Leaf of the Tree

Finding the Divine in the Details


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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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In the borderlands

strasbourgI recently returned to Europe for the first time since the release of my novel, The Munich Girl. Though my husband and I travel there a lot, this trip’s itinerary included places we’ve seldom or never visited.

Our route followed the natural border of the Rhine River, which means we repeatedly encountered those curious amalgamations of cuisine, culture, architectural styles, and attitudes that occur along divisions that humans decide ought to exist simply because geography seems to suggest them.

photo-2In the building dwarfed by its neighbors in the photo to the right, we, in a scene like something out of The Pink Panther, spoke three languages with the server in the course of his taking our order. As we all tried to accommodate each other, one or more of us kept shifting to a new one at exactly the wrong time. But I think we all appreciated the spirit of our intent.

We still wound up with some of the best Alsatian cooking I’ve had in a long time, generous with onions, cheese, and light buttery pastry I’ve found nowhere else.

833602_Food-KitchenWise-Alsatian-OThis section of France’s border with Germany is long-accustomed to shifting back and forth between nationalities and languages. As our tour guide explained why it is that even the youngest schoolchildren here have their classes in at least three languages, she described how, between world wars and other upheavals, her grandfather’s nationality changed four times in his 20th-century lifetime, though he never moved from his home city.

Much like clouds and changes in the weather, political insistence and other demands that humans impose on each other can come and go, often with great extremes. Within individual lives, challenges can arise in this way, too.

thHow we face and meet our choices — and what that helps us become — seems the vital focus in it all, however dire or uncertain things may appear.

And in that experience, though we walk the path of our individual lives alone, we also seem inextricably linked. This is one of the themes that I hope the story of The Munich Girl manages to convey.

Traveling along the borderlands of this river reminded me that navigating shifts in our circumstances is one of the main opportunities we receive to hone and develop some particularly pleasing qualities. I encountered them over and over in our stops along this route: a spirit of acceptance, flexibility, adaptability. Resilience. Relaxed openness. Even, delightfully, a kind of good-humored playfulness.

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Image: Charity Elise Designs / Charity Pabst-Hofert

It was as if over time, through all of that practice with change, people have adopted something of the flow that the river embodies.

“Thou wast created to bear and endure,” one passage from Baha’i writings states, while another declares that we are “created for happiness.”

These might sometimes seem nearly contradictory.

Perhaps the people I observed as I traveled have begun to reconcile what joy and hardship have to show us when we don’t impose a border between them; learned to understand that, like the waters of the river, each comes and goes, like the clouds and waters — and even invading armies.

But we get to decide how we embrace and anchor our own happiness.

 


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Through European Eyes

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I have a chance to be in Europe this spring, and it has made me extra aware of the response of European readers to The Munich Girl

Susanne Weigand, a reader in Germany, writes: “I am German and both my parents have lived through WWII and it was something we often talked about in my family. And in my time at school we were taught a lot about the war and Nazism. Later I read a lot of articles and several books about this dark period of German history.

11892173_893470930739513_6113866801293912567_n“But for some reason I always shied away from learning more about Eva Braun, probably because I couldn’t understand why a young woman would willingly devote herself to a man like Hitler. So when I learned that Phyllis Edgerly Ring had written a book about her I became very curious.

“I like the picture that the author has drawn of Eva Braun, her pride and her ambition, her insecurities and loneliness, her devotion and heartbreaking friendship and the story of her life.

“But, and this is more important: This book is offering so much more. The story of three women (and only one of them is Eva) and how their lives crossed and intertwined. The story of a family and their complicated, but heartwarming connections. And even a love story I enjoyed. (And I seldom enjoy love stories, mostly they are too cheesy and sweet.)”

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Eva Braun, second from right, with members of her mother’s family.

Book blogger and reviewer Anne writes: “Growing up in the Netherlands, where every first week of May is basically dedicated to WWII, and with parents who were both born during the war (my mother even before Germany invaded Holland), I thought I was pretty well-informed on the topic. I studied History for two years in which, again, a lot of WWII was covered. Then I started reading this book and realized I still only know so little.

“I think I already knew who Eva Braun was when I was around 8 years old, but I never actually knew the face and the story behind the wife of Hitler. I always imagined she was a stern looking lady, with dark brown hair (maybe due to her last name as well) and a riding crop in her hand. Someone to match Hitler perfectly. Now look at the cover of this book. That’s actually Eva Braun.

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Eva Braun, near Berchtesgaden, 1940s.

“The Munich Girl tells us the story of three women: Anna (the main character), Peggy (Anna’s mother), and Eva Braun. … The story is told from three different perspectives: Anna’s life in 1995, and Peggy and Eva’s life pre- and post-wartime. There aren’t only fifty plus year old flashbacks, but also flashbacks within 1995 itself: before and after a plane accident (this is no spoiler because the book starts with Anna looking back at the accident) Anna is involved in.

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Chapel in Berchtesgaden – David Campbell photo.

“This book describes a journey towards finding out who Eva Braun was as a person and how that reflected on the lives of Anna and her mother. … I sometimes forgot I was reading a novel instead of a biography. Even though relatively little is known about Eva and her relationship with Hitler, extensive research and filling in the gaps with fiction make Eva come alive as if she has only died recently, instead of almost 71 years ago. …

It’s safe to say that Eva suffered from fear of abandonment. As Anna, later on in the story, says about her life with [her husband] Lowell:

It’s as if I have always felt, somehow, that I had to do the right thing, so he wouldn’t stop loving me. Wouldn’t leave.

I think this is what applied to Eva as well (and is actually a pretty big similarity when it comes to the relationships between Anna and Lowell, and Eva and Hitler).

Adi had given her a life she would otherwise never had known. She would not betray this generosity, or relinquish the honor of being one of the few who had this trust.’

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Page from photo album of Eva Braun.

Week by week, I watch in astonishment, and gratitude, as readers in many parts of the world receive the story of The Munich Girl, and offer their insights about it.

goodreads_icon_100x100-4a7d81b31d932cfc0be621ee15a14e70Find more about the book here:

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/27914910-the-munich-girl#other_reviews

 


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Reading between history’s lines

bad-homburg-vor-der-hohe-d974I recently unearthed a little treasure from family history that’s supremely timely as I wrap up European scenes in my newest novel, The Munich Girl.

Four small pages of stationery with my mother’s initials at the top are filled with her distinctive British handwriting on all eight sides. A prolific writer, she gathered these snapshot recollections from years when my parents and then pre-schooler sister lived in post-war France and Germany. God bless her. We think about doing such things so often. Now I’m a real beneficiary because she actually did.

“I decided then that you’d probably grow up to be a tactful, diplomatic person,” she describes of the time when, on her very first airplane flight (from London to Bordeaux, France), my sister, then 4, made polite conversation with the two travelers seated across from her and my mother. My mother describes them as “dressed in the full regalia of those who live in Arab countries.”

Among many vocations, my sister was eventually a staff member for three Congressmen and a U.S. Senator, which afforded numberless opportunities to practice both tact and diplomacy. Our mother had a knack for being prophetic that way.

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Photo: Kathy Gilman

She recalls “Tu et You,” my parents’ nickname for the rustic French farmhouse where they were billeted as a young couple. “Toilet was directly off — almost still within — the kitchen,” she writes. “The septic tank, it turns out, was directly under the toilet,” as she had occasion to discover when said toilet malfunctioned and the horse-drawn “Vidange Rapide” (“quick drain”) cart came to the rescue. The operator, she records, consumed a sandwich during the repair, all while periodically jiggling the leaky hose he was wielding. His verdict: “Too much tissue.” Apparently none was the preferred quantity.

Each weekday, from the time my sister turned 5, two military police would arrive at the house shortly before dawn to escort her to school via military staff car, a ride of an hour each way. I cannot imagine what this meant for my mother’s peace of mind. It explains a lot about why my sister’s probably one of the most unflappable travelers I know.

On some of those schooldays, my mother and a very-pregnant neighbor, also a military spouse, went to the nearby market town to do laundry. My mother handled the French-speaking, at which she was quite adept, and the neighbor provided the transportation. My mother was tasked with planning their route, which she did very carefully, as the neighbor’s Studebaker had no reverse gear.

1011701_514541095267076_944692049_nOn one of those days, Henri the gardener decided to “repair” the coal stove and inadvertently dislodged the stove pipe, which collapsed and blanketed everything in sight, including Henri, in soot. My mother notes that he did not stick around to help clean it up.

On New Year’s Eve at the luxurious Grand Hotel in Bordeaux, the elegant doors to the rooms for “hommes” (men) and “femmes” (women) opened into the same restroom. “And the very fancy chicken entrée still had most of its insides,” my mother notes. As she so often did, she came home afterward and sat on my sister’s bed and shared the evening’s details, including descriptions of the most fashionably dressed women.

Next stop in their tour of duty was Frankfurt, Germany, where most military families had maids, in part because so many postwar Germans needed the work. Ria, the first, asserted her influence with furniture: “Every weekend, your father would rearrange the gigantic German furniture, including piano, and every Monday, Ria would put it all back. ‘Nein, nein — das ist besser’.”

Harriette favored “snail and Crisco sandwiches,” and Olga, who had been a Russian prisoner of war (and suffered who knows what atrocities) hadn’t seen a flush toilet before and thought it a fine device for cleaning vegetables, my mother was horrified to discover one day.

My father, who tended to be the family storyteller, regaled us with stories like these for years and no matter how many times we heard them, they sent tears of mirth rolling down our cheeks.  LAFS6377506

My mother’s dry summaries, rendered with British wit, certainly did too. Yet there’s something that speaks volumes between their terse lines. My father, more often than not, came home to hear about these experiences, while my mother, with a battlefront whose local dialect kept changing, actually lived them.

Humor was obviously a very big part of how she managed that. And while she may have had to dig deep, some days, to find that humor, the effort itself is still a kind of healing balm, even all these years later.

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

http://www.amazon.com/Life-First-Sight-Finding-ebook/dp/B00B5MR9B0/ref=tmm_kin_title_0/181-3985550-85