“Mostly They Get Along… As Long As They’re Not Killing Each Other”

IMG_1523We have arrived in Belgrade!  We, my daughter S and I, arrived in that blurry where-am-I-what-day-is it state of jet-lagged semi-consciousness after a flight filled with crying babies, slamming overhead compartments, spilled wine (at least it was white and not red!) and squeaky lavatory doors.  But the food was decent and the square of Swiss chocolate was a nice touch.  Most importantly, it got us here!

Initial impressions came from our cab driver who pointed out:

*  the remains of a concentration camp on the left bank of the Sava River (google informs me it was the Sajmishte concentration camp in which close to 100,000 Jews, Serbs, Partisans,  and Roma were imprisoned by the Nazis during WWII and an estimated 48,000 were killed)

*   Syrian refugees living in a park as we entered Belgrade

*   the simple elegance of serbian alphabetthe Cyrillic alphabet in which each letter represents a unique sound (“unlike English” — to which I readily agreed.  He didn’t seem to either hear or understand me when I pointed out that, conversely, Serbian grammar is overwhelmingly obtuse and challenging.)

*   a building bombed during the late 1990’s, now fully rebuilt.  “By the Americans?” I just had to ask.  “Yes, by our “dear” friends the Americans.”  I decided not to follow that line of conversation any further…

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View from our balcony

Arrived at our airbnb apartment smack dab in the middle of Stari Grad — “Old City,” right around the corner from Knez Mihajlova street, now a fully pedestrian zone, and steps away from my grandmother’s old apartment.

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Knez Mihajlova # 33

S and I walked right into the building and looked up at the completely unchanged painted images on the walls and ceiling of the foyer.  I climbed the stairs, remembering the fantastic dragon finials at each landing.  The apartment on the IMG_1580top floor has been unoccupied for years.  When I told some workmen on the scene that my grandmother used to live there they asked me if it was now my apartment.  I confess to a moment of wishful thinking…  It did my heart good, just to see it all again. I wanted to pull out my cellphone to call my mother and let her know where we were actually standing at that point… Somehow I think she already knows and it makes her heart glad too.

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Knez Mihajlova street outdoor cafes

Speaking of “completely unchanged” — that has been another first impression of Belgrade. I was fearful that the city would have changed so much that I wouldn’t be able to recognize it.  Quite the contrary — the architectural “bones” remain pretty much the same as I remember, though clearly suffering from what we in church circles politely refer to as “deferred maintenance.”  The addition of high-end stores and a booming cafe scene all along Knez Mihajlova has certainly brought the whole area to life — well beyond the excitement when the first self-service grocery store opened there in the mid ’60’s.  It too is still there, but now sports the Food Lion logo.

Still battling jetlag, S and I met my cousin N and his wife M for dinner.  He regaled S with  stories of how I used to terrify the elders by leaning over balconies and how once I talked a peasant into unhooking a horse from his hay cart so that I could ride it.  N and his friends arrived on the scene just in time to stop me from cantering off.  My recollection is a bit different — more along the lines of scolding the old man about the way he was treating his horse (I was a serious horse fanatic back in the day).  No matter — some family lore is meant to become embellished with time.  I realized that coming from such a small and geographically dispersed family on my side, my children are not privy to much family lore, more’s the pity (or perhaps not!).

M & N now live in California — they came as students some 40 years ago and we have seen each other a few times over the years.  Pure serendipity that we were all in Belgrade together at the same time on this their last night before heading off on the rest of their trip and this our first night.  We exchanged stories and caught up — N gave me a heads’ up that one elderly aunt (well, widow of a half-second-cousin-once-removed, but who’s counting!) has been furious at me since my mother’s death  17 years ago for not paying thousands of dollars to restore a family monument in the local cemetery.  I think perhaps I’ll give this aunt a miss this trip.  My theme may be reconciliation, but with an anger burning that fiercely so many years later discretion seems the better part of valor…

We also talked politics.  It seems we arrived at Nicola Tesla Airport just hours before German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is in town as part of a three country trip (Albania, Serbia, and Bosnia/Herzegovina).  All three countries are hoping sooner rather than later to become part of the EU and her visit helped underscore that possibility for the three countries (and maybe there was a not-so-subtle warning to keep their financial houses in order not like you-know-who  to the south of them).  N is very hopeful about the current Serbian government — an unlikely coalition of nationalists (but not the hardcore variety) and socialists (a.k.a. former communists) who have come together over a mutual commitment to see Serbia enter the Eurozone.  Come together?  Mutual commitment?  Even putting words like those in the same sentence gives me hope also.

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NATO bombarding of Belgrade, March-June 1999

We mentioned the conversation with our cab driver.  “You have to understand,” N said, “this is a severely traumatized country and city.  Once Belgrade was capital of a fairly significant European country; now it’s the capital of a small, impoverished, landlocked country seen by much of the rest of the world as a pariah. You’ll see it in their facies; they have experienced great trauma  which was capped off by being bombed by NATO some mere 15 years ago.  Selective bombing with notice given on CNN every night about which site was targeted for that evening so that they could evacuate.  People would sit in cafes and watch the targeted strikes take out this building or the other.”

Yes, I do get it.  It is multi-layered and complicated and my heart goes out to all.

“And, besides,” N continued, “for the most part they all really do get along — except when they are killing each other.”

There was evening and there was morning (which, thanks to the miracle of intercontinental air travel, stretched into yet another evening) of the first day… So much more yet to come.

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Sometimes History Accelerates Into Warp Drive

Emanuel AMEAfter the shootings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last week in Charleston, SC, I attempted to write in this blog, and hit a brick wall.  I was filled with such despair. The horror of nine people being massacred in the midst of a Bible study compounded the anger I have shared with millions of others in this country as black men and boys continue to be killed and incarcerated in vastly disproportionate numbers across this country.  Have we really made no progress since the Civil Rights movement?  I was angry and frustrated — wanting to do something — but feeling helpless to know exactly what to do, except pray.

And then came this past week. Events unfolding so quickly they are almost impossible to process:

* The Supreme Court upholds the Affordable Care Act

*  The Supreme Court rules in favor of  same-sex marriage

*  President Obama gives a stirring eulogy at the memorial service for Cynthia Marie Pres ObamaGraham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor,  Rev Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton , and Myra Thompson — singing Amazing Grace and reminding us all, in no uncertain terms, of the boundless possibilities of God’s grace.  Reminding us again that we are the United States of America.

GC shieldAnd then came the events at our General Convention — the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church now being held in Salt Lake City, Utah.  I have the privilege of serving our diocese (Southeast Florida) as the first clergy alternate.

Ever since the first General Convention I attended in Philadelphia in 1997 — and actually for numerous GC’s before that — our church had been wrestling with issues of human sexuality.  There were bitter and divisive arguments, so divisive that many people left our church.  But at our last General Convention in 2012 the issue was finally settled in favor of  the full inclusion of LGBT people in all aspects of the church’s life as well as authorizing the blessing of same-sex unions.

Bishops marchingWhat a relief to come to a convention not only not tearing itself apart with acrimonious debate, but actually united in a sense of outrage at the rampant racism still festering in our country.  And not just outraged, but committed to doing something about it.  On Sunday our bishops marched against gun violence.  And so far there have been several resolutions — with actual funding behind them — committing ourselves as a church to engage in the fight against racism and to involve ourselves deeply in work of reconciliation and restorative justice.  It’s as if once we stopped focusing on sex we re-discovered the Gospel imperative: to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

And then came Saturday…

Every nine years we elect a new Presiding Bishop to be the “first among equals” who will discern with us where God is calling us to go and who God is calling us to be and then lead us forward into that shared vision.  There were four qualified candidates:  The Rt. Rev’d Thomas Breidenthal of Ohio, The Rt. Rev’d Michael Curry of North Carolina, The Rt. Rev’d Ian Douglas of Connecticut, and The Rt. Rev’d Dabney Smith of Southwest Florida.  The House of Bishops elects the PB and the House of Deputies confirms the election.

IMG_1379On Saturday, history was made.  For the first time in anyone’s memory a Presiding Bishop was elected on the first ballot.  By an overwhelming majority in the House of Bishops and then rapidly endorsed by the House of Deputies.  The Rt. Rev’d Michael Bruce Curry will become the 27th Presiding Bishop of Bishop Currythe Episcopal Church when he is installed at the National Cathedral on November 1, All Saints Day.  The Rt. Rev’d Michael Bruce Curry will also be the first African-American Presiding Bishop.  He was elected and ratified by an overwhelming majority in both Houses.  An African-American elected during a week when the Confederate battle flag is starting to come down, is starting to be seen for what it really is: an evil symbol of hatred and oppression.  As Dr. Martin Luther King said “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  In the end, love wins — and that is why I am a follower of Jesus Christ.

I feel this is a kairos moment — a “God’s time” moment — for our church.  Hear what Bishop Curry said to the House of Deputies as he was introduced to us:   “We’ve got a society where there are challenges before us. We know that. And there are crises all around us. And the church has challenges before us.  We are part of the Jesus movement, and nothing can stop the movement of God’s love in this world.”

You can almost still hear the resounding AMEN! we all cheered in response!

During the weeks leading up to the beginning of this sabbatical I struggled with whether I should come to General Convention at all.  After all, I am an alternate deputy, there are three other clergy alternates who could take my place.  By going to Salt Lake I would be delaying the beginning of the Balkan part of my Balkan Odyssey and would cut short the “down time” I will need at the end of my sabbath time to decompress and process everything I have experienced.

But now that I am here I am so grateful for the privilege of  witnessing these historic events (add to which the House of Bishops’ approval, yesterday, of allowing the Book of Common Prayer’s marriage language to be altered to accomodate same-sex marriages, for which I’m grateful since that’s what I’ve been doing since January 6th!). Knowing that my Church is committing itself to the work of reconciliation with a renewed sense of urgency, having experienced powerful worship services along with legislative resolutions and the clear mandate we have given our new PB, I feel I am on the right track with the theme of this sabbatical.   I am energized to learn what I can from the groups with whom I will be visiting and hope to come back ready to participate in the work ahead of us as a church.

Yes, sometimes history does accelerate into warp speed…

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Re-connecting

old friendsI’ve spent the better part of the past two days reconstructing this site, trying different themes, looking for ways to improve the archives.  Finally hit on this format (the theme is “twenty ten”).  Not perfect, but it will have to do.  If you have any comments/thoughts I welcome them.

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The Walnut House, ca 1890

Last week I spent time reconnecting with people from different times in my life.  My best friend since 9th grade, as well as two other close friends. These are the kinds of friendships that no matter how long we’ve been apart we can pick right up where we left off as if no time had gone by at all.  Those are the most precious of friendships. Together with my son, whose birthday we celebrated while in DC, I was able to share the joy of two friends who had recently purchased this house.

DO image of ChristI also visited places.  In addition to the embassies I wrote about in my last post, I drove by the house where I grew up — so familiar and yet so strange, and visited not only the cemetery where my mother is buried, but also Dumbarton Oaks where IMG_0059she worked for over thirty years.  “D.O.” is renowned for its Byzantine collection, its Pre-Colombian collection housed in a IMG_0082 (1)space designed by noted architect Philip Johnson, and its stunning gardens.  This is the swimming pool in those gardens where I learned how to swim.

I visited another place of deep meaning to me.  I have been back to my alma mater IMG_0124Virginia Theological Seminary since Immanuel Chapel burned down in 2010, but I had not been back since it was converted into an outdoor worship space and the new chapel built.  I attended daily morning prayer and weekly Eucharist in community with my fellow seminarians and faculty for three years in that chapel; that is where I preached my first sermon.

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Dr. Charles P. Price, Professor of Liturgics and Systematic Theology, Virginia Theological Seminary

The chapel was shared with Immanuel-Church-on-the-Hill (I hear they recently eliminated the dashes, but I am a Luddite and will continue to use them), so after I was called to be the assistant rector at ICOH the memories continued.  I was ordained there on the eve of the Feast of the Annunciation — 7 months pregnant!  On a random Sunday I drew the short straw as the designated preacher/celebrant for the 8 am service only to discover the Presiding Bishop in the congregation that day.  It was in that chapel that I once attended a weekday mass with my then two-year-old son who, when it came time to receive communion, had a mini meltdown when the celebrant offered him a blessing instead of the bread — teaching me once and for all that even the youngest child “gets” what is happening at communion and knows he doesn’t want to be excluded.  To her credit, the celebrant caught herself and immediately offered him the bread.  It was also in that chapel that I deeply offended the liturgical sensibilities of my favorite VTS professor by suggesting that we read the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel at the conclusion of the Christmas Eve midnight service. “The worst excesses of Rome!” my very low church professor said as I burst into tears.  We apologized and laughed about it after; in his apology Charlie shared the insight that what “separates a liturgist from a terrorist is that you can negotiate with a terrorist!”

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The new chapel of Virginia Theological Seminary

These and so many more memories came flooding back to me as I mustered the strength to say goodbye and enter the new chapel.  Which is beautiful, and very functional.  I took numerous pictures as ideas to bring home to St. Stephen’s with me.  But it is still made of virgin stones; it will take years of the prayers of the faithful, shared memories, and life events to truly sanctify it.

There is one person in particular with whom I wanted to re-connect when I was in DC last week.  I have known her most of my life — in fact our families had known each other for four generations.  My great-great-grandfather was her great-grandfather’s lawyer back in the town of Shabatz in eastern Serbia.  I had not seen her in almost twenty years, despite having been back to DC many times.  I can’t explain why — because any explanation would just be an excuse.  And then of course the more time that went by the harder it became to call for fear that she would give me a (frankly well-deserved) guilt trip.  Her sister had died four years ago and I didn’t reach out.  Again, no excuse.

But I put my big girl pants on and made the call.  Knowing that she had every right to not want to see me, or to lecture me on my neglect and absence.  Being fully prepared that might happen — but also knowing that if I didn’t call I couldn’t really embark on an abstract journey of re-membering and reconciliation if I couldn’t make that a reality in my own life.

She did not turn me away, but welcomed me with open arms and a delicious Serbian lunch.  We spent several hours catching up and remembering.  The word “re-member” literally means “to put the members back together” and that is at the heart of what we do each time we share the Eucharist.  The grain once scattered is brought together in the bread we share, just as we are brought together in Christ.

In my pastoral work over the years I have heard so many stories of once-close family members or once-close friends being alienated from one another.  Cast asunder, cut off. But we are meant to live in community with one another and each of us has bits of ourselves scattered in the many people whose lives have intersected our own.  It may seem daunting to try to reconnect with someone from whom you’ve been estranged, but I believe that, more often than not, they are longing for it every bit as much as you are.

There are places I’ll remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life, I’ve loved them all

— John Lennon

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Embassies

international flags

Today I visited the embassies  of (in alphabetical order):  Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, and Serbia.  Everyone with whom I met was very helpful even if they didn’t know much about NGO’s working on peacebuilding and reconciliation in their respective countries.  The people with whom I spoke either took my information and said someone would get back to me or gave me the correct email address and assured me someone would reply.

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Sculpture of “St. Jerome the Priest, Greatest Doctor of the Church;” Ivan Mestrovic

The Croatian embassy was the most impressive with a beautiful sculpture of St. Jerome by the famed sculptor Ivan Mestrovic in front.  It also boasted the EU flag (which the other two countries don’t have yet). The political officer at the Serbian embassy told me they were actually renting their facility from Ethiopia (so where does Ethiopia hang its hat…?) because the embassy on “R” Street is undergoing renovations — “for several years now,” she said with the kind of laugh that made me think it would probably be under construction for “several” years yet to come.  Both the Bosnian and Croatian consular officers assured me it was safe to travel with Serbian license plates and the Serbian officer gave me some useful advice about the safest way to visit the monasteries in Kosovo, if I should choose to do so..

So I got some useful information along with some insights, and also provided Waze with photos of all three embassies to help other Wazers find them (awarded 18 points total for that!).  But the biggest “aha” of the day came, as these things often do, not from what I sought to find but rather what found me.

map of embassies dcAs I worked my way through the west end of DC where many of the embassies are (Massachusetts Avenue is actually nicknamed “Embassy Row”) I was struck by how changeable landscapes can be.

Consider:  twenty five years ago there was one Yugoslav embassy; now there are six or seven (not sure if Kosovo has its own yet).  I drove by both Macedonia and Slovenia  today as well– Macedonia is a lovely Victorian house with a big wraparound porch and backs up to Serbia; Slovenia is very modern, lots of glass, also has the EU “you’ve made it” flag.

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Embassy of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland

And consider this:  Japan has a gorgeous embassy on prime Mass Ave real estate.  70 years ago?  Not so much.  Same with Germany — which has moved onto an impressive campus in the ultra upmarket Foxhall Road area of town.

But the real “aha” for me today was this:  in the spring of 1985, a group of seminarians from Virginia Theological Seminary went to 3051 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington DC, 20008 to join a protest march. We actually were not permitted by police to march directly in front of the property but got as close as we could.  We were peaceful, carrying signs deploring the injustice of apartheid.  Several of the more courageous among us volunteered to be arrested.  We felt good about what we had done but also, with great sadness in our hearts, could not truly imagine a day when that oppressive system would actually come to an end.

And then, today, I drove by 3051 Massachusetts Avenue again.  And this is what I saw standing tall in front of the embassy of that once benighted land:

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The words say: Nelson Mandela, Freedom Fighter, Political Prisoner, Statesman. The statue was erected in September 2013

And I thought, maybe, just maybe that can also happen in other parts of the world now so rent asunder by hatred.  Maybe, if Truth and Reconciliation could become a reality in South Africa, there is hope…

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The Politics of Food

One of the things I’m definitely looking forward to is the food.  Gibanica, kajmak, Turkish coffee, ajvar, incredible cakes and pastries, fresh fruit, vegetables, and farm goods:  tomatoes that actually taste like tomatoes, chicken that actually tastes like chicken.  And then of course there are cevapcici (pronounced “chevapcheechee”). cevapcici Little grilled meat rolls served on a bed of chopped onions or with kajmak and lepinja (flatbread).  What could be more innocent than longing for a food that kindles deep-seated memories?

What could be more innocent, except when one misguidedly recommends that food to a friend in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Once you could get regional Yugoslav foods pretty much all over Yugoslavia.  Apparently I was still stuck in that time warp when I told a friend he must, simply must order cevapcici when his cruise ship made port-of-call along the Dalmatian coast some two years ago.  I was definitely living vicariously through him and the others taking that particular cruise. Following their every move on facebook, even as they were already underway I kept reminding him “don’t forget!  Make sure you order cevapcici!”

And so he did.  At a small restaurant in Dubrovnik.  And was almost thrown out as a result.  “Cevapcici?” the waiter almost spat at him, “we don’t serve that here.  That is a Serbian dish, and we do not serve that.” Having just seen the holes made in 1991 by Serbian artillery shells while walking around the walls of Dubrovnik, he got that.  A geopolitical lesson in a plate of food.

Sometimes I wonder — what part, if any, of their once conjoined lives do the south Slavs miss the most?  Travel?  Music?  The slight variances in the inflections of their languages?  Somehow I believe it would have to be the food…

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“Nohrid” (No + Ohrid = Nohrid)

These are photos from a spectacularly beautiful place:  the town of Ohrid ohrid townsituated on Lake Ohrid in the south of Macedonia.  Actually it’s now called “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (FYROM) for geopolitical reasons.  st. naum churchThere are other countries claiming Macedonia to be rightfully theirs — Robert Kaplan goes into some detail about the backstory of all this in chapter three of Balkan Ghosts.  boat on ohrid I still only sort of get it.  It was awful and of course bloody and formed the centerpiece of both the Balkan Wars.  My grandfather fought in one of them — maybe both — and we have his sword displayed in our family room now.  I sure hope it was only an ornamental one…

These photos are stock images from Google.  Sadly, I won’t be sharing any of my own.  I hope the Lilly Foundation forgives me for eliminating this part of my proposed itinerary. But on this trip Ohrid has become Nohrid.

I had hoped to retrace the steps of a rather incredible journey I took with my parents back in 1959 — my first visit to Yugoslavia and my mother’s first time back after she became an American citizen.

It involved one of these.  Yes, that is a 1959 Studebaker.  The 1959 StudebakerAllen family was enamored of that brand of automobile; my grandparents had several in succession and my father carried on that particular family tradition.  He had different plans for this one.

He shipped it from from the U.S. to the port of Piraeus, Greece.  We were to travel in it and then sell it.  There were no buyers — at the end of the summer back it came to our driveway in suburban DC. But travel in it we did.

It’s funny how some things at the time seem quite normal — doesn’t everybody do this?  — and in retrospect border on the unbelievable.  So it was with the trip from Athens to Belgrade in a 1959 Studebaker over “roads” that had yet to even dream the concept of an interstate highway system.  A drive across the Corinth Canal, a visit to Epidaurus, to Mycenae, to Delphi.  A day spent in the monasteries of Meteora impossibly perched as they are on top of soaring rock formations.  And then across the border into Macedonia and a night spent in a “hotel” in Bitolj (now Bitola).  We fell asleep to the smell of the insecticide with which my mother had doused the room to euthanize the bedbugs and other vermin and awoke to —

— what seemed like every child in town climbing on the car with great glee.  The car itself was dead, kaput, mrtvo.  And, because it seemed like the most normal of things, a mechanic was summoned who was actually able to repair our behemoth, and off we went.

To Ohrid.  With its gin-clear waters, its historic Byzantine churches (the church of Saint Naum is pictured above).  A magical place of beauty and spirituality.

But alas, retracing that epic trip won’t be happening this summer.  Oh we’ll go to Corinth, Mycenae, and Delphi.  And I’ve been training up my leg muscles to scale those monasteries in Meteora.  But replicate the road trip?  Not happening.  Because — why? I don’t know — the Greek government forbids rental cars from Greece to cross international boarders.  Funny, we’ll be renting a car in Belgrade later in the trip and dropping it off in Rome crossing a crazy quilt of international borders en route, but driving one out of Greece? Oxi! — no!  And a combination of trains, busses, and a taxi over the border (don’t laugh, others have done it) is just not my idea of how to spend a whole day of this precious time we have.  So, sadly, Ohrid becomes Nohrid.

In the picture of St. Naum’s church you can see mountains beyond Lake Ohrid.  “That is Albania,” I was told back then.  Those words could just as easily have been “That is the third moon of Jupiter,” because that country then was equally foreboding and inaccessible.  Now people from all over the world travel to Albania to hike, swim, ski, and sightsee.  In a recent episode of House Hunters International, an American family was even looking for an apartment in Tirana because they had jobs there.

What once seemed impossible has become almost mundane and what once was challenging but doable is now all but impossible (because, no, we won’t be shipping a car over there).  And so the world chugs on in fits and starts.  One step forward, two steps back.  Two steps forward, one step back.

And as I finish writing this and note the date, I realize it would have been my father’s 100th birthday.  Thank you, Dad, for teaching me about crazy adventures, chasing dreams, and always seeking to be on the side of history that arcs toward justice.

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Hello World! Now what…?

Hatching ChickI can appreciate that this little chick might be somewhat dumbfounded. Nestled within its egg for 21 days (which in chicken lifespan terms is, I’m sure, a very long time) and then, bam!  Hello world!  Now what…?

It’s not like I didn’t know this was coming, rationally.  It’s been more than a year since I submitted the grant request to the Lilly Foundation. And it’s been nine months since the grant was approved.  And since that time not a day has gone by that I haven’t thought about, planned for, dreamed of and generally marinated in the prospect that I will be going back to the countries of the former Yugoslavia for the first time in over forty years.

Well, I did go back to the Adriatic coast with two friends while I was living in Germany and, while I can’t say that didn’t “count” because it certainly did, it wasn’t the same as all the previous visits which involved family — grandmother, great-aunts and uncles, friends of my mother who might as well have been family.  So this summer, I am going back to that — or what is left of it.

Most of my family, of course, have passed on.  I will visit with one aunt. Actually a first-cousin-once-removed, but in Serbian families where even third cousins are a big deal, this is a super big deal.  I also look forward to meeting a cousin I didn’t know existed until we met on facebook several months ago, and I am thrilled that I my husband and two grown children will be able to share this experience with me.

But when I say “I’m going back to that — or what is left of it,” there is of course another meaning altogether.  The last time I was there it was “Yugoslavia.”  My relatives hated the communists, but hey — the country at least hung together.  I couldn’t understand why, when I came back to Belgrade after a week in Dubrovnik with one of my “tetas” (this one an honorary aunt) and told my grandmother all about this wonderful boy I had met there she practically spat out the word “Hrvat!” (Croat).  “No, Manja, he is a Yugoslav!”  I just didn’t understand.  I knew there had been all sorts of trouble in the past — dating back to at least the 14th century on the battlefield of Kosovo Polje — but these were different times now, weren’t they?  It was all one country now, right? — the federation of the South Slavs, or “Yugo (south)-slavia (Slav-land).

And then Tito died.  Who knows, maybe he thought he would beat the overwhelmingly stacked odds against immortality.  But, for whatever reason, he made no sustainable plans for succession.  And the whole country fell apart.

And the wars came.  Horrible, genocidal wars.  A new phrase was added to the human vocabulary:  “Ethnic Cleansing.”  All of the seething ethnic/religious/territorial centuries-old animosities came  roiling to the forefront.  All of the barely repressed memories of who-did-what-to-whom and this land is our God-given heritage (no, ours!), and we’ll pay you back for what you did in the last war and the one before it and…

And there, stuck in the middle of it all, was Bosnia.  Just waiting to be carved up by the two forces on either side of her.  Because even while their soldiers were busy throttling each other, Slobodan Milosevic (Serbian president) and Franjo Tudjman (Croatian president) were meeting in secret to discuss how they would divide Bosnia-Herzegonia between themselves.

And when the atrocities started in earnest in Bosnia I started hearing incredible things from people I loved: “They’re doing it to themselves to gain international sympathy.”  “The reports are exaggerated.”  “What about all the Serbs who have been killed throughout the centuries?”

So I shut down.  Like a little kid sticking fingers in her ears and singing “lalalalala…”  I distanced myself from that part of my heritage for a very long time.  After all, I had two small kids to raise, a parish to run as a freshly minted rector.  And besides, “ja sam Amerikanka!”

And now I’m going back.  In less than two months my daughter and I will fly to Belgrade and the odyssey will begin.  People have asked me “what do you hope to find/do/accomplish?” and I’m at a loss for words.  Yes, my plan is to connect with groups involved in the work of reconciliation.  But beyond that?

Beyond that, well, that’s why this is an odyssey, which Merriam Webster defines as: “a long journey full of adventures; a series of experiences that give knowledge or understanding to someone; an intellectual or spiritual wandering or quest.”

11252018_10206421917084788_9214476422333743194_oBut for the next few weeks I’m enjoying some down time, as captured in this photo.  I know all my clergy friends can relate — the simple pleasure of a cup of tea and the Sunday New York Times on an actual Sunday morning.  A leisurely stroll through the new IKEA (okay, so there’s no such thing as a “leisurely stroll” through IKEA…!), looking forward to spending some time with my daughter when she returns from her post-graduation trip, a trip to DC, two trips in connection with our church’s General Convention.  And then before I know it, July 7 will have arrived and off we go.

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