THIS I BELIEVE
My father, who at seventeen volunteered for Hitler’s army, lost his leg in the battle of Stalingrad at nineteen. He would lock himself in the kitchen at night. Sitting alone, he sang for several hours with a dark, melancholic voice that resonated throughout the entire house and prevented us from sleeping. At night, I heard the sadness, longing, and tenderness in his singing; by day, I saw an angry, bitter man, who felt his life was no longer worth living.
I read to escape sadness, to find hope amidst my insecurities and to augment my experiences in the world. Books gave me the courage to pursue my dreams and to leave Germany. Through reading I discovered a path to joy and became a writer.
From the time I was ten, I corresponded with pen pals from around the world. At fourteen, I began to keep a diary. Friends asked me to help them with condolence, love, and break-up letters. Condolence letters were the easiest. As a veteran of sadness I could always find the proper words.
I came to New York after finishing college in Germany and worked as a school social worker for eighteen years. The work was stressful, fast-paced and full of daily crises, but also satisfying. I wrote every day: case notes, treatment plans, assessments, and letters of recommendation. My colleagues dreaded this aspect of our work, but I took pleasure in writing the weekly installments of my students’ biographies. It didn’t matter that my only audience was the New York State auditor visiting us once a year. Writing was my solitary pleasure. It made me slow down and pay attention to the world. Small moments in time, ordinary people, became significant. My own pain no longer took center stage.
My high school French teacher once told me: “If you’re unhappy, you might be living in the wrong country.” I wrote a story about following her advice and on a whim sent it off to the Cornelia Street Café. A week later, I found a message on my answering machine.” We have an opening in three weeks. Would you like to read?” That night, the audience applauded enthusiastically. Encouraged, I applied and was accepted to the Creative Writing Program at City College. Three years later, my story had expanded to a book of two-hundred-thirty pages. When The New York Times accepted one of my essays for publication, I took it as a sign to abandon my career in social work.
Now I teach writing at City College. Last summer, I taught Creative Writing in Venice, Italy. The classroom in the charming fifteenth century Palazzo Zenobio and my dingy office across the school cafeteria in Flatbush, Brooklyn were worlds apart.
Writing connects me to other human beings and allows me to experience many lives. Set free by writing, I cherish life.
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