Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Writing I Didn't Want to Do but Was Honored to Complete

I was asked to write an obituary for a remarkable woman, truly what people would call a "character", someone who made my "family I've chosen" better with her presence, her candor, her unsappy approach to compassion. After writing it, I gave it to her husband Bill for him to give to the newspaper. Unfortunately, a snafu meant that it didn't appear the day before the funeral. I intervened, tried logic, then asked for humanity to prevail and unfortunately, the bottom line was the only thing the business side of the paper was interested in. At more than $800, I thought the charges were excessive when the item wouldn't appear until the day of the funeral. So I switched approaches. A call to the News Desk resulted in a feature story, celebrating her volunteerism, that appeared last night online and the day of the funeral on page 2 of the City Section and above the fold.

Carolyn would not have enjoyed the attention, but would have been thoroughly pleased that we beat the system and got it all for free. They didn't use my version of the story and as a result got a few great quotes from Bill that I didn't. But in case you never had the privilege of meeting her, here's my introduction to a great woman who loved and lived life to the fullest:

Carolyn Sharber, 75, died June 17. Her sudden death occurred as she was fulfilling one of her many volunteer roles – assisting Texas Lovin’ Cloggers prior to a performance in Branson, MO.

Born in Elizabeth City, NC, Carolyn spent 39 years in classrooms in New Orleans and Houston. She and her husband, Bill, recently celebrated their 54th wedding anniversary. Childhood sweethearts, they attended grade school and high school together and graduated from East Carolina University.

Upon her retirement from teaching physical education, Carolyn began a second “career” of volunteerism. Her commitments included Braes Interfaith Ministries, Omega House (an AIDS hospice), Interfaith Care Partners, and the Livestock Committee of the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo. She was a member of Willow Meadows Baptist Church where she faithfully did whatever task needed to be done.

Known for her sense of humor, compassionate spirit, and practical approach to work and play, Carolyn was able to bring a lighter side to many of the serious issues connected to her volunteerism. Fifteen years ago, upon being told that hospice volunteers were needed for cooking, cleaning and patient care at Omega House, Carolyn quickly acknowledged that she would happily do the laundry but since she kept her cookbooks in her oven at home, she wouldn’t be cooking anywhere else either. At the church, her aversion to cooking prompted other volunteers to capture her one experience in the kitchen on film.

Upon hearing of her death, numerous friends and acquaintances began recounting their experiences with Carolyn’s selfless acts of befriending the outcast and recruiting of others to join her in her volunteer activities.

“Carolyn gave her life to service, caring for everyone but herself,” said her husband Bill. “You would never find a better friend. I could never have found a better partner.”

Carolyn is also survived by a sister, Mary Ann Knight of Garner, NC; two nieces Sheryl Holbrook and Donna Barefoot; a nephew Randal Hardesty; and close friend Buncy Nemec.

The funeral will take place Wednesday, June 23, at 10 a.m. at Willow Meadows Baptist Church, 4300 West Bellfort. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the church youth programs to scholarship youth activities.

Truly a sanitized version, the best things about Carolyn were her approach to doing good deeds, her aversion to cooking, her total disregard for anyone who didn't want her smoking in the church parking lot, her willingness to do ANYTHING except cook, the way she approached anyone she didn't know and made them her friend in minutes, and the way she never saw what might keep others from lending a hand -- dirty clothes and hair, a shady past/present, a furrowed brow that looked menacing -- and instead just treated humanity as humanity.

I, and many others, will miss her.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Saturday in Houston in June

The fan on my VW is belching hot air and hot air only. I can't make up my mind as to whether I should put the windows down where the temp is already near 90 before 9 a.m. or keep waiting for the cold air to come.

I drive the almost empty freeway to my workplace where I am greeted by similarly clad folks in campaign t-shirts. I'm thinking that this will be my last blockwalk and while that pleases me the thought of the next few hours does not. The interns have the situation well in hand and I await my marching orders. A volunteer (who came to us in the last campaign and worked as she subsequently got the news she had lymphoma and then began treatment) and I have four streets to cover in Bellaire.

We take her car.

The process of blockwalking is well thought out. I have a clipboard of papers for one side of the street. She has the other. We knock. We wait. We greet. We tell what we are doing. We offer the brochure. We smile and go to the next house. Simple.


Who wants to be bothered by politics on a Saturday morning? Especially when the election isn't until November and this is a hot day in June. I did encounter one woman eager to hear me and even though she votes the other ticket most of the time, seemed to be open to what I had to say. AND she offered me water.

Two hours into it and I'm wet all over. Now, not only would I not open the door to me, I would be fearful of the sight if I happened to check out my window!

Finally, we've covered the route and head back to the office. Then I head to my next gig -- babysitting.

Brian asked me to come over because he now has twins and a 2-year-old -- plus he's giving a party that afternoon. I get a quick orientation as the moment I enter there's crying and changing and feeding to be done. They are big dollops of cuteness and despite my lack of experience with small versions of humanity, I walk away without traumatizing anyone.

Next up is a phone call that lasts two hours. Interesting ... Intriguing ... Not enough to write about yet.

And finally I head to see what Fiona needs. She's a friend who is a on a similar journey of discovering the next thing for her life. I wind up filming her on a graveled path with a great view of the city behind her (this after trying a rooftop and then climbing through a stranger's window to check out her "patio" view). She does several takes describing her passion for equal rights, equal respect, and equal responsibility. Then we head for a brief catch up that turns into a lengthy discussion of options, possibilities, and passion.

I realize that passion is addictive. I love the fire it puts in someone's actions, the light it brings to their eyes, the sense of purpose it provides. I want passion in my life and I am beginning to realize that mine is ignited by others'.

Nice day in the life of me . . .

Friday, June 18, 2010

Hands in the Air, Anticipating the Ride

Experiential learner that I am, many of my aha moments are accompanied by "doing" metaphors. I illustrate the ying/yang of the art of leadership -- keeping the urgency taut as you move toward a vision while clearly understanding current reality -- as the motion of cross country skiing. These last few days I've been feeling the hills -- the strain of climbing, the anticipation, the release and pure joy -- of a roller coaster.

First I returned from not only a fun trip but a truly stimulating one. My time in London with friends/entrepreneurs there inspired me. I remembered how much I love helping a person of passion move toward achieving their dreams. The second day back I interviewed for a position with an organization where I have volunteered for 15 years. I enjoyed meeting the staff and could begin to see that it could really be a good match for me. I made the "cut" (5 candidates were simultaneously in this process) and met with board members the next day. At the conclusion of that one, a board member thanked me for my enthusiasm. I hadn't realized how long it had been since someone commented on that (used to be a fairly regular observation folks made about my presentations) and was optimistic but cautiously so. Seems my lack of the title on my resume for the position the director was seeking to fill continued to be a concern for him. He just didn't see how my church experiences would translate into a health non-profit fundraising and volunteer management role.

So yesterday, he called to tell me that they had gone a different direction. And honestly, I felt released. I wanted to work for a group who "got me", who could think outside the box and be ready to creatively answer questions that nagged them, who matched my passion and provided me a challenge and a playground for new ideas. If my lack of the title he wanted to see boxed him in, then that's not the place I want to be.

And if that realization weren't enough, I then got a call that a dear woman and one of the reasons I call Houston home, had died. Carolyn was an incredible force wrapped in a body that was 100 pounds possibly but only when wet. Her story will be another entry on another day when I can tell it without tearing up and jeopardizing the keyboard.

But truly, how can a concern over a career path even compare to the loss of a loved one. I called her husband Bill and simply said, "I love you and am praying" and I went to my next event with the knowledge that my chosen family here is incredible.

The event I attended for my current boss included doctors from the area. One couple heard me mention Tanzania and came back to talk. They've only been married two years. She ran a center for AIDS orphans in Namibia before coming here. I explained a bit about the work I'd done with the organization I'd known as Minnesota International Health Volunteers in 2008.

This morning I decided to see what MIHV was up to. For one thing, they've changed their name. Now Wellshare International they are currently looking for a Communications and Volunteer Manager. I sent my resume.

I've also sent my number to a friend who says her friend wants to introduce himself to me. No clue what that means except . . .

The anticipation begins again.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Paris/London Postings: Written Two Days after Arriving Home

Though I worked at least six days out of the 12 we were gone, I absolutely loved this vacation. The work allowed me to remember who I am, what I ought to be doing, and I was able to give the gift of time to friends I love. The reward was their gratitude and some of the most incredible sites (some not listed on any tourist map, some only highlighted in a footnote, and some that fall into the category of "must see").

Rather than offer up a day to day narrative, I'll provide a list of images and sensations:

- the English version should be the picture beside the definition for "rolling countryside"
- pub life cannot be compared to dropping by a bar in the U.S. . . . there's a whole culture that we don't come near to reproducing, plus the drinks aren't nearly as expensive
- when a bride and groom are both artists, their dreams of a wedding are like no other ... so if you are picking up the responsibility of ensuring those dreams are realized, it's good to get all the details before the other help start arriving
- jam jars and tea cups make for delightful drinks at an afternoon reception but removing almost 100 labels is a rather sticky job
- transforming a 500+year-old-hall into a meeting room/dining room/dance hall takes all hands on deck and it's great when many of those hands are artistic
- I'll never be able to produce dove bunting the way Rob can
- I'll never see a bride as romantically attired and beaming quite as brightly as Aimie was
- I love it when people who love to cook all wind up in a big kitchen together ... when the accents are Irish, French Canadian, Indian, Philadelphian, British, and Texan, it's even more fun
- When asked to prepare food for such an eclectic crowd be prepared to be asked if this, that and the other thing are gluten free ... several times ... with increasing levels of frustration on the part of the gluten free eater that you can do nothing for (other than suggest they eat the items that are obviously sans gluten)
- Never underestimate the ability of a Brit to hold his margarita, whiskey sour, Proseco, bellini, and wine. Amazing fortitude!
- An English countryside "hill" is a Texas mountain ... when climbing up it, take note and walk with the woman with the cane because you look good for "helping" and you are allowed to stop and breathe without looking like a fat wimp
- Weddings planned by spiritual artists who love visual and word art as well as the theater are quite spectacular
- You probably can't imagine but you may want to try ... on top of a high and windy grassy opening, overlooking rolling countryside which make their way to the sea ... all in view as the vows are exchanged
- Items included in the service: sticks transformed into wands which form an archway through which the women walk through, oil from the Holy Land, binding cloth, bread/wine, a girl wearing her fairy wings and a boy clad in a kilt to deliver the rings, a dog running through the circle that surrounded the couple and an embarrassed teen apologizing, biodegradable dove balloons released, and audience participation
- When the hall is stone and includes a smoke-stained Rueben, there's pretty good bones for a breathtakingly beautiful dining experience but add in garland and wildflowers, glass decanters and tealights, and 90 friends and family and it's beyond description
- Brits like written speeches rather than toasts at their weddings
- 1st course: lentil soup; 2nd: meat/veg/gluten free pies with 5 salads served family style; 3rd: cheescake for all and choices of 8 homemade cakes (including 3 which were gluten free)
- The barn dance reminded me of contra dancing ... and Rob and Aimie's friends like to spin . . . a lot
- Releasing biodegradable Chinese lanterns toward the stars . . . WOW
- The realization that the hired help had put in a 14 hour day and I had shared overseeing duties for at least 17 as I made my way to bed
- Listening to the sound of storytelling and singing by the fire through my open window . . . completely spent but pleased at having given the gift of peace of mind to my friends.

Paris/London Postings: Written as Email Update to Family

Thought I would at least tell you that I am alive and very well in London. Roger and I had not one single international incident while we were in Paris! We found our apartment (small though it may have been) and it was in a 300 year old building with a window overlooking a charming courtyard. Within minutes of arriving, Roger made friends with the chef at the restaurant beside us and he not only gave us water (we were a little surprised by the heat), his wife/partner allowed us to leave on bags at their flat when we had to vacate our place on the last day.

We took in all the iconic structures of Paris -- on foot, on bike, by bus, and by boat. We learned the Metro and were able to traverse from the highest hill to the highest building. We fell in love with our bike tour guide who gave us the best tip of the trip -- an entrance into the Louvre that had NO lines on the free day. While the rest of Paris stood in the sun in a entrance line that was at least the size of a football field, we walked right in, took two flights to the Mona Lisa, went into the catacombs to see the Roman antiquities and were back out on the streets in less than an hour. I know that some of you probably think we should have spent the day there but we had miles to go before we could say we had seen and done Paris.

Thanks to great input from my buddy Jocelyn, we were well prepared for the food situation and enjoyed light and inexpensive fare while we were there.

The train ride to London allowed us to meet an interesting woman now living in London but originally from Morocco. A Muslim, a teacher of French, and brilliant conversationalist, Roger and I enjoyed her immensely.

When we arrived at the airport, Rob and Aimie were waving giddily and had flowers for us. We hugged and kissed and hugged some more then they went south to the wedding location and we got in the cab they set up for us and headed to Shannon's. She was finishing off a chicken marsalis and quinoa dish that was delicious. We slept well and on Monday I worked with her and her team while simultaneously biking to some of her favorite spots. Roger took the Big Red Bus to lots of different tourist attractions. We met up for drinks at the city's oldest pub and sat in a cave lit only by candles. We then headed back to her neighborhood and enjoyed live music with members of her team and then prepared a healthy salmon and veggie dinner.

Today, Roger took a boat ride as Shannon and I worked on more strategy. We have a park to visit and some Indian curry to enjoy before the day is out. Tomorrow we head south to Devon to meet up with folks for the wedding. We are looking forward to making homemade salsa for 90 people as part of our requested contribution to the weekend -- that and talking Southern so all the couple's friends can enjoy our accents.

So that's it for now. Love to all. Cathey and Kelly, please share with Mom.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Pre-Vacation Ramblings

Ever met one of those all-or-nothing-kids? Usually a phase, they focus on one item of clothing, food, or action. For instance, they can't go out without their scarf -- even if it's 90 degrees. Or they must have peanut butter for breakfast every day.

I don't recall being that fixated as a child. But I have grown into some peculiarities as an adult.

Like an artist in his blue period, I have had months of PBJ starts to my day. Lately, I've started the mornings with the ritual -- Facebook Scrabble, email check, enter two online sweepstakes, check the job openings. Every day, the same.

Even this blog comes in phases.

Not sure if there's a direct correlation but a good therapist might point out that my tendency to dwell and then move on explains my relational tendencies. If you are in my life, you are central, critical, foremost. But when you're not, you're not. No worries. No anger, No pain. Just here and then gone. Perhaps it's why I understand the news of a 40 year marriage in the public eye now ending. Life goes on and sometimes in different directions.

Sometimes balance is better and striving for more would be advisable. But the ebb and flow have taken me to some pretty radical places (both figuratively and literally) through the years. However, I'm pretty excited about a bit of change coming my way. I KNOW that the feeling of being trapped has caused me to make some pretty unhealthy choices in the last year. So I'm ready to breakaway, to startle myself, to redeem the childlike wonder.

Now ... where did I put my scarf?