I Don’t want to Live in a Monochrome World

Santa Ynez, Calilfornia (photo credit: Todd Anderson)

I grew up in Solvang, California, a quaint Danish-themed town founded in 1911 by two Danish ministers and a Danish professor. Solvang, which means Sunny Field in Danish, is nestled in the Santa Ynez Valley,  a rural area full of equestrian ranches, farms, vineyards, old barns, Christian churches and long and winding roads.

People were either Christians and Catholics or ‘folks who didn’t go to church’ and the majority voted Republican. I never saw a person in a headscarf or turban the entire time I lived in the valley.

Although the majority of us lived in the surrounding countryside, downtown Solvang was a tourist town. This gave residents a chance to encounter tourists from all over the world, but they were just passing through. So you might say the closest we got to embracing diversity was selling the tourists Danish pastries, souvenirs and bottles of wine.

Walking down the covered outdoor halls in high school, it was not uncommon to see one of my cowboy classmates practicing his lasso technique in between classes. (What was his name? Junior? That sweet guy who died in a car accident our sophomore year?)

There were boys with muscles earned on the football or water polo team and other boys layered with muscles from work on their family farms.

Just before I started high school, a movie theater came to the neighbouring town a few miles away. After all these years, the town of Solvang still doesn’t have it’s own movie theatre, though it does boast an outdoor theater for theatrical performances and we celebrate Danish Days each September.

The human landscape of my school was a vast sea of milky white Caucasians (a number of which had Danish ancestry); perhaps 15 percent of students from Mexico, Central or South America, a handful of classmates with varying percentages of Chumash Indian in their blood and only three students in the entire school with gorgeously dark equatorial skin.

One year I went to high school prom with my friend Ali, who happened to be one of the three aforementioned students (in this case from Ethiopia). He picked me up in a sleek car he had borrowed from his father (Mercedes? Jaguar?) and took me to a fancy restaurant. I was so nervous in my silly black and white prom dress. My requisite high heels felt like torture to a young woman who preferred tennis shoes any given day of the week. I walked gingerly in my heels like a delicate, breakable thing, the tomboy in me appalled by the pain in my feet and the low dipping neckline of my prom dress.

Ali was just a friend, yet there it was. We were going to prom together. And surely that suggested that we were at least open to the idea of being more than friends?  I think we were both contemplating this unspoken suggestion as we sat like elegant grown ups at one of the best restaurants in the valley, the white table cloths, china plates and stylish silverware a fitting presentation for the three course meal on its way.

As we ate our first course, Ali glanced over at me, his eyes darting nervously downward to that low cut v in my neckline and back up again. I could feel the heat in my cheeks. Why was he looking there? He was such a proper young man and yet his eyes were, what, checking me out?

“Um. You’ve got, um . . .” he motioned with his elegant fingers toward that v exposing my cleavage. My eyes followed to where he was pointing and I discovered a damp spinach leaf plastered to my chest.

Visual borrowed from http://www.onceuponachef.com

“Oh.” I excused myself and went to the restroom to remove the offensive leaf, wipe the olive oil and balsamic dressing from my skin and try to do something about the deep flush of embarrassment coloring my cheeks.

When we arrived at the dance, I ran into a friend (let’s call her Laura for the sake of storytelling) who had clearly gotten her hands on some wine coolers (it was the late 80s folks), as I could smell the sweet alcohol on her breath.

winecooler-wine-cooler-brands“Is that your date?” Laura asked, nodding toward Ali.

“Yes,” I responded, confused by the strange tone of her voice.

“He’s black. ” Laura squeezed her otherwise pretty face into a mask of ugliness.

I recognize racism in action just as much as the next person, but I honestly didn’t get it. If anything, I was a bit jealous of all that pigment that protected Ali’s skin from the hot valley weather while my fair skin required copious amounts of sunscreen.  And now I felt somehow judged because . . . he’s black. Yes. And?

That’s pretty much where the conversation with Laura ended. Although I’d hung out at her house a number of times, we’d drifted apart in high school and this one little act was like an invisible nail in the invisible coffin of our friendship.

I don’t think Laura was representative of the majority of people in my school, but her sentiments weren’t exactly new either. I’d heard a few derogatory comments from my classmates over the years about people of color and homosexuals, but in general, racist sentiments where usually the sort of stupid B.S. you’d hear from older generations, not people my own age. After all, we grew up post-segregation, post civil rights, post sixties. And despite the negative stereotypes culture pressed upon us through media, our idols included Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Prince and a long list of beautifully-tinted others. The way I reasoned, my home town was an isolated little community in the countryside, but still– everyone had heard of Martin Luther King and his dream.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but that little encounter at a school dance in my youth was a defining moment for me. I might not have had the words to express it back then, but I craved something bigger, broader, more exciting and challenging. I didn’t want to live in a monochrome world. I craved culture and diversity and friends who wouldn’t screw up their face if my prom date was black, wouldn’t blink if two guys were dancing to my right and two girls making out on my left. This didn’t come to me like some sort of manifesto of how I wanted to live my life, but it was one of many moments that have brought me to where I am now.

My views might have been affected by the fact that my oldest brother was dating a woman who was half African American, half German who would end up being his wife one day and eventually become his ex-wife. In the meantime, they would have two children whose beautiful skin tones I would also envy, and his children would grow into adulthood and bring about another generation of children with superior skin tones.

My other brother, an artist who spent some time playing in a punk band and traveled to Europe years before I even knew what a passport looked like, also played a big role in showing me what diversity looked like.

Diversity followed me wherever I went. Or maybe I sought it out, from a year at the University of Hawaii where I experienced what it was like to be a minority; playing in a reggae band during my university years and eventually marrying a man from another culture–albeit Caucasian like me– and eventually moving abroad.

Perhaps I was destined to live in The Hague, the international city of Peace  & Justice. I am neither a majority or a minority, I am simply one nationality among many, all taking the same trams, going to the theaters, planning a weekend trip to the beach. My son’s Dutch elementary school has more than 40 nationalities. I’m pretty good at spelling, but am seriously challenged when I try to spell the names of his friends and schoolmates: Abdounoor (spelling?) Rashinella (sp?), Gonjhairo, Basit . . . you get the picture.

My hometown has a population of 5,245.  The Hague is a wee bit bigger. I particularly like the category of ‘other’ with a population of 129,242, which makes up close to 25% of The Hague’s population. Come to think of it, as an American, I am the ‘other.’

Screen Shot 2018-03-25 at 14.42.58

My home town breaks down a bit differently:

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I still love Solvang, and the Santa Ynez Valley in which it is nestled and wouldn’t trade my upbringing for anything. I am grateful to have maintained contact over the years with friends from this precious time in my life and I still consider this beautiful valley my home. But I am also thankful that my son is growing up bilingual in such a culturally diverse world.

Do you still live in your home town? Or have you traveled far from your place of origin? What has it done to change you? If you’ve lived away for a number of years, would you be able to move ‘home’ and assimilate, or do you think it would cramp your style?

(Strange. I wrote this post on April 29th and it published as March, 2017! What’s going on WordPress? Or is this an operator error?)



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.

Breaking bread with refugees

Something kind of amazing happened in the last few weeks here in The Hague. Robin de Jong, who works for STEK, created a think tank to come up with ideas to welcome the refugees from Syria, Eritrea and other countries who are temporarily housed in our neighborhood through December 31st, 2015.

Robin de Jong, STEK and Minister Ruud Stiemer, Christus Triumfatorkerk
Robin de Jong, STEK and Minister Ruud Stiemer, Christus Triumfatorkerk

The think tank quickly brought together ministers from multiple churches and other organizational leaders to brainstorm on the best way to help this population within a short time frame.

Thing is, groups like this, despite their best intentions, quite often get bogged down by finding a date that works for everyone to gather, proposing ideas to church boards or government organizations, trying to get budgets approved, waiting for responses, etc. But because the 600 refugees in our neighborhood are only here for a total of 6 weeks, we had to act swiftly . . and we did!

Multiple events have been formed in the last few weeks, from concerts and high teas, to shared meals and exercise programs. But this post is mainly about a meal that changed my perspective about the refugees.

This past Monday, we organized a dinner for 30 refugees and 30 people from the neighborhood in our church with a theme of bringing people together to break bread and learn about each other as individuals, rather than as concepts.

Refugees and neighbors from the area sharing a meal together.

In other words, a “refugee” and all the preconceived notions we might have formed about them via our exposure to the media, is replaced by a table mate who is a real person with a name, a history and stories to share. And “we”, their temporary neighbors or potential future countrymen, are also transformed from strangers to people who look them in the eyes and listen to them speak, whether it is about their favorite foods, a fiancé back home, or their trials in fleeing their war-torn nations and leaving loved ones behind.

Syrian chef Tarik (That’s rosemary from my garden in his pocket!)

The Hague branch of Vluchtelingenwerk, who helps support the refugees, found out that one of the refugees was a chef from Damascus, the capital of Syria. Before long, we had enlisted him to cook an authentic Syrian meal and recruited a few more refugees to work as translators from Arabic to English.

Friends of ours who come from Arabic nations who are fluent in Arabic and Dutch also volunteered to help cook. The Diaconie from our church, and Bezuidenhoutfonds both made financial contributions. More volunteers from the neighborhood as well as our own cook and volunteers from the weekly meal made for the elderly enlisted to help. In other words, people from five different cultures, multiple organizations and committees came together to quickly turn an idea into a reality.

As one of the organizers, I was a bit stressed, wondering if we could pull off this kind of event in one week’s time. We sent invitations around via e-mail, asking everyone to share the invitation with anyone they thought might want to register. A few days before the event, we had all 30 slots for the refugees full, but only twelve neighbors registered. A bit more recruiting and the list began to grow.


The evening of the event, we had 35 neighbors and 35 refugees turn out for the shared meal. The refugees were thankful to be outside the center, grateful for the food and all of the effort, and pleased by the chance to interact with others.


The neighbors who signed up felt thankful for the opportunity to interact and connect with this group of fellow humans who have been through such harrowing experiences, but are still surprisingly upbeat and willing to share their stories.

And Tarik the chef, who cooked from 10:00am until 6:00pm at night without stopping, did an amazing job of turning out a delectable buffet of authentic Syrian dishes.

Photos courtesy Frouckje van der Wal
Photos courtesy Frouckje van der Wal

2015-12-07_maaltijd_CTK_36 2015-12-07_maaltijd_CTK_562015-12-07_maaltijd_CTK_52








Word must of spread, because our second planned “Maal en Verhaal” is already completely sold out!

It wasn’t until a few days after the shared meal that I realized the significance of such an event: I see with different eyes. Fears are dispelled. You read the news differently and think about “the other” differently. You realize that acts of kindness, compassion and understanding are the steps needed to understand others and create common ground across cultures and beliefs.

I hope that if I have to flee my country–whether it be from a war, extreme poverty or a country made uninhabitable by drought or flooding from climate change–I pray that others receiving me as a refugee will recognize me for what I am: a person just like you with a desire to pick up the pieces and live my life.

Not everyone is pleased that the refugees are here. However, goodwill seems to be outweighing the negativity born of fear.

Other great events are popping up all over the neighborhood, including an action to provide a Christmas dinner for all 600 refugees spread out in six different churches and businesses.







Get your Green on April 18th, 2015 with Earth Day The Netherlands, Bezuidenhout Style

Are you interested in making some changes in your life to lessen your impact on the environment, but aren’t sure where to start? Do you live in The Hague area and wonder what sort of environmental non-profit organizations (stichtingen) are out there and what it is that they do? Do you want to learn about the environment and meet others interested in sustainable living? Do you like festival-like events with music, organic food, eco-shopping and hands-on activities all in a social and educational atmosphere?

If you thought “yes,” or even “maybe” to any of the above questions, then come to Earth Day The Netherlands 2015. This one-day event will bring the International Earth Day concept to The Hague, giving Dutch and Internationals alike a chance to celebrate Earth Day and take action for the earth. Planning on coming? Let us know on Facebook by registering for the event here.

What: Earth Day The Netherlands (The Hague, Bezuidenhout)
When: Saturday, April 18th, 2015
Time: 11:00-15:00
Location: Meeting Rooms at Christus Triumfatorkerk
Juliana van Stolberglaan 154, 2595 CL, The Hague
Why come? To learn about the environment in a fun, festival-like setting.
Admission: Free

Earth Day Netherlands 2015 is shaping up to be a wonderful event. Who is welcome? Anyone interested in learning more about the environment! This event is for people who live in the Bezuidenhout neighborhood, but also for people who live anywhere in the Netherlands interested in connecting with others about sustainable living and action.
Here is a partial list of organizations participating. Information on musicians, eco-vendors and speakers will be provided in upcoming posts. Please SHARE this post on your blog, on your Facebook page, on twitter, etc. Thank you!

Eco Non-Profits
A rocha Den Haag
Duurzaam Bezuidenhout
Duurzaam Den Haag Haagse Krach Karavaan Project
Oiko Credit 
Repair Café Den Haag
Sea First Foundation


The Smile

I’ve lived in Holland, or The Netherlands, for four years now. It didn’t take me all that time to recognize the smile, but now that I have seen its many permutations, I feel its about time to write about it.

The Dutch are used to being straight forward. Its one of the traits you will read about in any manual on getting to know the Dutch culture. But surprisingly, The Smile is not always intentional. And what they do with it, once it has come, is very telling.

It first appears in the eyes of a native Dutch speaker during conversation, indicating that they have noticed something. And then, as this small realization settles more firmly into their conscience, the puppet strings of the mind attached to the corner of the Dutch mouth tug upward, pulling their lips into a smirk. They can no longer concentrate on the conversation underway, as they must ask the question.

The more refined members of the population delay the question out of courtesy to the conversation unfolding. They know the question lingers, but they focus on the exchange of information between two people, setting the question aside, or even choosing not to ask it at all. They are golden; ambassadors.

Others forget their manners and blurt out the question after your first few words. And then there is the group that doesn’t even ask the question, but chooses the statement form, to show some sort of Sherlock Holmes ingenuity–as if I was trying to fool them and got caught.

“You’re not Dutch.”

The tone and word choice of my answer are influenced by a number of factors including my mood, their age and the demeanor of their smile.

“No shit, Sherlock!” (Sarcastic response appropriate for someone your age or younger, who is not a client, a member of the government, or the person about to make your sandwich.)

“No. I’m not. I’m from America.” (Polite response to be given to clients, people older than you, a member of the government, the person making your lunch and old people with hearing problems).

The problem with this “You’re not Dutch, are you?” question/statement is that the non-native speaker is then caught on a precipice of internal debate. Did they make this comment because of my foreign accent, or did I make a huge, grammatical error? Wrong verb tense, wrong word order? Shit shit shit! This sort of internal dialogue is like throwing a bucket of ice-cold water on the libido of conversation; the chances of peak performance shrivel up rapidly.

Because if you were carrying on a conversation in your native language with a fellow native speaker, no one is going to interrupt the conversation mid sentence to question you about your origin. And if they do, it has nothing to do with your proficiency in the language, but with their curiosity about your cultural background.

The following step in the dialogue is rather insightful. The Sherlock types seem to stand a bit taller, the smile becomes a bit shrewder and they take liberties to correct you at the slightest error, their eyes gleaming with a sense of domination, teaching the simple non-native the finer points of Dutch intercourse. If you encounter this type, don’t bother to talk with them further. They are a waste of your time and energy.

The ambassador types, which seem to be prolific in The Hague, are used to an international environment. They are quick to praise you for your ability to speak Dutch and the efforts you make to use their native language despite the fact that most Dutch are quite fluent in English. And most importantly, their smile, which glints across their face, is one of encouragement, not condescension.

I know you all can’t help the smile. I’m sure I do it too when I hear you speak English. When you all say “He learned me this” instead of “he taught met this”, or the way you all sound when you sing English songs; the way the words are clipped off at the wrong places; I get it. It is smile worthy.

I realize there is a cute factor, but in general, there are not many adults that appreciate being thought of as cute when they are talking to you–including you!

So, with all due respect, unless you can learn from the ambassador types described above, get that damned smile off your face Sherlock, and realize that 1) Dutch is a very difficult language without much practical use outside of your very small country 2) most foreigners don’t even bother to learn Dutch, as they can get along just fine with English here. So those of us that are taking the time and interest to learn your language are doing so out of interest in you. You don’t need to laugh at us. 3). I’m not nearly as angry as you think I am. I enjoy learning your language!

Rothko at the Gemeente Museum

Can an artist portray emotions of happiness, fear or ecstasy through the sole use of rectangular shapes of color?  Can they do so without explanation or words? That is the question that came to the forefront Saturday afternoon during a visit to the Gemeentemuseum to view the Rothko exhibit

I have to admit, his large swaths of color, with their soft edges and meditative yet simple rectangular shapes do elicit feelings in me. But not, perhaps, what he intended. We have seen Rothko exhibits before in San Francisco, and I’ve seen a sampling of his work in New York as well. But never before have I spent so much time contemplating them, and letting the colors and feelings wash over me.

imageMy tendency, as a social female and a writer, is to write about the art I see and to discuss them in terms of color and shape. But as I read about the artist, I soon realized he had an aversion to people trying to convey his art through words. Words, according to Rothko, desecrate the art. And they are not about color either; they are about the emotions; about a personal relationship between the painting and the viewer and the emotions that are evoked. They are intentionally hung low on the wall, so the viewer can “step into” the painting, and really experience the art.

As if to drive his point home, all of his works are untitled, as in the name of the paintings are Untitled, followed by the year they were created. Thus, without a title, we lean toward a description through color. “The one with the purple on top and black on bottom edged in orange.” More words, not feelings. But colors are known to be associated with feelings and terminology.

Red: anger, passion, danger, love.
Blue: calm, serene, sad.
Gold: regal, wealthy, happy, holy.
You get the idea. Colors are also a language of emotions. Yet who is to say if these color associations are universal?


Coronation of the Virgin, by Enguerrand Quarton, 1454
Coronation of the Virgin, Enguerrand Quarton, 1454

Take this untitled cobalt blue and gold Rothko painting above. What do you experience when you see it? For me, I see a spiritual work of art.

The gold rectangle in the upper third pulls to my mind the halos encircling the heads of angels and biblical figures from the fifteenth century a la Corination of the Virgin style (right). The deep cobalt blue reminds me of opulent gowns and the richness of a night sky.

But my associations have a lot to do with my Catholic upbringing and my western orientation with color and art. How would a Muslim woman or man experience this Rothko painting? Or a Hindu? Or someone with a western upbringing who has never entered a church in their lives?

Or how about the happiness and warmth I felt BEFORE I listened to the commentary about this painting. It was one of Rothko’s smaller canvases that he painted during a period of depression, right before he swallowed pills and slit his wrists, ending his troubled life. So much for the happiness that had enveloped me.

What was Rothko striving for in his paintings? As observers, we like to discuss the art. Take this man for example; he stood before the painting, gesturing with his hands, explaining a concept to his son–a concept that was not laid out in the untitle of the painting or in the curator’s interpretation of the art, as these were rather non-existent. image

So for an artist who didn’t want to be categorized, refused to participate in many group shows, and was very controlling of how his art was presented, what was he actually trying to convey?

This explanation struck home: image





In case that’s too hard to read, let me pull out a few excerpts:

“I am not interested in colour.” He regarded color as merely a means of expressing something far greater: something sacred, almost divine, that would only be desecrated by the introduction of language.

When I read this, I imagine a man who was extremely controlling and difficult, but also a man that strived to connect in a beautiful way–through the core; trying to touch the essence of what makes us human.

I liken this to the conundrum that is meditation; we can talk all we want about how to do it, but it is in the practice of meditation and the silence of the mind that we get to the essence of spirit. I imagine Rothko would like us to experience his paintings in the same way: Stop talking, be in the moment, step inside my painting and experience the emotions waiting there to engulf you. Sorry Rothko, I’m using words again to imagine your artistic desires and to say just how much I appreciate the feelings you evoke in me through your art.

It’s been 40 years since such an extensive Rothko exhibit came to the Netherlands, so don’t miss your chance! Rothko’s work is on display at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague through March 1, 2015.