Our Amsterdam she hides
That howling wind, she’s waving hi
Her other hand’s in mine…
The sweet, wistful melody of Gregory Alan Isakov’s “Amsterdam” came to me every once in a while as we walked its cobbled streets. We dodged bikers as they rushed past, ringing their tinkling bells; took pictures of regal townhouses with painted shutters and the motorboats reflected in glimmering canals; studied the satin curves of cherry blossoms and tulip petals that bloomed, gem-bright, beside the bare branches of trees still waiting to leaf.
It was my first trip to continental Europe. Books like Hilda van Stockum’s The Borrowed House and The Winged Watchman or Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place had given me an enchanted sense of Holland’s dykes and windmills, tulips and canals, wooden clogs and patriotic love for the color orange. I liked the whimsical sound of saying, “I’m going to Holland to see the tulips” and that sense of being a seasonal beauty-seeker, like the leaf-peepers who come to New England for the autumn blaze or snowbirds who flock to sunny Florida in the winter.
We walked through the winding paths of the Keukenhof Gardens, awed by the splendid chalices of tulips, curls of hyacinths, and trumpets of daffodils: ruby and amethyst, citrine and sapphire, emerald and garnet. Sections named for the royal family during World War II – Queen Wilhelmina, the princesses Beatrix and Juliana – were arranged in orderly beds around cherry or beech trees, a chattering stream full of busy ducks, and plenty of shops and cafes. It was crowded with people taking photos of each other: girls in prom dresses, flocks of little kids, babies in strollers, and elderly folk in wheelchairs.
. . . All inside
Our Amsterdam she flies
Hoarding the kites
That howling wind, she’ll take everything
But she’s easy on the eyes . . .
The Dutch people were lovely to talk to: from the rental car agent to the hotel staff, they greeted us with warm smiles, useful tips, and gentle teasing. Dutch is close enough to English that guessing the meaning of road signs and parking garage ticket machines was a lot of fun: to shove a credit card in at AUT KAART AUB and sigh in relief to see the transaction was IN BEHANDLING, or to find the right UIT (exit) off the highway.
We visited the Dutch Resistance Museum, which documents the struggle against the Nazi occupation in World War II. I’ve always loved stories of the Resistance and wanted to hear about specific Resistance leaders, their backgrounds, how they organized hiding places and secret messages, and specific acts of sabotage and rescue. The museum focused more on information about the occupation itself and organized strikes, but it was full of specific stories of endurance and courage. Watching videos of elderly men who had been boys in the war enthusiastically recounting their adventures was an unexpected delight. I learned about the horrors of the Japanese occupation of Indonesia, or the Dutch East Indies as it was called then, which I had never heard about before.
. . . Oh, churches and trains
While they all look the same to me now
They shoot you some place
While we ache to come home somehow . . .
We only visited one church on Sunday, so I’m still not sure why Gregory Alan Isakov compared churches and trains in Amsterdam. Grace Church’s sermon was on Romans 5, the pastor earnestly reminding us that while we were yet sinners – beyond all hope of redeeming ourselves – Christ died for us, the ungodly. He read the Triumphal Entry from Mark in honor of Palm Sunday. If I tried to find a good metaphor for that church, it would be a beacon on a mountain: a cozy shelter up close, and a blazing signal from far away. But I still love the multi-layered ambiguity of Isakov’s church-train image, and the yearning in the last line of the song: we all ache to come home somehow.
Last year, Easter was one of the first church services we were allowed to attend in Scotland after five months of COVID lockdown. I had tears in my eyes during the singing, which the congregation could still not legally join in.
This year, I have a song or rhythm stuck in my head, one usually reserved for Christmas: the ancient O Antiphons that call on Christ to come as O Sapientia (Wisdom), O Adonai (Lord and Ruler), O Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (Key of David), O Oriens (Dawn of the East), O Rex Gentium (King of the Gentiles), and O Emmanuel (God With Us). The beauty of each image, and the reminder that Christ’s death and resurrection are both glorious myth and unfailing fact, make me want to cry now. Concrete images like King and Messiah, Lamb of God and Lion of Judah embody the wonder of the familiar story that theological terms like savior, propitiation, substitutionary atonement, justification, and imputed righteousness do not (though I believe we need both – poetic image and straightforward theological term – to grasp the truth).
So we celebrate the Resurrection again with singing and feasting, chocolate bunnies and egg hunts. And still, the Kingdom of Heaven is coming.
We all ache to come home somehow.