Leaf of the Tree

Finding the Divine in the Details


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A story of many kinds of homecomings

A highlight for me as my novel, The Munich Girl, came into the world was my return to the first place in Germany where my family lived when I was a child.

On the cloudy November afternoon that the book published, I faced the Main River in the tiny village of Dorfprozelten and offered my thanks at the grave of Herr and Frau Geis, who shared their house with my family back in the early 1960s.

It was because my military family lived “on the economy” with them that my sense of myself as a citizen of the world began so early. The fact that my family established close ties with German people in post-war Europe also inevitably led me to want to understand the experience of Germans themselves during the war.

I’d never have imagined that this path would take me through Hitler’s living room as it drew me into the life of his longtime mistress, later wife, Eva Braun.

“How will you ever get readers past the fact that it’s her – that she’s such a large part of the story?” is a question I grew used to hearing.

I wouldn’t. I knew that from the start. Readers would embark on that particular journey only if they were willing to.

This story in no way seeks to exonerate or “redeem” her, Rather, she makes a good motif for looking at the ways in which many people, women in particular, suppress our own lives – or often don’t even claim those lives fully at all.

The story of The Munich Girl is about many things, including, of course, Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun, and many facets of history from the time of the war in Germany. It is also about the power of friendship, and the importance of our often ignored and overlooked inner life, without which our world careens increasingly out-of-balance, as it did in those wartime days.

Much like the book’s protagonist, Anna, I repeatedly experience what invites me to look beyond what I think I know, and have understood about life. The process of uncovering the story has helped me remember many kinds of homecomings, spiritual and material, that life brings to us.

At its heart, it’s a story about outlasting that chaos and confusion that unavoidably visit us, in both public and private wars. We seem to do that by valuing, and believing in, the stronger possibility in all of the good that we are willing to contribute to building together.

Part of our ability to do that, I’ve come to believe, rests in being able to recognize that human beings aren’t usually all good, or all bad, but a complex mix of where our experience, understanding, and choices have led us.  As one character in The Munich Girl observes: “Sometimes, we must outlast even what seems worse than we have imagined, because we believe in the things that are good. So that there can be good things again.”

Eight years ago when the process of this book began, I also couldn’t have imagined what those words might come to mean in the atmosphere of our world today. I thank every reader who’s giving the book time, and also offering thoughtful reflection that helps me to continue learning from the pathway of this story, every day.

More about The Munich Girl: https://www.amazon.com/Munich-Girl-Novel-Legacies-Outlast/dp/0996546987

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The Munich Girl and Nazi Germany – and now

Photo montage courtesy of Patricia Mueggler.

 

As I landed back in the U.S. from a span of time in Europe, I received this kind message from writer Stephanie Villegas:

“Just wanted to let you know that my latest blog post was a list of the best WWII books (for Middle & YA readers) and your book The Munich Girl is on the list.”

I am honored that the novel has been recommended this way, and it’s in great company on that list –

http://easypeasyfiction.blogspot.com/2017/10/25-best-wwii-books-for-middle-grade-and.html

Discovering the “Girl” on a library shelf in Kendal, UK.

Stephanie’s blog is well worth visiting for some intriguing posts, too, especially one about what sort of very human lives we need to see better represented in fiction. Be sure to look for some of her own short stories while you’re there.

As I revisited the trail of The Munich Girl over these last weeks, I spent a lot of time reflecting on what my experience with writing the book revealed for me, and what I continue to discover now.

Many readers, both in their questions and their reviews, draw parallels between the historic time frame of the novel and the events and atmosphere of our own time.

Fun and new friends in Munich.

Earlier this year, I enjoyed an interview with author Elizabeth Horton-Newton, whose good questions led me to exploring some of my own reflections on this, especially as they relate to the imbalances playing themselves out (and quite intensely!) all around us:

  1. You’ve chosen a very unusual subject to write about. How did you come up with the idea for The Munich Girl?

My original intent was (and remained) to explore more about the lives of everyday Germans during WWII. When life led me to information about Eva Braun, it opened up whole new questions, particularly because she came from a background of everyday Germans – not what many would expect to be Hitler’s choice at all.

When the question: “What if you had known Eva Braun, but hadn’t known the role she played in his life?” arose, the story’s momentum became unstoppable for me. A number of people actually did have this experience with her, didn’t find out the truth of her situation until after her death, because she was required to remain an invisible secret in Hitler’s life. That way, he could sustain the adulation he received through the myth that “his bride was Germany”.

 

  1. Did you anticipate the amount of research you would need to do? How did you decide where to begin?

Because my interest had been hooked, I welcomed the research process. I stumbled into this focus because, as I sought to understand the experience of German people during the war, the very first book I read was about Eva Braun.

The author pointed out that Braun’s experience with Hitler mirrored Germany’s. First he seduced them, then abandoned them, and finally, led them into destruction.

Through further reading, I gained a more complete view of the time period in Germany, and of the world Eva Braun inhabited. I then I began to study her films and photographs more closely, since photography was such an essential part of who she was. It’s why we have such personal visual records of Hitler, and many of her images reveal a lot about the tone and circumstances of her life, too.

  1. As you did your research did your feelings about the real people, Eva Braun, Hitler, any others, change? In what way?  

As I learned more about Hitler than I’d ever want to, it was unmistakable how flawed his psyche and personality were. Textbook narcissistic personality disorder, later compounded by the erratic results of a mixture of unstable drugs.

But once you get beyond the significant inaccuracies published about Eva Braun over the years, you find a more rounded and humane personality, one whom many credible sources even admired.

She was dismissed by historians as unimportant when, in fact, as one German biographer noted, she holds the key to better understanding Hitler.

But only if we’re willing to allow that, in addition to behaving monstrously, he was also human. For some, that idea’s still something like heresy.

However, a paradox that I think could tell us a lot about our present imbalances of inequality is that the very sorts of caring, nurturing qualities that the Nazis sought to demean and suppress were exactly what Hitler came home to Eva Braun for.

One question for me is, when, and how, will we find the collective will to value and honor these qualities in both genders, and all situations?

It is the devaluing of them that has allowed, and continues to allow, atrocities like the Holocaust to happen.

You can find Elizabeth’s full interview, along with her review of the book here:

https://elizabethnnewton.com/2017/02/17/the-munich-girl-by-phyllis-edgerly-ring/


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Facts, fiction, and female characters

Autumn in Murnau, Vassily Kandinsky, 1908.

Author Dianne Ascroft, who writes historical fiction, offered me a wonderful interview.

Her questions are some of the most enjoyable I’ve received and as I explore the path of The Munich Girl in my current memoir writing, they’re especially helpful:

Describe how you use a mixture of historic figures and invented characters in the novel.

PER: Invented characters act as catalysts for what a writer discovers about the story, so that’s a huge part of the pleasure of coming to know them.

Characters who were real people require research accuracy, of course. A paradox I encountered is how very much information published about Eva Braun is inaccurate, including many photos in which someone else, including her own sister, is identified as her.

While she’s not the protagonist, I was looking for more of the emotional story that her life showed. The novel’s goal has never been to try to exonerate or “redeem” her, or how she is perceived. She’s an excellent motif for examining how people, especially women, suppress our own lives, and what forces and factors lead us to do that.

She also offers a way to look at the reality that human beings are complex. She clearly had a conscience, and acted on it, tried to make good choices.

She also made ones that served neither herself nor others very well. Do we negate or devalue the contributions that someone makes because they also do things that are misguided, ill-advised, or even personally destructive? Do we not all share this same complexity in experience? These are themes I wanted to explore.

How closely did you stick to the historical facts? If you used them loosely, how did you decide whether to deviate from them?

PER: As closely as possible when it came to information from the WWII era and the years that preceded it in Germany. As my husband says, if the characters ride a train on a certain line at a certain time of day, there had to really be one.

There’s a lot of factual information in The Munich Girl and I’ve heard from readers that it can be hard to know where the factual leaves off and the fiction begins. It’s easy to know where: in the emotional lives of the characters, including those people that history remembers. That’s where my own attempt to read between the lines of daily life watched for the signs of interior life I could recognize and convey as the story revealed itself.

In an historical novel you must vividly re-create a place and people in a bygone era. How did you bring the place and people you are writing about to life?

PER: This was one of the most delightful parts, for me, as I spent extended spans of time in various locales in Germany that are a part of the story.

Also, in the time I spent poring over Eva Braun’s photographs and films, I got to know both the interiors and exteriors of the settings as they appeared during the 1930s and ‘40s.

A fun element of research was what has become, for me, a growing collection of vintage postcards that show scenes from that era in many of the settings of the story.

There often seems to be more scope in historical novels for male characters rather than female characters.

Do you prefer to write one sex or the other. And, if so, why?

PER: I love stories where there’s a balance that hints at what a world with equality might look and feel like. This novel has a lot more scope for female characters. At its heart is a friendship between two women, one of whom was a megalomaniac’s mistress, and the effect their emotional intimacy had in each of their lives, and in the lives of those who came along in a next generation.

But it’s really about two facets of human experience that matter a great deal to me, ones I imagine are still characterized as more “feminine” than “masculine,” though I believe they apply in all of our lives. The first is the inner reunion of “coming home to” our truest self that we all must eventually encounter. The second, and even more intriguing facet, for me, is the mysterious role that others play in that process, often in highly unexpected ways.

One particular paradox I discovered might open the door to a deeper conversation about gender equality, one that examines it from the perspective of human virtues. It’s that the qualities of compassion and care that Hitler and the Third Reich sought to demean, reject, and suppress are precisely what he came home to Eva Braun for. This unexamined and very common imbalance, which distorts and abuses the value of the very things we need to heal as a world, continues to play out on a massive, violent scale in human life.

Find the full interview here:  https://dianneascroft.com/2016/08/05/meeting-the-munich-girl/


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Along my path of world citizenship

The afternoon train that typically brings me back to my German “hometown” of Wertheim.

I’ve been retracing a path of family history, following portions of the route that brought my parents together in England during World War II and eventually resulted in my speaking German (well, a kindergartner’s “German”) almost as early as I spoke my mother tongue.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber, one of Germany’s most-visited towns.

During the U.S. occupation of Europe after the war, my military family spent two tours in Germany, the last of which holds my oldest memories.

In the winter of 1960, we sailed across the Atlantic to a very new life. As military housing was at a premium, we lived “on the economy,” first in a hotel that I still visit, then in a tiny village 45 minutes from Frankfurt. A family named Geis welcomed us into the ground floor of their home while they squeezed upstairs to make room for us.

My British grandmother visited us in Germany in 1960.

Contrary to popular belief about German-American relations at the time, they were unfailingly kind and astonishingly generous, especially since they had very little after the war. While they no doubt welcomed the money they received for sharing that clean, accommodating space with us, they always felt more like grandparents than landlords to me.

What I remember most is how cheerful and happy they always were. I later learned that Herr Geis, like my family, was a recent arrival in Germany. Before that, his wife and children had waited nearly 15 years while he was a prisoner of war in a Russian prison camp, wondering whether they’d ever see him again. I understand now that after he came home, they saw every day as a new beginning and treated it like something too precious to waste on anything but gratitude and joy.

Along the Main River near Wertheim.

It was during Easter week that this couple and I shared one of my earliest intercultural exchanges. One day my parents had some appointments and errands and the Geises offered to watch me while they were away. My four-year-old self delighted in the day’s pursuits, which actually involved little more than following along behind the couple as they did their chores, preparing their field near the Main River for planting, and helping me discover some stray potatoes they’d missed at harvest time.

After we’d eaten those at the mid-day meal, together with eggs we’d collected from their hens, they introduced me to my first Easter eggs.

We were coloring them when my parents appeared at their kitchen door, bearing some traditional American fare — Hershey bars and a big bowl of popcorn — that they’d brought as an Easter gift and thank-you.

Würzburg, Germany, after the war.

Most Germans had never seen popcorn, since corn was grown only for animal feed in Europe in those days. That bowl lasted for hours as the Geises removed a piece at a time, holding it up and marveling as they named the creature or object that its shape approximated. Eventually, we all began to do the same amid lots of laughter, and a pretty good vocabulary lesson on both sides of our collective language barrier.

This event stands out in my memory because it signals such a perceptible shift in my family’s bond with the Geises, the kind that meant they’d become regular guests at our military-base quarters on-base quarters long after we’d moved from our temporary shelter in their house.

I didn’t know of any other American families who shared this kind of friendship, and after my mother’s horrific experiences during the Blitz in Britain, most anyone would have forgiven her if she’d been hesitant to embrace Germans.

As I travel through Germany all these decades later, I feel eternally thankful for parents who were always able to see the humanity in any situation, above and beyond past history or politics. I realize today what a vital part of peace-building this is.

Adapted from Life at First Sight: Finding the Divine in the Details

 

 


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The mustache we’d know anywhere

On a recent visit with young friend, Anya, one of the first readers of my newest book.

Sixty-three years ago today, during a brief 24-hour lull between two hurricanes, my mother-in-law delivered her first child at the hospital of the Kittery Naval Shipyard in Maine.

The photo on the left below, taken on the roof of my husband’s childhood home (one of them, anyway) embodies his spirit, for me.

Lord knows what this experience was about — probably an expedition to tackle all of that plant growth around the chimney. But knowing my husband, he was among the first in this little family group to volunteer for it.

Photo courtesy Thomas Tufts

Second from the right, he’s facing the photographer almost completely, in a stance that suggests balance, and ease. These two qualities are not only a part of who he is essentially, but what he often offers to the situations around him.

My true life companion, he is my fellow traveler in the most meaningful of ways. Many of our adventures lately have been ones that retrace family history, in Ireland, Britain, and Europe.

With an artifact from family history during a recent visit to the village where my mother grew up in England.

On one of his journal-writing days, he captured down some thoughts as he contemplated words of writer Anne Lamott’s about being part of the tapestry of life and of relationships, and the pathway by which souls learn and grow and evolve.

His words on the page reminded me of this: “Heirloom is a compound word, with its roots in heredity and looming. Weaving, writing and painting our stories into the things we create is a way of feeding the Holy in Nature, which has kept us fed and alive.

“And as we put all of our lostness and longing into the beauty we make, we do so knowing that we may never hope for more than to pass on these heirlooms to the young ones so they may find their way home across the songlines, as we have been found by those who made beautiful things before us. If even one generation is denied their inheritance, the story and the way home may be lost. As it is said in West Africa, ‘When an elder dies, a library burns to the ground.’” ~ Toko-pa

Artwork: Joan Haskell

After six-plus decades of my own life, I’m finding more and more each day that the most pervading art form and inheritance we leave in the world may be summed up in the following questions, for which I thank author Ronnie Tomanio — and my husband, for years of willingness to live them together:

At this moment in time, what is the act of service I am capable of giving that will build up the good in this relationship?

At this moment in time, what is the act of service I am capable of receiving that will build up the good in this relationship?

 


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Following the spiritual breadcrumbs

As I revisit themes from my novel, The Munich Girl, during my travels in Europe over these next weeks, I am mining, inwardly, for facets of my experience in writing that book that have been calling –and loudly — for quite some time now.

Doesn’t matter whether I’m awake or asleep, they mean business, and they’re not going away. What they want even appeared like a sign on a wall in a dream: memoir.

This is always the point at which I hear a voice in my head, with a mild British accent, asking, “Whatever bloody for?” It chimed in frequently over the nearly nine years that The Munich Girl came into being. The process of that book showed me that if I didn’t flinch or back away from that question but met it head-on, that voice frequently shifted to something like, “Oh, right, then,” and actually became a helpful ally.

As a writer, I have actively avoided the prospect of memoir for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is public embarrassment. (“Who cares?” is an effective deterrent, too.) Some might argue that I’ve already gotten the embarrassment part out of the way, perhaps more than once, and I wouldn’t disagree.

When I finally understood enough about the purpose of memoir as focusing in and reflecting about a specific stage or aspect of personal experience, I had a humbling recognition. The fact is, in much the way creative process, in all its mystery, delivered every part of the novel’s story when I was willing to let it lead, it offered up, at the same time, a cache of memoir material. It was like those dual-action machines gaining popularity in Europe that both wash and dry your clothes — it had practically outlined the next book for me.

If I had the heart, and will, to follow the trail again. “Spiritual breadcrumbs,” one friend calls this, adding boldly, “Are you going to be so ungrateful as to let them go to waste?”

I hadn’t planned to write a memoir any more than I had a novel that includes Hitler’s wife . But just as the environs of that story did, something is acting on me in a way I’ve given up trying to explain, but absolutely cannot deny.  As I have more conversations with readers of The Munich Girl, encounter the deep questions they ask and the observations they make after living in the book for a time, the following passage, which played a big part in the emotional themes of the novel, is right back in front of me for re-examination.

Without a doubt, I’ll let it lead again, whatever the outcome, because my heart knows it’s too big a piece of our current dilemmas in this world — too universal a one — not to heed, and honor.

We are all of us searching for love, for the intimacy, closeness, tenderness we may remember from when we were in our mother’s arms or may have glimpsed in a lover’s embrace.

Or we may know it just as a sense of something we always wanted, something missing from our life.

This love is at the core of our being, and yet we search for it everywhere, so often causing our self pain in the process, losing our way, becoming entangled in our desires and all our images of love.

Then, one day, something makes us turn away from the outer world to seek this truth within us.

~ Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee


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Patience a key on the soul’s map

Photo: David Campbell / GBCTours.com

It was a turning point when I realized that patience isn’t something I “should” cultivate or practice, but a bearer of grace and mystery that deserves to be warmly welcomed into my life.

More things require — demand — it in my days now. Much like the better-informed choices that can help preserve my physical well-being, patience is too vital a resource to overlook in these rapidly changing days.

Photo: Nelson Ashberger

When I open to patience like a flower, receive its remedy, and practice restraint with the personal tendencies that want to trample it underfoot, I feel protected from things that could become stressors and irritants. Eventually, many of them stop hitting my inner radar screen at all, which suggests that, without patience, those previously mentioned tendencies actually go looking for unhelpful things. Patience is a key that opens a door that leads beyond them.

Of course, intercepting those tendencies often leads to encountering feelings, ones that the tendencies seem determined to avoid. That’s when I remember that patience, when welcomed like a kind, benevolent friend, rekindles something I love very much: a quiet, steady believing feeling that things are going to turn out as they need to, and all is well. The whole experience of living feels reassuring. Soul-sized, from a liberating overall perspective, rather than the ruts those old tendencies of mental habit might drag me through. They won’t stop trying to drag me there, but I don’t have to go.

Recently, someone who works hard, does a lot to help others, and has challenges, just like the rest of us, stood beside me and breathed, “I have a good life.”

It was like a blessing. It definitely felt like words that come from the other side of that door that patience, with its resulting assurance, invites us through.

John O’Donohue expressed this kind reality beautifully:

“The soul knows the geography of your destiny. Your soul alone has the map of your future, therefore you can trust this indirect, oblique side of yourself. If you do, it will take you where you need to go, but more important it will teach you a kindness of rhythm in your journey.”