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.


zomerafdwingers (summer enforcers)

Although this post is mainly about the sun, I must first take a little trip down memory lane: On December 31st, 2010 we arrived in the Netherlands to the surreal experience of Dutch New Years on jetlag–every man, woman and child for himself launching legal and illegal fireworks into the air, the neighbors, nearby automobiles; people of all ages standing on their stoops til 2 or 3am entangled in the general chaos and liveliness. Late the following afternoon we emerged from the tumble of sleeping bags on my in-laws dining room floor, and rubbed our eyes into the new year.

Aware of our Southern California orientation to sunshine, my mother-in-law smartly suggested a walk in the park to catch a few rays before the short day was over. I had to snicker when I saw people bundled up on the benches with their eyes closed, faces tipped upward, as if willing the sun to stay a little longer. How sad for you all, I thought, thinking of the brilliant, unstoppable sun I had seen just the day before as we had left Santa Barbara.

Fast forward fifteen months to mid March, 2012 and I know that these people with their faces raised toward the sun are my people. We head out when the first sunray breaks through the blanket of fog to soak in the light.

All those layers and gloves and hats and scarves and thick socks and boots just for a few minutes of sunshine? Why all the fuss?

According to, we make 90 percent of our vitamin D by exposing our skin to sunlight. And what’s the big deal about Vitamin D? Sufficient intake of Vitamin D actually reduces the risk of cancer, osteoporosis, heart disease and helps us maintain higher levels of Serotonin–you know, that happy drug that keeps SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) away.  Dang!  So when I found myself on a bench in the park this winter in my three quarter length coat, eyes closed, face tipped toward the sky, I was self-prescribing in a good way.

But I’m still green when it comes to coercing the weather to evolve into something that more appropriately resembles spring or summer. These hardcore seasonal activists are unofficially referred to as zomerafdwingers, or summer enforcers. Arie Jan overheard this term in a cafe in Amsterdam a few weeks ago. A couple observed some people sitting on the patio when it was far to cold be sitting outside. “Zij zijn zomerafdwingers,” they concluded.

Zomerafdwingers are ruthless when it comes to their job. Nevermind that it’s freezing cold outside. They ask for the patio seating because the sun is shining. Forget that the canals are only halfway through the thaw. It’s mid February and by God, they shall wear stockings with a mini skirt and heels under their winter coats. The wind is howling through the naked forest on a single digit day, but the sun is out. And there goes another zomerafdwinger running in a t-shirt and shorts.

Perhaps this practice is a form  of Dutch black magic as it seems to be working. It was warm enough today to sit in our garden and sip on a home made latte. And there in that tepid sunshine, I saw our first tulip in bloom.

Ben jij ook een zomerafdwinger? Keep it up!

Beach Days, Sex Crazed, meditation and Jellyfish

I spoke to my sister-in-law in America last night and she reported having just thought of me while flipping through a sportswear catalog.  Among the image laden pages of must-haves was a pair of sleek thermal running pants for extreme climates. She figured I was probably in need of such an item, poor thing, in the miserable weather of Holland. Yet, to her surprise and my pleasure, I reported that we’ve made two trips to the beach this week, and I most likely won’t be needing any such running pants until at least Wednesday, when the weather is supposed to take a turn for the worse.

Den Haag is a 20 minute bicycle ride from the North Sea. The coastline stretches in both directions with kilometers of open beachfront, some just off the well trodden paths of beach towns and others via walking or cycling-only access through the sand dunes.

Every spring, a whole village of beachfront restaurants are erected along the shore for the summer season, and then deconstructed by the end of the season. These are not wheel-away-at-night patat (french fries) stands,  but full-fledged restaurants with decks, glassed in walls, padded furniture, roofs, electricity, thematic designs and palpable sound systems to fine tune an ambiance that differentiates it from the neighboring restaurant. These are not only labor intensive to set up, but the restaurateurs pay hefty fees to rent the beachfront.

The summer weather in Holland was so bad this year that most Dutch claim the season was skipped in this country. The city of Scheveningen must have felt sorry for their beach renters, a Dutch friend informed me, as they extended the restaurant leases until the end of October.  And what a good decision it was; last weekend every restaurant was busy and every square meter of beach occupied by a broad spectrum of humans ranging from pale white to foreign-vacation tanned.

I walked with two new friends I had met in a yoga/meditation course and the shore of the North sea on a warm Saturday afternoon seemed the perfect setting to discuss what we had learned. We had all experienced the value of regularly doing the meditation and breathing techniques, but we also felt annoyed by having to do “one more thing,” regardless of how much it improved our daily lives.   As we discussed how our meditations were coming along, we navigated our way through the jellyfish that washed up on shore. Although no longer alive, their amber tentacles moved gracefully to the gentle rhythm of the waves. They did not have the tell-tale blue lines on the round part of their bodies that indicate they are poisonous, but their presence was enough to keep 95% of the population out of the sea.

Although we were equally engaged and participating in the conversation, our eyes were still scanning the ground for jellyfish. Soon we made the prudent decision to walk on the dry sand of the beach, thus allowing our gazes to be more all-encompassing, our thoughts more present for contemplation.

As our gazes lifted upward our conversation did flow more easily. But as we proceeded on our journey, I noticed the beach goers on their towels had somehow transitioned from scantily clad to wholly unclad. As we casually ambled forward through the bobbing penises, sagging breasts and occasional sunburnt child, I was determined to focus on the conversation at hand. But soon, the change in landscape penetrated our thoughts.

As we passed naked families sitting together under the hot sun, my friend shared a conversation she’d had with friends just a few nights before about the vast differences in freedom of conversation between mothers and daughters around the topic of sex. The three of us shared in common having almost never talked to our mothers about sex. On the other hand, one of her friends had reported that mom talked openly to her about her sexual experiences down to which toys she liked for such occasions.

In Holland, land of sexual freedom, legal prostitution and drugs, it makes sense that family views on the topic of sex could be much more liberal. If I had thought about the topic before, I might have naturally come to the same conclusion. .

I sometimes have difficulty with the general zen principle of staying in the moment, but my child is like my zen master. Besides the anticipation of dessert after dinner, he seems to live fully in the moment, engaged in play, in laughter, in taking in the opportunities around him. When with him, I too am in the moment. Yes, I can digress back into history and think of holding him as an infant, or think in a general sense about his future educational needs, but for the most part, I think of him as a four and a half year old, no younger, no older. But, former topic at hand, how will this country of liberal indifference influence his sexual upbringing? Of course, parents play a large role, but contemporary society also holds a powerful set of cards in how our children will think. But, keeping my little zen boy in mind, I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.