by David Small
"To be engrossed by something outside ourselves is a powerful antidote for the rational mind, the mind that so frequently has its head up its own ass—seeing things in such a narrow and darkly narcissistic way that it presents a solo-rectal theology, offering hope to no one."—Anne Lemott
After eight months of persistent rain, gloom and winter jackets, spring hath finally sprungeth in Holland and that can mean only one thing: TULIPS. Seriously, though, lots of tulips. In the 1600s, the Dutch went crazy for tulips, driving their value so high only the rich could afford them. During “tulip mania,” people stupidly invested everything in bulbs. It was the first economic bubble and it burst in 1637 because of the bubonic plague and other reasons. But they still bring lots of money to the country with tourism.
My mother visited last month to see me and the tulips. We paid 60 euros (70 USD) to see the famous Keukenhof gardens, 80 acres of land with 700 million bulbs blooming in spring. In the 60 days it’s open each year, it attracts over a million visitors, all there to gawk at tulips. Photographing tulips, snapping selfies with tulips, making duck-faces whilst holding a tulip close to one’s botoxed lips. When you see middle-aged Chinese men leaning over flowers with selfie sticks, you know you're in the place to be. It’s like Disneyland, but reversed. It’s where grown-up kids take their parents, and it was packed with mother-daughter and mother-son combos, almost shoulder to shoulder in busy areas. And, except for those grown indoors, the tulips hadn't even bloomed yet.
A few weeks later I got to see them in all their rich-colored splendor and in their relatively natural habitat. I rented a BMW R1200GS Adventure for a motorcycle trip through North Holland with my neighbor and his friend from the south.
I’d finally received my Netherlands driver’s license two weeks earlier. Another perk of being a “highly skilled migrant” is that for 70 euros I can exchange my Oregon driver’s license for a Dutch one. No test, no questions asked. I can now drive any two-wheeled motor vehicle, cars and tractors anywhere in Europe. For an extra 32 euros I could’ve had a commercial license to drive buses and trucks. “You never know,” said the tall, blond Dutch girl behind the counter, “you may change careers.” She wasn't kidding. (They don't kid.) With the current underwhelmingness of my job here and the appeal of the open road, I honestly considered it for a moment.
The past few months I've been trying to practice mindfulness. The basic concept, as I understand it so far, is that we spend so much time buried in our own thoughts that we’re never really present in the world around us—just being, here, now. What better way to get out of one’s head than by flying through the Netherlands on a motorcycle, where all focus is required in that moment, on the road and life around you. Thoughts are distractions, and in that situation distractions are quite dangerous.
So my focus turned outward and on the amazing beauty of this country. I’ve ridden motorcycles through Oregon and California, on roads that make you feel like you’re in a commercial for motorcycles. Twisty roads, forests, mountains, desert, along the idyllic Highway 1 bordering the Pacific. The landscape here is equally cinematic. When uninterrupted by trees or farmhouses, bright green grass reaches the horizon. Endless flat green fields divided squarely by man-made canals and smaller irrigation channels. Quaint towns and villages with slanted roofs and ancient wooden bridges. And for the first time in months, it was warm and sunny.
We slowed as we passed tulip fields, giant blocks of color striping the landscape, bordered by towering wind turbines harnessing energy from moving air. Wind farms are common in Holland. It’s so flat and windy, there’s an endless supply of natural energy. In spring, there is also a fresh population of baby sheep, called lamb, everywhere, adding a shot of cuteness to the adrenaline of breaking land-speed records on roads as narrow as 10 feet (2.3 meters). It’s difficult not to stop and take a picture every five minutes. But perhaps it’s good practice sometimes to just be there and enjoy the moment instead of feeling the need to capture everything to share later on social media. One “like” would have to suffice.
Fertilizing your land is also popular at this time, so we flew through mile after mile (kilometer after kilometer) of alternating odors—sweet tulips, freshly cut grass and pungent smack-you-in-the-face cow manure fresh from the truck. As we passed through the warm air, some smells lingered and some came and went, and as part of my mindfulness practice, with intention I inhaled each as deeply as I could, to be there fully present in that moment really taking in the space around me and letting my thoughts and worries pass in and out without following them. Then the road ahead would bend sharply and I'd hit the throttle and lean into it like a boss before returning again with soft focus to all the majesty of Dutch countryside in spring.
I actually like the smell of cow poop. It reminds me of the nearby farm where our neighbors watched my sisters and I while our parents delivered mail for the United States Postal Service during the few years we lived in Minnesota in the 1980s. I don't remember ever seeing any people on that farm—in my head, the three of us were there alone, playing and getting dirty—but I remember vividly the sweet tangy poo smell of fresh cow piles. I was probably four or five then. Thirty years later I’m on the other side of the world and it still triggers that memory. The smell of cows has no concern with time or territory.
Yet, despite the amazing scenes and scents around me, and without even realizing it, I occasionally got lost in my head, failing at being mindful. It isn't about following your thoughts, identifying with them or searching for meaning; it's about letting them pass by so you can be present.
When thoughts come of work or self-doubt or a relationship that recently ended badly or sleep deprivation from a shaky house or the way you imagined your life would be at this age or all the shit you’re not getting done or the million other things we worry too much about, you just note them and let them go. So I’d shake my head or a bug would fly into my eye and I’d gently refocus my attention on what’s around me.
The past nine months have been weird, and I was grateful to take a welcome break from my ego-driven mind. It's like a Jackson Pollock painting in there these days, so much going on, both good and bad, that it's nearly impossible to stop and sort it out. Where do you begin? Instead, I just keep splattering paint. But on the bike, inside my favorite yellow helmet, I was intentionally not trying sort anything out. For the most part, I was able to be there and smile at the horizon and little lambs and running horses and lazy cows and tulip farmers in tractors (which I’m now licensed to drive), and I realized finally that perhaps this is why I came here. To figure out how to “be here now.”
Saturday it was hot, so we decided a swim was in order. We ate breakfast in a sunny plaza in Groningen and headed back south, stopping at the coast a few hours north of Amsterdam. When we arrived, it was early evening but still warm. The three of us braced ourselves and jumped in the freezing and very salty North Sea. You can feel the salt crystals on your skin and in your hair. It feels good, cleansing. Because we're so far north, the sun doesn't set till 9:30 p.m. now and it will set even later each day until July, when we'll have 11 hours of daylight. You can do a lot of living in a day that long.
That evening, riding back toward Amsterdam along the dunes with the sweet smell of tulips from the fields to my left mixing with the salty air from the sea to my right, the sun just starting to set, adding new color to the sky, riding down a smooth single-lane road, warm air moving against my face, freshly cleansed by cold sea, flying through it all like a dream on 1200 cubic centimeters of raw whining power, everything seemed right where it should be and all I could think about was What did I do to deserve this? How could anyone not be here now?