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 Nazis 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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What must be said: hardware, broccoli, and love

Drilling a hole in the wall with an electric drill while vacuuming the dust.Last night I learned a dear friend died. She and her husband helped us when our first child was born and were both friends and second parents to us. That’s when she inscribed a copy of THE ENCHANTED BROCCOLI FOREST cookbook: “In our hearts, you’ll always be our neighbors.”

The news reminded me about grief, that black feeling of a hole opened in the night. It’s so palpable. I’d forgotten how it lies inside us like a block of granite and how many tears it takes to melt it away.

My mom died almost 10 years ago. My dad made a memorial service with stations showing parts of her life: lab work as a chemist, travel, family, church etc. I think he wanted to show her off one last time. What struck me at the time were the number of things in her life that were interrupted. I saw for the first time how rarely we have the privilege of finishing.

This new grief brings up familiar questions: What are we here for? What must be done before we go? What must be said?

Before she died, my mom stopped doing certain things, stripping wallpaper or re-organizing junk. But a little later on, she added some back in. “Going to the hardware store seems like it gets in the way,” she said. “But actually it’s what life is.”

I love you, Mom!

I love you, dear neighbors!

I love you, husband!

I love you, my children!

I love you, Dad!

Going to the hardware store now to get a bulb for a friend.

Wishing you all broccoli, hardware, and neighbors during this holiday season and beyond!

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The Power of the Silver Pen: Journals, Photos, and Collections Help Order Our Lives

Stacks of journals with dates on bound edge

Marie Kondo’s THE LIFE-CHANGING MAGIC OF TIDYING UP explores the benefits of de-cluttering at a level I can’t attain but it reminds me that things help us find out who we are. The things I like and don’t like, need and don’t need, are like mirrors that reflect information back to me and help me plot a course for the future.

Yesterday, I was inspired into action by three different work surface danger zones (and maybe by a bit of NaNoWriMo-related procrastination).

A pile of St. Nicholas’ Day surprises and Frankfurt Book Fair papers cluttered one. The others were the usual tangle of electronics, a confused mix of health insurance papers, coupons, “good” Bible verses, book and restaurant recommendations, and notes for current writing projects.

I didn’t expect to descend into the 10-year-old child, re-organize-the-desk-drawers level. When my children were that age, they each got to sort binder clips, markers, and other desk-y things scientist Grandmas keep, to create great organizational beauty.

In the course of swapping epidemiology books from the near bookcase for writing books from the far bookcase, I came across my collection of filled journals. I usually have a pocket-sized one with me and a book-sized one for writing that needs more elbow room, which means I always have more than one journal going at a time.

When I moved to Germany three years ago, life was so disrupted I wrote in whatever was handy. To normal people, this wouldn’t be a problem, but it made me feel lost. After a pocket journal is filled, it looks just like any other pocket journal, so if I needed to know something later about this time of upheaval, I wouldn’t be able to find it.

Since my inner child was in charge, a silver pen was just the sort of bullet I wanted to re-store the chaos of my pocket journals. I printed the date range on each one. The dates overlapped in all kinds of messy ways, just as I knew they would, but the shiny months and years captured them for me.

My journals had sections for my children’s funny quotes. I showed them to my youngest who chortled over the wisdom of 4-year-olds. That inspired the resident photographer to sort slides and we ended the evening with a home slide show.

We are grateful for our life here and we also still grieve for the life we left behind. According to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

Photos and journals help us process our grief, make time for gratitude, and give us courage to move forward. They help us re-visit the beloved people and places we left behind.

For us, the change was voluntary, but violence and hardship have forced refugees fleeing to Germany to a much greater upheaval. I don’t know how they will process their traumatic losses or if silver markers will offer any comfort, but I wish them healing for mind, body and soul. For us, I hope we will be able to offer help when called upon.

Have you tried organizing your own personal space recently? What unexpected dividends came to light?

Are you more of a journal person or a photo person? What medium helps you to re-group?