On Bulgaria: Life Beyond The Wall, part 3 of 5

This is part 3 of a 5-series post, On Bulgaria:  Life Beyond the Wall.  Not caught up? Read parts one and two.

Image created by: Diane Mora using Paper 53 Quote by: Pico Ilyer
Image created by: Diane Mora using Paper 53
Quote by: Pico Ilyer

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

Photo courtesy of: #UnforgettableFirsts
Photo courtesy of: #UnforgettableFirsts

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.

Photo courtesy of: Zuhair

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.

Photo: Diane Mora
Photo: Diane Mora

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 concludes part 3 of a 5-part series of On Bulgaria: Life Beyond the Wall.  Read what happens next in part 4:  Discovering My Life Beyond the Wall.

On Bulgaria: Life Beyond The Wall, part 2 of 5

This is the second in a five-part series, On Bulgaria:  Life Beyond the Wall.  Need to catch up?  Read part one.

Image created by: Diane Mora using Paper 53 Quote by: Pico Ilyer
Image created by: Diane Mora using Paper 53
Quote by: Pico Ilyer

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.  

Photo courtesy of: #UnforgettableFirsts
Photo courtesy of: #UnforgettableFirsts

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.

This concludes part 2 of a 5 part series of On Bulgaria: Life Beyond The Wall.  Read what happens next in part 3:  Encountering My Self at The Wall.

Thanks for reading.

On Bulgaria: Life Beyond The Wall, part 1 of 5


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.

Image created by: Diane Mora using Paper 53 Quote: Pico Ilyer
Image created by: Diane Mora using Paper 53
Quote: Pico Ilyer

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.

Photo courtesy of #UnforgettableFirsts
Photo courtesy of #UnforgettableFirsts

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

Photo courtesy of: #UnforgettableFirsts
Photo courtesy of: #UnforgettableFirsts

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.

This concludes part 1 of a 5 part series of On Bulgaria: Life Beyond The Wall.  Read what happens next in part 2: Fear and Wondering at The Wall.

Thanks for reading!

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?”