Talk About What you Read


I recently read that discussing the contents of a reading passage with others can give you new insights into the text that you might not have realized on your own, increasing your reading comprehension. Although I came across this information in an IEA publication about developing reading comprehension in elementary school students, I think this applies to all readers, regardless of age.

As an active member of two book clubs, I have experienced first hand how discussing a written text with others can expand the reading experience and comprehension in multiple ways.
ANTICIPATION: When you know you will be discussing a book with others, it adds a sense of accountability; not only do you feel obligated to finish the book, intentionally or not, you tend to pay more attention to the plot and writing style so you will have something worthwhile to contribute to the conversation.
EXPANSION: During the book club gathering, the story, which up until that moment only existed as an internal relationship between you, your brain, and the author’s creation, is transformed into an external experience through the discussion.
INSIGHTS: Someone may recall details of the novel you had forgotten about, jogging your memory and deepening your understanding of the whole story. Others may have a totally different interpretation of the novel, or parts of the novel, providing insights you might not have come to on your own. Your insights might do the same for someone else. As you talk about your reading experience, your own ideas about the novel may start to crystallize in ways you hadn’t expected.
PERSPECTIVE: We all engage with story through our own lens, bringing our life experiences along for the literary ride. Thus, the book club discussion becomes a journey of exploring often complicated topics, while discovering each other’s perspectives, seeing where our views overlap or differ, and providing a chance to expand or rethink our own views. Dang! No wonder book clubs are so popular!

However, this process can also be painful. For example, when a novel is about a heavy topic—which is quite often the case in literature—the intersection between fact and fiction becomes razor thin. This can be confrontational. Yet knowing that we are reading a work of fiction provides a sense of distance from difficult topics, enabling us to lower the armor we wear in the real world, and expose feelings we usually keep under lock and key. This places us in an emotionally vulnerable state. Combine that vulnerable emotional state with a book club discussion, and we have the potential to process the tragedies and challenges of being human, together. Book club as therapy!

Such was my experience when discussing Bewilderment, by Richard Powers. I had the opportunity to hear him speak about this book at the Crossing Borders festival in The Hague back in November of 2021, but I didn’t read the book until much later.
The novel felt like a personal journey to childhood, reconnecting with innocence and the loss thereof. We are taken on this remarkable journey through the perspective of Theo and his son Robin.
Once you meet the nine-year-old Robin—a brilliant, sensitive, and curious boy being raised by his father—you know that your heart is not only going to be ripped wide open, but pulverized by the weight of his questions. While a number of his questions are about his mother, other questions revolve around why adults have caused so much damage to the planet, and why they don’t do anything to make amends/ protect what’s left. Talk about confrontational! Consider this passage where Robin has accessed the internet and discovered that rivers used by migratory birds are being continually poisoned by chemical run off from farms, destroying habitat and causing mutations in amphibians.

Robin’s father Theo, confronted by his son’s discovery, thinks the following: The world had become something no schoolchild should be allowed to discover. Heartbreakingly true in this context. But then Powers uses his writing genius to twist the knife a little deeper through dialogue:

“Do people know this?”
“I think so. Mostly.”
“And they don’t fix it because . . . ?”
The standard answer—economics—was insane.
p.182 Bewilderment, by Richard Powers

This passage gutted me and I entered that emotionally vulnerable state I described earlier. The topic of environmental degradation is so much a part of our lives these days that the only difference between fact and fiction is that this particular conversation between a father and son is between two fictitious characters, but could easily be between just about any real father and son alive today. The reason we’re destroying the homes of all living things on earth (besides, perhaps, some tenacious amoebas and cockroaches), all boils down to that one word: money.

Discussing this novel was confronting, but it also created a safe place to share our feelings of dread about the state of the environment—past, present, and future—while creating a bit of distance since the characters were fictional. Remarkably, we were still able to find shreds of hope in the story and in our own lives, reiterating ways we can participate in the solution: Education, voting, diligence in our shopping patterns, holding corporations and governments accountable where possible, becoming vegan or vegetarian, considering our own sphere of influence in our transport, our work, schools, communities, and homes. And the youth! Oh, the youth! May there be many Robins (fictional) and Greta Thunbergs (oh so real) in this world! It was a bewildering discussion, but also uplifting.

Bewilderment was also true to its name when it came to Robin’s astrophysicist father Theo, and his penchant for storytelling. Thanks to Richard Powers (and vocabulary.com), I can tell you that an astrophysicist is a scientist who specializes in “studying space, planets, stars, and the universe.” Mini chapters throughout Bewilderment are about Theo’s bedtime stories. We’re not talking about reading out of a chapter book. Theo’s stories take Robin on astrophysical journeys to planets with other life forms, and explore the problems the planet’s chemistry poses to its inhabitants. Although the idea of looking for a planet B as an alternative for earth would be a simple way to label these stories, there was clearly much more going on.

Above: Hubble image of the giant nebula NGC 3603 and new star life stages. Source: Nasa.gov

We asked ourselves if these mini-stories were Richard Power’s way of providing coded messages for the reader to puzzle through until that aha moment hits. We had a few conjectures, but it seemed like the aha moment had been sucked into a black hole.

Remember how this post started? Discussing reading passages with others can expand your understanding? A few days after the book club gathering, Paulina (deKoning) Vanderbilt, a treasured member who wasn’t able to attend that day, shared her thoughts on the book, along with her conjectures on what all those mini-stories of planetary journeys could be about. Paulina is a teacher, an environmentalist, and a highly creative person, so naturally, she didn’t just send us a WhatsApp with her thoughts. She came up with an artistic poster to pull that aha moment out of said black hole and bring Theo’s (Richard Powers’s) chaos into order. With her permission, I am sharing Pauline’s drawing here, which extended the discussion and our level of understanding. Be forewarned: It contains spoilers.

WARNING! THE FOLLOWING IMAGE CONTAINS SPOILERS! DO NOT READ UNTIL YOU HAVE FINISHED BEWILDERMENT!

Copyright Pauline Vanderbilt, 2022. Please ask permission to re-use!


Bewilderment is a story of our time, a story of a father and son, of children we diagnose and medicate, of love and loss, of innocence and loss of innocence, and, on behalf of the natural world, a desperate cry for help. The story is still inside me, like a collection of micro-nutrients that are slowly being absorbed into my bloodstream to inform the shape of my thoughts in a way that reminds me to breathe and do my part.
Have you read Bewilderment? Yes? Then please share in the comments what you think of Paulina’s conjectures about the planetary stories. Did you have a similar reaction to this book as I did? Was there the opportunity for healing among the pain?
Environmental fiction provides an accessible way to discuss the real environmental tragedies unfolding around us, and help us accept that they are real and need our attention. From there, baby steps. Walking. Jogging. Running. Leaping. Bounding. Progress—all in our own unique way—toward saving what’s left.

Water and Chapels


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.

From left to right: Arie, Ezra, Kristin, Jana and Steve

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?

Bubbles


Have you ever had that experience where something in a novel crosses over into your world? I’m currently reading Autumn, by Ali Smith, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2017, and I had one of those crossover moments today:

All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing . . . All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won.

Autumn, by Ali Smith. p.59 paperback version.

Smith wrote Autumn in 2016 and was likely referencing divisive experiences surrounding Brexit. Yet when I read this passage, it seemed so of the moment, so utterly familiar, that it might as well have been straight out of an opinion piece in today’s paper.

Whether it’s vaccinations, climate change, election results or your favorite soccer club, it seems like its become impossible to find common ground anymore. Can you really agree to disagree, when facts are no longer facts? When everyone has their own opinion about what is and is not a credible or reputable source? You’re either for or against, based on facts (erroneously up for debate) or alternative facts (definitely up for debate), and there we are, gazing at an abyss that separates the one from the other, both feeling we’ve really won and the other has clearly lost.

This seemingly insurmountable chasm that separates us, also leaves us grasping for the solid ground of those that think like we do. In fact, I’d say most human connection, besides the most superficial, is based on a reasonable overlap of interests and / or beliefs. Yet at the same time, we are aware that seeking out those who share our outlook in life does come with the risk of enclosing us in socially isolating bubbles. And oh what a decadant and overwhelming plethora of bubbles are available! Just dive into any digital platform and seek what you’re looking for, even if it is a very specific niche of thought or interest, and you can find someone who agrees with you! What are your bubbles? I’ve put a few of mine in this post.

Speaking of bubbles, I had the distinct impression that my physical therapist was in my bubble. We both see the logic in getting vaccinated, both recognize the importance of higher education, and we have an overlap in interests when it comes to parenting, family and health. Somehow, we got on the topic of organics.
“I don’t believe in buying organic. There’s no difference in quality,” he said. I’m paraphrasing, but the point is, his view was diametrically opposed to mine.
Well. I hadn’t seen that one coming.
“Organic means they don’t use pesticides on your crops,” I argued, “which is healthier.”
“There’s no pesticides used in regular food. And if there is, it’s only in trace elements that would not at all have adverse health affects,” he responded. Once again, I’m paraphrasing. But wow. We were getting along so swimmingly, and believer in organics or not, the guy’s a great physical therapist.

What now? Does it matter that he shares a belief that contradicts my own? Or what I’d deem an incorrect version of the facts? I found myself tongue-tied, and asserting vaguely benign “mm-mmm’s” that neither suggested agreement nor disagreement. Why would this render me, promoter of organic everything, so speechless? Because my safe little bubble had been pierced and we live in a divisive age where: 1) more and more people confuse opinions with facts, 2) if you want to uphold your integrity when presenting your fact-based views, you need to have it backed up with credible sources that both parties engaged in a conversation agree to respect. 3) Google will be judge of both of you.

What authority would be acceptable to us both? I can only guess, but to me, the European Commission seemed like a good place to start.

Here’s a list of what it means to go organic in the EU:

  • Crop rotation for an efficient use of resources
  • A ban of the use of chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilisers
  • Very strict limits on livestock antibiotics
  • Ban of genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
  • Use of on-site resources for natural fertilisers and animal feed
  • Raising livestock in a free-range, open-air environment and the use of organic fodder
  • Tailored animal husbandry practices

Infographic and list are from the European Parliament

Based on these principles, what is there not to believe in? Organic is clearly better for the environment and for livestock. But is his claim also true? That conventional food is entirely safe and unaffected by chemical pesticides? Logic would say, organics wouldn’t be a multi-billion dollar industry if conventional crops are truly safe. However, let’s scratch the surface of that one as well. Here’s what some additional digging brought up on this debate.

A recent abstract of an article published in the Journal of Environmental Pollution in June of 2021, states the following: “Organic soils presented 70–90% lower [pesticide] residue concentrations than the corresponding conventional soils. There is a severe knowledge gap concerning the effects of the accumulated and complex mixtures of pesticide residues found in soil on soil biota and soil health. Safety benchmarks should be defined and introduced into (soil) legislation as soon as possible.” Point for organics!

To directly quote WHO on pesticides: “Pesticides are potentially toxic to humans and can have both acute and chronic health effects, depending on the quantity and ways in which a person is exposed. Some of the older, cheaper pesticides can remain for years in soil and water. These chemicals have been banned from agricultural use in developed countries, but they are still used in many developing countries.The most at-risk population are people who are directly exposed to pesticides. This includes agricultural workers who apply pesticides, and other people in the immediate area during and right after pesticides are spread. The general population – who are not in the area where pesticides are used – is exposed to significantly lower levels of pesticide residues through food and water.” (Don’t sue me for such a long quote WHO). Read more here. Point for organics!

On the other hand, I also found this statement on The Who website:
“None of the pesticides that are authorized for use on food in international trade today are genotoxic (damaging to DNA, which can cause mutations or cancer).”  Point for conventional crops!

Another abstract from a 2019 article entitled A Systematic Review of Organic Versus Conventional Food Consumption: Is There a Measurable Benefit on Human Health? found an increase in organic food consumption resulted in a reduced incidence of numerous health conditions, including infertility, birth defects, high BMI, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. However, it went on to say that “The current evidence base does not allow a definitive statement on the health benefits of organic dietary intake.” Click here to read the full abstract. One point each.

And finally, because I believe in fairness, here’s a quote from the Mayo Clinic, a prestigious, non-profit, academic medical center in the U.S.: “There is a growing body of evidence that shows some potential health benefits of organic foods when compared with conventionally grown foods. While these studies have shown differences in the food, there is limited information to draw conclusions about how these differences translate into overall health benefits.” Point Therapist! Read the full article here. There’s a few more points for organics in there.

What would my physical therapist think if he knew he had been the catalyst for a night’s research into organics? What this has taught me is that I had based my opinion about organics on a lifestyle I wanted to embrace and not necessarily on the facts from the institutions I deem reputable. So. This wasn’t a fruitless exercise after all. What if we all approached our opinions in this way? Are we open to putting own opinions under scrutiny? If we discover flaws, are we willing to acknowledge them? Would that change our ability to communicate with the other? Even if we don’t find a flaw, and the reputable facts back us up, what then? How do we bridge that abyss?

Thanks for reading this entire post! While you’re here, please check out the rest of my website to see what else I have on offer.

When the Lights Went Out


It was a typical Friday night. My son was gaming online with friends, I was reading–in this case Raynor Winn’s The Wild Silence–and Schagen’s city center just three hundred meters away was anything but silent. The restaurants and bars were filled with people, the pleasant hum of their conversations wafting through our windows as if to say Corona is over! Everything’s back to normal again. The only anomaly was that my husband wasn’t yet home. Something else was happening that was unfortunately quite typical for Friday night; a large group of teenagers or twenty-somethings were yelling and screaming in the park close by our home.

A firecracker went off. I’m not talking about a cute little sparkler, or even a whistler, but a huge flash of post-apocalyptic white light followed by a boom that made the windows rattle and the dog cower with her tail between her legs. Part of me wondered if the park and its revelers were still there, because if it hadn’t been for the laughter and drunken screams that soon followed, I could have easily mistaken that firecracker for a bomb.

After reading another chapter of Wild Silence, I decided to call it a night. I flipped on the light switch in the hall, and it immediately went out. Great, I thought. Not going to change a lightbulb at this hour. I’ll just have to traverse the stairs in the dark. I made it up the stairs and flipped on the bedroom lights and nothing happened. Maybe my son had been streaming something that ate up so much bandwidth that it blew a fuse. I used my phone’s flashlight to check the fuse box, but not a single switch had flipped off. Hmmm.

My son emerged from his room with a “what the heck?” expression on his face. A quick peak out the front and back door confirmed that we weren’t the only ones suffering from a power outage. I checked a Schagen Facebook Group with 11,000 members and discovered that multiple streets were affected. I’d experienced power outages in the U.S. countless times, but in the ten years I’ve lived in The Netherlands, this was a first.

Initially, the novelty of this Dutch power outage was a bit exciting. Others in the local group were talking about the candles they had lit, the cozy atmosphere, etc. My son capitalized on the moment and located the candle lantern, a battery lantern and soon commandeered my flashlight. I had my iPhone after all.

“Save your phone battery,” someone posted. “Light a candle instead. You never know how long this outage will last.” That’s when the thoughts started; depressing, doomsday thoughts that are always there in the background, lingering, waiting for their moment in the limelight. That moment was now.

What if the power doesn’t go back on? Like ever?
What if this is like one of those movies or Netflix series where suddenly there’s no more electricity or grid, no more running water, chaos, looting, riots?
What if this truly is the beginning of the end?


I was surprised by how quickly these thoughts came to the surface. And then I wasn’t surprised at all, as recognition kicked in. These thoughts are not deeply buried fears left over from growing up during the Cold War where people had their bunkers and sixth months worth of rations; the school drills of hiding under your desks to survive the A bomb dropping (or were those just the earthquake drills?).

This contemporary fear just below the surface is part of living in the world today. That bomb-like boom from earlier in the evening, combined with yesterday’s 20 year anniversary of 9-11 could have set the stage for such dark thoughts, but there’s so much more at play here. We know the corona pandemic isn’t really going anywhere, as more variants pop up around the world. We know that climate change is causing extremely erratic weather resulting in floods, famine, fires, drought, climate refugees, and mass extinction of flora and fauna. We know that there are a growing number of despot governments with leaders as erratic as the weather. We know that our endless-growth economy is resulting in an untenable amount of CO2, methane and other gases being pumped into the atmosphere, which is causing the vast majority of that erratic weather, which is causing all of the floods and famine and fires and extinction and societal upheaval. We know that people are living in divisive bubbles of thought, that social media enforces these bubbles. We know we’re in trouble on so many levels. We know that we’re doing too little too late.

My husband arrived home to a darkened house and worry filled his mind. It’s so dark and quiet. Did something terrible happen? Then he found us with our candles and flashlights and phones. Then the lights went back on.

If you wait long enough


How do you get a teenager to talk? The usual questions—How was your day? Did you learn anything new—haven’t been so rewarding these last few years, and more often than not, yield curt, monosyllabic responses. I’ve tried other approaches, like sharing information I think will be interesting, or asking about the online games he’s playing. This last question is a sure mark if I want to hear about epic battles and head shots. Another bulls eye is a discussion about virtual reality glasses, which will spark a monologue on the many benefits of the Oculus Quest 2, all code language for reasons I should buy a pair for him. 

Image source: cnet.com

Sometimes, as I sit at the table across from him as he eats his afternoon snack, I wait for the next time he looks up from his phone, hoping, silent. Other times, I say, ‘Hey, I’d love a little time.’

It’s a tricky age. Maybe I need a new set of questions. But I haven’t given up just yet. If you wait long enough, they’ll talk.

I heard that dogs hate doing the same walk over and over again, especially hunting dogs. So if I’m not in ‘default dog walking mode,’ I consciously choose a different direction. Once in a while, the alternate route brings me through a neighborhood that has a sculpture of a man and a woman sitting on a long curving bench, turned toward each other as if engaged in conversation. Placed in a natural curve where the sidewalk cuts through a stretch of green, it has an unobtrusive feel. It’s one of the few sculptures that I don’t mind seeing on a semi-regular basis, because it doesn’t demand my attention. 

In the last few months, it’s been upgraded in my mind, as the idea of two people chatting on a park bench offers some throwback of normalcy in the time of corona. I also like to imagine who these two people are, a man and woman, looking up from their papers to chat. Sometimes, depending on my mood, they are lovers or cheaters, other times strangers, the one telling the other an anecdotal story. When I’m in a hurry, the woman is simply inquiring about the time. If I study her lips, I wonder if it’s not a he or she but a non-binary they.

Yesterday, when my dog and I approached the strangers on the benches, they had a glint in their eyes, which gave them entirely new expressions, one that made me laugh out loud. Certainly the work of teenagers.

I can’t quite picture a seventy-nine-year-old breaking out the goofy eyes and sticking them onto a sculpture. I could be wrong. But looking at them now, this man and woman, they have come more alive, as if the words are on the tips of their metal tongues, just waiting to spill forth. I bet if you wait long enough, they’ll talk.

This morning, after my son ate his breakfast and before his phone pulled him away, I asked him how he was doing, said I wouldn’t mind having a little time to talk. No subject. Just talk. It took a while, but after the monosyllabic answers to my questions (how did you sleep? What time are you catching the train to school?), I told him about someone who had passed away from Corona in our town, how she had done so much good in the world, how she wasn’t much older than I was. 

He listened, and then he told me his own story, which flowed out of him. It was about a teacher at his school, overweight, with heart issues, who was now sick and teaching from home. ‘I really hope he doesn’t have corona,’ he said. ‘I’m worried about him.’

If you wait long enough, they’ll talk. 

The bully is leaving the playground


In the days leading up to the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election, someone shared a Republican slogan with me: Let’s make the democrats cry again.

I actually found it kind of funny, and very much true. If Trump were to be re-elected, I would have cried again. In fact, when I woke up on Wednesday morning in the Netherlands and flipped open the New York Times coverage of the election, my heart fell. Trump seemed to have a running chance, after all of the damage he has done in the last four years to weaken, reverse or throw out policies that protect the environment, the hate and violence he instigated against Latinos, Blacks, women and the constant lies he fabricated during his presidency and spouted out as truth, after he eroded . . . I just realised I would have to write for days to list all of the harm he has done that I know about, much less all of the other things he’s done under the radar, so I’ll stop there.

When the election results were finally announced, I screamed and jumped and ‘whew-hewed’. There was alcohol involved. And expletives.

Blue Gin & Tonics for the Biden-Harris win

I felt this pressure that had been sulkily hanging over me for the last four years finally lift and it was as if the school bully had finally been kicked off the playground. You still know he’ll be there for a few more months, and might try to EFF things up before he goes, and that you still might run into him and his cronies in a dark alley outside the school yard, but at least we know he’s going.

It wasn’t until I heard Jo Biden speak that I actually got a little bit teary. Let’s make the democrats cry again takes on a new meaning here. I’m crying in happiness at hearing a compassionate, reasoned man sharing his approach to combatting the corona virus, to uniting the nation, to moving forward.

And this is where it gets interesting. The United States can no longer function as such a polarised nation. It doesn’t make sense for anyone. Because just as I feel very passionately about the principles of the democracy I believe the Democratic Party stands for, there are Republicans that have an entirely different view of what is good for our country. There must be a way to find a path that works for the whole nation. If not, we are just taking our turns on the seesaw, up and down every four years, or bracing for a civil war.

What what is our common ground? Do we want a positive future for our children? One where they have a good education, job prospects, freedom to express themselves and a healthy environment in which to live? I think so. I think that must be an indisputable common ground. It’s just a question of how we approach the same goal.

Goodbye Bully. Please learn the rules of how to play fair. The rules of a democratic vote. How to concede.

Getting your Wag on


I was folding laundry when I heard the front door open and close. My husband was already up–he likes to write early in the morning–so I figured that must be him taking the dog out for her morning walk. Then I heard the scrambling of nails on tile, the pressing of paws on the the living room door, the familiar whine of excitement. Those are post-walk sounds of a Beagle getting her wag on in anticipation of breakfast. How a dog can get so excited about sensitive formula dry dog kibble is beyond me, but she musters that excitement each and every morning.

By the time I was downstairs, my husband had already made a pot of tea and we fell into our morning routine.

“How was your walk?”

“Beautiful. Here, I’ll show you.”

He rarely takes pictures, but there on his phone were close to a dozen and they were gorgeous. Rainbows, thick layers of clouds, blue sky, reflections in the water, lush fields, waterways and paths, light everywhere.

(I just realised I’m going to have to ask him for those photos so I can share a few with you here. My words aren’t doing it justice).

Not only had he taken photos, he seemed happy, alive.

“We made the right decision moving here,” he said between bites of quesadilla.

“Totally.”

Later that morning, I cycled to the gym and even though I didn’t catch that early morning stillness of a meditative walk through nature, I felt the energy of sunlight and green things working its way into my psyche. Happy.

SRAH hiring worldwide during Coronavirus shutdown


I’ve just applied to a position at Self Realization AH (SRAH), which is one of the few entities hiring during the Novel Coronavirus pandemic. It is part time, but if I play my cards right, it could turn into a full time, lucrative job. In these uncertain times, SRAH has made it clear that the pay is 100% commission-based. They’ve also established that the currency of pay is not a traditional currency, such as Euros, USD,  Yuan or Kroner. They’re not even paying in the official Coronavirus currency of TP.

In fact, in the words of SRAH “Only you can determine the currency.” I know it sounds like a riddle. That’s because it is a riddle; one that only you can unravel. 

Here’s a bit more about the advert, which oddly enough, I couldn’t find on LinkedIn. 

SRAH is now hiring worldwide!! We are looking for candidates who are motivated, are willing to open their hearts, can work from home and are ready to make major changes in the way they view themselves and the world. 

Requirements:

  • Must limit all non-essential physical contact with the outside world and follow all Coronavirus protocols provided by your government
  • Must be radically honest with oneself and be open to change
  • Must follow through on all tasks once started
  • 100% commitment to the job
  • Must set a 1 hour daily limit on time spent reading or watching the news
  • Must limit all non-essential screen time to 2 hours
  • Must not hoard toilet paper or protective masks

Skills and qualities needed:

  • Highly motivated
  • Candidates have the ability to follow through on tasks once started. 
  • The ideal candidate is flexible and has an open mind, but is willing to learn how to prioritize in a new manner
  • Open to trying foods potentially out of your comfort zone, such as humble pie, hot potatoes, apple of my eye, and be willing to ‘spice things up.’
  • Patient with others. Patient with yourself
  • Previous experience helpful, but not required

I realize I haven’t shared the job position with you yet. But the full business name will put you on the right track. SRAH  is Self Realization at Home. 

The job position is already in the title. But here is an expanded description: Be the person you’ve always wanted to be by meeting and embracing your true self. 

That’s it. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? No. Actually. No. It’s probably the hardest damned job out there. 

You’ve probably realized by now that the ‘entity’ that is hiring worldwide is you. Not only you, but each and every one of us who is willing to take this time of societal lock down as a chance to really figure out what fulfills us.  I’m not talking about being fulfilled by ordering all those things you’ve always wanted online. This type of fulfillment is inside you and has a lifetime warranty. Though you have to work at it every day to keep that warranty valid.

How you step into this position is up to you. Your approach will be clearly influenced by your own belief systems and cultural orientation.

For me, it will mean taking time and space to meditate and pray. It will mean being radically honest with myself about what is alive inside of me, and giving that vision priority in my life. It will mean acknowledging and shedding bad habits and beliefs, but not shredding myself to death should I fail. It will mean acknowledging my weak points (such as a hot temper and perfectionist tendencies) and consciously committing to being more patient, loving and engaging with my husband and son as well as myself.

It will mean honoring my writing by blocking out writing time each and every day and committing to getting the words down on the page. It will mean studying English grammar, following an online course on Teaching Business English offered by the TEFL Academy.

It will mean connecting with the outside world via online platforms and by phone to stay connected to humanity, whether in the form of a FaceTime call to my mother, or following an online meditation course through The Art of Living. But it will also mean creating space to simply listen to that voice within me. 

According to no one in particular and everyone at large, this is THE JOB to take during the Coronavirus shut down; especially if you’re stuck at home with other family members for some indefinite period of time.

Self Realization at Home is still hiring worldwide. Apply today!

If we all accept our letters of application made by ourselves to ourselves, and we are kind but firm in our self-appointed “I am the boss of me” positions, and we focus on enlightenment and humanity as part of strengthening ourselves, we will collectively emerge from the Coronavirus shutdown as happier, more conscious members of the world population. So why not apply today?

50 meters


What if the manner in which you brought in the new year set the tone for the next 365 days? What would that mean for you? A year filled with drunken celebration? A year of sleep? A year of watching television? A year of partying in a club? A year caring for a loved one? The possibilities are endless.

Our new year was certainly brought in with a bang, but like many things in life, not in the way we had envisioned it. The weather forecast predicted a very thick mist and sure enough, around 11pm on December 31st, 2019, the mist rolled in with an eeriness befitting a Stephen King novel.

The Dutch are allowed to purchase a wide range of fireworks and set them off just about anywhere they like, making New year’s eve a bit like a chaotic, war zone where ‘friendly fire’ takes on a different meaning.

Fireworks had been going off all day, the frequency steadily increasing as darkness fell. The thickening mist took on broken hues of red, green, yellow and blue, as if a string of brightly colored party lights had lost their way.

Weggegooid geld? Zeer dichte mist verpest zicht op vuurwerk

Five minutes before midnight, right before we planned to leave the house, my husband let the dog out in the backyard to do her business. Under normal circumstances, her little white tipped tail works as a beacon in the darkness, allowing you to track her progression through the yard as she seeks out just the right square of grass for her nomadic toilet. But that evening as she went into the backyard, she quickly disappeared from sight, as if the mist had swallowed her whole. The intensity of the fireworks increased with each second that brought us closer to 2020 as my husband whistled for the dog.

When she didn’t respond, he too disappeared into the mist in search of our four-legged family member. That’s when he discovered that the gate, which is always closed, was propped wide open. Our little Beagle, who loves to run free, had chosen to escape at the worst possible moment of the year.

She could have been 10 feet away, but we wouldn’t have seen her. If she was barking or whining, we wouldn’t have heard her among all the vuurpijlen (rockets), ‘gillende keukenmeiden’ (screaming kitchen maids), fonteinen (fountain-effect firecrackers) and rotjes (firecrackers that make a loud bang) and it was unclear if she could hear us.

As the rest of the world started celebrating the onset of 2020, we set out in different directions, calling and whistling and asking every person we came across if they’d seen our dog. As you can imagine, it was a pretty hellish way to bring in the New Year.

As the minutes passed without a trace of our dog, our already low spirits plummeted even lower as everyone else around us celebrated.

In the last five minutes of 2019, we had envisioned a nice stroll to the town center, where we would glance skyward and watch the sky light up through the mist while we toasted each other with a bubbly glass of prosecco, enjoying the merriment and festivity of tradition, while heralding in the new year.
Instead, our hearts were filled with dread, confusion and helplessness.

Jamie the Beagle

Isn’t it crazy how much your world can change in the course of a few minutes? But in the age of social media, you never feel completely helpless. I posted a picture of her with a plea for help to a local Facebook group with 8000 members. I couldn’t imagine that anyone would have been online at that hour, but to my surprise, my message was shared over 70 times.

I also called the “dierenambulance” (animal ambulance) to see if anyone had turned her in, and we posted in other apps about our missing dog.

After walking alone through the mist for over an hour, calling until my throat was dry and sore, I finally returned home. My son was waiting with the dog’s blanket and treats spread out by the front door, hoping she would return.
My husband, who had followed a more distant route, also arrived home as dogless as when he’d left.

If devastated had a face, my son was wearing it. I wanted to give him hope without promising the moon; I told him how many people had shared the Facebook post, that people were responding, giving tips, helping. I painted a picture of our dog hunkered down in the brush, scared, but just waiting out the ‘storm’ of fireworks. We should just get some sleep and hope that when the evening turned still, that she would return. He went off to bed with a heavy, but hopeful heart.

Then the phone rang.

“Hello, ” said a friendly woman. “I believe my father found your dog.”

Ends up that her father lived one block away. ONE. BLOCK. AWAY.

My husband hastily pulled back on his coat and went to get her. When he returned with our dog–who appeared to be just as happy and healthy as when she’d disappeared into the mist a few hours ago–our entire energy shifted. Ecstasy. Relief! All is lost to all is found! Sadness to joy. We woke up our son and the three of us sat on the couch, dog on our collective laps, and took a few sips of prosecco. Now we could finally say the words: Happy New Year!

Photo from NYE 2019. You couldn’t see the church tower on New Year’s 2020!

I can’t help but think in terms of life lessons. This was certainly a wake up call. What is the distance between sadness and joy? Between failure and success? Between loss and renewal? In our case, that distance was 70 people who clicked on the share button, one man 50 meters away who opened his door when he heard a dog barking and let her in, one of his daughter’s who searched the internet at 1:30am on New Year’s eve and picked up her phone to call us.

This takes me back to my first two questions when I started this post: What if the manner in which you brought in the new year set the tone for the next 365 days? What would that mean for you?
In my case, it would break down to something like this:
Shit happens. You can’t control everything. What you can do is be proactive, take action, look all around you in the expected and unexpected places, reach out to and communicate with your community and above all, don’t give up. Not too bad of a way to approach things. Okay 2020, I’ll take it.


Is this in your calendar for 2020?


Do you ever look at your calendar and see something scheduled in the not-too-distant future and get a tingle of anticipatory excitement and joy? Perhaps it’s a vacation you have planned, or an outing with a dear friend or family member. It could be an upcoming concert by an artist you follow or the latest sequel to a film you love. These things all give me a warm and fuzzy feeling, but as I close out 2019 and look toward 2020, that jolt of excitement I’m describing comes from anticipating book club night!

This isn’t a temporary love affair. I joined my first book club 23 years ago when I lived in Bend, Oregon. I still remember some of the titles we read in that first book club (Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris, Angel of Repose by Wallace Stegner), where we met, some of the conversations that unfolded and even seemingly insignificant details, like the dressy, low cut top my usually-jean-and-fleece-clad friend was wearing at one gathering. Book clubs have been a pleasant constant in my life ever since then, and each book club is as different and precious as the individuals that make it up.

I’ve been in book clubs with mainly outdoor enthusiasts (Bend, Oregon), a book club that should have owned up to being a drinking club (Santa Barbara), a more committed book club with literary aspirations and a penchant for delicious organic, home cooked meals (Santa Barbara round two), and international book clubs with members from different countries (The Hague and now Schagen, Netherlands).

It is a bit difficult to explain why book club matters so much to me. Of course I love reading. That seems to be a prerequisite. But I’m not a prolific reader. Many women in my book clubs–yes, I’m currently in two!–read upwards of 50-75 books per year compared to my 15-25 per year (that tally is including the romance novels I read on my Kindle in between book club books). Yet no one is shunning me for my low book count, because it doesn’t matter. What matters is the experience of reading a novel on your own and then discussing it out loud with a group of friends who are all eager to share their reading experiences and insights.

It’s amazing what can occur during this process. First of all, you take an experience that, up until book club night, has been a solo, internal and somewhat intimate journey, and open it up into a group discussion. That, in and of itself, is an act of trust. After trust comes transformation. Literary characters that have undergone an initial transformation from the author’s idea, to a vision of a character in your mind, take a second, deeper breath during the discussion, as if they are coming to life:


“I was so upset when Edgar tried to call the ambulance and couldn’t say a word.”
“That was heart wrenching.”
“I know! right?”
It’s as if Edgar is a real person all the book club members are talking about that they know personally.

You discuss the characters, the plot, the writing, the cultural context, but there’s so much more. A novel is a bit like a painting; just as the meaning of a painting is often in the eye of the beholder, there are parts of a novel where the interpretation is in the eye of the reader. Our own life experiences and cultural backgrounds shape our reading experiences. In other words, a part of a novel that one member might consider total trash, could be a treasured game changer for another.

There’s also the power of dialogue. During the discussion, you feel something changing within you and within the group dynamic; new information, new ideas, holding onto your own perspective or watching it transform through the living and breathing act of discussion. I’ve seen book club discussions become catalysts to opening people up, where tough life experiences that have been under lock and key, not only come to the surface, but are courageously discussed. This is not just an anomaly. I’ve seen it happen time and time again. How can a work of fiction do that? It’s just a made up story, right? How can it bond people together, change your perspective and create such excitement and commitment?

Novels are stories and authors are storytellers. A group of book club members are the tribe around the campfire (roasting marshmallows) listening to the story unfold, gleaning the wisdom that lies therein, connecting to the life process.

Will every book gathering be a magical, transformative experience? No. Sometimes a novel doesn’t strike home or spark a good discussion. But what you do get is a lovely night out with people whom you enjoy and a chance to engage in dialogue and be in the real time presence of others. That in itself is worth the evening.

I sat down this evening to write a New Year’s Eve post and had no idea it would lead me to book club. yet I can’t think of anything more appropriate to close the chapter of one decade and open the chapter to a new one.

Is book club in your calendar for 2020? If so, what are you reading this year? If you’re not in a book club, perhaps 2020 is the year to join one. If you can’t find one to join, you could start your own!

Wishing everyone a glorious, environmentally friendly 2020 with lots of luscious, thought-provoking, humorous, passionate, thrilling and life-changing books.