Tag Archives: personal essay

The Space Invader and the Mud Lotus, Teresa Peni

 

SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST

When did my midlife crisis begin? Before the tears on the tiny plane, or the farewell party? Wait, no—let’s go back a bit—maybe the painful arrows and the street battle. Okay ‘battle’ is a slight overstatement. It might have been the moment my husband brought me in a breakfast tray.

He must have wanted my ‘company’. There was even a red rose in a champagne flute, which did make the breakfast look very pretty. Too bad his timing was off. I was mid-paragraph into the fresh ideas of my hero, Pacific scholar Prof Epeli Hau’ofa.i It was not time for sex, oh no, no, nooo. It was time to get angry, get organised, and save sinking Polynesia from climate change or being nuked by Kim Jong-un. The coffee was good though, he got that right. When he flopped into bed beside me I dipped the croissant into jam, turned a page, and kept reading.

He sighed, presumably about my lack of attention, and picked up a random book from the bedside table.

‘Are you going to keep wiggling that foot?’ It was vibrating back and forth as he read, making the bed wobble.

The foot stopped.

‘I might go play guitar,’ he said, strutting off. He wasn’t getting any action in here. The house was still; the kids were no doubt lazing in their beds, hooked up to YouTube. I heard the crackle and buzz of the amp being switched on, down the hall. But it wasn’t that which threatened my serene ladyspace, it was the anthropologist, author, artist, agitator, legend, Hau’ofa, that had got me all riled up.

A walk would do me good. I squeezed into my spandex tights, laced the Adidas, and cranked some electronica into my earpods to fuel my turn around the harbour.

Wind disturbed the mangroves and a black cormorant dove under the ruffled water surface. It reappeared with a tiny silver fish slung from its beak.

I mused and fumed over Epeli’s words as I strolled along. About how the Pacific Ocean, lapping almost everywhere on the planet—even right here at my feet in Sydney—was peppered with awesome Polynesian explorers for millennia before those pesky nineteenth-century colonisers arrived, divided, and dominated the vast Polynesian network—some, my motley ancestors. They carved it up with their invisible imperial boundaries into ‘tiny, needy bits,’ to be developed.ii They didn’t appreciate the wholeness of the Pacific Ocean; it was to them, the middle of bloody nowhere.

Hole in the doughnut,’ is how they saw us, warned Epeli; ‘If we do not exist for others, then we could in fact be dispensable.’iii It was as though the sea connection was worthless.

A man was jogging along toward me. Instead of staying on his side of the track, he made a sudden 180-degree turn. He jogged across my path, over my feet, as if I were invisible. He didn’t adjust his route for me one iota. A surge of outrage compelled me to curl my foot into a sneaky hook and discreetly ankle tap him as he barged through my personal space. He was quick enough to work out what was happening—adjusting his stride so he didn’t fall.

I maintained original course and bearing.

He jogged backwards, glaring at me like I blew out his birthday candles.

‘You tried to trip me!’

I death-stared him through my sunnies.

‘Watch your step,’ I said.

Jogging Man looked ready to pop a vessel.

‘You’re a bitch.’

Very slowly, I raised my two middle fingers, 1 and 2. There. You. Go. I cranked it a notch higher.

He looked me up and down with an overdone head pivot, as if his eyes couldn’t do the task themselves.

‘I hope…I hope your children get run over by a bus!’

He was seeking some part of my identity to trash. Mother, he figured.

‘Why don’t you hurry up and fuck off,’ I said.

I’m not scared of you, I thought, although I was shaking. I considered the likelihood of him thumping me—no one was around—and he was bulky. His blue eyes burned, incandescent with rage. No doubt, we both had adrenaline careening through our systems.

He stayed up in my face, trying to intimidate me, but I did not slow my step, smile, nor apologise. Do not fuck with a Maori lady when she is mad.

Then, it was as if the wind suddenly abandoned his sail; he knew words would not hurt me. He performed a theatrical manscowl and ran off, huffing.

I threw the parting punch:

‘Next time watch where you’re going, cockhead.’

 

MUTATION

Later that night, back at home; all nice and calm again, I felt very bad for Jogging Man (idiot). Of course I was proud of standing my ground, but my good shoulder-angel was more harpy than usual, making me ashamed of the way I’d done it; reaching for that familiar weapon—anger—so powerful yet so terrible. I blamed it on insightful literature, poured myself another red wine and tried to forget about it.

So I wasn’t shocked when Facebook analytics, which knows us better than our own mothers do, magically delivered this video to my feed; because it had digested and diagnosed every procrastinatory rant, preach, like, and share I’d tapped out since 2005. It submitted its sum total knowledge of me that night:

Transform Your Anger’ with Thich Nhat Hanh.iv

I hit [Play].

The Vietnamese Zen master is sitting in brown robes, beside a girl wearing a pink dress. She looks about ten. He’s holding up his fist to his own face and has a mean look.

‘You want to give that boy or girl a punch.’

Sprung bad, I thought.

He smiles as he jabs the air around his head. She smiles back.

‘Punish him or her. That is the anger in us… that anger is a kind of mud, it will smear everything.’

He’s got a strong, Vietnamese accent, so I’m grateful for the subtitles.

‘We need to be aware that the mud of anger, we must handle.’

He brings both hands together as if gripping a hefty mud marble.

‘But without the mud, you cannot grow lotus flowers.’

[Insert time-lapse video of an incredible pink lotus flower opening]

‘So the mud is useful somehow.’

The video cuts back to the monk and the girl surrounded by a luscious array of tropical flowers and candles. Cue bamboo-flute music.

‘So your anger is useful somehow, maybe you should not… let it out.’

He gently cocks his head at her. Maybe she laid into her little shit of a brother?

‘You should not throw it away. If you know how to make good use of your anger, you can grow the Lotus of Peace, of Joy, of Forgiveness. And if we look deeply, we’ll be able to understand. And when we understand, there is love. And when there is love, anger must…’

His palms open like lotus petals.

‘Transform itself.’

The girl gives a simple nod. She gets it.

I, on the other hand, was trying very hard to work out how he got from mud to love.

Google: Booktopia: ‘Thich Nhat Hahn Mud Lotus’. I pulled out my credit card and ordered his book. It was obvious I needed to stop spraying mud everywhere.

 

DIVERSITY

My street-stoush with Jogging Man was a tremor that heralded a quake. He was like a small dog that had got hold of my trouser leg. I wanted to kick the fucker off to fix the problem. But seriously, what was my problem? Was it really because he was a Pale-faced Manspreader invading my Ladyspace?

The next level of my mud quest came at me via another scholar. My two majors were, like the Pacific and the Atlantic, meeting at last. The anthropology of art was meandering into creative writing territory. We read Michael Jackson’s (yep, cool name) ethnographic-poetry, which veered away from desiccated academia. I was immediately fanboyant—more so when I discovered he came from my grandparent’s sleepy seaside town (Nelson, New Zealand), which I reckoned his poem, Making it Otherwisev was about:

 

‘… silt spread on the estuary

like a map of darkness

to be read by those

journeying toward clarity of speech.’

 

A small prophecy that held no meaning, yet—but I digress.

I was intrigued by his sweet-tempered explanation of the human condition. Apparently we are plural creatures, constantly trying to balance the seesaw between ‘our sense of what we owe others and what we owe ourselves.’ We want to be our own bosses and have all the things, AND we want to share nicely with our group, for the common good. Everyone struggles with this in a myriad of individual ways.vi

We tend to employ a bunch of simplified categories to frame our battles (for resources and ideologies). You can imagine all the variations on us/them: Raging Feminist Maori Mother Abuses Misogynist Second-Australian Fitness Addict.

Jackson agrees identity labels are helpful in getting us what we want—we should definitely study how we adopt them for good effect—marginalised people can be especially ravenous for identity.vii

Jackson says good anthropology (and writing, I presumed) will shine light onto the nitty-gritty ways we struggle with these tensions, mixed feelings, and contradictions. Nuanced description can unmask, and is more meaningful than, simplistic either/ors—when we write the life we actually live.viii

This was the kicker for me: ‘Any one person embodies the potential to be any other.’ix

Wait. What? Sounded like Jackson was saying someone can simultaneously carry the worldview of an adult and (a very needy inner) child; or exhibit the prejudices of the asshole and the victim. I am actually Maori and Irish. Goddamit, it’s possible Jogging Man was a nice guy who wasn’t wearing his glasses, just being a dick that day.

Epeli Hau’ofa soothed me, too—with his messier, oceanic view of our modern regional identity. Our diverse group—including new arrivals—were clever buggers, aye, once again regularly visiting each other, via Virgin Air; taking more than bags of cava or packets of pineapple lumps across borders. We were exchanging jobs, spreading welfare dollars, swapping sporting cups, and lovers. Epeli claimed our survival could depend upon us acting in concert to protect the Pacific Ocean (and by extension, Earth) from usurping ratbags who don’t respect it, who don’t see the real value of our epic space.x His warm voice wants to reunite criss-crossing Oceanians… who are all who love her, by being more expansive and tolerant, so we can transform ourselves: from being belittled ‘islands in the sea’, back into ‘a sea of islands’.xi

Heh. I started to like myself again. A roundhouse-kickass style had helped Oceanian women survive their dunking into the realm of nowhere. But, perhaps I could venture beyond the margins of stereotypes or monoculture; maybe morph into a more genuine creature, rather than some abstract, divided identity thrust forth in order for there to be only one winner.

 

GENETIC DRIFT

Finally, the new book arrived, No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering.xii

It was really excellent timing because my spunky little grandmother had just died, unexpectedly.

Breathe, incanted the ninety-one-year-old Zen master.

Thích Nhất Hạnh knows his readers’ mud is not limited to swearing at joggers. He did not promise to deliver anyone from suffering, but would teach me how to suffer, properly. The first arrow of pain, he soothingly explained, is pain you initially feel: anger, rejection, failure, injury, separation. The death of someone you love.xiii

Mum asked me to speak at Nana’s farewell: ‘I am somewhere I have never been before: Nelson without you.’ There was a lot more in that speech; but for some reason losing Nana also meant losing the whole town and occupants.

After seven happy-sad days spent setting up and conducting Nana’s funeral street party (Photoshopped invites; TV slideshow; where to park the Portaloo? red or black serviettes?); as well as catching up with hordes of cousins and uncles (beer and burgers; cycling along the river; reminiscing Nana over G&T’s; weeping while weeding her chic garden), it was time to return home to my little family in Sydney.

But grief opens up a hole; it irritates any festering, untended wound, makes it weep. The death of a matriarch can get the pus up.

The wound, what was it?

Breathing in, I know suffering is there.

Breathing out, I say hello to my suffering.xiv

Nhất Hạnh dropped a magnificent truth bomb: the second arrow of pain. Usually self-inflicted, it may take the form of judgement: the crap we tell ourselves to make our suffering much worse.xv

I belong nowhere, throbbed the arrow in the wound.

I pined like a lonely dog, seeing Nelson disappear through the airplane porthole, the din of the twin propellers masked my whimpering. As it banked over glacial blue water whorling into the estuaries below, I started crying up in that lonely airspace and could not stop for four days. I leave my extended family, again, and again and again.

Nhất Hạnh writes: ‘Some of our ill-being comes from hurt and pain in our own life; but some has been transmitted to us by our ancestors… you are the continuation of your parents… your body and mind contain their suffering and their hopes as well as your own.’xvi

I’d moved away from serious Buddhism a few years back when it got a bit mystical in the reincarnation department, but this guy was making things clearer. Nhất Hạnh explained how my body transported the genes and stories and happenings of all the people who came before, who had made me. I carried in my cells all their luck and habits. I was just the next step in all our journeys.

Jackson’s poem, Pioneers,xvii seemed to acknowledge their presence:

 

‘I am theirs and of them and for them speak.

My hands have gone over the roofs and gullies

of their names.

These hills I love under are their doing.

I have been given what they got.

I am what they became.’

 

I was seven when my parents vamoosed New Zealand to explore the world. Economic migration—ah, exciting new opportunities!—meant three nations, six primary schools, and ten houses changed before I slumped into high school. Boring, lovely old Nelson remained my spiritual basecamp, where I clambered a concrete blue whale to see the beach. I posted Nana and Pop regular airmail about our adventures; they were my first readers, and always wrote back. Letters were all that anchored me to their silver-haired kindnesses.

I had lost my huge family and beautiful land, and I never had a choice.

Why must I keep denying the wound? I squinted through my murky grief and saw broken arrow heads deeply embedded beneath my lifted chest armour.

Mindfully breathe, lulled Nhất Hạnh, it will create space to recognise suffering energy, then embrace it, ‘like a mother taking care of a crying baby… in her arms, without judging or ignoring it… with the energy of tenderness.’xviii I hugged my wailing mud baby, just by breathing.

Stacked on Nana’s coffee table had been family albums stuffed with hundreds of photos. One in particular—transported from 1973—gave me pause. Dad was standing on the dock, before his soon-to-depart frigate, hugging two-year-old me; I’m wearing his sailor cap and looking très grumpy. I didn’t know then, what I know now; that he was serving aboard the HMAS Otago, a Royal New Zealand Navy ship sent to protest the French nuclear testing at Mururoa Atol. Their military attention helped send those nuclear tests underground.

Our family line of warriors, sailors, explorers, and migrants seeking harbour stretched back through time. My uncle had shown me illustrations of the nineteenth-century tall ships that carried my great-grandmother from Ireland to New Zealand, a late arrival after the ocean-going migration waka had brought our iwi here, the Te Arawa and Ngāi Tahu Maori. I carried inside me more cheeky-sad travellers than one person could own.

How do I connect us? How do I belong?

Remove the second arrow.

Jackson, who knows something of being a bridge between art and social science, says, ‘When we don’t have power to materially change something, one power we can use is via the work of imagination, to rethink and reconstruct our reality, “undo deeds of the past,” with forgiveness’.xix

Could I revere my conflicting moods, be a breathing paradox? Notice, I imagined Jackson whispering to me, notice it all: the ancestors within me / the daughter left on the wharf / the girl torn from Aotearoa / the Oceanian who surveyed the world / the Sydney woman who battles space invaders. I am not either/ors—these are parts of a whole, spacious Sea of Me, and she has many expressions.

All this sounds a bit like the ethereal lotus.

Jackpot. Mud into love.

 
 

Works Cited

i Hau’ofa, Epeli. 2008. We Are the Ocean. University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu.
ii Hau’ofa (p. 38)
iii Hau’ofa (p. 46)
iv ‘Transform Your Anger with Thich Nhat Hanh’, Goalcast, Facebook, accessed 1 October 2017. https://www.facebook.com/goalcast/videos/vb.897393153671209/1536207029789815/?type=2&theater
v Jackson, Michael. 1989. ‘Making It Otherwise,’ Duty Free: Selected Poems 1965-1988. John McIndoe, Dunedin. (p.27)
vi Jackson, Michael. 2011. ‘Not to Find One’s Way in a City,’ Life Within Limits: Well-being in a World of Want. Duke University Press, Durham and London, pp.359-383. (p.375)
vii Jackson Michael, 1998. ‘Here/Now,’ Minima Ethnographica: Intersubjectivity and the Anthropological Project, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, pp. 189-209. (p. 199-201)
viii Jackson, Michael. 2012. ‘On the Work and Writing of Ethnography.’ Between One and One Another. University of California Press, Berkeley, pp.167-214. (p.172)
ix Jackson, Minima Ethnographica (p. 208)
x Hau’ofa (p. 42)
xi Hau’ofa’s essays: ‘Our Sea of Islands,’ and ‘The Ocean in Us,’ in We Are the Ocean, express all these ideas, throughout.
xii Nhat Hanh, Thich. 2014. No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering, Parallax Press, Berkley, California.
xiii No Mud, No Lotus (p.46)
xiv No Mud, No Lotus (p. 23)
xv No Mud, No Lotus (p.47-48)
xvi No Mud, No Lotus (p.33)
xvii Jackson, Duty Free (p.28)
xviii No Mud, No Lotus (p. 27)
xix Jackson, Minima Ethnographica (p. 203)

 
Download a PDF copy of The Space Invader and the Mud Lotus.

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Revelations from my German Woman’s Household Manual, Kerry Behrendt

Rapünzchen, a diminutive of Rapunzel, is a German name for lamb’s lettuce or field salad, a common winter green in Europe, but rare in Australia. I love it. It has a nutty, tangy, very distinct flavour. The leaves of baby spinach look somewhat similar, but the flavour is quite different and their relationship as salad greens is probably not close. Rapünzchen is the first alphabetical entry in my German woman’s household manual, volume eight. It is the only volume bequeathed to me by my ancestors. The last entry is Schuhwichse (shoe polish).

The manual was published 176 years ago, in 1839. It is not easy for us now to imagine what life might have been like then, particularly for women. To get a better feel for this I thought I might investigate what was happening in the world around this time. The quickest way was trawling through the internet since I am quite experienced with this due to researching my family history. And so I found that Queen Victoria had ascended to the British throne just two years before this manual was published, and had not married yet. There was no German nation as we know it now, but only a loose confederation of thirty-nine German states. This came about through the upheavals caused by Napoleon. As for Australia, where I live now, it was a British colony of course and still had convict transports coming in. There were eighteen shiploads full in 1839, nine each to New South Wales and to Tasmania, which was still called Van Diemen’s Land. When I looked at specific historical events of the year 1839, there was of course no mention of anything that women had accomplished, but plenty concerning men’s achievements, such as British capture Hong Kong from China, or Charles Darwin elected Fellow of the Royal Society. There were few ‘world events’ that may have been of interest to the women of the day. Tea from India (not China) 1st arrives in UK (thereby making it more affordable), or Prussian government limits work week for children to 51 hours might have been the most likely.

I was curious also whether there were any household manuals for women in the English speaking world. The best match that I came across was Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management which is still very popular today and is considered a ‘classic’ of its type. It is available online in full content, with an emphasis on food and recipes, but also contains a thorough guide for dealing with domestic help. Mrs Beeton’s book was published in 1861, twenty-two years after my manual, but unlike mine, is not forgotten. As for Australia, there was no similar publication. The Country Women’s Association of Australia, which might have published such a manual, was only founded in 1922.

I discovered that there were actually twelve volumes of this German woman’s household manual. But getting hold of any of them proved just about impossible. For one, the publisher, Lewents of Berlin, had closed its doors long ago. At best, I could imagine there might be other copies of this manual still hidden somewhere in an attic, or maybe lost on the dusty shelf of an antiquarian bookshop. But it seems rather likely that I will be stuck with my lonely copy of volume eight.

The old manual is not very large, about the size of a small paperback, a bit thicker than the average, but still handy for easy use. There are some signs of wear and tear, particularly on the hard cover; the pages though are only slightly yellowed. I had a thought to check for fingerprints, and other spots like food stains to see which entries were of most interest to the users of this manual. But I could find no clue to this. Only the index pages in the back seemed marked by heavier use, which would make sense, of course. They were a little darker. The cover design in light and dark brown shades reminded me of soap bubbles or a boiling broth, but this surely must be coincidental. There is no title, and no author listed on the outside, just a small light green square on the spine. This square shows some faint traces of lettering but is so faded it cannot be deciphered.

I decided to take a closer look at what the contents might reveal. This is the layout of the title page:

K.Behrendt_image2

 

Most obvious to me was that the input of the ‘experienced Women’ appears to be less important than that of the ‘learned Men’. As if those men knew much about a woman’s business in the first place. And in particular in 1839, when women’s business was strictly segregated from the much more important affairs of the men. This was confirmed to me by yet another rather interesting discovery. My research on the internet produced a website which featured a repository, or listing, of all known historic reference books published in German, an Encyclopaedia of Historic References. This website provided me with the confirmation that there were twelve volumes of my manual and that it was an important publication of its time. And what is more, it listed a men’s version of my manual, produced by the same publisher:

K.Behrendt_image3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately my information did not mention the learned persons who gave input to this manual, such as whether any ‘experienced Women’ were consulted, but I believed that rather doubtful. In my representation of the title page here, I have used the same layout as for the woman’s manual, since this was not provided. There are some obvious differences: reference to ‘the Man’ versus ‘the female Gender’ which might confirm the lesser standing of the women of the time. And there is the obvious difference concerning expectations about each gender’s place in life and in society as well. The man had a profession and was active in society outside the home, whereas the woman’s place was strictly within the home with responsibilities as a wife and mother and, quite interestingly, in charge of the domestic help. While the men had responsibilities regarding the education of their children, there is no mention as to their responsibilities as a husband. All of this makes me so glad that I live now. While our current society is far from perfect, life has certainly improved, especially for women, who, in the western world at least are not confined to house and hearth, have opportunities for a profession and have the same responsibilities concerning their children’s education. Full equality, alas, is still a dream.

My thoughts then turned to the intriguing question about the owners of this manual among my ancestors. Two four-leaf clover stalks (very dried) between pages 298 and 299 and the word ‘Volz’ scribbled on the title page inside were the only personal hints regarding the ownership of this book. The handwritten word in ink meant nothing to me. I assumed it was a surname, since I did not recognise it as a common word of the German language or a first name. Nobody with that name is known to me amongst my ancestors. As for the four-leafed clover stalks, was somebody just pressing them and had forgotten they were there, or were they put deliberately in this book, between those pages? They are in the middle of a rather confusing five page explanation of Schachspiel (chess).

My search for clues of ownership had to continue then. As this manual was clearly meant for the mistress in charge of a well-to-do household that most likely included domestic staff, I would expect that it came from a household of some means and standing. From what I knew about my ancestors, based on old documents I’d found and what my family had told me, I had to say that most of them would not have been in a position to acquire twelve volume household manuals or any other books for that matter, with the exception of my paternal ancestors, the Schmiedebergs. They very likely had the monetary means and the status that would allow them to contemplate just such an acquisition. The head of this household, my paternal great-great-grandfather Karl Schmiedeberg was a master furrier and the mayor of the town, and therefore in good standing. Although my father was reluctant to talk about his ancestors, he proudly mentioned on occasion that his great-grandfather had been a mayor. I was able to confirm this from the information in my father’s Ahnenpass, the ancestry passport that was a required document for every German during the Nazi years. This was to prove your racial purity and had to include details down to your great-grandparents, including occupation.

As I confirmed from my research, the ownership of books was definitely an important status symbol, a sign of learning and sophistication, but also of a certain wealth. My maternal grandfather was living proof of this; although the household manual could not have come from his collection, his lifetime was much later and he marked all his literary acquisitions with his initials and a date. But nonetheless, I found it fascinating that family lore states that my Grandpa Fritz, who came from very dire circumstances, was keen to acquire books as soon as he could manage to afford them as he rose in the public service; and he made sure that they were noticed, although there is considerable doubt whether he actually read them. I still remember two locked cabinets full of books, visible through the glass panes. All these were packed away into the attic when he had passed away and the cabinets were used for other storage. The attic was a dusty, narrow space in the top of our gabled roof. One naked light bulb and two tiny windows at both ends was all there was for a light source. The only way to get up there was by pulling down a trapdoor in the ceiling of the corridor with a hooked broomstick. The trapdoor had a ladder attached that had to be pulled out and extended to the floor. One needed strength to manage this and a good reason to proceed up to this musty, dusty place, so naturally we were not up there very often.

Since I left home to go to university and then on to Australia, I had forgotten about the books until we needed to move my mother from the family home to my brother’s place, because she could not stay all by herself any more. This was in 2010. We cleaned the attic and the cellar too, and all these books now came to light and all were fairly well preserved. No mould or funny smells. Most came from Gandpa Fritz’s collection but there were others too, from who knows where, and one of them was volume eight of a German woman’s household manual. I picked this one and took it with me to Australia, because it was by far the oldest book that I had come across. I found it in one of the large cardboard boxes full of books; but there were letters too and documents and photographs, containing much of the life stories of my ancestors. All this is waiting for me to explore in detail, whenever I can make my way to Germany.

Back in Australia now, I took a closer look at all this household wisdom in my manual from 1839. The index in the back showed 326 entries in 504 pages of very tight script. Some entries were very short and there were pages with up to three. To find what must have been considered the most vital and detailed knowledge required of the discerning mistress of a household of this time, I decided to take a look at those entries with the most pages first.

I found, to my astonishment, that Schatzkästlein (little treasure trove) was the longest by far with no less than 25 pages. The next one down was Schnellräucherungsmethode (quick smoking, as in curing, method) with 20 pages, thence Rindfleisch (beef) with 18 pages, Sauce (sauce) with 16 pages, Rofe (rose) with 15 pages, Reinette (apple variety) with 12 pages and Schinken (ham) at 10 pages. Obviously, most entries refer to preparation and preservation of food except for Schatzkästlein and Rofe. The book has an unusual typeface where the ‘s’ looks like an ‘f’. It is one of the more obvious differences when it comes to the old-fashioned German font style used in this manual. It can be difficult to decipher, but thanks to my family research I had learned to read it well enough. As to the entry of the Rofe, the first part is all about planting and successfully growing roses in all their varieties, and horse manure is highly recommended. This is followed by the usefulness of rose products: rose water, rose honey, rose jam, rose vinegar, rose wine and more. At least that part is also food related. But of course the well-known and beloved perfume of the rose and its applications are certainly discussed as well.

I finally decided to take a look at what kind of treasure the Schatzkästlein, the ‘little treasure trove’ was hiding. I found a metaphoric use of ‘treasure trove’ both in the German and the English language. But I was still unprepared for what came next. I started reading and found the first words puzzling: ‘Franklin has provided rules for living…’ Franklin? Yes, this referred indeed to Benjamin Franklin, one of the famous Founding Fathers of the United States and author, statesman, scientist and inventor. After a few lines of introduction, followed Franklin’s own words in translation on his well documented ‘thirteen virtues’, with some additional explanations from one or more of the ‘learned Men’ presumably. Franklin devised this list of virtues to enable him and others to live a proper, honourable, dignified and upstanding life. Here, in my little manual were those thirteen virtues which Franklin exhorted us all to live by, painstakingly describing his own attempts and not denying that he too fell short on occasion: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquillity, Chastity and Humility.

And then I discovered that my household manual had expanded this to fourteen virtues. I searched for explanations of this discrepancy but could not find any further hint in regards to the additional virtue of Menschenliebe (humanity, humanism, literally: love of the human) in reference to Franklin’s virtues. So where did this fourteenth virtue come from and why was it added here? I found some clues: a Christian version of seven divine and seven worldly virtues and another set of virtues ascribed to Aristotle. But the most likely source and inspiration for the inclusion of those virtues into my household manual were probably the fourteen virtues of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Humanitas was one of his virtues and explained the extra virtue of humanity. Either the learned gent who wrote this entry made a genuine mistake or maybe this was added quite deliberately. Menschenliebe is certainly discussed within the ‘treasure trove’ and it does fit in very well with the whole concept.

Of course, those virtues were established by a man, aimed at the men folk of the day, presumably, so I did wonder why they were given so much prominence in this household manual for women. Part of the answer might be that ‘learned Men’ were foremost in the input to this manual. Of course, the serious application to those virtues by their wives would certainly be most desirable for all the men folk. What did occur to me is that the women who read this would have to be well educated in humanistic thought and values to even understand its concepts. And there is further evidence that a certain level of sophistication was expected of the female readers of this manual: the entry schön (beautiful). This entry starts with an elaborate explanation of ‘beauty’ and its perception that can be quickly summarised as ‘Beauty is in the eye of the Beholder’. There is also mention of an inner beauty, a beauty of the senses, the idea of beauty and the like.

And then I paused for thought. How could this be compared with such down to earth information on Scheuern (scrubbing), for example? This entry describes the correct method for scrubbing and scouring one’s pots and pans with special regard to tin plates and also wooden floors. There is a strong emphasis on the good housewife and host who would gain the utmost respect by having a properly scrubbed home. Or Säugen (breastfeeding): besides the insistence that mother’s milk is best for your child, there is a warning as to the length of time breastfeeding is to continue, a stern admonition that longer than 18 to 24 months runs the very serious risk of having your child die of water-on-the-brain. Then there is Schnellräucherungsmethode (quick smoking method), an entry emphasising the usefulness of well cured meat ‘when under siege’, your city or your town, that is. Or maybe Rothkehlchen (robin, the song bird). After two pages of almost lovingly describing how to capture, tame and keep a robin, the last sentence says, ‘Its meat is quite tasty and also good for your health.’ And the extermination methods concerning Ratten (rats) are truly awesome: drowning, poisoning, coating the live rat with a mixture of rancid cod liver oil and tar, and if that does not deter them, feed them bits of sponge fried in salted butter. Provide lots of water as well, because the salt will make them thirsty. When they drink, the sponge will soak up the water, expand and — bang! The rat explodes. I can hardly wait now to explore this manual’s suggestions concerning the elimination of Schaben (cockroaches) and Schnecken (snails) or Schildläuse (scale bugs)!

These latter entries in the manual seemed to be a world away from philosophical discussions on beauty or a virtuous life, although much closer to what I had expected to find in such a household manual. I have only read a small number of the entries so far, the ones that looked most fascinating, and further exploration begs. I can already see exciting promise in such captivating information as Rauch aus dem Zimmer zu vertilgen (remove smoke from room), or Regen (rain), and Schnee (snow), or Säure im Magen (acid in the stomach), or Sachen (things?), or Schreien (scream) or Schnürbrust (literally: tied breast, an early version of a corset).

When looking at this book I had never imagined that a woman’s household manual from 1839 could be so fascinating, so illuminating about a woman’s everyday life as it was 176 years ago, and by association a man’s life too, of course. And then there are those mysteries as well: who of my ancestors did own this manual and who was ‘Volz’? Whatever happened to the other eleven volumes? Why is the largest entry a treatise about the thirteen virtues of Benjamin Franklin, and what about the fourteenth virtue? Why did the authors of this manual include such sophisticated concepts in a household manual for women? I doubt that I will ever find the answers to all these questions, but my investigation so far has been highly fascinating and quite revealing and it goes hand in hand with my research on family history.

I must also mention yet another aspect of my investigation: I found much information on household manuals from 19th century Britain and the US, and other German publications too. I knew it would be fascinating to compare them all and I could not resist a quick perusal and found at least one unique difference to my own manual: no hint of such sophisticated concepts on beauty and a virtuous life. This made me truly regret that my unique manual has completely disappeared from view, and that I will most likely forever be deprived of its particular household wisdom except for what is found in volume eight: the entries of Rapünzchen (salad green) to Schuhwichse (shoe polish).

 

Download a pdf of ‘Revelations from my German Woman’s Household Manual’.

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