And suddenly for me the gray pond of history is rent; it is fractured into a thousand contending waves; I hear the babble of voices.—Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger
It is the end of winter but not quite spring, here in my adopted home at the southern end of the African continent. The sun is slowly rising over the neighboring houses, through the branches of our leafless lemon tree. I sit here in our garden, craving its radiant warmth. I woke up early, as I often tend to do, and in my quiet, introspective morning prayer, I remembered old notes I had kept. I got up to make coffee.
While I kept many notes over the last two decades, the ones on my mind are from about six or seven years ago, just before I came to South Africa and started a new life. Reading those notes again, here in our slowly erupting garden, I discover a budding whose green and bloom I did not see then.
On an Old Gentleman’s Bicycle
In the late warmth of autumn, I had started to cycle, a habit I would continue nearly every day for the next eight months. I needed to keep myself sane, keep myself from doing something rash and unreasonable, and the cycling seemed to do the trick. I rode long distances, through watery fens and along historical canals in the southeast of the country, on a secondhand gentleman’s bicycle with an antique leather saddle.
Participatory cycling tours and Sunday afternoon drives had been an important part of our family life, my dad pointing out this and that—a bird flying overhead or a mushroom protruding from a tall oak, anything small and remarkable. All of us together, all four of us on our bicycles or huddled in our family car, exploring the natural areas around our home. But for that September and the eight months that followed, I was alone, free-floating in space in the aftermath of my father’s passing.
My mom had already died in August 2003, suddenly to a nearly impossible to diagnose heart condition. I had been twenty-seven and on the cusp of envisioning a life for myself in academia as a research psychologist. Her death had left me reeling and heartbroken. Then, it was my dad’s turn ten years later, in September 2013, after a short but disruptive and fatal illness. The cycling had started, I think, as a way to keep them close.
All those months, the monotony of my days was broken only by the monotony of my cycling, slow and steady, through flat, shrubby landscape that had been formed about a hundred years ago. The cutting and extraction of peat in this high-lying area, called De Peel, had created many rectangular ponds that were spliced by walkways and long canals to carry out the peat. I became immersed in that land and its birdsong, me with my bicycle in hand, covered in mud and pollen, trying to find my way through the bogs on grass and moss-covered dirt paths. The pictures I made, I have here in front of me: shining knee-deep patches of water, the sun reflected in its mirror surface and fractured into pieces by tall, unkempt thatches of reed.
And as I cycled, I thought about God, about the unfairness of it all. I thought about what it meant to no longer have my history with me or to feel bereft of a future that I could imagine. I wondered about whether my individual life could have a purpose without a greater plan, about whether our intuition leads us to believe in some idea of a higher purpose? As the summer turned to fall and then winter, I would lay down my bike, take off my gloves, and write.
As I reread these thoughts, here in another spring, the sixth in a new life, under a new sky halfway around the world, I remember the circumstances that led me to them and the deep uncertainty that occupied me, as though I were lost in that thick fog that hung over the bogs and canals through the winter, an uncertainty of what to do next, what to make of my life. I sit in my garden and wonder whether God was with me then.
To Escape the Suburban Home
Things have changed dramatically since those cycling days—I moved to South Africa, got married, settled down, and now we are expecting our first baby. And yet I recognize that long-ago self. As I travel across the local region for research, I recognize that some lonely core lingers, unkempt and unruly.
I see that the questions that I asked myself back then are beset with pain at the loss of my father and at the old grief for my mom, never fully resolved. But I also read in my notes questions about the path I was on, about whether my future should be an extension of my past and personal history, about whether it was my purpose now to honor my father and my mother, as the Bible says, about how and why I mattered now that they were gone. As I cycled hundreds of kilometers to try to escape the suburban home that once held my family, stopping every so often to keep track of my thoughts on my phone, I wrestled with loss and duty and the question of what to do next.
Looking back at the seasons behind me and forward to the one that is now here, curious for what it will bring, I wonder at a sense of continuity and connection between me and my past self, between all things and all places. As I see my younger self struggling with loss, I wonder whether there is a part of me that comes from my mom and dad? Am I responsible for the legacies of not just my parents but all the generations that came before me and that will come after me? Am I responsible to people living around the world in the present day whom I will never meet? And does my sensitivity to this continuity, this feeling I have of continuous responsibility for me across historical and cultural boundaries, does this somehow confirm the presence of God, the presence of a subtle hand drawing us together in something like love?
I feel the heat of the sun radiate across the rooftops, and it is warming me up. Our garden is elongated, stretching the length of our house from the left to the right. While the sun is hitting me, I also see the wall to my far-left flare up in bright yellow. The lone tree that towers over the house is beginning to show small green buds. The youngest of our three cats, a feisty orange female, likes to sit and hide behind that tall tree, just craning her neck around to see us, before setting off on a race to the other end of our small garden, to the lemon tree and the lavender there.
The Roman Emperor Augustus
The past week was exciting and decisive for my wife and me. We are halfway through our pregnancy, our first, and on Tuesday, we finally found out we are having a boy. We both felt happy, seeing a new life become real for the first time, and we have spent a useful amount of time thinking about a name for him.
The first name was clear to the both of us: Auke. It’s my middle name, one that had been passed down from a grandfather on my mother’s side and that we wanted to pass on to our son. Auke is an old Frisian name, my mother’s tongue, and a diminutive of Augustus and Aurelius, two Roman emperors. And as our son is a godsend to us, we thought of Timothy as a middle name. Timothy was the child of a culturally mixed couple and a pupil of the Apostle Paul. Timothy, who showed great affection, cleaving closely to those he loved and cultivating passive graces—just the vision we have for our boy. As we dream of the man he may one day come to be, we want him rooted in great names.
Six or seven years ago, I could not have imagined such good fortune. It is easy to forget where I came from, what past forces shaped my present. Sometimes I see myself as a character in a play, a character who looks like me, who shares my history and stories but is not quite me.
The Bible overflows with rich detail of many small men and women, of sinners and saints and of how their crises brought them to God. And it occurs to me now that I could be like any one of them, a little bit like past me and a little bit like them. Perhaps these stories together tell a deep truth of our genuine self—that we think of God precisely at times when we notice our own fracturing, as we sense that we are being broken off from our past, present, and future.
Sitting here at my writing table, outside, with a fresh coffee at hand, I was going to write how curious my personal search for deeper meaning was. But I stopped myself. It was certainly not curious, not at all. Rather, it was the thing that saved me—perhaps the only thing that could save me. Physically pedaling my bicycle and taking in the small scenes in all their brimming details is what brought me here today. It was not the large landmarks, the old castles, mountain vistas, or artful displays of human events that saved me but instead the ducks swimming in a canal underneath the shade of trees, the curves in the road, the quaint bridges that cross canals toward houses or farms, the flying pollen or spiky reeds, a tractor plowing a field—there, far to the right, next to that clump of trees, do you see it?
On an Overgrown Path
For most of my biking days in the Netherlands I had resigned myself to exploring a familiar area of the fens, but I had become intrigued by a narrow and twisting path. It entered the fen area at a particularly beautiful spot on my usual route near a small island that was to the left of the road, but its direction was difficult determine from where I was standing. I began exploring with some trepidation.
The first time I tried this route, I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere, and I ended up too far south. Cautious not to get lost in the dark, I returned to my familiar path. Then, sometime in March, I tried again, riding eastward from a fork in the dirt path I must have missed the first time. The path was bumpy with tree roots, and my road cycle was not suited to the terrain. I quickly became coated in muddy rainwater that overflowed from the bogs. And I eventually hit a dead end here too—a narrow canal crossing from north to south that made any further progress impossible. I stopped, satisfied, returning a short distance on the heavily overgrown track to a good spot, and took my photographs: a bog on each side, the path I had taken cutting straight through, barely visible through high-growing, spear-like reeds. Water lapping at my feet, birds calling and chirping around me, I felt as if I had been released, as if I were finally myself.
People’s sense of self has fascinated philosophers and psychologists. The American philosopher Galen Strawson said people tend to think about the self as a thing. It is like an apple or pear, but it is in the mind, a thing that can be studied, looked at from different angles, and discussed and shared with others. Similarly, the American developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, a psychoanalyst like his forbearer Sigmund Freud, spoke of inner sameness. According to Erikson, children develop a confidence in their ability to maintain inner sameness throughout different situations and events.1 The self seems to be something people actively do, something that they are conscious of.
Balanced on the narrow dirt path, my bicycle lying next to me, I looked out for a while. I saw some gray geese floating past quietly on the fen. Over there another one, and as it disappeared behind a tall reed, leaving the broken shard of fen, I shifted the weight of my body onto my other foot and stretched out my head to catch it again in my line of sight just as it reappears left of the reed, in a new shard of silver blue. Strawson says that truly unbroken periods of experience are almost invariably brief.
Reaching the Other Side
This story of me cycling and looking back at it six or seven years later as I sit in my garden halfway around the world—this story will not answer any questions. But perhaps by asking questions about my parents and my responsibility to others, about whether my future should be an extension of my past and personal history, about how I could matter now that I was alone, I’ve become more open to that subtle hand that draws us together in something like love. Perhaps by sitting with the questions, I’m finding grace, new possibility, and maturity. Our answers to the questions that send us wandering in the fen might change over time, work out differently for the different things we look at, or vary from person to person. But since my cycling, I spend every day with these questions.
Before learning the sex of our baby, a boy we know now, I spent nearly a week constructing a reverse family tree. It’s reversed because rather than starting with a known ancestor, I started with my first name and the first name of my sister, and I looked for each of our previous ancestors with those names. We knew, of course, that we were both named after our paternal and maternal grandparents, something our parents very deliberately decided on and felt very strongly about. What surprised me is that in the family tree I devised I was able to trace our names back to the late seventeenth century. I am thrilled by this history, and I daydream about lives lived and opportunities either missed or gladly taken. Did a third-great-grandfather, whose name my son will carry, walk around his village and see the same humanity and spirit as I did, the many times I walked there? And was I craning my neck to see past the bars, lines, and obstructions, to catch a glimpse of the ancient but familiar?
To some extent, the thought of responsibility for past and future generations and people around the world, including anyone who we will never meet, echoes the biblical idea of stewardship. This is a concept we see in the Gospels, especially in Luke, as Jesus uses stories of baking bread and taking care of trade stock to teach his followers to be generous with their money, time, and wisdom. In Luke 16:12, for example, he says, “If you have not been faithful in what is another man’s, who will give you what is your own?” (NKJV).
This idea of stewardship has been extended by the American naturalist and conservationist Aldo Leopold to encompass our relationship to land and the animals and plants that grow upon it.2 Generosity is thus connected to ecological stewardship. Recently, parallels can be seen in the idea of culture care. The American artist, educator, and writer Makoto Fujimura places artists at a crucial juncture of this type of renewal and stewardship. As people who completely move out of their familiar cultural environment, artists seek novel exposure to other exciting cultures, bringing back home exotic new ideas and insights. This is a valuable way, at least for some, to engage as active agents of change for others.
As I cycled on my gentleman’s bicycle with its antique leather saddle along the long canals and through the fen country of my adolescence, I felt something else. The close examination of this familiar milieu through my slow and steady cycling at close proximity to my old home, stopping every so often to notice and see every detail, worked entirely as a private force inside myself. For my own inner self, sameness turned into difference, and something new became my inner sameness.
All the Voices Are with Us
As I sit here in my garden, I feel in good company. I hear the babble of voices, of my mom, my dad, a grandfather I never met. I am awash with history in my inner self. It’s as if they were green sprouts on my body, as I move my arms to pick up the cup of coffee or move my legs to walk over to check out something our cat caught, as if they were the tiny green sprouts that just started to grow out of the trunk of the lemon tree. These are the voices that started to emerge from me during the cycling, that had been dormant in me my entire life, that were passed on from generation to generation, finally from my mom and dad to me, and here they come out, small and fragile, but sure and unstoppable.
As I listen to the voices, I crane my neck to catch them all, I stretch around my preoccupations and past biases. My responsibility now is to do my best to make them out, to decipher them. The inner sameness I notice and feel is a beacon, a trumpet through which all the voices blare. And I wonder how my son will turn out. Will he like cycling and traveling? Will he be curious for the small detail, the frogs in the pond, the birds in trees, the ones with yellow and blue? And I wonder how his blossoms will look.