Life Cycling


Have you ever had one of those days where you feel as if that voodoo guy in Indiana Jones’ Temple of Doom has just reached in and pulled your heart from your chest, exposing it to the world for all its vulnerability and capabilities?

Today was one of those days. I got to keep my heart in the end, ripped and sore from the emotional work out, but with the chance of healing and being stronger.

It started with a visit to my French friend Fanny to meet her just over 2 week-old baby. Although I visited with Fanny when she was pregnant, this was the first time I saw her as a mom, that baby in her arms. I had forgotten how tiny little humans could be.

When she offered for me to hold her, I scooped her up, supporting her little wobbly neck, cuddling her to me. She was so light, so vulnerable, so fresh to the world with that new baby smell that speaks of a purity we can never quite reclaim.

“Her existence changes the world,” I said. “Not only has she dramatically changed your lives by coming into it, but she will say and do things in her lifetime that will change the world.”

“Yes. I totally agree,” my friend responded. We weren’t trying to be profound. Our exchange was in a way just pointing out the obvious. But sometimes it’s the most obvious things that can be revelatory.

I love holding babies, but today, this had an extra layer of significance.  I was celebrating the start of this small baby girl’s life, but in a few short hours, I would be attending a funeral of a friend who died at 42 years young.

As I prepared to attend the funeral, I thought of my friend Mart, how he wasn’t here on the planet anymore. His body remains, but he left Saturday, departing for the heavens. For once, I can write this with certainty. Not necessarily my own, but his. He was a lawyer with an analytical mind, but also a Christian. In the last few months of his life, his thoughts on God, on Jesus, gained clarity.

I have attended a half dozen funerals at our church in the last five years, but he was by far the youngest within our community to pass away. If you are one to think of and idealize your own funeral, this might have been the picture in your mind. The church, which can hold approximately 400 people, was completely full.  Beautiful music was played, the flowers spoke of honor and celebration, the children were called forward to light candles. We heard  inspiring, heart-opening and tear invoking stories of his life and beliefs recalled through his family members, wife, fraternity brothers, colleagues.

A common theme was his faith. At a time that many might raise their fist in the air at God and shake it with anger, his faith solidified, became crystal clear and simple. He knew he was going to God.

After the church service, the attendees cycled, caught a tram or drove to the Dutch cemetery, where our friend was lowered into “his final resting place.” Yet that is also a bit of an untruth; the vessel that held him has been lowered into the ground, but he has flown away.

That gravestone will represent a place to honor his memory, but he will live on in all of those who loved him and knew him.

As the day comes to a close, I think of his wife, mother, brother, sister, cousins, nieces and nephews, friends, colleagues. Those left behind. My thoughts focus most on his wife, a good friend of mine, and what this transition into a new phase of her life, without her beloved by her side, will be like. As I wrote that last sentence, a thought came shooting through me; ‘but she’s not alone. He is there with her in spirit. And she is surrounded by those who love her.’ 

So very true, yet my heart still hurts for her. This is the stuff that connects us to the life cycle and makes us aware of just how precious the gift of life is.

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

October 6th, 2012


When I was in high school, I worked at a leather store; not the type of leather store you find in a strip mall, but a family owned, first generation, hands-on business.  The owner was a transplant from the East Coast that had a running commentary on politics, attended jazz concerts and often waned semi philosophical with clients. His store offered an eclectic mix of hippyesque leather goods such as hand carved leather belts, Indian moccasins and fringe leather jackets, as well as luxurious lamb’s skin leather mini skirts, full length fur coats and hip bomber jackets. Racks of stylish leather hand bags, wallets and hats filled every last bit of space. Somehow, these items created a cohesive collection, which fit the upscale name, First Street Leather.

In the morning when I opened the store, the intoxicating smell of leather filled my senses, confirming that I had stepped into a world of perceived luxury. Over time, I learned to accurately size someone up when they walked in the door–not in a sense of casting judgment, but in knowing that this particular man wore a size forty-four coat, that woman most likely a size seven boot. I learned to speak confidently with strangers, no matter their walk of life, and to refrain from judging a book by its cover–a skill that has proven surprisingly useful throughout life. For example, the rough and tumble man in black leather biker chaps with a red bandana tying back his long, windblown hair was just as likely to pull out a thick roll of hundred-dollar bills to purchase a fur coat for his babe, or go sentimental over his child, as was the man in the tweed jacket and corduroys.

But what proved more poignant were two other concepts I was introduced to by the owner of First Street Leather: that activism is for everyone and that life is short. Activism in those days required a bit more hands-on work. Like actually writing a letter. On several occasions when it was slow, he had me hand address envelopes to leader’s of other nations.

“You’ll need to do this one over.” I must have sighed out loud in a way only a teenager can, because he went on to explain why exactness was in this case so important; “When you’re writing the President of Sri Lanka to voice concerns over human rights in his country, you can’t make a mistake in the spelling of his name.  Otherwise, he won’t take you seriously.”  Indeed, I had misspelled the last name of then-President of Sri Lanka, Junius Richard Jayewardene.

My boss was also outspoken. One time, when a woman passed him doing 80 on a windy country road, he followed her for 20 minutes until she pulled over, verbally chastising her driving style. Nevermind that he had to copy her dangerous driving to catch up with her. I had no intention of emulating his style of standing up for what you believe in, but the lesson was clear; speaking up for what you believe in is not something you can do from the sidelines. It takes commitment and decisiveness, and not everyone will be pleased with you along the way.

The other lesson I learned from him was that people sometimes go before their time. He had just turned forty, and suddenly friends of his started to die; friends in the middle of successful careers, friends with young families, friends who had been in perfect health one day, and were suddenly gone the next. I could see that my boss was still fit, quick of wit and very capable, but at the time, forty sounded ancient to me. I was, after all, of the invincible age of sixteen and had more than two and a half decades to go before I’d be so darned old.

But what struck me was the melancholy that settled over him as he mourned his friends, and how uncomfortable it made me feel. He was my boss–someone who I expected to always be strong, decisive and right. It seemed that with each friend’s passing, he probed the holes that suddenly existed in his web of life connections–connections that had played a role in forming who he was.  Perhaps he felt his own mortality. And no matter how vital and strong you are in daily life, you become vulnerable if you probe such darkness–especially if you don’t believe in a happy afterlife. Although there were two tragic deaths of fellow schoolmates during my high school years, they were shocks that startled me. And although I may have contemplated how short life could be, it did not stick with me.

Now that I’ve reached the ripe old age of forty something, his melancholy comes back to me in a wave. Friends and acquaintances of mine have made the journey to the other side, and thus far I’ve received no postcards telling me how it is over there. Watching the news is a daily reminder of just how short life is. Yet it really hits home when someone from your youth, a thread to your vibrant beginnings, passes away. Especially if it is before their time. Such is the case with former classmate Kim Denuzzo. Although we were not close in high school, she was this positive force in our class–always friendly, upbeat. I went on Facebook to peruse what was up with my friends, and discovered that Kim had suddenly passed away–in the middle of her life, leaving behind her family. Saturday October 6th was her memorial.

And so it begins. She is not the first in my life to pass away. There have been many. And I know, being the mortal humans that we are, that the numbers will only increase. But what is comforting is the faith she had, and the solid feeling that comes to me that her rich life energy is celebrating somewhere else. Faith can make all the difference for those left behind as well. If you believe you will see Kim again, or your friend, father, grandmother, whoever it may be, the blow still comes, but is softened with such eternal hope.

And what else happened on October 6th? Two new friends of ours, also vibrant life forces, got married. And somewhere in the world, babies were born, someone made love for the first time, someone ended their marriage, another got his dream job, yet another received an extension on life through a transplant, and so forth and so on. I suppose these musings are also a part of melancholy. But to explore life’s processes in earnest is not a form of weakness as I thought in my youth. It’s about gaining strength that will carry you forward in life.

Fathers


When a friend recently shared that she had lost her father 10 months ago, my tears surged so quickly that my tear ducts ached.  After listening quietly, I shared that I had gone through this as well. I could feel a shift, as if she knew she was not just experiencing that uncomfortable pity that we sometimes unintentionally cast on others; she felt my empathy.  She suggested that it would get easier over time, but I told her not to hold her breath. That even a decade later, the pain can still be there.

I lost my father 14 years ago to Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), an incurable neuromuscular disease. And even though 14 years may seem like a long time ago, it is only now that I can even bear to write about it. It is true that as time passes, the pain dulls. But the experience of him can come back instantly through simple and unexpected ways; the smell of Old Spice cologne on a passerby, a sudden memory of him sitting in his chair reading the paper, the way he used to laugh so hard that tears would come to his eyes.

If someone famous dies from a rare disease, they may receive the honor, or burden, of having that disease named after them. Although my father had his own rite of fame in the eyes of his friends and family, I am thankful that ALs is not called Bob Anderson disease. ALS is, however, known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, after the famous New York Yankees baseball player whose rapid rise to fame was tragically cut short by ALS. Lou Gehrig and my father had something much more uplifting in common:  both of their family’s loved them.

Although we are trained to subdue our emotions and to get over our losses, I think it is healthy to be able to connect with the feeling of loss, wether ten months or twenty years have passed. Such feelings confirm your ability to truly love other human beings, and prove that love is indeed infinite. If I hadn’t cared for my father, perhaps it would be different. But to this day, I believe my father to have been one of the best in the world: kind, patient, humble, great sense of humor, able to give a concise summary of world events, manly enough to say he loved you.

If he were here today, I can only imagine how differently my life might have turned out. I can see him playing with his new grandchildren that have been born since his passing. I can picture him talking with my husband, his hands clasped gently together as he listens. I can imagine him sitting with my mom on the front porch, looking at the play of light and shadow on the mountains in the distance.

Yet I do know that he is here. Over the years I have felt his presence in subtle, scientifically unprovable ways that have provided kindling and flame to my faith in the hereafter. Sometimes when I pray, I picture my father as one of the bearded men up there who may have an ear more keenly turned to my needs. Sometimes those prayers are even answered.  So if you think your duties as a father end when your kid turns 18, think again. Once a father, eternally a father.

Going to see the Swami


Swami Sukhchaitanya was scheduled to speak from 1:00-4:00 p.m. on the third floor of a vacant office building in Den Haag. As we drove with a friend through the gray afternoon on our way to the event, we talked about the Art of Living. I have only been to one Art of Living event before, and that was a small yoga/meditation group held in someone’s home (See February 2011 post: Vicarious epiphany: Insights from The Art of Living and the process of letting go). I hadn’t studied anything about this organization since, so going to see the Swami felt like a big step. Yet, I was assured he was worth the trip and a very special person to encounter.

It wasn’t until we stepped off the elevator on the third floor and walked across the gray, spanking new office carpet that I thought about the awkwardness of the location. Weren’t Swami’s supposed to be surrounded by fresh flowers, candles, incense and golden orange swaths of fabric? How could this sterile environment, with white walls, double pained windows and lifeless recirculated air be an appropriate setting for a swami?

Although we arrived a bit early, there were already 30 or so people milling around mostly  dressed in bright colors. Quite a few appeared to be Indian, Indonesian and other nationalities blessed with smooth and ageless brown skin. There were enough caucasian varieties in the mix for me to blend into the crowd. Arie Jan and his brother Cornelis who arrived later are too tall to ever blend in, but they were certainly not the only white males in the room.

After a few cups of ginger tea, we headed into the main hall. I must have seen a few swami videos in my time, because there, in the center of the room was a set up almost as I had envisioned it;  a white couch, surrounded by orange swaths of fabric; two rather modern vases of purple flowers stood on the floor to each side of the couch; a small white table to the left held candles, and to the right was a keyboard and some other musical instruments and requisite microphones.

It started gradually with a warm up speaker who wore a white, gauzy eye patch over one eye under his glasses. Apparently, the eye patch had something to do with soaking his contact lenses in the wrong solution and then popping one in his eye–a disaster that ended in the emergency room. Despite the patch, this Indian man rallied the crowd with games, stretches, jokes and singing all geared toward bringing us into our bodies and making us light and happy. Thing is, you can’t make someone light and happy, but you can certainly try. And try he did. Yet it wasn’t until the arrival of the swami was announced an hour later that all the elements came together in a game.

“Swami Sukhchaitanya is here. But, before he comes in, we are going to do one more game.” What is it with these games, I thought irritably. In the next game, you chose a partner whom you didn’t know. I turned to a young woman sitting next to me in a bright magenta beaded top. She appeared to be in her mid twenties and had that beautiful, smooth Indian skin, long black curly hair and midnight eyes. Her name was Shanti, and she looked solid and friendly.

Here was the game: one person claps, and the other person does everything they can to stop the other person from clapping. Okay. Sounds simple enough. I was in group one, so I had to be the first person to clap. I was picturing something mild, but when the warm up speaker said “Go!” all mayhem broke loose. The beautiful, elegant Shanti pounced on me, grabbing my arms, twisting my hands apart and I started to run, really run. And not only had I underestimated her strength, but she was apparently a sprinter as well. I ran as if my life depended on it, as if someone was after my purse full of my life savings, but with happiness in my heart. She chased me fiercely, catching me part of the time before I could twist away and run again, this time with more will, more strength and more terrifying joy. Thing is, there were 103 other people in the room in the same exuberant pursuit! Total chaos.

“Switch!” called the speaker. Suddenly it was my turn to chase her and in a flash she was gone. I scanned the room and thanked the swami for her bright magenta top.  I chased her with a childlike passion to win.  I hopped over legs, swerved around chairs and flailing bodies and found her, grabbing on tightly only to be flung away. She squealed as she ran and I followed her, wanting nothing more in that moment than to stop those joyfully clapping hands.

And then it was over.  And yet everything had changed. The room had transformed from a crowd of serene yet uncomfortable strangers in folding chairs to a room of people with bright eyes and childlike, delightful grins on their perspiring faces, exhausted and thankfully sitting down. The room was about 30 degrees warmer and someone had managed to open the windows. The cool air from outside met our warm air, and it was like we were all on a retreat together in the tropics to see a world-famous Swami rather than on the third floor of a vacant office building in Den Haag.

And that is when, legs crossed on the white couch, the Swami started to speak. He talked about the game and used the Socratic method to draw from us what we had learned. We had learned to be ecstatic. We had learned to be completely in the moment, instead of theoretically in the moment. We had learned about joy and embracing a stranger. There were many other lessons, but it all came back to the game, in one way or another.

Swami Sukhchaitanya did not fly in from India. Although Indian, he is a Canadian citizen and director of the Art of Living Foundation in Quebec. His long black beard and flowing black hair created a holy contrast to his flowing white robes, and he had the laid back attitude of a California surfer, but with the wisdom of a true Swami. His tips for enlightenment were certainly not new lessons, but the lessons nevertheless felt fresh from his lips. Happiness comes from within, and no one–not your boss, your spouse or any other person–has the right or ability to take that away from you. He also pointed out our assumptions about people and the way we describe others.

Many of his topics emerged from questions in the group. One person asked how some people can always be angry.

“You know that friend or uncle you have that is always angry? And you ask yourself, how can someone be angry all of the time?” The swami started. People around the room nodded knowingly. We all have that person in our lives, right? Wrong. “No one can be angry all of the time. Can you be angry while you sleep?” he said, making a face of someone sleeping with an angry disposition. “Or someone angry while they are brushing their teeth?” Once again, he scrunched up his serene face into a tight angry ball, with an imaginary toothbrush being thrust in and out of his mouth. We all ecstatically laughed our way into the knowledge he was providing. “That’s just not humanly possible. And further, we don’t like being put into boxes, and yet, we put other people in boxes all of the time.”

It was interesting being led through humor to see our own faults, and how we all shared these faults. This is the power of a great speaker. He or she can get inside your perspective and show you where things are a little tweaked, clean a spot on the lens you didn’t know was there. And they do so in such a disarming, selfless way, that we breathe in the criticism joyfully, receiving it like a bouquet of flowers someone has just delivered to us because we are willing to open our minds.

The question is, how long can you hold onto the lesson without a swami around? I suppose that depends on how much time you spend meditating and practicing the art of happiness, of peaceful communication or shall we say, The Art of Living.

Although the swami was here just a few weeks ago, I know by some of my actions, or reactions this week, that I am in desperate need of having my very own swami around to laugh me back into shape. Didn’t I just yesterday describe someone as “always mad?”

I’m not ready to become a devotee, but I am aware that my limited encounters with The Art of Living philosophy have set me straight and happy for a good week at a time. And in all my great flawed humanness, it would be healthy for all if I could extend this state of mind to a year round endeavor. And so a seed is planted.