My mom called them jokingly ‘little goats’, as they walked single file, from tall to small, into the Brethren meeting hall. Admittedly, the girls did resemble the goats from my illustrated fairy tale book; pointy faces with handkerchiefs as head coverings and long checkered skirts. I loved looking at the youngest girl who had dimples in her cheeks and smiled with her head cocked to one side. The mother patiently adjusted the handkerchief over her daughter’s white pigtails as the girl repeatedly tore it off while looking over shoulder at us, the teenagers in the back making faces at her.
The family was a bit odd, even to Northern Dutch Brethren standards. For one, they seemed more conservative – already the young girls were wearing head coverings, which usually started for adult or adolescent women once they officially partook in the weekly ritual of communion. The husband, brother W. was German and came from a closed Brethren branch known to be more restrictive. The wife opened up at times and revealed that she was not allowed many freedoms such as wearing jeans or cutting her already thinning hair. Secondly, the family would disappear from the church for months, then reappear and ask for help, as in financial assistance. This would be a conundrum for the church. They were required to help those in need but questioned whether they were enabling a man who was using the church as a social security policy.
Such long uncut hair, such pale serious faces. “Such well-behaved kids,” my grandma would nod.
As long as brother W. said the right words he was a true church member. Brother W. suggested songs to sing, spoke prayers and participated in the communion. The one son they finally had, after all daughters, got to wear a little suit to the services and one could not help but smile. I remember studying the girls and feeling sorry for them. I wondered if they were being teased at school – such long uncut hair, such pale serious faces. “Such well-behaved kids,” my grandma would nod in approval.
Once my dad came home after visiting the family. “It is weird,” he said, “the kids all had to bow to me in greeting.” My dad was trying to tell brother W. that this wasn’t necessary, but W. didn’t want to hear any of it and made every kid bow for my dad, hands clasped together, which made my dad feel uncomfortable.
Was the church a safe haven for men like brother W.?
This week the news came out regarding the Turpin family in California. “How is it possible nobody has reported anything?” This was a common sentiment upon hearing the news. The religious Turpin family home schooled their children and lived in a neighborhood where houses are close in. When the 17-year old daughter managed to call 911 the police found the rest of the children malnourished, shackled and locked into the home. It turns out neighbors did notice odd things; the children hardly ever being out or being out at late hours and not responding to conversations. One comment made me think about the family in my church so many years ago “When kids are being that obedient, it is a clue something is wrong.”
Brother W. was tried and sentenced a couple of years ago. There had been sexual misconduct in the family, to what degree I’m not sure. Was the church, the church I grew up in, The Brethren, a safe haven for men like brother W.? Protected by a community, the Bible, brothers and elders as long as the right words were being spoken and heard? Did the church not look at the signs – the extreme requirement for obedience and submission that point to abuse? Did they refuse to see the signs? Was my church culpable to abuse?
We need to look a child in the eye and ensure they are okay.
I know that in today’s world there is more awareness around abuse and signs around it than 30 years ago. However, families such as the Turpins still live among us. There is no excuse to provide them a safe haven or turn away from signs when we see them – we need to take a risk and report them. We need to look a child in the eye and ensure they are okay.
Last I heard Brother W. is participating in communion again. “God forgives everything,” The Brethren teach. “Not that” I say. We need to protect the children.
The Sunflowers reproduction prints could be seen in many a Dutch home. The paintings left me with a sad impression as a young girl. I observed the strokes that represented wilting petals. Weren’t sunflowers and paintings supposed to bring in the light, colors and decorative delight?
Now, Starry Night spoke more to me; all the big swirls of yellow and white colors in the blue night sky above a sleepy town. I could envision Van Gogh painting it, while the whole world around him was at rest. "When I have a terrible need of - shall I say the word - religion, then I go out and paint the stars" Van Gogh was quoted. It turns out he painted the master piece Starry Night while being a patient at the psychiatric asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.
It was not until I watched Loving Vincent this week in the theater that the portrayal of his life and his pain really hit home.
Vincent van Gogh was spoken of as a sensitive boy, almost too sensitive for this world. It was not until I watched Loving Vincent this week in the theater that the portrayal of his life and his pain really hit home.
Sure, there was a certain national pride knowing the famous Van Gogh was Dutch. When Americans were referencing the Dutch painter I was quick to educate them on how to correctly pronounce Van Gogh; make the g-sound back in your throat.
We all have heard the somewhat idealistic stereotype of the tortured artist. Van Gogh’s sad tale is that he only sold one painting during his lifetime. Although Monet recognized his talent, Van Gogh’s fame only took off posthumously. Loving Vincent plays with the idea whether Van Gogh really committed suicide or if he were a victim of a shooting (it is unusual for someone to shoot themselves in the stomach). Perhaps the cutting of his ear was the result of a quarrel and was not self-inflicted after all? Maybe Van Gogh was not so ‘crazy’ as has been claimed? Vincent’s letters and the accounts of the people around him confirm that he did suffer from what was called in those days ‘melancholy’ or depression. Today he may have been diagnosed with Bipolar - or Borderline Personality Disorder.
Depression does that – it takes the brain hostage and tempts to drown you
Art is to console those who are broken by life,” Vincent said. He was a man disillusioned by life, bored by the Dutch mundane lifestyle. He found himself inspired by nature, people walking by rivers and stars more colorful than appear at first glance.
Sitting in the theater my throat tightened as Vincent thought of himself as a burden to his family. His mind tortured him; depression does that – it takes the brain hostage and tempts to drown you. Better to run you think; better to go than to burden those around you.
Theo, Vincent’s brother relates to their sister Vincent’s last words “La tristesse durera toujours” - The sadness will last forever.
We may never fully understand Vincent van Gogh’s story – because can we ever truly know someone?
"I want them to say 'he feels deeply, he feels tenderly'" - Van Gogh
I was surprised to recognize characters from Vincent’s paintings. It was mesmerizing to see them come to life, move from scene to scene, painting to painting. Not only can we admire Loving Vincent as a work of art, we can appreciate how the movie is able to let us in to the heart of the characters and the story of Vincent van Gogh. It is hard not to leave the theater without wanting to look up all of Van Gogh’s paintings.
I skipped the Van Gogh museum last time I visited Amsterdam, with the excuse of it being so sunny out. I don’t think I will next time. When I go I would like to bring my kids along and tell them of Van Gogh’s intentions: “I want to touch people with my art. I want them to say 'he feels deeply, he feels tenderly'.”
What does it mean to be no longer ‘One of Us?’ Three people from the strict Hasidic community find out in the new Netflix documentary by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. The two directors are also known for the 2006 documentary Jesus Camp.
One of Us was a heart wrenching watch as it follows Luzer, Ari and Etty over a span of three years.
Luzer says that in his new life he has not lost anyone. This leaves me with a sad feeling as he has just related how he left his family behind and comes from a childhood of abuse. Purposely he does not engage in new relationships. He has built a solid wall of protection around him.
Adolescent Ari struggles with addiction and has discovered Wikipedia as a stand-in for a lack of education. His hand rises hesitantly in an evangelical meeting as he searches for a place to belong.
Etty fights for custody for her seven children. It is a losing battle in a world where men rule and where money buys the lawyers who know all the loopholes in the law. Still she finds comfort in faith and the support of other women.
The feeling of belonging and the need for community to hold us up is so strong that leaving can be paralyzing. In the case of the Hasidic community the percentage of people leaving is only two percent. After watching the documentary, it is not hard to understand why.
Ex-Hasidic members gather around a table for a Jewish celebration. Glasses are filled with wine and voices rise in a mournful but beautiful song. I can’t help but be reminded of my own roots and the a cappella singing of the brothers and sisters in the Brethren church. There is beauty and there is sadness. You can never belong again; for you don’t want to – and yet there is an ache.
One of Us - Trailer
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!
Revelations is one of the most studied books within the Open Brethren community (Vergadering v. Gelovigen in The Netherlands). As a child I found it fascinating. It was as intriguing as one could be captivated by psychics and astrology. The last book in the Bible provided a glimpse into the unknown future. Disciple John sounded like he might have eaten magic mushrooms when he spoke of a dragon with 7 heads and a lamb with 7 eyes. However, the Brethren had enthralling explanations regarding these visions.
Many days I would study the clouds for a sign of Jesus’ return.
My dad provided me with a detailed printout of a Biblical timeline from the beginning until the end of times. This included the rapture, the tribulation, judgement day - when all the graves would open and all of humanity would be judged – and the restoration of a new earth. I still see my seven-year-old girl kneeling at the green toy chest, earnestly studying the map. “He will come like a thief in the night,” my mom would say “in the blink of an eye.” One could not rest; I could not afford to miss it. Many days I would study the clouds for a sign of Jesus’ return.
“They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” the president of the US threatened today. This sentence sent shivers through my body as Armageddon movies replayed in the back of my mind.
When you grow up hearing weekly that the world will end in flames, you tend to look for signs. If I were a believer still, I would say the signs are here, mostly thanks to our own doing. The earth is heating up rapidly, methane gas is a ticking time bomb under melting ice caps, people obtain kidney diseases as they work the land in rising temperatures. Now there is a standoff between two power hungry men who have seemingly no regard for the cost of human lives. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” the president of the US threatened today. This sentence sent shivers through my body as Armageddon movies replayed in the back of my mind.
Unlike Christians I don’t have the hope of a new earth.
I can’t recall the exact year I left religion behind. It was a process, which took years. I’ve called myself spiritual, agnostic and finally, an atheist. The fear remains hidden in parts of my body. I still recall the bible studies and the timeline my father gave me. Unlike Christians I don’t have the hope of a new earth. This earth, this life, this is the only one we've got. Fire and fury, power and money - these will be the destruction of it. I can only hope that enough people will band together to stop the madness.
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!