Wednesday, July 4, 2007

The German Lesson

I awoke this morning with Goethe on my mind. When I was in my pre-teens we moved from the industrial heartland of central France to a small town in southern Germany. That first summer I spent every day with a tutor studying the language -- I was a tad miffed as I did not want to spend my summer in school! My tutor was a fierce little woman who's guttural expulsions sent me into tizzy's of laughter. I'd come home from each class and regale my sister with stories of Frau Klaus' insistence that I spit my words from the back of my throat and stomp on the consonants to ensure I wrenched every syllable of certitude from their depths.

Frau Claus detested blue jeans and mini-skirts even more than she detested my mispronunciation of her language. Before I walked the steps down through our garden, past the cherry tree I loved to climb (which Frau Klaus thought rather un-ladylike of me), to their stone house on the other side of the wall, I would have to ensure I was properly attired. "Young women do not parade around in their nightwear," Frau Klaus would assert should I happen to wear something she disapproved of. "You must go home and change." And home and change I would. When I returned, she would nod approvingly and open her favourite book of poetry. Goethe.

"A really great talent finds its happiness in execution." Goethe wrote. Frau Klaus would nod her head, tap her finger against the page and state, "Ya. This is so. We must work. And work hard if We are not to endure, as Goethe says, 'a useless life'." Quickly she would flip through the pages to find what she was looking for. 'A useless life is an early death.' "Listen to Goethe, Louise. He tells you how to live."

I remember those summer days spent in the sitting room of the house she shared with her husband, Hans, repeating after her the words and lines of Goethe's poetry. She taught me something I can never forget. Words, regardless of their language, have meaning. They are the rhythm of life stirring in the heart and soul of an unseen poet living his life with daring and gusto. Words are the bridge stretching between our minds to our hearts, creating gateways to understanding. Since that summer I have always loved poetry. I love the rhyme and sparkle of a verse freshly laid out like a summer frock. Light. Airy. Pastel flowers resting on a bed of organza. Or dark and brooding, storm clouds gathering on the horizon, portents of dark days to come, messengers of dark winters of the soul lying beneath the soils of summer fruit ripening.

Sometimes, Frau Klaus and I would play Scrabble. In German. She always won. I always learned something new. Some new word. Some new phrase. Some new poem. Some new insight into life in Germany during WW2 when she was a young girl struggling to make sense of a world gone mad. She would talk of her terror of the enemy she could not see but whose dark avenging angels flew overhead in drones as the war drew to a close and her nightmares of the unknown took root in the fertile depths of her imagination. And then she would turn the corner on her fear and slip into Goethe.

"Few people have the imagination for reality." Goethe said. Frau Klaus would agree, except, in her mind, there was little room for imagination in reality. Life is what it is. We work hard. Do our jobs well. Treat people with respect. Save. Study. Prosper.

Life was so simple in the summer of my German Lessons. Each day I awoke to a quiet house. My parents and my brother would be at work. My sister and I would read or chat. We had no TV and in those days, no home computer. We had a telephone, but no one to call. We lived 'off-base'. Not part of the ex-pat community of Canadians, we had not yet made connections with anyone our age.

Before going to my German Lesson, I'd take our dog for a walk in the rolling hills that began at the end of our street, Amschiessrein. I'd walk past tidy houses, white against the dark backdrop of forest that lined the hill behind them. Past the cemetery, around the bend and up through verdant forests, through vineyards ripe with grape, along pathways edged with Mimosa and greenery, to the top of a hill where I could sit and look at the world laid out at my feet. In the distance, the Rhine was a sliver of glimmering silver glistening in the sunlight. Villages dotted the patchwork quilt of farmland, tidy, uncluttered, exacting in their tribute to their Teutonic roots. Swallows twittered in the air around me and butterflies fluttered amongst the flowers. The world looked so orderly, so serene, so calm, far from the madness of Frau Klaus' memories of world spiralling through the death throes of a war in which victors and vanquished mourned the loss of those they loved.

One day, while sitting on the bench at the top of 'my' hill, I met an older man who had also come to admire the view. We chatted, me in my not so perfect German, about the day. About where I was from. "Ach. Canada." His weathered face broke into a smile, his head nodded up and down. "I've been to Canada," he said. I looked at him in surprise. "You have?"

"Yes, Alberta." His smile widened as memory awoke and spread itself like butter melting on toast in his mind. "Beautiful sky. Great breakfasts." His mood suddenly sombre, he turned to me, his eyes peering into mine. "War. It is wrong. But the Canadians. They treated us well."

I held my breath and asked. "When were you in Canada?"

"During the war. I was a prisoner."

I had never considered prisoners of war in my homeland, but, years later, that encounter became the foundation of the first article I sold to a magazine. I had moved to Alberta, the province where the man on the hill had once been interned. I pitched an article for Remembrance Day about German POWs who had been interned in Alberta during WW2 and had subsequently come back to live in the province of their captivity. The editor bought it and I became the writer I had always dreamed of being.

We never know in life the events that will be triggered by chance encounters. The happenings that will unfold upon the memory of a word spoken, a moment shared, an idea awakened through having glimpsed the world through the eyes of a stranger. Frau Klaus didn't know in those days of our German Lessons what her love of Goethe would awaken within me. She didn't know that his words, "Destiny grants us our wishes, but in its own way, in order to give us something beyond our wishes." would one day grow fruit in the fertile soils of my imagination as I awoke to the awesome truth of my life today and my dream of being a writer.

Long ago I wished to be free of days spent studying in the quiet room of my German teacher. Yet, those lessons led me to the hilltop where I met a man who would later inspire me as a writer. Because of my knowledge of his language, he could share with me experiences as a POW in Alberta. And because that memory rested within me, I finally found the courage to claim that which I have always dreamed of being. A Writer.

Since that first article I have written numerous articles, radio pieces, business plans, brochures, books, plays, screenplays. Not all of them have grown up into works of art, but they have all played a role in my growing into my authentic voice as a writer.

In times of stress, in times of joy, in times of confusion I head to my notebook and write it out. It has been my way since I was a child. To open a page and fill it with the thoughts tumbling around in my head so that I can add clarity to my thinking. The only time I have avoided writing was when I was buried beneath the weight of a relationship so mired in lies and untruths I dared not face myself on the page. I was too frightened, too scared, to ashamed to face the truth upon the pages of my journal and so, for the four years nine months of that relationship, I did not write.

Once freed, writing became my salvation, my way back to my senses.

We do not know what we do not know. That summer with Frau Klaus as I struggled to learn her language, I could not know that one day I would be creating the life of my dreams because of the power of a chance encounter on a hill in before our lesson began. I could not know that I would awaken today with Goethe parading through my mind, his words awakening in me the memory of a time when I had a dream but didn't know how to awaken it.

We do not know what we do not know. What I do know is, life is filled with adventures waiting to be taken. Opportunities eager to be risked. Journey's waiting to unfold. Within me lies a treasure trove of learning waiting to be explored. Outside of me waits a world, looking to be discovered.

Inspire yourself today to step into yourself and give yourself the gift of learning about YOU. Open up a book of poetry, a novel, a journal, and explore the words that spill out upon the page. Whether they are your words, or the words of someone else, let their richness plump up your imagination with their glorious designs on your life! Give yourself the gift of a chance encounter with a stranger. Ask for a story. Share a thought. Get inspired and get living the life of your dreams. Only you know the truth about you. Live it freely.

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