Thursday, August 9, 2018

Hygge: Danish Delight

On Fridays Esther and I take care of our two sweet granddaughters. One is two years old and the other is one and a half. In spite of the fact that they are a joy to be with, after 9 grueling hours of watching them and trying to keep up with them, we are usually exhausted.

This past Friday, I deliberately repeated the word “hygge” (pronounced hue-guh) whenever I felt overwhelmed. It was a bit like using a key word to help return to the important center during Centering Prayer.

I first heard of the Danish concept of hygge from a book called Four Gifts by April Yamasaki that I am reviewing. According to Alex Beauchamp on her website “Hygge House,” hygge is “a conscious appreciation, a certain slowness, and the ability to not just be present – but recognize and enjoy the present.”

With my granddaughters, I wanted to slow down and enjoy the present. I wanted to savor the precious moments as much as I could, and not be overwhelmed by their energy. After all, I will not be with them forever.

Apparently, this concept was developed by the Danes in order to be able to survive the boredom of the long winters nights in Denmark. Beyond the sense of presence, according to Beauchamp, adjectives that describe the concept are “coziness, charm, happiness, contentedness, security, familiarity, comfort, reassurance, kinship, and simplicity.”

That list of adjectives reads like the anthesis of US American obsessive, burned-out, stressed-out and cut-off culture. While we idealize and seek to embody those concepts, little in our lifestyles allows us the freedom to reach them.

In her book, Yamasaki elaborates a little more on the concept: “Hygge means community with enough for all, casual simplicity, comfort food with friends, a mug of hot chocolate by the fireplace, warm socks, and much more.” Perhaps our culture indulges in comfort food with friends, hot chocolate by the fireplace and warm socks, but unless I am mistaken with my observations, we really fall short on community with enough for all and casual simplicity.

The discussion on hygge comes in Yamasaki’s chapter on “soul care,” or what she calls “self-care.” Her book broaches self-care on four levels as in Jesus’ great commandment: “Mind, heart, soul and strength.”

I hope that Esther and I are creating a sense of security, contentedness, familiarity, and kingship with our granddaughters. I hope that they will always carry with them memories of coziness and comfort at their “Grosi” and “Bubu’s” house. I hope we can cultivate these feelings whether it’s in the heat of summer or the dead of winter. Above all, I hope we can create these perceptions in their hearts in spite of how tired we might be.

Hygge is probably easier for retired grandparents to cultivate for their grandchildren than for parents who are in the midst of building a career, establishing a home and defining who they are as persons within their society. Esther and I tried our best to develop most of those concepts with our home and family, but perhaps failed at too many of them because of our moving around, changing jobs and too often living too far from extended family.

US American society could use a good dose of hygge We take too few vacations that aren’t working vacations and have too few pauses in our weeks to kick back and and smell the coffee in spite of all sorts of advice to the contrary. We are probably the most overworked and stressed-out people on earth, and technology has made it even worse. Although created to make our lives easier and to save time, the fact is, technology has allowed us to accomplish much more than ever thought possible, demanding more and more of our time. I experienced this increased demand on my time exponentially during my career as a teacher.

In the book my sister and I wrote The Spacious Heart we devote a whole chapter on what we loosely defined as “Holy Leisure.” As I read back over that chapter now, I think we were trying to develop the concept of hygge in our readers.

Relax, take it easy, stop and smell the roses or the coffee, make your life and home a charming, cozy, contented place of comfort.

Hygge, the delight the Danes gave us. It is indeed care for the soul.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

A Meeting With the Bishops and Deacons

It was about 9:00 pm, when out of the blue I received a telephone call. “Hello, my name is (so and so) and I was told you were the contact person for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC),” said the person on the other end of the line. “We are from the Mennonites of Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua, and just arrived by bus in Guadalajara. We would like to visit the construction project. Could you come and pick us up as soon as possible?” I had had no warning that I was to host a visiting delegation from anywhere.

Typical costume of Old Colony Mennonite men* 

I was the country representative for MCC in Mexico, directing the reconstruction program in southern state of Jalisco after a devastating earthquake in 1984. We had had some contact with the Old Order Colony Mennonites of the state of Chihuahua through an ad hoc “Hilfskomittee” (Aid Committee) set up by the more progressive Mennonite Church in the area to channel funds to MCC for the reconstruction. I had no idea who the man was who called me, and Guadalajara was two hours away. It would be at least midnight before I could meet them, and then would have to turn around and drive them back to Ciudad Guzmán where I lived.

As soon as I hung up, I called the contact that I had from the Hilfskomittee to see if these people were legit. “Oh yes,” said the voice in my ear. “These men represent the most powerful leaders in the Old Colony Mennonite Church. They are all bishops and deacons. You have to afford them your best hospitality.” We wanted to encourage their goodwill and financial participation in our rebuilding project.

I was stuck. My plans not only for the evening, but apparently for the next day were changed in a minute. Reluctantly, I explained everything to my wife and headed toward Guadalajara.

They told me that they were in a hotel restaurant in Guadalajara where they wanted to meet me. I didn’t know the hotel, but they gave me the address near the center of the city, and I was able to find it without too much difficulty.

As I approached the hotel, it struck me that it may be one of the most luxurious hotels in the city. Seemed a bit ironic since Colony Mennonites shun modern technology and superfluous spending.

There were more surprises in store for me. First, as I entered the lobby to see where the restaurant was, I noticed that to the left was a cabaret with very scantily-clad women dancing while surrounded by mostly men drinking up a storm. To the right was the restaurant. I turned right.

As I entered the restaurant, I spied six men in black coats and black hats sitting around tables. They were obviously the Mennonite men I was looking for. I introduced myself, and in spite of the fact that it was already midnight, and we had a two-hour trip ahead of us, they insisted that I sit down with them for a cup of coffee and a chat.

A completed MCC home after the earthquake
Normally I only drank coffee in the morning, but I thought of the trip ahead, and how insistent they were. As a good MCC volunteer, I knew that the relationship with them was more important than my own personal needs. Later I learned that drinking coffee before going to bed was a habit of the Colony Mennonites. “It helps us relax and fall asleep,” explained one of them to me. How different from my own sensibilities.

The conversation was rather lively. Spanish was our common language, even though we both spoke a different dialect of German—they Low German and me Swiss German. We joked and had generally had a good time. At times we switched to High German. We talked little of MCC’s rebuilding project. They were checking me out to see if I could be trusted. Apparently, I passed their test. It was after 2:00 am till we headed back to where the MCC project was located and where I lived. I put them up in a local hotel at 4:00 am, agreeing to meet them at 9:00 am the next morning to visit our projects.

Two Old Colony Mennonite girls*
I picked them up the following morning in MCC’s VW bus (Combi) and headed to the project. As I drove through the town, I showed them some of the completed homes and some of the ones currently under construction. I wanted them to get out and talk to the workers, to talk to the new home owners, and to hear stories of the people affected by the earthquake. They refused. It was too far out of their comfort zone to step out of the Combi and meet the local people.

At the end of the tour, the head bishop thanked me profusely, and directed the head deacon to write a check for the work. It was a substantial check that probably provided funds for the construction of ten new homes. My night of lost sleep and inconvenience turned out to be well worth it.

Meeting the bishops and deacons provided MCC with important contacts to move forward with not only the reconstruction projects but longer-term MCC endeavors. The meeting with the bishops and deacons gave me contacts and interesting personal friendships within a very closed community. Indeed, relationships are more important than personal convenience, and are important in building community across differences of religious and social perspectives.  

* Source of the Old Colony Mennonite pictures: