Two New Year’s Letters.

Here’s an experiment, and a first time for everything: trying to marry two new year’s traditions in one blog post:

1) An American New Year’s letter, in which families give an overview of what happened in the past year. These can be funny, bragging or honest, but I always like getting them in the mail and reading about the lives of friends. 

2) A Belgian New Year’s letter, usually written by kids and read aloud – standing on a chair in front of the extended family – for their godparents, wishing them good health and happiness in the year to come. Ideally, it rhymes so I’ll try my best to give you some poetry here! 

Here we go…

 

1. The De Schutter family in 2013.

 

Life was good for us in 2013! We enjoy living in sunny and beautiful California and were blessed with good health and good fortune. Alex (8) and Elena (6) are doing well at Ponderosa Elementary School. Alex is growing into an independent third grader who loves reading and reading and reading and also science and social studies. He likes his teacher and makes good friends in and out of his classroom. Soccer was his sport in 2013! He played two seasons, and is often seen carrying around a soccer ball after school. He also made progress in swimming and shows an ever growing interest in legos, Star Wars and robotics. On Wednesday nights, he goes to the Logos program at Church where he loves connecting with the other kids and always looks forward to seeing what the ‘dinner dude’ will be wearing. 

Elena is a proud first grader and loves going to school with her very cute group of BFF. She played soccer as well, with Tom as one of her coaches. Other after school activities included swimming, Spanish, music lessons and gymnastics. She performed in a choral festival with her music class and had her very first piano recital. Tom and Elena joined a father/daughter group at the YMCA and went camping together. In the meantime, mom and Alex bonded over Star Wars movies and popcorn! 

Tom continues his career at Synopsys, in his new role as Product Marketing Manager for Virtual Prototyping. He traveled a lot in 2014 and went multiple times to Japan, Germany, Belgium, Scotland, England, Austin TX, Portland OR and San Diego CA for work. Even while working hard and putting a lot of dedication into his job, he manages to be home on time for dinner most nights and spends time with the kids as soccer coach for Elena’s team, going on father/daughter outings and playing Magic The Gathering with Alex. 

My main role is still ‘mom in chief’, taking care of the family, household and driving kids around to soccer practices and other activities. 2013 was also the year in which I got back in the classroom, teaching ESL to adult learners through Refugee Transitions. Teaching English was definitely a change over French, Dutch or Italian, but being back in adult education just felt right for me. I continued tutoring high school students in French for a couple hours a week, leading to a situation in which I teach French to (very) rich people and English to (very) poor people…opposite worlds! I volunteered at Church as a 2nd grade shepherd and 2nd grade Logos teacher, and helped out in the kids’ classrooms once a week reading with students. In my spare time (huh?) I enjoy hiking, riding my bike, reading and meeting with my book club, cooking veg(etari)an food and baking bread. And coffee. And sleep. 

As a family, we traveled to many beautiful places, including Tahoe (first time skiing for Ilse and the kids), King’s Canyon national park, Hawaii (Big Island), Santa Rosa CA, Belgium (and The Netherlands) and New York. Tom’s parents came to visit us twice.

So yes, life was good for us in 2013. We  were confronted with life’s fragility in the lives of friends and family dear to our hearts, and are thankful every day for our blessings. 

 

2. Nieuwjaarsbrief 2013.

May your days be filled with joy and laughter,

and may you all live happily ever after.

We wish you happiness and good health,

and just enough wealth. 

May you notice goodness and beauty all around,

in a world where kindness can abound. 

Be thankful for daily bread,

sunshine, forests, ocean and at the end of the day… your bed.

Take care of your loved ones, have compassion and let go,

2014 will be your year to grow. 

 

Jullie kleine kapoenen, Tom, Ilse, Alexander en Elena De Schutter.

Sunnyvale, 1 januari 2014.

 

 

The day Alex got his Bible.

I’ve been wanting to write about our church experience in the US for a while now. We attend SVPC (Sunnyvale Presbyterian Church) and have come to deeply appreciate it’s community, service and authenticity. So I tried to find the right moment and went back and forth on whether I should touch the topic of religion on this blog to begin with. Many experiences are past us, I could have written about all church camp and camping between the redwoods, about children’s ministry and how the kids and I are involved in it, about the recently started ‘life groups’ and the engaging conversations that have come out of that. So many blessings in so many ways. But instead, I decided to write about church today, the day that the 3rd graders in our congregation received bibles.

In the Catholic church, there are certain milestones. Rites of passage that you go through in your childhood and adolescence. There’s the First Communion around age 6-7 and Confirmation at age 12. I have often criticized and doubted the value of these ceremonies, because more often then not, they turn into some kind of glorified excuse to wear fancy clothes, spend the afternoon sitting down at a restaurant and anxiously waiting what gifts you will receive. A far cry from the authenticity, service and humility I believe Christianity should be about.

Moving to the US gave us the freedom to break away from our Catholic traditions and – when we were ready to pass on our faith to our children – find a church that more closely reflected our values. Plenty of denominations to choose from around here, but we found our way to SVPC and never left.

Protestantism for me feels like Catholicism without bells and whistles. Truer to the core message of the gospel in my opinion, but… no First Communion for our kids! So today, on Bible Sunday when the third graders were to get presented with bibles during the morning service, I turned into a modified version of the First Communion mom. Today is a special day! It’s a rite of passage! We should wear fancy clothes!

Stop there. If you know my son, fancy clothes is something he doesn’t do. I lost that battle and let go of it a long time ago. I learned to compromise and let him wear athletic shorts to school and crocs to restaurants. But on Sundays, he has to wear regular pants, especially today, on the day he gets called to the front of the sanctuary to receive his bible. Mind you, I’m not talking shirt and tie here, just reasonably appropriate clothes like a newer T-shirt, clean shorts and shoes that are not made out of plastic.

Long story short, I battled my son about wearing the right clothes and shoes this morning. Battled fiercely and won. But when we got to church, he refused to go inside. Said he didn’t care about getting a Bible. That he wanted to go home. It took all my convincing strategies (learned by trial and error over eight years of raising my stubborn boy) to get him inside and sit him down on the front pew. That’s as far as I got, when it was time to walk to the front with the other third graders -who were all well-dressed off course – Alex didn’t move. Did not go up to receive his Bible from the pastor. Did not care.

I felt so disappointed. Went outside to catch some air. Found a shoulder to cry on and went back inside. Somehow made it through the service and felt crappy all day long. I had accomplished to dress up my son for his First Communion, but forgot that receiving a Bible was the more important part. No pretty family pictures today, but look at how the day ended: photo 1 (2) photo 2 Alex reading his Bible at home and in bed. Isn’t that what’s it’s all about? (but two years from now, I swear Elena will wear a white fluffy dress and a bow in her hair!)

Part of me is still there.

We got back home from our annual summer trip to Belgium just last week, and when people ask me ‘when did you get back?’, my standard answer was ‘last Tuesday, but part of me is still there’. True in different ways:

– physically, my jet-lagged body truly believed that is was time to sleep during the day and time to wake up and have breakfast in the middle of the night. Honestly, people are not meant to travel half way around the world in less than 24 hours. We’re meant to walk or bike and maybe take a car if we have to.

– more importantly, the other half of my wedding certificate (trying to translate ‘den helft van mijne trouwboek’ haha) or as they say in English, ‘my better half’ stayed in Europe for 10 more days. It was just me and the kids coming back to Sunnyvale, and the house really felt empty. Still 3 more days to go …

– somehow this year, it was harder for me to get back into California rhythm and our life here. It usually only takes about a day to adjust to the little things in life that make living in the US different than living in Belgium. One day in which you look at the world in a child-like way, noticing things that you would never pay attention to in daily life. The milk cartons are huge in the US! People ride bikes to go grocery shopping in Belgium! The sun will shine everyday in August! People are better dressed in Europe! You get called ‘sweetie’ or ‘honey’ at the check out line, guess what country I’m talking about!

Maybe it was because school hadn’t started yet, and I’m not starting work until September, but the first days back home felt empty and kind of lonely. We had gotten used to being surrounded by family members and meeting up with friends (leaving the kids with the family members, what a luxury concept) and now it was just the three of us again. The longer we live here and the more rooted we become in Sunnyvale, the more I realize the consequences of not having family nearby. It means that no matter how much Skype time, the relationship between my kids and their grandparents will be very different from mine with my grandparents who lived only a block away. It means that we’ll feel guilty every time a family member is in the hospital and we can’t go visit. It means never enough time to spend with dear dear friends when we visit once a year. It means not seeing our nephews/cousins grow up or celebrate milestones with them and their parents.

BUT, there’s always a BUT. We wouldn’t do it differently if we could start over. I would recommend living in a different country for any amount of time to anyone who thinks about it. It will be an experience you will never forget, be it a positive or a negative one. This is our home, this is where our kids go  to school, where we have fulfilling jobs, friendships and community. Now that school has started and life returns to a more predictable rhythm, I fully realize how much I love California and all that comes with it. Maybe transitioning from one place to another will be hard every time, but I’m grateful to have two places in the world that I get to call home.

Yes, part of me is still there, watching Elena sing songs to her 2mo old cousin, seeing the grandparents play with the kids, breathing in the sea in Oostende or walking the streets of Gent, but I am here, living it up California style.

Do we leave parts of us in the places we love or do we take little parts of the world with us in our soul? I don’t know, a little bit of both I guess. But we’re all longing to belong somewhere in the world.

 

 

Nature drunk.

For all the ugliness that is Silicon Valley, there is a world of beauty just a short drive away. Whenever I step out off congested, El Camino suburbia I feel so grateful for being able to live here in California and explore the Great Outdoors. Last week, we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge to visit the Marine Mammal Center in the Marine Headlands. Crossing the Golden Gate remains magical, even after living here for 7 years! From across the Bay, you have a splendid view of the city and it feels like you’re miles away.

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We walked to Point Bonita lighthouse, perched on a cliff and guiding approaching ships through the San Francisco Bay. Perfect Sunday afternoon!

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Then last weekend, we went camping at Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Park. I have a love/hate relationship with camping because it requires so much preparation and cleaning up, but man, it’s worth it!

Putting your hand on a 3000 year old tree, it’s hard not to feel connected to God, the Universe or whatever you may call her. These trees are among the oldest living things on earth. Just imagine what they have seen in their lifetimes! And look how small the people in the picture are…

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Who wouldn’t become quiet when looking at a view like this?

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Every time we visit a National Park, I feel the itch to go on day long hikes, or grab my backpack and just roam for a couple days. My bucket list calls for month-long excursions on my bike, road-tripping coast to coast and solitary hikes on trails in the woods. Wandering the world and moving at a slow pace through nature have always appealed to me, but sadly it’s not very close to the house-family-tree in the backyard life we live now. Sometimes I wish I had the freedom to just go and take off, but then I count my blessings and I’m just grateful for the life I have.

While down at King’s canyon, the kids taught me a lesson on just that subject: I wanted all of us to go on a hike, but after just a couple steps the whining began! My feet hurt, I can’t breathe, this is boring, nja nja nja… They just wanted to play by the river, jump from boulder to boulder and throw rocks in the stream. And so I sat. On a boulder.  By the King’s river. A little grumpy at first because this was boring to me! But hey, sometimes to really appreciate a place you just need to sit down, breathe and take in the beauty of it all.

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With love from California 🙂

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Ilse: ‘Cooked’ by Michael Pollan

Kids: Fancy Nancy, Calvin and Hobbes  

So what ya giving?

Soooo… my last post on this blog was December 19th of last year! Shame shame shame on me.

I’ve been kind of busy in the meantime. Got a new job teaching ESL and that made me feel so happy to be back in front of a classroom, teaching languages to adults just like I used to do in Belgium, before our move to the US. Only it’s English this time and not French or Italian… details! Teaching an all new subject meant a lot of prep time, lesson plan writing and spending time in the copy room. I kept tutoring two high schoolers in French. I kept volunteering at school and church. I kept doing laundry and dishes. I kept cleaning (just barely, to be honest) and cooking and parenting.

I’ve been kind of self-conscious in the meantime. Comparing myself to others with more exciting pictures on Facebook, bigger circles of friends or more interesting stories to tell. Feeling I didn’t measure up to other bloggers I follow, more proliferous writers, who had better content and know how to insert beautiful pictures in their posts.

I’ve been kind of materialistic in the mean time. Spending a lot of time redecorating our house and upgrading from Ikea to Crate and Barrel furniture. Finding the perfect throw pillows to match the rug. Picking out paint colors and hiring the best contractor. It’s been fun and exciting and also shallow and maybe not really necessary. Far cry from simple living and using only what you need.

reorganized pantry reorganized pantry077redecorated living room

So now I find myself in vacation mode: school’s over for the kids (yes, in the beginning of June!), no more teaching till after Labor Day and volunteering slowing down to a minimum. Some summer camps, traveling and camping trips coming up but overall pretty manageable.

I was listening to music the other day and who else than Mr. Vedder himself to pull me back into reality and reminding me that it’s not about what we have but about what we’re giving. That it doesn’t matter what fancy dining table I order from the fancy store, but that what matters is the time spent around that table with family and friends. Here’s the song:

A distant time, a distant space

that’s where we’re living

a distant time, a distant space

so what ya giving

what ya giving?

HAPPY SUMMER!

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Ilse: Bittersweet by Shauna Niequist

Kids: How to train your dragon, book 2.

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Kind hearts.

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Elena wrote Christmas cards to her Kindergarten friends today. To all 30 of them. In each one of them, she taped a candy cane and wrote a sentence starting with “I like….”. I like how we play puzzles together. I like how you color nicely. I like how you play legos. I like it when you are silly. 30 individual cards for 30 individual kids.

I’m not telling you this story to brag about my A+ Kindergarten student (ok, maybe a little bit), but because it was a humbling experience. When I wrote my Christmas cards a couple days ago, I did ‘prefab’ work: stuck a pre-made picture card with standard text in an envelope, write the address, add stamp and voilà…one less to go. No personalized message, no thinking what color candy cane the recipient might enjoy.

Elena showed me what a kind heart looks like: consider everyone in your classroom, no one excluded, spend a moment thinking about what you like about a person and write it down, add a sweet surprise and use your best spelling.

Like so many others these past days, I’ve been trying to make sense of the reality we live in. My heart bleeds for 1st graders and teachers gunned down in their classrooms, for the couple who lost their son in an accident, for a friend with a medical condition.

What would it look like of we all had kind hearts, noticing and encouraging those around us and practicing random acts of kindness as antidote for random acts of violence?

So in an effort to do better then the “Tom and Ilse wish you a Happy New Year” you will see on our card, here’s my true Holiday wish for you:

Amidst the harshness of life, may you be inspired by a baby born in Bethlehem to practice kind hearts in 2013. Hold close the ones you love. Give freely. Include everyone.

Merry Christmas.
I like how you play well with others.

Home Maintenance for Dummies.

 

Don’t laugh… I’m in home maintenance mode and I actually kind of like it! I bought this ‘Home maintenance for Dummies’ book and it’s fascinating… a whole new world. Two anecdotes about the book: 1) I actually bought it for Tom as part of his birthday gifts (don’t worry, he got something good as well) but it has been on our bookshelf ever since. 2) When Alex saw it and read the title, he couldn’t get over the fact that anyone, let alone his mom, would read something that says ‘for dummies’. Why would you do that?

 

Well son, because I am a dummy! When it comes to home maintenance, that is, don’t get too excited yet. I grew up in a family of handymen; take the ‘men’ part literally. My dad can fix most anything and my brother is now a professional electrician and all round fixer upper. He’s the kind of guy who buys an old house, strips it down and renovates it in his free time. Just to show, some people would fall over backwards laughing so hard at seeing me holding a screwdriver.

 

But here I am, learning about how American houses are built and how they function (quite different from European houses who are mostly build with bricks and who have more advanced heating settings than ‘heat all rooms or nothing’). I’ve been keeping myself busy replacing furnace filters, range hood filters, taking apart my dishwasher to clean every part, opening up toilets to check the flappers etc. Next up: caulking the bathtub and sealing grout.

 

One of the things I enjoy most is learning a new vocabulary. I am a linguist, after all! I’m pretty comfortable using English as my primary language now and have the language tools to cover most day to day situations, but caulking, grout, dryer duct, siding, temperature relief valve and pressure gauge? I’m on uncharted territory here. Try translating that in your foreign language of choice, ha!

 

So if you wonder where to find me these days … probably at the Home Depot using my new DIY lingo…