Alexander’s passing read the subject line. Holding the warm coffee cup in both hands I stared at my computer screen as new emails popped one by one into my inbox. I set the mug on my desk and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. The email was from Alexander’s wife. Surely, she didn’t mean…it couldn’t be…had he been sick? For a few seconds, which seemed like minutes, I hesitated and then I clicked to open the email.
“Next time I’m in The Netherlands I’ll look you up” I had written Alexander. When I was visiting family in The Netherlands again he was on my mind. Driving off the ferry from Dover to Dunkerque making my way north I noticed the exit sign for the village he lived in now. I made an excuse - next time - I thought. After all there is always a next opportunity. “I’ll see you,” he’d replied, “until we meet again.” I imagined a broad smile playing on his thin lips, a glisten in his blue eyes as he typed up the words. Always so full of enthusiasm. It would be his last email to me.
My mom went to the funeral and talked to his wife. “We kind of knew,” she said with a certain calm in her voice “we were playing hide-and-seek with each other.” Alexander had been on the waiting list for heart surgery. They even considered getting an operation in Belgium. It was too late and Alexander died in his sleep at age 38. His body so grown that it almost touched the glass of the coffin. A portrait of a smiling Alexander with thick shining curls sat in front of the casket.
Until we meet again Alexander. You were my first love; the one I fell head over heels in love with over a Kenny Marks’ gospel concert. You were my first devastating heartbreak; three months of relentless crying with ABBA ‘The Winner Takes It All’ on repeat on my cassette player. Sometimes I think I see you in a crowd. I catch a glimpse of you in other people’s faces, in the wildflowers you knew by name, in DJs’ voices, a curl in a neck and the naïve enthusiasm of youth missionaries.
When I arrived in the US in 1999 the Holiday that fascinated me most was Halloween. Growing up in Holland I had seen a variety of movies featuring screaming kids in costumes running through tree-lined neighborhoods. Excited to now experience this trick and treating deal in real life I went shopping at Costco. Being the pragmatic mom, I chose warm dress up suits for my young children. A cow suit for my son and a dinosaur suit - which I later discovered was a Barney suit - for my daughter. I delighted in the decorated homes with lights, ghosts and skeletons.
One year I was invited to an adult Halloween party. “Do people wear a costume?” I asked my co-worker friend. “Oh yes,” she smiled “people get really creative.” Seeing my concerned look she added “but you don’t have to.” I decided on something simple; some devil horns and a red cape. The party was in full swing when we arrived. An 80-s cover band was playing and I spotted two other devil girls making their way towards the makeshift dance floor of the house. My friend had been right; people did get creative. Some couples represented famous couples from the movies, history or literature. Some had been so creative they were unrecognizable. There were several superheroes, angels and cops.
They whispered, “who are you though?”
I noticed something else: People acted differently than at the other parties I occasionally attended. People got into their role, or into a role. It seemed easier to strike up a conversation with someone pretending to be someone else. Suddenly, I wasn’t the shy introverted observer anymore. No, I was the devil girl! The mask I was wearing allowed my other side to come out and play.
It can become a habit to hide behind a well-worn image of yourself. But I realized people grow and change. Some people, including myself, labeled me shy at some point. This gave me permission to play the part. Did that label still really fit me though? Maybe, maybe not always. Perhaps I was outgrowing this label and the accompanying mask.
Last year I wore a black curly haired wig and a Day-of-the-Dead mask. As I hugged friends at a party they whispered, “who are you though?” That night I was dancing – something I was not allowed to do while growing up.
What side of you wants to show itself? Let’s find out – masks on!
It is close to 100 degrees in Seattle when we load our van with boxes of books, clothes and housewares. A couple of weeks earlier my young immigrant friend and her sister stopped by our garage sale. When we asked them if they had suggestions for our leftover clothes and children’s books they suggested a homeless shelter. Their response was serious, almost plaintive.
With the help of Google we find a shelter called Noel House located in the hip and lively Belltown neighborhood. A young man with a tall afro and dark glasses sitting in front of the shelter smiles at us as we park in the loading zone. The receptionist buzzes us in and soon we are arranging books in a large half empty bookcase. The lobby fills up with women eagerly checking out the new arrivals. “Is this for us?” asks one. A heavy set young blond woman helps me carry a heavy box of books. “It’s heavy” I warn her. “I can lift it better than you” she laughs and sure enough she can.
“Can you make use of children’s books?” I ask the receptionist. She seems overwhelmed with all the activity and hesitates to answer. An authoritative voice answers from the back “Bring them in. Some of these ladies have visiting grand kids!” The voice belongs to a middle-aged woman pushing a cart stacked with boxes of packaged dinners. Her name is Dana (not her real name), and she is directing the women to help us unload our donations into the bookcase and plastic bins. “I will take some of the DVD’s out,” she says, “and replace them little by little, then they won’t disappear all at once.”
A thin, older woman with a long brown ponytail finds a hand mixer in one of the bins. “Can I have this?” She asks smiling broadly. “I’m not in charge,” I say, “but take it while you can.” My fiancée asks her if she knows what it is for. She nods enthusiastically. “Oh yes, I know!” “Plastic travel cups” another woman exclaims. “I need one of these.”
"I packed and unpacked these books many times over the years as I moved from this house to that one, from this country to that one"
“We run out of books so quickly” says Dana. My fiancée and I look at each other and smile. We feel happy to have chosen Noel House and to see that our treasured books have found a great second life. The big, strong blond girl picks up my coffee table book about the British coast that I purchased while living in England. I feel slightly embarrassed; what is she going to do with a book like that? She leafs through it. “Oh, beautiful pictures” she whispers and places it carefully in the case. Then I spot my beloved Jennifer Weiner series of books, which brought me comedic relief through some of life’s rough spots. They may enjoy that, I think. I see Harry Potter, a guide to Paris, a Southwestern cookbook, a book about reincarnation, more novels. I see a title I almost want to take back with me, but restrain myself. I packed and unpacked these books many times over the years as I moved from this house to that one, from this country to that one. Maybe, I think, one of these women might find some inspiration in one of these books. And who knows what that could lead to?
As we close the door behind us we still hear the women’s voices; “Oh a cutting board” and “what is this for?”. The man with the tall afro still sits in front of the shelter and takes an earbud out. “Thank you” he says, “my girlfriend lives there. Thank you very much.”
Driving home I remember my conversations with my young immigrant friend who, as a child, spent time in homeless shelters with her mom and siblings. “I don’t ever want my child to be in a shelter” she had said. I think about those words, and what they mean – the weight of them, the pain in them, but also the resolve in them. At the garage sale, I gave her an inherited antique dresser. I had lugged the piece around for 20 years. It lived in bedrooms, living rooms and hallways in The Netherlands, the US and England. “Are you sure you want to get rid of it?” my friend asks as she lifts the heavy marble top. “I’m sure,” I say “I love this piece and had my wedding make-up done in front of it. I saved it from becoming firewood. But now I’m ready to let it go.” It takes she and her sister two trips with a borrowed SUV to take it home. “Remember,” I say “if you ever sell it, just say two things; European import and antique. Americans will love it!” The sisters drive off laughing while shouting through the rolled down window “European import!”
"A girl rides her pink bicycle through a maze of tents and shopping carts. At first glance the scene looks shockingly normal"
As the cost of living in Seattle grows and house and rental prices rise, the homeless crisis becomes more visible as well. Tent communities sprout up left and right. Next to overpasses and spilling out onto hillsides, contrasting with fields full off gorgeous wildflowers. Under the West Seattle bridge a girl rides her pink bicycle through a maze of tents and shopping carts. At first glance the scene looks shockingly normal, the tents resembling a colorful neighborhood.
We are shedding the stuff that we no longer need or want. We could be doing so much more. Yet that little bit, that little effort creates a measure of happiness for someone; maybe just the thought that they were not forgotten. A smile, a dollar in a cup, dropping off a case of water during the heatwave, finding out what shelters need; let’s not turn away from our neighbors that need a little help. The byproduct is that it makes you feel better too and there is nothing wrong with that!
Rummaging through twenty-plus years of stuff – trinkets, toys, baby clothes, letters, boxes of photographs, Dutch children's books, heirlooms, diaries – I experience a lifetime of emotions in just a couple of hours; melancholy, joy, sadness, love, relief, shame, silliness and so on.
After years in Seattle my fiancée and I have decided to trade in the green of the Pacific Northwest for the red of the desert of New Mexico. Now we purge. It is an appropriate time to rid myself of all the baggage I’ve been, quite literally, dragging around. Having moved from this continent to that and back again, from house to house; I have unopened boxes from two moves ago.
Then there is the other baggage. We all have some of that. In the past couple of years there have been some life changes. Both my kids left for college, my 20-year marriage ended and I fell in love with a woman. Each of these events are significantly life changing on their own.
Through all of this, or because of it, I discovered something else. While adjusting to my new life and struggling to find my place, I came to realize that the damage done by my Christian upbringing was more far reaching than I had dared to admit. This discovery was a slow process. It was with the help of friends, experts and conferences that I learned how my thinking and processing had been formed early on in my childhood by fundamentalist Christian messages. While I had left religion more than 15 years ago my brain hadn’t changed with it; I still lived and walked through my life with the same fears and judgments.
Why now? I have always loved writing and I have written in the past. Now, while preparing for another garage sale and a huge geographical move I’d like to explore and share my story. It is one of many stories. But no less important. Read with me, learn with me, share with me. If not now, when?
Pietje - say Peach-a!