Going Back

We’re going back! Toward the end of October. It’s just for a week, but it will be the first time Stormy and I will have returned to Bulgaria since we went back to celebrate at The Ball in 2004. Memories rush back as we think of what it was like when we were there, and we’re looking forward to seeing some of the people we knew. There is a little trepidation as well. We’re twelve years older now for one thing, maybe a bit slower, and the resilience we relied on as volunteers may have ossified a little. Bulgaria will have changed too; we hope we’ll still be able to get around with what remains of our old familiarity. The language we learned has been packed away like an old souvenir up on a high shelf in the spare bedroom closet. There are Bulgarian phrases and random words that rattle around in my head from time to time, but they’re not much more than in a tourist phrasebook. Still, it’s exciting to be traveling to that place that means so much to us.

As a side benefit, it will be a respite from the yammering back-and-forth cynicism and hateful diatribes of our current political process (though don’t get me wrong our democracy is perfect and a model for the world and we should export it everywhere even if by force oops no I mean be a shining example of how a country should be governed). I hope the subject won’t come up. I do recall, though, how I was mercilessly held to account for U.S. foreign policy in 2003 by my eleventh-graders and by strangers on the street, about the events broadcast on BTV and CNN, red and white and orange flashes in the dark sky and American soldiers pulling down statues of Saddam Hussein while Iraqi fighters shed their uniforms on the run and melted into the night. It was the first-ever American preemptive strike, setting the “America will never” bedrock military principle afire and leaving it to smolder in the ruins of another country. They thought we were doing it for oil. Our country, in the eyes of the old-line European countries with so many more centuries behind them, was looked upon as a two-year-old having a tantrum. A two-year-old with bombs.

Lady Liberty Crying

From friend Chasen’s Facebook page. I don’t know where he found it.

One might have thought we would have grown up as a country since then, having been through such perilous times and so many challenges. I wrote last month about the severe divisions we Americans are feeling these days as our elections approach; drawing closer to November the acrimony has only intensified. Looking at the picture of Lady Liberty, I know that many of my friends will have different ideas about why she’s crying. I hope to put it aside for a while, or if I can’t do that I might find a new perspective.

As in our own beautiful country, Bulgaria has lots of beautiful places that we enjoyed while we were working there, with mountains and seashore, forests and fascinating cities, towns and villages. As it is with life wherever we find ourselves, it was the people — the real human contact — that made it so great to be there. We’re looking forward to seeing our Bulgarian family, school colleagues, former students and neighbors, who made such a difference in our lives with their open and generous spirit.

We won’t get to see everyone, of course. My former students are scattered all over now, in their professional and family lives all over the world. People move on, and some will never cross our paths again. I remember so fondly the brash young guy in my classroom, who later apologized on behalf of himself and his classmates for giving me such a hard time (he said they called it climbing on my head). He was the one who set our goal of coming back for the Graduation Ball. Warm memories, forever locked in time. His name was Georgi. Our hearts were touched, time and time again, right up to the day we left.

A little after midnight, we said our goodbyes. One of my students, Maria, gave me a little slip of paper from her family’s Easter bread, with Kusmet, Good Luck, written on it. She wrote her name on the back, with her class number and “I won’t forget you.”
     — Breeze, p. 337

I still have that little slip of paper in my wallet.

Life Artist



Your Vote CountsIf you are like some people I know, one of those names throws you into paroxysms of loathing, disgust, or rage. If that’s true for you, everything you read and hear confirms that you are right. If (that name) prevails in November, life will be unbearable. Everything that happens for years after that will demonstrate to you that you were right all along.

“You have a confirmation bias!”

“No I don’t! You do!”

“See? I told you so!”

I have friends and brothers who stand on one side of that divide, and friends and brothers who stand on the other. I do not think their thoughts.

“Out of the cacophony of suffering and chaos that can mark human life, the life artist sees or creates a symphony of meaning and order. A life of wholeness does not depend on what we experience. Wholeness depends on how we experience our lives.”
     ― Desmond Tutu

Life artist. A life artist. What does it take to be an artist? My sister is an artist, a real one in the usual sense of the word. She paints and draws with passion and intelligence. She teaches art too, has for years. Our dad used to ask her when she’d get a real job, not just making pictures. She knew all along, though, that what she was doing was important and rewarding. She would open new worlds for young people, one after another after another. She would save some kids’ lives. With art. Her art.

In recent months she has faced some big challenges — you know, that C-thing — meeting them head-on with passion and intelligence. That was when I started to notice her mastery as a life artist. She decided what to do (what picture to paint) and started by assembling the tools to do it. Some art projects need charcoals, paint, canvas and brushes; others need medicine, instruments and machinery, a healthy diet, rock-solid belief and gritty determination. Both need vision, seeing beyond what is to what can be. I see a pattern here. Attitude.

“We cannot change our past…we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude…I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it. And so it is with you… we are in charge of our attitudes.”
     ― Charles R. Swindoll

I admire my sister the artist. She takes the 10% and smothers it with the 90%. Kills it.

We're All Screwed 2016We’re all screwed! Ha, funny little thing to say, or is it your belief? I don’t want this to be the attitude I choose. No matter what happens in November, I will still live my life. Do you really think we’re all gonna die, or that you’ll have to defend your home against marauding (that name again) supporters? C’mon. We’re friends. We love the same country.

I remember not-so-many words from all the countless sermons I have heard in oh-so-many church services over oh-so-many years. Some of those long-remembered words (I was about ten, but sixty-some years later I can still hear Fr. Herbert’s voice) are these:

Two men looked out from prison bars.
One saw mud; the other, stars.

I want to be a life artist. It’s a real job, and it’s about attitude, choosing my own attitude. I choose how I experience my life.

And, oh yes, I vote.

Memorial Day

Peace Corps LogoWe know that Memorial Day is about remembering those who died in war, but there is an overlap that casts recognition on living veterans too. In that, the holiday doubles as an echo of Veterans Day, with friends often saying to veterans they know, “Thank you for your service.” At church on the first Memorial Day after our return from Peace Corps, Stormy and I heard the minister ask for “those who have served our country” to stand up and be recognized. Starting to rise, thinking of my time in the Air Force, I had a second thought on “serving our country” and encouraged Stormy to stand with me. Seeing her, the minister rephrased, “served our country for our freedom and for peace.”

Memorial Wall at Peace Corps Headquarters

From facebook.com/fpcvmemorialproject/

Over 300 Peace Corps volunteers have died in service, of the more than 200,000 who have served. Like in the armed services, there have been all kinds of causes for these deaths, from violence and deadly diseases to traffic accidents and just running out of time. There is a memorial at the Peace Corps Headquarters in DC to those who have lost their lives in Peace Corps service, names etched on black stone as if to reflect “The Wall” (The Vietnam Veterans Memorial) located not far away. There are lists and a number of touching remembrances online at the Fallen Peace Corps Volunteers Memorial Project.

I was in London once a few Novembers ago, on 11/11 specifically, when at 11:00 AM the city came to a stop for a moment of silence. It was impressive, though for only a minute as pedestrians, at least a noticeable number of them, stopped where they were and bowed their heads. Public ceremonies on Armistice Day, observed also in the US although morphed into our Veterans Day, were occasions of solemn remembrance for those who lost their lives in war. Initially it was for the Great War, “the war to end all wars.” Now of course we call that one WWI and we had to start numbering them, since as a species we have proven relentless in adding wars to the list. Memorial Day goes back a bit farther, dating to the U.S. Civil War, when relatives would decorate the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers. The distinction between the two holidays, one commemorating the dead and the other about honoring the sacrifices of the living, has become a little blurred. In any event, though, they both seem more respectfully observed than when our soldiers were coming back from Vietnam in the sixties.

A poem comes to mind. It is called “For the Fallen” and it was written in 1917 by Laurence Binyon. The most famous stanza, which I have seen inscribed on plaques and tablets in monuments, churches, and cemeteries all around the world, is this one:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.

When I first came across those lines, on a brass plaque years ago while visiting the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, it struck me hard, right in my memory muscle and made it ache. The faces of friends and classmates, pilot training buddies, some as close as brothers and some I barely knew, flashed through my mind. Grow not old. Forever young. Forever. The thought took my breath away. They were all young when I knew them, and those images would never change for me or for anyone else who knew them.

I wrote the lines down and kept them in my wallet. I learned some time later (after all knowledge had been scooped and plated by Google) that throughout much of the British Commonwealth, at memorial services, the verse is often recited by a minister or civil officiant and the final line, “We will remember them” is repeated by the audience in response.

The carillon at the Air Force Academy Cemetery has a song in its repertoire based on Binyon’s poem. It was played at the dedication ceremony when the bells were installed a few years ago, and it fits the Memorial Day theme. The words are below, starting with the well-known verse, and if you want to hear it on the bells you can listen here: We Will Remember Them.

We Will Remember Them

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.

All the fields of strife, they have left behind.
We’re bound to follow them, and until we do,
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.

As the stars shall be bright when we are dust,
Soaring in echelon above the heav’nly plain,
As the stars that shall shine in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

Bonds of soul and steel, forged in flames of youth
Hold even stronger now, as we fall in line.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them. We will remember them.

Memorial Day. Cookouts, picnics, sales in stores. But yes, in a quiet moment, a thought for those who have died while serving our country “for our freedom and for peace.” We will remember them.