The Light Shift

How a Dutch mom became her nation's foremost vigilante poet.

If you like your mysteries regular and small, you would have done well to park yourself all summer 2015 outside a house exactly 100 years old, in the city of Groningen, the Netherlands. At the start of every weekend you would have seen the same curious sight.

A figure, fine-boned and long-necked, girl-sized but resolute as a professional, opens her front door. With her are a few items: an old Macbook, an Optoma projector, a sandwich for dinner built in the Dutch style of bread plus one ingredient. The mysterious girl-woman starts her car and is not back until morning. 

The rest of the week progresses as weeks do for new mothers. You see her carrying her baby in the window (are you feeling like a creep yet?), taking the bundle out for a walk. Friday winds down and it begins again: her nocturnal escape, to where, you don’t know.

The artist beams her signature onto Rotterdam's tallest tower, the Euromast.
The artist beams her signature onto Rotterdam's tallest tower, the Euromast.

The woman, 34, has a pseudonym: Lumen van Stralen, meaning “ray of light.” She is real, but she'd rather you not know her true name. Before she christened herself anew, she was a journalist who wrote about religion for Dutch language magazines. Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity. She didn’t have a favorite; the fact of spirituality itself drove her -- the secret of what differentiates our deepest beliefs from each other.

She grew up, got married, then pregnant, and chose to work less. One day, a friend paid a visit. The loss of work was on her mind and she told him about a dream she’d once had, to write poetry.

This memory must have worked on her because the moment she shut the door behind him, she met the sort of idea that seems to have been handed whole from some better version of oneself. Why not project a story piece by piece to the public? If people choose to follow it by following her, it could live in their minds.

As a child, she had imagined writing a book in a way no one ever had. This solved that riddle. The adult in her understood that the impermanent is not easily monetized, and liked this aspect too. She wasn’t interested in making money.

"Projection," a light poem by the artist Jenny Holzer.
"Projection," a light poem by the artist Jenny Holzer.

She took her Optoma projector to an abandoned rail yard. The spell cast by a beam of light amazed her. She hadn’t yet seen the work of Jenny Holzer, an American artist known for her work in projected light. Holzer’s block phrases have graced some of the best known buildings in the world. In botanist terms, she creates trees, self-contained ideas with hidden meanings attached like roots. The Dutch woman makes something more like a dandelion, all the parts split and flown -- a page in one town, the next in another. Only a lunatic would track each seed of a dandelion down to see how they look all together.

In the end, who would follow her enough to understand her whole meaning? This aspect too, pleased her. Like a child, she preferred to work in a code all her own.

She ventured first to the riverside city of Arnhem, home of the world’s largest collection of paintings by Vincent van Gogh. Her stop was the famous orchestra hall, the Musis Sacrum, a 19th-century building with a white wall at its rear. On this unexpected streak of modernism she projected the first page of her ongoing work, while her husband minded the baby back at home.

The story is about a Muslim man. It’s not clear from which country he hails, only that it’s not Turkey or Morocco, where most Muslim immigrants to the Netherlands come from. In this way, he is a bit like the Musis wall: a surface on which to project the idea of a man.

He is not a saint. He cheats on his wife with a woman he meets in the Netherlands. (As a sort of joke, the woman names this other woman Lumen van Stralen too.) People aren’t always kind to him. The story is set roughly four decades before the present day, when hatred for the rush of Muslim immigrants in the wake of a Dutch economic resurgence boiled close to the country's skin. 

The poet's ongoing story winds its way through Dutch cities.
The poet's ongoing story winds its way through Dutch cities.

She drove each weekend. One night she logged nearly 300 miles, from her home at the north tip of the country down to Rotterdam in the south, and back. As per the arrangement with her husband, she was home always by morning. Eventually she wrote a scene that made her uncomfortable to throw onto a public wall. She was in Dokkum, a small town of some 12,000 people, home to the tiniest hospital in the Netherlands.

The scenario was a confrontation between Dutch natives and the Muslim hero. Like a ventriloquist, the woman held a mystifying relation to the dialogue she wrote. The words were both hers and not hers. She felt wrong using them: Dirty Turk. Moroccan cunt -- or kut-marokkanen, as it is hissed on Dutch streets. Today, the infamous 2004 murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Moroccan Dutchman hangs in the air. Studies link the country's unofficial segregation to the radicalization of young Dutch Muslims; meanwhile, white Dutch people fill out polls about their fears.

In a parking lot by the brick wall where she worked in Dokkum, a car full of men pulled up beside her. The dust carrying the slurs hung in the beam of light whirring through the dark. The men asked if the idea was to comment on Dutch society. She said yes, adding that she wonders about “connection.” How do people from different backgrounds see each other? The men didn’t applaud, but they didn’t hassle her either.

One night, her words danced on a white sheet draped on the enormous underbelly of a bridge in Nijmegen. This was her first legal experience. The night before, a man saw her beaming at the side of the bridge. He said he was helping to organize Vierdaagse, the festival whose energy she'd come to feed off of. Stretching six days despite the name (which means "Four Days," in reference to how long the epic walks that are at its heart stretch), it is the country's largest event, full of music and food and some million attendees. He invited her to project as an official artist. In the gravel under the bridge, she worked in a sea of young people drinking grainy piña coladas out of plastic cups.

A woman approached her, explaining that she was Muslim.

This made our Dutch writer nervous. The narrative twist on display had been a particular source of worry. In the story, the main character wants to remake himself for the West and so he converts to a form of Islam palatable to Westerners. When an American or Brit or Dutchman hears the word Sufism, he thinks of whirling dervishes, spinning peacefully. Or else Rumi, whose poems show up in coffee table books and inspirational wall hangings. Knowing this, the hero changes his name to Derwish.

The woman worried she’d arrived at this bit of fiction apropos of nothing. The other woman -- a poet, it turned out -- congratulated her. In real life, she said, some of her Muslim immigrant friends were considering converting to Sufism for the very reasons Derwish does.

Social scientists say we are wired to see the humanity in those who look and pray like us. They have a word for this: ethnocentric empathy. The woman felt she was short-circuiting ethnocentric empathy in a small way each night she ventured out. Even before the Muslim poet's corroboration, she felt vindicated. When white Dutch readers stopped to read, they seemed to care about the man on the wall. She could swear she saw new pathways forming.

If you were parked outside the century old house, you might see a change from this pleasure in the figure stealing back in the early light. Multiple lives might seem to radiate out like light: woman or girl, mother or radical? As she opens the door, she feels a thrill that her son has not missed her. She knows she can be many things. She is a hero in a story too, imperfect and full.

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