Art is Therapy II


Below is what Alain de Botton and John Armstrong had to say, or thought we might learn, from Johannes Vermeer’s painting, The Little Street (1657-16580).  The last paragraph, about the values of the Netherlands, is very true to the modest accommodations to foster happiness that we experienced from the friendly and reasonable people we met in Amsterdam.

I had a small plastic bottle of water in my purse when David and I went in to the Van Gogh museum.  As I went through the security check, the woman checking bags saw my bottle of water.  “You can’t drink that in the museum,” she said.  “Okay,” I replied, happy that she did’t make me get rid of it.  “Well,” she went on, “you can drink it on the stairways, just don’t drink it near the paintings.”  Then when David and I got on the tram to catch our train at the Central Station on Sunday morning, the man collecting fares waved David’s money away.  “It’s only two stops,” he said.

On this wall, probably behind three rows of people, hangs one of the most famous works of art in the world.

This is bad news. The extreme frame of a work of art is almost always unhelpful because, to touch us, art has to elicit a personal response – and that’s hard when a painting is said to be so distinguished. This painting is quite out of synch with its status in any case because, above all else, it wants to show us that the ordinary can be very special. The picture says that looking after a simple but beautiful home, cleaning the yard, watching over the children, darning clothes – and doing these things faithfully and without despair – is life’s real duty.

This is an anti-heroic picture, a weapon against false images of glamour. It refuses to accept that true glamour depends on amazing feats of courage or on the attainment of status. It argues that doing the modest things that are expected of all of us is enough. The picture asks you to be a little like it is: to take the attitudes it loves and to apply them to your life.

If the Netherlands had a Founding Document, a concentrated repository of its values, it would be this small picture. It is the Dutch contribution to the world’s understanding of happiness – and its message doesn’t just belong in the gallery.


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Art is Therapy


David and I had tickets for the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and every intention of spending Saturday afternoon exploring its significant collection, particularly of art from the Netherlands.  But it was an unpredictable day, and we ended up not getting to the museum until 4:30, just before it’s 5:00 closing time.  We quickly made our way upstairs so David could see Rembrandt’s The Night Watch.  As we went through the main gallery, I noticed posted signs on the walls.

IMG_2656The signs are part of an Art is Therapy exhibit at the museum.  From 25 April, British writers and philosophers Alain de Botton & John Armstrong will be showing in the Rijksmuseum what art can mean to visitors. And not so much from an (art-)historical point of view, but focusing rather on the therapeutic effect that art can have and the big questions in life that art can answer.

Here is what they had to say about the painting above, by Pieter Saenredam, Interior of the Church of St. Odulphus, Assendelft, painted in 1649.

The architects of the building depicted here, and the artist himself, were convinced about a challenging idea: if you want to get close to the important things, you will need a lot of calm, of whiteness, of emptiness, of peace. Serenity, concentration and order aren’t luxuries, they aren’t a superficial concern for a particular style of interior decoration; they are preconditions for a thoughtful, balanced life. The picture sends a slightly stern, but welcome message: you have to flight off distraction, it can ruin your life; you have to prioritize ruthlessly; entertainment is the enemy; simplify, get rid of what you don’t really need, don’t check your email all the time; focus is an achievement. Saenredam didn’t just paint a church, he painted an attitude to life.

A stern but welcome message indeed.


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Six Centuries of Women-Only Space and A Magnificent Library


Imagine over six centuries of women-only space.  Then go see it at the Begijnhof in Amsterdam.  This quiet courtyard in the busy city center was first settled by Beguines, pious, single and Catholic women who wanted to do good works but didn’t want to enter a convent.  Women have been living here since 1346.  It was literally a “woman’s island” as the courtyard used to be surrounded by a canal.  Over the centuries, single women, including many widows, continued to live in the Begijnhof, committing themselves to lives of Christian poverty, simplicity and prayer.  They spun wool, made lace, taught and cared for the sick and poor.  The last Beguine died in 1971 but the Begijnhof still houses single women, mostly Catholic seniors and students.


Now imagine a library built with modern technology and architectural sensibilities. Opened in 2007, the nine-story “tower of knowledge” as it’s called is the Netherlands’ largest library.  It’s bright and modern and full of free internet terminals and an entire floor that appeared, as we floated by on escalators, to be devoted to CDs and DVDs.  The cafe on the top floor has the best views in the city.


And is favored by pigeons too.


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Put Amsterdam On Your List


If you have a travel wish list, and Amsterdam isn’t on it, I’d suggest you add it.  At the top of the list.  With its canals and bridges and beautifully preserved if decidedly tilting houses and classic European architecture, it’s lovely.  Bells chime all day and night (in the Jordaan district, where I’m staying, anyway), the sidewalks and canal banks are full of cafes that are full of people eating and drinking, talking and smoking (whatever they want) and there is the excellent coffee and fresh, diverse and tasty food you’d expect of any city.

What’s so striking though, is the way the element of bikes, as a mode of transportation as common as walking and more common than cars, transforms the central city.  Here, on the narrow streets, there are three-way checks for oncoming traffic all the time — walkers check for cars and bikes, bikers check for walkers and cars, cars check for bikes and walkers.  The dance of transportation has the extra element of bikes, which completely changes the steps for everyone.  Not only does it give pedestrians more clout in the jostle for street space, it changes the sound — fewer motors, more talking.

Then there are the boats, which are in abundance also.  The hosts of our AirBnB flat have a small boat on the canal in front of the building, and took us for a ride on Wednesday afternoon, one of the first sunny days in what has been a cold and wet summer.  Everyone seemed to be out, and it was a treat to get introduced to Amsterdam by riding in a boat, getting dropped off at the other side of the city, then working our way back, via many wrong turns and at least one circular trek, to our place.

Today we visited the Anne Frank house which a friend told me was “the best museum in Europe.”  It is quite astonishing to stand in the rooms where 8 people lived in hiding at the back of a canal house for two years.  The world knows Anne Frank through her diary. At the Anne Frank house you get to know her as one of the threads in a web of courage and horror and fierce kindness on the part of the Dutch resisters who worked every day to keep the hiding Jews safe.

Then on to the Van Gogh Museum, another outstanding visit.  The curation of Van Gogh’s paintings in a simple structure and design make the museum accessible, both as a way to understand Van Gogh’s development as a painter, and as a museum that doesn’t leave you on art overload.

And to get to all of these places we walk along canals and cross bridges and more bridges and more canals.  It’s a city of waterfront galore.


And more.


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Welcome to Europe


We’re heading into our second week in Europe, and the first week has been so full of sights and stories and amazing food I hardly know which adventures to recount.  Anny has been a great friend and hostess, her door always open, both metaphorically and literally, because in Normandy during the summer windows and doors and shutters are open so there’s no barrier between the outside and the inside.  A stream runs through Anny’s yard with a hearty gurgling, and our last night there we slept with the windows and shutters open, even though it was cool.  We wanted to be able to listen to the water talk.


A Garden Corner

I’ve been running a lot (marathon training is moving right along), gardening (Anny has extensive and wildly imaginative gardens at her home and it’s been so satisfying and fun to be part of her living creation), eating (so many outrageously excellent meals and so many chunks of crusty baguette slathered with local butter or creamy cheese), and wishing, yet again, that I’d taken my intention to become more fluent in French (because I’m about 0.5 on a 1 – 10 scale for fluency) seriously and maybe after this trip I will.


Panoramic Normandy

Yesterday we took a train from Lisieux to Paris and this afternoon we leave for Amsterdam.  It was raining hard yesterday as we walked through Paris but that didn’t keep us from appreciating what a beautiful city it is.

A few more photos from our wonderful week.


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A Normandy Birthday

birthday board

Today started with a long (only needed to do 6 but ended up doing over 7 miles) training run through the pastures of Normandy, green fields full of cows or apple trees rolling up and down small, sharp hills.  Normandy is famous for its dairy products — Camembert cheese probably being the best known, but there are innumerable local cheeses, excellent butter and some kind of yogurty delicacy that Anny gave us for dessert last night, topped with a dollop of creme fraiche and blackberries from her garden, all sprinkled with fair trade golden sugar from Britain.

Yes, we’re eating well on this trip, so I’m happy to be running a lot, working off some of the extra richness in my diet right now.  After running I helped Anny weed her gardens, which are abundant and amazing.  Then a trip to a small local museum for an exhibit on the history of childhood in this area of France.  Now a few moments at a cafe in Vimoutiers, the nearest wifi to Anny’s house.

And wow, lots of birthday greetings once I got online and opened up Facebook.  But the best was the message from Sam.  Look in the upper right hand corner.  Essential learning for any students in that classroom today, wouldn’t you say?


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Stillness and Adventure


Yesterday morning, as David and I were packing for our 5+ weeks of adventure in Europe, I noticed a praying mantis on a chair in the kitchen.  Wondering about the symbolism of such an appearance, I looked it up.  Yes, it’s a symbol of good fortune, but good fortune found through stilling the mind, seeking peace and calmness.  One website says, “Overwhelmingly in most cultures the mantis is a symbol of stillness. As such, she is an ambassador from the animal kingdom giving testimony to the benefits of meditation, and calming our minds. An appearance from the mantis is a message to be still, go within, meditate, get quiet and reach a place of calm.”

I’ve been meditating regularly, as in every day, since January.  But recently, with the busyness of lots of family visits and getting ready for a long trip, I’ve found myself not getting to meditation at least several days in the last few weeks.  That’s after 8 months of no-fail daily meditation.

We’re in Normandy today, staying tonight in the lovely village of Saint-Germer-de-Fly, on our way to a week with our friend Anny at her summer house in Lisores.  It’s been a packed day, and after a night on an airplane, and landing in a time zone 6 hours ahead of the one I left, my body isn’t entirely sure what day it is.  Tuesday, right?

Which means I haven’t meditated yet today.  I’ve been busy being stunned by beautiful villages and old abbeys and sun chasing rain showers chasing sun across a rolling green landscape of hay fields and pasture.

So, time to meditate.  In the meantime, here’s a taste of the first day of our adventure.

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