Notes from Parstein

For the past year we have been going up to a large and empty Pfarrhaus (Parish House) that sits next to a church and cemetery in a small Brandenburg town called Parstein for weekends, warm summer days, and freezing cold winter nights. The town itself can barely even be called that: it is but two “main” streets joined together in a T-formation right where our house lies. Behind our house is a garden, barn, and pond, and only a short walk away is Parsteiner See, one of the most beautiful lakes in the area. After a year driving up to this tiny country village, one might expect to get bored. On the contrary, it seems, something memorable happens every time I’m there. And even when it doesn’t, chopping wood and hauling it through snowdrifts to light a fire in a 100-year-old oven, buying eggs from the old man who keeps the chickens out back, and swimming in summer with a large number of proudly naked East German families always provides enough inspiration for a story to tell. Here are some short bits of writing I did on our most recent stay.

Johannes plays in the next room on his new piano. He is exuberant. Almost gleeful. It occurs to me that music, unlike writing, is an art that can immediately demonstrate emotions such as these. When one is happy in the creation of music, it could come out in the form of swing, jazz, boogie-woogie, or even a piece of lovely and upbeat classical music. When one is happy in writing, if such a word can even be attributed to the act—“satisfied” or “mildly self-amused” is more like it—no matter how much one yearns to express it or even feels like bursting with the effort of feeling it, all that comes out is the rhythmic, methodical, clack-clack-clack of the keys. Writing, as I am sure I am not the first to observe, is the most solitary act of creation. Music is obvious in its performance aspect, the theatricality of it can be controlled and played like a game—the best performers in our minds are often not even the musicians we would say we most enjoy listening to on record for exactly this reason. Even other visual arts, such as painting, can be seen as they are made.

But even while a painter can be observed throwing paint slapdash onto a canvas—they actually made a movie about Jackson Pollack doing exactly this and people paid to see it—all one can hope to do when observing a writer at work, and never would do, is to look over his shoulder. For this reason, writers, even the most glamorous and successful of them, are elusive creatures. We imagine them, hobbit-like and alcoholic, bent over the keyboard of a computer or a typewriter, or even earlier, perhaps hunching into candle light with a nightcap on, squinting at a rather unsatisfying ink blot that has just collected on the page.

I am just beginning to read Tony Judt’s latest and last book The Memory Chalet, a collection of essays, some of which he wrote by dictation as he suffered the worsening fate of imprisonment by ALS—Lou Gehrig’s Disease—a condition in which the victim loses all ability to move while retaining the perfection of excruciating consciousness. For a musician, this would be the end of everything, but for a writer, it borders on intriguing. As the body shuts down in the way Judt so painfully describes, its purpose collapses telescopically into nothing but pure brain function. It is as if all has been removed except for the ability to recollect, rearrange, and retell. The body has become a storytelling machine. What a perfect metaphor.

I’ve never liked cats. I’ve always found them boring, pompous, and sometimes even scary. I still can’t say I enjoy them terribly, but perhaps now, after an experience I had the day before yesterday, I can finally take one of them off the list of the judged, the symbolic turkey pardoned by the president on Thanksgiving Day. Two days ago (Sunday), it was midday, freezing cold and gray, and we had just arrived in Parstein. As Johannes went about clearing the space out front to allow his car a path off the street, I decided to take pictures of the trees, which, like parts of a magical kingdom kept under the spell of the White Witch of Narnia, were encased in a layer of snow and ice, each branch and twig wearing its own thin and delicate cloak of lace, as if in preparation for a wedding. I was entranced, and, moments later, finding that my camera’s battery was not charged and that I had left the charger behind in a desk drawer in Berlin, enraged at my own stupidity. Then, miraculously, a face appeared behind the snowbank Johannes was shoveling. A tiny cat—almost still a kitten—white with gold and brown spots and a little prim mouth. I went up to it as I do with most dogs, acknowledging its presence with an outstretched hand. It approached me but then turned away. Moments later, as we unloaded the car and trudged with snow-caked boots into the entryway, it followed us, and crept into the hall and the main room with the big table. We paid it as little mind as we could, expecting it to leave again momentarily. We shut the door behind us on our way to the church, where Johannes was accompanying local kids on the organ for the Krippenspiel — the Nativity play. When I returned it was still in the middle of its thorough exploration, but with no intention of leaving. Thinking fast, I sliced up a store-bought Wiener Würstchen into small discs and set them on a plate on the floor. Tentatively, the cat came up and began eating. With a series of kissing noises—like the ones I had always heard my mom make in the presence of a cat—and beckoning calls, I managed to get it past the curtain and into the room with the oven. There it circled, testing out the bed, hitting a few keys as it climbed the Celesta, and stayed.

An hour later, when Johannes came back in, he found it on top of the piano bench nuzzling at my hand. I had been thinking up names, and dreaming about how nice it would be to have the cat in my lap, and whether I would be able to convince her—for I had now decided it was a “her,” as she reminded me greatly of the younger of the two girls I babysit—to do so. Soon, I had my answer. We got a fire started at last, a great roaring one—and now I know that the word roaring is literal, deliciously so, when it comes to fires—and she turned her head inquisitively but still with a ladylike lack of real interest, blasé almost, at each crack and snap of the wood. Finally we both took our places in chairs by the oven, and as I watched in amazement, almost holding my breath, she crawled first into my lap, pressing her head against my arm and even licking my fingers with a tiny, rough tongue, and then following Johannes’s outstretched and propped up legs to his shoulder, where she remained sitting perfectly upright with tail swishing silently, like a silhouette in the window in a children’s picture book. From there she flopped to the bed and began swatting her own tail with interest and then chasing it like a puppy dog. Then from the bed to my lap again, where she leaned her little head against my chest, one outstretched paw resting lightly on my stomach, turned up to look at me, closed her eyes, and purred.

I was in heaven. Johannes said he could see me “melting away.” We briefly discussed turning her out for the night, for surely she would start to leave excrement around the house, but our answer came when she crept into the room where we had been doing work on the walls over the summer, hopped directly into a bucket of sand, moved some things around, and peed, covering it up daintily. Surely this cat, so well-trained, belonged to somebody, but now that we knew she would only go in her newly-discovered litter box, we also knew we could keep her for the night. Besides, we told ourselves, it was far too late to go off with her in our arms to find possible owners, who in any case cared so little for her that they hadn’t noticed her absence these past few hours. No, she would have to stay with us, and she would have to stay in the warm room that constituted our winter bedroom, living room, and work room all in one—really the only room in the house that was heated at all.

What followed was a comedy of errors worthy of a circus act between man and man’s best friend, or in this case man, woman, and new feline child. As we crawled into bed and tried to cuddle up to each other for warmth, shifting arms, legs, and blankets to find the most comfortable position, our new pet would repeatedly locate the little space that remained between our two bodies with near-military precision, plunging headfirst into it, scrambling to find a bit of warmth out of our grasp, or in accommodation, perhaps, of our nighttime positions. It didn’t work. I mean our protestations, in the form of grabbing our charge with one hand under the belly and firmly placing her on the ground with the bemused admonishment of “caa-aat!” didn’t do a thing. In the end we compromised: she slept on the bed but not with us; rather she was tucked cutely in between the two layers of covers, in a world of coziness all her own. Still, every time we shifted, even in our sleep, we were awakened in seconds by the approaching sound of purring, and soon a little head and pattering paws appeared on the pillows right next to our faces. What a night! But it was fun nonetheless.