Monday, May 30, 2005

The Necklace

Beautiful -- meaningfully beautiful. Shimmering, inspiring, radiant, captivating, hypnotic, enchanting... I don't tend to be one who typically "oversells a product" but these are just a few of the words I can use to describe Marci's necklace. A blossoming copper vine of sapphire, tourquoise, aquamarine, and amethyst -- perhaps not so in the sense of their geological composition, rather in the sense of their color, their texture, their effect... Beautiful leaves and delicate petals of colored glass, intricately woven across the contours of her pale, precise, perfect neck. Such a necklace carried by such a woman is truly a work of art.

I gave the necklace to her for her first birthday in Holland. The day was a fresh, warm summer's day, spent on the waters of OverIJsel as we drifted dreamily on a boat. It was the kind of day that you can only hope for on a birthday. On that boat, for those hours, we could forget about all the troubles that had been survived and all the troubles that were yet to be survived. Gentle breezes massaged our weary lives as we swayed to the music of the rocking wooden deck. I remember that day for its serenity and quiet joy. Pure rest. Resolute relaxation. Marci's first birthday in Holland was a breathtaking day of blue skies and sparkling waters, and the necklace that I gave her that morning almost seemed to catch the color and brilliance of that day... It's a beautiful necklace -- meaningfully beautiful.

We had first laid eyes on the necklace on my first birthday in Holland, in Haarlem. That was a day that stood out for its strength and clarity -- a brisk, clear day in February as we made our way through the tiny streets of old Haarlem. We held onto each other for warmth, for our winter coats were still in a crate, on a ship, somewhere between Ohio and the warehouses of Antwerp. On that first birthday in Holland, we warmed each other and enjoyed spirited conversation as we explored the labyrinth of central Haarlem. It was our first real excursion since moving to Amsterdam a month previous. She helped me choose a wristwatch from the old 18th Century jeweler, and then, as we walked beneath the fortress walls of the Grote Sint Bavokerk, we discovered the necklace. The small winkeltje was called Belle Blauwe, tucked within the sheltering wings of the ancient cathedral, and indeed the necklace featured in the shop's tiny window was "Beautiful Blue." It mesmerized us and drew us into the shop, where she tried on a couple of of the delicate glass creations... And from that day, I knew exactly what I would be getting Marci for her birthday that year: something beautiful -- meaningfully beautiful...

She loves the necklace, and she has loved it from the moment she unfolded the giftwrapping; and I love it, too... Yet I must confess that my love for the necklace is wrapped up in symbolic significance, as much as aesthetic appreciation. All of these days, these experiences, these memories are wrapped up in Marci's necklace -- and not just in the necklace, but in the woman for whom the necklace is perfectly suited. My wife. My Marci. The love of my life.

I love her because she is beautiful -- meaningfully beautiful. Indeed, she is shimmering, inspiring, radiant, captivating, hypnotic, enchanting... A blossoming, blue-eyed beauty... Delicate, intricate, perfect... Fresh, warm, dreamy... Gentle, serene, quiet, joyful... Restful, refreshing, brilliant, sparkling... Clear, spirited, mesmerizing. She is one of the few sure things in my life. I love her and admire her for everything she has been, is, and is becoming... Like the necklace, Marci is -- and will forever be -- an absolute work of art.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005


Wat is het gebeurt, jongens? Waarom ben ik alleen? Ik snap het niet.

Ik dacht dat wij een goed begin hadden gehad... Iets ontwikkelen. Zeker hadden -- of hebben -- wij nog steeds ver te gaan. Maar zeker was het een goed begin.

Wat nu? Ik zit hier alleen. Ik zit hier eenzaam. En ik weet niet waarom.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

thistles and roses

There is a section of the Transvaalstraat, not far from our house, where a few small houses nurture a few small gardens in the scant meters between the sidewalk and their front doors. Most of these gardens are tidy, if not beautiful, and they lend a quiet sense of dignity and propriety to the neighborhood.

But there is one garden on the Transvaalstraat which displays a considerable degree of neglect, exuding a nest of sprawling thistels from corner to corner writhing knee-deep, even chest-deep. In a sense, it's hideous. Such harsh plants with such sharp, evil fingers of green swallowing up precious outdoor urban space. But in another sense, it's beautiful. Wild, vibrant green with tiny yellow blossoms -- a riot of untamed life that cannot and will not be held down.

And in the farthest corner of this frothing sea of thistles, a lone rose bush holds its ground. It's golden flowers complement the thistle-blossoms with quiet dignity. And I am reminded of the world in which we've been cursed to struggle and scratch a living from the ground promising only thorns and thistles... but also blessed to eat of the earth's grains and fight for tomorrow.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Song for a Small Circle of Friends

My life is filled with songs, but I just could not get along without my friends. And I'm happy now, but when this good life ends I know a better one begins...

My friendships are snapshots. Well, OK, maybe not snapshots -- perhaps more like film clips. Two or three seconds of life, captured and burned into eternal consciousness, distilling the essence of true relationship. Icons of reminiscence, these fleeting images encapsulate and represent something much larger, a gateway to deeper meaning and truth. Such an archive of film clips is invaluable, a priceless treasure of my memory.

You see, to me the word "friendship" is flat, bland, weak, meaningless -- a parcel of my intellect, my brain... On the other hand, my film clips are deep, rich, layered, textured -- a powerful anchor to my emotion, my heart. These icons convey color, focus, movement, melody, tone, pitch, scent, flavor, temperature, sensation... They orient me and comfort me. They inform my daily existence. They define and explain such abstractions as beauty, love, life, and loyalty. Perhaps to another these isolated moments and experiences would seem trivial, even silly. But I love to sit back and watch these film clips, whenever I want...

...Problem-solving with Jason, savoring the sweet stickiness of Ben & Jerry's Vermonster -- knowing that someone understands me. The conversation is all the more meaningful because it is informed by weekly interaction, planned but not lacking spontaneity or meaning...

...Sitting, curled up on the brown chair in our Amsterdam dining room at 1:00 in the morning, talking on the telephone for €0.0225 per minute while Jay stands in his Texas driveway under the hot afternoon sun...

...Marci's warm back against mine, welcoming me back to bed...

...Enjoying a warm spring day with Todd, the sun gleaming off our shoulders, our hair-- the first sense of warmth this year. The sun slowly burning my pasty white forehead while causing his hair to glow like conductive wires of an incandescent bulb...

...A nighttime walk with Guy, learning the words to describe a clear and cloudless night...

...A daytime walk with Sander, putting words to our heavy burdens, realizing that we can do nothing but feel. Be. Empathize. Comiserate. And quietly know that there is a strange sense of satisfaction in this...

The archive is nearly endless. Such memories are triggered by anything and everything. A certain restaurant, or a even a specific meal... A city or a neighborhood... A way that the sky looks under certain weather conditions... A tone of voice... Writing these words... It's difficult for me to determine if such memories make me happy or sad. Sometimes both, I guess. But in the end, I know that my life is more meaningful for such film "snapshots." So I treasure these albums, these archives. And I make sure to leave plenty of room for what is yet to come.

And Jesus died for all you friends, but even better yet he lives again. And if this song does not make sense to you, I hope his spirit slips on through: He loves you.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

van Amerika

Do you ever like to invent names for a rock band that doesn't exist? And do you ever catch yourself striking dramatic poses for an "inside album cover" with your friends, as if you were this ficticious band?

OK, so perhaps I'm a bit strange... We've had some old friends from Ohio visiting Amsterdam this week. It's good to enjoy the company of good friends who understand our sense of humor, who share so many experiences with us, who don't mind being silly together.

Last Friday, we went out to dinner together, and afterwards found ourselves waiting on an empty tram. A little bit of boredom and a 10-second timer on a digital camera were all that were needed to turn the moment into rock-and-roll. The resulting photo provides that perfect inside album cover for our self-entitled debut album: van Amerika.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Funny Lion

My lines are tightly scripted, said with feigned enthusiasm: "Tonight, we're going to have church!" I don't know why I'm saying this, or what I'm doing here; yet I'm sitting on a red upholstered ottomon, holding up a blanket, serving as a curtain. Then, perpetuating this moment of pageantry, I drop the arm which holds the blanket curtain and grandly announce, "Come on out, funny guys!"

Elmo is the first to come out, popping up from his hiding place in the "hole" between the bookshelf and the small sofa. Like some kind of Abbot and Costello routine, I banter with Elmo: "Where are the other funny guys, Elmo?"

He deadpans, "They're still down there in the hole."

"Well, tell 'em to come on out, Elmo!" On cue, Monkey pops up from his hiding place. And there, Elmo and Monkey sit together, looking out across the "auditorium." After a short pause, I ask the next logical question (which has also been meticulously fed to me by the mastermind of the entire program): "But where's the Lion, guys?"

Elmo shoots back, predictably, "He's still down there in the hole."

And winding up my voice like Rod Roddy, I bellow: "Well, tell him to come on out!" In a climactic moment fitting of le Cirque du Soleil, the Lion bursts forth from the hole. He provides his own audio effects, aurally simulating the sound of a massive audience cheering as he runs around the circuit of the stage, smiling broadly and waving his arms as if to encourage his audience to greater heights of excitement. It's obvious that this is the Lion's show, and he revels in the moment. Scooping Elmo and Monkey to his sides, the Lion runs boldly toward me, and the threesome immediately overpower me with a gang tackle. It is a moment in which the Lion seems to intuitively know the ecstacy of the audience, for after the laughter and applause die down, he barks out instructions to reset the stage. Everyone moves quickly in response.

The curtain is extended, the funny guys return to their hole, and I begin again -- trying my best not to drone -- "Tonight, we're going to have church..."

Monday, May 09, 2005

thirty-one kings

Joshua conquered thirty-one kings in just a few short days. Let the scholars correct me, but I like to think of it as thirty-one kings in thirty-one days... A lifetime of wars started and finished within a single month. Vast multitudes of enemy forces, mostly taken without a single casualty. The heavens rained down bullets in the form of hail. The sun and the moon even cooperated with the campaign. What a month that must have been. Thirty-one kings in thirty-one days... Those kings had no chance. It's recorded that God wanted to "destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy."

Throughout the years preceding this historic month, Joshua had been repeatedly admonished to "be strong and courageous." Still, I can imagine how a month like that would have solidified the concept in his mind. Such drama. The stuff of summer blockbusters. The armies of five kingdoms completely slaughtered with their kings sequestered off in a cave... At the end of the day, the kings are dragged out from their pitiful hiding place and the army commanders place their feet on the royal necks of these cowards. Joshua exterminates the five kings with five decisive blows of his sword while authoritatively proclaiming between hacks his lessons learned: "Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Be strong and courageous. This is what the Lord will do to all the enemies you are going to fight."

As with all of life, such inspiration is precisely the prescription for fighting my own battles. Now, granted: bills to pay, loneliness to endure, relationships to restore, and disappointments to overcome are not so graphic as mass slaughter of flesh-and-blood enemies. But such battles can seem just as impossible. Thirty-one kings seems like an impossible task... But then again, now that I look down at my hands I can see that my sword is drawn and, well, I've got some hacking to do.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Traffic Love

"I'd be willing to step out in front of traffic for you." This has come to be somewhat of a cliché in today's pop culture -- a way of saying that someone is really committed to you, really looking out for you, really loving you and caring for you. If someone is willing to put themselves in harm's way to shield someone else, well... there can be practically no greater demonstration of loyalty. If someone says, "I'd be willing to step out in front of traffic for you," that is serious love. Traffic love.

Well, I don't know if I've ever heard those exact words come from her mouth, but I know this sentiment to be true of my mother. I know because she actually did it.

My memory of the event is faded, like an old photograph where the colors aren't exactly right and the images are slightly blurred. Yet I remember the day that my Mom stepped out in front of traffic for me. It was a bright day in Lancaster. I suppose I must have been about four years old, because my sister was still just a baby. Mom had taken my brother and me shopping with her, down to the old Ben Franklin store downtown, just across from the courthouse. As we made our way out from Ben Franklin and across the sidewalk, I remember the sky being bright white. I flinched from the white Wisconsin sun... And I guess the driver must have flinched, too, because he certainly didn't see us.

Tall and graceful, my Mom held my hand on the one side, my brother's on the other, as we stepped down from the curb and onto street level. Yet no sooner had we set foot on the mottled black asphalt than were we forcibly jolted back to the curb. My brother and I fell hard to the pavement, back away from the behemoth car that was pushing against my Mom. Like some kind of superhero fighting to stop a speeding train, Mom strained against the massive automobile. Powered by the adrenaline of a protective mother, she pushed back the car until her ankle simply gave way.

Thanks to my Mom's instinct and action, we all survived the experience... one of those experiences that burns its way into your consciousness for all time. Yet oddly, I have no audio memory from that day. No shouts of pain or anguish. No crunches of bones or tendons breaking. No blubbering from me or my scared little brother. No words of comfort from strangers or paramedics. My memory consists solely of video and freeze-frame images. I remember motion and commotion. I remember the sad and scared look on my brother's face (which was surely mirrored in mine). I remember returning home to my Dad. I remember seeing the cast on my Mom's leg... And above all, I remember the fact that my Mom stepped out in front of traffic for me...

To this day, my Mom's ankle pains her. I hear that she was a good waterskier in her day, but I don't believe I've ever seen her do it. When my aunts and uncles and second-cousins were out skiing on the lake during a family reunion, my Mom had to sit out -- which worked well for giving us kids someone to cling to on the motorboat as it roared through cool wet spray on steep sharp turns, but which paralyzed her to a sideline role. Yet I rarely heard her complain. I don't believe I've ever seen her embittered. That fall, as she wheeled her way around the small house amongst small children, she simply chose to continue with the task of mothering. She sewed us amazing Halloween costumes. She read us stories. She watched us run and play on healthy young ankles that had been purchased through her sacrifice.

And when I think of this event, I understand more fully the love of a mother. A selfless love. A sacrificial love; one that does not boast or take pride. A love that stores no anger or bitterness, keeps no record of wrongs; one that always protects and always perseveres. Indeed, the love of a mother is an incredible thing, for which I am truly grateful... Traffic love.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005


We sat in total silence for two minutes: exactly two minutes of perfect stillness. The faces of the assembled gathering showed sadness, memory, reflection, awe... The sanctity of the moment even stilled the children, and for two minutes we were completely quiet. This moment marked exactly sixty years from the last evening of that terrible war which had ripped out the heart of Holland. Though three generations have matured since those days, the memory of that oppression, starvation, devestation, and death still cloaks the country, more obvious than usual during these two minutes of remembrance. Such sorrow. Such sacrifice.

Laat daarom iedereen zichzelf eert toetsen voordat hij van het brood eet en uit de beker drinkt, want wie eet en drinkt maar niet beseft dat het om het lichaam van de Heer gaat, roept zijn veroordeleing af over zichzelf...

The first chords of the Wilhelmus broke the silence like a pebble cutting through the surface of a glassy-smooth pond. As the anthem swelled, the mood shifted -- ever so slightly -- from remembrance and sorrow to honor and gratitude. Old soldiers stood at attention, proud before their queen and their people. This city, this nation, this world became a much better place because of their willingness to play their role in saving and redeeming the land. Their struggle and sacrifice bought our peace and freedom.

In de nacht waarin de Heer Jezus werd uitgeleverd nam hij een brood, sprak het dankgebed uit, brak het brood en zei: 'Dit is mijn lichaam voor jullie. Doe dit, telkens opnieuw, om mij te gedenken...'

The tragedy, triumph, and symbolism are beautiful. I appreciate the Nederlanders' manner of reflection... not entirely unlike American Memorial Day ceremonies in the Oak Grove Cemetary, with the trumpeted Taps and 21-gun salute. Still, here it's more somber. More of a national sanctuary, and not just a secondary memorial service attended by the local VFW and affiliate clubs, along with some city councilmen and high school band members who are obligated to be there. The Dutch people seem to truly remember. This day is a day purely for remembrance.

Zo nam hij na de maaltijd ook de beker, en hij zei: 'Deze beker is het nieuwe verbond dat door mijn bloed gesloten wordt. Doe dit, telkens als jullie hieruit drinken, om mij te gedenken.'

We know there will be celebration tomorrow. And doubtless there is value and joy in celebration. But today we remember that there is also value in remembrance. In the Netherlands, we observe "Memorial Day" on the 4th of May and "Liberation Day" on the 5th of May. Remembrance leads to celebration. Sacrifice paves the way for freedom. Silence soon succumbs to song.

Dus altijd waneer u dit brood eet en uit de beker drinkt, verkondigt u de dood van de Heer, totdat hij komt (1 Korintiërs 11:23-26, 28-29).

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Elliot's 18-Eurocent Cow

So, we're walking along the Linneauskade on Queen's Day... The vrijmarkt is in full effect, like some mixture of a Turkish bazaar, an Arizona fleamarket, and your standard county fair. Elliot has spent almost all of the loose change that had been emptied from his savings bank into the front pocket of his jeans, but he's looking for a little something extra to complete his haul.

And up to this point, he's actually done a lot better than I thought he would, considering that this is his first real experience with managing his own money -- even if it was just €1.27 in change spent on a few matchbox cars, a Sesame Street train set, and some other miscellaneous knick-knacks being sold by other children from the neighborhood. He's enjoying the experience, and we're glad for the opportunity to teach him something about the value of money.

Well, we're going along the Linneauskade, through these rows of blankets spread out on each side with a million-and-one little things. And Elliot picks out this old plastic Fisher-Price cow from the myriad items on the sidewalk. It's an old cow, a pretty crummy cow, by my estimation. Dirty, worn, kind of pitiful looking. I actually remember playing with the exact same kind of cow when I was a little boy. You know, it was part of that whole Fisher-Price farm set, where you'd open the barn door and a little "moo" would automatically call out. I guess it was actually a pretty cool little set in its day -- but that was 25 years ago -- and this is just the old cow by itself, anyway... But Elliot says he wants it, so what can you do?

So we look up from the sidewalk display to see this old Dutch woman -- the typical weathered face of that vintage Amsterdammer -- squinting down at her wares, pulling out the last few puffs from the nub of a cigarette pinched between her thumb and forefinger. This woman is not the grandmotherly type. Oh no. She's perched on her lawn chair, peering like a hawk through her bi-focals with the hardened, suspicious, cranky demeanor of old women that I remember from the childhood days of my paper route. I get a small glimpse of what might happen in this Queen's Day business exchange. But I hope for the best. Because Elliot's really convinced that he wants the cow now. I figure, "We'll see..."

So I ask, "Hoeveel voor deze koe?" -- "How much for this cow?"

She responds with her thick Amsterdamse accent: "Twintig cent" -- "Twenty cents."

Now, I know this is a ridiculous asking price. Earlier that morning, Elliot and I had worked a deal for three red matchbox cars (a BMW, a Ferrari, and an Alfa Romero), plus two dalmation puppy action figures, for just 17 eurocents. And any one of those items was better than this crappy cow. But Elliot's got his heart set on the cow by this point, so I know we've got to enter negotiations. So I counter: "What about 10 cents?" (because Queen's Day is meant for wheeling and dealing).

She says, "No, it isn't worth it to me," which is a surprising response, even given my initial sizing-up of the situation. But Elliot is about to cry by this point because he wants the cow so badly, and this lady knows that she's got us on the hook.

So I'm already disgusted by this point, and I try to talk Elliot into walking away from the deal, pledging to help him look elsewhere for another cool toy that he can buy with the rest of his money. But his heart is set on this crummy cow, and he's making this point all too clear by now. And I can't believe that the old lady is letting it come to this -- but then again, it's all too believable by now...

So I say to Elliot, "Well, let's get the rest of your money out from your pocket and see if you've got enough for the cow." So we start digging into his pocket. We're down to 1-cent coins and 2-cent coins -- maybe one 5-cent coin or something, but we're basically looking at a bunch of copper here. We count it out as we go: "eleven... thirteen... fourteen..." You get the idea; it was a pretty pitiful scene.

And when we get to the bottom of Elliot's pockets, we've got a handful of little coins totalling eighteen eurocents, at which point the old lady pipes in with her raspy old smoker's voice: "All those pennies aren't worth it to me."

So I'm fighting just to maintain a civil tone. But I respond in a cool and measured tone: "Well, we could just go on then, if that's what you want." And of course, Elliot is dying for his beloved cow. Yet our fate rests in the hands of this fussbudgety woman.

So she pauses for a second, draws her face up into a grimace, and squeezes out something to the effect of "Oh, all right," as if she's doing us some immense favor worthy of the Nobel peace prize. So Elliot takes the cow, and I take his hand. Turning our back on the old woman, we march forward together -- hard to tell whether it's in victory or defeat -- but at any rate, older and wiser from the intense acquisition of our 18-eurocent cow.