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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Day Dad Planted the Daffodils

The last car drives down the ramp onto the ferry boat, with a loud "cla-clunk" of metal. Then I hear the sound of the deckhands dragging chains, the rumble and roar of engines engaging and the hiss of churning water. The ferry's low whistle blasts through the mild spring air and signals the departure from Tacoma's Point Defiance dock, on the run to Vashon Island. I'm not aboard, but my heart is. I lean against the railing at the water's edge with the seagulls, a cup of coffee, and a bouquet of yellow daffodils.

After fifty years some things change and some don't. The old style ferry boat from my early childhood disappeared long ago, but if you'd made the trip back then it would have landed at the same place on the Island, called Tahlequah. You would drive up the same road through the woods until it brought you out alongside the beach at Burton. There it makes a sharp left to where a few businesses still carry on and boats still float on Quartermaster Harbor. You'd stay on "the main road" and eventually reach our old neighborhood of Center. And if you made this trip on a spring day you'd have no trouble finding our place, because of the daffodils.

I say "our place" because that's all the identification it needed. The mail address was a Rural Route and a box, no house numbers. Folks referred to homes as "the So-and-sos' place" and if "the So-and-sos" were newsworthy, for better or worse, their name would stick to that place forever, even if they moved away. Roads too, had nothing but real names like "the Beall Loop" or "Cemetery Road." My family lived on "the main road" that runs north and south the length of the island. Our front lawn made a perfectly level rectangle right up to the ditch, great for croquet games in the summer, kick-the-can in fall, or building snowmen in the winter. But driving up the road on a spring day you would have spotted our place right off. Folks slowed down to see the whole end of the yard along the ditch ablaze with daffodils.

I can picture my parents, fifty or sixty years ago, discussing what to do with the flower bed. Probably on some Saturday in the fall, while Mom cooked, did laundry, and kept and eye on the kids, my Dad went up to McCormick's hardware store in the little town of Vashon and bought the bulbs. Then he would have put on old work clothes and rubber boots, dug up the soil and planted them, hundreds of them. Those hundreds would multiply into thousands until they made a solid swath of yellow from the driveway to the fence. I don't remember that day, which might have been before I was born, but I can tell you this much: I remember the daffodils.

I picture Dad's hands in work gloves, holding the dry brown bulbs, their onion-like skins rustling as he set them into the damp earth one-by-one. He would have made sure the stem end was up, not down, taking his time, doing it right. I'm sure he whistled while he worked, picturing the flowers in full bloom later on. Little did he know that just as each bulb held within it the promise of a flower, the joyful sight of that flowerbed remained within the hearts of his children to bloom later as one more happy memory. Now I always think of the exuberance of an Easter egg hunt, the fun of playing outside on those first warm days, and the eternal promise of spring . . . when I see daffodils.

I watch the ferry, now more distant. Like memories, it has lost it's sharp edges and loud rumbles and seems to glide on the water, into the past. But I'm in Tacoma and it's 2009.
Our old place on Vashon belongs to someone else. Mom is gone and Dad is 95 and lives in a retirement home. He looks out his rooms' windows at a nice view to the west, from way up high, but he can't see any flower beds. The day he planted all those bulbs was a long time ago and it's been a long time since he felt the grittiness of a trowel slicing into dirt, or smelled the rich earth up close. I picture him at the end of his planting on that fall day so many years ago. I see the daylight starting to fade. I see him standing up to brush the dirt from his knees and taking a look at all he accomplished before he put away his tools and came in for supper. And I wonder if he thought about how every day of our lives we're planting something. Hopefully it's something that will blossom into beauty and joy. Next time I visit, soon, I think I will tell him how much I enjoyed his daffodils.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Week of Sunsets, Change, and Singing the Blues

Sunsets are like Blues music. They move us with the same poignant beauty, born of loss. Whether the loss is a love, a dream, a life, or just a day in a life, both share the message that time passes and change comes. The last rays tinge the clouds with color, and our hearts with a brief and secret sadness, made of memory, nostalgia, opportunities missed and goals still unmet.

I am, by my nature, too joyful to dwell on the moment of sadness. I simply acknowledge, accept, and honor it as part of life. We seek balance, anchoring ourselves in these truths. Pain and pleasure, warmth and cold, light and dark, elation and despair, youth and age, each enhance our keen awareness of the other. No matter what I'm doing, or where I am, I try to watch the sun go down. Through this small private ritual I remember to appreciate my life and make each day count.

Last night I came across this photo I took of a sunset a few weeks ago, looking west from Tacoma near the Narrows Bridge. It could be anywhere. The same fire in the sky could have been reflected in your eyes. The same black silhouettes of trees could be your trees, to which the birds you heard in your own yard this morning withdrew and withheld their mysterious songs. We've all seen the brilliance and then the fading light.

Some weeks I hurry, busy with things I believe are important. On other weeks unexpected speed bumps cause me to slow down and take notice. This past week was one of those and held plenty of signs of coming change, some welcome, some not. Spring bulbs are blooming. We took some "cool" antiques to a swap meet, but realized a new generation had little interest. We talked to our grandson in Colorado by live video, on Skype, and wondered what a toddler thinks about that. We went to a gathering and noticed how people had aged. Our garden shrubs began to bud. A friend flew home because her mother is dying. The stock market went up. The historic fishing schooner WAWONA, built in 1897, was completely demolished, her elegant form and testimony to craftsmanship ending up in dumpsters. And the Seattle Post Intelligencer printed its last real paper after 146 years of dispersing the news on everything from war to who won the
high school football game. Its reporters witnessed and recorded our lives and all things considered important through many generations. We will miss the old familiar smell of ink and newsprint, the rustling sound, the feel of it in our hands on Sunday morning, where it went so well with the buttered toast and steaming coffee and quiet start to the day. And WAWONA is gone forever.

We can no more stop change than we can stop the sun from rising up and going down. A few weeks ago friend expressed the hope of seeing many more sunrises and sunsets, each with its own poignancy and promise. I hope that too. I hope to be humbled and inspired by the beauty and meaning in every single one even though I know, glorious as they are, they will sometimes feel like I'm singing the Blues.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Lycoming College Students Give Hearts and Hands to Tacoma

When I entered the basement of Bethlehem Lutheran Church I expected to attend a meeting. I never expected to find 26 college students camped out there, tired looking but cheerful, with their damp work clothes hung up to dry on some overhead pipes. Someone told me they’d come all the way from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, as members of the Lycoming College campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity. Wow, I thought. There’s a story for Good Life Northwest in here somewhere. I want to meet them. And I did.

These students volunteered to spend their spring break not in Mexico or Florida, but outdoors in Tacoma, Washington, during a March week full of crazy weather, mud, and chilly temperatures, as participants in Habitat's Spring Break Collegiate Challenge. They paid their own airfare to come work with the Tacoma-Pierce County Habitat for Humanity affiliate on a housing project called Larabee Terrace, at E Street and East 36th. That location doesn't exactly make you think of a beach on the Gulf Coast. Instead of swimsuits they wore jeans, T-shirts and sweats, and usually jackets, along with an important fashion accessory: a hard hat. But the next day, when I drove out to the job site under blue skies and sunshine, I witnessed a bunch of hard working people having a lot of fun.

"We might not be at the beach but I'm loving it," said Jestie Higgins. She was eager to speak to me. "It's really beautiful out here and it's such a great place to come and help people out. It's such a strong Habitat group, with a strong program going on here. I think it's kind of an honor to get to come and help them and learn from them."

A senior named Matteuw Hines agreed. He told me about the three years he's taken these trips, including one to New Orleans, and what he thought of Tacoma: "It's pretty good out here. I really like the guys we have to work with, nice good-hearted people. It's a change of scenery too. But I'm not used to having the weather change every five minutes. This is the best weather yet."

The many positive comments about the local Habitat for Humanity affiliate made me curious to know more. Later I called the office and spoke to Cassandra Jarles, Director of Volunteer Services and learned that out of 1600 affiliates across America they rank in the top 50 for how many houses they build each year. They feel enormous gratitude for any help received in the form of volunteerism, cash donations, or used building materials, furniture, appliances, fixtures, etc. to stock the ReStore they operate, another place needing help.

"We're hoping to complete Larabee Terrace by the end of this year," said Jarles. "It would be great if we could have all the homes done by October. It all depends on how many volunteers we get." The Spring Break Collegiate Challenge makes a huge difference.

"We love working with the college kids in collegiate challenge!" said Executive Director Maureen Fife. "They bring an amazing energy and positive attitude to anything they do, whether its working in a muddy foundation trench or putting a roof on. They are game for anything, and always with a smile on their faces. It is really our honor to work with them."

I met one of the three site managers, a local guy with decades of professional experience in construction. Carl, the only name he wanted used, gives a lot of his time to Habitat for Humanity, even though he could be earning good money doing jobs of his own. I could see Carl's passion for what he does, and it made me wonder how many other good people like him quietly go about making the world a better place and don't expect applause. Just in that one day I met many such people. In addition to the students, their adviser, the Campus Minister Rev. Jeffrey LeCrone and three fellow advisers were working hard, as were a number of local volunteers and some future homeowners. The hillside buzzed with activity, punctuated with that satisfying sound of hammers hitting wood.

"We try to build as 'green' as we can," Carl told me, "and we'll recycle about 95% of this stuff." Even the earth moving was done with the environment in mind. I met Chad Bickle who owns a local excavation company called Green Tech. All his equipment runs on vegetable oil, and he's the only one in the area with a business like this.

The word "Terrace" in the name of the development describes it well, since the property where 12 houses will eventually stand slopes at quite an angle. Retaining walls were built to accommodate that number of home sites. Only a few houses are presently under construction, but the size of the project made it perfect for the large group from Lycoming, which was one reason they were matched up with this site.

"We build for our local affiliate back home but we don't put up as many houses because there we can only take a maximum of six or seven people on a work site," said student leader Allison Batties. "That's because we don't have as many leaders to guide us along. So on spring break we look for a site that has lots of projects and lots of leaders to keep everybody busy." Another reason to travel afar is to see other parts of the country. Allison mentioned getting to see the Space Needle in Seattle, and several students remarked on the beauty of Mount Rainier.

"We did get a chance to do a little sightseeing in Seattle one day," said Rev. LeCrone, "and we went to Point Defiance Park too. It's great when students like this give up their spring break to come and help the local affiliate, and it's been a pleasure to take them and the other advisers across the country. They're a great group to work with."

He appreciates the people in Tacoma too. Most of the meals the students ate that week were donated by community groups, churches, a home school and a large number of private individuals. On the night I met them at the church they were heading to the Varsity Grill for a free dinner. The downtown Tacoma YMCA offered a place to take showers and several churches provided shelter at night. It all helped with the many expenses associated with feeding, housing, and transporting thirty people.

I hung around until late in the afternoon, until the time came for the Lycoming chapter to end the last day on this project. They would be followed by other college groups until the challenge ends on April 3rd. Before heading out the students looked around at their accomplishments with a sense of pride and unity. Unity happens to be another thing Habitat for Humanity builds. Carl said: "We're planning to make one of these houses an interfaith project. We'll have volunteers from several different groups working together, including Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and local Native American tribal members."

Standing there in the sunshine I could look off to the northwest and see a bit of a view. I pictured all that positive energy and goodwill of the volunteers being absorbed into this place, Larabee Terrace, a small neighborhood that families I'd never know would someday call home. I hope they wake up every morning and think about their good fortune and the volunteers who made it all possible. I thought about something the young woman named Jestie said to me, when referring to kids from a home school group that came to serve them lunch: "They were a great bunch of kids and hopefully this will inspire them to come out and pick up a hammer someday."
Hopefully it will, Jestie, and hope is just what you and your friends are bringing to America. Thanks from all of us.

Note: There are still hungry, hard working college students on this project, from other states. Are there more kind citizens of Tacoma out there who can help with meals?

A few facts from the website of the Tacoma-Pierce County Habitat for Humanity:

Habitat has housed more than 291 adults and 588 children

Compared to children of renters, the children of homeowners are 25% more likely to graduate from high school.

Approximately 75% of Tacoma households cannot afford to purchase a home at the median price of $232,000.

Home ownership builds stronger communities. Compared to renters, homeowners are 28% more likely to repair or improve their homes.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Keeping You Posted - Good Gossip

Every March I wander around the yard looking for signs of life in the garden and think thoughts like, "Hmmm, I wonder what ever happened to those (fill in the blank) bulbs Dave planted." Then I realized some of you might also wonder "what ever happened" to the people or situations I've written about. Just for fun, I've decided to make this week's post as enlightening to my curious readers as the old "party line" was to telephone users, with all the latest gossip.



"Hi! It's me, Candace, from Good Life Northwest."

"Oh, hi! What's new?"

"Well, plenty, to tell the truth. Are you busy? I have n-e-w-s."

"Ooooooo. Really? Like what?"

"Well, for starters, I went to a pizza party last Saturday night down at the Working Waterfront Maritime Museum on Dock Street, here in Tacoma"

"No kidding. Who was there?"

"The teen-age girls who participated in the Self & Sound program last October, offered by Sound Experience through a grant from A.S.T.A. Remember that story? The girls left behind families, boyfriends, cell phones, text messaging, TV, hot showers and other things they thought they couldn't live without, to sail around Puget Sound for six days on the tall ship ADVENTURESS. You must have read my blog post called Discoveries in Unknown Waters." So they had a reunion and were there with their families, Catherine Collins, Executive Director of Sound Experience, staff member Elizabeth Becker, a few crew members from ADVENTURESS, people from Tall Ships Tacoma and the museum, and me. Then we had a surprise guest, Erma Lewis, President of Soroptimist International's Tacoma club, who showed up with a check for a generous contribution to Self & Sound."

"She did? Wow. What a good example. I know Soroptimist works to "improve the lives of women and girls." And by the way, how are those girls doing?"

"Great! It was good to see them again. Many hadn't been together since they sailed last October. They had a lot of fun catching up and watching a presentation of the photos Elizabeth Becker took aboard the ship that day. Self & Sound taught them all kinds of things, like self-confidence, leadership, cooperation, and more. It really impacted their lives. The only thing is... funding for Self & Sound for 2009 still isn't secured, so the program could be in jeopardy. Catherine Collins works hard toward getting grants and other financial help, but in this economy it's tough. She's hoping the public will care about this great program. Even just by becoming members people can help, and sail for free too. She even gave every one of the Self & Sound girls a free one year family membership for their families, each valued at $85.00, to get more people out there on Puget Sound, realizing how important this education is. Wasn't that nice?"

"You bet. Say, what ever happened with the Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie? I remember reading about that in your post called 'Getting History Back on Track'. How are the repairs going after those devastating floods in January?"

"Funny you'd ask. I just heard that the great organization 4Culture is contributing $50,000 for needed repairs. If you click on that blog post you can read a press release about it at the end of the post, in the comments."

"Wow. That's a lot. I guess their troubles are over now."

"I'm afraid not. As wonderful and generous as that gift may be, the amount required to do the job is estimated to be $100,000, so they still have to raise the rest. The most urgent need is to get the tracks repaired before the tourist season. The revenue generated by those train rides is crucial to their budget. Donations are still appreciated."

"I see. Hey, I loved reading about the contra dance you went to in that story called "Joyride" in Tacoma. When's the next dance at Wells Hall? I might show up and give it a try."

"March 21st. This time the band is La Pointe du Jour (which means "the dawning of the day"). Great name, isn't it? The caller is Mike Richardson and the dance goes from 8:00-11:00 that evening, with free lessons beforehand, starting at 7:30. You can go to the website for Tacoma Contra Dance for all the details and directions."


"You're welcome. That's all good news, but there's some that's not so good. Just this morning I called Karen Barkley from Toy Rescue Mission. Remember when I wrote about how there mission could become "Mission Impossible" back in December? Well, things are pretty grim. Without more funding they might have to close in June 2009. Right now she's trying to set up a Read-a-Thon through the Pierce County school district, as a fund raiser. Tacoma Community College Students are working on this event as a project. You can email their instructor, Mary Fox at, for more information."

"Hmmmm. I hope that works out. Hey, how's your Dad doing? Is he still 'Raking in the Memories' these days?"

"Sure is. He's doing quite well and almost halfway to his ninety-sixth birthday, I'm happy to say."

"I've gotta run, but it's been fun catching up. Oh yeah, one more thing... are you REALLY going to quit buying plastic wrap, like you said you would in that "Wishing You a New Year With Less" post?"

"Well, to be honest I still have a teeny-tiny bit left on that last big roll from COSTCO, and remember, I said I wouldn't buy anymore after I used it up."

"You haven't really answered my question."

"Okay, okay already. I WILL QUIT BUYING PLASTIC WRAP IN 2009. Did you hear that Readers? Yeah you, the ones listening in on the line. I know you're there. Margo? Are you with me on this?"