Ask and You Shall Receive

We’ve all heard of the power of intention. Ask and you shall receive. So what happens when your intentions are only half formed? Does the universe still provide?

Arie Jan and I have an ongoing fantasy of living in an intentional community, yet the fantasy has a nebulous quality. Sometimes we picture ourselves in an urban eco-village with a square block of apartment buildings surrounding an urban garden and teaching facility. Other times we envision a rural eco-village hinged around a sprawling organic farm, waterways and forest. People gather together to work on various projects that are important to them and have a healthy social life with one another, although not overly social.

The members of the community are united by a shared mission statement of how to live with one another and how to respect the planet—a mission statement we have yet to define. Sometimes we think the community should be tied together through faith, other times we think it should be a cross section of society, believers and non-believers alike.

Although my husband and I are drawn to community, we are also private people who like closing the door at the end of the day. As you can see, our vision is not so clearly defined. Yet as our life begins to unfold here in Holland, we have the uncanny sensation that the universe has answered our half formed intentions to live within an intentional community.

Monasteries aside, I had never thought of a church as an intentional community. Sure, people attend voluntarily and share a common belief and intention. But, I view an intentional community as people who live together, and church members don’t live at the church. But, as a matter of fact, we do live at the church. And in doing so, we have become more known to this congregation in just a few short months than we did in two years at the last church we attended. Church members have given us everything from stuffed animals for Ezra, to plates, pots and pans, garden furniture, couches, tables and dressers.

I joined a group of volunteers one morning to prepare Easter breakfast for 90 other church members. As we poured juice and set little bowls of butter and jelly on the tables, I felt we were part of something intentional here. As the future church managers, our living space is physically connected to the church, which provides both work and connection to a large community of people.

Although I live in an urban area surrounded by strangers, I can look out my window and see someone I know on a regular basis. Yet, when we shut the door at the end of the day, we are alone.  Although the church is not exemplary when it comes to the environment, they do have a committee that vends fair trade products one Sunday a month after church, they use real coffee and tea cups and reusable cloths for cleaning, and they are incredibly diligent when it comes to turning off the heating and lighting when not in use.

Although everyone has their own relationship with spirituality, the presumption of shared belief is there as a uniting force. Church members volunteer to work on group projects—providing meals and companionship for the elderly, outreach programs to Suriname, cleaning and maintaining the church, coming together for bible readings, etc. And, the church rents out rooms to community members—believers and non believers alike. Thus, we get to see a cross-section of society coming in and out of the doors: people from embassies and other government organizations, members of home owners associations, interesting authors and their followers, musical choirs, even classes are held here. Does this sound a bit like our half baked community idea?

When we thought of an intentional community, this is not at all what we envisioned, but we can’t help but be aware of the parallels. It’s as if this is an intentional community intro course with the ability to retreat into our residence when it’s too much–yet we are still right next door. It’s not fodder for a reality TV show, but some days I think the interactions, the problems to be solved, the annoyances, sadness and joy provide us with a real life understanding to what community is about.

Now what would happen if we really fleshed our ideal eco-village concept and wrote that mission statement? Would we find ourselves in an Italian hill town raising organic romas and lemons with a community of like minded individuals? Will we transform this church into an eco village? That’s the fun of life. There really is no telling how things will turn out.


Shopping like a Dutchie

It is the subtle, day to day differences that bring home the fact you are not in Kansas anymore, but living in a foreign country. Our trip to the Dutch grocery store Albert Hein yesterday made this all too clear.

First, the entire store is like a never ending Dutch lesson. Even if you know the basics–banaan, sla, brood, kaas, melk, (bananas, lettuce, bread, cheese, milk)–a more robust lesson is available on the back of any packaged good, from ingredients, company messaging to instructions. For example, by reading the description on the back of Ezra’s Weleda children’s toothpaste,  I learned an important collection of words that later came up in conversation and impressed my Dutch husband.

The Dutch tend to buy only what they need for the next few days and the layout of the store reflects this. The aisles are closer together, and most people shop with a small hand basket you can carry or roll on wheels with an extended handle, rather than the full cart to which we are accustomed. This tendency to buy just a little is also a reflection of preferred transportation methods of many shoppers; they buy only what they can take away by bicycle, carry down the street with two arms, or easily haul on and off the tram.

Of course, there is a universal similarity in the way a store is laid out; fruits and vegetables, dairy and bread on the perimeter; the farther in you go, the more processed the food becomes. But, in a Dutch supermarket,  the bread, dairy and cheese sections receive a disproportionate amount of real estate. I imagine the pasta, cheese and vegetable sections of an Italian grocery would similarly receive more space.

One thing that continues to throw me off is the metric system over here. Liquids are measured in deciliters and liters rather than ounces and gallons, and an egg carton offers up ten eggs, rather than our customary twelve.

Although most grocery stores are of this smaller scale, The Dutch have caught on to the Costco concept as well. A large store called Sligro, with a  parking lot full of cars and not a single bicycle in sight, is for large scale shopping by businesses, mainly restaurants and hotels. Here, you can buy 10 kilos of ground coffee, excessively large trays of meats and cheeses, commercial cleaning supplies, etc. I pushed an unwieldy cart through the store that even makes the American shopping cart look small as I accompanied my current manager on a shopping trip for the church kitchen. Although Sligro is geared toward businesses, I was offered a free Sligro membership through an Expat organization. It’s as if they think we might just buy half the store and put it all in storage in our expat basements and second freezers.

Back at the more Dutch scale neighborhood grocery store, we headed to the check out stand, in line with 20 other people who waited with noteworthy patience to purchase a handful of items.  Although I still have the desire to have a well stocked pantry, I find myself going to the store more often, and purchasing less, as if trying to do it the Dutch way. Each time, however, a few canned goods slip their way into my cart which I don’t need immediately, and my proverbial pantry grows.

Flower Power

I have received more bouquets of flowers in our last few months in Holland than I did in the last few years in the United States. Poor thing, you may think. She must not have a very romantic husband. On the contrary, my husband can be very romantic, but spontaneous bouquets of flowers have never been in his repertoire. In the past, I just accepted this as part of his character; he is the type of man who refuses to conform to the contrived dictates of society and believes in finding his own path to romantic expression. And, I also chalked it up to his being a foreigner—perhaps they do things differently over there in Holland.  But now that I’ve spent a few months in this country, he has some explaining to do.

Here, flowers are as undeniable a part of life as coffee, newspapers and bicycles. They are a centerpiece on many a dining room table, they fill window boxes and line window sills. They are arranged in pots by the front door at the first hint of spring, and are given generously to others. We received a congratulatory bouquet of flowers from a friend of the family when Arie Jan was hired as a math teacher. I was given a colorful bouquet at the church from a church member when I started training for my future position. Arie Jan’s brother and sister-in-law brought a beautiful arrangement of flowers on bicycle when we invited them to dinner, and we have received other bouquets along the way. Florists exist in every neighborhood and make a brisk business of it, suggesting the florist, like a dentist, doctor or nurse, will always be in high demand throughout the cycle of life.

Arranged bouquets have been part of our human experience for centuries. Look at the still life paintings in the great museums of the world; meticulously detailed oil on canvas depicting the brilliant colors of nature, brought forward to future generations long after the flowers wilted and the artists returned to the earth.

I don’t think Arie Jan, or anyone else knows this, but I have this deeply rooted, abject guilt I associate with receiving cut bouquets of commercially grown flowers. It’s not about guilt cultivated through my Catholic upbringing and some sense of unworthiness. It goes much deeper, like a contradiction to my basic principles. I view flowers as brilliant expressions of nature that should remain in the earth in their natural environment. Cut flowers and arranged bouquets seem a contradiction to all things organic; another example of man’s desire to control and contort nature. Just like ordering a car from the factory in any color we want, we also create hybrid flowers, modifying them to meet our choice of colors.

When I see plants in Home Depot, or other large scale corporate entities, I feel like I’m visiting the CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) of plant life. I imagine those flowers all pumped up on chemical fertilizers that are so powerful, they can survive growing in rows numbering in the thousands, being re-potted, loaded on trucks, driven across the nation, unloaded, stored, placed on a shelf, and if they’re lucky, making it into someone’s home or garden where they will live some sort of compromised existence for half a season before wilting away.

 Yet, I love receiving flowers. I too am deeply attracted to their beauty and take pride in having a bouquet on the table, and am always pleasantly surprised and emotional when someone gives me a bouquet. Some bouquets have even found their way into my shopping basket at a major grocery chain. I have purchased potted plants as well, but sought out small scale, organic nurseries, to assuage this strange guilt.

I think, if I look at it from a psychological perspective, I have my mom and dad to blame for this affliction.  I grew up in the country srrounded by wild, open space, and I have seen plants in their natural settings—wildflowers blooming on a hillside, minor’s lettuce peeking up in the shade of oak trees, those beautiful little purple flowers that have an edible bulb at the bottom, growing not far away from California poppies, crisp bushes of sage amongst the chaparral, filling the air with their medicinal essence. This is how I first experienced flowers and plants. Growing in season, coming into their glorious peak, and fading away. My mother never bought flowers at the store. But we did have flowers in the house. We would wander into the fields and pluck beautiful wildflowers, never taking too many, and would create original organic bouquets placed in colored glass bowls on the table. For the holidays, she would trim branches from plants with bright red berries and pick pine cones from the ground beneath the pine trees soaring into the air. We were foragers and our flowers never came wrapped in plastic.

Two days ago, Ezra had a little friend over to play. After they were informed that throwing rocks was off the list, Ezra turned his attention to another aspect of the yard. He plucked purple flowers from patches of a rather prolific, but pretty weed in our garden. He proceeded into the house, got a glass from the cupboard and made a flower arrangement, which he proudly presented to me. The other little boy was delighted by the experience as well, and we put water in the glass and set our first bouquet of the house on the table. I suppose some things are passed down through the generations.


One of my favorite past times in the Netherlands is going on long walks in the city and glancing into the living rooms of the urban natives. Many of the brick homes are rather uniform, with wood trimmed windows and white curtains. But the Dutch windowsill is another matter. Sure, their dimensions are quite similar and they are usually white, but it is all the little things that lie there that make them so special. It’s as if, in this crowded country, these few meters of space have been allotted for people to express their individuality. Along one street I saw; a collection of sailboats, religious figures, glass orbs and a row of potted plants—each window as different as the people within.

On a recent walk through a neighborhood in Scheveningen, I came upon a bright orange bust sitting on the windowsill. It would have been inexplicable on its own, but through the open curtains I could see large, modern art pieces that made the orange bust seem like a subtle accent. As Ezra and I walked along Riouwstraat in Den Haag on our way to a speeltuin (playground), I came upon a whole row of ground floor flats with their curtains wide open, as if inviting me to gaze inside.

But, this invitation is not without preparation, as I have yet to see a disheveled Dutch house—cluttered, yes, but always organized and clean. No plates with breadcrumbs left on the table, or half drunken cups of tea.

And then there is our house. For the first three nights, we had no curtains to draw closed, and the broad, front windowsill just happened to be the right dimensions to set papers and books, seeing as we don’t yet have any bookshelves or files set up. Thus, we are completely in violation of the Dutch windowsill code and the immaculate house code for that matter.

I felt a bit exposed those first three nights as I sat in the curtainless living room, reading a book. Outside I could see people getting on and off the tram and passing by on bicycles. Hardly anyone looked our way, but I know that a lighted house at night with the curtains open easily pulls the eye, whether you are curious or not.

We have curtains now, yet I pull them closed at night with hesitation, as I like being visually connected to the world outside. This, I think, explains the open curtains in all of those urban ground floor flats; the reality of people walking by has long been accepted, and their view outward is far more important than anyone’s gaze inward.

Writing a blog feels a bit like sitting in a private, curtainless room. You are inviting everyone to gaze inward into your brightly lit, personal space, and although you know the curtains are open, you can’t see your visual visitors.