World Travel with a Twist of Zen - Fields of Indulgence  
 
PictureThe good 'ol days in Cambodia!
Tomorrow I go back to work and this chapter of our lives officially closes. After over two years of travel, spacious freedom from the daily grind, and a daily stream of transformative experiences, it is time to re-enter the atmosphere. It is an event that has happened to all the world travelers we have met along the way, though while we were traveling it always seemed so remote. I remember speaking with Claudia in Cambodia about how she was counting down the days left until returning home for business as usual. Chris & Lauren had similar feelings in Vietnam as the days remaining on their trip grew shorter. Throughout our trip we encountered folks preparing to re-enter after their own amazing travel adventures, wondering what “ordinary life” would be like with the new lenses that they had acquired while abroad.

Returning to the US was the first stage in the re-entry and for Neda the final stage occurred fairly quickly, as she got a good job at the end of July. The first few months were difficult for her, adjusting to the schedule of a regular work week, to having so much less time than we did before. Tomorrow it begins for me, though I am excited about the work ahead with my new job. I will be managing workforce development programs for low-income youth in Montgomery County – looking at best practices to help them complete high school (or attain a GED) and transition into college or employment afterwards. It is good work, but even so Neda’s experiences warn me that the re-entry will cause a bit of shell shock the first few weeks.

PictureFrom infant to toddler - nothing reminds us of change more!
Still, if there is one thing our travel experiences have taught us over the past few years, it’s that change is constantly occurring in the world and within us, and that there is no real choice but to accept it. Whether it is the rapid development we saw in countries like India, the political upheaval in Catalonia, or the challenges of previously agricultural economies like Bulgaria keeping up in a world market, the one constant was change. At a personal level, little babies that we left behind when we started our travels (Ella, Lily, and Liam) are now running circles around us, singing songs, and playing with trucks. It is all enough to throw you off-balance, unless there is a rope to help keep your footing. 


Luckily, there is such a rope. This past weekend Neda & I met up with my best friend David and his husband Steven in the quant town of Mystic, CT. We spent long hours catching up and enjoying the cuisine and beautiful setting of the area. But perhaps most impactful for me was a conversation David and I had about how much we had changed since meeting over 10 years ago. How more knowledge of the world has tempered the hot idealism of our youth and how our values have shifted as we have gained more and more experience.

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This is bound to be as our personalities and ego-minds are as subject to change as the rest of the universe. But while we can’t stay the same, we can find some grounding through these disorienting changes. And that is through constantly re-committing to the things that are important to us. It doesn’t matter if 10 years ago my commitments may have been different; it is the very act of committing that is the powerful one. In my current iteration, that means committing to bringing more mindfulness to my life. It means looking at all the tasks and changes ahead and embracing them instead of resisting them. It means bringing compassion to myself and others where otherwise there might arise fear and anger. And as I write out these commitments, I realize that perhaps they aren’t all that different from 10 years ago, it is simply the way I will implement them that will be different than before. And there is a certain beauty in that.

So one chapter ends and another begins. There is still more to come from Fields of Indulgence, but the nature of this blog will change as well. We hope to focus on highlights of the Philadelphia region as we explore it and our own lives through the spiritual lens that has been our thread throughout these travels. Thanks for joining us this far in the trip and I’ll see you on the other side!   
 
My Mom and I drove out of her suburban development amidst torrential rainfall this morning. Despite the traffic and poor weather, we had a destination from which we would not be deterred. As we started driving she said to me:
"You've traveled around the world, but it's here at home you'll see the greatest miracle of them all."
She was right.
Summer Fields was born at 10:59am this morning and I have riding a wave of joy ever since. I've seen the morning sun beam onto the alabaster brilliance of the Taj Mahal, literally flown through the jungles of Laos, meditated in the holiest places of Japan, and climbed mountains in New Zealand that jut out of the earth as if they were the chess pieces of God. And while all these experiences have impressed upon my soul a true appreciation of natural beauty as well as a deep humility before my fellow man, they are like pale shadows compared to the joy that bloomed in my heart when I saw my newest niece for the first time.   
PictureMiranda, my little slice of cuteness
I have felt an incredible connection to my other baby niece Miranda since we came home and have been caring for her during the week. She has already taught me so much about selfless giving, smiling just for the helluva it, and cherishing the moments that fly away so fast. But we didn't get home in time to catch her birth and so I didn't get to have the experience I had with Summer today. The experience of a life just beginning, full of unlimited potential, and surrounded by love. I can't wait to continue to be a part of her life as I am a part of Miranda's & Summer's big sister Ella. To share in her triumphs and her oops's and to see her learn from both.  

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Mom & Dad gaze at their creation in awe
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Aunt Sam & Grandma Fields with Baby Summer
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Ella meets Summer for the first time with Gaga Lyn
Today was truly a great day. While we were traveling our eyes were continually opened to new cultures, new languages, new foods, and new friendships. It was such a wonderful experience to feel like a baby again in the arms of the world. And then to come home and look into the eyes of one who is just awakening to this world - its joy and sorrows, causes deep feelings to arise. It makes me look anew at being careful stewards of this place we call home and the people who live within it so that our children can be cradled the same way I have been. It is both joy and responsibility rolled into one, feelings I didn't used to equate with one another! It is a commitment to love more fiercely than ever so the warmth of that love may spill out on others when they are feeling cold. The warmth of Summer. 
 
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23 months of travel. Countless pillows. Innumberable tables where we sat to write this blog. We have moved around so much and yet for me I have discovered a 2nd home in Bulgaria. Our last week in the country was hard as we met up with the great friends and family that we have been able to reconnect with while in Bulgaria. We had dinners with Neda’s cousin Gosho and his girlfriend Raya, slacklining in the park with our friends Joanna & Morgan, who we met in Thailand, and celebratory drinks with Neda’s old friend Kaloyan, who along with partner Rumiana, were celebrating the birth of their first child. And even as we raised our glass in cheers, there was sadness as our family had just visited Neda’s grandma Marika, who was lying in bed close to death.

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The last picture Kaloyan and Rumiana took before little Kaloyan Jr. popped out!
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How do we reconcile the closeness we feel for this place with our decision to leave? I tell myself that finally it’s time to go home, but I am no longer certain where home is. Zen teaches us that home is a construct that we are constantly destroying and re-creating to find stability in this changing world. And while that abstraction may lend some comfort, it doesn’t feel any better to know it will be too long before we see all of our friends and family in Bulgaria again. Our last dinner in Bulgaria was with Neda’s oldest friend Petya and Dimitar, another old friend from high school. As we caught up on our lives eating delicious Bulgarian cuisine and speaking completely in Bulgarian, I couldn’t help but feel that life here was just beginning even as we were preparing to leave.

But how do we choose to whom to say goodbye and to whom to say hello? My Mom gave us a thrilled hug when she saw us walk through the terminal doors and it was wonderful to see her after so long. Yet as we drove back to Lansdale Neda called her parents to find out that Baba Marika had indeed died the day after we had seen her. We had made it to one hello and missed another goodbye.
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In Memorandum: Baba Marika with her family during a visit in 2009
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As if it were the universe’s cosmic plan to remind us of this crazy cycle of birth and death, as Neda hung up with her parents with tears in her eyes we were only a few minutes away from my sister’s house. Sam and her husband Gary were waiting outside in the driveway, with a little bundle of joy in their hands, their new daughter and our new niece, Miranda Hope Koellhoffer. When I looked into her sweet eyes and heard her gentle cooing, the miles we had traveled melted away and I immediately noticed that familiar feeling already starting…here with this baby in my arms, I was beginning once again to create home.

It’s probably healthy to let go of our attachments and go through these changes in life in order to keep ourselves from growing stagnant. But I already miss my family and friends in Bulgaria, I miss talking in Bulgarian to little Marilenka, playing backgammon with my father-in-law, and discussing the nuances of Bulgarian language with my mother-in-law. I miss tomatoes whose flavor nearly knocks me unconscious and the view of the Bulgarian countryside when I run atop the hills bordering our neighborhood.

But I don’t miss not being able to be a part of my nieces’ lives. My other niece Ella is over 2 years old now and chatting up a storm. She already called us Uncle Jeff & Aunt Neda as she carefully made sure we had enough ice in our water at dinner. And so it goes…to say hello we have to say goodbye.
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Lauren, Neda & Ella give us big smiles!
I never expected to feel so much a stranger in my own country. The accents sound strange, the lawns seem so big, and the clothes and bodies look so different (sorry America, but our bodies tend to be quite a bit bigger than everywhere else in the world!). I feel blessed to be given even the smallest glimpse of what it must have been like for Neda and her family when they came from Bulgaria to America 15 years ago. At that time they became a part of two worlds, a family with two homes. And now, in some small way, I’ve joined them.
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We miss you Nadia & Petko!
 
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The Tower of London with the newly constructed Shard looming behind it
London is the largest city we visited during this part of the trip and it’s steeped in history and culture. A part of this history, the Tower of London stands along the River Thames and is a reminder of the militant past of Britain’s rulers. William the Conqueror built the core of the tower in 1078 when he invaded from Normandy and took over the British crown. The tower was originally erected to pacify the city’s population and establish his authority as King. While this bit of history is interesting, what really fascinated me was William’s changing identity. As a Norman he was a Frenchman, but his recent ancestry had come from Vikings who had invaded France years earlier. The French King Charles the Simple thought the best way to deal with this constant threat was to simply grant land titles to the invaders, thus creating new defenders of the territory (thus the name Normandy, from Norsemen or “North Men”).  
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The Sun breaking through on Parliament and Big Ben
All of this history made us start to question identity in general. I always naively thought that the British Monarchy was an unbroken bloodline going back thousands of years when in fact just 1,000 years ago it was essentially taken over by Viking blood. Then, in 1714, George the Elector of Hanover became King, giving the crown the primarily German blood it retains even today (Queen Elizabeth comes from this line).  
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Neda's visit to Stonehenge. We still don't know the identity of the people who built it...
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Clifford's Tower in York
This inquiry into identity was heightened during our visit to York, when I saw that in York around 1190, my identity as a Jewish person would have seen me burned in Clifford’s Tower due to the capricious desires of a mob envious of perceived wealth and eager to wipe out their debts.  

These examples of how identity can be used to claim power over people’s lives (in the case of the Monarchy) or the right to claim another’s life (in the case of the Jews) proves what a destructive concept it can be. It is useful to define ourselves in relation to others for the purposes stimulating creative thought and giving us a lens to interpret the world. But we must recognize that this lens is simply a mental fabrication that our ego uses as it sees fit to get what it wants. With this understanding, we can start to be less attached to our identity. This doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate who we are, but it does mean that we don’t take that concept so seriously that it causes pain for others.  
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The famous Rose Window of the York Minster. The Minster contains over 2 million pieces of stained glass in all of its windows combined.
In a more practical sense, it felt wonderful to appreciate a part of my identity and see my cousin Amanda and her husband Sean in York after nearly a year of seeing no family from my side.  York contains the buried Viking city of Jorvik that came to be when the Vikings conquered York and lived there from 875 to 954. It also has ancient Roman walls, haunted pubs, and beautiful churches to explore. The rest of our trip to London (before York) brought us a wonderful day with our friends Jeff & Karen from Austin, a visit by Neda to ancient Stonehenge, and beautiful walks around the city as it prepares for the Olympics. 
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Amanda and Neda enjoy high tea at Betty's in York.
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The tower bridge shows its Olympic Spirit
See all the pictures of London and York here: http://flic.kr/s/aHsjAkqahW

 
Neda & I have been paying a lot of attention to the breath recently as we continue our study of yoga. Learning about the basic physiological mechanism of breath has been a spiritually revelatory process.  The main idea is that when we breathe in, the diaphragm (a muscle in our mid-section, connected to the rib cage) pushes down, expanding our chest capacity and lowering the pressure within our lungs. This open space within the lungs is quickly filled by air from the outside. Another way of looking at it is that inhalation is simply the process of making space with your lungs for the air to flow in. You don’t actually do anything – you just create space and let the universe do the rest. It begs the questions – are you breathing the air or is the air breathing you?
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The diaphragm during inhalation and exhalation
As the holidays begin, the breath can be a useful reminder for all of us. The holidays are a time of high expectation as many of us come together to celebrate family and connection. Too often, however, we all try to do too much and tensions arise before we know it. What started as something we were so looking forward to can become disappointing and frustrating. This is where the analogy of the breath can be helpful. Because when we come together with family and friends over the holiday, we don’t have to do anything to make it work. We just simply need to make space for the love to flow in.

This same principle applies throughout our lives. Whenever you find yourself trying so hard for something to be right and feel like you’re just hitting your head against the wall, let a breath take you and remember that sometimes the solution is just waiting to flow in.

Here is wishing you and yours a wonderful Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Years!

 
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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.

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Krustova Gora
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.

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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)!
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At the Stone Mushrooms
To see all the pics from this trip in Bulgaria, click here:
 
Serendipity, noun:  when someone finds something that they weren't expecting to find.

During our stay in the Philadelphia region, we tried to catch up with family and friends we would not be seeing for a long time. Some of the friends we really wanted to see were Zach and Jocelyn (along with their newborn baby Liam). However, Hurricane Irene had different ideas for the weekend we had planned on seeing them and we were never able to connect.

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Zach, Jocelyn, and Liam at Philly Airport
Fast-forward to September 26th as we pull up to the Philadelphia Airport’s International Terminal lugging our suitcases and backpacks for the trip across the pond. After a brief wait in line, we are busy shifting luggage around as we put our bags on the scale and pray we don’t get charged extra fees for overweight or oversize luggage (so much for ultra-light travel on this leg of the trip : ). There is a couple next to us with a crying baby and Neda thinks to herself “thank goodness we are not doing this trip with a baby - that would make it even harder!". But then, right after the first bag goes on the scale, the mother of the baby turns around and it’s none other than Jocelyn! The baby was Liam and there is Zach comforting him and getting him to settle down!


I am ambivalent about ideas of fate or destiny, but this one was just too much to wrap my head around. The only people we had wanted to see and missed while in Philly were standing right next to us as we got ready to head out of the country! They were leaving for a wedding in Belgium on a flight that left at the same exact time as our flight to Bulgaria! It was truly serendipity. And it got me thinking about the idea of finding something you weren’t expecting.

From the perspective of our Zen training, it seems life is always the most vibrant when you are expecting nothing from it. When we embody this state of "no-goal", it seems that life provides just what you need when you need it. Perhaps instances of serendipity are the subtle teachings of the universe telling us to expect less in order to receive more.

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Stara Zagora & Bulgaria on the map - also visible are Greece, Turkey, Serbia, & Romania
We touched down in Bulgaria on Tuesday afternoon,jet-lagged and exhausted, yet thrilled to see Neda’s Dad Petko waiting for us at the airport. A 3 hour drive to Stara Zagora (see above) and we arrived at our destination for this part of the trip.

We’ll take the next few months for Jeff to immerse himself in the study of Bulgarian and for Neda to reconnect with the country of her origin. Along the way we are looking forward to spending time with Nadia (Neda’s Mom) and Petko and to traveling around Bulgaria to see friends and new sites. As we travel, we’ll work on looking at how our expectations can often blind us to what is right in front of us and attempt to strip away our projections of the future to fully embrace the present.


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Nadia's homemade Surme! (stuffed pickled cabbage) Fukoosni! (that's delicious in Bulgarian)
 
My Mom is a social worker and often goes into hospitals to assess the elderly for their eligibility to receive assistance from the state. In the elevator on her way out of the hospital she was standing next to an older woman and noticed she was teary. My Mom asked, “are you all right?”

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Mom & I at the game
The woman replied “I’m here because my sister is dying of lung cancer. She smoked for 50 years and while she may have enjoyed the habit, she had an obligation to those who loved her not to kill herself in this way. What about those of us who love her and are left behind?” My Mom saw the pain in her eyes and asked if she’d like to sit in the lobby and talk. Over the next 30 minutes they connected to share in the sorrows and tears that life has inevitably brought each of them. The sorrows of life cut short before its time and of loved ones whose actions leave wounds that scar over, but never fully heal. After they had shared their stories, my Mom told her she had to go but that she “felt they were meant to have this time together.” They exchanged first names and the woman thanked her being there and both  women recognized that a special moment had occurred. They hugged and separated.


As my Mom told me this story, I felt admiration welling in my heart for her willingness to commune with someone in pain. How often do we see pain in others and make excuses about how we don’t have the time or the energy to give? Of course we can’t completely abandon our own needs to serve others, but can we just take that extra half hour to make a difference? Or can we take the extra little effort to smile at the person we pass on the street who may be having a bad day? To truly listen instead of waiting for our turn to speak? My Mom’s story challenged me to look at all the little ways I sabotage “coming together” and inspired me to do something about it. Those are the best kinds of stories :).

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Neda's 1st Phillies Game!
On a practical note, we have been doing a lot of coming together here in Philadelphia as we catch up with family and friends and continue to make preparations for our trip to Bulgaria and beyond. We got to catch a Phillies game with the family (it was rained out in the 3rd inning, but we still had a great time) and to see our friends and families cute little babies! We also survived a category 1 hurricane (thanks Irene). Hope everyone else stayed safe during the storm! See the rest of the pics here


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Our cute niece Ella!
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Lilianna, our friends Beth & Ed's daughter!