Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Dallas Report: Life Threads and Honduras Threads

I recently spent a weekend in Dallas with my friends M’Lou and Bill; the time had come for a good catch-up visit. Sometimes we do that with a marathon phone call, but they are involved with interesting projects that I wanted to know more about; when they invited me, I accepted.

My husband and I met M’Lou and Bill soon after they moved to Winston-Salem in 1973. They had been Peace Corps volunteers in Bolivia about the same time that we were directing a similar program in Guatemala for the American Friends Service Committee. M’Lou was hired to work with me at the NC School of the Arts doing publicity—first for the ambitious NCSA Summer Festival and later taking over my PR job as I began to work in the development office. Her husband Bill was a journalist and worked for one of the Winston-Salem papers.

Our friendship continued as they moved on to Charlotte and later to Dallas. We have visited back and forth and taken a couple of vacations together and have always been in touch. There is about 15 years difference in our ages, and at first we thought of them as younger siblings. But over the years they have been among our most valued friends. Both the food and the conversation were always outstanding when the four of us were together.

The commitment to service they demonstrated in their Peace Corps years has been a thread throughout their lives, in their work and as volunteers. Bill left journalism and now has a consulting business helping corporations, local and state governments, and nonprofit organizations diagnose their institutional problems and come up with solutions. M’Lou has two jobs: she works as staff for a small Texas foundation and as president of Honduras Threads, a nonprofit organization which supports the work of six women’s cooperatives in rural Honduran villages.

In 2002 the thread of service-oriented endeavors took my friends to Honduras with a mission trip organized by their Episcopal Church. During the process of discovering the needs and desires of the village where they were going to work, they learned that the women were looking for ways to earn a little money to supplement family incomes. In response to that, the idea for Honduras Threads was born. However, the volunteers understood that in order for the vision to be realized the village women would have to produce a quality product that could be marketed in the U.S. The women would first need to learn the appliqué technique and embroidery stitches as well as recordkeeping and business skills.

In Dallas the volunteers formed a board, applied for nonprofit status, and set to work.  Now some nine years later, M’Lou manages the business in the US: developing new markets that include Internet sites, the Horchow catalog, shops and churches. They specialize in home décor (also for hotels) and have recently received a commission to make a wall hanging for Parkland Hospital. The women of the co-ops call it the “Joy Project”. I saw a painting of the design and agree that it is an apt name.

M’Lou also makes four trips a year to work with the women, take supplies, and bring back finished work. The beautiful designs for the pillows and table runners are the work of artist Pamela Nelson and designer Barbara Velhum; the Honduran women bring their own artistry to the work through their choice of color, fabrics and embroidery stitches. The co-ops are making a difference in their lives and the extra income helps the women feed their families better.

M’Lou is just back from a trip to Honduras and e-mailed me a report, which included this observation about the women: “They are amazing at figuring it all out and had a million questions about details. It's very exciting to see how they've grown and matured. In the early years, they were too embarrassed to ask all the questions they had because they thought it would make them look dumb. But now they understand that it's smart to ask lots of questions and get it right from the start.”

During my Dallas visit, I wanted to see the women’s work, so M’Lou took me to the office/work room/storage area, which has been made available to Honduras Threads by another Dallas church. I was overwhelmed by the quality and beauty of the work, and also the size of the inventory. M’Lou buys most of the background fabric in Honduras but all the decorative appliqués that create the designs use material from the US, much of it donated. I bought three different types of pillows to use for gifts, and had a hard time making up my mind because I liked them all. You can visit their website (/www.hondurasthreads.org/) and see the work.

The weather in Dallas was just perfect and every one I met told me how lucky I was to be there when it wasn’t hot. The food and the conversation were still outstanding even though my Bill was not there to make us laugh.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Planes, Trains, Automobiles and Wheelchairs: Roundtrip to Dallas

On May 23, I went to Dallas, traveling by car, wheelchair and plane; on the May 16 return trip, I added the airport Skytrain to the list.  The occasion was a visit with some  close friends plus a bonus trip to spend an afternoon with my niece and family in nearby Double Oaks. It was my first wheelchair-assisted trip.

A chronic problem with my left knee, which began in 2007, has gradually worsened, and the pain is aggravated by carrying anything heavier then a small pocketbook. Also, I can no longer hurry or wait in long security lines. My son Robin drove me to the airport in Greenville, SC. Then with tip money at the ready, I climbed into a wheelchair, fastened the seat belt and whizzed through check-in, security and on to the gate, where I waited patiently to be wheeled to the plane. The handsome young college student who pushed the chair treated me like his grandmother and chatted amiably as he pushed me along. At the security station, someone had handed me a wooden cane to use as I walked through the metal detector. Once I was back in the wheelchair on the other side, my attendant had tied my shoes. Since the stewardess could carry my tote bag and one other small item, I easily boarded the plane unassisted.

After an on-time arrival in Dallas, the Texas wheelchair attendant—older and more taciturn than the quasi-grandson in Greenville—helped me into the chair at the foot of the Jetway and made quickly for the baggage area where my friend was waiting.

The return was more eventful. Once again I was picked up at the curb, but this time there were two attendants. The one who pushed me was tall and bulky with thick jet black hair and matching rims on oversized glasses. The other was short and slim and as animated and bouncy as a tap dancer. He carried the luggage. Once again they buckled me in and we took off into the security area where another passenger in need of assistance was waiting. She was blonde, beautiful and blind with a companion dog, who couldn’t read the gate numbers. So my two companion people were supposed to help her find the right gate as soon as we both passed through security. My gate was C-3 and hers was C-12 so we went to mine first. There we learned that they had just moved my plane to a B gate, several miles away in another terminal. My very talkative and ebullient pusher said “Well, ma’am, today it’s going to be planes, trains and a wheelchair, but first we have to take this young lady to her gate.”

A lot of our route seemed to be uphill on ramps and I commented, “You must really be tired at the end of your shift.”

He laughed and said, “I’ve been here since 4:00 AM and I’ll be off soon and will go to my regular job.” Then he went on to tell me that his regular job paid $95,000 a year. He worked for a website design and management company. “It’s enough money to live on since I don’t have any children, but I'm also getting my Master’s Degree and I needed a little extra cash. I love to be around people and wanted to do something that would help others, and so I decided to take this job.”

I was nonplussed and looked at the two $5.00 bills in my hand (one for each of my buddies) and wondered if it would seem paltry. Then I heard him saying, “I plan to be the first person in my family to get a PhD.

"Good luck," I said.

It was a long ride in the Skytrain and took us a total of twenty minutes to get to the new departure lounge. We arrived just in time for the gate attendant to wheel me to the plane.

I arrived back in Greenville, SC on time, and a different attendant was waiting outside the plane’s door. This older man did not speak at all except to say, “Is someone meeting you?” Just as he asked me, I could see my daughter-in-law Tammy waving enthusiastically in the lobby below.

I am grateful to live in a country that passed the Americans for Disabilities Act with the aim of making transportation, public buildings, parks and other facilities accessible. I have traveled enough in many parts of the world to know that it is an exceptional benefit. The renewal of my spirit that came through the visits with my Dallas friends and family would not have been possible without the help of those seven men who treated me with dignity as they pushed me through the airports. 

And here's a shout out to the drivers of the automobiles and the pilots of the planes and the unseen operators of the Skytrain. Thanks!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Puzzling: Maura Jacobson's Crosswords Made me Laugh

Five days before my husband Bill died, he said he wanted to work the crossword puzzle in the New York magazine, which had arrived in the mail that day. I helped him sit up and supported his frail body with pillows. Then I found him a fat ballpoint pen that would be easy to hold and folded the magazine open to the right page, but he was hardly able to grip it. He scanned the clues and spotted a couple that he knew and with extreme effort filled the little boxes with the letters. Then he sighed and called to me softly, “Donna Jean, would you please finish this for me?”  Usually, we did them together, so his request was no surprise. I promised I would do it and tore the page out of the magazine, not knowing when I would find the time.

About ten days later, after he had died and been honored at a memorial service, I opened a drawer in my dresser and saw the puzzle. With tears stinging my eyes, I settled comfortably in my recliner, adjusted the light, blew my nose, and started to work. About five minutes later as I finished the first long theme answer, I found myself smiling and eagerly embraced the graphic delight of the challenge in front of me. Maura Jacobson, puzzle-mistress extraordinaire, had given me a welcome respite from my grief.

Bill subscribed to New York about fifteen years ago mainly for the Culture Pages: the section that covers books, classical music, art, theater and film; the magazine also includes features on politics, food, popular culture and many things topical to New York. It is the only one of Bill’s subscriptions that I have continued. I look at it from cover to cover, but I subscribe for the Jacobson puzzles. She has given me untold hours of pleasure, many smiles and the occasional belly laugh.

In the May 2, 2011 issue I read that she is retiring and once again felt the tears welling. An announcement at the top of the puzzle directed me to a tribute on page 10, where I found the picture of this delightful puzzlemaker and realized that she was indeed of retirement age. Her humor reminds me of my daughter Melissa’s so I had pictured her as a contemporary of Melissa’s generation, somewhere in her early fifties. It had never occurred to me that I might someday be without that weekly puzzle ritual. In each issue she had a puzzle with a theme, which usually involved word play in every possible form. Sometimes it was puns or other plays on words or it might have involved dropping or adding a letter to a word. Occasionally the answers were just plain silly. Her humor was also evident in clever clues, such as when she employed double entendre.

In the magazine’s tribute (which does not carry a byline) I learned that NPR’s Puzzle Master Will Shortz considers her a “national treasure.” She has been at the magazine since 1980 and penned over 1400 puzzles, which display her “antic whimsy”. Until recently she created them by hand without benefit of a computer.

After I finished reading the tribute, I went to the drawer where I keep a few mementoes from Bill’s final weeks and unfolded the slightly yellowed magazine page dated September 8, 2001. It took me a few minutes to locate the words in Bill’s shaky printing. Then I slowly read the entire completed puzzle and smiled again. The theme was “Losing Numbers” and some of the answers were Ring Circus, Easy Pieces, and Little Indians. It started me thinking about the people whose creative work of all sorts brings a valued balance to my life. I plan to write Ms. Jacobson, thanking her for all the pleasure she has given me, and wishing her well in retirement. But first, I'll take a few moments to grieve the loss of another little link to my life with Bill.

I was delighted to discover that the online news site of  DePauw University (my alma mater) has an article about Decrescendo. Here is the link,

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Doubleheader: Kentucky Derby & Mother's Day

After a week of news heavily-weighted toward topics related to Osama bin Laden, I was pleased that the Kentucky Derby made the evening news and every radio announcer and TV newscaster took a few seconds to wish me a Happy Mother’s Day. Two venerable American icons still held sway.

My mother did not believe in Mother’s Day. In our poverty days during the depression, she saw it only as a commercial venture and thought mothers should be honored every day not just once a year. She did have an alternative celebration; we, her children, were invited on that one particular day to tell her anything we did not like about her.

I guess I absorbed her negative load about honoring mothers only once a year; however I did not perpetuate her alternative. Instead, I wanted to create a climate with my children that would invite, or at least permit, negative feedback when they felt it. I must have been successful. When my oldest son Kevin was not yet three, he tested my patience when it was almost gone, and I raised my voice and scolded him. There was a brief moment of silence, and then he said, “Mommy, you were not made to yell at me; you were made to speak softly and be my friend.” After I told him he was right and gave him a big hug, I went to my desk and wrote it down. From time to time in the years I had children at home, they gave me other things to write down.

It was hard for them to ignore Mother’s Day once they started school, because the teachers always had them make a card to present to me at the appropriate time. Once they left home they tended to call me on Mother’s Day, and there is even an occasional gift. This year I heard from all three plus four of my grandchildren. Most surprising of all, I got a package from my daughter Melissa who had recently been to London. It was full of English gluten-free treats. They are delicious and beat the US products hands down. Actually, I like hearing from my offspring on Mothers Day or any day.

Through the magic of Google I discovered that the ancient Egyptian, Roman and Greek civilizations honored mothers by honoring the deities representing them. In the 1600’s in England there was a clerical declaration setting aside a day in Lent to honor Mothering, which is still observed in some Anglican and Episcopal churches. Mother’s Day in America was the result of a proclamation by Julia Ward Howe calling upon mothers to take a stand against war. I can do that!

Turning to the Kentucky Derby, I know that my mother and father took no notice of the most exciting two minutes in horse racing. “Horses are for rich people”, my mother told me when as a ten-year-old I asked about riding lessons. Obviously, so was the Kentucky Derby. My husband Bill, on the other hand, grew up in Indiana, ten miles from Louisville and considered the Derby to be part of his geographic heritage. He always paid attention to it. The first TV broadcast of the race was in 1952, but we didn’t have a television for many years after that. I recall listening with Bill to the enthusiastic narration of the race on the radio. Eventually the first Saturday in May became a celebratory day for the two of us, usually involving special food and drink and lusty singing of  My Old Kentucky Home.

I’m not sure when the broadcast became mostly about hats for the first half-hour or so, but there are also feel-good stories about jockeys, trainers, owners and even the horses. Bill, who eschewed fiction as not worth the time, somehow got started reading Dick Francis mysteries, which all had to do with horses and racetracks in addition to murder and intrigue. With Bill’s prodigious memory for arcane trivia he had gleaned from the British author, he would often comment about something during the TV pre-race warm-up. Sometimes other family members or friends would join us, but there was something tender and even romantic about our annual date with the thoroughbreds. My latent love of horses, that was thwarted in childhood, made me revel in the beauty of the animals, especially at full gallop. For Bill the event connected him improbably with the farm, his years of performing in the Iroquois Amphitheater in Louisville, clam chowder at a favorite restaurant, warm late spring days in Indiana and a horse he had ridden as a boy. It doesn’t matter that he never went to the Derby; it only mattered that it awakened happy memories of a childhood, often dominated (in his mind) by hard work and limitations.

Our memories shape us in ways hard to recognize. But the act of remembering things, once precious or expansive in my past, fuels my love of living and renews my appreciation for the mother–and the father–who gave me life, and the husband who shared fifty years of it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Dear Diary: Not an Ordinary Week Afterall

When you live alone and are retired, one week is very much the same as all the weeks. But in retrospect, last week was very different. During the ordinary parts of each day, I was not very cheerful. As a matter of fact, I had a fistful of things I was fretting about and my general disposition was sour, unusual for me. By the end of the week I realized I was emerging from the gloom, and as I reviewed the days I had thought were draped in black, I was amazed to realize that each one had brought a very happy event. I almost missed out on enjoying them by not paying attention.

If I had kept a diary about the happy moments, these might have been my entries:

Easter Sunday: I made some gluten-free blueberry muffins and took them as my contribution to the Penland School Brunch and Easter Egg Hunt (featuring beautifully crafted eggs). I hadn’t been there for a couple of years and given the perfect weather I decided to join the celebration. Although it was hard for me to get around, I was happy to see old friends. My daughter-in-law Tammy made things much easier by thinking through the logistics and minimizing the amount of time I had to spend on my feet, leaning on my walking stick. A long chat with my friend Ellen ranged from knee and hip replacements through dogs and on to an article she read (and has now emailed me) that considered the Five Myths of the Information Age and refuted the statement  “The book is dead”. I got to look at lots of babies and cute little kids, which is always good for the soul. I was amazed to see the mass of adults waiting for the Easter Bunny. When she gave the signal to go hunt for the eggs, they all took off running.

Monday: Joe, our local handyman, showed up first thing to install a ceiling fan. There was some problem-solving to do about the wiring, but he figured it all out, and during the heat of the afternoon, when I lay down for a nap, I was blessed by a quiet, gentle breeze from the fan. I won’t have to use the drooping pedestal fan, wrapped in plastic in the cellar and waiting the call to duty.

Tuesday: Today there was nothing on my calendar. I call these “blank days”, and they are actually my favorites. I spent several hours thinking about elves, leprechauns and fairies as I wrote a fanciful look at some childhood memories. It was an easy, unpressured day, even though it didn’t chase my clouds away.

Wednesday: My friend Peggy runs a little business called “Order in the House”. She helps people reorganize their storage spaces, or move their furniture, or whatever it takes to solve nagging problems of daily life. She spent the afternoon with me reorganizing my storage for personal papers and all the stuff I use for writing, bill paying, and correspondence. The feeling when I sat down ay my clean orderly desk to check my email later in the day was analogous to the quiet, gentle breeze from the new fan.

Thursday: I overcame my grumpiness at least temporarily and went with my son Robin and Tammy to the Dry County Brewing Company in Spruce Pine to eat pizza and join the Penland team for Quizzos, the weekly game of sophisticated trivia. In addition to the usual sports and popular culture, questions were drawn from history, religion, politics and manners. I knew a few of the answers and our team won by a solid margin, although I had little to do with that. I truly forgot my aches and pains and the fistful of emotions and doubts that have been swirling through my mind all week.

Friday: I got up about 5:30 AM and made myself breakfast including a pot of an English Breakfast brew made from a blend of several Ceylon teas. In the background the announcer on the TV was telling which dignitaries were alighting from their car or the mini-buses and, if a name caught my interest, I turned to look. By 6:00 AM I was settled in a comfortable chair with my tray, ready to attend the wedding of William and Kate via satellite. I didn’t watch to see the royals or the dress or the kiss or the crowds. I was there for the music, the interior shots of Westminster Abbey, and the scriptures, liturgy and prayers, well pronounced in deep resonant voices, I was there to see the carriages leave the Abbey and drive through streets I know and love. I hoped for long-shots of London showing the outlines of famous, and sometimes ancient, buildings. I was not disappointed.

Saturday: Sarah, my English friend, who had also made tea and watched the wedding, took me to Asheville to the Gluten-Free Fair that was sponsored by the Asheville Celiac Groups and Ingles Grocery Store. Along with eight other members of my family, I follow a gluten-free diet, although we each have different reasons for doing so. Sarah dropped me at the entry to the Biltmore Doubletree Inn, and as I waited, a handsome, thirty-something man with a shock of jet black hair came out of the hotel pushing a large stroller with his look-alike son, who was perhaps six. The boy was clearly developmentally disabled—possibly autistic— but his father was cheerfully chatting away about what they had seen and what they would do next. The people were streaming in and streaming out as Sarah and I stopped at the registration desk to get our marching orders and empty bags for the handouts. The large room was full of vendors giving samples of all kinds of gluten-free foods and seasonings to take home. Restaurants, bakeries and other food services were giving samples to eat there (enough to make a light lunch). There were also booksellers, a nutritionist and therapists specializing in helping people with celiac disease and other food-related ailments. There were many teenagers wearing Celiac  t-shirts. I sat near one group and listened to their chatter as they exchanged hints about favorite treats. A lady my own leaned in close and said “I had no idea there were so many people in Asheville facing the problems I have.”

On the drive home I told Sarah about my glum outlook on life at the moment and she started asking me questions and helping me examine the things that were tangled together in my brain. I was really quite happy and at peace by the time I got home, pulled the chain on my new fan, and stretched out for a nap.