Visiting America

Today I thought I’d wade into the burning topic of our times. It held the attention of the nation for days and days, alienating friends and reportedly breaking up some families. I’m referring, of course, to the standoff between a smirking, obnoxious white boy wearing a MAGA cap and a Native American who was praying for calm. Or it was a confrontational old man banging a drum inches from the face of a boy who was trying to remain calm. I don’t agree with either of them. So, that’s that.

In matters closer to home, we had friends visit us from Bulgaria!

Miladin at the orphanage

Undisciplined kids rioting. Or is it love?

You might remember Miladin and Vessi if you’ve read A Breeze in Bulgaria. Vessi was Stormy’s counterpart and mentor in teaching, and Miladin was “… the veterinarian everyone called “The Doctor.” The Doctor was a big gregarious man of many interests and a generous nature. We had spent hours visiting in his veterinary clinic, with snacks and rakiya in between his appointments with pets and the occasional farm animal.” They introduced us to the orphanage in Bratsigovo where we became happily involved with the kids’ English lessons and homework. They took us to participate in the rowdy rituals of spring where the evil spirits of winter were chased away by dancers in feathers and furs. We visited lovely Velingrad with them, talking and drinking late into the night with family and enjoying bright fall days in the picturesque town. Finally, after an incident that had left us rattled and hurt, they took me to the old baba with healing powers where my fears were “cast out” in an ancient ritual involving fire, water, and molten metal. We formed a strong friendship in the short time we lived in their country.

This month, after stepping through the labyrinth that is U.S immigration policy to get their visas, they came to America! To Colorado! To see us! We had a ball.

Stock Show ParadeThe Rodeo was the highest priority event for the trip. Miladin said it was his childhood dream. A few days before we were scheduled to go, we watched a sampling of the performers as the National Western Stock Show Parade went from Union Station along 17th Street for a mile, with cowboys driving longhorn cattle down the street followed by horses and riders, rodeo stars, mules, wagons, and stagecoaches. The rodeo itself, on a chilly Saturday with the previous day’s snow politely melting away, was in the spacious Denver Coliseum. We arrived hours early, and were held in rapt fascination by each and every one of the vendors and displays (for our purposes, Amerikanski souvenir shops) around the central arena. As soon as we were seated for the event, it started with a bang. Literally, an explosion of fireworks! The high-energy music was like at a rock concert and the booming voice of an announcer paced the events. We saw bareback riding, saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling, bull riding, and barrel racing. There was also mutton busting, with little kids trying to ride a rambunctious sheep, girls in sparkly pastel outfits doing fancy trick riding, a stagecoach, Clydesdales pulling a beer wagon, a rodeo clown and a rodeo queen. Everybody cheered the winners and the losers alike. It was all (pardon the expression) awesome.

Garden of the GodsWe toured the Denver Mint, the Air Force Academy, Garden of the Gods, and Red Rocks Amphitheater Park. We had dinner with our son Joel and his family, introduced them to Stormy’s mom and to a brother, some sisters and a niece, went to Royal Gorge, and Miladin even had a day skiing. We visited the Denver Aquarium, the Nature & Science Museum, went to a book club meeting, and attended a lecture about U.S. foreign policy. We had dinner at The Fort. We took Miladin to a veterinary clinic for a visit, and on the recommendation of a friend it turned out to be a pretty cool place: Dr. Henderson’s crew is currently featured on Animal Planet in a show called Hanging With the Hendersons, that premiered days before our visit. Then we took Vessi to three different facilities that care for the elderly, since that is her avocation now as the founder of the Hope for Today and Tomorrow Foundation in Pazardjik. Amerikanski BarbekiuThe last night they were in town we went to a musical show with Broadway show tunes, directed by a friend and featuring several people we know. Whew! Like I said, we had a ball, but I’m worn out now thinking about it all.Loveland Ski Area

We hope they had a good time touring our part of America. We sure did! Air Force Academy

Sunny Day

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.

 

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.