Past Adventures: Stories of Immigration

Double-masted sailing ship in Bremerhaven harbor
For many people, Bremerhaven was the gateway to a new life in the new world. © Laurel Decher, 2015.

Last week, my family and I visited the German Emigration Museum in northern Germany. The museum is in Bremerhaven, literally “Bremen’s harbor”, so there are ships, a complicated harbor lock, and lighthouses. From the outside, the museum is big and square, but the inside is much more like a Disney experience.

At the ticket counter, we were each given a passport with a key card and a person’s name and invited to follow that person’s story through the museum. We waited on the wharf at night, boarded the huge ship and got to see the accommodations for each era of immigration–most were pretty terrifying. Then we “arrived” at immigration and eventually at Grand Central Station in New York City.

Having made this trip many times ourselves, it was really, really easy to imagine ourselves in the plight of our relatives. Would we have cleared immigration in those days? Would we have had all the right answers to the border crossing questions?

My husband’s aunt emigrated to the U.S. and my great-grandparents on both sides did too. The museum provides laptops so you can find out what ships your own relatives traveled on, what ports they left from, and other interesting details. It’s a surprisingly fun detective activity to do with your kids.

You can research your past even if you can’t get to Bremerhaven using a free trial membership for 14 days on Ancestry.com or with the free Ellis Island passenger search.

Within the frame of a museum, their hardship looks like a grand adventure. It helped us frame our own adventure, in the opposite direction, when we immigrated to Germany three years ago. It makes me want to write a story with time-travel.

 

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Four Paintings for Writers in Cologne’s Wallraf Museum

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“The Art of Poetry” by Jean Baptiste Camille Corot. Wallraf Museum. Cologne.
Man lost in book in a big, green chair with feet propped up on books.
“Don Quichote” by Adolf Schrödter. Wallraf Museum, Cologne.
Letters with red sealing wax, a comb, other things you might find on a dressing table.
“Quodlibet” by Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts. Wallraf Museum, Cologne.

Painting of Snowwhite asleep in a glass case in the forest. Wallraf Museum, Cologne.
“Schneewittchen” [Snow White] by Marianne Stokes. Wallraf Museum, Cologne.
The magical inscription on this painting reads: “We cannot lay her in the dark earth,” said the dwarfs and so they had a transparent glass coffin made so that she could be seen from every side laid her in it and wrote on it her name and that she was a kings daughter. Then they carried the coffin into the wood and some of them always watched her and the birds also came and bewailed Snowdrop. First an owl. Then a raven and lastli a dove. So Snowdrop lay a long long time in her coffin looking as though she were asleep. –GRIMM”

The “lastli” pleases me greatli.

 

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25 Possibly Erroneous and Surprising Things I’ve Learned About Life in Germany

Summer farmhouse and tree making shade in Sauerland, Germany.
Borders don’t have to have barbed wire. ©Laurel Decher, 2015.

After three years in Germany as an American ex-pat, here’s my list of what I’ve learned so far:

1. Germans value sharing public spaces. This makes for a lot of conditional traffic laws. For example: “If there is a bicycle in this bicycle lane, you may not drive your car in it. But if there isn’t, you may.”

2. Saving energy is valued more than convenience. For example: the train and store air conditioning goes out whenever it gets hot enough to need it.

3. Plastic packaging is a big deal. There’s so much of it that it gets its own trash can in every household.

4. Our neighbors value walking in the woods as much as we do.

5. The whole country is full of pyromaniacs. I’ve never seen so many fireworks.

6. Volunteering is the way to find yourself inside a society instead of outside.

7. There are rules for everything and the response to overwhelming complexity is sometimes: “Es geht nicht anders” meaning: “I had to break at least one rule, there was no other way to do it.”

8. The trains and public transportation system sometimes set impossible standards for themselves. For example: the doors on the newest trains open too slowly and destroy the schedule. Solving problems with more complexity seems to be the way things develop. Maybe not unexpected in a land of engineers.

9. Public libraries are an American legacy.

10. Southwestern flavors–salsa and tortillas that aren’t sweet, green chili peppers, enchiladas–have not arrived here.

11. Creamy must be important because palm oil is in Nutella and is added to every kind of roasted peanut butter I can find.

12. Natural medicine is big because people can’t afford medical care here either.

13. Grown-ups live in apartments. I’m still struggling with this one.

14. People commute here as a lifestyle. Children start commuting very young and don’t ever seem to stop. This promotes bookstores and e-readers and magazines. I don’t know what it does to the accident statistics.

15. Chocolate cannot solve things, no matter how large a quantity is available.

16. Cake is consumed on a regular basis, not just for birthdays. Cookies are for Christmas. A chewy chocolate chip cookie is not possible or even necessarily desirable.

17. Pursuing things other than money is quite acceptable.

18. Houses from 1905 with outdoor latrines, gas stoves, single-pane windows and wood floors are still available on the market. All other houses seem to be four times the price.

19. Germans drive cars just as much as Americans and more than many Vermonters.

20. Bikes are regularly ridden without helmets and in the pouring rain. Corollary: Light rain is considered “good weather”.

21. Many Germans value liverwurst, blood sausage, and salami for breakfast. (See any hotel review website.)

22. Bakery bread is whole grain–you get to choose how much of each grain you want. 25% wheat and 75% rye, or the other way around? On the other hand, white flatbread with flavored cream cheese is popular party food.

23. Books from other countries (i.e. translations) seem to be preferred in bookstores and libraries. There seem to be few or no creative writing programs in this country.

24. Melted cheese to Germans doesn’t mean the same thing as melted cheese to Americans. German melted cheese usually involves potatoes. Or isn’t hot when served.

25. The preferred method for giving official information in a broad range of categories is a one-on-one appointment.

Do any of these resonate? Or sound off?

 

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Creativity: How our challenging circumstances are the key to success

Lenne River near Werdohl, Germany
Power from obstacles. ©Laurel Decher, 2015.

My daughter and I watched THE KING’S SPEECH the other day. I’d seen it before, but the story captured me all over again. In the film, the Duke of York’s stutter seemed to be a physical manifestation of the desire to hide. No idea if that is accurate or not, medically speaking. It struck me as a powerful metaphor.

[Spoiler alert!] Why would swearing be unaffected by a stutter? I’m guessing it’s because when you swear, you aren’t trying to please anyone anymore. Someone or some situation has pushed you past everything that hems you in.

We are wonderfully made and yet disaster lurks in each one of us. THE KING’S SPEECH made me feel yet again that life is about facing up to our own weaknesses and challenges. Each of us have slightly different ones, but the ones that are unique and personal to us are the ones that lock up our greatest potential. We have the potential to become experts in those particular challenges.

Another example of this kind of courage brought tears to my eyes. The strange syndrome of Tourette’s syndrome makes some sufferers spout obscenities against their will, a vocal manifestation of an uncontrollable muscle tic. THE WORLD’S STRONGEST LIBRARIAN gave an amazing talk at the Hartford Public Library about his personal experience with Tourette’s.
It seems so mundane to find meaning in our current circumstances, but it makes some sense. Unlike an author, we can’t change our point-of-view character completely. Empathy can only take us so far.

So many of my husband’s relatives are struggling with serious chronic illness right now. When I worked in the health department, I worked conscientiously to help other people improve their health, to “solve” other people’s weaknesses and challenges. Does this work?

The most helpful health department project I evaluated during my time there was a project on breastfeeding. The breastfeeding project was both scientific and personal to me and to the others who worked on it. I applied my personal experience with two children as well as my epidemiology training. The project was effective at increasing rates of breastfeeding without formula supplementation because we applied our own experiences as well as our professional knowledge. Creativity takes all the skill and talent we have.

To really help other people, we need expert knowledge. Writers have to find resonant weaknesses in ourselves to draw a believable villain or a flawed hero in a novel. We need the same kind of imaginative vulnerability to apply knowledge to other challenges in our lives.

 

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An Ode to Rain Boots

Formal portrait of Sir Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, who invented rain boots.
The inventor of rain boots. Thomas Lawrence [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Rain boots are also called Wellies after the Duke of Wellington, a brilliant army strategist. If the rest of the Duke’s strategy was as good as his rubber rain boots, no wonder he beat Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.

My husband got me new rain boots for my birthday. I wore them on a forest walk for the first time today. I feel so strong and invulnerable with them on. Mud, puddles, rain—I laugh at you!

When I was small, my brother and I wore yellow slickers, rain helmets and boots and nothing could touch us. On August afternoons in Vermont, we went out in the pouring rain, into the quiet, magical world. Everyone and everything else was in hiding but we were out in it.

Snow is quiet. Your breath in your ears is the noisiest part and the clouds of breath coming out make you feel like a dragon.

But the sound of rain covers the everyday sounds up. The cars sound different and all their motion is accented by swishing, splashing, rushing water. Water gurgles in the drain pipes and into the storm drains. We hear and see its power everywhere, but we are invincible in our rubber rain boots.

The tall grass is still wet in the meadows near my house. The horses stand patient in the meadows, heads level, droplets on their eyelashes. Do they wish for rain boots? They don’t run away from the rain. Do they stay drier standing still?

Rain boots make up for not being a horse. I’m not bothered by the water either. I walk through puddles and mud and am at home wherever I find myself.

Are you a fan of rain boots? What helps you explore and enjoy the world around you?

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Solve writing jitters the same way you solve speaking Jitters

Rope climbing course in Cologne's Rhine Park
Motion chases the jitters away. Rope climbing course in Cologne’s Rhine Park. ©Laurel Decher, 2015.

In Toastmasters, a community organization that helps people learn public speaking, I learned to move around during a speech. It really does make you feel less nervous. Your large muscles burn up the adrenaline and energy so you aren’t standing there, trembling, with your voice shaking.

If you think about it, doing something that frightens you while standing still makes no sense. It’s like playing freeze-tag with a saber-toothed tiger. Your body is trying to tell you to run away.

I recently noticed that the same thing seems to work on the page. When I start a new sketch or scene or revise a new section, I often move from one chair to another or one room to another or, best of all, from inside to outside on the balcony. Moving helps burn up the nervousness, the resistance, and the hesitation that shows up as soon as I try to challenge myself with something new.

A Scrawl Crawl is what happens when a group of artists and/or writers wander around and create word and picture sketches. It’s the ultimate writing or drawing prompt because it happens in three dimensions. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Ilustrators members had a few all over Europe this last weekend.

A Scrawl Crawl lets you move from place to place while you write or sketch. This is what I do when I write at home in three different places. Maybe this keeps the editor brain busy with bookkeeping. On my own, I let my writing determine when I move. In a group, it works a little differently. Maybe knowing you will move at a certain time keeps the editor brain busy too?

I’ve been getting lots of chest pains during revision. I’m anxious about finishing it—I think I physically NEED to finish the edits and revisions. Mostly what helps is allowing myself to be immersed in the project. Moving helps me stay immersed.

Caught myself looking at Facebook and Twitter because I had the jitters from a new scene for my current work-in-progress. (Dumb bunny.) Surfing is the electronic version of wandering around the house to jumpstart your project. Except it doesn’t work. It just feels like moving away from the saber-toothed tiger.

On the other hand, a walk or an hour-long seminar that physically takes me away from a project often leads me back into it.

Fortunately, I know of at least two more Scrawl Crawls planned for this year: September 19th in Cologne and November 7th in Düsseldorf. More details soon on Twitter. 🙂

How about you? Does moving from place to place make you more or less productive?

Exploring: 9 Ideas For Reluctant Adventurers

Canal with houses on one side and bridge coming up in Leiden, The Netherlands
View from our boat tour in Leiden, The Netherlands

Sometimes we imprison ourselves in a little bubble and no one can reach us. When we’ve made up our minds about what something will be like, there’s no more room to see what it might be like.

A few weeks ago, I went for a hike with friends. One child in our group really, really didn’t want to come on a hike, but she enjoyed the castle ruin the more than anyone else in the group.

I’ve had similar experiences with children who didn’t want to go to a garage sale or thrift store and then found the treasure of their hearts.

Why are we (or our reluctant children) rewarded when we have a change of heart?

Is it because the decision to take part requires a change in perspective, an opening up, a willingness to engage? Sometimes we are ready to do this.

When I went to Germany for a year as an exchange student, I had studied German for years and had missed a previous opportunity. I was well prepared and eager and had a wonderful year in Marburg. Later on, I went to West Africa and wasn’t prepared. I had to work much harder to arrive. Most of the year was spent trying to catch up.

Sometimes we need help with the wanting. We don’t feel ready. We resist with all our strength. What cracks things open?

9 Ideas for Overcoming Reluctance

1. Make a wish. If you don’t want to do the work, go on the journey, visit the relatives, or take the hike, you can say to yourself:

“I WISH I wanted to do the work, go on the journey, etc.”

For some reason, this tricks the brain gently down the stream from wishing to “wanting.”

I’m stealing from someone’s work here, because I remember reading this [Brainpickings? The Sparring Mind?], but I don’t know where I read it. If you know, please let me know in the comments.

2. Security blanket. Give yourself an out. If you don’t like it, you can just go home. If you get tired, you can go to bed, read a book, take a nap. If you get hungry, you can have a snack. If this draft doesn’t work, you can delete it.

3. Look after the heart. What possible rewards could you promise yourself that fit with this particular adventure? How might this adventure help you do something that matters? I’m thinking of favorite activities or personal values. Can you play trumpet with Opa or rediscover your spouse? What kind of emotional “treat” can you build in?

4. Get ready. Put your open suitcase in a convenient place and drop things in as they come to you. Hang up a sketch of your plot line in the hallway and add ideas as you walk by.

Before I went to West Africa for a year, my mom helped me sew a “floor” onto my mosquito net “tent” so I could sleep securely.

Is there a symbolic object that makes you feel ready in a hurry? Phone? Water bottle? Daypack? Special pen? Book or magazine to read?

5. Get an observation tool. Something to help you see or hear can make it easier to slow down and experience the adventure. Camera? Sketchbook? Audio/video?

6. Get a new narrative. What do you tell yourself when you set out for adventure?

“It will be interesting to see what this is like.”

“We’re going exploring.”

“I’m sketching out a story, a character, a dialogue snippet.”

“I’m a pirate.”

Or ask others an interesting question: “What is your favorite memory from your childhood?”

7. Gain a new skill. Get help from others before you go.

My daughter’s school provided a “bike whisperer” to help kids lose the training wheels before a class bike trip.

Try an Italian phrasebook or a new method for drafting a story. Relax a rule for the journey or follow a rule you have previously ignored.

8. Embrace weakness. Remember basic needs for food, water, rest, exercise, reading, bathroom breaks, quiet and social time. Give yourselves credit for being on the adventure.

9. Most of all, watch for the unexpected reward. Start enjoying now. What is good about this situation?

A bee stung my daughter’s foot the day before a family trip to Leiden in The Netherlands. She couldn’t walk far with her swollen foot, so we took a boat tour of the canals that was the highlight of our trip. The Dutch apothecary also gave us a tip for a wonderful (and hidden) place for breakfast overlooking the city.

Bonus: I find the Bible useful for understanding my life and the world we live in. If this doesn’t interest you, feel free to skip this paragraph.

The day after our hike, this Bible verse showed up in my calendar:

“For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or disputing.” —Phil 2:13+14

This verse resonated with me because grumbling or disputing is inevitable when one person doesn’t want to come along. The German is closer to what I’m thinking about here:

“Gott ist’s, der in euch wirkt beides, das Wollen und das Vollbringen, nach seinem Wohlgefallen.”

In English, this means: God helps us to “want” and to do the work tied to the “want” to bring that “want” to fruition. To me this means I can call on God for help when I want to want the adventure, but can’t manage it on my own.

What works for you? How do you help yourself and other reluctant adventurers arrive? Have you ever overcome reluctance and found an unexpected reward?