Artist Mami Takahashi illuminates the immigrant experience

Artist Mami Takahashi with her dome made of flexible, two-way mirror sheeting that allowed her to observe people staring at her. Care to see more images of her Hiding and Observing project? Simply click this image.

With immigration front and center in our national discourse, Mami Takahashi offers perceptive insights into the immigrant experience.  Mami moved to the US 6½ years ago.  She turned her initial sense of awkwardness and estrangement into imaginative artworks.

Aside: My sister invited me on a trip to southern Japan next fall.  My husband Burton is down on international travel.  I’m not.  Hiragana (“therefore” in Japanese), instead of playing golf one summer morning, I drove to Petoskey’s Crooked Tree Arts Center (CTAC) for a talk by Mami Takahashi.

Artist Mami Takahashi begins to weave the lines that will separate her in Cage Mentalilty. Care to see the video of this project? Click on the photo..

According to the CTAC description, Mami’s an “interdisciplinary artist who integrates traditional and contemporary approaches in ideas, methods and media to address perspectives on foreignness and Americanness.”

Say what?

By the time Mami finished, I understood what an imaginative and insightful talent she is.

Born in, Japan, with art degrees from 2 Japanese schools, Mami earned an MFA in Studio Practice at Portland State U in Oregon.  She’s now a research scholar at the U of O.  Her interest in differences between American and Japanese culture informs her work.

“Many people think Japanese people are shy because we tend not to look into peoples’ eyes,” she said.   “Looking into your eyes feels like too direct a communication.  Society pressures Japanese women to be shy.”

I was reading Daughters of the Samurai, a biography of the first 5 Japanese girls educated in the west, in the late 1800s.  Their experience reinforced  Mami’s claim.  According to the 18th c. Confucian-influenced treatise Onna Daigaku (“Greater Learning for Women”), “The only qualities that befit a woman are gentle obedience, chastity, mercy and quietness.”

Obedience?  Quietness?  God bless Susan B. Anthony!  God bless America!

Mami talked about what she called “individual versus groupness.”   She said, “In America, it’s important to be unique.  In Japan, we don’t want to stand out.”  When she first arrived in the states, Mami’s English was lacking.  She had few friends.   She was “frustrated” at school.  She felt her professors “pushed” her too hard to express her own uniqueness. “I was raised with a sense of group identity.”

She turned her dilemma into thoughtful conceptual artworks.

To represent her sense of being invisible, an outsider, she created a capsule made of 2-way mirror film.  She sat beneath it with a video camera, recording the responses of passersby.

Mami Takahashi writes on the film that separates her from viewers. Care to see the video of this project? Click on the image.

For another video, she stood behind a piece of clear film and wrote in Japanese, over and over, “I hate this school.”  Her face vanished behind the words.  Her professors didn’t know what she was writing.

Mami also expressed her sense of “cage mentality”—a famous phrase from popular Japanese novelist Riichi Yokomitsu.  Mami stood in a corner of her studio and looped yarn over and over a frame until she disappeared behind a scrim of yarn.

Mami spoke about the different sense of art appreciation between the cultures.  Japanese value traditional art; in the U.S., “contemporary art is dominant.”   She showed a slide of a lovely Japanese gold leaf flowered screen followed by an image of conceptual artist Marcel DuChamp’s first “readymade.”  His urinal, displayed as art 1912, dramatically changed art history.  Japanese consider craft and art to be equal in worth, she said.  Americans value “fine” art over craft.

Mami referenced a cultural difference in theater as well.  The Noh musical drama, popular since the 14th c., is performed by men wearing masks.  “The Japanese concept is to give up your own identity to perform.”  In Japan, she says, “I learned a skill set of losing my identity.”   American theater, on the other hand, “encourages actors to create their own interpretation of a character.”

She mentioned other differences.  In Japan, at 5’1”, she’s considered tall.  In America, she’s short.   In Japan, “being feminine is required.  In the US, many women—especially younger ones—aren’t comfortable with feminine expectations.”

From an artistic viewpoint, Mami’s work is influenced by the concept of Ma, or negative space.  According to Professor Google,* the word translates as “gap” or “pause.”  You likely first encountered Ma (other than she who birthed you) with the classic illustration of the white vase in a black rectangle.   When you focus on what surrounds the vase, you see 2 profiles.

Mami was in NoMI thanks to the Good Hart Artist Residency program, something about which I intend to learn more.  (And to share with you, dear reader.)  Thanks, Mami, for your thought provoking work and insights.  And for helping us to see each other more clearly.

Care to learn more?

Visit Mami Takahashi’s website for more images and videos.

*My sister’s term for Wikipedia.  Wish I’d thought of it.

8.8.88: My lucky number merges with a painting by Julian Lethbridge

Do you have a lucky number?  Mine’s 8.  Here’s how #8 proved itself 30 years ago…

In the 1960s, when I wrote for Women’s Wear Daily and Home Furnishings Daily, our office was in Detroit’s New Center Building.  I spent many lunches in a small gallery across the street on the mezzanine of The Fisher Building, lapping up the insights of art dealer Gertrude Kasle.

My appreciation for contemporary art deepened with the opening of Jackie Feigenson’s gallery in 1977 in the space where Gertrude’s had been.  (And where, years before, I’d had my hair cut at what was then Antoine’s Beauty Salon.)  I bought our first piece of local Cass Corridor art, a Michael Luchs assemblage, from Jackie’s inaugural show—in honor of Burton’s and my 10th anniversary.  It was my first dip into original art.  In time, I bought several more works from Jackie, and then from her successor, Mary Preston.  I enjoy them still.

While the art I purchased was relatively affordable, our friend Bob Sosnick was swimming in a bigger pond.  A trustee of New York’s Whitney Museum, Bob was amassing art by nationally and internationally known artists, including Terry Winters, a colleague of famed Jasper Johns.  I adored Winters’ paintings.  His prices were out of my league.

Back then Burton and I attended a party at the Roostertail thrown by Detroit Free Press columnist Mark Beltaire and his P.R. exec wife Bev.  Another guest was interior designer Florence Barron, a collector so crazy about art she hung dozens of works from her own collection in homes she designed for clients. At the party I asked Florence what artists I should be watching.  She beckoned me with her index finger, brought her lips to my ear and whispered: “Terry Winters.”

Soon after, Burton and I dined with the Sosnicks.  Burton surprised me by asking Bob if I could shadow him in New York, visiting artists and galleries, for a weekend.   I think the smile on my face stretched farther than the Brooklyn Bridge.  Soon after, Bob and I traipsed up the stairs to Terry Winter’s loft.  There, surrounded by paintings in varying stages, I inhaled the smell of paint and turpentine and felt as though I were on sacred ground.  I, who prided myself on being tough and skeptical, began to cry.  Bob and Terry politely ignored my embarrassing response and didn’t even mention it when we 3 went to dinner.

My two Julian Lethbridge pieces.

The next day we visited the studio of Julian Lethbridge, who’d moved to NY from England and wasn’t yet represented by a gallery.  I loved his web-like paintings and could afford them.  I offered to buy a light one and a dark one. Yes, he said, on the light one. The other wasn’t dry yet; he doubted it would look the same when it was finished.  He’d let me know in the future if one turned out looking like the darker version i wanted.

Soon after, Julian had a successful show at NY’s prestigious Paula Cooper Gallery. His prices escalated.  I was just happy to have my one painting.  And the memory of an amazing weekend.

Several months later, my phone rang.  “Suzy, it’s Julian. I told you I’d call if I had a painting that turned out the way you wanted. I think I have one.”

“Great,” I said, doubting I could still afford it.

The price, he said, would be the same as the first.

“Today is 8.8.88,” I said.  “I was married on April 8th; my first son, David, was born on October 8th.  I knew something good would happen today.”

Recently, I showed the paintings to my artistic new friend Karen Raff. We  became pals when we met on a plane.  I followed up with a series of delightful columns about her. Karen looked at Julian’s paintings and cocked her head.  “They’re filled with number 8s,” she said.  Until then, I’d just seen the images as webs.  Karen gave me a new perspective.  One thing I love about contemporary art is its openness to interpretation, its interaction with the viewer.

WE SHARE 8: I share my love of 8 with countless people around the world. One is the legendary Lakers star Kobe Bryant. In 2017, he became the first player in NBA history to have two numbers officially retired by the same team. No. 8 was his first; then he played under No. 24 later in his career. Both numbers now hang in the Lakers’ rafters.

8.8.18 is fast approaching.  Hope it’s a good one for all.  And hope your number’s equally lucky.

(Postscript.  Anne and I take an annual Sisters Trip to NYC.  It’s our tradition to walk through Central Park to the Metropolitan Museum and visit the rooftop.  We love looking at the changing skyline above the trees.  We always take a selfie of the 2 of us in front of the latest art installation.  After, I indulge Anne by visiting the Impressionist section; she indulges me with Modern and Contemporary.  Last year in the Contemporary section: a bonus.  2 large and striking paintings hung side by side.   They pulled me in.  I looked at the small labels identifying both artists.  Terry Winters and Julian Lethbridge.)

More than a century of life in Charlevoix, Michigan, vividly preserved thanks to Bob Miles

One of Bob Miles’ signature photos from Charlevoix.

One man’s passion for his small town in northern Michigan became his life’s work.  His son, who as a boy was indifferent to his dad’s efforts, grew up to revere him.

In 1957, a stranger purchased a farmhouse in Charlevoix.  In the attic he found a box of old photos.  They meant nothing to him, so he burned them.

Hearing of the incident, a local professional photographer realized history had been lost.  He felt called to intervene.  Receiving a gift of 350 old glass plate negatives of local scenes and people, Bob Miles printed some and mounted them on boards.  He persuaded downtown merchants to display them, along with a request for more photos.   His son Dave recalls, “Prints poured in like a tsunami.  Dad didn’t know what to do with all of them.”

Bob had moved to Charlevoix in 1913.  As a youth, he ran the projector for silent movies shown in his father’s nearby theater.  Later he worked for a local pharmacy where the owner shared  tales of the town’s past.   In 1929,  Bob gave up his plan to become a teacher and attended the NY Institute of Photography, arriving in time for the stock market crash.  He returned to Charlevoix; started his career in 1931; married a Charlevoix girl, Esther Goldstick, in 1935.

In the 1920s, Bob’s friends lived in a spacious house on Park Avenue.  In 1936, the house—now containing 3 apartments due to the Great Depression—came up for sale.  $5000.   Bob longed to buy it.  “Dad pestered Archie Livingston (head of a local bank) to lower the price,” Dave says.

“Archie said if Dad could come up with a $1000 down payment, he’d cut the price by $1000.  Dad called in his accounts receivable, got some off-the-books small loans and scrounged together the money. He and my mother presented Archie with an envelope holding $1000 in bills and coins.  They walked out of the bank with a house, a mortgage and 19 cents to their name.”

Bob and Esther Miles (with Dave at right) outside the home he used as The Bob Miles Studio in Charlevoix.

Bob and Esther moved into 109 Park a year later, after 2 renters’ leases ran out.  One renter remained—Minnie, a librarian.  “The whole town loved Minnie,” Dave says.  After Dave was born in 1940, Minnie became his “best friend forever.” Dave still lives there.

Bob amassed thousands of Charlevoix photos, including his own.

“Dad was so excited to get some of them,” Dave says.  “I couldn’t have cared less.  I know he was disappointed I didn’t pay attention.”  Dave grew up, graduated from the U of M, lived in Ann Arbor.  Returning to Charlevoix at age 31, Dave worked as night manager of The Lodge Motel.  It was THE place to stay In the 1960s.  Burton and I visited often.  (The Lodge was owned by a group headed by Julius Gilbert.  His wife Edith, the late grande dame of Charlevoix, was a dear friend.)

Inspired by the trove of images he’d collected, Bob started writing a book on Charlevoix’s history, using a newfangled IBM Selectric typewriter—a gift from his wife.  Bob began around 1968.  (He officially retired in 1972.)  In 1971, Bob finished the first of what would be 7 leather-bound volumes.

America’s bicentennial was approaching.  The Charlevoix Historical Society, of which Bob was a trustee, decided to publish a book based on Bob’s work to honor the occasion and raise money for a museum.  They planned to spend $18,000, charging $20 for pre-publication orders; $25 for the published book.  At the time, hard cover books cost under $10.  Dave says, “Dad wondered who the hell would pay that much for a book with such a limited audience.  He feared for the Society’s survival.”

Bob told the Society, “Take whatever you need.  I don’t want anything to do with the project.”

The Society chose 247 pages.  The book, in a numbered limited edition of 2000, was published in time for July 4, 1976.  “It took off like a rocket,” Dave says.  “You never saw anyone eat crow so willingly as my father.”  The $18,000 was paid off immediately.  in 3 years, book sales neared $40,000.

Meanwhile, a family house had been sold to the Society for $1 by a niece of Irene Harsha Young.  Irene, an artist, had married Earl Young, master builder in stone, creator of Charlevoix’s famed Mushroom Houses.  (Dave and Society president Denise Fate received an Emmy for their work on the recent documentary, “Earl Young, Wizard of Boulder Park.”)  In 1980, the proceeds from Bob’s book went to a wraparound addition to the 1892 Harsha House.

In 1981, Bob received an award from the Historical Society of Michigan.  Dave recalls, “My mother said Dad was so overcome he couldn’t speak.  She said it was one of the proudest moments of his life.”  Bob died 5 years later.

Today the Society has 20,000 digitized historical images.  And Dave, who once “couldn’t have cared less” about his father’s photo collection, has become Curator of Photos and Documents for the Society.  He, fellow Curator of Collections Trevor Dotson, and Society Patron/Guest Curator Ole Lingklyp of Ironton (5 miles south of Charlevoix) and NYC have spent countless hours putting together a new exhibit.  “150 Years of Photography” features 200 images by Charlevoix’ first 6 top photographers, climaxing with Bob Miles.  The show is a great glimpse into Charlevoix’s colorful past–from its days as a fishing, then lumbering village, through its horse drawn years of resort establishment, and soon to be booming tourism.   It concludes with the large industry years of nuclear and cement plants.

For Dave, the exhibit honors Bob Miles’ “lifetime of almost superhuman achievement.  Not only did my father take thousands of photos over about a third of Charlevoix’s existence, he was the sole reason its photographic history and heritage were saved for posterity.”

Assembling the exhibit, Dave says, “From the planning stages to the last caption on the wall, I could feel my father looking on and smiling,”  When cleaning up his father’s or others’ images on Photoshop, Dave recalled the light boxes Bob built to retouch negatives through a suspended magnifying glass.  Instead of just clicking a mouse to remove flaws, Bob used tiny brushes.  He moistened the tips in his mouth and drew them across shades of grey and black in circles on cards, then dabbed the color on a negative to fill in a gap or scratch. “He did it thousands of times.  The process almost ruined his eyesight.”

Your dad’s efforts, and yours, are a gift to Charlevoix.  Thanks, Dave, for carrying on the legacy.

(Note to readers: if you haven’t yet seen the show: GO.  Noon to 4, everyday but Sunday.)

Care to see more?

The Charlevoix Historical Society has a sampling of its photo collection online.

A photo by George Priest in the exhibition.

A photo by Ernest Peaslee in the exhibition.

Facing cancer, Roseanne Harrington’s courage inspired many, including her sister

“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person.  Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.”
Albert Schweitzer


Roseanne Harrington

This is a Tale of Two Sisters. Of the best and worst of times.  A story about an amazing girl who, given a terminal diagnosis, focused on living.  And the little sister who still counts on her.

It was 1982.  At 12, in 8th grade, Roseanne took advanced algebra and French, played the oboe and piano, swam for an award winning school team.  She didn’t feel well.  Adolescent female problems, her doc said.  Her symptoms worsened.  Her mother, also named Roseanne, took her to Chicago’s Children’s Memorial.  Tests showed intestinal blockage.  Surgery was scheduled for the next day.  The night before, Roseanne asked to see a priest.

A priest came at midnight to give her the sacraments and pray with her.

A large tumor was removed from Roseanne’s colon.  Colon cancer was rare in children, doctors said.  The longest known life expectancy: 4 months.  Roseanne didn’t ask.

She underwent chemo and returned to school.  Her father, James, says, “She kept playing her music and caught up on her studies through sheer grit.”  2 more surgeries and more chemo followed.  When Roseanne was due to graduate from junior high, the principal refused to let her march with her classmates.  She’d missed too much school.  Her father insisted, reminding  the principal his daughter had done the work.  Roseanne marched.  And traveled to France with her French class.

A year later, Roseanne was back in the hospital for more treatment.  She asked her doctor, “How long do I have?”

“I can’t say,” he replied.  In the few other cases he knew of, “the patients succumbed before now.”

That night at dinner, Roseanne repeated the doctor’s words.  She laughed, “He said, ‘succumbed.’  He couldn’t even say ‘died.’  I’ve made up my mind.  I’m going to make it to 16.  Sweet 16.”  Holding back tears, her mother asked, “Couldn’t you aim a little longer?”

“Okay, 18.”

In January, ‘87, Roseanne was a senior, a national merit finalist.  She’d been in every school musical, sung in the school chorus and been a champion debater.  She was admitted early to Notre Dame as a Notre Dame Scholar.   That Christmas she’d asked for a real Christmas tree.  After, the family went skiing in Colorado.  Roseanne spent the days resting in the lodge.   Back home, she admitted to more cramps and bleeding and suggested a check-up.

Cancer had returned, her doc said.  He sent her to Northwestern Hospital, where surgery was recommended.  Her father thanked the surgeon from Children’s for giving his daughter 4 more years.  The surgeon replied, “She gave them to herself.”

Roseanne, being Roseanne, had things she wanted to do before what would prove her last surgery.  She wanted to be home to celebrate her 18th birthday on January 26.  And she did, at a party with friends.  Then she visited Notre Dame where her brother played in the student pep band for a basketball game with #1 ranked North Carolina.  Roseanne watched Notre Dame pull off a stunning upset, then enjoyed birthday dinner with her family.  On the drive back, she insisted they stop to buy a flashlight.  She wanted to review for her next day’s AP physics test.

Surgery, a day after Rosanne’s physics test, was expected to last several hours.  Her mom and dad went to Mass.  When they returned, their daughter was already in her room.  Cancer had spread.  The surgeon had closed her up.  All medicine could do was keep her as comfortable as possible.  Her doctor, head of oncology at Northwestern, paid house calls.  Friends from Regina Dominican H.S. in Wilmette, IL, visited.  The Regina Chamber singers serenaded her.  When she lost her Kairos cross, a Loyola friend gave her his.

Roseanne voiced one regret—she’d be unable to graduate.  Her principal said Roseanne had completed enough credits.  The school mounted a special ceremony.  In front of friends and family and with classmates, Rosanne walked across the stage in cap and gown.  She graduated with honors, 3 months early.  After, she received a hand-written letter from Notre Dame’s Father Hesberg, saying she’d always be a member of the class of ‘91.

Less than a week later, on March 15, 1987, Rosanne died.  She had planned her funeral to be a celebration, and it was. In closing, her friends in the Regina Dominican Chamber chorus, wearing formal gowns, joined the church choir in singing Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.”

Roseanne and her little sister Maris as children.

Roseanne’s brother and sister survive her.  Her sister Maris, my friend, told me about Roseanne.  Maris grew up, married, and had 4 children, including 2 daughters.  Rather than name her first girl after her sister, Maris named her Emma Rosa and her second, Sophie Anne.  “I believe we’re all unique,” Maris says.  “I didn’t want my girls to have the burden of living up to anyone else.  I wanted them to shine on their own.”  (I might add: they do.)

Maris remembers snuggling in her sister’s bed with Roseanne shortly before she died.   Maris  wondered how she’d go on without her.  Rosanne said, “Just reach out your hand.  I’ll be there.”

“And she has been,” Maris reports.

Maris recently left her job as Director of Development of the new Great Lakes Center of the Arts at Bay Harbor in Petoskey, MI.  Believing daughter Sophie Anne needed a different academic environment, Maris asked her sister’s advice, recalled her sister’s courage and “took a leap of faith.”  She and Sophie moved back to IL.  Sophie will be a freshman at New Trier High School this fall—in the same class as my granddaughter Alexis.  Maris is pleased to have just become  Director of Philanthropy at Northwestern Medicine, the hospital where Rosanne was treated.

“My life has come full circle,” Maris says.  “I’m where I’m meant to be.”

Maris sent me a copy of “Reflections,” a poem Roseanne wrote in response to a Monet painting.  The poem concludes:

New reflections bring new promises
Old reflections teach new lessons.
All reflections show our lives through others’ eyes
and give us something to reflect upon.

Thanks, Roseanne, for the lessons you still reflect,  for your legacy of grace.  Thanks, Maris, for honoring your amazing sister.  May we all live with such courage.

MARIS HARRINGTON’S CHILDREN: Top row, from left, are Emma Rosa, Matthias and Timothy. Sophie Anne is in front.

(Maris also sent me an essay her father James wrote about his daughter.  Titled A Promise Kept, It helped me understand Roseanne and is a gift to all who survive her.  Thanks, James.)

“Observational amateur astronomer” Mary Stewart Adams illuminates the sky for earthlings

The view from Headlands Dark Sky Park.

Who knew there was such a thing as an International Dark Sky Park?

Your peripatetic columnist found someone who not only knew about it, but made it happen in northern Michigan. Through Mary’s efforts, 600 forested acres of pristine Lake Michigan shoreline were so designated in 2011. The designation was the 6th in the country and only the 9th in the world. (There are now 100 International Dark Sky Parks worldwide.)

Mary combines ancient star lore with philosophy, art and  literature. She directed award-winning programs at Headlands Park, in Mackinaw City, for 9 years. A change in county administration led to a clash of objectives and Mary resigned last spring. Nonetheless, she continues to awaken others to the night sky.

Click to visit the public radio page listing many of Mary’s broadcasts.

A self-described star lore historian, Mary cruises the northern Great Lakes narrating the starry skies with Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry and Drummond Island and Traverse City Tall Ships. She also produces an insightful weekly segment The Storyteller’s Night Sky on Interlochen Public Radio.

Consider this one, from May 28, on the Godiva Moon:

In 1678, the Godiva Procession was instituted in Coventry, England, to commemorate and honor Lady Godiva, who rode naked on horseback through the main street to protest her husband’s intent to raise taxes on the poor. Nearly 200 years later, in 1842, Alfred Tennyson found himself waiting on a train in Coventry and penned his iconic poem about it, which we can imagine is being written across the evening sky this week as the moon comes to full phase and sweeps past the outer planets, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars.

Mary graduated from the U of M, ’86, with a degree in English Lit.  In college she was arts & entertainment editor for the MI Daily. She later interned in NYC for Rolling Stone and in Detroit for NBC/TV. After running a family business In NY for 2 years, she returned to Michigan for marriage, grad school (library science) and starting a family. She and her husband divorced after 11 years, leaving her to raise 4 kids on her own. Her youngest was 6 weeks old.

Mary’s parenting approach: “enthusiasm and good educations.” All 4 kids are now pursuing interesting careers or academics. As with many single parent households, resources were scarce. Mary says, “I raised my kids with the intent to nourish their imaginations. When you have a rich imagination you never feel without.”

Mary gets her spunk from her mother. Her mom’s advice: “Do what you love.”

As a young mother reading to her children, Mary noticed the “high moral wisdom” moving through fairy tales corresponded to that of ancient mythologies. And that “the wisdom once  taught in ancient sacred centers is a foundation for the world’s religions. It’s rooted in an understanding of the human relationship to the stars. Humanity’s striving to know the stars has been expressed in the highest achievements in art, literature, science and civic organization.”  From before the Egyptian pyramids, she says, to the paintings of Boticelli, to the poetry of Keats, to the Large Telescope Array in the Atacama Desert of Chile.

“My work’s about nourishing the soul, affirming our connection to our celestial environment,” Mary says. Celestial occurrences determined the location of sacred sites for performing community rituals. Tribal elders observed where the sun rose and set each season  to decide when to bless birth or honor the dead. “Ancient cultures read the stars to tell them how to be more fully human.”

Lunch with Mary was a roller coaster ride. She swoops onto a subject I vaguely remember from college, then soars onto a different topic, from the mundane to the exalted, quoting from Shakespeare and Milton, sprinkling in whimsy, rhyme and mythology. Taking so many notes, I scarcely had time to bite into my sandwich.

Mary’s older daughter Jane, now a data scientist, sparked Mary’s appreciation for observational astronomy. At 5, Jane asked her mom what she was reading. Mary, then studying astrology, said she was reading the story of someone’s life as written in the stars. Jane said, “You’re cheating. You should be outside reading the stars.”

For 14 years, the family lived in Northville, MI. In 2001, Mary contracted near fatal meningitis.  For 6 months she couldn’t drive. She realized she couldn’t keep up the pace downstate. A year later, she  moved north to Harbor Springs where her mom was living.  In 2004, she took her kids to a Young Eagles aviation program where, Godsign #1, she met Fred Gray, a reporter. She told him about her work. “People need to know about you,” he said, and wrote a front page story for the Petoskey News Review.

Through Fred, Mary connected with North Central Michigan College. The chair of liberal arts declined her request to be an adjunct teacher. But within 24 hours the college’s marketing department called. Godsign #2: There was a last-minute cancellation in their lecture series. Could Mary be there in an hour?

Mary sped to the campus and extemporized about the rare transit of Venus across the sun in 2004. She explained its significance, including prophesies about the end of the world coinciding with the end of the Mayan calendar that would mark the end of the transit in 2012. Mary received a standing O. Godsign #3: The president of the college was in the audience.  She told the head of liberal arts, “We have to hire her.” Mary became a regular guest lecturer.

Michigan Gov. Snyder and Mary celebrate the Dark Sky Park.

2009 was the International Year of Astronomy and the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first use of the telescope. Mary staged a 2 night event at Petoskey’s Perry Hotel focused on environmental light pollution. She’d been working to win an official Dark Sky Park designation for the Headlands property.  In 2011, she succeeded. Astronomy buffs knew Venus would transit the sun in 2012. Previously the park had about 1500 visitors a year. After the designation, visitors came from around the world, about 1000 a day. “The designation made it a destination,” she says.

The ancients believed different regions of the zodiac relate to different parts of our bodies, Mary says. Taurus the bull (my sign) is associated with the larynx. The ancients, who saw the stars as the outer vestige of gods and goddesses, believed the gift of speaking comes from the region of Taurus. They also believed we each come from a particular star. Mary quotes Plato, in Timaeus: “… after having thus framed the Universe, he (the Creator) allotted to it souls equal in number to the stars…”

Mary thinks expressions like “follow your star” and “wish upon a star” prove man’s ongoing sense that we’re connected to starry worlds. She quotes Keats in Endymion: “I believe the natural world speaks to us.”

Mary considers constellations easier to find when seen in relation to neighboring constellations. “Knowing the stars supports harmony in community life because we find our way to each other by knowing where we are in relationship to those around us.”

Thanks for sharing such wisdom, Mary. We could use a little more harmony here on earth.  Hopefully, it’s in our stars.

(Thanks, Maris Harrington, for the stellar introduction to Mary.)

If you are visiting northern Michigan, click on this map to learn more about visiting Headlands.

Kim Baker and Manna make northern Michigan a friendlier, better fed place

Volunteers at Manna, from left: Tom Jeffs, Judy Goldsmith, Georgia Lindstrom and Jane McDonald.

Kim’s been feeding people for most of his life.  He once fed their souls.  Now he focuses on their stomachs.  He directs northern Michigan’s Manna Food Project, which nourishes nearly 400,000 people a year.

Kim Baker

As a student at Hope College, Kim majored in archaeology and studied Greek, Latin and ancient Hebrew.  He went on 2 digs in Jordan, working on a site that was Byzantine, then early Islamic.  He discovered and became an expert on tabun clay ovens.  About the excavations, he said, “It’s miserable work but so exciting to discover new things.”

Kim earned a masters in theology, which “reinforced the way I was brought up.”   He grew up in a “solid Christian family” in Grand Rapids.  His parents gave time and money to a homeless shelter.  Kim and his brother served food to the hungry.  The family moved to NoMI, a place Kim loved and hoped to someday retire.  (Spoiler alert: he got here, but far from retired.)

Downstate, Kim worked for the Reformed Church of America in publishing and PR for 15 years, then 10 more fundraising for the Detroit Institute of Arts.  Hired away by the Red Cross, he was soon sent to northern MI to reach out to previous donors.  Arriving in Petoskey, he thought, “I’m home.”

In 2016, Kim became exec director of Manna.  It operates a food bank (distribution center), food rescue program, weekly food pantry and a backpack program.   Though this corner of northern Michigan is  filled with rambling summer homes belonging to deep-pocketed occupants, 12 percent of residents in Charlevoix, Antrim and Emmett counties live below the poverty line.  Many hold minimum wage seasonal jobs without which the area would no longer be such a desirable destination. These locals depend on help with food expenses.

Manna has an emergency fund to assist clients in desperate need.  Kim mentions a young single mother who held 2 jobs, one as a housekeeper at a resort.  She called just before Christmas.  Her rent was due.  She lacked the money to heat her house.  “We were able to carry her through to her first pay check,” Kim says.

A couple with a young child lived near Kim in Horton Bay.  They’d run out of propane during one of Michigan’s cold winters.  They had no food; their cars were busted.  They were heating their house with the stove and rickety space heaters.  Manna supplied them with propane.  Kim dropped off emergency boxes of food.

Kim says, “My heart goes out to folks who are working hard and still can’t make ends meet.”

Over 250 Manna volunteers help with collecting nearly expired or overstocked food from places like Walmart and Aldi, distributing it to soup kitchens.  They assemble about 2000 backpacks of food a week for school children to take home on weekends.

Kim’s enthused about his latest initiative, Produce for People, providing fresh fruits and vegetables.  Kim personally visited a dozen area farmers to negotiate contracts.  Through support from foundations and private donations, Manna works with farmers to purchase “a huge variety” of fresh produce at or below wholesale.  Kim points out that healthy eating helps reduce heart problems, obesity and diabetes.  The program also supports local farmers.

“It’s a win/win,” he says.  ”I can’t say enough about our local farming community.  I have visited their farms, sat at their kitchen tables, walked their fields, listened to their stories.  It means a lot to them  to help feed the hungry.  They so appreciate the opportunity.”

One of the farmers working with Manna is our neighbor Russ Bolt Jr.  Russ grows sensational fresh corn, which our family devours in August.  Russ’ parents are much loved artists in NoMI.  (You can read more about Sue Bolt in this earlier column.)  If Russ ends up with more corn than he can sell, Kim says, he donates it to Manna.

Farmers’ biggest cost is harvesting, Kim says.  Knowing there’s a market for their goods makes farming more predictable.

I ask about the shortage of help during harvest seasons, help that enables produce to be picked at its peak.  How can Kim count on farmers to deliver broccoli, baby melons, onions, etc., in the quantities ordered?  He’s even got that figured out.  “We’re sending our volunteers.”

As part of the healthy eating initiative, Manna offers Crock Pot cooking classes in conjunction with the Michigan State U. extension.  This year 400 people took the classes at churches and community centers.  Each participant took home a new Crock Pot, a set of knives, etc.  Kim says, “When clients tasted our Harvest Vegetable Chili recipe, over and over we heard, ‘I never thought I’d like the taste of kale.’”  Next year’s classes will feature blenders.

Kim sees his work at Manna as “an opportunity to live out my faith, to love God by loving and serving others.”

In his spare time, Kim enjoys cooking.  His father taught him to make an omelette when he was in 4th grade.  “I learned everything I know from my dad.”  Along with his father and brother, Kim has restored antiques, manufactured lighting, and built houses.  His dad taught him “if you need a tool, buy it.  You’ll always need it again.”  In his spare time, he’s restoring his own house in Horton Bay.  “When you know how to do something, it’s hard to pay someone else to do it.”

It’s a joy to meet someone whose ministry has such a broad reach.   Thanks, Kim, for all you do to keep northern Michigan healthy and vibrant and to keep much needed workers in our neck of Lake Michigan.

Kim Baker at Manna Food Project in Harbor Springs.

The VanHoutens are among a growing number of grandparents raising grandchildren

Ken and LaShelle VanHouten read to little Karter. (Photo courtesy of Capture Me Photography.)

My friend LaShelle had come a long way.  She’d taught art to challenged high schoolers for several years.  She’d written and promoted a book on religious outsider artist Ed Lantzer.  She’d met and married Ken, a successful builder in Northern Michigan.  She looked forward to tackling her next project.

Little did she know that next project would be her 9 month old grandson.

The latest US Census indicates some 2.4 million grandparents have become caregivers for their grandchildren.  The predominant cause: parents’ drug addictions.

LaShelle’s daughter Kaleigh was diagnosed bipolar in 8th grade.  LaShelle had sensed it long before.  Kaleigh’s father had left when she was 10.  After, Kaleigh seldom saw him.  At 13, she made her first suicide attempt.  A doctor put her on Zoloft.  “It made her worse,” her mom says.

Over the years, Kaleigh overdosed with pills more than 11 times.  Two attempts led to her being  hospitalized on a ventilator in intensive care.  About her mood swings, she told her mom, “I don’t want to be this way.”

LaShelle says, “It was a struggle to keep her alive and help her have a stable, productive life.” Counselors, psychiatrists, medication adjustments, pep talks—nothing worked for long.  After one suicide attempt, LaShelle took days off from work and packed the car.  Mother and daughter went for a spontaneous drive, ending up in Chicago.

Kaleigh and LaShelle on a good day in the maternity ward.

“I hoped getting away would help.”  They walked to museums, restaurants, shops; talked and laughed and “had the best time.”  It helped “for a while.”  After another attempt, LaShelle sent Kaleigh to CA to spend time with LaShelle’s sister.  LaShelle “prayed and prayed.”  Kaleigh was in and out of psych wards but never for more than a few days.  Her single mom lacked the resources for a long stay.

Matt fathered Kaleigh’s first 2 children, Ellianna and Matthew.  When  Kaleigh had  Elliana, at 23, her mood lifted.  “I thought I had my child back,” LaShelle says.   But with Matthew, Kaleigh’s mood plummeted.  Suffering from endometriosis, she received painkillers.  “Her drug addiction sparked.”  At one point during Kaleigh’s on and off relationship with Matt, she dated Chris and became pregnant with Karter.

Despite her struggles with her daughter, LaShelle went back to school.  On the day her first marriage ended, LaShelle received her bachelor’s degree.  She began teaching at a school for troubled teens, using the arts to reach them. She met Ed Lantzer, a homeless carpenter who volunteered to work with her students.  (Here’s an earlier column about that project.)

LaShelle put on a happy face, but inside, she was “crumbling.”  She says, “I kept thinking: I can reach these kids, but I can’t help my own daughter.”  While she’d be teaching, her daughter would call.  “She’d always have some catastrophe, like being stuck in a blizzard with a flat tire.”

LaShelle greeting little Karter.

Karter was born in 2016.  “By then,” LaShelle says, “drugs had taken Kaleigh  over.”  LaShelle had since married Ken.  The couple thought her daughter might feel more secure with a home of her own and bought one in her name.  LaShelle and her sister worked for months fixing up the house. “Instead of being excited, Kaleigh found reasons not to be there.  A friend needed her.  Someone broke into her apartment.”

LaShelle worried about her grandchildren.  Kaleigh called, saying, “I need a break.  Come get the kids.”  LaShelle received another call: from Child Protective Services.  Someone had reported child neglect.   Either their grandmother would take the children or CPS would put them in foster care.

LaShelle had a book talk and big event scheduled in Chicago that weekend.  She canceled.  “I had no choice.”

LaShelle recalls the day CPS knocked on her door with her 3 grandchildren.  Would she take them?  “’Yes’ came out of my mouth before I thought about it.  I packed up 3 kids under 3, and somehow got them into a truck and to the courthouse to sign guardianship papers.”  Unknown to LaShelle, CPS had also contacted Matt, the father of the older 2.  He met her at court and took them.

Now for the bright side…

LaShelle had been through a series of failed relationships—men unable to cope with her responsibility for a bipolar child.  She’d taken time off from dating, to prove to herself she could survive without a man.

During this hiatus, her brother told her, “I’ve met your future husband.”

“I’m not interested,” she said.

For 8 months, her brother persisted.  LaShelle finally agreed.  She and Ken, a well-respected NoMI builder, were going to see a movie. He picked her up early; they waited at the Outback.  LaShelle thought to herself: I’m going to throw my baggage out there.  He’ll be up and out the door.


But Ken surprised her.  He understood what she was going through.  His mother’s bipolar.  The couple have been together for 9 years; married for 8.  They live near our farm in Ellsworth, MI.  “Ken handles Kaleigh better than I do,” LaShelle says.  “We’re a great team.  But mental illness takes a toll financially, emotionally and physically.”

When she and Ken first took in Karter, LaShelle says, “I bawled my eyes out.  I was grieving my future, my life, my daughter.  I told Ken: ‘I don’t know how we’re going to do this.’”   Karter was 9 months old.  His head was smaller than normal.  He couldn’t sit in a highchair or pick up food with his fingers.  He was underweight, not immunized, malnourished.

LaShelle says, “I was supposed to be retiring, enjoying my husband and my last trimester of life with friends.  Instead, I felt so alone.”  She learned about a Facebook Page for grandparents in similar situations, The Addicts Mom (G2G) Grandparent2Grandparent.  “I was struck by how many grandparents are raising grandchildren whose parents lost their lives to drug addiction.”

In a month, Karter had gained weight, his cheeks started filling out, his color improved.

As for LaShelle, “After 6 months, I felt a shift.  My attitude was no longer: How in the world do I do this?   Karter has become a vibrant, happy little 2-year old who walks around the house singing ‘ABCs’ or ‘Wheels of the Bus’ with a toy car or plane in each hand.   What’s unexpected is how much joy Karter has brought us.  When Ken comes home from work, his face lights up when he sees Karter. “

Karter now goes to school 3 mornings a week and “loves it.”  LaShelle wants him to stay close to his siblings.  Every 2 weeks, she and Ken host a sleepover for all 3 children.  Meanwhile, his mother has been in jail for drug possession since April.

LaShelle says, “I wanted to be the perfect mom with the perfect family.  There’s such shame involved in raising a child with mental illness.  There’s no resolution as there can be with a physical illness.  Over the years, my mother and I did everything we could for Kaleigh.  Ken helped me see I had to step back.  I wasn’t helping her, I was enabling her.  And she was soaking us dry financially.”

Raising Karter has given LaShelle a chance to be the mom she once hoped to be.  “I’m committed to doing whatever’s needed to see that Karter grows up happy, loving and secure.”  While she and Ken have full guardianship, they can’t adopt their grandson because Kaleigh’s parental rights have not been terminated.  Kaleigh could take her son back someday.

LaShelle appreciates the spiritual dimension of her recent role.  “I believe God prepares us for challenges.  I retired early, my book came out, Ed’s panels started to travel.”  (They’re currently on display at Carmel Catholic High school In Mundelein, IL.)  “God knew I’d be needed full time.”

For now, the VanHoutens are enjoying the time they have with their grandson/son.  As for the future?  “It’s in God’s hands.”


One day after this column published, Kaleigh was released from jail. She told her mom she feels great and is excited about her future. She hopes to go to college to become a substance abuse counselor to help others with similar problems. She wants to be the mother she couldn’t be on drugs, as drugs took away her emotions. LaShelle says, “For now, it’s one day at a time, one second at a time. Kaleigh looks toward a clean and healthy life and future, which she says is the only choice for her now.”

To the whole family: Godspeed.

Karter enjoying life along the shore.