Crazy Man, Art and Happiness Jars

Kat, an old roommate of mine who is an adult with A.D.D. once explained what every day was like for her. She hears and notices everything –each sound amplified and recorded in her mind, demanding equal attention. Her life is rich with detail, but such richness has a downside.
“It can be overwhelming,” she said.

In my New Year’s quest to be more present and aware of my surroundings, I had a semi-Kat day this past Sunday.

After church, still dressed in our finest, we decided to head to the Gemeente Museum. There is an exhibition called “Mondriaan en de Stijl,” in which two of my favorite Mondriaan’s were on display: The Red Tree and an the Windmill in Sunlight.

Evening, the Red Tree, by Piet Mondriaan 1908-1910

I stood before these paintings transfixed. I stepped closer to take in the brush strokes. Stepped away to see the whole. Their unnaturally bright hues cracked open the color palette of expectation, and created a jolt in me, as if someone has snuck up and scared me. But instead of fear, the shock that coursed through my body was one of anarchistic excitement. He dared to paint a windmill blood orange and red, a tree crimson with cobalt underlining.

Windmill in Sunlight by Piet Mondriaan, 1908

I lingered before the paintings, waiting for the shock of excitement to dull within me. My son and husband had moved on to the Museon, an interactive children’s museum attached to the Gemeente Museum by an interior corridor, and I longed to find them, bring them before these paintings and see if they had the same experience. But the museum was closing in half an hour.

A third painting also pulled me in. Its familiar to me, as if a friend had a poster of it on a wall at some point in my past. In person, it dazzled me in its snapshot of raucous joy; ladies and gentlemen dressed to the nines, dancing beneath the swirling lights–lights so brilliant and abstract that they could be candelabras of the Aurora Borealis interpreted in whites and golds.

Bal Tabarin by Jan Sluijters, 1907

I realize art is a personal thing and affects us all differently. I mentioned the Sluijters painting to my husband, who had seen it many times, and his shrug-of-the-shoulders indifference grated against my enthusiasm.

The clock struck five. We bundled up in our coats and hats and headed for the tram, waiting with all of the other museum goers who had stayed until closing time. While we waited, we watched an elderly couple step into a silver BMW roadster. The woman drove away carefully.

When the tram arrived, we boarded with the other museum goers, filling up the tram.

“Just be honest with me, damn it! Can I really fly to Indonesia for € 480? Come on, don’t lie to me! I’m sick of all the lying from the telemarketers! You look like you’re from there. A good lie will do too.” His voice boomed from the last car in the tram. People turned toward him, pulled by the loud intrusion of his voice. I glanced too, catching his clear, wild eyes, his dark hair, before looking away. A man in his thirties speaking Dutch with the accent of a foreigner who has somehow come to stay here too long. I didn’t see the person next to him, his current prisoner, as he kept yelling.

“And all those refugees! Giving them food, a place to stay, allowing their homosexuality! What a bunch of bullshit our government! How can we allow it!”

People stopped turning toward him. Even the children on the tram instinctively knew not to make eye contact. We made eye contact with each other instead; strangers glancing toward each other, as if to say, “It’s rather sad, really. Just ignore him. I apologize for the inconvenience.”

He finally got off the tram, and the whole car decompressed, as if we let out a collective breath. The driver came out of his cabin and walked all the way to the back in search of the offending man, but he had already departed. What would an abstract painting of this man and his crazed negativity look like?

In the evening, I suggested an activity for my family: a happiness jar. Each evening, we write down something that made us happy that day and put it in the jar. They both looked at me over the leftovers on our dinner plates in true Dutch fashion: slightly annoyed, yet lackadaisically tolerant.

“I need an unhappy jar, too.” My husband said.

“Yeah. Then I would write I’m unhappy because there’s a happy jar,”my son added, a devilish grin on his face. They laughed together at their own cleverness.  I set  jars before them, cut up an old envelope for pieces of paper, gave them pens. Everyone wrote something and placed it in the jar. I’m not sure if it made them happy or not, but we’ll carry on.




January 1, 2016 Impressions

It started in the early hours of the morning with a round of Pommery champagne as we join strangers on the corner, all gazing skyward at the sparkling, cascading mayhem of gunpowder disguised as fireworks; aware, like someone on a new frontier, that no one is in charge; anything is possible.

Long after our New Year’s party breaks up and we’ve retired to the comfort of our bed and drawn the thick curtains, the fireworks continue. Demonstrating the surprising tenacity and spending power of our neighbors near and far, the crackling, booming and popping continues throughout the witching hours, slowly diminishing in frequency as the early morning light fills the sky.

Oatmeal for breakfast at 11:15am. I am hung over more from firecracker -induced lack of sleep than from the Pommery. Under such circumstances, the sunshine outside lacks its usual appeal. But our Vitamin-D-challenged reality urges us out of the door anyway, and we start walking.

Waiting at The Hague Central Station for Tram 9, we see the return tram arrive across the platform with everyone inside wearing the same bright orange hats. It takes a moment, but my husband and I suddenly get what’s going on.

“Was het koud?” I ask the first of the young men who come off the tram and cross toward us. They nod, proud, pleased with the acknowledgment of what they have done. It will be crowded at the beach, but that doesn’t deter us.

My son asks me why I asked the man if he was cold. I explain that every year on New Year’s day, a lot of Dutch people head to the North Sea for the polar bear swim—meaning that they dive in the ice-cold sea and then come out again. Unox, a company that sells things like canned soup, has apparently monopolized on the situation by giving away a bright orange cap to all who jump in the sea, the lemming of hats. But there are no free hats: each crazy that has jumped into the North sea to jump-start the new year heads off into the city as a walking UNOX advertisement.

We catch the tram and walk to the sand. Our pace is lazy, slow. I take pictures. My son plays in the sand. The sun shines. I feel simple happiness that must be a basic instinct as we walk together.

I remember a photo that’s still in my Facebook from over 10 years ago. One of my husband and I on a beach in Southern California, back when we were first dating, yet unaware that we had found our life partners in each other.

We take a selfie while my son jumps in the background, too short to do a real photo bomb.

Our friends meet us on the beach. They bring a soccer ball and the boys and men jump into action, laughter, yells, running—a burst of energy that seems to be drawn from some sort of male fusion.

I am happy to see my girlfriend. We chat, hug, breathe in the crisp air. She has a belated birthday present for me that gleams in the sunshine when I take it out of the black and white wrapping paper.

We watch a group of fraternity boys heading to the ocean in ties and swimsuits. On their return trip, I ask if I can take a photo. They pose grandly, cheering, their wet chests jutted forward as they shiver in the growing wind so a stranger can take a picture.frat boys Scheveningen 1-1-2016.JPG

Later, at home, we all do our own things. The big one naps, the little one watches a movie, I rewrite the last chapter of my book.

Feeling a mild sense of accomplishment, I go online and see a post from a Syrian refugee I had the honor of meeting during his six weeks in The Hague. I ask him how the new refugee center is where he’s been transferred. He is conscientious in his answer; honest, but not overly critical. I ask if there were fireworks last night.

He says yes, they were nice, but then they reminded him of the war.

Last night, during our party with champagne and conversation about politics, literature, education, we also wondered how the refugees would respond to the fireworks. It was a light conversation. Now it is a hard reality. It reminds them of the war, a war that is still going on.

I look up the town where my refugee friend has been sent and it is not a town at all, but a refugee center surrounded by farmland. They are not allowed to learn. There is nothing for them to do. I don’t get it. I wonder what is wrong with our government. I realize it is complicated, that there are too many refugees all at once for our country to handle in a proper manner.

I try to imagine myself as a problem solver, finding a way to create jobs and a livelihood for the handful of refugees I have come to know in the last six weeks. I am clearly aware that I want to help those I know, even if I’ve only met them a few times. Could we all adopt-a-refugee and together, create a shared economy where everyone benefits? Do such thoughts make me a Marxist? A communist? Do others think like I do?

A friend sends me a text asking if she can take me to a film to belatedly celebrate my birthday. As a close-to Christmas baby, I am used to belated birthday offers. I concur. We set a date. I temporarily forget about my refugee friend on the other side of the country.

It is late, but I skype New Zealand anyway. I talk to my friend for an hour, hearing about his life there, his accomplishments. He asks me if I’ve written another book. I say I have. His eyebrows go up. Perhaps it was just a polite question, but he says, “I had a feeling you had. Is it another romance?”


“Oh.” His smile is half pity, half amusement.

“But that’s okay with me,” I explain more for myself than for him. “I like writing romance because they bring hope, are about love, and have happy endings. And what I want most in life for people is that they have love and happiness in their lives.”

My words ring true. That would probably be my mission statement if I were a corporation.

I think of Tarek, Julia, of Nidal. Of Majd, Kinda, all the other refugees I have met who have hope in their eyes, despite the war, the terror, fleeing for their lives. Wonder if that hope will still exist in their eyes six months from now, a year from now. What our government will do with them. What we will do, can do, to ease their journey here and aid them in becoming self-sufficient, getting back their dignity.

It’s late. I’m looking forward to reading another chapter of Light Years by James Salter before I go to sleep. I hear the trams running in the night. I hear my son shifting in his sleep. I think of my friends April and Jaime and the beautiful little baby boy that has come into their lives.

I think of the 5:00pm sermon on New Year’s eve where the minister read Ecclesiastes 3:2, how appropriate it was for a New Year’s service.

1There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven– 2A time to give birth and a time to die; A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted. 3A time to kill and a time to heal; A time to tear down and a time to build up.…

Tomorrow will be another day, with another opportunity to gain impressions of life unfolding in 2016.