Operation Tomodachi

better world, design, experiences, just a thought

When people ask me where I’m from, I never know how to answer. The truth is that I grew up in Virginia and I now live in Chicago but in many ways I think of Tokyo as my hometown. I lived and worked there from the age of 21 to 29 and I am the person I am today because of the many wonderful and rich experiences I had there. Coincidentally my husband Bill lived in the Yamagata area (about 50 miles from Sendai) of Japan before we met.

So we were devastated to wake up Friday morning to the news of the earthquake and tsunami catastrophe in Japan. I spent the day noticing every piece of Japan in our home. The picture above hangs over our kitchen table as a reminder of one of the happiest days of my life. It was the day I took our then 4-year-old daughter to meet Nakajoh-sensei and “The Ladies.” Nakajoh-sensei (the one wearing the burgundy apron) was my Japanese flower arranging teacher for 7 years but more than that, she was a mom to me in so many ways. The oldest of nine children who helped run the family farm while all of the men of the family were fighting in World War II, Nakajoh-sensei is an extraordinary woman who welcomed me into her family where I learned a lot about what it means to be a woman and a mom. I was an investment banker when I started taking flower arranging lessons from Nakajoh-sensei. I would never have become a designer without her influence and guidance.

“The Ladies” include a number of other women in their 60s, 70s and 80s who also took flower arranging lessons from Nakajoh-sensei and shared their wisdom with me weekly. They were warm, funny, generous and never tired of trying to understand me and my culture. I was the first American any of them had ever met. Every week for 7 years, I looked forward to seeing this group of women. In the picture below, Nakajoh-sensei spent nearly an hour dressing me in her daughter’s Coming of Age kimono. I was 23 at the time and she thought that I needed to “capture my youth” and my time in Japan in this photo taken in front of her house.

The picture that I really wish I had to share with you is the one in my mind before I left in December 1990. Nakajoh-sensei and “The Ladies” decided that in addition to a homemade lunch at Nakajoh-sensei’s house that they wanted to take me to Tokyo Disneyland. None of them had ever been but they decided that they had always wanted an excuse to go and that it would be a really fun send-off. The eldest of the ladies who was in her late 70s at the time decided that she might even try a hamburger there because she had never had one and wondered what they would taste like.

One of the ladies decided that we should ride the Merry-Go-Round. None of the ladies had ever been on a Merry Go Round on which the animals went up and down so they were shocked when the horses that they were perched on began to rise and fall. The shock turned to laughter and soon to hysterical belly laughs as the ride stopped and they found themselves far higher above the ground than they had expected to be. “How do we get down?” they gasped in laughter. As the young one with the good back, I went around to each of the risen animals to help them down one at a time. Several of us assisted Nakajoh-sensei, whose zebra was the highest of all. I remember that moment so well. I remember thinking at the time that I just felt flooded with love for these women and flooded with love from them. Here I was 29 years old, with a bunch of decidely un-hip Japanese housewives and widows, some 40 years my senior and I thought, “These are the best friends I’ve ever had.” I have some wonderful friends here in the States now, but those women have been a huge presence in my life.

I’ve been trying to call Nakajoh-sensei to see how she’s faring but I haven’t been able to get through. I’ve tried to think about what I will say to her in my rusty Japanese. I’ll tell her that my heart is heavy for the suffering going on there and that I want so much to find words that could comfort her but I know that those words don’t exist. I’ll tell her that I’m praying for her and for the Japanese people. And I’ll promise her that I’ll try to find my way over there, when the time and opportunity are right, to help rebuild that wonderful country. Surely my language skills and determination will be useful to someone at some point.

The highlight of my day today was reading about the name chosen by the Japanese Self-Defense Forces for their collaboration with the US military for humanitarian assistance in the tsunami and earthquake regions. They chose the name Operation Tomodachi, which translates to Operation Friendship. It isn’t a typical mission name. They want our friendship. And they want our help.

If you’d be willing to forgo a cup of coffee or a yard of fabric, I know that the American Red Cross in conjunction with the Japanese Red Cross would use whatever you can give to help the millions of people who are living without electricity and water and the hundreds of thousands who are homeless tonight. Visit Redcross.org or text REDCROSS to 90999 to donate $10 from your phone. Huffington Post also has a good list of relief organizations. If I learn of any other Japanese charities that are worthy of your donations, I will be sure to post them as well. If you’re a praying sort, let’s see if we can find us a few miracles because that’s what it’s going to take.





blue skies

better world, experiences, family, inspiration

Before I tell you about Cowalunga 2010, I want to tell you lovely Craft Nectar readers how honored and humbled I am by your GENEROUS contributions to Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago for the Deep Breath quilt pattern in the last post. I wish you could have seen me sitting a my computer when a new contribution would come in with my hand on my heart sighing, “Ohhh..” I occasionally had to wipe away the stray tear and thought more than once, “How will I tell them how much this means to me?” I just can’t.

Onto the ride. Day #1 began with a comedy of errors. I filled up my Camelback as I was heading out the door and unbeknownst to me it developed a leak and emptied itself all over the mudroom floor. Nice. Then Bill inadvertently put my overnight bag on the equipment truck before I had taken my asthma medicine out of it – before a 65-mile ride. So I had to unceremoniously turn around a few miles from the start and ride back. Yes, that was me running like a crazy asthmatic after the equipment truck screaming, “Wait! I need my medicine!” Happily for me they stopped. Then, Sophie, who is never sick, had woken up with cold the day before and, while phlegmy, insisted that she could ride. It’ll be a miracle if we actually make it through this day I thought.

We saw some of the usual cows along the way but also, Sand Hill Cranes, of which I have become extremely fond since moving to the Midwest 14 years ago. They are taller than I am and have a 6ft wingspan so you can’t miss them in flight or eating next to rows of corn. Over the two days I spotted 19 of these majestic birds, usually in pairs or small groups. You can even see the teenage one without the red head who I’m guessing will take his first big migratory trip this fall. Fly safely little guy!

Meanwhile, our Sophie was making the biggest ride of her life so far. Although not riding as strongly as usual on Day #1, she was good humored throughout the ride and even stood up to climb the hill known to the Wisconsin locals as “Killer.” One young couple, who were part of Cowalunga, were walking their bikes up Killer. They actually stopped to applaud us pumping our way to the top. Sophie was a champ! I felt great at the end and even thought, I could easily have ridden another 35 for a century today. While I was busy congratulating myself for having trained so well, a big storm was headed our way that would make Day #2 the most challenging day of biking I have ever had.

The morning of Day #2 started out cloudy and cool. As long as it stays dry, I thought. Before we left the forecast was only for 40% chance of rain. We had packed on our bikes rain gear and a microfiber towel in a bag just in case. The rain began gradually and then turned to a full-blown thunderstorm. I was too worried about our camera to even take it out of the waterproof bag to capture it. I looked for shelter when we spotted lightning but couldn’t find any, short of knocking on someone’s farm door.

We decided that the lightning was far away so we’d press on for the rest stop 15 miles away. I was worried that my brakes weren’t working well in the rain and that the pavement was slick and dangerous, especially given the hills. When we got there we were soaked. Sophie’s teeth were chattering and her lips were purple. “I think I’m done,” she said. I looked at the radar on someone’s iPhone and asked her if she wanted to take the Support and Gear (SAG) van along the route until the rain stopped. She and Bill agreed that was a good plan. I was devastated not to be able to ride the whole thing but I didn’t feel safe in so much rain.

We got in the van and I was holding back tears of disappointment for having trained so hard and long, but I just didn’t feel safe not being able to brake well in heavy rain and with lightning. We rode a few hundred feet in the SAG van and I saw a glimpse of light in the sky and the rain miraculously stopped. “I’m getting out! I’m riding!” I proclaimed. Bill said that he wanted to give his knees a break and that he and Sophie would skip a portion of the ride and head for drier and sunnier sections of the route. He knew that I needed to ride for so many reasons and wished me well. “See you at the Finish,” he said with a kiss. There were no other riders in sight. I was on my own. SAG vehicles would be patrolling the route but I knew that I would be riding alone for several hours.

The headwinds were up to 30 mph and at times I could barely keep my little bike and my 5’ tall body upright. I normally ride 15 mph on flat areas yet I was riding 5.5 mph on the flattest areas and in the easiest gears. It was brutal. The rain was gone but the winds and the steep, relentless hills were exhausting.

At some point I looked up and saw a sliver of blue sky. Ride toward the blue sky, I thought. Then a voice in my head said, That’s all I want. Blue sky for those of us with lung disease. Blue sky means no one else spends a lifetime gasping for breath. No one else loses a loved one to a smoking-related illness. Lung cancer stops killing more people than breast, prostate and colon cancer combined. That’s blue sky for me. That’s why I’m out here riding alone through corn stalks swaying in the wind. I’m riding for blue sky. I’m riding for all of those names on the back of my bike who would like a little blue sky of their own. I cannot stop. I just can’t. I can’t write a big check. This is what I can do. At the end of 133 miles, I was exhausted but proud of my almost-49-year-old-asthmatic self.

It turned out to be the hardest day of riding I have ever experienced and far more tiring than my 100-mile ride a few years earlier. Sophie and Bill ended up getting out of the SAG van about 15 miles ahead of me where the sun was out and there was ice cream. (Sophie really needs a bike jersey that says “Will ride for ice cream!” Machine embroidery perhaps?)

Thanks again for making my ride so meaningful to me and to all of the people whose lives will be better as a result of your donations. If you haven’t donated yet and want to download the pattern, you have until Sept 10.

You, my friends, rock.

wheezy rider and the Deep Breath quilt pattern

better world, design, experiences, family

I’ve got a really fun quilt pattern for you at the end of this post but first a little background:

Last summer I wrote about my lifelong struggles with asthma and a number of loved ones who suffer from or who have died from respiratory illnesses. On a good day, I can ride 100 miles on my bike. On a bad day, I can’t finish a sentence without gasping for breath. I’m not alone. According to the CDC, in the US one child in ten has asthma. We adults with asthma number 16.4 million. In Chicago for the past 104 years, our advocate for clean air, smoke-free environments and lung health has been the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago (RHAMC). Bill and I started fundraising for RHAMC after his mom died of COPD in 1999. His dad also died young of tobacco-related illness.

RHAMC is a particularly important voice in Chicago, which has the highest incidence of asthma in the US. In Chicago one in four African-American and Puerto Rican children has asthma. The asthma hospitalization rate is double the national average. My doctor did her residency in a children’s hospital here and treated kids who spend 20 days of every month in the hospital because their asthma is so severe. The children attend school inside the hospital because their illness is so debilitating. Most of these children are from low-income families and they have few voices to advocate for them and lobby for cleaner air that will improve their health. Asthma doesn’t get a lot of funding compared with say, breast cancer or heart disease yet it is the number one reason that children miss school.  That’s why RHAMC’s work is near and dear, not just to my heart, but to my lungs!

In 2000, Bill and I began doing CowaLUNGa, a 190-mile fundraising bike ride organized by RHAMC from Illinois to Wisconsin. There’s a tag on the bag of my bike that reads “Wheezy Rider” because I always think that I’m riding for all who can’t. This year, for the first time, our 9-year old daughter will be joining us on the ride. She asked to start training last September and has worked up to riding three 50-60 mile rides in the past six weeks on the back of our tandem with Bill. We plan to ride two of the three days for a total of over 130 miles. The ride is August 7-9.

Each year we also make and donate a quilt for the Cowalunga raffle. This year I’d like to see if we can use this quilt pattern to raise a few dollars for cleaner air, smoking cessation programs for those who need them and research and advocacy for those of us that struggle to be able to take a deep breath.

So here’s how it works: I developed this pattern that I’m offering as a download with the hope that you’ll make a small donation to RHAMC. You can give $3 or $5 or whatever works for you. Every single dollar is appreciated. I can see from my blog stats that thousands of people have downloaded our free patterns in the past. If we could get each of those people to donate a buck or two to RHAMC, that would be a huge amount of money.

To donate click here, which will take you to my secure CowaLUNGa fundraising page. The fundraising link will remain active through October 2010. Make a donation and then return and download the pdf of the “Deep Breath” quilt. The pattern is fast and fun to whip up and can be made from scraps in a day.

Last year I blogged about tying names onto my bike rack of people whose lives were affected by lung disease. I plan to do the same this year. Many of you shared touching stories of you or your loved ones who are fellow asthmatics, lung cancer or COPD sufferers or smokers struggling to quit. “I’d love for my dad to go on your ride with you,” wrote one reader as she sent me his name. I thought about those stories as I climbed those steep Wisconsin hills. You inspired me and I’d love to do it again. So even if you can’t make a donation, please share your story and send me the name of anyone you’d like me to take on our ride. I’ll post pictures after the ride.


Weeks aka Wheezy Rider