The content and opinions expressed in this blog are mine. They do not represent the US Government or US Peace Corps - Jud Dolphin

Monday, August 30

Ordinary Life: Into the Forest

My day begins with a phone call from Annya. I have known her for over a year and every time she calls me something interesting is bound to happen. "My Babushka wants to know if you want to go to the forest."

Among Ukrainians, going to the forest is one of the preferred leisure activities. Ukrainians love their land and especially the forests. I've heard many a discourse bestowing the benefits of pine scented air and the healing qualities of nature's beauty. They say going to the forest can heal mind, body and soul. Who am I to disagree?

Annya continues, "My Babushka has a special place to pick ground apples. Will you join her and a couple of friends?"

I have learned to never say no to an invitation and immediately agree. I will learn about forging for ground apples.... whatever that may be.

It's a beautiful day. The oppressive heat of a few weeks ago is gone. Blue skies mixed with delicious marshmallow clouds hover over golden fields. The sunflower crop has been harvested and the corn awaits its turn. Distant clusters of people work fields by hand. I think they are harvesting potatoes for their family's winter meals.

Much of the land is unploughed. I am told that ownership disputes have not been settled since the demise of Communism. In addition, markets and infrastructure for crops are undeveloped. Ukraine is rich in natural resources, but has yet to benefit fully.

I look out over the Ukrainian landscape. I try to imprint the images into my mind. I am aware that my time in Ukraine is running down. Already I have been here more time than remains. I want to capture the sights for my old age memories.

Summer is turning towards Fall. Fields in greens, yellows and browns flow across the horizon. Mounds of hay dot the landscape. Stork nests adorn the tops of electric poles like large baskets A horse drawn cart trots down a two rut path. Flocks of geese waddle across a pond. Babushkas sit on benches outside of village homes watching our train swoosh by.

About an hour later, we arrive at a village station. It's like hundreds of others that mark destinations across Ukraine. I am surprised to see a professionally dressed woman waiting for us. She is the Director of the Station. I learn that my Babushka worked for many year as a ticket-taker on the trains. She knows everyone!

"Please come inside," says the Director in Russian. "We have prepared a little welcome for you." Within moments, we gather around an office table. Pizza, chicken cutlets and of course, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers appear along with a tort (cake) and a small bottle of vodka.

We toast to health and then to friendship and then to women and then the vodka runs out. I savor the moments. An ordinary train trip has been transformed into an occasion. What a welcome!

Now into the forest, we go. Sun shadows speckles are path. A backdrop of white pines scent the air. Here and there, a cluster of birch trees stand out. I am feeling the healing qualities.

We walk and then walk some more. After about 3 kilometers, we spy our first ground apples. They are about the size of golf balls or even smaller. They grow under the white pines on ground hugging shrubs. "Pick the yellow ones and leave the green for later," my Babushka instructs.

We get busy filling bags and then pouring the contents of our bags into a big sack. Babushka and here sister have a family dispute about the best way to hitch the sack to the bike. I have been taking photos and now capture the squabble. We all begin to laugh. Sisters will be sisters.

The ground apples are terribly soar like lemons. Each one will be cored and either boiled for compote juice or ground into marmalade. It's a lot of work.
As we scurry back to catch our 6:00 pm train to Konotop, I realize that this trip is more than foraging. It's a chance to enjoy friendships, delight in impromptu parties, see the countryside and taste the beauty of nature. For this American, it is also a way to remember a Ukrainian way of life.

Thursday, August 5

Pebbles - Seen and Unseen

Like most Americans, I like to feel engaged and productive. Give me a project to work on. I am happy. Let me develop a strategy for that goal. I feel energized. Give me a problem to solve and I feel like I am making a difference. Sure at times, I can get to feeling overloaded, but still I would rather be busy than not.

Interestingly, this Peace Corps experience is changing my perspectives. Here I am learning about life when it seems empty, when there is no new project. People go on vacations or tend to family or plant gardens or get sick or a dozen other things.

At times nothing much happens. Life is still. Whatever shall I do?

A box of stuff stares at me from the corner of my apartment begging for attention. I have been ignoring it for several weeks. It's the left overs from my move into my new apartment. I must have some kind of phobia about unpacking that final box. It just sits there.

But today I finally say “enough procrastination” and dig in. After all, it will fill the emptiness of a hot muggy day. Here in Konotop the temperatures are soaring over 40C or 105F.

On top of the box is a newspaper from Bangkok. I must have tossed it there upon my return. I can't resist picking it up and noticing a small article that I circled on the back page - “Life Amid The Pebbles.” Interesting, I think and begin to read.

The author observes how a few weeds have managed to sprout on the rocky pathway of his garden. I think, "Who sees such things? Who has time to notice unless you are no longer so busy?" Interesting....

He continues by wondering how those weeds make it through a thick layer of stones devoid of soil or sand or water. “How can life thrive and grow in this parched and unfriendly environment?”

Indeed! My mind wanders to the immense challenges facing leaders in Ukraine.

Within in living memory, Ukraine has absorbed so much death and destruction into its collective psyche. Stalin's agricultural collectivization created an artificial famine killing more than 3 million previously independent peasants. Some say it was more like 7 million. Then came the Nazi occupation killing another 5 million in the war and devastating the countries infrastructure.

According to the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, losses were enormous. No less than 2 million buildings and 1600 industrial enterprises gone. 714 towns and cities destroyed. Another 2800 villages devastated. Even here in Konotop, I learned that 1000 Jewish citizens met death as the Nazi Holocaust swept into our little city.

No Ukrainian is untouched. Horrid memories live in the collective psyche. This is not hyperbole. Sadly, it's truth. I guess that's why I am so struck by the courage of Ukrainian people to embrace life again.

The story of my Center for disabled children comes to mind. A mother with a disabled child overcomes her own depression and collective fatalism to create a Hearts of Love Center. This week 45 children with all sorts of disabilities are enjoying Day Camp.

I see the young girl who could not stand at our Spring Beauty Pageant because of a bone deformity. She has had an operation and her leg is in a cast now. It's part of a long term treatment. She gleefully swings around on crutches. I think she is beautiful.
A young boy has another bone disease and cannot walk at all. You would not know it by looking at him. He exudes energy and is so cute. But then you see that he is carried everywhere by counselors or when they are not available, he pulls himself across the ground with such strong little arms. He wants to be part of the action and I think he will always find a way.

The author of my article reflects more about pebbles.

"These days we are short of people who are willing to be the first stones who pave the way so that other stones can be laid down. The stones on the upper and topmost levels are the ones seen and acknowledged by people and society, but the first stones have to remain at the bottom.

“We hardly find people of this nature – those willing to be first stones that pave the way for others. That’s why virtuous creations rarely come about."

What kind of stones have I met in Ukraine? What kind am I? I sigh reflectively as I cut out the article for my "Good Stuff" file and finish unpacking the rest of the box. The stillness is no longer so empty. Thoughts of pebbles fill my mind.

A week passes and I am sitting on a bench at the Hearts of Love Center awaiting the start of Camp. The stillness of last week is replaced by the energy of children. Everyone is excited.

A young woman spots me, waves and moves in my direction. She is one of the translators who will help the volunteers from the UK who have come to help with Camp.

"I am so glad to see you very glad, " she beams. Again? Honestly, I am having a hard time remembering where and when we met before. Noticing my uncertainty, she adds, " I was the translator for your group project. Remember?"

During training all new Peace Corps Volunteers have to pull together a community project. My group did some Internet Research and held a round table discussion with a few city officials, some university students and Peace Corps trainers. I never considered it much of a project until now.

"Your project changed my life."

I could hardly believe what I was hearing. "After that meeting, one of the Peace Corps staff asked me to apply for a position. Of course, I knew about the Peace Corps, but I never would have thought about applying for a position."

I smile in astonishment and she continues, " I owe it all to your training group. If I had not been invited to be your translator, none of this would have happened. I just love my job with the Peace Corps. It's like a new beginning for me."

I marvel at this unexpected story and imagine how her leadership is already effecting others. What more will she accomplish in the 35 or more years of her professional life?

Pebbles. Sometimes you get to be a pebble...even when you don't know it's happening nor understand how important it can be in another's life. And sometimes your pebble can be part of the foundation for a virtuous creation.