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.





a quilt and a vial of sand

design, experiences, just a thought

Ted, the best man in our wedding, leaves today for Afghanistan for the next 12 months. He will be working for USAID, a branch of the US State Department there. My husband Bill and Ted met in college and lived and traveled the world together. They went together to live in France, Kenya and Japan. They backpacked across Asia and their friendship has spanned three decades as well as Ted’s postings for most of the last 15 years in Africa.

When I heard that Ted would be going to Afghanistan I offered him a vial of sand. You see, when I was on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France last June and thinking a lot about who shapes history and the bravery that it takes, I scooped up an empty water bottle full of sand. I wanted to keep that sand with me for a long, long time. It wasn’t that it reminded me of the death that occurred on those beaches. That sand reminds me of the leadership, sacrifice and bravery that it took to face something so formidable. Although I love what I do, I did feel, standing on that beach, a bit of envy for those whose work impacts large numbers of people and change history for the better. When I look at that sand I think that most anything is possible. Ted’s willingness to leave his wife and three young children for a year to try to help stabilize the political situation in Afghanistan is truly admirable to me. I told him that our country is lucky to have him and that I know he will represent us well.

I explained the meaning of the sand to Ted and he said that he would like to take some with him. Then he surprised us by saying that even though he can only take two suitcases with him, he wanted to take our Pick-Up Sticks quilt with him as well. That quilt, shown above in our dining room a few years ago, Ted said, would add some cheer to his living quarters. His living quarters in Afghanistan will consist of a retrofitted steel cargo container. Yes, a cargo container—as in, those things that you see on trains or in shipyards. That will be what he will be living in while in Kabul.

I’m so glad that he wanted something that we had already made because I think that I would have been a neurotic mess making it knowing the role that it will have in his life there. I would have obsessed over it wanting it to be more beautiful and more cheerful and more homey. We made his kids and wife a Minkee-lined throw to snuggle with in his absence and that was hard enough. “Will they like it? Did we get the right color of Minkee? Is it the right size?”

I’m going to ask Ted to email some pictures of the quilt inside the cargo container in Afghanistan. I hope that when he sees it each day it will remind him that we are cheering him on and admire his willingness to serve the world in this way. Godspeed Ted.

Missing Meg

design, just a thought

In September of 1997 Bill and I went to pick tomatoes at our community garden plot on the South Side of Chicago. Those of you who remember the old Jim Croce song “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” will remember this area in the song being described as “the baddest part of town.” Indeed, it was a high crime area with a lot of poverty. A nun ran the community garden there next to the local Catholic church. As this was the closest plot to the apartment building where we lived as newlyweds, we drove on the expressway just to have our first garden together.

I grabbed a lunch-sized bag out of the car for picking the tomatoes. “Oh! Come here Weeks!” Bill whispered. Underneath a large cabbage leaf were five sets of tiny kitten eyes. The kittens were small enough to sit in the palm of my hand. There was a fence around the garden so it was clear that they had been born there. Their mother was nowhere in sight.

“I can’t come back and find these kittens dead,” I told Bill. “We need to find them homes.” We collected four of the five kittens and the fifth scurried under the fence, never to be seen again. All four kittens fit into the little lunch bag. In time we found homes for all of them but two came back to live with us. Mies (after the architect) with his cute white paws lived with us within a couple of days of being found and his fluffy sister Meg (named by a Japanese man with a crush on Meg Ryan) came to live with us when her owner returned to Japan.

Mies and Meg were delighted when we started FunQuilts. We were suddenly home all day and filled the studio with lots of soft place to nap. We negotiated many business deals with one or both of them lying on our laps or next to the speaker phone during a conference call.

When we returned from China with a 10-month-old girl who had never seen a cat, they didn’t flinch when she screamed upon seeing them. They patiently let her touch them and get used to them. Both cats proved to have magical calming properties for cranky toddlers and grown-ups alike.

Meg was a really smart cat. She had an incredibly mechanical mind. Instead of meowing when she wanted fresh food in the middle of the night, she would sit of the lid of the toilet and flush it over and over with her paw until she got her way. Although they sat on the back porch some of the day in good weather, we put them inside when we’d go out to run errands.

One sunny day we came home and Meg was sitting on her favorite chair outside and the back door was open. Later we figured out that she had jumped up, grabbed the door lever with her paws and let herself out! No one would believe that she had done this until a neighbor who was cat-sitting accidentally locked himself out. He was standing outside trying to figure out how to get back into the house when Meg jumped up on the lever and opened the door for him. Eventually we had to replace the lever so the back door to our house would not be opened whenever she was feeling naughty.

Meg was a world-class snuggler and seemed delighted whenever anyone was home sick in bed. She was the sentry of the sick and wouldn’t leave the bed until the patient had made a full recovery. But it turned out that it was she who was the sick one.

I took her for a routine blood test on December 23 and was stunned when the vet told me that she had advanced cancer of the liver. She quickly began to lose weight and energy. It was painful for all of us to watch. By Monday morning we realized that it was time to say goodbye.

We are lucky to have a compassionate vet who makes housecalls under these circumstances. It was a snowy day and Meg sat on my lap in her favorite chair next to the window while the vet gave her the shots. We cried and cried and said our goodbyes. The wise vet suggested that we bring Mies to see his sister so he would know that she had died. The vet warned us that he might become depressed. He spent the rest of the day and night making sad cat vocalizations putting into sounds what we were all feeling.

We decided before Meg died that since the ground is frozen, we would have her cremated and sprinkle her ashes eventually next to our compost pile which is a major gathering spot for field mice. In nice weather, Meg would hide under the shrubs and watch the mice. One day I went to let her into the house and she had brought a live one in her mouth with her! So we thought that it would be the perfect final resting spot for her.

On the night after Meg died, I snuggled in bed with our daughter and talked about what Meg might be up to in cat heaven. She’d find the warmest, softest place near the treats we decided. I don’t know whether our daughter will believe in an after-life in the years to come but as a sad parent I really needed to cling to the image of a healthy, happy Meg sleeping and purring the days away.