Pem Sluijter 15 May 1939-18 December 2007


(This year I was ready for Christmas a week ahead of time. I had the cards out and the gifts bought. Then on the Tuesday Anastasia called and said she didn’t know how to say what she had to say, she had never done this before. I had to ask her to repeat herself, and only then did I even start to realize that our Pem was gone. She got there first. This verse entitled her funeral service, and proclaims her hope for the Middle East. You can find Pem’s poetry and musings on her website and blog; Pem’s link is on my blogroll. She wrote as a journalist, as a poet, as a friend. I spent the week before Christmas translating her poetry for the funeral, together with Anastasia and Erik, we had the privilege of translating the tributes to Pem by her husband Bram, her sons, and her cousin. And all last week, I felt Pem with us as we rearranged her words. Then on Saturday an extraordinary thing happened as hundreds of people came together to celebrate my friend’s life and all she stood for in terms of peace and peace-making. We told Pem’s story as tears mixed with laughter. I finished the day singing Christmas carols in homes for the elderly around The Hague, an activity Pem was supposed to attend with us. She was there; we just couldn’t see her. What follows is the tribute I read on behalf of our Church at Pem’s funeral on 22 December.)

Pem was many things to many people. I cannot begin to describe her many-splendored beauty. Wife, mother, grandmother, poet. All I can do is describe who she is for me, a small sliver of light limited to the time and space when our lives intersected. This sliver of the rainbow that is Pem, I call Friend.

I met Pem 23 years ago. We were part of a women’s Bible Study, together with Helene, and Kathy, Eliane, and some others who have left. Kathy and I have a photo taken during one of these Bible studies, of our toddlers playing naked in a pool on a hot summer day, and we’re still using it to blackmail our adult children with.

Pem and I share a love for words: the written word, and Jesus the Word. Her manifestation of God’s life and love which is the Word, dazzles me still. Through the years I tried to dance along the same lines, so to speak, writing from the heart. Whenever a new book came out, I congratulated her, or she congratulated me. I went to her readings. I met fascinating people there and we exchanged our wonder of Pem and Bram. Many of them are you, who are here today. Pem and I saluted and supported each other as women of words. The books piled up, as did the years. Until exactly a year ago, when I became a regular visitor again, to Riouwstraat 145, as I joined the organizing committee of the Palestinian-Israeli youth camp, that took place this last August. The rhythm of my seeing Pem and Bram assumed a pattern of Saturday afternoons, fresh broodjes and homemade soup, as our little group waded through the endless details involved in organizing a reconciliation camp for people living in enemy countries. We despaired—I despaired sometimes that it would not happen—too many visa problems, the money, grant applications in a language that baffled even the best of us multi-linguals.

But as you know the camp did happen, and it was an oasis of hope in the midst of so much despair, as these young people exhibited courage and a willingness to be surprised by friendship.

Less than two weeks ago, our little band met around the great, scarred, storytelling oak table next to the kitchen again. We gave God the glory for the camp, and how all the countless loose threads came together. We shared stories of email follow-up, and sat amazed to hear, for example, that we had not exceeded our EU subsidy budget. We leaned over drawings by the kids and sighed over quotes. We prayed and gave thanks, and dared to set out a vision for the next camp.

I will never forget the last night of that camp. Everyone but the West Bank teens had returned to the Middle East. These kids from the worst places spent the night in Pem and Bram’s house. We sat around that oak table with candles and cognac and spekkoek, relieved, and not yet realizing just how explosive the fruit of our small seed of peace might become. The West Bank Palestinian kids came in all breathless from the beach at Scheveningen. They had been singing the Hebrew praise songs they had learned at the camp on the tram. “Can’t do that at home,” they laughed. The tall boy, so rigid and resistant though the camp, gave hugs to us all, bending over Pem’s form and thanking her. These kids, they blew into our lives and broke our hearts and now … we email. One of the Israelis is moving next month to Jordan, where she will learn Arabic.

But Pem. Pem, my poet. Anastasia and I were planning to meet with her. We had this great idea of sitting at master Pem’s feet with our poetry and growing as writers. We did meet. Anastasia and I had wanted to wait until after Pem’s surgery, but on the one afternoon when we went ahead and met without Pem, who couldn’t make it because of the pending operation, our master poet still managed to be present: Pem sent an email that came through on my Blackberry while Anastasia and I were poring over a poem, and she hadn’t even known we had gotten together. And even though she had said she wanted to wait until after the operation, Pem offered wisdom and helped me with the very poem we had been working on: a poem some of you received for Christmas. And she comforted me with words like, leave it in the drawer, let time do its work, wait for the good words, poems need to grow, give them space, believe, listen for the words. Trust.

Her poems, the youth camps, the youth center for Palestinians on the land she and Bram have bought, Tabitha ministries, the grandchildren to be held—I think, Pem, you weren’t finished yet!

Ik wens jullie heel veel sterkte. You are not alone.

Only Pem and Bram could have brought a group like this one together today, in this holy place. You are people of the Book: Muslims, Jews and Christians, poets, lover, children and grandchildren, worshipers and wonderers, all.

You know—she and Bram—during our meetings about the often wearisome logistics of the camp—sometimes Pem and Bram would voice different opinions. Now, I come from a family of destructive disagreements. So whenever I heard Pem say, “I disagree, Bram,” or heard Bram say, “I think you’re wrong, Pem,” all my alarms went off and I would look into the soup bowl, pleading that our circle not be broken. But inevitably, Pem would then say, “I didn’t realize that,” or Bram would say, “You’re right, this is important,” and I would grasp yet again that they were not arguing; they were listening—to each other and to their hearts. And if there is any one gift greater than the rest that Pem gave me, it was this: to listen.

When I heard the news that Pem was gone, I did not understand. I wasn’t listening. I heard that she was dead, but I had to ask that the words be repeated. And then my heart gasped, “You’re in heaven?!” And I longed to see her dancing like a child in the Light.

I wanted to write her an email, picturing her at her desk, those rare and precious bent hands and fingers, puzzling out yet another message. I wanted to wait and watch the inbox for her answer. “I’m still here. In your hearts.”

I am listening still.

Orchard A plot, even smaller. Pruned further back. What remains is vast: a holy salute bequested to the beloved, a salute that cuts the heart.

So wrap my life in many threads and hang it from a tree

Where it can bear fruit ’til I come marching in, singing with arms outstretched around your orchard, past the river through your city. –Pem Sluijter (Translated from the collection Roos is een bloem (Rose is a flower), published by Arbeiderspers and awarded the C. Buddingh prize for poetry in 1997.)

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