Nothing More Than Nothing

It’s March, and in Colorado it’s snowing today! We had a sunny 73-degree day yesterday (23°C) and now there’s over a foot of fresh new snow on the ground. It’s still piling up as the daylight starts to fade. I’ve been warm inside, enjoying the luxury of seeing the beauty of it without having to be somewhere else. It makes me appreciate how much I like to be where I am.

I love the snow! The kid in me remembers the excitement, the delight of running in it, slipping and falling and sliding in it, eating it, throwing it, and the steamy wool smell of warming up after playing in it. As a grownup in my working years I lived in warm, sunny places — Texas, Thailand, Taiwan, and Southern California — until Stormy and I retired from regular work and went to Bulgaria as Peace Corps volunteers. We were so glad to get reacquainted with seasons! The sheer delight of seasonal changes included extremes of weather and temperature that we had not felt in years. It awakened those childhood memories for both of us. When we moved to Colorado a few years later we came into the realization that it’s something that we love. Change.

We’ve seen a lot of change in our lives. (I know, you don’t want me to start with the “When I was a kid” stories.) I went to a panel discussion about climate change last night, and a friend of mine has written a book on the matter. Harlow Hyde, served with us in Bulgaria. His book is titled Climate Change, of all things.1 Harlow is a numbers guy, and he has a serious background as a student of weather trends. He backs up his thesis with solid facts, and an engaging sense of humor. He rigorously lists all the big factors of climate, including the anthropogenic one (that’s us!) He lists and evaluates various links between human activity and rising global temperatures. After all, every single one of us little heat engines spend our lives turning food into energy, throwing off heat all the time! Then there’s the way we burn stuff, move stuff around, and make stuff out of other stuff. Just a little bit of heat from each activity, each individual one of us making hardly enough to matter. (He repents, actually, for his part in this travesty.) Well, I don’t want to give away the plot and you should really read it yourself. It’s an excellent and well-researched piece of work.

And politics — talk about change! What, are there changes in the country? Um, yes. What happened to Hope and Change? We’re seeing Panic and Change! Frenzy and Change! Fear and Change! But change, as always, is the constant. We live in it, react to it, and make it happen — or, depending on the subject, try to keep it from happening. Ha! Might as well try to keep the sea from rising.

Take closing the borders, sending people back to where they came from, for example. Can anyone have a civil conversation on that subject? I wonder. I know people who are working with refugee resettlement agencies, helping war refugees — refugees from bombing and fires and knives and threats and killings, who have lived in refugee camps for years and years, in tents or temporary shelters with freezing winter huddle-around-a-fire misery or desert scorching hot blazing-sun misery, relieved to be out of mortal danger but living in uncertainty and frustrated with slow-molasses bureaucracy and hopeful, ever hopeful of a life where they can work and raise their children in peace. And I know other people who call that kind of work, helping those people settle in America, dangerous, foolhardy, even treasonous. We can’t know they won’t bring their wars here, they say, and turn on us. They’ll bring their laws with them. They’ll take our jobs from us. Our economy can’t bear the burden. We can’t bear the burden.

snow treeToday’s snowfall is a burden on the trees. It’s heavy and wet, as is normal for snows this late in the season, so I put on my big-boy boots and went out with a long stick to knock the big fat clumps off some of the branches that were sagging heavily under the weight. We’ve had branches, big ones, break off with that kind of load. I couldn’t reach all of them that needed it, but it was the lower ones anyway that were reaching out farther, straining and nearly defeated under the heaviest loads. Needless to say, they were greatly relieved.

I thought of a little story about snowflakes. I read it as part of a 50th Anniversary memorial ceremony a few years ago, for Peace Corps volunteers who had died in service. It was called Nothing More Than Nothing.

“Tell me the weight of a snowflake,” a coalmouse asked a wild dove.

“Nothing more than nothing,” was the answer.

“In that case, I must tell you a marvelous story,” the coalmouse said. “I sat on the branch of a fir, close to its trunk, when it began to snow – not heavily, not in a raging blizzard – no, just like in a dream, without a sound and without any violence. Since I did not have anything better to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my branch. Their number was exactly 3,741,952. When the 3,741,953rd dropped onto the branch, nothing more than nothing, as you say – the branch broke off.”

Having said that, the coalmouse flew away.

The dove, since Noah’s time an authority on the matter, thought about the story for awhile, and finally said to herself, “Perhaps there is only one person’s voice lacking for peace to come to the world.”

  — from New Fables, by Kurt Kauter (1913-2002)2

One more. Perhaps.

Here’s a Thought

You have more chance of being struck by lightning on your birthday than of dying in a terror attack. 1

I didn’t plan to write about a bunch of serious stuff this time, but I couldn’t pass up that factlet. But seriously now, are you ready for Christmas? I’ve been hearing that question everywhere. In Germany, where Tannenbaums are getting decorated and the refugees are trying to…

Oh, yeah. I forgot. No serious stuff. Christmas. Here’s a Christmas headline.

Refugees Fleeing Violence in Syria Confront Dire Conditions in Bulgaria

“Escaping war and running for their lives, Syrians are overwhelming the poorest country in the European Union. Bulgaria is all the way across the breadth of Turkey from Syria, a thousand miles! Are they desperate? Well, yes. That’s war, don’t you know? Damn them there, damn them here. War is hell, Christmas or not.” 2

PHOTO: ABC News A Syrian refugee at a camp in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. (Reuters: Mohamed Azakir)

PHOTO: ABC News A Syrian refugee at a camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. (Reuters: Mohamed Azakir)

Now we read that the Bulgarian border police are making it even harder for the refugees, beating and robbing them before sending them limping back to the Turkish border. 3 And here, of course, some would like to Trump that kind of treatment with tough-guy talk, essentially wishing the problem away.

I learned the other night that Colorado takes in 2,000 war refugees a year for resettlement. The number may go as high as 2,500 in the next few years, as what we’re hearing about now in Europe starts to increase its spillover here. (The selection and screening process typically takes two years for the US, compared with the “C’mon in!” policy of Germany, Austria, Scotland and others.) Denver has two agencies that handle the work, Lutheran Family Services and the African Community Center. The latter group, by the way, works with people from all over; their name is rooted in earlier times. The people who work in places like these brighten the holidays for a lot of people.

An Afghan refugee settlement

This Christmas, I praise and appreciate those who help those in need to stay out of the cold. People who run programs and shelters for the homeless, soup line people, volunteers distributing winter coats from musty church basements. Then there are workers and caregivers in hospitals, clinics, social services centers. A friend is a social worker in a dialysis center, of all places. She saves lives and gives hope. There are so many who do the angels’ work, not just at Christmas. But Christmas it is. Sing along with me now…

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath’ring winter fuel.

(Remember, fyoo-OOO-ell. Ha! Now to the ending.)

Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

That thing about blessings coming back to those who give of themselves: I’m not sure we made a big point of that when we sang about good old King Pretzelsauce in grade school. It’s a thought, though. It should work for people who are not Christian men as well. For my Christian friends, it is good to remember that everything Jesus did in his ministry pointed toward peace. Peace is a concept held as an ideal. Christmas reminds us to address our cognitive dissonance, the difference between Peace on earth and mercy mild and the realities of cold streets with homeless sleeping under cardboard; war refugees living in tents out in the snow; hardened hearts living in fear of terrorists. 4 It is not only hope, but also deeds that sustain good — and peace — in the world.

I like the carol, O Holy Night. The big dramatic moment comes with the phrase, “Fall on your knees!” I think the strongest part of the message, though, is in the seldom-heard final stanza:

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His Gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease.

Now there’s a thought.

The Call

Stormy and I have met several people who were in on it at the beginning. They heard “The Peace Corps Speech” in person.

Peace Corps Logo

Cool logo, huh? Stars turning into doves representing peace. Click the bird to learn about that speech

It was at the University of Michigan in 1960, when then-presidential candidate Senator John F. Kennedy laid down a challenge to young people, to serve their country and promote the cause of peace by working in developing countries around the world. That, and vote for him. It would be good for the young people, good for people in other countries, and good for America’s image abroad.

Our friend Randall, whom we met since moving to Denver, was one of them. He joined up right out of U-M, working in one of the first groups to go to Nigeria. Another friend, Bertina, who was then a grad student and young mother, had her hands full at the time but filed the thought away for later use: “Some day I’m going to do that.” After her children had grown up and had their own families, and she could consider a break from a busy work life, she put her grandma-ing on hold and joined up in 2002. She was, as we were, part of a growing number of older people choosing the Peace Corps as a challenge in later years, a change of pace, or just as a fun and hopefully worthwhile thing to do.

It wasn’t in the University of Michigan speech but rather in his inaugural address that Kennedy famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” That challenge has been merged, over these many years, with the idea of Peace Corps service and has shaped and colored many lives. People working together for the good of the country and the world.

For Stormy and me, chancing upon a Peace Corps recruiting event as we were starting to consider retirement, the possibilities jumped up unexpected. Wow! What’s that? Could we? The old idea met us where we were and dared us — dared us! — to shake off inertia and dull contented comfort.

“The Peace Corps! So they’re still around — who knew? It always seemed like an exciting thing that young people could do, back in the sixties when we all first heard about it. Peace, man. Have a flower.” — Breeze, p. 5

pc mottoBuncha hippie kids. Well, in retrospect, not really. The young people in our group, mostly just out of college, were as serious and committed as anyone could be, and had a good time meeting the challenges involved. The older ones of us, the Elders I should say, sometimes had a hard time keeping up in language learning and maybe in some of the physical challenges, but we had other advantages that balanced things out. Dealing with bureaucracy, for example, came easier for those of us with a few years on us than for the “kids” who hadn’t spent a lifetime doing taxes, filing for permits, working for (or against) big companies, or just being out on our own. The respect naturally accorded elders in many foreign cultures was another advantage. Besides, as we learn when we gain in years, bruises, and wisdom, “We may be slow, but we’re wily.”

Of course, it wasn’t really “the toughest job.” I like that cute slogan though. I have a T-shirt, from the association of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, that shows someone stretched out in a hammock under a palm tree and the slogan amended to “Still the toughest job I ever loved.” Funny. We had it pretty easy, teaching English to kids who mostly wanted to learn it, forming lasting friendships and learning new ways of thinking, and doing the occasional bit with youth clubs and an orphanage. But still, it was a life-changing experience. I do recommend it, for people both young and old.

The Call

“The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love”
And stars reshaping into doves
The Peace Corps! (Are they still around?)
I simmered with the thought I’d found.

At my age, no! Don’t be absurd.
No way a star can be a bird.
But still the challenge beckoned me
With more years gone than yet to be.

I’ve done it all, I smugly thought.
I’ve bought and sold and learned and taught.
I’ve sailed and flown and danced and run
And lain for hours in the sun.

Been shot at, cussed at, spit at and bit,
Jumped from a plane. The thrill of it
Seems shallow now that I have grown
But these are memories all my own.

But years go by and so does life
Mortgage, carpool, love my wife
Could we? Might we? Dare we go?
It’s so unlike us! Never!

Now time speeds up, and days grow cold
I face the music, growing old.
Goals achieved, mistakes I’ve made
What will last and what will fade?

“Ask not…” the charge that bid me go
To work the fields and plant and sow
The seeds of hope in distant lands
With grateful smiles and willing hands.

That’s what will last, the sweat and smiles,
A welcomed hand across the miles
To meet the goals, to heed the call.
I loved the toughest job of all.