31 December 2011

So grandma's in heaven now, right?

"If grandma's in heaven, and heaven's a wonderful place, why is everyone so sad?" is a question that I think my nieces wonder about. It's good logic, and yet the answer is simple: because we miss her.

"So when's grandma coming back from heaven?" would be the next obvious question and is pretty much what my youngest niece asked my sister. How do you tell a 2-year-old that no matter how much grandma loved her, grandma doesn't get to leave? She isn't coming back. We don't miss her because she's been gone so long, but because we know that she's always gone. Heaven might be a wonderful place (and we take comfort in knowing that grandma/mom gets to be there), but we miss her.

23 December 2011

Community as an extension of hospitality

A few weeks before leaving on vacation, a Calvin Seminary graduate who I vaguely knew contacted me to see if I knew of a cheap place to stay in Amsterdam while he was visiting the VU University (Vrije Universiteit) about his Ph.D. It just so happened that the time of his visit corresponded to our being in Canada, so I wouldn't be here to help him out more with how things work in Amsterdam. However, since our apartment would then be empty, I could easily offer to let him stay there during his visit. I let others in my house and community know that he was coming and left with the sense that he'd be able to receive help from others in the community if he needed anything.

Much to my delight, my houseguest was warmly welcomed and helped by the community. They took care of a mix-up with a key and helped him get settled. Besides that, someone gave him a tour of the Christian Youth Hostel around the corner and invited him to join him for church. Another person (my favourite canal boat captain) took him along on a canal tour of Amsterdam. And I'm sure there were numerous conversations as well - full of genuine curiousity for the work and ministry that the other was doing.

Being able to extend more hospitality was one of the hopes that Matthijs and I had when we moved to Amsterdam. And it's been great to see that desire become a reality - I just hadn't quite expected that we'd even be able to extend hospitality when we were absent! It's a pretty great blessing to be part of a community where hospitality is such an obvious part of life that it'd be extended not only to others in the community, but even to each other's guests.

21 December 2011

So perhaps it's not Matthijs I'm irritated with?

About a week into our trip in Canada, I woke up irritated with Matthijs. So I started sorting through the day before to see if I could find what he'd done to hurt, anger, frustrate or annoy me. In the end, I couldn't actually find anything. He'd been actually super supportive of everything happening in my family and had been extra patient and tolerant when we sometimes excluded him and/or made plans without him. So what was going on?

One of the most important things I have learned while being married is that sometimes when I'm irritated with Matthijs, it's actually because I'm frustrated, hurt, angry or disappointed at someone or something else. But because I live with Matthijs, it's not that hard to find something that he has done or said (or not done or said) with which I can be annoyed and thus I can take out my frustration on him. Being able to let Matthijs know when he does something that hurts or irritates me is healthy (and a little irritation in my life pushes me to do that when I tend to try too hard to 'be a nice girl' whom everybody likes)  - but it is also extremely healthy to realize that I might be projecting frustration from somewhere else onto him (and thus might be overreacting). It's also healthy that Matthijs is aware of this and tends not to overreact when I'm being unreasonable but instead gives me space to figure out what's going on with my frustration.

My waking up annoyed with Matthijs during our vacation was a classic example of my projecting other feelings on him. The fact that I was significantly annoyed with him was also a clue that I was projecting. What could be big enough to cause that kind of irritation? Even if Matthijs isn't perfect (thankfully), his love for me in the midst of a healthy relationship make it extremely difficult for him to make me that irritated any more. Instead, the real source of my frustration was the illness of my mother and my feelings of helplessness in not being able to have the answers or even help her more. Recognizing how ridiculous my frustration with Matthijs was helped me see more clearly how much he was being patient with me and supporting me in the midst of the challenges.

20 December 2011

Good moments at home with family

Although our time visiting Canada was very much overshadowed by my Mom's illness, there were still many great moments during our visit, most importantly simply being able to be there then to encourage and help out. And going through this hard time together made me feel closer to my family - when I live so far away, that aspect was a wonderful blessing in the midst of the pain of seeing my Mom struggle so much.

We also got to go to Grand Rapids to visit people and for me to do some research, and we also had a few days of rest with friends at St. Gregory's Monastery (Three Rivers, MI). And everywhere we went, we seemed to manage to buy books!

But the highlight was still family, as you can see by these pictures taken by Janice and Matthijs:

Babysitting Emily's kids at Mom's
The following pictures are from the Heyink-family Christmas party. There's so many people that we have to rent a hall.






As much as it was great to visit, it is also nice to come back home to normal life in Amsterdam - which looks like this a lot of the time....

15 December 2011

Waiting and Mom


When I think of Advent, I think of waiting. Seeing as I’ve been singing and hearing a lot of Christmas songs this year, it feels at the moment like I ought to be enthusiastically celebrating Christmas more than I should still be waiting in anticipation of Christ’s coming. And yet, my visit here to my family in Canada has reminded me of how much I long for Christ’s coming: not the sentimental, cute baby in the manger Jesus, but the returning King who will conquer sin and suffering. It is this Jesus who I long for to come and dwell (tabernacle) amongst my family – especially with my Mom.

Before I came to visit, my Mom had been having some difficulties with keeping her food long enough in her body for her to be able to get enough nutrition out of it. She was sometimes a bit weak and had lost some weight. She’d seen a doctor several times, and what had begun as a nuisance was gradually making normal life more and more complicated. Last week, things escalated: she was so weak on Tuesday, we went with her to the emergency room. No answers, but she was given an intravenous and was a lot less weak. Thursday there was an ultrasound, and the likely problem was found: a mass on an ovary, which was pushing against the bowels. That meant having a name and cause for the problems, but not an end to my Mom’s pain and suffering – food and even drink still weren’t staying in. Now she’s in the hospital, thankfully getting nutrition through an intravenous, but still waiting to know exactly what is wrong and what can be done. There have been tests and checks and there’ll hopefully be surgery but there are still many questions and much uncertainty. And amidst my Mom’s suffering, my family is waiting and hoping, longing for the healing that Christ the King can bring.

09 December 2011

Advent in Canada

My semi-annual visit to Canada got bumped to Advent this year. We threw a party for my father's 65th birthday and the next two weekends are the Christmas parties of my mother's side and my father's side of the family. It was such a great opportunity for Matthijs to meet more of my family (and them him) that we couldn't really pass on this chance – despite the fact that I have developed a dislike for travelling during Advent and Christmas Day.

Advent is about waiting and anticipating Jesus' coming – remembering his first coming and anticipating his second coming. It's hard to wait and focus on Jesus' comings when I'm taking vacation, spending lots of time with friends and family, and eating lots of great food. It's hard to wait in anticipation for the joy of Jesus' coming when I'm doing tons of celebrating now already!

It is also hard to be in different churches, especially ones with different traditions of how one ought to celebrate Advent. My church back in Amsterdam is taking the time in Advent to develop awareness about the women working behind the windows, a project that's close to my heart and one I would have loved to have been able to participate in more. And during the community's daily chapel services, we choose not to include the usual song of praise as a means of remembering that Advent is a time of restraint and waiting.

But where I am here, Advent is very much an anticipation of Christmas, including the celebration of Christmas. Most everyone has been playing Christmas songs for awhile now, and even in church we sang Christmas songs already celebrating Jesus' birth. Although I grew up with this, I now find it unsettling. How do I look forward to something that hasn't happened yet if I am now singing about it as if it's already happened? When I was walking past the manger scene at the church, I have to admit that I somewhat loudly exclaimed my surprise: the baby Jesus was already lying in the manger! The sweet lady behind me acknowledged that she hadn't really thought about that, but that I had a good point. Her reaction helped me find perspective again. She is also anticipating Jesus' coming and is doing so in the way that she finds familiar and knows best. Things being different here – and the Christmas-like joy found in seeing my family again – does not make Advent any less Advent. I am still waiting for Jesus to come, and it's hardly a bad thing if He shows up in unexpected places, like in other people, in church, or even a manger.

07 December 2011

Grass does not grow faster just because you pull on it

These words of wisdom were used in a recent article in the newsletter of the Nikola Community (a Christian community in Utrecht that's somewhat similar to Oudezijds 100). The article was thought-provoking; hopefully I'll have time and opportunity to translate it in the near future. Nonetheless, it is this strange proverb – that grass does not grow faster just because you pull on it – which has stayed with me. I am, after all, the sort of person who has a tendency "to pull on the grass." I'm someone who does things and likes to make things happen. Waiting patiently for the grass to grow – whether that be spiritually, emotionally, relationally, academically, career-wise, and so-on – is not something I always do easily.

It seems appropriate that during Advent, which is characterized by its waiting, that this phrase become one that I spend more time contemplating. It seems good to take the time to wonder how I might become more content to wait patiently for things to happen instead of becoming frustrated and trying to pull on things.

26 November 2011

Not a tourist attraction

Volunteers from the Salvation Army walk around the Red Light District several times a week bringing coffee to the women who are working behind the windows. In the middle of handing out coffee to one of the women, a group of tourists interrupted, asking "what are you doing?"

Having been brought up to be polite to others, even strangers, I began to answer the question. But then I stopped myself. Wasn't it obvious what was being done?!? Who couldn't see that coffee was being passed out to the women - from the hands of someone wearing a Salvation Army coat?

Since it was obvious what was happening, I had to wonder why the question was even asked. It reminded me of the sort of question that would be asked in the middle of a tour. And when I realized that, I wasn't sure with what kind of emotion I should respond: surprise, disappointment, anger, sadness or confusion. I know that the Red Light District focuses on tourism and in the evenings the streets are filled with foreigners. Nonetheless, I can't help but wonder what's wrong with things when giving someone else a cup of coffee could be seen as just another tourist attraction.


25 November 2011

The ghost who lives in my house

In the last while there have been a lot of strange things happening in the house. If I didn't know better, I'd say we had a ghost.

First there's the flashing lights in front of our house every day at breakfast, with some random bangs and crashes thrown in for effect.

Throughout the day, the house feels like it's undergoing earthquakes periodically. Plaster also sounds like it's falling from the wall (although fortunately there's no white chunks on the floor), and large booming noises accompany the house being shaken.

The front door of our apartment started sticking (even though it's the driest November in decades). The door handle was also rather loose, so at a certain point I started worrying that I'd get stuck in the apartment one morning.

The marbles in the house are no longer rolling to the same spot that they used to. Much to my disappointment, the houses here are such that marbles normally all roll to one end of the floor and disappear from the cat's sight and his limited attention span. Now, however, the marbles don't end up beside the stove, but instead roll to a metre before the stove at the end of the table: an ideal place to catch the cat's attention.

As I walked into the bathroom the other day, the plastic cover from the drain was moving - popping in and out of the drain like it was possessed.

The simple explanation for most of the above is the fact that the neighbouring house is being stripped bare and having its foundations replaced (12 huge poles - hence the tremendous noise). The lights flashing in front of the house are from the truck coming to pick up the container full of old building materials. With all the shaking, we're somewhat concerned that our house has been shifting and resettling because of the work next door (which explains my doorframe dropping a couple of millimetres). It might also explain the shifting of the lowest point in the house, although I'm not exactly sure how that could come to be.

And as for the moving drain cover? I still have no idea (and must admit that it was a bit freaky). I'll have to wait until I can ask my brother (a plumber) about it. I'm really hoping it has nothing to do with our neighbours, as I'm not sure I could handle what was wrong then, especially as they had already managed to mess with our sewage and water systems when they first started.

19 November 2011

Married a year

We were joking the other day with an older couple and some newlyweds about how couples often fight during their honeymoon. We did, too. But if you asked me how our honeymoon went, I would have smiled widely and honestly said it was good. We were crazy tired, had had a stressful few weeks before the wedding and in a new situation. All things considered, it probably would have been strange (and unhealthy) if we hadn't fought at least once!

I joke sometimes that I knew what I was getting into when I got married. I knew that we would fight sometimes, and sometimes I would feel like I wasn't getting enough attention or support, and/or that I'd once in awhile feel like I didn't get to do as much of what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. And so when it turned out that things weren't perfect just because we were married, I wasn't surprised. Instead, we took the time and energy to work out the kinks and meet the challenges of making two separate lives into a beautiful harmony. Sometimes I've complained to God that it was easier alone (to which, I expect He'd answer that I didn't take my chance to be alone, so I'd better get over it, stop my whining, and use my energy for better things - like communicating and listening well, as well as learning to be thankful!).

And now it is a year. And being married has been good - really good. Matthijs is good to me and good for me. And I can see that Matthijs also delights in me, which fills me with wonder. The simple goodness of being married - the joy I have of sharing my life with Matthijs - sometimes surprises me. I hope we never lose some of the surprise and wonder.

14 November 2011

How did no one notice that?!?

This past Saturday, I checked out the inside of the electrical kettle, as I was wondering why it didn't seem to be working so well (e.g., on Friday evening, we'd made tea and it seemed like it had taken ages to boil the water). When I looked inside the thing, I did a double-take. The electric heating element inside the kettle (see the example of these coils in this article on electric kettles) had been eaten through by metals in the water (both the outer coating and the twisted up cord around the wires) so that you could actually have touched the small electric wires in a few places. I didn't know that was even possible. The erosion of the outer coating on the coil would explain why the water took so long to heat - and the exposure of the wires would explain the sparks coming off that someone had seen.

I think I stared at it for a few moments - just out of surprise. And then I had a desperate need to show it to a few others (perhaps simply to confirm if I was really seeing exposed wires in a thing where we're supposed to boil water). The first reaction I received was pretty much the same as mine: amazement, including thankfulness that we'd managed not to burn the house down with that thing. The second reaction was different - a simple suggestion to use some vinegar to clean off the calcium build-up. The person making the suggestion was busy washing the dishes (and the lighting behind the sink isn't so good), so I'm sure that influenced his reaction. Yet, it still seemed a bit like the disaster inside the kettle was so foreign to him that he simply explained away the strange colouring inside the kettle with the only reasonable possibility he knew: it was from a calcium build-up (and not that calcium had already eaten away at it).

And I couldn't help but wonder how it was that the kettle was still sitting there being used when close observation showed that it was a potential fire hazard. I learned later that it had only been a few days that it'd been taking ages to boil (and the sparks were also just recent), so there wasn't that much time for people to notice and wonder. But it'd started setting off the fuse more than a month ago. And calcium eating away the outer coating can't happen in three days, can it? I have to admit that looking inside a kettle isn't exactly normal behaviour (I happen to be fascinated by the amount of calcium build-up created by Amsterdam's hard water), but almost everybody who used it was aware that something wasn't quite working properly. It surprises me that no one had yet seen what was in the kettle - I would have expected someone earlier would have begun to wonder, ask questions, and explore.

10 November 2011

"If God had wanted to kill us, do you think He would have made such an effort?

Did you know that the Bible never gives the mother of Samson a name?

In Judges 13, a messenger of God appears to Samson's mother and tells her that she will have a son - a Nazirite (so he should not cut his hair and she should refrain from alcohol and unclean food). Samson's mother relays the appearance to her husband and mentions that she did not know the messenger's name - but that he clearly looked like an angel. The angel had told her that she would bear a son, who would be a Nazirite (and she should not drink alcohol or eat anything unclean).

Her husband (Manoah) asks God to send the messenger again so that they can ask him what to do when the child is actually born. The messenger returns, once again appearing to his wife. His wife runs and gets him, and Manoah asks how their son should live - once the messenger's words come true. The angel simply repeats that his wife should do all that he had already told her.

Manoah then graciously invites the angel to stay so that they can prepare a young goat for him. The angel turns down their offer of food; instead, he suggests that they give it as an offering to the LORD. Manoah then asks the angel for his name so that they can honour him when his words become true. And the angel responds: "“Why do you ask my name? It is beyond understanding." (Judges 3:18 NIV).

Manoah sacrifices a goat and a grain offering. The angel returns to heaven via the flames of the offering.

And Manoah's response? "Ahh!!! We're going to die!! We have seen God!"

Manoah has not, up to this point in time, come across as being significantly intelligent. Earlier in the text (after the angel suggests an offering), the reader is even told that Manoah doesn't realize that this is an angel. This is, of course, despite his prayer to God to send the messenger again, the actual message of the angel, and his wife's description of the messenger as being that of an angel. But Manoah's final response makes it blatantly obvious that he simply doesn't understand. It also prompts my favourite line in the story.

His wife's response to her husband was to point out that if God had wanted them dead, He wouldn't have made such an effort. He wouldn't have accepted their offering nor would he have bothered to appear to them and tell them everything He did.

Whereas sometimes not being named in a story points to the person's insignificance, this story seems to work in the opposite. It is the one who is named that is the fool, and the one who is not named (like the messenger) who understands. After all, if it really was a messenger from God, then what he said would come true. It's not like they could have a son if they were dead...

08 November 2011

Indifference as being a good thing?

I'm feeling a bit indifferent about my having become a tochtgenoot. In principle, I am glad and thankful about the step that I've made. And I'm especially glad about Matthijs joining me on this journey. And as I wonder about what might happen this coming year, I do get excited about the possibilities.


But how do I feel? not much, actually. Indifferent, to be honest. 


I'm slightly embarrassed by my indifference. It doesn't seem to be the feeling that is expected of me. But if I pause and wonder about it, it is also a feeling that fits me. I noticed that my first time of becoming a tochtgenoot never got mentioned on this blog - it was mentioned when I renewed my promise (and before that only in passing a couple of times). I don't remember how I felt about the situation then, but its lack of being mentioned on the blog (when I was writing so much at that time about life in community) seems to suggest that I either considered it such a natural step that it wasn't worth mentioning or that I wasn't entirely sure what to make of it. 


When I think about my being indifferent in the past to things, I am reminded of how I felt in the beginning of my relationship with Matthijs. I described my feelings as: "So i don't react to the whole situation like a giggly teenager who blushes when you ask her about the boy she likes. In fact, for the longest time, if you asked me about it, I would have smiled but also would have appeared less enthusiastic and more confused by it all (probably because I was puzzled - and still am a bit)." 


Seeing how well my relationship with Matthijs has turned out, I am choosing not to worry about my current feelings. I've discovered in the past that indifference can be a healthy way of exploring expectations alongside of sorting out the desires of my heart. 

06 November 2011

Sunday

On Sunday, I try my best to have no obligations. Ideally, it is a day full of wonder and possibilities: good conversation, a board game or two, good reading, good food, a little longer in bed or relaxing on the couch, and so on.

And today was simply one of those good Sundays.
-I received flowers from the Sunday school class because they'd seen that I was walking on crutches.
- An American woman came and sat beside me in church - hearing her "Excuse me" as she went past me into her chair, made me attune to the fact that she might appreciate some help knowing what was going on in the service - and I tried to help her be able to participate somewhat. I always appreciate people who desire to participate in worship in a local church when they're in a different country. I talked to her after the service - she teaches nursing at a Christian University in California (although she's originally from Ontario (she lived practically beside Redeemer College!)) and was here for a conference on the spiritual side of care with regard to nursing. Fascinating.
- And I was actually interested in the sermon (I'm notorious for not listening to sermons). Our church is doing a sermon series on the book of Judges - and it's just such a strange book with so many strange stories, that I can't help but be interested in what the preacher will make of the text.
- And after the service, I had a number of good conversations. I sometimes find it hard to know what to say to people, and it was nice to avoid the awkward 'so we should both say something but what' moments. My foot and crutches make a pretty simple (and obvious) conversation opener.
- The good conversations continued as Matthijs and I sat around in the community. Getting to go there after church and just spend unhurried time there chatting is one of the good things about being back in Amsterdam.
- And Sunday dinner was pizza, wine, salad, and ice cream. With a meal like that, how could it not be a good Sunday?

The rest of the Sunday has simply been spent being thankful. How could I not be?

02 November 2011

People are fascinating

I remember reading a study years ago about how often people would push the button to open the handicapped-access doors instead of actually physically opening the door. The frequency was surprisingly high. In certain places, this action was so normal that there was actually comments made about how laziness was not actually one of the physical inabilities that would cause one to need to use a handicapped-access door. Discussion also included how opening the doors with the button was a waste of energy for those healthy enough actually to open the doors.

Last Friday I sat in the hall of the Utrecht University waiting for Matthijs. In front of me was one of those buttons - and since it'd been so long since I'd seen such a button to open the handicapped-access doors, I was immediately curious. Who would press the button and who wouldn't?

Many of the students did not, in fact, press the button.... but that's only because one of their friends had pressed it, or someone immediately before them had pressed it.

Of the approximately 20 percent of people who physically touched the doors, more than half of them did so because the door that had previously been open unexpectedly started closing before they were through.

Matthijs came to get me after about 5 minutes (fyi: he did actually open the door physically). I wouldn't say he had to drag me away, but he certainly had to spend some time listening to me enthusiastically talk about the brief scientific study I had done on the door-opening. I have no doubt that I could have cheerfully stayed there for another half hour (and would have succumbed to pulling out on my pen to record things more scientifically). I just find people so fascinating.

29 October 2011

On Becoming Companions (tochtgenoten)


On Monday evening, Matthijs and I are taking the step to become tochtgenoten (companions [on a journey]) within Oudezijds100. We are sharing this journey with two others (Coby and Marco), alongside of Sjoerd and Dorothea who are becoming postulants. 

Becoming a tochtgenoot is not a new step for me: several years ago I also made this step. I even followed that initial step by becoming a postulant. So how do I travel this initial path again and still feel like I am moving forward and growing in community? The simple answer is that the path is not quite the same: every journey is different. More importantly, I am not making the journey without having learned from the last time and grown since I first travelled this path. And I am making this journey once again full of hope.

But what about these past two years as postulant? Talking too enthusiastically about becoming a tochtgenoot seems to make light of the time I spent as a postulant. Or to question the goodness of my desire two years ago to make that step. In many ways, being a postulant was good - I do not regret my request nor my desire to share in the joys and responsibilities of being part of the core group. Yet, during those two years, much changed both within the coregroup and in my personal life. Relationships were strained, and it was hard to be fully myself and to feel heard. To my disappointment, the original idea I had of the journey that I would follow was no longer possible nor even good. 

And so the journey continues now with my becoming a tochtgenoot on Monday. And I am filled with the wonder of being more part of a community and of being able to explore what community life means for Matthijs and me. That community life is for me was something I sensed when my googling a community in Amsterdam so quickly led me to the Oudezijds100 website, and I discovered what I had been looking for before I even knew what it was. And within a short time of being here, I knew that I wanted to live in some kind of community for the rest of my life. It was Matthijs's interest in community that first attracted me to him (the Old Testament part didn't hurt, of course). And as a married person, my desire is still fully to serve God and live out my faith in all that I do. As much as I enjoyed all the time we had together when we first got married and the energy we could put into ourselves and our marriage, there was also a sense of emptiness: shouldn't serving God be more than my academic work and more than my supporting and encouraging Matthijs (and he me)? Where is the rest of the wider church? And where are the other people we are called to love and encourage? 

I hope that we can better answer those questions this coming year: not just in the abstract but also in the midst the realness of community: both its joy and its messiness.

23 October 2011

Such a little bone, such a big nuisance

Late Thursday evening, I twisted my foot funny and broke a bone connected to my little toe (I think it was the fifth metatarsal bone in my foot (see diagram of the bones of the foot)). It didn't hurt so much, and I could hobble along and bike, so I went home in the hopes that on Friday morning things would have improved somewhat.

I did manage to sleep well on Thursday night, but otherwise nothing else had improved by Friday morning - in fact, the side of my foot was all bruised and it was at least as swollen as the night before - and hobbling was even more challenging. So, off to the doctors we went (Matthijs was planning on working from home, so he could accompany me) - we went with bikes, actually, since that put the least amount of pressure on my foot.

Several hours later, I came home with a very large cast on my foot - it goes almost to my knee, although my first four toes are exposed. The open toe part is actually quite nice, as I can wiggle my toes and get rid of the funny feeling in my foot - like it's asleep or itchy.

In general, the cast and foot problem is a nuisance. And every so often, I feel a sharp pain when I reposition my foot - I don't think I knew so many muscles were indirectly connected to my foot! I've also discovered new muscles in using crutches and moving around with a broken foot - so I've been walking around a bit tense and sore.

As much as the foot has been a nuisance, it's also been a challenge. I like a good challenge - and figuring out how to shower and cook and move around has definitely been a fascinating puzzle! Of course, laughing at all the dumb things has also been good - like the fact that Matthijs has to get my clothes out for me, since normally I have to stand on the bed to reach them (and I am not the most organised person when it comes to ordering clothes). And it has been good to see Matthijs's recognition of how much work the chores in house are, especially now that he has to do most of them. But on top of everything, I'm deeply thankful for all the support and encouragement I'm getting.

17 October 2011

Weekendje Groningen

We headed out to Groningen this past weekend - just to get away together and explore a part of the Netherlands that I know very little of. Unfortunately, we once again both forgot our cameras. We also both forgot an umbrella, but that was less of a problem, seeing as we were blessed with absolutely gorgeous sunny weather this weekend.

Huize Tavenier
We got to see the house where Matthijs was born: Huize Tavenier, which is a beautiful Art Nouveau style house. It was for mothers healthy enough to give birth outside of the hospital but giving birth at home wasn't so ideal (Matthijs's parents (or just dad?) were still students and lived in a house without hot water). More than 27,000 babies were born here - and I find it unique and fascinating that Matthijs is one of them.

During the weekend, we wandered around a lot, caught up on sleep in our hotel (a great deal including train tickets, although it was in the middle of nowhere), saw a lot of fascinating buildings (Groningen seems to be a mixture of architecture with different styles mixed through each other), got to stop in a few shops (stores close at 17.00 on Saturday and don't open again until Monday morning), and just enjoyed the feeling of being away for a short time. We also got to visit our new niece on the way there and have lunch with an old university classmate from Matthijs.

City building 1928 near the Groninger Museum
After Amsterdam, Groningen has the most Amsterdam School Architecture - it's a bit like Art Nouveau but with a lot of rounded corners, bricks sticking out in strange patterns - or placed sideways. Two examples are this city building on Gedempte Zuiderdiep street and the Oosterkerk that we bumped into on the east side of the city. Both photos are from Wikimedia Commons, taken by Wutsje.
Oosterkerk - a Gereformeerde Church

We also got to attend a church service in the Aa-church, a service that honoured the restoration of the organ and featured two Cantates (including Bach's "Now thank we all our God"). It was the first time in years that there was a service in the church, and it was obvious that everyone wanted to attend the celebration: what was it ever full!! Matthijs and I arrived almost a half hour early, only to see a line-up of people going through the door. They'd printed out 500 copies of the liturgy - and I think everybody was sharing a copy. There wasn't enough room for everyone to sit, even though we were packed into the benches.

After having seen everything in the Guide books that I'd wanted to see, I had only one wish from the weekend left over: to fill myself up on delicious food. And at De Kleine Moghul, this wonderful little Indian restaurant a bit north of the centre, I happily got to fulfill my wish and we could head back home :)

It was a delightful little weekend away (n.b. the ending "je" on a Dutch word makes it a diminutive: thus a weekendje is a short/little weekend): Matthijs and I both enjoyed getting away and exploring. And to make the feeling of vacation last a little bit longer, Matthijs and I have tickets to a concert tonight in the Concertgebouw!

14 October 2011

Does one ever become integrated into a society?

I wrote the following article for catapult magazine asking about whether one ever becomes integrated into a different culture.


"Recently a group of us were sitting around when an Albanian friend of mine asked a Dutchman when he’d be considered “to be integrated” into Dutch society. Was it when he acquired a taste for buttermilk (karnemelk)? Was it when he spoke Dutch fluently?
My Dutch friend had no answer. Instead, he had two examples, neither of which fully answered the question. The first was the example of a teenager born in Amsterdam to a couple who’d moved here from Morocco. The teenager speaks Dutch with a classic Amsterdam accent and has attended Dutch schools, absorbing Dutch culture in all that he has learned outside of his house. Yet, at home, he has been schooled in the tradition and religious values of his parents. When, as a teenager, he cannot resolve the tension between these two cultures he rebels and causes tension in society, it is often seen as an example of someone who has not integrated well into Dutch culture.
The second example was that of the Chinese communities around the corner, who have been in the Netherlands almost a hundred years and have successfully set up a thriving business community of restaurants and supermarkets. They spend most of their time in their own company and marry amongst themselves; some still speak barely a word of Dutch. Nonetheless, there are no questions raised about whether these Chinese are fully integrated into society here, despite the (historical) involvement of the Chinese with heroine use.
The conclusion I came to was that there is no answer to the question of when one truly belongs.  Even the question itself of when one becomes integrated depends on one’s culture. Is it having a passport, speaking English (or French), and being able “to make it on one’s own,” which are some of the unwritten assumptions of integration in both America and Canada? Does someone only belong if she is born somewhere, as is true in Albania, where integration, like immigration, does not really happen? Or does belonging come through being a positive part of society, which means that those holding on to different values need to suppress them so that they do not burden the society, as in the tensions mentioned above? What is integration, after all, besides simply a word that became popular when discussing how certain groups in society did not seem to fit in? It is a vague cultural concept that describes society, like American’s melting pot or Canada’s multi-cultural mosaic; it is a term that is hard to translate into the practical reality of everyday life.
The comment about acquiring a taste for buttermilk was sarcastic; yet, the question of belonging was real. Despite the fact that many Dutch people will never acquire a taste for buttermilk, they will still be considered insiders.  And yet, because I grew up in Canada, my disgust for it marks me as an outsider, even though I have Dutch parents and a Dutch passport. No matter how much my parents and grandparents passed on their dutchness, I grew up in a land with different customs and I will always have an accent when I speak Dutch. Yet, the longer I stay in the Netherlands, the more my English develops a certain accent and the more I adapt to the culture here.
The less I feel like an outsider here in the Netherlands, the more I become aware of being an outsider in a world where I used to belong. This adapting and changing often causes me to feel permanently like an outsider, even though I have close family and wonderfully supportive faith communities in both places. The feeling of being an outsider makes me ask sometimes if it is worth it, and whether it would not be better to reject one culture to become more settled in another. However, I know I would feel a sense of loss in making that choice. The attempt to serve God faithfully in a new and different place among people of a (slightly) different culture, alongside the attempt to see the sinful blind spots of one’s own culture and delight in the God-given good in each culture, is worth the discomfort. It also increases my awareness of the reality that culture is hardly uniform: each community and family has a bit of a different culture with differing values and unspoken rules. Thus, simply interacting with others is an act of one outsider talking with another outsider. The question I am now learning to ask myself is not how I can become more integrated and stop being an outsider, but instead how I can learn to live with my discomfort while delighting in God’s image in the other, a truth that makes both of us “insiders.”

The link is available here: The Integration Issue.
With thanks on Hermen Jan and Joan for the conversation and their ideas.

09 October 2011

The church as dynamite

As part of my desire to grow further in my understanding of what "community" is, I've read some books about Dorothy Day, who started the Catholic Worker Movement. From what I've read, it is obvious that she desired to serve God fully in all of what she said and did - and she did so with much faith, passion and a good dose of stubbornness (although I expect the stubbornness sometimes irritated those who worked with her, I also expect that God worked at times through her stubbornness - and at times despite it). Also admirable was her love for the church and her desire to be fully committed to the Catholic Church while also challenging the viewpoints within the church that she found to be contradictory to the church's message - this was most obvious in her stands on both pacificism and social activism.

A key partner in her work was Peter Maurin - who was famous for his "Easy Essays." They are short poems which get one to thinking. The first one that got me to thinking was his own challenge to the church - a challenge to wake up and be relevant. It is, I believe, a challenge that is still needed today - and not just for the Catholic Church.

"Blowing the dynamite"
Writing about the Catholic Church,
a radical writer says:
"Rome will have to do more
than to play a waiting game;
she will have to use
some of the dynamite
inherent in her message."
To blow the dynamite
of a message
is the only way
to make the message dynamic.
If the Catholic Church
is not today
the dominant social dynamic force,
it is because Catholic scholars
have taken the dynamite
of the Church,
have wrapped it up
in nice phraseology,
placed it in an hermetic container
and sat on the lid.
It is about time
to blow the lid off
so the Catholic Church
may again become
the dominant social dynamic force.
             Taken from pages 12-13 in Mark and Louise Zwick's The Catholic Worker Movement (Paulist Press, 2005). 

As one who does theology, this poem is a good warning to all of us who are involved in things having to do with theology, church, and the Bible. It is so easy to get up in details or facts and to forget that my serving God isn't so much about getting the information right so much as it is about doing theology or church (or read the Bible) in a way that makes a difference in all of life - both personal and public - and helping/teaching others to do the same.

07 October 2011

Community Weekend

Last weekend, Matthijs and I went away with the community to Friesland (Waskameer) for the annual opening weekend. One of the volunteers sent me a picture of Matthijs, which made me smile so I thought I'd share it here. He's participating in one of the many relay/competition events of the weekend.

It was a good weekend, full of lots of conversations and laughter and getting to know each other better.

And one of the best parts of the weekend was a phone call that Matthijs received when we were just about to arrive in Waskameer: his sister had had her baby!!! On Sunday afternoon, we were graciously brought to the nearest train station on the way home - and we had enough time to head to Utrecht and got to meet little Hana for ourselves :) Yay!!

24 September 2011

Of course it's a silly idea, but....

Tonight there was a 5-minute wooden shoe dance at Waterlooplein (a 10-minute walk from our house), and somehow I managed to convince 8 other people along to come watch it with me.

I'm not entirely sure how we managed to get so many people to come! I just simply thought it'd be fun to see/do. It's the sort of silly thing that I'd never do on my own: hanging out at home on the couch is much more appealing. But it was free and interesting, and I figured worth at least some effort to get to. And if you can convince at least a few other people to join you, it becomes quickly the sort of random adventure that sticks with people. It's the sort of thing that you tell your mother you did - or you laugh about (partly because you're not sure how you ended up going in the first place!). And with enough people going, then even the walk there is fun. And as for adventure: just getting everybody out of the house on time is an adventure in itself.

I had no idea if it'd be any good - or if we'd even be close enough to see anything. It turned out to be pretty neat to watch (and most of us could see fairly well): the sort of thing that you were glad you did somehow get talked into. And even if it was a silly idea, it was the sort of silly idea that fits with a weekend in community. After all, who isn't interested in a random adventure on a Saturday evening?

23 September 2011

my four-legged alarm clock

Although more than enough is happening in my head and heart (and in the life of the Kronemeijers in general), I'm not sure yet how to put it into words. I've been dreaming and wondering about what's best in a lot of things:
- how do we best show hospitality in our new place (and what do we need still to fix up?),
 - how (much) I get involved in the community,
 - what should I spend my energy on academically,
 - is my hope of finishing my dissertation by May next year really attainable (I think so),
 - what do I do to prepare for the "next" after the dissertation (i.e., what academic projects do I get begin to get involved in already now), and so on.
 I haven't finished processing yet, and so I'm not sure what to say - although hopefully it will come sooner rather than later.

 Until then, however, I leave you with a normal incident in the life of the Kronemeijers.

 The alarm clock at our house goes off at 6:30 a.m. Matthijs gets up and showers while I sometimes read (although I often just roll over and doze until it's time for breakfast). However, I'm usually awake before the alarm clock, as I have my own personal alarm clock: one with four legs and a rather loud voice. Usually around 6 in the morning, although sometimes he waits until 6:30, the cat stands in front of the bedroom door and starts meowing. I have no idea why he meows then (perhaps we don't hear him earlier in the night, and he's noticed that, or perhaps he hears us begin to move as we enter the final phases of sleep?). The fact that I often get up and open the door for him probably would be considered encouragement for his action - but I don't generally mind. Petting the cat is a nice relaxing way to adjust to the fact that it's morning. Leaving the door open at night does solve the meowing problem - he seems to meow only because he knows we're there and he can't get to us (when he can get to us, he doesn't meow - and he usually stays outside unless I call him in). But the noise from the street (the window is always open) makes that a less ideal option, and so I'm left with my four-legged alarm clock. On the bright side, we'll probably never sleep in now - except, of course, if the cat is trapped downstairs in the sports hall or he catches a mouse and is himself sleeping in.....

10 September 2011

Saturday afternoon at the Kronemeijers

A long time ago, I promised pictures of our new house. This afternoon seemed like a perfect time for that to happen. So here are a few pictures of the house, including the men of the house....
Matthijs had a great excuse for being tired: he and I had both done a ton of chores this morning, and we'd spent the afternoon enjoying Open Monument Day (and Matthijs also went to an organ concert). As for Jerry, however, his only excuse is that he's a cat - and could sleep half the day :)

05 September 2011

When the cat's away, the mice will play...

Or when the husband's gone, the wife will ....?

Matthijs is in Birmingham, England for five days at a conference (10 years after 9-11, peace and war and disarmament). And so I'm home alone, being tempted by all the things I could do while the husband is away...

- I could spend money! Those of you who know me well know that I'm one of the cheapest people I know - I seem to be especially fond of not spending money. But I have managed to spend 20 euros extra during his absence - and I was even the one who suggested we buy the concert ticket deal last weekend along with several books... but I think it's merely a healthy sign that I'm finally relaxing somewhat when it comes to money.

- I could let the cat sleep with me! I warned Matthijs that this was the natural consequence of his being absent at night. Unfortunately for me, either the cat senses Matthijs's disapproval even during his absence, or the cat's simply only interested in the bed if the door's closed and he can't get in.

And so instead, I'm just trying to enjoy the freedom of being alone: like eating lots of pasta and letting the laundry hang too long and the dirty dishes pile up and reading lots. And using the change of pace to get around to some of those things that I've been meaning to do for awhile (which has been moderately successful).

However, unlike the mice for whom the return of the cat causes problems, I'm happily looking forward to the return of Matthijs, even as I'm hoping still to get more of my projects completed! 

04 September 2011

Present at a monastic profession

Today I was present for a monastic profession into the Franciscan order. Five years ago I don't think I could have imagined that this might be part of my life, sitting in a church filled with 40+ nuns and monks, as well as at least 3 Catholic congregations, being allowed to witness this moment in someone's life. And here I was invited, as both I and Matthijs know the deeply caring and gentle man who has taken this fitting step.

When I went to congratulate him, he told me that he was glad to be joining me on the journey of the religious life, and he named me by my official title - zuster Brenda. And I wasn't sure what to say to that: because my journey in the religious life is such that I am now giving up my title of zuster, and I'm not sure if that is only temporary.

And yet, religious life, and the journey that is part of it, is not limited to a title. My journey on the religious life began a long time ago: from a desire to help others given to me by my family, to morning prayer in college, to liturgical services and visits to St Gregory's Abbey during Seminary, to a strong desire to follow God as much as possible, to moving into the 'new' (open) monastic community here. And even before moving to Amsterdam, I had looked into what it meant to be a member of the Confraternity at St. Gregory's Abbey, thinking that when (if?) I moved back to North America, this might be a good fit for me. There was something about the daily prayers - and the mixture of prayer and work - that attracted me. And it is an attraction that has not yet let me go, nor has the desire to reach out to others and showing love in a practical way. And the desire to live a crazy passionate life for God is still there, even if it has been lethargic and frustrated at times.

It was special to be part of another's Profession event - an event made more special by my being reminded that my own journey in the religious life is continuing despite what feels a bit like a detour. It is a journey in which I've now been joined by Matthijs (as I was reminded during the Luke 10 reading during the service - the same reading we'd chosen for our wedding as a symbol of our desire to serve God together!) and a journey with many possibilities and surprises from God.

27 August 2011

Another sort of musical experience

Last night, Matthijs and I went to the opening concert of the Oude Muziek Festival (Old Music). We'd received tickets from someone who was a friend of the festival but had other plans for the weekend. He'd been curious about our reactions to the concert: I'd taken that not only as a question of whether we'd enjoy the music, but also a question about the concert itself: it was old music and a dance performance, not the most likely combination....

Having limited experience with music concerts, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect - and my expectations weren't all that high. So when it started out with someone making strange musical crying sounds and then an abstract dance performance mostly in the dark, my reaction was simply puzzlement. And then they began to sing: beautiful, 14th century polyphonic music.

Some in the audience had had higher expectations for the concert: more light and more singing being the obvious expectations. And they'd apparently also not spent several years watching the dancing presentations at the Vondelpark Open Air Theatre, like I'd had - and knew what to make of this sort of abstract dance. We could feel the tension in the air from people both confused and frustrated. When a telephone went off, people laughed and clapped - some of the tension had been released. And then there were calls for the light to go on and some booing and whispering. And people started leaving. And I felt uncomfortable and embarassed by the dutch public at the concert who didn't seem to appreciate the hard work being done by the dancers and singers.

Some kind of introduction or explanation at the beginning would have certainly been helpful - people who expect a musical concert aren't really prepared for what we received. Most of us could have used some help getting past the dark at the beginning and the limited music - and knowing how to react to an artistic form that might not be familiar. And yet, for those who stayed until the end, we didn't necessarily have our confusion disappear - but we did have the privilege of experiencing some beautiful music and some fascinating dance. And the artists were obviously very talented.

The concert was not something Matthijs and I would have obviously chosen - and yet, it was a fascinating evening, and an experience to be thankful for.

24 August 2011

And I was just going to check to make sure my cat wasn't stuck out in the rain....

After supper tonight, I was sitting on the couch catching my breath after a fairly busy day. Matthijs was being a great husband and doing the dishes. There was supposed to be a barbecue going on with the neighbours, but I wasn't quite up to it. I was tired. And it'd started raining.

And then the electricity went out. Matthijs asked me if I was going to look into that (it hadn't really occurred to me to do so - in my world, electricity sometimes goes out if there's a storm and then after awhile it comes back on again - but the neighbours across the street had electricity, so that theory was probably faulty). Yet, I wasn't really feeling up to figuring out how to get the electricity back. I was, however, slightly worried that it'd been awhile since I'd seen the cat. And with the pouring rain, I'd feel bad if he'd gotten accidentally stuck outside.

So I went to check upstairs. The stairs were wet - so I closed the door to outside. And it was still wet - dripping through the walls and from the ceiling. It seemed pretty bad to me - so I got some towels and buckets. But no sign of the cat. So I went downstairs to look for him - and I'd heard somebody say something about water (I figured it was dripping through from above). Still no cat. But there was water pouring through the ceiling of the sports hall downstairs. And the kitchen was at least a foot under water.

So I figured we'd dump the water out into the alleyway - but as I went to the alleyway, I saw that it was also at least a foot underwater. I figured the gutter was blocked. The gutter was found - just full. Full like all of the drains in the kitchen and bathroom downstairs. So everyone in the house (and some from the party upstairs) bucketed the water in the alleyway and the kitchen into industrial size garbage pins (which got emptied into the canal). And after getting all wet and gross, the alleyway became empty of water - as did the kitchen - along with what we could reach of the "bruiloftzaal." And then I realized that our house next door also has an entire floor that's lower than our kitchen - and thus potentially full of water.

So somebody checks that out - and there are mops and rags needed to clean up that mess. And then we hear that the Kruispost is full of water. And as I go to get more rags and mop stuff, I see that the Kajuit and kitchen and the hallway leading to the back room is also full of water. Less than in our kitchen, but more than enough to keep us busy for at least an hour - emptying buckets of water, picking up wet books and papers from an office floor and getting sore hands out from so frequently rinsing out a rag.

Sometime in the first hour, I'd heard that my cat had run upstairs to its house - it had probably hid in the sports hall when it discovered the rain coming through the ceiling and the large puddle on the ground. But by the time I'd heard that, the search for the cat had moved to the back of my mind: trying to get rid of all that water and fix the disaster as quickly as possible had taken over all my attention - there was little room for any other thoughts - except a thankfulness for the willingness of so many people here to help out. And a sense of thankfulness that despite this being a lot of work to clean up, there seems to be little to no damage.

22 August 2011

Different kinds of good

Shortly after moving here, Matthijs said that it was good to have moved to Amsterdam. And much to my surprise, I wasn't sure if I agreed with him. It wasn't at all that I thought that moving to Amsterdam was a bad idea - it was simply that living together in Den Haag was also good. And how could I say Amsterdam was good without making Den Haag sound like it was bad?

Not that life in Den Haag was always easy. And if I had to do it again, I think I still would have preferred Matthijs and I to be together in Amsterdam already last fall. I'd love to have done away with the stress of travelling and the tension and uncertainty that came with having our lives torn between Den Haag and Asmterdam.

And yet, it was good together in Den Haag. It was wonderful to delight in each other - having so much free time to do things together like cooking and playing games and simply being together. And it was good to work together through some of tension and the conflicts of loyalties that life in community can bring with it. And it was good for me to have some time to sort through again who I was and what I hoped to do and achieve. It was good to make a house together - to shape Matthijs's apartment into our house - and good to get to spend extra time getting to know Matthijs's friends and family better.

It was a longing for more (and the hope for new chances) that brings us to Amsterdam. And having made the choice together made it good. But what also made it good was that we weren't leaving a bad life somewhere else - we'd chosen to leave our good life in Den Haag in the hopes of something better - and with the trust that the 'goodness' that we'd built up in Den Haag would continue to grow with us.

20 August 2011

biking to Rome

My father-in-law is now more than half way in his bike trip to Rome. He's gone on a recumbent bicycle (see photo here), which isn't exactly known for its mountain-climbing abilities. But it's gone really well - and he's been enjoying the trip tremendously. He's been keeping a blog of his adventures: 'wil naar italie' - to read it, you have to understand dutch or know how to 'understand' the translations provided by babelfish or google translate.

In anticipation of his travels, I borrowed the book, Fietsen met God (biking with God) from my in-laws. It tells the story of three women who made a pilgrimage to Rome: one a Catholic, another an Anglican priest, and the third Reformed (vrijgemaakt - Canadian Reformed). I had planned to read it slowly, so that I could have a picture in my head of what my father-in-law was experiencing. But I just found it so fascinating that I couldn't help but continue reading! (Unfortunately, it hasn't been translated into English).

It tells not only of the physical challenge of the adventure but also of the exploration of three different expressions of the Christian faith. As much as I know that my father-in-law is being pushed by the physical challenge of his bike trip, this is a challenge that his 2-hour daily bike trips before his trip more than prepared him for. The situation in the book is different: although Monic could handle the physical challenge of it, the other two both had moments when it was too much for them. And while Monic had expected the physical exertion to be the challenge, she soon discovered that this paled in comparison to the challenge of learning how to wait patiently for the others.

The most fascinating part of the book for me was the desire of the women to discover what their faith traditions had in common -  to explore their ecumenicity. It was interesting to see that it wasn't simply doctrines that were different - it was a complete manner of looking at the world that was different. And it was here that Agnes, the one from the Reformed Church, stuck out for me: her stubborn determination to search for the truth and to place that truth only in what the Bible says (and ignoring both the mystery of the faith and years of church tradition). And her scorn for relics and holy water (hocus pocus) caused friction. It was obvious that faith isn't simply what you believe, but also how you believe.

And yet, despite the differences in each of the women, it was obvious from the beginning that they needed each other. And learning how to need each other, while both acknowleding and honouring the differences, is a challenge - not only for a bike trip - but also anytime different Christian traditions come together.

And as for the idea of a biking pilgrimage - I don't think I'm up for Rome (although I'd love to go there, I think I'd rather take the train or fly). But the idea of making a biking pilgrimage to Taize, going through southern Catholic Netherlands and stopping by a friend of Matthijs in a monstery in Chevatogne, is perhaps an idea for 2012 - I just need to convince Matthijs (and finish the dissertation!)...

14 August 2011

The quiet life in Amsterdam?

A lot of the community has been gone away for much of the summer - there was first the summer retreat of the community (where at least 25 people were present) and now it's summer holidays. Furthermore, the main house in the community is practically empty, giving the impression that everything is very quiet in the community. Yet, I've learned from experience that the summer isn't exactly quieter - and this summer has been no exception.

Things at the community have certainly changed pace - but quiet isn't exactly the right word for it. Last weekend was a wedding (and we helped with clean up!). Then we visited Matthijs's mom - we fled the city to get away from the noise that always comes with Gay Pride Weekend. This weekend Matthijs and I went to a housewarming party of someone who'd recently moved away from the community. Friday night was spent hanging out on our balcony with others in the houses here (after Matthijs and I decided to lead chapel together). Tomorrow we'll be eating with the community (and I get to lead chapel again :))

And this past saturday morning, the iron caught on fire. And last week, we were in a tourboat that crashed into a terrace (luckily there was almost no damage and no one was hurt). And on top of that, there's just the normal life things, like keeping in contact with family and friends, trying to hang things up the in the house, random experiments (like trying to bake my own bread!), visits of friends, and working (and sometimes travelling to and from).

So perhaps there's a quiet life in Amsterdam at the moment - but I think it's missed our house...

02 August 2011

three weeks of chapel

It is three weeks of being in Amsterdam, and I think I've attended chapel about a dozen times already. The first week was somewhat sparse: the immediate needs of unpacking, settling and adjusting often eclipsed my desire for going to chapel. And it is taking some time for chapel to become a 'normal' part of the day (although breakfast at 7 and dinner cooked by around 6.30 means I can work a bit before chapel in the morning and in the evening, we can eat (and even do dishes, if we're quick!) before chapel again).

But it has been good to be back attending chapel: good to stop and quiet myself and remember that my day and my time are from God. And good to sing and praise God. It has been a good help for adjusting to life here and back in the community.

And there's nothing quite like leading chapel three times a week to help make you feel like you're in the middle of the community! Last week and this week, there haven't been enough people signed up to lead - and so I've arrived at chapel and gotten to be the one to take the initiative in ringing the bell and calling the others to join me (there's always been at least 4 people, which has been good). As I've only just come back to living in the community and going regularly to chapel, trying to think of what to say/do/sing each time was a bit of a challenge (much thanks to Coby who's also been willing to take on the challenge of leading chapel with little notice!). The result has meant that I've decided to take some more initiative to find more people willing to plan to lead chapel - as I believe that it's good for a chapel to be planned well. And yet, landing in the middle of chapel planning and praying aloud with others and trying to help others worship God - as much as that has been a challenge, it has also been a blessing - both for making me feel at home (and needed) and for my remembering how good it is to pray with others.

31 July 2011

Remembering my life in Ukraine

Just after we moved in, a former student of mine came and visited with her husband. I had seen her a number of years ago when I'd first moved to the Netherlands, but hadn't connected with her until she'd asked if she could stay with me during a trip to Amsterdam. Delighting in the chance to extend hospitality to another, I gladly said yes.

The best part of the visit was remembering. Both my former student and I have had many different experiences in the ten years since we'd lived together in the dormitory in Nagybereg, Ukraine; yet, those years at the gymnasium have certainly remained a unique experience.

I remember crying at the end of that first week in Ukraine - simply from the shock of realizing how much my time there would shape and change me. I had been told I'd share teaching responsibilities with the wife of someone I'd met and respected. Instead, I was sharing the responsibilities with a Ukrainian woman and an older dutch woman, who I quickly realized was not really interested in listening to me. And after a week of living in a foreign country surrounded by a language I did not know, teaching at a level and in a way that I'd had limited experience doing, it did not take much for me to realize that my time there had the possibility for stretching and challenging me enormously.

My former student and I had to laugh about the food and the crazy schedule there. There were almost no vegetables; so the one time a week we got this great tomato, onion, and pepper concoction, I'd try to catch up on all the vegetables I'd missed. Seeing as we'd have it for breakfast, it meant that I'd spend the rest of the day with a stomach that sometimes needed to adjust to this 'foreign' food. And there were, of course, strange foods like pasta and crushed walnuts and tomato sauce with potatoes. And then one time someone found maggots in the food (a result of canned beans that hadn't been sealed properly); that casserole option was quickly banned for the rest of that year.

And as for the schedule? I'd wake up at 5:50, so I could get a hot shower. Breakfast was at 7. Teaching began at 7:30 (although I usually had the first class free - except if the schedule got spontaneously changed the night before - which happened about once a week!). Lunch was at 1:30, chores thereafter, study hall from 4-7, dinner at 7, and quiet time around 9:30. At the end of the second year, I was teaching all of the English classes (and typing classes - a total of about forty 45-minute class sessions per week, of which slightly more than half were minimal to no extra prep-time) - and the only thing that made that crazy schedule bearable was the knowledge that the students were working just as hard.

Amidst the crazy food and the crazy schedule, what made it all bearable was the fact that you knew that we had each other: others would help you out and cared for you. Outside of the school, I had my church and family back home and the students had their families who supported them and wanted very much for them to have this chance to make a different life for themselves. After all, life for Hungarians in that part of Ukraine was hard: financially, physically and emotionally. I don't remember any house in a village that didn't have an outhouse (and with Ukrainian winters, they were freezing!!). And everyone had a story of someone they knew dying tragically on account of poor health care or corruption. When there was flooding in the region during my second year, the students worried that their house (or that of their relatives) might be affected, which would be the end of everything as there was no insurance to protect them or cover their losses. And because of that, one would worry if others from another village might come and sabotage the defenses of another village - in the hopes of causing the damage to go elsewhere and their own property might be saved.

When you're 22 (the age I was when moved there), you have the idea that you can change the world. But at 22, no matter how well-traveled you are or how perceptive you might be, that world is a lot more complicated than you first expect. Living in a village in rural Ukraine, in the middle of the Hungarian-Ukrainian students, I did my best to become part of that world without losing who I was. I came to Ukraine with the hope of  making a difference and change at least a part of the world - and in the end, it was I who was changed (with the hopes that my time there also changed other's lives).