Water Flowing

Stormy and I joined the Peace Corps, not because our own country didn’t need anything (it did) but because it would be an adventure to work in another place and learn about a different part of our great big world. That turned out pretty well.

When we went there in 2002 one of the driving factors for Bulgaria wanting the assistance of the U.S. Peace Corps in the first place was to complete its alignment with the West. The goal was to join the European Union and step into the world of modern commerce and democratic states, after the big change from the former system of government in 1989. That happened. Bulgaria was accepted into the EU in 2007.

It was a few years after that, in July 2013,1 when the Peace Corps mission in Bulgaria ended. There was some unrest and dissatisfaction in the air around that time, with people demonstrating against cronyism and corruption. They were demanding the kind of good and honest government they deserved. (Well, no one ever said it wasn’t a work in progress.) The people were clearly oriented toward that very Peace-Corps-like goal of attaining a fully functioning modern society. At that point the Peace Corps said, in effect, “OK, ’bye. Good luck!” 

I enjoy finding things in the news about Bulgaria, even though it’s been a while now since we were there. The other day I found an article with a disturbing headline, “Welcome to Bulgaria, the world’s fastest shrinking nation.” 2 There were signs of that danger when we were there, and there was some effort in academic circles to encourage bright young minds to stay and “make Bulgaria better” with their talents and skills, rather than taking it all abroad. True, we saw Bulgaria as having a relatively low standard of living compared with Western Europe and the US, but with thrift and ingenuity most people lived very well, requiring little and wasting nothing.

So what’s wrong with that? The EU, that’s what. Ever notice, when you want something for so long and then get it, it comes out way differently than you thought it would? So now it seems that no one thought about the long-term effects of having open borders between an economically depressed area and a prosperous, busy one with chronic worker shortages. People move, like water flowing.

Song Khon Waterfall, Loei Province, Amphoe Dan Sai, Foto: Martin Püschel 14:23, 29 December 2006

Photo from Wikimedia Commons, Martin Püschel

Reminds me of the news lately, closer to home (and getting closer every day). I wonder what will happen with those thousands of people flowing through Mexico from Guatemala and points south. Of course it’s a different situation but there are parallels. Coming from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, the people in that desperate, flowing stream — many of them at least — are escaping deadly gang and government violence. Others are just trying to escape hopeless (really, really hopeless, probably like you can’t imagine) grinding poverty by coming to the Land of Opportunity. In an article from CBS News,3 most of the travelers said they were fleeing extreme poverty. As the article noted, though, that is not a condition for asylum or refugee status in the U.S.

A similar caravan, though smaller, was in the news earlier this year (remember that?) Only 300-some made it through the journey and the process, and were admitted for asylum. That process, and the outcome to date, is described in an informative article in USA Today, here.

I’m no dreamer, in the John Lennon sense. I don’t Imagine there are no countries, no borders. In the same way I don’t imagine there are no dams, reservoirs, or channels. We need water, and it has to flow.

Does anyone who reads this believe we shouldn’t have asylum and refugee programs? There are so many who need, and deserve by virtue of humanity, to be saved from the devastation of war and violence. Can we help them? All of them? Do they want to kill us? Do they want our jobs? Are these hard questions?

A Perfect World

In a perfect world, the ideals that America would exemplify would be a shining light, a bright star that could not be missed or misunderstood throughout that perfect world. Peace. Democracy. Freedom. Civic responsibility. Equality. Strengthening and spreading those ideals is a big part of what the Peace Corps was established for, and the mission is still carried on today. In the early 2000s, when Stormy and I worked in Bulgaria not long after the fall of the Soviet system, those ideals stayed discreetly in the background of everything we did, but they were always assumed to be a part of our work. Here at home, we sometimes forget to call them up. 

I met my brilliant and passionate friend Piper through a mutual acquaintance, shared interests, and my own good luck. She is a lawyer by profession, a lung transplant survivor, a highly visible advocate for CF research, and… well, she mentions some of her roles and avocations in her essay, which I feature here as a guest blog.

Photo by Nick Busselman, 2002 Fourth of July Party for Peace Corps Volunteers in Bulgaria

Piper posted this on Facebook on the Fourth of July, expressly as a thought for that celebration. Although it’s a few days later, the thought is enduring. It should not be just a one-day-only special. It guides us toward the highest and purest ideals to which we can aspire in healing this country. And healing is needed.

Guest Blog Article by Piper Beatty Welsh

I grew up loving every single thing about the US Constitution. I vividly remember in 3rd grade writing a short essay on an American hero and having my lawyer dad casually suggest a kids biography of Thurgood Marshall. From the moment I read about his commitment to rights and justice in the face of serious adversity — and his refusal to give up on a country of laws that at times failed to live up to its own promise — I was hooked. Avid reading about every Associate or Chief Justice I could find followed, regardless of his/her political leanings. By 5th grade “constitutional lawyer” or “Supreme Court Justice” was my standard reply whenever anyone asked what I wanted to do with my life (hey, dream big!). When my mom got her hair cut I tagged along just so I could wear one of the black smocks at the salon and practice my Sandra Day O’Connor impression in the mirrors.

Like most Americans, I believe in the fundamental promise of this country. I believe in rights. I believe in equality. I believe in standing up for what is right and good and honest and human, first and foremost, no matter what the cost. I believe in the fallibility of leaders and laws and in the responsibility of the citizenry to make our voices heard. More than anything, I believe that the pendulum of history swings always toward justice in the end, and that ultimately we will be judged not by the money we make or the structures we leave behind, but by the way that we treat other people. To me, the mark of civilization will always be found in its humanity.

I’ve been quieter these past couple months for a couple of reasons. The first is that, though I’m grateful for so many things, balancing cancer, radiation, a career, and a life is HARD. I’ve been staying afloat, but not without a couple of life rafts, and I just haven’t had the energy to dive into deeper waters. The second is that I, who love this country and its potential and its promise to the point that it physically aches, haven’t had the words or the voice to say much lately. But I think, I HOPE, that we can all agree on this much: people are people, no matter where we come from or what we believe. And people, as people and as fellow members of creation, deserve to be treated as such. If we can ever imagine a world in which we, too, would flee with our children to find somewhere safe(r) or kind(er) or less violent, it is up to us to reach into our hearts and treat others the way we would hope to be treated in such a situation. That’s not rocket science, it’s basic humanity.

So to ALL my beautiful friends this weekend, happy 4th of July. Enjoy the day as you celebrate the ideas, hope, and promise of this nation that has never been even remotely close to perfect, but that has slowly and consistently bent towards the notions of equality and human goodness. Remember our flaws, our errors, and our shortsightedness as you celebrate a country that was built to withstand change and political awakenings. And, if you feel so inclined, maybe pick up a biography of Justice Marshall or one of his colleagues in the fight to expand and celebrate the idea of justice. It just might change your life.

Happy Birthday, America. May your stars shine brighter every year.


You can follow Piper Beatty Welsh on Facebook.

A Friend in the Neighborhood

A friend recently joined the Board of our neighborhood association, and brought with him some fresh new ideas and energy. His name is also Bruce, and he started referring to himself as Bruce-02, since I had been roped into — I mean motivated to join — the Board first. I call him 2 for short. He had tried unsuccessfully to retire from regular work several times, but kept being drawn back to his longtime career in academia. He finally managed to retire, though, but as his wife sadly noted he came down with a case of VD — Volunteer Disorder. He has found himself deeply involved in volunteer work, and seems to take on one thing after another. That was, oddly enough, how we had met a year or two ago, shoveling topsoil and mulch for a community garden.

2 made a suggestion that the neighborhood association do something to make people more aware of volunteer opportunities as a benefit to the community. He wrote an article on the topic (which you can see here: Volunteer Opportunities) for our neighborhood website. It’s mostly local and very convenient. The response to it has been, shall we say, politely reserved. Crickets. It’s surprising how hard it is for our little elementary school to get people to come out and see the kids safely across the street; that’s the easiest, lowest-involvement job on the whole menu! Maybe people are saving up their strength for more challenging work, such as mentoring a young teenager one-on-one, teaching a refugee family how to navigate Safeway, or going down to a storm-ravaged area to help clean up.

I remember years ago, when Stormy and I were in the Peace Corps in Bulgaria, hearing a new volunteer brimming with enthusiasm, “This is the Olympics of volunteering!” I liked that phrase, albeit a little too self-congratulatory from anyone other than one just out of training. It occurs to me now, poking at the analogy, that there is a whole rich and vital world of sport — with life-lifting excitement, growth, skill, challenge, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat — outside the Olympic arena. You don’t have to sweat and strain and make it to the highest level of a sport in order to enjoy and benefit greatly from it. Wait, benefit? Who said anything about benefits? Isn’t volunteering supposed to be generously and selflessly giving of your time and talents? Wouldn’t it be kind of cheating to do it because it benefits you?

Aha! That’s the dirty little secret. The best volunteers do it because it benefits them. They get enjoyment, and satisfaction, and fulfillment, and even better health out of volunteering. (Don’t tell, or there goes that “selfless” image.)

The beneficial effects of volunteering have been studied and documented by the Mayo Clinic, the National Institutes of Health, the Harvard School of Public Health, and others. Some of the findings seem useful and applicable to anyone’s life, even people who already have too much to do. As a reminder, before we start the list (compiled in no particular order from several sources),1 2 3 if something is both good and available, the best time to go after it is not maybe next month. It is now. So here we go.

Volunteering decreases the risk of depression, especially for older adults. This one is pretty easy to see: getting outside of yourself does wonders. Social interaction and participation in a support system can reduce or forestall depression.

Reduction in stress levels. Social interaction and the building of networks can buffer or outright alleviate stress, and a reduction in stress reduces risk of illness. The sense of meaning and appreciation that comes from positive interaction with others can have a stress-reducing effect.

Meeting new people and developing new relationships, by participating in shared activities together, helps you keep sharp in social skills with others. The network you build in sharing common interests can spill over into other areas of your life and lead to unanticipated benefits from relationships that would otherwise be unavailable.

Finally, quoting the Mayo Clinic article cited below — and this is a big one:

Volunteering may help you live longer. An analysis of data from the Longitudinal Study of Aging found that individuals who volunteer have lower mortality rates than those who do not, even when controlling for age, gender and physical health. In addition, several studies have shown that volunteers with chronic or serious illness experience declines in pain intensity and depression when serving as peer volunteers for others also suffering from chronic pain.

My friend in the neighborhood hit on some pretty important ideas when he suggested that getting people to volunteer would be good for the community. Now we can see that it clearly has benefits for those who make volunteering a part of their lives. One good thing that can come from it, at the very least, is becoming a friend in the neighborhood.