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.



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.


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?


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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Cairn Rock


“I have something I need to talk to you about,” my neighbor said, stepping out of his truck’s cab.  He’d stopped at the end of my driveway when he saw me heading out for a run this morning.  He looked upset and I was immediately worried.

“You know we’re doing a lot of logging out the road,” he said and I said of course, we see a dozen or more large trucks a day going by our house, making the sharp left turn to climb the small hill of Canterbury Road up through the fields and then into the woods. The same road I’ve written about before, the road I walk to a large set of rocks where I’ve been building cairns for Eric since he died.  The closed trailer trucks come back out the road packed with mulch; the open bed trailers with tall steel side supports roar by stacked with huge logs of oak.

David and I walk out there often and have been watching the progress of the loggers cleaning up blown down trees from the tornado in 2008, shredding them into mulch, and cutting tall oaks for lumber.   It’s the most action our street has seen since I’ve lived here.  It’s made the road surface in the woods much smoother for walking and we’ve been assuming the blockage in the road, that keeps us from getting to the cairn rock, will be cleared once all the lumbering in done.

“I told the logger I hired one thing he had to be sure to to be careful of,” my neighbor said, still looking worried through all my talking about how much work he’s getting done on his land and how much better the road in the woods is now for running.  “I didn’t want anything to happen to the rock where you make stone piles.”

“Oh,” I said, finally understanding why he looked upset.

“But there was a new young man working out there last week and he pulled trees over the rock and now everything is knocked down.  I’m really sorry.”

“That’s okay,” I said.  “I build those cairns for Eric, but I don’t mind rebuilding them.  I often have to pick up fallen rocks.  It’s fine.”

“I know the rocks are for Eric.  That’s why I really didn’t want them disturbed.  I feel so badly.  I’m going to clean out all the brush and bark that got left there and once the old road is open again you’ll be able to get to the rock and it will be all fixed.  I’m so sorry.” He was holding his hand to his heart.

“It’s really okay,” I said.  “It’s so sweet of you to be that concerned, but please don’t worry about it.  You’re completely forgiven.  I’m fine about rebuilding the cairns.”

“When I realized you were making those rock piles for Eric, I started doing it for my Dad.  He used to take me out there when I was a kid, and now it’s a place I go to remember him.”  His father died four years ago.

“It’s a good spot,” I said, nodding.

“I have photographs of it so you can see what it was like before it all got knocked down.  And I’m going to make it even better.  I’ve gotten a granite cross I’m going to put out there.”  Now I knew where the cross made of lashed together branches that appeared on the rock this spring came from.

“Oh, that’s so nice,” I said.  “You’re so kind to stop and tell me all this, but really, it’s completely fine.  It will be a pleasure to rebuild the cairns.”

Eric would be delighted by the sequence of events that have led to a granite cross marking his remembrance rock.  I’ll make a Star of David with lashed together branches and put that next to the cross.

Hope and Weariness


Waking up is a gamble.  Some days I open my eyes to a surge of excitement, my mind spinning with anticipation for what I’m going to do that day.  I get up and get moving. Other days I wake to a coil of anxiety in my gut.  Those days I try to stay in bed and breath relaxation into my body.  That doesn’t always work and if it doesn’t, I get up and get moving, as if it was a morning when I’m looking forward to what the day will bring. Moving always makes me feel better, but those dreary mornings can get wearing.

My sister Chris, whose blog I introduced you to over a month ago, has recently posted two new essays that speak to those alternating days of hope and weariness.  The essays are terrific.  I hope you’ll click over to A Cancer Journey With Chris and read them.

Can I Do It?


I’m not into bucket lists, but if I was going to have a bucket list I would put running the NYC marathon on that list, and since I just finished my fourth week of training in a 16 week marathon training program, to be ready to run from Staten Island to Central Park, passing through all five boroughs of the city in the process on November 2, against the advice of the orthopedic doctor I saw about my sore knees and some of the signals from those knees (though not all the signals, or I would stop training, or at least I tell myself I would stop), I guess I do have a bucket list and as of now the only item on it is running the NYC marathon.

I ran 10 miles on Saturday. That’s the furthest I’ve run in a couple of years, since doing a half marathon in November of 2012.  I didn’t run at all for over two months this past winter because my right knee was too painful.  At that point I knew I’d gotten in to the NYC marathon, which I’ve been trying to get in to for years, so I was discouraged and frustrated.  Friends who run marathons regularly tell me if you’re going to do one, NYC is the one to do.

In mid-March, when my knee was still bothering me even after over a month of not running and a couple of months of physical therapy, I made an appointment to see an orthopedic doctor.

“I don’t see anything on your x-rays that isn’t explained by age,” the doctor told me.  “And I see no reason you can’t keep running 3 or 4 miles at a time, 3 or 4 times a week, for as long as you want.  But I think you should really think about not running a marathon.  You could do damage that would make you unable to run.  I’m a runner myself and I’ve decided I’m never going to do a marathon.”

“But I’ve done a number of half marathons,” I said.

“Yes,” the doctor said.  “That’s half the distance of a marathon.”

He has a point.  But so do I.  I want to do a marathon.  I admit waiting until I was 60 to decide doing a marathon, the NYC marathon, is on my bucket list is a bit late.  But by the end of March I was running again and I’ve been carefully adding miles to get to the point where I could start a training plan.  I’m paying a lot of attention to both knees as I train and I’m ready to stop if they get too painful.  The knees are definitely a bit cranky, but nothing like this winter, and nothing yet to make me stop.

So I’m hopeful.  In the training plan I’m following this is a step back week.  My long run this week will only be 7 miles.  Good.  Ten felt like a lot.

I’ll let you know how it goes.