On Bulgaria: Home away from home

Habitat for Humanity build in Bulgaria Sept. 2016 Photo:  Kumhar
Habitat for Humanity build in Bulgaria Sept. 2016
Photo: Kumhar

Home is often the place that grounds us.  It’s the place we return to at the end of the day and where we find the people and things that are most familiar to us.  I applied for the Habitat for Humanity build in Bulgaria because of how passionately I feel that others should have such a home.  I didn’t come on the trip with any expectation that I would discover the things I miss about home. Nor would I have expected that the camaraderie of my teammates would be the trigger point for my childhood memories of home.  

I remember the smell of Folger’s coffee mingled with pan-fried bacon. How it invaded my sleep on Sunday mornings and urged me into a wakefulness that transitioned into eavesdropping.  My ears straining to hear the hushed sounds of my parents two floors below. I remember the gurgle of the automatic drip coffee maker as it sputtered the last drops of hot water over the coffee grounds that my mother had scooped into the drip basket which transformed the hot liquid from clear to dark brown before it accumulated in the glass coffee pot that sat on the warming element. Meanwhile the sounds of bacon cooking in the nonstick frying pan underscored everything else, snapping and popping as the strips crinkled and curled themselves in the pool of rendered fat that would soon bathe freshly cracked eggs and turn them white.  Sunny side up, please.

I remember lying in my bed two stories above, delaying the moment of being fully awake.  The minutes ticking by as I luxuriated in the the warmth of my bed. I don’t remember why I chose to postpone engagement, but I often did.

I looked forward to these smells and sounds of my parents going about their Sunday morning routine.  They were so familiar, so recognizable that I could map my parent’s movements in my mind purely from the aromas and the sounds.

There was the shuffle of the Sunday morning edition of the Kansas City Star newspaper as my father passed its pages from right to left between his hands, occasionally shaking it with an authoritative snap to smooth the crease where it had been folded in half by the delivery boy.  I knew precisely where he was sitting in the family room, the cobalt blue tweed chair facing the TV animated by the newscaster who would be supplementing what had been printed only seven hours earlier.  My dad’s feet – bare in the summer months but warmed by black or white gold-toe socks in winter, and the $5.99 drugstore cheaters resting slightly closer toward the tip of his nose so he could easily peer toward the television for any story that might draw his attention away from the print version he held in his hands.

Meanwhile, my mother would be in the next room moving from coffee pot, to stovetop, to table preparing breakfast in the kitchen decorated with golden-yellow wallpaper and brown laminate woodgrain cabinets and drawers.  I could trace her barely audible steps in my mind as I matched them to the sounds of the actions that sent her back and forth across the patterned kitchen carpet.  (My parents preferred carpet to linoleum.)  I heard the opening and closing of the side-by-side doors of the white refrigerator, the pause as she probably stood at the black glass-topped electric stove to check the status of the bacon, a plate on the counter immediately next to the stove covered with several layers of paper towels ready for draining excess grease from the bacon strips to increase their crispness as they cooled.  The rustle of the plastic Wonder Bread bag as she removed four slices and slid one into each of the four slots in top of the stainless steel toaster so the bread could be transformed to toast at a moment’s notice. She may or may not have remembered to set the butter out to increase its spreadability.

I don’t remember that we had breakfast together any other morning of the week. Primarily because my father was responsible for opening the local branch of the post office in Raytown.  He left the house promptly at 4:20 in the morning Tuesday through Saturday every week from the time I was 16 months old until the day he got diagnosed with cancer and was forced to retire. That first surgery left him too weak to return to work.

And now, here in Bulgaria I am reminded of these Sunday mornings with my parents.  I smell scrambled eggs and sausage mingled with the scent of coffee long before I arrive at the door of the dining room in the basement of the Budapest Hotel. (Yes, that’s really the name if you’re a Wes Anderson fan.)

I also notice how the dining room sounds.  I hear silverware, dishes, and glassware clinking even as I begin my descent on the stairs from four floors up. More important, I hear my teammates laughing and talking about things that matter to them.  Stories about experiences we’ve had on the trip or possibly intimacies shared in the course of getting to know each other.  Upon entering the dining room their voices become louder and clearer, and twelve now-familiar faces finally come into view.

In that moment of arriving I am reminded that home may be a structure where we feel grounded, but it is the people within the structure that possess the capacity to truly create home – especially when home is away from home, and even when building a home for a stranger in an entirely different country. ~


About Bulgaria: Handout or hand up?

The question arose at dinner last night as to the effectiveness of social support models that offer a hand out versus a hand up.  I was asked my opinion, but this question is a complicated one that requires a thoughtful and rather intricate answer.  So…

In its most simplistic form my short answer is that despite my growing understanding of social supports and the variety of individuals whom are served by them, I can’t tell the difference between a handout and a hand up.  I’m not trying to dodge a bullet, I’m simply saying that it can be hard to understand the realities of social support services from the outside looking in.  It’s taken me a long time and a lot of encounters with people in many different situations to realize this.

The best answer I can give at this point in my current understanding is that when the question of handout versus hand up arises, I find that at its core is actually a question about “fairness.”  I’m going to define “fairness” here as “the desire for everyone to be treated equally” or “for everyone to receive the same support.”  Personally, I don’t think equality (fairness) is a realistic consideration of whether a social support – be it monetary, educational, health-related, technological, or anything else related to the things we need to survive in today’s world – is a handout or a hand up.

Where I am in my current understanding of such a question is that equality looks very different than equity, but the former (equality) is what many people are really describing when they try to differentiate between a handout and a hand up.

Supporting the needs of an individual in an equitable manner requires me to consider what this individual before me needs right now in this moment.  On the other hand, providing the same support to another individual because I have a model of social support that I think is “fair” for everyone, may very well prevent another individual from benefiting from my social support precisely because I haven’t created an equitable entry point to the service.  

So what is equity?  It’s worth following this link and scrolling down to the visual representation of three individuals standing on boxes to understand how the perspective shifts when we see how the barriers to equitable participation can be misunderstood.  It’s especially easy to confuse concepts of equality and equity when I have everything I need to be “on the field and in the game.”  The image of equity found on the link clarifies my comments above that when I consider the needs of the individual, most often the discussion of handout versus hand up becomes extremely problematic.

About the only thing I’ve discovered for myself on this topic  – and which I’m (un)comfortable admitting – is this: When I notice a situation or someone whom I think is being given something I worked for, paid for, or repaid the benefit of receiving, I know it’s time to stop and ask myself why it even matters to me that someone else needs what they need when I have everything I need to provide for my survival needs and then some?  Taking time to reflect on this isn’t an easy task and often it’s a humbling one because with time and acceptance of seeing what’s behind my reasons for noticing a perceived unfairness, I come to the reality that I’m considering their need through the lens of “fairness” which is not a very good gauge of the worthiness of a particular social service much less of the other person’s need.

At the end of the day there are certain realities of my existence I can’t change that will almost always give me an advantage in any situation based on “fairness” and “equality” if for no other reason than externally I profile as a person of the dominant culture that has created concepts of fairness in the society I live in. Meaning, externally I identify to others who don’t know me well as “white”, middle class, educated, heterosexual, English-speaking, U.S. citizen.

Ultimately, I really can’t offer an answer to the question that was raised at dinner.  I can only contribute an additional perspective.  So I leave you to your own thoughts as I consider these from feminist-science fiction writer, Ursula K. Le Guin as quoted on my favorite blog, Brain Pickings:

“Are there indeed tools that have not been invented, which we must invent in order to build the house we want our children to live in? Can we go on from what we know now, or does what we know now keep us from learning what we need to know? To learn what people of color, the women, the poor, have to teach, to learn the knowledge we need, must we unlearn all the knowledge of the whites, the men, the powerful?”

About Bulgaria: Twice Transformed

Photo: Diane Mora Monarch's at ConAgra Park Omaha, NE
Photo: Diane Mora
Monarch’s at ConAgra Park
Omaha, NE

This is the second time in my life that Omaha has been a gateway to transformation for me. So it seemed more than a coincidence Friday evening when I stumbled onto a kaleidoscope of monarch butterflies during my walk along the lake at ConAgra Park.  Butterflies – the very symbol of transformation before flying off into a new life.  Like the butterflies, Saturday morning I fly out of Omaha heading for Sofia, Bulgaria.

My first experience of Omaha as a gateway to personal transformation took place in 2005 when this city became my home while attending Creighton University. Just over ten years later, I’m back in this magical town preparing for departure to Bulgaria with a team of Habitat for Humanity volunteers, generously underwritten by First National Bank of Omaha.

Since it was my first experience of ever moving to an unfamiliar city entirely on my own, I remember feeling that I’d stepped off a precipice when I arrived in Omaha all those years ago.  The liberal studies program at Creighton was ambitiously titled “Understanding the World.”  Although I finished my master’s with eyes slightly more open and a heart softened to the human condition, it probably comes as no surprise that I did not leave with a full understanding of the world.  If anything, looking at my life and the world around me through the lens’ of social justice and spirituality left me on a continual quest for finding evidence of hope amidst so much tragedy and sorrow.  

Today I found some of that as we toured several Omaha neighborhoods where the Habitat transformation has already taken place, and many more streets that are currently under or planned for construction.  The homes were as breathtaking to stumble on as the butterflies I found this evening, and just as unexpected.  Many of the houses were near an elementary school.  Noticing this made me think of how wonderful it would be for the refugee families in my hometown to also live on streets lined with houses wearing fresh paint or unmarred siding, while sprouting manicured lawns that put my own to shame, and flower beds planted with vibrantly colored blossoms decorating sidewalks and front porches.  I saw firsthand how Habitat not only helps homeowners envision this reality, but provides the guidance and support to make it possible.

Today’s experience of finding beauty and hope in these previously forgotten neighborhoods reminds me of one of the more selfish reasons I pursue opportunities like Habitat in Bulgaria.  It wakes me up – pushes me out of my cocoon, if you will.  Whether it’s a local trip into an unfamiliar part of my hometown of Kansas City or a flight partway around the world, experiences that take me out of my comfort zone have the potential of transforming even the most routine aspects of my ordinary life into powerfully reflective moments.

Yet as avidly as I pursue reflective opportunities, I’m ashamed to admit my pursuits don’t always bring out my best in every moment. You’re likely to read about my less desirable traits in my teammate’s blogs.  That is, unless I stay clear of “the liar’s club” (to steal a phrase from memoirist, Mary Karr) and write with full disclosure about my shortcomings as they surface.

I’m mindful that trips away from home fill me with a mixture of expectation and curiosity, and a tinge of apprehension.  Admittedly travel usually exposes my limitations – physically and emotionally.  Frustration seldom fails to rear its’ ugly face at times I most need to practice patience.  Perhaps proving that the path to transformation may begin in Omaha, but can be as elusive to follow as the flight path of butterflies.

And now I’m heading for sleep and dreams on the words of Pablo Neruda (from Absence and Presence, as translated by Alastair Reid):

” It is very appropriate, at certain times of the day or night, to look deeply into objects at rest: wheels which have traversed vast dusty spaces, bearing great cargoes of vegetables or minerals, sacks from the coal yards, barrels, baskets, the handles and grips of the carpenter tools. They exude the touch of man and the earth as a lesson to the tormented poet. Worn surfaces, the mark hands have left on things, the aura, sometimes tragic and always wistful, of these objects, lend to reality a fascination not to be taken lightly.

The flawed confusion of human beings shows in them, the proliferation, materials used and discarded, the prints of feet and fingers, the permanent mark of humanity on the inside and outside of all objects.

That is the kind of poetry we should be after, poetry worn away as if by acid by the labor of hands, impregnated with sweat and smoke, smelling of lilies and of urine, splashed by the variety of what we do, legally or illegally.

A poetry as impure as old clothes, as a body, with its food stains and its shame; with wrinkles, observations, dreams, wakefulness, prophecies, declarations of love and hate, stupidities, shocks, idylls, political beliefs, negations, doubts affirmations, taxes.”  

See you in Bulgaria!