The South African Gardener


Inexplicably, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about ethics and morality lately. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) Beyond the obvious reasons – the daily escapades of an ethically and morally bankrupt pwesident – it also has to do with my younger daughter, Lily. On starting high school, she opted out of Religion class* and attended one called ‘Ethics’ instead. She periodically comes to me with questions arising from those lessons. Early on she wanted to know the difference between ethics and morals and I gave her my lay definition. Crassly oversimplified, I said ethics are individual ideas about right and wrong, whereas morals are more communal understandings about how people should behave and interact.

Before I started writing this post, I figured that I should quick check Google just to be sure I hadn’t told her something wrong. Sure enough, the first five sites defined the two terms exactly the opposite of what I had said. Oops.

So I did what people do in these situations. I kept surfing till I found definitions that were in line with what I believed to begin with (and found a cool website in the process!) Here it is:

According to this understanding, “ethics” leans towards decisions based upon individual character, and the more subjective understanding of right and wrong by individuals – whereas “morals” emphasises the widely-shared communal or societal norms about right and wrong.


Now that we’ve cleared all that up, I can go on.

I have shoplifted once in my life. A skein of embroidery floss from the Dime Store. If memory serves, the agonizing guilt I felt afterward made me furtively return it to the store the following day – an experience that terrified me even more than the original crime. And still the guilt didn’t dissipate. I kept feeling it for the next . . . oh . . . 48 years or so. And counting.

This whole experience makes me suspect that my own sense of personal ethics is fairly rigid. (I blame my grandfather). I can’t stand cheating on tests and never did it myself. When I need digital music, I buy songs from Amazon. When a friend offered to share a trove of pirated Kindle books with me – 1000s of them – it didn’t cross my mind for a second to accept. I realize that all these things are common in this country – that the ‘widely shared communal or societal norms’ aren’t too bothered by these actions – but they just seem wrong to me.

So I was in a real dilemma when Lily and I decided to binge-watch ‘Big Little Lies’ during our last micro-braiding session (which, as some of you know, can last anywhere from 6 to 10 hours). By Episode 4 I was hooked. The braiding was done midway through the second last episode and that was when I realized we had been illegally streaming it the whole time.

But I really really wanted to see how it ended.

So I did what people do in such situations. I borrowed Lily’s IPad to watch the last episode. She wanted to use it herself and said I could just as easily use my own laptop, but I didn’t want any digital traces of my crime on this machine. Her sigh expressed her feeling that I was being totally ridiculous. ‘You do know, Mom, that everyone does this.’

‘Yes’, I answered, ‘but the fact that everyone does something doesn’t make it okay. Saying ‘Everyone does it’ is basically the antithesis of having ethics.’

‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘I know.’


At any rate, to finish this part of the post, I’ll say that the ending of the series was great. And next time I am in a store and see the DVD, I guess I’ll be buying the darn thing.  (Would it be unethical of me to wait until the price comes down a little?)


In terms of professional ethics, I have had very few dilemmas to deal with over my years of teaching. I never held a position of any authority over anyone other than my students, and I believe that as long as a teacher develops a working relationship of mutual respect with them, there is very little that can go wrong. I only had to deal with one complaint in my 30 years at the university. Someone went to my boss and said I wasn’t holding my course. She had tried to attend three weeks in a row and the classroom was locked and empty. Turned out she had been going to the wrong room.

There was one situation, though, that has stuck with me over the years. In one course, my students had to present a topic, including a position on that issue, and then lead a discussion afterwards. I gave them the hint that a lightly provocative topic or standpoint would help in getting the other students to speak up in the discussion part. It was even okay if they didn’t truly or fully believe in the opinions they were promoting, but if they went that way, it should not be obvious to us during the talk. (They could then tell the others their true ideas at the end.) So I heard presentations about how Greenpeace was a terrorist organization, that unemployment benefits should be abolished, that the European Union was just a corporate takeover of the country . . . we had some lively discussions!

One student came to me with the idea of presenting ‘South Africa was better off under Apartheid’ and I smiled and gave her the green light. Her turn rolled around a few weeks later and she began by stating that all those Apartheid protesters didn’t know what they were talking about. But she did, because had lived in South Africa as a child. My inner alarm bells started going off as she began to tell us how things were before and after the end of that system, about her experiences with black people there. Her entire premise boiled down to the ‘fact’ that black people were too stupid to run a country by themselves. She gave us several examples to prove it.

‘We had a gardener and we asked him to plant lettuce. He just dug a hole and poured all the seeds into it. So we had to show him how to do it properly. The next time we asked him to plant lettuce, he dug another hole and poured the seeds in again!’ She paused at looked at us with a ‘Can you believe it?! How stupid can you get?!’ attitude.

I sat there struggling with a barrage of strong emotions. It was clear by now that she wasn’t just being provocative – she really meant all these things. This girl was turning my classroom into a platform for appalling racist garbage. But what was almost more disturbing was the complete silence of the 20 other young people in the room. I soooo wanted to take her down, to ask her if stupidity was the only possible explanation for her gardener’s actions, if maybe, for instance, he didn’t care if your lettuce grew. But I couldn’t. I was her teacher and had a certain power over her in our unequal relationship. I was the one who could pass or fail her. It wouldn’t be right for me to humiliate her in this public space even though I hated the opinions she was expressing.

Her presentation ended and she moved on to the discussion part. The silence was deafening. And it went on for a long time. I had no idea what to do if none of them spoke up, but I knew I couldn’t do it for them. Finally, finally, finally, one student said quietly, almost under her breath, ‘This is so racist!’  Then another student spoke up, and another, and another. I wouldn’t describe it like a dam breaking or anything; the discussion remained halting and muted until the clock ran out. But it was a whole lot better than subjugated or complicit silence. I will always feel gratitude toward that one courageous listener who spoke out first. With her protestation, she saved the lesson from turning into a total calamity.

And if a certain South African gardener is still out there somewhere, a shout out to you, too.


*(And, yes, you read right. Austrian students have Religion as one of their school subjects. If you want to hear my thoughts on that disturbing reality, you can read ‘Heathen Talk’ or ‘Scene of the Crime’.)

He That Soweth

“Lock her up” was bad enough, but yesterday’s “Send her back” made something snap in my brain.


I am done trying to “understand” the Trump supporter. Especially the ones claiming to be evangelical.

I can’t find a single reason for wanting this man in the White House that doesn’t derive from one of the following:


But don’t take it from me.


Proverbs 6:16-19 (KJV)

16 These six things doth the Lord hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him:

17 A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood,

18 An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief,

19 A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren.



I can hardly believe it myself, but here it is – mid-November, and I’ve already been bitten by the Christmas Spirit. This must be some kind of record. Partly it might be from waking up to this two days ago:

It also might be due to a Christmas market we went to the night before – a new one that is walking distance from my home. I wasn’t expecting much, but ended up being completely enchanted. A local woman had bought a 200 year old farmhouse from another part of the country, which was taken down and rebuilt here. She combined it with a more modern tract and horse stables, and filled it with antiques and artistic touches. The things for sale at the market were all handmade and so creatively displayed throughout the house. We meandered through the rooms and then had some hot mulled wine out in the courtyard.

I did not come home empty handed. I saw a little crèche made of felt and had to have it for my collection. I quickly peeked inside to make sure the rest of the figures were in there and then headed for the cashier. I probably should have inspected it more carefully.

When I got home, the first thing that I noticed was that there was no baby Jesus figure. I looked more closely – there were the donkeys and sheep, the angel and the three kings, there was Joseph and then . . . . there was this guy:

It seems I bought myself an alternative crèche – it’s not Joseph and Maria in the manger, but Joseph and Mario. (And I guess that explains the absence of the baby Jesus.)

I should probably go back to the Christmas market and ask about my missing figures but, to be honest, the heathen in me is getting fonder by the minute of my new crèche just the way it is. It makes my collection somehow more  . . . diverse. More inclusive. Isn’t that in line with the Christmas spirit too?


Heavenly Blast From the Past


Shortly after coming to Austria, I began understanding what it meant when a country does not separate church and state. I found certain norms creepy or irritating – like Religion class in schools or the way all the stores shut down at noon on Saturday and didn’t reopen till Monday morning. The worst thing, though, was church taxes – what a concept!

But I later came to see the bright side of this setup – all those funky extra religious holidays like Pentecost or Corpus Christi. I used to joke that every time a saint sneezes, Austrians take a holiday. And if that sneeze happens to be on a Thursday, they just go ahead and take the Friday off too. Today is the start of one of those wonderful long weekends – it’s Ascension. That’s why I finally finished the Gingerbread Man, reinstalled my printer, planted my flowers, prepared my next university course, cooked lunch and am now finally returning to WordPress after a somewhat unintentional break.

Ascension is kind of my favorite, not only because it is the first of three long weekends in rapid succession, but also because it has such a great name in German. This needs a little explaining.

Way back in high school German class, there were a few words that set most of us off – either giggling or blushing, depending on the personality type. One of those was the German word for the number 6. The other was the word Fahrt (meaning “trip” or “drive” or “ride”). With our bad accents, it always came out as “fart”. To make matters worse, Germans like to create a lot of new words by simply adding a pronoun to something else. So . . .

“entrance” is Zufahrt

“driveway” or “onramp” is Einfahrt

“exit” is Ausfahrt

“the way there/back” are Hinfahrt and Rückfahrt

“passage” is Durchfahrt

. . . and there were dozens more.

But the very best one of all was the name of today’s holiday.


Happy Christi Himmelfahrt, everyone!

Cringe-worthy – The Series – Christmas Edition

I wanted to write a nostalgic Christmas post, so I scoured my old childhood diaries for entries dated December 24th or 25th. Here is a typical example:


So . . .  not so nostalgic. What am I going to do now? Technically there is still 1 hour and 19 minutes left of Christmas (9 hours and 19 minutes, no, make that 18 minutes, if you are on American time.) So I can still get a meaningful message out to my blogworld friends just under the wire . . .


I decided to write about last night’s Christmas Eve celebration. Our family unit plus mother-in-law plus our three refugee sons. My husband and I had decided that we would keep to all our usual traditions – the wreath, the visit to dear neighbors, the incense, the tree, the toasts, the music, the candles, the presents, the feast . . .

I worried in advance if it would all be weird. There would be 8 of us:

3 Christians,

1 Agnostic,

2 devout Muslims,

1 slightly less devout Muslim, and

1 Heathen.

All together, all ostensibly celebrating the birth of Christ.


It wasn’t weird – it was wonderful. Our boys came with presents wrapped in Santa-themed paper. Their only problem in singing along to “Silent Night” was that the German version was playing (“Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht . . . “) and they only knew the English version. During dinner, we clearly identified the pork, beef, chicken and fish dishes so that everyone could observe their own religious (and culinary) traditions. As the heathen in the crowd, I have no such traditions, but, nevertheless, I religiously avoided eating the chicken. The best part of the evening was being able to hug them all – both at the tree and then when saying goodbye. Up to then, it had all been only smiles and polite handshakes.

For the past half year I have been worried about  . . . (to steal from both Kate and Joan) – where is the world heading and why are we sitting in this handbasket?  Yesterday made me feel better about all these questions again.  Concentrate on those around you. Notice their goodness and be good to them in return.

I’m satisfied.

Agnes and Jorge’s Miracle Child

As a self-professed heathen, I don’t usually pay much attention to the goings on in the Catholic Church – or any other organized religion for that matter. But there is something about this current Pope Francis that is hard not to like. Strange to think he was once little Jorge running around the streets of Buenos Aires. (Thank you, Wikipedia.) Mother Teresa – once young Agnes of Macedonia – became a character in my own life story almost 16 years missionaries1ago, when I drove up to the gate of a Missionaries of Charity in Addis Ababa to meet my elder daughter.

I returned again 2 years later to the same place, where my younger daughter was waiting for me. So when I saw the headline missionaries2about her canonization today, I clicked and read. Then I clicked on “Related” links and read more. And more . . .


I had already known that birth control and abortion were barring the church’s doorway to the 21st century, but I guess “miracles” can be added to that list. I read quite a bit about how the miracles get selected and verified and it seems like a lot of unnecessary work for results that will never be completely free of dubiousness. I could have found them their miracles much faster – two are living right here in this house! One of them is cleaning her room as I write this. (A third miracle!) With 100s of these orphanages spread over the globe in the world’s most poverty-stricken places for the past 60+ years, there must be tens or hundreds of thousands of other miracles. You’d think it would be enough to check that “worthy of sainthood” box.

Girls Off the Rails

If I were ever to share a train car with a suspected criminal, I would be useless to the police as a witness. On my weekly commute to the university, I usually board the train, hunker down in a seat, and whip out my Sudoku book. I spend the entire hour completely oblivious to my fellow passengers. Couldn’t tell you how many there were, what they looked like, anything really. I am truly off in my own little world.

But not the last two trips. In both cases it was a group of high school girls who dragged me out of my reverie and back into the here and now. The first was just a group of two across the aisle from me. Each with their cell phone in hand, they had discovered a site with a hundred different farting sounds and were trying them out one by one. They giggled softly at first after each one, and then, slowly, the volume of both their playback and their laughing increased. They were not off in their own worlds, they knew that everyone else in train car was partaking in their mirth – whether they wanted to or not. This continued for an obnoxiously long time. The rest of us emphatically ignored them.

Yesterday, I took an earlier train and ended up in Graz about the time school lets out there. I got on a bus and took a seat next to the most silent black woman in the world. One row up, four school girls were seated in a group facing one another. They were talking too loudly as teenage girls do. They mentioned Ramadan and then something about praying and “right now”. It turned into a dispute about how feasible it was to observe the rules exactly. One of them said (loudly):

“It’s not a problem! I just say I have to go to the bathroom. Then I go in there and shut the door. I throw my sweater on the floor and kneel down and pray. If someone comes in and wonders why I am crouched there with my head on the floor – who cares?”

This puzzled me. I knew a little about Islam and had heard of a five-prayers-a-day rule, but I had no idea that there were particular times for these observances. Later, at home, I did a little research and found this information on a website of an Austrian Islamic center:

prayer times

It surprised me to see six prayer names and exact times of day – (the things you learn while eavesdropping on strangers!) I could understand the standpoint of the girl who argued it was too hard to keep to the rules – Austrian institutions, public spaces, opening hours, schedules etc. are not set up to be convenient to Muslim prayer obligations. It was a Tuesday while I was on that bus and 12:56 came and went as I listened to those girls.

At one point the discussion got hefty with all four talking at once. I couldn’t catch more than snatches of it – something about “wanting to grab that thing and rip it off her head”, for instance. I looked at them more carefully. They all had sleek dark hair and beautiful faces. They were wearing nice clothes including the ripped jeans so in fashion right now. They wore make up and no head scarves. They spoke perfect German in an Austrian dialect that was clearly native to them. I doubted very much that there was any other language they had better command of.

The discussion turned to the subject of their mothers as they tried to one-up each other. “My mother would have a fit!” one of them said. “My mother would send me straight to the mosque,” said the second.  “That’s nothing! Come to my house once and you will see what it means to be extreme!” the third countered.

The bus turned a corner and passed a large billboard. It was a political ad for Austria’s Freedom Party candidate in the upcoming presidential election. Three of the girls raised their hands and sent a middle finger salute in the direction of the man’s picture. The fourth girl was nudged. She looked up from her cell and asked “What?” One girl pointed at the billboard. “Oh” said the fourth and she made the same quick gesture.

We were getting near the main square where they were going to get off the bus, so the crazy mother competition was replaced with an equally loud discussion about their afternoon plans.  One of them objected to the idea of getting some Kebab first.

“There you go again! It’s the same point I was making before,” another girl nearly shouted. “You have to think more about other people! I AM HUNGRY!” They debated back and forth emotionally and then seemed to find a compromise just as the bus reached their stop.

I thought about these two scenes a lot for the rest of the day, and then again today. It suddenly struck me as odd that they stayed on my mind and I wanted to figure out why. Two sets of girls were sort of obnoxiously loud on public transport – that is fairly normal for teenagers anywhere. I had learned a little something new about Islam from the second group, but then it wasn’t THAT fascinating . . . and then it finally dawned on me.

I had been surprised at how normal those four girls were.

Five or ten years ago, that idea would have never entered my head. Tens of thousands of Muslims have been living in Austria for decades. I have had hundreds of Muslim students and didn’t find anything unusual about it. This surprise of mine was something new – something had to have changed inside my own mind for me to feel it at all. Could it be that all the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, fear of terrorism talk I have heard in recent years had gotten inside my head despite my rejection of them? I want to think of myself as being above that, being immune to manipulation, but there it is. I hate such moments of discovering my own prejudices. I hate the thought that extreme politicians can create such crap perceptions in the minds of people who hadn’t had them before.

I want to think that despite ups and downs, humans are generally going in the right direction when it comes to racism. That the moral arc is truly bending towards justice and that someday the current concepts of race will die out. That the future world my daughters live in will be even better to them than this one. But right now I am wondering if some ideas can’t always be raised from the dead again.

My two girls ride trains and buses with their friends. I don’t want them sitting silently and trying to be invisible. I also don’t want them shouting or giving the finger to a political billboard. And I sure as heck don’t want them playing loud farting noises on their cell phones. But more than all this, I don’t want the other passengers looking at them and being surprised at how normal they are.

The Name of the Blog

My brother posted a nice piece of writing on Facebook which I am going to audaciously steal and post here in full without his permission. (And if you don’t like it, Bro, then, by all means, speak up! Notice the “Comments” section below. Or better yet, start a blog and publish your stuff yourself!)

So, here it is . . .



Tucked away in our subconscious is an idyllic vision. We see ourselves on a long trip that spans the Continent. We are traveling by train. Out the windows we drink in the passing scene of cars on nearby highways, of children waving at a crossing, of cattle grazing on a distant hillside, of smoke pouring from a power plant, of row upon row of corn and wheat, of flatlands and valleys, of mountains and rolling hillsides, of city skylines and village halls.

But uppermost in our minds is the final destination. On a certain day at a certain hour we pull into the station. Bands will be playing and flags waving. Once we get there so many wonderful dreams will come true and the pieces of our lives will fit together like a completed jigsaw puzzle. How restlessly we pace the aisles, damning the minutes for loitering – waiting, waiting, waiting for the station.

“When we reach the station, that will be it!” We cry. “When I’m 18.” “When I buy a new 450 SL Mercedes Benz!” “When I put the last kid through college.” “When I have paid off the mortgage!” “When I get a promotion.” “When I reach the age of retirement, I shall live happily ever after!”

Sooner or later we must realize there is no station, no place to arrive at once and for all. The true joy of life is the Trip. The station is only a dream. It constantly outdistances us.

“Relish the moment” is a good motto, especially when coupled with Psalm 118:24: “This is the day which the Lord had made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.” It isn’t the burdens of today that drive men mad. It is the regrets over yesterday and the fear of tomorrow. Regret and fear are twin thieves who rob us of today.

So, stop pacing the aisles and counting the miles. Instead, climb more mountains, eat more ice cream, go barefoot more often, swim more rivers, watch more sunsets, laugh more, cry less. Life must be lived as we go along.

The station will come soon enough.


Nice, isn’t it? The idea of life as a journey was the inspiration for the name of my blog. (And the little asterisk is not just a notation, it’s a shout out to all my fellow Trekkies, my brother being one of them.)

But his story also made me realize something for the first time. I had never thought about the irony in the idea of “life’s journey” before. A journey that begins with the arrival and ends with the departure.

No wonder we all spend a lot of it fighting against the passage of time and hoping there’s a heaven.

Scene of the Crime

A picture taken on October 31, 2012 shows empty chairs in a classroom of the University of Seville, in Sevilla. AFP PHOTO / CRISTINA QUICLER (Photo credit should read CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP/Getty Images)

My 13 year old daughter’s religion teacher walked into the classroom last week and asked the students a question.

“What is the most dangerous place in Austria?”

The students were confused about what she meant, so she clarified: she meant the place where a person was most likely to die, to lose their life, to be killed . . .

A few kids made guesses. The highway? A certain square in Vienna? Ski slopes? The hospital? They were all wrong. Imagine a little drum roll as the teacher revealed the correct answer. The most dangerous place in Austria for a person to be is . . . .

the uterus.

So began the first ocrime scene 1f two lessons on the topic of abortion. They had the second lesson yesterday. In those two hours, the teacher managed to impart the following “facts” to the impressionable young students (or, at least the few who were listening to her): that terminating a pregnancy is equal to killing a person, that the “embryonic baby” experiences pain in the process, that abortion is not legal and not a right, it is simply a crime that has been declared punishment-free. She didn’t use the word “murder” but when one of the boys in the class commented that it sounded like murder, her response was: “Well, you can see it that way.”

My daughter clearly wanted to talk about the lessons, but was a bit afraid to bring it up with me – and rightly so. She remembered my intense reaction a year earlier when my older daughter went through this same indoctrination. I was spitting mad and spoiling for a . . . calm and diplomatic parent-teacher conference. She basically had to beg me not to go through with it. This time, my younger daughter had the foresight to extract the same promise in advance. Only then would she tell me any details about the lessons.

crime scene 3Since I am now forbidden to talk to the teacher, I have no choice but to rant on the subject with anyone who will listen. I spew out my disgust over the obvious manipulation and the moralistic self-righteousness of this woman. How, during her protracted defense of all human life, she did not notice when one of the girls broke out in tears. (My daughter had to raise her hand and ask if she and this girl – her friend – could leave the classroom for a while.)

The saving grace of all this, is that my daughter proved to be thoughtful and difficult to influence through such obvious manipulation. What little respect she still had for this particular teacher has now been erased. She had some trouble with the idea of being “for abortion” but we managed to clear that up. (I used the prostitution example – how it is legal not because it is good, but because making it a crime causes so much more hardship for the women involved.) I was impressed by her ability to think the whole complex issue through and come to her own decisions. At the end of our debriefing session, she said she wished the class had more to do with ethics. In her case, it seems to me that no lasting harm was done.

And yet, I’m STILL irritated by my daughters – or any kids, really – having religion as a school subject (and have been for years – see “Heathen Talk”). This latest episode just adds to my frustration. I would so love to terminate my daughters’ religious “education”, but it’s now in the third trimester and too late to abort. I should have taken measures to prevent its conception.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel – (MYoM – Part 12)

Today was the last day of school and we said goodbye to three kids I have come to care a lot about. We did it in a moving ritual with the entire school in attendance. First, all the other kids and the teachers create a tunnel for our school leavers to walk through from the front door of the school to a little pavilion in the yard. Once there, the graduates are shown a poster full of pictures of themselves over their years in the school and then they press their hand prints in bright colors onto the poster and sign their names. They quietly talk and joke about the memories the pictures evoke as they are doing it. They know by now that this poster will be framed and hung up in the school for posterity. All of the other kids -– even the small ones with nervous energy and short attention spans -– watch them quietly in a sort of wonder. Many try to maneuver their way to a good spot for viewing, but gently, without the usual pushing and shoving. All of the kids know “One day that will be me.” Everyone feels that the moment is special.

Despite my heathenism, I totally get the point of rituals. I like it when events come full circle. Ends meet beginnings and are neatly tied up. You can say “”so . . . that happened. I wonder where I will go from here?”” And then you can start enjoying the new beginning.

After the farewell ceremony, the last school day came to a close and parents started showing up to collect their kids. Many short conversations ensued, thanks were expressed, gifts were given . . . A lot of the parents made some comment to the effect of “”So now you can get a break too!”” I gently reminded them that we teachers have a full week of work ahead of us and then added cheerily, ““But I can now see the light at the end of the tunnel!””

In the evening, when I returned to my own personal ritual of sitting in the library and writing about my thoughts and the day, I realized that it is July 3rd. Exactly six months to the day from my very first blog entry -– the one whose title was a play on the words ““light at the end of the tunnel””. It seems another circle is complete. So . . . that happened. Where will I go from here?