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 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.

 

History

When I was in training for my Peace Corps assignment in Bulgaria, we exercised our community involvement muscles by organizing a civic improvement event. We recruited kids from schools and orphanages, did pledge drives and bake sales, organized volunteers, and had a great time of it. We contracted with a local welding shop to make some sidewalk trashcans, got children into teams to paint them, bought paints and brushes, and had an art contest in the town square to decorate the cans and award prizes for the best designs. As part of our Bulgarian lessons concurrent with the project, we made posters to advertise the event and tried to come up with team names to suggest to the kids. Peace Painters, Paintbrush Friends… simple and corny phrases with words we could find in our ever-present English-Bulgarian dictionaries. The word we found for “Friends” was Drugari. (‘dro͞o·gə·rē).

Our Bulgarian language teacher frowned and said, no! That wasn’t appropriate, not at all. What, the word “friends” is not OK? We were steered to a synonym, Priyateli, and told that was a nicer word. “We just don’t use that old word much anymore,” she said. We persisted: why was her reaction so negative? A little reluctantly she explained that was what Communist Party members called each other before the old government fell. Comrade! That was the word for Comrade. The word, swept up in the tumult of history. had been spoiled.

History turns things around. In a book I’m reading, Margaret Mitchell & John Marsh: The Love Story Behind Gone With the Wind, I read how the young author was imbued from childhood with her Georgia history in the early twentieth century. She recalled long summer evenings with her extended family, hearing stories of hardships and triumphs down through the generations from back as far as the earliest days of English colonial life, up through the terrible war which was then still smoldering hot in the memory of her elders.

“None was a more powerful storyteller than Grandmother Annie, who told Peggy endless tales about the Civil War, bloodthirsty Yankees, freed slaves, scoundrelly scalawags, cheating carpetbaggers, and the importance of behaving well in the face of either defeat or prosperity.”

Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With the Wind was made into a movie, epic in its scope and grandeur and immensely popular since 1939 for showing the tragedy wrought by the Civil War. History. Like The Wizard of Oz, it is an early Hollywood classic that has endured to a robust old age while lesser works of film art faded and died. The film has been shown in Memphis’ historic Orpheum Theatre as part of a summer film festival for 34 years. No more. It offends. Canceled. Things change.

I recently read and shared (on Facebook, if you must know) an interview by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the subject of Confederate monuments. Confederate. That’s another word that has changed, like drugari. She took the position that the monuments were a part of history, should be given appropriate context and not be torn down. With Charlottesville fresh in the news, I rather thought it would be an opportunity to examine a different view than what most of my friends are exposed to in their (our) own silos and echo chambers.

By Hal Jespersen at en.wikipedia (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By way of background for why the topic was of such interest to me, I grew up in Richmond, Virginia (google “Monument Avenue“). What I knew about Robert E. Lee and the other Confederate figures was informed by the perception that they were bound by a sense of duty and honor, and took up arms to defend their beloved home states (never mind who fired the first shots). On my walk from the bus stop to my high school, I passed the Confederate Widows’ Home and would wave to the little old ladies sitting on the veranda in their rocking chairs. They would wave back and smile. In my basic training for the United States Air Force, after leaving my home state behind, I was required to memorize, among other things, “Lee’s Quote.” It was, “Duty then is the sublimest word in the English language. You should do your duty in all things. You can never do more. You should never wish to do less.”

It is hard now to understand the depth and passion of that feeling of loyalty and duty to one’s home state that Lee felt, rather than to all of the states together, but that was 1861. Things were different. Then once the war started, it could only be governed by the relentless, inexorable logic that war brings to itself. I concluded my sharing of the Rice interview with a quote from a thoughtful reader of the Dallas Morning News, saying that “We cannot change history by removing statues and renaming schools…. We can change the present by stressing positive concerns, such as equal educational opportunities, equal job opportunities and equal respect for the opinions of others.”

I took a solid drubbing in the ensuing discussion. The points did not turn on duty and honor, but on traitors, treachery, and comparisons to Hitler. The most insightful comment in the discussion, the one that got my reasoned attention, was from my friend Ivan. He wrote that he thought my argument was focused too narrowly.

“The issue is not the monuments as reminders of history, the issue is that they are part of the broader effort, to maintain racism, and even restore racist policies. The white supremacy groups wanted to preserve the monument because it enhanced their views, not because they appreciated the historical value.”

My initial reaction had been that the momentum seems to be on the side of the monument-destroyers, and I thought it was a damn shame. The exchange made me think, and read, and think some more. I was aided in this by another friend, Laura, who put me onto a set of videos that exposed a sore point: my view had been shaped within the confines of a privileged position that I seldom, if ever, even perceived let alone understood what advantages it had given me.1 And finally, this article was most instructive in my eventual conversion. The Myth of the Kindly General Lee.

I have changed my view. The big bronze statues along stately Monument Avenue have long been a subject of contention, and now I can see what must have been obvious to others for a long time.2 Sadly for some and triumphantly for others, the tide is flowing and it will take them away. As the saying goes, take it as you will, “They’re history.”

As a native Virginian, I hold a tinge of regret for their passing. I have released the bitterness of thinking “It’s a damn shame,” but a faint scar of regret will remain. The regret is for illusions lost, and it is overshadowed by being on firmer ground, but it is regret all the same.