Last weekend, my friend Anna invited me to go swimming in a canal near Anna Paulowna. I knew she and her husband went to this semi-secret spot on a regular basis, and I jumped at the chance. We drove through the countryside until we came to an area where the thick stalks of river grass gave way to a sliver of sandy beach on the edge of a large expanse of water. Yellow floaters dotted the shallows in a half circle, marking a safe zone for little ones. A curly headed child rode a “goose,” and her mother stood nearby, water up to her shins, father chilling in a folding chair not far away. Beyond the yellow floats, the canal stretched wide and long, more like a gently flowing river, than a man-made waterway.
It was late afternoon, August-hot, and only a handful of people were making use of this remarkable spot. The water’s surface was sun warmed, but as soon as we stopped swimming and sank a bit further into the water, cold filled our limbs. Not snow melt cold, but chilly enough to tell you this body of water had some depth to it. We swam gently, bobbing and chatting, paddling and flopping around, our heads always above water. I was never someone who took to water like a fish, but that day, submersed in fresh water with my head poking out, arms and feet propelling me gently forward in synchronized movements, I felt like I had found the natural order of things. All this in the accompaniment of a good friend.
“Now this is what it is to be alive.”
A few weeks earlier, I had a similar experience when Jana and Steve from Idaho came for a long weekend; just one stop on their year-long world tour. (You can follow them on Insta @nobar_toofar, and yes, you got that right; they enjoy drinking and plan to post about their continuous journey to mild inebriation over the next twelve months).
They arrived in the Netherlands during a heat wave. After extricating themselves from the crowds and chaos of Amsterdam, they headed up to our small, northerly town of Schagen, a welcome contrast to the big city. This is the real Netherlands, they claimed. They were in good spirits, but the heat was merciless. So, we did what most people do in a summer heat wave; we headed to the sea.
Callantsoog, a beach community 12 kilometers from our little city, provided what we all needed: access to the cool waters of the North Sea. We walked up the beach, away from the throngs of people, until we found a less crowded, dog-friendly section. We set up a towel camp, shed our clothing down to our swim suits–a skimpy fabric away from nakedness, really–and plopped into the water. Freedom. Five heads bobbing in the sea, free from the heat, free from all the societal messaging of clothing and status, and work and other responsibilities; just humans in water. We floated and chatted and praised the sea, aware of, but ignoring the jellyfish swimming around us; until we couldn’t.
“I feel a little something on my arm. A prickling sensation.”
“Me too. On the back of my leg.”
Their blobby bodies were like thickened patches of water, stings so subtle, we hardly noticed.
Still, we floated, heedless of the current until we noticed our towel base camp on shore had “moved.” We’d swim back to ground zero, chat, bob, paddle, letting the water carry us out again, swim back. Repeat.
Later, home, showered, we all settled into a post-sea calm. Opened a bottle of red. Then another. Whatever prickly concerns had been vying for my attention–what will I cook for dinner? Do I have enough wine? Did I clean the downstairs sink?–seemed to have been washed away in the saltwater. In their absence, space; space to be present, to cook together with Jana, listen to stories of Idaho, to share insights, to say yes to a second glass of wine.
Yesterday afternoon. Another hot day. I asked my family if they wanted to go swimming in the secret swim spot after work. My son gave me a definite “no way, ” before returning to Netflix bingeing, and my husband offered a rather indifferent “sure,” with an unspoken subtext of “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Just after the clock struck 5, I logged off from my remote work, walked downstairs and banged on his office door.
“Time to swim!”
I’m notorious for getting lost, but somehow I retraced the route to the secret spot by the canal, navigating along the frontage roads until it came into view. There were more people this time: teenagers, toddlers, a few guys with boats on the tiny boat ramp 100 meters from the swimming area. We parked the car, stripped down to our bathing suits and waded in.
The water was colder than I remember, but water always plays that trick on you when you first get in. The sky was flecked with clouds and a slight breeze rustled the water’s surface. Sun warmed our faces as we swam, lazily, on our backs or propelling forward like frogs. Water cleansed our skin, massaged our muscles, and gave us a semi-break from gravity. No smells of chlorine, salt, or fish. No jellyfish. Fresh water pressed against every centimeter of our bodies. It felt so natural, this state of being buoyed up, made weightless. It’s in moments like this, that I wonder why I don’t swim all the time.
We didn’t stay for more than 20 minutes. He had a church meeting to go to, and I had promised to make dinner for my son before he went to his martial arts class. We took the back roads along the dykes, passing farmland, barns and cattle and great green pastures. A fork in the road. Left or right? We ended up driving toward the Maria-op-de-Keins, a small Catholic chapel next to a farm. There’s something almost magical about this chapel. Even a five-minute visit for a moment of contemplation is like a shot of wheat grass to the soul.
“Let’s stop!” I suggested.
My husband also knows how special this location is. When he was working on an article for a theological journal, he chose to write about the placement of Christian buildings on sites that were considered sacred to pagan and other pre-Christian religions. This practice was a way of both dominating and converting followers to the Christian faith–a rather brutal approach–but also a way of recognizing the spirituality of these sacred places. One such place is Maria-op-de-Keins, which played a role in his published article in Theologie.nl (you can read it in Dutch here).
Legend has it, that in the sixteenth century, after a great storm, a wooden statue of Maria was found and put in a well in order to clean it. From that moment on, the well water had healing powers. That legend is connected with this location, which is also known to be located on ley lines.
If you look up ley lines, you will find some sources saying they are hocus-pocus or pseudo science, and other sources (mainly with aura-themed backgrounds and pictures of UK henges) telling you they are powerful energy lines that run through different coordinates of the earth. Supposedly, they have multiple effects from healing to disruptive energy. These stories are also persisting in northern Holland. For example, when Arie Jan gave a presentation on his theological paper and mentioned the ley lines, one woman stood up in the audience and shared a remarkable story. Her daughter was having trouble getting pregnant. She and her daughter visited a chapel located on ley lines. The daughter drank from its well, and became pregnant soon after. This is the power that ley lines are attributed, even to this day.
While my husband was doing research for his paper, we went to several churches and areas that were supposedly located on ley lines. At each ley line location, my husband felt energy pulsing through his body. No matter how hard I tried (or didn’t try), I didn’t feel a thing.
When we arrived at Maria op de Keins yesterday evening, still damp from our swim, there were six candles burning, suggesting that a number of people had recently visited. I sat on a pew, the statue of Mary before me surrounded by fresh floral arrangements, and lit candles, and my whole body started vibrating. It didn’t hurt, or feel uncomfortable, but it felt very bizarre, like a jolt of energy coming from outside and inside of me at the same time.
“My whole body is vibrating!” I whispered to my husband, who sat in the other row of pews.
“Mine too.” His smile was subtle, but one I recognized; the smile of someone who has known all along.
On all those visits to areas built on ley lines, he had always felt this energy, and I had felt nothing. Up until this moment, I had to take his word for it. But this? This was unbelievable. I tried to come up with a reason. Perhaps some sort of generator was silently humming beneath the building. Perhaps this little chapel had G5 and a satellite tower was nearby. The ley lines were becoming more probable by the moment.
We hadn’t been there but two minutes when a young couple came in. The man walked right to the wireless payment system and scanned his card, while his partner picked up one of the thin candles and placed it on the stand in front of Maria op de Keins. Clearly, they came here often. We left soon after, and before we drove away, the young couple was already back in their car.
During his research, my husband learned that this tiny chapel, with only four rows of pews, receives close to 1,000 visitors per week, and true to the experience we just had, many people stay for just a short while. And get this; it isn’t just Catholics that come to Maria op de Keins. People of all faiths (including those with no faith) come here. Churches across the nation are losing their membership, but this little countryside chapel draws the masses in individual five minute droplets. How is this possible? What is drawing them all here? The energy that ran through my body for the first time? The ley lines? The absolute freedom of the space? The underlying pagan history?
On the drive back home, we talked about the burst of energy I had felt for the first time; how he had been feeling it for the past two years. Why now? What was different about this visit? For one, I wasn’t even thinking about the ley lines. During previous visits, I had hoped to feel something, like some sort of miracle, or finally being allowed into the energetically-sensitive club. But another big difference is that I had just been swimming in a canal for twenty minutes, my body immersed, bathed and cleansed in water. Swimming, like other exercise, pulls you out of your thoughts and places you in your body, in the moment. I arrived at the chapel firmly grounded in my body by fresh water, and I wasn’t caught up in my thoughts. I was just present without expectation. And that is when I felt the ley line energy for the first time.
The element of water. We all know it’s essential for life; that it’s used in rituals, for bathing, for baptism. What other gifts does water have to offer?