Dear Phantom Reader

Writing life

Dear Phantom Reader,

What is your calling? I find this an interesting concept and one that I think everyone should work to discover, or rather, uncover in their lives. Sometimes the answer will be obvious from an early age, sometimes you may not find it until much later on.

Your calling can be a career, like we’re taught it should be, but that’s not always the case. I might be caring for unloved animals or creating beautiful wood carvings in your spare time or coaching a children’s soccer team. Whatever it is, embrace it when you find it because it’s a part of you and infinitely precious.

In this piece, I write about my calling and what it means to me. This is also where I came up with the idea to call this newsletter Dear Phantom Reader (you’ll find out why at the end).




In late May or early June, during a holiday called Pfingsten (Pentecost), the street festival Karneval der Kulturen always takes place right around the corner from our apartment building. If this sounds like fun, believe me it isn’t, at least not when you live in the middle of the action.

For us, Karneval der Kulturen means drunk tourists yelling under our window at one in the morning, it means hordes of teenagers in leis and beaded necklaces tossing back one five euro capirinha cocktail after another. For four long days, each morning, our street and sidewalk is covered in glittering shards of brown and green glass from broken beer bottles.

Can you blame us for high tailing it out of town the minute they start putting up the first beer tent and Wurstbude?

Where we head is always the same: Burg Stavenow.

Cottage at Burg Stavenow

Burg Stavenow is located in a tiny village in Prignitz, a region in the far northwest of the former East German state of Brandenburg. The small castle (Burg) was bought by a retired couple from Hamburg a few years after the wall fell. They restored it and built holiday cottages and apartments, with an eye for quaint historical detail.

Besides their website, I don’t think they do any advertising; all their guests trickle in by word of mouth. The ones who do come are there for the same reasons we are: Peaceful, quiet strolls through the gardens and around the pond, complete with swans and nutrias.

No TV or Internet, only reading and relaxing and short day trips to places like Ludwigslust and Lenzen.

Ludwigslust Castle

Historical and current economic difficulties aside, one great thing about the countryside in the former GDR, particularly in Brandenburg, is that the 70s and 80s didn’t get a chance to ruin it.

Stavenow village house

In many west German villages, you can still see the legacy of these two decades: Plastic doors with faux antique door knobs and curved amber glass windows, old brick and wooden surfaces covered in the German version of aluminum siding. Villages which still manage to be quaint—like many in Bavaria—often have a pristine, almost sterile quality: the curtain starched and pressed, the hedges always perfectly trimmed, the red geraniums in the window boxes never wilting.

But in Brandenburg, gardens are wilder; the houses have a run down charm and many country roads are still made of rough cobblestones built with a horse and buggy in mind, not a car.

In some places, like the Ueckermark region, run-down slips more into derelict. The people are mostly old and depressed and poor. But it’s not like that in Prignitz.

Inside the cottage

(In some places, like in Lenzen, the border to West Germany was only an easy swim across the Elbe river. Few people were allowed to live there, and those who did were carefully screened; obtaining a permit to visit them was nearly impossible. In Lenzen, and other towns and villages in Prignitz near the former border, time stood still for 41 years.)

The bench

But, dear Phantom Reader, what I love most about this trip is sitting on the bench above by the swan-filled pond, where I read and write you this letter, old school long-hand.

Swans on their nest

When I was a child in Arizona, my mother read to us every night. She dragged the rocking chair down the carpeted hallway and set it up in front of the door to my bedroom, my sister’s bedroom to the left and my brother’s to the right. I loved so many of the books she read: the Narnia stories, A Wrinkle in TimeThe Wizard of OzThe Little Prince. But the one I loved most of all was The Neverending Story.

Lone nutria

Years later, I told my German boyfriend, “My mom read me a book I loved as a kid called The Neverending Story by some guy named Michael Ende. Have you ever heard of it?”

My German boyfriend rolled his eyes. “What you mean is Die Unendliche Geschichte by the famous German children’s book writer, Mish-eye-el End-uh. You Americans always think everything is American.”

Well, excuse me.

Dry me

A couple of years ago, I taught business English to a man also named Mish-eye-el (yes, the name was as popular as Michael in the States for several generations).

In his late 50s, Mish-eye-el was a project manager at a software company who grew up in a small village in Brandenburg, just outside Berlin. I taught him for several years, and he told me all sorts of great stories about growing up in the GDR, some sad, some hilarious. But it’s one of the sad ones I remember most. Here the story as Mish-eye-el told it, except not in broken English:

In the GDR, all young men had to serve in the army; it wasn’t possible to opt out by choosing civil service like you could in the west. But the East German army wasn’t like an army, it was more like prison. The food was inedible, the bases run down, the equipment old. Each soldier had to serve a minimum of two years, and they were only given leave to visit friends and family one weekend a year. Two weekends off the entire time, that’s all. When I was there, we didn’t have much to do: no wars or uprisings or demonstrations. Mostly, they just sent us to the forest and had us shoot at trees and squirrels. It was at one of these useless target practice sessions that I lost this (shows me the index finger of his left hand, which is missing a tip.)

The East German government, they knew life in the army was far from a picnic, so they always stationed you far from where you lived in the hope you’d be less likely to feel overly homesick. As for me, I was stationed in Rostock.

But, with one soldier in our barracks, they made a mistake: Not only was the boy from Rostock, he could even see into the kitchen of his mother’s apartment from the base. He’d stare out the window and watch her chopping onions or peeling potatoes or pushing a roast into the oven.

One day, when, as usual, they’re wasn’t much to do, he decided to sneak off base to visit her. He just wanted to see his mother, to have her make him a cup of tea, maybe take a quick nap in his own bed. He wasn’t gone long, not much longer than an hour. But they caught him when he tried to sneak back in. They arrested him for desertion and tossed him into a military prison. I don’t know what happened to him after that, but I’m sure it wasn’t good.

Prignitz village life

Dear Phantom Reader,

These days, do you sometimes feel like the world’s gone mad? I do. On the radio, in the newspaper, online, the news you read and hear, it makes you think: How did it come to this? Where do we go from here? Is this the end?

But, as I sit on this bench, writing you this letter with pen on paper, my feet are on the ground in a region that once threw boys in jail for wanting to spend an hour in their mother’s kitchen, in a country which once gave way to unthinkable, methodical evil, and I feel hope: Because after such things, the country is still here, it’s wounds largely healed, albeit scarred over.

And Germany also created Mish-eye-el End-uh.

And Burg Stavenow

In the Unendliche Geschichte, when the boy Bastian wants to meet Atreyu, the hero of the book he read and entered into, he stumbles into the Temple of a Thousand Doors. In each room, he chooses one of two doors to open, which leads to another room with two doors, which leads to another, and another, and another.

Unless you choose with intention—and eventually he does—you could go on opening door after door after door forever.

Sometimes I feel my life is the Temple of a Thousand Doors but, unlike Bastian, I don’t usually know the intention until I’ve finally found it five, or twenty, or a hundred doors later.

But I do know which door to choose each time, even if I don’t always know the reason. The times in my life I’ve gotten off track are the times I chose the door I thought I should instead of the one I wanted.

But, dear Phantom Reader, a thought has just occurred: Maybe getting off track was sometimes exactly what I needed:

I’ve been a writer nearly all my life, although my writing has come in different forms, and was sometimes in the background instead of front and center. But, like I wrote in this post, I gave up writing completely from 2009 to 2015: Six years with no poems, no stories, no personal essays, not even letters like this one. Only e-mails and product descriptions.

But I think I needed those six years to test myself and find the answers to these three questions:

1) Why do I write?

2) Is it something I need?

3) Can I do without it?

The answers I found?

1) Because I want to

2) Yes

3) No

Chapel in Ludwigslust

Every writer wants to be read; they want praise and recognition. If they say they don’t, they’re lying or deluding themselves in nearly every case. I want these things, and I haven’t reached them yet, but I do have you.

And that’s what matters:

Me, you and these letters forming words forming sentences, spiraling out of my gray matter into yours, allowing us to enter into a kind of conversation, only I don’t know your name and I can’t hear what you’re thinking. But, right here, right now, we’re sharing something; of that, at least, I’m sure.

Here’s me, where’s you?

Dear Phantom Reader,

The ancient Greeks had many words for love, and here are but a few:

  • Eros, or erotic love

  • Storges, or familiar love

  • Mania, or obsessive love

  • Philia, or affectionate love

  • Agape, or endless love, or What Would Jesus and Buddha do?

But, oh ancient ones of the Aegean, I live in Germany, the land of the specific, and sorry, but I think you missed a few.

Like the love between a writer and a reader, and the other way around. I know this love is real because, right now, it’s what I feel for you.