Spring and Miracles

Spring is a time of miracles. Plants and flowers are coming back to life, birds are returning to their summer homelands. Newborns in the wild are rustling and chirping, bleating, squealing, and yelping all around. I am reminded of the wonder of the miracle that I am here, and living, and doing what I want to do. How many things had to happen, just so, for all that to manifest itself into being? What are the chances? I live in awe at how unlikely it all is. Miracles at every step.

When I was a boy, each week
On Sunday, we would go to church
And pay attention to the priest
He would read the holy word
And consecrate the holy bread
And everyone would kneel and bow
Today the only difference is
Everything is holy now
Everything, everything
Everything is holy now.

       Holy Now by Peter Mayer 1

This particular springtime has been sprinkled with some pretty special events for Stormy and me. Last Sunday was Easter, significant enough on its own as a miracle commemoration but more so this year with our grandson’s religious confirmation — the grandson who was born while we were working in Bulgaria. He has grown into a young man: tall, athletic, smart, friendly and generous of spirit, and with a ready smile for everyone. There were some very moving church services marking the Resurrection story and its meaning in our lives, and a delightful gathering of family and friends. Kids hunted Easter eggs and counted their treasures, and none of them brought up that thing about the connection between bunnies and eggs.

In Bulgaria, Easter will be this coming Sunday, this year a week later than ours in the west. Orthodox Easter usually hits on a different Sunday from our western version, since the two main branches of Christianity follow different calendars.2 The rule for placement of Easter in both is that it’s the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. (You knew that already, right?) That’s the “ecclesiastical” vernal equinox, though, not the real solar one, and I suppose that’s why, if you have different calendars specifying the baseline events, “your results may vary.” The story about what happened, though, and the significance of it to Christians of all kinds, is the same. A miracle.

Picture from Wikimedia Commons, 640px-Foster_Bible_Pictures_0062-1_The_Angel_of_Death_and_the_First_PassoverThen there’s Passover, another holy seasonal observance commemorating a miracle. That one follows yet another ancient calendar, the dates of celebration drifting independently and with serene indifference to our customary sun-only calendars. This year it came in neatly between the two Christian Easter weekends. Passover brings fastidious preparation and painstakingly detailed family and community rituals, and keeps alive a rich historical tradition and remembrance of miraculous preservation from death and destruction.

This past week, during Passover between the two Easters, we went up to the mountains and watched our newly-Christian-confirmed grandson showcase his skills in “the nationals” of the US Snowboarding Association, competing in the halfpipe. We joined a lively contingent of family and friends on a sunny deck facing the brilliant white mountainside of Copper Mountain Resort. We watched all the competitors, noting the names of standouts (we’ll see them in the next winter Olympics) and absorbing a little about the little-understood (to most of us) sport. The best word for it is “spectacular.”

Whenever our star was doing his runs we sat on the edges of our seats, holding our breaths at least figuratively. Whoa! Looka that! He got good air! Hey! Was that a 360 or a 540? With a twist! Great going! Woo-hoo, he’s still alive! After each run he boarded the rest of the way down the hill and came up to the deck to greet his adoring fans, grinning and feeling good about doing his best — one of his runs was a personal record — and even on a run that didn’t score high, he was happy about keeping it smooth and flowing.

I recalled when he was born and I was showing off his newborn picture to my kids at Bertolt Brecht Language High School.

“After classes a little contingent of my eleventh grade girls… came up to the teachers’ room and serenaded me with ‘Happy Grandson to you, Happy Grandson to you, Happy Grandson dear Mister, Happy Grandson to you.’ … The girls just about exploded with excitement about how cute little Jason was, and how fortunate we were. How fortunate indeed.”

Miracles abound in our lives, and it’s rare that we pause to recognize and appreciate them. A sense of reverence helps, and some of the rituals of our seasons can get us going in that direction. One of the most moving examples of that, in my memory at least, was the Easter we were together with our Bulgarian family in Panagyurishte. The night was cold and dark, and we were bundled against the chill, walking with arms folded. There were glimmers of winter starlight as we walked with slowly increasing numbers, neighbors joining on the way converging on the church near the town center. Murmured greetings, quiet night.

“The church was freshly painted and everything in the surrounding garden was trimmed and renewed. A large crowd stood reverently all around the church, many times more than could fit in the church building. At midnight, the priests came out of the church carrying candles. People in the crowd lit their own candles from those, and the lights spread through the crowd until everyone was holding a lighted taper, shielding with hands against movement of the cold night air. The priests sang the Resurrection story from Matthew. At the end of the service it was a striking sight to see people spreading out from the churchyard and out into the dark streets, still carrying candles, ‘bringing the light home.’”

Photo from Wikimadia Commons, cropped: File:29th annual Candlelight Vigil (34534663942).jpgIt was a sign of good luck to make it all the way home with your candle still burning. We all did. Krassi had prepared a post-midnight meal of lamb, hardboiled and dyed eggs, and an Easter bread rich with egg and butter. The bread, called kozunak, was baked with little slips of paper in it, bearing words like Luck, Health, Happiness, and Success. Pavlin taught us the proper Easter greeting that everyone used, Hristos voskrese, meaning “Christ is risen.” The response was Voistina voskrese, “Truly risen.” Over the three days of Easter, we heard those words over and over, not just between friends and family but also with co-workers, merchants, and even in grim, gray government offices such as the one that sold train tickets.

I wonder sometimes what we’ve lost in our country. Not just that we don’t maintain the comforting customs made convenient by the dominance of one cultural heritage (when the children were required to stand and recite The Lord’s Prayer in public schools. That was within my lifetime!), but bigger than that: our overall quality of community and caring sometimes seems to be in need of redemption. Civil discourse is a casualty of our escalating political divisions. Will it take miracles to bring us back together? What if we could achieve that elusive ideal of complete security, would that do it? Or how about if we all convert to one religion, or maybe we need a common enemy so we can live again under the threat of war. Will sending troops to our border fix it, or a trade war to make us whole? (“They’re easy to win.”) Do we need to MAGA, or is A already G and we have only to realize it in our individual lives, families, and communities as we work toward the common good? (The common good, of course, being defined as the good of our neighbor as well as ourselves, to borrow a phrase from the second greatest commandment.)

But is all that greatness really lost? When I look for miracles I see them. There are people feeding the homeless in shelters and in storefront churches; people giving lifesaving care in hospitals and at disaster sites; people healing wounds and caring for the traumatized; people working (still!) to settle refugees escaping war and chaos into a new land, new communities, new lives. There are medical advances that cure wicked diseases that have plagued us since the dawn of time; we carry little machines in our pockets that connect us with all the world’s knowledge and with each other: machines that our grandparents could only have seen as magic — no, not just magic, miracles! There are angels among us who will donate their organs to heal the lives of others; everywhere life is brimming with heroism, wholesome striving for ideals, generosity, love, and caring. As Peter Mayer wrote in that song that I quoted before,

When I was in Sunday school
We would learn about the time
Moses split the sea in two
Jesus made the water wine
And I remember feeling sad
That miracles don’t happen still
But now I can’t keep track
‘Cause everything’s a miracle
Everything, Everything
Everything’s a miracle.

We have only to see it.

Baba Marta

I stare at a blank page. I haven’t written for a while, since over the last year or more I have started sliding down toward the fractious and unruly netherworld of politics and contention. I don’t want to be there. Staying abreast of the issues of the day is a good thing, but, well, it’s been hard to think of writing. I want to take a rest from hearing and writing about the hate groups, the deceptions and evasiveness of public officials, the accusations, the guns and shootings, the marches, the relentless wars and the shutdown of merciful welcome to refugees. I need a change of subject, at least here.

Tomorrow is the first of March, a very special day that always recalls a very special time for me, my years in Bulgaria. Let me tell you a story. This is from my book, A Breeze in Bulgaria. It was Baba Marta Day, a Saturday. The excitement had been building at the school where I taught, peaking on the day before with all the students giving each other red and white bracelets and pendants like wearable valentines made of yarn and string. Stormy and I were at home on the big day, grading papers. You can only stand that for so long, especially on a holiday…

Baba Marta and a Prayer for Dyado Petko

March 1 was Baba Marta Day, the day of “Grandmother March.” For weeks before Baba Marta Day each year the center of town was crowded with tables where people were selling martenitsas, a sea of red and white yarn bracelets and pendants. In front of the bus station and in front of cafés and on street corners, old women and old men patiently offered martenitsas for sale on tables and ironing boards and laundry racks.

Martenitsas for sale in the Center.

On the first of March everyone would give the colorful woven yarn charms to each other, and say “Chestita Baba Marta.” The custom required tying bracelets on someone’s wrist, or pinning on a yarn ornament while saying something like “Red for health and white for the happiness I wish for you.” The martenitsas were worn until sighting the first stork of the season, or the first swallow, or if the birds were too slow then seeing the first flower blossom would do. The arrival of spring! Then the martenitsas are removed and tied on the nearest fruit tree, or placed under a rock, to ensure good fertility of the trees or the soil. We had seen the bits of yarn in trees near the blok, the red faded to pink from the year before, and at first we wondered what that was all about.

Grandmother March, the story went [one story anyway], lived on top of a mountain where she could see all the children. When the children were good she smiled and the weather was nice. But when they were not, well, you’ve always known how changeable the weather in March can be, in like a lion… now you know why. It was all up to the children and whether they made Baba Marta smile.

We took some martenitsas when we visited the neighbors who lived on the fourth floor. We knew that Dyado [Grandpa] Petko had gone to the hospital for a heart operation the week before, and that he came back with his leg amputated…. Petko was resting on a bed in the kitchen. We exchanged martenitsas with the couple and dear young Ginka, and visited awhile. Petko said he had a lot of pain, but he could move what was left of his leg and that was good. It was not diabetes, not cancer; just that when he went in to the hospital he had a leg, and while he was there they said it was no good and they had to take it off. It was pretty bad that one day you have health and everything is fine, he said, and the next day you’re not even all there. He also said that in a year he would be able to get a prosthesis.

They offered rakiya and sausages. Grandmother Gencha asked if I liked the sauerkraut I bought from their friends, and mentioned that we should be sure to return the jar. There were no secrets in this town about sauerkraut jars. It nagged us though, that some kind of secret was being kept from Petko, or some knowledge that no one would take the time to give him and his family, about what happened to his leg.

Ginka said she had lit candles in the church and said prayers for Petko. He offered the speculation that if she hadn’t done that he might have lost the other leg too. Gencha shushed him on that.

We said we’d send up a prayer too, that afternoon. Stormy had heard about a town, Rakovski, that was known as the Catholic center of Bulgaria. The population of that small enclave was something like 98% Roman Catholic. We wanted to go there that afternoon since they would probably have Saturday Mass, and see what it would be like. Petko thanked us for the intended prayer and said whatever kind of church it would be sent from was fine with him.

We got to the bus station a little late, with it having been hard to leave from our visit with Petko. It was about a minute before the departure time for the bus to Plovdiv, where we would connect to Rakovski. Since we didn’t have enough time to go in and buy the ticket, we asked the driver if we could pay him, and he said, “Sure.” The drivers kept an onboard stock of tickets for people getting on and off at intermediate stops, with little receipts to fill out for that purpose. After we paid and he filled out the trip information on the receipts, he unfastened a “reserved” sign from the front passenger seat and welcomed us to it. He had martenitsas hanging from the rear view mirror. Stormy thanked him for the ride when we got off in Plovdiv, and he smiled and wished us Chestita Baba Marta.

As we approached the town of Rakovski on the bus out of Plovdiv, the church stood out on the skyline like a giant fortress. We knew it wasn’t an Orthodox church because the bell tower was part of the building, not a separate structure. There were no signs identifying the name of the church, the Mass times, or anything else. But it looked Catholic.

It was just about time for the 4:00 PM daily Mass, so we went in. About twenty parishioners were scattered here and there around the church: four teenage girls, a young nun, and everyone else women in their seventies and eighties. The woman entering ahead of us picked up a slender candle and paid her ten stotinki, as indicated by a small sign lettered in pencil on a piece of cardboard, and set it unlit on a little sand-tray stand. Half a dozen candles stood together in the tray, all unlit. I guessed that they would light them during Mass, as part of a ceremony. Stormy followed suit, paying the fee and setting two candles in the stand without lighting them. We were used to carefully observing what we saw other people doing, for cues on how to act. Observe, evaluate, adapt. Here of all places, in a Roman church, would be the time to “do as the Romans do.”

The pews were straight-backed wooden benches. They were movable, not fastened to the floor. Kneelers, plain boards with no padding, were fixed in place on the back of each bench, to be used by the worshipers in the next row back. Counting and multiplying benches and rows, as I often did by habit, I found the church had 150 seats. As gigantic as it looked from the outside, I would have thought there would have been more than that.

Guardian Angel

Familiar and comforting, all around the world. Photo from Appalachian Magazine.

Painted murals depicting biblical scenes were everywhere, on the walls and on the ceilings, and “unorthodox” statues in various places around the sanctuary. The statue of St. Joseph, on the right as always in the Roman churches, was marked with a label in Latin letters, the only non-Cyrillic writing in the place. The stations of the cross were all in their familiar positions counterclockwise starting from the left front, and they consisted of framed pictures. Above the choir loft in the rear of the church was a painting that was familiar from catechism books and countless holy cards collected by generations of Catholic schoolchildren – a Guardian Angel watching over a little boy and girl as they cross a turbulent stream on a footbridge under storm-darkened skies. Comfort, security, reassurance.

The priest came out with three altar boys. The boys wore white satin cassocks with broad red stripes down the front, looking very liturgical. During the Mass the boys did not recite any of the prayers or the responses. They took care of the hosts and wine and water and rang the bells, and at other times stood and smirked at each other as if sharing an inside joke. The Mass had a familiar rhythm to it, and the people recited all the responses and longer prayers in the monotone of lifelong habit. The teenage girls led songs. Everyone sang. The girls did the readings. The “Peace be unto you” ritual greeting was subdued, with a hand touch rather than handshakes or hugs, and a murmured Posdrave, meaning simply “Greetings.”

After Mass, we saw that the unlit candles had been taken out of the stand and put back in the box with the ten-stotinki sign on it. The good intentions they carried would have to make it to heaven without the little flames to propel them. We would not mention that to Petko.

A little knot of congestion formed at the doorway as people bunched up to leave, for the same reason as in Orthodox churches. Each of the faithful, before leaving, paused to kiss the image of Christ just inside the door. In an Orthodox church it would be an icon in a picture frame or iconostasis, but here the same ritual was observed with the sculpted figure of Christ on the crucifix.

The priest asked us what brought us to town, and ventured a guess that we were visiting our parents. We had heard before that Stormy, at least, “looks very Bulgarian” but still the supposition took us by surprise. He was interested to learn that we had come all the way from Pazardjik just to go to church there in Rakovski. He was becoming preoccupied by the teenagers putting martenitsas on his wrist as we said goodbye.

We walked around the neighborhood a bit, took some pictures of a giant stork nest on top of the church and an old stone tower out in a nearby cornfield, then caught the bus back to Plovdiv as the sun was sending golden streaks out of the west on its way down. The driver on the bus from Plovdiv to Pazardjik was the same one who had brought us there six hours before, who had sold us the tickets onboard. He smiled in recognition as he took our tickets, and again waved us into the “reserved” front seat. It was dark when we got home. It felt like a pretty full day, this Baba Marta Day, just a visit with the neighbors and going to church.

 

Bulgaria to Australia

It’s been a long time. Thirteen years since Stormy and I left Bulgaria. The way time is speeding up for me as I get older, though (I try not to think of it as circling the drain), it doesn’t seem very long ago at all.

For a while, back then, I was a teacher of the English language. I loved that work. My love of language and teaching was enriched not just by being in a distant and unfamiliar place, but also by being part of the sweeping economic and social changes in early 2000s Eastern Europe. It was a shifting frame of reference applied to an unknown starting point while taking on a new vocational challenge.

In that off-balance and constantly surprising situation, I was fortunate to have two sources of support that were inextricably tied to the environment. At school, I could draw from the energy and eagerness of my high school students. On the home front, I learned from friends and neighbors that “everything begins with friends.”

A few years  ago, when I wrote the first in this series of blog articles, a young woman who had been in one of my English literature classes wrote a comment expressing her appreciation for my part in her education. Melted my heart. We stayed in touch. A former student became a special friend.

That girl, now all grown of course, now lives in Australia. That, for her, was the fulfillment of a longtime dream. Far away in the Land Down Under, she is up to her ears in young-family things like Baby’s first accomplishments in each category, children’s birthday parties, juggling work and childcare schedules while both adults work full time, and walking the dog. Busy, involved, doing the things that people want to do. It was totally unexpected, then, that she should reach out to me as a friend and offer to host us for a visit. Australia! Could we really go there? Would Australia have pizza?

Well, yes to all! Our flight, featuring the lowest fare I could find, went through Beijing. A little long but hey, China! We planned for a “layover tour” in Beijing since we were to have a few hours there. Just before boarding in LA we got a call saying the tour operator had advised we call it off. Big convention in town, they said. Streets would be jammed, with roadblocks materializing in unpredictable patterns. Once we were aboard, reading an English-language copy of the China Daily, we learned what it was: a big deal, the National Congress of the Communist Party of China. “China Will Erase Poverty by 2020 Goal, CPC Says” and “Political Reforms Have Been Historic, Spokesman Says.” Sounds great, too bad we weren’t invited. Move China higher up on the bucket list. Next time.

On to Australia! There is a lot to see, and the most impressive is simply the vastness. Flying in on a clear spring day as we made landfall southbound from Darwin, I thought at first it looked like the arid plains of West Texas, but soon I realized one big difference: where the American West is latticed with section lines, highways, and cultivation of all kinds, in the Outback of Australia for vast stretches there are none. No mark of man. We cruised over a huge desert area with miles-long red and grayish streaks running north and south, then another stretch with long narrow alkaline lakebeds in the same orientation. Cattle or wildlife trails, following terrain and ending nowhere. Then after crossing a river that formed a clear boundary as if drawn on a map there was wind erosion, blowing sand patterns, a bone-dry bleached desert. Roads and paths went from none to scarce, then some dry riverbeds, then creeks and rivers with water. An hour north of Melbourne, a house, then some more, and then soon after I could start to make out huge, faint rectangular patterns of cultivated fields. From there on in the signs of human life and work grew more and more apparent and it became the city of Melbourne, an airport, Customs, and a friend waiting for us.

We had read up on the whole country before coming, a book by Bill Bryson called In a Sunburned Country. He enumerated at length the sheer number of things that would kill you – virtually all of the many kinds of spiders and snakes, lizard-like crawlies, toothed and fanged creatures including of course crocodiles. Our visit was not deadly. We did see the largest crocodile ever, in the Melbourne Aquarium, but he seemed to be napping.

Kangaroos! We saw them out in open fields, in shady gum tree groves, and in the zoo. These in the picture were in someone’s back yard enclosed by a wire fence, and they bounded right over the fence and away when they judged we were close enough.

Melbourne is about the easiest large city in the world to get around. Free trams, friendly people, lots of museums and parks, and I think we did it all. Walking along a rocky breakwater near the port, we saw penguins. Penguins, I tell ya, preening and grooming each other and making their wheezy cooing and clucking sounds to beat the band. Penguins! There were more in the zoo, the larger ice-loving kind, but right there in the rocks at the beach we saw penguins!

We came out ahead, as travelers often do, by taking some wrong turns. Each one resulted in an unexpected benefit: we saw a wallaby on one wrong-way hike, saw a rare kind of deer up in the hills from a dirt road that was not on our planned route, and when we ran off another road into its boggy shoulder, leaving the car hubcap-deep just off the paved surface, we met the nicest most cheerful people who hooked up and pulled us out. G’day mate!


The best part of the visit, though, was the family joy we were made to feel a part of. Slavka and her family treated us like bonus grandparents. To have that kind of welcome so far away from home in a part of the world we never thought we would get to go, well, it’s something to write home about isn’t it?

As I write this, poking at the tiny keys on my phone, we’re on our way back home. It’s been a fair dinkum fortnight. (I don’t know if they say fortnight. Two weeks anyway.) We feel like we did up Melbourne pretty well for beginners. The rest of this awesome country will just have to wait for the next trip. Always great to visit family, no matter where.