City, Forest, Luck, Love


This morning I left the house for an early morning appointment on my two-wheeled transportation and entered bike path rush hour. I still can’t get used to seeing men and women in business attire and fancy shoes peddling along, some with children on the front or back of the bicycle en route to school drop off before heading to the office.

The morning bicycling crowd is more adamant than the afternoon crowds I’ve encountered. People lay on the bicycle bell if you’re not cycling fast enough, and if you don’t merge to the right of the bike path for them to pass, they sometimes make gutsy moves to overtake you. I witnessed that myself this morning as two teenage girls cycling at a slower pace chatting away, were overtaken by people in suits, utilizing the lengths of brick between the street lamps as a temporary third lane. If the timing wasn’t quite right and they weren’t able to cut back in time, my bet would be on the street lamp.

The sun was out, but it was bone-chilling cold. A slight mist oozed from the urban forest as I peddled by with the crowd of cyclists.

After my appointment an hour and a half later, the bike paths were quiet, the sun climbing higher in the sky.

By afternoon pick up at school, the sun was bringing a rare warmth to The Hague. Jackets were shed and faces were turned upward. Within an hour, I felt like I might actually have a sunburn, and I wanted to be inside. Ezra, acting a bit vampire like, also wanted to stay indoors, but the weather was so undeniably beautiful, I felt obligated to extend our outdoor time. I opened the patio door and we had our afternoon snack on the front porch, but not before Ezra lowered the awning to block most of the sun’s rays.

By late afternoon, we headed to the forest for dog therapy with a friend who needed Ezra’s help walking her dog. My friend’s puppy barks at children, but is very friendly and doesn’t bite. She needs exposure to children to get over her tendency to bark. Ezra has grown wary of dogs after a recent bite episode and needs positive exposure to dogs to put that one negative experience into perspective; thus the origin of our win-win dog therapy sessions.

I’m not asking my son to wrestle with Doberman Pinschers or Rottweilers, but to take a small, friendly five-month-old dog for a walk.

He didn’t want to go at first. When he saw the dog, he tensed up, pulling his hands protectively out of reach. But my amazing friend coached him through the interaction as the dog started to bark. Before long, Ezra was keenly aware of dog ear positions and what they indicate. He opened his hand flat, and started to laugh when the puppy lavished it with licks and kisses. Within 5 minutes, he was holding her leash, walking the little dog and using basic commands to tell her to halt and cross.

By the time we reached the forest, they were pals. She began to follow him toward the tree he likes to climb and rather than reacting in fear, he seemed to view his new little companion as another interested party, bathing him in attention. The real test was when a second dog approached. The last time, Ezra climbed the tree and stayed up in its branches until the other dog departed. Today, he came out of the tree and stayed on the ground. He didn’t touch the other dog, but his body language didn’t emanate fear either.

By the time we were walking home, Ezra was telling us how he would like to have his own dog; how he didn’t want to leave his new companion. I informed him that dad was making dinner and it was time to get home. My friend commented on how nice it was to have a husband who was cooking dinner. Yes. I realize I am incredibly lucky; I have kind and thoughtful friends, a son who is overcoming a fear and a husband who is not only a good cook, but a man I love.

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Scheveningen, Oprah, Deepak and Ezra


Today was a day of taking other people’s suggestions to heart. This morning, I read an email that my friend Alice Tropper forwarded about a 21-day meditation organized by Oprah and Deepak Chopra. I barely read the forwarded email before I came to my conclusion; sure, why not? I could use some meditation. Click

Then I went to work for a few hours even though I’m technically still on vacation. I had heard that a handful of reservation requests had come in while we were away that had not been confirmed. Seeing as I can be a bit, um, fastidious at times, I wanted to send out confirmations and get them entered into my system so I could relax that part of my brain that would worry about it during the last few days of my vacation. I’ll just go over, spend a little time on the computer getting things in order, have a cup of coffee and then head out; low-key, mellow. I told myself.

But when I arrived, it was kinda hectic over there; a lot of volunteers were busy cleaning the church–working really hard scrubbing the luxaflex that hadn’t been cleaned all year, repainting walls, fixing things. After the third person asked me why I was there, I explained that if reservations aren’t confirmed in a timely manner, sometimes clients move on and look for another location. That shut them up from trying to protect me from myself! And then my little guy came by, looking bored. The sun was out, the sky was blue, and we were supposed to be on vacation.

“You should go to Scheveningen today,” suggested Jan, a church member from Scheveningen.
“That’s a good idea,” I responded. And so we did.

Scheveningen is a touristy beach town in the Hague that comes to life in the summer months when hundreds of strandtenten, temporary restaurants, are constructed for the season in the sand. Each strandtent (literal translation is beach tent) has its own upscale theme with music, decorations, plush cushions and quite often beach chairs further down the sand where you can lounge.

My husband was relieved to learn we were headed to the sea. He awoke at 4am with a brutal tooth ache, and since dentists also go on vacation, he wasn’t able to schedule an appointment until 4pm. His best medicine to endure the wait, besides popping ibuprofen, was time to himself. That left Ezra and I on our own. We packed our bags, caught a tram to Central Station, deftly changed to tram 1 and arrived in Scheveningen.

We hopped off the tram and walked through a passageway between tall buildings to the beachfront. Ezra was in great spirits. We dug a sandpit together, splashed in the water, played tikkertje (tag) and buried each other’s legs in the sand. Now that I was relaxed, the idea of the meditation wended its way into my thoughts. Can you imagine how many people Oprah and Deepak could pull in to meditate and how powerful that could be if hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people were all meditating each day? Perhaps they had a secret plan to bring about World Peace in 21 days. I wanted to participate as well, even if for a fleeting moment or two. While Ezra was busy sculpting reptilian shapes, I retrieved the small paper bag where I had scribbled the Deepak-Oprah 21-Day meditation centering thought for day one:

Today I am open to the presence of miracles.

I breathed in this thought along with the fresh sea air. This elixir bounced around in my mind and lungs. My lungs suddenly realized their potential and took in a deep, rather than shallow breath. Considering the vreselijke spring we had in Holland, this beautiful summer day was a sort of miracle in itself. I’ll be launching my first novel this November. What if I could channel my energy over the next 21 days into that novel being a miraculous success?

My thoughts wandered to my husband, at home and in pain. Where was the miracle in that? I tried to imagine all of his pain disappearing and the root in that one bothersome tooth experiencing instant bliss. Since I was at the beach with my little boy, I wasn’t in a position to do a 30-minute meditation, but I did keep returning to the idea of being open to the presence of miracles, over and over again, almost like a breathing meditation.

I chased my son through the shallow edges of the North Sea, splashing and being splashed, and the meditations on miraculously blissful teeth and successful novels flitted away from my thoughts. Not a bad thing at all, considering I was entirely in the moment. If I lost the thought, I would pull out the crinkled paper again and re-read it.

I was stretching, my legs thigh deep in the shallow warm water caught between the beach and a rise in the sand at the ocean’s edge. A Dutch woman walking out for a swim stopped and talked to me. We talked about the water, about swimming. Within moments she knew by my accent that I wasn’t Dutch, and began the usual rounds of questions, which led to further topics. I am originally from California; she has a sister who lives in Woodland Hills, California. While we talked, Ezra made a game of splashing me. I think he was annoyed that my attention had shifted away from him. After the woman moved on into the sea for a swim, I realized the significance of the moment; this stranger, an older Dutch woman had stopped and chatted with me and held her attention on our conversation. It was a simple, yet beautiful exchange.

Earlier, Ezra and I had waded into that same shallow water and made a game of picking up pieces of floating plastic. We didn’t see anyone else on the beach playing this game. One girl found a broken pair of sunglasses in the shallow water, laughed at how silly they looked with one plastic lens and promptly threw them back in. They ended up in our sack along with approximately 7 icecream wrappers, 5 plastic bags, 4 candy wrappers and 1 waterlogged chip bag. On our way out, we found a beer can, a beer-can’s-throw from the trash can.

I picked it up and went into drama mode. “Oh. It is so heavy. I couldn’t possibly put this in the trash can over there.” Ezra started laughing. He found half of a small plastic container that had probably held a single serving of potato salad less than a foot from the trash can and did his own one man act as he tossed it in the garbage.
“I’m sue-per lay zee!” he slowly enunciated. “And I can’t find the trash can right in front of me!” We cracked ourselves up.

When saying our simple prayer before eating dinner this evening, Ezra had the following to say:
“I wish everyone in the world was Arie Jan’s friend.” (He’s given up on calling us mom and dad.)
“Why?” I asked, completely perplexed. Did he think Arie Jan was in pain because he was sad, or that he didn’t have enough friends?
“Because if everyone was his friend,” Ezra explained, “then they would all want him to feel good and if they all thought that, his pain would go away.”
“Wow. Where did you learn that?” I asked. I hadn’t shared the world-wide meditation concept with Ezra and I don’t think we’ve talked much about the power of group prayer.
“I just have this feeling,” he said. And there it was; my miracle of the day.

The Currency of Hugs


Sometimes when my son speaks to me, I feel like I am the grasshopper and he the master. It is not for the clarity of his statements that I feel this way, but for the oxymoronic riddles he weaves. For example, he was sad that he only had two Father’s Day presents for Arie Jan.

“I only got two presents on Mother’s Day,” I offered, suggesting that two is a reasonable sum.

“No. You had a third present. I gave you a hug,” he recalled in all seriousness. This is a child who knows how partial I am to his hugs. Armed with this knowledge, he has even tried to bribe me for more iPad time or a second helping of dessert with the currency of hugs.

Later in the morning, he was giving Arie Jan a hug on Father’s Day after the presents were already opened.

“He’s giving you another present,” I wisely informed Arie Jan. “A hug.”

“No,” corrected Ezra. “A hug isn’t a present. A present is something that lasts, that you can continue to do something with.” I tried to process his double-standard change-of-heart over the value of a hug. But then it hit me; he thinks there are different exchange rates at play in the currency of hugs: mom goes all weak-kneed and teary eyed when he hugs her, whereas dad quietly takes it in stride.

Arie Jan added his two cents into the equation, making the Oh Grasshopper lesson twist further into itself.

“Well, in that manner of thinking, would the candies you just gave me really be a present? They were here one moment and eaten up the next.”

“Hmm. Well, yeah. They’re still a present,” Ezra decided.

“Yes, and hugs may last a moment, but they stay with you in your heart. They may not be there any longer, but their presence lingers.”

My interpretive filter kicked in once again; whereas I smother my husband and child with kisses and hugs like a good American, Arie Jan has a more Dutch approach to affection. He is not one to loosely scatter I-love-yous throughout conversations, or randomly kiss and hug his family members. Earlier on in our relationship, I mistook this sparseness as a difference in how we felt about each other. But I couldn’t have been more wrong; his love for me was deep and real and his love for his son is profound.

Unlike me, Ezra has never misinterpreted his father’s level of affection; he can feel its immensity. But just as a teacher who is as sparse with his compliments as Hemingway was with adjectives, Arie Jan has taught Ezra the value of quality over quantity.

This is a lesson I cannot learn. I will continue to hug and kiss my men whenever given the chance. They may roll their eyes and look at me like I’m goofy, but I’m going with the premise that they would be both concerned and disappointed if I acted any other way.

The Veluwe and other things that make my son run


The Dutch are a hardy stock not easily deterred by harsh weather. They can tolerate high winds, freezing cold and overcast skies for days on end without complaint. But there comes a time, such as the beginning of May, when they feel entitled to better weather for having endured the long, harsh winter. If by mid-May the weather hasn’t improved, they begin the downward transition from Dutch indifference to mild frustration, their countenances gripped by a look that says enough is enough. By late May, if the weather is still not cooperating, meaning the sun isn’t out, it’s still cold, wet, windy and gray, they begin to act like Americans–profusely complaining about the Dutch weather.

And no wonder; they haven’t had a spring this cold since 1900. Thus not a single Dutch person now living has ever experienced a spring this cold. (If you are a 113-plusser of Dutch descent and you remember how cold it was the first few years of your life, my apologies for getting this fact wrong. And thanks for reading my blog).

It was in such forlorn May weather that we were given the gift of lodging in a vacation house in the Veluwe, an expanse of forests, heath and sand drifts in the center of the Netherlands. We were on the freeway for an hour and a half before we pulled into a rural area surrounded by open space, forests and lush green pastures dotted with picturesque sheep and cows. My son sat in a child seat in the back, offering a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. It was from this throne-like position that he offered up a running commentary of everything outside with an enthusiasm that had us deeply immersed in vacation mode despite only being on the road for a relatively short time. His anticipation grew as we got closer to our destination.

I had no idea what our temporary home would look like, but unbeknownst to me, my mind had been quite busy constructing it in my head: a seventies style wooden structure with a rough-hewn floor and compact rooms, a series of matching Delft blue plates and cups in the wooden cupboards,  a gnome statue in the front yard. As we followed the instructions of the female voiced GPS unit into a vacation home park, we passed a number of homes that fit my expectations. But when we reached the home where we would be staying, all bets were off.

Instead of wooden walls and gnomes, we were met by an elegant residence with a white exterior, steeply pitched roofs and ample windows. The landscaping surrounding the home–pleasant and inviting instead of cropped and contained–was a reverse shock to my system. The lush vegetation flowed into itself, presenting delicate layers of trees, ferns, flowers and grass that breathed ease and grace. It was this master crafted garden that spoke its silent words; you can relax now, you have reached your vacation residence.

My husband must have had similar seventies wood cabin expectations, because he too stared in pleasant surprise at this white house reminiscent of the French Countryside. If we had let logic guide our expectations, we would have pictured nothing less from the owners, a couple who offer a complex blend of Dutch pragmatism and understated elegance.

As we brought in our bags, our son asked if we had the place all to ourselves. When we answered yes, he did a little happy dance. Now truth be told, our son prefers sitting around and playing with legos or watching dad play chess online over playing soccer or running around outside. But that was before we got to the Veluwe.

Ignoring the inclement weather, we walked down the gravel road to a path that entered the forest and our son was out in front, leading the charge. Apparently emboldened by the natural surroundings, he began to announce which direction we would be taking at every fork in the path. A long road between two stretches of forest led to a low hill that beckoned us forward. Clearly, there was something of interest beyond that rise. Ezra ran ahead with dad, and low and behold, a desert! It wasn’t actually a desert, but a wide expanse of sand dotted with little tree-lined rises. Forest surrounded the desert hill landscape on all sides. Within a few minutes of exploration, we came to a group consensus that this was perhaps the most exciting hide-and-seek area ever. And thus began a marathon of hide-and-seek adventure.

Despite just having recovered from a minor surgery, I found myself walking as quickly as possible to hide among bushes and sand, my heart pounding as my son and I waited for my husband to find us. We took turns peering through the brush to see if he was getting close. I observed the mix of terror and joy on my son’s face as he played hide and seek in nature, not a building in sight; his screams and fits of laughter did not bounce off the walls of an urban dwelling to hurt my ears, but were as much a part of nature’s soundtrack in this windblown expanse of desert as a bird’s call or the hum of wind through the surrounding trees.

When our hiding place was on the verge of being discovered, he fully exercised his newfound ability to keep on running and hiding. Every morning, he couldn’t wait to go outside and run, explore and play some more–even though it was cold out there, and raining. Where was the boy who isn’t willing to walk for more than 10 minutes in the city? Where was the boy that refuses to go outside on weekends to get some exercise and fresh air? Not here. And the air quality in the moss lined forest was clearly different. As we breathed in the air, it felt like our lungs could take in more oxygen, causing us to feel more awake and invigorated.

This got me to thinking about the correlation between open space and physical activity. I grew up in the countryside and my life was full of active verbs like run, climb, dig, build, spring. I only had time for the more passive activities of reading, drawing and watching television after I had burned through my child energy with the aforementioned set of verbs. Could it be that the reason we have a “let’s stay inside” guy is that a cityscape of tall apartment complexes, skyscrapers, and a cross-hatch of roads, tram lines, biking paths and brick sidewalks are not doing it for him? There are trees in the city. Parks. An urban forest with small lake within 10 minutes of our house. But it can’t replace uninterrupted nature, stretching off into the distance, calling you to explore its hiding places.

Six boys


My husband and I were both excited and fearful as our son’s 6th birthday approached. We were excited because our little guy was turning six and his exuberant energy was contagious. We were riddled with fear and anxiety as memories of last year’s birthday party played through our minds accompanied by the mantra of “never again.”

Last year’s “celebration” provided a rather harsh lesson; despite our university degrees and five years of parenting experience, we had absolutely no idea how to entertain and supervise ten little children for  3 1/2 hours. Unfortunately, Ezra had invited one young imp who possessed a sixth sense for knowing when adults don’t have the situation completely under control, and exactly how to make the situation worse. Here is just a partial list of the chaos that ensued: fights, throwing of food, crying, screaming and hitting from the boys; quiet, steadfast politeness and bouts of crying from the girls. The girls, several dressed in princess gowns, looked at us forlornly with their large doe eyes as boys ran screaming around them. The boys, inspired by aforementioned imp-child, ran in multiple directions, disregarding all of the house rules that had been laid out to them.  Due to short attention spans and division of interests, games for which we had budgeted 15 to 20 minutes were over in three to five. Thirty-seven minutes into the party, our list of fun children’s activities was all used up and we were at a loss of how we were going to make it to the other side. It took us three hours to clean up and a week to recover.

This year, we prepared for his party as one might prepare for battle: review of past mistakes, strategic planning, ally recruitment, flexibility in the field and a stockpile of munitions. First off, we didn’t invite any imps. Second, we smartly took the advice of my sister-in-law Tinca from the previous year; invite no more guests than the age of your child.  Regardless of the much more manageable ratio of one adult to three children, we enlisted the help of Jaana, who had two sons coming to the party, resulting in an empowering ratio of one adult to every two children! Ezra also showed compassion toward his female friends by not inviting them.

We came up with an extended play list of activities that ensured we would never be empty-handed, created a healthy food table with full access and then opened our doors.

I’ll admit that my detailed agenda didn’t go exactly as planned, but the party was an absolute success, void of almost all of the problems we had encountered the previous year.

The best weapon in our arsenal was flexibility. Our first planned activity was birthday 2013 011a snowball fight outside, but the boys lingered around the building blocks and found it much more entertaining to walk up the stairs to Ezra’s room, check out his toys and then head back down. Sometimes kids like repetitive actions. Or perhaps they like to explore the territory and see what sort of boundaries are set in place. Boundaries established, the boys were finally ready to proceed with the planned fun.

Sjoelen was certainly to be a hit. We had access to four Sjoelen boards in the basement of the church and we pictured a thrilling competition. In this traditional Dutch game, a player receives thirty wooden pucks, which he slides down a polished wooden game board, attempting to get them through one of the four slots at the end of the board, thus collecting points. He has two more turns to get the remainder of the pieces through. Usually, you’d have to wait your turn, but with four boards and six boys, it was a dream set up. Yet this old Dutch favorite didn’t hold their attention for more than 10 minutes.

I wanted to do the Monster Game next, something I plucked from my imagination involving my husband being attacked by six little boys at once, but for some reason, Arie Jan wanted to postpone this one for a bit.

Thus we tried a traditional game for which we’d budgeted no more than 10birthday 2013 018birthday 2013 027 minutes: throwing soft balls at stacked tin cans. Surprisingly, this lasted a good 30 minutes. Boys love the crashing sound of the tin cans clanging to the ground after they’ve demolished them with their forceful throws. And, they love to do better than the next little guy, thus they kept on lining up, wiggling impatiently for their turn.

And finally, the monster game. I’m afraid it was a much too dangerous environment for my camera. But if you ever need a method in which to entertain five little boys (the sixth guest hadn’t arrived yet), this was a hit. First, tell all of the boys that a monster is going to come into the room (point suspiciously at the father of your child). Let them know they will each get three soft balls to throw at the monster and a blanket to help hide. The monster will have five handkerchiefs hanging from his belt. If you hit him with a ball, he has to freeze for three seconds. That’s your chance to grab one handkerchief. But when he wakes up, he can also throw a ball at you and knock you temporarily out of the game. The boy who collects the most handkerchiefs wins.

When the boys heard the monster banging at the door, they were absolutely still. As he made his way into the room growling, they hesitated in their hiding places. But as if by some sort of internal clue, they suddenly attacked. Balls were flying everywhere and the monster was besieged by six little soldiers, all suddenly amazingly accurate in their throws. They all had collective amnesia on the rule about them also getting timed out if hit with a ball, and the poor monster was bombarded. When all the handkerchiefs had been collected, my husband had tears in his eyes from laughter and a grin large enough to compete with those on every little boy’s face.

When we changed pace and came back upstairs for cake and presents, the boys plopped down on the ground within close proximity to one another and worked on building blocks, forgetting all about the cake.

One of the best presents my son received for his birthday arrived the day before his birthday 2013 062party–three to four inches of snow. Thus the last official activity of the day, which was supposed to be the first, was a good old-fashioned snowball fight, in which everyone but the birthday boy himself participated.

Last year when parents arrived to pick up their children, they saw two shell-shocked adults who couldn’t push the guests out the door fast enough. This year when parents arrived, they found tranquil little boys sitting around the living room drinking hot chocolate, with tranquil hosts overseeing. Parents lingered for another half hour at the offer of hot chocolate and chatted pleasantly as the boys played quietly together.

This just goes to show; we can learn from our past mistakes and not only move forward, but do so gloriously.

Default Parenting versus Compassionate Parenting


Parenting

Parenting is challenging and unlike any job I’ve ever had. You must be equipped to deal with everything from tantrums to booger flicking, trying to explain who or what God is and why people die, make vegetables and fruits more appealing than icecream and candy and develop an infinite amount of patience. But sometimes the challenge lies in discovering the holes in your own parenting pedagogy.

I learned very early on that if you don’t take the time to think through your parenting techniques, you will default to how you were raised, thus imitating your own mom and dad.  Luckily for me, I have great parents.  But even great parents get caught in the cycle of default parenting, and let’s just say there are some things I want to do differently.

For example, one day Ezra started talking in a baby voice. This annoying little voice was accompanied by a physical performance, his legs waddling along in little baby steps as if he was a toddler, his lips pursing into fish lips, his eyebrows raised. I don’t like seeing my bright, capable four-year old acting like an 18-month old. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen this behavior. I felt a surge of annoyance, which transformed into words, passed over my vocal cords and spilled into the room before I had a chance to stop and think: “Stop acting like a baby,” I said.

Its one thing to think something. It’s quite another to give it voice. I was as surprised as he was to hear these words. They instantly brought me back to a situation with my father 36 years ago. I remember wearing new cowboy boots, which were slippery on the bottom. We were walking with my two older brothers down a hill covered in chapparal on an expanse of natural land behind our home. My steps felt uncertain and I began to whine a little bit, wanting to hold my dad’s hand. Instead of reaching out his hand, my father snapped at me; “Stop acting like such a baby.” I was shocked, as he usually didn’t speak to me like this, and his words felt biting and mean.

Now I had just repeated the performance with my child, not even thinking of the consequences of my words. If Ezra is acting like a baby, he is asking for attention, even negative attention, as he knows we don’t like this baby voice. Snapping at him only worsens the problem. If I stop and think for half a second, I know it is more effective to say, “Please use your big boy voice,” or better yet, “You know we don’t like baby voice. Do you feel the need for more attention? Is that why you are using your baby voice?” But, these words don’t come naturally. You have to work at it.

Non-Violent Communication

According to Marshall Rosenberg, P.h.D, author of a series of books on nonviolent communication and raising children compassionately, people often treat their children with less respect and compassion than they do acquaintances. He gives an example from a workshop he held. The participants were broken into two groups to discuss how they would resolve a conflict with another person. One group was told the conflict was with a child, the other was told the conflict was with a neighbor. When the two groups were brought back together, they thought they had been given the same scenario. Each time he performed this experiment, the group who was resolving a conflict with a child seemed less respectful and less compassionate than the group that had been told the other person was a neighbor.

I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t tell my neighbor to stop acting like a baby, or send him to his house for a time out, for that matter. I would think my words through carefully and make sure I used respectful language in trying to come up with a resolution. I obviously love my son much more than my neighbor, so why the disrespect? Definitely time to re-train!

My parents also taught me you need to be friends with everyone, even people you don’t really like. When I had a birthday party, we invited everyone in the class–even Eric Tipton, a boy who had karate chopped my birthday cake into an unrecognizable mush the year before.

In my version of the world, you don’t have to be friends with everyone. You need to be kind to everyone, but you don’t have to be their friends. In fact, in some situations, it can even be necessary to establish a healthy distance from other people. Yet, just the other day, I found myself defaulting to the “be friends with everyone” policy of my childhood–despite the fact that I don’t believe in this.

Choosing Friends for our Kids

I befriended a very nice woman at Ezra’s school who is the mother of one of Ezra’s classmates. Thus, without consulting Ezra, I decided that our sons should have a play date together. From the get go, Ezra was opposed, but I told him he had to be nice. The kids played well enough together, but before long, I could see that Ezra was more reserved than he was with other kids. Two or three more playdates passed before I half admitted I was forcing the friendship, more thinking of myself than of Ezra.

I didn’t realize the repercusions of my actions until a few weeks later. My son is usually the type to answer the question, “So what did you do at school today?” with a case closed “Nothing.” Thus, when Ezra volunteered a rather ghastly story of kicking the other little boy, I listened carefully, encouraging him gently yet firmly to tell the whole story.

I soon learned that two little boys wanted to hold Ezra’s hand; his favorite friend Jan, and the boy I had pushed upon Ezra whom we’ll call David. Ezra told David he didn’t want to hold his hand, but David insisted and wouldn’t take no for an answer. So, Ezra kicked him. Hard. David started crying.

“What did you do then?” I asked sternly.
“Nothing.”
“You just let him cry?”
“Yes.”
“But, isn’t David your friend?””
“No. I don’t want to be friends with him.”
“But honey. David is your friend, and we’re friends with his family . . . did a teacher come to help him?”
“No. There weren’t any teachers around.”
I looked upon Ezra with new eyes. My little 4 year old angel had kicked another little boy with no remorse, a child whom had been to our house a handful of times, whom we had taken a train ride to visit outside the city, a child he had laughed and played with well enough in my presence.
“Thank you for telling me Ezra,” I said at first. I heard myself saying a few other things that seemed appropriate, yet not scolding: “It seems you feel a little bad about kicking David. Do you think it was okay to kick David?”

That evening and the next day, I created stories of a forlorn little boy who lost a friend, and Ezra felt very sorry for the little boy in my stories, felt as if rhis little boy was treated unfairly. I saw the light bulb go on at some point, and by the next morning over breakfast we were planning together the best way to say sorry to his little friend.

Choosing his Own Friends

“You don’t have to be friends with someone you don’t want to be friends with,”Arie Jan said calmly, “but you do need to be nice and use your words if you don’t like something.” And of course Arie Jan was right. Through it all, I was still trying to make Ezra be friends with this sweet little boy. I was doing what I had been programmed to do by my own upbringing. Yet, you can’t force anyone to be friends, just as you can’t force two people to love one another. It has to be by mutual consent.  But, you can teach someone how to be compassionate and nonviolent in conveying that information.

Ezra’s apology was met with a happy dance by David. Two days later, I volunteered for Sport’s day, a morning filled with sports activities, which called for a large amount of parent volunteers. The boys were in the same group for sports day, along with three, meek little girls. As we walked along with the children, who are required to hold hands when walking from the school to the sports field, I saw Ezra hold David’s hand with acceptance, rather than joy. It seemed the teachers were also trying to make a match or help along the relationship; I noted that each group of five children seemed to be carefully selected based on energy levels and friendships.

Ezra was friendly enough, but more from a position of tolerance. By the end of the sports day, he no longer wanted to hold David’s hand on the walk home, and for once, I listened. And it seemed Ezra had listened too. He knew he had a choice about being friends, but he also knew how to be gentle yet firm when saying no. I felt proud of Ezra in a way I hadn’t before. I saw him being tough, cool, a bit distant. And though it was uncomfortable for all involved, it showed that Ezra has the strength to do what was right for him.

Dutch Flat


Dutch Flat

After spending the first six weeks in the Netherlands with my husband’s brother’s family (see last post), we moved to my in-laws’ traditional Dutch flat while they went on vacation to the Belgian countryside.

Located on the ground floor of a four-story brick apartment building, their flat has the absolute luxury of a back yard. Not one for a patch of grass, my mother-n-law created a beautifully sculpted garden–best described as what a miniature Versailles might look like if conceived by the Dutch– pathways and circles of brick surrounded by thoughtful plantings that bloom in a cyclical pattern, a “forest” area with a trellised entry, a bench at one side for contemplation.

On the street side, semi-transparent curtains in the tall windows cordon off the outside world, while letting passersby catch a glimpse of the bright tulips on the dining room table. Each kamer has something elegant and something quaint–a post modern couch in the same room as a painting of a Dutch city, sculpted glass tables next to a floral couch. 

The neighborhood is sparkling clean, well organized and decidedly old Dutch. Men and women are dressed in semi-fashionable suits, dresses and overcoats on their way to the bakery. Within a three minute walk one can go to the local baker, butcher, florist or cheese store. The shop owners are professionally curt and smile sparingly. A small, vocal child in their midst evokes not one smile, but a downward crinkling at the edges of their mouths. The upscale boutiques in the neighborhood speak to a much older demographic with price tags and styles in the windows informing me there is no need to even enter the store.

On the other hand, the neighbors are friendly and very in tune with what everyone else is doing. A few days after Arie Jan got his job, the doorbell rang, and a nice woman handed us a bouquet of flowers, offering congratulations all around. It became abundantly clear that although my in-laws were on vacation, they were still posting regular emails on our progress from the Belgian countryside to their extended network.

There is this sense, when you stay in someone’s home in their absence, that you are getting to know them better. You are interacting with their space, sitting in their chairs, sleeping in their beds. But what it really comes down to is when you cook in someone’s home. There, you get a sense of what life must be like. This house has the kitchen of a ship’s cabin–a very tiny, extremely – space that is more of a half butt kitchen, then a one butt kitchen. Yet, instead of looking out of a porthole onto the choppy sea, you are looking into Henny’s divinely sculpted garden through a glass door. I found myself lingering there on more than one occasion, taking the garden into my senses. In the bleak and cold of morning, the garden appeared serious and well ordered. When the sun shone into the garden on a windy day, it displayed it’s wild side. Ezra was also intrigued by the garden and more than once, we ran along its tiny paths and through the “forest,” playing a variety of games that usually involved running from monsters, shooting monsters with bows and arrows, or feeding baby monsters lots of cookies before gently returning them to their mommy monsters.

Despite the tiny size, Ezra was drawn to the kitchen. Perhaps it was the view of the garden. Or, perhaps he was tapping into that universal desire to hang out in the kitchen while someone is cooking. A small white table against the wall has a folding panel that is usually down to maximize space. Yet, whenever I started cooking, Ezra would pull the wooden support levers into position and extend the table, minimizing my work space to cut, chop, stir and season.

Ezra is now extremely comfortable in grandma and grandpa’s house. Perhaps too comfortable. Barriers that naturally exist when you visit grandparents, no running and screaming in the house, for instance, had been broken down during our stay. Ezra had developed his own relationship with the house that was independent of its true owners. A Lego set, 720 pieces strong, had been a regular fixture strewn across the living room floor while they were away.  On the other hand, grandma and grandpa now have a standing afternoon playdate with Ezra once a week after school. This might not have worked for our little man if we hadn’t stayed there.

When it was nearing time for my in-laws to return, we were uncertain of where we would stay next. The housing that comes with my new job is not available until April 1st, and we had already stayed with all the family members who live in Den Haag. It is also hard to find a place to rent for three weeks, unless it is a vacation rental, which might set us back close to $2,000–a high price to pay when you are just starting new jobs.

Our network of friends and family came up with different ideas. A neighboring church had an unfurnished space we could rent. We went and looked at it, and it felt like a temporary office building, the toilet and shower shared with others who used a neighboring office, an uninviting kitchen. At the same time, we got an email from a family friend who lives in Scheveningen, a beautiful ocean town 10 minutes away by car, or a half hour by bike.

We went the next day to see his flat. Flat is not the right word for it. He lives on the top floor of a tall, modern building next to the sea with 360 degree views over the ocean and city. Light hard wood floors, glass walls, contemporary art on the walls, and a few functional, well designed pieces of furniture create a look of contemporary living in an expansive penthouse. Um, yes. Please. Thank you.

Coming up next: Penthouse in Schevingingen