This post is the fifth in a five-part series: On Bulgaria: Life Beyond The Wall. Need to catch up? Read parts one, two, three and four.
Lest the reader (or my teammates) think that Bulgaria represents the completion of a journey for me, little could be further from the truth.
My future employer did indeed wait (im)patiently for my return, and I joyfully and wholeheartedly accepted a contract with the firm belief that somehow I will find a way to make up a loss of income created by the change. I simply could not refuse this chance to directly impact the educational advancement of high school students who are also learning the English language, and especially English learners who have most often experienced limited or interrupted formal education due to their experiences of resettlement to the United States under refugee status.
With the courage to make this return to the classroom full-time, I’m fulfilling a dream of being a writer who is also a teacher of writing.
Although I hope that traveling abroad to a refugee camp might one day be in my future, for now I’m content working in a culturally dissimilar area of my own city with the realization that it may prove just as challenging and just as impactful.
And finally, although one should not try to plan against what the Universe has in store, super long-range I would like to examine how the internet might be used to help connect U.S. teachers with understaffed camp teachers for purposes of better preparing pre-arrival students with academic English skills, thus reducing the barrier to educational opportunity before it ever has a chance to erect itself. So many walls…
(Hey, Ken. Remember when I said, my life is a vacation? I was serious.)
The End…or…The Beginning of the Next Chapter 🙂
This is the last post in the 5-part series On Bulgaria: Life Beyond The Wall.
This is part 4 of a 5-part series On Bulgaria: Life Beyond The Wall. Need to catch up? Read parts one, two, and three.
Discovering My Life Beyond The Wall
Since returning home, I’ve begun to forgive myself for what felt like a defect in my ability to do good. If we lack the capacity to critically self-reflect on our underlying purpose or the underlying beliefs that fuel our sense of altruism, we run the risk of imposing what we think is good without consciously understanding why. This is not an insight that has come easily to me, but one that I work to remain vigilant of.
I’ve also realized that even though our approach is unrelated, Habitat and I are in the business of (re)building lives – we simply offer support through different systems. One is not any more worthwhile an endeavor than the other, both supports may be needed by any one individual.
And so it was that I discovered that the answer to what is mine to do existed well beyond The Wall.
“What is mine to do?” One word, “Teach.” With the possible exception of hospice volunteering, nothing yet surpasses the sense of purpose my life holds as it does when I am teaching. Over the summer I had spent a month with an urban high school class of newcomers (recently resettled to Kansas City from refugee camps around the world). I fell in love with those students. At this point in my life, I can’t think of anything else I want to spend my time doing. Little compares in its ability to increase the self-efficacy and empowerment of another person to the extent that facilitating someone’s learning does.
The Global Village trip to Bulgaria was not my first service-travel experience abroad nor in the U.S., but it will absolutely remain unforgettable for many reasons. Not the least of which is what I experienced at The Wall. But scaling The Wall has led me back to something I love and something that gives my life its sense of purpose. For that I am deeply indebted to First National Bank.
This concludes part 4 of a 5 part series of On Bulgaria: Life Beyond The Wall. Read what happens next in the Afterward.
This is part 3 of a 5-series post, On Bulgaria: Life Beyond the Wall. Not caught up? Read parts one and two.
Encountering My Self at The Wall
It was Thursday morning, the fourth work day. Everyone was assembled in the dining room enjoying what was starting to become a monotonous breakfast buffet of soft-scrambled and hard-boiled eggs. This was Victor’s day to give the morning benediction before we loaded ourselves onto the bus that took us to the build site. Victor’s words were crafted from insights he had experienced over the previous days while contributing his labor to the construction of The Wall. He’d artfully titled his observations something like “Thoughts at the Wall”.
I can’t remember every point he made that morning, and I imagine I’m not alone in my wish to now have a recording of exactly what he did say. I do remember this – in his closing remarks Victor invited each of us to be open to what we might encounter at The Wall.
Afterward, I caught up to Victor as everyone walked to the bus. I had a few brief minutes to compliment him and mention an epiphany I’d had at The Wall only the day before, but we were quickly surrounded by the good-natured chatter and banter of everyone else once we climbed inside and sat down. I had appreciated his words, but his experience was vastly different from my own. I was lost in my thoughts by the time we arrived at the build site.
Like a mendicant but with a desire to repay the privilege of her trip, I appreciated the manual aspects of the tasks I was given that helped me relax my mind. I was grateful for work that enabled me to prove I could still move my body and use the muscles in my neck and shoulder without severe pain. Being part of a group eased the sense of aloneness that so often accompanies grief, and especially when the loss has been your last surviving parent.
Although I was quiet in comparison, I welcomed the community of sounds that emanated from various places in and around the house where my teammates performed their work. Two sounds were always the most prominent. Ken’s laugh – it seemed to make everything twice as funny because its’ pitch was
so at odds with his tall, muscular stature. The other was the churn and clank of the cement mixer – it provided such a constant hum of white noise that its’ alternating times of silence and mixing were often what signaled me to the beginning and ending of our breaks.
In addition to the regularity of those two sounds, during my days working in the attic I could usually catch the strains of music wafting up from below. I noted how the tone of everyone’s voices carried a good natured quality that would have fooled anyone passing by of the fact that we were relative strangers to each other. Only occasionally was the pleasantness of this homespun symphony interrupted by admonishments from our Bulgarian site manager, Assya. In fairness, her tone probably seemed more severe than it actually was because of how her accent syncopated the instructions she was forced to deliver to us in English.
On the afternoon of the third day, I took my place at The Wall. Surrendering myself to chance, I allowed the music to guide the pace of my hand and arm in their repetitive motions of moving the sanding bricks across the concrete’s surface. I heard with only a passing interest the conversations around me. Otherwise, I was wholly absorbed in my task at The Wall.
If I hadn’t been so quiet I might have missed what happened next. What is mine to do? Was my being here and doing this particular task really the most purposeful, life changing action I could take on behalf of another?
The answer followed swiftly on the heels of the question with such an acute prick of clarity that in the context of where I stood, my first emotion was pure dejection. I knew unequivocally that the act of building a house was not my answer to “What is mine to do?”. Even though I didn’t speak it aloud, I immediately wished I could take back the thought. Everyone around me appeared completely confident about what we were doing and accomplishing on this trip. So much so that anyone might have thought we held the golden keys to the City of Greatest Impact.
I did a gut check – I wasn’t resentful of the work I’d been assigned to do. On the contrary, each day felt like a vacation to me. Probably because it was so removed from the recent stress of my life.
“What is mine to do?” I was so sad and unforgiving of myself at this point in the trip. “What”, I wondered, “is wrong with me?” Given all the generosity making my participation possible, who could I possibly talk to? No one here would ever understand. If anything, I would only end up feeling even more on the fringe of things.
I’d forgotten a truth Gregg Levoy writes about in his book Callings, “Calls emerge as readily from the ground as from the sky, as much from the exhortations of the common life as from our spiritual ideals.”
This is the second in a five-part series, On Bulgaria: Life Beyond the Wall. Need to catch up? Read part one.
Fear and Wondering at The Wall
To say I was “terrified” of discovering what would be mine to do on the build site, is definitely an exaggeration. Curious, yes. Terrified, no. Granted, I’m not a regular shopper at Home Depot or Lowe’s. Trips to my local Restore (a residential building supply thrift store operated by Habitat for Humanity) are usually for the purpose of donating items rather than purchasing them. I enjoy refinishing the occasional piece of furniture. However, I leave all but the smallest household repairs and all remodeling projects to the experts.
As Ken and Chad discovered, I do did have an irrational fear of climbing down ladders. A fear that I was quickly forced to face (and eventually conquer) each time necessity compelled me to descend the narrow wooden ladder that rested at a sharp angle through the attic’s only opening. If I wanted to pee, eat, or go home I had to descend that ladder; all three of these proved to be pretty good motivators for overcoming fear.
My otherwise fearless participation was interrupted only by a bout of nausea and vomiting one afternoon on the way back to our hotel after a full day’s work. I had repeatedly eaten street food in China without any side effect. I’d done nothing of the kind in Bulgaria, and I had no idea what overcame me. I had been pushing through my tasks for the better part of the workday while trying to ignore a deep sense of tiredness and nausea. In hindsight, I think by the time we got on the bus my body decided it was going to force me to slow down and take stock one way or another. Thank goodness our bus driver had rapid reflexes enabling him to quickly pull curbside upon request. Puking into a unemptied, galvanized metal trash can (thankfully present on the sidewalk of that residential street) was not an example of my finest hour. Once we made it back to the hotel I took myself straight to bed while everyone else went out for a sushi dinner. From five o’clock that evening until the next morning, I vacillated between a fitful sleep and short periods of semi-wakefulness.
I probably sound like a wimp. In comparison to other volunteer service and humanitarian aid trips I’ve made in and outside the United States, the Global Village trip to Bulgaria with Habitat was by far the easiest. Mind you, it was physically strenuous but our accommodations were the best I’ve ever had for a service travel engagement. We had no need to expend any effort thinking about meals, transportation, or safety of any kind. All we had to do was show up.
Be that as it may, that night I knew I had hit a very different kind of wall. A wall I had probably been building for several months. The short explanation is that I thought I could hide myself from grief while hiding my exhaustion from everyone else. Most foolishly, I thought throwing myself into a project doing good for others would cure me of both.
Only nine weeks prior to departing for Bulgaria, my mom had finally been overtaken by dementia and leukemia. She died the first night of the full moon in July. I am now in the habit of watching for it to appear each month, and I remember noticing that it was present over Sofia several evenings as I looked out the window of my hotel. I may never look at a full moon again without thinking of her.
In those few weeks between her funeral and the start of our trip to Bulgaria I had traveled to Spain and back giving a presentation to international educators. I had only eleven days to unpack and repack my bags before meeting up with the Global Village team in Omaha. As if that weren’t enough, with only nine short days to go before our trip I had received the second of two epidurals in my cervical spine to alleviate chronic neck and shoulder pain that had been nearly debilitating me for the seven months it had taken doctors to determine the cause. When I left Kansas City to meet up with my Global Village teammates, I thought no trip could have been more ill-timed than this one. But I’d made a commitment, and I was bound and determined to keep it.
Underscoring this sense of poor timing was a phone call taken in my Omaha hotel room from a school expressing interest in an application I’d submitted for my dream job. The opening was immediate and their need for a teacher was pressing. Knowing I couldn’t respond to their requests for additional documents while on the trip, I had no choice but to hope they would determine I was worth waiting for. I was having trouble sorting out how much of my angst was a result of the delays imposed by the trip versus my fears about taking a thirty percent pay cut to teach the specific population of students I longed to work with.
In the words of Pico Ilyer, I had “surrendered myself to chance” when I applied for the trip. I had surrendered to chance when I accepted the invitation. I was now surrendering on faith that whatever happened next was meant to be. It was in that state of surrender that I now stood in wonder at The Wall.
Author’s Note:This post is dedicated with heartfelt thanks and gratitude to each person on Team Bulgaria, Habitat for Humanity, and First National Bank who made my participation in the trip possible.
Thank you to those who shared your wisdom with me along the journey, invested time and resources in me as a (hopefully now better) person, and encouraged me through your actions to follow my heart. I will carry a piece of you with me into the future with every intention that someone, somewhere might be the ultimate beneficiary of all you have given me. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
I am especially indebted to teammate, Victor Dzirasa, for the morning benediction he called “Thoughts at the Wall.” After sharing his insights and experience at The Wall, he encouraged each of us to be mindful of what The Wall had to teach us individually.
This is my story.
I arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria as a Habitat for Humanity Global Village volunteer with one pair of work gloves and one seemingly innocent question, “What is mine to do?”
The literal answer came quickly as I began helping two of my teammates install insulation in the home’s attic. After that we were assigned the tasks of painting a waterproof primer on the home’s foundation, and eventually we became one of many who sanded the privacy wall on the south side of the property.
The metaphysical, however, was not so immediate.
Building the Wall
“The Wall” was constructed almost entirely of cement reaching seven or eight feet high, and ran the full length between two neighboring houses. When dried to concrete, it separated the nearly grassless yards of two properties with its’ coarsely sanded, patio-gray finish. In my opinion it looked too industrial for residential purposes compared to the wooden privacy fences that customarily run the perimeter of the midwestern backyards in my hometown.
There were three major stages of production at The Wall. First, came the mixing of the cement, of which Victor was the Chief Mixer along with Pavlin who seemed always at the ready to shovel and fill the wheelbarrow with moist, dense product for use by other teammates who used it to construct the wall. This second stage of The Wall’s team consisted of Shane, Zuhair, Patty, Colorado-Ashley and First-National-Carrie.
The Wall Constructors had organized themselves into a well-orchestrated process of throwing, spreading, and smoothing the cement mixture onto the wall’s frame. Many of their gestures reminded me of how I used to spoon, spread, and smooth buttercream over cakes as a pastry chef. In both cases, the goal was to work quickly yet precisely within a limited timeframe for maximum spreadability and smoothness.
Once each preceding day’s section of the wall had sufficiently dried and hardened, stage three involved sanding the concrete with plastic-handled rubbing bricks that were first dipped in buckets of water so they would simultaneously moisten the areas that needed re-smoothing. This had the effect of creating a slag lifted from the dry concrete that could then be reworked back over the surface to a more even finish, ostensibly rubbing out the imperfections left behind during the original filling process. Without benefit of any electrical sanding devices, the sanding procedure involved hours of circular strokes beginning overhead, moving downward to eye level, proceeding to the waist, lowering still further to knee height, until the process finally ended at ground level (surprisingly the most excruciating plane due to the bending it required). I doubt any of us would
care to calculate how many hours were spent rubbing in this circular motion, section…by section…by section.
Although primitive, this method of hand sanding wasn’t entirely miserable. At least not in my opinion. Carrie had a killer playlist that supplied endless hours of musical inspiration via her iPhone, Shane’s speakers, and my battery charger. Her tastes include everything from Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee, to “Money Maker” by Ludacris, to Matchbox Twenty’s “How Far We’ve Come.” Meanwhile, an aqua blue, cloudless, sunny sky warmed us from overhead and the occasional draught of cooling breeze prevented us from becoming too overheated. Getting into the groove while working at The Wall had more than a few moments of being – well, pretty groovy.