Wednesday, January 6, 2010
When You Wish Upon a Star
A few weeks ago, I was shopping for some small trinkets to dress up my room for the first Christmas holiday here in Romania that I would spend without the people that I love. I came across an electric light, in golden cardboard paper, made in China, and in the shape of a 3 dimensional star, for the low, low price of what amounted to less than 4 US dollars. Taking it back to the house with the rest of the little items that I could afford and some candy for good company, I assembled it, hung it on the door next to my bed in my Peace Corps "hut", and proceeded to go about my day. Praying for some miraculous event was not a priority. The snow was falling again, my room was cold, I needed to stoke the fire, and that was that. I did not know it yet, but there were wonderful things about to happen.
Miracles, some say, do not exist. They do not live in the practical world, the world of actuality, the world of secular sanity. Some even say that folks who believe in them are doomed to fail and to be forever lost in a world of fantasy beliefs.
I say bunk.
I say---You haven’t spent the holidays living among the people in the countryside of Romania.
Beginning with Christmas Eve, I would have surprise after surprise, blessing after blessing, and feelings that I thought were lost, were again found, time and time again. In small doses, rapidly and with the energetic spark of light that shone each night beside my bed from that star which I hung up for luck.
At first I thought, no. The world has offered me people who are cold and narrow-minded. I have seen and heard things that are too ugly to absorb. I have encountered those whose misplaced ego, greed and lack of true compassion deadens my senses. I have known those who do not have conscience about the shame that they bring down on themselves and others by their actions. I have a sickness in my heart that will never die for the way that others misuse the trust and love given to them as a powerful vehicle for a means to a wholly personal and selfish end. For some, disrespect and disloyalty are the only comforts they will ever know. In them, there are no gifts.
But now, I have learned that here, in this place, there are moments every day filled with the capacity of love that I might never have known if I had not lived it. Christmastime brought a host of wonderfully ancient traditions, most of which included the talent, goodness, and loving smiles of the children whom I teach here. On occasion after occasion, during the entire week, I was met with evidence that, yes, love exists. Not the kind of love that is spoken without true devotion, but the kind which you can keep close to you, without fear, without reservation. The kind that has meaning and unfathomable generosity. The kind that nurtures your soul.
All of the moments, from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day have been memorable, surpassed by none ever in my life, and are sure to be forever burned into my heart. Just when I thought that the surprises were over, more came and in droves. Today was Epiphany, and I walked as I normally do each Wednesday, to one of the village schools here, as the snow fell and the river flowed nearby. The mountains kept the cold from biting too much as they held on to the winding, lean-to, sun-bleached fences with their tattooed faces from visits many and often by the woodpeckers in residence. There were bird songs, cow ballads, sheep salutations, and turkey calls along the way and as I made my trek up the hill, I looked forward to seeing the third and fourth graders who I knew were waiting for me.
In class, I was given a slew of hand-made Christmas cards and then we all sang in a circle as I had asked the children to teach me a few new songs. From carols to the Romanian national anthem we sang, the children laughed, I felt speechless, and we held hands. The morning was sunny and excitement filled the air inside our classroom. Recess came and we went outdoors. I watched the boys and girls sliding down the hillside and running and laughing up a storm. Next, a snack of milk and bread, utter chaos, and then I read them a story. The children reread the story aloud one by one and then crowded around as it was time for us to go. I was on my way to the Orthodox biserica back in my village for the Epiphany service and the children asked if I could go with them to the church there. At first I declined and said that I needed to get back to the church in the center of the communa, but after I debated for a few minutes, I then decided to go with them rather than making the walk back alone. The uproar was enormous. All of the children grabbed their coats and rushed me out the door and down the road to the church at the top of the hill. There were over thirty of us, along with the first and second graders, and on the way, we met some cows, took photos of the goats and the scenery we encountered, spoke to some of the villagers, then entered the church together.
The little ones huddled around and the service was beautiful. There was a gorgeously decorated tree with tinsel, bells, candy, hearts, and glittering ornaments made by the children in the transept and the candles were lit to illuminate the silver icons and the frescoes of biblical scenes above and aside of us. We knelt together, the chalice was brought out to kiss our heads, the children came and went like little butterflies (first next to me, then behind me, then in front of me at times),and after many recitations and reflections, a large brass lantern with candles came down from the ceiling which was then raised and lowered again. I lit my customary two candles as I do every week in biserica--one for my loved ones who have died, and one for those I love the most here on earth---then, making our way toward the front all together, we each received the holy bread from the preot, wrapping it in the colorful paper cut from the daily news pages that was passed around by the parishioners in front of us. After that, we all went outdoors where a beautiful cross made of ice was dressed with flowers and all around it were candles and buckets of water holding dried herbs on three tables making an altar. The children, and many others, lit all of the candles for some minutes as the townspeople waited for the rest of the service to start. The floor of the snow-covered ground was dressed with a huge mass of dried hay as the preot continued this Epiphany service outdoors under the tall and glistening white mountains. I watched, grateful, as the sun shone on the church’s tin spires, and the snow came down in cool, soft pellets. During the readings, there were six men who each shot off hunting rifles and vintage shotguns one at a time into the air as the crowd, many of them old ones, looked on from this circle. The readings ended and we all took with us an empty bottle to fill with water from the buckets that had been blessed along with a generous handful of the hay.
Afterwards, inside the church, the children all got a package filled with candies, gloves, small gifts, and other things, at which time I was invited to enjoy a glass of hot wine and conversation along with the preot, the mayor and his group of friends. It is not customary in the Orthodox church for women to discuss and socialize with men here on the right side of the church, but as I am the visitor, the teacher, the Peace Corps volunteer in resident, the person, the woman, who people have come to know, I was asked to stay. It was a time for me to reflect upon the day and the goodness of the people who have invited me here. They all continue to be the solace and the strength that I need to go on every day.
In the end, the walk was clear and refreshing. I had bared my feelings once again to God and to others. I was renewed and grateful for this day, grateful for the times that I continued to have these past weeks. The Christmas tree, the carolers, the bear parades, the bands, the dinners, the gifts, the lights, the rituals, the snow, the sledding, the talking, the hand-holding, the love. And despite not being able to share all of it with anyone from my other life who truly knows me, I could now relish the meanings and the beauty of it all. Although the tremendous things that happen here and the simple beauty which I see every day does not fully erase those things which taint and sour it underneath, still, it is livable and it is a gift.
Tonight, I once again thought to myself not only about these holidays, but about all that had happened over the past year. I checked the sprig of basil that was placed under my pillow four nights ago by my neighboring preot (just to make sure it was still there.) And then I turned on the star next to my bed. I have decided that it will be a kind of symbol of my good fortune here. And so, I will leave it up-at least for a while.
Lastly, I pray every day for miracles. I pray each night for the people in my life who I wish could see what I see. I pray for them to see what they refuse to see. I pray for those whose lives are closed and not open to the wonders of all things. And at the end of the day, I pray that I will live a life that is good and long so that I may return home to tell about these moments of joy in Romania.