Friday, March 30, 2007

Oh Canada

Edmonton. I'm facing the patio doors in James and Cynthia's house in Edmonton where mounds of snow verify that it's been a cold and snowy winter. After 3 months in the US, it was a relief to cross the border despite the cool air and the leftover snow. We were prepared for interrogation at Coutts, but "came home" with very little hassle from Customs. Our car, however, was apparently still too accustomed to 75 MPH and the RCMP officer who pulled us over between Fort McLeod and Edmonton was friendly, but asked us please not to "pull away from the pack" like we were apparently doing. No ticket. What can I say? I guess to this young woman, we just looked too much like her parents . . . or grandparents.

Our last day of driving - from Helena, Montana to Edmonton - started out on a scary note; we hit a near blizzard as we crossed the high passes in the Rockies and thought we were looking at a day of nail-biting driving. We took our time, though, and by the time we got to Great Falls, the weather had cleared and we were looking for our sun glasses.

Watching only US news on TV for the past months, we hadn't heard about the Quebec election nor of any of the antics in Ottawa. We've got some catching up to do. American media apparently have no interest in what's happening in Canada, and very little in Mexico. In a way, it's not surprising; some of the states are more populous than Canada, for one, and there's plenty going on in that complex country to fill any news hour. Right now, also, it's a very divided country ideologically, and it seems it's on the verge of something catastrophic most of the time. It's a nervous environment, and the recent bill passed by the congress putting a time limit on concluding the presence of troops in Iraq and Bush's determination to veto the bill is the knife edge of the struggle in the country right now. The White House is under siege, and citizens really don't have much time in their days to cultivate any interest in matters beyond their borders.

Tomorrow, our circle will be complete when we get back to Rosthern and pick up there where we left off. It's been an educational experience to say the least, and we wouldn't give it up, even if that were possible. I've written an article for the Canadian Mennonite on the experience and I'm putting together a slide show. I also managed to complete 15 short essays for another project I'm working on, and being in another part of the world for a time has been inspirational in that regard. We'll see. My trip jounal runs to 50 pages or more and I don't know what I'll do with that yet.

All of you who read this blog, thank you. We looked forward to your emails whenever we got to the library and were disappointed when there weren't any, which wasn't often. Thanks. It's good to be home.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

On the Way Home

Little Colorado River, Cameron, AS --------Southern Utah

The Grand Canyon, AZ---------------Church of the Cross - Sedona, AZ

It's nearly summer in Arizona, and in Utah. Now, in Helena, Montana, it's rainy and cold and we're expecting snow tomorrow. The hills around Butte were already covered in fresh snow. Rosthern promises us a taste of late winter. Carlsbad - when we left - was 80+ F and we were turning on the air conditioner in midday. Why am I surprised by the vagaries of weather?

Utah is wonderfully various, especially in colour. Rocks vary in colour from near green, to pink, to red and back again. I'd never been to Utah before; probably never will be again.

I've always associated Utah with all things Mormon, and it was a strange coincidence that the the leader and prophet of the fundamentalist group in the church that practice polygamy confessed to his brother (from jail) that he was a sinner and had attained the status of prophet by plotting and not by calling. A talk show host was trying to solicit comments from the Mormon community on what this confession would mean. You will certainly find out all about this in the news.

We dashed from Nephi, Utah through Idaho to where we are now in the Holiday Inn in the capital of Montana. Helena, today a rainy little city with snow promised for tomorrow. We're within one long day of Edmonton, our last stop before Rosthern.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

On our way

I've got only a few minutes on this computer, so here goes:
We left Carlsbad on Friday, spent yesterday in Sedona, AZ and are now in Grand Canyon, AZ wondering in part why we've booked a nite here. All I got from the canyon was the worst case of vertigo since my brothers and I climbed to the peak of our barn. Agnes enjoyed it a lot; took about 50 pictures and walked the rim until she could walk no more. Tomorrow we'll head for Salt Lake City, thence through Idaho and Montana and into Alberta. We hope to arrive in Edmonton on Thursday or Friday. Not sure if we'll want to spend time in Utah.

Down to 4 minutes. Got to go.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Don't pay to get old

Here's a life situation. You're middle class, 55 and your husband has just passed away. Your children need your help raising your grandchildren. Your parents are 93 and 94 respectively and your mother is in the middle stage of dementia. You feel you have to do everything for them because if you didn't, who would? The hospice pastor who helped you through your recent bereavement talks to her husband, who talks to the SOOPers, and a gang of us head off early in the morning to clean up the elderly parents' yard and pick up the pecans that should have been harvested in November.

The old lady doesn't want us messin' in her flowerbeds, but the old man and his daughter placate her when she tells one of us to "stay outta my flower beds!" We rake and dig and carry detritus to the dumpster for a few hours. At coffee time, I mistake three circling turkey vultures for bald eagles (where's Wally when you need him?).

The old man hobbles out with his walker to show us where the lawn mower is kept. "Don't pay to get old," he tells me. "I'm 94." I remember a friend back home who died about a year ago saying as he dealt with continuous pain and the inconveniences surrounding kidney failure, "If I'd know old age was so much trouble, I wouldn't have bothered!" In the case of the latter, it was a continuation of this friend's love of the ironic jest, but both of them, I think, were telling me that it might be better to die "in the saddle," as it were, than to linger on until you're barely a shell of what you used to be. Maybe we're so focused on living as long as possible that we don't consider a life left before the proverbial "three score and ten" to be a tragedy.

Amzie has told us a lot about Guatemala and Honduras, places where he and Elena have lived and worked. When he talked about the injustice practiced against the people in these places, I asked him if he was ever tempted to give up his pacifist moral stand. "Never," he said, and he told us about a couple of instances where people had defied the military, unarmed and enmass, and had persuaded the government to curtail the military encroachment on their villages. "Sometimes some people have to die when they defy authority and stand up for what's right," he said, "but the numbers of dead would be far greater if they were to take up arms." He's right, of course, and I wonder if leaving life early in such a cause is not a nobler thing than being careful to stay well as long as possible and to live through a century. We need to teach our children to be courageous in support of the right, and not so much to develop those skills and find those places where they personally remain safe.

On Wednesday, a friend of the SOOPers and a former Lutheran pastor invited us all over to see a video he had recorded of an episode in the Glenn Beck show. Glenn Beck is a right wing media guru who believes that the rise of Muslim extremism is comparable to the rise of Naziism in Germany in Hitler's time. His view is that unless we crush that movement, we are doomed. He was interviewing a Muslim of the reformist stripe and questioning her about the whole business of extremisim, women in Isalm, etc.

It was a revealing interview. Islamic reformists take responsibility for the extremism and believe that Islam is overdue for some fundamental work on interpreting the Koran, which, she says, has ten times as many verses advocating independent, rational thought than it has verses regarding the defense of Islam against the infidel. How like the Bible this is. We too can find the few verses that seem to support suppression of gays, military intervention, hoarding of wealth while overlooking the core of our gospel: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and your neighbour as yourself.

A week today we leave Carlsbad and arrive home around April 1 via Alamogordo, Sedona, Grand Canyon, Salt Lake City, Great Falls, Calgary, Edmonton and Waldheim. I hope there'll be some snow to greet us when we arrive (not!); it was +88F in Carlsbad yesterday and they're telling us it will be like that most of next week.

Meanwhile, take care, friends, and age gracefully, if you can.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Slop Pails

Three of us SOOPers along with our fearless leader form Carlsbad Mennonite worked on our remodelling job this morning. A. told us about a farmer in Indiana whose friend visited him while he was carrying two huge slop pails across the yard to the pigs. The farmer stood listening for a long time, not knowing that his visitor was talking on and on in order to see how long it would take before the man set the slop pails down. Eventually, the visitor took pity on the farmer and ended the story. E. and I were holding a half-sheet of gyproc over our heads while A. went ot get a screw-drill and the fact that he took a long time to get it from the truck outside prompted the above story. Now, the phrase for indicating that one of us should relax while waiting for something to happen is, ". . . put down your slop pails."

Working at SOOP is not like working for MDS or MCC in every way, but I hope the birthing and nurturance of friendships is similar. "On the job", you get to know people really quickly, and because we're all Mennonites, are all seniors and have all applied to SOOP, we already have a start on knowing what values we probably share. This makes it easier, and, I think, makes participation in the program here in Carlsbad - at least - more than worthwhile.

For most of the SOOPers here who work at the thrift store, the biggest temptation is keeping their hands off the merchandise. Last Friday, I came across a pair of jeans that actually had the size-tag still attached. The waist and leg length matched mine exactly and I needed some jeans because the ones I brought have almost all been put through the construction-worker mill. So there I was with a pair of jeans I wanted in one hand and the pricing pen in the other. Talk about your conflict of interest. I marked them at $2.00 - the going rate - and took them to the till where another SOOPer said, "you should get these for half price!" I have also purchased two or three shirts, another pair of pants, a pedometer, and a TV that I had to return because it would only work for 15 minutes at a time.

We're exploring the Grand Canyon via library materials since we plan to go there on the way home. They've just constructed a viewing platform that looks like a huge horseshoe with the round part extending over the canyon's rim. The floor of this "horseshoe", however, is made of glass and when you walk on it, you apparently get the sensation of flying, or, in my case, of vomiting. It's just opened and we're already talking about which of us will be too chicken to go on it. I suspect it will be both.

I'm writing as much as time and energy will allow. Right now, I'm beginning work on an article for the Mennonite papers (on spec - no reqest) that will be called "Carlsbad Soop." I've also picked up work on short essays I'm writing for a meditation-style book with a difference. We have taken to reading the standard Mennonite booklet every morning (Rejoice) but find that it seems to be great for new Christians, but doesn't give one much to chew on. I hope to appeal to a different audience.

Agnes is done her emails and is reading in the car, so I guess it's time for me to wrap up here.

Sunday, March 11, 2007


Yesterday, I titled my post "Flowers and Sweat," but never mentioned flowers.

Spring has hit New Mexico. Just outside the door of the RV stands a 5-foot tree covered in white and pink blossoms, and vibrating with bee-song. It's obviously a grafted specimen with several fruits possible at the same time. I'm told it's quite a few years old and would grow much faster if watered, but that that's a bad idea since the bigger it is, the more water it would need and it would literally grow itself to death. Things are different here in the desert.

Around town, the mock crabapples are in full bloom. Sparse grass is sprouting in shady areas, under our RV, for instance. I told my adult Sunday School class this morning that I've noticed a few differences between NM and Saskatchewan. One is that the coming of spring is not nearly as dramatic here since the only differences observable are that temperatures are about 10-15 degrees warmer than they were in January and February, and trees are slowly greening and a few are blooming.

Another difference between the two places has to do with dusk and dawn. The sun goes down at 6:05 (sorry, 7:05; we changed to daylight saving time last night) and by 6:30 (7:30), it's dark! The lighting of the day also happens much more quickly here than in SK. Nights are very dark in Carlsbad and the stars and moon are clearer and brighter than I remember them back home. A part of this may have to do with the fact that Carlsbad - at 3,400 ft. elevation - is over half a mile higher than Rosthern and therefore has a thinner atmosphere.

The Sunday School lesson this morning was based on 1 John 3: 11-24. Every Christian should read this regularly. John emphasizes here that Christians' test of authenticity is in the love they share for each other, and that love is not communicated through talk, but through action. Starting a discussion here in Carlsbad Mennonite is not hard. All you have to do as discussion leader is to hesitate; someone is bound to leap into the silence. It's great.

Tomorrow, a few of us SOOPers are driving the 40 minutes north to Artesia to clean up a backyard for an old man who can't do it for himself. Apparently we'll be picking up pecans at the same time; they'll have been lying there since late last fall, I imagine. On Tuesday and Thursday, we'll be doing some more renovation work and Friday, I'm working at the Bargain Store. Agnes will spend her time at the Bargain Store, the library and the hospice, I expect.

Next week, we'll have to start getting ready to head home. The owner of the RV we borrowed died just a few days after he and I brought it over here and his widow would like it brought back to her place for cleaning; she doesn't know yet what she wants to do with it. Our car was packed on the way down and we've gradually been picking up other "stuff," so I'm curious to see what our back seat will look like on the way home. We may have to donate most of our clothes to the thrift store!

We hear from Rosthern and Edmonton that temperatures are warmer and that it's beginning to feel like spring. Agnes said to the Sunday School group that we were going to enjoy a bonus this year, namely two springs. I imagine that we could live with an absence of snow when we get back h0me, but I very much doubt that that's going to happen.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Flowers and Sweat

This will be short. I'm scheduled to get a haircut in 20 minutes. Ernie at Ernie's Barber Shop and Self-storage place has become a good friend and he does it for half price for SOOPers. I said to Agnes that I'm missing the most homey of things, for instance, getting a haircut in Sharryl's kitchen on a Saturday morning. I also miss morning coffee at the Hotel. Well, in two weeks we should be in Northern Arizona on our way home, scheduled to arrive on or about April 1.

I did 18 holes with D. and E. yesterday and given the hilly nature of the course, the temperature (+25C) and the extremely dry air, I was exhausted after we were done. E. and I are both 65 and he and his wife have bicycled across the USA and are preparing to bicycle the entire freedom trail from Mobile, Alabama to Owen Sound, Ontario in a few months. D. is ten years older than I and he carries his clubs! All of this to tell myself and others that although I thought I was in pretty good shape, it all depends on whom you compare yourself to. (Pardon the sentence-ending preposition.) At any rate, we have plenty of incentive to walk here in the desert, and we've been doing as much of it as we can.

In the NM news, an 11 year-old boy appeared in an Albuquerque school a few days ago with a motorcycle gang symbol cut into his hair at the back. Big news. The principal said he would have to study in a room by himself - until he had removed the offending symbol- for his own safety. The principal thought someone less tolerant than he might take exception and do the boy some harm. The boy's mother was not impressed with the principal and said her son would probably remove the symbol, but she had no idea what he would substitute for it. Can child rearing and educating get any wimpier than that? I thought. It was, however, a break from the usual news here in the deep south. Murders, kidnappings and abuse seem to be regular lead items, and one gets tired of that.

An update on something I wrote about earlier: The legislature in NM has approved the bill to ban cock fighting and it only remains for Governor Bill Richardson to sign it. All indications are that he will do this. That leaves only Mississippi as a state that seems happily to remain esconced in the dark ages as regards this despicable "sport."

We're well and enjoying a weekend off. Hope you're all doing likewise, and God bless you all.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

America, America

I just started a new project today. It's going to be called "America's Good Side, America's Bad Side." I want to summarize my impressions in ten points on each side. On the good side, America (USA) has a constitution that protects freedom of religion, conscience, association, etc. On the bad side, America pays so little attention to the rest of the world that there's a vast ignorance here about the rest of the world and its people. The only bit of information I've heard about Canada since we've been here is that an American company was bought out by a company from Canada. And one day as we were going home from church, public radio was playing Gordon Lightfoot.

If you have anything to contribute to my project, I'd be glad to hear from you.

Yesterday, a bunch of us worked on that old house I've mentioned a few times. The owner fancies himself a bit of a writer and intellect, and as we shared the lunch his wife had made, he began to educate us on the ways of the world. Within a few minutes, we learned that a program called HAARP run by the USA is altering weather world-wide and using a new technology in the upper atmosphere in a sinister design to control the world. We also learned that Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles, the last three US presidents and the president of France have met and divided the world up for future domination. And now I know that Great Britain is sinking at a rate of at least 1 foot per year, and some years as many as 20 feet. He said that the huge concrete barriers surrounding Great Britain had been abandoned because it has become impossible to control the sea's encroachment. I said I'd been to GB numerous times and had never noticed that. He asked me if I'd seen the barriers and I said that there was nothing like that on the coastlines I had seen. Then he asked me if I believed that mankind was contributing to global warming and I said, "Yes, I do," and at his request, explained why I believed this to be the case. He said that there were natural factors and I agreed and said that things don't always result from one cause alone, but that I believed that human activity was joining with other factors to cause the greenhouse effect. "Are you a scientist?" he asked. "No," I said, "but I have taught high school Science and I know a few basics.

That ended our discussion. I think another negative thing about America is that the lack of discusion about all but American affairs has made masses of its people extremely vulnerable to hoax, conspiracy theories and general gullibility. The same could be said of Canada to a lesser degree, but since we are a small fish in the big pond, we are not nearly as inward looking as I find many people here to be. To me, it's still amazing that the US got itself embroiled in a war in Iraq on the basis of such deplorable ignorance in the White House that the current debacle was not even considered a possiblity. I wrote at the beginning of this war that the aftermath of Saddam's overthrow would precipitate a civil war among the Sunnis, the Shia and possibly the Kurds, depending on the course of the war itself. If I could have sensed it at the time, how is it that this came as a surprise to the US president? I think it's all a package; if you are deprived of news from abroad and your education system virtually ignores world history, the nuances of life in other countries is bound to escape you.

And yet - on America's good side - there is a growing awareness of this weakness , and a resolve on the part of many to steer America back onto a right course. This can happen in a democracy like the US or Canada; if one regime does badly, the people can throw it out. And the development of the American system was won through great hardship and stress, in wars with England and Spain (even Canada) and civil conflict. Maybe with the history of this place, the nature of its democratic system was predetermined to be the only one that the diversity of its people could accept. In any case, Americans now know that Iraq was a colossal mistake, and they are saying so openly. An interviewer on TV the other day referred to the "Iraq fiasco," and the interviewee didn't challenge him.

It's a construction week for me. For the last two days, I've been working with others on the repair of old houses and tomorrow will be Habitat for Humanity day again. Patching gyproc into an old house is quite a challenge, especially when studs and ceiling joists are uneven and the corners far from square. But we soldier on. The pleasure we see in the eyes of the people who benefit from our volunteer work speaks volumes; the owning of a safe, comfortable house can only be taken for granted by the middle and upper classes. Most of the world, seems to me, subscribes to Better Shacks and Hovels. Fact is, the amount of one's possessions doesn't determine one's outlook on life. We all know this, but this experience is making it more clear to me how that works.

It's time for a constitutional walk along the river.

Friday, March 02, 2007

On Cacti

As we drove across NM and AZ, we tried to school ourselves on - and solidify what we already knew about - cacti. (Cactuses is also an accepted pluralization.) They are amazing plants. The prickly pear group has many varieties but I see the flat, oval, or cows' tongue shaped "leaves" for sale in the produce section of the supermarket. A Mexican Mennonite family in Manitoba Colony uses the juice of this cactus - along with cabbage juice and garlic - to make the tonic they call Jugo Mennonita. Cactus jelly made from the prickly pear is for sale in stores.

There are others, and I would send photos if it wasn't so much trouble. You can google the following names if you, like me, have to know what thing it is that I'm looking at or that's being talked about: Ocotillo, Saguaro, Cholla. Two things desert plants have in common: an amazing ability to extract and conserve water from their environment and an armour of sharp barbs to discourages assault. Looking for lost golf balls on a desert course is not that inviting an endeavour.

I think people - like plants - reflect the environment to which they've had to adapt. The poverty we saw in the hills above Nogales, Mexico has forced people to improvise, and the home-made-of-found-material "residences" are tributes to people's ability to adapt against all odds, like the lowly prickly pear. In many parts of the world, agriculture is under siege, and people who have always made their way by growing crops and raising animals are faced with the necessity of adaptation. What will food production look like in Canada in 50 years? In Guatemala? In Europe? Will it take a generation or two to adapt to the consequences of globalization and corporate agriculture - or more?

Humans can't survive without water either. The cacti's method includes ingenious collection methods and conservative use of this precious resource. The world has plenty of fresh water for every plant, animal and human that will ever inhabit it; somehow we will need to reeducate ourselves to a far more conservational use of water in the future if we're to survive. This is an adaptation our future will require of us.

Here are a few good questions: How much water does a person need in order to have an effective wash? Well, if you have a jacuzzi and you need to soak (for your mental well-being), the answer might be 150 litres. If you shower like I have to because I live in an RV, the answer is 15 litres. Truth is that you can wet yourself, soap up and rinse with a few litres. Baths and showers will look different in the future. How much water does it take to grow a lawn? It's pretty easy to sprinkle on 5000 litres in a few hours. But if you creatively cover your front yard with gravel, cacti and other succulent plants, zero water is plenty.

Cacti also carry armour. Their conservational way of living requires it. Like them, we need to be as prickly as necessary to prevent the consumerism of our time from doing what's environmentally right. In Carlsbad last week, a public meeting was held to hear the citizens' views on the establishment of a factory in the area to produce triggers for nuclear weapons. Only one person spoke up against the plan. The rest were enthusiastic about the economic spinoffs. Those of us who have been given the ability by our Christ to sense the evil inherent in commercialism and consumerism need to develop and project spines that defend the creation from the destroyers.

Well, I've worked the cactus metaphor to death, and my time's up. Have a nice day.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Arizona and back

Green Valley, Arizona, is probably the ultimate retirement town. Great climate, a clean and impeccably managed town - to all appearances - and easy access to the history of Arizona, Tuscon and Mexico. We spent a few days there with good friends, enjoyed their hospitality and some cut-throat scrabble as well as a great deal of travelling around the area.

Most memorable for me will be the side trip into Nogales, Mexico. We drove into Nogales, AZ, where W. parked the car and we walked across the border into Nogales, Mexico. We were greeted by shops selling jewellery, money exchange kiosks and pharmacies selling prescription drugs, apparently, at cut-rate prices. One hawker at a pharmacy offered loudly, "Viagra, we got viagra. Cheap. Have really good time tonight!" R. asked at a jewellery shop where she'd done some browsing if there was any way we could see the city, and he suggested the transit bus terminal nearby. Another gentleman flagged down a bus for us and for a dollar each, we commenced a two-hour voyage through the city of Nogales. The downtown doesn't surprise with businesses like any other city. It's when you get up into the high hills around town that you see Nogales other side. Here narrow gravel trails wind in and out, up and down among shacks of concrete block and unpainted plywood. Homes are packed together and children play among wrecked cars, dust and debris. Also up in these hills are the Multinational factories that exploit cheap labour as they do in Ciudad Juarez across the border from El Paso. Master Lock, for instance, has a factory there that probably covers 5 acres. The employment opportunity doesn't seem to hold a lot of benefits for the community, however.

We also stopped in on friends from Eigenheim spending a few months in Mesa in a fifth-wheel they bring up with them from home in winter. With them, we saw a good bit of the beauty of Arizona, including the desert hills with the Siguaro cacti standing like prickly sentinels in their thousands. We played a game of "desert curling" with some friends of A. and V.; it's like ice curling except that it's played on a waxed floor with "rocks" made of wood. Both mine and Agnes's teams lost badly and I hope they're not still muttering about those inept curlers from Saskatchewan.

We got back to Carlsbad on Tuesday night. We took a cross-country route via state highways 60 and 70 to Lordsburg where we drove the I10 through El Paso and then on to Carlsbad through the Texas panhandle. We passed through the most magnificent mountain scenery so far between Phoenix and the NM border, and I'd highly recommend this route for anyone travelling in the area. Just east of the Guadalupe mountains, we spotted 5 - 6 Javelinas (Ha va LI nas), small, black, wild pigs, rooting for food in the ditch.

Back to work. We nailed siding at the Habitat for Humanity house until strong winds started blowing over our ladders and making the handling of siding boards hazardous. Our crew went over to a local house where we were nailing up gyproc and nearly finished one room. The house in question is in pretty bad shape, and when I was going to mark the stud locations for nailing the plasterboard and I asked for the level, the owner of the house laughed. There's no point in using things like levels and squares in this house, he said. He was right. I remarked to our fearless leader that when we got done nailing up the gyproc, we would need to do some very creative mudding.

Spring is windy in NM. We want to golf this afternoon, but it's almost too breezy for that, so we'll play it by ear. The temperature is around 70F.