As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness. ~Henry David Thoreau
This morning I woke up and learned how to make homemade yogurt from my father-in-law, Petko. After that, we mixed up the batter for some Palachinki (similar to a crepe, only with more egg) and went to work cooking up a delicious breakfast. The Palachinki are topped with honey (from bees Petko raised himself), hazelnuts (which are picked from Petko’s tree), and raspberries. After breakfast, we went on a hike up into the hills surrounding Stara Zagora with our neighbor, Albena. As we rose in elevation and left the well travel paths behind, we started encountering almond and walnut trees which had yet to be picked. We laughed and played as we helped each other pull branches down and “hunt” for the best picking on each tree. Neda had brought a bag with her and our little hike turned into an almond and walnut picking festival! What a wonderful day!
Living in Bulgaria now for a month, I have been fascinated by how utterly joyful simple, sustainable living can be. Neda & I have always admired simple living and have some friends (a shout out to Meiku & Kuryo!) who have made an art of it. But we were only partially effective at implementing the creed in America. Now, as the TV and computer go on less and less, and are replaced by more, well…wholesome activities, I see what Thoreau was talking about above. It isn’t expensive to live a simple life and it isn’t very complicated. Yet at some level, paring down our lives, even just a little bit, provides a psychological clarity about living that a busy life seems to obscure.
I’m not saying to live a lazy life, but to have a life uncluttered enough that you find the few things you do make time for you can do wholeheartedly. The question each of us must ask ourselves is what do we want those few things to be? The constant attitude of consumption and procurement in American society makes it hard to pare down your life to just a few things. Societal cues are prodding us to add more to our life all the time out of a fear that we won’t have enough if we stop. Of course, this addition is usually done through adding “things” to our lives instead of fulfilling experiences. But if we prod ahead for too long in this way, a hollow feeling develops that can lead to loneliness and isolation. At the point we realize this, we can drive even harder in our quest of addition, or we can realize that the quest of subtraction leads to all the opportunities and fulfillment we could ever want.
Check out some other fun pictures of our time here and the food we've been cooking below!
Yesterday started as a tough day for Neda & me. In world news, I read about the two year old Chinese girl Wang Yue, who walked into a Chinese street only to be hit by a careless driver. The driver paused after hitting her with the front wheel and then continued on, running her over with the back wheels. As Wang Yue lay bleeding on the street, 18 different people passed right by her without stopping to help. During that time, she was also hit by another car. Finally, a trash collector saw her and helped. After a week of hospitalization, Wang Yue died yesterday. You can see the story and the video of the incident by clicking here, though I warn you not to watch if you are sensitive to graphic violence. When I showed the video to Neda, she burst out crying at how horrible it was.
This story stirred up powerful feelings in us. How can human beings be so closed to the suffering of others that even a wounded two year old child lying right in front of them on the street stirs no response? How can 18 people not act, when even a simple phone call to the police would start the process of assistance? And in a more generalized sense, how can one not become cynical to human nature itself when we are capable of such callousness?
Fast forward a few hours as Neda and I are leaving to run some errands before meeting up downtown with her friend Petia for her birthday. We begin the long walk downtown and are discussing the Wang Yue incident when we pass over one of the city’s irrigation canals. As we cross the 15 foot deep canal, a plaintive, desperate cry reaches our ears. The squealing wail sounds almost like a child, but as we look down into the running current of the canal, a tiny grey kitten is looking pleadingly at us as it unsuccessful tries to scale the vertical concrete walls. She was shivering from the cold water and looked near the end of her efforts, but meowed with all her might as we made eye contact with her.
The Canal's High Fence
Just moments after talking about Wang Yue, here was another creature desperately needing to be noticed. Yet, the canal was surrounded by a high fence and it seemed impossible to get access to the kitten. There were no branches around either. Others saw us looking at her, but just passed by due to the seeming futility of the effort. Neda & I had only a few minutes before the store for our errands was closing, but we silently communicated with each other: this kitten will not suffer the same fate as Wang Yue if we had anything to say about it. We sent an intention to the universe for help. How could we rescue this seemingly doomed kitty?
The Perfect Cut
We desperately began to scour the area looking not only for a long enough branch, but also one wide enough for the kitten to climb. Then Neda went onto the other side of the canal and barely visible was the clue we needed. A branch that had been cleanly cut from its tree that was pointing directly down into the canal. With a little effort we hoisted it up. Despite the stares we received as we walked across the street with this massive branch, hope had started to blossom. And people began to notice the rescue effort in earnest. As I jimmied the branch through the fencing to try to get it into the canal, a passing woman stopped and called out to give me advice about a better entry point. Then an elderly woman heard the cries of the kitty and saw our effort and stopped to bear witness. A man who had just shopped for groceries also saw us and came over to help. And what do you know? The branch was the perfect length - Preaching down into the canal like a lifeline to the cat.
At first the baby was scared of the branch and fled down the canal. But by this time our motley rescue crew was unified in the effort - we all started cooing and calling to the baby to return. As we called to her, she tentatively emerged from the darkness, assessed the branch, and began to climb. She arrived at the top of the ledge but was unsure how to escape the fence. I was worried she was scared of me and backed away. But when she started moving the wrong way down the ledge, the man with the groceries knelt down and called her back. As she scurried along the ledge, nearly falling back into the canal, the man waited until she was within arm's reach and pulled her through the fence. Success!
But what now? We couldn't take in a kitten and there are no animal shelters in Bulgaria. Would we just leave the kitten to shiver in the cold? This is where the elderly woman did her part. She told Neda that the baby just needed the love of a grandma and took her up in her arms. The kitten began to purr immediately and rub herself against the grandma. Grandma said she’d take her home and nurse her back to health. The kitten was saved.
As a social worker, I have struggled with cynicism throughout my career. I have seen the misery that people can bring into their own lives and subsequently the lives of others. But I have found that cynicism is just a matter of paying attention to the wrong details in life. Life provides countless opportunities to notice examples of our interconnectedness with each other and of our urge to honor that interconnectedness through love. When we decided not to pass the baby kitten, we sent out an intention of love into the universe. And from that moment onward, everything that the kitten needed was provided. The perfectly cut branch, the man with the groceries, and the sweet grandma. And as we walked away from the scene with beaming smiles and hearts full of joy and hope, we realized that the universe had provided what we needed as well. It begs the question, did we save the kitten, or did the kitten save us?
As a teenager first learning about Hinduism, I remember reading about how the Hindu idea of God is split into a trinity between Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and Shiva (the destroyer). At the time I recall being slightly averse to the idea of Shiva the destroyer. After all, aren't creation and the preservation of life superior to destruction? Looking back on my naiveté, I chuckle at my lack of understanding regarding the Hindu Trinity. Our weekend trip to Sofia this weekend gave yet another example of Shiva in action.
Rila monastery is one of Bulgaria’s most important cultural and architectural monuments. Founded around 950 AD by St. Ivan of Rila, the monastery has long been a refuge of Bulgarian literacy, language, and culture (it contains manuscripts dating back to the 11th century and has served as a center of education for some of the country's most prominent leaders). Nestled high in the mountainf of Rila, the monastery is still no stranger to Shiva’s dance. The middle of the 15th century brought the Ottoman Empire and along with it the destruction of most of the grounds. Rila was then rebuilt, only to be burned again in 1833. But its 3rd incarnation has proven to be an enduring one. Reconstructed between 1834 and 1862, Rila is considered a masterpiece of Bulgarian National Revival architecture - epitomizing the integration of a people and their eventual liberation from Turkish rule.
What lessons can we learn from Rila? For me, I think about my initial aversion to destruction and realize that with maturity sometimes comes the knowledge that to embrace destruction is to allow for crucial (though sometimes painful) growth in life. Just like a forest fire can clear out dead trees and stimulate germination, so must we sometimes burn away old habit patterns so that creativity and life can shine through. When I find myself feeling overly attached to keeping things in my life “the way they are supposed to be”, I try to remember the lessons of Shiva and of Rila. Sometimes the most beautiful and lasting changes in our lives come from knowing when to let some things burn so that others may flourish.
Seafood Risotto to die for!
Other than our visit to Rila, the weekend was filled with gustatory delights at the hands of our hosts Petya, Todor, Vili, and Stefano. Vili & Stefano treated us to a delicious seafood risotto & homemade ricotta & chocolate pie while Petya & Todor, in addition to driving us to Rila, also made us delicious fried Zargan (a black sea fish) and Tikvenik (a sweet pumpkin pastry). Add in Rakia and wine made in their families’ villages, wonderful soups and salads, and seared salmon, and you have Bulgarian hospitality at its best! Blagodaria to all of you!
Some more pics below, but to see them all click here!
The Chapel at Asenovgrad
Bulgaria is a country rich in history and situated amongst beautiful mountains and natural wonders. Our first excursion was in the Rhodope Mountains, which are located in the Southern part of the country, closer to the Greek border. Our first stop was the Fortress at Asenovgrad, which has existed since the Thracian times. Unfortunately, the only preserved part of the fortress is the church, which has been restored and is now functional. The vast mountaintops hover over the tiny church and offer a serene and peaceful atmosphere.
Next, an extremely narrow and windy road took us to the monastery at Krustova Gora. Krustova means ‘cross’ and gora means ‘forest,’ and these forests were named after a piece of the cross of which Jesus was hung that was hidden there during Turkish invasion. People drive for miles to come to this holy place to feel the energy of the cross (the relic is now displayed in the monastery church). This made me ponder the idea of faith and intention. Religious ideas aside, I have a strong faith in the connectedness of everything, living or not, that we encounter. And as I approached the tiny piece with doubt, I held my hand above it, and I felt its energy. I removed my hand and did it again to verify, and again, I felt the tingle in my arm, while Jeff described the experience as a movement of energy up his arm and into his heart.
Biophotons in human hand
These thoughts brought me back to an astonishing book, The Intention Experiment, which describes in detail the idea that even our intentions can have physical consequences in the world. One experiment that is still vivid in my mind is where a group of people in England were asked to observe a plant located in the United States through a special webcam. In short, the people were asked to send an intention to a leaf of the plant to make it glow. And by measuring the leaf’s biophoton emissions (a low light emission that all living things produce), they proved that while the people were focusing on the leaf it glowed brighter by a statistically significant amount! How amazing that we are at a point in science that we can measure the actual effect of our intentions! So getting back to the monastery and the piece of the cross. I don’t know if it was a real piece of Jesus’ cross or not, but regardless I think that the prayers that have been said over the cross during the past 2,000 years have saturated it with hope and love - and it CAN be felt.
We visited one more monastery, Bachkovo, where Patriarch Kiril (Cyril), is buried. This is the Patriarch of the Bulgarian Church that threatened to lay down on the train tracks that were deporting Bulgarian Jews during World War II. His intentions 50 years ago echo into the present as all 50,000 Jews living in Bulgaria were saved, 35,000 of which went on to help found Israel after the war.
Our final stop was at the Stone Mushrooms, which are these huge mushroom-like volcanic stone formations in the middle of rural Bulgaria. Their stems are a rose colored-hue from certain minerals and their tops are green and white. To take home with us from this packed day, we picked up Rhodope Mountain crystals as well as delicious mountain tea, mushrooms, and beans (we’ve already cooked with them)!
To see all the pics from this trip in Bulgaria, click here: