Plant Manager (suit thoughts)

Yesterday I drove home with three suits in the back of my car. Home is a wooden cottage somewhere in the middle of the Netherlands, overlooking snowy meadows and bare trees. There is a small pond in the garden and next to it squirls sometimes fight over hazelnuts in the big pine tree. I put them there in winter, the nuts. I feed the birds too. I sometimes hold one in my hands, when it has mistaken my window for an opening into empty space, carefully keeping it warm, feeling the tiny bird heart jump up and down. They all survived so far. Luckily.

I always wanted a home where I could grow things. Artichokes. Strawberries. String beans. Potatoes. Cherries.
Things grow here but lots of things don’t. It is forest soil, the sun hardly touches it, only in summer does it reach over the treetops. It is a temporary home where I pick blueberries and mushrooms. Where I dream about cultivating a big piece of land, about building my own sustainable house.

Tomorrow morning at 7.20 there is a flight from Amsterdam Airport to Barcelona. I was supposed to be on it with my 25 kg suitcase, carrying more than I usually do because I wasn’t aiming on returning. I had planned to start a new year in a new country. Explore new roads, different ways of being.  Slowly start in the city, learning Spanish, making art, to move from there into the countryside to learn about permaculture and natural building. To grow artichokes, beans, pomegranates, lemons. I was in the middle of finishing off the last bits of my old life here. Throwing away and selling things, handing over projects and organisations I had been in charge or part of, sorting out my administration, going through old papers. Planning meetings in the first week of January in the Spanish sun. Dinner parties, coffee with a walking artist, where to meet an old friend at midnight when 2014 would change into 2015, a meeting with a group of people about an ecovillage, first thing in the new year.

Yesterday, before I drove home with my father’s suits, I had dinner with my mother. My sister was there with her husband and their three kids. My mother talked about the new ski stockings she had bought. About what they had eaten for Christmas. About getting a new car with heated seats. About visiting her mother-in-law, my grandmother. We juggled the 18 (or was it 19? I sometimes loose track) cats around, cooked hamburgers and shrimps, folded paper cranes and tiny boats with the kids. Often I don’t understand why these lovely people choose to stay on the surface. Why the things I want to talk about are uncomfortable for them. But this time I saw it in their movements. In their eyes. The seriousness of life. The heaviness of their sadness.
I asked my cousin Aiden, who was born on my father’s birthday on the first day of summer seven and a half years ago, what he wanted to become. He hesitated. “DJ” he said first, moving his hands the way a DJ does, making funny sounds. “Or researcher” he added. And I suggested he would be a researcher during the day and DJ at night. Or be a researching DJ, study music. All evening he had jumped around the living room, letting his supersonic airplane, handfolded out of a simple A4 piece of paper, make unexpected moves. His oldest sister, Gaia, was making summersaults inbetween two lazy chairs. The youngest one, Tirza, the thinker, sat in my father’s chair and glewed as many plastic diamonts as she could on a small piece of paper until it became too heavy to hold. She gave me one, a purple one, her favorite colour. I stuck it on my forehead. She smiled. I forgot about it and only noticed it when I went to bed late that same night.

My mother’s agenda was lying open on a table. There were old appointments written under the dates. December 21, 24, 28. I turned the page. I wouldn’t normally but these weeks everything is different. Monday December 29, Tuesday December 30. Official working days. A while ago she had written down “Gerard vrij” on both days. My father’s name, Gerard. He had taken today and tomorrow off from work. “Vrij”, “free”. He was supposed to be free today. My father the workaholic.
And he is.

I drove home in the dark, I turned on the heater, I took my father’s pipe wrench out of my winter jacket, I decided replacing the drain tap could wait until tomorrow. It was freezing cold inside, I sipped from his hipflask, I don’t think he ever used it although he did like drinking a good whiskey at the end of the evening or a glass of vintage south african wine for dinner, sometimes two, and when there was something to celebrate and he wasn’t driving, even three. I had filled the flask at the evening of our last wake, after we carried him through dark streets aligned with burning candles and sad neighbours. I had found a bottle of Ukrainian liquor in my parents’ cupboard, a clear liquid in which three hot peppers were floating. It kept us warm inbetween shaking hundreds of hands. And it made me remember how he talked about his business meetings in Russia where there was no way around drinking wodka before lunch if you wanted to get a contract signed. In church we had waited doing the introduction in English because the flight of his Polish business acquintances, who later on honoured us with a small bow and kissed our hands, was delayed. They had brought beautiful flowers for him. On the ribbon they had written “from your friends from Kielce”. They adressed him as their friend. In that cold night, the longest one, they became our friends.

I never really knew what to say when people asked me what my father was doing. Manager. Director. Organisor.  Technically gifted, business man. Adviser. Sometimes I asked him and he would always explain in long sentences and words I forgot the moment he said them. I knew he worked for two big companies, one involved in manufacturing machines for large scale snow-cleaning and de-icing (whenever I see one on the highway I always say “daddy!”) and the other one manufacturing innovative agricultural machines. He started out on the workfloor, the oldest son of a family of 15, doing what he loved, working with his hands, but being an ambitious and smart man, he kept schooling himself, improving himself, setting new goals. He loved travelling, going on business trips, teaching other people how to run their business. But he loved his other life too, his wife, my mother, gardening, reparing and building things, playing with his grandchildren. And even though he would probably never stop working free lance, his position was about to become available. He wanted to spend more time at home and going on holiday trips. The add had just been put out in the newspaper. Just before we put the other add in. The one with a photo of him carrying a small back pack and staring out over the ocean near Cape Town where we had all celebrated my parents 40th wedding aniversary. Where we got quite drunk one night and he told me things he would have never told me otherwise. A night I cherish. Because usually he didn’t talk about his feelings.

I brought my father’s suits with me because I had an appointment with a tailor today. The afternoon two weeks ago when I received the phonecall to tell me he had been rushed to hospital, I was just about to bring my own three-piece suit to the woman who would digitalise the QR code that was going to be embroidered on its trousers and jacket. The suit I would wear travelling to Barcelona. The suit I would wear the three months of my art project in the Spanish city every day. The suit I might wear afterwards until it would fall from my body. A grey men’s suit in the smallest size.
I had called the best tailor in Amsterdam to ask if he could resize one of my father’s suits so I could wear it instead of my own suit. In the middle of everything it suddenly seemed to be the best thing to do but when I was in my own world again I wasn’t sure if starting something completely new in somebody’s old suit was the best thing to do. In your own old suit, yes, in somebody else’s, possibly, but in your father’s?

My mother had emptied his pockets. Handkerchiefs, lots of pens, a couple of coins,  a few foreign business cards. She had overlooked one, a brand new card in his breast pocket. I read his name, like I had read it everywhere in the last days. Gerard Besten. Plant manager. So that is what he was.

I cancelled my appointment with the tailor. It isn’t the time to wear my father’s suit after all. Maybe in the future. Or maybe not. But somewhere in the new year I will bring it to Barcelona to let plants grow on it. And afterwards I will grow them in the earth. Be a plant manager. Like my father. But differently.
I will try to be like him. Like what he is today. Free.
But differently.
In my own suit. My soft armour.



Last Monday, early in the morning, I embroidered a memory inside somebodies breast pocket. In his favorite jacket. I closed it off afterwards.

He smiled secretive while I was embroidering it. He knew what I was sewing.



I failed
I almost cursed in church
I wasn’t perfect
I was almost

I should have cursed

I should have cursed and use different words
but in death “should have” are words we shouldn’t use
in death we live
we have to
and we live by failing
and trying again
until we die

he shouldn’t have died
but he did
but we only die because we live
he lived


the sky is the limit

they wore boots with stars and a rainbow
they drew fire spitting dragons and canons on my fathers coffin
the blackest black and the bluest blue
his name, their names, their own hands and hearts, many hearts

december 21, the longest night ever, the night of our wake
the last night we could touch his hands, see his smile
the night we were hungry because we shook hundreds of hands
because we looked into a thousand of sad eyes
the night we sat around him in his own living room and drank wine and used his feet to put the crisps on
without hesitation

and the next morning
when two beautifully dressed girls danced through the street from his house
spreading rose leaves on the tarmac
and one of the neighbours stopped traffic so we could slowly carry a man through the village where he was born, where he had lived for 63 years

the afternoon when we returned
and when we put his chair back to the place where it belonged
but where, when we returned from the kitchen with fresh coffee
and our favorite chocolate
his grandson, who was born on the same date he was, was sitting

life is terrible
terribly beautiful


walking thoughts (is walking words, is writing steps)

sometimes I wonder if I should choose between walking and writing
when I write I wan’t to walk
when I walk I want to write
sometimes I fear not having enough time to do everything
but then I remember what I once wrote about time
“walking makes time disappear”
when I reread my words I remember and I know
and I want to go on a walk again
but only because the words are there to remind me
but only because I walked to be able to write down those words

sometimes I call myself a walking artist
even though I have doubts about naming things, naming myself
maybe I should call myself a writing walker

writing makes me worry about time
writing makes me want to walk
walking makes me write
makes me write time doesn’t exist

(images: documentation from two walks, Monique Besten in Amsterdam/de Pijp for Tussenland, 2008 & Amsterdam in Cork for Relocating Discovery, 2009)


Following the moon

I drove home. I followed the moon, it was big and round. All summer I walked east. All summer I spent half of my evenings looking at the moon. Full moon meant walking into the night, walking in the moonlight, putting my tent somewhere in a field and sitting in front of it for a while before going to sleep.
I drove home, the moon seemed to be bigger than it was in summer, but it can’t look bigger now, in summer it was closer to the horizon. Maybe my longing for the walking, for walking under a moon made it look bigger.
I came home and turned on the water, but one of the taps outside, under the house, was broken and I had to shut it off again after I crawled into the foundation structure and filled two big pans. It was late already. I didn’t feel like fixing my watersystem. Tomorrow. Or the day after. Warm water from the tap, even cold water from a tap, is a luxury. It is good to be reminded of that now and then.

Instead of flushing the toilet at least twice all evening, washing my hands a couple of times during cooking, let the tap run to clean my toothbrush and several other moments of unlimited wateruse I used the big spoon to take water from the big pan and pour it over my hands, catching it in another container so I could reuse the now “grey” water. I peed outside in the garden, it is good for the soil and the horses from the neighbouring field don’t mind me doing it. When I turned around I saw the moon again. My heart ached. I went in again to get my coat.

I walked. I walked into the woods all the way to the open field, where heather is growing and on sunny days elderly couples in similar outfits bike across the moor on expensive bikes, where in weekends people come and fly their tiny noisy airplanes, where in the not so far distance you can see cars drive by because they put a road right through this natural area.
But now, at this time of night, there was only air and fog and shadows of trees and plants and the moon, the moon.

Men walked on it. But from here I can’t see their footsteps. It is out of reach, it is extremely far away but so close at the same time. It is walking in Belgium at night with Charles Dickens’ Night Walks in my pocket, it is shouting “la Lua!” with my moon loving friend Mary in Portugal looking out of the window of our studio, a corn filled cobble stone shed in the middle of a village inhabited by 53 people and 3.000 goats. It is walking along the Danube with C. who carried his own solar powered moon-resembling lamp. It is sleepless nights in the mountains in Spain because no way I will go to bed when a full moon sheds a different light on the landscape and the silence is even more tangible than it is during daytime. It is walking in France with Mimi, who dreams of being a clown in Mongolia, who planted dreams all across the United States and with whom I walked on a moonlit night after which I dreamt of a double moon, a double world, of being here and there at the same time. It is reading Jules Verne on the top floor of a hostel in Porto. Walking in Vienna with a tail at night. Crossing the paths of snails carrying the moon on their backs in Sweden. It is walking for 96 days to reach the Nomadic Village in Austria, walking east, seeing the moon rise every evening, following the moon and then arriving on a field where the temporary settlement is slowly growing and the mayor of the village plants a non-stop shining full moon in front of my temporary house to make me feel at home.

Some time ago I read “Moondust. In search of the men who fell to earth”. Andrew Smith interviewed all nine of the still living astronauts who went on the iconic Apollo 11 moon mission. The men who spent time on the moon all had extreme difficulties returning to their normal lives. I remember one of them describing the moment he saw the earth the way I saw the moon last night. Like a round ball, looking small and vulnerable, mysterious and terribly beautiful. It was the most amazing moment of his life. He didn’t know how to continue living afterwards.

I sometimes wonder how to continue living. I know by heart how to do it. It is easy. It is breathing in and breathing out. It is going through your days doing the things you are doing. It is loving and hating and cursing and sighing and laughing and screeming. It is the easiest thing there is. You don’t need skills for it, everybody can do it. In fact, everybody does it.

Living is difficult people say but that isn’t true. Living is easy. But being human is difficult. Because our brain is what makes us human. Our capacity to think makes us human. Our ability to make decisions based on what we think is right or wrong.

And now, writing these words, typing these words, thinking these worlds (mistyping “words”), the world seems to have become small again. It is 15.37 and I sit inside my waterless wooden walls, it is turning dark again outside, the day never seems to have started, grey skies, water falling down (yes, I put some buckets outside). I just watched Georges Melies’ brilliant film “A trip to the Moon”, I laughed, I posted it on Facebook and I chose a song from my computer’s playlist, I chose “These are the vistas”, The Bad Plus, and the world starts growing again. I see the vistas, my borders dissolve, I realise space is everywhere, there is an unlimited amount of it in this house, in this head.

I sit inside while the world is growing and I think about those astronauts again, about how the man who interviewed them said it was a very emotional thing to do “as it involved revisiting a time when significant numbers of people believed that the world could be made better - where innocent optimism was still possible”. It has been on my mind, this line. First I thought that he was right, I thought the secret was in the “innocent”, optimism still being possible but with all the terrible things happening everywhere, it being impossible to still be innocent in it as an intelligent human being. We grew up in dark years with crazy wars and horrible things happening to nature. It isn’t only impossible to believe we can go on like this and still survive, but it became impossible as well to think that we can make big changes and thereby have the guarantee that we will survive. The future turned from bright to grey. The future turned from limitless into small. As small as my world on some days. Determined by walls and windows, determined by the colour of the sky outside, by the hours of the day as in sunlight.

It is on days like this, when I am supposed to do my administration, deal with past projects and write official letters, when I am almost accusing myself of waisting time again on writing something completely different, that I realise that maybe we have to use our time differently in order to make the world the place we want to be again. We have to spent more time on things that give us this feeling of naive optimism, the feeling that everything is still possible, the feeling that we are immortal.

When you are small the world is immense. It is in a leaf of grass, in a drop of water. You build your own house without even thinking if you are capable of doing it, you put a blanket over a table or stack some chairs in a particular order, you can drive a train and live in trees, you survive in the forest, you fly and even though you see people being sick, even die, you know you will be there forever. You don’t doubt. You can’t make mistakes. You draw blue trees and green suns. Until they start teaching you how to do things right.

But a child singing a song about the man in the moon might know more about the moon than the scientists do who researched the rocks that have been collected on its surface, who can measure its speed and its distance from our doorstep.*

Is it impossible to regain this innocent optimism? Did it disappear altogether? Isn’t it still present in every child that gets born and doesn’t it also depend on the goals we are putting up for ourselves?
To be honest I don’t know the answers. I tried to sit on these questions for a bit and formulate an answer but maybe my own focus shouldn’t be there. Maybe I should focus again on my own innocent optimism, my own naive idea that I can make a difference by just walking the world, by following the moon, by having many moons. By walking the questions instead of sitting down to answer them.

*(I borrowed this line of thought from Masanobu Fukuoka)


Another Facebook letter

“A friendship that can end, never really began”
- Publilius Syrus (1st. century BC)

When one of my Facebook friends decided to leave Facebook, I wrote that one of the things I like about being here is that my Facebook friends post things that make me think. His reasons for leaving Facebook made me think. And just now I read something on another friend’s page that made me want to respond, but not in her post, not to her specific situation, because I don't really know her.

She starts with a quote from Buddha: “One who says ... ‘I am your friend’, but does not take upon himself any tasks he is capable of doing, is to be recognized as no friend.” which reminds me of a conversation I had earlier this week in real life –the other real life, but the one in which you sit on a couch opposite somebody with a glass of wine in your hand and you talk -.
We talked about the importancy of friendship, of having soulmates, of being able to call somebody at any moment of the day when in need of a listening ear. “I don’t know if I really have that many good friends”, my friend said and I wondered what that meant, a good friend, and thought of something I had read in Dag Hammerskjöld's book Waymarks, something about great friendship not being reciprocated.

In search of the quote I found a blogpost I had written while walking to the south of France last year, when every day I started by embroidering the name of the person that had asked me to walk with him on that day on the inside of my jacket. It was the 29th day of a 40 day walk and that day I was walking with two friends. They weren’t there in the flesh but we walked together symbolically, Cathy Turner by doing her own walk from Beacon Site to Beacon Site in the UK, Christian French by possibly thinking about me and if not by going through the day the way he does. The “walking theme” we had decided on was beacons. Beacons, because when I met Cathy for the first time she was working with beacons, moving through the Belgian landscape with a group of artists, carrying her beacons and contemplating her decisions on where to leave her beacons behind. Beacons because I had the feeling Christian might need one. Or maybe a beacon needed him. Anyway. On that day I collected odd materials for a beacon to send to Seattle where Christian would use it or decide on its non-use. I wrote a blogpost starting with:

“Some people I consider myself closer to than most of the people I call my friends didn't join me on my long walk. I don't mind. Friendship is never about obligations. And I figured I was walking with them anyway. Until I thought about it again today. And realised they might not be my walking partners after all. I think they are my beacons. They show me where to go.”

I wrote in the blog about the walk that day, about the materials I found along the road, about entering le Puy en Velay and realising that some beacons are behind you. How you might not even know that they are beacons until you look back where you came from. I ended with the quote from Hammerskjöld, not knowing if it made any sense:

"Perhaps a great friendship is never reciprocated. Perhaps, had it been warmed and protected by its counterpart in another, it could never have grown to maturity.
It “gives” us nothing. But in the space of its silence it leads us up to heights with wide insights."

Back to my Facebook friend and the Buddha quote. The reason why I didn’t comment on her post was because she is in a difficult situation, has been writing about it for the last days and she might be very right having decided that somebody who she called a friend isn’t really a friend according to the quote. It is a difficult thing though. How do you decide if somebody is capable of taking upon himself any tasks he is capable of doing? You can never crawl into somebody elses’ skin and feel. You can only try to imagine that by pretending you are your friend but it is your own judgement in the end. How influential are your expectations in that judgement? Your expectations of what a friendship should be about? Of what that particular friendship should be about?

I never lost friends in my life because they decided not to be my friends anymore. And some people did. Not good Facebook friends but real friends – real in another way, in the way in which you poor the two of you another glass of wine and talk about the movie you just saw together -, friends I spent amazing times with.
I don’t think that you can end a friendship from one side only. From both sides, maybe. Or because you went in different directions and the friendship faded away. But one-sided, no. People who went because my company wasn’t wanted, wished for, helpful anymore, are still my friends in the sense of being beacons. They show me where to go, they shed light on things, still. Now and then I bump into one of those friends and that is always wonderful and we say that we will stay in touch and then we don’t which maybe is what it is all about. But the feeling you have when you meet again, that is friendship. In its purest form.

I am not sure if it is the same thing Hammerskjöld is saying though. Or how it works with the Buddha quote.

Can a friendship be about having no obligations towards each other but also about taking upon himself any tasks he is capable of doing? Of course in the end it depends on how you define friendship. And we define it by trying to look at it from different angles. By trial and error sometimes. By calling people friends who aren’t really or stop calling somebody a friend who has never been more important in guiding you through life. By stopping being your own friend (which sounds a bit tacky, I know ........).

Anyway. I wasn’t planning to write this much, certainly not when it is supposed to be for Facebook but what the hell. My good Facebook friends will read it and the ones who don’t might also be very good Facebook friends. Maybe even better ones.