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!   
 
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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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September Concert at Union Square
Neda and I just got back from a long weekend in NYC where we got to see our good friends Dave and his fiancée Abbey as well as Mike and his girlfriend Christine. Being in New York City over the weekend of 9/11/11 was a very special experience. While the news channels trumpeted warnings of attacks and did their best to sow fear into the hearts of Americans, New York was vibrant and alive with music, festivals, and sumptuous food. It was almost as if the teeming mass of the city was practicing a form of civil disobedience against fear - buoyantly going about their lives as an affirmation of living life with an open heart. We passed drum circles, impromptu theater happenings, Chinese dancers (see video below), and a live “September” concert in Union Square honoring the memory of 9/11 by celebrating life through song.


At the concert I realized as I listened to Declan Bennett croon about freedom, that while our nation has been waging a “War on Terror” this past decade, a more important battle goes on in each of us every moment. How do we personally work with fear? Whether it is of terrorists, of taking a chance on a hobby that scares you, or of a new idea. When fear consumes us, it acts as a voracious fire that burns its way into all of our thoughts and offers to act as our very identity. We willingly take on this false identity because we believe that indulging in the fear will keep us safer. And in some ways it does keep us safer, but at what cost?

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Overcoming fear...with beer!
The problem is that our relationship with fear is parasitic, not symbiotic. It weakens the host it feeds upon. The trick that New Yorkers seemed to understand this past weekend is that you can’t put the fire of fear out by running out of the forest. Instead, you create a fire-break – an open space where the fire simply burns itself out. By celebrating and remembering with all of New York this past weekend we made space for fear and then overcame it the only way it has ever been overcome – through laughter, song, merriment, and an open heart.

For other pictures of NYC click here:

For pictures of our day trip into Philly while Dimitre was visiting click here:

For pictures of the wonderful Labor Day Seafood BBQ at Heidi and Scott’s click here:

For pictures of Mom’s B-day Picnic click here:

 
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Mmmm....El Pastor Tacos!
Columbus, Ohio! We arrived last Wednesday to visit my old college friend Natalie and her partner Rayn. Nat & Rayn took us on a culinary tour of the city as we enjoyed the city’s taco & BBQ trucks as well as my new obsession - delectable macarons from Pistacia Vera! They also took us to a Columbus Pecha Kucha event (the Japanese Word for Chit-Chat, pronounced “pechakoocha”) where we heard people give 6 minute presentations on everything from the powerful influence of radio to their love of photographing food that arouses desire in the viewer ("food porn").

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Pabst & Chit Chat - can't beat it!
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More macaroons please!
A conversation I had with Natalie while we were hanging out in her kitchen struck me. Taking this grand journey with Neda has excited both of us, but has also provoked feelings of fear and vulnerability as we take a financial risk in order to stimulate non-material growth (i.e. wisdom, creativity, etc...). Neda and I have enjoyed the readings of Eckhart Tolle and the way he speaks about bringing awareness to when we identify with fear-based reasoning. In other words, the underlying fear we have about not being in control of our lives colors our reasoning so that we  justify making decisions that limit us and prevent us from growing.

Natalie introduced me to the metpahor of “floating downstream” from her work in the Abraham spiritual tradition as another way to work with this idea. In this tradition, the universe is seen as moving all of us in a synergistic way towards what we need for growth and fulfillment. When we focus on what we don't have in our lives and what we don't want in our lives (i.e. fear based reasoning), we are attempting to swim upstream. This futile attempt to control the sweeping river of our lives slowly and inexorably exhausts us, leaving little room for creativity or spontaneous flow. Instead, life becomes a single minded focus on a few ideals that are born out of fear instead of flow. 

As we arrived back in Philadelphia on Monday night and started working on all the preparations for traveling to Bulgaria, Neda and I felt the familiar constriction of trying to swim upstream. It is easy for us to get tunnel vision when we feel overwhelmed by how much we have to do. The question for all of us is whether we can see that constriction in our mind and body when it occurs and notice it without judgment.  This witnessing allows us to float along with the universe towards whatever destination awaits us to next.

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An attempt at food porn :) Fried chicken topped with fried plantains, cheese, and onions from a Honduran food cart in Columbus
This post concludes the “American Tour” part of our trip for the time being. We will make preparations in Philly for our international exploits before leaving for Bulgaria at the end of September. Along the way we'll try to get up along the East Coast to say goodbye to our friends there. Also wanted to send thanks to Josh & Anne for being wonderful hosts as we visited them in the small town of Granville, OH. They both continue to be inspirations to Neda & I for their free-thinking and creativity. See the rest of the pics from Columus here!


 
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The 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis was the largest ever. Sporting 12 giant exhibition buildings (focusing on topics from innovations in manufacturing to education and social economy), a campus of over 1,200 acres (covering Forest Park and parts of what is now Washington University in St. Louis, my alma mater), and an attendance of nearly 20 million, the 6-month long Fair was an epic event of its time. As I walked through the exhibit at the St. Louis History Museum, one facet of the fair particularly caught my attention - its purely temporary nature.

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Festival Hall across from the Art Museum
Looking at the pictures of the fair, it appears that this amazing city within a city was put up right in the middle of St. Louis. Gorgeous facades lined every street corner of the Fairgrounds and the great basin provided waterway views for anyone coming to the fair. But it was all temporary - each of the buildings was made of rough wood frames covered in a substance called “staff” a mix of plaster and hemp that looks just like marble…for about 6 months...Then it starts to deteriorate and fall apart.

Before I knew the buildings were made of this temporary substance, I couldn't understand why St. Louis would produce such beautiful buildings just to knock everything down. As I realized that these buildings had been built to fall apart, I reflected on how the Fair informs our own lives. Each of us comes into this world as a temporary structure, like the buildings in the Fair. We meet millions of people along our journey and hope to instill some inspiration in a few of them if we're lucky. Just like most Fairgoers briefly enjoyed the experience of the Fair before returning home, many of our relationships are temporary connections that change as distance and time moves us apart.  But the inspiration and growth that the Fair induced never goes away - just as our friendships continue to shape us long after parting ways.

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On this trip through St. Louis, we got to connect with many of the people who have inspired us as we shared our time together in the city. At the Lake of the Ozarks, Neda & I got to hang out with my old college friend Matt McKeague and his girlfriend Michelle. We enjoyed lazy days on the Lake, tubing and catching up on old times. 

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At Double D's with Chris
In St. Louis, we met up with Chris Curtis and his girlfriend Alice Tseng, who took us out for a night of great fun at Double D’s bar. Then we had delicious Dim Sum with Neda’s old co-workers Mike & Don before heading out to O’Fallon, MO to spend time with Dave, Diana, and their new baby son Jake. Jake was a joy to be around and showered us with smiles and baby talk our whole time there! After O’Fallon, we headed South to have dinner and a night of catching up with Traci & Scott before we head off to meet up with our friends Meiku and Kuryo at the Missouri Zen Center tonight.

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Dim Sum with Don & Mike
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Neda & Jeff with Baby Jake!
St. Louis has always been a place of meetings for us – Neda & I met here and the past few times we have visited we are always whirling through as we try to see everyone we had such a wonderful time with when we lived here. While the “St. Louis Fields Fair” is over for us for now, we look forward to coming back and seeing how everything has changed since the last visit! Next stop: Columbus, Ohio and more friends from St. Louis!
See the rest of the pics from this part of the trip by clicking here:
 
The next stop on our journey is taking me back to one of the first homes I had in the United States. It was hard to leave the great weather and beautiful adobe home in Santa Fe but also exciting to see my friends in Springfield. We drove 12 hours to Tulsa, OK, stopping in Oklahoma City for scrumptious tacos that took our bellies back to Austin!

Driving through Springfield, I was shocked at how different it looked to me yet how nothing had changed! This was one of my first real homes in the United States, and what a different town it is compared to NYC and Bulgarian cities. As we travel through the country without our own home now, I am realizing more and more how much home is with the people that you meet and connect with. 

My first job as a waitress was at a Chinese buffet, Jade East, so we had to make a stop there because who knows when we will return there. I remember thinking how weird Chinese food was. In Communist Bulgaria, we didn’t have any other culture foods or exposure, so the only thing I ate was the fried chicken, fries, and pickles for a long time :)! Jade East was the same, same people working there, even the food tasted exactly the same!
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At Gastropub
In contrast with the somewhat bland city landscape is the love and warmth with which I was greeted by my longtime friends. I haven’t seen them in at least 2 years but feels like we have been hanging out every day! We stayed with my maid of honor and high school friend Stefie! We had a delicious farm to table dinner with her crowd and also met up with my good friend Lisa who I have also known for about 13 years. Love you girls!

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We drank more than we have in the past month in this one weekend! We had  a bonfire at Stef’s sister’s (Jen) house for her birthday and then headed off to the North Fork river for a glorious day of floating down the river. It had rained all night and all morning and it seemed as if we were in an enchanted forest as the sun was peeking through the fluffy clouds! Black butterflies were everywhere and the rugrats and raccoons were out on the banks. It was so beautiful and luscious!

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At the Daily Pub
We are now at the Lake of the Ozarks relaxing and really enjoying the amazing home of Matt's (Jeff's college friend) grandma. We are cooking, doing laundry, and in a way made a new home already! :)
 
Neda & I are on I-10 heading West on the 9 hour drive to Big Bend National Park. We left Austin this morning to a wonderful send-off from our neighbors: Jane, Pat, Janet & Carlos. The last week has been bittersweet as we prepared for our next adventure while saying goodbye to those we have come to love in Austin. Last Saturday we had a goodbye get together and got to see all of our different spheres converge: friends from the Zen Center, from work, from random places in Austin, and our neighbors from Eden Roc. We basked in an overwhelming feeling of love from all those who came to see us off.

It’s funny that sometimes you don’t realize the impact you have on people’s lives until you get ready to part ways. You get right at the chaff of your relationships when years separate the next time you’ll see each other. But over this week as neighbors threw dinner parties to feed us, filled up our first tank of gas, and generally spent as much time as possible with us before leaving, we realized that the guts of these relationships we have built are strong and run deep. And so as we leave Austin homeless, we also feel we always have a home there.

And so now we excitedly giggle about the road ahead. First stop is Big Bend and the splendor of purple mountain majesty. We’ll spend the next few days hiking around the park, doing yoga in the desert at dusk, and reminding ourselves that only through the love of others could we ever have found the courage to embark on this wild journey!
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