One hell of a commute

There have been a number of milestones in these early months of our relocation: finding an apartment, getting our residency permits, having our first overnight guest.

Import 141One of my personal milestones was to start biking to work. Months ago, when I considered making this move, I would spend time on Google Maps looking at the biking route to my new employer. I’d trace the path of the ferry north across the IJ River, and I’d think about riding alongside the canal, past farms and horses and windmills. From my desk in Boston (in an office located on what was – very literally – a deadly street for cyclists) it seemed pretty close to heaven.

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Not a bad view to start off the day…

The winter months are long here, with back-to-back-to-back grey days and lots of wind and rain. But in the past few weeks, the weather has improved and I am happy to say that I have officially started cycling to work! The first day I met a co-worker at the ferry so she could show me the route. Some days we still meet on the ferry, but more often than not I’m alone. From the time I get off the ferry, it’s about a 20 minute ride, and yes, I cycle alongside a canal and pass a windmill. The horses and cows are there, too, and I smell them long before I see them.

I don’t cycle every day – my schedule, my wardrobe and the weather are all taken into consideration. (It is HARD to bike in a skirt or dress, people. I’ve done it, but it is not for amateurs.) But on the days when I do ride, I feel more relaxed, more clear-headed, and more in control of my day.

Normally, about halfway through the trip, when I reach the windmill, a line from a Thomas Lux poem runs through my head: “If whole minutes exist when to your left is a river with ducks and to your right a cathedral slashed with light, then carry clean bandages to a battlefield, swab foreheads in a contagious ward…”

It is a poem about gratitude, about not only recognizing beauty or blessings, but about responding to such things in ways that are meaningful, and even radical. It’s a reminder to me not to take any part of this experience – least of all my commute – for granted. Instead, I should be looking for ways to celebrate the experience and return the beauty and the blessings, somehow.

Since it is still April for a little bit longer, I’ve given you the whole poem below, And, heck, I’ll even throw in a link to Lux’s wonderful Refrigerator, 1957. Enjoy.

Give It To the Wind
If the wind touches your cheek
in a manner that pleases you,
then to it give something back.
Give some dollars, a good slice of bread,
a phrase from a woman who loves you;
open an ampule of joy and wave it, out loud.
If you find a dime, then give two
to a beggar, celebrate
nerve endings, your soup.
If whole minutes exist
when to your left is a river with ducks
and to your right a cathedral slashed by light,
then carry clean bandages
to a battlefield, swab foreheads
in a contagious ward; if a few
cells bloom, a synapse heals,
then stab a thousand tiny flags
into the graves of generals,
then mourn a murderer’s childhood.
And if, after furious sleep,
the room is windy
and cool air slides across the blank
dunes of your sheet, then thank
the night for the day
and the day for what
it is : liable to be.
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Bouquets, pandemonium, romp and mischief

No, the title of today’s post is not a summary of the past few days, although it’s not far off!

Those are the words for groupings of, respectively: pheasants (though only at take-off), parrots, otters and mice. I’m not sure if other languages have such a richness of vocabulary to describe pluralities of animals. It’s one of the things I love best about English, though. It seems excessive to have such colorful and poetic ways to describe a grouping of animals. Still, I can’t help but think my life would be a little bit sadder if I didn’t know that gnus traveled in “implausibilities”.

So why am I thinking of animal groups at all? I am recovering from a weekend so filled with love and friendship that I feel hard-pressed to describe it adequately. As I was biking home today, I was reflecting on the fact that my weekend was book-ended by old friends and newer ones. I spent time with people who have known me for half my life, and others who have known me for a year, or just a month. I witnessed and shared in  interactions between people who are secure in their affections and share deep bonds.  Then I joined in the struggle of a friend who is far from those he loves, and who is hungry for the connection that comes from being seen and known.

These experiences left me feeling that “friendship” may be too limited a word for the richness and variety of our human relationships, no matter if the bonds are battle-tested or just newly forged. Maybe instead I’ll steal a few outrageous words from the animal kingdom to modify the insufficient “friendship”. Who couldn’t use a congregation or a charm or even a flamboyance of friendship from time to time?

As for this past weekend and all that it brought me – laughter and memories, connection and re-connection, tears of joy and expressions of frustration – well, that’s an easy one. It was an exaltation of friendship.

An embarrassment of riches

A few snapshots from a picture-perfect weekend in Amsterdam. Dear friends Scott and Michael (and about 20 others!) are here to celebrate Michael’s birthday. We’ve been given some gorgeous days filled with sunshine, great food, and lots of laughter. Much to celebrate…

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A fabulous Friday evening dinner at De Kas.

Followed by a day at the Keukenhof Garden…

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And a walk home past Amsterdam’s carnival…

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“Work that is real”

Hello all! I promise that an Amsterdam-related update is forthcoming. Today, though, I want to both keep my April poetry streak going, and share something with a very important group of people who have been much on my mind.

Most of the folks reading this blog are current or former employees of Partners In Health, the US-based non-profit organization where I spent the better part of my life and career  – 16 1/2 years, to be exact. PIH is where I “grew up” in many ways. It is where I gained professional skills, to be sure, but it is also where I developed an understanding of the world from a perspective of social justice, service, and human rights. I may have moved on to a new city and a new job, but my heart is never far from PIH, and what I learned there continues to animate and inform my work.

PIH has been in the news lately due to their (and yes, it’s still hard to say “their” and not “our”) involvement in West Africa combating Ebola. Several weeks ago, an American clinician working with PIH in Sierra Leone tested positive for Ebola and was evacuated to the US. I learned yesterday that the clinician had been discharged from the hospital and declared a survivor, to everyone’s great relief.

My colleagues and friends in West Africa have been so present in my mind these past few weeks, and I thought of them all today when I came across the poem below.  Credit goes to the lovely folks at Still Harbor for directing me to this poem through their weekly round-up of meaningful things on the web.

To my PIH family: you are the people I love the best because of your ability and your willingness to “do what has to be done, again and again”.  I’m sending this out to Boston, Haiti, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Liberia, Malawi, Peru, Lesotho, Russia, Mexico, and everywhere that past or current PIHers are working, studying, struggling or celebrating. Your work is as real as it gets.

To Be of Use
by Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Too much

Well, I don’t even know where to start. There is just TOO MUCH going on, people! First of all, today is Opening Day! My Boston Red Sox kick off the season at 3pm against the Phillies, which means I may actually be able to follow the game, allowing for the time difference. Hoo-rah.

Then there’s this: April is National Poetry Month! Thanks to the incomparable Summer Pierre for reminding me of that, and for featuring poetry and its power in one of her amazing comics. (Hi, Sum!) Let us all allow ourselves some poetry over the coming month.

And lest you think baseball and poetry don’t have anything in common, think again! For my money, the most poetic thing written about baseball is not a poem at all, but John Updike’s famous, gorgeous New Yorker piece about Ted William’s last at-bat at Fenway Park – a home run. If you care about baseball or the craft of writing it is worth your time to read the whole thing, but here’s a little taste:

Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs—hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn’t tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted “We want Ted” for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.

If that last line doesn’t give you chills, well, there’s just no helping you.

And then, in addition to all of this sporting and cultural excitement, it was Easter weekend. Easter Monday is a holiday here in the Netherlands. (For a strongly non-religious nation, they have a relatively high number of religious holidays.) My hubby and I ventured out of Amsterdam and headed to Maastricht, a lovely little city and the capital of the Netherland’s southern-most province, Limburg. How this little spit of land sandwiched between Belgium and Germany even belongs to the Dutch is beyond me, but it does. It maintains its own regional language (Limburgish) and is a strongly Catholic region.

Being there over the Easter weekend gave us the chance to see some of the Catholic roots and rituals first hand. A long Good Friday procession wound past our hotel, featuring several drum corps. Marchers carried large prints of the Stations of the Cross and statues of Jesus. Priests and members of the religious societies walked throughout the town before ending at the local parish. It was a bit strange to be observing the whole thing, to be honest, instead of being part of it, which is what I would have been doing at my own church had I been back in Boston.

I also missed spending the day with family or friends.  Easter has been the most fluid of my holidays, in terms of tradition. During my childhood it was Church in the morning and then family – one grandma’s house for breakfast and the other for dinner. It was new outfits (usually the same as my sister’s, just a different color), and family pictures by the birch tree. In Boston, it was Church (Episcopal, by then), and brunch with friends. It was a new outfit, and champagne and mouth-eggs and shared cooking and laughter. And in recent years it turned back to family, usually with my in-laws. Last year we were in New York with my family. It was the last holiday we had before my mom’s death in August, although not the last time we were together.

The loss of my mom isn’t something that I’ve shared much here; in many ways the grief is still too near. But maybe in light of the loss, the only thing to do was to have an Easter unbound to any tradition. To almost let it go unobserved, as a way to recognize that things have changed – are changing – and that we do not yet know the shape they will take. We instead have a year with no ritual, no traditions – we let it pass, but not unmarked, not forgotten. And we wait to see what will happen next.

I’ll leave you where we started. (No, not with baseball, although the Sox have already scored in the time it took me to write this post.) I’ll leave you with a poem I love. It is a poem about Easter, about grief and doubt and joy and the long journey we’re all on. To steal from the poem’s ending, “Long flight, soar freely, spiral and glide in the empty air.”