Solitude in the Desert

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The eastern view from my solo campsite.

Solitude can be hard to find as a Young Adult Volunteer. I spend most of my time in community, whether it be my house community, work community, or church community. I have come to appreciate all of these communities, but from time to time, I do crave solitude. My craving was answered this past week in the form of a desert sojourn retreat. On Monday, my housemates and I travelled to the small community of Cascabel, Arizona. We camped together for a night, then each headed out to a solo camping site in the desert. There, I spent three days by myself. Well, myself and flies, roadrunners, birds, saguaros, and wildflowers.

I had been very excited for my time in the desert. It had been a busy month, and time by myself sounded like a great way to recharge my batteries. Part of me was also hoping that time to write and think would lend me powerful new insights about the world and myself. What I found on my first day was boredom and discomfort. I tried to write, but the words would not come. I tried to sit with my thoughts, but all I could think about were tasks I would have to complete the next week. And I was uncomfortable. The temperatures rose past the 90’s and the sun was beating down on my camp site. The inside of my tent felt like a sauna. So I moved from rock to rock, chasing the bit of shade provided by the small trees as the sun moved across the sky. As day one came to a close, I was not feeling any closer to myself or the world around me. 

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My campsite for the week. You can see the teal tent where I slept poking out from behind a bush on the right. 

The second day not only brought cooler temperatures, but also a greater sense of internal peace. I found myself lost in the book I had brought, which had not happened in a while. (FYI, the book was Borne by Jeff Vandermeer. I highly recommend it!) I also found it easier to write and think. While my mind would still drift back to deadlines and commitments, I also thought a lot about myself, the nature around me, and how I was feeling. By the morning of the third day, I felt truly happy and peaceful. I remember waking up and making some coffee. As I drank my coffee, I watched the sun rise over the cliffs. The world felt simple in that moment. Just me, my coffee, and creation. It hadn’t felt that simple in a long time.

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Rock formation I made during the last day of the sojourn. 

While I do cherish the moments of serenity I had during the retreat, being alone was a complicated experience. I had some moments of utter boredom and some moments of total peace. There were times when I was thinking about how dirty I was or how uncomfortable the rock I was sitting on felt. But then other times I would completely forget how I physically felt and focus completely on the world around me.

Now that I am back in Tucson, I am grateful for the time alone, not in spite of being bored and uncomfortable at times, but partially because of those feelings. Those are two sensations that can be hard to tap into living in a modern world of connivence and technology. But they are a part of the human experience. Ultimately, I didn’t have any new, grand insights or revelations from my time in the desert, and it wasn’t three days of total peace and bliss. But it was three days to simply exist and be the person called Tanner, with all the emotional highs and lows that being a person on this Earth entails.

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Flash Blog #3

Disclaimer: This is a flash blog written in ten minutes based on a prompt by our site coordinator, Alison Wood.  Please excuse any typos or grammatical errors.

What do “The Borderlands” mean to me? Before becoming a Tucson Borderlands YAV, I had never heard the word “borderlands” before. When I thought of a border, I thought of a hard dividing line. Once you cross it, you are in an entire differently place than you were before. For example, once you cross the US/Mexico you go from being in Mexico to in the United States. It’s a black and white, night and day change. Seems reasonable right?

What I have learned during my YAV year is that while yes, that is the technical definition of a border, it does not really encompass the lived experience of people who make their lives in the lands near the border. The border is a lot less hard of a line than I thought, in fact, it is often very blurry. You may cross the border into the United States, but for the next 100 miles, you may be forced to show your ID or prove your a US citizen at a myriad of Border Patrol Checkpoints. So you are not really past the border once you step into the United States, it follows you, popping its head up and making you prove you belong on this side.

The border continues to follow you throughout Tucson. Every day, the green and white trucks of Border Patrol whiz up and down the city streets, reminding you of the ever present border. In the courtroom downtown, people’s lives are turned upside down on a daily basis as a judge rules they must return to the other side of the border, that they don’t belong on this side. In Southern Arizona, being 25 or 50 or 100 miles from the border is really meaningless. For some the border is always there. To me, that is why we live in the “Borderlands.” Whether we can see it or not, this land is shaped by the border, no matter how far away that border might be.

SOOP Season

Written on February 2, 2019

At Community Home Repair, January and February are referred to as “SOOP Season.” This is in reference to the influx of new volunteers we get during these months through the Mennonite Church’s SOOP* program. Most SOOP volunteers are retired, and spend several months each year away from home, volunteering at a local non-profit. If that sounds a lot like YAV, well, it is! Just this week I went out into the field to make repairs with a SOOP volunteer named Doug. Doug and I are at very different places in our lives. He is now retired, and as we drove to our various jobs, he told me about all the places his career in the medical field took him. Unlike Doug, I am a recent college graduate, have never had a career, and have lived in only a handful of places during my life. Yet here we were, both brought to the desert by our respective churches sharing the common purpose of replacing a water heater and patching a roof.

*SOOP used to be an acronym, but following a controversy over the word “senior” to describe such an active bunch, the acronym was dropped. 

This time of year has been busy at CHRPA for more reasons than simply the greater number of volunteers. I have been working with our Development Director, Carrie Nelson, on creating the inaugural CHRPA newsletter, and it should be launched next week! Additionally, CHRPA’s annual meeting is in two weeks, where we will be debuting another edition of CHRPA Tales. As I mentioned in the blog post “CHRPA Tales,” staff and long-term volunteers are required to write stories about their experiences at work. At each annual meeting, a book is presented containing a collection of stories written during the previous year. I have written a handful of stories, and I included one below from September. I hope you enjoy!

Routine Miracles

As a volunteer who began working at CHRPA in September, it was inevitable that my first month on the job would be filled with cooler repairs.  After only several weeks working in the field, cooler repairs were already starting to feel routine. Most followed a similar pattern. You climb up onto the roof, clean or replace a few parts, sweat a lot, and voila, the client has cool air! Yet every once in a while, I come across a client that reminds me there is no such thing as “routine” at CHRPA.

One of the most remarkable client encounters I’ve had was with Diane.  Claire and I arrived at her home one morning, and quickly learned that contractors had installed new parts on her cooler several weeks prior.  Within minutes of climbing onto her roof and taking off the cooler pads, Claire and I realized the problem. While Diane’s cooler did indeed have new parts, they were installed incorrectly.  It took us roughly twenty minutes to reinstall the parts correctly, and immediately, the cooler jumped to life, and Dianne’s home had cool air.

When we told Diane the good news, she teared up.  With her voice shaking, she explained to us that the temperatures in her home had reached 95 to 100 degrees every afternoon for the past four weeks.   One of my greatest joys each day is when I walk into my home after a long sweaty day in the field, and am greeted by a blast of cool air. Diane was deprived of that simple pleasure for almost a month.  As I looked around her home, I only saw one small fan. I struggled to imagine a month where your only relief from triple digit heat is a fan the size of a textbook. But now, that was no longer Diane’s reality, she could be comfortable in her own home again. Later that afternoon, when Claire and I arrived back at the office, Kat informed us that Diane had left a voicemail soon after we left. We listened to the message where Diane described how a tall woman and a baby-faced young man (yes, that was me) had brought cool air back to her home and had treated her with kindness and dignity.  

Some days at CHRPA can be a tiring slog.  There are times when you’ve already been up on three roofs during a hot summer day, and the last thing you want is to climb up on another roof to repair another cooler.  On those days, repairs can seem routine, or something to get through and move on to the next one. But it is during those moments when I think of Diane, and remind myself that what is our routine job is another person’s miracle.

 

Flash Blog #2: What is something that you are thankful for that you did not used to be thankful for?

Disclaimer: This is a flash blog written in ten minutes based on a prompt by our site coordinator, Alison Wood.  Please excuse any typos or grammatical errors.

Oh man, Alison gave us a tough prompt for this flash blog.  As soon as she said it, my mind began to race through the past three months trying to come up with an answer.  The answer I will settle on is cleanliness.  I have lived in a clean environment all my life.  My parents kept my childhood home well maintained, I always cleaned my dorm room in college, and (for the most part) my housemates and I work hard to maintain a clean space in our YAV house.  What I have learned from working at CHRPA is that cleanliness is a luxury that many do not have.  As part of my job, I walk into many people’s homes, and the reality is that most are not clean.  I have seen varying levels of disorganization, clutter, and hoarding during my three months on the job.  I will admit, my gut reaction is to make a snap judgement.  Why would someone live this way?  I often think.  Yet when you talk to homeowners, there are so many layers behind their living situations.  Elderly or disabled clients lack the physical mobility to move about their house or do chores.  Other clients juggle multiple jobs while raising a family, so there is no time left in their day to tend to household matters.  Still, others may have lived their whole lives in poverty, so it may be hard for them to throw things away.  The point is, anytime that voice pops into my head asking me to make a snap judgement, I try to step back and see the big picture.  The virtue of maintaining a clean home is ingrained in us all our lives.  Afterall, the saying goes “cleanliness is next to Godliness.”  But the more I see, the more I realize this attitude is just another way to shame those who lack the privilege of having extra time and resources that they can use to take care of their home.  I am grateful that I have the ability to live in a home that is “clean”, but I am actively trying to separate the morality and judgement that can so often by tied into the arbitrary definition of what makes a home clean.

CHRPA Tales

The staff members at Community Home Repair Projects of Arizona (CHRPA), the organization I am serving with during my YAV year, are required to write two stories a month about their experiences providing home repair services to low-income clients.  The motivation behind this requirement is CHRPA’s belief that the best way to convey their work and impact to the general public is through the art of storytelling.  Each February, our Development Director compiles stories written during the past twelve months into a book called “CHRPA Tales.”  As a volunteer, I am not exempt from the two stories a month rule.  Therefore, I thought this blog would be a great place to merge my writing for YAV and writing for CHRPA.  Periodically, I will publish a story I wrote for CHRPA to give you a better sense of my ongoing work with this organization.  Below you will find a story I wrote about a client I visited in September, during my second week as a volunteer.  Enjoy!

Gratitude

Note: All names in this story have been changed for sake of privacy.

How do you respond when someone you have known for merely six hours shows you overwhelming gratitude, especially when you feel that gratitude is unwarranted?  That is a question I wrestled with during my second week at CHRPA.

For context, I started at CHRPA with no prior experience in home repair.  Before this year, the only tools I had ever used were a screwdriver, a hammer, and occasionally, a drill.  During my first weeks as a volunteer, I was constantly learning about new tools and new methods of repair, and my head was spinning trying to keep it all straight.  The people I worked with were excellent teachers, taking the time to answer my questions and exhibiting patience when I made inevitable mistakes. Still, my lack of prior knowledge meant the amount of help I could actually offer my coworkers on jobs was minimal.  I knew this would change and I would eventually find my stride, but at first, I was constantly humbled by how little I knew.

Shortly after I began volunteering, I was assigned to assist Kelly with replacing major portions of an air duct in a client’s home.  Air ducts were something I admittedly knew little about. I was fairly sure that air travelled through them, and they also seemed to be great places to crawl through buildings undetected in spy movies, but that was the extent of my knowledge.  Kelly, on the other hand, has decades of experience in electrical work and a myriad of other fields, so I felt confident that the client and I were in good hands.

When we arrived at the home of Leticia and her husband, Diego, she gave us a large, warm smile and immediately offered us coffee and water.  Kelly and I got to work and the project took us the entire day. We had to cut out the old ducts, retrofit and trim the new ducts to fit the space, install them, cut out parts of the wall, add new support beams, and clean up the mess we made.  Kelly led the way, while I held what needed to be held, cut what needed to be cut, and swept what needed to be swept. I also listened and watched as Kelly explained each step of the process to me. Sure, I helped, but I was not an integral component in bringing back cool air to Leticia and Diego’s home.

This fact would not have been evident if you went by Leticia’s reaction.  She praised and thanked both Kelly and I throughout the day, telling us how impressed she was by “our” work, and how helpful and smart we were.  She went on to explain that this used to be the type of job Diego, who worked in construction for decades, could have done, but age had slowed them both down.  She beamed with pride when she recounted how they had both worked hard their entire life to raise a family and maintain their home. Leticia thanked us again as we were leaving, and gave us a bag of homemade tamales, salsa, and candy for the rod.

I will admit, Letica’s gratitude made me uncomfortable at several points throughout the day, mainly because I felt it was unearned.  Why should she be thanking me? She and her husband were the ones who had worked so hard to provide for their family for so long, and Kelly was the one who had the skills and knowledge to complete the job.  There were times during the day when all I was doing was watching and listening. In the moments Leticia thanked me, I would smile and nod, but inside I couldn’t shake this feeling that it was somehow wrong for me to accept her thanks.  

As Kelly and I were driving back, she told me something that shifted my perspective.  She explained that it was fairly common for clients to offer us food or gratitude. She went on on to explain how clients often don’t want to feel like they’re being given a “handout”, and by thanking us or giving us a small token of appreciation, they feel like they’re part of an exchange of goods, not just simply being given something.  I can see how this exchange creates dignity on both sides. Leticia felt grateful for our work, and she wanted to share her gratitude with us. By accepting her food and hospitality, we are validating her as a person, and acknowledging that we are not the only ones giving something to her, she is giving something to us as well.

Each week I continue to come across clients that display extravagant generosity.  While I have developed more confidence in my abilities and knowledge, there is still much I do not know, and I constantly have to rely on the wisdom and experience of the volunteers and staff around me to complete jobs.  One thing I do know now is how to respond when a client shows gratitude towards me, whether it was earned or unearned: a smile and a “you’re welcome”.

 

Around the Horn

It’s October, which means playoff baseball!  I started following the sport when I was eight, and it has been a huge part of my life ever since.  A remarkable trait of baseball is its consistency.  The game has been played in essentially the same form for over a

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Adrian Beltre.  He is not relevant to this post, but he is a great baseball player nonetheless.

century.  This consistency can be a great comfort in a world that is changing rapidly on a micro and macro level.  Whether I am watching a baseball game on the TV of my childhood home, in a dorm room with friends, or on my laptop in the YAV house in Tucson, it is the same game.

Occasionally during a baseball game, the players will toss the ball around the horn.  This is when the infielders toss the ball amongst themselves after a strikeout occurred with no men on base.  The primary purpose of the exercise is to keep the fielders loose during the inning.  In honor of playoff baseball, I thought I would use this blog post to go around the horn, and do a brief check in with three components of my life as a Tucson Borderlands Young Adult Volunteer: Faith, Work, and Community.

Faith

This Sunday, we completed our Southern Arizona church tour!  Our site coordinator, Alison, arranged for us to visit various churches across the Tucson area during our first month and a half as YAVs.  Our house visited Trinity, Southside, St. Mark’s, Holy Way, St. John on the Desert, and Mountain Shadows Presbyterian Church.  The purpose of these visits were to introduce us to the various Presbyterian worshipping communities in the Tucson area, connecting us with the wider faith community we are a part of in this city.  Each church was unique, but the one thing they all shared was radical hospitality.  We introduced ourselves to the congregations, and they responded with warmth, curiosity, and joy.  Now that we are done visiting churches as a group, each YAV will choose their own worshipping community to be a part of.  While I have not made up my mind where I will worship, I know I will be fully welcomed wherever I choose.

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The St. Mark’s stop on our Tucson church tour.  The church’s pastor, Bart, is standing on the far left.

Work

I am now a month into my work at Community Home Repair Projects of Southern Arizona.  As the seasons change, we have less and less cooler repairs, but our work of fixing roofs, plumbing, flooring, electricity, and everything in between continues.  The cooler weather has transformed my morning commute by bike.  What used to be a hot and sweaty slog is now a cool and breezy ride.  I have also started to split my time between working in the field and in the office.  Two days of the week I am out making repairs, and the other two days I am in the office helping CHRPA’s Development Director, Carrie, with various tasks ranging from grant writing to data entry.  This past thursday, I worked on and submitted my first grant for CHRPA to Wells Fargo!

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The dog days of work.

Community

One realization I have  recently come upon is that being a YAV is not merely being a part of one community, it is being a part of many communities.  Over the past month, I have began to form communities with my housemates, co-workers, church congregants, and Tucson residents.  The community that I have the most interactions with is our YAV house.  We have known each other for over two months now.  This means we have a degree of comfort with each other, and can laugh together, dive into deep topics together, and, sometimes, disagree together.  It has been a rewarding experience to get to know Ryan, Miranda, and Dakota, and to hear their fears, realize their strengths, and appreciate their senses of humor.  And yes, I realize I included my wife in that list.  Despite having known her before YAV, this experience has taught me even more about her, mainly just how much strength, resilience and compassion she has within her.

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Shhh! Community at Work.

Thank you for going around the horn with me.  As the year goes on, I will try to occasionally do this exercise to continue to give you a sense of the life of a Tucson YAV.

Peace,

Tanner

 

Flash Blog- How Would you Describe Tucson?

Disclaimer: This is a flash blog written in ten minutes based on a prompt by our site coordinator, Alison Wood.  Please excuse any typos or grammatical errors.

Tucson, Arizona is defined by two traits in my opinion: the desert and diversity.  I had frequently heard it was in a desert, but what this means did not sink in until I had actually spent several weeks living in the city.  Being in a desert means scarcity.  There is a scarcity of water, a scarcity of green, and a scarcity of land available to farm on.  As a result of this reality, people here are conscience of how their actions impact the environment around them.  Grass is not planted in lawns because it uses too much water, green space such as parks are meticulously planned using native plants and vegetation so that they can thrive in this environment, and the city’s economy has to rely on tourism and other industries outside of just agriculture.  As a result, I have never been in a place this is more in tune with the environment that surrounds it.

Tucson is also diverse.  Various cultures have influenced the city over the years, and the marks they have left show.  The Hispanic culture is incredibly vibrant, and it is common to hear Spanish spoken and see places named in Spanish.  The cuisine also borrows heavily from Mexico, and street vendors frequently sell a taco for as little as one dollar.  The city is also maintains a connection to its Native American roots.  Native Americans have been living near the rivers of Tucson for tens of thousands of years, and several reservations surround the city.  The worshiping communities I have visited here have been mindful to acknowledge the presence of the original inhabitants of this land, and I have heard more discussions on Native American rights and issues than anywhere else I have been before.  Of course, white American culture is still prevalent throughout the city.  However, instead of one culture dominating over the other, I have found that the various cultural influences exist relatively harmoniously here, and people are accepting and open-minded.