So Far, Yet So Close to Home–Lessons from my Mother

Winter Carpathian Mountain Hike

On a day hike with our friend Liviu who was visiting from Bucharest

Ever since I chose to apply for a Fulbright grant many people have asked me, “Why Romania?”  The best answer I can give is that I wanted to be in a place that was both far away and yet close to home. One of the Fulbright program’s primary goals is to foster ties between the United States and other nations through academic exchange. When I applied for the English Teaching Assistant grant, I wanted to choose a country that would maximize my effectiveness as an English teacher while at the same time provide me with a challenging and enriching experience. Thanks largely to my mom and her love of Eastern Europe, I’m pretty familiar with Romanian culture. Yet, I am still learning a lot about Romania’s language and people.  In this process of connection I come to know myself through them, and they know themselves through me. This is the life of dialogue. I have been amazed by how at home I am, here, in Brașov. Sometimes during  a walk through the fall foliage or snow covered Carpathian Mountain trails, I forget that I’m on a different continent.

Mom

My mother in her second year with cancer

When I talk about home, I can’t help mentioning my mother and some of the things she passed on to me that have enabled me to win a Fulbright grant and pursue the dreams that were hers and are now mine. She was an educator her entire life in both teaching and administrative positions. Her example inspired me to take up a career in education as well. Sadly, she died of cancer in July 2011, but she left a legacy in her students and children. Her her love of Eastern European culture, dance, and music transported me from the hills and hollers of Southeastern Ohio into a far away world–a world in which I now live. I was raised in a traditional Quaker home where I still heard “thee” and “thy” used in everyday conversation, but also lived among fiddles, guitars, mountain dulcimers, and banjos. I lived between the austere Quaker culture of my ancestors and the more lively Appalachian Mountain culture of my childhood. Although music and dancing are traditionally anathema for Quakers, my mother nevertheless loved traditional music and dance; it is a love she taught her students in school and passed on to all three of her children.

Here is a video of my mom folk dancing in our living room…

There was a folk festival in the Brașov Weaver’s Bastion a few weeks ago that was yet another instance of what I call “So far, yet so close to home.” As I stood in this beautiful medieval fortress listening to Romanian, Greek, German, and Hungarian folk songs and dances, I couldn’t stop thinking that I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my mom. I live 5000 miles away from my hometown, and yet these songs bring me back to my childhood. Melodies and movements from another time, in another language, and from another country are just a close to me as “Cotton-Eyed Joe” and Contra Dancing.

Here is a video from the folk festival we saw…

My mother gave me a love for Eastern Europe, even though she had never been here, and she modeled education by experience. She taught by seeing herself in the other; she practiced empathy. Sometimes I hear people use the word “empathy” in a way that conjurers up images of some kinda namby-pamby group therapy session where folks hold hands and sing Kum-ba-ya. This is not education by experience, it is not what my mother taught me, and it is not what I came to Romania to do. The ability to really empathize broadens our inner world and cultivates wisdom and humility. I believe these virtues create “openness,” which is a prerequisite for being an effective teacher. In the classroom, the empathetic teacher can often anticipate questions before they are asked and draw ideas out of students who have a hard time articulating themselves. The ability to truly empathize is a skill my mother sought to pass on to me and I use it every day. Through being open to seeing oneself in the other, a union is created that builds bonds between individuals. As I build academic, professional, and personal relationships here in Romania, I hope I will continue finding home in the world abound me. As Romania becomes more and more home and I see myself in the others I meet here, a bond is created between myself and them–and by extension between the United States and Romania.

Here is another video from the Weaver’s Bastion folk festival. Song is a little out of tune, but there is more of a view of the interior of the tower…