Still here…

You may have thought that the blog had gone dark, as it’s been months since my last update. But no, we’re still here. And today, an early Sunday morning in mid-December, while I sit on the couch and watch the sunrise over Amsterdam, I have finally found a moment to come back and say hello.

Shortly after moving here in 2015, I wrote about the contrast between our Everyday Self and our Vacation Self. I was trying, in those early days, to figure out how the adventurous and daring Vacation Self – who helped get me to Amsterdam – could stay present while the hum-drum activities of daily life got sorted out. Since then, I’ve gotten better at balancing these elements of myself, and I try to maintain my traveler’s energy and curiosity, even if it’s just on my daily bike commute. Still, as we wrap up our third year abroad, it is clear that the Everyday Self is running the show.

As much as I’d like to say that my absence from the blog is due to a whirlwind series of vacations and parties and invitations, that’s not entirely true (although there have been some of each of those things). It’s closer to the truth to say that I’ve been busy, and also lazy, and the blog has fallen victim to both of those states. But no more excuses! Instead, here’s a little run-down of what we’ve been up to:

  • The day we returned from Croatia I started an online certificate program in copy editing. The first class focused on grammar and made me even more of a grammar snob than I was before, because now I can explain in detail exactly why your use of the semi-colon is incorrect.
  • At the same time, I’m working more consistently on the Masters program I started several years ago. I was taking a (very relevant) class in intercultural communication. My final paper was submitted yesterday, and I’ll be starting a new class in early January.
  • Language-learning continues! I’m always trying to improve my French, so I’m doing Skype lessons with a French tutor. I’d rather you just didn’t ask about my Dutch, but if you do, I can now say Ik doe echt mijn best.
  • St EmilionOur annual “Thanksgiving” getaway found us in Bordeaux, where we enjoyed some sunshine, lots of great wine, and perhaps the most delicious thing we’ve ever eaten, thanks to our food tour guide, Virginie.
  • Culture! There is something happening all the time in Amsterdam. Thanks to the John Adams Institute, I attended readings by Mohsin Hamid and Colson Whitehead, both of whom wrote books that I loved (and both of whom were surprisingly funny). I finally went to the Paradiso, one of the more famous music venues in the city, and introduced a new friend to the (music of the) brilliant Josh Ritter. We also spent a freezing hour in the Portuguese Synagogue at a candle-lit concert. The Synagogue, completed in 1675, has no electricity (thus, no heat), but is one of my favorite places in Amsterdam.
  • Friends! We had some unexpected visitors some months ago – old friends from Boston who were on vacation in St. Maarten when Hurricane Irma struck. The only flight they could get off the island was to Amsterdam. It was not the vacation they expected, but we did our best to make it memorable. We were also invited to a 40th surprise party recently, and back in October we had a fun but very rainy and dark adventure in the woods with our friends and their 2-month old baby. (The same friends with whom we went wadlopen…I’m starting to see a pattern here.)
  • Food! I’ve discovered and mastered a couple of new recipes, one that involves buying sausage from a butcher at a local market, which is also my weekly experiment in speaking Dutch. And, thanks to my dear husband, who found a small-batch cookie recipe (four cookies!), I now make near-perfect chocolate chip cookies.
  • Fitness! One can’t eat cookies every night without finding that one’s pants suddenly don’t fit the way they used to. Earlier this year, a Boston friend told me about November Project, and though it took me a few months, I finally found my way to the Amsterdam tribe. I’ve been a pretty regular attendee ever since (even this past Wednesday, when it was cold and icy). If you’re a morning person and you live in a city with an NP tribe, check it out. It helps if you’re ok with hugging strangers, too.
  • Bordeaux church

    Christmas! We have a Christmas tree seller literally outside our front door, so I gave in this year and bought a small, table-top tree. Along with a few strands of lights and some fresh greens, it actually feels more like the holiday season.

So that brings us back to this sunny, lazy, Sunday morning. No papers to write or chapters to read or workouts to do. Just some packing, as we’re heading back to Boston on Wednesday for Christmas. And maybe some cookies to bake? It is the season…



Mother’s Day

When my dad and niece were visiting last month, we were watching TV one evening and a commercial came on for some Mother’s Day promotion. My niece, who was cuddled up on the couch with me, turned and said, “Huh…you don’t get to celebrate that anymore.” She didn’t say it to be cruel – it was more of an observation than anything else. Still, it hurt. In the days since, I’ve kept her words with me, rolling them around my head in quiet moments.

Today is Mother’s Day. And as most of my readers know, my mom is no longer with us. And I’m wondering: do I get to celebrate it?

Years ago a friend shared an essay from Charles Dickens about Christmas and how the meaning of the holiday can change as we age and experience loss. Dickens speaks of a friend from his youth, with whom he had once imagined and discussed their growing old together. Now that his friend has – in his prime – taken up “his destined habitation in the City of the Dead”, Dickens asks, “Shall he be shut out from our Christmas remembrance? Would his love have so excluded us? Lost friend, lost child, lost parent, sister, husband, brother, wife, we will not so discard you…”

So, in the spirit of Dickens and Christmas, I am observing Mother’s Day. Like most holidays, Mother’s Day isn’t a purely individual holiday – it’s not just about your mom.  (But don’t tell your mom that. Because of course it’s only about her.) It’s a collective recognition that being a mother can be hard. It’s a celebration of grandmothers and aunts and sisters and whoever else may have mothered us in some way at a time when we needed mothering. It’s a time to think about women around the world for whom motherhood and childbirth is dangerous, or deadly. It’s a moment to consider what mothers risk and dream of for their children, and the sacrifices made to help realize those futures.

And for myself, it is a day to think about my mom. More than once during this time abroad, I’ve thought about how much she would have enjoyed hearing about our lives here. She would have had a lot of questions – silly ones, about everyday things, like where we buy groceries and if we’ve met the neighbors and where we store our bicycles.

Today I’m thinking about all the little things that make up a person, a life. I could tell you a thousand things about my mom or write a thousand questions that I never thought to ask her. But today I’m thinking about how we couldn’t talk while she was baking, as if measuring flour took all her attention. I’m thinking about her beautiful complexion and how she never wore foundation.  I’m remembering the smell of her perfume.  The look she would give my dad on Christmas morning if one of his gifts didn’t quite hit the mark. And the very specific way she would say, “Hello Katie” whenever we spoke by phone. And the fact that she still called me Katie, which almost no one now does.

One of the stupid, annoying things about grieving is that the grief changes, and I change, and how I respond to loss and what I need to deal with it also changes. It sucks. So maybe this year I can have this sort-of reflective, Zen-like perspective on the universality of Mother’s Day. Next year I may ignore it completely. Who can say? Mother’s Day is hard for people who still have mothers – our relationships with our moms are complicated, in life and in death.  I don’t have any answers for you there.

So we’ll end where we began, with Dickens again. His final word, his promise to his lost friend – and his appeal to us – is that we “shut out nothing!” There’s no right or wrong way for me to observe this day or any other significant day. You take what comes, you find yourself where you are, and you shut out nothing.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Backwards and forwards

We’re back in Amsterdam! Our holiday break in the U.S. was both relaxing and exhausting – who knew that spending time with family and friends (and at Target) would wipe us out so completely? Thankfully we had a weekend to recover before jumping back into the routine of commuting, working, and day-to-day life, and we’ve already survived the first week of the new year.

I’ve also survived the endless, annual parade of articles, lists, and listicles (whatever the hell those are) touting the “Best [Books/Films/Moments] of 2015″, or the “Year in Review”.  No sooner do I get through those stories than I’m on to, “What’s Hot in the New Year” or “Ones to Watch in 2016”.

The reality is that when it comes to books, news, films, and life in general, I’ll never be able to stay on top of what’s new and – more importantly – what’s good. And by “good” I really mean: what’s worth my time? What will challenge, trouble, motivate, console or enliven me?

I’ve become somewhat addicted to, a consistently inspiring and well-curated offering of poetry, art, and philosophy about things that matter: love, aging, work, dying. How to have a well-lived life. Most of what I’ve read this year I found thanks to that site. A few years ago, the author of the site, Maria Popova, started a “side project” pairing quotes from favorite books with songs. She calls it the Literary Jukebox, and it is worth your time.

Anyway, a while back, thanks to the Literary Jukebox, I found this quote from Debbie Millman, from her book Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design.

…what keeps me up late at night, and constantly gives me reason to fret, is this: I don’t know what I don’t know. There are universes of things out there — ideas, philosophies, songs, subtleties, facts, emotions — that exist but of which I am totally and thoroughly unaware. This makes me very uncomfortable.

Amen, sister. For some reason, the start of a new year brings this fretting into sharper focus. It’s like I’m staring down this year and the universes – universes!! – of things I am ignorant of, and don’t know where to start.

But I have to start somewhere, right?  I look to some trusted sources.  And I look around. There’s no shortage of inspiration in Amsterdam. And there’s so much that I don’t understand: art, history, modern politics, language, cultural practices. With our first year in the Netherlands behind us, it feels like it’s time to get serious as we go forward. We’ve had a year to adapt, get our feet wet, learn a little. Now we need to dig deeper.  Figure out what we don’t know.  Look for guides to discovery, but also leave room for chance and inspiration.

Bold goals for the new year, especially for someone who doesn’t generally make resolutions. Turning back to Debbie Millman, we’re reminded that this – and “this” is, really, all of it, all of live – is an experiment.

Lives are shaped by chance encounters and by discovering things that we don’t know that we don’t know. The arc of a life is a circuitous one. … In the grand scheme of things, everything we do is an experiment, the outcome of which is unknown.

You never know when a typical life will be anything but, and you won’t know if you are rewriting history, or rewriting the future, until the writing is complete.

This, just this, I am comfortable not knowing.

So here’s a final new year’s toast to 2016: to all that is unknown, and all there is to discover. Cheers!


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…

“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.

August in the Netherlands

Subtitle: Am I the Only Person in This Whole Country Who’s Working??

One of the major differences between the U.S. and Europe, as many people are quick to point out, is the vacation policy. Europeans in general get a lot of vacation. They tend to stare with a combination of horror and bewilderment when you mention that most Americans get about 2 weeks of annual vacation.  For most of my Dutch colleagues, two weeks is the minimum amount of time required to start to relax. The idea of taking a 7 or even a 10 day vacation – especially if you need a day or two just to get where you’re going! – makes no sense to them at all.

Most of my colleagues are on holiday now. I get very little email; what I do get is most often an automated out of office reply. These tend to go something like this:

Dear colleague, I am out of the office on holiday until 30 August. Thank you.

No follow-up, no promised response date, no “if this is urgent please call…”. The first few I received were a little shocking. Surely people can’t be on holiday for that long? Three weeks? Sometimes longer? And with no one to back them up? Not even the empty promise of responding “as soon as possible”?

After a while, though, I got used to these curt messages. They are clear and no-nonsense. The person I’m trying to reach is away; best if I just note their return date and try again later. If the recipient is Dutch, I’m sure they simply read it, nod, and move on. I imagine that such a cut-and-dried out of office message must be liberating to write, especially compared to the notifications we use in the U.S.. My out of office messages in Boston included several email addresses for colleagues, the phone number for the reception desk, and the assurance that I would respond promptly upon my return to the office. Oh, and sometimes my mobile number.

Unfortunately, vacation-taking is one area in which we have been slow to adapt to the Dutch way of doing things. (Eating herring is another, but we’ll leave that for a later time…). We’re keeping most of our vacation time for our return trip to the U.S. for the holidays, and we’ve only planned a few short trips or long weekends over the next few months. The idea of a 3-week holiday just seems…un-American.

So for now, I’ll enjoy my quiet office, and my less-crowded city streets. With everyone in the south of France or Bali or Spain or wherever they are, life is a little easier for those of us who stay behind. Fewer commuters mean the morning ferry isn’t as terrifying as it usually is. And with fewer people in town, I can actually get a dinner reservation. On a Saturday night. At a place with a terrace. Which is where I’m off to now…