We nurture children, friendships, creative projects, gardens, our well-being. We nurture memories, talent, hopes, and a sense of meaning. We also nurture grievances and resentment. My mum, who died just before Easter this year aged 87, nurtured all of these things. She was a gifted soprano and played the violin as a teenager. But her limited circumstances didn’t allow her to pursue a professional career and instead she became a typist in a large office. In her memoir she writes: “In the hour-long lunch break I sped home on my bicycle, bolted down some food, practiced the violin for 15–20 minutes, and rushed back to work. I did my voice exercises during breaks, on the top of a nearby hillock.”
The only way to escape her restrictive and unloving family was to get married to an equally poor electrician. They had four children in quick succession, me being the eldest. This meant a lot of hard work for her—washing a mountain of nappies by hand and keeping us all clothed, fed, entertained, and out of trouble. But she still managed to pursue her passion for music, being part of a choir led by my uncle, who was the main organist in a nearby town. She often performed solo parts in church concerts, and her bright, soulful voice rehearsing Bach or Buxtehude arias while she went about her tasks at home, was the air we breathed. I am quite agnostic regarding the concept of rebirth, but her enchanting voice might have been what drew me into her womb.
When she was young, my mum and her six siblings used to sing impromptu harmonies while doing the dishes. In her memoir, she writes that “two unmarried sisters, called virgins, who lived above us, asked for the sheet music.” This tradition of collective singing continued in our family; long car journeys were made more than bearable by our vocal improvisations. When we were 6–9 years old, my two sisters and I received a set of recorders—soprano, alto, and tenor—and quickly progressed to performing baroque trio music for our frequent large family gatherings. My mother put her partly frustrated artistic ambition into raising all of her four children to become professional musicians. With a perfect balance of discipline and encouragement, she got each of us to willingly—at times enthusiastically—learn at least three instruments, providing the right teachers, repertoire, and performance opportunities at the right time.
Nurturing comes from sunshine and rain and the bountifulness of plants and other lifeforms. We are drawn to the soothing gurgle of a stream and the absorbing scent of a pine forest—they give off subtle messages leading to the release of oxytocin, which can be felt as blissful closeness to mother nature. We are nourished in equal measure by the hearts, hands, and minds of our primary caregivers and teachers, and by the beauty, wisdom, and pleasure we draw from books, films, paintings, and artistic performances of all kinds. It is our choice whether to focus on the things we didn’t receive in our childhood, or the gifts that provided the fertile ground for us to grow. There is a place for both: mourning the deficiencies and cultivating gratitude and appreciation for the latter. I am so glad that I spent a good deal of my life doing both, as I think this inner work allowed me to give something significant back to my mum before she died.
My mum was a sensitive person and deeply traumatized during the Second World War; the years of political violence, bombardment, and post-war starvation. Like most of that generation, she never received any professional help to process the ordeal, and her mental health fluctuated throughout her long life. At the end, when she fell and broke her pelvis in four places, she struggled with the decision about whether to have another operation or to surrender—to stop eating and drinking. Her quality of life hadn’t been good for a while and she had been saying that she was ready to leave this world. But something prevented her from letting go. Living in another country, I wrote her a letter, acknowledging once more everything she had done for us, reminding her of her good qualities and achievements, and reassuring her that I didn’t hold any grievances for her part in the difficult experiences we had as children, and that basically she had done her best. She was still well enough to send me an email thanking me for “the most beautiful letter she ever received.” I know that she read and re-read it and took it with her into the palliative care hospital ward just a few days later. She died peacefully very soon afterward, surrounded by close family.
At her funeral we played an old, muffled recording of her singing an aria by Telemann, “Jesu, komm in meine Seele, lass sie Deine Wohnung sein” (Jesus, come into my soul, let it be your home). It was performed almost half a century ago, in St. Bonifatius church in Dorsten, northwest Germany, where she was the caretaker for many years, arranging flowers and organizing the practical running of things. We lived in the adjacent bungalow, and for special occasions in the ecclesiastical calendar, we took our instruments across to the organ gallery in order to enhance the service with musical offerings. In that Telemann aria my mum sang the soprano part, my sister Hanne played the organ, my sister Irmgard and brother Georg played the violin, and I the cello. What was nurtured there is still vibrant within us, and connects us to my mum’s spirit and each other in deeply touching ways—it’s hard to find the right words. . . . As it turned out, the funeral director was, as a young girl, part of the same church congregation and remembered those musical contributions. She was, like all of us, moved to tears listening to that poignant echo from the past.
A couple of weeks after my mum’s death, I led a five-day retreat on the Holy Isle in Scotland: “Coming to our Senses through Mindful Movement and Meditation.” Everyone found their “sit spot” somewhere in nature, a place to visit every day, to become still and receptive to the life that revealed itself to our senses. I was drawn to the pebbly shore, where the dead things were—the skull of a horse with some skin still attached, half-decomposed seabirds, rotting seaweed, the smell of decay. I found a slender white bone and some shells with holes in the center. I strung them into a rattle that made a beautiful silvery tone that said, “Wake up, wake up, now is all you’ve got.” I strode along the seashore, shaking it in accompaniment to the gulls and the sound of the waves, playing my part in the perennial symphony of life and death. I brought it with me to the funeral celebration and rattled it at the end of my eulogy.
At this time of the year, I plant runner-bean seedlings in our allotment, carefully letting their thin, dangly roots find space in the loose, compost-enriched soil, padding them in—not too tight, not too loose—then giving them a good soaking so that the roots and nutrient-rich crumbs make close contact. They will spiral up a cane I have put up for them, and I must also give some thought to slug and bird protection. Looking after and cherishing life, plants, and people brings immense satisfaction. Last month, I wrote about letting the imagination guide us to what we really want to do with our lives—but just being clear about our calling doesn’t ensure its realization. For that we need a plan, application, patience, persistence, protection, adaptability, affection, care, and love—in short, an attitude of nurturing. For me, nurturing inner qualities in all these ways ranks high on the bucket list. Impermanence is the great motivator. Do I want to approach the end of my life stuck in blame, resentment, and regret? Or do I want to be open to changing and possibly challenging circumstances with joy, love, and a degree of equanimity?
It is a comforting thought that the elements that make up our bodies will, when we have died, return to the great elements in the universe and in some way support new life. But the reality can look very different. Cremation adds greenhouse and toxic gases to the environment, and our bodies are often full of medication and metals that life doesn’t thrive on. My mum’s body was cremated and the ashes were interred in a compostable urn under a tree. On the way home to Scotland, I read in Der Spiegel about a method spearheaded by one Pablo Metz, in which the naked body is placed inside a steel tank filled with sawdust and straw. With the occasional addition of water and oxygen, the inherent micro-organisms will turn the body into compost within 40 days. The temperature naturally rises to 70 degrees Celsius, and any viruses or medication residues are neutralized in the process. The resulting wet soil is then buried in a cemetery. This final act of nurturing appeals to me and I hope that this method will be more widely available when my time comes.
Nach dem Tod werde ich ein Obstbaum (Der Spiegel)