Some thirty years ago when my husband and I were imprisoned in separate Japanese camps on the island of Sumatra, we women were allowed at one time to send parcels and letters to our husbands and sons older than twelve — for those boys, having come of age according to Japanese law, had been sent to the men's camps. Generally we had managed to have our letters smuggled out of camp, but this time, it being legal, everybody did his utmost to fashion something worthwhile.
It was on this occasion that I filled a little book with sketches and water colors, wanting my husband to "read" it as a letter of hope and yearning for a better future. The first page showed a whitewashed house surrounded by a flowering garden. Other pages were covered with images of woods with a gleam of still waters within. These I copied from a book about one of our Dutch southern provinces, for I did not possess enough strength of imagination to create them out of thin air in that ugly little world of poverty and fences. Moreover, I had never actually seen those small lakes or ponds in my life. For they exist only in the south of the Netherlands and I had never been there. They are called vennen.
Sometimes dreams come true. This one did. We have just moved into a whitewashed farmhouse in northern Belgium, and large "ven"-adorned woods extend themselves right across the border into Holland. We can visit them every day. Having waited for this for thirty years we are no longer young, but the newness of everything, even the change of life style, create a fresh and vital stimulus, which is like spring rain unto an old oak.
The people here are different from those up north as well: simple, hardworking, a little careless, but gay and friendly. Their farm, their village, is their world which runs an invisible ring around them, and the big world outside entering their living rooms by way of television fills them with wonder and awe. (But isn't that also the case with us?) Even neighboring areas and their inhabitants are often alien to them.
They soon open their hearts to you and give you their whole life history, which is often very touching. I will tell you a story of our neighbor, the farmer's wife —where we fetch our milk fresh from the cow — which has touched me deeply as a tale of sorrow overcome.
It is about Greta, their youngest daughter of twelve, who is missing an arm. That was due to her father's mowing machine when, at the age of two, the little girl had fallen asleep in the field. If the horse had not stopped. . . . It was of course a terrible shock, especially for the father who unknowingly had inflicted this on his baby. Apart from the financial troubles — they had come from over the border not long before and had not yet been able to get insured — the grief tore their hearts apart. They refused to be consoled by kindly neighbors, because, as the wife told us, "You see, those people had never undergone such a plight themselves."
But then an old blind man came to see them. He had walked from afar with his guide-dog. He said to them: "I was just like you when I turned blind, now forty years ago. I was bitter and not able to understand, after such a blow, that the challenge of life was even more worthwhile now. I too refused help from others, until one day another patient, in the same hospital where I was, talked frankly to me: 'Look what you have got. A good wife and hardworking kids; you are not going to let them down, are you?' He made me feel selfish. I started facing life on account of them, and look how I am recompensed. All my sons succeeded and are now well-earning fathers with families of their own. They even bought me this friend" — and he patted the dog's head — "so that I can go wherever I want! If I could have one wish granted, it would be to see just for a moment the face of that man who brought me back to life."
The farmer and his wife then acknowledged their own life's worth for the sake of their children — a life full of simple joys and of willingness to help others in need. I know this, for I have heard it from others — and somehow you can read it in their eyes. At the age of sixteen, Greta will be going to work in a Dutch hospital where they train handicapped people for fitting tasks.
When I had written these thoughts down, I put them away. For days and weeks I left them alone and I wondered what it was that made me love these simple people so much. Do I see them as friends? Yes, I think I do. Friendship is such a strange and lovely thing. When you are young, it is putting an arm around a shoulder, meaning: we are friends forever! An eternity that could be destroyed any minute. In adult life there sometimes can be competition, one way or another, which is friendship's foe. But at a certain age the urge to compete dies and vanity dies and you feel relieved. I had an old aunt who once told me: "One does not make friends any more at an advanced age." That old aunt was never relieved.
There are acquaintances who ask: "How can you be friends with your neighbors? They live on another plane, another level" — evidently considering their own level so much higher up the mountain of civilization — "You can be friendly with them, but not friends," they say. Granted, one cannot converse with them about art or books or even politics, as their education and worldly experience are limited. But does that matter? One can choose friends for many reasons.
Now suddenly I know the answer. I found it in a little book of prayers I took out of the bookcase today. This is what I read in Abbe Michel Quoist's Prieres:
I love children, says God, I want you to be like them.
I do not love old ones, unless they are still children.
So I only want children in my Kingdom, as I decided from the beginning.
Bent children, hunchbacked children, children with white beards, all kinds of
children, as long as they are children.
Thus I have decided and nothing can change it, there is no place for others.
. . . . . .
I love children because they are still growing, still climbing.
They move upon the road.
But nothing doing with big, grown-up people.
They grow no more, they climb no more.
They stop, stagnate.
They are woeful, says God. They think they are there already.
. . . . . .
But especially, says God, I love children for the look in their eyes. Therein
I read their age.
In my heaven there will be no other eyes than those of five-year-olds, for I know nothing more beautiful than the clear eyes of a child.
This is not astonishing, says God, for I live in their house and look out the windows of their souls.
Whenever you meet a clear glance, know then that it is I, smiling at you through the material.
Perhaps it is because of God smiling at me out of those people's eyes that I love them. Friendship is like planting snowdrops in the earth. In early spring when nature awakes they come and dangle their little white heads in green patches amidst the snow, saying: "Friendship is like a chain and it winds itself further and further around the world." For every new spring the chain of snowdrops will be longer.
(From Sunrise magazine, May 1971; copyright © 1971 Theosophical University Press)