The Glorious Muddle
glimpses of grace in the messiness of life

June 11, 2017

Telling the truth

Ceausescu’ s house, called the House of the People

We ended our cruise tour in Bucharest, my first real home away from my home country. I felt a thrill once I stepped off the boat, and as our bus drove past familiar, yet vastly spruced-up sights, I swelled with pride.

Around every corner, I see memories. Good memories that make me laugh. Some that make me sad, missing friends and a world that no longer exists.

I remember how God met me and watched over me in this place. I get goosebumps thinking of how He cut through the iron bars that held people captive and set them free.

However, our tour guide’s commentary made me livid. She is 27 years old, born one year before the revolution. She said, “Ceausescu was good to Romania. He loved his people.”

I sat up and stared. Maybe my mouth dropped open. I’m not sure. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

“He was paranoid and so he didn’t let his people speak their minds. So they turned on him and killed him.” With that in-depth history lesson, she  moved on to the next topic. Case closed.

When we got off the bus for lunch, I pulled her aside. I wanted to know why she thought that.

I reminded her of the fear and suspicion. Nobody knew who was an informant. Nobody knew who to trust. People were imprisoned, tortured, or killed.

I told her that Ceausescu’s model was North Korea. No heat, no water, empty store shelves, long bread lines. Typewriters were illegal, same as speaking to foreigners.

We’d just toured one of the few remaining parts of Bucharest that show why it used to be called the Paris of the East. The so-called lover of Romania destroyed the beautiful districts and whole villages, all to build ghastly concrete apartment blocks, resettling people to the city. He tried to destroy religion and knowledge of God.

Lipscani district — what all of Bucharest used to look like

She told me she had heard all that, but she wanted to put a positive spin on things so Western tourists would want to come back. I gave her a hint about Western values. I said we love stories, TRUE stories of people who have everything going against them and yet they overcome. They rise from the ashes.

I told her to tell the truth.

When we got back on the bus, she did talk about the economic oppression. That was a start and I thanked her. But it isn’t the whole truth.

It reminded me of the old days in this part of the world. Truth has always been elusive.  Communist leaders often withheld negative news, news of their leaders’ deaths or space shuttle crashes. They spread propaganda with only their particular slant and kept people sheltered from any contradictory voices.

I hope the tour guide listens. Because Romanians have achieved so much, against all odds. And that makes me proud.

 

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June 5, 2017

The Need to Get Along

Popular meeting spot in Beograd – the horse statue

The countries of former Yugoslavia are dear to me. The first time I left the U.S., I went to Belgrade in the Serbian republic and Dubrovnik in the Croatian one.

I fell in love with the people, so full of life, so easy to talk with, even about long-forbidden spiritual topics.

That was 1986.  After many more visits to Yugoslavia and a bloody civil war, I hadn’t returned to what is now the country of Serbia since the NATO bombings of 1999. Until this week.

At first, Belgrade seemed unchanged, as lively as ever. Young people still fill sidewalk cafes with laughter and cigarette smoke.

A lady spontaneously kissed me when I bought her art work made from dried flower petals (and tried out some Serbian phrases). The concierge at the Hotel Moskva proudly gave Steve and I a private tour when I asked about famous guests. Sofia, our guide, peppered her commentary for our ship’s excursion with humor and history.

The South Slavs are passionate people who like spicy food and strong opinions. Croats and Serbs are the same people. I love them both.

Their disagreements, brewing for centuries, led to many deaths and much destruction. Reminders are everywhere. The issues are complicated and I don’t claim special insight. All I know is neither side was faultless.

Bombed out buildings in Belgrade, Serbia

Crucifix made out of empty shell casings outside a church in Osijek, Croatia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

People on our cruise heard from Croat guides the day we visited Vukovar, probably confirming what most of them already thought about the conflict of 20 years ago.

The next day, we heard from Serbs. I could sense the other passengers’ conflict. They were beginning to see that there is more than one side.

I thought of my own country. We’re also the same people, now sharply divided. I have friends with definite opinions on both sides of our great political divide. I had friends on both side of the Balkan conflict.

Some of my American friends are so angry, I wonder if they could ever be friends with someone who doesn’t agree. Someone they used to like.

If we look hard enough, aren’t we certain to find some common ground? If we focus on our similarities, maybe that will be a starting point to rebuild friendships and love our neighbors.

How do we love our neighbor exactly? Jesus said the only thing more important is to love the Lord. He said to love your neighbor as yourself. That means putting their interests above your own. It involves caring for their well-being before yours.

I wonder what will happen to my country. Will we ever learn from the mistakes of the Serbs and Croats?

If I asked people in either country if it was worth it, I doubt anyone would say yes. There’s been too much loss.

Our Croatian guide gave the simple answer. He said, “We just need to get along.”

So do we all.  So do we all.

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June 2, 2017

Free to be Rich or Poor

Budapest Parliament

We made it! Back to the lands I love. I’m having a grand time–except for one thing. I feel conflicted.

It’s time I come clean. I’m having a hard time with one area of my life.

There’s something that I wish I could keep to myself but I can’t. I need to be authentic. And I’m too excited about this trip to keep it in any longer.

What’s my secret?

We came here for a river cruise.

Steve and I are cruising down the Danube, connecting two cities I lived in:  Budapest, Hungary and Bucharest, Romania.

What’s hard about that?

We’re not just on a fishing boat. It’s a very nice ship. (If you watched Downton Abbey, imagine the ads of people cruising in front of Budapest’ s Parliament and you’ve got the picture.)

Of course, we got a stupendous deal and we are down in steerage with tiny little windows.

But why do I feel compelled to tell you that?

When I lived here, I tried to live simply. As an American, I realize I’m stinkin’ rich compared to most of the world, but I’ve never thought of myself that way. At least, not compared to my compatriots.

But in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, as much as I tried to live like the nationals did, I had options that nationals only dreamed of. I was different.

Yet I was single and I started life here in a dorm room, moved to a small flat, then a larger flat. My flats here never felt extravagant. Oodles of students and staff members were ministered to and filled my home with life and love and laughter.

When I’ve returned for visits with Steve, we’ve taken trains around Europe and trams in the cities. That’s my M.O.

But not Steve’s. His tastes are more expensive than mine, but he’s a good sport and is adventurous. My M.O. became our M.O.

Now we’re on a very nice ship.

So here’s my internal dilemma. We want to visit my friends. People who knew me in the old days.

How do I be content to be myself and not apologize that I seem like a wealthy American now?  Why can’t I be free to be me, whether I’m rich or poor or somewhere in between?

The apostle Paul learned the secret of being content with a little or a lot. I desperately need to learn the secret of being content with whether people think I have a little, or whether people think I have a lot.

Why do others’ opinions still matter to me, or what I perceive their opinions to be?

Some of the best and most generous people I know are wealthy. There’s nothing wrong with that. Money is neutral. It’s only the love of it that can cause problems.

I guess being a rich woman who takes European river cruises is not who I am. At least it’s not who my national friends know me to be.

However, Steve and I are having a lot of fun. I’ve assimilated to life back in the States. Maybe I’ve changed.

If you’re still thinking, What’s the big deal? Let me illustrate.

When we set sail, our cruise director cautioned us to excuse the Eastern Europeans’ backwardness. She said they’re poor and they don’t have the infrastructure to provide the comfort we’re accustomed to.

I wanted to barf!

She’s criticizing the people I love about something out of their control that is totally insignificant and only matters to people who feel entitled. Not me!

Maybe I just need to trust my friends to know the difference. Trust them to trust my heart. And stop worrying about how I might be perceived and just show them I love them.

Because I do. I always will.

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May 22, 2017

Can You Love a Place?

I’ve been thinking about the importance of place lately. Why, you may ask.

Because I’m going home. Actually, I’m going home to two homes.

Are there places you love? Places you consider home, even when you don’t live there and perhaps haven’t lived there for decades?

I have many. I’ve lived in places that I’ll hold dear until the day I leave this earth for my final home. Places that make me feel fragmented because I’m not there, no matter how much I may love here. Part of me, part of my heart, is always someplace else.

I’ve left my heart in San Francisco, and I’ve left it all over the world.

People have told me I get too attached to Place. That it should be People who matter. And only People.

Of course, people elevate the value of a location. But I can love a place solely for its own merit.

Many factors affect how you remember a place. The general atmosphere and attitudes. How formative the place was in your history. Whether you made lasting friends. Did you have significant work that fulfilled you? Did you like the climate or the geography? Were you happy there?

Or maybe you like who you became in that place. How the place changed you.

Settings become characters in the story of your life.

I’ve lived all over. I’ve experienced the joy of falling in love with a place that’s radically different from anything I’d known before.

Maybe you haven’t. Maybe you live in the same town you grew up in.  I admit there are times I’m jealous of you. You have the steady comfort of roots grown deep, and probably family nearby, that I’ve longed for. Yet I wouldn’t trade the life I’ve lived for anything.

Like potential friends, you don’t always bond right away with certain places. Or perhaps, never. Usually I found something I liked, some pretty corner tucked away or some friend I enjoyed, even in places that I think back on as little more than temporary stepping stones on my journey.

Some places you’ve loved longer than your memories exist. I can’t remember ever not loving Harmony. The name says it all, situated in the Land of Pleasant Living on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. It was my first home, and my only home for 23 years. I’m homesick for it when I’m away.

But I do remember, as a young girl, being captivated by novels set across the globe, and yearning for something more.

Then there’s love at first sight. The first time I drove to Rhode Island, I knew it. I felt it deep in my bones as I crossed the state line from Connecticut. Energized. Excited about possibilities. Invigorated. Berkeley, California was another immediate infatuation for me.

I entered Romania with a mixture of fear and hope. Deep underneath rested a confidence that God had called me, but I couldn’t summon that assurance to the surface on demand. Life was hard and the city of Bucharest was aesthetically-challenged in those days.

Still, it didn’t take long for the warmth of the people to woo me and never let me go.

Like a mother’s love for a child, sometimes your love for place defies explanation. And like a mother’s love, my bond with Romania didn’t suffer when it acted badly toward me, and I couldn’t love it any more when it made me proud.

From there I moved to Hungary. Budapest had glimmered as the beautiful destination for all my train trips to stock up on supplies and get re-energized. I loved it as a visitor, but I wasted the first few years living there by comparing it to my dearly-missed Romania.

Relentless Hungary edged its way into my heart after all. By the time I left, I’d come full circle, appreciating the good things.

Sometimes you need distance, and maybe time, to feel the love. I didn’t realize how utterly I loved Hungary until the first time I returned.

When I got married, I moved to probably the most gorgeous place I’ve ever lived. Prickly Marin County, California—the extreme opposite of Eastern Europe in terms of lifestyle and values–didn’t welcome me as I navigated cultural re-adjustment.

Yet, I’ll always love Marin because that’s where I met Steve and started my life with him. And that’s where he promised me that we’d go “home” to Eastern Europe every five-six years.

It’s been six years.

In one week, less than a day after we return from my nephew’s wedding, we fly to Budapest. Then we hop on a boat for a river cruise down the Danube to Bucharest.

I’ll be reunited with my two beloved cities.

Can you love a place?

I do. And I’m headed home!

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May 17, 2017

Transition Ahead

You know that feeling when you have worked hard and completed something challenging and you can sit back and catch your breath? It’s a mixture of accomplishment and exhaustion. That’s how I feel today.

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I have completed another commencement season. This time I did five ceremonies in three cities, made especially difficult because of a huge rainstorm that swept through the South. Only half of our outdoor crowd could fit into the main auditorium, and the ones who didn’t have tickets were not pleased. I had the fun job of delivering the bad news.

My ears still reverberate, as the last veneer of sweet tea, gardenia blossoms, and “yes, ma’ams” evaporated from the normally gentle folk. Gone with the wind.

But it’s over, I survived, and we got them graduated!

So today I celebrate not only the closing of one project, but the beginning of a long-anticipated transition, a commencement of sorts for me. I’m commencing to reduce my work hours, and I’m kicking it off with a trip.

Detour AheadSteve and I had a plan, formulated back when I began this job, to leave my post this year. In the process of submitting my resignation, I had what I now refer to as my heart attack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack (Billy Joel fans, anyone?). Turns out it was a Bundle Branch Block, meaning my body sends out whacky electrical signals that something’s amiss when it isn’t. (If you’ve known me awhile, that explains a lot.)

I didn’t know whether to take my medical emergency as a sign from God that I need to eliminate all stress and hence, quit for good. Or was he trying to tell me to keep working full-time so I can still get health insurance?

After we got the bill for my overnight in the Cardiac Hilton, the answer became clear. 🙂

I will stay in my office job and continue with special projects, working 10 fewer hours—the minimum to be considered full-time. That gives me a whole day to write from home!

I’ve been living for the day when I can write at home full-time. In preparation, I got a master’s degree, converted a guest bedroom into my office space, filled it with white boards, and planned every detail with writing goals and accountability.

I’m a teensy bit disappointed to defer my ultimate plan, glad to start easing into it, and mostly thankful that I still have insurance. At my age, time speeds by so quickly that it will feel like tomorrow when that blessed day finally arrives.

One day “off” per week may not sound like much, but here’s the best part.

My reduced work load won’t begin for a month.

Next week, we go to my nephew’s wedding in Arizona. We leave from the wedding on a red-eye flight home for a 23-hour-turnaround before we leave for … wait for it ….

Eastern Europe!

Stay tuned for more on this.

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