Freeze / Melt

The ice storm of a week and a half ago turned out to be the most destructive weather event here in the last 30 years. I didn’t ever really have a moment where I felt endangered, but going through the motions of survival was probably good earthquake preparation. Being disconnected from the internet was a useful jolt reminding me how the wired world had gotten into my veins. It was a great time to catch up on reading, and to let the circadian rhythms reset as all the windows in the buildings were truly dark at night and the low-level buzz of electronics, air purifiers, etc. absent. We weren’t out of power so long that the novelty and fun of solution-finding and adaptation wore off before it returned.

I had nightmares, mostly about being abandoned. In one very visceral and vivid one, I was wordlessly left alone at the parking lot of a movie theater and had to swim against a current of people to reach the ticket desk to buy a ticket I didn’t have/didn’t know where to get. I didn’t know anyone there. Except for the ticket-seller/taker, the receptionist at the first language school I had taught at in Berlin. I didn’t even know what was playing, just that it was par for the course that I would drive my car to the theater and attend. It was a sunny afternoon, somewhere in suburbia in the U.S. The person who had been a passenger in the car I drove got out as soon as I parked and I could not find and never saw her again. When I woke up the sun rose and life went on, but the emotions from that dream continued to swirl.

After the world became again “vom Eise befreit” and things like hot showers, machine reboots, a tank of gas were taken care of, the hard part started. It was very difficult for me to switch gears out of survival mode, like the gear was jammed, stuck. The world wasn’t appreciably less safe, we still had a shiny new president, a generally working infrastructure, I still had work, housing, warm meals, company. But I still found myself feeling jarred, jangled, anxious, empty, at loose ends.

It was like when all that ice melted off it left me with raw nerves that no longer knew what to do. Even though the freeze itself wasn’t really terrifying at all.

Since then I’ve been swamped with more old junk that I thought I’d cleared out, but apparently not.

I started thinking about how past journeys or endeavors I’d taken on had later been revealed to have been based on living in what turned out to be false realities or false sense of safety, or foundations that were more air than ground, and how reluctant I’ve been to undertake big things given the new awareness of the likelihood that I would not be allowed to return, not allowed to find my way back, that “home” would evaporate and not recognize me upon my return, or that the safety is an illusion. The sensation is sort of a sea-sickness from behind, like a moment you realize that there’s no water in the swimming pool you’ve jumped into, or a dream when you are flying and only mid-flight realize that you don’t actually have wings and thus drop out of the sky.

Feeling still that the emotions were out of proportion to my life, I’ve also started looking at where this may be rooted in things I can see and those I can’t, even ancestrally. I’ve been thinking a lot about my great-grandmother, whose home town became occupied (or restored to its owners, depending upon how one looks at it) and city renamed after she left Ostprussia. I wonder if she felt anything similar in terms of the impossibility of a return. She did return to the area a few times to visit relatives who had become scattered around the vicinity, but she couldn’t return to the place she grew up. I’m talking about something different but similar to not being able to set foot in the same river twice, something a little more viscerally aching. It’s also not the space time passes through in Agamben’s bee. Maybe it’s more about being outside of a time which has passed, outside of inhabiting the home of oneself, or a stuckness like a foot trapped under a boulder. Hmm. I can’t quite define it right now, but it’s fairly terrifying.

During one Christmas I spent in Germany, 2004 I think, my relatives who live in Hamburg, with whom I’d just a few months prior gotten into contact with upon moving to Germany again, invited me to spend the holiday with them. Being stationed somewhere for a year or two can make new friends hesitant to want to develop any deeper bonds, so it was exciting to connect with them. It’s fine to not know anyone and be free and edgy for awhile, but after the novelty wears off one searches for more sustainability.

On the front edge of that experience had been another, one of those moments that you’re not entirely sure you imagined or not. A collision when I was out one day, but the person I collided with caught me from falling over with a hand on my upper ribs, just grazing my breast. I was reflexively caught off-guard, but not offended. It was an edge of something where I knew that if it were unleashed, I was not yet strong enough to be able to emerge intact on the other end of any crash, that failure would destroy me, that all of my plans would go out the window, that gravity would take over and my life would become one big mess, and I could get hurt or someone else could. It seemed a lot smarter to stay free and have some bier and to just skate on the surface, to hold onto what little sense of power I had. But that surprise steadying handprint followed by its absence was seared into my side, and I didn’t think about any repercussions for a long while. But maybe it wasn’t really a space for thinking.

What did know was that I hoped, hoped, hoped that that encounter sprung from somewhere authentic. I had had an advisor who kept close tabs on me via others who had kept trying to force people into my life in sensitive areas in ways which were really uncomfortable and unwanted, sharing with them information that I hadn’t given her, leaving me out of discussions or decision-making about my own career, coopting my efforts, even personally attacking me. She was not able to show up for me in terms of advising, responding to me in class discussion (or even allowing me to speak) or returning work, but seemed to need to send others as proxies into a space I had not ever invited her into to poke around. She also tried (her position gave her the legitimacy to do this) to take control of and force my career, my narrative, to force who I could work with, to basically disempower and disenfranchise me from being able to follow the paths of my own interests and inquiry. To obstruct me from all that I set out to accomplish. Never a single word of encouragement. Infantilizing and also then very difficult to climb out from under as I was always on guard and always had to question who was doing what with my career and why, and to be on guard for the personal attacks she launched. For this reason it took me the better part of 2 years to begin to trust someone who was wonderful in many ways but with whom I did not feel an intellectual chemistry, who this advisor had forced me to change plans to build into a student conference, in a place that the advisor had changed the rules I’d played by fairly to force me to study. I really got slammed around, and I didn’t know why or who had initiated it, if she was a proxy for someone else, or acting out of her own place. More than once I wanted to scream at her that the people in the program were not her marionettes. But if I told the person the advisor had forced me to study with about my discomfort with my advisor, I risked retaliation.

My Hamburg relatives extended great hospitality and took me to Cuxhaven, where first my great Opa and then later my great Oma had sailed off from. We walked along the beach for a long while. There’s a point called Alte Liebe and restaurants which look out on the beach and serve baked fish and Gluhwein. My great Opa had never attempted a return, but in the 1930s my Oma and my Grandad, then 13, had arrived for a visit and then departed again. Visiting that point of departure/arrival/departure into the future which had created me was an odd and interesting sensation. My relatives also brought me to Lubeck to visit the Thomas Mann house and the Niederegger Marzipan museum. My distant cousin, who is just my age, gave me a wonderful tour of Hamburg (including the Reeperbahn of course) and a copy of Buddenbrooks for Christmas, and my Aunt once or twice removed had knitted me socks. When I left, we traded scarves and hats to remember each other by, and still write letters. Lucky me to find that port of call.