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.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Four weeks later, I've found my place

We arrived at our place at the Voyager, in Tucson, just a month ago and we've settled in to most of our schedule. Art has musical play rehearsals on Monday and Thursday afternoons (they're doing You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown this year, and he is playing Pigpen). My handbell choir practices on Monday afternoons and plays at the Voyager's nondenominational church service once a month, which is the only time I attend. There's a current events discussion group on Wednesday afternoons that I like; when I started six years ago most of the attendees were conservative, and now they're mostly liberal. Almost everyone is better informed than me, which is good because I can learn. In January there will also be a foreign affairs discussion group called Great Decisions. I do that on Thursdays.

In the last two years I've made five trips to Greece to volunteer at the Oinofyta refugee camp with Do Your Part, a small American nonprofit. I've become committed to supporting people who have left their homeland because of unsafe conditions and helping to provide the services they need during their time of transition.

Last winter I decided to volunteer in the Tucson community. I went to the asylum clinic for Keep Tucson Together every other Saturday to help people prepare their asylum paperwork. I loved the person-to-person contact, but the clinic didn't seem very well organized, and sometimes I wasn't able to be useful at all. When I first got to Tucson this year, I went to a volunteer training for KTT. It's much better organized now, with more options available for volunteers, but none of them felt right, so I didn't sign up. I decided to wait.

I found another group, Casa Alitas, which provides temporary accommodations for migrants and refugees who have been interviewed by the Border Patrol or ICE and allowed entry into the US to apply for asylum. They're at Casa Alitas for only a few days, until their US host - a friend or a relative in another city - has sent money for a bus ticket. Again, I went to the volunteer training. Again, it didn't feel right.

Then, last week, I heard about the Refugee Shelter Ministry at St. Francis in the Foothills, a very progressive Methodist Church in Tucson. This is a very new program at the church;  it had only been active for a week. It's just like the one at Casa Alitas providing temporary support and shelter for migrants and refugees on their way to hosts elsewhere in the country. Art and I signed up for a four-hour shift last Saturday. We received a quick introductory tour. He then went off to help prepare dinner for the 15 being sheltered, and I kept company with those in the social area. No one spoke any English at all, and I speak not much Spanish, but we managed. Dinner arrived and I was the hostess.

I love doing service work one on one. Every one of these people expressed their gratitude for the least little thing: help interpreting a bus route to Maryland, for example, with the five bus tickets that would be required; a cup of coffee con leche y azucar; a travel pack with food for each person leaving. I got hugs and smiles for just being there.

I told some friends about our experience. One of them has already signed up for three shifts!

We've signed up for another shift tonight. We leave in 45 minutes.

I've found my place to be of service.