Stillness and Monsters

May 29, 2014, second Day in Germany:

Thoughts, my brain itself, felt heavy as I sat on a bench looking over Dieksee in northern Germany. As I moved into stillness, the usual busyness, that monkey-mind, performed its dance. I was not, however, my usual self. The mental tautness, caused, I suspect, from lack of sleep, huge doses of really good coffee (thank you, Germany), and quitting smoking cigarettes, was observed, Zen fashion, as a fact. It helped that I had nothing pressing to do. I could be. It was mid-morning in mid-spring; flower scents were roses and lilacs; courting birds danced and sang.

My beloved Monica and our five year old Hannah had walked ahead, investigating the shore bounded by thick woods, woods hiding a bright red a public transport train. They had found a middle-aged man and his dogs; the man had built a small sacred beach. They were working their own forms of stillness, causing the kinetic Hannah to have to consider that these dogs (German and therefore much better trained than the average dog in the USA) also practiced a mindful stillness. Monica had gone into a magical plane of being. From this limen, she could both keep an eye on Hannah and be caught up into the third heaven. A little further along the lake the public beach was to open for the season tomorrow, but what is time when Hannah and Monica become present: The beach opens to them. A thirty-something man is preparing the space and playing American pop music from the shower house when I meet up with them. I smile as Pharrell William’s “Happy” rings out over the water. Monica sees me and waves; Hannah shouts, “Hi, Daddy, watch this!”

Just before these events, the three of us had a lovely German breakfast prepared by the owner of the Haus Birkengrund Bed and Breakfast in Malente: Amazing coffee, cheeses and meats, a perfectly soft boiled egg, and fruit juices. This owner is Monica’s paternal aunt, Tanta Helga, Hannah’s new bff and defender from birth. Similar to his sister, Monica’s father ran a motel on the Atlantic coast of Florida. Monica knows the routines (her bedroom for much of her youth was a motel room). Monica’s first language is German, her parents having migrated from Germany to Chicago after WWII, speaking German at home. This is both useful and distancing, allowing me to be linguistically lazy.

Napping after breakfast, we then took a walk to the Lake, the See. A white, wooden bench under a green canopy, facing the water with nesting ducks and coots, called to me. Monica, accurately observing my state, suggested that she and Hannah go ahead while I sit. “Sitting” for unprogrammed Quakers involves a deep set of nuanced meaning, and Monica surely knew the open ended gift she was offering. Chronos easily gives way to Kairos. She said she’d be back in ten minutes.  Stillness, smells wafting, light glinting through the spring leaves, shifting breezes awaken my hair, timelessness sets in.  Eyes open slowly, and a glance at the watch tells me that it is now thirty minutes later.  Letting go stillness, I begin to walk, and, five minutes later, find Monica in her liminal space. This is not a new experience. Being partnered to a spirit person is often awe inspiring, just plain fun, and, at times, terrifying.

We had started days earlier (what is a day really when one is moving across so many time zones?). Our dear Friends, Javaughn and Christina, picked us up from our home and drove us to the Michiana Regional Airport where we left South Bend, Indiana, USA, on the South Shore Train, riding it from its eastern most point to the western end of the line at Chicago’s Millennium Station. We had lunch at Qdoba, with me having a cigarette out on the street after lunch as Hannah did cart wheels on the sidewalk while learning to judge social space. Then we caught the blue line El to O’Hare. As is our habit, we were still getting everything ready at midnight the night before. I was up at 6:30 am making breakfast (and yes, we make good coffee for Americans, grinding our own organic, fair traded beans, espresso roast). I counted out all the lancets, micro needles, alcohol swabs, kits, glucogon sets, short and long acting insulin pens, various candies should Hannah’s blood sugar fall to low, everything three times: We were rightly instructed by our nurse/diabetes coach to have twice what one needs, just in case. Diabetes is both easy to treat and unforgiving if you do not. We were a little tired, but prepared. The house/pet sitters had been arranged, mail held, newspaper cancelled. Then O’Hare.

O’Hare. Delivered to her by trains, we entered the beautiful monster: huge, shiny, orderly, international, polluting, impersonal, capitalist, soulless. I don’t recommend cutting off an eight inch beard after you get your recent passport photo. It may end good naturedly with jokes about Santa Claus, but there was some serious eyeballing. Add that this part of our family has two last names and two races; we seem to invite raised eyebrows. Our privileged social presentation seemed to calm the TSA representatives. Oh, and I threw away a nearly full pack of cigarettes and a lighter into the garbage as we were going in. This was the day I used to cut off this relapse. Any day is a good day to quit, but in my many quittings, I seem to need some powerful confluence of meanings–and, yes, I know, I participate in their social construction, both wittingly and unconsciously. But here is was, that beautiful monster, O’Hare, was helping me with that addiction monster, like Godzilla and Mothra having at it over the Tokyo skyline. I was hoping that Godzilla would leave Mothra unrevivable this time. Even so, my synapses soon started to complain, to suggest in profound, loud, and in some subtle ways that a better world is but a puff away. We went through the security check, getting on a plane which is a nonstop flight from Chicago to Berlin, seven and a half hours of pretty much guaranteed nicotine sobriety. And no sleep.

Sleep can be done on a plane. I’ve seen it. I used to do it. But then I became a father. It’s not really my son’s fault, but he plays a role in why I find it difficult, even painful to sleep on a plane (I have never gone first class, so I have a sneaky suspicion that I might be able to sleep there, but I doubt I’ll ever find out for sure). About twenty one years ago, Cameron was five years old. We were at his Cub Scout troop’s yearly camp playing softball. I had planfully positioned myself in right field. For those who don’t know, this is where you put your players who are not good at defensive ball playing. This is the field with the least action. But there was a hit. I ran, dove, snagged the fly, crashed to the ground and heard a crunch in my lower back. I am ordered to do stretches (read yoga here–forward back bend asanas–with very gentle rearward back bends) and core strengthening exercises which is all fine and good, but powerless over the profound discomfort of that torture device known as the airline seat. My damaged vertebrae are part of the honor of parenthood and the downfall of any meaningful hope of sleep on a plane. I will say that Airberlin serves better coffee and meals than I’ve had on any flight in fifty years. But no sleep.

In Berlin you leave the secure area even though one goes to another connection on the same airline. Another screening of the Gandolph passport with finally a joke about Santa, and we are off for more good coffee awaiting the final leg of the flight to Franfurt. Now Berlin is closer to where we are going first in Germany, but the round trip to Frankfurt is less expensive and Frankfurt is closer to where we will end our trip. So we fly away from where we are going. But before we get on the plane we walked outside to the terminal for our flight to Frankfurt. There are the smokers. Oh, the aroma of heaven. Eyes ahead, I grab Hannah’s hand and walk as fast as she can down the quarter mile gauntlet, the olfactory flailing leaving mental scars as the merciless have at their victim.

Hmmm, I’d better tell you something else. This trip is an inauguration, a preparation. We are spending these three weeks in Germany and Hungary with a short stay in Vienna, seeing family and friends in part as a cultural softening as we begin an academic year in Ghana this fall. Monica has been awarded this year with a prestigious teaching award and now a Fulbright Fellowship to teach in Legon at the University of Ghana, Institute of African Studies. She gets to take Hannah and me. So this remarkable partner, this spirit person, this academic–she and I almost decided against going to Ghana. Hannah was diagnosed with type one diabetes about two months ago. We were willing to suspend anything to get on top of this news. A new normal is settling in. A person with diabetes can do whatever they otherwise would do, usually.

Tanta Helga pampers us, feeds us well, takes us to the Baltic Sea where the fishing boats bring in there catch.  So different, and much more orderly than most of the US.  I sleep well and soak in the sights and smells.  I think I want to be buried in a butcher shop in Malente, on a cobble stone street, an earthy beer and a fine sausage tossed at my grave from time to time. We will drive south soon and then east, but for now, we find a respite as new synaptic connections rapidly build.

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