Lauren

It’s impossible to reconcile the death of a child. It’s equally challenging not to sound trite when you say to her mother, who’s been cut to the quick, “I’m sorry for your loss.” The loss is unimaginable.

Lauren died from pulmonary edema just a few weeks shy of her 19th birthday. We’re all in shock.

We’ve known Lauren’s family for a decade. She attended our Halloween parties, hung out with my son at the park, and was an occasional passenger in the back seat of my van. No single event stands out as extraordinary, but instead a collection of ordinary memories that can be stored and retrieved and enjoyed.

Of course, I assumed there would be many more ordinary days because that’s the natural order of things.

Lauren had an easy-going nature and a lovely smile. I remember greeting her near the bus when they returned from 5th-grade science camp and I remember the day they all graduated from high school. She was a good friend to my son and a joy to have in our home. I can’t believe she’s gone.

My heart goes out to all who loved her, especially Kimmy, Amy, and Bill. xo

Lifted Spirits: Remodeling the Boutique

I’ve been volunteering for over a year at Lifted Spirits, a drop-in center for unhoused women in downtown San Jose.

Lifted Spirits took a brief hiatus in late April, giving us time to catch our breath and to make improvements to the program. One of the major changes included remodeling the boutique.

Lifted Spirits clothing boutique starting point

Before: Lifted Spirits Clothing Boutique starting point

As with most non-profits, we survive on a shoestring. The budget for the remodel: zero. You make do with what you have, take advantage of sales, and employ the “let’s build a fort!” sensibilities from one’s youth.

We welcomed back the women we serve on Monday and the boutique is a hit.

After: Remodeled Lifted Spirits Boutique

For a bit of background, the boutique is a free clothes closet where unhoused women access gently used clothing and travel-sized toiletries via our drop-in center. The program also provides a hot lunch, access to a shower-van two days a week, a sleeping room, a lovely patio garden and Friday Bingo. Serving women in a pleasant environment lifts spirits and that’s what we’re all about.

The original boutique layout included assorted clothing racks, shelves for shoes, a few cubicle-style storage bins and a wall divider originally used in an office setting. Two sets of file drawers doubled as storage for underwear and assorted toiletries. A counter sat on the file cabinets with two overhanging bins, and a salvaged piece of counter top sat on a series of plastic drawers used for toiletries.

The narrow space created by the cubicle wall meant that only one volunteer could comfortably fit back there at a time. You had to turn sidewise to bend over and open a drawer. Further, women had the sense that we were “hiding the good stuff” behind the counter. As volunteers, we felt cut off from parts of the boutique and the women we serve. The high wall and overhanging cabinets blocked the natural light.

On our first closed Friday, our group of five women volunteers dismantled the cubicle wall, removed the counter and relocated the filing cabinets. We repurposed one cabinet in the conference room, and free-cycled the second one. A hauler took away the metal walls for recycling, and we retained the two counter tops which you’ll see in use, below.

With that, the space opened up considerably. It felt lighter and brighter and more spacious, simply by removing the portable wall. I had a few goals in mind after reading articles on the design of small boutiques.  They suggest an open space at the entrance to give the sense of having stepped into something special. Women in the US enter and automatically turn to their right. A check-out counter should be located near the exit and to the left. And finally, you want a sense of flow throughout the shopping experience.

Open space at the entrance, “shopping” on the right, new counter on the left. Several mirrors help visually expand the space.

If you are operating a boutique to make money, you want several ways to slow your shoppers down. In our case, we wanted the opposite. There are days when nearly 40 women access the boutique, so they don’t have time to linger. I designed the space so that women enter to their right and then shop in a circular fashion, finishing at the counter to pick up a pair of socks, new underwear and toiletries before exiting. There is one table in the center as a focal point and as a place to put out extras such as hand lotion and sample hair product, but otherwise the space flows.

My husband Mike enjoyed the chance to use his power tools to build a check-out counter. We set up a folding table outside, and he cut the two counter top remnants mentioned above, down to a useable size. They don’t completely match, but once cut and arranged in an L you don’t really notice. They weren’t completely level, but I fixed that problem with two packs of dental floss! I stacked the bins we use for sorting and storing bras along the shorter side of the L to form part of the counter.

The one splurge: four sets of Elfa drawers. I bought the drawers on sale, with an additional 10% off using my professional discount and donated them to the cause. The longer side of the L sits on the Elfa drawers. We regained the lost storage from the two filing cabinets and the stacking plastic drawers with the Elfa units. Small toiletries are now located under the counter for easy access.  I created enough space for two volunteers to work behind the counter.

Elfa brand drawers. Three sets open on the inside of the counter, the fourth set opens out and stores sanitary and incontinence products

I masked the drawers with three pieces of foam core board and a stripe of purple duct tape I found in a cabinet. The foam core is a snug fit under the counter, with some white duct tape on the end to hold it in place.

While in my heart of hearts I wish I could provide housing for all the women we serve, I am glad to be a part of something that helps lift spirits and fills some of the needs for women living un-housed on the urban streets of San Jose.

Boutique Before:

Boutique During the Remodel:

Boutique After:

A welcome new space

Lifted Spirits drop in center boutique

A group of volunteers sorting donated hygiene items

Treasured Photographs Give Way to Grief

It’s been a long wait.

My namesake Aunt Alys died in London in August of 2008. It’s taken a decade to receive the promised copies of her photographs, reminders of her enchanted youth.

As years go, 2008 was one of my worst. My younger sister fell early that year and broke her hip, further complicated by her MS. She was in rehab for a month. My mother also had a series of falls in what was the beginning of her decline. She died that year three days after Christmas. My father-in-law died of a heart attack that June and my mother-in-law passed later the same month.

The following months were a blur dealing with attorneys (solicitors) from two countries, sorting through possessions, attending funerals, and tending to a multitude of tasks, while continuing to raise my boys. It was hard.

My aunt’s executor delayed her London funeral for a month so that I could settle my boys in school before flying to England.  I looked through her albums while in London, but on the day of her funeral, her solicitor took me aside and said I would have to wait before claiming them. Things got messy from there.

Though my aunt left us a generous financial legacy, it was the photos I craved. Initially they said “it takes time”. Later they said that her friend and executor would copy the photos to CDs. I left voice mail messages, sent unanswered emails, and appealed to their sense of decency. Her friend and the beneficiary of part of her estate stopped returning my emails. Periodically, I conducted internet searches to see if her name surfaced. If you Google “Alys Milner” it turns up searches for me or my aunt.

Alys Milner (later Lancaster) posing in a Windsor Wooley bathing costume

Alys Milner (later Lancaster) posing in a Windsor Woolly bathing costume

Through a search I learned that her friend donated her albums to the Victoria and Albert Museum. I contacted the museum by email, waited weeks for a reply, and was finally contacted with apologies and assured that the photo albums were in their care.

Aunt Alys’ photos were not on display, but instead stored in the museum’s archives. I can’t imagine she would have wanted this, but her friend seemed to think it was more important to store them in a museum than to send them to her niece.

I asked the museum’s archive department if they would send me copies, but they said they were not available in digital form. I was welcome to come to the museum and make my own copies, no easy task when you live across the pond.

Last month, eleven years after my initial request, I received a letter from her solicitor asking me to confirm my address. A CD with a few copies of her photos and scrapbooks would soon be on their way.

Aunt Alys didn’t have children, and she didn’t think anyone would want her photos. I assured her that we would treasure all of them and she verbally agreed nearly twenty years before her death.

At long last, the CD’s arrived. It’s been a thrill seeing her photos once again but how I wish she were here to fill-in the details of her interesting life.

Newspaper clippings from her scrapbook.

Sharing these photos evokes a mixture of nostalgia and loss. Aunt Alys married in 1937 and two years later, England was at war with Germany. My aunt took part in the war effort, bringing clothing to bombing victims after the air raids, while my father served as a translator in India. 

My delight at finally receiving copies of these photos, gave way to an unexpected sorrow. Grief travels its own path. For now I’ll just let it be.

 

Lifted Spirits: My Personal Journey

For close to a year now I’ve been volunteering at Lifted Spirits, a drop in center for homeless women in downtown San Jose. It feels like home.

Back patio: a sanctuary for the women we serve

There was a time in my life when this work would have overwhelmed me. I started out on the fringes, dropping off donations of needed clothing or making contributions from a “safe” distance. Eventually my friend Mary invited me downtown for a tour. They were looking for additional volunteers to work in the clothing boutique.

Social Hall for meals and Friday bingo

I took a breath and jumped in. What scared me? That I would be emotionally unable to work closely with such a vulnerable group of women without falling apart myself. To the contrary, the work continues to be rewarding and engaging. This is not to say it’s always easy. Some of the women we serve are living with mental illness. Many are abused. Toss in addiction to drugs or alcohol, jail time, and mind-numbing poverty and it adds up to a group of women in crisis.

How do I make a difference? I’m a professional organizer who put myself through college working retail jobs. In my early career I worked as a theater costumer, so I’ve measured a number of actors in my time. I’ve put these skills to work offering bra fittings for the women we serve in the boutique, a complete reorganization of the physical space, and regularly re-working the boutique to keep it looking fresh and inviting. We’re there to lift spirits after all.

 

It’s the skills I didn’t know I had that surprised me. I’ve been able to remain present for women in crisis without losing myself. I can offer a hug to anyone, recognizing the restorative value of human connection when it’s warm, sincere and sustained. I’ve earned the trust of women who’ve been let down by others, probably for a lifetime. And for the most part, I’ve lost that fear.

I also have a lot to learn. A few of the women we serve push all my buttons. They’re rude, demanding and aggressive. It’s a challenge facing them on a regular basis. I want to be as understanding and compassionate with them as I am with the women who arrive emotionally overwrought or with a blackened eye. That’s the real work.

This Friday I begin a free, five-week course offered by NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). It’s a targeted provider education course recommended for people who work or volunteer with individuals living with mental illness. In the end we’re all people needing love, support and understanding.

Special thank you to Mary, Stephanie, and Bonnie for helping show me the way.

How about you? Have you faced a fear head on with positive results? Please share your thoughts below.

Moving Summer Along

Hello, hello!

It’s been awhile, eh?

I seem to have lost my blogging mojo this summer.

I’m jumping back in with a summer roundup, even though the first day of autumn in California is still weeks away. Part of me is willing it to be October, with cooler temps and that special crackle in the air. I’m emotionally done with summer, 2018.

On a national level, it feels like we’re on a reverse journey to the 1950s, and not in a good way. I wake up feeling a little off-center, wondering what fresh hell the US president has unleashed. It wears on me.

hazy skies in San Jose

Hazy skies in San Jose

To add to the summer gloom, California’s wildfire season started early, with dozens of wildfires up and down the state. The Mendocino Complex Fire in Northern California is now the largest in California history.

Setting aside any of the absurdities you may have heard from a certain someone’s ill-advised Tweet, California has one of the most sophisticated fire-fighting agencies in the world. That said, here is what CAL FIRE has been up against. According to the Los Angeles Times,

Across California, the nighttime brought little relief, recording the highest minimum temperature statewide of any month since 1895, rising to 64.9.

California has been getting hotter for some time, but July was in a league of its own. The intense heat fueled fires across the state, from San Diego County to Redding, that have burned more than 1,000 homes and killed eight. It brought heat waves that overwhelmed electrical systems, leaving swaths of Los Angeles without power.

I check the nearby hills for fire activity every morning. Everyone is on edge, knowing that rainfall in this state won’t arrive till late October.

Graduating high school

On the home front, I’m mentally and emotionally preparing myself for my youngest son’s first year away at university. We’ll be dropping him off at college in Southern California in ten short days. Part of me is ready to get the initial separation over with. It’s time to pull off the mommy Band-Aid and let the tears fall where they may. The fine print of parenthood is that one day they really do leave home. Sure, sure, you know that on an intellectual level. It is still a bit of a stunner when they actually do. The part of raising them is over, but the emotional attachment lasts a life time.

Having said all that, I know that my 18-year-old son is bright, capable, kind and engaged. He is also socially astute. He’s ready to leave the nest and I know he’ll soar. I’m taking extra tissue with me anyway.

Lifted Spirits Boutique

Lifted Spirits Boutique

The bright spot this summer has been spending time volunteering at Lifted Spirits, a drop-in program for homeless women in San Jose. My organizing business slowed down at the start of the summer, freeing up time to spend with this wonderful organization. In addition to volunteering in the women’s clothing “boutique” for a couple of shifts a week,  I’ve been reorganizing the front office, the kitchen, the staff room and the boutique. My own spirits lift when I spend time there serving others. I’ve learned a lot about myself as well. I feel a tremendous camaraderie with my fellow volunteers and all who serve the homeless men and women in our community.

growing pumpkins

Pumpkin Crop, 2018

My beautiful garden hums along. The tomatoes are ripening slowly, but they’re delicious as we pluck them from the vine. The self-seeded pumpkin vines have produced five pumpkins so far. Two are small, about the size of a cantaloupe with two more suitable for carving. I had one pumpkin fully ripen, then almost immediately soften. More seeds for next year’s garden I guess.  Most of my pots are now planted with succulents. Unlike me, they tolerate hot, dry conditions. I learned a trick to better watering, too. I place ice cubes on the soil’s surface and let them melt, slowly watering the plants. This way I don’t have any runoff, since the plants dry out between watering. It’s working well.

There you have it.

What’s happening in your world this summer/winter of 2018?

Families Belong Together

KeepFamiliesTogether

Art: Sandie Sonke

#FamiliesBelongTogether

It’s such a clever hashtag, one that if you weren’t in the know might evoke thoughts of summer picnics, trips to the beach or as a way to tag your 4th of July, Independence Day photos.

Instead, Families Belong Together is a response to the current administration’s desire to stop immigrants from crossing our southern border. Instead of compelling Congress to act on a comprehensive immigration bill, the administration has implemented what’s known as a “zero-tolerance policy” of arresting anyone crossing the border without papers. Many of these border crossings are families seeking refuge from violence and political unrest. Some have traveled for up to a month with young children, looking for a better life.

This Administration’s response: Arrest the parents, then immediately separate *families* from their children.

Let that settle in.

Las Familias Merecen Estar Unidas

Spanish version of Families Belong Together

Authorities place parents in detention centers, immediately separating them from their infants and small children. Traumatized children are placed in a separate detention center, sometimes in another *state* with no understanding of why. Images of children sleeping on the floor covered in mylar blankets have evoked outrage. Footage of crying children, desperate for their mother have all but the hardest-hearts weeping along with them. Comparisons to Japanese interment camps and Nazi Germany abound.

I attended a Families Belong Together rally this past weekend and have found solace in numbers. There were over a thousand people at the San Jose rally on Saturday, a hot, windless, mid-day gathering. Throughout the country thousands of people rallied in over 700 locations. Rallies bring people together, spread the word, and offer resources for ways to help.

I’ve also been finding temporary respite from a steady hum of depression by volunteering at Lifted Spirits, a program for homeless women in San Jose. When I’m busy and engaged helping others, it helps me feel less overwhelmed. Spending time at Lifted Spirits allows me to positively impact someone else’s life without being swallowed whole by a situation I feel powerless to change. I’ll share more about their mission in a future post.

#FamiliesBelongTogether

FamiliesBelongTogether.org

If you’re also feeling overwhelmed, here are a few resources…

Colorlines published: How You Can Support Detainees with a number of helpful resources.

…and a few inspiring words from MoveOn.org:

“More than 180 partner organizations came together to pull this off, including MoveOn, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, the ACLU, faith groups such as Sojourners and the Presbyterian Church, Avaaz, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and a range of labor unions, the YWCA, scores more tremendous allies and partners, and countless local groups in cities large and small, united across lines of ethnicity, race, national origin, and language.

When you feel alone, when it’s all too much, remember that what is possible when we come together. That there is power in our numbers.

In the decades to come, people will ask themselves and each other what they did to fight the darkness at this moment in history.

On Saturday, many of us summoned a piece of an answer. We were in the streets. And we won’t stop until we turn the darkness back.”

Here are a few pics from our San Jose Families Belong Together rally.

Gun Violence in America: If we don’t give up, and don’t give in, we may just be okay

When they were young

Today I cried. The tears have eluded me all week, pressing on my chest, lingering in my throat, and craving expression and release.

I was boarding a plane for Portland when I saw the early reports of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting last week. In my holiday cocoon I avoided the news, and for a time kept the real world at bay.

Back home the cold, brutal and devastating reality of yet another mass shooting settled in my core. I have nothing new or original to say and no words of wisdom to solve the ridiculous and intractable stale mate of guns in America.

My queen-for-a-day, pie-in-the-sky solution would be to gather every last gun on the planet and melt them to a pulp. We all know that will never happen. Members of our powerful gun lobby make a mint manufacturing instruments of death while hiding behind the second amendment right to bear arms.

With both of my boys away from home this week, I felt their absence keenly. When they were small I worried about them falling out of a tree or dashing in front of a car. My common sense parenting kept those little boys safe. Now they’re young men living in a world where school shootings have become a reality.

My friend Claire’s daughter, Chelsea, survived a school shooting in her small town of Bailey Colorado. I’ll never forgot the phone call, or the many conversations that followed over the years. A lone gunman killed Chelsea’s friend Emily Keyes at Platte Canyon High School in 2006. When Claire came to town, I would ask how they were coping. It was hard to image that kind of trauma.

This week The Denver Post published Chelsea’s guest commentary entitled: Welcome to the gun violence club – you’re not alone.

I’m moved by her words, proud to know her and at the same time deeply saddened by the burden she’ll carry throughout her life. Note: If you click on Chelsea’s editorial (and I hope you will) please refrain from reading the appalling comments that follow.

Chelsea Warren, along with Stoneman Douglas High School student and survivor Emma González, give me reason to hope. These young people are the way forward.

From the Mike and the Mechanics song: “if you don’t give up, and don’t give in, you may just be okay.

So we open up a quarrel
Between the present and the past
We only sacrifice the future
It’s the bitterness that lasts
So don’t yield to the fortunes
You sometimes see as fate
It may have a new perspective
On a different day
And if you don’t give up, and don’t give in
You may just be okay
So say it loud, say it clear (oh say it clear)
You can listen as well as you hear
Because it’s too late, it’s too late (it’s too late) when we die (oh when we die)
To admit we don’t see eye to eye
Mike and the Mechanics, 1990