Monday, February 18, 2019

What's going on in the borderlands?

Art and I continue to volunteer on Saturday evenings at a refugee shelter in Tucson. This article, sent to me by a friend, gives the best description I have read about what's happening there.

I haven't attended a church service since we arrived in Tucson on October 31. But after four hours on Saturday evening, at St. Francis in the Foothills Methodist Church, I feel like I have been to church. Truly, it's about love and service.

Monday, February 4, 2019

I never had a master plan

As I look back on my life so far (the first 70 years), I'm aware that what's led me to this point has been largely unplanned. Here's what I mean.

1. My father was a military officer, so we moved around a lot. I was pretty much an obedient daughter - expected in the military environment - interested by nature in academics, music and theatre. The closest I ever came to a life plan was "I'll go to college and then get married and have kids."

2. I was accepted as a high school junior to the College of William and Mary in Virginia, when my father was stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. I wanted to go there, but my father was then transferred to Camp Smith on Oahu. My parents thought 5,000 miles was too great a distance between my college and their home. My mother had been a Marine during World War II, stationed at Santa Barbara. She said it was a nice place. I applied to UCSB, and that is where I spent my four years of college.

  • Outcome of not going to William and Mary: didn't spend my college years on the east coast and marry an east coast person and have east coast kids; didn't go to a smaller school where I would probably have been more comfortable. 
  • Outcome of going to UCSB instead: spent my college years on the west coast and married a west coast person and had west coast kids; went to a large party school (I have never been a partier); experienced anti-war activity and got tear gassed through my apartment window; felt some guilt that I had anti-war preferences though my father was in Vietnam and paying for my college education.
3. I got married and had kids (two sons) . Part of the plan.

4. I got divorced after 15 years. NOT part of the plan.
  • Outcome of getting divorced: I went back to school to earn a degree that I could use to support myself and my children. I learned how to take care of myself and my household.
  • Outcome of the degree: I moved from a small town in Oregon to a large city in Washington for the job I got. I didn't keep that job, but I've lived in Washington ever since. And I have used some element of that degree every day for the last 30 years.
5. I was a single mom for nine years. Not part of the plan.

6. I got remarried and acquired six more kids. Part of the REVISED plan.
  • Outcome of getting remarried: I found a partner I never would have met in college. We have been together for 27 years.
  • Outcome of acquiring six more kids: Got to have as many kids - and more - as I'd hoped for. Got to experience the differences between boy kids and girl kids. Got to be a role model for young women.
7. I retired after working for 25 years. Part of the plan, though in my heart of hearts I couldn't imagine such a thing without more than a twinge of worry and fear. That's when I started my blog, "Thoughts from a Bag Lady In Waiting".

8. As a retiree, I could choose how I spent my time. Part of the plan, though I had no idea at first what I would do other than sleep as long as I wanted in the morning and read a lot of books.

9. I said yes to what came along, but only since I turned 60. Before that I was pretty much still the military officer's daughter. Here's what's come along since I started saying yes:
  • Took 140 hours of training in 18 months and became a certified mediator. 
  • Mediated about 100 conflicts at a dispute resolution center and in small claims court. Still have the skill, which I use nearly every day.
  • Took 69 trips of three days or more, within the US and elsewhere. Still have the memories, the blog posts and the photos.
  • Volunteered five times at a refugee camp in Greece. It has changed my life.
  • Bought a small home at a +55-plus community in Tucson for winters. Found a community in this "camp for grandmas". 
  • Started adding blue and purple and burgundy highlights to my hair. Still love it!

  • Got a tattoo of the world. My first and last. Still love it!
  • Volunteer each week at a refugee shelter in Tucson. I am continuing to say yes to this amazing work. Greece or Tucson? It's just about the same. And I know beyond a doubt that We Are All The Same.
But I feel especially blessed and lucky. No master plan. But it's all worked out to be more than I would ever have imagined.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Bag Lady visits a refugee detention facility

Two evenings ago, I drove with another volunteer - I'll call her Ana - to have a conversation with a refugee from South America - I'll call him Roberto - now detained in Eloy, Arizona. I wanted to see what the detention facility was like, and have a conversion with a person actually there, and learn more about what was going on. Here's what happened:

1. In the La Palma facility, the staff is friendly - almost welcoming - to visitors. On entering, we left everything behind except driver's license and car keys. And when going through security, we left license and keys behind as well.

2. Between the second and third security gates, I viewed a glorious sunset beyond the concertina wire, but couldn't take a picture because I'd had to leave my phone in the car.

3. Ana and I sat at a round table across from Roberto for an a hour-long conversation. The room, a cafeteria, was full of such tables and such conversations. 

4. Our conversation was entirely in Spanish, though Ana translated any questions I had. I'd say I understood about 20 percent of it.

5. Roberto, detained in Eloy, has a wife similarly detained at a facility in another state. They are not allowed to talk to each other because facility-to-facility phone calls are prohibited. Their only contact is between each of them and Ana.

6. Roberto's wife has applied for asylum on behalf of herself and her husband. Her hearing was the day before our meeting with Roberto, but none of us had heard the outcome of that event.

7. Roberto has been in detention for four months without a hearing. He will also apply for asylum on behalf of himself and his wife. I asked if there's a database that will show the same two people applying for asylum in two locations. Roberto said he does not think there is such a database.

8. Roberto and his wife are in fear for their lives. As I listened to their story, I know for certain their lives are indeed in danger.

9. Roberto said, "It isn't fair that people who come across the border illegally are getting hearings more quickly than people who came across legally."

10. I know more of Roberto's story, but I'm not going to say more here, for the sake of his safety.

Last evening, my husband and I spent our usual four hours volunteering at a refugee shelter in Tucson.  We had 20 guests - ten adults and ten children. Most of the people this week were from Guatemala. 

Our shelter is serving only families - one or two adults with one or more of their children. Children cannot be detained for more than 20 days, so this shelter system has been devised. Within a two-day period, the families will travel to sponsors in other parts of the US to apply for asylum there.

I understand that in times of rapid policy change, agencies may scramble to comply. The children are being kept with their families, but where is the fair treatment of cases for people like Roberto, whose lives are in danger, where their hearings are not close at hand?

Over all these things, I know I am powerless. So I listen to Roberto, and provide a safe place for the shelter guests, one person at a time.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019


I'm usually an optimist. This week, though, not so much.

1. For eight days I've been just a little off healthwise. You know, the winter stuff. A sinus issue with off-and-on vertigo. Lower energy. A little anxiety. Passing up opportunities for walking, riding my bike and doing water exercise. Even foregoing a John Denver tribute concert last week. When I'm even a little bit sick, everything looks pointless. I've learned not to take my bleak thoughts seriously, but still.

2. My friend Ellen helped me arrange pictures on a wall of our little place. They're all from the refugee camp at Oinofyta where I have spent so much of my time, money, energy and passion in the last two year. I love the arrangement, but now every time I pass that wall I remember. And I am there again. And things at Oinofyta are quite different now, and not in a good way.

3. It has been cloudy and cool in Tucson for over a week now. I like the sun. I should say I NEED the sun.

4. ICE has released 100 people today after two weeks of very few. I wish asylum seekers weren't pawns in political maneuvering. I'm at least glad we have signed up for an extra shift this week.

Here's an email I just got this morning:

Volunteers needed TODAY
Wednesday, January 16th

Looking for Spanish Speaking volunteers to wait at the bus station with families.

Volunteers needed ALL day long

Due to high numbers of families released by ICE yesterday and today we are in need of trained Spanish Speaking volunteers to cover shifts at the bus station to allow for more room to receive families at the shelters. 

If you are comfortable with explaining bus tickets and can spend some time welcoming families being dropped off by Casa Alitas to the greyhound bus station and waiting with them please call or text
Katherine Smith (206)306-3569
OR reply to this Email with Subject: "GREYHOUND" 

Prefered shifts:
8:00pm-11:00pm *(If needed)

5. I'm almost reluctant to post this, given my usual positive outlook. Still, I'm sure I'm not the only one. Right?

Saturday, January 5, 2019

A different Saturday night

For the last six Saturdays my husband Art and I have volunteered for the evening shift at the refugee shelter at St. Francis in the Foothills Methodist Church in Tucson. The shelter is part of the Inn2America project. We serve dinner and keep company with about a dozen refugees from Guatemala or Honduras or Mexico or El Salvador who have been released by ICE, on their way to family or friends in the United States who are sponsoring them. Our guests spend one to three days at the shelter, waiting for their sponsors to pay for bus tickets to their destination. While they're at the shelter, they're fed and clothed and housed - and welcomed to a place of safety. We do whatever is needed between 5 and 9 on Saturday evening.

It's a lot like the work we've done at a refugee camp in Greece for the last couple of years. Though three years ago the refugee situation was only a vague idea in my mind, it's become a passion for me. And I'm especially grateful that Art has chosen to do much of the work with me.

But tonight I'm at home instead. I got a text early this afternoon from the shelter coordinator. She said, "For the third day in a row there will be no guests at the Inn2America project. ICE is releasing very few people. We don't know why. So no need to come in this evening."

I have learned it is futile to get angry or frustrated over things I have no control over. ICE is one of those things. I suspect there's something political going on, most likely related to the government shutdown.

So I have tonight at home. As soon as I finish this blog post, I'll practice my Spanish on Duolingo and then probably read. I'm just about done with Michelle Obama's memoir. 

I'm inside my little home in Tucson, listening to the rain on the metal roof. I hope the refugees being held by ICE are warm and fed and safe tonight. And also the ones at the camp in Greece.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

My Advent list

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. I am sitting quietly in my living room in Tucson, reflecting on the season so far. Things are almost entirely good. Here are my thoughts. I'm making a list to help me clarify them.

1. What has seemed in the past like obligations no longer does. Our kids are grown and gone and they all live in a state that isn't Arizona. We no longer have any little kid grandchildren. When we were first without children at Christmas I was sad. I remember one year I put up a live tree with all the memory-infused ornaments, listening to my ancient favorite seasonal music. When I finished, I stood back to look at the tree and started to cry. It was all over! I removed all the decorations and asked my husband Art to take the tree outside. It sat in its pot until spring and got planted in our yard, where it has grown tall and now nearly obstructs the driveway in our easement.

2. This year I sent no Christmas cards. I've kind of been easing up on them in recent years, sending actual cards only to people I don't see during the year or friends not on Facebook. In this time of constant communication, most everyone knows what we've been doing. If I were to write a Christmas letter it would mostly be a copy and paste from my 2018 blog posts.

3. This year I sent no gifts, not even gift cards to my grandchildren. I rarely see them, and most of them are in their late teens, and when I do send something I rarely know whether they were ever received. I expect that - it's different from when I was a kid, back before fire - but it makes me less inclined to spend the time and money. 

4. We're not going to Washington for Christmas. We considered it, but Art doesn't want to mess with the Seattle airport, plus we have a tenant this year in our house.  

5. My good friend Joan sent us an Advent devotional. She's a progressive Catholic and I'm a Unitarian Universalist, so the readings were lovely and appropriate for us, and each day, if I remember, I read it aloud to Art.

6. One of the things we've done this year is prepare a box for the food bank, which we'll deliver tomorrow. I found a list of things to put in the box each day, and Art was good about shopping for everything. It often happens that I come up with the idea and he does the work!

7. For the last five Saturday evenings Art and I have volunteered at a refugee shelter sponsored by a Methodist church across town. The people at the shelter have left their homes - mostly in Honduras or Guatemala - because their lives are in danger. ICE interviews them and identifies them as people eligible to apply for asylum in the US. They then make plans to travel to a family or friend who has agreed to sponsor them. The sponsor sends money for the family to take a bus from Tucson to the home of the sponsor - Florida, South Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Washington, California, Colorado, or wherever. The family stays at the shelter for one to three days until the bus tickets can be purchased. While they are with us, they're welcomed and fed and clothed. When they leave, they're given food to take with them on their bus trip.

8. For a week or two I collected reusable grocery bags to fill with food for the refugees' onward journeys. I put out a request on my winter community's Facebook page and, as usual, the response was generous. People went through their pantries, or stopped by Trader Joe's or WalMart, or ordered on Amazon. My Do Your Part colleague sent 35 bags made by refugees in Greece that didn't have our logo on them. I'd guess my community and friends gave 150 bags for the travelers to use. That feels good.

9. This morning my handbell group played at the nondenominational church service at our winter home. For our last piece, "Were You There," we were joined by the choir. It was lovely - spiritual - and I was grateful to have a way to express myself in music. I was a liturgical musician for a dozen years or so before my divorce, so today brought back very good memories.

10. I decided at the beginning of Advent to make an effort not to work on Sundays. For me that means the accounting work I do for Do Your Part, or personal paperwork. At first it was hard, but in the last couple of weeks I've actually looked forward to it. I have nearly all day to read, or blog, or nap, or "whatever"!

Tomorrow we're going to the home of new friends to play a card game - we haven't done that in ages, but we like the people and I think it will be fun. Tomorrow night we'll open the door for the Alanon meeting in case some family or friend of an alcoholic is feeling especially bad and wants to hang out with us. On Christmas Day we're having two friends over for dinner. That sounds just about right.

Here's hoping that your Advent, if you observe it, or your holiday season has been reasonably satisfactory and stress free. Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Telling the stories

I never thought of myself as a storyteller. I haven't got a lot of creative imagination, so when people would tell me I should write a book, I'd respond that I didn't have much to say.

But other people do. I've found that I can listen to their stories and write them down. The stories aren't mine, but I'm the keeper of their words.

Here's a story I heard in Greece from one of the residents of the Oinofyta camp. I met Abdul on my first trip to Greece, and he told me his story on my second trip.

I have seen Abdul on all the five trips I've made to Greece in the last two years. He now works at the Oinofyta Community center, lives in Athens, and has a second daughter. His circumstances have changed a bit, but every time I see him I remember the story of why he left his homeland.

Every refugee has a story.

This winter my husband Art and I are volunteering at a refugee shelter at a church in Tucson. Our shift is Saturday evenings from 5 to 9. We've cooked dinner, served a meal, offered coffee, done laundry, played with children, and transported refugees to the Greyhound bus station. Whatever is needed. Each week the sheltered guests are different. They're from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Brazil and Peru. They've made their way to the US border and asked for asylum. They've had an initial interview by the Border Patrol or ICE and have been declared eligible to apply for asylum. Many of them left their homelands because of threats from drug gangs. Few of the people at the shelter speak English, but many of them are literate. At the shelter they are given an opportunity to write in a journal about the journey from their home, across the border and into Tucson. The stories are all in Spanish. I hope they will be translated eventually. I suspect some of the stories are quite a bit like Abdul's.

Last Thursday night I went with some friends to an event called Odyssey Storytelling, in downtown Tucson. Six people told a ten-minute story on the theme of "Mortified." The stories were hilarious and poignant and, because the audience was close to the speakers on the stage, we were kind of all together, sharing the experience with the storytellers. It was an intimate experience. Here's what the storytelling experience is about:
In an article in Borderlore, a publication of the Southwest Folklife Alliance, Odyssey Storytelling is described this way: “The big picture is that sharing stories is about building community. On a personal level it is about being honest and being seen for who you are. Both of these things are basic human needs. Everyone benefits from a storytelling event either as a teller or as a listener. Odyssey Storytelling offers a showcase for people of all ages, cultures, gender expressions and sexual orientations.”
All of us have a story.

At the Voyager RV Resort, where Art and I live in the winter, storytelling will make its debut in January. Six storytellers will present a ten-minute story. It will be a true story, and it will be about them. I've been asked to be one of the storytellers.

My story will probably be about the case of the beeping pacemaker.