Graveside

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As you recall, the Lopez family has had a tragic year with two fatal accidents on January 1st (blog post about it HERE). A few weeks ago, the family faced yet another tragedy, also involving alcohol and vehicles. This time the deaths were of the mother-in-law and the young son of one of the remaining brothers in the family. In the photo below, you can see the corner of the open grave just beyond the decorated graves of the family members who died earlier in the year.

too many family members

Coming from a protected world, where death is prettied up and gravesites are carefully covered with astroturf, and a tent, and comfortable seating, the stark reality of death out here in Navajoland is striking. The grave is usually dug early in the morning on the same day as the funeral.

grave hole

We have a cemetery here on the Lybrook Community Ministries property; however, the family must arrange with someone else to provide the backhoe. Most families use the equipment from the local Navajo Chapter House (local government).

backhoe

With the recent deaths in the Lopez family, some of the men in the family are experienced backhoe operators. Can you imagine digging the grave for your brothers, inlaws, and nephews??

The dirt is left piled beside the grave. As mentioned in this earlier POST, at the end of the graveside service, family members and pall-bearers will work to fill the hole by throwing in handfuls and shovelfuls of dirt.

These plywood frames are part of the vault system, to help keep the dirt from crushing the casket.

When the graveside service is finished, the extra dirt will be carefully mounded up with silk flowers covering the mound. It might look bright and cheery…but the colorful flowers can’t disguise the heart ache…

gravesI know that death is a natural part of life. But my heart still questions why there is so much tragedy out here as one after another family member dies in such a short period of time.

Please keep this (and other) families in your prayers. They certainly need the HOPE and PEACE that only God can give in the midst of such trauma.

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Lessons Learned from “The Week of No Water”

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We get our water from a community water system that serves 60 customers along 20 or so miles of highway. The well is right behind us, with storage tanks atop the mesa.

notice the water tanks to the right on top the mesa…LCM is just over this hill

After a few months of scares, problems, and outages, the pump that brings water up from the bottom of the 1700’ deep well failed.

It took a number of days of scrambling to file the appropriate paperwork, but the State of New Mexico eventually approved an emergency loan of $25,000 to replace the pump.  This turns out to be quite an involved project: the pump, motor, electrical cable and approximately 48 lengths of pipe (each 32’ long) had to be removed with each length of pipe unscrewed by hand before eventually reversing the process and installing the new pump, cable, and pipes. The Navajo water authority donated their services to do this project which was a huge help.

After a week with no water, you can’t imagine how excited we were to hear gurgling in the pipes…and to eventually have a trickle of water coming out of the faucet!

We are so glad the water was only “out” for a week. It could have been worse—much worse, with estimates as long as 2-3 months with no running water if state money had not been granted…

Here, in random order, are some of the lessons I learned during our “Week of No Water”…

  • Imagination is NOT the same as reality… Many of our Navajo friends have beautiful thick long hair. They haul water all the time, and I have tried to imagine how they keep their hair so clean: buckets? Drip showers? Water heated on the stove? When I asked for advice this past week, every one of them told me to just go to a family member’s house, someone who has running water! (Great advice…but my mom lives a few states too far away to run over there to take showers!)
  • Water is FAR heavier than you think…especially when you are dealing with morning after morning of carrying in the 8th or 10th big pan filled with water from the tank on the back of the pick-up truck.
  • Be careful not to strain any muscles when you are carrying those pans of water…there is (unfortunately) no hot shower available to soak away the pain…
  • Actual running water to wash hair is such a treat it doesn’t matter if it is icy cold! (I was able to wash my hair after the Cuba Volunteer Fire Department meeting mid-week. I think the chief was shocked that I didn’t complain about the cold water…)
  • Students are extra thirsty when there’s no water in the drinking fountains at school…(The school stayed open all week—with bottle water, porta-potties, and a “water buffalo” hauled in the by National Guard for water to be used in the kitchen.)
  • Soaking caked-on-food-covered-skillets in cold water is useless, even if the water has dish soap in it. I had to heat water (on the stove or via my coffee-maker) and let the skillets soak in HOT soapy water to scrub them clean.
  • It takes far more pans of water than you think would be necessary to actually flush the toilets properly (and then you sadly remember how much work it is to haul that water inside…) Suddenly it is easy to follow the saying: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.” That toilet really does NOT need to be flushed every time it is used…
  • With no running water, you start looking around the property, trying to figure out where would be a good place to put up a few outhouses…after all, that’s what many Navajo have and how things work for many area churches…

    fancy women’s outhouse at a nearby church…

  • When the community water system fails, you suddenly learn how many local people do not understand how things actually work. I was lectured far too many times about how we were discriminating against the Navajo by turning off the faucet they use to haul water—nothing I said could convince them that we, too, had no water…

    like the Navajo families in this area, we too had to haul water this past week…

Cultural Disconnect

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The more time we spend at the local public K-8 school, the more we realize what a challenge these Navajo kids face when they reach adulthood. For so many, they have limited contact or knowledge of the world outside this remote corner of New Mexico.

Less than 20% of the students at this little school are “proficient” by state testing standards. There are zillions of reasons for this, not least a lack of stable, encouraging home environment. But there are cultural reasons as well. Let me give you an example from the younger grades:

youngs

lack of experience

One of the teachers was surprised that her young students incorrectly answered a question on the state test about boats. Just like planes are in the air and cars are on the roads, boats are in the water, right? Umm, no…her students had circled “roads” for where boats are found. Roads? Really??

So the teacher asked her students why so many of them circled that answer. With disdain, since the teacher should have known the obvious, her students pointed out to her that throughout the summer they see boats being towed by big pick-up trucks along the highway that cuts through this corner of Navajoland! Since most of them have never seen a lake and have rarely seen water flowing in the “washes” around here, I guess they can be forgiven for not knowing the proper location of boats!

Gradually, these students gain mainstream cultural knowledge, through books, curricula and television. Eventually, they will learn that boats indeed belong on the water. But a new problem comes up: they have little life experience to give them the discernment to properly sort out which stories they read are “true” and which are “fiction.”

middlers

lack of discernment

A few months ago, Randy was shocked when some of his math students started talking about the alien spaceport to be found in a mountain nearby. He started to laugh about the movie they must have seen…but the students were adamant it was true. They had seen (blurry) video of the spaceport on a cable-TV documentary, after all.

And why do only 15% (1 in 7) students from this school finish high school? Again, there are many reasons, including a lack of preparation and a lack of motivation. But there is also a lack of mentors and role models for these students from within their own families and their own culture. Unlike some areas of Navajoland, the majority of adults in this forgotten corner have never finished high school. Most of them hold no regular jobs, relying on outside aid and day labor to survive. It can be hard to convince middle school students that they should continue something that seems to have no relevance to their eventual adult lives!

olders

lack of role models

Like some other blog entries I have written, this is an area that has no clear-cut answers or solutions. We (and many other concerned individuals and groups) are wrestling with how to bridge the cultural and economic divide; sorting through possible solutions to this disconnect. All of us, including Navajo parents and grandparents, are concerned about the life-choices these students will eventually make. Unfortunately, there have been few success stories so far. All of us will keep searching for answers…

Helping “victims”?

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A few days ago a woman knocked at our door. She needed to arrange for a cemetery plot for an uncle who had died. She already knew we charge a small fee but still wondered if they could get a discount. When I said no (especially since this mission has had no contact with this woman or any of her family in the past), she just nodded and commented that our price was the cheapest option anyway.cemetary plots

Next she wanted to use the ex-church building on this property for a funeral service. “I suppose you charge a fee for that also,” she grumbled. She was shocked when I told her that the building is not currently available for use. (The pews were falling apart which wasn’t safe, so they have been knocked apart completely. We will eventually figure out what other seating options might make more sense for a multi-purpose building.)

She got a bit angry with me, demanding to know what their family was supposed to do. I suggested the chapter houses (local Navajo government buildings). I suggested one of the 15 or so other churches in this area. She didn’t like any of those ideas. She stated loudly that she was shocked we were no longer available for funerals. She questioned if we had the “right” to deny her family the possibility of using this facility.

I placated her as best I could, internally seething that a stranger would be so demanding. I don’t believe our mission is to be sitting around here, waiting for the 3-4 times per year that someone might prefer to use this facility for some reason, rather than one of the many other options in the community…

Still grumpy at this woman’s entitlement mentality when I walked back inside, I just started laughing in recognition of the truth in this quote, which was in a new email from a friend:

In politics, few talents are as richly rewarded as the ability to convince parasites that they are victims. Welfare states on both sides of the Atlantic have discovered that largesse to losers does not reduce their hostility to society, but only increases it. Far from producing gratitude, generosity is seen as an admission of guilt, and the reparations as inadequate compensations for injustices — leading to worsening behavior by the recipients. – Thomas Sowell

We continue to wrestle with the question of how we can TRULY help the Navajo living in the Lybrook area. We continue to listen to some of our Navajo friends and community leaders who are becoming more and more outraged at the entitlement mentality of constituents who expect everyone else to do things for them. In the two years we have been here, we have learned that hand-outs are often toxic. And hand-ups are usually rejected, at least for now.

…fizzle…

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I know I have talked before about the need for FLEXIBILITY out here in Navajoland. Time after time we make plans. Then we verify those plans with others. And we check again to make sure the planned event is still going to happen. And then the time comes…and…

…FIZZLE!

A few weeks ago I subbed a number of days for the 7th and 8thgrade class at the local school. Their teacher had worked hard with them on performing some of Poe’s stories as short plays. They had written parts, decorated a set, come up with special effects. They had practiced, then practiced some more.

the set for Poe's plays by the 7th & 8th graders at Lybrook School

The first date had to be cancelled—it had been planned for a day that was a teachers-only school day. The second date was cancelled by me—feeling that the students were no where near ready to perform. The third date looked like it would really happen. The dress rehearsals went okay—not stellar but workable. Then, less than 30 minutes from show-time, one of the lead actors was checked out of school early. The principal tried to talk Grandma out of doing this. She tried to convince Grandma that she could stay and celebrate her grandson’s acting talent. But no, the play was cancelled yet again. (Supposedly it will happen this coming Thursday afternoon—I’ll keep you posted!)

Another well-laid plan was recently cancelled as well. I have enjoyed two days this school year of doing art with the first-grade class. We read a book about a famous artist, study some of his paintings, then try a project of our own, in the style of that artist. The teacher and I were excited to plan another art day while we had a work-team visiting us recently. Two weeks in advance we set a time and day. A week in advance, I verified that the teacher had added the project to his lesson plans. On Monday and again on Tuesday I verified that the project was scheduled. And on the day itself?? …sigh… school was let out early for a pre-planned teacher work time that afternoon.

sometime soon the first-graders and I will make our own versions of Van Gogh's wild sunflowers...

I can hear you say—How Frustrating! Yes, that’s true. I felt terrible that the visiting college students wouldn’t have fun working with the cute little first graders. And then, I confess, I realized this would drive home the point we had made all week with that work-team:

Life out here in Navajoland requires FLEXIBILITY. It seems like NOTHING ever goes as planned!

Police “Theater” … and the use of technology to avoid DWIs

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Within a few weeks of the tragic accidents on January 1, 2012, the various police departments who have jurisdiction along Hwy 550 announced that they were starting a special program. Almost three months later, there are still police cars to be seen parked along the highway, passing out tickets to speeders, and “keeping us safe.”

I feel sorry for the folks from out of state who are passing thru this area and don’t know that they need to follow the posted speed limits. Quite honestly, most of us who live here just sigh when we see a police cruiser, slow down, and grumble about “police theater.” Giving tickets to those who are speeding does absolutely nothing to increase safety along this corridor. What is really needed is police presence after dark, when the drunk drivers start cruising up and down the highway. The fatal accidents are not caused by excessive speed: at 70 miles per hour (the posted speed limit) any accident could be fatal, and accidents caused by drunk drivers greatly increase that risk.

On the other hand, we recently learned that police checkpoints to assess for DWI violations are largely useless. Apparently a few weeks ago when such a checkpoint was set up, a friend of ours was waiting at a dirt road turnoff for his wife to meet him there after catching a ride with a friend from work. That friend explained that there was a long line of cars parked along the side of the dirt road. Drivers were all on their cell phones, texting back and forth with others further up and down the highway, warning each other of the police check point. Once the police packed up and left the area, all those drivers—unlicensed or drunk—got back on the highway and finished their drive home.

We hate the hassles of “police theater” which makes a big show of making the highway safe. But we also feel sorry for those same policemen who can’t seem to find a way to change the culture out here…and modern technology seems to favor the law-breaking drivers, at least for now!

Truck Eating SAND Pit

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A few weeks ago, Randy got our big pickup truck stuck AGAIN. This time, he thought it was safe to drive the back roads. After all, it hadn’t rained for weeks and the dirt roads were rock-hard. The biggest risk was having the “washboard” road damage the truck’s suspension. (We won’t talk about the back aches all that jiggling causes for the passengers…)

Then I got a dreaded phone call. “I’m stuck,” he said. “I’ll start walking and meet you by the main road.” Sigh…I found the car keys and started driving. Along the way I was pondering what might have happened. The dirt road I was on was innocent looking. The back tires only slid a few times when I hit patches of loose sand…

After I found him and drove him home, Randy and Jakob drove back to the truck, armed with shovels, the come-along, a big jack, and some lumber. They worked for what seemed like hours: jack up the truck and drive off the jack to get forward momentum—fail. Make solid tracks and try to drive along the board “road”—fail. Shovel, shovel, and shovel some more—fail. (Sand won’t stay where it is shoveled—it just slides right back where it came from.) Come-along and tow straps too short—fail.

Eventually, I texted a Navajo friend for advice. After all, he and his folks have lived here all their lives. Surely THEY would know what to do. They were way back in the canyons gathering more wood for heat. They got basic directions to where Randy was stuck and headed that direction.

By the time they found each other, it had gotten dark. They tried some of the things Randy and Jakob had already unsuccessfully tried—with no better results. Eventually, they managed to get our big black truck out of the maws of the truck-eating-sand-pit. They attached the come-along and tow straps to the friends’ blazer and revved both vehicles, with 4 strapping young men pushing behind our truck, and driving along a firewood and torn-out-sagebrush “roadway.”

Whew! Another eventual victory against the dreaded vehicle traps of the back road network!

Lithograph by Pablo O'Higgens
"La Carreta"

And as a post-script: This past weekend I visited the Camino Real State Park in southern New Mexico on my way home from taking an EMT certification test in Las Cruces. Good thing no one else was in the theater with me as I watched the park’s DVD about the trials and travails of travel along the 1600 mile corridor between Mexico City and Santa Fe in the 1600s and 1700s. At one point it talked about how many “carretas” (heavy-duty wooden carts pulled by oxen) were broken by getting stuck in either clay mud holes or deep sand pits as they travelled. I laughed out loud. Apparently back roads in New Mexico have been breaking hearts, breaking backs, and breaking vehicles for 400 YEARS!!!

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