Fancy* Nancy

Mom. I love so much, there’s not even words for it. So how do I write a post about how important you are to me? I suppose the easiest thing is to make a list of things you do that have positively shaped me and informed who I am.

First, you have a crazy sense of humor. You can tell a joke that’s not even funny, but your full rolls of laughter that follow the punch line make us all laugh so hard that our eyes water. Further, you say flippant things, followed by that gut busting laugh, and suddenly a world that seemed serious and foreboding is shot through the middle, rendered wobbly and no longer able to take itself so seriously.

Second, you love nature, animals, living in the country. Because of you, I grew up loving trees and tall grass. After having two boys, you were so happy to finally have a girl. You got your girl, but one that loved, not surprisingly, trees and tall grass. You tried so hard to put ribbons in my hair, send me to modeling class, get me interested in dolls and hair brushes and dresses. It paid off in the long run. I have a dress section in my closet and I do brush my hair once in a while. I gave my Hotwheels and G.I. Joe’s away at least a few years ago now. Because of you and dad, I love nature, being still, listening to night descending upon the countryside.

Third, you are the illustrated dictionary example of Hope Springs Eternal. You never give up on people close to you (or on animals or plants). You ALWAYS try to see the good side in situations, even when things are rough. Yes, this can have a down side. But, whether its the Pollyanna Principle or positive thinking, it has played a positive role in my life.

Fourth, you can call it for what it is. I remember one break up with a very handsome boyfriend. I was heartbroken. You listened to me for a good half hour and then you asked what seemed the obvious.
“Well, why don’t you give him another chance?”
“Because he broke up with me!” I responded forlornly.
“Oh! Well, then. what’s the problem? Forget about him. If he can’t see how precious you are, he’s not worth another tear!” That was almost 15 years ago now, and I don’t know if I got the words exactly right, but the message was clear; I am absolutely valuable, and if this guy doesn’t get that, then he’s not worth it. I wanted to argue, but there was no arguing. Why would I ever want to be with someone who didn’t appreciate me? Her simple words seemed to break the spell that was keeping my heart bound to a place it didn’t belong.

Fifth, you value stories and you pay attention. As a retired librarian, you know how important stories are. You told us stories throughout our childhood, emblazoning a love for stories both real and imagined. You created a biography about your father. You developed a family tree and are working on your own biography. Further, you clip articles out of the paper and send them to us, wherever we may be, to let us know what is going on with our long-lost high school friends, former teachers and home town characters.

Sixth, you make an awesome cheesecake.

Seven, you are my mom and my friend. The list goes on of course, but for now, this is my message to you, mom! I love you!

*Even though you gave up the big city years ago to go live in the countryside, you still have a fancy side to you; the part that grew up playing violin, going to balls in fancy gowns, spending your Saturdays in the library devouring knowledge.


Old Books versus Mother Nature

Usually I love nature. Just last week I was saying to my husband how much I want to live in a natural environment, away from the screeching sounds of the tram rails, the bricks and concrete and the compressed feeling I experience when I’m among the crowds in the shopping district.

But when a biting cold wind ushered in the first of June beneath a pewter gray sky, I wasn’t feeling the love. It’s like this nation is being punished by mother earth for some crime against nature. What? Too many bicycles? All of that public transportation upsetting you? Or perhaps its the recycling they do here–multiple drop off bins for paper and glass in every neighborhood. That’s got to be irksome.

But there’s only so long one can stay inside on the first of June. So, refusing to bow to the cold, I put on a lightweight fleece and announced to my family I was going for a walk. They looked at me skeptically. I set out alone.

I didn’t know where I was headed, but my feet didn’t lead me down my usual route to the forest a block away, but into the city. The city, where the crowds are; where things are happening in warm, brightly or dimly lit interior spaces away from the dreadful cold of nature.

I walked in the direction of the train station in search of adventure. But on the way, a well designed poster caught my eye, and I found myself turning into the smooth glass entry of the Letterkunding Museum. I walked up a flight of stairs. At the top you have a choice of experiences. You can turn right to enter the Kinderboekenmuseum, a fabulous museum where children’s books (all written in Dutch) come alive through a series of interactive exhibits. Or, you can go left through the thick glass doors, which open automatically for you, into an exhibition room that is either a part of the Nationaal Archief or the Letterkundingmuseum. But in either case, it is a surprisingly exotic experience (at least to someone who once worked in a bookstore in the rare book section, and whose mother was a librarian).

The room was dark, save for blue lighting that gave the space a retro-futuristic glow reminiscent of the starship enterprise control room. The entire left wall acts as a projection screen, the contradictory images of old and new merging into one another. This exhibition space is filled with small glass cases on columns, each holding a rare book or book-related antiquity, some close to 600 years old. I gazed at the gold, ruby and sapphire blue illustration in an historical bible from the 1600s surrounded by Latin text. Would those monastic scribes have brought their quills to the page with even more precision had they known the copies they were making would still be on display half a millenium later? Talk about pressure.

And then there was the book Max Havelaar, by Multatuli, the pseudonym of Eduard Douwes Dekker. Up until that moment, I’ll admit, I only knew that Max Havelaar was a brand of Fair Trade products for sale in Europe. I didn’t know a cultural history was tied to the name, originating from a work of fiction that criticized the Dutch East India Company’s (VOC) treatment of the natives in Indonesia.

It was here in this darkened room, gazing at the treasured books resting on velvet cushions beneath protective glass that I had a realization; nature isn’t the only object of my desire; culture, in all of its lushness, absurdity, timidity or boldness also has me entirely smitten.

The walk home through the crisp air synergized my two loves, the cold snapping me into mental and physical alertness, the ancient books filling me with a lust for knowledge. Perhaps such dark and miserable weather, combined with mental acuity is what drove all of those brooding European philosophers to greatness over the centuries.

Over dinner, I talked to my family about the books I had seen. My husband, a brooding philosophical type, related to my excitement. My son related to his pasta. And then the sun broke through the fortress of clouds, blasting its happy beams through our window onto the dining room table. Thank God for the sun.

The Room

Usually, when I am so transfixed by a novel that I can not put it down, it’s in the non-literary genres of romance or mystery. These fast-paced novels are like monosodium glutamate for the mind; the mind keeps ingesting the words, regardless of quality and integrity, until the words are all gone; the woman has the man; the killer’s been caught and the mystery solved. Afterwards, you life is not improved, but it sure was a fun ride while it lasted.

The selections of my Expat Book club, on the other hand, are the steamed broccoli, high omega fish and long grain rice of novels. They provide thought-provoking literary journeys that not only offset your binge reading, but may even make a healthy contribution to your world view.

And thus, when I headed to the American Bookstore to purchase The Room, the latest Book Club selection, I anticipated another literary journey. I approached this novel as I approach most of the selected books for my Expat Book Club–buy it last-minute without much background on the subject matter and dive right in. But I truly believe, had I known the subject matter of Emma Donoghue’s The Room, I would have never cracked it open in the first place.

The Room deals with a horrible topic; an experience you would not wish on your worst enemy. And yet, it is so incredibly well written, and the characters so real, that you cannot will yourself to put it down. This inability to step off the ride is not in that junky, horror film way. It is as if through the very act of reading, you are a spirit watching and willing the main characters to not only survive, but to break free and overcome their insurmountable situation.  Yet you do so from a safe distance; outside of the page, outside of their world. They, on the other hand are locked inside and you desperately want them to be free.

The majority of the book is presented through the innocence of a five-year old boy. And even though you read with your adult eyes, and realize what he has not yet been able or willing to realize, you are drawn into the innocence of the world his mother has created for him. And as the situation grows more desperate, you read on as if for the sake of humanity itself.

You may be tempted, like I was, to flip to the back of the book and see what happens with the characters. Because if they aren’t going to make it through, why on earth would I want to invest the time reading about something so awful? Well, because ignoring it won’t make it go away. Being aware of how easily something like this could happen could perhaps wake us all up a bit more; keep us on our toes. Not locked in fear or obsessing about what ifs, but on our toes; aware; looking out for ourselves as well as others.

I know I’m being vague. I know you can Google The Room by Emma Donoghue right now and figure out what it’s about. But if you do, you’ll rob yourself of the journey.  It’s heavy. You may even feel sick at times. But if you just keep reading all the way through, you will come out on the other side with a sense of hope. Hope and possibly the desire to find out what you can do to help eradicate this very real situation that affects far more people than we’d ever care to admit.

Sex and other language learning tips

While my friends back home in book club are reading The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, a heady young adult work of fiction about death and other things, I am reading O, O, Olivia, chick lit about a wild, confused young woman in her twenties who has a one night stand. I have a worthy excuse for my literary deviation: education and future success in the Netherlands.

Before you raise your eyebrows and wonder where I’m going with this,  O, O, Olivia  is in Dutch. And, it takes place in Den Haag. Topics of romance and sex can be strong motivators to dive deeper into a second language, and dive in is what I am doing–260 pages of diving with sentence after sentence of authentic, contemporary, idiom-filled Dutch.

I’m a sucker for well designed grocery store end displays, that section of real estate at the end of the aisle that convinces you to buy something you don’t really need; green olives stuffed with anchovies for example. I am also quite susceptable to strategic chapter breaks–a chapter that ends with something that leaves you curious. Not quite a cliff hanger, but enough of a pull that you rub your weary eyes, glance at the numbers on the clock face and plod ahead anyway. And author Gillian King has that “strategic chapter break” thing down.

Suffice to say she is hot right now. And I’m not the only one staying up late turning the pages: Olivia is on a seven day express loan. If only I could turn the pages a little faster. Problem is, I don’t just have this nice, sexy book with a pink cover (strategically designed to pull my female eye hither to scan it’s cover, read the back cover summary, and put it in the stack of library books), I also have my essential Dutch-English dictionary in hand to help me through.

As I read and get into the flow of the story, certain words start to lock in, expanding my vocabulary. Other words are road blocks, getting in the way of me knowing what else the lead character is doing to screw up her life. But wildly scary words such as zenuwachting (nervous) or ongemakkelijk (uneasy) are skillfully tamed by my Dutch English dictionary.

For those wanton words and expressions that my dictionary is just too dignified to translate, I have Arie Jan. Sure, I’ve picked up words I’ll never be able to use in my work at the church, but they’ll certainly come in handy watching Dutch television, startling my husband or eavesdropping on the ladies talking in conspiratorial tones at the next table during lunch.

Several people have commented over the last few weeks that my Dutch seems to be making leaps and bounds. I smile politely and say thank you. No real need to elaborate that I’ve been motivated by a fictional character having one night stands, out partying in Het Plein and thrashing her otherwise respectable life, and the desire to see if she gets that extremely hot guy in the end.

If you are beginning to grasp a second language and want to experience a sudden jump in understanding, read something in your foreign language of choice that is shamelessly compelling to you, whether it’s about companion plantings for your organic garden or a foreign espionage thriller. What better way to compel yourself forward. And you might be pleasantly surprised like I was; not only am I expanding my vocabulary, I am also discovering that happy endings are possible in other cultural writing as well.

Following your Passion

I once dated a very talented musician from Los Angeles, and when I asked him for advice on how to be a great sax player, he had just two words for me: just play.

They say that when you’re uninspired, to go forth anyway. They say that if you want to make the transition from mediocre to good and then from good to great, and all the way to that coveted adjective of excellent, that you must put in the time. We all know this as surely as we know the sun will rise tomorrow (or hide behind a thick blanket of Dutch clouds), but for some reason we get stuck along the way when it comes to our own passions and dreams.

I always said to my knew-what-they-wanted-to-be-when-they-grew-up friends that I was jealous. They wanted to be architects and they became architects. They wanted to be marine biologists, and low and behold, they became marine biologists. I didn’t want to be any of those grown up things, and thus, although I knew in my heart I wanted to be a writer, I rarely vocalized it, as it sounded childish in comparison. This was confirmed by people who said something to the effect of, well, yeah, we all want to write the Great American Novel, but you have to do something real to pay the bills along the way.

On the back of my brother’s red Toyota truck that has seen better days is a bumper sticker that says “Yes. As a matter of fact, we do call it art.”  I love that bumper sticker, and I love that it is on the back of an old pick up truck. My brother is an artist and always knew he wanted to be an artist. Sure, he could have made more money doing something else, but he’s a damned fine artist who gets invited to be in shows, paints with passion and he’s happy.

So even though my brother became an artist, which quite often falls into that “not a real career” category, his sister’s idea of becoming a writer got shelved along the way. I do want my passion to get shelved, but not on that proverbial dust covered plank of wood, but on a shelf in a bookstore next to other best sellers.

Tonight I attended Connecting Women, a networking group in Den Haag. I went because I’m still a relative newby in this land of bicycles and beautiful old buildings and have yet to develop a network of friends. Yet, when I left the meeting tonight, I wasn’t thinking about friends, but about Kristin the writer.

Strangely everything felt staged, like a set up. I arrived slightly late and took the first empty chair I saw. I sat next to a woman who just published a book on living sustainably (my other passion) and soon found out the two women sitting behind me were also authors, and one was a publisher. You’d think I was at a writer’s convention based on my seating choice.

Moreover, Jacinta Noonan, the keynote speaker that evening gave a presentation on Finding Your Passion. It was like the universe came down for a little session of woop ass–kicking my butt and telling me to get back to the keyboard.

The speaker took us through a series of questions, which we answered quite similarly to all of the other people whom she’s asked: How do you feel when you’re doing something you love? Time flies, we said. We feel happy, fulfilled, alive, energetic.

What gets in the way? Everyday life could have been the refrain from the Greek chorus, along with fear, putting others first, hearing we suck.

What can we do to follow through on what we believe in? The answers are of course very personalized to our different situations, but the bottom line is “just do it.” Just play. Just write. Just paint. Whatever it is, put in your 10,000 hours, the magic number presented in Malcom Gladwell’s “Outliers” and achieve mastery. And the first step to all of those hours, is to give yourself the permission to follow your dreams.

Oh God, time has flown! It’s past midnight and Why yes, as a matter of fact, I would like to write a novel.

Book Happy

Friday morning, I got up at 5:45 am to shower, get dressed, make tea, sit on the couch and call America. The phone rang four times before I heard a familiar voice pick up. I was soon on speaker phone listening to my girlfriends cheering because I had “joined them” for book club night.

Seeing that I’m now about 3,800 miles away as the crow flies from my book club, I am more of an honorary member, with rights to drop in on occasion. As most who are in book clubs will tell you, the experience is not only about reading a book together, but about being there with your friends. There is something deeply bonding about breaking bread, drinking wine, and discussing how the work of fiction or non-fiction moved you, or not.  It is also an opportunity to listen to the stories that emerge in response to the reading, deepening your understanding of each other; I didn’t know you lived in a funky loft in the bay area where you lead monthly poetry slams; Really? You have a fraternal twin? I had no idea you’ve interviewed so many famous authors, including the one we’re now reading.  And on top of this, our club is committed to cooking organic dishes from food within a 100 mile radius whenever possible; ingredients fresh from the back yard harvest or local farmer’s market (exceptions always made for wine and chocolate).

In this context, my international call into book club may seem a little sad, like a bone thin fashion model walking into the room just before Thanksgiving meal is served to inhale the sumptuous smells and leave again, without so much as a fork full or sip of wine; like trying to hold onto happier times. Yet, it was perhaps the most appropriate time to phone from abroad in search of happiness and connection. This group of women sitting around a candlelit table in Sonja’s house had just read Geography of Bliss, by NPR correspondent Eric Weiner. The book is about Weiner’s travels to nine countries that have been deemed by psychologists and economists as some of the happiest places on earth, and his investigation into what makes these particular people, or cultures, happy. The first country in the book? The Netherlands. You can see why I had to have this one last fling with book club.

I couldn’t locate a copy in the biblioteek (library) or the boekhandel (bookstore), so ordered a used copy online which was sent over from England, a country that didn’t make the happiness list.

I started the book the night it arrived, feeling rather special to be reading the chapter on the Netherlands in the Netherlands. Did you know that the World Database of Happiness  is located in Rotterdam, just thirty minutes away from where I now sit?  It seems the Dutch are really into happiness. But I was quickly annoyed by the shallow picture Weiner painted of my husband’s homeland, suggesting that legal prostitution, drugs and fervor for cycling were primary keys to understanding Dutch happiness. Although I got his point, it was clear to me there is so much more to it. Yet, in his defense, how much can one person tap into the soul of a nation’s happiness in a two week visit?

As I read further about countries like Bhutan and Iceland, I found his insights on happiness to be eye opening, and I soon found myself underlining passages here and there.  Because as any fine reporter would do within the freedom of their own book, he backed up his musings and criticisms with facts, research and quotes from numerous other books on the topic of happiness.

I wonder what one would discover if they traveled across the world researching the happiness one gains by being in a book club. The right book club can be an until-death-do-us-part experience. Take my mother-in-law, for example. She was in a book club for years. But when one of the members died, the group came to an end, as they were just too sad to go on without their dear friend. Another book club I know in Santa Barbara has also been meeting for years, and these women of all different ages, are a sisterhood of support that rallies behind their members through thick and thin, having emergency book clubs when a sister is in need. I dearly miss my book club and the pure happiness this group of women brought into my life every four to six weeks.

What is so special about this particular configuration? It’s not like a group discussion of a story is a new concept. That has been around since the beginning, both in oral traditions and as part of our written education system. I think what makes the book club movement so powerful is that you have a very personal, solitary experience of reading a book and then voluntarily bring that experience to a group. Not just any group, but a group you trust.  The book transforms into something much bigger, as each person brings their unique perspective and opinions to light. And trust is key to happiness, as Weiner points out. If you are surrounded by people you trust, then you are more likely to be happy. If you are surrounded by people you trust, who have made a commitment to read a book, cook an organic dish, purchase a bottle of wine, and meet up with you to have a heartfelt conversation, you become a bit of a contemporary tribe.

Sure. Sometimes book clubs don’t get around to the book, but a discussion still unfolds. The bonds grow deeper.

Now as I write about book club, I know why I felt a rush of excitement at church a month ago when a woman announced a book group forming at the church. I wanted to be book happy again, in a book club way. Thing is, although my Dutch is coming along swimmingly, I barely understood her announcement.

A book club, like a quality relationship, is something that can’t be rushed. You have to find the right group of people, whom you would like to potentially see for the rest of your life. A group of individuals you relate to and trust.  Perhaps another book club will emerge. In the meantime, I will still fancy myself a member of that great group of women back home, and drop in on them from time to time.