A Family Reunification

The first federal stamp for the reunification of Germany on the 3rd of October, 1990. Wikipedia

Today is the 3rd of October, a German national holiday celebrating the country’s reunification in 1990. The pictures we’ve all seen of Germans tearing down the Berlin Wall or crying with joy as they easily cross over into then West Germany are memorable. The images seared into my 11-year-old mind as I watched the news knowing THIS was history being made might even have sparked my enthusiasm for all things German.

But back then and even now I understand that I don’t really understand what it must have been like: to suddenly against all expectation be free, free to say what you think, free to do what you choose. We who have never lived in such a way cannot truly empathize, even former West Germans. My (West) German husband Patrick was young enough to only have known a geteiltes Deutschland (divided Germany) and never considered it a possibility that it could be different. In fact the DDR (East Germany) was to him and his generation just another foreign country, like Austria or France, only harder to visit. Why should those two countries be united?

Of course others of an older generation who remembered a Germany that included those eastern parts hoped to one day see the country together again. But, as Patrick pointed out, some around here hoped to one day return to their land in West Prussia, what is now Poland. That’s a completely different story, but the point is the borders of Germany had changed so much over the last hundred years that to the younger generation West and East Germany was it, the reality of now. Again why should it change?

When things in the East began to shift with the Montagsdemonstrationen (Monday demonstrations) it was, for those West Germans, like suddenly discovering the existence of a half-brother. (Here I need to add not for all Germans– there were enough people on both sides of the “wall” working towards a unified Germany.) Imagine: the circumstances of how this brother came to be a part of your family are by definition not pleasant, but eventually you deal with the pain and get to a point where you can open your heart and mind to this new possibility. You decide to invite him to the next family get-together and discover, against the list of negatives you have saved in your mind, that this half-brother of yours is quite interesting and even…lovely. Suddenly your family gatherings become fuller and breathe with different energy all because this half-brother you didn’t even know existed a year ago takes part.

The West Germans knew of this person, but didn’t know they were related. The West Germans knew the circumstances in which this person lived were not pleasant and even harmful. But it still came (for some, I am never talking for ALL) as a surprise and maybe partly shock that this person claimed to be family and wanted to be invited to their democratic party.

Stamp in celebration: 20 Years German Reunification Wikipedia

And yet they let him come. Not without reservations and not without needing time to wrap their minds around how this half-brother came to be. Even 24 years after welcoming him home, he is still called die neue Bundesländer (the new federal states). Income levels continue to reveal discrepancy between the brothers, as well as higher levels of unemployment in the east. There is still work to do in welcoming this brother – they’ve discovered by now there is no “half” about it – fully into the family.

But we can celebrate today as a family gathering where everyone who belongs has been invited. Germany is richer and more interesting because all of Germany has come home.

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An Exercise in Fasting

What follows were my thoughts and experiences about fasting last year. I’ll write next week about how my television fast from last year turned out and how I’m fasting this year. Be sure to tune in!

The season of Lent is again upon us. I personally am glad when the ridiculousness of Fasching – the climax of which is celebrated in parts of Germany the last four days before Ash Wednesday – is over and we can again turn our attentions to other things besides jelly-filled donuts and costumes. Lent provides a specific amount of days to turn inwards, when we can be examining and questioning our preparedness to follow Jesus’ call to discipleship. That sounds easy enough, but in reality we should be continually asking ourselves if we are able to accept the cost of discipleship: being cast-out and alone, being denied, death. It is traditionally a quiet time, which is often immediately equated with seriousness. Yes, Lent can be a serious time, but I am of the opinion is does not have to be, although that is a discussion for another time.

For me fasting during Lent is a chance to be released from some thing that has a hold on me. That thing can be anything from sugar to wine to television. And I think it is possible to miss the essence of fasting when every year the same vice is chosen, without even considering what all binds me in my day to day.

When Patrick asked if I was going to fast this year, I shrugged my shoulders and answered, “I haven’t really thought about it yet.” This was, of course, on Tuesday, the very last day before Lent was to begin. Patrick has decided to again fast this year from extra snacking, especially sweet things and potato chips in the evening. I briefly considered fasting those things again with him this year, but then I don’t really feel sugar has a hold on me. I might eat one sweet thing a day, but I don’t have to. I am not reliant upon it to keep my spirits up. So I ditched that idea with the conviction, I might as well not fast at all rather than fasting something that won’t really bring a release.

That evening as I lay in bed, I tried to get still within and then asked into that stillness, “What should I be fasting?” Almost immediately the thought came to mind, “Television.” My response? “Oh brother.” Oh brother because watching television in the evening is so comfortable. Oh brother because watching television is effortless; I just have to sit there and allow myself to be fed with images, which often seems perfect after a long day. Oh brother because I knew it would affect Patrick as well. If he chose to watch TV, I would be “forced” to leave, and not only miss out on Patrick’s companionship, but also the warm and cozy fire.

But despite my moaning and groaning, I was quite aware that this indeed would need to be my choice, if in fact I decided to commit. Fasting, I think, is often equated with suffering. And although “suffering” is much too strong a word for what giving up on TV for a brief period would entail, it certainly would bring inconveniences with it. However, I also believe fasting can bring opportunities with it, in this case for more study and prayer. Not only should we be using this time to become aware of something that retrains us and working at breaking free from it, but also using the extra time to dig deeper into the examination process I first talked about. And let’s be real honest: my intentions are not all pure. I too am excited at the thought of finally getting some reading done, diving into all of those gorgeous books lined up, which daily call my name.

The whole next day I continued asking myself if I really wanted (and could) commit to this fasting. And after every question the answer came back as a non-committal shoulder shrugging, eye-rolling “meh.” I knew what was going on without wanting to admit it: I didn’t want to go through with this, even if I should. But I also knew I would most likely do it, even while dragging my feet the whole way.

That evening Patrick asked again if I had thought more about fasting. Begrudgingly I admitted I had and said with a knowing smile, “television”. I properly guessed Patrick’s response of surprise and added to it by saying, “But I’m not really sure I want to do it.”

“Why not?” he asked with eyebrows still raised.

“Oh, I just don’t know. And it will affect you too, you know? I’ll have to leave if you decide to watch. It’s almost like you’ll have to fast television too.” Perhaps I was secretly hoping he would release me, convince me it wouldn’t be worth the effort (as if that would have been hard!), and he didn’t want to join me.

“Huh, okay,” he said instead.

“I still get to watch the news,” I added, as if sitting at a business meeting, trying to squeeze the best out of a bad deal. “Really, you want to do this television fasting?”

“We’ll manage,” Patrick answered with a grin.

I’m still not completely committed. After being away over the weekend, exhausted from two very late nights, I couldn’t imagine doing anything that evening except lying on the couch while watching Tatort.

“I’ve heard that Sundays can be a break from fasting,” Patrick said nonchalantly after hearing my lament.

“Really?” I immediately brightened up a bit. “That would be cool.” I paused. “But wouldn’t that be cheating?”

Although I despise cheating, I wasn’t really worried about myself since I had only sort of half-committed to my fast. I was more worried about what Patrick would think. But he offered me this peace offering, and I willingly accepted.

As it turns out, Patrick was correct about Sundays not being included during the fasting season. On the website Catholicism.about.com I discovered the answer, in very simplified form. Every Sunday, not just Easter Sunday, is considered a celebration of Christ’s resurrection. In the Catholic Church (from whom we have, mostly unknowingly by a large majority of the non-Catholic population, inherited SO many traditions) doing penance in any form, including fasting, was not allowed on any given Sunday, which held for the Sundays during Lent as well.

Therefore, when the Church expanded the period of fasting and prayer in preparation for Easter from a few days to 40 days (to mirror Christ’s fasting in the desert, before He began His public ministry), Sundays could not be included in the count. Thus, in order for Lent to include 40 days on which fasting could occur, it had to be expanded to six full weeks (with six days of fasting in each week) plus four extra days—Ash Wednesday and the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday that follow it. Six times six is thirty-six, plus four equals forty. And that’s how we arrive at the 40 days of Lent!

The rhythm of my week is defined by many things: getting out the door every morning at 8:00 so Fenja will be on time for school; serving lunch by an appropriate lunch time; the kids’ afternoon activities; our evening activities and TELEVISION programs. On Sundays, as we know, is Tatort; on Mondays comes nothing worth watching; on Tuesday we enjoy watching Heute Journal (the news) after choir and then either 37 Grad or Neues aus der Anstalt; Wednesdays often is a toss-up, sometimes there’s a good TV film, sometimes it’s bad; there is nothing good on Thursdays; and then comes Friday. Friday is my favorite evening (along with Sunday) because Patrick is often away playing soccer, and I can watch with a glass of red wine in hand the terrible, but enjoyable lawyer/police/investigation shows that come, my favorite being SOKO Leipzig. When Patrick comes home, I’m usually watching the news, after which we watch together Heute-Show, a satire of current events. Aspekte, a show about culture, comes after that, and although really it’s much too late, we end up watching it anyway because it’s just so interesting. Saturday evenings we usually end up watching some stupid game show.

Obviously there have been some major holes ripped into the fabric of my daily life during this fast. Allowing these necessary holes to become visible is the first step in this fasting process. Ironically enough the past weeks and the ones to come have been so full of evening activities (Monday was the only evening when I did NOT have something going on) that I’ve barely missed my usual TV programming. Mostly I just desire staying at home in front of the warm fire. I could care less if the TV is on or not.

But when I did find a bit of time near the end of last week, did I choose something which would strengthen and encourage me in my walk of faith? Of course not! I chose a book given to me by a fellow BBC (my fabulous book club) member. The book is fluff, sort of giving one a peek-in on a weekend after which most people would have plenty to gossip about. I knew the book would be like that and by the end, I was constantly reading just to finish it, so I could finally move on to other things. (No, I can’t stop in the middle of a book. Of all the bad books I have read in my life, I have put one aside maybe one or two times.)

It’s not that I have a big problem with reading fluff books – I try not to do it too often (and really, who would want to?), but in a way, I feel it’s an opportunity to keep up on current books, which I also find interesting. The point is that fasting should be a time, in my opinion, where we are moving consciously through the day, discovering where we are bound and moving through them by diving deeper into our studies. It sounds so pious, doesn’t it? Pious: an undervalued and misunderstood word, but not incorrect. I wish I could be more devout in my fasting in that I could find, for example, the energy to dive into a more difficult book to read in the evening, instead of “relaxing” with fluff. Maybe facing this dilemma and in some way coming to terms with it is part of this exercise in fasting.

An Album: Lent to Maundy Thursday

In honor of the season of Lent (which I will be blogging about tomorrow and perhaps in the weeks to come), I want to encourage you all to check out this new album released by Page CXVI entitled Lent to Maundy Thursday. The album is part of their Church Calendar Project in which they asked themselves :

how do we with music walk through the liturgical church calendar, in essence pulling ancient themes of faith forward through music. Which we do a lot in writings and theology, but I haven’t seen as much of it happen in music. So we really wanted to have worship and music elements to offer ourselves, and our communities and the church, so they can celebrate these seasons not just with sermons but with songs. (Read the whole interview here: http://reel-gospel.com/2014/03/04/interview-page-cxvi-lent-to-maundy-thursday/)

Their music continues to impress and stretch me. Maybe it can do the same for you!

You can stream the entire record here: https://soundcloud.com/pagecxvi/sets/lent-to-maundy-thursday.

 

Fill Up My Cup

Yesterday as I sat in the car with my family, I had one of those, what I like to call “overflowing”, moments. We had just left our friends with whom we had spent the weekend, and I was overwhelmed with the blessings of it. Eight adults, twelve children ranging in age from two and a half to eight meet up twice a year in a youth hostel. Often, especially with one family that lives furthest away, there is little to no contact in-between, but we always manage to pick-up right where we left off, as if six months was a simple moment in time. The children feel their parents’ enthusiasm already the week before, which lends to their already intact anticipation. It doesn’t matter that this constellation of children only happens twice a year: they greet each other with a “hey” and immediately take off to catch the castle ghost. The adults sit together much too late drinking red wine and sparkling wine and laughing wholesome, healthy belly-laughs, even as we share our latest concerns. It is uncomplicated and harmonious and every time I leave with a smile on my face and full of happiness.

These “overflowing” moments come, but not all too often. Maybe because I do not take enough time to sit quietly and look out the window at the snow-covered hills like on the way home yesterday. And the moments do not last long. Children beginning every sentence with, “Mama! Can you…” soon break my reverie and bring me back to reality, as do my heavy eyes from the last late nights. But in that moment tears come to my eyes as I am overwhelmed with the blessings of great friends, lovely children, an amazing husband and a weekend to enjoy all of these. My cup has been filled to overflowing.

May this week be a good one for you, filled with an “overflowing” moment (or two).

A Tiny Bit

A riddle: What do a goose, paper lanterns and sweet yeast pretzels all have in common?

If you’re German the answer should be obvious; if you’re North American you are probably shrugging your shoulders.

The answer: St. Martin’s Day

So now you really have no idea what’s going on. Let me explain…on November 11 every year we remember Bishop Martin von Tours who was buried on that day in 397. Yes, the year was 397! Contrary to the lack of Halloween tradition (read about my feelings about that here), St. Martin’s Day rituals have developed from the stories of a man who lived from 316 to 397. Now that is what I call holding with tradition!

The Goose

Martin (actually Martinus, his father being a Roman solider), as family obligations demanded, became a solider at the age of 15. Already at that immature age he was admired among his colleagues because of his humility and helpfulness. During those first years he prepared for Christian baptism from which Source he found ways to feed the hungry and clothe the needy with his meager allowance.

Liam, last year, at St. Martin
Liam, last year, at St. Martin

During a particularly harsh winter Martin rode (apparently there is little evidence that he actually rode a horse, but the story has evolved so that today’s St. Martin always sits upon a white horse) into the city where a beggar begged for mercy and help. Martin’s colleagues rode on, but Martin felt compelled to help. With only his sword and officer’s overcoat with him, he unbuckled his sword, removed his overcoat and slashed it in half with his sword. One part he gave to the freezing man; the other he wrapped around himself again. His fellow soldiers mocked him for such an act and he was punished with three days in jail for destroying military property.

But as the story goes, that event changed his life. The same night he had a dream in which Jesus appeared to him, covered in the halved overcoat. An angel spoke to him, “Martin, who is not even baptized, has covered Christ with this coat.” It was also because of this dream that Martin felt obligated to end his military service in order to serve God. Not until two years later did Martin finally leave the military with the reasoning that as a Christian he could not use the sword to kill and shed innocent blood. (He was, actually, the first Pacifist!) He soon began his training to become a priest and eventually entered a monastery.

Ten years later, when a new bishop needed to be anointed, the people called for Martin. He was well-known because of his good deeds, and the people were confident he would be a worthy bishop. Martin, on the other hand, was still humble and felt unworthy for such a position. He tried to escape the pull of the people, and as it is told, he hid in a goose barn. The loud cackling of the geese revealed his hiding place and eventually sealed his fate. On July 4th, 372 Martin was consecrated as Bishop von Tours.

Because of their betrayal, the goose now belongs to the traditional St. Martin’s meal.

Paper Lanterns

The kids with their lanterns.
The kids with their lanterns.

A week before the actual event, Patrick sat huddled over a too small table in kindergarten (preschool) creating a silver cat lantern with a pink-striped parchment paper middle for our youngest daughter. As agreed upon in our marital contract, Patrick is responsible for all things crafty and St. Martin lanterns definitely fall into that category. We agreed when Fenja began kindergarten that each of our children would get one parent hand-crafted lantern for the duration of their childhood. Each year we blow off the dust and check the condition of the lanterns and corresponding lights-on-sticks that make the lanterns glow. Fenja’s mouse lantern, already five years old, has some water damage from one particularly wet St. Martin’s fest, but looks good otherwise. Liam decided he wanted something new this year. Fine, as long as he did it himself. And he did. He crafted, with very little help, his own bat lantern this year. And Alida could not be more pleased with her kitty. With one new light stick and a few new batteries, the lanterns were ready.

Unfortunately this year we arrived too late at the church and only got back row seats. As the organization of the event at some point fell to the kindergartens, the littlest ones carry the responsibility to awaken the adults’ enthusiasm. And this they do, at least in our town, with success. Filled as if it were Christmas, each bench and side aisle was stuffed with eager and restless children and parents, some looking stressed, others with large cameras hanging around their necks. Again, just as with the church service for Liam’s first day of school (read about that here), this service was voluntary, except for the maybe ten children taking part in the program, and yet they came. The majority of the people there have little to no contact with church, and yet because “that’s what you do on St. Martin”, they come. It’s mind-boggling, every time.

Each year we sing songs specifically about St. Martin and the story of how he shared his overcoat, but also other songs about God welcoming all of us. And each year the story is re-enacted so that we will remember and take St. Martin as an example. Every year the children in the program pray for poor children in our world and that each person may find a way to help. Even among the noisy children, it is moving. Every year.

The masses are then released. We walk through the streets of our town, if we’re lucky in a spot right behind the town band where you can actually hear the music and sing along. The kids proudly carry their lanterns, shining light into the darkness of our world.

Sweet Yeast Pretzels

The Bonfire
The Bonfire

Finally we all meet up again at our town square where a blazing bonfire has been prepared by our firemen. We walk by this year’s St. Martin, sitting atop his horse, where each child sees the man whom we strive to model, just like in one Martin’s song: “Ein bisschen so wie Martin, möchte ich manchmal sein und ich will an andre denken, ihnen auch mal etwas schenken. Nur ein bisschen klitze klein möchte ich wie St. Martin sein.” (A little bit like Martin, I would like to sometimes be. And I want to think of others, sometimes give them something too. Just a tiny little bit would I like to be like him.)

St. Martin
St. Martin

Like every other parent at the square, we rummage through our bag and produce cups of varying sizes. Then Patrick and Liam stand in line. And wait. With all those parents and kids, it takes a while. But finally it’s their turn and our cups are filled with warm punch and (for Mama) warm wine, called Glühwein. By now the cold has seeped into our toes and fingers; the girls and I wait impatiently for the boys to return. When they do we gladly wrap our hands around the cups, feeling the warmth spread out. And then the best: Patrick produces five huge soft pretzels, one for each of us. The sweet dough is a treat.

Yummy!
Yummy!

We stand with our friends and their children in a circle, dancing from one foot to the other to warm them. It seems the whole town has come out and we meet acquaintances we haven’t seen for awhile. Despite the cold there is warmth radiating through the people. The bonfire and punch do their part, but as we share within this community, it is as if we indeed, for a few brief moments, have become just a tiny bit like Martin.

Refor-what? or My True Feelings About Halloween

Courtesy of J-Me Photography
Courtesy of J-Me Photography

I’ll admit it: I pretend I’m not home on Halloween. You can call me a Halloween-Scrooge if you want (and some people have), but there are reasons for my darkened doorway. Halloween has never been a favorite time – the word “holiday” seems too festive and important, both of which Halloween is not – although the old photos are sweet. Little clown Dora with a painted red nose standing against the orange-accented green and yellow plaid wallpaper, usually with big brother clown next to her. Although my mother is a brilliant seamstress, costume-making was never her forte. She could have made some extravagant costumes (which she has since done for her grandchildren), but with the whole family lacking in Halloween-enthusiasm, why bother?

A brief aside: I have inherited my mother’s absence of costume creativity. When I was a child, I was a clown every year. Unfortunately I do not have clown costumes for my children, otherwise I would certainly pass along that tradition. But we’re developing our own rut – we have pirate costumes in varying sizes. By now I’ve got the red-kerchief-tying and moustache-drawing part down.

I have very few memories of Halloween. In one vivid scene I remember being scared when a gorilla jumped out in front of our car on our way to trick or treat. It pounded once on the car’s hood, then disappeared into the dark. I’m certain the rest of my family would deny it ever happened, but I know it did. Vaguely I remember slimy pumpkin innards and roasted seeds. As a teenager it was cool to attend a non-Halloween party on Halloween in a neighboring high school. That idea appealed to me as a costume was not necessary. In college my creative friend (now J-Me Photography) sewed M & M costumes for the five girls in our house. As one M & M in a bag of five, the costume-wearing thing was bearable.

Obviously I’ve never connected to the idea of Halloween. Coming from a Christian background, my church and parents were always unsure about Halloween – should we encourage participation; should we not? It was always made into a demonic, spirit-worshipping festival, which sort of took the joy out of eating candy. Certainly my issue with wearing costumes added (and continues to add) to my uneasy relationship with Halloween.

Imagine my relief when I arrived in Germany thirteen years ago to discover that Halloween was not practiced. I knew there was a reason I loved Germany! (Of course I had yet to discover the late February / early March tradition of celebrating Carnival or what Americans might know as Mardi Gras in New Orleans. During those four days of celebration most of the country is in an Ausnahmezustand, meaning a state of emergency or exception. People run around in costumes the entire time and listen to horrible speeches and annoying music. Halloween looks pretty tame compared to that!)

Over the years, however, the commercialization of Halloween apparently could not be avoided. Carved pumpkins began appearing more often; super gory eyeball candy conveniently packaged in hand-sized plastic made its debut in late October. Always looking for a good excuse to throw a party (and make an extra buck), the radio programs grabbed the opportunity and invited radio-land to Super Grusel parties, their idea of what Halloween should be – scary, eerie, spooky. The biggest town in these parts now has a “traditional” (after five years?!) Halloween parade; each year more ghosts, witches and monsters participate.

“Gel, so macht ihr das in Amerika?” (“This is how you do it in America, right?”) How often have I heard this question and how many times would I have loved to yell, “NOOO!” I was appalled the first time our doorbell rang on Halloween (has it really come to this?!) and even more so when the kids just stood there and didn’t say anything.

Und?” I finally asked after we looked at each in silence.

Ja, was ist? Es ist ja Hello-veen?” (Yeah, what’s wrong? It’s Halloween!)

Aaahhh! I stomped away leaving Patrick scrambling to fill their bags. He gave them the good advice to say something when the door is opened, but unfortunately “trick or treat” does not translate well. Instead the kids say, “Süßes oder Saures!” (sweet or sour).

It’s entirely wrong. The whole German Hello-veen thing just seems so phony. These kids have no idea what they’re doing, except getting free candy, which I could even accept. What kid doesn’t want free candy? But the reasoning “that’s what they do in America!” just does not cut it for me. And in Germany it has to be a spooky event with creepy costumes. I always try to convince people it’s not really like that – I was always a clown! – but no one believes me that Halloween is more like Carnival than what the Germans have made of it.

However the irony of it all is sometimes too much. I read a bit about Halloween on Wikipedia, that unreliable wealth of information, before I began writing this post. Most people know Halloween has its roots in Celtic-traditions, although which exactly seems up for grabs. Some say it was originally a festival celebrating specific gods; others say it was more of a harvest or summer’s end celebration. It did have to do with a certain time of year when spirits and fairies found it easy to come into our world, making them more active. Costumes developed out of the need to hide from these spirits.

Halloween began in the US as Irish and Scottish immigrants moved to the new country and brought their traditions with them, which I know provides comfort in a foreign place (I can attest to that!) and is therefore good and necessary. New interpretations on old traditions can’t be helped, however, and in the early 1900’s trick or treating evolved in North America out of the Scottish and Irish tradition of guising.

So here’s the ironic part: Halloween as is practiced in the States is a development from very old traditions. Isn’t this in reality what’s happening in Germany? They’re taking a form of celebration from another place and working at making it their own.

But I still have a huge problem with it and I believe it to be this: the tradition is missing. According to Wikipedia (sorry, I was too lazy to check out other sources) Halloween activities were first recorded in 1999 in Germany. When the event began in North America, there were Irish and Scottish immigrants who had a relationship to the rituals they were passing on. It was a piece of their Heimat (for more on this word, read this post) that they had brought with them. Here in Germany it’s just an event that people have heard about, certainly with help from marketers and “entrepreneurs” who see an opportunity to make money. A relationship to the event does not exist. There is a long-standing tradition that surrounds Halloween, but not in Germany.

I was proud of my husband this morning when I heard him say in response to our youngest’s proclamation, “Today is Hello-ween!”

“Today is Reformation Day!”

Refor-what? On October 31st, 1517 it is said that Martin Luther made his 95 Theses known, thus starting a revolution of the Christian world that he never intended. He actually only wanted to stimulate a discussion, among other things, about the sale of indulgences in the church. (It was believed by buying these indulgences from the church, one’s sins could be forgiven.) Throughout Germany and other parts of Europe during this time there were many others who were finding fault with the structures of the church and were daring to think outside the given lines and start something new. It was exciting, exhilarating and reckless, but these pioneers plowed on, eventually changing the face of the church forever.

That is what I call tradition. And a tradition well worth being proud of. Its celebration does not involve silly costumes or even free candy, but I can’t help but believe falling back on a tradition of individuals willing to ask difficult, sometimes damaging questions, despite the very real risks involved might be a more powerful one. Now we just need to figure out a way to make this legacy interesting to celebrate….

For all my disliking Halloween in Germany, I’ve already agreed to allow my children to walk up and down our street, ring doorbells and say, “Süßes oder Saures!” Yes, that in and of itself is ironic. But don’t be surprised if my light is not on after the kids are in bed. I’m probably pretending not to be home.

Lost in the Noise

Like any first-time mom, I wanted to do everything right. I had begun gathering clues about raising children already years before, probably since a teenager. Those first babysitting experiences provided exposure in dealing with small children in a non-committal way (I could leave again at the end of the evening a few dollars richer), yet already I was observing the interactions between parents and children; already I was learning it’s important to mean what you say, especially with kids. When my older sister and brother started their own families, I added their experiences and stories to my database of information. And because many of Patrick’s friends had children before we did, we were able to talk with and watch other families and discuss together what we thought worked and what did not.

Of course I still didn’t feel prepared for my own baby. So I read more books about how a baby should sleep, what sort of routine should be established, preferably right from the beginning, and why I should nurse and how I should go about in all circumstances. I was informed about how life should function with a baby.

When Fenja finally arrived, I roamed the hospital hallways at night because my baby didn’t want to sleep and I didn’t want to disturb our roommate. During those nights I often went to the mothers’ station, an extra room with chairs and other necessary accessories, to nurse. One of the night nurses often assisted me, but always made sure to tell me, “You’re doing great. Just do what comes naturally.” Maybe she recognized the doubt in my face, – “naturally”; I don’t know what the heck I’m doing! – but she continued to encourage me.

At home I was overjoyed with my infant, full of happy hormones and thrilled at being a mother. And yet nothing was going according to plan: Fenja wasn’t sleeping like the books said she should; I wasn’t nursing on a perfect three-hour schedule the first week; I couldn’t quite manage to have the same routine every day. I searched my smart books for advice, but those suggestions didn’t seem to work either. Eventually my desperation at not succeeding brought tears. I didn’t know what to do anymore.

Luckily that night nurse had given me what I really needed: the confidence to believe in my own instinct. I again heard her words: “Do what comes naturally.” All this book information had only stressed me out, and if that nurse believed I could do it, then why not? I returned the books to the bookshelf, determined to let them grow dusty, and became a much better mother. I could relax, not intent on fulfilling someone else’s program, but finding our rhythm and what was best for us.

I know now that I got lost in the noise.

world around us by J-Me Photography
world around us
by J-Me Photography

I’m convinced we reside in a very noisy world. News shows and news makers, whom we often forget do not have our best interests in mind, stand ready with information they believe we should know, telling us what opinions to have about any one topic. Thousands of blogs are available promoting millions of convictions, often with the intention of swaying the reader to feel the same. If we don’t know what to think or wear or what to eat, we ask a question on Facebook and are thrilled when so many of our friends tell us what to do. With a simple click we can access all the information we need to answer any possible question we might ask. We no longer need to know anything; we can simply regurgitate. The saying, “Put on your thinking cap,” is outdated – why think about something yourself when it’s easier to access the answer by pushing a few buttons?

These constant distractions and overabundance of available information is noise. This noise demands our attention and tricks us into believing its importance should define our daily routine. When I sit down at the computer in the morning, first I check over my emails, then scroll through Facebook to make sure I haven’t missed out on anything. Usually I have not, but often it takes me 45 minutes to notice this. When I look again at the clock, I’m annoyed at the time I have just wasted. Don’t misunderstand me: Facebook has made staying in touch with friends and family across the ocean a thousand times easier, and I am thankful for that. The social network has its place, but its noisiness shuts out everything else, and I get sucked in.

How often do we get sucked in? How often do we catch ourselves disgusted at ourselves for once again investing time and energy into something we know is just making noise? Or have we become so entrenched in the noise that we can’t even recall what it is to be quiet?

Stillness: do you remember? It’s that place where you can sit and hear yourself breathe; it’s when suddenly the tiny details of the tree with orange leaves sprinkled among the green reveals itself to you, when you realize again there’s a world beyond the constant input. Stillness is where you find yourself again, where you hear that voice within you, reminding you of what you once thought, not just the noise of all the opinion-makers.

Of course this can all be misinterpreted: Dora thinks all modern communication and accessible information is evil! Not quite. Among the daily noise, we forget ourselves, and this is what concerns me most. We shut off our brains and shut out that inner voice of wisdom and become yes and no zombies. We’re being convinced that what we believe to be true is false and what others tell us is the absolute truth. When we no longer find time to be still, our own protection system breaks down.

 

When I finally put those books back on the shelf – Luckily I only had books. Today there are hundreds of apps to make life during pregnancy and with an infant “easier” with anything from clocking feeding times to detailing how far apart contractions should be to outlining what exactly a child should be eating. – I returned to the quiet. It was only then that I could honestly listen to that voice inside that really did know how to mother without the bombardment of “helpful” tips. Of course I didn’t do (and continue not to do) everything right. It’s a learning process, and always will be, but at least I can be true to myself and not to all those other people who believe they know better than I. And when I need help, which is often enough, I go to individuals I know and trust. Their advice is valuable because these people know me and my family and understand our circumstances. It is a living and breathing community.

As I believe is true about all things in life, it is about balance. We can’t go about in stillness all the time, and it’s not healthy – and if we were really honest with ourselves we might admit we have already noticed – to be consumed by noise. Allowing ourselves those moments of quiet can help strengthen that inner-voice, reminding us of who we are, even among the noise.

 

Of course the logical question follows: am I adding to the noise with my blog? Something for me to further ponder….