My New Year’s Resolution

I’m not big on New Year’s Eve, or the idea of making resolutions. At least not at the turn of the year. The memory of new shoes and unsullied notebooks at the start of a school year never quite fades. And even though I’m years removed from the first day of school, September always seems like the right time to start fresh. These bleak mid-winter days of January – dark, short, cold – are a time for cuddling up with our old habits and lazy ways. It’s a terrible time to start exercising or dieting, or resolving to do anything other than read, watch old movies, maybe write a letter or two.

That said, I do have one New Year’s tradition, which is to read and to share a New Year’s poem. The same poem, every year, since I always need to hear what the poet is telling me. It’s called, simply, “New Year’s Resolution”, by Phillip Appleman. Some of the references are to American sporting traditions on New Year’s Day, specifically the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, but the message is universal. We all end a year with some regret, and we start a year with the promise to do better.

Regardless of where this finds you, may you enter 2016 with a joyful heart and a resolution to break your losing streak. Happy New Year!

Well, I did it again, bringing in
that infant Purity across the land,
welcoming Innocence with gin
in New York, waiting up
to help Chicago,
Denver, L.A., Fairbanks, Honolulu–and now
the high school bands are alienating Dallas
and girls in gold and tangerine
have lost touch with Pasadena,
and young men with biceps and missing teeth
are dreaming of personal fouls,
and it’s all beginning again, just like
those other Januaries in
instant replay …
But I’ve had enough
of turning to look back, the old
post-morteming of defeat:
people I loved but didn’t touch,
friends I haven’t seen for years,
strangers who smiled but didn’t speak–failures,
failures. No,
I refuse to leave it at that–because
somewhere, off camera,
January is coming like Venus
up from the murk of December, re-
virginized, as innocent
of loss as any dawn. Resolved: this year
I’m going to break my losing streak,
I’m going to stay alert, reach out,
speak when not spoken to,
read the minds of people in the streets,
I’m going to practice every day,
stay in training and be moderate
in all things.
All things but love.
 

 

 
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Catching up

Catching up: that’s what this post – and this whole week – is about. We’ve been in the U.S. since last Tuesday. We’re a bit displaced in our own home, living out of suitcases and digging through boxes that we packed away months ago. We’ve had 60 degree weather and now, our first snow of the season (which is quickly turning into a slushy mess).  Our schedule has been full with holidays, and lunches and dinners with family and friends.  We still have a few days and a few more celebrations before we return to Amsterdam.

It has been wonderful to spend time with people we love and get caught up. Even with all of the available technologies for staying in touch, there’s no substitute for being present with people, face to face. For a long-overdue hug. For a slice of Dad’s famous cheesecake. For sharing a memory and a good laugh.

In the days before our visit to the U.S., we spent a weekend in Paris. To catch you up on that adventure, it was great. Since we’d been to Paris before, and since this trip was so short, we didn’t feel any pressure to see the sights or do anything in particular. Happily, Paris is perfectly willing to accommodate the desire to stroll and eat. And repeat.

I’m proud to say that I did stick to my resolution to speak French while in Paris. And for the most part, the French went along with me. Once, the concierge at the hotel switched into English but I just barreled along in French. No surrender!

The weekend in Paris helped put me in the holiday mood – the city was alight and festive, even though it was unseasonably warm. We didn’t put up a Christmas tree in Amsterdam and we don’t have a tree here in Boston, either. I didn’t do my usual shopping or cookie-baking – many of the markers of the holiday were missing this year. But the spirit in Paris was contagious and made it, finally, feel like Christmas.

And so here we are, on the brink of another new year. The time has gone by so quickly – the year itself and this short stay in the U.S. With any luck, I’ll use the flight home to do some more reflection on all that’s been and all that’s to come in the new year.

To all of you, a happy and healthy new year. May 2016 bring you the best of all things…

Fin.

Mon Dieu! My French tutor has left me.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking: you live in the Netherlands and you have a French tutor? I do. Well…I did. And finding him was one of the first things I did when I arrived here. I invested so much into learning French two years ago that I want to be sure to keep it up. Plus, everyone in Amsterdam speaks at least three languages fluently, which usually leaves me feeling like the dumb, mono-lingual American. Hence, the French tutor.

Alors, my tutor is moving back to France next month to start a PhD program. And I am left, once again, on my own. Back to misusing the subjunctive and failing to remember the proper concordance des temps. This surprise departure of my tutor has literally come on the eve of a trip to Paris…we leave tomorrow for a weekend visit, our first since we moved to Europe. I was hoping one more lesson would get my confidence up, and help me remember all those marvelous little phrases that make social interactions in France – asking for directions, ordering in a restaurant – more pleasant. (Readers from the Institut de Francais…where is Julian when I need him most??)

So I send my apologies in advance to the good, language-proud people of Paris. I’m coming, and I’m speaking French. I’m not going to let myself be embarrassed by my mistakes. I’m not going to be intimidated if you roll your eyes or start to switch to English. I will persist. Because I love your language, and the ferocity-bordering-on-arrogance with which you defend and promote it. You think it’s worth protecting. I think it’s worth learning. Let’s help each other out. À bientôt!

 

 

“Everything is Waiting for You”

I’m writing this tonight from the kitchen table. There are cookies baking in the oven, in preparation for a holiday party at my office in a few days. If you know me, you know that my Christmas cookies are the stuff of legend. I don’t say this to brag – and maybe some of my readers will comment and back me up – but to highlight the fact that here, my baking is not quite up to par. It may be the ingredients or the oven or the (lack of) altitude or some combination of factors. But for some reason, everything I have tried to make here is just a little…off.

I suspect that the run-up to the holidays can make all of us feel a little “off”, too. Not quite ourselves. Not happy with how we are acting, how we treat those we love. Wanting to be calmer, more patient, more generous, more aware. Desperate for deeper connections to counter a world that seems, at least for the next few weeks, grossly commercial and superficial.

As I said recently, I often turn to writers – especially poets – when life tosses me around and I need something solid to hold on to. In the past few months, English poet David Whyte has been by my side. First, it was his  book Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. I wrote about it in October and I can’t stop returning to it. Give yourself an early Christmas gift and read it.

Tonight, though, as I sat here with my slightly “off” cookies and my equally “off” self, it was Whyte’s poetry that threw me a lifeline and shook me awake . And since I cannot share the cookies, I offer the poem to you, and invite you to “ease into the conversation” however you like and with whomever you need.

You can listen to Whyte read the poem here; I love his voice and the repetition of certain phrases, especially at the end. Or read it slowly to yourself, in your own voice, and let your alertness grow, your aloneness dissipate.

Everything, everything, everything is waiting for you.

Everything is Waiting for You

Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice. You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.

Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into
the conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.

Selling fear

Recently I was searching for a half-remembered quote from William Faulkner  to share with a friend who is celebrating her 10th anniversary in a challenging but rewarding job. Google and Goodreads came to my rescue, but in my searching I stumbled upon Faulkner’s Noble Prize acceptance speech. This paragraph stopped me cold:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?

I immediately scrolled back to the top of the screen to see when, exactly, this had been written. 1950 – a bit later than I would have guessed. But it could have been written yesterday. The fear of violence has become part of the fabric of daily life in America, both in the personal and public space.

Of course, the threat of violence – and actual violence – has been a near-constant reality for many Americans, well before this recent spate of shootings. Structural violence exists in our policies of exclusion, discrimination, and racism. Many young Americans spend much of their energy negotiating situations of violence, be it in their neighborhood or school or their interactions with police. And minority populations in the US, including transgender individuals, women, gays, and other vulnerable groups are more likely to be victims of violence.

But all of a sudden, everyone thinks they are a target for Muslim terrorists.  Mass shootings in the U.S. are disturbingly common, but until now they have not inspired any action beyond the usual “thoughts and prayers”. After Paris and after San Bernardino, however, people feel more threatened and more vulnerable than ever before.  And I find myself watching from a distance as my country goes crazy.

It is a strange thing to observe your home country from afar, to be aware of the mood but not to share in it…not to really feel it. Some days I cannot bear to read the news from the U.S.  I don’t want to know what thoughtless things were said by someone who is trying to convince us of his or her leadership abilities. I don’t want to know about a Muslim shop owner beaten up, or Muslim children being bullied at school. I don’t want to know about the increase in gun sales after San Bernardino, or the calls from law enforcement professionals for broader concealed carry rights.

From my perspective (and I don’t just mean from Europe), it looks like madness. And while I read all the usual global news sources to learn what is happening, I find myself searching for more. How can I make sense of  the fear and the anger and the hateful things being said by Americans?  In this season of Advent, how can I respond with compassion and tolerance, instead of adding to the anger? I look for solace from the only people who seem reasonable these days: poets, writers, artists.

I’ll leave you with a reminder from Mary Doria Russell’s book Dreamers Of the Day. In a season of hope that is being marred by hate and hysteria, it’s a reminder to me that we always have a choice about what we buy. And from whom.

“When it comes down to it, I don’t have much in the way of advice to offer you, but here it is:

Read to children.

Vote.

And never buy anything from a man who’s selling fear.”

 

Me? Afraid? Of birds? Don’t be ridiculous

Import 6 Dec 066

Hanging with Dexter, a Harris Hawk.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been afraid of birds. Like a lot of fears, this one is irrational and hard to explain. I’ve never been attacked by a bird, though I have been “lucky” enough to have birds poop on me more than once. There’s just something about birds that makes me uncomfortable.  Their aggressiveness. Their unpredictability. Whether it’s ravens, crows, pigeons, or seagulls (ok, and sometimes ducks and geese), I would rather just avoid them.

And avoid them I do. I’ve been known to walk in a wide arc through a pigeon-filled square rather than cut through the center of a kit of those rats with wings. My family will tell you that I spoiled many visits to the beach, hiding from the greedy seagulls under the umbrella or my towel.

With this bit of background, you’ll understand why it was a BIG DEAL when we signed up for a falconry “experience” during our recent trip to Malta. My dear husband was very excited about this element of our vacation. (I think he sees a falcon as the necessary first step to having a castle with a moat, and henchmen to do his bidding.) We booked the full 5-hour experience, which would let us handle the birds and fly them.

We arrived at the Falconry Center and were told that due to the high winds, it was not safe to fly the birds. They offered us the half-day experience, about 3 hours, which would still allow us to handle the birds. We got started right away and met Warren, our wonderful guide, who is himself a falconer. He walked us through the aviary, where some beautiful (but not for handling) birds are kept, including a Golden Eagle and a number of vultures. After that, he took us to the area where the smaller birds are tethered, historically referred to as the “mews”.

Import 6 Dec 086

Dexter in the foreground, with his siblings, in the Mews

Equipped with our heavy leather gloves, we learned how to move the birds on to our hands. We were able to handle three owls, a hawk and a falcon over the course of the day. With each bird, Warren shared information about both the species and the individual animal. Some had been “imprinted”, raised by the Center’s staff, often for the animal’s own protection. We learned about how and what the birds hunt, and how their physical features – feather shape, coloring, and face shape – give them advantages as predators.

I had confessed to Warren early on that I was afraid of birds. His somewhat puzzled response was, “Why would you be afraid of birds? Be afraid of people.” By the end of the day, Warren admitted that if I hadn’t told him of my fear, he wouldn’t have known I was afraid at all. This is in part a credit to Warren, who was so calm, confident, and knowledgeable that he made the day a delight, and made the animals so interesting that I forgot to be afraid. Most fears are, one way or another, based in ignorance. A little information (no, the birds aren’t going to peck your eyes out) can go a long way towards reducing fear.

Import 6 Dec 095

My husband also gets credit, since this is something I would NEVER have done on my own. His love of animals and his excitement for the falconry experience were encouraging. I wanted him to enjoy the day, and not have to deal with me whimpering or freaking out.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not about to race into Trafalgar Square with a handful of bread and let pigeons land on me. They are dirty, dirty birds. And I’m probably not going to become a full time falconer. Still, I’m proud of myself for using the opportunity as well and as fully as I could.  It’s not every day you face a fear head-on. I was able to literally take my fear into my hands, and examine it up close, and maybe come to understand it – and myself – a little more deeply.