Imaginary friends in a time of social distance

This little girl, with her purse, her flower, and — barely visible — reins to make sure she doesn’t wander off, was painted by Gerard Terborch, born in Zwolle and after whom my street here was named.

When I first started blogging about life in Zwolle, I pointed out that, not only are many Americans unclear about the exact location of the Netherlands, they believe that Amsterdam is the only city in the tulip-filled country of “Holland.” Sure enough, the Netherlands has been largely absent from the corona virus story, as narrated, at least, by CNN, BBCTV, Euronews and the New York Times, our main sources of information here on Terborchstraat. A few days ago, a Times map, showing the spread of Covid-19 in Europe, failed even to identify the Netherlands, while all four of these major news outlets ignored the first live television address by a Dutch prime minister since the oil crisis of the 1970’s. In keeping with what I call the “second single story” about the Netherlands (sex, drugs, and tolerance), Euronews finally ran a story yesterday announcing that tourist sites, restaurants, and even sex and marijuana shops were closed in Amsterdam. I guess we in Zwolle, like the rest of the country, are just leverworst.

Here in Zwolle, life is calm and also confusing. The restaurants and cafes (as well as the marijuana coffee shop) are now closed; of course we miss Swolse Friets, with its spectacular fries and ingenious plating, but we are also worrying about the proprietor and his three daughters. Windesheim Honors College, along with all the other universities in the Netherlands and so many others world wide, has moved online.

Note both the dedicated spot for dipping sauce and the ingenious grated holder, so that no fry is left behind.

This morning, in fact, we had a meeting of our “value creators” class, in which students work in teams to learn about and address in a specific, and potentially systemic, way one of the UN’s 17 sustainability goals. After a discussion about how the course’s grading structure might change (kudos to my European students for being a lot more phlegmatic on this issue than their American counterparts) and how end-products (the value created) might look different this semester, the conversation shifted to how, beyond their group projects, students might create value NOW in their communities. Someone suggested creating videos and lessons that might be used by our own faculty with small children, as well as other families abruptly coping with home-schooling. A colleague sent a link about “caremongering” in Canada. Suddenly, the chat window was full of links and suggestions, including one to online volunteering through the United Nations and another, translated as “Corona-proof volunteerwork.”

If you know me, you know that I love my students, And if you have read the “about” page of this blog, you probably know that I am on a quest: How do we guide our students to be, in a formulation not just for Jesuits, for and with others? How do we teach our students to address the challenges of the 21st century?

Loyola Honors and friends in Amsterdam: Nicole Margavio, Mary Kate Andrepont, Anne Frank, me, and Michael Pashkevich (photo courtesy of Khadija Moses)

Well, one of the world’s greatest challenges now surrounds us. We are all striving to make sense of a new normal, at least (as my mother would say) for now, in an ever-changing landscape. And, as always, the “teacher” is learning from her students, both here in the Netherlands, and back at Loyola in New Orleans, where many of “my” seniors — their classes moved on line, their recitals and shows cancelled, their commencement activities in limbo — used the funds remaining in their meal plans to buy nonperishables for the university’s food pantry.

Like so many others right now, struggling to make sense of the crisis engulfing us all, I am trying to figure out the correct path forward for me and my family. I am worried about my children and older family members and friends; I am trying not to think too hard about the tumbling of the markets, the people losing their jobs, those struggling with — or even losing that struggle to — this terrible illness.

And, if I am honest, I have to admit that I have also lingered a few moments in personal disappointment: my great Fulbright adventure is not, to say the least, as I imagined it might be. Even if I shelter on Terborchstraat rather than Calhoun Street, there will be no keynote to deliver at Windesheim’s international week celebration, no dedication of seventeen new stumbling stones here, no face-to-face meetings or coffees with students and colleagues, no seder with my new community.

courtesy of wikicommons

Perhaps, if you are lucky enough that the changes in your life right now are not overwhelming or tragic, you have also had such moments of wistful regret. And, despite Casablanca‘s timely reminder that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” that’s ok, for now. There is no need to flog yourself for feeling sad about the commencement you worked so hard for, the wedding celebration you dreamed about, the performance you so carefully prepared, the many things — large and small — that you imagined and which will no longer materialize.

But imagination is a powerful tool, and a two-way street. Thanks to streaming platforms, Casablanca’s compelling war-time love story can offer us a moment of escapism, but it also can encourage us to feel empathy for the pain of those all around us, caught up — like Rick and Ilsa — in events beyond their control. We can spend our time envisioning “what might have been, longing for a world where “corona” was an arcane Latin term for “crown” most of us only used or heard in advance of a solar eclipse.

Or we can use our imaginations constructively: taking the time to imagine how we can be for and with others, helping our communities, great and small, to navigate this crisis.

The senior rabbi at my beloved Touro Synagogue sent the board a “Covid Action Plan” that opened with a beautiful midrash (an elaboration of a biblical narrative) about how Noah was transformed by his time in the ark. Drawing from Aviva Zornberg’s book, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, Rabbi Bauman explains that, before the flood, Noah was callous and materialistic, but that the raging water and confinement with the animals forced him “to focus on the essential. Every life on his ark becomes precious. He gains an awareness of his responsibility for the safety of others.”

For Noah, the flood is traumatic but also transformative. Rabbi Bauman writes that Noah “centers down in a way that would have been [previously] unthinkable.” Poignantly, she explains, the ark becomes “a ‘laboratory of kindness’ where Noah reclaims what is good in his soul and transforms himself into one who can emerge and merit God’s hope.”

Some (my husband included) may be put off by the reference to Noah, let alone God. But regardless of our faith orientations or personal tenets, our worldview constructions, I firmly believe in the power of “imaginary friends.” These “friends,” figures of the world’s great texts and traditions, can engage our imaginations, in essential ways, with issues regarding empathy and compassion. The “friends” can be compelling companions in our daily lives, but, for me at least, are indispensable in times of unfathomable challenge, offering companionship and guidance, along with intellectual and moral engagement.

Some of my “imaginary friends” in the Rijksmuseum. Note that “imaginary” does not mean, necessarily, that they are “made up” but rather that they engage the imagination.

In the weeks ahead, as I withdraw, like you all, into social distancing, I will be engaging — partying, even — with my imaginary friends, searching for new pathways forward. This term, “imaginary,” is not intended to be dismissive, or imply that they are “made up,” although some (like Harry Potter, or Homer’s Achilles, for example) emerge from some of the world’s most creative imaginations. Rather, “imaginary” implies that each of these figures, from a diverse spectrum of provenances — the Bible, children’s literature, history — engages my imagination, speaks to and with me, in many profound ways. At this unprecedented moment, we must find strength to imagine and then do what is best for our communities, transforming this strange moment of retreat and self-quarantine into an ark, a “laboratory of kindness,” where we all grow in ways we cannot even imagine.

Holding forth about my relationship with my imaginary friend, at the Shelter Cities kick-off on March 5

I look forward to sharing my friendships with you (starting with Anne Frank, as might be expected from a nice Jewish girl exploring the limits of tolerance in the Netherlands), and I hope you will share some of your friends with me, as well.

You may leave a comment or reach me at; I answer every email.


Boodschapen: Making groceries in a time of uncertainty

Photo courtesy of Stanley Yavneh Klos

One of my favorite places in Zwolle is the Grote markt, which features an open-air market on Fridays and Saturdays. Each day has its own vendors, but there are always tasty cheese samples to nibble, fresh-baked bread still warm from the oven, bright orange peppers and little green brussels sprouts. I prefer the appelflappen sold on Fridays, seemingly familiar pastries that raise the simple apple turnover to an art form, but the Saturday bakery has the best croissants. Fortunately, the fish folks, Visschers, are there on both days, so the XL zak of freshly fried kibbeling is now a tradition in our house, although we forego another Dutch treat my mother would have loved, raw herring with chopped onions.

“Making groceries” is a fabulous New Orleans locution that means to go shopping. After six weeks in the Netherlands (along with 297 days of Duolingo), I can now make groceries (boodschapen) pretty much all in Dutch, augmented by lots of smiles, nods, and the occasional hand gesture. I have learned how to request my bread be sliced (“ja, dank je, sneden” is so much more civilized than tilting my parallel hands up and down very quickly, like a frenzied flight attendant ). I can ask to pay by debit card (“ik wil pinnen”), proclaim that something is very tasty (“Lekker!“), and offer an appropriate thank you and farewell (“Dank je wel. Tot ziens!”). I even managed to explain that I needed dark roast coffee (Veel donker en sterk voor de French Press).

Learning languages has always been both fun and important to me. I find great joy in deciphering the meaning of words that secretly make me giggle with their fluted vowels, rolled r’s, and aspirated g’s that sit slightly higher in the throat than the ch in Chanukah.

My struggles in expression and comprehension also serve to humble me, reminding of my own strange privilege: I teach at a Dutch university, in an international program conducted solely in English. I am continually in awe of the remarkable linguistic gifts of my students, completing university and professional work in a second or third language. When we break into small groups, the discussion may take place in Dutch, German, Spanish or something else, but when we come back together, it’s in my mother tongue.

I love the way language can open the door to another culture, creating a sense of connection and community. My Dutch students smile and laugh encouragingly when I greet them in Dutch or use a Dutch expression. And, in general, I have found the Dutch very patient (veel geduldig) in putting up with my toddling linguistic efforts — not only the vendors at the market, who take time to understand me, but the unfortunate patrons stuck behind me, waiting to be served. Speaking Dutch, however is still very challenging; although I can now navigate basic needs (for those of you dealing with hoarders, ik heb wc-papier nodig is “I need toilet paper”), I quickly reach a point where I am lost, where I can neither express myself nor understand what is being said.

Somehow, my labors with Dutch seems a fit metaphor for this moment of incomprehension, when we are all struggling to make sense of what is going on. No matter what language we speak, this is a time of confusion, uncertainty, fear, for all of us.

Boring pantry staples just in case, slightly redeemed by excellent chocolate

Thursday, instead of the market, we went to the Jumbo, the big supermarket located outside of the original city walls, to stock up, just in case. We bought pasta, canned vegetables, boring but practical nonperishables, despite the fact that, Thursday, although meetings of more than one hundred people had been cancelled, the university and all the town’s amenities – cafes, museums, churches, the synagogue – were still open for business as usual. Friday, however, we woke to the news that all classes were canceled (we will go to online learning until April 1st), that museums were closed, and that Belgium, our neighbor to the south, had declared a state of emergency. Today, so had Spain, while Denmark, Poland, and other countries had closed their borders. Windesheim is calling home all our seniors doing capstone research abroad. Like so many others at this challenging time, I am confused and sad, feeling grateful for what I have but gently mourning the experiences I had anticipated in the months ahead.

I was back at the market today with my winkelwagen, the little covered shopping cart that has quickly become one of my most prized possessions here in Zwolle. On an unusual sunny day, it was more crowded than usual in the market, and the cheesemonger (ill-advisedly, I’m sure) was still offering tastes of a variety of cheeses.

In the center of the square, the statue of the Archangel Michael was still keeping watch over the community. Michael, described as leading God’s army in Revelation, the final book of the New Testament, is the patron saint of Zwolle and frequently depicted in Dutch art struggling with a dragon or serpent.

“The Archangel Michael kills the devil.” Lucas Kilian, after Peter de Witte, after Hubert Gerhards, 1589 – 1615. Image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The green glass sculpture in the marketplace, however, depicts Michael in a more gentle guise, keeping watch over the citizens of Zwolle. This archangel Michael is familiar to me from the Jewish tradition, where he is described as protector of both the community and its individual members. In the Hebrew Bible, Michael appears to Daniel as the protector of Israel, while the prayer recited at bedtime calls on Michael and three other archangels to surround us in protection: we invite Michael to be at our right hand, Gabriel our left, Raphael (my personal favorite) behind us, and Uriel, before us, lighting the way.

It is a comforting thought, in these confusing times, to envision ourselves surrounded by Michael and his companions. But, in Hebrew, the word malach, angel, also means “messenger.” In a passage quoted in the Reform Jewish prayer book, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner reminds us that, not only may we not recognize the messengers, the angels, all around us, we, too, have the capacity to choose to be angels:

“And so we understand that ordinary people are messengers of the Most High. They go about their tasks in holy anonymity. Often, even unknown to themselves. Yet, if they had not been there, if they had not said what they said, it would not be the way it is now. We would not be the way we are now. Never forget that you too yourself may be a messenger.”

In this time of uncertainty and confusion, when borders are closing and our institutions are going dark, we must choose to remember that the universal language is shared in acts of compassion, kindness, and love.

A modern statue of St. Michael gazes at the market