There’s a five-mile block in the northernmost part of Prenzlauer Berg that I haunted during my last weeks in Berlin. Within this five-mile block, I allowed myself to fade in and out of memories – I let past and present mingle surreptitiously. I chose it in the exact breath it chose me. Even knowing what writing my memoirs would mean, I had no idea the gravity, but each time I got too lost or too overwhelmed, one man was there to encourage me forward.
He had gotten me into this mess. He had called me a storyteller and asked me to write my past, beginning with my mom. As if he knew the depth of the request, he made himself available to guide, encourage, and, if necessary, prod. Eventually, I’d be grateful, but in the beginning, I was in over my head and lost. His role turned out to be as much sage as mentor. His affinity for the dark and difficult encouraged me in ways no optimistic, glass half full view of life could have. You don’t tell a past of suicidal thought, depression, self-harm, and trauma to look on the bright side. You sit with it and pay reverence, and he did because he knew too.
Once I finally stopped running, I walked with those memories as though old friends. We held hands and reminisced on the promenade along the Spree. We sipped cappuccino and nibbled pastry at my favorite café. We reflected and forgave along the restaurants, museums, coffee shops, and street artists on Burgstrasse. Eventually, I found peace in the recollections. The process became my refuge. Eventually. Before that could happen, I had to stop running, and that would turn out to be so much harder than I’d ever imagined.
I remember the day the memories found me. That day I decided to walk C.C. O’Hanlon through my family home. Until then, I’d been fighting it, writing drivel because it was easier, because I didn’t want to remember or relive. For reasons I don’t understand, at a little café off Schönhauser Allee, I chose to try.
I’d begun describing the walk down our Louisiana drive. The pines and oaks on either side. The old wooden slats one after another covering the house face. Just like that, my cobblestone turned to dust, the Berlin chill to southern heat, and I was back. Memories flashed again – depressive states, unfulfilled dreams, empty cupboards, anger, and loss. I found myself caught between two worlds. Riveted and terrified, I shook my head hoping to wake. Cobblestone returned, then U-Bahn signs, bakery, grocery, and restaurant, but the tethers had already been made. Now, we coexisted, who I was and who I am, who I wasn’t anymore. Past loves, lost opportunities, and unexpected regrets called me to a story. It was as overwhelming and unsettling as it sounds, but I was also thrilled just a little.
I scribbled down the two lines I could muster and started collecting my things in a worn leather satchel. Two were enough. Two lines of something vaguely resembling decent. Two lines had to be enough.
“This was my Berlin. I had memories on every corner and storefront.”
Rain splattered against the cobblestone walkway as I left the café and headed towards Novalisstrasse 12 and the DO School. Berliners veered left and right around U-Bahn entries, garbage cans, and light poles. Cyclists sped past as though racing in the Tour de France, and I was a hole or hydrant merely taking up space. Kebab shops, Italian eateries, spätis, pho places, and tiny cafes lined every side.
This was my Berlin. I had memories on every corner and storefront. Dragging rolled cigarettes while others hit fresh mary two benches down. Stumbling back at 4pm near drunk on cheap beer. Midnight walks and midday socio-political wine debates. In some small way, we’d created a home here, the DO Fellows and I, and pleasant rememberings were everywhere.
That was before. Now, I was jittery and anxious all the time. I wasn’t sleeping, and my nighttime Benadryl stack was getting bigger and bigger. Now, I felt a little too much like a ghost haunting old memories and meandering the now. I knew somehow that if I could come to terms with this first piece, the rest would balance. The problem was it meant I had to finish a draft, a draft at that point I only had two lines of. Between those two lines and the completion, I’d be inundated – picnicking nightmares and courting memories.
I made my way down Schönhauser Allee. Through the soaked streets, past dimly lit windows, business men and women, writers and entrepreneurs, young and old, all on their way to warmth and work in this or that part of Berlin.
After submitting my first attempt, C.C. had simply written: This is too big. You’re spanning too much. Take me through one moment. Walk me through one room. How does it feel, look, smell, sound?
And: We need to meet.
So, I was on my way to meet him; not at all concerned he’d decided he was wrong and taking it all back.
As anxious-nauseous as I was, it was still impossible not to get lost in Berlin’s architecture and wonder. Its buildings, drives, and people were part outcast, part creative, part traveler seeking home. Maybe it was the way the water had always offered access to a world outside its own. Though likely, I had a sense Berliners understood something about feeling separate, other, and incomplete, and they welcomed those of us still searching more than anywhere I’d been.
Sludging down the cobblestone on Torstrasse, I gawked at the rise and fall of future and historic. Berlin was a quirky combination of new and old. Much of its oldest architecture was destroyed in World War II, so nearly all had a younger, modern feel, at least in West Berlin. Yet here, in the East, the soul and culture felt much older.
As I walked, I enjoyed the steady patter of rain on roof, slosh of passing cars, and thump-splash of passers-by. I let the water drizzle down my raincoat and leather boots. I let it ground me. But in the back of my mind I saw a Christmas tree gleaming so brightly with reds, greens, and golds. I saw young faces happy and restless for Christmas morning. And perfectly centered in between the needled branches, I saw an angel of silver beads and glitter. Home. Without thinking, I saw home.
For just a second, I relaxed, smiling at the simple comfort of an old family memory. There was my story.
But then, there was a thunk in the bottom of my chest. A thud, then ringing in my ears. Panic clawed up my spine leaving a racing heart and numb tingle that wouldn’t leave.
I turned around to the whisper just behind. A wisp of hair turned a corner down the street. Colored, textured just like it could have been, might have been hers.
A memory rubbed itself against the side of my cheek. One love I’d long tried to forget, and I could almost see her right in front of me, feel her fingers running across my skin.
But it couldn’t, and she couldn’t. Because she wasn’t on this continent, and she couldn’t be here.
I was over her. I was over her. Except I was spinning around searching a Berlin street corner for a face I knew I couldn’t possibly see, and I guess I wasn’t over her.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been so close to a memory you could almost touch it. You could almost remember the sensation of pine needles and skin against skin. That’s where I was back then. Standing on that Berlin street corner all I wanted to do was run. It’s like as soon as I opened the spout, memories flooded in vivid and aggressive, each just as important as the last, demanding to be acknowledged, begging to be told. For every family laugh, joke, and Christmas memory, there was a whispered voice, touch of skin, or streak of hair that wanted me to believe those I’d long tried to forget were still there.
Don’t panic. Don’t. Panic. You’re okay… You’re gonna be okay. You have a meeting, and this isn’t real.
I don’t know how, but somehow, I managed to calm myself down and arrived at the DO School some twenty minutes later. Maybe it was just easier to pretend it didn’t happen at all. Immediately upon entering the school, I was surrounded by the bright, colorful cheer that encapsulates social innovation regalia. Upbeat motivational quotes slathered the walls and almost Californian commune-like smiles glowed back from everyone’s faces. After everything that had just happened, they and the whole damn place was nearly too happy and too hopeful.
“He was a sort of ragged, black-clad, old punk, mercurial and dark…”
At the time, C.C. was the DO School’s head of communications and storytelling, although he didn’t really inhabit the title. Yes, he told stories about social impact projects and people doing incredible work around the world, and he shaped and crafted narratives about social innovation changing communities everywhere. But while the DO School was positive and uplifting and smothered in positive affirmation, C.C. … wasn’t. He was a sort of ragged, black-clad, old punk, mercurial and dark, with a penchant for the contrary. He did almost nothing because he was supposed to; he followed no-one’s schedule or instruction. Others attended DO School outings and events – he didn’t. He skipped the intro’ circles and shoulder rubs. He said hello only when he had to and even then abruptly, grudgingly. He embraced a careless independence in everything, from the slow, solid jaunt of his walk to the distancing nod he gave colleagues (and the warmer greetings he offered like souls and outsiders). The DO School’s happy, positive mantra and matching interior seemed to juxtapose his completely, but somehow his way of being worked. He was remote and intimidating until he started talking about stories. You’d believe him a world-weary cynic, then, all of a sudden, with the right tale, he’d come to life.
We talked about everything – poets, essayists, novelists, and rappers, storytellers of every type and genre. We talked about his life and mine, mental illness and struggle, travel and lessons learned, and ever so slowly, I began to believe I had something to say. Perhaps, I could do this.
I walked out of the DO School later that day emboldened and a little concerned. C.C. had convinced me I had something to offer and maybe, even had an obligation to see it through. I’d never truly believed I had something to offer the world until that day. I didn’t really grow up in a world that told you you were good at something or made you believe. No, the people I loved had always had a bit too much bite. That’s how you survived. But walking out believing in myself for the first time in so long offset any ‘difficult’ character traits C.C. could have had. It was a gift few others could ever claim. Still, I was leery. I had too many memories I wasn’t ready to re-live, much less have walking down the street beside me. This wasn’t going to be easy. Even then, I knew that.
Those inspiring moments with C.C. offered hope and resilience for the hardest parts. Writing that first piece was like a haunting I entered into willingly. The worst days I begged the universe to take it back. It followed me constantly, triggering more memories and usually following with anxiety attacks, but C.C.’s honesty, stubbornness, and total comfort with hard and complicated realities offered refuge. He helped me keep writing and trying in all the moments I just wanted to stop. He doesn’t know it, but that’s what he gave me. That’s why we worked. To others, he was a cantankerous old bastard, but to me he’ll always be the man who saw potential where others saw a broken soul. He never shied from the dark parts, in fact he’s one of the few who encouraged my honesty about them. In a world that so often values pretty pictures, meeting someone who believed truth and authenticity, however painful, had a place made all the difference. It gave me the courage to speak up.
For weeks, I fought with that essay. Memories reached out and ruffled the psychological barrier I’d constructed all those years ago. Grasping for one, meant accepting them all. Yet, day by day I learned to balance. C.C. pushed and prodded constantly asking me to believe in him when I couldn’t yet in myself. By the end, I’d written my very first memoir piece, Broken-Down Fords and Angels. And I had a list of stories in my notebook waiting to be written. Where once he had to push, I now embraced fully, and surprisingly, it embraced me back.
Not weeks after I landed back in San Diego, I was writing two new essays, and my family, who was so central to my stories, had wholeheartedly supported my need to write about us all. Healing had begun where once there was silence and secrecy, and it all started because of one man and his belief in a story.
During our last conversation in Berlin, C.C. said to me, “Get ready. You’re a storyteller now. No more hiding.” I realized only in that moment I had been I’d spent my life hiding, trying not to take up space. I’d taught myself absence of being was better or safer. In only nine words, he’d given me permission, or helped me give myself permission, to shine.
Whatever comes of the journey, Berlin will always be the place I mingled with past and present and learned I had something to say, and where I finally realized it’s completely okay shine and take up space. So, thank you, Berlin. To you and to the hard-assed but generous old man who helped me find my voice.
Jessica Ciccarelli grew up in the swampy backwoods of Dry Creek, Louisiana. She has a B.A. in Political Science from Berea College and an M.A. in Peace and Justice from the University of San Diego. Jessica has been published in several institutional blogs, and most recently had a memoir trilogy, including Broken-Down Fords And Angels, Forever Changed In A Second and Road To New, published by The Learned Pig. The photo above is hers.