Reading Landscape

I very much enjoyed Jessica Lee's memoir, Turning, about swimming over the course of a year in fifty-two lakes in the Berlin area.  Having visited the city for too brief a time back in 2019, I didn’t see much beyond the historic downtown, where I'd tried to retrace some of my dad's steps at the Luftwaffe headquarters and the Tiergarten. I'd tried to imagine him eighteen and in love with the promises of the Third Reich. But Berlin is more than the Second World War.

I'd been aware that the city had many lakes but had not realized how huge Berlin in fact is. (Population: 3.6 million and about 900 square km. That's about five times more people than Winnipeg and twice as spread out.)  During (yet another!) covid-March, by googling the fifty-two lakes that the memoirist swam throughout all four seasons, I've extended my experience of Berlin.

I appreciated how Jessica Lee interwove her personal life, environmental issues, and history with the actions of cycling and swimming.  While I love swimming, I’m quite certain I could never break ice to swim in cold water. Lee is a much tougher swimmer than I could ever be, but I understood her need to prove something by swimming, having myself almost drowned as a youngster. I look forward to reading her newest book, Two Trees Make a Forest, which was on the Canada Reads list this past year and received the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Award for Nonfiction. Maybe if, or when, I visit Berlin again, I'd like to check out some of the lakes in Berlin and the surrounding Brandenburg area.  She refers to a hiking trail, called 66 Seen Wanderung, that demands more research, too. 

The book offered up a personal connection for me when her friend, Anne, starts singing, “Pack die Badehose ein.” (page 245).  It’s a 1950s hit about swimming in the Wannsee, and was my dad’s favourite tune as we headed out to beaches here in Manitoba back when I was young. Such a nostalgic earwig!

A memorable line comes near the end when she heads to a forest area filled with war memories: “But in Halbe I’m reminded that the landscape remembers even as it grows over.” (page 260). Travel. I remember it fondly, but I’m determined to appreciate the opportunity of not travelling, too. Reading is a great travel substitute.

Immigrant Story

Josepha, a picture book (written by Jim McGugan and illustrated by Murray Kimber), is a 1994 Governor General award winner. (Originally published by Red Deer in 1992 and republished in 2012). It's a poignant story of a fourteen-year-old immigrant's shaming back in 1900 and it struck a chord with me. Even though I started school as a kindergartner, a full sixty years later, I still remember being shamed because of language and culture. I'd never considered how much more difficult it would have been for a fourteen-year-old. 

The illustrations in this book, set on the prairies are full of deep, rich colours, always highlighting that 'land of the living sky' . . . so aptly expressed on Saskatchewan’s vehicle license plates. 

The spread with the British flag on the schoolhouse especially resonates with me. What a British-influenced education it was for Canadian immigrant children, even in the more recent sixties. Along with the images, the actual words are emotive and insightful. My favourite ones: "But Josepha's face darkened. Lightless as the window in his family's sod shack . . . " and then, "This was the way for all of them, those older ones. One year, shamed. Maybe two. And then they'd be gone from class. They'd be gone forever."  I should pay more attention to picture books. Why should they be only for kids?

Volunteering with EAL students helps me appreciate the vulnerabilities of current immigrants and this picture book reminded me that shaming is current and that it can be crippling. No doubt shame has also impacted the Residential School survivors . . . with a history of being outcasts in their own country and it continues to be felt by newcomers who are, on the one hand, grateful to Canada for a safe life, but then shamed by their ‘otherness.’  Now, with the pandemic, there is a subtle shaming and discriminating against Asians, even here. Our country has opened its door to immigrants but we, as individuals, must be on guard not to let misguided fear close our hearts. The subtleness of shaming makes it a powerful and painful weapon. Some royal watchers might agree. 

Epilepsy Awareness Month

March is Epilepsy Awareness Month in Manitoba and across Canada and I thought this would be a good time to post a bit about this condition that affects one out of one hundred people (and three out of five in my immediate family). Epilepsy is a brain disorder that causes seizures. It is not a mental illness and it can be controlled with medication and in extreme situations, through surgery. Seizures can be the result of TBI (traumatic brain injury), tumours, stroke or infections like meningitis. Epilepsy also runs in families and up to forty per cent of cases are genetic. 

In their zeal to create a perfect nation, the Nazis not only wanted to control race, but they also wanted to control hereditary diseases. In January, 1934, the Law for the Prevention of Hereditary Diseases came into effect, with amendments made in 1935, forcing doctors to expose any patients with reportable conditions. A court would then order sterilization.

People with possibly inherited deafness, homosexuality, anxiety and depression, bipolar, schizophrenia and a variety of other 'deviations', including epilepsy, were “to be rendered incapable of procreation.” But Nazi Germany was not the only country intent on forced sterilization. Eugenics was popular throughout the twentieth century in many parts of the world and it has always been the most vulnerable who’ve been at risk.

The consequence of an ill-timed seizure becomes a turning point in Tainted Amber, but it didn’t have to be. After all, the seizures in my family members have not prevented them from living full lives. During Epilepsy Awareness Month, I hope more people stop stigmatizing anyone who’s had seizures. We’re all worthy of life and love, and procreation should be a personal decision, not mandated by the zeal of a government focused on their idea of perfection. 

Like a Virus

I’ve got a young adult in the house studying advertising and she’s made me aware of how ubiquitous slogans are. The right slogan is marketing gold. I grew up with The Pepsi Generation and its main competitor, It’s the Real Thing. Then there were a variety of catchy phrases for breakfast cereals like Snap, Crackle, Pop and the sexual ones like Strong Enough for a Man, but made for a Woman (deodorant). 

Politicians and social movements know the power of slogans too. Obama: Yes We Can; Trump: Make America Great Again; 20th Century communists: Workers of the World, Unite; War Veterans: Lest We Forget;  Hippies: Make love, not war;  People of colour:  Black Lives Matter

A good slogan can unite and give momentum. Hitler knew this. (Of course, you knew I would somehow segue to those times!) The Nazis loved slogans and we’re all familiar with the insidious nature of most of them. Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer (One people, one nation, one leader) or Sieg Heil (Hail Victory). The Nazis also promoted positive vibes with the holiday slogan of Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy).

Other slogans were simply cruel. There was the sarcastic: Arbeit Macht Frei (work gives freedom) in most of the death and labour camps or the Jedem das Seine (to each his own) at the Buchenwald camp. 

Back in the thirties, Hitler rallied the German people at massive gatherings with pomp, ceremony and with catchy slogans.  Can we even remember the energy of a crowd in these isolating pandemic times? Our current slogan is Stay Home if you’re Sick! Still, ideas continue to spread, now through social media.   In Tainted Amber, I explore how people became contaminated by the power of the Nazi slogans . . . almost like a virus. 

Photo:  Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-04481B / CC-BY-SA 3.0

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