Letting go

Our beautiful house is on the market at last. It took me well over a year to sort and organize before releasing it into the world to be enjoyed by new occupants. Almost eighteen years in a place is a long time.

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At first the house was filled with our growing family: three of our five kids, my mother, and, for a while, our oldest daughter, her husband and their new baby. Then we let rooms to new faculty, especially from the English department, grad students, and younger students, too, to mothers with young children, and many friends, older and younger.

IMG_4393For four years the house was full of Servas, Warm Showers, and Airbnb visitors from all over the world. I just took down the map because the hundreds of map pins were crowding each other put and falling onto the floor.

IMG_3686Because we had the space to do it, we hosted hundreds of community dinners, house concerts, book groups, women’s circles, poetry readings and book signings, political meetings, trunk shows, workshops, cooking classes, and celebrations of all kinds.

IMG_7504.jpg Just last year, we hosted a series of neighborhood potlucks that involved knocking on on 250 doors and hand-delivering invitations.

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Letting go, then, is more than selling the house. It’s a lifestyle change. We’re looking a houses a third the size of this one!

Nonetheless, I’ll still be me and Tom will still be Tom. Monday night dinners will continue, the first Friday salon will continue. I’ll have less cleaning to do, and more time for writing. We’ll take what we really need and love with us, and pass the the rest on.

Here’s what we’ll leave behind. May it serve its next owners as well as it has served us.

(If you’re interested in buying our place, it’s listed here.)

 

Two Suitcases – an update and an excerpt

I haven’t had much time to write lately. What with watching Éva, charming but nonetheless 19 months old, up to five days a week; sorting and emptying this enormous house and getting it ready for the market; hosting a slew of wonderful guests, some paid, some not; and best of all, having our whole, hilarious family here for over a week, entailing regular meals for between 15 and 23 guests (impossible without the help of my sister-in-law,  Joanne Currie), quiet moments are scarce.

AND YET, the ancestors haven’t let up on me. Material floods in. My parents’ papers from Vienna, Paris, and Verfeil. Above, their identification papers from Tarn-et-Garonne, in France. Below, a history of the Social Democratic Party in Brigittenau, the neighborhood in Vienna where much of what I’m currently writing takes place:

red Briggittenau book

 

I’m overwhelmed with gratitude.

Here’s a draft of the section I managed to write during all the uproar of the last couple weeks.

July 12, 1929

Vienna

Trude looks into the old mirror on the inside door of the armoire and straightens her red tie for the fifth time. Her new blue shirt looks good but the tie isn’t hanging quite right. She wants everything to be perfect. Finally the tie is right. She takes Mitzi, the pipe cleaner antelope her grandmother made, from her shelf in the armoire and slips her into her pocket. Mitzi always comes along to important events. Moments later, Trude is hurrying down the stairs to catch the streetcar to the Heldenplatz for the opening ceremony of the Second International Socialist Youth Congress. 

The sight that meets her as she steps out of the car is stunning. As always she is early – but the huge plaza in front of the Hofburg Palace is already filling with many thousands of young people. Troops of children, from seven years up, their leaders, and throngs of young adults are pouring from every direction, following and clustering around red flags in a variety of shapes and sizes. 

All the same beautiful deep red, the flags symbolize International Socialism. At the entrances to the courtyard and on the steps of the palace, tall, narrow flags flutter from very high poles. Similar narrow flags are scattered across the plaza, but most of the thousands and thousands of flags – everyone is carrying one – are simple rectangles of red. Each group carries at least one to which they’ve added a symbol to identify themselves, but the great majority are just red. It is so inspiring! As Trude winds her way through the sea of color and eager young faces, she’s filled with the excited energy of the crowd. 

“Hi!” she calls out, waving her arm at Karl and Erwin when she spots them on the steps to the Federal Chancellery, where their group is gathering. The brothers got up at four in the morning in order to stake a claim on this fine spot. “How great! We have a perfect view!” Trude says. She climbs up a few more steps to survey the plaza. 

Never before has such a group gathered.

“You won’t be able to stay up there,” Karl tells her. “Those steps are reserved for functionaries more important than our little group of event coordinators.”

“It’s remarkable!” says Erwin, his eyes never leaving the gathering attendees. “It’s like an enormous symphony orchestra!”

Fritz and Ida arrive next. 

“We were just at the station,” says Fritz. “What a welcome we gave! A good-sized brass band was there and they were playing loud, but we young people were even louder. As the train pulled in, we formed a long, broad wall along the tracks, and waved and chanted ‘Friendship, Friendship!’ You should have seen the eyes of our comrades on the train!”  

Next come Hugo and Gert, she, in the new spring coat she made for herself out of offcuts from the dressmaker’s shop where she works. 

“It’s beautiful!” says Trudy, seeing the coat for the first time. “You’re so creative with so little!” 

“That is truly a compliment,” Gert replies. “Your mother is the queen of creative reuse! And you’re no slouch yourself.” 

Trude smiles and turns a little to model her grey skirt, recently an old coat, swinging it outward gently to let the red trim show.

“Thanks! I’ll never be as good a seamstress as my mother, though,” she says. “I can’t compete. That’s why I worked so hard to get into Gymnasium.”

“That’s not true. You’re so smart! You’d be bored being an apprentice like me.”

“I don’t think I’d mind if I could work for someone else in a big shop like you do. But I would have to work at home for my mother! I wouldn’t be able to stand it!”

“I understand perfectly!” Gert laughs. 

The group is talking animatedly as the musicians seat themselves on the large balcony above the palace entrance. Then Ida looks up in surprise. 

“Erich!” she cries out. “You came!” 

“Would it be alright if I join you?” asks Erich. 

“You aren’t part of our group,” says Hugo. “You really shouldn’t…”

“Why not?” Ida’s voice cuts sharply over Hugo’s. “Everyone, let me introduce my friend from the University, Erich Stein. Erich, these are my friends in the events coordination group I told you about. Hugo Preis, the rude one there,” she glares at Hugo, then goes on, “and Gert Heber, his girlfriend, Karl and Erwin Weiss, my brother Fritz of course you know, and this is Fritz’s girlfriend, Trude.”

Erich subdues his inclination to flinch at her boldness, and nods and smiles at each one of Ida’s friends. “Glad to meet you,” he says. Only Trude notices his discomfort with the way Ida spoke over Hugo; she feels the same way herself.

The orchestra begins with Richard Strauss’s “Festival Procession.” By the time they finish and the chorus joins in for the “Wake Up” from Wagner’s Meistersinger, every heart in the massive plaza is joined to every other. 

The hope of a new world is gathered.

Otto Felix Kanitz, founder of the Red Falcon scouts and head of the progressive Kinderfreunde school at the castle, Schönbrunn, greets the Future of Socialism, standing in the plaza before him. Karl Seitz, the mayor, welcomes them all to Red Vienna, living proof that a City of the People, For the People, is possible. The Dutchman Koos Vorrink, speaking for the International Youth Movement, announces that internationalism, the Internationale, the greatest conception of what humanity can be, is alive and flourishing. The orchestra is drowned out by the enormous cheer that rises from the crowd as the red flag of International Socialism is carried up onto the dais.

In the afternoon, guided tours of Vienna are offered, and most of the young people spread out over the city in small groups, visiting the social housing complexes as well as St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the Opera House, and other sights. The event coordination group splits up to prepare for the twenty-five concerts, celebrations, and performances that will be offered all over the city that evening.

Ida is the leader of the group preparing for Josef Luitpold Stern’s poetry reading in the large meeting room at Karl-Marx-Hof  that evening. She intends to get there at 6, but how can she refuse when a group of her friends says they were going to a café for a drink and a bite to eat? 

“Hey, redhead, you come too,” one of them calls to Erich as he links arms with Ida and pulls her along. 

Erich is very entertaining on a couple of beers – Ida already knows that. An hour passes in laughter as comical imitations of the morning’s speakers mix with deep appreciation of the Youth Congress so far. The sheer numbers! The power of the language: “a City of the People, for the People.” And how tightly organized the congress is!

Oh my! Ida realizes that she should have left for Karl-Marx-Hof ten minutes ago. 

“I’ll find something for you to do, Erich,” she says over her shoulder as she hurries down the street. “But you really should have decided to come when I first invited you. We would have found a good job for you.”  He catches up with her. For a few moments, their long strides match.

“I’m usually good at making myself useful wherever I am. What still needs to be done before the bard declaims?” he asks.

“Just tag along and I’ll see when we get there.”

They board the tram together.

Trude arrives at Karl-Marx-Hof and heads straight to the large meeting room. The room is unlocked, and but no one is there. She looks at her watch: half an hour early. All the way over, she worried she would be late. Well, she is not.

The high-ceilinged room is lovely in the late summer afternoon. The windows are open wide, letting in a pleasant, fresh breeze. Summer sun fills the space and bounces off the glistening wood floor. At the front, the podium is already on the dais. Banners hang on all the walls. Hundreds of folding chairs are neatly stacked on wheeled carts lined up along the back wall. 

The center of the room is gloriously open.

As quietly as possible, almost on tiptoe, Trude crosses the huge room. She hangs her bag on the back of a folding chair, squints to look at the whole room, and then checks her watch again.

Humming the Skaters Waltz to herself very softly, Trude begins to glide around the perimeter of the room, sliding on the highly polished floor as if she were skating. After just a few bars, she realizes how much more smoothly she could glide if she weren’t wearing shoes, so she pauses, unbuckles her sandals, and slips them off. Looking at her watch one last time, she leaves her shoes under the windows, and begins the waltz again. Her thin stockings slide beautifully. 

This time she sings out the melody, dah, dah, dah, dah!  Soon she leaves the edge of the room and glides across the middle. Then she skates around happily, making figure eights and graceful curves, singing all the time, until she notices with a shock that someone is standing in the door watching her.

It is Erich, who arrived at Karl-Marx-Hof with Ida a few minutes ago. 

“Go ahead of me, Erich, and go and see if we need to turn on the lights in the large meeting room,” said Ida, who needed to stop in at the office first.

When Erich gets to the large meeting room, it is filled with light, and a fairy, some lithe little thing in a blue blouse, a pretty skirt, and stocking feet, is dancing around the room alone, accompanying herself with a slightly off-key version of Skater’s Waltz. 

He is instantly enchanted. Should he announce his presence? Surely she will see him on one of her turns. In the meantime, he takes in the sweetness of this young girl dancing by herself so beautifully. 

When she sees him, Trude is mortified. Her heart pounds and blood rushes to her face. A man saw her being so silly! 

Without retrieving her shoes, she heads toward the door to see who it is. When she realizes it’s Ida’s friend Erich, she’s even more upset. He must be at least Ida’s age – what, 20? – and he stood there watching her make a fool of herself. When did he come? How long was he watching her?  Suddenly she’s angry. How extraordinarily impolite of him! 

Breathing heavily, she stomps over to where Erich is leaning in the doorway. How dare he look so relaxed, so nonchalant? His long limbs remind her of a grasshopper. 

“Why are you here?” she asks bluntly. She is standing firmly in front of him, hands on her hips, looking up. He’s a head and a half taller than she. “Didn’t Ida tell you the poetry reading doesn’t start for another hour and a half?”

“Ida sent me up here to turn the lights on for that very event,” says Erich. “It seems it isn’t necessary.” He smiles at the fire in her eyes. 

Footsteps echo from down the hall. 

“Ah, here is the great leader herself,” he finishes, looking down the hall and calling out, “Ida, Trude is already here!”

“Trude! Well, there are three of us. Let’s set up the chairs,” says Ida, entering, brisk and businesslike, apparently not noticing Trude’s stocking feet. 

Trude gets to work, grabbing her sandals as discreetly as possible as she passes the windows, and scrambling to put them on while Erich and Ida are talking. 

Soon the rest of the group arrives, all of the three hundred chairs are set up and coffee is brewing in a samovar. 

The poetry is mythic, thrilling, larger than life. It speaks equally to the glory and the utter humility of humanity.  It extols peace and condemns militarism. The crowd cheers and swoons.

Erich wonders if he is the only one in the room who considers it bombastic and grandiose. But he is no fan of Wagner, either.

Peace, rainbows and more hummingbirds

The shadow of the peace symbol in the reflection of the rainbow showed up in my laundry yesterday. It lasted about two minutes, but I had my phone in my pocket and click, I caught it.
Since the Paris attacks, my life has been full of synchronicities. Jam-packed.
The hummingbirds alone.

There was a fifth hummingbird in my mailbox the day I posted the hummingbird blog.

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Obviously the hummingbirds are asking for my help. They want to get their message heard. I’m still contemplating their message.
Surely these magical creatures are coming to remind me that there is always possibility in the world, always hope, no matter how bad things get in the outer world. After all, the outer  world is created out of our stories.
I keep returning to “A Windstorm in Bubbleland,” the Mr. Rogers opera that Eva and I watch, in which Hildegarde Hummingbird is a Cassandra figure. It’s her job to warn the people that their world is about to end. A windstorm is coming to Bubbleland, but no one believes her. They don’t want to.
The end of the world begins and only Hildegarde can stop it. In a truly operatic moment, she nearly succeeds. In the end, she needs the help of the people in Bubbleland. When they flap their wings together, the wind is defeated and Bubbleland is saved.
Throughout the opera, Hildegarde reminds the people that she isn’t saving their bubbles, she is saving them.
When I wrote last week’s blog four hummingbirds had come.  Then there were five. I hadn’t opened the envelope with the picture of the fifth one on it when I began this blog.
Ha, just opened it and there’s not a single hummingbird in the literature, which is a request for money from the Nature Conservancy — but there is 
hummingbird sticker
a beautiful hummingbird sticker!!

Six!

Two Suitcases – Schillerlocken

For your enjoyment, a new draft of what I think of the pastry scene. And afterwards, take a look at Two Suitcases’ GoFundMe campaign.

(I’ll have to get Tom to make Schillerlocken to get a bigger picture, I think.)

April 22, 1929

The University of Vienna, Ringstrasse

 Ida hurries out of her first afternoon class, Dr. Charlotte Buhler’s lecture on Child Development. After experimenting with sitting on three different benches, she settles on the second, and, her book bag settled on her lap, looks first to the right, and then to the left, and then to the right again. She intends to keep an eye on the door Erich may emerge from, while simultaneously watching the route he is likely to take to the Konditorei where they’d first met, in case she misses him coming out. 

She doesn’t have long to wait. Erich’s mop of wild hair is obvious above the group of students pouring out of the Mathematics building.  He’s walking with someone and gesturing animatedly. What next? Should she stand up and go to him? Or hope that he notices her there on the bench? The courtyard is crowded and noisy now. 

Ida decides she shouldn’t chance sitting, so she stands up and makes her way toward Erich across the current of chattering students, glad of her own height. Should she call out? She will miss him if she doesn’t. She is raising her arm, about to wave, about to call out his name, when he turns, spots her, and grins. He says something to his companion and makes his way, cross-current, to where she is. 

“Hello!” he says, genuinely glad to see her. “I was hoping we’d run into each other again!”

“And I you!” she says. He’s very handsome despite the pockmarks all over his face. She hadn’t noticed them before, but it’s not such an uncommon sight. Lots of children get smallpox and most of them die. He’s lucky to have survived, she thinks. Money and good doctors: always a help.

“Join me for Jause, will you? I’m going to Sluka.” 

“I’d love to,” says Ida, and she lets herself be drawn into the outward flow of the crowd, with Erich at her side. Then it hits her. Sluka! Not the little bakery where they’d met! What have I done? What kind of fool am I to have accepted?

Konditorei Sluka is one of the best bakeries in the city. It is elegant, luxurious, and outrageously expensive, a place inhabited by tourists, the wealthy, and even the very wealthy. The Empress Elisabeth was a regular customer! Ida knows where it is, of course, but she has never been inside. As a child she looked through the window with longing and more recently with disdain. Frantically, she searches her mind for a reason to back out now, to decline Erich’s offer, to walk away and never see him again. 

They are too different; they’ll never get past their class differences. She is poor. He is rich. That is that.

Before she can decide on an excuse, he turns to her and asks how she likes her coffee. With cream? One teaspoon of sugar or two?

By the time they reach the Konditorei, Erich and Ida have discussed their mutual enjoyment of good coffee, pastry, and the cinema, as well as establishing the comforting fact that they are both Jews. 

Once in the bakery, however, the problems begin. Ida has no money. She could allow Erich pay for a small cup of coffee, but it is much too soon in their acquaintance to let him buy her pastry. 

She looks around. A wall of ceiling-high windows draped in diaphanous curtains fills the lavish bakery and cafe with light. Glistening chandeliers hang above and matching lamps extend from the walls all around. The walls are deep yellow with gold trim, interspersed with panels of pale green framed in rich brown. Ladies in silk and satin and dapper gentlemen sit at highly polished round tables, cutting their pastries with forks and knives. The chairs have graceful bent wood backs and legs so delicate that Ida wonders how people dare to sit on them.

Erich leads her to the pastry case. The polished wood and glass case radiates golden light. Ornately decorated pastries and cakes satisfy every visceral sense: moist cream fillings; bright fruit slices shimmering in fruity glazes atop voluminous cakes; crispy puff pastry layers surrounding vanilla scented creams; soft nut tortes offering only a fleetingly crunchy resistance to the bite while rewarding one’s every nutty desire; unctuously melt-in-the-mouth coffee butter creams topped with crunchy crushed coffee beans.  

“So,” asks Erich, “What is your favorite? Perhaps the Schillerlocken, so creamy and crispy—an excellent contrast—or the Indianer with its opposing flavors, chocolate and vanilla?” He moves slowly along the curved glass case. “I love the Haselnusstorte because it’s so light and creamy. Ah, there is the notorious Punschkrapfen, delectable pastry soaked with our lovely Austrian rum.” He wanders on, pointing to one elaborately decorated pastry after another. “As for myself, I have a hard time deciding between the Mohnstrudel—oh, that delicious filling of ground poppyseed mixed with red plum jam and raisins—and the Topfengolatschen, with its wonderfully sour Topfen cheese filling. But in the end,” he says, arriving at the far end of the case, “I am usually my boring self, and I order the Buchteln.”

Erich’s enticing ode to pastry gives Ida a moment to think about how she will handle the situation.

“Erich,” she begins, having decided to be straightforward and perfectly honest in her explanation. “Erich,” she begins again, though she is not ordinarily a person who loses confidence in what she is saying and needs to begin again. “Erich,” she says, “Let me be forthright with you…” 

“Gruess Gott, Herr Stein, I have kept the two Buchteln, the lightest ones again, especially for you. May I wrap them for you as always?” asks the comfortably round woman behind the counter.

Erich puts a soft hand on Ida’s arm to indicate that he’ll listen to her in a moment, and answers,“Thank you, that is very kind of you, Frau Gisi, but the lady and I will be taking a table today. I am just recommending all my favorites to Fraulein Ida.”

“Would Herr Stein like to take that table near the window? We are very crowded at this time of the day.”

“Thank you very much, Frau Gisi. The table next to the window is fine.” 

“Thank you, Herr Stein. It is our pleasure,” she says.

Erich smiles at her. “See you the next time!” 

Then he takes Ida by the elbow and guides her through the maze of silk and satin and fine wool, past masterpieces in cream, butter, and golden pastry, through fragrant clouds of the scents of coffee and baking. Forks and knives clink; the conversation is just loud enough.

Ida cannot help comparing her father’s choice of venue for afternoon coffee with Erich’s.  At least one can be heard here. Nobody is arguing politics. She will tell Erich she can’t accept his offer to pay when they sit down.

Their table is near the center of the front window, where the sheer curtains are swept back, and one can watch the people walking by on the Rathausplatz. Erich holds Ida’s chair out for her. 

As she lifts her skirt to seat herself, Ida remembers what she is wearing: a dress so often updated and remade that no one could mistake it for anything else. Everybody in the room will know exactly what social class she belongs to the moment they look at her. Most of them already do.

Well, she thinks, so what. Here is an opportunity to prove that class doesn’t matter. She straightens her back and holds her head high. 

“Erich, listen. I haven’t any money at all. I can’t afford a pastry and I don’t feel comfortable letting you pay. I’ll have a small cup of coffee, and that’s all.” 

“What? You’ll let this excellent opportunity go by? You are so often offered your choice of such exceptional pastries?”

“It’s not that. Of course not. It’s just that we don’t know each other!”

“I know that you like your coffee with cream and just a little sugar. And that you enjoy funny films.”

A waitress in a crisp black dress and a frilly white apron is already standing next to their table. 

“Good afternoon, Herr Stein. Are you ready to order?”

“Indeed I am, Fraulein Inge,” Erich  answers. “For me, the Buchteln and einen Verlaengerten, and for the lady, einen Melange, and the Schillerlocken.”

“No! Just the coffee for me, please!” Ida says.

“Be so kind as to bring the Schillerlocken as well, Fraulein Inge,” Erich tells the waitress. “That will be all for now.”

As the waitress moves on to another table, he lowers his voice and says to Ida, “I’ll eat it if you won’t. But I hope you won’t be so silly.”

A few minutes later the voluptuous dessert is sitting in front of Ida. She looks at the roll of delicate, flaky pastry with its dusting of powdered sugar and sprinkling of chopped walnuts, its filling of luscious, lightly sweetened whipped cream spilling onto the plate. With a sigh, she picks up her dessert fork. Erich is sipping his coffee and looking across the room.

Tentatively, she presses the long edge of her fork into the pastry. The consequences of cutting into the crispy roll are immediately apparent: the whipped cream will spurt out and spill over the gold rim of the bone china plate and onto the paper doily below it. 

She turns the fork and scoops up a little of the cream. She puts it in her mouth. Oh my.

“Good?” he asks, returning his attention to Ida. 

The cream is such a luxury and she is so hungry for something sweet, for something special, that she almost has no words. Between bites she manages, “It’s wonderful! It reminds me something my grandfather brought me for my birthday when I was very small.”

“I think it is the best in Vienna, “ he says. “But you must try the pastry.” 

Ida has eaten all the cream and every little bit of walnut from around the crispy roll. Now there is no option but to attack the roll. With vigor borne of the pleasure she found in eating the cream, Ida strikes the crisp pastry with her fork. 

It is worse than she anticipated. The cream spews out, flying over the edge of the plate, over the edge of the table, and onto her dress.

Without speaking, Erich hands her his still-perfectly-folded cloth napkin.  

Ida wipes the errant cream from her bodice. “How clumsy I am!” she says, looking down.

Erich is surveying the room again. “I didn’t see a thing,” he says. Then he turns back to her and continues more softly, “Do you see that man near the pastry case with the short black beard and pince-nez?”

Ida gives up on her dress and glances in the direction Eric is indicating with his eyes, a quirk of his mouth, and his eyebrows. If she weren’t so embarrassed, she would find the gesture endearing. She sees the man with the beard.

“That’s Viktor von Ephrussi, the banker,” Erich says so quietly she can barely hear him. “I can’t see who is with him.”

Ida’s eyes widen. What am I doing here? Viktor von Ephrussi.

“Von Ephrussi, you said? You aren’t aware that aristocratic titles haven’t been used since 1918?” She shakes her head in disbelief. “I’m afraid you aren’t much of a candidate for membership in the SAJ.” 

Erich blushes deeply, one of the difficulties that comes with having red hair.

“You are right, of course,” he says. “It slipped off my tongue. It’s what my parents call him, you see. As for myself, I never think of the man, but there he is, and he is a great hero in my family.”

Ida decides to discontinue her acquaintance with Erich as soon as possible.

The pastry, most of its cream gone, is more compliant throughout the rest of their visit to Sluka. Ida refrains from saying anything disparaging about the very, very rich and their role in the woes of society. Instead, they speak of films.

As they walk back to the University, they share their favorite scenes from Charlie Chaplin’s movies: the boxing scene in “City Lights,” the barber scene in “The Barber Shop,” the fight scene in “The Kid.”  When they part, Ida hears herself agreeing to meet Erich for a simple coffee in two days’ time.

Don’t forget to check out my GoFundMe campaign!

Two Suitcases – progress and a little taste of what’s to come

Today, even though I had most of the day to work on my new book, I only added a few lines and revised a short section. Instead, I worked on a crowd-sourcing site I’m planning to put up to help pay for the increasingly necessary research trip to the settings of the novel next spring. You can see the opening image of the site above. The day turned out to be more fun than I anticipated because, as incentives for people who are willing to support the project, I’m making and sending out pipe cleaner animals. Today I practiced making some to be sure I really could do what I’m promising.

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Some of you, I’m sure, are shaking your heads and asking, pipe cleaner animals? Here’s the reason. When I was a child, I had a collection of pipe cleaner animals made by one of the people in my parents’ circle. Unexpectedly, they turned up in Two Suitcases, playing a sort of Jiminy Cricket or Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern role. Here’s the beginning of the book in its current draft:

Chapter 1

Meeting

December 31, 1954

Brooklyn, New York

I lift the green pipe cleaner giraffe with the toothbrush neck from the shelf under the window and turn him toward the rising voices. “I doubt it,” he says. “Not anytime soon.”

The red antelope with wishbone horns snorts. Her attention is mostly absorbed in remaining upright. A powerful breeze rushes through the window, open an inch or so to mitigate the heat and cigarette smoke in the room. It hits the antelope’s oversized horns directly. She staggers but doesn’t topple. 

“It won’t be over till after bedtime,” she says grumpily. “Once they start to shout, we should make ourselves comfortable.” 

The blue pipe cleaner lady with the red plastic dress is upside down at the moment. The antelope is already packing their belongings—two acorn caps, a hard candy wrapped in foil and two carefully folded pieces of foil from candies eaten earlier—into her dress, which until recently topped a canister of whipped cream. They’d already chosen which of their things to leave behind and which to take. The ashtray is too heavy and they didn’t think they should touch the lovely china cigarette box. Anyway, they only have the lady’s whipped cream top dress to carry things in. Too bad the third acorn cap doesn’t fit. They’ll have to share plates at their next place, wherever that is.

“I’m so sorry I can’t help you with the packing,” the giraffe says. “But I’ve got a stiff neck.” He bobs the toothbrush to see if anybody gets the joke. “I’m very good at seeing over things, though.” Bravely, he hops up onto the windowsill and, bracing himself against the woodwork so as not to blow away, he peers out into the Brooklyn night. “It’s still raining, and the lights are on,” he reports. “Even in the park.”

I move all three of them to the bookshelf below the window and rearrange the pillows I took from the sofa on the floor around me. I am usually in bed by dark, but tonight I am in New York with my parents, visiting their friends. As always, I chose the most beautiful pillows, the ones with the multi-colored covers Fanny weaves. To my right, a heavy cast-iron radiator chuffs out heat relentlessly. I like sitting near the radiator, but the apartment is so warm, it makes me sleepy even when I don’t want to fall asleep.

Turning back toward the toys, my eye is caught by the bold, black calligraphy on the spine of one of the books. Die Sozialdemokratie und die Nationalitätenfrage it says, though at four, I couldn’t have read nor understood it even if it was in English: Social Democracy and the Nationality Question. There are a great number of beautiful books, some hand-printed and neatly bound with string. Some have pictures, black and white prints made from woodcuts. I’ve studied these closely. One picture fills a whole page. It’s a big tree with its trunk breaking in a thunderstorm. There are only four words on that page: O schwanken! O taumel! – my mother says they mean something like “Oh, sway! Oh, tremble!”

I’ve asked to hear the stories that go with the pictures, but everyone says I wouldn’t understand, so I make up my own stories to go with the pictures and look at the shapes of the words and letters. I especially like the books with the clean, tall, squared-off letters. The invitation to the evening’s gathering of my parents’ friends was hand-lettered in the same elegant style.

That’s as much as I’m willing to give away now, but to be honest, I’m not very good at keeping my own secrets, so more of the book is likely to show up here. In the meantime, watch for the crowd-sourcing site, which I hope to have in order within a week or two. This is so much fun!

Two Suitcases – project, process and progress

Tom and I are getting ready to sell our house next spring or summer.

Big decision!

We’ve been in San Luis Obispo for seventeen years, longer than we lived in Trumansburg, longer than Tom ever lived anywhere and pretty close to that for me. We’re not planning to leave San Luis, just this big house, which has been feeling more and more burdensome over the last year.

Here’s a short-lived glimpse into our home: this is one of my Airbnb listings. I’m taking all three listings down after Labor Day to give us time to get the house ready to be shown and to give me time to write. (The pictures on the Airbnb site were taken a year or so ago.)

I imagine us moving to a beautiful two or three bedroom place with enough room for Tom’s piano and for my new project, the work-in-progress that my next series of blogs will follow.

I’m working on a new book, historical fiction based on my parents’ story. I call it Two Suitcases because my parents left Vienna in 1938 with two suitcases, Paris in 1940 with two suitcases, and a village in the south of France in 1942 again with only two suitcases. It’s an extraordinary escape story, a re-examination of social democracy in the Red Vienna years, and an exploration of values. How do you choose what goes into two suitcases?

Nothing I’ve done for a long time has excited me as much as doing the research for the book and beginning to write it.

The story follows a group of friends and family who work for the Social Democratic Party in Vienna during the 1930’s and remain friends for the rest of their lives.

group at McCorkels'Here they are relaxing at a cabin in the Catskills right after the Second World War.

There are four main characters.

My mother:

Trudy's passportThis is her passport picture from 1942

My father:

Fritz 1940's

in the late 1940’s

My Aunt Ida:

Ida 1940's

also in the 1940’s

And my Uncle Eric, of whom I only have a picture taken many years later, in the 1970’s:

Eric

a gracious man with an elegance still evident when he was 93.

 As I write, I’ll share snippets of the text here and reflect on my writing process. Stay in touch!

Carpet Magic

When you clean house as much as I do, vacuum cleaners matter.

My old Oreck had always been too heavy and I’d been checking out possibilities at the store when my son’s girlfriend showed me her new cordless Dyson a couple weeks ago. Decision made, 20% off coupon in my bag, I went back to the store to make the purchase.

There it was, up on a shelf, and it was on sale, $100 off – except there weren’t any among the boxes under the display. An employee was right there though, and after some searching, told me there should be four left on another display at the front of the store. By the time we wound through the aisles to the front, there was one left.

They let me use my coupon AND the $100 discount.

The new vacuum cleaner is amazing.Dyson

How fortunate is that!

A few days later, while admiring my wonderfully dust-free carpets, I realized how much they needed a good deep steam-cleaning. I thought about renting a carpet-cleaner at the supermarket.

But, walking the dog this morning, I discovered that one of my neighbors had put just such a carpet-cleaner in front of his house with FREE sign on it. Obviously, it was for me – I took it home.

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It’s a Eureka and not old – I don’t know whether it works yet – but it’s got a sticker on the front saying CLEANS CARPETS BETTER THAN DYSON.

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I’ll try it out tomorrow.

Amazing grace.

Sophia in the Kitchen Sink

It took me most of a lifetime to find Sophia in the kitchen sink.

 

Coming of age in the 60’s, my consciousness raised by Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer, I set myself free from the monotony of housework and never look back.

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It doesn’t help that my mother, a brilliant woman who’d studied with Alfred Adler in Vienna, relinquished a promising career to keep house and raise me. As I see it at fifteen or sixteen, she wasted her life on ironed pillow cases and clean dishes.

I rebel.

Luckily, the hippie world is waiting. By the mid-1970’s I have a bearded husband, two small children and a ramshackle house in upstate New York. For a while we go off the grid: wood stove, 1/4 acre garden, goats. We pay for gasoline and our $29/month mortgage by renting out extra rooms in our rambling house and doing odd jobs. Household responsibilities are meant to be shared but it doesn’t really work out that way. I do the cooking and the cleaning, torn between the romance of the back to the land movement (remember Alicia Bay Laurel’s book, Living on the Earth?) and the rhetoric of the women’s movement.

By the time I find myself pregnant with my third child, I’m in graduate school and teaching elementary school full-time. Housework is delegated or done as quickly as possible. Everyone is busy. A divorce follows, then remarriage and a blended family: two jobs, 5 growing kids. My mother moves in. We get a dishwasher and a part-time housekeeper. The kids have chores they sulk about. Tom, my new husband, does the outside work and the big jobs, and joy of joys!!! He cooks!

Years pass. The kids grow up. My mother dies. Then, a dozen years ago or so, while alternating reading Alice O. Howell’s The Dove in the Stone with painting the kitchen, I’m blessed with a moment of satori. The central message of the book, something I’d understood intellectually for decades, sinks into my cells.

Everything is sacred. Every thing is sacred.

That is Sophia, the sparkle in things, the living wisdom of the manifest, the reflection of the ineffable in the effable.

In Love and the World, Robert Sardello says,

Sophia, the unity of the all, is not to be understood as a dissolving of the particularity and multiplicity of the world, the many becoming one, but rather of the many as one.

Sophi in the sink

A few more years go by before the new understanding penetrates my routine thought patterns, but one day it comes to me that I can choose to like washing the dishes instead of feeling resentful that it’s me doing them again. The dishes and the process of washing them is sacred, too.

I start by paying attention to the parts I like: the feeling of warm water on my hands, the satisfaction I find in arranging the shiny clean utensils and pots and pans in the drainer, the tidiness of the clean counter and sink. The preciousness of water becomes more and more obvious as California’s record drought continues. I develop a washing system that is efficient and pleasurable. I draw in family and friends and washing up becomes a pleasant social time. When the dishwasher breaks I have no desire to spend money fixing it. I like washing the dishes.

photo 3

This is how to tend Sophia:  by paying attention to her, by loving her.

The first real rain we’ve had in thirteen months is falling as I write. The relief the rain brings, even though it’s far from enough to end this apocalyptic drought, is truly marvelous: the release of long-held stress in my body, my mind and my heart. A couple days ago a new moon rose, in Aquarius this month, the second new moon in a month, a super-moon. The Chinese year of the green wood horse is here, a year of dynamic new growth after five years of degeneration and dissolution.

May the new growth spawned this year be in appreciating the value of maintenance, of attention and love put into caring for the things we have instead of into acquiring more, into recognizing the treasure in our own back yard.

Sophia's wink

Sophia’s wink in the sink

beginning with thanks

The weekend after September 11, I went to a writers conference where Carolyn See, the keynote speaker, suggested the practice of writing “charming notes,” one handwritten thank you note a day. Refocussing on who and what I was thankful for at a time like that seemed wise and very appealing. Collect beautiful notecards, she told us, and if you can’t think of anyone to thank for something that happened recently, go into your past and thank people you haven’t had contact with in years.  I was ready.

For the next year I diligently wrote a note a day. I wrote to my family, my neighbors, my teachers, my friends. I dug up the addresses of middle school friends, camp counsellors and therapists. I wrote to the city council and my congresswoman. After a year, I slowed to writing notes in a more standard way, for dinner parties, gifts, and once in a while, for a memory or shift in my thinking.

Years passed like that. I still kept a collection of cards, but I let the daily practice go.

Then, a few months ago, I was moved to begin again.

Now I begin almost every day at my desk handwriting a note.  Before getting up, I lie in bed thinking of who I will write to. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes it takes some meditation to allow the recipient to surface in my consciousness. Buying notecards is pure pleasure.

So, it seems appropriate to begin this new blog with thanks. To Tom and to all the people who make it possible for me to begin a new project in this almost unbearably beautiful place, surrounded by people who love me and whom I love: thank you!

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California flowers blooming regardless of the drought