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The Camp

Our group drove in a single vehicle, carefully maneuvering the narrow streets. The slush-like snow coated the landscape, giving a dreary appearance and making driving a challenge. I'd volunteered to accompany a humanitarian group to a refugee camp in Eastern Europe to learn what was happening in this part of the world and how I could help, and honestly I had no idea what to expect. I wondered what I was getting into and thought about the apparent futility of human effort. Millions of Syrians were fleeing their homes with no set destination or definite means of survival. The term "refugee" had almost exclusively come to mean Syrian refugees, and it seemed that everyone was talking about it and few were taking action. I had no idea what to do myself, but I felt I had to do something.

The Russian essayist Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote, "To live without hope is to cease to live", and I wondered when exactly we humans lose hope. Is it when we see the debris and flames out the window, knowing it's just a matter of time before we pack our belongings and leave? Does it happen as we hug a loved one goodbye, knowing we must leave town while they must stay? Does it happen when we try to escape across the border for the third time and are turned away? How does hope find its way to the brokenhearted and misplaced?

 I was roused from my musing as our van pulled into the cement parking lot in front of the camp. A handful of youth kicked a ragged soccer ball, backing away as we walked up to the building I was acutely aware of how out of place we seemed and wished I had dressed more plainly. Evan*, the leader of our group, asked for the camp director, and a few minutes later the robust, eager man walked up to us and shook hands with us. He talked with Evan for a few minutes in a language I couldn't understand, and then Evan turned to me, saying, “He's asking if you could play your violin now.” I looked down at my hands, cold and stiff, and stuck them in my pockets to warm them. 

The director led us into the building, a weathered gray-brown cement complex. I tried to ignore the peeling paint, moldy corners, and merciless cold. As we passed the staircase, water dripped down the cement and pooled at our feet. “They're scrubbing the bathrooms upstairs,” the director said. I shuddered at the endless possibilities for sickness given the lack of health care, immunizations, proper nutrition, and immunity, especially during the cold winter months. We turned several corners into a large gathering room, bare except for several stacks of plastic chairs. While the rest of the volunteers arranged the chairs in rows, I tuned my violin and warmed my hands. I glanced out the window and watched the clouds break and sunlight gently hit the cold cement floor, dust particles dancing in the rays of light.

Turning around to face my audience, I caught my breath at the number of refugees in the room. The older men stood in clusters closer to the doors and the women and children sat quietly in plastic chairs. I caught the eyes of several little ones sitting with their mothers. Their faces were so beautiful, I thought. Full of promise and innocence despite the hardships they faced so early in their lives. I took deep breath and lifted the instrument to my shoulder, closing my eyes. I played melodies of yearning, of desire, of forgotten times. I played lilting jigs and dances. I played Middle Eastern tunes I'd heard from a movie. And then I heard clapping. Looking up as I played, some of the listeners were standing and clapping to the music. More joined in, stomping their feet to the rhythm. I smiled and picked up the beat, thrilled to have engaged the audience. Children shyly left their seats and danced. Did I catch a smile in their eyes?

 I cannot say for how long I played, but it must have been an hour at least. I didn't want to stop and lose the moment, the suspension of time. The union of cultures, the togetherness. With full hearts, my group left the refugee camp later that evening after distributing relief items. The clouds had broken and a handful of stars glimmered in the night sky. It seemed that I had touched infinity in the moments while I played for the refugees.

This isn't about heroism in humanitarian work or how great the West is. Perhaps I would never feed enough hungry people, or help them find their loved ones, or fix their documentation issues that prevent them from crossing the borders into new countries, new lives. While all these are vital parts to alleviating the crisis, there is a beauty in simplicity and sometimes even the smallest contributions have great impact. What the music did for their spirits is beyond my knowledge, but I dare not forget their glimmering eyes.

s u n r i s e s

As we grow older, our childish sense of wonder tends to fade - if we let it.

How do we preserve an understanding of the importance of sunsets, ladybugs on wet leaves, or a bedtime prayer? The little things that infuse beauty into ordinary moments? How do we teach old eyes to see anew?

On the first page of my favorite book, "The Little Prince" by Antoine de Saint Exupery, is a drawing of an elephant swallowed by a boa constrictor, or just a drawing of a hat, however you choose to see it. The author writes that as a child he showed the drawing to adults, who never saw it as more than a hat. As the story continues, Exupery gives the reader the choice to accept and learn from simplicity and beauty or to label the book as as fairy tale and move on.

As I re-read this book, I am reminded that the more busy and pre-occupied I become, the less I can see beauty and wonder.

But let's talk about sunrises and sunsets. 
"First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss. 
God spoke: “Light!” And light appeared. 
God saw that light was good and separated light from dark. 
God named the light Day, he named the dark Night."

Each sunrise, then, is a reminder of that first sunrise. Darkness into light
This is why I chase them. This is why they never grow old. Each sunrise reminds me that God created all things in the beginning and graced this world with luminescence and created the sensory-neural connections in my brain so that my eyes may behold. Call it energy, call it an electromagnetic spectrum, call it a scientific phenomena, it's still a miracle. 

And what about sunsets, what story do they tell? Some of them are magnificent and dramatic while others are gentle and quiet. They remind me that seasons come and go, and there is no day so terrible or night so dark that will not see the light again. God alone gives us grace to endure and new eyes to see.