Brunswick MLK parade photos

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These images were taken by Margaret Meps Schulte during the Brunswick, Georgia Martin Luther King Day parade on January 19, 2015. Looking at the proud faces in these photos, I became teary-eyed, wishing I could do more to help my … Continue reading

Why I Still March

View MLK parade photos

In July 1963, there were riots in Savannah, Georgia. A large headline in the Savannah Morning News read, “Rioting Negroes Stone Cars, Set Fires, Smash Windows.” Several stories were run under the headline about property damage during night marches that turned violent.

I wasn’t born yet, but I know that those front-page stories caused problems for my father, the executive editor of the newspaper. Decades later, he told me his publisher had called him on the carpet over it, saying, “Dammit, Schulte, why did you have to put that on the front page?”

Dad was defensive. “There were five thousand people marching in Savannah last night, and you don’t want me to publish the story? This is big news!”

The publisher continued fussing about the articles. “Next time, bury that in the back of the paper.”

The Civil Rights Act was passed a year later, and one would think that would solve the problems. But people are still marching, and the reason is still buried in the back of the paper. Why is that?

Broken window

Broken window in Brunswick

Where I’m living, in Brunswick, Georgia, the median income for a family is $28,564, and 25% of families are below the poverty line. The city’s racial makeup is 60% African-American and 36% white.

Contrast that with neighboring St. Simons island, where the racial makeup is 94% white. There, the median income for a family is $73,580. Only 2% of the families are below the poverty line.

When I first arrived in Brunswick, on my sailboat, Flutterby, the folks at the marina gave us a map of the town. They told us to walk a circuitous route from the marina to the Winn-Dixie grocery store, 2 miles away. “Why’s that?” I asked. “Oh, you know…MLK Boulevard runs through that section,” was the reply. It broke my heart to hear her tell cruising sailors, most of them white, not to even go into the black neighborhood.

Adams Market sign

Latino grocery in Brunswick

I disregarded her advice, discovering charming houses and intriguing Hispanic grocery stores in that neighborhood. I also discovered a lot of abandoned shacks and lots full of weeds. I had some uncomfortable encounters. This was definitely a neighborhood whose residents struggled to survive.

I returned to the neighborhood this past Monday, on Martin Luther King Day. For the first time, I was marching in the MLK parade with a group of folks from the Unitarian church. The day was beautiful and the mood was buoyant.

At the staging area, I photographed the folks who were in the parade. But as we began marching down Gloucester Street and then turning onto MLK Boulevard, it was the people watching the parade who drew me. I began handing out Happy Spot cards, getting hugs and handshakes, and taking photos of the parade-goers.

Why do I march? I have mixed reasons. I love to celebrate the successes of the African-American community, a group of people whose rich ancestry predates my own on this continent. But I also march as a protest. The law may say otherwise, but inequality persists.

Parade-goers in Brunswick

Family watching the parade on Albany Street in Brunswick

The photos I took that day are full of happy people, but they bring tears of sadness to my eyes. Many of the houses behind the parade-goers are unpainted and unkempt, with bare dirt yards. These are people who live below the poverty line, because they don’t have the wealth of opportunities that I do. The economic figures and demographics are painfully clear. Being black and living in poverty often go hand-in-hand.

During the rest of the year, you won’t see any other parades going down these streets. Until they do, and until we have real equality, I’ll keep marching.

Shelter

Most of my phone conversations begin with, “Where are you?” Today, a good friend specifically asked, “What state are you in?”

I know she meant “Georgia.” But my answer was, “Contented.”

Last winter, I struggled in a remote boatyard without a car. When I finally left in April, I was constantly on the move, and I lived out of my suitcase. I stayed in dozens of places in 12 different states, and I never ceased rummaging.

I was perpetually wrinkled, except when Libby insisted on helping me with ironing. I had too many unmatched items, so I took them to a thrift store, where I replaced everything with black. But all suitcases have black interiors! I would unroll every shirt and jacket looking for one pair of pants.

I was terrified to unpack for two reasons. One was the fear of leaving something important behind. The other was the fear of offending my hosts by placing something of mine in their space.

On January 1, I spent the night on the boat with Barry, but it was too cramped for the three of us: Me, Barry, and Barry’s projects. On Saturday morning, I drove out of the boatyard with the intention of finding a short-term rental. Vacation rentals were super-expensive. Craigslist had some ads that were downright scary: “Free rent for female. Send photo.”

I sat in my car, wondering if a women’s shelter could refer me to a safe place. I didn’t know where to find a women’s shelter, so I went to an old, sad motel in on US17. Every car door and flushing toilet woke me, all night long.

I needed a little help from my friends, and I knew where to find most of them on a Sunday morning: At church.

If you know me, you probably just spit out your coffee in shock. Meps? In church?

My favorite church in the world is a tiny Unitarian Universalist congregation in Brunswick, Georgia, where we moored Flutterby for a month in 2012. Walking into the vestibule is like walking into a Happy Spot. I get lots of hugs and exuberant greetings. Sally keeps my old nametag, so I don’t feel like a visitor.

I made an announcement that I was looking for a place to stay, and by early afternoon, I had secured a peaceful room in an elegant townhouse. My housemates were a purring cat named Nell and a brilliant, funny Philadelphia native named Joanne.

That’s when I finally unpacked, setting my suitcase on the top shelf of the closet. I stood back and looked at the sparsely-filled closet and the empty bag with tears in my eyes. Even if it was only for a month or two, this was going to be my home. I could hear Joanne’s music from the living room; we had the same taste in blues and show tunes.

Joanne’s a fabulous cook and has an incredible art collection. We can talk about anything. Soon after I arrived, she told me she’d received an email from a local minister about an emergency homeless shelter that needed volunteers. “It’s supposed to be below freezing on Wednesday night,” she explained. “Count me in,” I told her.

The weather seemed too mild to warrant an emergency shelter when we drove downtown at 10 pm. In a room provided by the Methodist church, all but one of the homeless guests were asleep. There was a mountain of donated food and a huge pot of coffee.

To our surprise, a friend we hadn’t seen in a long time arrived for the same middle-of-the-night shift. We sat in the kitchen, catching up on each others’ news. The hours flew by.

Our conversation was accompanied by gusts of wind that literally shook the tiny building and rattled the windows. When it was time to leave, I stepped out into winter. The temperature had plummeted, and the wind chill made my eyes water. I cranked up the heat in the car.

In a state of gratitude, I crawled into my warm bed with my teddy bears and the purring cat. I was not just grateful for my circumstances, I was grateful for the chance to serve those ten cold and hungry men, whose sparse belongings were piled beneath their cots. I understand their plight all too well.

Donating to a better institution

I was feeling a bit of frustration,
And in search of a blood bank location.
But then yesterday saw,
At the town Mardi Gras,
The big bus for my tribute donation.

The Bloodmobile drove past us, behind a marching band and in front of a bunch of pirates with a cannon, in the St. Marys Mardi Gras parade. I didn’t think twice about it until I saw them parked at the end of the parade, between the children’s rides and the car show. Just about then, a hoard of biting gnats descended upon us, and Barry and I decided that it was better to donate the blood to a good cause — especially since it’s that time of year when we like to donate blood in memory of Becky Johns.

“Gnats are not a cause, they are an institution,” says Barry.

Meps with Strangers Have the Best Candy t-shirt and matching orange coband

Showing off the orange coband that matches the infamous Strangers Have the Best Candy t-shirt

On a roll with The Bike Lady

A couple of years ago, when Barry and I joined Facebook, we found out what happened to some of the folks we’d gone to high school with. We were especially interested in the ones who’d left Columbus, Ohio, that place known as “Cowtown” that inspires long-distance travel.

Now I have to admit that one of the most interesting is still living in Central Ohio. Back when she went to high school with Barry, in a class of about 100 kids, she was known as “Kathy.” Now she’s “Kate.” For a couple of years, I’ve listened with growing irritation to Barry’s constant chatter about her, always prefaced with, “On Facebook, Kathy said…” She has the kind of big, successful life that makes me green with envy: A writer and video producer, single parent to two adorable adopted kids, funny, charming, good-looking.

OK, I can look past all that. Kate Koch Gatch is a real, live hero.

For the past five years, she’s collected brand-new bikes, helmets, and locks to donate to foster children in Central Ohio. This year’s goal of 750 bikes brings the total to almost 2000 bicycles.

Kate is known as “the Bike Lady.”

It’s a passion, not a job. She volunteers her time and covers all the administrative costs, so that every dollar donated goes towards putting kids on bikes. Kate points out that the public funds that cover the foster care system cannot be used for holiday gifts, so these are kids who wouldn’t have bikes otherwise.

Kate, herself, is not into cycling. She just recognizes what a bicycle represents to a kid — a big-ticket item that demonstrates love, respect, freedom, and hours of fun.

Margaret on her first bike.

Me and my first bike. What was your first bike?

It certainly brings back memories for me — what was my first bike? It was red, a hand-me-down. When it was time to take the training wheels off, my Dad was at work, and I had the impatience of a small child. So Mom grabbed a wrench and wrestled them off. Then there was my first new bike, a blue-green one-speed with coaster brakes, high handlebars, and a banana seat. You could carry one friend on the handlebars and another one on the back of the long seat, if you could balance your bike with three people on it!

This morning, I woke up thinking about all the people in my life who I want to share Kate’s story with:

  • Barry’s rambunctious nephews, who are growing up with their own bikes in Columbus.
  • A dear friend in San Diego who years ago experienced the foster care system in Central Ohio.
  • A friend in Central Ohio who used his bike to commute to work in all weather when he couldn’t afford a car.
  • A friend in the Bay Area who is an advocate for adoption, who lets her kids bring their bikes into the living room.
  • My sisters and their families in Eugene, Oregon, where bicycling is a way of life, despite the rain.
  • Our friends in Virginia who lost their daughter in a cycling accident, but still want kids to know that bicycling can be safe and fun.
  • And all my Sou Digna friends, who know that grassroots projects can make a huge impact in any community to remind people that they are worthy.

Thinking about all of them, there was only one thing for me to do this morning, to kick off the holiday season: Go to the Bike Lady’s website and “put a kid on a bike.” It’s just one of the 750 that Kate will give away. Reading about this project makes me feel really, really good about the world. So if you are feeling down or blue, looking for some inspiration, or wondering if you can do anything to make the world a better place, check out the page on her site called “Start Your Own.”

It feels great to know a person who is doing something to bring happiness to so many kids in difficult situations. As Kate says, “So many kids will be over the moon and riding down a hill in 3 weeks thanks to people like you who get it, understand it and take action.” That’s what we all have to do, with the emphasis on taking action.

A little inspiration and a lot of action can go a long way. To use her own words, Way. To. Roll. Kate.

 

I Am Worthy

Treacherous footing, narrow street

The rounded bricks that made up the ancient street were so treacherous that I had to pick my way extra carefully, with my head down. I didn’t even see the building until it was right in front of me.

Suddenly, there it was — sky-blue stucco, navy-blue shutters, and black decorative ironwork over the doors and windows. It was so familiar, a building I’d seen hundreds of times, but only in photographs and videos.

When I craned my neck to take in all five stories, I got goosebumps.

Almost ten years ago, Barry and I loaned the money to buy this property to a tiny non-profit. At the time, it was a derelict, and we didn’t know what it would take to renovate it. We had no idea when, or if, we would be paid back. We had no idea when we’d even see the building, located in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil.

Now we had come to do something more than just see it. We had come to use the building for its intended purpose: To exchange knowledge and build community.

We were part of a group who had come from all over the USA at the invitation of Rita Conceição to help launch a new endeavor: Sou Digna. The phrase is translated as, “I Am Worthy,” which pretty much sums it up. Sou Digna’s programs give impoverished women the confidence and skills they need to achieve equality.

The crew worked tirelessly in the heat

So, when we stepped through the door and into the building, we did so as participants, not visitors. For two weeks, we threw ourselves into a whirlwind of activity that included fixing broken furniture, painting, cleaning, and making the classrooms fresh and inviting. We sat together, creating budgets and planning documents and promotional materials. We participated in discussions every day about living with the violence created by endemic poverty.

For one week, my friend and colleague Nancy Bacon taught a class in organizational development and grantwriting, and I served as a class assistant, documenting the class and learning along with the other students. Then it was my turn to teach them how to use technology to build their international community.

At that point, I really wished I was on the painting and refurbishing crew. As I wrote to a friend at home, “Frankly, I am terrified, even though I know all my students.” As a corporate trainer, I had presented to much larger groups — 200 people, not 10. But I never had to present this much critical material, working with an interpreter. Would I have too much material? Would I have too little? Would I be able to meet their expectations?

Sharing what we know

In the end, the class went great. The students were excited to realize that they could develop their own messages, using tools that are not intimidating. They did class projects that provided them with useful materials they’ll be able to use, not just abstract assignments. They had several days of hands-on work with computers, and it was fascinating to see the range of computer skills in the room and the joy they experienced when they succeeded in doing something new.

At the end, the biggest complaint in the class evaluations is that they wanted a longer class. Whew!

It has been a few months since the class, and now that I see the work my students are doing, I am awed. They came to class and learned a lot more than new computer skills. They learned that they have things to share with the world that the world wants to hear. They learned that they have a right to speak and be heard by the world. They learned that they are worthy.

In the months since I’ve returned from Brazil, members from this dedicated group of women have launched several initiatives. One is a course in cooking and food preparation that will help women find jobs and start small businesses. Another is a technology class that incorporates basic computer skills with some of the material I shared. And every student in the Sou Digna program learns about human and legal rights, those basic rights that each of us needs to understand to know that yes, I Am Worthy.

Every time I see a photo of the activities, I recognize where it was taken, in that building. I am proud of myself for being part of the genesis of that building, for having a little plaque on the wall with my name on it. But in the end, it’s just a structure. The real pride is in the students who study and learn and grow in that building. The real pride is knowing that I have contributed to the well-being and happiness of my Sou Digna community. There are no plaques for that, but I don’t need one. I carry it around with me all the time.
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For more information about Sou Digna, visit our website or “like” our Facebook page. As a friend of mine, you are already part of our community, but please consider making it official by signing up for updates! If you’d like to help us financially, mark your calendar for May 2nd, 2012, when the Give Big campaign gives you a chance to donate with up to 15% matching. It’s like finding free money to give away.

Nancy Bacon has also written an excellent blog post about our students.

Part of our group in front of the building


Meps, Rita, and Barry with the plaque


We learn from each other. Rita and Jaqueline, who make Sou Digna possible.

Sleepless in Salvador

Farol da Barra, the view from my balcony

A half-block from my balcony was a lighthouse, a 75-foot tall structure that dominated my view. I photographed it at all times of the day — at sunrise, highlighted in gold, and sunset, in pink. I spent a lot of time standing on my 4th-floor balcony, gazing at it and the ocean beyond.

The lighthouse was a classic one, broad black and white stripes and a rounded top. It was built on top of a fort that dates back to the 1600s, and the fort was on a grassy park that juts out into the bay.

Just over a week ago, on a Friday night at 10 pm, the grounds were quiet. A couple of people were walking across the lawn under garish green spotlights that made them look bilious. Occasionally, a car or bus drove by.

If this was a park in Vero Beach, or Seattle, the lack of people would be normal. But it was not. I was in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil.

The lack of people last Friday evening was terribly, eerily wrong.

So why was the lighthouse deserted? And why were the streets of the city deserted, as well?

To understand the answer, you have to understand this city with its vast disparity between rich and poor. The police receive salaries that put them closer to poor. Fifteen years ago, they went on strike, and they demanded hazardous duty bonuses. The government agreed, but then broke the promise and never paid them.

So on Thursday, the police went on strike.

When I first heard about it, on a sunny Friday morning, I didn’t understand the implications. I wondered what the striking police officers were doing – were they picketing, or just staying home that day?

With my limited Portuguese, it took me several days to figure out what the striking police officers were doing.

The most visible group of them, together with their families, occupied a legislative building, refusing to leave until their demands were met. Others did random acts of mayhem, like deliberately causing traffic jams.

Overnight, the murder rate doubled. Why? Because there were no police to stop the bad guys? Or – here is the shocking thought — because frustrated policemen become bad guys? In an interview reported by the Associated Press, a representative of the Homicide Department said that at least one third of the murders that occurred during the strike had characteristics of death squads, which include the participation of police and former police officers.

I watched a video on YouTube about an “arrastão,” a word that my dictionary translates as “trawling” or “dragnet.”

A group of rowdy people had just broken into a big store. First, they took the cameras and computers, valuable and small. When those were gone, they took expensive appliances, helping each other carry things like washing machines. Then small pieces of furniture. Eventually, they brought out entire beds, carrying mattresses on their heads.

What kind of people would be desperate enough to steal beds? No self-respecting looter (is that an oxymoron?) in the US would carry a mattress on his head down the street.

Newspaper headline reads, Two thousand armed soldiers arrive today in Bahia

The first night after the strike started was the worst. Thirty reported murders, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Out in the poor neighborhoods, our friends from Salvador say, most murders go unreported. The next day, the Army sent troops, and camouflage-colored trucks full of soldiers drove up and down the main streets. It made people feel a little more secure, but not enough. Ten thousand striking police could not be replaced by only 2000 soldiers.

One was stationed across from my balcony, by the lighthouse. I could see him from my balcony in the wee hours of the morning, a forlorn silhouette with an automatic weapon.

No sleep for the soldier, and no sleep for the people of Salvador. The city was like a tinderbox, ready to go up in flames any minute.

In the poor neighborhoods, people didn’t dare sleep, because there were not enough soldiers to go around. Residents had to stay inside their homes with their doors and windows locked. It was not safe for them to ride the buses, so many didn’t show up for work. In the center of town, businesses were closed and streets normally clogged with traffic had one or two cars on them. Schools postponed opening that week. We went out for ice cream, but the entire shopping mall was closed.

Over all this hung the fear that Carnival, a week away, would be canceled. Millions of dollars would be lost. It was unthinkable.

The lone soldier watches the lighthouse from across the street

For a visitor like me, staying in an upscale neighborhood, the peaceful and quiet streets made the strike seem surreal. The only indication of the danger was the US State Department’s warning that Americans should not go to Salvador. But we were already there.

The strike lasted for about ten days, and then, suddenly, it was over. They arrested the leaders and promised the policemen a pay raise later in the year. The police, back on the job, marched in formation down the street, and people cheered for them. The soldiers slouched, relaxed, in the back of their trucks, and made up the other half of the parade. People cheered for them, too. “Propaganda,” said our local friends.

When we got back to our room on Friday night at 9 pm, people were starting to gather at the lighthouse. By 10 pm, the street along the waterfront was completely full, with thousands and thousands of people dancing. The traffic jam on our street stretched for blocks. At 11 pm, a samba band started playing and continued for a couple of hours. At midnight there were fireworks. When the samba band stopped, the noise level continued, with at least four DJs playing amplified pop music.

Were they celebrating the start of Carnival? Or the end of the police strike?

As the party started, I saw dozens of people carrying 30-pound bags of ice on their heads: Beer vendors stocking up their carts. The going rate for beer was 3 for 5 reis, or about a dollar a can. Most people had a beer in hand as they walked down the street. I lost count of the people – men and women – I saw going to the bathroom between the parked cars.

But to my surprise, no one was staggering, or fighting, and I never heard the sound of a bottle breaking. Even the drivers stuck in the traffic jam blew their horns happily, not out of frustration. It was just a big, noisy party. Very noisy. One of the noisiest I’ve ever experienced in my life!

That last night in Brazil, I stood on my balcony, listening to the throbbing sound and people-watching all night long. Sleep was impossible. No sleep for the partying people of Salvador, either. But I think the soldier finally got to sleep. That is, if he was not out partying, too.

These soldiers are looking across from the lighthouse at our building

During the day, soldiers were all over the lighthouse and the fort

A few days after the strike begins, the report on the negotiations is merely “no”

Meps at the entrance to the Farol da Barra (the lighthouse)

Angel in white

It wasn’t until a few days later, when the whole ordeal was over, that I read the fine print on my ticket:

“Seating is first-come, first-served. In case of insufficient seating capacity, passengers will be placed on succeeding schedules that have available seats.”

Such a nice, polite, legalistic way to explain the hell I went through in the Greyhound bus terminal in Raleigh, North Carolina.

I’d gotten on the bus in New Bern, at a scary convenience store and gas station situated on the edge of town. There’s something odd about where they situate these Greyhound stops — so far out of town that you have to have a car to reach them. But people who have cars don’t need Greyhound.

After an hour of waiting at the gas station, the bus itself was pleasant. It was a new one, clean, with fake leather seats, power outlets for charging electronics, and — Hallelujah! — wi-fi. Fewer than half the seats were occupied, so we each had two seats to ourselves. I thought to myself, I can handle 20 hours of this.

About an hour down the road, a man got on at Goldsboro and sat just across from me. He was a slender black man with very short and graying hair, and he was dressed in a curious outfit of all white — white pants, white button-down shirt, white sneakers. His luggage consisted of only a small white trash bag.

For the next hour, I occupied myself with my computer and phone or watched out the window. Across the aisle, my neighbor pulled a small booklet out of his pocket and read some pages, then put it aside and watched out the window, too.

When the bus arrived in Raleigh, I got off with my carry-on luggage — a heavy backpack and a canvas tote full of snacks and water. I retrieved my giant purple suitcase from under the bus and went inside to wait about 30 minutes for my next bus.

I took my time, went to the bathroom, sat and drank some orange juice. When I heard an announcement about my bus, I made my way to Door A in a leisurely fashion, about 15 minutes before its departure. There were four people who had formed a line ahead of me.

What happened next was such a surprise that I experienced it with a sort of shocked detachment. This couldn’t really be happening to me, could it?

A man came to the door, checked the tickets of the first three people, and let them through. He said something I didn’t hear to the fourth person and then turned around.

The man he had spoken to suddenly went beserk, screaming expletives, grabbing the man’s shoulder, and threatening him. The gist of his outburst was, “You can’t keep me off this $@#%!! bus! I have to muster in at oh-seven-thirty in the morning! I serve my $@#%!! country for twenty-three $@#%!! years and this is what I get? You can’t do this, you $@#%!! $@#%!!!”

A woman came out, a station employee. She tried to make peace between the two men, which is when I realized that the one who was checking the tickets was the driver of my bus. He knew that he had three seats, so he let those people on. He was going to step aboard and check for two more seats before he let us on.

Instead, he shrugged. “I don’t have to take you,” he said, walking away. He got on the bus, started the engine, and then drove out of the bus terminal.

Leaving me, an innocent bystander, standing in silence behind an angry veteran who continued screaming and threatening violence. Everyone in the terminal was staring at us.

The woman looked at me sympathetically. “You’ll have to take the next bus at six am.” I stared at her, uncomprehending. It was eleven pm. Then I looked out the door, as if the bus driver was going to come back and say, “Sorry, I forgot that other lady.” He did not.

The station employee said, consolingly, “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure you get on the next one.” I walked slowly away, back to the seating area, in a daze. I was devastated and desperately wanted to cry, but I would have been embarrassed to do so.

It was 11:15 pm, and I was going to have to sit in this terminal for seven more hours. To make matters worse, while the bus had wi-fi and comfortable seating, the terminal had dreadful wire benches and no internet, except for the 10 minutes when a bus with wi-fi happened to be parked outside! To top it off, the room was ruled by a giant, rude television that blared crime shows at top volume.

Adding to the indignity were the two men who came in, propped open all the doors, and blocked them with large trash cans. Then they started asking people to move from their seats. It became apparent that they were going to shove all the benches — and passengers — into a small area, close off the rest, and clean the floors.

That’s when I ended up sitting next to the man in white. I asked if he had just come from work, and he looked confused and said no. “But I thought — your outfit –” I stammered, afraid that I had embarrassed him and was now embarrassing myself. He said something I didn’t quite catch, and when I asked him to repeat it, he shook his head sadly and pantomimed taking a drink. I guessed he meant he’d just gotten out of rehab, so I didn’t probe further.

Over the course of the long night, our conversation grew organically. We compared notes about where we were heading, and how long our trips would take. He was going to “a town so small, you’ve probably never heard of it.” He went on to explain that the closest town was Gastonia, but he had another long layover in Charlotte and wouldn’t arrive until 6 pm. Given that I had seen him board the bus at about 8 pm, that meant over 22 hours to get from one tiny town in North Carolina to another.

I told him I lived on a boat, and he admitted he’d never set foot on a boat. “I only been fishin’ once.” When he asked where I was going, I told him to Florida, and from there to Brazil. He’d never been out of the country in his life.

There was a long, comfortable silence, during which we watched the floor cleaners and a trio of 20-somethings across from us who were behaving erratically.

I asked him how long he’d be staying where he was going. “Oh, I’m going home,” he said. Another silence, then I asked how long he’d been away.

His answer spoke volumes: “90 days.”

Most people would say three months, or maybe “since October.” A few days later, I confirmed my suspicion about his answer by running a search on the internet. There is a state mental hospital in Goldsboro. People who are involuntarily admitted cannot be kept longer than 90 days.

It got very cold in the station with all the doors open, and people around us were grumbling about the cold. I got out a fleece jacket and draped it over my lap. My companion didn’t complain, but I could tell he was cold and had no jacket. I handed him a fleece quillow — a small blanket that converts to a pillow — and suggested that he could use it to keep warm. He accepted it gratefully.

When we finally introduced ourselves, it was after we’d been talking for a couple of hours. “By the way, I’m Thomas,” he said, holding out his hand and chuckling. “I’m Margaret,” I answered, shaking it like we’d just met. With the purple blanket around his shoulders, he looked like an Indian mystic.

After a while, we talked more than we were silent. He wanted to know about the boat and how it operated. Did it have a kitchen and a bathroom? Did I help steer it? Where had we gone in the boat? I asked questions about his family, what places he’d been to, what places he wanted to see. I even got out my laptop to show him photos of Alaska and Yukon, so he could see the beautiful light at midnight on the summer solstice.

Meanwhile, the mood in the bus terminal had gotten ugly. The veteran whose outburst had caused my bus driver to leave was — obviously — waiting for the same bus as me. He erupted every hour or so, yelling belligerently about how unfair this was, then settling down until something set him off again. The 20-somethings also got into repeated altercations with each other and with the employees. The good part was, it got quiet when they went outside to smoke. The bad part was, whatever they were smoking made them more volatile and more hostile when they came back.

It would have been terrifying, except that Thomas was very calm. His influence kept me calm, too.

Sometime after three am, the floor cleaners began moving the benches back, and we had to move again. Thomas picked up my suitcase, all 55 pounds of it, and we found a new spot that was agreeable to both of us. A while after that, they announced his bus. We said a reluctant farewell and exchanged a little hug, both hoping that our paths might cross again someday.

Across the terminal, I could see him waiting patiently in line, the blanket around his shoulders and the plastic bag in his hand. He was standing directly behind the group of obnoxious 20-somethings when things hit the fan.

For the first time all night, the 20-somethings wound up beside the volatile veteran. Like a match to tinder, they set each other off and then banded together against the employees. Suddenly, they were all shouting. The veteran began threatening to beat up the floor cleaners, shoving benches around, and lunging at them. The female employees were trying to placate them, to calm them down, but several of the male employees had reached their limits and were ready to get into fisticuffs with the passengers.

Thomas melted back against the wall, making himself invisible. That’s when the police arrived. They took the difficult passengers outside, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief at the sudden quiet. Then Thomas and about 20 other people boarded the bus to Charlotte, and the room was half-empty.

I missed my ally. Even with the violent people gone, the terminal was still a scary place, and I had a couple more hours to wait. I moved my luggage to a remote corner where I tucked myself under a table on the floor. I could never sleep in the terminal, but at least I could make a fort out of my luggage and hide behind it.

I read my book and waited. When they finally called my bus, I got up and rolled my suitcase over to join the line. To my surprise, there were already six people in line. There was no sign of the station employee who had promised me a seat. Suddenly, I realized that I might not get on the next bus, either. I found myself trembling with fear that I would spend another day in the bus terminal, waiting for the 11 pm bus.

When we boarded the bus, the driver looked twice at my ticket. “You were supposed to be on the 11 pm bus,” he told me. I just stared at him, afraid he was telling me I wasn’t eligible for this bus, either. Then he waved me on. I climbed up the steps and looked down the aisle at a completely full bus. There was only one seat open, beside a Greyhound employee in the front row. She reluctantly moved her bags from my seat.

I had come so close to missing this bus that as we pulled out of the station, I burst into tears. The woman next to me turned to the window and ignored my quiet sobs. For the first time in over 24 hours, I slept.

I didn’t even miss my blanket. I knew that Thomas, my angel in white, was using it to stay warm.  He’ll probably never know how valuable his calm companionship was during that long, tough night.

How to get the best seat on the plane

When I arrived at the gate for my Charlotte flight to Seattle, most of the seats in the waiting area were taken. The other travelers avoided my eyes as I scanned the area, looking for a place to sit. I found a spot between a woman engrossed in a novel and a teenager engrossed in a cell phone. “But I texted her, and she never texted me back!” she complained, loudly, into the phone.

I boarded the plane and was soon settled in a window seat near the front of the plane. As the rest of the passengers streamed down the aisle, lugging their carry-ons, I chatted with the man seated on the aisle.

We were engrossed in our conversation and almost didn’t notice that all the passengers were aboard until we heard the telltale clunk of the doors closing. Then I craned my neck in amazement and looked around. Every seat on the plane was full, except for one — the seat between me and my row-mate. We tucked our bags under the spare seat and luxuriated (OK, that’s an overstatement for coach class) in the additional space.

By then, I’d heard some of his story. Craig, the father of five, was the owner of a large construction business in the Seattle area. He was returning home from an errand of mercy, a cross-country trip to the North Carolina hospital where his brother had just had three emergency surgeries. “He’s going to be OK now,” he said, the relief showing on his face.

I listened in understanding to Craig’s story. I was traveling on a similar mission, flying to Seattle to be with my dear friend Jacqui during her intense cancer treatment. Back in North Carolina, I’d discussed the situation with Barry. I decided it was more important for me to be with Jacqui than to work on the boat. Fiberglass can wait.

Craig had decided that his brother was important, too — more important than his own day-to-day life. As we compared our situations, we joked about being rewarded for our good deeds with the most comfortable seats on the plane.

I don’t think I’ve ever had such an easy cross-country flight. We chatted a little, but mostly, I read and listened to music and napped and looked out the window. The time flew as I did.

When I arrived in Seattle, I contacted my ride, a volunteer from the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance named Wendy. We’d never met, so I told her which door I’d be near. “I’ll be wearing bunny ears,” I said. I slipped them on when I got to the curb, my infamous fur-trimmed, sequined rabbit ears with flashing, blinking LED lights inside. To my surprise, none of the people standing near me even smiled. As a matter of fact, they sidled away and wouldn’t meet my eyes!

But my technique worked great for Wendy, who spotted the ears from a block away. She seemed less surprised by the bunny ears than by the fact that she had arrived at the airport, received my call, and driven right up to me without either of us waiting. She marveled that she’d picked up hundreds of people and never had this happen before. I just smiled and nodded. After my karmic experience on the plane, it was no surprise. Wendy was being rewarded for her kind deed, too.

Wendy’s volunteer work involves adopting families from out of town who come to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance for long-term treatment. She serves as their local guide, helping them find the bank, the post office, the grocery store. She’s a navigational beacon to them, physically and emotionally.

That’s how I see Jacqui, too. She’s an extremely bright light, a navigational beacon to me and to others. Even while she’s going through difficult and painful times and I’m serving her, as driver, medical advocate, and sherpa, she’s sharing her knowledge, insight, and deep wisdom. Meanwhile, we’re ensconced in a fantastic downtown Seattle suite with a view, enjoying wonderful books, movies, games, and food.

The key to Jacqui’s brightness is, as a Buddhist teacher said, “a predisposition toward favorable outcomes.” In simple words, a positive attitude.

We can all carry this attitude from moment to moment, and even if we drop it accidentally for a bit, we can pick it up again. When we lose something — our health, money, someone dear to us — it’s our predisposition toward favorable outcomes that gives us the momentum to go forward.

I’ll be here with Jacqui for another week, and then I’ll fly back to North Carolina, where Barry and Flutterby await. I don’t know exactly how Jacqui’s transplant protocol will go. I don’t know if I’ll have the best seat on the plane again. All I know is, if I carry bunny ears with me, each moment will be more joyful. And if I carry a predisposition toward favorable outcomes with me, each moment will be exactly what it’s supposed to be.

The slippery path to sainthood

Blame it on Barry and the bandsaw.

What happens if I stick my nose on the lens?

What happens if I stick my nose on the lens?

The morning after the kittens were almost born on Charlie’s head, Barry trotted over to Charlie’s trailer and asked to use the bandsaw. When he fired it up, Momma Kitty looked at him askance. Her eyes seemed to say, “What the heck do you think you’re doing? You’re hurting my kittens’ ears!” Never mind the fact that five hours after being born, the kittens’ ears were still stuck flat to their heads.

The next morning, I stopped to see Charlie and the kittens. “We have a kitten crisis,” he told me. “She took one of them away.” We looked at the cat and one remaining kitten sadly. RIP, I thought. Momma Kitty seemed more attached to Charlie and John and Barry and me than to her kitten. “Maybe if you sleep with her tonight, instead of on the boat, she won’t abandon the last one…” I suggested, hesitantly. I hated to ask that of Charlie, but he’s a hero. “I’ll do that,” he said, brightly.

The next morning, I stopped by, and it was deja vu all over again. “We have a kitten crisis,” he said. “She slept with me all night, but she took the other one away this morning. I tried to follow her, but she knew I was tailing her (har, har) and gave me the slip.”

I was a little more successful at tailing her, and I found where she’d stashed the kitten — under the back seat of John’s conversion van, which he’d left open to keep it cool and aired out.

This created a whole new set of problems. In order to buy groceries or do laundry, John needed to drive his van. But it was 100 degrees that day. If he carted the cats to Beaufort and locked his doors, he’d have two roasted cats under the rear seat. And if he did so without Momma Kitty on board, she’d be frantic while he was gone.

Then Barry went back to use the bandsaw. “What was that squeak?” he asked Charlie. I guess he thought one of Charlie’s power tools needed oiling.

Charlie couldn’t think of any power tools that made that sound. So they dug into a huge pile of toolboxes under a bunch of cabinets and found the source — the other kitten!

The family was reunited in John’s van, and then my slippery path to sainthood began. Nancy Bock and I looked all over the boatyard for a place to relocate the cats. But nothing seemed right. Finally, Barry and I decided to cat-nap the three of them and put them on our boat for the time being.

Since the kittens look exactly like Mom, we suspect it was a virgin birth

Since the kittens look exactly like Mom, we suspect it was a virgin birth

We walked over to John’s van with a large plastic tote, and Barry put on a fleece sweater in case Momma Kitty tried to scratch or bite. But she didn’t. He gently lifted her out, and she sat docilely in his arms as I put her two squeaky kittens in the tote. Then we walked across the boatyard, carried them up the ladder, and put the tote into a cozy, defensible spot in the quarterberth. Momma Kitty did a quick lap of the boat, proclaimed it acceptable, and climbed into the quarterberth to resume nursing.

It’s been a few days, and Momma Kitty now goes by the name, “Buttercup,” because of her sunflower-yellow eyes and her princess status. The two kittens haven’t been named; we call them the wiggle-worms. At one week old, their eyes are not yet open, although they do have ears now.

It’s a happy story, except for one thing — I have two weeks to find a place for them. My attempts to place the little group with a foster family, no-kill animal shelter, or permanent home have been unsuccessful. I have made numerous calls, posted ads, and sent emails. But if you are an animal, Carteret County is not the place for you! The Humane Shelter here is referred to as a “high-kill” facility.

The few volunteers in the area who work to save pets are desperately overloaded. I call their message phones, and most call back from restricted numbers. “We can’t help you,” they say. “We have too many cats already.” If I was the praying sort, I’d be praying for help about now.

When do I get tuna?

When do I get tuna?

So we’ll keep looking, and in the meantime, we’ll enjoy this snuggly, docile kitty and her two wiggle-worms. If you don’t want a pet permanently, let me suggest that you foster a cat or dog, wherever you are! I can’t tell you how rewarding this is. When these kittens open their eyes — tomorrow or the next day, I hope — what will they see first? Momma? Me? Barry? Or the underside of the quarterberth? They’re sure to think that living on a boat is a natural thing, so we’d better get them settled in a house soon, or they’ll be ruined forever. Just like me.