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Parallel Lives: October 9, 2020

Perhaps it is because I am a writer, and much of a writer’s work is to revise and to edit, I am continually tempted to revise my life, to go back in time and ask myself where would I be today if I had taken this path over that path? Where would my parallel life have led me?

And so, it is with Konstanz am Bodensee. Twice I was meant to spend part of my life in this city, and twice fate led me to Lithuania instead.

I was given the opportunity to study German Literature at the University of Konstanz in 1988-1989, but instead I received a fateful telegram from Soviet Lithuania inviting me to spend the year studying Lithuanian Literature at Vilnius University. The choice to go to Vilnius rather than Konstanz changed the course of my life from the inside out. That year the independence movement began, and I volunteered to translate for Sąjūdis, the Lithuanian independence movement. I lived through Lithuania’s transition from an occupied country to an independent one together with my generation who had grown up separated from the rest of the world by the Iron Curtain. My visa ran out the day after Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians held hands across the three Baltic States to protest the 50-year anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. With my heart breaking—because I really wanted to stay—I traveled through Poland and East Germany by train, passing through the Berlin Wall only two months before it would fall. Sigitas Parulskis, who was a friend then, and a fellow student in the literature department, said to me before I left: “You came here a young girl, but now you have grown into a woman.”

His words rang true. That is why I remember them over thirty years later. That one year represented for me not only a deep historical experience, but a loss of innocence. It was the loss of innocence of a Lithuanian-American girl who had not experienced the deprivations and abuses her generation in Lithuania had grown up with, and had rebelled against, finally earning their freedom. However, experiencing this moment together with them changed me forever. I saw and experienced a cynicism I had not know before. Had I gone to Konstanz instead, together with my Rutgers University girlfriends, would I have retained my innocence?

Perhaps. But then I never would have felt compelled to research and write the way I do, digging deeper and deeper into Lithuania’s historical trauma, and by so doing, into the depth of the damaged soul.

Would I have carried the guilt of having experienced revolution, done my part, and then leaving? It would be six years before I could go back.

This past spring, I once again was given the opportunity to attend the University of Konstanz, this time as a doctoral student in the American Studies Department. The pandemic and the quarantine in Europe kept me in Juodkrantė instead.

Is it no wonder then that one of the first things I did upon reaching my residency in Germany was to take a drive to Konstanz? I wanted to see this parallel world of what could have been.

The Bodensee region is breathtaking, beautiful, serene, peaceful beyond my imagination. I would have enjoyed living there, both in 1988-1989, and in 2020. I wandered the Altstadt at twilight, gazing at the architecture of this city built on an enormous lake in the shadow of the Alps. I slept at an inn on the side of the lake in Wallhausen, lulled to sleep by the clanging of sailboat masts. In the morning, not long after daybreak, I took a ferry over the lake to the ancient town of Überlingen. The rules and the aesthetics of the local ferry reminded me of the Peaks Island ferry, and the sense of an island where I’d spent so many years of my life raising my children, again in another parallel universe. Later I visited the campus of the University of Konstanz, which is now only partially open.

Did I get any insights into what my parallel life could have been had I chosen one path and not the other? No. I did not. How could I? Konstanz remains just one more beautiful place, but not a place that has shaped me.

Does fate dictate where we are on a given day at a given moment? Does fate dictate the path of our lives? Or does free will? Or a combination of both? How can we know if we are exactly where we are meant to be? Or if we have meandered off our path?

I remember years ago, when I was a young wife and mother, and my eldest son Aurimas was two, for some odd reason all autumn long all I could talk about was driving to New Mexico. Why did I suddenly become obsessed with New Mexico? I didn’t know. I was a graduate student at Columbia University living in New York City. Then, I actually received an invitation and a stipend of $500 to attend a conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico to read Lithuanian poetry that I had translated into English. I decided that rather than flying alone, I would include my husband and son in the trip, and we drove across the country to New Mexico in our Honda Civic. In those days, we did not have money for hotels and so we were always pitching a tent somewhere. Along the way to Albuquerque we stopped for the night in the desert of White Sands and pitched a tent among the hills of alabaster white sand. My little one delighted in elephants at the time, which he called, “bamblys” (Lithuanian dramblys). I had taken him to Cathedral Saint John the Divine on 110th Street for the blessing of the animals on the Feast Day of Saint Francis. He had watched with awe as the ceremony culminated with an elephant being led up the stone staircase and into the cathedral, and then down the aisle, to the altar where it was blessed by the priest. In the deserts of White Sands, I took a stick and drew an enormous elephant for him in the sand.

We started a fire to boil water for tea and to warm ourselves. At dusk, a silhouette emerged out of the shadows. It was a young man. He introduced himself and asked if he could pitch his tent near ours. We told him, of course, and invited him to sit beside our fire for tea. After I settled my son into his sleeping bag for the night, we sat with the stranger, sipping tea. He told us that it was not uncommon for UFOs to land in the desert in this precise spot where we had camped and narrated a few stories about UFO landings. Then he confided in us that he in fact was camping there hoping to see one that evening. Because we were from New York, and because we were artists and tolerant people, we politely listened without judgment as he narrated his tales of UFO landings in the desert and did not contradict him. When the nighttime desert air became too cold to tolerate and we’d had enough of gazing at the black sky littered with an abundance of stars, we bade him goodnight and zipped ourselves up in our dome tent. In the darkness, we never did quite see his face.

In the morning, when we awoke, he was gone. Not only was he gone, but any trace of tent marks or his footsteps in the sand were gone. Only the enormous elephant I had drawn for Aurimas remained etched in the white sand.

Did this man inhabit a parallel universe?

We chuckled and jokingly told one another that he’d probably been sucked up into a UFO hovering overhead during the night as we slept.

Yet an uncomfortable feeling remained with us the rest of the day. Where had he gone? How could he have simply vanished, not even leaving a footprint behind?

And so, do our parallel lives, the lives we could have lived, but did not have the chance to live, vanish in a similar way? Or were they never there in the first place?

I waste too much time pondering my parallel lives. Both times that I did not make it to beautiful Konstanz am Bodensee incredible things unveiled themselves to me. For that, I am grateful. I try to make each choice carefully now, weighing the consequences, the repercussions. But in the end, the choices that my heart dictate are always the right ones. Perhaps this is what Herr Thomas had been trying to tell me when he said that even a man who may call me a blöde küh can still be the right man for me. Perhaps he meant that what may seem like misfortune on the surface, is something else altogether unfathomable at its core. Perhaps every experience, even those that challenge us to our very last molecule, contain their own lesson, and hence their own value? Or perhaps the past is intended to vanish, like that stranger’s footprints in the sand…

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