Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Unexpected Bliss of Writer & Artist Christine Valters Paintner

This week, my Inner Introvert needs some serious down time and rest, so I have the honor of presenting a series of guest bloggers writing about Unexpected Bliss.

Today, we are joined by Christine Valters Paintner, the beautiful mind behind Abbey of the Arts. When I first happened upon Christine's blog, it felt like a spiritual homecoming, and I know I would not be where I am with my own path had I not found her deep, wise words. Christine, knowing it or not, helped to nurture within me a more sophisticated understanding of the mystical aspects of Christianity and Catholicism, in particular. I had been meandering down that road, but she handed me a sturdy walking stick.

“O die Kurven meiner Sehnsucht durch das Weltall” /
“O the curves of my longing through the cosmos”
-Rainer Maria Rilke, from Uncollected Poems
(translated by Edward Snow)

When BlissChick first asked me to write this guest post with the suggested topic of “Unexpected Bliss,” my mind immediately flashed to a moment from the summer before last.

My husband and I had been on a five-week ancestral pilgrimage, visiting the landscapes of our genetic roots. We were on the train from Munich to Brussels, after nearly a month in Austria and Germany, when a man joined us in the compartment where we were seated. He immediately began talking with us in German, making friendly conversation. “Ich spreche nur ein bisschen Deutsch” I offered in response, I speak only a little German.

This wasn’t entirely true, I speak more than a little, but less than a lot, so this phrase was a way to warn my new conversation partner that I wouldn’t catch everything but I was willing to try. He smiled enthusiastically and continued on, barely pausing for breath.

I grew up in New York City where my father worked for the United Nations. He was born in Latvia, the land of his paternal ancestors and had to flee at age twelve when the Russians occupied. His family went to Vienna, where his mother’s parents lived and spent the rest of his adolescence in Austria before eventually coming to the United States.

When I was a child, my father would often insist on speaking German at home, “auf Deutsch bitte,” he would say to me, in German please. As a general rule I was a rather unrebellious child, except in these instances when I would often refuse. I’m still not exactly sure why. But our conversations were frequently back and forth, in English and German, each of us pretending not to understand the other.

We traveled quite a bit, returning to Austria every year or so to visit family, but my German remained rusty from lack of regular practice. I regret those stubborn childhood ways. My father died soon after I finished college, and it was nearly twenty years before I had the opportunity to return to Vienna.

Speaking German again over our month of travel, even with all of my stumbling, touched something in me I still can’t quite fully express. It opened up a longing in me, a riverbed of memories shaped by the words of another language. I suddenly could feel myself connected to generations of ancestors for whom German expressed the ‘curves of their deepest longings.’ I began to discover that the shape and trajectory of those longings threading through the cosmos dwelled inside of me and called me forward. That moment in the train I was overcome by joy in discovering that my ability exceeded my self-perceived limits. I was also moved by grief over the nearing end of our trip and my years of neglecting this language which beats in my blood.

My father used to repeat a Czech proverb: You live a new life for every new language you speak.

I am rediscovering within myself whole worlds I had forgotten were there. I feel as though I have re-opened a locked room, one filled with dust but also radiant with sunlight illuminating old, forgotten photos and letters. As my mouth forms these words, I become aware that these were the very sounds which emerged from the mouths of my ancestors to gently comfort one another, to whisper secrets, to cry out at night after a great heart-rending loss, to utter their most essential truths. The nuances of language express the soul of a people.

My unexpected bliss has emerged from the call to begin once more to inhabit this other life. I step through the door again.

(Photo Copyright: Christine Valters Paintner)


Abbey of the Arts said...

Christine, thanks so much for the invitation to participate. As usual, the writing process was itself a journey of discovery. And thank you for the most gracious and lovely introduction, I am really honored by your words. Blessings from Vienna! (the other) Christine

olivosartstudio said...

My father also worked for the UN in New York City.
I would go there almost every weekend -spending time with him-also an artist, a Chilean, with whom I would never dream of speaking anything but Spanish... he is my unexpected bliss on an almost daily basis.
I will honor his memory with an altar piece this month for Dia de los Muertos...foe even now, his memory-his being eternal- brings me bliss......


As I anticipate the "Ancestors" weekend with you and Betsey leading, I'm trying to imagine what will present itself to me on that blessed weekend. I am not even asking "if" something will present itself to me as there is no doubt in my mind that it will be a powerful weekend. Thank you Christine and Christine for this post:)

Beth P. said...

Delightful, Christine! And thank you, BlissChick for asking...