Sunday, April 24, 2011


The first Habitat for Humanity build I was on, a day long one in Lansing MI, began with a prayer. It was a nice prayer, spoken by the nice young woman who was our leader.  I remember being a little bothered by this mild blessing, since I wasn’t expecting it, don’t come from a culture that prays out loud out of church much, and knew that some of the folks I was building with were not prayerful folks either.  Years in public education, my own religious background (Quaker mother, Catholic father), and some sort of Yankee reserve keep my praying hidden.  I think this has to do with privacy, but also respect for other people.  I am reminded of one of my mother’s garden design clients who saw for the first time a plain column of granite she put in as a sculptural element.  They said “ We don’t worship that way.” And had her remove it.  Religion is never a safe subject with strangers.

On the first day of my time here a year ago February, we began the day with the usual devotions.  This is a custom on many HFH builds, but particularly on the ones with the roaming RVers, we are supposed to take turns.  A woman read several verses of the Bible and then from her Daily Bible Study book, and again my brain sort of snorted and showed the whites of its eyes.  I was in the wrong church, and would soon be exposed as an infidel of some sort.  So I just made myself smaller and figured as long as I could hammer, it would be OK.

The next day, the same woman read again, but this time she stumbled on the pronunciation of a barbarian tribe that Paul was using as a negative example. Steve helped her out, and, flustered, she said “well anyway, they were an evil people”. Steve replied “Pagan perhaps, not evil”. She was even more flustered, and I was vastly relieved.  I later realized that readings could be almost anything thoughtful and encouraging, but didn’t dare actually do one that spring.

This winter I ended up as team leader, sort of a camp counselor for the 2 week shifts of RVers, and one of my jobs was to get folks to sign up for devotions and provide them if no one did.  My first one was a meditation on Jesus choosing to be a carpenter as a way to learn how to be human (in my Christmas story),  and I found I didn’t mind this sort of free form preaching, and it was well received by most.  (Some folks seemed to be a bit concerned that I wasn’t doing a reading, but just speaking my mind). Then we would join hands in a short prayer, and finally raise our hands up together saying this affiliate’s motto: “Habitat is not a hand-out, it’s a hand up”.

Another devotion was based on my first sight of Giotto’s angels with wings in wonderful colors, and later Byzantine angels with wilder colored wings and wild robes of gold and red.  Angels come, I said, in all kinds of colors and outfits and will turn up all the time to help out.  I told stories of the strangers who had appeared in my life to help, and told the group that they were all angels too.

I have a quote from Jimmy Carter that I read when I feel the group is being a bit smug about their work or patronizing about the homeowners. He says that he had felt that always having a place to sleep, food, job opportunities made him better than those less fortunate, but that working for Habitat had shown him otherwise, that the homeowners where just as hardworking, ambitious, and moral as he was.  I like to read St. Francis of Assisi’s prayer,  and the 121st Psalm, “ I will lift mine eyes unto the hills” with the Organ Mountains right there, as a reminder to keep our head up and minds on life not at the task at our feet.

And sometimes, I would just speak about the day’s tasks, reminding the group that sloppy work now means rework for someone later, and telling the story of a retiring builder whose boss asked him to build just one more. The builder was tired and didn’t build well, shortcuts and sloppy workmanship, and when the house was done, the boss handed him the keys, this last house was a retirement gift! If only he had known it was going to be his house…..

Who would ever have guessed I could do this? Daisy the preacher?  I guess it isn’t that far from teaching high school, but daring to be overtly religious?  I’m still astonished at myself.  I suspect that God is too.

Monday, April 11, 2011


This is a bird, the southwest’s version of a cardinal.  I’ve seen it in bird books forever, and can’t even pronounce it.  There are two of them right outside my window, and rabbits in the bushes, and sand and yucca and creosote bush. The towering Organ Mountains are to the south, and other, more round shouldered mountains are all around.  No garbage trucks, no car alarms, no barking dogs, and millions of stars.

I don’t think I really knew how tired I was.  Not exactly physically tired, although that is part of it, but mentally and emotionally tired.  Wondering if the materials for the day’s work were in the right place, worrying that the volunteers in my care would not have a rewarding day, nervous that my patience was eroding.  And hardest of all, tight across my shoulders in anticipation of what management might throw in my path.

As I was packing up to leave, the volunteers stopped by, amazed that I had been fired, and one of the homeowners too, fearful that her house would not be done, and anxious about management.  The homeowners have all been subjected to some pretty mean spirited reminders of their low income status, and sudden shifts of policy.  I will be OK, in fact good, but it saddens me that the deeply Christian, generous and loving mission of Habitat for Humanity is being subtly misused.  I had some notions of expressing these sentiments to anyone who might improve the situation, but the local affiliate is pretty much an entity unto itself, and the Board of Directors get only a spin managed version of this winter’s problems.  Plus, rocking the boat would just make more work for them.  So I will let it go.  The community of devoted roving volunteers is pretty close knit, and when an affiliate does not provide a good building experience, word gets out.  If a good Construction Supervisor gets hired, one with both people and building skills, and that person can cope with management, then maybe it will be good.

We, Steve and I, are at Leasburg Dam State Park, about 15 miles north of Las Cruces.  We both have appointments with Doctors and Dentists, and my chorus concert isn’t until April 29, so will stay close to Las Cruces for a bit.

Steve Blythe, full time RVer for 7 years, late of St. Louis and accounting, a dedicated HFH volunteer all over the country.  I met him here in Las Cruces last spring, liked working with him as he is careful, exacting and a good teacher.  We zigged and zagged our way through the summer, building in various places together, then diverging, and finally came back to Las Cruces.  Companions.  I’m still sometimes weepy over Don, and I doubt anyone will fill his place.  Steve has been married three times, and had heart train wrecks too, so we are both understandably skeptical about romance and all that happily-ever-after nonsense.  But there is a deep and good connection between us, a need to do good, to be honest and polite and considerate, to help each other out, and to have someone to talk to that listens.  We love roaming the deserts and canyons, looking for petroglyphs, we love our music, we love cooking for each other, and we love the security of our own spaces and the peace of our own beds. 

I want to be present in the here and now.  Age and death and uncertainty are on the roads, loss and tears, and sometimes deep in the night, fear.  But I have Steve’s company, and the voices of many who come to me over the air.  And there are still angels that appear with grace to pick up the stones in my way.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Kilbourne Hole,

Kilbourne Hole, Aden Crater, a day off.

Still here in Las Cruces, still working 6 days a week, but the end is in sight.

Of the 6 houses, 4 of them are really close to being done, carpet going in, and the other two are getting interior paint this week.  We have a reduced number of RVers here to work, and the days and nights are warm.

This Sunday, for a few hours, I was the only RV parked here.  I was strongly tempted to just hook up and drive away, incognito, vanished.  But I didn’t, can’t.

We have a new crew now, with a couple of wing nuts in the mix, so there should be some funny stories.  The last few groups have been wonderful people, cheerfully doing what was needed, and not complaining if we had a slowdown.  They are the real thing, doing well by doing good, not swaggering around with their tool belts, not swinging their egos or personal agendas by the tail.  They were a treat to have here and a pleasure to work with and lead.

Friday, there was nothing to do, so Steve and I took off to hike in the desert.  We drove south and west into nowhere, nothing, yucca, cactus, mesquite and sand.  Not the required 40 days for total soul repair, but it helped.

Kilbourne hole is a maar, a crater more than a mile across one way, more the other, and 7 miles around. It was formed when water met magma under the surface and turned explosively into steam, blowing 50 million tons of dirt into the air. It is rimmed by black basalt, with a bit of sandstone on one end, and the bottom is all sandy and flat.  We hiked along the sandy rim for a ways, marveling at the size of it.  A fancy stunt plane was zooming around with red wing tips, too close to the ground for safety.  It would be fun to see this from a plane.  There is good rock hounding on the northern edge, but we moved on to another crater.

Aden crater is small and a more typical crater.  There is a lava flow field running south from it, called a malpais (bad land) black, foamy rocks tumbling over the desert flats, like rapids stopped in time, and the crater is all black and crusty, ridges and fissures and deep holes.  There is grass and some ocotillos growing inside, but it is a violent landscape, air pockets, wrinkles, walls of rock in a stop frame that hints of the violence that went on millions of years ago.  In the light of the earthquake in Japan, the earth’s surface seems less secure these days.  And climbing around on the rocks inside the crater made me think about Yellowstone, where many think an epic outburst lies dormant.  If it blows, they say, much of the US will be affected, perhaps the whole earth, God’s version of the nuclear winter.

We climb down into a long fissure, hoping to see a barn owl that Steve surprised when he was here before.  But we only found white droppings on the black rock, and piles of tiny bones left over.  There were several nooks and crannies that would make a good hiding place, but no owls.  Up along the rim, clambering over loose rocks, we look to the south, trying to see Kilbourne hole, but it only shows as a slight rise.  Aden crater, like others nearby, is very visible, a black raggedy crown of rock that rises above the desert floor.

It was a good trip, Darth Vader happily bumping along the dirt roads, clambering over lava, and wallowing in the sand.

One of the CAVers is a tall thin ex-trucker who is a caricature.  Big nose and ears, and full of stories and opinions, he always knows better than Steve and I how to do things, and argues.  At the orientation get-together he went on and on, doing his whole slightly sordid life story.  Not very good radar about people, one gal runs away from him on the job site.  I corrected him a bit shortly and I am now “The Warden”.  Good, maybe he won’t come stilting over in the evening, blowing smoke in my door and being mildly inappropriate.

Another nice young man had a hiking accident.  He was up a trail in the Organ Mts, slipped in loose gravel and broke his leg in 3 places.  He called 911 and then me and then his phone died.  It took the rescue team 2 hours to carry him down in a Stokes basket, and then he ended up in the ER, where we went to see him.  I picked up his dog the next morning from the EMT who kept her over night ( another angel) and I have her, a nice black lab and ? cross with nice manners and a lovely temperament.  He will have a pretty serious operation tomorrow, and then recuperate at a local friend’s house.  Then his sister will fly in from Cleveland and drive him and his RV home.  Not the mid-life adventure he was hoping for, hitting the road to rethink life after a downsizing.  Dog is good, but no temptation to replace Pepe.

Biggest news, we are going to Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge to volunteer from June 15 to August 15 and maybe longer.  We had signed up for several HFH builds, but our hearts are not in it right now.  I got a call from Bosque, asking if I would come based on an application two years ago!  It’s a new position, well positions actually, for them and they were glad to include Steve. The winter positions are pretty well sewed up usually, that’s when all the sand hill cranes, snow geese and other birds winter there, and scads of people come to see them.

We’ll spend May 1-June 15 doing nothing but some hiking and sight seeing and, just sitting in the desert doing nothing and listening for coyotes.  That is unless we lose it and get fired. Bad idea to take all this on by ourselves, and nothing but nitpicking from the Exec. Dir. who does little to make our jobs easier, and some to make them harder.  We are mentally and physically very tired.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Polar Bears and a Killer Whale

Wait, she’s in Las Cruces NM ???

The tail of the huge blizzard that covered most of the US was in NM, and we had three days of record setting temps , -6 !!! and 3” of snow.  It stayed cold for several days so the snow lingered in small piles in the shade for quite a while.  On top of the weather’s dirty tricks, or maybe because of it, El Paso Electric lost two of its power plants and was doing rolling black outs for three days.  Water froze all over the area, and we in our RV’s were hunkered down with heaters, going through propane, pretty much to no avail. 

I have failed in the past to escape the cold, but -6 is ridiculous.  I woke up at 3:00 AM that night to find the temp in my sensitive water areas was 26.  The furnace had quit.  Some investigation revealed only a trickle of propane from a full tank. Theorizing that -6 might discourage propane flow, I put a heating pad on the regulator which got propane going again. In the morning, I had only one small ice block and my trusty hair dryer fixed that.  I spend the next day with my hair dryer in the guts of various rigs, and saw many where the water pump was more or less open to the cold, in some cases I could see daylight!  Some pumps fried trying to pump, others blew fuses, many were OK once the blocks were thawed, and small leaks were everywhere.

Yesterday, while awaiting the next group of volunteers, we discovered that the water on one side of the RV parking was coming out all muddy.  Probably a small leak underground making a puddle that gets siphoned into the line, we will know today when the plumbers come what kind of mess we will have to make.  Not a good first impression for the new team.

So that’s the polar bear thing, now for the orca.

One of the aspects of this build that made me a little uneasy even last year, is the executive director.  He is a micromanager, hypersensitive to any hint of criticism, pompous and long winded, and lacking in sense of humor.  With Don Stover on board and functional, we were isolated from him, for the most part, but Don is now gone.  He and his wife returned, packed up and went to Scottsdale AZ where he will be part of an experimental drug study, his only hope with stage IV pancreatic cancer.  He was thinner and weaker and more disconnected, we are hoping and praying, but for me, with out much conviction.  I’m praying for mercy.

So now Steve and I are trying to work with the exec dir.  One of the difficulties we have been dealing with is that Don was too softhearted to say no to folks who by pass the sign-up system and call him directly.  This means that occasionally a rig will just show up saying Don said they could.  We don’t have room for them, nor enough work for them, so I sent out an email to all those coming in saying that people had to go through the sign up, this under the direction of the head office of HFH.  The exec dir decided that this was changing the affiliate policy without consulting him, dressed me down and demanded I issue a retraction.  Don’s disorganized way of letting people just come was suddenly policy?  I was pretty mad, acted madder than I was, and refused to retract. He then went on to get on Steve for yelling at someone, which I don’t remember happening.  So we fumed and went on regardless, until the next morning when one of the RVers told us that the exec dir had told him he could stay on, even though we are full, and scrambling to find work for them.  This made me mad enough to want to just quit, as it seemed pretty personal.  Obviously my ability to identify and solve problems is a huge threat, and jumping on me for doing it was horrid.  Many of the RVer s hugged and comforted and stitched me back together, saying I was too valuable, and even suggesting a meeting with the Board of Directors.  Steve told him he didn’t have time for this, and if he wanted to take over the parking, fine, he could come on Sundays and meet and greet and deal with it.  Fortunately, the exec dir backed down, I have simmered down and regained my sense of humor, and am determined not to let Don and Elaine down, nor the prospective homeowners.

So, when another of Don’s unknown phone-in rigs turned up, and pulled into a spot empty for a day, we could tell them to leave.  They produced an email from Don saying they could come, but in the email it also said they had to go through the website, which they did not.  It’s now like a sort of demented puppet show, with new characters popping up at odd moments, saying Don said they could come.  I have no idea if Don ever wrote them down anywhere, certainly I never saw it. And we expect there to be more.  Our weather is (usually) pretty good and the parking is free, so we are a magnet.

Steve and I are doing a hard job under difficulties.  The plan to build 9 houses with 16-18 RVers and five supervisors is piddling down to 6 houses, with just Steve as supervisor, but still a full and often bored volunteer force.  For some reason, the ex dir has stopped the electrician working on two of them, which means that in 3 days, we will have little to do. One guy in the last group was telling incoming volunteers not to come, because there wasn’t enough work.  Some of the volunteers seem to think this is some sort of camp for the bored, where there will always be activities planned, but most are seasoned HFH workers and know that there are too many variables beyond our control.

This week the weather will be in the 70’s, lows in the 40’s, which is already much better, and the exec dir has perhaps an inkling of our temper, and suggests we find a volunteer to take the Saturday work over, so we can escape for two days and rest.