Thursday, April 23, 2015

Runnin' on empty...again

            After thirteen months of research, and three months of writing, I've reached the finish line for THE LACE MAKERS.  Once the final galley is proofed next week, the book will finally be out of my hands and into yours.  On a hike at Wildwood today I was thinking, "Now what?"   
            Jackson Browne's incredible song suffices yet again....

Runnin' on empty
Originally published on June 11, 2014

I've got a lot of time on my hands these days. 
No longer sitting in front of my computer from dawn until the wee hours of the morning writing, editing, and formatting, there's a lot I want to accomplish this summer...and all of it a joy to anticipate.
I've spent the majority of the past twenty years getting my act together.  Getting some good therapy.  Getting my proverbial house in order.  Taking care of putting the past to rest so I can move on, unencumbered by the weight of all the crap I no longer want to drag around in my psyche or otherwise.
It's often been a tedious process, this "unbecoming."  This shedding my skin.  I've written about it in countless blogs.  Embodied it within all of the characters I created in my novels. Evolved it through my yoga and meditation practice.  Yes, there's still more to learn.  More to experience.  More to create.
But now it's my intention to create something brand new.
Now I can spend my days teaching yoga and working in my gardens.  Reading books that have been gathering dust on my shelves this winter into spring as I spent most of my time preparing my memoir and novels for publication.  I can set up coffee dates with friends and starting dating again (in whatever form it will take) in the hopes of opening up that much more to what's being offered to me in the present.  To see by experience just how much of the past I've truly put into perspective.  To see if a relationship is in the cards or if it's just the hormones talking.
I plan to clean and glean my house from top to bottom, letting go of everything I haven't used or no longer need.  Every day I'll hit the road on my bike or hike at the park and enjoy the beauty of the ever-changing landscape.  And I hope to put in a raised garden in the backyard and finally grow my own kale, chard, and sweet peppers.
Yes, a creative summer is in the works and why not?  I've hollowed out the space and time to enjoy it.  To embrace it.  To ease into a simple schedule of yoga classes and private clients.  For me, less is more...and that applies to more than just my "must do" list.

It's only been a week since my desk has been cleared of manuscripts and rewrites and copyright documents.  Only seven days since I promised myself a three-month break from writing (except for the odd blog here and there).  At first I was nervous...anxious about what I'd do with my time.  That I'd go stir crazy without a half-written novel in the mix. 
But surprisingly, I'm not.  For I've found that I don't need to have a list full of items to check off.  A lot of baggage to sift through.  A lot of issues to process to make me feel feel as though I'm accomplishing something.
I've discovered it's a joy to choose a drama-free existence.  To open up to new possibilities that have nothing to do with what has come before this moment in time.  To willingly accept the space I've allowed myself to ease into during this season of light.

For now, I'm running on empty...and loving every minute of it.

Monday, April 20, 2015

More than just a game

It's been a while since I've written about my little pals, Satish and Danta.   Busy schedules have kept us on different ends of the city for much of the school year, but I think of them every day and always look forward to our next play date.  A few weeks ago Satish invited me to attend his class musical and what fun to see him all dressed up as a pirate, singing and dancing to his heart's content. 
Of course my favorite line in the play was his:  "To err is 'arrrrgh' is pirate!" Afterward, over bowls of frozen yogurt, I asked Satish if he understood the humor behind it. 
"You know that's a play on a line by Shakespeare," I smiled.  "At least I think that's who wrote it."
"Who's that?" Satish asked.
Oh, what fun to introduce the Bard to a kid whose innate wisdom trumps mine!  "To err means to make a mistake," I explained.  "And all humans make mistakes, right?"
"Uh huh," Satish nodded, shoveling in a maraschino cherry. 
"Your line about saying 'arrrgh' was hilarious," I said.  "But Shakespeare wrote it:  To err is forgive, divine."
Of course I didn't have to explain forgiveness to my little friend as for years he's been a stellar example for me to follow.

This past weekend I was able to watch Danta play in a soccer match.  I've practiced with him in his back yard, but I've never been able to get to a game, so it was great fun to watch him warm up with his team in anticipation of the competition.
Satish was dribbling his own soccer ball in an empty field nearby.  When I arrived, he ran over to me and said, "Danta's team is going to get smoked."  (I love it when he uses euphemisms I've taught him.)
I laughed out loud.  "No kidding.  Why's that?"
Satish bounced the soccer ball on his knees.  "The other team is way better than his...I've seen them play."
"Well, I guess we'll see."
When the match started, Satish provided the play-by-play, telling me what his coaches would say, what he's seen other players do in the same situations, and what he's learned over the years as a team player.  Then the conversation turned to the recent March Madness tournament, then dialed back to the Super Bowl and what kind of season the Detroit Lions had this year.  Satish had much to say about it all...not that I understood it all...and it was great fun to see the animation in his voice and body language.
As the first half wore on, Danta's team was taking a serious beating.  Even though the goalie did his best, the other team was able to score again and again...and again.  And with every point, Satish would wonder why the coach didn't change the game plan.
"Well, you know it's only a game," I said.  "Maybe he wants the kids to enjoy being on a team."
"Sometimes it's more than just a game, Katie," Satish said seriously.
I decided to bite.  After all, my pal is pretty sharp, so I was curious as to what he'd say when I said, "Give me an example of when it's more than just a game."
"Well, you know if it's the Super Bowl or the World Cup or something like that," he explained.  "The whole world is watching, so it's not just how well you're playing."
"True," I winked.  "And I know you love to play to win...but you always play fairly, too."
"Yeah, I do."
Whenever I spend time with the boys, we usually play a game of some sort.  Whether it's Chess or Parcheesi, The Game of Life or Farkle, Satish follows the rules.  Always.  Well, not always...we bend them a bit when playing Life because I like to buy a house I can afford (and still be able to purchase insurance) so I won't get smoked by the spin of the wheel which leaves it to chance.  Still, Satish and I are always up front about the rules we'll follow during the game and even when he wins and does his little "victory dance," we always shake hands and say, "Good game." Then I remind him that I won, too, because spending time with him is just as good as being the victor.    
When the second half of Danta's game came to pass, Satish's father noticed a change in the opposing team.  "The coach must have told the kids to just let it be a passing game so Danta's team can practice."
Sure enough when I watched the kids run toward Danta's goalie, instead of taking the shot, they just passed the ball on to another teammate.  Sometimes Danta's team was able to intercept it.  Sometimes not.  But the game became much more interesting, at least to me.
"This is one way soccer can be more than just a game," I said to Satish.  "There's no 'I' in the word 'team.'  Do you know what I mean?"
He nodded.  "Yeah...and it's good sportsmanship to not smoke 'em too badly."
"Right...being a good sport can be more important than winning," I replied. 
"Uh huh, Danta might even get another bracelet today," Satish said.  "He got two in a row for being a good sport."
That didn't surprise me at all, for whenever we play chess Danta doesn't really mind if I win.  We have the same's more fun to just play the game. 

When I was in grade school I played one season of softball and hated it because the coach mercilessly yelled at us as we weren't playing up to his standards.  I couldn't stand going up to bat and striking out (which I did on many occasions).  I loathed standing in the outfield even more, praying that a pop fly would knock me out so I would be dragged to the sidelines where I could wait out the rest of the innings.
Years later I trained with the high school track team, but never competed, partly because I knew I was the weakest link and would hold them back.  For a few years I dutifully spent the winter months conditioning in the weight room and running up and down Bowsher High School's endless stairways.  When the weather broke in the spring, I ran miles around the track, encouraging the sprinters and setting up the hurdles.  But when it came time to compete, I let the better athletes step up to the starting line. 
As an adult I happily stood behind the curtain at the Toledo Rep theater, stage managing a handful of plays.  I was delighted to be a part of the action, but didn't need to be the center of attention.  And to this day, I'm more content with watching my yoga students spontaneously surpass me than I am demonstrating an advanced position.  It happened again this morning, and I wish I had bracelets to pass out to my students as a tangible way to honor their inner guidance which is the best teacher they will ever have.

It's not that I don't want to be successful in the real game of life...I do.  But the definition of accomplishment has changed a lot for me in the past year.  It's not about the number of yoga students I have or how many books I'm selling online or otherwise.  I don't need a seven million dollar beach house to let me know I've made it in the publishing world. 
Success has many faces, many of which I recognize, some I'm just beginning to comprehend.  But seeing the joy in Danta's face when he came up to me after the soccer game let me know that even in losing a match, there's still a lot to be gleaned.
"We lost 9 to 1," he said offhandedly.
"Oh well, that's alright," I smiled.  "Nine is my favorite number...and you did a great job with your hustle!"
"Are you coming over to play games at our house?" he beamed.
"I would if you weren't going to Michigan tonight."
"Oh, yeah...rats!" Danta replied.  "Well, the next time you come over, bring your Harry Potter...that's my favorite game."
Already Danta had let go of the loss and was eager to think of what might come next.
Later as I watched the boys drive away with their father, I realized that Satish was right...sometimes a game is more than just a game, especially when it teaches patience and kindness, compassion and clarity.  When it shows us that to make mistakes, then learn from them is one of the best ways to be more fully human.  And perhaps most importantly, when we can be more forgiving of others...and of ourselves...we can tap into that which makes us truly divine.

And by the by...I did a little research on that famous line.  Mea culpa.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

A big bag of Butterfingers

This morning I was in for a treat...all of my yoga students had other plans, so I planned to sleep in, then sit on the back porch with a cup of chai and edit my novel.  Alas, my cats had other ideas.  As the sun is rising higher every morning, Jhoti thinks I should rise and shine with the dawn and feed her a healthy breakfast.  Still, it's a good excuse to get up and go.  And I find I can get a lot done before noon these days. 
But my plans quickly changed this morning when I opened the sun porch and realized that a truly gorgeous morning was on the way.  So I threw in a load of laundry, then threw on some workout clothes and took my bike for its first ride of the season.  I've not been on the bike trail since last September and paced myself, thinking I'd hit the wall by the time I got to Holland-Sylvania Road.  But no.  When I crossed over the railroad tracks, I felt a surge of adrenalin and made it to Wildwood park in record time...and had enough energy to take a short hike, too.  An hour later I was back home to shower and get ready for a busy afternoon.  
This unusual Saturday morning has been a blessing in more ways than one.  I've been surprised a lot in the past two weeks, and many of my life's experiences have kept me curious and wondering what's next...which is just where I need to be.  My feet are on the ground, but my axis is somewhat off center, but so is the earth's and without that slight tilt, there'd be no change of seasons.

 For some reason, all of this has me thinking back to a weekend many years ago when Butterfinger candy bars were my constant companion as I powered my way through a flurry of activity.  While teaching a Saturday morning advanced yoga class, I suddenly had a low blood sugar and needed to excuse myself to rush downstairs and grab whatever was at hand to keep me from passing out.  On the counter was a bag of miniature Butterfingers, so I quickly grabbed one and made my way through the rest of the session. 
After class, a cloudy morning broke into a lovely day, so I thought, What the heck and cut the grass, washed the car, weeded the gardens, painted a few bookshelves, cleaned out the garage and the gutters, while simultaneously doing several loads of laundry.  In the evening, I came inside and cleaned the house from top to bottom, and by the time my head hit the pillow after midnight, I realized I had been working straight through for over fourteen hours. 
Where did I get the energy for all of this mayhem?  I'm sorry to say that all I ate that day were Butterfingers.  For breakfast.  For lunch.   For a snack here and there...and even for dinner...until the bag was empty.  Butterfingers and bottles of water kept my blood sugar soaring and my adrenalin pumping.
But not for long. 
The next morning I woke up with a stomach ache.  My joints hurt.  My head was pounding.  I could barely get out of bed.  I figured it was because of all the work I had done the previous day, but I soon realized that even though at the time I was a vegetarian and Butterfingers fell into the "no meat" category, to eat the entire bag was like eating a bag of sugar and trans fat.  And I paid for it for days.

Nowadays I don't work like that anymore.  Some people say it's my age, but I say it's because I'm more sane.  I know my limits.  I live a more balanced life.  I eat well and try to sleep on a semi-regular schedule, although as warmer weather plans to stick around for a while, that will change, too.  My yoga classes keep me focused and strong.  Hiking helps build my endurance.  Now that I'm back to biking, I find that because of all the healthy changes I've made in the past year, I don't have to start where I left off in September. 
I can just be where I am right now and keep moving forward.
I cannot imagine eating a bag of candy now, but at the time, I sure enjoyed it...and got a lot of stuff done.  Still, time and awareness have taught me that I can enjoy both work and play if I take the time to make healthier choices.  Sure, I grab the opportunity to work in the yard when the weather's nice.  Just yesterday I spent the better part of the afternoon setting up my swing and organizing the garage.  But then I poured myself a tall glass of limeade, grabbed my manuscript and sat outside in the sun, editing for the better part of the evening. And that's not work at all.
As twilight fell, I was in heaven while cardinals in the cherry blossom chirped to each other and kids in the neighborhood laughed and played.  I sat in my swing, admiring the garden beds that are now chock full of new growth.  In moments like this, it's not hard to know that no amount of candy can be as sweet as living in the present moment with grace and loving my life just as it is.
Tilted axis and's still a fabulous ride.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

How to be a vulnerable badass

A couple of weeks ago I had an interesting conversation with a man I'd just met.  Eventually the topic of yoga came up and he told me that although he's a triathlete, he could never do yoga.
"Why not?" I asked.  "Have you ever tried it?"
"No," he admitted.  "But it hurts doesn't it?"
"It shouldn't...why would you say that?"
"Because when my trainer stretches me out it hurts."
I explained how a yoga practice is designed to strengthen and relax muscles so that they're more pliable and easier to extend...and it should never hurt.
"What do you teach in your classes?" he asked.
"This year I've upped the game with my students and we're doing a lot of plank rotations and core work," I told him.   Then I went on to describe many of the poses we've been practicing.
A slow smile crossed his face.  "You're a little badass, aren't you?"
I laughed,  "What does that mean?"
"You do all kinds of stuff in that little yoga room of yours that nobody sees," he replied.  "You're pretty strong."
I shrugged.  "I guess."  
I wanted to tell him that I'm also a smart ass and a pain in the ass, and that he doesn't know that yet.  But I didn't.
Of course, his description wasn't a surprise to me.  I've never been accused of being fragile, in fact friends will often describe me as dedicated, focused, enduring, and determined. Still, I've never been called a "badass" before.
And I kinda liked it.

I suppose I come by it naturally.  As a young child my literary heroes were Ramona Quimby and Pippi Longstocking.  I climbed tall trees on a dare and tobogganed down  Dead Man's Hill.  I was fierce and I was loud and I was bold.
But underneath it all, I now realize that I was also terrified to be vulnerable and open.  Afraid to be anything but self-sufficient because I had learned over time that to rely on someone meant I would eventually be disappointed or rejected.  And so I built a hardened shell around myself, calling it "stubborn independence" or "autonomous authenticity" or whatever jargon best fit the moment.  Over the years I've outgrown it, but not completely.  And just recently, it's begun to feel a bit too constricting.
So I do I allow myself to be a vulnerable badass?  It's a conundrum to be sure.  Perhaps it all begins with the willingness to want both sides of the coin, to embody both the strength to stand on my own and the honest realization that I can't do it all alone.  Nor do I want to anymore. 

A year ago I asked to be released from a contract with my literary agent as my books hadn't sold after three years of rejections and I wanted to try self-publishing.  Yesterday I was contacted by a representative from NOOK press who wanted to speak to me about my experiences with both the digital and paperback creations of my books.  It's not been a cake walk, and I've learned a lot in the past year and a half. 
I had to admit to myself that I needed to ask for help from editors and techies and friends who know me very well.  I've since figured out that to do so isn't a sign of weakness, but of faith.  I had to push myself to open those doors, even though I've walked through them before in the past and always came out on the other side dejected and starting again at square one.  But this time around, I've chosen wisely and with awareness, and have been gently surprised that my vulnerability has been met with incredible kindness and incomparable support.  
As I was finishing the first draft of The Lace Makers manuscript yesterday, I called one of my editors for suggestions.   I've known her for more than ten years, both as a yoga student and a friend, and in the course of our conversation, I revealed some significant moments from my past that she had surmised, yet never knew for certain.  I found that it wasn't hard at all to share darker parts of my history that I've since brought into light, and in the process can see how very far I've come, particularly in the past year. 
"You've probably been getting ready to write this story for a long time," my friend said. 
"I'm sure that's true," I replied. 
Even though The Lace Makers has nothing to do with my own life, I find that I'm continually telling my spiritual autobiography with every novel that I'm inspired to write.  Perhaps this awareness is a huge leap into allowing myself to be vulnerable enough to reveal parts of who I am in the process, all the while being strong enough to focus and complete the task without getting sucked back into the past.  I find I'm still able to remain curious enough to be open to whatever might come next...and determined enough to act on it. 

It's a tender road on which to walk, this being strong and flexible, and like anything else, I'm never really done.  There's a stack of paper waiting on my desk -- the first draft of The Lace Makers that I printed out before yoga class this morning.  It's waiting for my eager editor's eye and a host of sticky notes that will allow me to polish the story into something better.  But soon enough I'll have to say it's good enough and just let go. 
It's a balancing be a strong, independent woman and also embody the softer places that are only beginning to peek outside of the shell that's long since been cracked open.  I have no idea what the future will bring, but I willingly embrace it all with a peaceful anticipation that everything is conspiring for the greatest good...for me and for everyone else in my life.  I imagine that to stand in this unknown place with open hands, an open heart, and a clear mind is perhaps the best way to be a vulnerable badass.
So whenever I feel the compulsion to be a smart ass to protect myself, I can remember my softer side and know that to be vulnerable in healthy ways is to be beautiful.


Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Chapter 2 from "The Lace Makers"

     To complement Sapphire's introduction in chapter one, here's chapter two, in which you meet Karin Vogel, a nineteen year old girl surviving in the Bergen Belsen concentration camp in the days before it's liberation.  On April 9th, it will be the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and on April 15th, it will be the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen Belsen.  THE LACE MAKERS  bridges the gap between slavery and the Holocaust, interweaving Sapphire and Karin's narratives into a vivid account of two young girls living in bondage...but also anticipating the hope of imminent freedom.


It's four o'clock in the morning and Aufseherin Grese, the notorious guard known as "The Beautiful Beast," kicks my bunk that sits near the open door of the barracks.  I struggle to get up quickly because when I don't wake fast enough, she hits the bottoms of my feet with her baton so bruises won't show on my body.  Kapitan Dieter would beat her if she left a mark that he could see.  But he doesn't seem to take notice when I hobble around for days with swollen feet. 
"Number 811, get up!" The Beast growls.  "Kapitan Dieter wants you!  NOW!"  She sharply pokes me in the ribs and shines a flashlight in my eyes.  I can see the outline of her angry face frowning down at me.  I hate The Beast...everyone does...and not only because she smiles when she beats one of us for not moving faster.  For not washing thoroughly. 
For still being alive.
Kapitan Dieter calls for me before the Appellplatz where we must stand and be counted, sometimes waiting for hours to make sure the calculations are correct.  The dead must be accounted for, the bodies taken from the barracks by unfortunate prisoners while the rest of us wait in agony.  But this morning I'm not sure what will happen, if we will have to meet for roll call or not.  There's been intermittant gunfire in the distance and sometimes a loud explosion.  I'm not sure is the war has come to our decrepit doorstep, but everything feels different since the S.S. ordered most of the prisoner to be evacuated last week, since the officers started packing their belongings and rushing around the camp yelling, "Schnell!  Schnell!"
Faster, faster. 
Even the executions were done hastily and the bodies piled up near open pits or stacked in wagons.  For weeks the unholy flames of the crematorium never seem to stop and cannot keep up with the coutless corpses littering the camp.  Still, the smoke continually rising from the chimney scatters the ashes of the poor souls who longed for freedom and finally found it in death.
When The Beast pokes me once more, I rub my eyes and rise to my feet, careful not to wake Simka, my friend who traveled with Mutti and me from Buchenwald a few months ago.  We share the bunk, one of the better ones such as it is, lined with straw and filled with bugs.  Mutti always says I'm lucky to have it.  Lucky to be near the door where I can breathe fresher air, unlike so many others crammed into their bunks where the air is dank and rotten and heavy. 
I don't sleep well anymore, and when I finally nod off, I dream of steam whistles screaming in the distance that startle me awake.  I dream of cattle cars crammed with too many men, women, and children all crying out for water, for bread, for air.  I have nightmares in which spruce and pine trees are set afire, their elongated branches bursting into flames so they can keep the endless piles of corpses burning.  I used to love the scent of the forest, but now the earthy sweet smell of evergreen will forever be tangled with the putrid odor of death.
Before The Beast can stomp on my feet for her own sadistic pleasure, I quickly shove them into a pair of decrepit wooden shoes and follow her out of the barracks.  I don't say a word, don't make a sound as we pass the piles of corpses, left to rot in the open air.  An uncontrolled typhus epidemic claims hundreds of lives every day and the S.S. have taken to burning bodies on grids of timber to make up for what the crematorium cannot accomplish. 
Like always, I pretend I'm walking past stalks of corn, harvested from Mutti's vegetable garden.  Every autumn Vati would stack them in his wheelbarrow and bring them to the back door for shucking.  I imagine that the corpses rotting on the earth are piles of corn my mother will soon grind into flour.  But in truth I know these bodies will soon be turned into ashes, that never-ending human smoke will once more rise from the chimneys and dust the camp with the souls of so many people, I cannot count them all.
The stench is unbearable.  The sight, even more so.  Yet the barbed wire and filth have become as commonplace as my mother's garden and it still shocks me how much I have grown accustomed to seeing the walking carcasses the prisoner have become, their eyes glazed, their will to live all but extinguished. 
I no longer remember the smell of clean air as the cloying stench of death remains lodged in my throat and presses on my chest as a relentless warning.  For I know that with one swift decision, my life could be extinguished.  Yet every night, I close my eyes and say to myself, If God wills it, I will wake again tomorrow.  It is hard to know what is the real nightmare...what I see in my dreams or what I experience upon waking. 
As we pass the Appellplatz, I see corpses still hanging in the gallows - a warning to us all about the dangers of escape.  I watch Leah's body swing from the rope and remember what she had told me last week...that her name means to be tired.  She was tired of living in this hell on earth, this hideous place called Bergen Belsen.  Leah said she would rather die trying to escape than die waiting for the war to end.  But death is an every day occurrence here and my mind has become as tough as shoe leather, even though my heart still cries out every night for the ones who have died.
When we reach the disinfection building, I shudder helplessly in the scalding shower I'm ordered to take whenever Kapitan Dieter sends for me.  There's been no fresh water for the prisoners for over a week, but somehow Deiter manages to find a way for me to wash.  I gag as The Beast throws a cup of delousing powder on my head.  It stings my eyes and mouth, but kills whatever bugs that have invaded my skin and hair since the last time I had the treatment.
I rinse my legs and arms, scrubbing harder at the number tattooed on my left arm, pretending the disinfectant will wash it away.  It should have been five numbers long, but the S.S. man with the needle was interrupted when I heard Mutti screaming from the next room,  "Wir sind Deutsch Christen!  Deutsch Frauen!"
We are German Christians...German women.
And then I heard her one more time:  "Meine Schwester is Deutsch!"
My sister is German!
Mutti lied to the S.S. when we arrived at Auschwitz.  She knew we would be separated if the S.S. thought she was my mother, so she told the guard that she was my sister and he let her live.  He let her walk with me to a room where we were ordered to strip naked and shower.  He let her watch as a guard laughed while shaving my head and body, then endured the same humiliation herself. 
The S.S. officer in charge of tattooing also believed Mutti when she told him we were German citizens.  Our identification papers had disappeared during the transport, so there was no way to prove this.  But Mutti had heard that they didn't mark German prisoners and she tried to save me from one more degradation.  The man who had a death grip on my arm put down the needle, then shoved me out the door.  Still, I was left with 811 inked in bluish grey over the triangle of freckles near my wrist, and no matter how hard I scrub, the number never goes away.
I will never again be simply Karin Vogel. 
Even if I survive this war, there will always be a truncated number to remind me of what I've become.
There's no towel with which to dry myself, so I quickly throw a thin dress over my head, then wrap a kerchief around my chin, thankful for even that bit of warmth.  The wooden shoes rub layers of blisters on my heels and toes.  I can't walk properly in them, so trying to get from the barracks to the workhouse or to the Appellplatz or to Kapitan Dieter's room is hell on earth.  It's been an uncommonly frigid winter with temperatures well below zero, and even though I work inside making lace near a cast iron stove, I'm never warm enough.  I'm never full enough, though I eat more than most because Kapitan Dieter is an important man and always gets what he wants.  And he doesn't want me to be skinny and dirty like so many of the poor girls in the camp left to rot and die in their own filth. 
I'm not allowed to speak in his presence, but I know his name - Herman.  And I know I'm nothing more than his prostitute because he told me once, "Your payment is you get to live."
I'm supposed to feel grateful, but I don't.  And I don't know why I've lived this long while so many others have perished.  I'm nineteen years old.  I've endured years in Auschwitz and Buchenwald and this horrible place, but now I don't even know if I want to live.
But Mutti says I have to survive. 
I have to do whatever the guards want.  Whatever Kapitan Dieter wants.  Whatever Kommandant Kramer wants.  Whatever The Beast wants.  I have to do what they say in order to stay alive so I can bring more food to Simka. 
"You're young and pretty and that's what Dieter wants," Mutti once told me. 
So I do what he says.  I do what he wants, staring at the wall or the ceiling or the knobs on the glass cabinet in the corner that's filled with cans of evaporated milk and chocolates and creamy caramels...the one Herman said I must never touch.  I know he wouldn't hesitatate to shoot me with the pistol he keeps strapped to his leg.  I've seen him kill a man more than once, and he's deadly when he's angry and drunk. 

"You can take the bread and cheese from my trunk," Herman told me the first time I was ordered to his room.  "But if you touch that cabinet, you'll be dead before you can turn around." 
I hate Herman and yet I owe him for saving Mutti's life and my own.  Often in the middle of what he does to me I think, How can a man be both a sadist and a savior?

This morning, Herman is quick about it, his tight, angry body all at once on top of me and then not.  He doesn't make me sing before or after, neither does he mock me by calling me his little songbird.  I stare at the calendar on the wall while Herman gets dressed and wonder why the compound is so busy at this hour. 
Usually activity doesn’t begin until after Appellplatz; however, the past few days have been unlike any I have survived here at Bergen Belsen.  There has been no Appellplatz.  Anyone who is living is made to carry corpses for burial.  Those of us who are able to work continue our labors while the S.S. rush here and there, burning papers and yelling at each other to be prepared for the end.
The end of what?  I wonder.  The war?  This camp?  The end of our misery or the end of our lives?
The calendar says it's Saturday, April the 14th, 1945.  Days ago when thousands of inmates were ordered on a forced march with most of the guards, Mutti insisted that I hide, that I not leave the camp.  She knew what would happen to the prisoners who were herded like cattle and prodded like pigs as they made their way southeast toward Theresienstadt.  They were the weakest of the men, the frailest of the women.  Why waste a bullet when the S.S. know that starvation and the elements will do the job quickly? 
“I’ve been good to you, 811...Karin,” Herman says as he buttons his coat.  “You’ll tell everyone how good I’ve been to you, yes?”
I frown.  He's never called me by my name before and I'm surprised he even knows it...or cares to.
“I’ve never beat you or hurt you,” Herman insists.  “I let you take extra food whenever you wanted it.  I saved you and your sister from the gas.”
I nod.
He knots his tie.  “So if anyone asks, you will tell them I am a good man.”
I wonder why he's saying this.  No one in power asks me anything.  Not who I am.  Not what I want.  Whenever I am yelled at it’s because someone is giving an order as if they are the supreme power of the universe.
“Get up!”
“Work faster!”
“Get back to your barrack!”
“Stand up straight and sing louder!”
When I say nothing, Herman comes to the bed where I sit pulling my dress over my head.  He sits down and gently strokes my face.  “I’ve always been good to you.”  He kisses my forehead.  “I love you.”
I cringe and curl away from him, but Herman presses his warm, damp lips to my ear.  “Remember what I said," he whispers.  "I have always been a good man to you.”
I look at the floor and nod my head in compliance.
“Good girl,” Herman says, rising from the bed.  Then he struts out the door as if he has won the silent war between us. 

A grey light gradually fills the room where I've been sitting for more than three hours...waiting for orders from the guards.  After I dressed, made the bed, and hid some food for Simka in my kerchief, The Beast deposited me and the other lace makers in a small room next to the Kommandant's kitchen.  For almost four months I have spent eight hours a day, six days a week knitting hats and mittens and scarves.  I knit cable-knit jumpers and woolen socks.  I knit yards and yards of lace that are sewn into curtains and sent to all corners of Germany where the S.S. live in luxury while those of us slaving in the camps can barely remember what our parents' faces look like.
I shiver in my decrepit dress and wonder, How many girls wore this rag before me?  Are they all dead?  Will I be soon?  My shawl slips to the back of chair, and as I pull it up over my shoulders, I study the other women's faces as we endure the harsh silence of this cold, dank room, our knitting needles clicking and clacking while we do our duty for the Fuhrer. 
They've all become shadows of their former selves...and I know I have as well.
Simka sniffs and wipes her nose.  Dark circles shadow her eyes as she pushes a curl behind her ear.  Kapitan Dieter let all of us grow our hair back so we would look more presentable, more womanly.  He says women in his service are to look like women, and yet my breasts and curves aren't like Simka's.  We've only been here since January, but the food her friend steals from the kitchen and the additional bread I bring her from Kapitan Dieter's room keep her healthier than the rest of us.  She needs it more than we do.  Even though I long to taste the sweet yams and mashed potatoes Vitya smuggles to her in little tin cans, I cannot ask Simka for even one bite of her extra nourishment.   
The gnawing hunger never goes away.  The camp has had no food or fresh water for almost six days and the meager rations I take from Kapitan Dieter's cupboard are for others, not for me.  There are women here who have killed for any scrap of sustenance, only to die themselves in a few day's time.  When we were in Auschwitz, my mother used to slip me her bread before the guards could see.  Before any one else could grab it out of my hands and shove into their eager mouth. 
If there were a stray pea at the bottom of her soup bowl, Mutti would press it into my palm and beg me to swallow it, saying, "Eat, Karin.  Survive, Karin.  Live one more day.  Then live another.  One day when we are liberated, we will remember what we saw here and tell others so that this madness will never happen again."
But I know the world of men.  I know of their brutality and their lust for power and domination.  I know of their insatiable hunger for vicious cruelty.  I know that as long as there are men in this world, there will be madness also.
Now Simka winces in pain and I'm afraid of what will happen when the pain gets worse.  I've seen what the S.S. do to people who can't work, who show any type of weakness.  I try not to remember it as I mindlessly work the yarn back and forth.  My hands ache, but the bony knuckles and tissue-paper skin toil until I can no longer feel the pain in my joints.  Instinctively, I work my needles back and forth in a rhythm that still has the power to calm me, even now when everything is so uncertain.
As my hands work, I think back to when Mutti taught me how to make lace.  Her sister, my Tante Sabine, lived with us in Baden Baden back then while her husband, Onkel Erik, traveled extensively for his work.  She was having her first baby, and as a nine-year-old girl, I was excited for its imminent arrival.  During the last few months of her pregnancy it was decided that Tante Sabine would stay with us until the baby came.  Then she would move to Stuttgart with Onkel Erik and live with his parents where she and the baby would be well cared for.
At that time, everyone was worried about Hitler and the uprising of the Nazi Party.  In 1935 work was scarce.  Money even more so.  It was cheaper to light the stove with the paper money my father had hidden in his fishing tackle box than to use it to buy kindling.  Vati worked hard at the theater he owned with his friend, Herr Zweig.  They had known each other since before the Big War when they were just Junge, boys in short pants who kicked a tattered ball back and forth through the schoolyard. 
Herr and Frau Zweig had three boys of their own, Heinrich, who was my age, Georg, who was seven, and Fritz, who was only three.  They would often visit on Sundays after we came home from church.  The Zweigs went to Temple on Saturdays, so they arrived with a nice brisket or a basket of freshly baked apple dumplings while we were changing out of our good clothes.
Vati, Mutti, and Tante Sabine would visit with Herr Zweig and his wife while I played tag in our yard with Heinrich and Georg.  Fritz preferred to hunt for worms and bugs and other dirty things in Mutti's garden.  She would give him a small trowel and a metal pail, saying, "Just make sure you don't harm my vegetables."
In the evening all of us would go back to the theater for an evening of Volkslieder...folk songs.  Vati invited a host of people from the neighborhood and welcomed them warmly at the door.  Mutti would play the piano, Frau Zweig the violin, and I would lead everyone in song. 
Vati especially loved to hear me sing "In stiller Nacht" all by myself to end the evening.  Tears would fill his eyes, and like Mutti who loves twilight, he seemed to be carried away into the imminent darkness of the words, the lament of the lyrics that would soon foretell what our lives would become.

In the quiet night, at the first watch,
a voice began to lament; sweetly, gently,
the night wind carried to me its sound.
And from such bitter sorrow and grief
my heart has melted.
The little flowers - with my pure tears -
I have watered them all.

Back then, like Tante Sabine, Mutti was expecting as well.  My brother, Jurgen, was tucked inside her belly and I loved to feel his little hands and feet kick and punch through Mutti's dress.  I would sing "Guten Abend, Gute Nacht" to him, leaning against our mother's side, rubbing the little knobs and bumps of his elbows and knees.

Lullaby and good night, with roses bedight,
With lilies o'er sprad in baby's wee bed.
Lay thee down now and rest.
May thy slumber be blessed.

When Mutti saw how much I loved Jurgen, even before he was born, she gave me a ball of yarn and a pair of knitting needles, saying, "Karin, let's make something for our baby." 
For years I had watched Mutti create intricate patterns and our modest home was filled with lace tablecloths, placemats, and doilies.  Several delicate shawls hung on a post near the door so Mutti could wrap one around her shoulders when she walked into the garden for some fresh air.  My favorite was Queen Anne's Lace pattern interwoven with open stitching.  Mutti carefully added the delicate stems to accent the gentle blossoms and I could almost smell their spicy, sweet fragrance every time she wore it. 
So I was overjoyed when she placed the polished rosewood needles in my hands.  First she taught me how to cast on, then how to knit and purl.  After that I learned how to make little hats and booties.  Next came a simple jumper for Vati.  Then a pair of socks for my baby brother.  By the time Jurgen was two, I asked Mutti to teach me how to make lace.  Under Mutti's gentle guidance, I learned how to yarn over and knit two together.  To pick up stitches and create tiny hearts and leaves and shells.  Mutti marveled at how quickly I garnered the skill. 
"Wie deine Gesangstalent, deines Stricken ist auch ein Geschenk, Karin," she said proudly. 
Like your singing talent, your knitting is also a gift.
Now this gift is saving my life, such as it is.
Now, with every stitch, with every row, I weave in the memory of those who have lost their lives.  A stitch for Olga.  One for Anne and Mary and Elisabet.  A stitch for the woman who died of typhus in the bunk above me just last night.  A whole row for Frau Daiga and her daughter.  Rows and rows for the Zweig family who all perished long before I came to this place.
Countless stitches for Vati and Mutti and Jurgen.

And always...every stitch for Bruno.