Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The question I ask myself

"How did I ever have time to go to work?"

I quit my last full-time paid job in June of 2010. Nearly eight years ago. I envisioned quiet days, long walks, lots of reading.

I should have known better. That happened for about four months. Then I got busy.

We could have just traveled. As it is, I've taken 63 trips of three days or longer in the last eight years. But on one of them, I came across a couple hundred refugees in the Saltzburg train station, and within a year I became a volunteer at a refugee camp in Greece. After my first time there, I went back three more times. I joined the board of Do Your Part, the disaster recovery nonprofit I worked for at the camp.

I could have spent time on just one hobby. I love genealogy and have been working on my family history for nearly 20 years.  Hours can go by while I explore online.  But instead of focusing on genealogy, I took 140 hours of mediation training and got certified. As a volunteer, I've done about 80 mediations in the last four years - some at the dispute resolution center in my county, some at small claims court, some out in the world. I've gotten better at it, and I still love it.

We spend winters in Tucson. For the first four years mostly I played: swimming, discussion groups, line dancing, handbells. And then the Voyager Theatre Company came along. The first year I did ticket sales; the second, assistant to the producer; this year, I'm part of the cast for a one-act play. Just for this year, though. Next year I want to have a quieter winter. I think.

In the meantime, I've started volunteering with Keep Tucson Together, doing work similar to what I did at the refugee camp. Talking to people now in the US who fear for their lives should they be forced to relocate to Mexico or Central America. Helping as I can. For KTT, I took on a new project this week. It's only three hours a week - at my request - but still, it's three hours.

And two weeks from tomorrow I'm giving a lecture on my experience at the refugee camp. I really need to get started on preparing for that. Most of it is in my head, but it needs to get transferred to a script and a PowerPoint presentation.

Almost everything I'm doing is important to me. I'm not sure what I will give up. I know for sure that I want to keep the friendships I've made in all of these endeavors.

But about having a quieter time. My sister reminds me every now and then that when I'm quiet, I think too much. She and I both say "our minds are a dangerous neighborhood. We should never go in there alone." When I'm busy and engaged, my mind is useful, and that's a good thing.

I had time to go to work because I volunteered very little. I traveled only a couple of times a year. I raised two kids and established bonds with six stepkids. It was a full life, and mostly satisfying.

I can say the same thing now. I have a full life and it is almost always satisfying.

Still. Every now and then I'd like to spend an afternoon lying on the couch, reading a book. Maybe I'll do that.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

A different kind of risk

I've never been much of a risk taker. My father was a military officer, and I grew up believing in following the rules. I've actually done that most of my life, with a few exceptions that I won't go into here.

I've done a fair bit of traveling in the last 15 years. I used to think it was risky to get on an airplane, but I found my fear diminishing as I flew more. My husband Art and I flew to Washington DC on 9/21/01, just a few days after planes were ungrounded after 9/11. It was very, very quiet. Even the subways. Even the monuments. There were no lines. We were careful, but we didn't feel like we were taking risks. It was probably one of the safest times to be in the nation's capital.

In 2005 we went to Vietnam on a journey of reconciliation and healing for Art. We visited numerous places that were quite dangerous 45 years ago: My Lai, the Cu Chi tunnels, Hanoi. But I felt entirely safe. Miserably hot and sweaty, but safe.

Four years ago, in 2013, we went to Kenya. I remember being raised on "darkest Africa", but what I found there was friendly people, beautiful countryside, fabulous animals and some of the finest customer service I've ever experienced. The tented camps were anything but primitive; we felt like honored guests.

In the summer of 2016 I went to Greece, to volunteer in a refugee camp. I returned three times over the next 15 months. For about three months altogether. I spent my days - and many evenings - in what had been an abandoned chemical factory, converted to small rooms housing families, mostly from Afghanistan and mostly Muslim. I walked alone through that camp many times and felt not the slightest fear, whether in daylight or darkness. In that culture, older people are honored. Some of the residents called me Grandmother. With respect.

I got comments from friends on all these trips.

In 2001: "Oh, my God! You are so brave to fly so soon after 9/11. And to Washington!"
In 2005: "Wasn't it scary going to all those places where we were fighting? Did the people look at you with hate?"
In 2013: "Isn't it dangerous in Africa? I'd be afraid of a terrorist attack."
In 2016: "All those refugees! Weren't you afraid there would be someone from ISIS at the camp?"

Nope. I wasn't afraid. It didn't feel like I was taking a risk. Like I said, I've never been much of a risk taker.

Then, this week, I had a conversation with my sister Alyx. She commented that my life is very interesting now, that I'm not afraid to take a risk. I said I didn't feel like I was. She said, "You have a risky heart."

I had never heard that before.

"You go these places and connect with people there. You listen to people tell their stories. When you come home you keep in touch with them on Facebook. Sometimes they keep telling you their stories. You talk about your experiences to groups of people."

I thought, well, yeah.

Then Alyx told me about a friend of hers, a nurse, who'd recently read about the Syrian conflict and the refugee crisis. The friend said it had changed how she looks at life. I said, "Tell your friend I will talk to her about the refugees any time, anywhere."

And Alyx said, "See? There's your risky heart again."

So I guess I do take risks. But what's the alternative? Fly home on my American passport and remember from a safe distance? Delete the pictures from my phone? Talk about the weather to refugees waiting in hopes of getting asylum somewhere? Pass up opportunities to share my experiences with friends here at home?


Me and my risky heart.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Bag Lady reflects on "Not Greece"

It is 37 degrees this morning here in Tucson. I set the alarm for 7:20 because my handbell choir is playing at today's nondenominational service at the RV resort where we live in the winter. We begin our setup at 8:00 and have a quick rehearsal. By 8:45 I'm home for breakfast, ready to return for the service in an hour.

I am grateful to be able to spend the winter in a sunny place. Chilly mornings are not too common here, and I bought a fleece vest through LLBean last week, so I get to enjoy the bracing air and not shiver.

And, this morning, I am reflecting.
  • In the last 18 months I went to Greece four times to volunteer at the Oinofyta refugee camp: for six days, then two weeks, then a month, then five weeks. My mind is full of memories and I have been enriched beyond imagining by those journeys. The camp was closed on November 3 by the Greek government, and Do Your Part, the American nonprofit I'm affiliated with, still has a presence in Greece as it supervises Oinofyta Wares, the business begun by the refugees in the camp and then moved to a nearby town. The business will provide jobs for nearly a dozen families as they begin their integration into Greek life. Do Your Part is also developing a community center in that same Greek town, so that former Oinofyta residents can gather and learn. I serve on the Do Your Part board, so I am still busy at home, but my work is mostly done alone, at my computer, as I maintain the accounting for the agency and assure our compliance with various governmental agencies. Not as interesting, but necessary.
August 2016

August 2016 - photo by Jenean Campos
August 2017
  • Now I am not planning another trip to Greece. When people ask me when I am going back, I say, "I have no idea, but probably never." And it is this "Not Greece" thing that occupies my mind sometimes. It is a sad thing. For a year and a half it was Greece all the time, whether I was there or at home. It was relationships and friendships established and nurtured. It was personal challenges and growth. I spoke at several events - at my church and at our winter home. Ordinarily a decent conversationalist, I was pretty much a one-topic talker. These days I can talk about handbells, or the play I'm rehearsing, or the volunteer work I'm doing in Tucson to help people at risk of deportation - or whatever the other person brings up.
  • In 2001 I trained for the Breast Cancer Three-Day event - months of preparation for three days of 20-mile walks. I was focused on wicking shirts and underwear and socks, custom orthotics for my New Balance walking shoes, and my training schedule. For four months. The only people who were remotely interested in talking to me were other Three-Dayers. No one else in my world "got it". I wrote 92 personal letters to raise the $1,800 required for participation in the walk. The weekend of the walk there was a heat wave in Seattle, and I ended up in the hospital with heat exhaustion - alongwith 200 other walkers. I walked only two of the three days. But I remember that whole experience as a marker in my life. 
  • It's the same with Greece. And now, Not Greece. I am in regular contact with others who have volunteered, at Oinofyta and other sites in Greece. They are from the US and Canada, the UK and Spain and Portugal and Switzerland. Some of them are still there, some have come home for a few months, or for the last time. We talk online about how it feels to be home in body but still in Greece otherwise, and how isolating and lonely it sometimes feels. How hard it is to get back to "normal life", and how we wonder if we will ever feel normal in that normal life - or content with it.

Lunch spot

Volunteer haircuts

  • And I remain in contact with a number of refugees, as they await family reunification elsewhere in Europe ("It should happen by January...but maybe not.") or begin jobs or school in Greece while they wait for their asylum interview. A few of them call me their American mother.

  • I pay attention to what's happening with the refugees in Europe - a few good things, but mostly not good. And I now work with people in a similar situation on the border of my own country. I am meeting people who have that same commitment, and that helps me feel like I'm part of something bigger than me. 
  • And, at home, I settle into my "normal" life and my too-busy calendar. 
It's Not Greece.

I just read this blog post to my husband Art, who accompanied me on my two monthlong trips. When I finished, I said, "Do you relate to this?" 

He said, "Oh, yeah."

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Something new on my bucket list

Actually, I wasn't the first person to have the idea. Several members of my spiritual community acknowledged they wanted, someday, to be "arrested for civil disobedience".

My father was a military officer, and one of the primary values in our family was loyalty and discretion. I went to the University of California at Santa Barbara in the 1960s. I was in Isla Vista the night the Bank of America was burned to the ground as a protest against the Kent State killings. That same night, my father was in Da Nang, Vietnam, and he was paying for my college. I remained on the sidelines of any disobedience, civil or otherwise.

I am outspoken, but I've been compliant in most areas of my life. Civil disobedience witnessed on TV looked a little scary and "leftist" to me, so I stayed on the sidelines again. I was busy, after all, raising my children and working to support my family. And, to be honest, not thinking too much about life outside my Circle of Concern.

Now I am retired. In the last year and a half I've been drawn into the issue of immigration in a personal, on-the-ground way. I traveled to Greece four times to volunteer at a refugee camp. I spent time with the people who lived there and I heard their stories and I realized that, after all, we are all the same, and I wanted to help them. Mostly I listened and solved problems and worked collaboratively with other volunteers, but I have also given several talks and done some fundraising for Do Your Part, the American nonprofit for whom I volunteer.

I live in Tucson in the winter. I've been led to an organization called Keep Tucson Together, which provides a variety of services, including assistance to people who have either sought asylum in the US or who have been in the States for years and are now in danger of being deported. On three Saturdays in the last couple of months I've worked with other volunteers, listening to the stories of our clients, with the goal of preparing their paperwork for a deportation or an asylum hearing.

Last Saturday, after the Keep Tucson Together clinic, the organization leader, Peter, asked me to go with two other people to the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Center in Eloy, Arizona. A Spanish-speaking volunteer and I will listen to detainees tell their stories and help with paperwork. Peter says the place looks like a prison. Volunteers visit the detention center a couple of times a week, and I will go when I am able.

I am not a "leftist", but I am a believer in social justice. I will be doing my work in an ICE facility. As I see it, I am not breaking the law, but rather helping people comply with it.

However, I now get the civil disobedience thing. And I think being arrested for standing up for one's convictions is a reasonable thing to add to a bucket list.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Plans? What plans?

This morning I picked up my friend Ellen to go to church. I have been to St. Francis in the Foothills Church at least 20 times and I know the way.

Once, last month, I missed the Alvernon offramp and stayed on Interstate 10 about four miles too long. It took me an extra 20 minutes to get to the church. All we missed was "the hugging part at the beginning."

Today I took the Alvernon offramp but missed the left turn at Swan. By the time I noticed, I was 20 minutes from the church. Ellen and I decided to go out for breakfast instead.

I have a pretty good sense of direction and I am an excellent navigator, but if I am involved in a significant conversation I can get distracted. That is what happened both times.

In both cases, I wasn't lost. I knew exactly where I was. It just wasn't where I was supposed to be. In the first case we arrived late at our original destination. In the second, we skipped the planned endpoint completely and did something else instead.

Things don't always go as planned. And that is not always a bad thing.
  • We reserved two timeshare villas in Sedona for next weekend to accommodate up to 12 family members for a week. We thought it would be a great place for a winter gathering, especially since most of those family members live where it either rains or snows in the winter. That was the destination. What actually happened was that ten people said they'd be there and four then changed their plans. So there are now six of us, and almost everyone can only be there for two days. At first I was upset; all that planning, for a week for 12, ending up with two days for six. Then I realized that the outcome isn't the problem; it's my expectation of what the outcome should be. I now expect our smaller number of family members will have a delightful time.
  • One of our trips to Greece this year did not go at all as planned. My luggage got lost and took three days to arrive. My husband Art packed his medications in a checked bag, and a third of the meds disappeared between Seattle and Athens. The driver of our car - who shall remain nameless - hit a curb with the rental car and Enterprise charged us $600 for the repair.  I didn't take my CPAP machine, and my noisy sleep drove two roommates out, so I paid $250 to ship my CPAP from home - and it got stuck in Customs for two days until I paid another $200. Art got a small electrical shock on a kitchen stove and the shock messed with his pacemaker/ defibrillator, which then beeped inside his body every four hours until we drove to the ER in Athens to have it checked out. Our flight home was delayed for 24 hours. But the hiccups of this trip make for a memorable retelling.
  • We ordered blinds for the 19 windows in our winter place. We were assisted by excellent people at Lowe's. Two of the blinds didn't fit a corner correctly. We were assisted again by excellent people at Lowe's. Between Home Depot and Lowe's, I now have a definite preference. Excellent customer service - especially in the resolution of a problem - makes the difference for me.
  • Art and I had lunch on Wednesday at the cafe next to the theatre where we had matinee tickets to "Man of La Mancha". Something in my ham sandwich was troublesome, and my body responded with a total evacuation for the next 12 hours.  Someone commented, "Food poisoning is a terrible way to lose weight." But it is a way!
When I bought my Honda Accord in 1998, I had a license plate frame made that says, "Make God laugh; tell him your plans." In 2015 I replaced that Accord with a new one. And I moved the license plate frame from the old car to the new. It's still a great reminder for me.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Bag Lady Gratitudes

I've got a cold this week, so I've stayed pretty close to home. Still, I've pondered, as I usually do this time of year. Here are a few of my gratitudes:

  • We scaled down the holidays this year and so far I am content with the outcomes. No stress. Opportunities to say yes to the unexpected (handbells on Christmas Eve) and no to the obligatory (gift buying). A miniature holiday tree and a Santa hat for the javalina in our tiny yard.

  • Volunteering at a refugee camp - four times in one year.  Lots of stress and even more wonder - at innumerable sacrifices and kindnesses in the face of chaos and tragedy. 

  • New friends whose first language is Farsi or Greek.
  • Finding a niche to be of service at our winter home in Tucson. Every other Saturday I volunteer at a legal clinic listening to people tell their stories in preparation for the interviews that are part of the asylum process.
  • Identifying a compelling reason to learn Spanish! I've been advised to listen to the news in Spanish and watch Spanish soap operas. But Rosetta Stone is a big help also.
  • A haircut and color for the holidays!

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

He used to be shy!

I'm more outgoing than my husband Art. That's been the case for as long as I've known him. When Art retired he took up reading as a hobby, and watching football and Bluebloods on TV.

This is our sixth winter in Tucson at the Voyager RV Resort. In Year 3 he discovered the Voyager Light Opera Company, and was cast in Guys and Dolls. In Year 4 he was cast in Oklahoma! There are no musicals in Years 5 and 6, so he is now performing in plays.

I would never have guessed he'd develop this interest. Never. Except for a pirate act he puts on when we sail on the Schooner Heritage, Art is pretty self-contained.

During the holidays the Voyager has an Electric Light Parade, where people decorate their bicycles and golf carts and assorted other vehicles. They meet up near the resort's baseball field and then snake through the streets of the Voyager, ending up at the ballroom. Santa and Mrs. Santa lead the parade in a decked-out Mustang.

Last week we got an email from the parade organizer saying that Santa and his Mrs. had been called away for a family emergency. She was looking for a substitute. I asked Art if he was interested and he said "sure". The organizer brought over a Santa suit. Our friend Joanne said she'd be Mrs. Santa (I said no immediately when I was asked).

Art and Joanne waved like professionals from the Mustang, sat for a photo op in the ballroom, and then led a Christmas carol from the stage.

All the world's a stage, I guess.