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?

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.

Things I Learned in 2017

Whoo, what a year! Not just politics, everything. The news is unrelenting, one big deal after another. Even the Christmas letters we’ve received from friends have been filled with national news and commentary as well as the expected family doings.

Still, I love Christmas letters. We’ve been receiving cards and letters from people near and far. In many cases they’re from friends whose paths have shifted away from ours, but whose stories and concerns keep dear relationships alive. Most are printed like news bulletins but crafted with loving effort to tell of family events and travels, accomplishments of children and grands, job changes, sad passings, joyful births. A lot of care and reflection goes into these. It’s a generous thing to do, and I love being on the receiving end when I get them. I haven’t reciprocated in mailing out my own Christmas letters. I have, though, taken up a “Peace on Earth” theme about this time of year in this blog, turning my monthly article for December into a Christmas letter of sorts. 1 Peace does seem like a Christmassy topic, since we too seldom acknowledge peace as a concept at other times. Way too seldom. This is my Christmas letter for 2017.

The year got kick-started with a presidential inauguration, the largest celebration in history according to one account, and I learned that many of my friends were glad about that and many were not. In connection with that event and all that has followed from it, I learned that whether one agrees with a friend or not, a friend is a friend.

It was a big year for fifties in our household. There was the 50-year reunion of Stormy’s college class in the summer, and mine in the fall. We learned that friendships forged in youth are strong. Actually I think we already knew that, but being together with good old friends after years and years of being apart served to underscore the point. The same point was driven home again in another reunion, not quite 50 yet for my Pilot Training class but as we’ve observed before, “The older we get the better we were!” Trouble with an old pilots’ reunion is your arms get tired.

2017 marked the 50-year point for our wedding anniversary too. Family and friends were generous with congratulations, as if achieving that mark had required a mighty effort. Sure, there were times… after all, if no difficulties had ever been faced and overcome it would be a shallow celebration. Speaking as the luckiest man I know, however, I can say it’s not the years that make a marriage. It’s the days.

Continuing the 50s theme, the suburban neighborhood where we live put on a 50-year celebration marking that number of years since the first lots were platted and construction began. I went around to some of the original homeowners and interviewed them about what it was like to establish a home out in fields and farmland. I got a kick out of talking with the old folks. They had stories, and some had photos. I learned that if I had been here then, I would not have chosen this neighborhood. I like trees. Before there were any here, I would have said no thanks, something’s not right. Probably from having to move every few years in my young adulthood, I don’t have the patience to wait for a tree to grow.

I learned that there is a link across time and distance that is stronger than one might imagine. One such link took Stormy and me to the far-off land of Australia, where we were met as family and experienced warmth and a sense of belonging that made new memories to treasure for a lifetime.2 We have quite a collection of memories such as these.

In June we took a trip east for Stormy’s AAUW convention, where I had lots of free time to be a tourist while she got convened. The monuments in Washington, DC are still inspiring and instructive to visit, even for one who has done that many times. At the Vietnam Wall my fingers traced the cold letters naming old friends and classmates. I went to the DAR museum and library and looked up names of long-dead ancestors in dry, yellowing books. At the Holocaust Memorial Museum I was shocked that they did not acknowledge the heroism of Bulgarians who saved Jews in their country from deportation. (They said that the King of Denmark stood up for Jews in his country, and was the only leader to do so.) My father’s spirit cracked a grin, watching over my shoulder, as I heard myself say, “I’m gonna write ’em a letta!”

Korean War Memorial, faces on the wall

I stood in awe at the ghostly sculptures that make up the Korean War Memorial, and the images of soldiers’ faces etched onto black marble. My reflection startled me as I saw myself standing among them, in honorable company. An old man stared back at me as I stood among soldiers suspended in long-ago youth, never to grow old.

I saw the White House. It looks like a fortified embassy compound in a vaguely hostile country. Damn shame, not that it is that way, but that it has to be.

I learned some new songs, at least the tenor part, with a group of people I like being around. It’s a point to be made, I think, that if I were to sing my tenor part as a fiercely independent and proud individual you might not even recognize the tune. It takes other voice parts to make a choral arrangement. If one voice tried to dominate, “knowing” that only that particular part is right, and then another would feel obliged to do so, and so on, until the whole effort devolves into a screaming match. We’ve seen that happen, haven’t we? Not in my choir, for sure, but you know where. The world. Everywhere, almost.

This year we learned that not everyone agrees with our personal views, the things that we know in our hearts are right, no question, no argument. Views on old bronze statues, on football game ceremonies, on healthcare, guns, taxes. There’s more, but after all it’s a symphony isn’t it? All the parts are needed lest the song ring hollow.

At this time of year the songs we hear are mostly familiar ones, and overwhelmingly about peace. That’s a good thing to focus on.

Mind if we sing our way out? It’s one of my favorites, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. 3

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And mild and sweet their songs repeat
Of peace on earth good will to men

And the bells are ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir they’re singing (peace on earth)
In my heart I hear them (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men

And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men

But the bells are ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir singing (peace on earth)
Does anybody hear them? (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men

Then rang the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor does he sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men

Then ringing singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men

And the bells they’re ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir they’re singing (peace on earth)
And with our hearts we’ll hear them (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men

Do you hear the bells they’re ringing? (peace on earth)
The life the angels singing (peace on earth)
Open up your heart and hear them (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men

Peace on earth, peace on earth
Peace on earth, Good will to men.