Love and loss and the price we pay for friendship

Having friends enriches our lives, but it comes with a cost

I’ve been thinking about love and loss and the price we pay for friendship. I try not to dwell, but sometimes my heart will catch on something the way a sleeve catches on a sliver of wood.

Marj Jackson Levin had a long career as a Detroit journalist, writer and activist for equal rights for women. Click on her photo to read her bio in the Jewish Women’s Archives.

It happened earlier this week. Driving home from the dentist, I turned down a side street, then found myself in front of the house where my late friend Marj lived. Marj was a journalist who also alienated a few subjects in her day. She wrote for the Free Detroit Free Press; I, for the competing Detroit News. We attended writers’ conferences together and toasted sunsets on Lake Michigan up north. Dying, she continued to host cocktail hours in her bedroom. In her memory, I still savor vodka with Clamato juice.

There’ve been so many more fabulous dames. Cancer took most of them down, way too soon.

There was Jackie, a sculptor who gave up her practice to open a gallery in the Fisher Building because she thought artists working around the Cass Corridor area of Wayne State U. deserved decent representation. That led to the blockbuster Kick Out the Jams exhibition at the DIA and to greater recognition of talented Detroit creators. Jackie was determined to attend my 40th birthday party, and she did. Her last outing.

There was Bobbye, my first friend, who had an impeccable sense of design, and whose husband, David, I spotted on the same day she did. Bobbye brought me an eyebrow color compact while I was in treatment. Thankfully, my eyebrows returned but I still use the compact. I thank Bobbye whenever I do.

Suzy with Gertrude Kasle. Click the photo to read Suzy’s earlier column about her friend Gertrude.

And Gertrude, a visionary who brought to Detroit artists who became international stars. She lured them to flyover country with a promise to sell at least one painting per show. Often, she sold that one painting to herself. From Gertrude I learned to buy art for love, not investment—an attitude that runs contrary to much of today’s art market.

And Marji, a fashion editor for the Detroit Free Press. When I returned to the D to live, I had trouble finding a job. Marji heard Fairchild Publications was looking for “a man with experience.” She recommended me anyway. I got the position.

And Tavy, wildly creative fashion editor for the Detroit News. She wrote one of my all time favorite bits of fashion commentary on the 1970s fashion trend called “Hot Pants.”

She penned a poem that concluded:
“Unless your legs are perfect joys
Short little pants are for short little boys.”

And Marilyn, a wisecracking, wise friend for all seasons. We watched foreign movies together and, after, shared lettuce cups at the bar of PF Chang. Marilyn and sister Sharon celebrated one New Year’s Eve with us on a snowy hay ride to the new pavilion at our farm.

And another Marjie, hostess and storyteller without peer. She told me the legendary Robert Frost and Ogden Nash joke and patiently went through it with me again while I wrote it down. It remains my best routine.

And Julie—upbeat, farsighted. She saw and fostered Detroit’s cool factor and helped found MOCAD. Her hard work and enthusiasm influenced artists to move to the D.

And Claire and Virginia, brilliant retailers who mentored me when I started writing about fashion.

And, and, and. By myself on a ski slope several years ago, I dedicated each run to a different girlfriend. I ran out of legs before I ran out of friends. As soon as I send this column, a dozen more names will occur. Each time I lose a friend, another hole opens in my heart, which feels like a hunk of Jarlsberg.

Still, considering the laughs and insight, the support, fun and memories—the joy my girlfriends bring me, I’m willing to pay the price.

The Mi Shebeirach, or Jewish prayer of healing, includes this line: “Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing.” My girlfriends have been and are a blessing to me. I’m honored to know, and have known, them.

Alfred Lord Tennyson was right. Better to have loved and lost than never loved at all.

I just wish it didn’t hurt so much.

Though breast cancer interrupted young mom Ali Weitz’s best laid plans, she survives and thrives

The Weitz family after the birth of the girls.

With shiny, long blonde hair and a seemingly blessed life, Ali Weitz was a golden girl.  At 30, she lived in the tony suburb of Bloomfield Hills, MI, happily married to a young man to whom she was introduced by his mother and hers.   She and Andrew, her husband of 4 years, had an adorable baby boy, Wyatt.   Ali and Andrew were ready to get pregnant again.

Ali Weitz wears a cool cap during chemo, accompanied by her husband Andrew.

When Ali was 1, her sister Amanda, 15, died of leukemia.  Ali says, “Even though I really didn’t get the chance to know Amanda, I grew up with an intuitive drive to make it all count.”

Earlier, Ali had felt a lump in her breast.  A doctor had performed a biopsy and lumpectomy but was “confident” it was benign.  No one in her family had a history of breast cancer or of the BRCA jean.  So Ali wasn’t worried.

Wyatt was about to turn 2.  Ali was busy arranging playdates and checking off lists,  planning a future nursery and “focusing on the ‘normal’ things 30 year old women think about.”  She sat holding her cell phone scrolling through Pinterest for ideas on Mickey Mouse themed parties.

On September 9, 2015, the phone rang.  Breast cancer.

Ali says, “My life came to a screeching halt.”

Thus began what Ali calls her “life altering journey.”  She discovered what we who’ve faced a similar challenge discover: the first days of uncertainty are torture.

Suddenly Ali found herself meeting with surgeons and specialists.  Dr. Jeffrey Margolis, a respected oncologist at Royal Oak’s Beaumont Hospital, became Ali’s “quarterback.”  She says, “My cheer leading squad of loving family and friends put me in touch with the best of the best.  I was used to planning out everything.  I needed a plan.”

Her team developed that plan.  Step 1: Immediate fertility treatment before chemo disrupted her reproductive system.  Step 2: Double mastectomy.  Step 3: 6 aggressive chemo treatments.  “It would be a tough year,” Ali says.  “But at least we had a plan.”

Ali shared her story of survival with members of Detroit’s Temple Beth El on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.  My heart ached for her.  She was so young.  When I faced my cancer battle, I was twice her age.  And I thought I was young.

Cancer has no respect for age.

While initiating her plan, 3 years to the very day she spoke at Temple Beth El, Ali received a another call.  Her fertility specialist, doing blood work to prepare for Ali’s egg retrieval,  discovered his patient was 4 weeks pregnant.  “I was already mourning the loss of my so-called perfect life,” Ali says.  “I felt robbed of my innocence, and now I’d have to lose my baby and face the reality I might never carry a baby again.  I didn’t think life could get any worse.  But I put a smile on my face that night and suffered in secret.”

Ali’s pregnancy was terminated.  A double mastectomy followed.  3 days later, still hooked up to drains, Ali was wheeled into the fertility office to complete the egg retrieval for which she’d prepared.

Before starting chemo, this determined young woman flew to California for her sister-in-law Jamie’s wedding.    “While I was in pain, insecure and terrified, the thought of missing an event we’d planned for months made me sadder than staying home in the comfort of my post-surgery chair.”

Ali put on a pretty dress and walked down the aisle.  “I was scared, insecure, uncomfortable and half the person I thought I was.  To this day, when I look at photographs from that night, I don’t know how I did it.  I’m proud of the woman who found the strength to walk down that aisle with her head held high and celebrate the good.”

Ali returned home “to a cold, dark winter with nothing to look forward to.”  She had a port implanted in her left arm and underwent 6 rounds of chemo.  Her mom, her “head cheerleader,” encouraged her to wear a cool cap during chemo treatments.  “With all the physical changes my body was going through, she thought keeping my hair would help me feel more like myself,” Ali said.  (According to the ACS, cooling constricts blood vessels in the scalp, minimizing the toxic chemicals that penetrate hair follicles.  The cap stays on for 12 hours.)  Ali remained a beautiful blonde throughout.

“For me, the worst part of the ordeal was being so disconnected.  The fast-paced world was moving past me.  I had to put my life on pause for a year.”

Ali discovered the remarkable concern of others.  “People I barely knew stepped up to help.  My friends organized dinners.  One drove Wyatt to school every day.  Close friends took me to chemo.  When the going gets tough, you learn who’s there for you.  On my last chemo treatment, many friends and family members stopped by to keep me company and cheer me on to the finish line.  While everyone applauded as the 12 hour chemo and cold cap process ended, I burst into tears.

“The hardest part was just beginning. I felt lost.  I didn’t know who I was or how to become the person I used to be.  For the first few months post-chemo, I was too depressed to even respond to text messages or attend social gatherings.  I had ‘survivor’s guilt,’ having gotten to know many others suffering from cancers for which there was no cure.”  (Ali’s was HER2 + stage 1.)  One of those others was her dear friend Lindsay Finsilver, her “pillar of strength and light,” who since died.

After a few months, Ali says, “I was ready to find the old me.  The problem was I couldn’t just resume life as that person.  I had to apply the old me to my new self.”

Ali spent time working at Steve’s (her mother’s deli and Burton’s and my go-to for corned beef sandwiches).  A few months later, she began “making up for time I’d missed and being Wyatt’s mom.”  As she continued to feel better, she started helping others who’d been diagnosed, encouraging them to wear cool caps.

“Counseling others, I began finding the gift in my experience.   Being a source of strength for others,  letting them know I walked in their shoes, I found a new version of myself and my purpose.  While I still like to plan, I realize things don’t always work out as planned, and that’s okay, too.

“Today, 3 years after I received the second worst phone call of my life, I am here, proud to say I somehow got my fast-paced life back.  But I make an effort to slow down and appreciate the little things.”

The day Ali spoke, 3 of those little things waited for her in the foyer: her rambunctious son, Wyatt, and 2 rosy-cheeked infants, swathed in pink in a double stroller.  Lolita Amelia is named for Ali’s friend Lindsay and sister Amanda; Simone Faye, for Ali and Andrew’s grandmothers.  The couple’s biological twins were born with the help of a gestational carrier.

When Ali finished speaking, Rabbi Mark Miller joined her.  He marveled that throughout her trials, she’d managed to smile on.  Ali said, “I tried to keep my worries somewhat private but to show up for others with a smile on my face.”  Ali wears a smiley face gold ring, a gift from a dear family friend.  When she was being wheeled in for surgery, a nurse asked her to take off the ring.  “I can’t,” she said.  And didn’t.

Brava, Ali, for your courage and compassion.  Thanks for sharing such a powerful story.  Smile on.

Family surrounds Ali Weitz after she tells her story.

Principal LaShawn Houston-Frost brings out the best in students at Sarasota’s Booker Middle School

LaShawn’s the type of educator we all wish we’d had, but few of us did.  She’s a miner of sorts.  She plumbs the depth of students’ minds seeking what moves them.

Principal LaShawn Houston-Frost

LaShawn’s always known her own mind.  Now she’s sharing her confidence, knowledge and caring with 800 students at Sarasota’s Booker Middle School, renowned for super talented musicians and performers.  The school’s mission statement: Where inner talents become outer strengths.

Becoming an educator was not LaShawn’s intended path.  Her parents, who owned a restaurant, expected their precocious, willful daughter to become a lawyer.  She shared their expectations.  But a funny thing happened on the way to law school.  LaShawn volunteered at a Sarasota County program for unwed teen mothers.

“I was excited to educate and empower girls,” she said.  So excited that she switched direction, earned a master’s in counseling, and began working in a teen parent program.

From her earliest memories, LaShawn’s been decisive.  At 6, she fought with her mother about how to dress and wear her hair.  “Mom wanted cute little pigtails.”  She groans.

On her birthday, which coincides with Valentine’s Day, she longed to wear her red dress.   “No,” her mother said.  LaShawn dressed as her mother wanted but took a bag of items “for show and tell.”  In fact, the bag held the forbidden red dress, which she put on the minute she arrived at school.  “I had a fabulous day,” she recalls.  The only problem: she forgot to change back before she got home.  Caught, red handed.

She recalls the incident with a smile.  “I’d come up with a plan and executed it.  At 6, I wasn’t just a rebel, I was a visionary.”

LaShawn applies the same determination to her role as a school principal.  “I urge parents to look for their kids’ inner talents and encourage them.  Everyone cares about something.  I ask students: What are you passionate about?  As educators, it’s our job to seek out those passions, whether or not they’re likely to make them rich, and to nurture them.  Empowering students leads to self-sufficiency.”

But 800 students?  How can you know 800 students?

“I try to know all of them.  I put systems in place that help teachers to know them.  What I do isn’t a job.  It’s a mission, a lot like pastoring.  It takes patience and perseverance.  When most others would give up, I always feel there’s hope.”

It helps, she adds, to know the root of an issue.  A degree in counseling helps, too.

For many months LaShawn coached one teacher on how to win over her students.  The teacher “grew up in a Catholic school in an era when kids obeyed their teachers.  Her education was based on white middle class values.  What she saw as disrespect wasn’t necessarily meant that way. I walked her through the process of seeing through the lens of students who didn’t look like her or live in the same culture.”  After 2 years, the teacher thanked her for helping her understand things about herself.  LaShawn says, “I’ve seen her grow as a teacher and a person.”

There’s been a “paradigm shift” in the way education is handled at Booker.  Other schools  send representatives to observe.  In the past, LaShawn says, students sat in rows, facing the front, and were expected to be quiet unless called on.  “Today a lot of Fortune 500 companies won ’t hire individuals who can’t work in teams.  We’re teaching kids to be independent, creative thinkers.  In our classrooms you no longer see kids who are quiet and compliant.  They sit at round tables, 4 at a time.  They initiate discussions, propose subjects and engage in ‘accountable talk.’”  They work with technology and social media.

“Students need to be willing to take a risk and challenge themselves to master a skill without quitting.  I know they’re engaged when they get excited about learning.  They also need to assess what they’re learning.”  One day LaShawn approached a student having trouble with fractions.  He had a card to provide answers, saying he wouldn’t need the card once he became more fluent.  He added, “’Here’s where I am.  Here’s where I want to be.”

“When a student can identify the gaps, he knows what he has to do to close them.”

BMS’ student body is one of the most diverse in Sarasota County.  1/3 black, 1/3 Hispanic and 1/3 white.  Many from financially challenged homes.  LaShawn doesn’t coddle them.  She tells them, “Okay, we know you’re coming from a challenging situation.  What do you need to get where you want to go?  Smart is something you can get.  I’ve seen teachers take kids from not proficient to proficiency.  It’s doable.”

BMS students take at least 2 visual and/or performing arts classes a day.   Placement is based on ability, as determined by auditions.  Unlike many other schools, BMS visual & performing arts teachers have degrees in their respective areas.  Programs like the jazz band are exceptional.

LaShawn is hands on.  In the case of two feuding students, once best friends, she called them into her office together.  She said, “You need to understand the importance of communicating effectively.”  She laid out the ground rules: No interruptions.  Allow the other person to finish.  Be honest about your feelings.  Then she said, “Ladies, tell me what’s going on.”  Each girl explained her viewpoint.   It turned out they were both hurt about no longer being friends.

That situation took time, she says, and was one of many.  “Most principals wouldn’t get so involved. I feel strongly about teaching students to be productive citizens, leaders of the future.”

One student’s father was murdered.  His environment was “not healthy.”  In 6th grade, he was “angry.”  In 7th grade, “I saw him turning a corner.”  But one morning he was late to school.  She asked, “What’s going on?”  “I overslept,” he said.  “I gave him the parent look,” LaShawn says.  “I told him, ‘You need to be on time.  Someday you’ll have a job.  Show up late to work and you’ll be out of a job.’”

LaShawn detained one rebellious boy after school to complete his homework.  She stayed late with him, warning, “If you don’t complete tasks in life, you’ll be considered a quitter.“

LaShawn realizes the importance of compliance.  “If a rebellious young man is out in the community and stopped by the police, he may be asked to get out of his car.  Suppose he barks ‘Why?’  Regardless of race, kids need to learn to respect authority.  Or be faced with consequences, and not good ones.  My goal is to equip them for life.  I deal with some pretty tough kids.  I can be tough on them.  They know I have high expectations.  But in the end, they know I love ‘em.”

Thanks for sharing your philosophy, LaShawn.  And for all you do to make Sarasota a more talented and responsible community

Marilyn Silver leaves a legacy of stunning quilts, happy tastebuds and adoring family and friends

Marilyn Silver surrounded by her family.

Marilyn was a four-season friend.  From NoMI to Sarasota, we shared drinks, meals, plane rides and adventures.  Her late husband Bob was a friend, too, and Burton’s fishing buddy.

I met Marilyn some 50 years ago working on a Fashion Group fundraiser.  We created a fashion library named for Marilyn’s close friend and my colleague, late Detroit News fashion editor Tavy Stone.  Once a professional party planner, Marilyn was the perfect co-chair; the event: stellar.

In time, I watched Marilyn fight to save her son Randy, who died while still a young father.  I saw the countless nights Marilyn spent with him at Karmanos Cancer Center or on her sofa, trying to help him get comfortable, to find something he could eat.  We felt her despair over losing him, then watched her slowly find joy in life again.

Several years later, Bob became ill. Burton and I sat in his hospital room trying to figure something comforting to say while Marilyn moaned, “Why can’t they do something?”

Marilyn and Bob were married 62 years.   They’d drive to our farm south of Charlevoix—a tad hard to find.  They’d arrive still bickering about directions, Marilyn fuming, “I’m gonna divorce him.”  After Bob died, it was as though someone let the air out of Marilyn’s balloon.  She remained deflated for about a year, then rallied.  She focused on son and daughter-in-law Michael and Beth, sister Sharon, grandkids, a passel of nieces and nephews, and a horde of friends.

Her official obit reads: “A friend of almost everybody.”

Grandson Jack, giving Marilyn’s eulogy, called  his grandmother “loyal and generous.” He said, “She gave great advice.”   All true.  Marilyn and I traded book recommendations.  We attended oddball indie movies and discussed them after at the bar of PF Chang.

I love the quilt Marilyn made for me.

Marilyn was a talented artist.  She sewed dozens of quilts as gifts for family members and close friends.  I was honored to receive one.  For a recent birthday, Marilyn’s granddaughter Rachel had recipients take a photo with their quilts and published the photos in a book that attests to Marilyn’s creative talent.

Marilyn’s meals were also works of art.  Many began with gravlax from Bob’s fishing forays.  At the end of each dinner, Bob said, “That was the best meal I ever ate.”  An invitation to dine at Marilyn’s was a treat.  I’m blessed I was able to savor her cuisine while my stomach still cooperated.  It no longer does.  Just 12 days before Marilyn died, I sat at her dining table picking onions out of savory homemade meatloaf.  (The meal was technically prepared by Sharon.  Marilyn sat at the counter directing.)  “Suzy used to be my best customer,” Marilyn said.  “Now she’s a pain in the ass.”

(Next month, my sister and I will travel to Japan.  We’re staying at a ryokan, an inn where traditional food is served.  I alerted the trip organizer to my food issues,  saying I’d dine at the ryokan and eat what I could.  But I’ve been banished.  In an email, the organizer informed me the chef inspects plates after each course and becomes offended if food is left.   I’m just sorry Marilyn died before I could forward that email.)

Marilyn had flair.  Granddaughter Rachel once needed something to wear to a black tie event.  Marilyn owned a sequined shirt she wore with black pants.  As Rachel was then about 4 inches shorter, Marilyn suggested she wear the shirt as a dress.  “I got so many compliments,” Rachel says.  “All my friends wanted to borrow it.  Grama was so glamorous and creative.”

Marilyn’s style extended to her surroundings.  She and Bob built a home overlooking Round Lake in Charlevoix.  In the center of the great room—a red leather sofa.  Vaseline bowls, multi-colored goblets, boxes, pillows—treasures from her (sometimes our) antiquing excursions—were artfully arranged.  Days before she died, Marilyn bought exotic, well-trodden rugs from NoMI handbag maker Barbara May’s garage sale and had them turned into cushions.

Marilyn and her granddaughter Rachel

Rachel says, “She’d see a button or piece of trim at an antiques fair and know it was ‘something.’  A few months later, it turned up on a quilt.  She taught me to haggle on Canal Street in NY.   I didn’t visit my wedding venue ’til the day I was married because my grandmother and mother planned the whole thing.  Grama envisioned the ceiling of the tent looking like a tree with a trunk supporting it.  I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.”  (That’s saying a lot because Rachel runs a website, Love Stories TV, which features wedding videos.)

Only family and close friends knew about Marilyn’s cancer diagnosis.  She never wanted to be seen or treated as a victim.  When she first shared her illness with her family about 1 and 1/2 years ago, her extended family agreed to take shifts.  They stayed with Marilyn for a week or so at a time.  As she declined, someone she knew and loved was always there to help.

Marilyn thought, looked and acted years younger than 89.  She could, and did, talk to anyone of any age or station, including an hour long conversation with our then 5 year old granddaughter, Lindsay. Marilyn designed her home in Charlevoix to sleep multiples.  Nothing pleased her more than to have several of son Michael’s brawny biker buddies slumbering in her lower level.

Years ago, Marilyn advised me to wear eye make-up.  As Jack said, his grandmother gave good advice.  So when dressing for a funeral I knew would be tough, I dutifully applied eyeliner and mascara.  At the end of the service, there wasn’t much left.

I feared I wasn’t up to the challenge of capturing such a funny, feisty, much-loved friend.  Then I thought of the first line above.  In the funeral service, which—naturally—Marilyn planned, the rabbi read from Ecclesiastes, “To everything there is a season…”  It felt as though Marilyn gave me a thumbs up.

But 4 seasons x 50 years=200 seasons.  Not nearly enough.

As that wise bear Winnie said to Piglet, “If there ever comes a day when we can’t be together, keep me in your heart.  I’ll stay there forever.”

Matriarch, artist, chef, collector, host, sage and “friend to almost everybody.”  You’re forever in our hearts.

Neurosurgeon Dr. Paul Kalanithi reclaims his faith, shares his wisdom and dies with grace

When I first heard of When Breath Becomes Air, I thought: too sad to read.  But many months later, I sampled Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s memoir on my Kindle.  The writing was beautiful; the thinking, profound.  I was hooked.

Click on this photo from the website about Dr. Kalanithi’s life and work to learn much more. His website features videos, reviews of the book as well as a schedule of appearances by Paul’s wife Lucy.

A neurosurgeon and neuroscientist, Kalanithi had degrees from Stanford, Cambridge and Yale in literature and science.  The future was his.

At 36, he developed lung cancer.

Readers know my fondness for survival stories.   This isn’t one.  Paul Kalanithi died at 37.   But he lived brilliantly if all too briefly.   His memoir covers his younger years as well as his decision to become a doctor.  As a neurosurgeon, he recognized the crucial link between brain and personality.  “The call to protect life—and not merely life but another’s identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another’s soul—was obvious in its sacredness.”

As a chief resident, he acknowledges the long, back-breaking, precise attention demanded of him.   “…technical excellence was a moral requirement.  Good intentions were not enough, not when so much depended on my skills, when the difference between tragedy and triumph was defined by one or two millimeters.”

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

About his profession: “People often ask if it is a calling, and my answer is always yes.  You can’t see it as a job, because if it’s a job, it’s one of the worst jobs there is.”

If, God forbid, you had to have brain surgery, this was the doctor you’d want.

Kalanithi writes honestly about trials earlier in his marriage, his former passion for biking and hiking, deciding to freeze sperm before starting chemo, questioning whether or not to have a baby, appreciating his smart and sensitive oncologist.  He reads great literature, “searching for a vocabulary with which to make sense of death, to find a way to begin defining myself and inching forward again.”

Though Paul grew up in a devout Christian family, in his teens and 20s, he rejected religion.  “My notion of God and Jesus had grown, to put it gently, tenuous.  During my sojourn in ironclad atheism, the primary arsenal leveled against Christianity had been its failure on empirical grounds.  Surely enlightened reason offered a more coherent cosmos.  …There is no proof of God; therefore, it is unreasonable to believe in God.”

He acknowledges the bias science holds against religion.  And the flaw he comes to see in that bias.  His thoughts are so lucid and well-expressed you’ll want to read this remarkable paragraph more than once:

“Yet the paradox is that scientific methodology is the product of human hands and thus cannot reach some permanent truth.  We build scientific theories to organize and manipulate the world, to reduce phenomena into manageable units.  Science is based on reproducibility and manufactured objectivity.  As strong as that makes its ability to generate claims about matter and energy, it also makes scientific knowledge inapplicable to the existential, visceral nature of human life, which is unique and subjective and unpredictable.  Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.”

Kalanthi’s memoir was published posthumously by his wife, Lucy, also a doctor.  In the  Epilogue, Lucy writes, “Most of our family and friends will have been unaware, until the publication of this book, of the marital trouble Paul and I weathered toward the end of his residency.  But I am glad Paul wrote about it.  It’s part of our truth, another redefinition, a piece of the struggle and redemption and meaning of Paul’s life and mine.  …We each joked to close friends that the secret to saving a relationship is for one person to become terminally ill.”

I managed not to cry about the loss of this extraordinary man… until Lucy’s mention of visiting her  husband’s grave.  There, in the Santa Cruz Mountains overlooking the Pacific, Lucy takes a small bottle of Madeira, the wine she and Paul drank on their honeymoon.  “Each time I pour some out on the grass for Paul.”

I raise my glass to an amazing couple, for living with courage, conviction and compassion.  To Paul for showing us how to die with grace.  And to Lucy, for bearing witness.

Through the Good Hart Artist Residency, Susan and Bill Klco enrich Northern Michigan

Bill and Susan Klco

A fearless couple in the beautiful but tiny (pop: 493), out-of-the-way town of Good Hart, MI, decided to have some fun in their retirement.  Susan and Bill Klco (pronounced Kelso—the name’s Slovakian) have had a LOT of fun with their project.  And a LOT of work.

Bill owned and/or worked for software companies in the Netherlands, Paris and Kansas City.  Susan worked for the state of Michigan as a biologist, then taught or consulted in biology.  Both grew up in families of 8 kids.  They have 4 children, all grown.

Daughter Megan Klco Kellner and her husband Justin are both artists.  Susan and Bill watched the Kellners’ artist friends deal with student debt and competition for jobs and shows.

“We wanted to find a way to support artists,” Susan says.  “And to be creative in our own lives, through making wearable and functional art.”

Having traveled often and hosted many houseguests, the Kicos were used to sharing their home.   They enjoyed company.  And they had extra space above the garage.

Lightbulb moment: How about an artists’ residency?

Susan first convinced Bill of what seemed to me a far-fetched notion.  What artists would drag themselves and their supplies to the boonies so far north?

It turns out: dozens.

Susan and Bill attended a conference to learn how to set up and run an artist residency program.  Susan called the Crooked Tree Arts Center in Petoskey, with which she hoped to partner.  “It was a new idea up here,” Susan says.  “It took a bit of selling.  We’re not wealthy art patrons or society types with important connections.”

When Susan reached Liz Ahrens, exec director of CTAC, she found a kindred spirit.  “We’d been thinking about residencies,” Liz says.  “We needed someone to run with it.  I just wanted to be sure the call for artists described the remoteness of the location.”

The Good Hart Artists Residency has been going on for 5 years.  The philosophy, according to the website.  “… connecting people from different backgrounds and cultures opens minds and makes for a more interesting and compassionate world.”

When their children were growing up, the Klcos hosted several foreign exchange students.  “We always felt we received more than we gave,” Susan says.  The Klco kids picked up the travel bug.  Son David traveled to Romania “to hold babies in an orphanage.”  David and Megan helped dig a church foundation in Peru.  Daughter Mara traveled to China and India.   Last spring Susan and Bill attended the wedding of their exchange daughter from Italy.

The program extends an open call to artists several months ahead.  Selected artists visit for 2-3 weeks at a time.  Each artist interacts with the community, through a class or lecture and Saturday open studio.  Each receives a $500 stipend.  In 2018 there were 113 applicants for 5 spots. Another benefit of the program: Susan’s frequent home-cooked meals.  CTAC’s Liz Ahrens calls Susan “a phenomenal cook,” lauding the scones Susan bakes for residency artists’ talks at CTAC.  Susan’s husband Bill agrees, noting the size of the family in which Susan grew up.  He says, “Susan cooks big.”

I learned about the residency program when artist Mami Takahashi spoke this past summer at CTAC.  Mami gave a fascinating talk about the immigrant experience in America and the art she makes to illuminate that experience.

Click on the photo to learn more about Mami Takahashi

So far, the program’s had only one near casualty.

Artist Amanda Boyd manipulates candles or an oil lamp below a canvas to create artworks made from smoke and flame.  During a workshop at the CTAC. kerosene from the lamp Amanda was using started burning down into the reserve fuel.  Susan jumped in with a stainless steel bowl, rushed the lamp outside and extinguished the fire.

Despite the work involved, the Klcos are going strong  They’ve taken over the administration of the program, initially handled by CTAC.

Architect’s sketch of the new home.

Bill’s building a small ADA compliant house with an attached studio down the hill from their home for future artists.  They want to be able to accommodate artists with dependents.  They’ve applied for a grant to offer a residency for a K-12 Michigan art teacher.

And that’s not all…

Another of the Klco kids is a librarian.  Daughter Mara Klco, director of MI’s Indian River Library, convinced them to add a writer’s residency.  This year they hosted visiting writer, Bryna Cofrin-Shaw.  The family’s love of books stems from Susan and Bill’s never having had TV reception or cable TV.  “We wanted our kids to be outside,” their mom says.  And, when inside, to read.

Thanks, Susan and Bill, for your determination, pluck and sensitivity.  Thanks for all you’re doing to make NoMI an even more beautiful and literate place.

Walter Green spends a year thanking people who influenced him

Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.
Albert Schweitzer

At a low point in my life—marriage problems, flagging self-esteem, sick mother—I dragged myself to California to attend a program run by the late Debbie Ford. I’d devoured her self-help book, The Dark Side of the Light Chasers.  Debbie taught our group of woebegone disciples to create a gratitude list. Despite my troubles, I realized I had lots to be thankful for.

Returning home, I shared the experience with a dear friend, also in a slump. She denied having anything for which to be grateful.

“What about your good hair?” I asked. “Your sense of style? Your delicious brownies? Start small.”

She, too, perked up.

So I was primed to appreciate Walter Green. He devoted a year of his life to thanking people who’d meaningfully influenced him. His motivation came partly from regret over not having fully expressed gratitude to his mother. She’d survived the family’s financial ruin when her husband’s business failed, a radical mastectomy at 37, raised 2 sons and lived through the deaths of 2 husbands. She wrote annual reviews of 75 books she considered each year’s best, charged for them and donated the returns to the library. (I have a soft spot for bibliophiles.)

Walter and his wife, Lola, live in Cali and are friends of my sister. Walter was Chairman and CEO of Harrison Conferences Services, which became the leading conference center management company in the U.S. After 25 years, he sold his business and began mentoring others.

Reflecting on those who nurtured and advised him along the way, he came up with 44 names.  Walter writes, “I don’t think anyone is, in fact, self made.  Without parents, colleagues, family or friends, where would any of us be?”

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Walter’s list included family members, friends, teachers, colleagues and customers.  He arranged conversations with each, told them what they meant to him and recorded their conversations. He took a photo with each and sent them a copy, plus a cassette of their discussion and a plaque.  He wrote a book about the experience, This Is the Moment!

I was especially drawn to Walter’s passage on Fred Jervis, 87, founder of the Center for Constructive Change. Fred was blinded, at 19, in WWII. Walter asked him about the impact of his blindness. Fred said he thought it gave him an edge. Since Fred was unable to make visual observations, Walter writes, “he’d developed a remarkable ability to ask questions that helped his clients clarify their purpose and achieve their hoped-for results.”

During what Walter calls his gratitude journey, he learned about columnist Art Buchwald.  In hospice with a terminal kidney disease, Buchwald had time to write another book. He asked some friends to write eulogies about him to include in his book. Among them: broadcast journalists Tom Brokaw and Mike Wallace and former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.  Walter writes of those eulogies, “I’m sure those who wrote them received equal satisfaction and closure from the fact that Art got to hear them.”

Walter provides a road map for readers to launch their own gratitude journeys.  With an in-person encounter, he suggests picking a place that’s quiet; meeting at a specific time in a  setting such as where you first met or someplace he or she would appreciate. He expressed gratitude to wife Lola at a safari camp in Kenya. Among the things he said, “Your spontaneity and love of life have been an incredibly vital counterpoint to my structured and disciplined approach to almost everything.”

Walter advises prolonging the moment with a pursuit you both enjoy. If your expression takes place in a phone call, he recommends making an appointment to talk—to emphasize the significance of the moment and make sure the other person has enough time.

Walter suggests coming up with a special remembrance. He mentions Oprah Winfrey’s commissioning of a quilt for Maya Angelou’s birthday. I’d guess it was a Story Quilt. And that she presented it on the cruise mentioned in my recent column at which Rennie Kaufmann was a featured singer.

In The Invention of Wings, an Oprah Book Club pick set in the 1800s, Handful, a slave, is a talented seamstress.  She sews a Story Quilt depicting images from her life.  Creating and treasuring quilts was a significant part of African American history, especially among slaves who were forbidden to read or write.

Today, contemporary African American artist Sanford Biggers paints on quilts.  In 2014, his stunning reworked quilts were exhibited at Sarasota’s Ringling Museum.  I was knocked out to learn they’d been donated by descendants of slave owners.

Mark Twain said, “To get the full value of joy you must have someone to divide it with.”  Thanks, dear reader, for being my someone.  And thanks, Walter, for sharing a great idea.

Lola and Walter Green