Lessons from home: Eight essentials for living a graceful life

We all come from somewhere[1]. For many of us, this is a place we remember as home, more or less complete with a family (in whatever constellation), childhood friends, and a random collection of brittled memories, outgrown fantasies, bruised teddybears, and broken toys – the enormous value of all of which can only be assessed by our own smaller selves. For many of us, also, Christmas[2] is a time when we get a little more in touch with this place than in our day-to-day grown-up lives. Invariably, it seems, this encounter comes as an elaborate masquerade of, either, traumatised ghouls of an unfinished past in a spooky dance of unfulfilled reciprocal demands[3], or, kindred spirits in timeless harmonious embraces indulging in blissful appreciation of deep mutual understanding[4].

For most of us, both views are unrealistic extremes. For most of us, the places we come from were neither burning (or freezing) hells of unceasing emotional abuse nor marshmallowy (or melodious) heavens of uninterrupted unconditional love[5]. Instead, they were places of many ordinary as well as some extraordinary experiences, places of living, dying, laughing, crying, lamenting, enjoying, accepting, and letting go. And – often underemphasised in our overly critical or overly romanticising stories of those places – they were the first environment that taught us skills for coping with the world around us, skills we still (consciously or unconsciously) apply to whatever comes our way.

In homage to such skills and with gratitude to those who taught me, this is a post about what I learned at home: Eight indispensable tools for living a graceful life, even (or maybe even more) in uncertain times[6]. They might or might not appear useful to whoever happens to read this post – in either case, may they inspire you to think about what skills you picked up where you came from and how they help you along as you make your way through this world.

  1. Looking things up: At our home mealtimes were spent sitting at the table with everyone playing a civilised part in some educated conversation, strongly encouraged to not fidget, move around, or – worst of all – get up[7]. However, there was (and still is) one important exception to this rule: If some dispute about facts, figures, or opinions came up, it was mandatory for someone to leave the table, look the disputed item up in a dictionary (and/or other sources, if the first entry found was unsatisfactory or – which was the case more often than not – led to further follow-up questions[8]), and share their insights with everybody else around the table. Until this day, the impulse to check on any piece of information that comes my way before trusting its validity is an impulse I rarely suppress – all the more so as from what I see, the dysfunctionalities of our informational systems seem to increase rather than decrease as of late.
  2. Counting and sorting: Numbers of steps in all kinds of buildings from church steeples to watchtowers, numbers of traffic lights or road crossings on all kinds of itineraries, and, of course, the universe of humanistic knowledge in chewable (and memorable) bites such as muses (“Euer Urpokal Kliometerthal”[9]), planets (“Mein Vater erklärt mir jeden Sonntag unsere neun Planeten”[10]), deadly sins (“SALIGIA”), or wonders of the world (no shortcut) – in our family, anything in a somehow countable shape or form was counted. And, if counting wasn’t enough because several dimensions came into play, things were sorted. So, as a highlight of counting and sorting, the methodology of the identification key in its intellectually and aesthetically satisfying incorruptibility was one of the earliest scientific miracles I stood in awe of – applying it to crayon cuttings that I had collected from the sharpener[11]. Until this day, the conviction that most things under the sun can be lured to follow some kind of logic accessible to human minds remains a stronghold of how I think and work – all the more so as logic is my only legitimate reference point for making judgments when I’m not an expert (which is ever so often the case).
  3. Cutting (Christmas) trees: Every year for Christmas (and sometimes also during the year, for horticultural reasons) a tree was cut in our garden[12]. In the beginning (after several dozen small fir trees given us by my mother’s stepfather had been planted all across the garden for future Christmas use), this was an uneventful happening involving a saw and a pair of garden gloves. Later, when the trees had grown higher than 4-5 meters, it became an acrobatic exercise with one of my parents high up on a ramshackle ladder construction, the other one directing the endeavour from below, making sure the blows (now administered with an axe) and cuts (involving several types of saws) were placed in a way that ensured that the top of the tree (the upper 2-3 meters destined to magically mutate into a Christmas tree in the coming days) fell in the opposite direction of all living beings in its vicinity[13]. Until this day, the conscious consideration of who could possibly be hit by the consequences of whatever I decide to dig into, chew on, or cut off is part and parcel of my decision-making process – all the more so as these days, the branches of what I deal with tend to extend way beyond visible garden fences.
  4. Mounting slides: My parents love to take photographs, both for work (my mother in particular, as a botanist) and for pleasure (my father during family trips, all kinds of celebrations, and when visitors came to our house). For a long time, they celebrated the framed slide as the pinnacle of photographic conservation (as opposed to prints which were frowned upon for reasons I cannot remember)[14]. As a consequence, any picture taken had to be mounted before we could look at it. So, early on, I learned how to cut stripes of developed film, frame single slides with glass and oblong cardboard strips (or, later, with clickable plastic frames), write tiny labels with dates and descriptions – all of which needed to be done for hundreds and thousands of pictures before a single one could be projected onto the screen in our living room to finally savour the memory that had been immortalised weeks or months ago. Until this day, I have a fondness for conscientiously conflating past, present, and future by using the present to meticulously dissect past experiences until they open up translucent new perspectives towards some surprising future – all the more so as I sometimes like to distance myself from the media-pervading (but grossly simplifying) “Be in the present” messages.
  5. Eating with my hands: In the 70s, my parents travelled to India a couple of times, and they also hosted several Indian students in the small sublet apartment in our house. Among many other things born from the resulting interactions[15], one that impressed me lots as a child was when my mother started experimenting with Indian cuisine and taught us how to properly eat with our hands (Indian Style). The cultivated art of skilfully combining suitable (i.e., complementary in size and structure) pieces of food with your (right) hand on the plate so the result can be nonchalantly formed into a ball and swiftly transferred from hand to mouth – all in one grand gesture from start to finish[16] – never ceased to inspire my aspiration to perfect imitation. Until this day, the belief that there’s a sophisticated technique to subtly refine everything (meaning: everything) human beings engage in informs many of my perspectives on mankind and its endeavours – all the more so, the more I’m living in times and spaces in which cultures ceaselessly merge and mingle.
  6. Making and maintaining a fire: In general, a city childhood does not lend itself to learning the skills of the fields and forests. However, making fire was an exception: Every year for Easter, we burnt whatever leftover pieces of garden wood had accumulated over the year, piling up a huge pyre to get rid of all those useless, dried-up odds and ends (and maybe also to chase away some left-over winter pixies potentially planning to disturb whatever summer plans we had)[17]. Being part of this all-encompassing clean-up, I learned how to organise the inner, middle, and outer layers of burnable materials in the beginning, how to add new feed to the fire once it was alive and crackling, and how to contain its warmth (and its possible threats) once it had eaten up most of its opulent meal. Until this day, the idea that (potentially) destructive forces need extra attention when they’re being summoned, kindled, and put to helpful uses keeps me vigilant and on my toes – all the more so the more I have to deal with the dark sides of life’s forces.
  7. Preparing fruit in rum (“Rumtopf”): Given my parents general distance to all things alcoholic[18], it was in some ways a strange tradition that for years they kept a heavy stone vessel in their basement in which fruit in rum was prepared over the course of the summer’s harvests. Starting at some point in spring, when the first berries were ripe in the garden, fruit, sugar, and (overproof) rum were assembled in the large pot, and then, bit by bit, more fruit (and rum) was added over the course of the year, until – usually around Christmas – first bits of the “Rumtopf” could be sampled with ice-cream or vanilla custard[19]. Of course, children were not allowed to have this (too alcoholic) dish, so a mysterious aura surrounded the stretched-out process of preparation as well as the final result. Until this day, the insight that sometimes extensive and elaborate contributions yield outcomes that make no sense is the sobering reminder I take refuge to – all the more so when frustrations threaten to raise their gleeful voices.
  8. Creating worlds: When it came to spending time together, one of the most enjoyable entertainments in our family was (and still is) the creation of complete (and complex) worlds – from series of bedtime stories about dwarfs or pigs to museums (on subject such as eskimos or tobacco) assembled in our garden, complete with written guides and entry tickets, from floor-covering towns for Playmobil figures (including railway timetables with proportionally adjusted distances and times) to elaborate chronicles of widely branched blue-blooded families, from themed anniversary parties (a different ethnic dish for every year) to hand-made doll-houses with miniature period furniture and matching wall-papers and curtains. Whatever the world, the imperative was always to aim for ultimate consistency in what was brought together – and the tiniest addition was welcome as long as it enhanced the plausibility of the overall story. Until today, I uphold the fantasy that we can create any world that we want – as long as it’s internally consistent, crafted with attention to detail, and with a whiff of humour – all the more so, as all scientific findings seem to point towards an ever-mounting malleability of all seemingly solid realities around us.

The chronicles of the dynasty of Kartossel, a guide to an eskimo museum, and an information leaflet for the country of Muchmesemia – (c) Anja Hartmann, ca. 1980s

Happy 2016!

[1] For an upbeat musical interpretation of this observation, listen here [retreived Jan 4th, 2016]. BACK TO TEXT

[2] Please treat this as a placeholder to exchange for any other personally relevant and/or politically correct label for the festive holiday season celebrated by most of mankind around this time of the year. BACK TO TEXT

[3] You can always (re-) watch Thomas Vinterberg’s “Festen” (1998) for a flavour of this. Or, a little less serious, Loriot’s timeless “Weihnachten bei Hoppenstedts” (1997) – accessible only to connoisseurs of German humour, though.BACK TO TEXT

[4] Any Christmas music medley as offered by department stores and shopping malls is a prime illustration of this. For an artistically flawless presentation in the same vein, listen to this [retreived Jan 4th, 2016] – or any other song from Anne Sofie von Otter’s sublime Album “Home for Christmas” (1999).BACK TO TEXT

[5] For some unfortunate (or fortunate) beings, however, either might be the case. This blog post is not addressing their experiences.BACK TO TEXT

[6] This is obviously a slim subset of a much larger toolbox that I might (or might not) unpack further in other posts. What you can be certain about is that application of these tools contributes to anything I write, even if not always in visible ways.BACK TO TEXT

[7] This was also (or even: in particular) valid for us kids as soon as we could sit. As young girls, my sister and myself were proud of the fact that many of our parents’ acquaintances praised our ability to sit still, eat properly, and quietly follow what was being talked about all the way through a multi-course menu.BACK TO TEXT

[8] Yes, I grew up before we could look up things on the internet. Yes, we had several dictionaries (and other works of reference) at home. Among those, our favourite source of information was (and still is) “Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon” in its 6th edition (1902 sqq).BACK TO TEXT

[9] Obvious, right? And the verse came in very handy when our neighbour recently labeled his bell plate “Mnemosyne”. You might also want to look up Aby Warburg in this context.BACK TO TEXT

[10] It seems that after Pluto’s recent disgrace this became: “Mein Vater erklärt mir jeden Sonntag unseren Nachthimmel”. Not quite as appealing, but what to do… BACK TO TEXT

[11] In stark contrast to the sad fact that, beyond this fascination, I “used” my mother’s experience as a botanist mostly for developing a thorough non-knowledge of all things green and plantlike. I still wonder whether some part of my brain knows everything she taught me and just plays its games with not releasing it when I see a tree or a flower, or whether what I heard actually never registered anywhere. I’ll let you know if I ever find out. BACK TO TEXT

[12] There were other garden-related skills that I learned as a kid, but none had the unique combination of utter thrill, magical anticipation, and technical precision that was perfectly reflected in cutting the Christmas tree. BACK TO TEXT

[13] This movie shows neither of my parents (and I don’t know the guy on the tree), but watching it gives you a glimpse of what it felt like to witness the scene [retrieved Jan 5th, 2016]. BACK TO TEXT

[14] In case you’re not a seasoned slide mounter, this video gives you a taste of what I’m talking about [retrieved Jan 5th, 2016]. At home, however, we did it without the white gloves and the rocket blower. BACK TO TEXT

[15] One of them being my ongoing interest in and fascination with the philosophical, cultural, and spiritual traditions of “the East”. BACK TO TEXT

[16] A masterful demonstration in just 14 seconds can be found here [retrieved Jan 5th, 2016]. BACK TO TEXT

[17] The obvious soundtrack for this is here [retrieved Jan 5th, 2016]. BACK TO TEXT

[18] Consumption of alcohol was generally limited to Sunday lunches and select parties with friends and family, reaching the heights of excess when in addition to a glass of sherry with the starter (or soup) and some wine with the main course(s), sweet liquor was offered to accompany deserts and coffee.BACK TO TEXT

[19] In case you’re unfamiliar with the dish, a recipe with some nice historical background is here [retrieved Jan 5th, 2016]. BACK TO TEXT

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