dinsdag 15 juli 2014

Paradise in Plain Sight: review & give away

When I arrived at Karen Maezen Miller's garden (it was October 2012) the sky was dark and I had been up for almost 24 hours. I didn't notice the fruits on the huge orange tree, nor did I see the path I was walking on or the intricate woodwork on the front entrance. "When you wake up tomorrow, you won't believe your eyes", she said. And by that time I already knew that Maezen's words would be true. It wasn't because of the jetlag, that I woke up really early: I was dying to see the miracle unfolding. I rolled up the curtain and tears started rolling down my face. There it was. The garden I had traveled all those miles for.

Maezen's century-old Zen garden cannot be captured in words. Nor do pictures do it any justice - and believe me, I spent at least an hour trying to take some of it 'home' with me to Amsterdam. What a fool I was. Finally I sat down on a bench and just looked. Inhaled and exhaled, as I was effortlessly part of the miracle.
In the following months and years, I often wished I was back in the garden. "The garden is right wherever you stand", was all Maezen replied. I didn't see what she meant. I wanted the trip. Craved the escape. Needed the peace and quiet. Surely those things weren't right in front of me? My noisy house, my messy life: how on earth could that be compared to such a balanced Zen garden?

Karen Maezen Miller's shares her experiences about the garden in her latest book, Paradise in Plain Sight, but, more importantly, she writes about plain sight. "Now, about this paradise. You're standing in it. For years, I've invited everyone I meet to come see the garden. And what I mean is to come see this garden. This garden that is your life." Reading it, I was constantly reminded to return to my Zen practice. If you open the book on any given page, Maezen urges you to wake up. And that is exactly what a teacher is there for. To keep repeating the message as long as is needed. "If you don't do Zen the way you do everything else, how will it be? It will be real. What a relief to accept that you will never get your act together. Then it is no longer an act. You can begin to live as you really are."

"The rakusu or the okesa - whatever you wear to practice in - is you banner of freedom. It's like a superhero cape that liberates you from yourself. The Verse of the Kesa is a song of love, your vow to transform greed, anger, and ignorance into selfless compassion. It might seem ironic that we hang something around our necks to express freedom, or that we don archaic garments in the name of formlessness, but Zen is funny like that. It covers all the bases." Karen Maezen Miller has no hidden agenda whatsoever: "I just want to tell folks how to sit." So if you are looking for the ultimate way to activate, or recharge, your superpowers, simply sit. That's all there is to it.

In my opinion, Paradise in Plain Sight is Karen Maezen Miller's best book so far. I could clearly hear her voice and feel her presence, as she gently yet resolutely showed me the Way. When I mentioned to Kenji how much I liked this book, he immediately picked it up and started reading (bare in mind, that has never happened before!). In case you want to do the same thing: you can order the book here. Otherwise, you can wait until Kenji has finished and I'm more than happy to pass my copy on to you.

Please leave a comment below if you would like to receive my copy of Paradise in Plain Sight. The book is slightly used of course, but its message will come across perfectly fine. I will draw a winner after August 5th (and take a short summer blog break in the meantime). 

donderdag 10 juli 2014

Taking stock

Last August I had no clue if it would work out: being financially independent again. At the same time I knew I had to get my business up and running, with only the school hours as my playing-field. Without any budget for after school care, my options were quite limited. However, life as it was, made me even more determined to get the job done.
With every client I talked to, my confidence grew. It turned out that many things I had picked up during "the three cancer years" came in quite handy at the workplace. Even though my leave of absence had been completely involuntarily, I had still gained more than I'd held possible. Gone were my nerves and insecurities; instead I embraced a very welcome take-it-or-leave-it mentality. Surely I'd have preferred to learn those life lessons another way, but to have obtained them nevertheless, was such a bonus. 

The winter was mild. And hence hospitalizations were few. The only deadline I almost missed was the time I was struck by the flu myself. Kenji grew in his role as stay at home dad. Something that didn't fulfill him as much as it did me, back in the days when I chose to be with the boys. Kenji's new career wasn't by choice and that was hard on him. Whereas I went out, explored the world and broadened my horizon, his range of action was restricted to the school yard and the supermarket. I felt guilty and even more responsible to make it all work. 

Big Brother didn't seem to care so much, but Little Brother always complained when I was away or behind my laptop. Being in school for the first year and not having me around the entire time, was enough reason for him to protest - long and vigorously, as is his nature. One day during Spring break, he noticed kids in orange safety vests at the playground. He wondered why they were dressed like that and I explained to him the kids were there with the after school care group, instead of their mom or dad. Really? Even during the holiday? Oh yessiree... That instantly woke him up: ever since his complaints have been much milder (they aren't completely absent of course). Last night after dinner, Big Brother expressed how nice it is that I'm always around once school is out. In reality there have been many exceptions, but I was glad to hear him say that: deep down the boys know I'm there. 

Summer break has started and I'm writing this at the playground where I've written many pieces before. Sun, sand and strong coffee from a thermos flask. Two healthy boys that thrive in all aspects. We have, each in our own way, passed this school year with flying colors (and I couldn't be more grateful that I've made enough money to spend oceans of time with my babies). I slightly hesitate to end this piece with the following line, but I think it's right: I'm proud of what I've accomplished.

woensdag 2 juli 2014

Kenji's mission

"How busy are you really? I mean, how about you take a day off? I would love to treat you on a movie in the middle of the day." I think I looked pretty expressionless at first - what? movie? me? and you? - but then Kenji added: "It's Miyazaki's last film ever. The last chance to see one of his films on the big screen." And then I put a big cross on the calendar and smiled.

Side by side we biked to the EYE Filmmuseum. Kenji said casually: "I have thought about this. I want to take you away from it all, just for a while. You need a break and you know as well as I do that a movie like this will do that in an instant. Simply allow yourself to be transported to a different world."
We sat down in the red plush chairs. The small cinema room was almost empty: I counted another eight visitors. Kenji chuckled: "What else did you expect, it's 11.15 in the morning!" I didn't know what to expect, or I didn't want to think about it, as I grabbed Kenji's hand and knew I was ready to take the plunge. My husband was right there with me, what on earth was I afraid of? As soon as the opening song played, tears welled up in my eyes. And they didn't stop falling until the credits started rolling 126 minutes later.

In 2001 - the year we met - Kenji wrote a review for "Spirited Away". He was so captured by this movie, that he went a second time, insisting I saw it too. Back then Kenji was working as a freelance critic and when "Howl's Moving Castle", another Miyazaki film aired in 2004 at the International Film Festival in Rotterdam, he smuggled me into the press screening so that I could enjoy it as well. In 2008, I was pregnant with Big Brother, "Ponyo" was released. After that, we had to settle for DVDs of Miyazaki's other movies and as soon as the boys were old enough, we introduced them to gems like "My neighbor Totoro" and "Kiki's delivery service".

I remember one night my mother in law was cooking for us, while Kenji was in the hospital. Big Brother and Little Brother sat in front of the tv, watching a Miyazaki movie. My mother in law overheard the Japanse conversation (we always play the movies in Japanese with English subtitles, but since the boys obviously cannot read those, they have gotten used to watching them in Japanese). "Donguri!" she suddenly said, and that was how I learned the word for 'acorn' in Japanese, and she sang us a famous children's song about acorns.

Yesterday morning in the cinema, I cried and cried. For a million reasons. And for another milestone reached: Kenji and I had seen Big Brother glow with pride and anticipation, as he sat down in his new classroom, for a try out morning in first grade. "Yes, you do look a bit like a mess" answered Kenji afterwards, when I asked him if my face gave anything away, "but who cares. I certainly don't."
Kenji's mission was completed - with flying colors. He provided me the break of a lifetime.

zaterdag 28 juni 2014

Clowns in all shapes and sizes

"Little Brother shows clownesque behavior during activities. He cannot be corrected in this. He often laughs when the teacher corrects him." End of quote from Little Brother's report card. And my oh my, do we recognize our little clown in this description. The boy doesn't take a thing seriously, loves to nag whenever he can and is bursting with energy - that is, for what is considered inappropriate... When the kindergarten teacher and Kenji reviewed Little Brother's report, she asked Kenji for advice on how to handle Little Brother in class. We couldn't help but smile even more, because this kid sure comes with instructions.

In a couple of days this school year will be over. Big Brother gave a magnificent performance, as a clown! I'm not joking here: the final school theme was the circus and his class surprised all parents with extremely funny circus acts. The children made their own money and entrance tickets, and we could "buy" real popcorn to enjoy during the show. Since the ticket was a proper family ticket, Little Brother was allowed to leave his class and join us to see his brother perform. As Little Brother sat on Kenji's lap, nibbling on his popcorn, and Kenji was filming Big Brother's act, I was beaming with pride. Big Brother rocked and I saw a side of him I had never seen before. This boy loves the stage! And the audience loves him even more: what more can a mother wish for.

After the performance, the annual school summer party took place. What might sound like just another school event, was very special to the four of us. Contrary to the last two years, Kenji was present and could see with his own eyes that our boys had the best of times. I had volunteered to help organize the party and was responsible for the lottery, for which I rallied almost fifty prizes. As usual, this kind of voluntary work takes up much more time and energy than you envision. However, the fact that I was able to join a parent committee and do something normal for a change, made up for all the extra hours and my sore feet the day after.

Sounds like summer is our time of year, don't you think?

donderdag 19 juni 2014

40, or: the impossible birthday

A couple of days before Kenji's birthday, Little Brother couldn't keep quiet any longer about papa's surprise and decided to let him in on our secret: "Guess what, you will be having forty candles on your birthday cake!" Kenji had replied that that was ridiculous, since that amount would never fit on top of one cake, and thought Little Brother was just bluffing like the kid often tends to do.
Then Big Brother took it one step further: "Don't even think we will be decorating the living room with flag garlands with forty on it and special balloons!" At that point I really had to cover his mouth, even though our six-year old honestly assumed he was not giving away a single thing...

Kenji is turning forty.

Let me tell you how we regarded forty. In our opinion, forty equalled impossible. Turning forty meant staying alive over three years after the diagnosis. Making it up to forty implied to a certain extent beating the odds. Forty somehow became Kenji's magic perimeter. At thirty-seven I remember saying "You'll never make it to forty." At thirty-eight we truly didn't even dare to hope for thirty-nine. However over the last months forty suddenly became more and more realistic. Still, believing in the impossible felt like jinxing it altogether.

Turning forty is without any doubt the best birthday present ever.

Happy birthday my love! Mr. Doing-the-Impossible absolutely deserves forty candles on his cake.