Motherland

I have self-published a memoir, called ‘Motherland— stories of home and belonging.’


Here is the email that I sent out about it:

“I was finally legal but did I belong? My original home that I had left so casually still loomed large in my psyche. So what exactly was home now? Maybe I could write my way there?” These are the words on the back cover of the book. It has taken me only thirty years to write my way there. The book is text only and the cover image is one of my paintings. It is for sale for $25 plus $4 postage. If you want to buy one, please let me know maritakohl1ATgmail.com 

Since this blog and my memoir writing are connected I thought it fitting to mention it here. The image on the book cover is the same image as on my first blog entry from the 4th September 2012. I just re-read that first entry. I was worried about exposure and wrote, ‘I belong to the sort of people  that don’t let their possessions, their business spill onto the street.’ Funny that, for a person who advertises her self-printed memoir.

I just found this wonderful quote by Barbara Kingsolver about writing, ‘Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.’

Offering parts of oneself is what creativity is about. I always come up against the gripping fear of exposure and the ghost of shame. I guess most people do. It is scary to show up.

The image on the book cover of a woman with her head bent, holding a vase of flowers speaks to me in these words: ‘Even if I am out of proportion, a little worn and forlorn and don’t hold my head up high, I offer these flowers—these are my offerings.’

I have received some wonderful feedback, so heartfelt and supportive from people who have read the memoir. I’ve been very touched by these exchanges. Some readers have told me that it was an inspiration to reflect on their own lives and to write their own stories.

The woman with the bent head thanks you for listening. 

Be what you are, Give what you have

In March I joined a small poetry reading group on Zoom. This was during covid when we were more housebound. There was a catch though – at each meeting we had to learn a poem off by heart and ‘read’ it from memory. I find it slow work to memorise a poem. To make it easier on myself I chose mainly short poems—often by Rose Ausländer.

On my last visit to Germany I had bought a little book of her poetry—a selection of poems called ‘Regenwörter’ (Rainwords).

I enjoyed introducing this German language poet to our little Zoom group and would read the German and English versions. She was part of my culture, my language, my background. Being a German of my generation, that comes with a lot of ambiguity and soul-searching and Rosa embodied that. 

Many of her poems are short, clear and rhythmical, playful even. The themes of her lyrical poetry reflect her life—her sense of home and longing for it, her childhood, her relationship to her mother, her loves, losses, being Jewish, the Holocaust, exile and later ageing and death. They often include nature and her connection to the natural world as a companion and intimate friend. She invented words, which you can do in German by stringing words together. Many of her poems have a soothing quality despite their themes of loss and longing. 

She lived through wars and genocide, exile and home-coming. She said, ‘I survived because I was able to write, that writing was like a drive, an instinct.’ She wrote more than 3000 poems and made her home in words. 

Motherland  

My fatherland  
is dead 
They buried it 
in fire

I live
in my motherland
Word

Rose Ausländer was born 11 May, 1901 into a Jewish family in Czernowitz, a town in an area called ‘the Bukovina’. At the time of her birth it was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and a flourishing part of central Europe. It was a melting pot of ethnic groups, languages and customs. After World War 1, Bukovina became part of Romania and after World War 2 became part of the Ukraine. In 1957, she wrote this poem about her beloved Bukovina—‘land of beech trees’.

Bucovina I

Green mother
Bucovina
butterflies in her hair

Drink
says the sun
red melon milk
white maize milk
I made them sweet
Violet pine cones
airwings birds and foliage

The Carpathian ridge
paternally
invites you
to carry you

Four languages
songs in four languages

People
who understand each other

When she grew up, most middle class and liberal Jews spoke German. She studied literature and philosophy at the German university in her hometown. As a student she was introduced to the work of Constantin Brunner, a popular philosopher throughout the German speaking world at the time. He was influenced by Plato and especially Spinoza. These teachings sustained her all her life.

Her father died when she was nineteen. As a consequence she had to leave university and her family urged her to emigrate to the USA.  

She emigrated in 1921 and joined relatives in a small town in the Mid West and a year later settled in New York. There she married a school friend from her home town. She worked in a bank and as a journalist and translator. The marriage lasted only a few years. She became an American citizen in 1926. But she missed her family and culture and in 1931 returned to Czernowitz to care for her mother.

In 1935 she lost her American citizenship. Some years later her first collection of lyrical poetry was published but then suppressed by the Nazis.

Between 1941 and 1944 Rose, her mother, brother and sister-in-law had to live in the Czernowitz ghetto and do forced labour. Later they went into hiding and survived the holocaust.  

She returned to New York in 1946 with the plan for her mother to join her. But her mother died and Rose again struggled to feel at home in New York. 

She received American citizenship and wrote in English until 1957. Fellow poets encouraged her to find her way back into the German language. 

In 1964 she moved to Vienna and in 1965 settled in Düsseldorf, Germany. The same year her poetry collection, ‘Blinder Sommer’ (Blind Summer) was published and was well received. She traveled widely in Europe and to Israel over the next few years and met poets and writers. 

My Breath

In my deep dreams
the earth cries
blood

Stars smile 
into my eyes

When people come
with multicoloured questions
go to Socrates
I say

The past
made me in into poetry
I have
inherited the future

My breath is called
now

In 1972 Rose moved to the Nelly Sachs Haus, a Jewish aged care facility in Düsseldorf.

She met Werner Braun who published and championed her work thereafter. 

In 1977 she broke her hip and did not leave her room anymore. 

Rose Ausländer died on 03 January, 1988.  

She has become a much loved poet in Germany. When I was collecting information on her life I discovered that there is a private museum dedicated to her poetry in a small town not far from where I grew up. I will make sure to visit it next time I am there. 

Listen to this…

You’re here, still

Throw your fear 
into the air

Soon
your time is over
soon
heaven grows
under the grass
your dreams fall
into nowhere

Still
the carnation smells sweetly
the thrush sings
still you may love 
give words away 
you are here, still

Be what you are
Give what you have

Ambiguity

DSC02870

Recently I had a conversation with someone who grew up in Tasmania and as a young adult left for Europe. ‘Exciting Europe. Couldn’t wait to get out of here’, he said. He fell in love with a German woman and ended up living in Germany for many years. Whereas I had left Germany to follow my boyfriend to this far away place.

This man told me that his parents were Dutch and when they came to Australia they decided they did not want to live with split loyalties. They could only belong to one country—and that was now Australia. He believed it had to do with growing up in Holland during the war.

In my case, after a messy process of obtaining residency I also wanted things to be clear and decided to become an Australian citizen in 1995. For that I had to give up my German passport. The postmaster took it and cut a corner off. I didn’t feel anything other than relief.

Some years later I began to feel some regret, because I would only ever be able to visit home for a maximum of three months at a time. I hadn’t taken into account that my needs would change, that I might want to spent more time with my family, be available to care for my ageing mother, that my son would move back there— that my family would need me and I them. Ten years after I became Australian, German laws changed and two nationalities became permissible…but too late for me. 

Like my friend’s parents I had not wanted to live with split loyalty. Now I wonder about that ‘either or’ mind state. My sense about home ended up being so much more ambiguous than I had allowed myself to feel.

I realised that there is another country I had no passport for—the one called ambiguity. In that place, according to the dictionary, ’several interpretations are plausible and a common aspect is uncertainty.’ 

I need a lot of practice to live in this new country, and art-making is a safe place to explore it. I am still amazed that everything in an image can be changed again and again. Change one thing and everything shifts. Lurching from one ambiguity to the next. It is tiring sometimes but closer to the lived experience in my body. 

Recently I read ‘You’re Not Listening’ by Kate Murphy. She writes:  

‘The English Romantic poet John Keats wrote to his brothers in 1817 that to be a person of achievement, one must have “negative capability” which he described as “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching, after fact and reason.…” Negative capability is also the root of creativity because it leads to new ways of thinking about things. In the psychological literature, negative capability is known as cognitive complexity, which research shows is positively related to self-compassion and negatively related to dogmatism.’ 

I wish we all could exercise more cognitive complexity in the world right now.

No Home Like Place

‘No Home Like Place’ is the title of a group show at Marts in Murwillumbah of which I am part of. Our group statement says, ‘We are seven local artists from widely differing backgrounds and experiences who explore what the notion of ‘home’ means to us, from the geographical idea of place and the physicality of objects to the psychological and the intimate.’

A few days after the show opened, the gallery closed its doors due to the corona virus. One of the many small, big, bigger and huge events that were cancelled.

I’d like to share my art piece and artist statement ….and give our exhibition a bit of an airing. It must be a bit stuffy in that room by now. 

Heimat 1:100000
I grew up on a farm in a village in Germany. My culture was very bonded to place and region, its customs and language. There is a name for that in German – Heimat, which means homeland. It evokes the ideas of love, loyalty and attachment to place, and denotes a kind of idyllic world that offers identity and safety. Its loss is unfathomable and brings misery and homesickness. 

The twists and turns of the notion of home have pre-occupied me ever since I came to live in Australia 37 years ago at the age of 26. I felt hopelessly entangled with the word home. There are so many conflicting feelings about the loss of home, the longing for a place to call home and the vulnerabilities of not feeling at home.

It seems to me that I had taken up my ancestors’ sense of belonging from my mother through the umbilical cord. It was still alive in me, still pulsing and calling me back. My home and my mother are 17,000kms away. This artwork is 170m long, which represents the 17,000kms scaled 1:100,000. I started making the work while visiting my family in Germany last year, and I finished it here in Australia. 

Here is a video of the exhibition:

Loving the World

The article below is by Jaya Ashmore. It arrived in my inbox this morning and I had the urge to share it on this blog. I met Jaya in India twenty six years ago. Since then she has become a meditation teacher with her own flavour and flair.

The artwork is mine. Small images on matchboxes, presently tucked away in a little suitcase, resting.

Is Loving the World Good for the World?

What if liking the world is good for it?

What if letting our hearts open—in direct connection with nature—helps nature?
It may not be the only thing that helps, but is there any one and only thing that helps.

Appreciation and gratitude are good for us—encouraging health and happiness in human beings.

 

Perhaps—life is mysterious, after all—perhaps our kind attention is also just what the world needs.

It also helps us disentangle from, and disobey, a culture of “using.”
Drenched with a sunset or the scent of jasmine, we overturn the current worldview of lack and the need to earn pleasure and a place in the world. Simple pleasure, freely available and boundless, is radical.

It also helps lower our “alarm system.”

Doing only what we can do for the earth when we are alarmed—it’s not working out so well. Reading the research on climate change is important. But so far, it’s not enough to get us really moving. And sometimes being overwhelmed by predictions stops us from moving.

If we’re willing to do whatever is needed:
What about a more demanding practice, of ease? A practice of coming out of alarm, into connection, even when the situation is alarming. Or connecting to what feels enough and okay, already now, even when our internal alarm system is on high. That is hard practice.

Awe, gratitude and appreciation open us. Open is what we need to be, and what we are. What is.
Open leaves room for love, and grief, and life.
Keenly receptive yet relaxed, we find our own sensitivity no longer works against us. We may even start to have a few good ideas, instead of a million busy ones.
When the simple, unearnable and unownable pleasures of life meet our utter sensitivity—maybe some of that goodness spills over to what no longer feels like a separate world.

 

And then…maybe it’s possible to leap to a different kind of living and acting from love.

Not because somebody
told you to.

Not because you should.

Not even because it’s a good idea.

Here, there are parakeets—
They are lemon green, their calls
grating the air
from forty feet up.

Birds who 

have never seen a cage.

~Jaya, Sattal, 3 April, 2019

 

The Making Waters

The Making Waters

My diary entry today finished with, ‘I do love steering my little boat into the making waters, day by day’.

The image of a boat is both a soothing and unsettling metaphor. The lonely boat out in the big open sea—fear of the unknown, of failing, of crashing and not surviving. The soothing part is that there is a boat that can take me somewhere, somewhere new. It always means a journey, a voyage to an unknown place. It means leaving the familiar behind and being carried into unfamiliar waters.

I’ve been part of a small group of women who meet to paint or draw ‘en plein air’. Our usual place is a small beach—a pebble beach with black rocks sticking out of the sea framed by two headlands. We sit under a Pandanus tree where each one engages with the place in her own way. I am mostly pre-occupied with the black rocks and the little bits and pieces of debris lying around that are bleached by the sun; shells, sponges, rocks, leaves, bits of seaweed. I notice the detail in what is decaying and discarded, that are still hosts to tiny life forms which pattern and adorn them. Wind, air and water caress them until they morph into the ground.

Most of all I just like being there. Every time is different. Once we set a date it is a commitment, even when the weather turns and we just stand and marvel at ‘our wild beach’ and scramble up the nearest headland.

At the beginning of this year, after a very high tide, the pebble beach was swept clean of all this sweet debris and leafy matter. Only the rocks and pebbles remained and they were clicking and clacking as the waves sucked them in and pushed them back. It sounded like talking and chattering. The sea giveth and the sea taketh, I thought.

It was windy that time and we just tried to hold onto our drawing paper. Just being there and partaking was exhilarating though. It was good to be out and about in the weather. It was good to be with others interested in art-making and supportive of each other in this endeavour—our shared need to make art.

These outings have been a good balance to pottering alone in my studio and in my own head.

Some ‘makings’ are emerging from my tentative beginnings with rough hemp thread, the colour white, muslin and my inspirational assortment of weathered bits of nature and debris. My pre-occupation as always is with process—this time with ageing, fading, impermanence and absence, how little remains.

Last Thursday at pebble beach a little boat drifted by—someone’s fishing vessel, travelling gently upon the sea.

Gardenia Season

 

SOLD, written large
on the First National Real Estate sign
our neighbours of 23 years moving

Sharp knocking on the veranda
I gently move the curtain
startled Wonga Pigeons scatter

Tuesday evening, dusk
in my room
two lights lit

Rain in the night
cool morning
steamy day
sheltering indoors

From the kitchen window
I pursue the white gardenia flowers
for my bliss

Today gardenia flowers are pure white
Tomorrow yellow, the next day brown
then shrivelled and gone

Across the pathway
the pink hydrangea flowers on and on
—the whole of the summer

Noisy Miner sticking its beak
deep into the blue-purple agapanthus
and deeper still …. off again

A friendly wave across the yard
from my neighbour,
He is showing the international removalist
all that they are going to take—to Japan

 

It is also the season for our little poetry group to meet in Jane’s cabin to read poetry… and learn some of the craft.
Thank you Jane, and thank you other Jane for giving me lifts in your all-wheel drive up that steep hill.

Wishing you all a happy and peaceful Festive Season.

 

Still Life with Teapot

As Iris Murdoch noted, ‘One of the secrets of a happy life is a series of continuous small treats’. When I read that quote yesterday I immediately made a list of my own small treats:

A mug (no handles) with hot tea, milk and a little sugar; the warmth seeping through my hands into my body; Azaleas in bloom in the garden (right now); more Azaleas in bloom; Azaleas in bloom all day; seeing the moon in the sky; having left-overs to heat up for lunch; walking on beaches; choosing which beach to walk on today; able to stay in bed when a little sick (as now); personal emails from family and friends; books from the library; reserving library books for $2 each; picking said book up and settling in for a treat, an adventure, a mind-opening ride to anywhere; finding life’s movements aligned with my wishes (finding that more of the time); receiving and accepting invitations; moments when life opens as an invitation (not a battle to the top or a falling through the bottom); bird calls; first Jasmine flowers and scent in spring; a touch of sadness here and there; sitting in the dark with only candle light; other’s happiness; moon bathing; buying the deepest red Geraniums in a pot (when I find them); walking to my studio; entering and starting work (fiddling); seeing photos of my grandson; the freshness after a house clean/tidy; the smell of baking; a little cake with lots of cream; the bitter taste of dandelion tea; toast with butter, honey and tahini; words like ‘wild mushrooms’ (any foods that have the word wild in it); the words wilderness and heath; fresh sheets on my bed (high cotton count); any views of distant hills or mountains, wooded, or unwooded (preferably with snow on them); Nasturtiums everywhere; all flowers that appear out of the ground when the season comes upon them; walking through meadows in the village I come from (for real or imagined); wearing pj’s at 6.00 pm (unplugged completely); the sound of crickets on summer nights; the view of the moon through my bedroom window; sitting in bed writing this…… and best of all treats— friends and friendships.

The Iris Murdoch quote came from a book called ‘Still Life with Teapot – on Zen, writing and creativity’ by Brigid Lowry. She was inspired by the ‘Pillow Book’ which is a collection of essays, lists, anecdotes, poems and descriptive passages by Sei Shōnagan in Heian Japan in 990-1000AD. She was one of the court ladies to the Empress. Her now famous book of observations and musings have little connection to one another other than what the author was thinking in any given moment in her daily life.

Brigid has created a Pillow Book of these times about a woman my age. Hers is intimate, surprising and wherever her mind wanders or rests, I easily went along. It was like a pleasant amble through all sorts of terrains and filled with yummy, sweet, sour and bitter-sweet observations.

A friend gifted me this book, just like that (it wasn’t my birthday). Come to think of it, that is another delicious, small treat — being given gifts out of the blue.

I did enjoy the book very much or let’s say, it grew on me. My first reaction was, ‘too sweet’. Be aware of first impressions. I could start a list with ‘Be aware of…’.

Maybe next time.

Process is Bliss

Blossoming
Since my exhibition in October last year I haven’t made any new work. I have had a break, been writing, travelling and working in the garden.

Recently I gave a short presentation about my art-practice at an informal artist’s meeting. Here is what I said:

“In order to prepare myself for this talk I looked through one of my journals and there I read, ‘Process is bliss—my manifesto is bliss.’ I had written that eight months ago. That must have been a good morning, a good session.

Process, for me includes journalling, reflecting, reading, writing, visual explorations and meeting friends to talk art and life.

It hasn’t always been that way. My focus used to be much narrower—to make desirable objects and sell them. During those times I had been driving myself. My body and mind paid for that excess. I ended up with a frozen shoulder, inflammation down one arm and repetitive strain injury in my elbows. Some of the symptoms stayed and others return if I overwork. It was necessary for me to find better and more sustainable ways of doing things.

Over time, and with some soul-searching, I changed from this goal focused drive to one that lives for process—for the inner exploration of conditions, connections and resonances.

In this way of working materials are secondary—whatever is readily available and turns up is welcomed. I don’t plan much but follow ‘prompts’, even if they seem silly and frilly. I find that they will be useful in surprising ways. It feels like playtime and I am happy.

The subject matter that I get drawn to might not be obviously blissful. I have been drawn to memoir, reflections on death, impermanence and loss.  I seem to start with some mental and emotional preoccupations and these get lighter and more flexible as I go. That is thanks to the making process which is physical, and in the present moment.

The doing and applying has its own logic. Going to the studio is both playful and a place of hard knocks, of doubt and feeling lost. I soften these difficult places by working on many things at the same time and working for shorter periods. When the old goal focussed driver tries to get back in the seat I tell him (it is a him) that I value my time in the workshop as constructive and enjoyable in itself—independent of outcomes.

I have a regular meditation practice and one of the instructions is to hold the three qualities of kindness, permission and interest. They have been good company on the cushion, in my art-practice and in daily life.“

Writing about process has made me determined to start my studio practice again. It has inspired me to make a date with myself in the studio—to show up— and see what can happen in that space.

From Down Under

Winter Solstice

I saw your hazy moon
through half shut eyes
the morning clear, high
clouds, light breeze
you are here

Solstice, shortest day of
the year, temple of light
I worship thee
escape from the inner
and outer darkness

Rest here!
Someone whispers
But how?

Lie down on the dark
pelts of your desires, fears,
uncertainties, terrors even
Rest. They are your
solicitous friends

Stroke their care-worn faces
their tired hands
soothe them as best as you can
in that kind wintry light

Rest here.