Books and New Beginnings

A bouquet of words

I didn’t write down a single story until I was almost forty years old. Until that day, my characters existed just for me, to keep me company and help me through my days. Even when I began to write, that feeling of isolation didn’t change much. For most of my writing career, I’ve been living in Germany, where no books of mine have been released.

So maybe it won’t sound strange if I say I often forget that people read my books. My characters lived with me so long that it can be hard to grasp that they have a life of their own.

Then one of you sends me a letter. You reach out to tell me what a book of mine means to you. That always astounds and humbles me. Something from my mind has passed into your mind, and now it’s growing there. New ideas have sprouted in your head because of those old ideas in mine.

And every now and then—very rarely—our combined ideas blossom into something so beautiful, it’s almost a miracle.

wedding with books

This amazing young woman got married not long ago. Instead of bouquets, her bridesmaids carried her favorite books. So my goblins got invited to this wonderful woman’s wedding. My old, ugly goblin King got to walk a new bride down the aisle.

WeddingD

And he was in very good company.

Just look at these photos! Aren’t they some of the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen? They’re some of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Each time I look at them, I’m in tears.

(That’s a book from the first printing, too. This goes all the way back to the beginning. Those books are scarce. Even I only have about five of them.)

When I wrote The Hollow Kingdom, I didn’t think of it as a romance. I thought of it as the opposite: as an anti-romance. I was thinking about something that I hope doesn’t exist anymore: marriage for the sake of society. It used to be the only thing that mattered when a girl got married: what advantages she would be bringing to her family, community, and country, not what she might want for herself.

Needless to say, I’m not a fan of such marriages. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to figure out what they were like. Writers often write books about battlefield courage—or cowardice. That doesn’t mean they’re big fans of war.

It should be relatively easy for us modern brides to find happiness. We have free choice. We can marry whomever we wish. But what about our great-great-grandmothers? What about their great-great grandmothers? They didn’t have the freedom to choose. Their societies picked husbands for them, and factors like youth and good looks didn’t rate as highly as prestige or power did. And then there’s the old African proverb: They were our enemies, so we married them. Yes, kinship is a great way to bring warring clans together. But how did those girls feel about that proverb—the ones who had to go live among strangers and enemies to forge that bond of peace?

Did they find a way to be happy?

The question struck me as very complex, and that’s what I liked about it. I like complex questions, ambiguous motives, and flawed characters.

So that’s what I wanted to know when I wrote The Hollow Kingdom: whether Kate could find a way to be happy. That’s why I gave her an enemy for a suitor. And none of that swashbuckling romance stuff, either: Marak is old and practically deformed. He doesn’t share Kate’s values or customs. He isn’t a member of her society or country. Marak isn’t even a member of the human race!

Yes, you could say I stacked the deck against poor Kate. But this shouldn’t be a simple question, nor should we simply ignore it. It isn’t enough to say that we’re modern now and we’ve moved on. We owe it to our foremothers to take a good hard look at what they lived through. They aren’t just DNA and dust. They were girls and women like we are. They had their bad times and good times; they spent sleepless nights in tears, they cuddled babies who grew up to be distant roots of our family tree, and they felt their hearts lift at the sight of a beautiful sunrise, just like we do. We should think about the strength of will it took for those long-ago women to be happy.

So that’s where Kate came from, and that’s where Marak came from. They were a kind of lab experiment in this mad-scientist writer’s mind. But that isn’t where Kate and Marak ended up. Almost immediately, they became their own people. They took their story into their own hands, and they made a life for themselves. They found their own way to be happy. And they don’t need me or my stuffy social ideas anymore. They’re finding their way into new stories now. They have their own social set—friends like this remarkable young woman and her bridesmaids. And I wish them and their wonderful friends a long and very happy life.

WeddingA

I just hope my goblins behaved themselves at the reception.

Special thanks to the bride for sharing her story with me and for giving me permission to use these photographs. Photographs taken by Jason Estel of Photos by Daddy. Text copyright 2014 by Clare B. Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

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Coming soon…

Clare B. Dunkle and Elena Dunkle

I first started working on my daughter Elena’s memoir in May, 2009. Five years is a long time to give to a writing project, especially one full of so much personal pain. Along the way, her memoir became two: a memoir for her and a memoir for me. Altogether, they amount to over two hundred and eighty thousand words.

There was a time when I wandered through those words like a lost soul in hell, unable to find a way out. I would write a couple of pages and then go lie down, crushed under the weight of those painful words. Each time I revised either one of the two manuscripts, I counted down the number of times I would have to reread them: the final revision of each, the line edit of each, the copyedits, then both sets of first pass pages. I would talk about that gauntlet of words to anyone who would listen: “Twice for the line edit, maybe just once for the copyedit if I’m lucky, but probably twice there too. Then there’s the first pass pages. Twice, for certain. Once out loud. That’s only six more times, and then I’ll be free!”

Friends and family were polite about these interminable countdowns. It was all I could seem to talk about. Eyes would blink vaguely, and heads would nod supportively, the way they do when invalids list out medical procedures. I saw this, but I couldn’t seem to help myself. I couldn’t stop counting down to freedom.

But a funny thing happened on the way to my freedom. That hell of words… became home.

HOPE AND OTHER LUXURIES

Just last week, the advance reading copies of my two memoirs came out: Elena Vanishing and Hope and Other Luxuries. My daughter Elena flew out to San Francisco to give the very first talk about them. I know what that means. My words don’t belong to me anymore. After five years of constant heartache and worry, quite suddenly, they’re gone.

And now, I find that I don’t know what to do without them.

Reminders are everywhere. I’ll be making my coffee, and I’ll think, “This is in Hope. I put this in Hope.” I’ll pet my cat, and I’ll think, “She’s in Elena Vanishing.” It’s always hard to let go of a manuscript, but this time, it’s doubly hard. Echoes of these books are everywhere.

And I’m so proud of them–I can’t even tell you how proud I am of them! I hold these bundles of words close to my heart now and mist over as I think of them, and I want to grab strangers by the collar and make them look at them too, make them see how this one has my eyes, that one has my crooked grin…

I was in labor with these two books for a very long time.

ELENA VANISHING

Elena started this. Before these words were mine, they were hers as she struggled to tell me the devastating truth about her own hard existence. It’s fitting that she was the one who spoke out first, on the very first day our new books were between covers, the very first day those advance reading copies came out of the box. It’s Elena who showed me the path. She had the courage to lead. All I had to do was find the courage to follow.

I’m not following anymore. Now, for the first time in five years, I’m standing at the edge of something new. That’s not easy for me. These hard years have brought me pain and taught me to fear. It’s hard for me to face the unknown.

Even harder is facing my own hope.

But I can’t help it. I can’t help hoping. Something wonderful is coming! These books are going to soar. They’re on their way now. If I’m free, so are they. They’re tough and strong and beautiful, and unlike me, they’re not afraid. Nothing is going to slow them down.

So I live with the ache of their loss, and I find myself bursting into tears at odd times, and I wonder if this is how the cocoon feels after the butterfly has gone. But then again, I’ll wake up at night and realize I’m holding my breath because I’m listening for the sound of wingbeats, and the hope I feel in those moments hurts me so much, it’s sharper than any amount of ache or loss.

But I can’t help it. I can’t help hoping. Because it’s coming. I can feel it.

Something wonderful is coming.

To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page. Photo taken in October, 2013, in Rodenbach, Germany. Photos and text copyright 2014 by Clare B. Dunkle.

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Good-Bye to All That

Poppy in a Norwegian garden

Today, I took down the comments function on my blog. It isn’t that I don’t want to read your comments. I do! And it isn’t that I can’t fend off the ridiculous spam comments, either. I have great plugins to do that for me. But I can’t afford the bandwidth loss anymore to the thousands of spambots that attack this and every other blog site, attempting to insert long lists of links or malicious code.

Tanita Davis, I’ll miss you! But when I get too lonely, I’ll just head over to your wonderful blog to see what’s new.

To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page. Photo taken in July, 2014, in Tromsø, Norway. Photos and text copyright 2014 by Clare B. Dunkle.

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When you ask a German friend, “Do you have Spam? Hast du Spam?” he or she won’t think of the canned lunch meat. No, that’s das Frühstücksfleisch, and it’s produced by a number of different companies, but the old favorite Hormel Spam is not available in Germany. Nevertheless, your German friend will probably answer yes, and maybe add an expletive or two. The German word, der Spam, means just what “spam” means to us Americans nowadays: unwanted trash filling up your email or comment folders.

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56th Miesau Horse Races (Pferderennen)

Coming down the stretch the first time at the horse races (Pferderennen) in Miesau

This weekend, Joe and I took a drive out to Miesau to see the 56th running of the horse races there. We weren’t entirely sure where the event would be held, but it proved easy to find. It’s just off L356, which is the priority road that goes from Ramstein to Spesbach, then Hütschenhausen, then Miesau. A couple of minutes outside Hütschenhausen, we could see cars parked along the road, and there was the race track on our left.

The idea of a horse race conjures up in my mind images of elaborate Ascot hats and stuffy old gentlemen drinking mint juleps, but this race was a relaxed family event. Vendors were serving coffee and cake, schwenk steaks, and other fest fare. There were plenty of places to sit down and enjoy a meal in the fresh air. A small grandstand held dignitaries, but most of the onlookers leaned against the rail or stood on banks next to the track. The crowd was full of children.

Riderless horse at the Miesau horse races (Pferderennen)

Riderless horse at the Miesau horse races (Pferderennen)

Although trotting and running races were both advertised, we didn’t arrive in time to see a trotting race. The race we saw was a traditional Thoroughbred race, and the horses were spirited and eager to run. One of them threw his rider going into the box and escaped to run the race alone. He gave it his all. He ran the track four times around by himself. Clearly, in his magnificent mind, he was winning.

Spectators trying to stop a riderless horse at the Miesau horse races (Pferderennen)

Spectators trying to stop a riderless horse at the Miesau horse races (Pferderennen)

A number of spectators had the idea that they should flag the horse down as he ran by, but that just inspired him to run faster. It all looked like an accident waiting to happen to me. Fortunately, the Red Cross was standing by with an ambulance.

The winner at the finish at the Miesau horse races (Pferderennen)

The winner at the finish at the Miesau horse races (Pferderennen)

Eventually, the riderless horse got tired and walked off with his owner, and the race got underway. It was a long race, one and a half lengths of the track, and the photo at the top of this blog post shows the field coming out of the first turn. This is the winner at the finish line. He beat out the favorite, who came in third, I think. We didn’t do any betting, but lots of other people did.

Escorting the winning horse at the Miesau horse races (Pferderennen)

Escorting the winning horse at the Miesau horse races (Pferderennen)

Two gorgeous and gorgeously decorated horses were waiting to escort the winner to the grandstand to receive his prize. I think the dark horse was a Paso Fino.

Posing for photos after winning at the Miesau horse races (Pferderennen)

Posing for photos after winning at the Miesau horse races (Pferderennen)

And here they are with the winner.

Joe and I left feeling like winners too. We’ve been to many of the fests that pop up all over the region, but this was a pleasant change from what we’re used to. It was a wonderful excuse to get out into the open air, have a schwenk, watch beautiful animals, and participate in a local tradition. We’ll be back trackside next year.

To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page. All photos taken in August, 2014, near Miesau, Germany. Photos and text copyright 2014 by Clare B. Dunkle.

Posted in Festivals, Germany, Recreation, Sports, Tourist destinations | 1 Comment

Today’s word sends us back to the days when the great German universities were the pride of the civilized world. (Even Prince Hamlet went to a German university, you know.) The word is der Luftikus. No, it isn’t some specialized piece of apparatus or a technical term for a hideous disease. It comes from die Luft, meaning “air,” plus a fabricated Latin ending, and it was a word German students made up to describe one another. Der Luftikus is a ditz or an airhead.

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Museumsdorf Bayerischer Wald, pt. III: Faith of Our Fathers

Crucifixes in the Museumsdorf Bayerischer Wald

Crucifixes in the Museumsdorf Bayerischer Wald

Bavaria has been overwhelmingly Roman Catholic for centuries. Even today, Bavaria contains the highest percentage of Catholics of any state in Germany, as the following map from the German Bishops’ Conference (Deutsche Bischofskonferenz) shows. This faith helped define the identities of the Bavarians of former days, and it wove itself deeply into the fabric of their lives. Signs of it were everywhere at the Museumsdorf Bayerischer Wald, the living history museum in Tittling, Germany, from outdoor shrines and miniature wayside chapels to crucifixes and pictures in every furnished house.

Percentage of Catholics by diocese in Germany, 2012 (katholische Bevölkerung nach Bistümern)

Percentage of Catholics by diocese in Germany, 2012 (katholische Bevölkerung nach Bistümern)

The chapel pictured below could hold only eight or ten people. It has the words, “Heiliger Florian beschütze uns for Feuer,” or “Saint Florian, protect us from fire,” written over the door. St. Florian, a Roman soldier in the late 200s AD, organized and trained an elite firefighting brigade. During one of the many religious persecutions of the time, he was sentenced to be burnt at the stake, but he seemed so eager to die this way that his executioners lost their nerve and drowned him instead. Because of his connection to firefighting, St. Florian has been invoked all over Europe for over a thousand years as a protector against the deadly fires that used to sweep through cities and villages.

Wayside chapel to St. Florian at the Museumsdorf Bayerischer Wald

Wayside chapel to St. Florian at the Museumsdorf Bayerischer Wald

In addition to buildings and shrines, the museum contained an indoor exhibition of small religious objects, such as the crucifixes pictured above. In the days before plastics and mass production, each of these items was handmade, so even though they were similar, they showed interesting variations, like the Pietà sculptures pictured below of Christ’s Mother holding her dead Son. In the sculpture on the right, her heart is pierced with swords, representing the seven great sorrows of her life. One of the swords is missing.

Pieta sculptures in the Museumsdorf Bayerischer Wald

Pieta sculptures in the Museumsdorf Bayerischer Wald

Folk art has a common style around the world, incorporating bright colors and flattened features. This primitive painting of St. Joseph with the Christ Child reminded me of paintings from Mexico.

Painting of St. Joseph in the Museumsdorf Bayerischer Wald

Bavarian painting of St. Joseph

After the invention of printing, colorful illustrations became cheaper and cheaper, and people across Europe looked for ways to decorate their homes with these pretty pictures. In England, the Victorians experimented with cut paper art, and around the same time, someone in Bavaria must have been doing the same thing. The altar below is a masterpiece of cut and glued paper, foil, and other inexpensive materials. It’s only about eleven inches high.

Miniature altar in the Museumsdorf Bayerischer Wald

Miniature altar in the Museumsdorf Bayerischer Wald

One of the things that fascinated me the most was the museum’s collection of votive plaques. People had commissioned these to express their thanks for an answered prayer, and that means each plaque had a story to tell.

Votive plaque at the Museumsdorf Bayerischer Wald

Votive plaque at the Museumsdorf Bayerischer Wald

This votive plaque from 1799 especially caught my interest. The man in the foreground is wearing the clothes of a gentleman, and he’s carrying blueprints and drafting tools. We can see an arch crumbling beside him. If the damage were nothing more than the single block falling down, he wouldn’t have had time to pray for help, but as it is, this plaque tells us that he called on St. Sebastian, pictured in the upper left. Perhaps he was the architect of a building that caved in. This plaque tells us that St. Sebastian answered his prayer and saved his life.

To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page. All photos taken in June, 2014, at the Museumsdorf Bayerischer Wald, Tittling, Germany. Photos and text copyright 2014 by Clare B. Dunkle.

Posted in Churches and religion, Daily life, Folk traditions, German art, German history, German house decoration, Germany, Public art, Tourist destinations, Village life | 1 Comment

The English word, “plastic,” has its roots in the Greek word for “to mold” because plastic is formed, not carved like wood or beaten into shape like iron. But the German word for plastic, der Kunststoff, expresses a different concept. Der Kunststoff comes from der Stoff, meaning “material,” and die Kunst, “art” or “artistry.” Unlike natural materials, plastic itself is an expression of human creativity and ingenuity.

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Museumsdorf Bayerischer Wald, pt II: Life before Plastic

Fountain at the Museumsdorf Bayerischer Wald, Tittling, Germany

Fountain at the Museumsdorf Bayerischer Wald

The word plastic means, more or less, “pliable” or “moldable.” Plastics are so pervasive in our lives that it’s hard to remember how recent they are. The first modern plastic was only invented in the 1850’s, and it wasn’t until a hundred years later, the 1950’s, that plastics were mass produced in sufficient quantities that they began to displace the materials humanity had always used before for its household objects. A trip through this living history museum brought that civilization-changing divide into focus.

Now, people on another continent can injection-mold our dolls, water pipes, cereal bowls, and toilet seats for us. We’re surrounded by cheap, colorful plastic; if you’re indoors, it’s a pretty good bet that you can reach out and touch something plastic right now. But almost within living memory, humanity had little or no plastic to work with. They were making what they needed out of natural materials, and they often were producing those items within their own communities.

Blacksmith tools at Museumsdorf Bayerischer Wald

Blacksmith tools at Museumsdorf Bayerischer Wald

They made things out of metal.

Barrels at Museumsdorf Bayerischer Wald

Barrels at Museumsdorf Bayerischer Wald

They made things out of wood and glass.

Fishing nets and gear at Museumsdorf Bayerischer Wald

Fishing nets and gear at Museumsdorf Bayerischer Wald

They made things out of natural fibers and leather.

A fish-shaped pan at Museumsdorf Bayerischer Wald

A fish-shaped pan at Museumsdorf Bayerischer Wald

And they made things out of ceramic.

Because so many of these materials were worked locally, complicated sets of tools were on display everywhere at this Bavarian museum. What we would expect to find hidden away in a factory, Bavarians of the old days might have right in their living rooms, like this cobbler, who had his workshop in his house. (I love the specially modified stool.)

A cobbler's workbench at Museumsdorf Bayerischer Wald

A cobbler’s workbench at Museumsdorf Bayerischer Wald

Woodworking tools were everywhere. It brought into sharp focus for me just how valuable my woodcarver, Paul, was to the village that took him in in my werewolf story, By These Ten Bones.

A woodworking workshop at Museumsdorf Bayerischer Wald

A woodworking workshop at Museumsdorf Bayerischer Wald

To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page. All photos taken in June, 2014, at the Museumsdorf Bayerischer Wald, Tittling, Germany. Photos and text copyright 2014 by Clare B. Dunkle.

Posted in Farm life, Folk traditions, German history, German house decoration, Germany, Recreation, Tourist destinations, Village life | 2 Comments

Die Katze hat hitzefrei.

I took this picture of my cat, Leela, in the middle of our heatwave. If she could speak, she’d be saying, “Don’t expect any dead mice on the patio today. I have hitzefrei.”

When my girls were going to German school, they would call me up in the middle of the morning and gleefully announce in beautiful Denglish, “We have hitzefrei!” Because most German schools have no air conditioning, they occasionally have to cancel classes because of excessive temperatures just as we Americans occasionally cancel class because of snow. The word hitzefrei comes from die Hitze, “the heat,” and frei, “unoccupied” or “at liberty.” So hitzefrei is a free day because of high temperatures–a heat day, you might say.

The adjective, hitzefrei, and the noun, das Hitzefrei, mean exactly the same thing, so in most common expressions, the only question is whether to capitalize the H or not. Hitzefrei haben, “to have a heat day,” and hitzefrei bekommen, “to get a heat day” can be either one, so there’s no wrong answer here. But Hitzefrei geben, “to give [students or workers] a heat day,” is always the noun and always capitalized. Kein Hitzefrei bekommen, “not to get a heat day,” should also be capitalized.

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