Marc Chagall’s stunning gift of reconciliation

"Your Word is Lamp unto My Feet." Stained glass window in shades of blues with flying angel and candelabra by Marc Chagall/ Charles Marq. Pfarrkirche St. Stephan, Mainz, Germany, 2016.
“Your Word is Lamp unto My Feet.” Stained glass window by Marc Chagall/ Charles Marq. Pfarrkirche St. Stephan, Mainz, Germany, 2016.

St. Stephan’s church in Mainz, Germany has stunning stained glass windows. The church burned on February 27, 1945 and Marc Chagall designed most of the current windows in the late 1970’s.

The windows show love stories of all kinds: Colorful people and angels float in a sea of blue glass. In light of the Holocaust, I was especially touched by the window of Abraham pleading with three angels to spare Sodom and Gomorrah.

“The windows in the church of St. Stephen were intended by the artist as a token of friendship between France and Germany, a pledge of international understanding and of the peace which we all need so badly.”

–Klaus Mayer [Genoveva Nitz, translator]. St. Stephan in Mainz, 8th rev. English edition. Regensburg, Germany: Verlag Schnell & Steiner GmbH Regensburg, 2015.

Marc Chagall was 91 years old when he designed the first windows. But when he was 98, he created several more and gave them to the church as a gift. He died a few months later. That’s a life full of art and faith, generosity and forgiveness.

An awe-inspiring role model. I don’t think I would be strong enough to be this generous after the destruction and the grief of World War II. I hope this for us all: that we find many ways to reach out in friendship, while it’s still easy.

Have you used your skills or talents to bring people together in friendship? Was it a special cake or meal? A painting or an ice sculpture? A story or poem? A replacement water pump? I’d love to hear about it.

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Create something new: Lessons from a re-cycled Convent, a Peacock with a Looking Glass, and a Cow with a Drinking Problem

Fish pond in foreground, a line of trees and a convent behind with a blossoming tree.
Roman pipeline to convent to farm. Gut Schillingskapellen, Dünstekoven. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

In the small village of Swisstal-Dünstekoven, a one-time convent was built solely with materials scavenged from the Roman water line. Now it’s a farm with Scottish Highland cows and reflective peacocks.

Lesson #1: Try a bit of creative re-cycling. If Roman ruins are in short supply, maybe you have a fragment that makes you laugh. Or just a bookshelf in the wrong place.

Peacock looking at its reflection in a mirror in a sunny farmyard
Know Thyself. Gut Shillingskapelle, © Laurel Decher, 2016.

At least two mirrors are propped up against the historic buildings in peacock-accessible places. I’m guessing mirrors have something to do with peacock mental health and the display of feathers. It looks a little bit too much like “selfies” for comfort.

Scottish Highland calf, brown and shaggy in a green meadow walled in with a stone wall.
A four-legged Scottish Highlander. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

This brown, woolly, Scottish Highland calf seems to have a sturdy self-image already.

Lesson #2: Don’t look in the mirror too long. Keep mooooving. (Sorry.)

An eccentric older relative was playing with the automatic water-er, slurping away noisily for a few minutes, then picking up its head to look at us, indignantly or defiantly. With that much hair over the eyes, it’s really hard to tell.

Black, Scottish Highland cow with head in waterer.
Slurping noisily at the automatic water-er must be fun. © Laurel Decher, 2015.
Black, Scottish Highland cow with head out of waterer and face covered with shaggy hair.
“Who are you looking at?” Black, Scottish Highland cow with indeterminate expression. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Who am I to say what’s silly behavior? I make up stories. Maybe this cow is a distinguished water musician. Not much audience yet. Doing the practicing in obscurity thing. That’s okay with me.

Lesson #3: Enjoy creating. Maybe the rest of the herd will be by later. Or not. But you will have had the fun of messing about.

Lesson #4: Notice the artists in your life.

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“It happened so fast”

In the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Michelle Kwan skated an amazing and beautiful program without apparent effort. You can watch it here:

What touched me most about this performance was what happens at the end. At about 4:58 in this video, while waiting for the judges to put up the scores, Michelle Kwan tells her coach: “It happened so fast.”

After years of preparation, the experience went by in four minutes. No time to savor it. The artist falls out of her dream and back into the ordinary world. No wonder we grieve.

I say we, because we all have a creative side to express. A pie that lingers in the memory, a riot of color in a garden, a word or story that tells us what our lives are about, a bridge that crosses a gorge, or a computer program that delivers the goods: these are all things that exist in the imagination first. And we all grieve because no matter the kind, all beauty is transient.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s iconic TED talk about creativity is about this experience of being visited by creative genius.

Daphne Gray-Grant’s recent connection between figure skating and writing sent me down this rabbit hole of Olympic YouTube videos. She writes about competition, practice, taste, critique, and hard work that are common to both writing and figure skating. I’d like to add Elizabeth Gilbert’s transcendence to her list.

All of this argues for enjoying the practice and hard work that lead up to transcendent moments when we think: “It happened so fast.”

As unreliable as the creative process may be, it’s our source for moments of clarity, connection, joy, or insight. The few moments in my life when I’ve experienced unexpected ability in some tiny way were both puzzling and addicting. The natural question is: “How can I make that work like that again?” The answer is probably: “I have no idea” AND “Practice.”

Michelle Kwan’s masterful performance makes me want to practice more. Not so I can achieve at her level, but so I can achieve at whatever level I can. I take joy in the routine work, not just the impossible hope that I might be ready if called on.

Questions for you: Are you inspired by Michelle Kwan’s performance? Is figure skating like any creative work that you do? What do you think about Elizabeth Gilbert’s ideas about genius and creativity?

 

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Create something new: What would you do with 500 olive trees?

Olive trees under a blue sky with a mountain in the distance and green grass underneath.
500 olive trees. Sciacca, Sicily. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

I recently came across another inspiring example of using your inheritance to create something new.

Alessandro inherited 500 olive trees with his grandfather’s Sicilian property. Most people look at 500 olive trees and think olive oil, but Alessandro had a different idea: soap.

His engineering Ph.D. comes in handy for designing the tools he needs to create Saponi & Saponi’s soaps from local ingredients: bay laurel, prickly pear, oranges, honey, and, of course, olive oil.

Creativity isn’t limited to soap from olive trees. All around the house, his environmental worldview is in practice. A solar panel is installed just inside the gate. He has his own water purification and passive hot water systems and his house is heated with olive, persimmon, and pine grown on the property.

I’m fond of the sustainable mowing team: a horse and a donkey who are clearly good friends.

Horse and donket grazing among the olive trees. Sicily.
Sustainable mowing team. Sicily. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

We got a glimpse into the culture of soap-making in the soap museum. The guided tour includes Alessandro’s steadily growing collection of soaps from around the world and an exhibit about the soap-making process (in English and Italian.)

I loved his story about the way soap is made in Aleppo–may peace come there soon!

Most scents fade away in traditionally hand-made soaps because of the long curing process. Aleppo soap is the exception. It’s a dark green color because up to 50% of the soap is bay leaf extract. It’s also a cube shape, rather than a bar, because the liquid soap is poured out in a thick layer on stone or tile floors, rather than in shallow frames and then cut.

Maybe the story feels even stronger if you hear it while standing in a stone building where olives were once pressed. The soap museum’s cool stone walls must be very welcome when the hot Sicilian sun arrives. Plain square tiles cover the floor, unpainted versions of the vibrant tiles common in this region. Local products, used creatively, yet again, this time by taking the decoration away.

Handpainted tiles with bright yellows, blues, reds and greens.
Ceramic tiles from Vincenzo Arena in Sciacca, Sicily.

Ceramic Artist: Vincenzo Arena

That brings me to questions I’ve asked before:

What in your life could be transformed into something new?

Or something beautiful?

How could you give new life to something you’ve had a very long time?

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Spring is coming. Let’s not give up on hospitality yet.

Forest road in spring green with a blue sky above. Kottenforst, Germany.
Forest road in spring green with a blue sky above. Kottenforst, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if migration is our natural lot and living peacefully in one place all our lives a rarity. Cranes are migrating and their calls remind me of spring.

The current news shows destroyed cities in Syria, failed cease-fire talks, and a refugee bus being shouted down by people in the former Democratic Republic of Germany.

At my mother-in-law’s birthday party, some friends told how their families fled from the invading Russians, near the end of World War II. One family fled as late as 1945. Here’s my rough translation into English:

A knock came at three o’clock in the morning: we had to get out. We fled in a matter of two hours, with only the clothes we had on. The snow was up to the horses’ bellies and my mother packed us into the hay wagon with bedding, so we wouldn’t freeze.

Our father was one of three men assigned to the farm, to keep producing food. Unarmed, they were supposed to stay at the farm to defend the front against the Russians.

The countess, our angel, helped us to get out. She didn’t take any extra luggage for herself and invited three new mothers with their infants into her carriage, so they would survive the trip.

She bought a big sack of bread whenever we came to a big bakery and hung the sack from the side of the carriage. We had a camp kitchen, a “Gulaschkanone,” to cook huge quantities of soup. We had plenty to eat then.

Once we came to an abandoned town with a castle and people had fled, leaving everything behind. We slept anywhere we wanted, even in the castle. The houses were full of food, because these people had also fled. But after three weeks, we heard the Russian guns.

Eventually, we arrived in Schleswig-Holstein.  The countess’ brother had made arrangements for us, but the Nazi’s were still in charge, so they assigned people to various houses in the village as they saw fit. It was awkward and unpleasant.

We lived over a bakery in a tiny room with five other people. Baked goods were rationed, so we smelled a lot more bread than we ate.

People looked at us funny because we weren’t from there. My mother and sister argued about words for years, because my mother didn’t want us to blend in. She thought we were still going “home” one day. She wanted us to fit in there.

Epidemiologists like to study the “immigration effect.” That’s the idea that people who stay home are systematically different from the people who don’t.

For example, people who eat lots of fruits and vegetables, little meat, and little refined sugar in their home country may have a low risk of colon cancer. If some migrate to a country with the opposite pattern, they will probably increase their risk of colon cancer compared to those who stayed at home. But because they keep some of their home country traditions, they will probably have a lower risk of colon cancer than the natives of their adopted country.

For epidemiologists, a pattern like this means the risky behavior is “modifiable,” not genetic. If you can get people to eat more fruits and vegetables, little meat, and little refined sugar, then you will probably see less colon cancer. It’s hard to change behavior, but it’s possible. It means hope.

After World War II, many, many people fled from the Eastern block into West Germany. They know what it means to be forced to rely on strangers. They know first-hand that the scarcity mentality isn’t true. Hardship can teach us generosity, if we let it.

We all wish for peace, but in the mean time, people all around me are eager to help the new arrivals feel at home. When peace comes, I think our hospitality will be gladly returned.

Spring is coming. Let’s not give up hope.

 


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Hope for February: ESPERANZA RISING and Esperanza Spalding

Tiny snowdrops dusting the ground under giant trees bare of leaves and a gray sky. Kriegshoven, Germany © Laurel Decher, 2016
Hopeful signs: Tiny snowdrops dusting the ground under giant trees bare of leaves under a gray sky. Kriegshoven, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Hope keeps cropping up. This weekend, hope took the form of an audio book, a YouTube video, a walk under gray skies, a skit, and a newspaper article.

Last night I listened to the first part of Pam Muñoz Ryan’s ESPERANZA RISING with Trini Alvarado as narrator. I’m looking forward to the rest!

ESPERANZA RISING the kind of story I like: the 13-year-old Esperanza has to find courage to take a big risk, to make a new life in a new place with her family.

She has a big challenge in front of her because it’s 1930 and the Great Depression is coming.

While I listened, the relationships between the characters gave me hope. Early in the story, Miguel and Alfonso and Hortensia demonstrate their friendship with Esperanza’s family.

In Mexico there’s a big divide between Esperanza and Miguel, but what will happen when they get to California?

My eldest sent me Esperanza Spalding’s 2016 performance at the White House. Esperanza sang about choosing hope with Louis Armstrong’s ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET.

At the YMCA last night, there was a skit about the exiled tribes of Israel returning to Jerusalem from Babylon. When they got to Jerusalem, things weren’t quite the way they’d hoped. They experienced hardship in their new life.

Many people are making a new life in Germany right now and many are facing unexpected hardship. Many others are helping. It’s an adjustment for everyone.

The choice to hope has to be made again and again. In January, we learned about a shocking incident in the Cologne main train station. I found hope in the courage shown by refugees in this article (sent to me by my friend Jane Joo Park).

The U.S. Declaration of Independence describes the unalienable rights given to all of us: the right to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

We aren’t promised happiness, only the right to pursue it.

We have the right to choose hope, if we’re brave enough to do it. Let’s help each other to hope.

_________________

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What’s it like to visit historical sites for a story world you’ve only imagined?

Men in red and gold and blue medieval woolen tunics accompanied by shield and spear bearing knights
The Middle Ages come to life in Arezzo, Italy. ©Jan Decher, 2002.

After I moved to Germany, I planned a trip of a lifetime to visit the physical places in my children’s adventure story set in the early Middle Ages. I wrote the story with spreadsheets, maps, Google, and libraries. It was a work of imagination based on research.

The itinerary included the most important and accessible places in the story:

  • Bologna (nearest airport and unexpectedly beautiful)
  • Casa Cares near Tuscany (a family visit to this retreat center brought me to Arezzo and the story)
  • Camaldolì monastery (an 11th century monastery and hermitage)
  • Arezzo (Birthplace of Guido d’Arezzo and my main character’s home. Site of an annual medieval festival that clothes the whole city in the Middle Ages.)
  • Pratovecchio (a beautiful medieval town with arcades)
  • Poppi (site of an ancient castle, and on the route my characters traveled over the mountains)
  • Classe (known for its byzantine mosaics and churches. Site of the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinaire with the mosaic mural of a shepherd with sheep that Bella admires on her way to Venice.)
  • Ravenna (the modern city near Classe and the sea. Organic market under the arcades with medlars, sausages, ricotta cheese and Napoleon squash.)
  • Pomposa Abbey (a powerful medieval Abbey, today much further from the sea)
  • Venice (colors, light, flavors, a museum of boats and the beginning of the sea journey)

I hoped to collect images, recordings, and maybe video to use on a new website. My husband and child #2 are photographers and agreed to be pressed into service.

My goals for the trip were to experience my story world with all five senses and to resist the temptation to go overboard and drive my family crazy.
What actually happened surprised me. Here are some quotes from my trip journal:

Imagination: How does it work? What is it good for?

“I’m constantly adjusting to two sets of ‘memories’: the set from a visit here in 2002 with my parents and the set from Bella’s [my main character’s] imaginary journey.”

“My husband said, ‘Your imagination is important’ meaning, it needed to be recorded and cared for in the midst of confusing landscapes and facts.”

Validation: I got some things right.

“I felt hopeful for the first time in a while when I saw Guido d’Arezzo’s house is close to the church and the park with the Medici fortress. It is downhill to the piazza grande from there.”

“The friendly man in the tourist office agreed that the Cathedral School might have been up where the Medici ruins are now.”

It was so much fun to talk to someone who knew and cared about the real Guido d’Arezzo. I had no idea how much it would help me with the story to get that boost.

Fortune from a Baci chocolate: ‘Metti il cuore in tutto ciò che fai.’ Or ‘Put your heart in everything you do.’

Disappointment: Some things have changed since the 11th century. In many cases, the particular medieval landscape I wanted to photograph didn’t exist any more. The places that felt most like my story were sometimes in the next village over.

“We didn’t get to Camaldolì because we would have been too late getting home.”

Note: we drove a car and my characters walked, went by donkey or in a litter. So much for the spreadsheet distance and travel time calculation!

“The winding roads slow the pace of modernity. Not that much faster than Bella.”

Generosity: the balance between getting it perfect and letting it go

“My husband is very generous to take me places when he would like to sit in the sun and talk to people.”

The experience: What it feels like to travel in unknown places:

“Luke Skywalker could drive a rental car through tunnels surrounded by trucks traveling at top speed. The Death Star is nothing to this.”

“My daughter’s order of ‘latte freddo bianco’ [cold white milk] came with a teacup and saucer and a spoon.”

“A list of things that could bother Bella: mosquitoes (+ malaria), fog and poor visibility, the smells of pig farms and old fish, injuries, cut fingers, blisters, wasp stings, the feeling of being cheated, the need to re-group, trying to recall what she’d seen, angry drivers. . .what is the medieval equivalent of a road with a slow bicycle, a Vespa between lanes, a heavy truck in front and another passing from behind?”

I never expected to walk around in my imaginary world with my family. It was hard to talk about things I hadn’t put into words before and to make a claim that my imaginary people existed in a real landscape. It was magical for me and I think it helped my family understand better too.

This trip reminded me that a story is a kind of hospitality. We invite people in and try to make them comfortable before they embark on adventure.

What makes you comfortable when you set out on adventure? What sparks your imagination?

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