My writing class assignment was to provide a hint in the beginning the piece of a problem to come later. We were also to include at least one very very long sentence. Below is my response, with the subject being a part of a recent RV Trailer trip to America’s Four Corners region.
My wife Jean and I mostly like to travel purposely. In our best experiences we have something to do, something to learn, and something to accomplish.
In searching for an exciting Road Scholar (RS) travel adventure, Jean found a program which offered cultural lectures and discussions about the Navajo people, their history, and their institutions, as well as daily volunteer contributions in a Navajo middle school. Tracy Kee, the RS program director, asked participants ahead of time to fill out a skills and interests application. We were also required to provide fingerprints approved by the State of Arizona. In her email correspondence, Tracy advised us that this school program was just starting up again as we emerge from COVID and it was important to be flexible in our expectations.
Jean’s classroom skills, as a retired public-school teacher, were perfect for the volunteer assignment. While not having similar professional abilities to contribute, I still thought it could be a fun exercise for middle-graders to “design a park.” I could take them through a planning process on a topic that would hopefully be of their interest. But for all the volunteers, we were aware that whatever we could contribute in the classroom would be at the graces of the children’s regular teacher. Whatever we ended up doing, well, we’d need to be “flexible in our expectations.”
Eager to meet requirements, Jean secured a fingerprint application – three months ahead of the program – from Tracy who only had one left. It took several weeks before my fingerprint application materials arrived. I then went to the Washington State Patrol, got the prints made, and mailed them to Arizona. After repeated efforts to track progress of my prints as the date of the program approached, I finally got an email from Arizona four days before its start saying that they couldn’t read my prints and I would need to resubmit. Tracy’s response: “are you prepared to be flexible?”
She quickly went into action, trying to find me alternative volunteer opportunities. Was I willing to split wood with her husband and deliver a few cords to his grandma in the “Deep Rez?”
“Absolutely,” I responded.
“How about volunteering in the senior center in Tuba City?”
“I’m not sure what that would entail, but yes, I’d be willing to do that,” I replied.
“In looking at your background, you say you have been a community development director and parks planner. Would you be interested in volunteering at the Tuba City Community Development Department?”
I said I would, and Tracy said she’d look into it and get back to me. The next day she reported that she could secure me three days with the Tuba City planner, Nelson Cody, and two days splitting and delivering firewood. She didn’t know exactly what I’d be doing each day, but as long as I was flexible, it could work out. And as it turned out, it did.
For five days, I spent most of my time 1 on 1 with a full-blooded Navajo man, intimately engaging in dialog about the life of the Navajo people – The Diné – and the governance of the Navajo Nation.
Tracy’s husband Eric is the minister of a Church of Christ house of worship in Tuba City. He is also a Road Scholar guide, flute maker, and past and future art gallery owner. On my first day with him, I drove to his church, where he immediately set me to work with a mechanical firewood splitter. It was a fast and easy way to cut firewood. We loaded up his truck and prepared to set off for 87-year-old great Aunt Mary’s house, when he got a call from his mother-in-law. She didn’t have keys to a house and could we go 40 miles out of our way to give them to her. The answer, of course, is that one needs to be flexible, and off we went to meet her.
The mechanical firewood splitter in the foreground, the results of my labors immediately beyond, and the “Hogan Church” in Tuba City in the background, where Eric presides as minister, repair specialist, firewood deliverer, flute craftsman and historian.
Four hours later, after the keys drop off; after a visit to a secret concentration of petrified wood; after the deep reservation roads went from paved highway, to broad two-laned well-bladed crushed surface, to single track all-wheel drive challenge course; after spying Mary’s homesite – three miles from the nearest neighbor – where she lives alone, without electricity or running water and has the occasional visitor to greet; after a brief interaction with Mary – in Navajo mind you – to ask about her welfare and hear the latest condition of her sheep flock and garden; after checking into Grandpa’s homesite – which lay at the base of tall, orange, bizarrely twisted spires of Navajo sandstone – to make sure it hadn’t been broken into since his death last month; and after learning about Eric’s formal education background, motivations – and lack thereof – to join the ministry and experiences with relatives and efforts at the church and the evolving and improving relationship with his wife; we arrived back to his ”Hogan Church.” The next day, a few more deliveries.
As I show up for my first day with Tuba City Planner Nelson Cody, he welcomes me with a soft handshake and a quick explanation that he is about to facilitate a Zoom meeting regarding improvements to the community’s sewage treatment facilities. The meeting lasts for 90 minutes, and I listen intently to the proceedings. When it ends he turns to me and asks for my analysis of the meeting. I demur with any major conclusions, risk a few questions, then Nelson asks, “so how long do you think you will volunteer here? Six months? A year?”
“Um… Nelson, I’m only going to be here three days.”
His disappointment was palpable. His misunderstanding of Tracy’s offer is never explained. But as we explored the limited time we did have together, I proposed an approach: he would show me around the community, identifying key planning issues and projects that he was either working on or wanted to start, and I would write up thoughts and recommendations on those projects for his consideration and his supervisor’s. Nelson, it turned out, did not have an annual work program and was constantly discouraged that his initiatives – which I quickly saw as creative but lacking in rigor and collaboration and buy-in from the powers that be – would be ignored or unsupported. Nelson was one frustrated Diné.
The Tuba City Cemetery – burials since 2020. Nelson said that for the most part, the 100+ deaths in the last couple of years have been due to Covid, diabetes and alcoholism. His community planning task was to put a fence around the cemetery, repair damages due to erosion, and somehow stabilize the site with native grasses and other vegetation to limit future erosion.
So, I relayed to him my favorite line from previous employment when working with members of the public. “When people try to work with State Parks, they either become frustrated or give up. It is my job to keep people frustrated.”
Nelson’s response to my attempt at humor was muted. I then suggested that frustration was a reasonable response to his situation, but when at first one doesn’t succeed, it might be advantageous to be flexible in one’s expectations. I was beginning to get the life of a Navajo.
For anyone interested in reading my seven-page “project report” that I left for Nelson, feel free to email me the request at firstname.lastname@example.org. As it happened, Nelson and I never went over it together. He rather chose to tell me stories of the women he’d dated, his philosophy of generational trauma, his hopes for future wealth, and… his frustrations with his fellow Diné. I wonder if he will ever truly read my “volunteer contribution.” That said, I found him to be an intelligent, broadly skilled, ambitious, public-spirited, and inspiring person.