Monday, August 22, 2016

First day in Oinofyta, Greece - blog post for August 22

I'm sitting in the living room of our Airbnb place in Chalkida, Greece. The air conditioning is having some effect after half an hour of intense labor. My travel companions have driven to the Athens airport to pick up a piece of late-arriving luggage. It is nice and quiet here.

Our day was long, beginning in Athens with an 8:30 meetup and pickup of our rental car and a 90-minute drive to Chalkida, very pretty. We met our host, Frank, who showed us how everything worked and then led us to what he thought was "our" refugee camp. Turned out he took us to Ritsona, the Syrian refugee camp that's gotten a lot of publicity in the American press. When the staff there told us we were in the wrong camp, we wandered around for another half hour until we found it.

The Oinofyta camp is on military property - as I found out the other Greek camps are. It houses about 700 refugees, mostly Afghani with a few Iranians. An old warehouse has been subdivided into one-family rooms, and that is supplemented by tents. The residents are provided with meals and water and toilet and shower facilities. There's a warehouse full of donations from around the world. Today we worked from 1:00  to 5:00 distributing clothes, shoes, and blankets. There are about ten volunteers this week: five from Spain, one from the UK, one from Hong Kong and the three of us. The volunteers have been there varying amounts of time; we were brought up to speed by the immersion method. We are fed lunch and dinner. 

It was hot today; weather in the 90s, but we were indoors most of the time rather than in direct sun. The heat was easier to tolerate than I had expected.

The residents were mostly middle- or upper-middle class when they left Afghanistan.

The camp received a "donation " of 2,000 blankets today; in return, the NGO ( will pay to have electricity installed in its containerized office. Tomorrow, the residents will be asked to dig a ditch to lay wire to the computer center; in return, they'll have access to the online Skype application to turn in the paperwork for their asylum request. Afghanis are not considered war refugees, so they are not eligible for residence in the EU. They either need to be accepted into Greece, or sent home. Numerous residents of the camp decide to pay smugglers to get them across the borders of other southern European countries. The success rate is low, but the refugees are desperate.

I'm in learning mode, as usual. We were busy today, and I am tired but not exhausted. It surprised me that one good night's sleep last night in Athens appears to have caught me up. I don't have any sense of jet lag today.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Getting antsy to leave for Greece

Next Saturday I fly from Seattle to Paris, where I am meeting up with Jenean, an old friend, and her niece Savannah. We will fly to Athens together. After a night of sleep, we will report to Oinofyta, where there's a refugee camp we'll be volunteering at for a week.

I've learned to prepare slowly for travel rather than waiting until the last minute. So I'm just about done except for the packing, which I'll do Saturday morning before my flight.

Here's what I've gathered this week:

  • Excellent counsel from my friend Stacey, who spent three months volunteering earlier this year. She gave me advice on what to take, what to wear, etc. She said this will be a memorable and rewarding experience. For someone who's never done this, Stacey's words were encouraging.
  • A cash donation from a woman I met at the bank. She overheard me talking to the teller about my upcoming trip and approached me. She was Muslim, dressed in black from head to toe. And she handed me $100. "For the children," she said. "For food or clothing or whatever they need."
  • A donation of 50 pairs of reading glasses and three dozen sets of earbuds from my friend Lillian - recommended by Stacey as needed by the refugees in the camp she worked at.
  • Two inexpensive cotton T-shirts and a comfy pair of capris, for cheap, at Old Navy.
  • One pair of very comfortable capris and a lightweight long-sleeved blouse, for not so cheap, at REI. If it gets buggy, I may need to cover up.
  • Electrolyte tablets from REI, to add to water. I expect the temps will be in the 90s, and humid.
  • A hat, and four bandanas, containing crystals which, when exposed to water, form a cooling gel. I tried out the hat yesterday on a two-mile walk in my neighborhood, and it worked.
  • Promises of cash from several friends, to take with me for purchases for the people we will be serving.
I got my hair cut three weeks ago. On Tuesday I am having it cut again. It will be humid, and I have curly hair, so the shorter the better.

I've had my phone unlocked and will buy a Greek SIM card so I can keep in contact with the people there. I'm also taking my laptop so I can email and blog.

I will be packing light. Jenean and Savvy and I have rented an apartment through Airbnb and will have laundry facilities. Our lives will be much easier than those of the people at the camp.

I won't have much time to catch up on sleep and time zones. My current plan is to stay up very late on Friday night - like 4 a.m. Then sleep for three or four hours. Then pack and go to the airport. About halfway through the flight I'll take melatonin. If I can sleep for four hours on the plane, I should be fine during the layover and ready to sleep again when we get to Athens.

That's just the current plan, though. Anything could happen between now and Friday night.

I wish it were Friday already! I feel blessed to be able to do this. 

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Chautauqua and me - the Bag Lady reflects

When I quit my last job six years ago, I had three goals for the first year:
  • To learn to teach English as a second language. I took an online course and finished it with great reluctance. I found out I don't want to teach - can't figure out how to make up lesson plans - or even tutor. I do like training other people, though, and I have done that.
  • To participate in a Habitat for Humanity build in a city that was affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. I helped with several Habitat builds in my own area and then went to Louisiana on a Road Scholar (used to be Elderhostel) service trip. I found out I don't have the stamina to work all day at physical labor. Plus, I'm afraid of heights, so I'm useless with scaffolding, roofing, and ladders.
  • To take a Basic Mediation training course. I did this, in the last week of the first year of my non-work life. I loved it. By noon of the first day it seemed to me that my whole life had led me to this place. I completed 140 hours of coursework and training and became a certified mediator in November of 2012.
I have mediated about seventy times as a volunteer in the last three and a half years. I still love it. But I want to do more.  

In September of 2015 my husband Art and I took a trip to Eastern Europe. We were in Budapest at the same time as the first tide of Syrian refugees arrived at the train station there. Five days later, taking the train from Lake Bled (Slovenia) to Munich for our flight home, our train was stopped and service cancelled in Salzburg because refugees were walking on the tracks to get into Germany. We left the train and spent a couple of hours in the Salzburg train station, looking for alternate ways to get to Munich. In that train station were several hundred refugees, standing and sitting on the floor. They wanted to find a new place to live. I spoke very briefly to two women, to wish them luck.

When we got home, I could not get those refugees out of my mind. 

Then, in October 2015, I spent five days on Vashon Island, near Seattle, with five other writers in a workshop. Our last activity was a ten-minute write on the famous last line of Mary Oliver's poem, "The Summer Day": "What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"

Here's what I wrote:

I plan to say yes. To whatever comes along, especially if it's unexpected. I've said this often recently: I'm standing in an open field, forest all around me. I'm waiting, with my arms stretched up and out, for what it is I am supposed to be. Not do. Be.

I have at my feet all my gifts: intelligence, articulate expression in the spoken and written word, the ability to listen with sensitivity and care, a passion for creating understanding between and among. At this point I have no idea how that will turn out. Who will enter the clearing? Will they arrive on two legs or four or none? Will they be visible or just a spirit or essence? I am sure I will recognize their arrival quite quickly, regardless of their form.

Most of my bucket list items have been crossed off. What's left, I think, are the intangibles; what I don't yet recognize should be on that list. Three opportunities have arisen this year, all related to connectedness in different arenas. So far, I am still saying yes, knowing I'm on a right path.

Who am I to know what it is I'm supposed to do? What will the yesses to come be about? "We are all in this together" has been my mantra for a while now. Who are we, and what is together? I have to keep saying yes. That's the only way I'll know.

In March of this year a friend from my faith community invited me to Chautauqua. I had heard about it for years but had never gone. I said yes and sent my money for the week of July 31 - August 6.

And in April of this year I found out that an old friend was going to volunteer in August at a refugee camp in Greece. I asked if I could go with her - before I even thought about it - and she said yes, and I cashed in 60,000 frequent flyer miles for Seattle to Paris to Athens and back.

I saw Chautauqua and Greece as separate trips, unrelated except for my anticipated enjoyment of each of them.

Then, last week, I went to Chautauqua.

Each summer, the Chautauqua Institute presents eight weeklong sessions centering around a theme. Week 6 this year, which I attended, was on "The Future of Cities". Lectures by experts in the sacred and the secular on the theme, plus a myriad of other activities.

Plus culture: opera, symphony, dance, strings, a cappella musicians, percussion. Every night something, included in the cost of the weekly gate pass. I went to the ballet, the symphony, and a string group. It has been ages! 

The Chautauqua campus looks like Disneyland for grownups - beautiful old homes along streets that were built before autos, fabulous gardens and old trees. People on foot everywhere. Kids riding bicycles, teenagers. People with canes and scooters. Men and women from all over the country  - mostly east coast, I think. I'd go to a couple of events and be so full up in my brain and my spirit that I'd need to take a break.

These signs reflect the spirit of the place.

Each morning of the week I attended an interfaith service - very rare for me - presided over by Rev. John Philip Newell of Scotland, who is deeply influenced by Celtic spirituality. A morning lecture on some aspect of cities including David Simon of "The Wire" on police and the drug wars in Baltimore. An afternoon lecture on some aspect of religion in the cities including Reverend William Barber II, who electrified the DNC two weeks ago.

On Sunday, the first day, the incoming impressions and images were random, disconnected in my mind. By Friday, I'd had an experience of growth and synchronicity that I wouldn't have believed.

I saw that my experience at Chautauqua and my upcoming trip to Greece are inextricably connected. I would never have guessed. That saying "yes" to using my willingness and my talents are the right idea. That I am being led by something bigger than me. 

Here's what I'll take with me to Greece from Chautauqua:
  • The recognition that I am privileged but not because of anything I have ever done
  • The belief that I have a moral responsibility to use my gifts for something that benefits the greater good
  • The awareness that I do not know what other people need; that they will know what they need and I will do my best to serve them
  • My continuing belief that we are all in this life together

Last October I wrote, I'm standing in an open field, forest all around me. I'm waiting, with my arms stretched up and out, for what it is I am supposed to be. Not do. Be.

As Mary Oliver says in Evidence: Poems

"Sometimes I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed."

 Ah, Chautauqua!

Friday, July 29, 2016

In the sky again

I believe I have overscheduled myself for traveling this summer:

In May I flew to Tucson for three days to go to my Mexican dentist.

In June we took a road trip to Oregon for a five-day family gathering.

In July I flew to Toronto to spend five days with a friend in cottage country two hours north of the city.

Today I am flying to Buffalo via Boston with a friend for a week at the Chautauqua Institution. The theme? "The Future of Cities."

On August 20 I'm flying to Athens via Paris to work for a week as a volunteer for a refugee camp an hour north of Athens.

On September 9th we're flying to Rockland, Maine via Boston for our seventh cruise on the Schooner Heritage.

But there's not a single trip I didn't want to take.

The worst part is the early morning flights.  I got up at 3:30 this morning after just a couple hours of sleep. And the time change will be bothersome for a couple of days. Still, I am excited about what I'll be learning and doing over the next week.  It's my first time at Chautauqua. It will be my first time in Greece. The other summer travel places I've been to before.

I will be 68 in September and I know I won't be able to do this forever. Why not now?

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Bag Lady visits a Canadian friend

This week I'm visiting my friend Judy who lives in Muskoka, Ontario, Canada. It's a summer resort area about two hours north of Toronto - a beautiful place with lakes, rivers and beaches. Judy runs her errands in several little towns, so we get to visit each place, have lunch or a treat, and browse in the shops. Ordinarily I detest shopping for clothes, but Judy has a wonderful eye and is good counsel for me on my retail forays.

I visited Judy last year. You can read about that trip and see my pictures here. We're going to almost exactly the same places and doing the same things as last year. The only real difference is the content of our conversations. As a matter of fact, I was tempted to bail on my blog for this week and just repost last year's trip, but I felt too guilty.

I am going to Greece for a week next month to volunteer in a refugee camp in Oinofyta. It will be hot and humid and I am not good with either, so I'm looking for the coolest possible clothes. Today I found two shirts and a sundress (I haven't worn a dress in at least seven years, so we'll see).

Judy and I are both talkers. Here's an example of our discussion topics on this trip:

  • The personalities, assets and limitations of our husbands! We're both married to men five years older than we are, so the guys are, well, older, and we do not yet think of ourselves that way.
  • What on earth is going on between America and Donald Trump. Actually, I have gotten this question multiple times - from servers and retail clerks, who have actually gathered to hear me better. I tell them America is a very large country with very diverse opinions, and that the press is giving Trump a lot of airtime because he's such an unusual candidate. Several of them expressed unease that Trump could win. I told them what I can do is vote and that there are many, many Americans who will not be voting for him.
  • The worst thing each of us ever did. Judy asked me. I said I'd have to think about it. I asked her. She said she'd have to think about it. Then I told her and she told me. We can both still live with ourselves.
  • How we spend our winters. I met Judy when she and her husband Ken were our neighbors at the Voyager RV Resort, where we live in the winter. They sold their place and now go to Florida. We have a park model in Tucson and they leave their RV in Sarasota. Judy says she wants to be near the water. I said I want to be in the sun. 
  • What on earth is going on at the Republican Convention.
I rarely spend this much time with a girlfriend, but so far neither of us has gotten bored. We laugh a LOT. And Judy gets up early and I don't, and I stay up late and she doesn't. So she has her time with her husband Ken when I'm elsewhere. That's good for all of us.

I fly home on Friday evening. For a week. Then I leave on another trip. More on that one later.

Monday, July 11, 2016

With a million stars all around

Art and I attended a family gathering in Bend, Oregon last week. Fifteen people from daughter Melissa and son-in-law Scott's families met up for activities and meals for several days.

Art and I passed on the river rafting (did it before, probably no longer limber enough), the day trip to Crater Lake (been there), the mountain bike ride from the top of Mt. Bachelor (not crazy).

We did do the starlight canoe trip, though. We've done that before, over ten years ago, and loved it. When I was in high school I took canoeing lessons one summer, and Art picked it up someplace (probably at a family gathering of his own). We've been canoeing a number of times - once on a lake in Georgia ten years ago, and several times on a "canoeing trip" in Nicaragua, where we passed on the canoeing almost every day to explore something of local interest on one of the small islands on the Solentiname Archipelago on Lake Nicaragua.

In Bend, eleven of our group met up with our guide at the office of Wanderlust Tours. We loaded into their van at 8:00 pm; six canoes were loaded on the trailer. Our destination was Elk Lake. After unloading the canoes and gear, our guide, Jared, gave us a ten-minute review of how to paddle, how not to capsize, who moves the canoe forward (person in front/bow) and who steers (person in back/stern). We were each issued an infrared head lamp so we could see in the dark without losing our night vision.

It was near dusk when we put the canoes in the water. We paddled toward Mt. Bachelor across the lake. I paddled on the right side until my arms got tired, then called "change sides" so Art could steer from the opposite side. Every time he changed it felt like we were going to capsize. I wondered what on earth he was doing back there.

A couple of times the six canoes "rafted up" so Jared could tell us something about the geology or history of this area.

At the other end of the lake we disembarked. Jared built a fire and then handed out beer/hot chocolate and cookies. We watched the sun set.

It was dark by the time we started back across Elk Lake. There was no moon and no clouds. We donned the infrared lamps. Even with that help, it's hard for me to know where I'm going at night. Even after cataract surgery on both eyes it's hard to see where I am out there. I was in front, looking out at black. Except for other red headlamps and a bazillion stars. Art was supposed to be steering, but I didn't trust him. It seemed to me that I was responsible for getting us back. And I had no idea where that was. I got scared.

I told Art I was afraid. He told me to head for the trail of stars heading for the ground, but I had trouble believing him because it seemed like such a random comment. I fretted several times about not being sure where we were headed and he said, "Don't worry about it." Which wasn't helpful. As the paddler in the rear, he was steering, but I fought him. Again, when he changed sides it felt like we were going to capsize into the dark, cold water.

The six canoes rafted up once on the way back. Jared told us a story about why you never see Scorpio and Orion in the same night sky. Mythological characters getting ticked off at each other, you know. With no moon and no clouds and no ambient light, the sky was spectacular. We could see multiple planets and constellations and the Milky Way. I haven't seen such a beautiful night sky since we were in Kenya three years ago.

When we reached the beach I said, "Why did you say that, about heading for the trail of stars?" Art said, "Because that was where we put in." I said, "But those stars weren't there when we put in." He laughed. I guess there was a topographical feature he remembered. He's very observant about that kind of thing, and I am sometimes not. I was a matter of perspective. It would have been much easier if I'd just paddled calmly and trusted him to get us there.

Turns out we still know how to canoe. Even with creaky knees and cranky feet. So good to know!

Monday, July 4, 2016

Road trip thoughts from an extroverted introvert

I'm an extroverted introvert. These are the things I can do:
  • Have a give-and-take conversation with a person I know. For quite a while, if it's not small talk.
  • Strike up a conversation with a stranger.
  • Listen to anyone. For quite a while, if it's not small talk.
  • Mediate and facilitate conversations among other people, in conflicts or otherwise.
  • Speak before a group of hundreds of people.
  • Write a blog which is read each week by many people, some of whom I know and some I don't.
These are the things I try to avoid:
  • Potlucks, unless I know everyone in the room, and sometimes not even then. Unless they are at my house and I can't get out of them. That happened for years at holiday parties for Art's very large family.
  • Parties. Same as potlucks.
  • "New member" gatherings intended to welcome me as a new member.
  • Dances, unless I have come with a partner.
Now Art and I are on a road trip. We left our home near Seattle for a week in Oregon. Our first stop was Roseburg, a town of about 20,000 on the interstate that runs through Washington, Oregon and California. We were there for two days and I had a good time.

I lived in Roseburg for six years in the 80s. My kids went to preschool and kindergarten there. My older son Russell lives there, working at the local hospital as a nurse. My ex and his very nice girlfriend live there. My very good friend Jeanne lives there; we stayed with her for two nights.

On Thursday night we went to dinner with Russell and his girlfriend Amanda, my ex John and his girlfriend Shirley. I knew everyone at the table pretty well, and conversation was easy and fun.
We spent a quiet day on Friday with Jeanne. Art mostly read and Jeanne and I mostly chatted. Jeanne was my counselor when I was going through my separation and divorce and we became friends after that. We've probably stayed at Jeanne's house 25 times in the last 30 years - my granddaughters were born in Roseburg and lived there for the first 12 years of their lives, so we've been here a bunch. And when Jeanne comes to Seattle she stays with us. There is an easy comfort between us. We can do silence as well as conversation.  

On Saturday we made the three and a half hour drive to Bend, on the other side of the Cascades from Roseburg. Art's daughter Melissa and her husband Scott had organized a family gathering at the Mt. Bachelor Village Resort: blocked the rooms, found coordinators for one or two events each day plus an evening meal each day. This year three of Art's children - Melissa, Laura and Peter - plus his ex-wife Nancy - came to the gathering. And Scott's daughter Samantha, his sister Lauren and her husband Bryon, mom Marcia and stepdad Jack and his Uncle Dick and Aunt Cheryl.

That's a lot of people. I have met most of Scott's family before, but only once. They were all excited to see each other and I was glad Melissa and Scott had been successful in gathering so many of their family members to Bend. On Saturday we met up with the group at Melissa and Scott's large three-bedroom rented condo, chatted with everyone, ate a simple meal and left shortly afterwards to return to our own one-bedroom condo, where we spent the rest of the evening reading in silence.

On Sunday most of the family went rafting on the Deschutes River. We spent a good part of the day visiting my best friend from high school, Linda, and her husband Jim. I've only seen Linda about three times in the last 50 years, but we always "pick up where we left off." We had lunch at their place and went for a two-mile walk in Shevlin Park in Bend. We invited them to join us for a few days next winter in Tucson. We went to Safeway, came home and read and watched three episodes of "Damages" on Netflix.

Today, July 4, most of the family loaded up into three cars for a day trip to Crater Lake. Art and I have been there before, so we didn't sign up for the outing.  There's a fun parade and holiday festival in downtown Bend, but parking is pretty limited so we will probably pass. We'll mostly likely spend the day reading and maybe doing a load of laundry. Art's daughter Laura and son Pete are hosting Taco Night, so we'll go over for that. I expect that sometime during the evening I'll have quiet conversations with a few people.

Tomorrow is our turn to host the evening meal. We're doing Italian Night, but it will be at 5 - a little early - so that we and five other people can leave at 7 for a moonlight canoe outing on one of the lakes above Bend. We've done that once before and it is worth a repeat trip. 

And on Wednesday we leave for home.

There are a few small disadvantages to being an extroverted introvert this week:
  • If Art is cranky - as he can be if he has allergies or some kind of ache or pain or is spending too much time with chatty women - we are kind of stuck with each other. Especially when we're in the car.
  • If someone wants to talk to me, they won't find me around much at the large gatherings. I hope to have good talks with both of my stepdaughters before we leave. I expect that will happen, as it usually does when we're together.
  • People may think I'm not being friendly.
Most likely, though, everyone at this family gathering is spending time doing what they want to do. Isn't that how it ought to be?