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Lost and Found in Bulgaria

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
Laying on the floor

“Sometimes,” confesses salsa dancer Dana Ray, “we need the loneliness of crying on the kitchen floor to push us to the questions that matter.” In our series The Power of Good Questions, Dana writes about her assignment in Bulgaria and the absence and presence of God.

In 2013, I moved to Bulgaria for a year to teach English in a public language high school. I did not know the language of my new home. I did not know the words and only barely, scarcely, could sound out the alphabet. And I was alone with no one to translate and no one to explain. Missing words and misunderstanding created the distance between others and myself. We could not cross over to each other.

What I learned first were the questions.

Where is the supermarket? What is cinnamon called in Bulgarian? Why are you sad? How do I buy a train ticket? What do you do? Who am I?

Without questions, we are lost in a world we thought we knew. Without questions, we can talk and talk but there is no way for someone to respond, no way for us to be fully heard. We cannot fully know others without asking them about themselves. We cannot fully know ourselves without questions. We are alone without questions. I was alone.

The Chaos of Disconnection

These days, it is the deep talk I long for, not small talk. I want the space where we give each other our full attention, where I ask them my questions and answer theirs. I know it is only by questions that we find a way out of a human loneliness. The questions prompt us to close the distance between us. I’ve heard it said that the answer worth having is found in the question worth asking. The better question pulls us towards the better truth. Ask the true questions; find the true answers.

The instinct is to exist in the middle talk, the banter and story-telling suspended between small talk and deep talk. Small talk we all know: it’s the verbal patterns we exchange in passing or with new acquaintances about the weather and the state of the roads, the how-are-yous without an expectation for response. It is the middle talk that houses the wit and spice in most of our interactions. But middle talk will drain us with enough time, especially those of us inclined towards solitude.

Deep talk is the place where we ask probing questions, where we wait patiently in response to our acknowledgement that there is much we don’t know about the world, about the other, about ourselves. It is lonely in the space without questions.

I spent a lot of time alone in Bulgaria. I spent time in my apartment baking cookies that tasted like everything I missed. The first time I went to the store to buy baking soda, Marinka and I misunderstood each other. She called in help from the street. Eight men ended up in a circle around me, trying to understand my question, and I trying to understand theirs. I felt bewildered. I kept apologizing in English for causing a problem. My eyes blinked rapidly as I tried to slow the physical stimuli of the crowded store and eight men trying to talk to me at once.

Finally, one man understood. “Ah! Soda bicarbonate!” My word was close to theirs but not close enough for either of us to understand on the first try. I went back to my apartment with baking soda. I cooked dinner. Then I discovered that I did not have a bottle opener for the wine. But my body could not handle going out again into the chaos of asking for help, because questions are hard when you are alone. I lay on the kitchen floor and wept.

The Holiness of Questions

Sometimes we need the loneliness of crying on the kitchen floor to push us to the questions that matter. In Bulgaria, I learned to be with my questions without anyone to ask them to. And I learned to find my way across precarious language bridges, trying to find someone to be with.

I remember the vulnerability of that place. I need it to stay with me. I want to know my questions and let them come out of my mouth. And I want to ready myself to answer God when He asks, Where are you? when I hide.

When Adam and Eve fell, there was an in-between space before they were banished. A few hours, perhaps, hung between the act of the next thing and the end of what they had known. Into that space, God asks a question: Where are you? He reaches for them as they hide. Where are you? Tell me. Tell me so we can find our way across the distance between us.

“What is my only comfort in life and in death?” the catechism asks.
Where are you? What is Truth? Who do you say I am?

Without the questions, we are left alone. Without the questions—without the statement of unknowns or revealing ourselves to others—we are even without our God.

The Healing Power of Connecting

My students pushed me to ask good questions because it was partly my job to teach them how to ask questions at all. Despite having no prior experience, I started a speech and debate club, which is one long extracurricular of learning to ask questions.

One afternoon, my students and I walked under the new April sky with our eyes on the ground, careful not to stumble on the broken street tiles. I had been in Bulgaria nine months at this point; I had coached the speech and debate club for six.

The students, three boys, were deep in a spontaneous debate about whether Titanic was a better movie than Fight Club. The conversation was vivid, energetic. They cared so much. And we laughed together that this mattered to us.

Then Lazar asked his teammate, “What is your criteria for a good film?” Ah! Now there was solid ground to work on!

For months, we had spent our practice time learning how to model questions, how to answer them, and how to tweak our approach. How could we know our thoughts without good questions? We couldn’t. And now, in the freedom of a spring afternoon, questions came to bear in their playful talk.

*****

Sylvia and I met in a salsa class. She sometimes talked to me afterwards and eventually invited me to go on a walk with her. We got coffee at the local hotel then ventured outside on a mild winter day. Her son joined us, and he and I tossed the Frisbee back and forth along the way.

In short, fragmented sentences, we tried to talk about the things that made us ourselves. We asked questions and re-asked and re-phrased and tried again. Sylvia said, “There are many things I want talk with you about, but I don’t know enough English words.” The slow and awkward questions were enough.

We talked as we could about the books we read, about dancing, about the food we cooked. A few weeks before I left for home, she invited me over for dinner, a sign of intimate friendship for Bulgarians. I met her husband. The three of us laughed through our stilted, leisurely meal. We proposed shared vacations to Greece, we discussed French philosophy, we compared dance styles and how this reflected our beliefs about what it meant to be a good human. We looked up words when we needed to, but laughter covered the gaps.

In our questions and connections, we learned what mattered. We were friends. And in that friendship, I felt like God had found me.

Questions:

  • Do you use questions in conversations? Why?
  • How do you learn to ask good questions?
  • Has a friend ever challenged you to ask better questions?
  • Who do you want to have a deep talk conversation with?
  • Can you remember a moment when asking a question drew you closer to someone?
  • Does questioning have a place in faith?
  • How has God prompted your growth through questions?
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