How do you get a teenager to talk? The usual questions—How was your day? Did you learn anything new—haven’t been so rewarding these last few years, and more often than not, yield curt, monosyllabic responses. I’ve tried other approaches, like sharing information I think will be interesting, or asking about the online games he’s playing. This last question is a sure mark if I want to hear about epic battles and head shots. Another bulls eye is a discussion about virtual reality glasses, which will spark a monologue on the many benefits of the Oculus Quest 2, all code language for reasons I should buy a pair for him.
Sometimes, as I sit at the table across from him as he eats his afternoon snack, I wait for the next time he looks up from his phone, hoping, silent. Other times, I say, ‘Hey, I’d love a little time.’
It’s a tricky age. Maybe I need a new set of questions. But I haven’t given up just yet. If you wait long enough, they’ll talk.
I heard that dogs hate doing the same walk over and over again, especially hunting dogs. So if I’m not in ‘default dog walking mode,’ I consciously choose a different direction. Once in a while, the alternate route brings me through a neighborhood that has a sculpture of a man and a woman sitting on a long curving bench, turned toward each other as if engaged in conversation. Placed in a natural curve where the sidewalk cuts through a stretch of green, it has an unobtrusive feel. It’s one of the few sculptures that I don’t mind seeing on a semi-regular basis, because it doesn’t demand my attention.
In the last few months, it’s been upgraded in my mind, as the idea of two people chatting on a park bench offers some throwback of normalcy in the time of corona. I also like to imagine who these two people are, a man and woman, looking up from their papers to chat. Sometimes, depending on my mood, they are lovers or cheaters, other times strangers, the one telling the other an anecdotal story. When I’m in a hurry, the woman is simply inquiring about the time. If I study her lips, I wonder if it’s not a he or she but a non-binary they.
Yesterday, when my dog and I approached the strangers on the benches, they had a glint in their eyes, which gave them entirely new expressions, one that made me laugh out loud. Certainly the work of teenagers.
I can’t quite picture a seventy-nine-year-old breaking out the goofy eyes and sticking them onto a sculpture. I could be wrong. But looking at them now, this man and woman, they have come more alive, as if the words are on the tips of their metal tongues, just waiting to spill forth. I bet if you wait long enough, they’ll talk.
This morning, after my son ate his breakfast and before his phone pulled him away, I asked him how he was doing, said I wouldn’t mind having a little time to talk. No subject. Just talk. It took a while, but after the monosyllabic answers to my questions (how did you sleep? What time are you catching the train to school?), I told him about someone who had passed away from Corona in our town, how she had done so much good in the world, how she wasn’t much older than I was.
He listened, and then he told me his own story, which flowed out of him. It was about a teacher at his school, overweight, with heart issues, who was now sick and teaching from home. ‘I really hope he doesn’t have corona,’ he said. ‘I’m worried about him.’
In the days leading up to the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election, someone shared a Republican slogan with me: Let’s make the democrats cry again.
I actually found it kind of funny, and very much true. If Trump were to be re-elected, I would have cried again. In fact, when I woke up on Wednesday morning in the Netherlands and flipped open the New York Times coverage of the election, my heart fell. Trump seemed to have a running chance, after all of the damage he has done in the last four years to weaken, reverse or throw out policies that protect the environment, the hate and violence he instigated against Latinos, Blacks, women and the constant lies he fabricated during his presidency and spouted out as truth, after he eroded . . . I just realised I would have to write for days to list all of the harm he has done that I know about, much less all of the other things he’s done under the radar, so I’ll stop there.
When the election results were finally announced, I screamed and jumped and ‘whew-hewed’. There was alcohol involved. And expletives.
Blue Gin & Tonics for the Biden-Harris win
I felt this pressure that had been sulkily hanging over me for the last four years finally lift and it was as if the school bully had finally been kicked off the playground. You still know he’ll be there for a few more months, and might try to EFF things up before he goes, and that you still might run into him and his cronies in a dark alley outside the school yard, but at least we know he’s going.
It wasn’t until I heard Jo Biden speak that I actually got a little bit teary. Let’s make the democrats cry again takes on a new meaning here. I’m crying in happiness at hearing a compassionate, reasoned man sharing his approach to combatting the corona virus, to uniting the nation, to moving forward.
And this is where it gets interesting. The United States can no longer function as such a polarised nation. It doesn’t make sense for anyone. Because just as I feel very passionately about the principles of the democracy I believe the Democratic Party stands for, there are Republicans that have an entirely different view of what is good for our country. There must be a way to find a path that works for the whole nation. If not, we are just taking our turns on the seesaw, up and down every four years, or bracing for a civil war.
What what is our common ground? Do we want a positive future for our children? One where they have a good education, job prospects, freedom to express themselves and a healthy environment in which to live? I think so. I think that must be an indisputable common ground. It’s just a question of how we approach the same goal.
Goodbye Bully. Please learn the rules of how to play fair. The rules of a democratic vote. How to concede.
I was folding laundry when I heard the front door open and close. My husband was already up–he likes to write early in the morning–so I figured that must be him taking the dog out for her morning walk. Then I heard the scrambling of nails on tile, the pressing of paws on the the living room door, the familiar whine of excitement. Those are post-walk sounds of a Beagle getting her wag on in anticipation of breakfast. How a dog can get so excited about sensitive formula dry dog kibble is beyond me, but she musters that excitement each and every morning.
By the time I was downstairs, my husband had already made a pot of tea and we fell into our morning routine.
“How was your walk?”
“Beautiful. Here, I’ll show you.”
He rarely takes pictures, but there on his phone were close to a dozen and they were gorgeous. Rainbows, thick layers of clouds, blue sky, reflections in the water, lush fields, waterways and paths, light everywhere.
(I just realised I’m going to have to ask him for those photos so I can share a few with you here. My words aren’t doing it justice).
Not only had he taken photos, he seemed happy, alive.
“We made the right decision moving here,” he said between bites of quesadilla.
Later that morning, I cycled to the gym and even though I didn’t catch that early morning stillness of a meditative walk through nature, I felt the energy of sunlight and green things working its way into my psyche. Happy.
I’ve just applied to a position at Self Realization AH (SRAH), which is one of the few entities hiring during the Novel Coronavirus pandemic. It is part time, but if I play my cards right, it could turn into a full time, lucrative job. In these uncertain times, SRAH has made it clear that the pay is 100% commission-based. They’ve also established that the currency of pay is not a traditional currency, such as Euros, USD, Yuan or Kroner. They’re not even paying in the official Coronavirus currency of TP.
In fact, in the words of SRAH “Only you can determine the currency.” I know it sounds like a riddle. That’s because it is a riddle; one that only you can unravel.
Here’s a bit more about the advert, which oddly enough, I couldn’t find on LinkedIn.
SRAH is now hiring worldwide!! We are looking for candidates who are motivated, are willing to open their hearts, can work from home and are ready to make major changes in the way they view themselves and the world.
Must limit all non-essential physical contact with the outside world and follow all Coronavirus protocols provided by your government
Must be radically honest with oneself and be open to change
Must follow through on all tasks once started
100% commitment to the job
Must set a 1 hour daily limit on time spent reading or watching the news
Must limit all non-essential screen time to 2 hours
Must not hoard toilet paper or protective masks
Skillsand qualities needed:
Candidates have the ability to follow through on tasks once started.
The ideal candidate is flexible and has an open mind, but is willing to learn how to prioritize in a new manner
Open to trying foods potentially out of your comfort zone, such as humble pie, hot potatoes, apple of my eye, and be willing to ‘spice things up.’
Patient with others. Patient with yourself
Previous experience helpful, but not required
I realize I haven’t shared the job position with you yet. But the full business name will put you on the right track. SRAH is Self Realization at Home.
The job position is already in the title. But here is an expanded description: Be the person you’ve always wanted to be by meeting and embracing your true self.
That’s it. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? No. Actually. No. It’s probably the hardest damned job out there.
You’ve probably realized by now that the ‘entity’ that is hiring worldwide is you. Not only you, but each and every one of us who is willing to take this time of societal lock down as a chance to really figure out what fulfills us. I’m not talking about being fulfilled by ordering all those things you’ve always wanted online. This type of fulfillment is inside you and has a lifetime warranty. Though you have to work at it every day to keep that warranty valid.
How you step into this position is up to you. Your approach will be clearly influenced by your own belief systems and cultural orientation.
For me, it will mean taking time and space to meditate and pray. It will mean being radically honest with myself about what is alive inside of me, and giving that vision priority in my life. It will mean acknowledging and shedding bad habits and beliefs, but not shredding myself to death should I fail. It will mean acknowledging my weak points (such as a hot temper and perfectionist tendencies) and consciously committing to being more patient, loving and engaging with my husband and son as well as myself.
It will mean honoring my writing by blocking out writing time each and every day and committing to getting the words down on the page. It will mean studying English grammar, following an online course on Teaching Business English offered by the TEFL Academy.
It will mean connecting with the outside world via online platforms and by phone to stay connected to humanity, whether in the form of a FaceTime call to my mother, or following an online meditation course through The Art of Living. But it will also mean creating space to simply listen to that voice within me.
According to no one in particular and everyone at large, this is THE JOB to take during the Coronavirus shut down; especially if you’re stuck at home with other family members for some indefinite period of time.
Self Realization at Home is still hiring worldwide. Apply today!
If we all accept our letters of application made by ourselves to ourselves, and we are kind but firm in our self-appointed “I am the boss of me” positions, and we focus on enlightenment and humanity as part of strengthening ourselves, we will collectively emerge from the Coronavirus shutdown as happier, more conscious members of the world population. So why not apply today?
What if the manner in which you brought in the new year set the tone for the next 365 days? What would that mean for you? A year filled with drunken celebration? A year of sleep? A year of watching television? A year of partying in a club? A year caring for a loved one? The possibilities are endless.
Our new year was certainly brought in with a bang, but like many things in life, not in the way we had envisioned it. The weather forecast predicted a very thick mist and sure enough, around 11pm on December 31st, 2019, the mist rolled in with an eeriness befitting a Stephen King novel.
The Dutch are allowed to purchase a wide range of fireworks and set them off just about anywhere they like, making New year’s eve a bit like a chaotic, war zone where ‘friendly fire’ takes on a different meaning.
Fireworks had been going off all day, the frequency steadily increasing as darkness fell. The thickening mist took on broken hues of red, green, yellow and blue, as if a string of brightly colored party lights had lost their way.
Five minutes before midnight, right before we planned to leave the house, my husband let the dog out in the backyard to do her business. Under normal circumstances, her little white tipped tail works as a beacon in the darkness, allowing you to track her progression through the yard as she seeks out just the right square of grass for her nomadic toilet. But that evening as she went into the backyard, she quickly disappeared from sight, as if the mist had swallowed her whole. The intensity of the fireworks increased with each second that brought us closer to 2020 as my husband whistled for the dog.
When she didn’t respond, he too disappeared into the mist in search of our four-legged family member. That’s when he discovered that the gate, which is always closed, was propped wide open. Our little Beagle, who loves to run free, had chosen to escape at the worst possible moment of the year.
She could have been 10 feet away, but we wouldn’t have seen her. If she was barking or whining, we wouldn’t have heard her among all the vuurpijlen (rockets), ‘gillende keukenmeiden’ (screaming kitchen maids), fonteinen (fountain-effect firecrackers) and rotjes (firecrackers that make a loud bang) and it was unclear if she could hear us.
As the rest of the world started celebrating the onset of 2020, we set out in different directions, calling and whistling and asking every person we came across if they’d seen our dog. As you can imagine, it was a pretty hellish way to bring in the New Year.
As the minutes passed without a trace of our dog, our already low spirits plummeted even lower as everyone else around us celebrated.
In the last five minutes of 2019, we had envisioned a nice stroll to the town center, where we would glance skyward and watch the sky light up through the mist while we toasted each other with a bubbly glass of prosecco, enjoying the merriment and festivity of tradition, while heralding in the new year. Instead, our hearts were filled with dread, confusion and helplessness.
Isn’t it crazy how much your world can change in the course of a few minutes? But in the age of social media, you never feel completely helpless. I posted a picture of her with a plea for help to a local Facebook group with 8000 members. I couldn’t imagine that anyone would have been online at that hour, but to my surprise, my message was shared over 70 times.
I also called the “dierenambulance” (animal ambulance) to see if anyone had turned her in, and we posted in other apps about our missing dog.
After walking alone through the mist for over an hour, calling until my throat was dry and sore, I finally returned home. My son was waiting with the dog’s blanket and treats spread out by the front door, hoping she would return. My husband, who had followed a more distant route, also arrived home as dogless as when he’d left.
If devastated had a face, my son was wearing it. I wanted to give him hope without promising the moon; I told him how many people had shared the Facebook post, that people were responding, giving tips, helping. I painted a picture of our dog hunkered down in the brush, scared, but just waiting out the ‘storm’ of fireworks. We should just get some sleep and hope that when the evening turned still, that she would return. He went off to bed with a heavy, but hopeful heart.
Then the phone rang.
“Hello, ” said a friendly woman. “I believe my father found your dog.”
Ends up that her father lived one block away. ONE. BLOCK. AWAY.
My husband hastily pulled back on his coat and went to get her. When he returned with our dog–who appeared to be just as happy and healthy as when she’d disappeared into the mist a few hours ago–our entire energy shifted. Ecstasy. Relief! All is lost to all is found! Sadness to joy. We woke up our son and the three of us sat on the couch, dog on our collective laps, and took a few sips of prosecco. Now we could finally say the words: Happy New Year!
I can’t help but think in terms of life lessons. This was certainly a wake up call. What is the distance between sadness and joy? Between failure and success? Between loss and renewal? In our case, that distance was 70 people who clicked on the share button, one man 50 meters away who opened his door when he heard a dog barking and let her in, one of his daughter’s who searched the internet at 1:30am on New Year’s eve and picked up her phone to call us.
This takes me back to my first two questions when I started this post: What if the manner in which you brought in the new year set the tone for the next 365 days? What would that mean for you? In my case, it would break down to something like this: Shit happens. You can’t control everything. What you can do is be proactive, take action, look all around you in the expected and unexpected places, reach out to and communicate with your community and above all, don’t give up. Not too bad of a way to approach things. Okay 2020, I’ll take it.
Do you ever look at your calendar and see something scheduled in the not-too-distant future and get a tingle of anticipatory excitement and joy? Perhaps it’s a vacation you have planned, or an outing with a dear friend or family member. It could be an upcoming concert by an artist you follow or the latest sequel to a film you love. These things all give me a warm and fuzzy feeling, but as I close out 2019 and look toward 2020, that jolt of excitement I’m describing comes from anticipating book club night!
This isn’t a temporary love affair. I joined my first book club 23 years ago when I lived in Bend, Oregon. I still remember some of the titles we read in that first book club (Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris, Angel of Repose by Wallace Stegner), where we met, some of the conversations that unfolded and even seemingly insignificant details, like the dressy, low cut top my usually-jean-and-fleece-clad friend was wearing at one gathering. Book clubs have been a pleasant constant in my life ever since then, and each book club is as different and precious as the individuals that make it up.
I’ve been in book clubs with mainly outdoor enthusiasts (Bend, Oregon), a book club that should have owned up to being a drinking club (Santa Barbara), a more committed book club with literary aspirations and a penchant for delicious organic, home cooked meals (Santa Barbara round two), and international book clubs with members from different countries (The Hague and now Schagen, Netherlands).
It is a bit difficult to explain why book club matters so much to me. Of course I love reading. That seems to be a prerequisite. But I’m not a prolific reader. Many women in my book clubs–yes, I’m currently in two!–read upwards of 50-75 books per year compared to my 15-25 per year (that tally is including the romance novels I read on my Kindle in between book club books). Yet no one is shunning me for my low book count, because it doesn’t matter. What matters is the experience of reading a novel on your own and then discussing it out loud with a group of friends who are all eager to share their reading experiences and insights.
It’s amazing what can occur during this process. First of all, you take an experience that, up until book club night, has been a solo, internal and somewhat intimate journey, and open it up into a group discussion. That, in and of itself, is an act of trust. After trust comes transformation. Literary characters that have undergone an initial transformation from the author’s idea, to a vision of a character in your mind, take a second, deeper breath during the discussion, as if they are coming to life:
“I was so upset when Edgar tried to call the ambulance and couldn’t say a word.” “That was heart wrenching.” “I know! right?” It’s as if Edgar is a real person all the book club members are talking about that they know personally.
You discuss the characters, the plot, the writing, the cultural context, but there’s so much more. A novel is a bit like a painting; just as the meaning of a painting is often in the eye of the beholder, there are parts of a novel where the interpretation is in the eye of the reader. Our own life experiences and cultural backgrounds shape our reading experiences. In other words, a part of a novel that one member might consider total trash, could be a treasured game changer for another.
There’s also the power of dialogue. During the discussion, you feel something changing within you and within the group dynamic; new information, new ideas, holding onto your own perspective or watching it transform through the living and breathing act of discussion. I’ve seen book club discussions become catalysts to opening people up, where tough life experiences that have been under lock and key, not only come to the surface, but are courageously discussed. This is not just an anomaly. I’ve seen it happen time and time again. How can a work of fiction do that? It’s just a made up story, right? How can it bond people together, change your perspective and create such excitement and commitment?
Novels are stories and authors are storytellers. A group of book club members are the tribe around the campfire (roasting marshmallows) listening to the story unfold, gleaning the wisdom that lies therein, connecting to the life process.
Will every book gathering be a magical, transformative experience? No. Sometimes a novel doesn’t strike home or spark a good discussion. But what you do get is a lovely night out with people whom you enjoy and a chance to engage in dialogue and be in the real time presence of others. That in itself is worth the evening.
I sat down this evening to write a New Year’s Eve post and had no idea it would lead me to book club. yet I can’t think of anything more appropriate to close the chapter of one decade and open the chapter to a new one.
Is book club in your calendar for 2020? If so, what are you reading this year? If you’re not in a book club, perhaps 2020 is the year to join one. If you can’t find one to join, you could start your own!
Wishing everyone a glorious, environmentally friendly 2020 with lots of luscious, thought-provoking, humorous, passionate, thrilling and life-changing books.
I love having people over for dinner. It gives me an excuse to clean up my house, break out the cookbooks, plan a tasty menu and create the atmosphere for a lovely evening with friends. In the U.S, we spent a good deal of time having friends over for dinner or eating dinner at their houses. I’d go so far as to say this is common practice in the U.S.
Since we’ve moved to the Netherlands, we’ve hosted many people for dinner. We’ve invited single friends over, couples, whole families with a special side menu designed just for the kids. These friends are always thankful, enjoy the food and the conversation, and even comment months, if not years later about how fondly they remember those evenings. Some of my vegetarian soups and enchiladas have even been subject to not so subtle hints for an encore, resulting in me offering another dinner invitation. Yet in all my years in the Netherlands, by far and large it has been our expat friends who have reciprocated. In other words, if you invite a Dutch person over for dinner, don’t expect an invitation in return.
I didn’t even come to this ‘lack of dinner reciprocation’ realization until I was thinking about this first year in North Holland. I realized that despite the fact that we’d hosted a number of dinners in the last 11 months, the only one who has invited us over for dinner was our American friend. The more I thought about it, I realized this pattern had also proved true in The Hague. Our Hague expat friends had invited us over for dinner on multiple occasions, but the Dutch? We had to scratch our heads to come up with a short list.
There are few outliers of course. A handful of Dutch friends have invited us over for dinner (thank you Ineke! Thank you Joke!) My Dutch in-laws and sister and-brother-in-laws have also hosted us for dinner on numerous occasions. So it is possible. And to their credit, the Dutch are more than enthusiastic to invite you over for a cup of coffee with a sweet treat just about any time of day. But why the invitation stops there remains a mystery.
This would be a logical time to dive into self-doubt. Maybe my cooking sucks. Perhaps my food choices stray out of the Dutch comfort zone. I’m not so into stampot, knakworst or herring. Maybe I need a new deodorant. But based on Dutch directness and the frequent calls for seconds, I believe I can safely rule out these reasons.
I was in The Hague a few weeks ago visiting an American friend and we were reminiscing about all the lovely things we’ve done together. He and his German-South-African wife are both amazing cooks and we’ve spent a lot of time at each others homes dining and chatting for hours. Yet when I shared my perplexing realization that we were rarely invited to dinner by the Dutch, he jumped in to say they have had the same experience! They host often, but it is only their expat friends who return the favor!
So what is going on here? Surely, the Dutch eat dinner. Based on the fact that the local restaurants are often teeming with diners in the evening hours, the Dutch certainly enjoy a well put together meal that goes beyond the traditional stampot.
Perhaps it has to do with Dutch practicality. Dinner at home could be viewed as an intimate, yet utilitarian event; some necessity performed on a daily basis without much pomp and circumstance.
Coffee get-togethers, on the other hand, have an extremely social character in the Netherlands. There’s very little prep time and all of your energy and focus can be spent on socializing with your guest, not worrying about the dish in the oven and the timing of each course. With that reasoning, dinner would be relegated as impractical for a social occasion; unless there is some reason to combine the two.
Here’s a case from my own experience where practical met social, and the Dutch were all on board. When we were making the transition from The Hague to Schagen, we did it in stages. My husband and son (and 99% of our belongs) moved north before me so they could start their new jobs and new school respectively. I stayed behind in The Hague for a month to finish out my contract, and camped out in our empty house. I was sleeping on a blow up mattress and borrowed a table and chair from my place of employment so I had a place to eat and sit in the otherwise empty living room.
When I shared this situation with friends, the dinner invitations started rolling in, and this time, the Dutch also stepped up to the plate (that pun just happened!). For the majority of those 28 days my evenings were filled with Dutch home cooking. What is the difference? There was a practical necessity combined with a social deadline: I didn’t have much in my house to cook with and I was leaving town in 28 days. This apparently met the Dutch standards for a dinner invitation.
I return to The Hague every few months for Book Club and my Dutch friends are happy to host me overnight, quite often including dinner as part of the invitation. Once again; practical.
My goal is not to make my Dutch friends feel badly. My Dutch friends are gracious and inclusive. They invite me to coffee, to walk, cycle, go to the theater, the movies, a museum, to readings, you name it. I just want to figure out this one-way dinner ticket.
As I conclude this post, the Dutch ‘lack of dinner reciprocation’ theory is developing a few chinks in its armor. At the end of the school year, we hosted a dinner party for two of our sons’ friends and invited his friends’ families as well. They had such a good time that they stayed until almost midnight, finishing off all the cherries and banana slices by dipping them in the chocolate fountain (mine wasn’t as pretty as the photo shown here). Just last week, another mom in this group contacted us to say they had enjoyed the event so much, they hoped to make it a tradition. My first thought was that she hoped we’d do it again. But no! She was picking up the torch and inviting us for a dinner party at their house.
There’s yet more proof of change. I ran into a man whom we’d had over for dinner a few months ago with his family of five, and out of the blue he said, “I think we owe you an invitation for dinner.”
Many gurus teach you that you are truly giving when you don’t expect anything in return. My pleasant surprise to both of these invitations suggests I’m on the path to learning this lesson. The fact that I’m going to push the “publish” button on my blog suggests not!
I’d like to solve this riddle. Is it a cultural difference? What do you think?
This morning I awoke to the bellow of cows. At first it made no sense. How could I hear cows through our bedroom window? We don’t live on a farm. We live in the city center of Schagen next to the main square. But my mind accepted these bellowing cows with the same ease in which it accepts my ability to flap my arms and fly in my dreams.
It was a pleasant, familiar sound from my youth. As I lay there, not quite awake and not quite asleep, I pictured cows in an expanse of field slowly walking toward a red barn, their tails swishing lazily in the sunshine.
Of course I can hear cows, my mind said, a bit more awake now. Today is Paasvee, one of the most popular events in Northern Holland. Although this will be the 121st recurrence of Paasvee, it will be my first time experiencing this wildly popular event.
Paasvee, if translated literally, means Easter livestock or Easter cattle. It occurs ten days before Easter every year and is the kind of tradition that everyone and their grandmother and great grandmother grew up with. It’s like a county fair minus all the rides, rodeos and cotton candy. In this case, it’s all about the cows. And later, all about the drinking.
According to the locals and DuckDuckGo, the town square will be transformed into a livestock market, and the cows will be judged, sold and eventually taken to slaughter.
Slaughter is not a pleasant thought first thing in the morning. Not that there’s ever a good time to think about slaughter. I listen to those cows a little differently now. Am I hearing some of their last cries? Do they know the end is near?
I think about the parallels between Easter week and Paasvee. Jesus was betrayed by His people and then taken away to be judged, poked, prodded and eventually crucified in a public place, surrounded by crowds. Sounds awfully familiar. Are those bellowing cows actually saying something to the tune of “My Farmer, My Farmer; Why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus’ death was viewed as a sacrifice for all of humankind, creating passage for eternal life. But the only ‘afterlife’ these cows will experience is as a hamburger, steak or other cut of meat on someone’s plate.
I wonder if there will be animal rights groups like PETA or ProVeg out today, protesting on the square. I kind of doubt it. Although vegetarian and vegan products have made it into the local supermarkets and vegetarian options grace the menu of just about every restaurant in Schagen, this little city is still, at its heart, farm country. And Paasvee is part of that beating heart.
I get dressed and head downstairs. My family is still asleep, but I want to take a first peek at the market before the crowds arrive. We’ve been warned that this will be one of those days where it sucks to live near the city center. Because after the Paasvee closes at 12pm, the second stage of cows to the fodder begins in the form of all day long drinking into oblivion. Think Isla Vista Halloween minus the police barricades and costumes, plus trains packed all day long, bringing the soon-to-be-plastered drinkers to Paasvee.
After I let the puppy out and we’ve both had breakfast, my phone buzzes and my friend Ilse has Whats-App’d me to ask if I want to do a round before it gets busy. Sure. Getting dressed. 15 minutes?
We step out into the cold sunshine and the wind whips our hair about our faces. It’s not even 9:00 am and there are already a few hundred people milling about, but there’s enough room to walk.
The cows are beautiful, but also strange looking. I’ve heard the locals call them ‘dikkebillen’, which means fat butts. They are very literal, these locals. Dikbil cows are bred to have gargantuan bottoms so thick and muscular, that it seems the simple act of walking has become a difficult task. You can almost see the cuts of beef outlined on their butts.
It makes me feel guilty. My friend feels it too, because we talk about how we’ve cut back on meat, how this display of cows tied up, mooing, shifting, eyes looking worried, surrounded by stands serving beef items like sausage and burgers, seems like a new level of cruelty. Both of our families have cut back significantly on meat consumption over the years and I have tried to be both vegetarian and vegan. I’m ninety percent there. But 90% doesn’t count. That’s one of the reasons we prefer our occasional meat consumption to be greatly distanced from the actual creature that dies on our behalf.
Strong, quiet farmers guide the cows to the washing area, where they spray the cows down. They use brushes to scrub their coats sort of like one might do with a horse. I don’t see any love in their faces, but I don’t see hate either. I think of Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and how he described different ways animals are treated. There are cattle and sheep that have good lives: access to open fields, proper food and space, etc. He refers to this lot as only having “one bad day.” I don’t know if these cows qualify, but besides that little walking problem, they seem healthy and well-cared for.
We move past the cows to the other parts of Paasvee. The side street is lined with brand new tractors and farm machinery that is for sale. It’s actually quite fascinating to see these giants close up.
We enter the shopping mall where another section of Paasvee takes place. Cages line the central hall of the mall filled with bunnies and chickens of all different breeds.
Judges in blue coats inspect the animals and take notes on their clipboards. For some reason, I don’t picture these animals all ending up in someone’s stew, but perhaps becoming family pets. My friend confirms this rosy scenario by telling me she purchased their family rabbits here a few years ago.
Later in the morning, I make another round with my friend Anneke and the place has really filled up. You can no longer really walk, but rather shuffle along among the cows like . . . cattle. The significance of this thought is not lost on me. There will be more human cattle coming soon.
By the time I write down my impressions of my first Paasvee, it’s mid afternoon and the sounds of the cows have been replaced with the steady beat of electronic music and the constant hum of a crowd. An occasional exuberant “Whoo hoo!” breaks through the hum. I can tell they’re getting wild.
Many of the locals don’t go to the center after 12pm, as they want to avoid the mayhem. Here’s a bit of legend passed onto me over the last few months:
The trains just keep coming, completely full with people from all over the Netherlands who come just to drink. People get so drunk they go and pee on people’s front doors. They pass out on the street or in people’s gardens.
I don’t think anyone will mind if I post some pictures of cow butts, but I’m pretty sure the afternoon cattle wouldn’t appreciate a little photo exposé on my blog post of their butts on the ground.
Now the only question is, do I join them for a drink?
As a young adult, admitting that I was from a small town was like fessing up to a misdemeanor in the school of cool. Today, I admit my growing-up-in a-small-townness with pride. (Yes, I know townness is not a word.) I’ve been wondering lately, why I have this new affinity and pride in my small-town upbringing, and I’ve come to a few conclusions.
Cities as a whole are compact, highly-populated, fast-moving, invigorating places of opportunity. They offer culture, employment, diversity, higher education. Yet cities can also be cold, every-man-is-an-island, highly competitive and transient. Sure, there are pockets of steadfastness: neighborhoods where people stick around for years, places where everybody knows your name. But once you step outside of that neighborhood, cafe, gym, school, you become anonymous, a sudden stranger among strangers. This causes a shift in energy, a natural inclination to turn inward, drop your smile, break eye contact; essentially, parking a segment of your humanity at the curb.
In the busiest sections of the city, everyone keeps their eyes on the horizon (which you can’t really see for all the tall buildings) and even though we are all walking together on the sidewalk, waiting together in line, sitting right next to each other in that tram or theater or restaurant, we are essentially a highly functional, anti-social school of fish: swimming together but apart.
You reclaim that checked humanity when you encounter someone you know, essentially snapping out of your trance of feigned or true indifference. Faces light up. Greetings are exchanged. If there’s time, you might stop for a chat. Once the encounter is over, however, you slowly slip back into that self-protecting, I-am-an-island, anonymity.
Small towns are different. They usually lack cultural diversity, institutions of higher education, world-renowned museums and white collar jobs. But where they may lack in one way, they make up for in other ways. Ask just about anyone who lives in a small town, and they will tell you that people are friendlier there, values are stronger, the community more closely knit, that they feel safe, cherish the open space, the friendliness, that small towns are a great place to raise kids and wonderful places to retire.
Take Schagen, The Netherlands, for example. This small city located in North Holland exudes small-town friendliness. I’ve met numerous people whose families have lived here for generations. If you walk around with these folks, they wave frequently, because they are either related to, went to school with or somehow know the majority of the people around them. And if they don’t know you, that small-town friendliness is still extended to you. I’m not saying they blindly embrace you, but they give you the benefit of the doubt until you prove them wrong.
I loathed this “everybody knows everybody” idea growing up, but now I see its values. There’s no checking your humanity at the curb. You can walk around with your full humanity all of the time, because for the most part, you know who’s looking for trouble, and if you don’t know, someone else does. You are accountable to your community and to yourself. That doesn’t mean that everybody always does the right thing, but they’re certainly more motivated to try.
I’ve lived in Schagen for six short months, and I can already feel my roots longing to unfurl. These same roots were curled into tight balls of resistance with no intention of letting down when I lived in The Hague. I had similar experiences when I lived in Boston and even a bit of that sensation in Santa Barbara. It’s not that I didn’t open up in those places. On the contrary. I developed deep social networks and friendships in those cities that have enriched my life and humanity.
Nevertheless, I never felt completely at home. Living in a small town offers something a city can never provide me: inner peace and calm. Here, I am more relaxed, more open. I can breathe again. People aren’t in a hurry. They’re friendly and there’s time for one another.
I know it’s not the same for everyone. I have friends, cosmopolitan, cultural types that would view living in a small town as a death sentence to their creative soul, as a disconnect from the contemporary world that is so lush and brazen and exciting in its diversity. True. All true. But here’s the difference. When you live in a small, friendly, human-scale town surrounded by fields of crops, waterways, windswept dikes, long stretches of cycling paths and cows and sheep grazing in great expanses of open pasture, it’s like you are attending a subtle, year-round mindfulness retreat. Mindful of each other. Mindful of nature.
This peaceful energy enters you as if by osmosis. Whether intentional or not, you and your neighbors have absorbed this friendly mentality and freeing open space into your souls.
Now when I go to the big city, it’s as if I carry that space within me; like I’ve been inoculated with a small-town vaccine that protects me from indifference and keeps my humanity fully intact. Now, when I leave home and go to the big city, I do so with a fresh perspective. From this space, I can immerse myself in the wild city pulse of Amsterdam, hear a hundred different languages while walking the city streets of The Hague, and do so with my heart wide open. I can tolerate all of the people and traffic and chaos with the knowledge that at the end of the day, I will return to my small town, to my year-round mindfulness retreat.
I’m quite sure if I’d grown up in a big city, rather than a little village, I’d have another perspective on all of this, and believe that my humanity is 100% intact all of the time. But after eight years of living in a densely populated urban environment, I am more certain than ever that I am best suited for a small town. Only in such a personal environment can I let my roots once again unfurl.
Have you had that experience where you are interested in a specific topic or thing, and suddenly, you come across it everywhere you go? For example, when I was pregnant, I suddenly saw pregnant women everywhere. It was so uncanny, that I thought there must be a baby boom. There wasn’t. I saw all those pregnant women because my focus and awareness had shifted based on my current life experience.
So when I got a puppy this past November, I was suddenly aware of all things dog. There are many upsides to this all-things-dog awareness, but also a downside; like down there on the ground on the grass or even on the sidewalk. Yeah. I’m talking shit. And unfortunately, those poop chunks and the dog owners who don’t clean them up are now the things I notice everywhere I go.
I thought I’d share a photo gallery of my little producer rather than the product itself, because let’s face it, dog poop is gross, and I have yet to meet a person who hasn’t at some point in their lives, stepped in a pile of it.
Now imagine you have a puppy who explores the world by putting everything in her mouth, and suddenly you are looking at those stretches of green grass with a whole new perspective. Everything is a threat, from a piece of plastic, a cigarette butt or grosser yet, another dog’s droppings. Due to this newfound perspective, I have seen in detail just how much poop is left on the ground and it is not only disgusting and irresponsible, but also seriously bad news from an environmental and health standpoint.
I don’t understand dog owners who think it’s okay to leave their dog’s shit on the ground. In what universe is leaving poop bombs in public open space a good idea? I thought about writing a short story about dog poop as an example of the difference daily steps can make if just one more person takes action. If just one dog owner, who currently turns a blind eye every time their dog defecates, were to actually start cleaning that poop up, they could make a molehill out of a mountain! Now imagine a campaign where a bunch of remiss dog owners join in and start picking up after their dogs. Suddenly Dutch sidewalks and green areas nationwide would be much cleaner and dog owners more socially considerate! I don’t know if it would be a very interesting short story, but I think it would be, like Ellen, relatable.
Speaking of stories, I am currently readingMy Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. At one point, the fictional main character attends a writing workshop by fictional author Sarah Payne. Lucy reflects about something this author said during the workshop: “‘You will have only one story,’ she had said. ‘You’ll write your story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.'”
This struck me as true and untrue at the same time. Are all the story ideas I have just a new version of the same old story? Does this one-story idea also apply to non-fiction? Are all blog posts different versions of the same story? John Steinbeck had a more complex explanation of this same concept in his novel East of Eden.
“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?”
While I was reading My Name is Lucy Barton, my son was sitting beside me with a pile of books at his side. He’d rather be sitting in front of his PS4, but there’s a reason he was sitting next to those books. My son wants a cell phone and we came up with a complicated list of things he needs to do before he is eligible to get one. On the list is reading a minimum of five novels (Hey, whatever it takes to get your pre-teen to read!). Donald Duck and other comic or heavily-illustrated books (think of The 52 Story Treehouse) don’t count. He was having trouble deciding on a novel, so I pulled five from his shelf. The Lightning Thief and The Hobbit were among the choices written in English. He skipped over those and picked up Alone on a Wide Wide Sea by Michael Morpurgo. He weighed it in his hands, perhaps noting that it lacked the heft of the other books in the stack, and flipped to the back cover to read the blurb.
“I feel like I already read this one,” he said.
“No. I don’t think you have,” I responded.
“Yeah. True. I haven’t read it, but I read the summary on the back and there’s a kid that goes on a journey and is trying to find a lost family member, and goes on a long adventure where strangers help him. It’s like his other novel Twist of Gold; the same old story but with a different set up. I don’t feel like going through that story again.”
An eleven year old on the topic of the same old story.
My son had just reconfirmed the concept that there is only one story that people tell. It struck me as profound and sad and insightful all at once. Although my son seemed to enjoy reading Twist of Gold, he already knew the formula and considered it all just one story.
I thought about my first novel Green, where a young environmentalist, disheartened by a major oil spill, sets out to inspire others to make daily changes to reduce their dependency on oil. One theme in the novel was the idea that the actions taken by an individual actually do matter.
Wait! Isn’t my short story idea about a dog owner finally cleaning up his own dog’s poop basically another version of the same story? Or as Steinbeck once said in his only-one-story concept: “‘. . . the hard, clean questions. Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?’” In other words, have I picked up that dog poop?
I suppose that the individual is the heart of every story, whether it is fiction, a news broadcast or a campaign featuring an individual’s struggle to connect us with a global issue. It is what strikes a chord in our soul, what makes a global, distant problem shrink down to the individual, human level. Where we shift from indifference to saying: Woah, that could have been me, or yes, I do care about this person’s story and I choose to be part of the solution. I choose for the good.
If you bring it all down to the most basic level, the one story is this: Clean up your own shit and the shit of your dog. Everyone will be happier in the end, including you.