived Paula Köhler, born 1891, admitted to Clinic Christophsbad 1929, ‘transferred’ to Grafeneck 01.08.1940, murdered 01.08.1940, ‘Aktion T4’

Lest We Forget.

Stolperstein Theodor Kempf

Here lived Theodor Kempf, born 1918, admitted to Asylum Schwäbisch Hall 1929, ‘transferred’ to Grafeneck 25.07.1940, murdered 25.07.1940, ‘Aktion T4’

Lest We Forget.

Stolperstein Gottlob Traub

Here lived Gottlob Traub, born 1875, admitted to Clinic Winnental 1899, ‘transferred’ to Grafeneck 23.07.1940, murdered 23.07.1940, ‘Aktion T4’

Lest We Forget.

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#Inktober and the Myth of Talent

I let myself be inspired by some friends on Instagram to participate in #Inktober: an ink drawing every day for the month of October, prompts provided. (What is it with October that lends itself so well to this “hashtag-something-tober” thing? #socktober, #inktober… For some reason we never do that with April or June. #sockril – hmm, yeah, maybe that’s why.)

I’m already late starting on #Inktober, so I definitely won’t do the “every day” thing, but regardless, it’s just for fun anyway. I do a little sketch, with a fountain pen with royal blue ink (i.e. ordinary German elementary school kids’ writing ink), and use my newly impulse-purchased waterbrush to blend it. And then I post it. 

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And boy, am I glad I didn’t actually look up the hashtag before I posted! Some people on there are ridiculously talented (like this, or this, or this). My little five- or ten-minute sketches look – urgh, so amateurish (I did a drawing of a wonky Lego brick for the prompt “build”, for crying out loud!). I don’t have that kind of talent, obviously. Had I looked at those highly accomplished drawings before I started, I never would have dared.

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But then – “talent”. What is talent, anyway?

The standard interpretation of the word is usually something like “ability”. “You’re so talented” means “You’re so good at this.” And I, for one, used to think that “talent” is inborn – you’ve either got it or you don’t. People like Mozart and Van Gogh and Goethe have it, and people like me don’t.

But I’m starting to think that that idea is nothing short of a myth.

I’m sure you know the story that Jesus tells of a man who goes travelling. He calls his employees and hands out some talents to them – five to one, two to another, one to the third. The first one does business with his five talents and earns five more; the second one makes two more talents; but the third guy just takes his talent, digs a hole in the ground and buries it. When the boss comes back, the first two guys give him back the talents with all the extra they earned, and he’s pleased with them, but when the third guy comes along with his freshly dug up dirt-covered bundle of unused talent, the boss is not impressed. “You could at least have put it in the bank,” he says, “then it would have earned some interest!”

Of course, the “talent” this story talks about was something a bit different than what we think of when we hear the word – it was a measure of weight and therefore of currency, i.e. weight of silver; Jesus is talking about money (and a great big whack of it, by all accounts). But as with any good story, there is more than one way to look at it. And in this case, you can take the word “talent” literally in its modern sense, and come to some interesting conclusions.

The worker who was given five talents went and used them, and at the end he’s got five more talents. The guy that only got one and was miffed because he got shortchanged never used his talent – he stuck it in the ground, left it to tarnish, didn’t do anything with it, and in the end, nothing came of it.

And that’s the thing about “talent” – yes, some are given more of it than others (some a lot more – see above re. Mozart, Van Gogh, Goethe etc.), but in the end, what matters is whether you use what you’ve got. I’ve heard it said that ability is 10% talent, 90% effort. Even the ones with big talent – the five lumps of silver – still need to put in the time practising it for the talent to grow. And even the ones with small talent can grow their gift by using it.

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Back to #Inktober, if I had seen the “talented” people’s posts first, I might have let myself be scared off. But that’s nonsense – it’s exactly contrary to what this event is meant for. It’s not a venue for showing off your gifts, but your efforts, which is meant to help you grow what you have. Whether that’s big or small doesn’t matter; what matters is doing it.

And anybody can do it. Well, okay, most people. You don’t think you’re one of them, at least where art is concerned? All right, there’s actually a test to see if you have what it takes. You didn’t know that? There is! You want to take it? Okay, here goes: 

First you need some equipment. Find a pencil and a piece of paper. Any paper will do – the back of an envelope or a grocery receipt, if you can’t find anything else. If you don’t have a pencil, use a pen or a marker.

Put the paper on a flat surface. Take the pencil in your dominant hand.

Put the tip of the pencil to the paper.

Now write your name.

Got that? Done it? 

Take a close look. Did you write your name? Yes? Not your next door neighbour’s name? Or your first-grade teacher’s poodle’s grandmother’s name?

Fantastic! Congratulations!

You have made purposeful marks on paper. Therefore, I can now tell you without a shadow of a doubt that you can learn to draw, and you are qualified to practise your gifts. You can even join #Inktober if you wish. 

Yes, okay, I’m being just a tad tongue-in-cheek here. But only a tad. You see, people have told me I’m talented. They’ve even said it about my #Inktober posts (yeah, I know). But it’s really a learned skill. Some twenty-five years ago, I started taking art lessons, after someone told me that you don’t go to art school because you’re good at art, but because you want to become good at art. That comment revolutionised my thinking, and allowed me to go after the dream I had of being able to paint. I took lessons, read library books*, watched videos, spent countless hours hanging out on sites like wetcanvas.com, generally obsessed on art, and this is where I ended up.

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And that’s why I’m being somewhat facetious about this “talent” thing. Don’t let yourself be scared off by the myth of “talent”. Do you want to draw, paint, write**, play the tin whistle, dance ballet in a tutu? Go for it!

It doesn’t matter how big the talent is that we’ve been handed, what matters is what we do with it. That way, even a small talent can grow into something big. And when it does – when a talent of any size grows up into something – it’s a joy to behold. Even if that “something” is only someone having fun with pen and ink on an October morning.

Life, the Universe, Inktober and Talent. What could you be having fun with today?

*My two favourite books for learning art were Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brainand Rudy De Reyna’s How to Draw What You See. I’m glad to see they’re both still in print; they’re well worth it.

**If drawing isn’t your thing, and you’re more into, say, writing, I have one word for you: NaNoWriMoIt’s coming up – just three more weeks!

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Catching Up (“All the World’s a Stage” etc.)

Yes, I know. It’s been a while since I put up a proper post.  It’s been such a busy spring and summer, with all those summery things like harvest, and trying to keep up with the garden (I didn’t), and food processing, and several major family events/travel opportunities. (As I said on Twitter a while back: while having your family living a long ways away can be a pain in the rear, visiting them does make for good #amtravelling occasions).

I’ve been back home for almost a month now, but it took me several weeks to feel I’d “arrived home” again. I landed, and hit the ground running – well, stumbling-staggering-falling-on-my-nose, more like. But eventually, I got caught up on the jobs that were waiting for me, processed another couple of boxes of peaches (and fended off the clouds of fruit flies that inevitably moved in with them), did a massive grocery run to refill the depleted freezer, wrote a new chapter of my latest WIP for my critique group, and so on and so forth – in short, sort of settled back into normal life, whatever that means.

But it’s been a lovely summer – so many great memories. If you’re connected with me on social media (Instagram, Twitter or Facebook), you’ll have seen some of the pictures of our adventures (yes, Steve was there all along, too). I just got the newsletter from the Globe Theatre in London – yes, “Shakespeare’s Globe” – and in my mind I was right back there, standing in the yard with the other groundlings, watching Pericles

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In fact, we went to the Globe twice, the Travelling-Companion-Offspring and I, on our three-day stop in London on our way to the aforementioned family event. We’d met with my friend Helen Jones – you know, the writer! – and had lunch at a pub just a few steps over from the Globe. Then we traipsed through the pouring rain over to the afternoon performance of A Comedy of Errors. When we booked the tickets before our trip, I was being wimpy and didn’t think I wanted to stand on my feet for two hours, watching the show. So we’d shelled out big £££ for the privilege of having seats, under cover, while the groundlings (standing-room tickets) in the open yard had the rain dumping down on them (many of them had on cheap rain ponchos from the gift shop that said things like “Hey, Ho, the wind and the rain” on the back). It was a wonderful performance. There’s something to be said for watching Shakespeare the way it was meant to be played, on a stage jutting out into the open yard, no curtain, no fancy scene backdrops – just the actors doing their thing, and doing it so very well indeed.

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Then the next day, I got to hang out with my wonderful friend Louise (E. L.) Bates, who came up from Cambridge for the day. We went to the Victoria & Albert Museum; then had a lovely tea, with scones and everything, in a tea room across from the British Museum; then on our way back to King’s Cross Station took a detour and found Bloomsbury Publishing (which took a bit of hunting, as their premises don’t look any different from any of the other houses in the square), and took selfies in front of their door. Yeah, well, writers, you know. No, we don’t fancy ourselves J. K. Rowling, but hey, we had fun. (Louise being from the States originally, and me from Canada, we tend to spend a lot of time going “We can’t believe we’re doing this! In London! Eeep!”)

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I dropped off Louise at King’s Cross, and met up with the Offspring again, and we looked at each other and said, “Should we go back to the Globe?” The groundling tickets only cost £5… So, yes, we went back. The tube train we went on got stuck (some accident on the line), so we pulled up Google Maps on our phones and figured out what other route to take (the Circle Line, getting out at Southwark), and we arrived at the Globe ten minutes after the performance had already started – but it didn’t matter. We paid our £5, snuck in the side door, and stood under the warm, darkening summer sky not ten feet away from the edge of the stage, letting the company take us away to Tyre and Tarsus and Pentapolis… I forgot about my aching feet, forgot about the sandwich I had in my backpack (there hadn’t been time to eat supper before the show), forgot about being jet-lagged and exhausted. This 400-year-old play, in a replica of a 400-year-old theatre, has as much power to move as it did when it was first written and performed.

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The next day we went to see Buckingham Palace, just because I wanted to be able to say I’ve seen it. Okay, now I’ve seen it. It’s BIG (bigger than it looks in books and TV shows), and the crowds of tourists milling around in front of it were very touristy. Well, rocks and glass houses, dontcha know, so, enough about that.

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And then it was already time to head out to Gatwick Airport for the next phase of our journey, which involved family, and friends, and cake and bread and cheese and meat and Sauerkraut and shopping and cider and scrubbing bathroom tiles and riding a tandem bike around Munich and celebrating and conversations and coffee and cooking and… In short, all those things that a family visit usually entails.

And after three weeks of that, back on the plane, and a head-first dive back into our everyday Canadian lives…

SCENE: Western Canada, a living room.

AMO, sitting on couch with laptop computer. Enter stage left, STEVE, a small stuffed bear.

STEVE: Why dost thou waffle on incessantly?

AMO: ‘Tis needful, small and fluffy animal.

Yon readers, waiting there with bated breath

For great effusions of my warbling wit

These many moons have been deprived.

I must…

STEVE: Oh, whatever.

Yeah, I don’t think the Bard had to contend with a Steve in his life. But the bear has a point – I think this is enough for now. So here’s me, exit stage left, pursued by a bear.

Life, the Universe, and a Summer full of Living and Travels and Shakespeare. All the world’s a stage…

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Life Is Better When You Like More Things

I read that quote somewhere fairly recently. And I can’t find the original article any more, so I can’t attribute it; and to boot, I’m probably mis-quoting it (if you remember where it came from, let me know). However, when I read it, I realised that that’s been one of my base principles for a long time. So let me repeat it:

Life is better when you like more things.

I have a master’s degree in liberal arts; to be specific, in literary studies. That means that by definition, I’m trained in critical thinking. No, critical thinking doesn’t mean “criticising”… Well, actually, in practice it often does. It means looking down one’s long nose (and I have quite a long one) at a lot of things, and feeling superior because of it.

I’ve spent a lot of my life feeling superior. Feeling “better than” because I belonged to a certain group of people, subscribed to a certain set of beliefs; because I was intelligent and could critically evaluate.

And you know what? Superiority is so much baloney. It doesn’t add one iota of joy to your life. In fact, it goes hand in hand with its shadow side: I’ve spent the very same time that I felt superior in being plagued by feelings of inferiority. As much judging as you do, you know (or strongly feel) that you’re being judged yourself. And the more critical you are of others, the more you feel criticised.

I’ve given up a lot of my criticism over the last decade or so. It’s not worth it. And in turn, I’ve discovered so much more joy. When you stop feeling superior, you can start to belong. It’s wonderful.

Life is better when you like more things.

Life is better when there are more things you can say “yes” to, instead of raising your pointy noise, pursing your thin lips, and going “Oh. Eew. No, thank yew, not for moi.”

I used to be quite a picky eater when I was a kid; now, there are few things that I don’t like to eat (unfortunately, a few things don’t like me, but that’s another topic). It makes for great fun in travelling, because you can try out all these cool foods that you can’t get at home. Of course, there is a vast difference between a McDonald’s burger and an expertly cooked Jägerschnitzel (hunter’s schnitzel, topped with mushrooms in cream sauce – oh yeah!), but I’ll eat either if that’s what’s available; I don’t go hungry; and my taste buds are not unhappy. I’ve known folks who needed to find a McDonald’s wherever they went, and there are others who couldn’t eat at McD’s even if that’s all there is – either one lives a very circumscribed life.

The trailer for the new live-action Aladdin movie just came out. “Eew, Disney!” You know what? I’m really looking forward to seeing that film. My enjoyment of Disney fairy tale movies doesn’t take away one jot from the quality of, say, Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel, or Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête. Reading and enjoying a Harlequin novel doesn’t mean that Jane Austen is one smidgen less of a genius.

You see, that’s the problem with criticism: somehow we have the idea that if we enjoy something, it impinges on what’s better, so therefore we shouldn’t take pleasure from something that’s less than stellar. We need to criticise everything, because if we don’t, it means that we are less than superior.

But take it from me: superiority takes a lot of effort, and it’s not worth it. Enjoyment, on the other hand, opens up your life and lets it blossom.

Things I like

Things I like: Louis the Cat, books, knitting, candles, fuzzy blankets, audiobooks, my corner of the couch…

There are a lot of things I like: Small stuffed bears, Jägerschnitzel, folk music, fuzzy blankets, Agatha Christie novels, sunshine on fresh snow, lemon balm plants, fairy tale films … Yes, all right, even raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. Actually, I’ll take the whole kitten, thank you, and keep him until he’s a fat grown-up tabby cat, and get daily pleasure from petting him and laughing at his antics. So many things to enjoy. You can keep your critical superiority; I’m too busy with the things I like.

My blog’s tag line is “Life, the Universe, and a Few-Odd Other Things” – Amo Vitam, “I love life”. Because Life Is Better When You Like More Things.

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Midnight of the Year

Steve is giving me dirty looks, guilt tripping me because I haven’t posted anything on this blog in, like, forever.

Steve and coffee mug and dirty look

Well, my excuse is that I was sick over the holidays. Two nasty bouts of flu in the space of a month. And then, somehow, I just didn’t get back on the horse…

Steve’s having none of it (stuffed bears can be so demanding!). But there I was yesterday, looking out the picture window at the view of the lake, a thick white cloud hanging so low over it it feels like I’m sitting in a kettle with the lid clapped on.

The cosiness of December has given way to cold, muck and dreariness, and it feels like I haven’t seen the sun or the blue sky in weeks. (“There is no sun. … There never was a sun,” said the Witch. “No, there never was a sun,” said the Prince, and the Marsh-wiggle, and the children…) All I want to do is to curl up on the couch with my fluffy reading socks on my feet and my fluffy reading blanket over my lap, reading a fluffy novel.

And then it all of a sudden struck me: maybe that’s just what we’re meant to do this time of year? Maybe so many of us feel tired and unmotivated in winter because it’s the time when we’re supposed to sleep. This is, in fact, the midnight of the year.

Winter splinters

Or, rather, winter solstice is midnight. I learned in Physical Geography class some years ago that the hottest time is actually just after the zenith, and the coldest immediately after the nadir. So, the hottest time of day is around 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon, and the coldest time of night an hour or two after midnight – once the temperature has had time to catch up with the amount of sunshine the earth got (or didn’t get, as it were). If you correlate the cycle of the year to the hours of the day, then right now, January 18th, is about 1:50 AM.

Lake in shades of grey with lid on

And what else are you supposed to do at Ten-to-blinkin’-Two in the Morning other than sleep? Human beings are diurnal – we’re awake in the day, and sleep in the night. At least that’s what we’re designed for, notwithstanding Mr Edison and his light bulb which screwed us all over with its perpetual artificial daytime.

And so maybe that craving for fluffy socks and blankets and books is, in fact, quite normal and healthy, and ought to be indulged as much as possible. You know how, when your kids get up in the middle of the night, you roll over and just sort of grunt at them “Go back to sleep!”? Like that.

So bring on the socks and blankets and Pride and Prejudice. I’ll talk to you in the morning – umm, I mean in spring.

Life, the Universe, and the Midnight of the Year. See you when the sun comes up.

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Lest We Forget

amovitam_Poppy

LEST WE FORGET

Husbands
Brothers
Fathers
Sons

Mothers
Sisters
Daughters
Wives

Point the rifle
Pull the pin
Release the bomb drop…

Lest
We
Forget.

(11.11.2018)

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Sometimes, I Get Angry, or: Writing a Letter to My MLA

amovitam_Greyhound bus in  Vancouver

I’m angry right now. Angry that as of next week, the only way in and out of the valley in which I live will be by private vehicle or by airplane. That’s right – no more public transportation. No more Greyhound Bus. The bus company is shutting down in all of Western Canada – BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba – because it is no longer “sustainable”.

Half the country will be without publicly accessible means of overland travel between smaller communities. I was going to put the word “affordable” in there, too – but there isn’t even any unaffordable means. If you want to go from, say, Merritt, BC, to Hope, BC, and you don’t drive your own car, you can, umm… hitchhike. That’s it. No, there is no train (c’mon, this is Canada. What do you think this country was built on – railways?). Maybe you could hire a taxi for the 120 km… (and pay them for the empty return trip, too. Yeah, that’s why I was going to say “affordable”).

There will never be another trip like the one I took two years ago, going over the mountains in December. That bus was packed full – declining ridership, my foot!

amovitam_Coquihalla sunset

View from the bus window on that last trip back

Usually, when I get angry, I just fuss and fume, grumble at my Man (which he hates), and eventually simmer down and try very hard to forget about it all. But this time, I thought, I have to at least say something. So I wrote a letter. And sent it to my MLA and my MP. And while I was at it, to the provincial premier and deputy premier, the provincial and federal ministers and deputy ministers of transport, and finally Mr Justin Trudeau himself…

I don’t know if it’ll have any effect. I got a whole lot of automated responses saying that somebody would look at my mail, eventually. Whatever. I had my say and I feel somewhat better for it. Still angry, but not quite as powerless. And who knows, maybe it’ll make a difference.

So, just in case you’re wondering, here’s my letter. Yes, I used words like “travesty” and “concomitant” – I guess that’s what happens when a writer gets ticked off. Slay them with verbiage.

Feel free to copy and paste, adjust to your tastes, and fire it off to your own MLA’s office. And to Justin Trudeau, don’t forget him.

But remember to sign it with your own name.

Dear …,

I’m writing to you about the imminent closure of the Greyhound bus lines in Western Canada, coming into effect November 1st.

I think that that closure is a travesty. It will cause serious hardships for the population of rural and small-town BC, and will hit especially hard for people with lower incomes, the elderly, people with illness or disabilities, students, and families where children might want to visit non-custodial parents or other relatives living in smaller towns – in other words, those members of our communities who can least afford an alternative mode of travel. The economic consideration of the Greyhound company being “no longer lucrative to run” led to a decision that is going to hurt the most vulnerable people in our country. In essence, rural and small-town British Columbians have been cut off from each other and from the rest of the province and country – and just in time for winter and the holiday season, when we most need reliable and affordable public transportation…

All that is not even taking into consideration the environmental impact of losing overland mass transportation – each cancelled Greyhound bus means so many more private vehicles on the road or so many more seats booked on an airplane, in other words, far greater fuel consumption and concomitant pollution – or the impact on First Nations communities. The Greyhound closure is in direct opposition to some of the stated goals of this government, and will hurt the people of Western Canada.

The government needs to step in and do something about this, whether it is declaring overland public transportation an essential service, funding (or at least subsidizing) an alternative bus company, or taking over and revitalizing Greyhound.
Please bring this issue to the attention of the government. I would urge you to put your influence behind changing this appalling situation, and going to bat for us as your constituents.

Sincerely,
etc.

amovitam_Coquihalla evening star

The sun sets on an era… The evening star seen through the Greyhound bus window on the top of the mountains, December 2016.

PS: An update, 29.10.2018 (one week later): I received a letter from my provincial MLA’s office with the very welcome news that several private bus companies have been approved to take over some of the bus routes. I don’t have exact details yet, but it appears that we won’t be left in the lurch entirely. I’m very happy about that, and am pleased and impressed with the very personal response I got from my representative’s office.

PPS: Another update, 27.03.2019: The bus company in question that serves our area (including the above-mentioned route of Merritt, BC, to Hope, BC, is called Ebus, and I have it on good authority that it’s a decent service. So, phew.

 

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