The Big Birthday

Yesterday was my 70th Birthday.  For months, while in Panama, I’d been planning a birthday bash weekend — celebrating both the years and my U.S. return, with friends and community from near and far.  Covid, of course, cancelled all that.
It’s been a bumpy road back.  First, we were ripped from service prematurely as the virus closed down Peace Corps worldwide.  Evacuation was followed by grief, in all its classic stages.  All of this while in social lockdown, unable to move on with whatever the “next stage.”
For me, that resulted in a kind of unmotivated inertia.  My Peace Corps time often feels like some alternate reality . . . almost as if these hugely significant two-plus years never happened. Since being evacuated, I’ve been well and safe … but without direction or any sense of how or when to get it.  I’m grateful for being blessedly situated, safe and well, within this terrible time.  But I clearly need to “get on with it” — if only I knew how . . . and what “it” might be.
But I think this birthday may be that proverbial corner for turning.  I have a car.  My Medicare is reinstated.  And I’m in the process of buying a condo.  All steps along the way to being resettled, at the same time that Nevada is taking small, initial steps toward re-opening.
I’m about to begin some English tutoring (virtually, of course) for a non-native speaker.  I’m Zooming every study opportunity that comes along.  I’ve found ways to reconnect with friends (albeit at a distance or virtually and nowhere near as often as I had imagined.) And, from rare time to time, I’m even called upon for a bit of rabbi-ing.  I’m thinking also that it’s time to get back to more writing and reflecting. (So brace yourself; more blogs may be coming once again. 😁)
And then my birthday came along.  Quite literally, the icing on the cake.  A day of anticipated disappointment turned out to be exceedingly lovely.  For all its faults, social media is an amazing vehicle for floods of greetings.  Between Facebook, WhatsApp, email, IM, and even snail mail (!), I was joyfully overwhelmed.  Several friends visited, at safe distance.  And the day ended with a delicious dinner-of-my-choice from my shelter-in-place “host family,” Jeff and Jane.  And Jane is a gourmet cook!! (The chocolate cake photo that follows shows only the ending of an amazing meal!)5B6FB8C1-2FE8-43A7-BF82-10553B0DB3F7

3B04FC57-0DA0-4A7B-A0D2-E95C9552617B 6ADD054A-895D-4429-82EB-357CF3AA328DTwo cakes (the second — the coconut cake under all that gorgeous meringue! — from the family of the Rabbis Zober) and one Happy Birthday girl.
So… Happy Birthday to me.🎶  I figure that I’m entitled to a second 70th Birthday, when the worst of this has passed, God willing.  So maybe next year, the BIG party.  For this year, the quieter celebration was blessing aplenty. My birthday wish is that we all be gifted with health and sufficiency.  May full healing come soon to our world and us all.
I did a pretty poor job of blowing out all those candles, but I’m hoping these wishes come true nonetheless.  Stay safe and well and mostly at home.  Oh . . . and wear your mask!!E0E5D079-B8D9-4E24-B76A-2B0FDFF50690

Today

Today I was supposed to be flying home from Panama after closing service on two-plus years of Peace Corps service teaching English, leadership and life skills.

Instead, I arrived back in Reno a full 10 days ago after being evacuated from my Panama Peace Corps site, as were Peace Corps volunteers everywhere across the globe.

 

Today I imagined I would be celebrating return to my U.S. life, albeit with all the mixed emotions of leaving friends and experiences that will ever be an intensely important chapter of my life story.

Instead, I grieve being uprooted — with just hours to throw my life into a suitcase — from people, who had become dear, and a life, though always challenging and often frustrating, of transformational meaning . . . all without the opportunity to even say good-bye.

 

Today I would have been eagerly anticipating reconnecting with treasured friends and community.  Hugging them tightly.  Sitting in sacred synagogue community.  Holding so much and so many that I treasure and have missed.

Instead, I am in the second week of voluntary isolation.  I reconnect with friends by phone and video.  I worship virtually (as I did in Panama.)  I rejoice at even this manner of reconnection . . . but, no, it’s not the same.

 

Today I am comfortably housed in wonderful friends’ casita.

Today I am well.

Today I am coping, even when sometimes overwhelmed, in large part thanks to lessons and skills learned in Peace Corps.

Today I miss deeply the amazing volunteer colleagues I was blessed to meet through Peace Corps.  And I still lean upon them by WhatsApp, phone, and Facebook.

Today I miss my Panama gente, who graciously check in on me while they too are being slammed by this pandemic.  And I treasure my Reno community that is making sure I’m ok, while they worry that they too will be.

Today, I struggle to stay grateful.

 

And tomorrow . . . ?  None of us knows.  All of us are uncertain.  We wait.  We hope and pray.

May we all be sustained by Whatever Force upholds us.  May there be a new dawn on the other side of all this.  May we all hold on for that sunrise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back in the U.S.A.

I am back in Reno, safe and sound.  Being tended with great care by the friends in whose casita I am staying.  Travel home was the easiest international journeying I have ever done.  While that was nice for me, it was terrifying in terms of virus conscientiousness.
I am well with no symptoms of any illness.  I will self-monitor for the next two weeks while also trying to do some tasks of settling back in.  Though with virtually most business shut down, there may not be much that I can accomplish.  So I may have time to post or I may not.

Meantime, prayers that all stay well and that our world may be righted in the not distant future.

Leavin’ on a Jet Plane

Tomorrow (Tuesday) morning at 5am!  3 flights later, and — barring any more unexpected twists to this saga — I’ll be back in Reno by early evening, ready to begin my 14 day self-quarantine.  Which will give me lots of time to reflect and post much more about this crazy ending to an amazing and challenging Peace Corps adventure.
Hasta luego!

Evacuating

Some of you may have heard that Peace Corps is evacuating all of its posts worldwide.  At 8pm tonight, Panama volunteers got the word to head into the City.  Thinking that I’d be closing service in 10 days, I had one suitcase mostly packed.  In two hours, I had the rest of my stuff pretty much together.  My wonderful community guide and her husband drove me to the bus, since the busitos had long since stopped running.  I am now sitting comfortably in a hotel in Panama City with no idea what comes next.  I guess we’ll find out tomorrow.  I’ll send updates as I can . . .

This was a gut-wrenching way to end service.  No chance to say good-byes.
All in all, it feels like the world is coming undone.

Stay well, please.

And send prayers.  I’d be most grateful.🙏

 

Where to Begin?

That title is a way to say that I couldn’t think how to title this blog.  I have no idea where to begin…

Let’s start around 4:00am today.  I woke in a sort of oddness.  It didn’t take me long to recognize that the electricity was out.  When that happens — not infrequently — my neighborhood takes on a very different sound.  There is the quiet from my air conditioning being off.  But more than that . . . The dogs and chickens don’t make their usual morning noises.  Everything is darker for lack of whatever artificial light flows out from nearby houses.  And there is, of course, the impending blanket of heat that follows from no AC and not even the possibility of a fan.

”Perfect,” I thought.  “After everything else that’s going on.”

What is going on, here as everywhere, is the burgeoning Coronavirus.  At last report, Panama had 14 cases, including one death.  So far, all are in Panama City, but everyone assumes there will soon be cases spread throughout the country.  Yesterday morning, several nurses came to school to drill the students on hand washing and all the other information about the virus and aspects of care.  By the afternoon it had been decided, by the government, that all schools would shut down until April sometime.  Long after I depart.  If . . .

Peace Corps has ordered us to stay in our sites.  Panama City is strictly off limits.  But, of course, in exactly two weeks I am scheduled to be on a plane leaving from the airport of that very city.  We, who are supposed to be closing service, simply wait to hear the plan.  A plan that, whatever it is, will surely change daily.

I think I have mentioned my primary English teacher counterpart, Edwin.  Edwin was with me when I was sworn in to Peace Corps service … a time that now seems so long ago.  In another situation, I suspect I would not like Edwin so much.  He is clearly very conservative, both politically and religiously.  At home, he would probably make me crazy . . . if I had anything to do with him at all.  But here, he has been a treasured part of these crazy, intense years.  My school guide.  My friend.  An impressive teacher from whom I have learned much.  No doubt our relationship has been helped by the fact that my limited Spanish keeps me from fully understanding all his beliefs and politics!

Edwin is a religious conservative.  Not technically an evangelical, but of that same stripe.  As such, he is something of a Judeophile.  He long ago asked me if I would bless him before I left Panama.  He knows that the Bible says that God has blessed the Jews.  So, therefore, if a Jew blesses him . . .  I promised that I would.  I expected to do so next week, my last week here.  But by yesterday, as it was becoming clear that school would likely be suspended, I promised him his blessing today.  I wasn’t quite prescient enough to know that by today school would already be called off.  Edwin came in to school, anyway — the only teacher who did — just for his blessing.

So, there I was.  Tallit unfurled over Edwin’s head.  Invoking the Priestly Benediction in Hebrew, English, and Spanish.  And in spite of promising myself  otherwise, I was an uncontrollable mess of tears . . . as I am, even as I write this.

What a crazy ending — yet to be fully written — to this insane adventure.  Occasionally I forget how intense this experience has been.  And then the dam breaks . . .

Panamanians, as this blog has frequently documented, are amazing at throwing parties!  Despedidas — Going Away Parties — are no exception.  My despedida, at school, would have been next week.  Now the school is empty.  The teachers are planning to return, to send me off with at least their more scaled-down presence, next Friday.  My community guide and her family are planning a picnic dinner send-off in our town’s central parque this Sunday.  But who knows?  Day to day things change here as, I am sure, everywhere.
It’s hard to know if I’m leaving with a whimper or a bang.  And that ambiguity seems perfectly emblematic of this entire experience.

I came home from blessing Edwin and said an admittedly irreverent prayer for the return of electricity and water (when the lights go out, so does the water).  And, lo and behold!, all was shortly restored; I write this in comfort.

And I am well.  As I pray are all of you.  Please take care that you stay that way.  The awfulness of this pandemic certainly makes my selfish, immediate concerns seem very small.

I read a lovely prayer, to that effect, on Facebook this morning.  I will try to post it next.

In the meantime, it seems that I not only don’t know where to begin … I also seem at a loss as to where to end.

School Days

Panama’s new school year began today. Having missed the whole motherhood thing, this is a life cycle event I never lived.  Of course, that’s not quite true.  I was here for the first day of school last year.  But I don’t have really strong memories of it.  With just 3 weeks left in my sweet town, I suspect that everything seems more vivid.

I marvel at the sense of belonging I felt as the students, teachers and parents went swirling by.  It was a joy to reconnect with our wonderful teachers and hear about their vacations.  And so many of the parents are now familiar; it kinda felt like “old home week” catching up on the neighbors.  Much of the time I feel completely “out if it” here.  Language I mostly still don’t understand.  A culture on whose margins I barely stand.  But today was a day where I felt in place.

Anyway, such fun chaos.  The kids were all excited to be back.  (Right.  How long will that last?).  The Moms and Dads radiated pride as they sent their offspring off to this year’s classrooms.  And, of course, there were those new students looking anxious . . . even borderline terrified.  My school added a Nursery-aged level (3-4 years old) this year.  So there was an extra gaggle of adorably wide-eyed especially-little ones.

Gosh, I love these kids!

We don’t start English classes for another week.  (Anyway, that’s the word right now.  If it ends up being another two weeks, I won’t be surprised.). My plan is to spend half the mornings at school just soaking up final kid vibes.  In this very physical culture, those are warm fuzzy huggy-kissy kind of vibes.  Fortunately the Coronavirus seems not to like hot climates and, so far, Panama seems largely untouched.  For the most selfish of reasons — I have a plane to catch in 24 days! — I’m praying we stay that way . . .

Our 3rd grade teacher was just diagnosed with cancer; she is in Panama City for a month of treatment.  The assumption is that she will return.  But for now that class was teacherless.  (There is no such thing as substitutes here.). So my English teacher counterpart jumped in to fill the gap, and I helped as best I could.

This is a country that expects certain formalities, including formal departures.  Among other things, that means an official farewell/summary letter to the Directora.  I took mine in to her office today.  I swore I wasn’t going to get emotional.  But, of course, in the midst of trying to convey two years of heartfelt gratitude, I ended up blubbering uncontrollably.

It looks like it’s going to be a hyper-emotional few weeks.  Oy!

CDF3B4D2-54E8-4916-BAF8-627FA53B38FA

Lasts

With exactly one month left to go (I fly home March 26), I keep tripping over “lasts” . . . The silly last times.  NOT the big stuff, like the precious people and moments I’ll be leaving.  But things like:

My last rent payment

The last room fresheners I’m replacing

The last time I’ll clean the AC filters

The last replacement ink cartridges for the printer (the last ream of copy paper too).

My last delivery of allergy meds. (Peace Corps takes good medical care of its volunteers.)

And more of that kind of thing.
Yesterday I started seriously cleaning out the two years of accumulated “stuff” in my place.  (What else does one do on Shrove Tuesday when things are pretty much closed down?😆)  It’s amazing to see the evidence of this 2+ years of work, growth, and challenge.  Said evidence currently occupying 4 big garbage bags in my front room.  And I’ve scarcely begun.

Expect a bunch of  upcoming “I can scarcely believe it!” blogs.  Sorry for the repetition.  But . . . One Month!?! . . . I can scarcely believe it!

 

Not Done Quite Yet

School vacation — for three plus summer months — can be long here.  Especially for Peace Corps volunteers whose days are mostly occupied with school.  We quickly learn to keep busy by volunteering to help our co-volunteers with whatever their summer projects.  Which is what I’ve done since coming back from my Curaçao get-away.  Here’s the run down.

Matt and FPSD.  My friend Matt is technically in the next province over.  But since we both live/work very near our provinces’ shared border, we are scarcely 20 minutes apart from each other.  Matt’s site is an interesting one, as his school is a High School specializing in agriculture.  There is only one other like it in Panama.  Matt created a special leadership training program for his unique school, and I went and helped him with it for a week.  One part of the program was to teach the students how to put together an effective academic presentation . . . what we call a “charla” here.  I demonstrated the how-to of it with a charla on the Hebrew language.  What a hoot!  25 High School kids running around saying “Shalom!” and wanting to know how to ask to go to the bathroom in Hebrew.  Way fun . . . and it sure captured their attention . . .

Cassidy J. and La Peña.  Cassidy J. (Yup, there’s another Cassidy in our cohort … Cassidy M.) is also in Veraguas, that next province over.  But her site is past the capital of Santiago; which is to say that, for the next week, I traveled 2+ hours each way to help with a really extraordinary camp.  Over 100 students, from ages 6-17, spent the first half of every afternoon studying English, and then followed up with some more athletic or crafty activity like rugby, frisbee, a recycling fair, etc.  A really neat aspect of this was that Cassidy paired each Peace Corps volunteer with a university student who is studying to be an English teacher in Santiago.  Gregorio, my Panamanian teaching partner, and I had a class of sixteen 11-year-olds.  The kids had an impressive bit of English.  We worked on goal setting and healthy decision making as well.  No Hebrew, but we did put together a cowboy line dance for the closing all-school presentation!  Alas, I only have videos which I can’t upload to this blog.  You’ll just have to imagine…

F26CF024-5CE4-4E1E-9EB9-6889F6FC690DI Am Curious George.  And finally, I put together another “camp” for my local kids.  Last year it was Cowboy/Cowgirl Camp; this year it was 4 Days of Curious George (Jorge El Curioso).  When the week started, I had only 10 kids signed up, and I was pretty sure the event was going to be a bust.  First day, 12 students actually came.  By the second day, there were 22; and I was short of supplies.  24 kids ended up participating in the 4 days with an average of 18-22 each day.  Every day started with a Curious George story read in both English and Spanish.

The theme of each story determined the day’s English lesson, the arts and crafts project, and all the other activities.  I’m getting rather good at these manualidades (arts and crafts projects).  As I peel off the glue, I’m likely to be heard mumbling “For this, I have 21 years of education!?!!??”.  But it’s really pretty fun.  Here’s the monkey we made out of toilet paper rolls, followed by a cork board dump truck for the story about George and the Dump Truck.

There were lots more monkey and banana themed activities from the song ”Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed” to the Funky Monkey Dance to snacks of bananas, peanut butter and chocolate chips to relay races with bananas on a spoon.

The last day’s story was about George’s Birthday party, which we celebrated with games (Pin the Banana on the Monkey) and, of course, cupcakes!  And no Panama activity is complete without the requisite certificates!2DCF8249-601D-42DE-AD50-503C4C07215AFor sure, my most fun at site has been these two summer camps.  Endless thanks and blessings to the 5 other volunteers — Bridget, Zulema, Cody, Madee, and Gianna — who got me through the week!

School is off this week for Carnavale.  Our next semester starts on Monday, but English classes won’t resume for another week, or maybe two, as classroom teachers review last year and get this year up and running.  So, I’ll mostly hang out, enjoying the last few weeks of my kids, as this crazy adventure rolls to its close.

Unbelievable.