Bulgarian Rhapsody – Our Travel Adventure in Bulgaria

First Parish Watertown – Summer Service – August 5th, 2018

PreludeBulgaria Welcome Song – Choir Slaviansko Edinstvo in Gorna Oryahovitza

Why go to Bulgaria?
Izzy named this sermon “Bulgarian Rhapsody” before we took this trip. Like an epic poem, or “an effusively enthusiastic expression of feeling,” I hope we share some intriguing bits of this country with you today.

I admit, Bulgaria has always flown well under my “Bucket List” radar. My sense of geography of the region was slim to none. In my world of health care business, where large provider groups centralize and decentralize administrations on a regular basis, the term “Balkanization” was one with which I am very familiar – the equivalent of “going to hell in a hand basket” because we can’t get along. So, my mother-in-law’s announcement that the New Hampshire Friendship Chorus was going to Bulgaria intrigued me… something out of the ordinary! the chance to share music not simply tourism! Moreover, Izzy’s enthusiasm captured my imagination and made this opportunity real.

For me, I had 3 reasons to jump at the chance for this trip to Bulgaria:
1. My mother had raved about her trip to Cuba in 2016 with the New Hampshire Friendship Chorus – and to me the idea of vacation organized around singing and traveling with a purpose felt like heaven. Rehearse in June, travel in July – totally my kind of commitment!
2. Mom has just turned 92 and I wanted the chance to travel with her on an adventure as it was something that I had not done since an ill-fated hiking trip when I was in my late 20’s (yet this is a story for another time…).
3. The idea of exploring Bulgaria musically intrigued me largely due to an unusual childhood memory. 40 years ago, in 1978, I was 16 and living a socially isolated life in Connecticut when I fell in love with my first girlfriend, who happened to live in Michigan. Becky had access to a very strong feminist community in East Lansing, and she sent me musical gifts from a then thriving Women’s Music industry. I secretly listened to those songs over and over as some sort of lifeline to sanity. One of those albums, called Living With Lavender Jane, was by an infamous lesbian-separatist named Alix Dobkin – and in one of the songs that I found mesmerizing, Alix spoke of a musical tradition of strong women’s voices in the Balkan Mountains.

In planning for this trip, I actually remembered this music on a physical level – and thus I realized my hope that this trip might prove to be some sort of musical pilgrimage for me – to witness that strong female vocal tradition.

For my indulgence, I hope you also enjoy the Bulgarian folksong from that album that called from my childhood memory – It is titled Dekka Slunseto and sung here by Alix Dobkin.
Getting Ready to Travel – What to Expect?
Other than reading through a trip itinerary with a bunch of difficult to pronounce cities and the familiar UNESCO site reference, none of us really knew what to expect from our trip to Bulgaria. Prior to our rehearsals with the chorus, that didn’t start until June, we knew none of our travelling companions. In February my mom read an internet article called “7 Uncomfortable Truths About Being LGBT in Bulgaria”, which concerned her, but after some back & forth discussions, we decided to move ahead with plans.

Our June rehearsals and concert with the New Hampshire Friendship Chorus proved to be quite fun and rewarding. We worked hard as a group to master our music, some in Bulgarian and Russian and some classic American tunes. Our music director Dan turned out to a very left-leaning, enthusiastic, college music professor. He cajoled and challenged us to memorize our music and to follow his free-style conducting. We loved his selected songs. The Bulgarian orthodox tune Tebe Poem was beautiful. The American songs chosen spoke to us of resilience and hope – we felt that perhaps we could bring a positive theme from our country to the former Eastern bloc country and perhaps apologize for Trump. Songs like The Storm is Passing Over and Like a Mighty Stream – set to the vision of Martin Luther King – carried an obvious hopeful message.

Honestly, we had no clue what kind of reception we would receive as Americans in Bulgaria. We heard rumors of “orthodox conservative” and were advised to “dress modestly.” But when Dan pulled out his acapella arrangement of Buffalo Springfield’s song of authoritarian protest,  For What It’s Worth, we knew that we were going to arrive in Bulgaria with tools to highlight the clearly left-leaning politics of our friendship message.

What We Learned and Loved About Bulgaria

Nature and Sight Seeing
Bulgaria is bordered by the Danube River & Romania to the north, Serbia & Macedonia to the east, Greece and Turkey to the south, the Black Sea to the east, and has a spine built by two mountain ranges, the Balkans and the Rhodope. It has mountain views everywhere you go. The cities and towns are clean, architecturally fascinating and pedestrian friendly. There are Roman Ruins, medieval frescoes, amazing archaeology museums, monasteries and cathedrals, gorgeous beaches, delicious, fresh food – it has all that Europe has to offer packaged in the size of Virginia and with affordable prices.

Did you ever think about sunflowers as an agricultural production? Well, maybe you did, but I didn’t. I love gardens with these – 3 years ago successfully grew my first after many years of trying. And here we were – in Bulgaria with fields and miles and yellow on every hill… on one side of the bus, their backs as they faced the sun; on the other side, the full yellow radiant faces. OMG. it was amazing.

Remember singing about paving paradise to make room for a parking lot? What if they were unpaving paradise to renew a parking lot and found a first century Roman stadium, or two… This is my impression in which underground malls are built in and around archaeological finds, and parking for at least 2 hotels was no longer existed because they were busy figuring out what was under the dirt, and where a landslide in 1972 unearthed a glorious amphitheater… where history and cultural sights merge into one breath-taking moment.

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OffertoryTropanitsa – BooCheeMish (The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices)

Politics and History
Throughout our travels we learned about Bulgarian history and politics from our amazing bus guide.  Kamen, who trained as a musician in Arkansas and Michigan, was a master historian by avocation. Wherever we traveled, he wove together details of Bulgaria’s complex past – its struggles with foreign invasion and authoritarian leaders. Human life in Bulgaria has been traced back over 1 million years. Bulgaria was the home of the Thracians (of Spartacus fame), the home of the first Cyrillic written language. It was the central route of land trade between Turkey and what is now western Europe, and thus was conquered by the Greek Alexander the Great and then by the Romans. The First Bulgarian Kingdom was established in 632AD, but that Kingdom, which is symbolically represented by lions and horseman everywhere, was cyclically conquered and reestablished over the centuries – first by the Byzantines in 1100’s, then by the Ottomans in the 1300s, then again by the Nazi & and by Russia for 3 years following WWII.

Kamen’s darkest tales were saved for the end of our trip. Coinciding with Trump’s frightening fawning to Putin in Helsinki, Kamen recounted his childhood experiences growing up under the Bulgarian Communist Party that was planted during the Russian invasion. The Communists held authoritarian power for 45 years but that regime fell the day after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Though Kamen loved our musical performances throughout the trip, to my surprise I did not end up feeling that our leftist music was enlightening the Bulgarians. Rather, I ended the trip with an overwhelming sense of sympathy from the Bulgarians, because they have lived through what they clearly see as the dangers of our Trump regime. I ended the trip with a whole new perspective on the Buffalo Springfield line – ‘Paranoia runs deep… Into your life it will creep!’

Today, Bulgaria has been a member of the European Union since 2007 – has been developing economically since 2000, while retaining socialist ethics and strong community centers under a parliamentary democratic republic. It still uses a currency called the Lev, which has a fixed value against the EURO. Sofia, the capital, now has a what is called ‘The Square of Tolerance’, where on each corner stands a house of worship from the four major religions – and this square is watched over by, where once stood a likeness of Lenin, a grand statue of the Roman goddess Sophia – the goddess of Wisdom.

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First there was a king – – his army was defeated and sent home blinded – except for every 100th soldier who was left with one eye so he could guide the others home. The king had a heart attack in despair… that was 1014. There was a second Bulgarian kingdom, some time under Constantine, a long time under the Ottoman Turks, 40 years under Communism… Each leader left its mark. Bulgaria sided with the Germans in 2 world wars, the US bombed Sofia, their Jewish population (who were basically allowed to live without persecution within Bulgarian boarders during WWII) emigrated to Israel. The border lines of the area have been drawn, redrawn, from the Balkans to the Danube to Macedonia, the Rhodopes, the Black Sea, the Bosphorus and beyond, and then not. Many smaller countries joined together, and then not… many times with ugly wars. The Balkans. Balkanization. THEN! in 2018, there was a World Cup, for football, and Croatia was the first Balkan country to make it to the finals in so many years. The hue and cry in Varna was “we’re all Croatian today!”

We sang “FWIW” – the 50 year-old anthem pleading to organize ourselves to a loving world. We experienced full embracing from audiences and other choruses… ironically, there we were – in a world released from full Communist grasp less than 30 years ago, and our President was meeting with Putin. It didn’t make sense in so many ways – and our guide asked our attention and thought on the meaning and possibility of this situation. As we left to return to the US, flying from Sofia to Istanbul and on to Boston, we lived the “paranoia strikes deep” experience. Aided by US passports, pale skin, and no outward signs that we were linked to “bad people,” we eased through 4 extra (portable) security steps at the gate. After the added security layer, our 3 hour lay-over was finally less than 1 hour – in a waiting area with no water to drink, no shops allowed to open, no wifi. I know – #firstworldproblems… we quantify how lucky we feel in odd ways. The concept of security is unevenly applied; I suspect had we flown from any non-Muslim country, the impersonal suspicious nature of our final stop to get home would have been less cumbersome and anxiety-producing.

Culture and Shared Singing
… and so the Christians divided into Catholicism (west) and Orthodoxy (east), more or less. Bulgaria has a host of Bulgarian orthodox churches, kept discreet from the Ottoman rulers (through the late 1800’s) by being low in the ground (no higher than a man on a horse) and plain on the exterior. They are religious survivors next door to Romania, Transylvania, the birthplace of UUism. In Varna, at the sweeping Cathedral of the Dormition (built in the late 1800’s post-Turkish rule), is a painting: Jesus in hell. It is the depiction of universal salvation, Jesus taking the hands of Adam and Eve to take them to heaven with him. It is a simple message, a story not often told in my experience, but one that speaks to our UU roots, there in the heart of Bulgarian Orthodoxy.

The idea of the trip was music… it is to be discovered, experienced… it can build bridges and speaks volumes for peace. I even had a startling and delightful moment in Varna when a former coworker’s mom, who is Bulgarian, showed up at our concert with gifts and hugs and smiles, making the world deliciously small. I went on this trip knowing Izzy’s descriptions of hearing Bulgarian women’s choruses, but I was not prepared for the first sounds of the nasal throaty chanting coming from the choir on the stage in Gorna Oryahovitsa: how it wakened every cell in my body and demanded attention and wonder. Also new to my ears, the street musician playing the gadulka (an upside-down violin), sometimes with friends, sometimes alone, or the casual fun of a Bulgarian folk song sung for us at a reception with another choir – followed by dancing. There truly is a universal bond of music – we have to make more opportunities to listen.

When we were at the Tsaravets Fortress in Veliko Tarnovo, we learned that the site of the king’s palace (ruins mostly) is now the site of summer opera. That night was “Mme Butterfly.” A hot 40 minute sprint around the town, a couple of wild taxi rides on closed roads, a short hike up the hill to the setting… and a magical performance. This is my ode to my Dad – “Mme Butterfly” was the first opera I strongly remember seeing, memorizing the English translation of parts of it. He was the spur-of-the-moment guy especially when traveling – always looking for the cool local event we could join. It was fun to imagine how much he would have reveled in that night.

My coworkers asked my impressions of Bulgaria:  so many thoughts, but here is my summary – sunflowers, singing, new friends, amazing beauty, sunflowers, the Black Sea, mountains, history, (did I mention sunflowers?) … just go!


It is a bit hard to explain the warmth and kindness we experienced in Bulgaria. On one hand, I have actually felt similar warmth and welcoming in all the countries that we have visited. But, on the other hand, I think as an American it is hard to escape the trained belief that we are the most open country in the world. In fact, my experience tells me that America may actually be the least welcoming of countries.

But Bulgarians are largely generous in spirit. The slight effort of learning to say “Dobra Utro” (“Good Evening!”) or “Blagodarya” (“Thank You”) was rewarded with heartfelt smiles of appreciation. We witnessed kindness and strong community fidelity in the care that we could see given to street dogs and cats, and in several community centers and a home for the elderly that we visited.

And furthermore, Bulgarians love music. We sang exchange concerts with choirs in the cities of Sofia, Varna and Gorna Oryahovitza. The concerts were all filled to capacity with enthusiastic audiences. After each concert we were honored with receptions where we were fed Bulgarian desserts and wines, given handmade gifts, taught to dance Bulgarian line dances, and treated to performances of traditional Bulgarian folk singing and dancing.

Beth and I made a special connection by recognizing that one of the singers in a host choir was a young lesbian. We met her family and became FaceBook friends. She is clearly welcomed and appreciated in her community choir. She hopes to marry her partner some day in France, as we learned that same-sex marriages are reciprocal across EU countries. All of this warmed my heart, particularly because of mom’s pre-travel LGBT anxiety.

Unfortunately, none of the choirs we sang with turned out to be of the strong-voiced mountain women variety of my pilgrimage. However, Beth and I were stunned by the generosity of our guide Kamen, who, because of his love for music and his apparent fondness for us, made it his mission to make sure that we could find music stores in every town we visited – and even went so far as to visit the music stores ahead of us so that the owners would know what kind of music we were looking for. And thus, we returned home with our CD library happily enhanced – Bulgarian rock and metal music for our son, and for me, the album BooCheeMish by the women’s vocal ensemble called ‘The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices’ who have famously captured this 1000 year-old female mountain singing tradition.  Think about that imagery for a moment – for over 1000 years, disregarding waves of political change and authoritarianism and paranoia, there may well have been strong women singing loudly in the mountains of Bulgaria. That imagery fills my heart with hope for our future.

My musical sojourn and my new love for Bulgaria is complete.

Closing Words (Beth)
Our closing words today are from Pat Conroy: “Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.”
PostludeRano Ranila – BooCheeMish (The Mystery of the Bulgaria Voices)

***And for a post-service extra, please enjoy this live performance of the group ‘Mystery of Bulgaria Voices


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The Stories We Tell – A Summer Service

First Parish Watertown Unitarian-Universalist – Summer Lay Service August 14, 2016
The Stories We Tell
Service Leader – Izzy Tappan-deFrees

Prelude Imagine – John Lennon
Imagine there’s no heaven.  It’s easy if you try
No hell below us. Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Imagine there’s no countries. It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for – and no religion, too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one
I hope someday you will join us and the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions. I wonder if you can.
No need for greed or hunger –  a brotherhood of man.
Imagine all the people sharing all the world

You, you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one
I hope someday you will join us, and the world will live as one

Chalice Lighting
Good Morning – With this morning’s music, I have tried to select songs which, much like folklore, have strong, simple stories, and impactful messages. John Lennon’s Imagine is clearly one of those in my mind. There is magic in its tightly edited lyrics and memorable tune that brings its universal call for peace to life.

This morning, I want to talk about the role of stories in our lives. To begin, I would like to dedicate this service to the most joyful story-teller that I have ever known – someone who I will miss greatly – with her sparkling eyes and powerful messages of concern for our community – Betty Latner. I would like to light the chalice today in her memory and welcome her story-telling spirit join us this morning.

Opening Hymn Edelwiess – Rogers & Hammerstein
This simple story illuminates the power of nature to rekindle memory
Edelweiss, Edelweiss
Every morning you greet me
Small and white clean and bright
You look happy to meet me
Blossom of snow may you bloom and grow
Bloom and grow forever
Edelweiss, Edelweiss
Bless my homeland forever

Opening Words
From ‘The Adventures of Isabel’ by Ogden Nash
Isabel met an enormous bear,
Isabel, Isabel, didn’t care;
The bear was hungry, the bear was ravenous,
The bear’s big mouth was cruel and cavernous.
The bear said, Isabel, glad to meet you,
How do, Isabel, now I’ll eat you!
Isabel, Isabel, didn’t worry.
Isabel didn’t scream or scurry.
She washed her hands and she straightened her hair up,
Then Isabel quietly ate the bear up…

OffertoryMoon River – Johnny Mercer/Henry Mancini
This song carries strong memories for me. It is one that I used to sing with my mother as she played the piano, which was our common entertainment, when we lived in the country, before we got a television. It also is a song that carries a dream that I have for a traveling, adventurous, wandering in the future…

Moon river, wider than a mile
I’m crossing you in style someday
Oh, dream maker, you heart breaker
Wherever you’re goin’, I’m goin’ your way

Two drifters, off to see the world
There’s such a lot of world to see
We’re after the same rainbow’s end, waitin’ ’round the bend
My huckleberry friend, moon river, and me

The Stories We Tell – Thoughts on the Words We Share
Perhaps because I am an inquisitive mother of a teenager who relishes his privacy and freedom, I have been thinking a lot about stories – what we choice to share with others – what we delight in retelling of our life’s story. I think that this service is actually a bit of an odd topic for me, because, in general, I am someone who listens to stories WAY more than I actually tell them. I most often find myself surrounded by storytellers and have likely nurtured a reputation for being something of a ‘Compassionate Listener’. Truthfully, I am less proud of the many times when I am probably a ‘Judgmental Listener’. It is hard for me to tacitly bless self-pity when there are seemingly obvious paths to self-improvement. This character weakness aside, Listening has become a fallback place for me because I am someone who struggles to think of stories to tell.

In my past work life in the publishing business, I sat in a cubicle and wrote computer code. In my current work life, I travel to people’s homes to groom their dogs and cats. In both of these lives, my success has largely been due to my ability to embrace a steady, methodical, calm, almost meditative work style. This has allowed for great productivity, with little room for distraction, but it does little to offer ideas for dinner-table storytelling. How was your day dear? Great! I coded 2 reports today, or Super! I washed, dried and groomed Bubbles, Honey, Sweetie and Bessie today… The stories from one day to the next always have a familiar ring, and after a while I find myself bored by their retelling. I have the same problem when asked, as many people do – How is your business going? Great, I say… busy every day… because I am, but I wonder somehow if that is not the level of detail that the asker is hoping for?

As the youngest in a family of five children, I was not raised to be a storyteller. I was raised to be self-sufficient and practical. But, it seems to me that good storytellers are not afraid to introduce a non-sequitur. For me, there are stories in my head, but there rarely seems to be a time to recall them that makes sense… that fits into the flow of a conversation. For the purpose of talking about story-telling, I hope then that you don’t mind if I jump around a bit today.

Two weekends ago I drove my 90 year old mother to visit friends in NY State, and during the car ride I had a rare chance to ask her for some for detailed stories of her growing up. I was reminded, among other things, that my grandfather, Carl Hilton, was one of the early boy scouting executives in Massachusetts – taking the job in the late 1920’s. I can only imagine how many campfire stories he told or heard over his career.

This past weekend we had the chance to give a young friend who was visiting from France, a driving tour passed the Rumford, Maine statues of two of our great folk story heroes – Paul Bunyan the lumberjack and Babe the Big Blue Ox. I am hoping that all of you have had the pleasure of hearing or retelling some of their stories.

But, what about me? What are my stories to tell?  Which of my memories can be woven into a message worth retelling?

I could, and probably have, told stories about depression in adolescence, young adulthood, or middle age – But, I wonder who really wants to hear sagas of past sadness? I sure don’t like the emotional memories that they carry and recalling them just seems to dredge those up.

I could talk about my experiences as a young feminist growing up in the 70’s… Certainly Hillary Clinton’s dream to scramble to the top of our highest government peak makes my memories more vivid to me. Hillary, by the way, is someone criticized for her lack of storytelling genius – and she is competing against someone who seems to be a pathological storyteller… But that leads off topic.  Somehow, when I try to compare my young adult experiences with the issues that young feminists discuss today, my memories feel like ancient history– the issues that drove my personal is political fires have either gone into hiding, or are masquerading themselves as something totally different. Does any young girl today have to sit in the middle school cafeteria listening to the most unpopular boy in school confidently spout off about how there is nothing other than childbirth that a woman can do as well as a man? Does any 15 year young lesbian today, as I did almost 40 years ago, have to rely on the East Lansing Michigan based, US mailed, carbon copied ‘Lesbian Connection’ newsletter – with its ‘Contact Dykes’ listing of one or two woman in her state who were willing to share information about what it is like is live as a lesbian? My issues, my stories, now seem so out-of-place in today’s gender-fluid, LBGT media friendly culture and I question how relevant these stories are to someone who is young now and full of political energy, which frankly, I am not.

I could talk about the joys of making music, or taking improvisational risks in performance, but these experiences are very personal and hard to describe to someone who does not enjoy performance. I find that when I try to tell stories about this, my words leave my mouth and sound like bragging, not sharing.

I also could tell stories about fun family travels from recent years, around the US, in India and Thailand, Singapore, Canada, London and Sri Lanka… and I could tell stories about future adventures that I am planning on having…But, just as I have overheard people complaining about the excess of travel photo sharing on Facebook, I really don’t have confidence that there is a wide audience that wants to hear what other people have done for fun…  Is this just some form of elitist bragging?

So, it does seem that my over-introspective brain gets in the way of my storytelling…

However, despite my storytelling struggles, I do feel a strong desire to know and be known. I find that I have embraced the medium of Facebook, where, if I work hard to carefully sort through my daily snapshots while traveling, I can create a single photo collage can perfectly captures the mood of an entire, wonderful day and almost wordlessly pass that on to anyone interested in knowing me better. These are wordless stories, photos woven for the mind to fill in the details. I wonder what narrative could be written if these collages were all gathered in a book. Would it be worth retelling?

This idea of stories through photos hit home with me lately in two other ways. My wife Beth has been compiling edited books of photographs for each of the years that we have been together as a family. Three of these books arrived in the mail recently and looking back through them and enjoying the look of reminiscence in Elijah’s eyes as he relived fun times has truly been priceless. And recently, in preparing to celebrate my mom’s 90th birthday, I dug out an old box of slides that mom had given me – I converted them to digital images and put them into a movie. They are mostly images of group family shots from my childhood years, catching fish, shirtless, with my grandfather, parading in the driveway with my sisters, playing at the beach with my brother, hiking and camping trips, singing around the piano with my mom… I have to say, that these are not the memories that I tend to carry around in my head about childhood, but there they are, reminding me of times that, looking back at, just seem idyllic. There are no squabbling siblings or overworked parents in these memories… not anymore at least.

These photos bring home to me the true power and importance of sharing stories and memories, because somehow these memories do not merely recall my past, but they actually shape it. It seems there may be no walls to block the transformation of memories from bad to good, or vice versa. There is only the impact of what I recall reflected in my current eyes and life experience. Is there TRUTH is story-telling? Perhaps none that needs to hold up in court.

I do have two stories from childhood that I find myself retelling, and in prepping for this service I have found myself asking ‘Why these?’

One is the story of surviving a great fall when I was about 10 years old. We lived then in a tall, 13 room Victorian house in a Connecticut mill town, each of us kids with our own rooms. My father spent about 6 years, up on the top of a very tall ladder, stripping and repainting that house, it had so many nooks and crannies. “Izzy!  Don’t sit on the porch railing in your socks!” – cautioned my oldest sister.   “I’m FIIIIIIINE” I told her, and then proceeded to plummet two stories over the railing. Fortunately, my head managed to land away from the large boulders that lay below and I only fractured my wrist as it broke my fall, but I think that I remember this story because I feel that I can distinctly recall the memory of falling and it felt like it took hours for me to land…down, down in a floating darkness…no pain on landing…just concerned parents and siblings surrounding me when I opened my eyes.

And I have a similar memory from a time many years earlier. I was probably 2 or 3? We lived then in the cow-pasture country, in a log home that my parents had built by hand – and were still building. The family and some friends had gathered in the clearing above the pond that we called the ‘picnic area’ and we had a campfire burning. The story is that I was sitting in a fold up camping chair next to the fire and the chair folded up and my feet went into the fire. Now, I don’t actually know if I was sitting near the fire by myself, or with a sibling, or how close the grown-ups were who must have actually come to grab me out of the fire – Because, the story that I recall and retell is this: I fell into the fire and clearly remember standing in the fire for a long time, looking all around, watching a gang of kids playing on the swings WAAY over there to my left… and a group of adults chatting at the picnic table WAAY over to my right…feeling no pain, wondering how long before someone would notice me standing in the fire…

I spent that summer with bandaged feet, frustrated to have to crawl again instead of walk, getting quite a few wagon rides from my siblings.

These stories probably tell me more about how the brain reacts to shock, than they do about what actually happened so many years ago. But the funny thing is, I think that I credit these events for the fact that I have since lived my life free from fear of pain or trauma. My memories tell me that experiences like these are survivable and are not full of pain. And if I really look hard at these stories, of course the truth is that my family was watching out for me – and while my family could not always stop me from falling, they most certainly were there ready to help me stand up again. So these stories of trauma are powerful to me, because they are also stories that comfort.

In an odd way, the fact that I have literally held my feet to the fire, may also hold a key to explaining another side of me – the unquenchable thirst that I have for enjoying outdoor evenings around a campfire. There is something very primal for me – sitting there before the glowing flames – I always get the feeling that I have come home and I never want to leave. You can bet your house that campfires feature wildly in my retirement travel fantasies. We have, in fact, recently put a down payment of a small, mobile vacation home in the form of a teardrop shaped camper. Next summer you can certainly count of new travel stories posting on my Facebook page if you are interested in following along.

Now, my wandering stories about stories have landed us here, and without telling you many, I have actually told you quite a few. In my telling, I am painting a portrait of who I want you to know me as. I am shaping myself at least as much as my stories have shaped me. I am also realizing that if you want to be my friend, at least with the depth allowed by Facebook, then I must tell you my stories as often as I listen to yours. That is it then – life is little more than a jumble of stories, and the people who we share them with and retell them to are the only ones who matter in life. Now some storytellers have audiences that spread across the world. And some have audiences no large than those who gather here today.

In the end, none of that matters.

What does matter?

Can you find a good story from your life today? I’ll bet you can.

And, if you will listen to mine, I will listen to yours. Well, the truth is, I will always listen to yours, because that is who I am. But leave room for mine too. That is who I also am.

May our stories continue, together, for a very long time to come.

Musical Meditation– The Rose – Amanda McBroom
Some say love it is a river that drowns the tender reed
Some say love it is a razor that leaves your soul to bleed
Some say love it is a hunger an endless, aching need
I say love it is a flower and you its only seed

It’s the heart afraid of breaking that never learns to dance
It’s the dream afraid of waking that never takes the chance
It’s the one who won’t be taken who cannot seem to give
And the soul afraid of dying that never learns to live

When the night has been too lonely and the road has been too long
And you think that love is only for the lucky and the strong
Just remember in the winter far beneath the bitter snow
Lies the seed that with the sun’s love, in the spring, becomes the rose

Closing Hymn– Let it Be – John Lennon/Paul McCartney
When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be

And when the broken hearted people living in the world agree
There will be an answer, let it be
For though they may be parted, there is still a chance that they will see
There will be an answer, let it be
Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be
There will be an answer, let it be

And when the night is cloudy there is still a light that shines on me
Shine until tomorrow, let it be
I wake up to the sound of music, Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
Let it be, let it be, let it be, yeah, let it be
There will be an answer, let it be
Let it be, let it be, let it be, yeah, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be

Closing Words
‘Wild Geese’ by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.





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An Opening in the Woods

IMG_4410Life has been blurring by – no time for or even thought of blogging. But finally a day to breathe…

These past few weeks have been so emotionally full for me. Beyond the crazy turmoil of the world, within one week of turning 17, my son has been flapping his wings faster than my heart can let him fly… We have reached a place of acceptance and compassionate understanding, but it has taken all of our collective communication skills to get here.

We have, but in riding the emotional waves, I have rediscovered my overwhelming need to fill my spirit with nature. I work with amazing animal souls every day, I have created an imaginary, virtual camping experience in my backyard – but still, when the winds of change knock me over, getting my body and spirit into the outdoors is the one campfire way that I know of to get myself back up on my boots.

Today Beth and I were blessed to discover a terrific hiking area not far from home – The Ward Reservation in Andover – maintained by the Trustees of the Reservation. It is full of woodsy magic – two sunny meadow hills with views of Boston (one that shares Beth’s Holt family name), birdsong everywhere, an Elephant Rock to ride upon, a magnificent bog full of nesting heron, quiet shady trails and a wonderful Solstice Calendar stone ring. We took a 4 mile loop hike up and over all of this, and it is no exaggeration to say that my heart opened to the beauty and filled with renewed appreciation for this life filled with adventure.

The other great discovery today was learning about the Bay Circuit Trail which is a 200 mile arc trail through 50 towns surrounding Boston. So much preserved nature to explore – so close to home. We are ready and eager to plant our boots on the trail!


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A Sunday Service – Practicing the Art of Transformational Thinking

First Parish Watertown Summer Service – August 3, 2014

Call to Worship
We live in an age where life can move too quickly around us, and it becomes easy to feel engulfed in waves of uncertainty. I sense so many friends around me feeling stuck and afraid about lies ahead.
I hear a common question – ‘What steps can I take take to move forward?’
I witness a negatively-focused, media-driven, anxiety that leaves me feeling both blessed and guilty for whatever peace surrounds me.

Are there times that you question – ‘What right do I have to want more than I have now?’

And so, I offer you this flower:
If I asked you what right does this flower have to blossom so beautifully when kissed by the sun and rain, would you begin to allow yourself the right to transform?


Chalice Lighting
If we could change ourselves,
the tendencies in the world would also change.

As a man changes his own nature,
So does the attitude of the world change towards him…

We need not wait to see what others do ~ Mahatma Gandhi


Homily – (Practicing the Art of Transformational Thinking)
I’d like to give you fair warning that this service may feel to some of you like a pep talk…

The theme for this service, ‘Practicing the Art of Transformational Thinking’, came to me almost immediately when I asked myself, ‘What do I know to be true?’

Transformational Thinking – What is it? It sounds like a business buzz word – and being an independent service business owner, having abandoned the corporate world, I once promised myself that I would never again to use such terms.
Transformational Thinking is an idea that asks if there could be truth to the much maligned concept of ‘Magical Thinking’. It is an idea that asks if Thinking could be one of our under-utilized senses. Transformational Thinking and remembering those thoughts, is a path to creating your own personal philosophy. It is an idea that encapsulates my perhaps arrogant belief that we all have power to move beyond a place of ‘Feeling Stuck’.

I do not claim to have insight into some magical realm, but I am someone who has lived through and moved beyond at least two long-term life phases of ‘feeling stuck’. I lived with and moved on from a dark inner depression that lasted from age 13 to 29. I lived with and moved on from an isolating career frustration that meandered in and out of my life for 26 years. I think these long experiences of living in a stuck place entitle me to share some of the Transformational Thoughts on that have guided me through.

The first of my personal Transformational Thoughts is this: ‘Problems that Frustrate Have Solutions that Give Life Meaning’ (Be Patient). This idea came to me years ago in the middle of a particularly frustrating day at work – as a reminder to me to be patient. I remember the moment this phrase popped into my head. It was an ‘ah-ha!’ moment. I felt both an overwhelming sense of relief and a need to write it down – to remember it. All the things that were standing in my way, filling my brain with frustration, were not there to stop me – to clog me up. Rather, they were there to give me a sense of direction – to help me clearly understand what I needed to focus on next. Really, being someone who has always had trouble knowing which way to turn, this thought was a magical gift. Focus on the frustrations. Resolve them one by one. Or make a plan that might resolve them down the road.

Now, it takes practice to do this – to sit with frustrations long enough to find solutions. But that is why I call Transformational Thinking an Art – it takes practice and patience, just as much as learning to master music. And it also takes practice and patience to learn to let a frustration sit within your brain, without letting it overwhelm your spirit. My suggestion here is really one of allowing yourself to calmly mediate on frustrations – to be mindful of them, to let them simmer in your mind – and then again, to give yourself permission to set them aside when you need to and when you do not feel a resolution unfolding. This would be the somewhat paradoxical art of not getting frustrated by your frustrations. In the times that I have allowed myself to do this, to walk away from and then return back to some problem that I could not work out, I have always found that, eventually, the frustration transforms into a solution.

A second Transformational Thought was given to me as a gift by a dear friend, at a time in my life when I was feeling pushed to make a cross country life change life simply because my employer was requesting it. She said simply – ‘Do Not Be a Turtle’ (Be Loud). Now I have to say, at the time that she said this, it really felt like a slap in the face, like a bucket of cold water dumped on my head. Here I was, trying to be brave in accepting a life challenge presented to me. I wasn’t trying to pull my head in and hide under my shell, even though that is exactly what I really wanted to do at the time. I felt honestly naked in the realization that my fears and uncertainty were so obvious to her. And perhaps because of the sharpness of the impact, I have always since remembered those words and embraced them for all their metaphorical power. To me ‘Do Not Be a Turtle’ means to remember that I am never really alone. Yes, at the time I may have been without a life partner, but I was not alone in my existence in my world around me. There are friends that care about me. There are inner voices that will guide me (and this, by the way, was an earlier personal realization that helped me walk away from that depression which had followed me from childhood). There are inner voices that will guide me.

To ‘not be a turtle’, I must remember to be Loud and voice my needs and fears. I need to not be afraid to seek advice or to share anxieties about choices that I am trying to make. The problem is that words and ideas can spin endlessly in my mind, but it is usually not until I voice them out loud that they can transform in some plan of action. And further, I must remember to get out of my shell and into the sunlight, because I truly believe that every good decision I have ever made was made outdoors.

So I would just like to note here that it is not without a bit of irony that in the career choice that I finally made years later, one that has brought me bucket loads of contentment, I do basically carry my office upon my back. I travel from home to home and bring my service with me. Moreover, when I allow myself to indulge in a retirement fantasy, it is always some variation of packing up a tiny mobile home and hitting the road. And in that sense I am still very much like a turtle. But I am, perhaps , now a turtle who recognizes the spirit that I share with every client that I work with, every friend that I share with – and I am loud in sharing my experiences with others as I can. I am now a traveling turtle that brings my heart with me, not afraid to bask in the sun, and not driven by fear.

The idea of setting aside fear leads directly to my third Transformational Thought – that being one shared with me by my father-in-law when I was once again feeling stuck in how to move forward with career choices. I remember sharing with him that every time I got an idea for what I could do next, I immediately thought of all the reasons that it wouldn’t work. His advice to me was sage and Transformational in that he said to me ‘Don’t focus on what you can’t do – Focus on What You Can Do’ (Be Proud) . Now this Transformational Thought is built around two concepts – Take pride in who you are, and do not fear failure. About not fearing failure – J.K. Rowling shared the most magical of advice at a Harvard commencement when she credited her rock bottom personal life failures with helping her to ‘strip away the inessential’. She said, ‘I stopped pretending that I was anything other than what I was.’ Taking pride in who I am, in what I enjoy, in how I like to carry myself, in what skills I have acquired, in who I like to spend my days with, in what makes me feel connected to the earth, in what gives me a feeling of a job well done… these are many of the questions that I found answers to when I began the mental work of ‘Focusing on What I Can Do’. These answers led me to ideas, which led me to resources, which led me to options, which led me to life choices that I could feel confidence in – and in the end, I was able to find a work path that leaves me with a sense that my life has meaning. Taking time to practice these thoughts transformed me. And yes, I do feel proud of myself for having walked through a frustrating journey and out into a brighter patch of sun. I feel proud and incredibly grateful.

Which leads me to the final Transformational Thought that I would like to share today, and that is a simple phase of gratitude that I learn during the year I spent living in Japan in my final year of college. The single word that is spoken by tradition before every meal, ‘Itadakimasu’, is Transformational in its simplicity. Itadakimasu translates to one basic thought – ‘I am Grateful for all I receive’. Beth & I have tried to actively share this thought with Elijah and at the times when we can manage to gather for meal together as a family we practice speaking out loud: ‘Itadakimasu – I am grateful for all I receive’.

I believe that this active practice of gratitude has made a world of difference in our life choices and it helps me to never forget how very blessed my life is.

And so to wrap this up, if I may summarize with a personal reclamation of the tradition of Business Buzzwords: Transformational Thinking for me, and my Personal Philosophy is this: Be Patient, Be Loud, Be Proud, Be Grateful – and practice it, as often as I can. You, mostly likely, have your own set of Transformational Thoughts, just as you have been shaped by your own life experiences. I believe that these thoughts can inspire you and take you exactly where you need to go. If you can take time to recognize and honor those thoughts, if you can sit in the sun and rain and allow yourself to simply be, I believe that when you need them most, you will not feel alone, and your personal philosophy will be there to guide you.

Closing Words – In closing, I like to share some wise words written by Max Erhman – these were shared with my mother when she retired from her position as an elementary school Principal, about to began a new adventurous stage in her life. The quote now hangs in my study and guides me in times of doubt:

Beyond a wholesome discipline
be gentle with yourself

You are a child of the universe

No less than the trees and stars

You have a right to be here

And whether or not it is clear to you

No doubt the universe is unfolding

As it should

~ Blessed Be



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Revised BuddyBarber Website

Hi all – goodness, it has been too long since I have posted. Frankly, I have just been busy grooming!

Under the category of ‘When Life Gives You Lemons…’, my old website for Buddybarber.com (my grooming business website) stopped working last week due to technology upgrades meant to deal with all the vast internet security issues.

So, I have created a new one, and I actually like it better than my old one. Please give it a visit and let me know if you have any problems.


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Cat Calls

I love my dog grooming clients. And as many of you know, I am also a proud cat parent – we have 3 of the most wonderful, beautiful cats around. We spoil them with an all meat diet (with occassional cookies) and their health and coats are magnificent and virtually non-shedding. (I have detailed this diet in an earlier post called ‘The Magic of Raw Food’).

Given my great love for cats, it is making me quite happy that my services to cat clients, without any extra advertising, seem to be picking up. I can’t help like feeling like the cats who need me are somehow helping their owners to find me!

I mentioned this to my former grooming teacher, who is a very spiritual person, and she shared these thoughts: ‘I understand your being called upon by the feline spirits. There is a great demand for someone who not only grooms cats, but who is also very spiritual in
nature. Consider their callings to be an indication of your spiritual growth as
that is usually the time when the “feline society” steps in to help teach and
take you to the next level of soulful knowledge.’

I love this thought!

Lately, I’ve had more than a few calls from cats who needed backend matting clippered out (ouch!). I have a number of clients who need frequently scheduled deshedding grooms to limit allergies of their human friends. I had one call this month from a new cat owner, who just needed someone to come bring some calming energy into her home to help make a new shelter kitty feel welcomed. It felt really cool that I was able to noticably deliver that very energy needed. I have also started to get calls from some of the long haired lovelies who need regular TLC grooming just to maintain their glamourous coats.  Here are photos of one such beautiful Ragdoll that I helped today.

Scruffy, matted and anxious before groom

Scruffy, matted and anxious before groom


Calm and mat free after groom


Viva la difference! The fluff removed…

So basically, I am hoping that the cats keep calling this year, because I am loving grooming them too!

Here are my ‘pay it forward’ efforts, to move me toward that goal:
* I have volunteered with the Cat Connection – a local cat rescue group – to groom 8 cat for no fee.
* I fulfilled a pledge and donated 5% of last year’s BuddyBarber profits to Forgotten Felines – a web based cat rescue organization.
* I have pledged to donate 5% of next year’s profits to The Pat Brody Shelter for Cats .

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The Gifts

And there we sit

Knowing that

Without the hands above

Our comfort and survival shifts

From leisure, warmth and regal rest

To wilds, cold with winds and stalking prey.

Gleaming trays descend

Like heartbeats

Drumming in steady line

Meats chopped and ground with devotion

Every morning and every night

Our dancing eyes, cries, announce our trust.

We are the blessed

Coats glowing

Stomachs soon or’ flowing

Tongues lapping, name tags clanking

The giver rests to watch us dine

Undone with gratitude, there she stands.

The Crew

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