Nov 13 2018

Part II – My Continuing Battle with Cancer

Published by at 5:59 am under Uncategorized

Frederick A. Lubich

II: From the Old World to the New World – Flashbacks and Soundtracks

Part II of III

October

“Do not go gentle into that good night,
old age should burn and rave at close of day,
rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Dylan Thomas

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who had to leave this world at the young age of thirty-nine, could only imagine what facing death at a much older age could possibly mean. As much as I agree with his first two lines, I would like to phrase the third line quite differently – as the reader of this text will be able to see further down – by following Bob Dylan’s poetic imaginary. Not only had he borrow his name from Dylan Thomas, he also rewrote the latter’s poem about dying as a kind of counter ode to eternal youth:

“Forever Young”

“May you build a ladder to the stars
and climb on every rung,
may you stay forever young.”
Bob Dylan

But before I get lost in the stars, I need to back up a bit down here on earth. In the beginning of September, it seemed like Mother Nature was raging toward our area in Southern Virginia in the shape of Hurricane Florence. Contrary to her poetic name which is rooted in the Latin word for “florens” meaning flowering, evoking images of a beautiful spring, this Florence threatened to unleash a huge autumn storm with horrendous, destructive force.

I was barely out of the hospital and back home, hardly being able to walk, let alone eat and talk, when the authorities of the city of Norfolk, our current hometown, issued an evacuation order for our area. Since our house is surrounded by more than a dozen of high trees and only a stone’s throw away from the water, we were not only in  danger of being severally flooded by rising tides, but also of being badly hit by falling branches and uprooted trunks. Since we had moved to this area twenty years ago, we had lived through quite a few hurricanes, but none threatened to be as dangerous and devastating as this one. So, for the first time, we decided to leave everything behind and head further inland toward higher ground, all the while imagining a worst case scenario, in which our home would be destroyed beyond repair.

However, Florence changed its course shortly before landfall, our area was spared, and we did not have to leave after all. In hindsight, the forecast of this hurricane struck me as a kind of natural reflection of my own battle with cancer, which wrecked me like a hurricane – to paraphrase one of the signature tunes by the German rock band Scorpions – and left me behind in physical and emotional shambles. But at least, our house remained intact – if only to stand ready for the next round, when another hurricane would hit the ground.

“Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr“ …“ Whoever has no home now, will not build one any more“, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in his poem “Herbsttag” or “Autumn Day”. Our house was built in the late sixties of the last century. It is a three-story building with flat roofs, brown cedar shakes on its sidewalls, which are covered in moss and ivy. On the second and third floor, it has large windows so that one gets the impression from the inside, that one is living in a tree house since the dense crowns of several trees are surrounding the building.

Two windows in the house are quite narrow, but they run from the ground floor to the top floor, thereby evoking the look of loopholes in an old medieval fortress. That look is reinforced by one of the balconies resembling a long battlement walkway that used to be part of a fortress and its further fortification. In other words, our house creates the impression of being an architectural hybrid somewhere between a modern “Bauhaus” and a mediaeval “Trutzburg”, a stronghold defying all adversities. I mention all these architectural details, because our house also happens to be, as one can see further on, a telling reflection of its current inhabitants, who were born and raised in quite different worlds.

To top it off, a beautiful spiral staircase connects all three stories of the house and forms its centerpiece, which can also be seen from the outside through the large, top-to-bottom windows on the front of the house. That spiral staircase was probably also the first feature that caught Lynne’s attention who discovered the house soon after we arrived in Norfolk. Being the daughter of an architect, she has always had an interest in interior design. According to the real estate agent who sold us the house, it was featured soon after its completion in the journal Better Homes and Gardens.

Over the years, the building apparently fell somewhat in disrepair, but it was beautifully restores at the end of the nineties by its previous owner. At that time, the housing market was down and we were extremely fortunate to buy it a very affordable price. Here, our daughter grew up before she left home for college almost ten years ago, moved on to Berlin and now spends all her free time traveling the world just like her parents used to do in their younger years.

Following the motto of Better Homes and Gardens, which we casually ignored for the most part of our time living in this house, we have finally begun to make substantial repairs and improvements on our home and garden. Until two years ago, the ground around the house resembled a jungle full of large bushes, wildly growing bamboo, and too many tall trees. But more recently, we had a few bushes and trees removed and then we turned the major part of it into a blossoming garden by planting more and more flowers, various bushes and even some seasonable vegetables.

And more than ever, I spent my time reading and writing in our garden or down on the white sandy shores of the Elizabeth River, whose large delta merges right there with the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. In the distance, one can see huge cargo ships coming up and down the river and if one is lucky enough one can even spot dolphins gliding through the nearby water. And every now and then, a flock of wild geese rises in flying formation into the blue sky. People who have visited us have called our home and garden and the surrounding area a “paradise” – and we happily agree.

In the first weeks after my surgery, as I was slowly shuffling through our house, trying not to fall, I stumbled upon the following phrase by the German language philosopher Martin Heidegger: “Die Sprache ist das Haus des Seins” – “Language is the house of being.” This quote goes on in English: “The thinkers and poets are the guardians of this dwelling.” That statement struck me as particularly ironic in my current situation, in which our house literally resonated with my garbled words and sentences, which in the beginning could get quite loud in my growing frustration to get them out. In the meantime, I have learned to lower my voice or shut up altogether. After all, I feel, I am no longer at home in the spoken word. As it were, I am dwelling in my linguistic ruin. So there, Herr Heidegger, you know what I mean! And to top it off, my own demise and final decay might be just a short shot away.

“Sei allem Abschied voraus”, be ahead of all farewell, Rilke wrote in one of his “Sonnets to Orpheus”. Like no other well-known poet of the twentieth century, this German-Bohemian poet from Prague was a life-long wanderer. For him saying farewell to people and places was a perennial experience. Recently, I have been reminded a lot of Rilke’s verse as I enjoy the sunlit mornings in our house and the peacefulness of our garden. But maybe this is, as they say, the quiet before the next storm, the final hurricane that will take me away.

***

“These fragments I have shored against my ruins”
T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”

As even my short-term future appears quite uncertain, my mind is drifting more and more back into the past. Or to put it more precisely, it drifts back into the future. This paradox perspective, so popular in the discourse formation of postmodernity in the mid-eighties of the last century, sounds more and more promising, because it suggests – spes contra spem – the further one wanders back into the past, the  longer the uncertain future will last. In reality, it is of course a foolish escape, a quixotic escapade, but I happily embrace it just like all the Doubting Thomases throughout history who kept telling themselves ad infinitum “I believe it, because it’s absurd” or as the scholiasts of the Middle Ages put it: “Credo, quia absurdum” …

Frederick Brooklyn 2018

Frederick in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, July 2018

“Last Exit to Brooklyn”, is not only the name of a once quite controversial novel by the American writer Hubert Selby from the year 1964, but also the name of a film by the German film maker Uli Edel with the film score by the British rock musician Mark Knopfler, both from the year 1989. This title also turns out to be a telling description of our last travel destination this past summer shortly before I received the bad news about my necessary operation. Considering the uncertain outcome of my battle with cancer, our long weekend in Brooklyn could also be the last real outing in our long journey through life together.

The mural in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn in the preceding picture is a memorial to Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, a native of Brooklyn.  Both of them were two of New York City’s most celebrated artists of the Pop-Art-era and both of them had to die before their time, especially the latter who was only twenty-seven years old at the time of his death. In hindsight, his last paintings with all their skulls and skeletons reveal themselves as ominous premonition of his imminent destiny. Years after their death, the bio-pic Basquiat featured a prominent cast including David Bowie in the role of Andy Warhol. And here I stand in front of the mural, taking a short break from our stroll through Williamsburg, a favorite quarter of young artists – but internally I am already on the run from the growing threat of my deadly tongue.

Looking at that colorful mural, I am reminded of the vibrant graffiti art towards the end of the last century all over New York City, where we lived from 1984 -1992 in Manhattan on the Upper West Side. It was also during that time when Keith Haring was a rising star in the art world, using the billboards of New York’s subway for his remarkable sketches. I remember in particular a drawing with the inscription “Still Alive in ‘85”. I even took a picture of it, which I still have somewhere in the chaos of my countless files and boxes.

Keith Haring’s inscription on his subway graffiti turned out to be the artist’s writing on the wall, because he too was doomed to die soon after, felled by the plague of Aids, which at that time was killing so many young talents in New York’s artistic community, including one of my students at Columbia University. How young they all were. Some had hardly arrived in their adult life and already they had to go.

Bowie and Lynne 2018

Lynne and David Bowie flirting in the Brooklyn Museum, July 2018

Ziggy Star Dust Memories: In the spring of 1973, I saw David Bowie in a small music hall in Newcastle, England where I lived at the time. He was in his Ziggy Star Dust phase and I was immediately struck by his colorful persona and flamboyant performance. Of one scene, I have particularly vivid memories. As he was strutting around the stage in his super high platform shoes, he stumbled over the cable of his microphone and went down to the ground but rose again so gracefully that he reminded me of a fallen angel. Right then and there I knew that he would become a sparkling star in the musical universe of our generation.

“Time is waiting in the wings”
David Bowie, “Time”

Collage of Bowie 2018

Collage of David Bowie in the exit hall of the Brooklyn Museum, July 2018

Like no other rock star, David Bowie saw the world as a stage where he played out his life in various roles turning it into a life-long “Gesamtkunstwerk”, a total work of art.  Lynne and I spent almost the whole afternoon at the exhibition and it turned out to be a veritable “recherche du temps perdu”, a search for things past, whose growing stream of consciousness down memory lane I try to follow in the subsequent passages. After all, the repertoire of favorite songs, which we have cherished throughout our lives, is an inexhaustible reservoir of sentimental memories.

A few months after I had seen Bowie live in England, I moved back to Germany to continue my studies in Heidelberg. The city was not only home to Germany’s oldest university, it was also the favorite haunt of Germany’s most prominent romantic poets. And to this day, this picturesque town is known for its magic powers to make people fall in love. “Ich hab mein Herz in Heidelberg verloren”, I have lost my heart in Heidelberg, is one of Germany’s best-known popular songs.

That was the town were Lynne and I met in the summer of 1973. From a romantic point of view, she was a dream girl who seemed to walk and talk at times, as if she too was an angel who had fallen out of the sky. But in a more pedestrian reality she was just another American exchange student from San Diego in Southern California. The year before, she had studied French in Geneva, but on a trip to the Black Forest, she fell in love with Southern Germany and so she came back the following year. As it turned out, she too was a great fan of David Bowie. When he was touring Germany, this time in the guise of the White Duke, we made sure to see his concert together.

Lynne as Dream Girl mid-1970s

Lynne as Dream Girl from California in Heidelberg in the mid-seventies

“Hello, I love you, won’t you tell me your name?
Hello, I love, let me jump into your game”!
….
Do you think you will be the guy
to make the queen of the angels sigh?”
The Doors, “Hello, I Love You”

I still remember very clearly my first impression of her. She came down a sunlit staircase wearing high wooden platform shoes. They were very fashionable at that time which made her long legs look even longer. Another early memory is of her last name on the plate on her door, which intrigued me immediately, because it clearly was not an English name. And so I began to wonder about her family heritage.

“Was du ererbt von deinen Vätern hast, erwirb es, um es zu besitzen”, Goethe wrote. In other words, what you have inherited from your fathers, acquire it in order to own it. This advice certainly holds true when it comes to Lynne’s relationship with her paternal heritage. Her father’s roots were in the Italian Campagna Romana, right there, were Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein had painted his famous portrait of Goethe in front of his classical panorama. Since her father’s first language was Italian, his first born daughter grew up with a strong Italian identity along with words and phrases of its melodious vocabulary.

In addition, her vivacious temperament and effervescent exuberance also was a clear reflection of her father’s Mediterranean mentality and so it made perfect sense for her, to keep the family name Dell’Acqua for the rest of her life. From the water! What an evocative maiden name, resonating and undulating with the ebb and flow of the waters, as if she were an Undine straight out of the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales, or an Arcadian nymph, one of Mother Earth’s mythological daughters.

In any case, instead of frolicking in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego, my ragazza dell’acqua with her deep roots in the Campagna Romana soon became my Roman Dolce Vita and my Romantic Commedia Dell’Arte. And I with all my German-Bohemian roots, became her poor poet in his Heidelberg attic, wondering about words he had never heard and worlds he had never seen, in other words, day-dreaming his American Dream …

Frederick as Spitzweg's Poor Poet in 1970s

Frederick as a Poor Poet in Heidelberg in the mid-seventies

During our heydays in Heidelberg, we loved to re-enact famous paintings from German and European art history, often turning them into a modern day parody. It was our way of “Lebenskunst”, which meant for us not only the art of living but also living art. Here, I am reliving the painting ”Der arme Poet”, The Poor Poet, by the late romantic painter Carl Spitzweg which is one of the most well-known paintings in German art history. The photo includes of course also the obligatory umbrella in the original painting where it is supposed to shelter the poet in the attic from the rain coming through a leak in the roof. I am sure, that umbrella will come in very handy down the road on that latter day, when a final storm will lift the roof and blow the poor poet forever away.

Looking back at this photo of the young poor poet on his unmade bed, I am struck by two additional visual features in the background. One is an image of Jim Morrison, the front man of the Doors, on the inside of the lid of the tape recorder, the other is a poster of Raquel Welch, the screen siren of Hollywood, coming out of the water. Those two were not only the poster boy and poster girl couple of my adolescent phantasies in the late 1960’s, these two young Californians would also remain my lifelong idols and ideals of female beauty and musical genius.

Throughout the years, I visited Morrison’s grave in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris whenever I could. And as far as Raquel Welch was concerned, not only did she grow up in San Diego to become “Miss San Diego”, she also had that same Latina allure as my Bella Donna Dell’Acqua. And before I knew it, my poor poet woke up one morning from his dream and voilà – que será, será – found himself right there in Southern California.

***

“Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality”
Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody”

Although my American Dream Girl and her Poor Poet from Germany came from quite different worlds, the two of us were on the same wavelength when it came to our passion for rock music. And there is a good reason for its enduring power. Like no other art form, good rock music is raw energy that comes from the gut and from the heart. And my girl from the water sure had a lot of emotional energy that could rise to a level of rushing and gushing enthusiasm. In addition, she loved to dance and she also had a great talent for it, whereas I had the lyrics in my head and the melodies in my heart, but as music sometimes comes and goes, its rhythm did not always make it all the way down to my legs and my toes.

In Heidelberg, our favorite discotheque was the “Whisky a Go Go”, a cosy night club and bouncy dancing hall named after the famous “Whisky A Go Go” on Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, which was the home of the world’s largest names in rock music. Here, my California Girl loved to rock and I would roll until we were soaring, body and soul.

However, back down on earth, the two of us were in many ways a study in contrast. Whereas she was very much a child of the New World and its modern times, I was very much a child of the Old World. And in my mind I was often drifting and tripping back into even older days long before our time.

So let’s return one more time and let’s go again east to the land of Bohemia and Moravia, the Slavic homeland of all my ancestors, who were also called German Bohemians, because the king of Bohemia had invited them to farm his land.. On my maternal side, they had emigrated from Germany in the twelfth century during the time of Emperor Barbarossa and the Staufen dynasty of the so-called Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.

Along with them on their long trek eastwards came the Jews, who left their prospering communities along the Rhine and elsewhere behind, fleeing persecution during the times of the crusades. Many of them moved further east to Poland and Lithuania, the Ukraine and Russia, but many of them also settled in Bohemia and Moravia, adding very much to the multi-cultural mix of this multi-lingual area. All the way to World War I, they were proud citizens of the mighty, ever expanding Habsburg Empire, whose territory once incorporated even parts of today’s Romania and Northern Italy.

During the period of European Romanticism, Bohemians became known as itinerant musicians all over Europe, giving rise to the notion of a bohemian lifestyle which culminated during the fin de siècle in its musical representation by Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La Bohème”. To this day, Bohemians of all walks of life have a reputation for being musical and emotional. “Aus Böhmen kommt die Musik,” the music comes from Bohemia, is the title of a well-known German folksong. Indeed, Bohemians love to sing and dance, and if they have lost their ancestral home they are known for being nostalgic and sentimental. My family certainly was, especially when some of them had a bit of a Schwips from their Czech Pilsner Urquell or some other Slovakian Slivovitz.

Given our ancestral histories and our elective affinities, it was no wonder, my ragazza romana and her bohemian inamorato were made for each other like two star- and moonstruck lovers. The following image below is a cut and paste montage from years ago showing both of us in Heidelberg in the mid-seventies, when the city was also affectionately known as Highdelberg in some higher circles. And those angels down there waiting in the wings sure seem to promise some pretty high jinks.

East meets West Triptych

From the looks of this snapshot, the two of us certainly are in high spirits. Maybe we had concocted some bubbly brew. She certainly is her true effervescent self and appears to be quite amused, whereas I seem to be somewhat dazed and confused. Be that as it may, we sure are ready to have some fun, some good old Commedia Dell’Arte, maybe even a dance with the stars like that legendary goddess Astarte, who was known to ride across the nightly sky in ancient Babylon. She certainly was no Maya with seven veils, according to the Chaldeans and their wonderful visions and starry-eyed tales.

So come on, you improvise and I extemporize! You do the flash backs and I do the sound tracks. I’ll play “Il Dottore”, your Nutty Professor, and you play “Ma Bella Donna Dell’Arte”, my Blue Angel, starring in a divine comedy just like the one by Dante Alighieri. Come on, life is a cabaret and the show must go on! Remember, it always takes two to tango! But if you rather rock and roll, then I‘ll ask …

“Scaramouche, will you do the fandango,
thunderbolt and lightning,
very, very frightening …
Galileo, Galileo
… Figaro …
Magnifico!”
Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody”

But forget that Figaro in this scenario! Who needs a Spanish hair cutter when you can have Galileo Galilei, the great Italian star gazer and cosmic trail blazer of the late Renaissance. After all, we’re in the seventies of the twentieth century, the New Age of freedom and excess, of sex and drugs and rock and roll, of youthful rebellion and universal consciousness. In short, we’re in coming  “Age of Aquarius”, whose dawn the musical “Hair” would celebrate with a lunar dance and celestial exuberance: “When the moon is in the seventh house … and love will steer the stars.”

On top of all those stellar constellations, my Madonna Dell’Acqua also had the right name for this new Aquarian Age and all its higher aspirations. Finally, the earth seemed to be aligned with the universe and it was high time to spread our wings, and for our musical to soar with its final hymn: “Let the sunshine, let the sunshine in”!

***

“Angels fight, angels cry,
angels dance and angels die”
The Doors, “We Could Be so Good Together”

In our magic moments, the two of us were a real dream team, a marriage made in heaven, as they used to say in the olden days, but I am afraid I must burst the bubble, because down here on earth the two of us could also be real double trouble. Passion after all is a powerful potion and the wear and tear of our emotions quite often was getting the better of us. Or to say it with Lady Gaga who like Madonna is also a Paisana Romana just like my Bella Donna Dell’Acqua.

“I want your drama … I want your love.
I want your revenge …You and I could write a bad romance!
I want your …oh oh oh … your Rama-Ramama … and Gaga-ooh-la-la.”
Lady Gaga, “Bad Romance”

I could not have articulated it any better! By the same token, this aria buffa with its meshuggene coloratura reminds me vice versa of the Yiddish word “Besherte”, a term of endearment for soul mates who were truly destined for each other. The word is rooted in old Anglo-Saxon, when it meant to cut up things and share them with others and it survived in modern high German as “Schere” for scissors and “Bescherung” for sharing gifts at Christmas time. But in German it also gained an additional meaning in the ironic colloquialism ”eine schöne Bescherung”. In this case, it does not translate into “a beautiful present” but it rather means “what a mess.” In other words, it could also characterize the dream team as double trouble full of storm and stress.

Suffice it to say, sometimes we could be both heaven and hell! Or at least some modern version of what the romantic poet William Blake had called The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In this poetic masterwork, he proclaimed that without opposites there cannot be progress. Generations later, this dialectical world view would influence among others Aldous Huxley’s most famous book The Doors of Perception which in turn became the source of inspiration for the Doors.

From youthful “mess” to old-age “progress”: Looking back at our long journey through life, I am happy to report, that William Blake was right. The two of us weathered all the storms along the road quite well together. And what is left of our darker realities, are all the highlights of our life and our love, of which we sometimes could not get enough. After all, we were not Florian Illies’ “Generation Golf”, we were born to be wild just like John Kay’s “Steppenwolf”. We were flower children of Mother Earth and part of that Woodstock Generation that was raised on Californian reveries and Bohemian rhapsodies, coming out of the waters and out of the woods.

Frederick at foot of Hohenstaufen

Frederick in the footsteps of Joseph von Eichendorff’s
“Good-For-Nothing” at the foot of the Hohenstaufen in the early seventies

The mountain of the Hohenstaufen rises right behind my hometown of Göppingen in southern Germany and it still has some ruins of the ancestral fortress of Emperor Barbarossa from the twelfth century. At the time this picture was taken, my musical idols were the itinerant gypsies, the Sinti and Roma, who were roaming the hinterlands of the Habsburg Empire all the way from Romania up to Bohemia. My mother still remembered them as they were passing through her little village. However, when I realized that in comparison with their virtuosity I was also a musical good-for-nothing, I left my good old fiddle way behind. And I also knew, that I had all their wandering melodies singing and dancing in my mind.

Following in the footsteps of Eichendorff, the poet, is however quite another story. He is the quintessential representative of German Romanticism, whose lyrical texts have been set to music by various composers numerous times. His poetic themes and sceneries of romantic ruins and moonlit landscapes, of youthful wanderlust, and last but not least, of “Fernweh” and “Heimweh”, those untranslatable yearnings for far-away countries and – vice versa – the longing for returning home again, all these romantic leitmotivs and nostalgic trajectories have become an integral part of Germany’s cultural imaginaries. And as I realized in hindsight, they had also become very much part of my own life-long phantasies.

„Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts”, From the Life of a Good-For-Nothing, that is the title of Eichendorff’s most well-known novella. In it, the author’s young, happy-go-lucky protagonist takes his violin and sets out for Italy, following in turn in the footsteps of Goethe’s classical “Italian Journey”. I must have been about the same age as Eichendorff’s young protagonist, judging by his peach fuzzy face, when I traveled for the first time to Italy, and I even outdid my role model by hitch hiking most of the way. Only, this time it was not by old-fashioned horse-drawn carriages but by modern-day cars with much more horse power. And in the warm summer nights of the south, I would sleep under the stars and dream of what they might have in store for me.

Back home, way back home in my ancestral homeland, Eichendorffs’s family tree had deep roots in the land of Upper Silesia, which was once also part of the Habsburg Empire. His family even had a small summer castle in Sedlnitz, today’s Sedlnice in the Moravian countryside, which was then known as Kuhländchen, where my maternal forebears had lived for centuries as farmers. Eichendorff spent many summers there, and since my mother’s birthplace Partschendorf, today’s Bartošovice, was the neighboring village, she visited Eichendorff’s near-by castle already as a young school girl, which was an experience that turned her into a lifelong admirer of him and his poetry.

As a young man, Eichendorff not only studied in Heidelberg, he too fell in love in this romantic city on the banks of the Neckar, and to top it off, he too had harbored dreams of setting sails for a new life in America. However, for Eichendorff, that dream never became a reality. In addition, his loved one had left him, adding to his emotional misery. His poem “Das zerbrochene Ringlein”, the broken little ring, became one of the most well-known songs of unrequited love in the German lieder cannon. In it the poem’s protagonist says that he will leave home and roam the world as a “Spielmann”, an itinerant minstrel, trying to forget all his sorrows somewhere in a far-away land. The poem begins: “In einem kühlen Grunde”,  in a cool valley …

Lynne near Heidelberg in Spring

Lynne in a cool valley in beautiful spring somewhere around Heidelberg

The beauty of spring and the joys of love have always been a double phantasy since the beginning of poetry. To give just three examples from the canon of German literature. Walther von der Vogelweide, the great traveling troubadour during the time of the courtly love tradition in medieval Germany, describes in his poem “Unter der linden auf der heide” or “Under the linden tree in a meadow”, a young maiden’s fond memories of her secret romantic tryst with her loved one in a bed of broken grass and beautiful flowers.

Following that medieval model, young Goethe wrote his poem “Mailied” or May Song, which became also known as “Maifest” or May Fest, in which the poet wanders through spring meadows together with a young girl he is in love with. The poem is an exemplary song of erotic innocence and poetic experience, that became the lyrical epitome of German “Sturm und Drang“ with all its exuberant reverie.

Eichendorff, a poet of the next generation happily revisited Goethe’s youthful vision and epic enthusiasm. Goethe had found his first true love in Italy and he eternalized their shared  passion in his “Roman Elegies”. Eichendorff’s love poems also focus on the allure of the foreign, most notably in his poem “Schöne Fremde” whose double entendre of “beautiful stranger” and “beauty of foreign lands” is untranslatable, no matter how much poetic license one applies.

“Heimweh” is another one of those poems and it does not translate into homesickness –  which for non-native speakers of English will probably always resonate with words like sea sickness, or any other sickness which causes the sick one to throw up. “Heimweh” on the other hand translates literary into a woeful longing for home. The first line of this poem reads:  “Wer in die Fremde will wandern, der muss mit der Liebsten gehen”, If you want to wander to far-away lands, you have to go with the one you love the most.

Eichendorff probably even channeled Led Zeppelin to make sure I get the message. After all, they were clearly spelling it out what their message was all about, beginning with title of the song:

“Going to California”

“Someone told me there is a girl out there,
With love in her eyes and flowers in her hair.”

And as it were, with a “whole lotta love” to give and to share. In other words, the

Love

of a true lover,
the love of a caring wife,
and the love of a wonderful mother,
enough to last for much more than one life.

But stubborn as I was in those days and clueless what the future could bring, I left my loved one behind, leaving for America all by myself in August of 1977, probably thinking that absolute independence would be my ultimate heaven. It soon turned out to be another major moment of bad romance on our itinerary. That bad stretch went from August until December. By November, it seemed we had drifted  “worlds apart”, as the rock band Journey put it in their song

“Separate Ways”

“Here we stand worlds apart,
hearts broken in two, two, two,
sleepless nights, losing ground,
I am reaching for you, you, you.”

And with their chorus refrain, that arena band from San Francisco drove their message home like an orchestrated wake-up call …

“Someday love will find you,
break those chains that bind you”

Considering the fact, that I somehow re-enact Eichendorff’s dreams and poetic phantasies, the romantic irony of that last line was not lost on me, as the band Journey seems to sing in their own way about the poet’s broken heart and his little broken ring. In any case, by the end of that year, the two of us were re-united again in New York City, where I picked up my loved one in the John F. Kennedy airport – and then our hearts went overboard! This was not the first time we had come close losing each other, but this time we had found each other for good. However, we never wore wedding bands. We did not even consider them. Maybe deep down we both were afraid we would break them again.

Ithaca is the name of the little town in the foothills of Cornell University in upstate New York, were I continued my studies at that time. In hindsight, the name Ithaca struck me as a good omen, because it reminded me of the Homeric rhapsodies of Odysseus and his epic and erratic “nostos”, his long return home to his beloved Penelope in Ithaka. It is the archaic model of all adventures stories about faraway lands full of heroic bravura and melodramatic nostalgia. Ever since I had devoured Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in the classical German translation by Johann Heinrich Voss during my earlier years in the Gymnasium, I loved his ancient world of travel and adventure.

As it turned out, my Penelope had brought me home to her own country. We just did not know it at that time. So Eichendorff’s poem “Heimweh” actually turned out to be my “Fernweh” for her home in the New World far out West. The following summer, the two of us traveled together across this seemingly endless continent in Greyhound buses all the way to California, where we continued our continuing education – which apparently never seemed to end – in San Francisco and Santa Barbara.

And it certainly was the right time and the right place to be in California. Songs like “California Girls” by the Beach Boys, “Hotel California” by the Eagles, and “Dreamin’ California” by the Mamas and Papas perfectly captured that far out zeitgeist, that vibrant energy and effervescent atmosphere of those years on the West Coast. And with his song “San Francisco”, beginning with the lines “If you are going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair”, Scott Mckenzie was the gentle pied piper for all those flower children who flocked to that rainbow city, the last flourishing outpost of artists and bohemians way up there on the Pacific Coast.

Since the Gold Rush in the nineteenth century, the Golden State of California has loomed on the horizon as the New World’s Manifest Destiny, a mythical Promised Land and modern Paradise Regained. As the country was being settled, more and more names for streets, parks, and beaches in California conjured up these paradisiacal phantasies. When the cultural historian Anthony Heilbut wrote his seminal study on the German expatriates from Nazi Germany who had found a refuge in Los Angeles, he called his study “Exiled in Paradise”.

Oh how we enjoyed roaming the Mojave Desert in spring when all its flowers were in bloom. And how we loved spending summers on the remote beaches north of Santa Barbara, wearing nothing more than a few beads and a sunny smile. And when the sun was setting, my  California girl would turn into Carlos Santana’s “Gypsy Queen” in colorful veils and when the moon was rising, I would become her moonstruck man and she would become Santana’s “Black Magic Woman”.

“California Dreaming”, that was the American Dream as “Paradise Now”, just like the American traveling troupe The Living Theatre had called their most popular play. In hindsight, California was our endless summer of love, or to put it somewhat more prosaically, it was the last four years of our carefree, long-lasting youth, before the real world of a professional life finally caught up with us. And so, we hit the road again, leaving the West Coast and heading back to the East Coast.

“Lehr- und Wanderjahre” is what Goethe had called the formative years of learning and wandering of Wilhelm Meister, the protagonist of his classical bildungsroman. In my case, my years of learning and wandering lasted close to thirty years, in which I studied and taught at a dozen universities in Germany, England and America. In other words, the wannabe fiddling gypsy of my youth had become a “gypsy scholar” instead, as this lifestyle is called in the English- speaking world.

Moving from university to university in pursuit of tenure always reminded me of medieval minstrels wandering from castle to castle in pursuit of a permanent ministerial position. Looking back, I could not have fared any better. On the long and winding and sometimes rocky road, where we so often had to decamp, my fair lady turned out to be a real lady tramp. In other words, we truly had become our American Dream, I was her wandering gypsy scholar and she was my wandering gypsy queen.

“On the Road again”, Willie Nelson’s country song became the favorite soundtrack of our meanderings through this world. And Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” was our alternative guide in search for orientation and our final destination. Which of course always begged the question: Is there an ultimate destiny, let alone preordained itinerary, in a world of so much coincidence, permutation and imponderability?!

***

“Fortuna velut luna …” thus begins the “Carmina Burana”, a collection of songs from the High Middle Ages, whose entry line suggests that fate and fortune are as fickle as the moon. This Latin phrase about the moon could have also been the source of inspiration for Giuseppe Verdi’s famous aria “La donna è mobile”, suggesting that woman is fickle. Waxing moon, waning moon, ebb and flow that come and go. So come, my gypsy queen, my queen of hearts, come and be my fortuneteller! Come show me all your lucky cards …

Lynne Lady Luck and Lucky Star

My Lady Luck and Lucky Star
Lynne in an old hotel in New England in the mid-eighties

Tell me, tell me, what is written in the stars! What is our fate! My Fair Lady From the Sea, tell me all about that sparkling Pearly Gate! That magical blue lagoon, that dark abyss of Mother Earth, of eternal death and eternal rebirth, mysterious no-man’s land of eternal death and rebirth! That no-man’s land of all mankind, that blossoming meadow of the Blue Flower, that no romantic will ever find. And again she is rolling her dark brown eyes, just as she did when we lost paradise. And while she keeps smiling her beguiling smile, I keep searching for that utopia, that mythic womb and tomb of the Magna Mater.

„Wohin gehen wir? Immer nach Hause”
Novalis

Where are we going? Always direction home! Wrote Novalis, the romantic dreamer of the Blue Flower. My own scholarly journey on the road home came to an end in Norfolk, Virginia at Old Dominion University. As it turned out, the name of the university literally signifies a home coming since the word “dominion” has its root in the Latin word domo, meaning home. Already the wandering students in Eichendorff’s “Taugenichts” novella had come to the realization at the end of the road: “Beatus ille home, qui sedet in sua domo”, happy is the man who resides in his own home. After my long academic itinerary to find the right place and the right university, I could not agree more.

Finally, I had a solid base from which I could talk myself into more and more lecture tours, which over the years took me to over thirty countries all over the world. I figured, if I was no good as a gypsy musician, I could at least could make up for it as a gypsy scholar. Or to put it differently, the fiddler on the roof had become a real luftmensch, frequently flying the friendly skies, a talking head and so-called Turbo Prof who would talk until his last listener’s ears would fall off.

And after everything was said and done, I felt thankful that after all, I had not become a bum, a German “Bummelstudent”, as we used to call perennial students without a home and nowhere to go. But at the bottom of my Bohemian heart, I will always remain a Good-For-Nothing, Eichendorff’s wandering “Taugenichts”. As a matter of fact, in recent years, I have identified more and more with him, so that I even ended up publishing some of my own poetry under his pseudonym.  For example, the following poem of mine together with the painting by John William Waterhouse, the Pre-Raffaelite painter, appeared in Norfolk’s monthly Downtowner last fall under the name F.A. Taugenichts.

Twilight over Tidewater poem

The name of this painting is “The Lady of Shalott”, who according Arthurian legend was yearning for the knight Lancelot. Since she is confined to a tower near Camelot, she reminds me of the Brothers Grimm’s Rapunzel, which in turn was the name I had given Lynne in Heidelberg because of her long hair at that time. In the meantime, her hair is much shorter just like the name Rapunzel, whose abbreviated version is however still my favorite term of endearment for Lynne.

The original version of this picture poem shown above is a postcard and it was part of a project I had called “poetry to go”, because people can buy postcards, give them to friends or send them around the world. I also love to publish these picture poems in newspapers, because many more people can read them for example at the morning breakfast table and have some food for thought on the way, as they get ready for another busy the day.

The above example is just one of several dozens of poetry postcards, which I produced with different texts, themes and images soon after I had had my first battle with tongue cancer. I had them reproduced by the thousands and sold in different stores in and around Norfolk as well as in Germany with all proceeds going to cancer research. Since last winter, the local newspaper Hampton Roads Gazeti is printing my series on the four seasons not only to celebrate them but also to raise cancer awareness. When we started that project, I would have never thought, that I soon would be battling my own cancer again and more than ever.

***

“I have heard the mermaids singing”
T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Norfolk is an old harbor town from America’s colonial period here at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in an area which is also known as Hampton Roads, since it combines old towns like Hampton and Norfolk with newer towns like Chesapeake and Virginia Beach. Together, they are forming a larger metropolitan area of a total of seven cities with over one and half million people. In addition to Hampton Roads, the region is also known as Coastal Virginia, but it is probably most naturally described as Tidewater, since the tides of the Atlantic inundate so many of its marshes and wetlands, meandering waterways and major rivers tributaries.

Considering its natural location, this area is also the home of the mermaid, whose colorful statues adorn grace many public places. It wasn’t until we had lived here for some time, that it dawned on me, that my California girl form the water also was one half of a two-part mermaid configuration. In accordance with mythical mermaids, who are half maid and half fish, Lynne was born in the sign of Pisces and I was a born Virgo. If one puts the two zodiac signs together, they form a perfect  mermaid, a true Meerjungfrau, as she is called in German.

In other words, even from an astrological point of view, the two of us are a match made in heaven and – vice versa – down here on earth, Southern Virginia was our natural destination where we finally found our home. ”Virginia is for Lovers”, is the official motto of this state, and who could argue with that. There is an endearing recording by Charles, singing “Carry me back to Ole Virginny”, an old minstrel song from the nineteenth century and the Rolling Stones chimed right in with him in their bluesy country rock song “Sweet Virginia”, in which they even seem to trace our own journey home from the West Coast to Coastal Virginia …

“Thank you for your wine, California …
yes I got the desert in my toe nails
and I hid the speed inside my shoes …
yeah come on down to Sweet Virginia …”

How fitting that this blues ballad about coming home is featured on their double album “Exile On Main Street”. Yeah, it is good to be home at last. Or, as the forefathers of my better half from the Campagna Romana would have put it:  Pisces, Virgo, Virginia – ubi bene ibi patria.

Nomen est omen: According to Lynne’s mother, the first name of her daughter is also associated with water in the mother tongues of her maternal ancestry from Norway and Sweden. I could never verify this. But it certainly was part of her attempt to reclaim her own ancestry and ethnic identity, which she loved to celebrate in the adventure stories and Nordic myth forging of seafaring Vikings. That ended up impressing her younger son, but not her first-born daughter. She always remained her proud patriarchal father’s “numero uno”, his first-born girl from the water.

However, looking at the proliferation of her name here in Tidewater seems to bear out her mother’s claim. More than a dozen lanes and lakes, parkways and waterways are compound names that contain Lynne’s name in various combinations, including “Lynnhaven”, which is of course my favorite variation. And as if to drive home her aquatic identity all around the Tidewater community, my California girl from the water ended mounting the number plate from her father’s car which she inherited after his death onto her own little Honda S 2000 sports car. It reads “Dell H2O”. And she still loves to drive in the fast lane, which sometimes drives me insane.

“Gremium matris terrae”, the Womb of Mother Earth. That is what poetic scholars of matriarchal mythology call the world of water, the aquatic source of all terrestrial life. Coincidentally, the area of Tidewater in Southern Virginia is also one of the most flooded areas on the East Coast, because the global rising of the sea level is compounded here by the local sinking of the mainland. No wonder, mermaids feel at home here. Unlike land-locked humans they go with the flow when it comes to flooding, and since they have fish tails they don’t have to act like a fish out of water.

“Bridge Over Troubled Water”: During the course of our life together, I have come to the realization, when ebb comes to flow, and push comes to shove my better half can become an amazing bridge over troubled water, strong and supportive as if made out of rock and stone. That was especially evident, when she had to take care of most of the preparations for our hurried evacuation during the last hurricane. She rose to the occasion with so much equanimity, almost bordering on serenity, that she reminded me of “La Serenissima”, the superlative with which the Venetians had crowned their regal Renaissance city a long time ago. The last time I saw Venice it was in late fall and the city was flooded again, but I was struck by the casual, easy going attitude with which its citizens took care of what they call “aqua alta”.

“She’s like a Rainbow” has always been one of my favorite songs by the Rolling Stones ever since I heard it in the sixties on the radio. And I was especially taken by the playful piano play. The last couple of weeks, whenever I started to feel down as if I would drown, my girl from the water rose like a rainbow above it. I have never seen her like this before. Probably because I had never been in such dire straits. And just like we were re-enacted art in our younger years, art is now vice versa re-invigorating our older lives, like this mermaid on the following picture.

Every mermaid in Tidewater is painted in different colors and sometimes they also wear different accessories. This particular mermaid comes in rainbow colors, projecting a message of hope that is reinforced by the word “Hope” which she holds in her outstretched hand.  It is also the password to the building, where we hope, the daily six-week radiation treatment will help me in my battle with cancer.

Mermaid at Norfolk's General Hospital

Mermaid at the entrance to the oncology building of Norfolk’s General Hospital

If “Hope” is the last password for all those who have been struck by cancer, then “Hope Against Hope” describes the conflicting absurdity all those must feel, who know that they are terminally ill. It is a morbid desperation, the Romans used to call “spes contra spem”. But I have a better password through this final absurdity I am borrowing it again from Lynne’s Roman ancestry: “Omnia vincit amor”! It opens every door and for mermaids it would be an easy escape right here along the Atlantic Shore with all its harbors, floodgates and waterways. And on top of it, as far as I can see, it sure would be an exciting escapade, riding the waves all the way out to the open sea.

Last Exit Norfolk: “From Here to Eternity.” The most iconic image of the film “From Here to Eternity” by Fred Zinnemann from the year 1953 is certainly the beach scene in Hawaii, in which Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr are lying and embracing each other in the rolling waves of the surf that is rushing and crushing towards the shore. The powerful ebb and flow of the water and the evocative trajectory of the poetic title “From Here to Eternity” in turn are reminiscent of Goethe’s panoramic allegory “Gesang der Geister über den Wassern”, song of the spirits over the waters. Since Fred Zinnemann was an Austrian immigrant to America, he might have been quite familiar with Goethe’s poetry.

Goethe’s poem describes the course of the water from a spring in the mountains all the way down to the sea, and it turns the subsequent natural process of evaporation and eventual return to earth in the form of rain into a philosophical contemplation about the physical-metaphysical nature of the eternal recurrence of the same. The poet concludes his poem with the transcendental equation: „Seele des Menschen, wie gleichst du dem Wasser, Schicksal des Menschen, wie gleichst du dem Wind“. Soul of man, you are like the water, fate of man, you are like wind. I know of no other poem that describes the psychic energy of humanity, its vibrant vitality and its longing for regeneration and lasting immortality more powerfully than this poem.

Click here to re-read Part I

Part III will be linked here as soon as it is published.

 

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