At the 80th anniversary of ‘Paddle to the Sea,’ here’s the epic journey of filmmaker Keith Famie and veteran Maire Kent

Kieth Famie and crew finally managed to get Maire Kent’s boat out into the Atlantic.

24-year old Maire Kent, a former U.S. Army PFC, died of cardiac sarcoma, a rare cancer of the heart, in 2013.  She touched thousands of hearts of people she never knew.

Keith with Maire

Maire (pronounced Mary), from Milford, MI, had read a book as a child. Paddle to the Sea, by Holling Clancy Holling, tells the story of a Native Canadian boy who creates a small wooden Indian in a canoe.  On the boat bottom, the boy carves, “Please put me back in water.  I am Paddle-To-The-Sea.”  The boat undergoes many trials, but after several years and five Great Lakes makes it to the Atlantic.

Remembering the book she once loved, Maire had a dying wish.  She wanted her ashes placed in a wooden sailboat that would travel to the ocean so she could “see the world.”  With much effort, her friend Keith Famie made her wish come true.

Personal note.  In the late 1980s, chef Keith Famie started Les Auteurs, a popular restaurant in Royal Oak, MI, where Burton and I often dined.  Among other awards, Esquire named Les Auteurs one of the “Best New Restaurants of 1988.”

Keith became a contestant on the TV show Survivor: The Australian Outback in year 2000.  After 42 days, he was voted out.  He turned his talents to producing videos of foods around the world and made specials for the Food Network from locations as exotic as Bora Bora to the fish markets of Seattle.  He formed his own video production company.

Some years later, chest pains took Keith to an onco-cardiologist, Dr. Monika Leja, at the U of M.  Keith mentioned he was working on a video about end-of-life issues, an 8-part series for PBS.  Monika introduced him to another patient, Maire Kent, then 23, as a possible subject for his film.  With a daughter the same age, Keith was apprehensive.  But the ringtone of Maire’s cellphone turned out to be the theme song from Clint Eastwood’s 1960 epic, “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.”  A ringtone, Keith says, “you have to search for.”  It was Keith’s ringtone as well.

In his memoir, Living Through the Lens, Keith says he felt the ringtone coincidence meant “something beyond our control had brought us together.”  That, my friends, is what we call a GodSign.  Keith was even more convinced when that night, for the first time in weeks, the thumping sensation didn’t return to his chest.

Keith became friends with Maire, driving her to appointments and visiting her nursing home.  When he filmed Maire for his series, she said of her diagnosis, “At first, I was scared and terrified.  I wasn’t sure how to accept it. I’ve stayed awake at night and thought about what would happen to me.  How much longer would I have?  What was my bucket list?”

Experimental chemo didn’t help.  Maire grew sicker.

Maire’s dying wish was to be cremated and have her ashes put in a small boat which sailed from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic so she could “see the world.”

George Wurtzel with Maire’s boat.

Keith had produced a video on and become friends with a blind carpenter, George Wurtzel, who years before attended the School for the Blind in Flint, MI, with Stevie Wonder.  As a child, George lost his sight from retinitis pigmentosa.  But nothing stopped him.  He’d become director of Camp Tuhsmeheta, a western Michigan camp that has a program for the visually impaired.

George told Keith, “When a new kid comes to Camp T… and we’d announce we’re going canoeing, sometimes the child would say, ’I can’t canoe—I’m blind.’  I’d tell him or her, ‘The reason you can’t canoe is not because you’re blind.  It’s because someone told you you can’t canoe.’”  Keith introduced Maire to George, who began crafting a three-and-a-half-foot sailboat.

In August, 2013, Maire was in hospice.  In his memoir, Keith writes, “The story of a young woman fighting a deadly cancer had become the story of a young woman preparing to die.”

Maire’s last days brought a sense of urgency to finish the sailboat that would carry her ashes to the sea.  George and Keith asked Maire to write a message to be printed on the sail and—in case the sail should break during the journey—on the body of the boat.  Shortly before she died, Maire penned her message:

“My name is Maire.  I died of sarcoma cancer.  My ashes are enclosed in this boat and I am on my way to the ocean.  If you find me, please set me back on my path.  I will bless you from Heaven.” 

Maire died on September 27, 2013, among friends and family.  Keith was there filming and “bore witness to the value of hospice and how loved ones cared for Maire as she departed from our world.”

Keith scrambled to raise the funds to complete his video and fulfill Maire’s last wish.  He sold “anything I could think of” including his 25th anniversary Ironman racing bike from the triathlon he did in Kona.  “As any documentary filmmaker will tell you, the vision and passion for a story are necessities.  But without the cold, hard cash, the story may be just that and nothing more—a great idea.”

Keith reconnected with John Feist from L.A. who’d produced and directed Survivor: Australian Outback. Feist became co-director of Maire’s story.   Previous backer and friend Tom Rau also chipped in.  Keith lined up people to help on Maire’s voyage.

On July 12, 2014, Maire’s boat launched from the beach at Cross Village, MI, north of Harbor Springs, on Lake Michigan.

Maire’s journey took her from water to cars, trains and planes.

A troop of girl scouts from Alpena, MI, found Maire’s boat floating in weeds and released her.

Maire’s boat with the Girl Scouts in Alpena.

Her boat rode through the streets of Detroit in the side car of a motorcycle procession of four Vietnam Vets.

The four Vietnam veterans who carried Maire’s boat through Detroit.

“After an array of encounters and some close calls with nature, Maire reached New York City and eventually found herself being towed out to sea at sunset, south of the Statue of Liberty.” Keith filmed the conclusion of Maire’s voyage from a big sailboat trailed by two chase boats.  “With our cameras rolling, Maire’s ashes were released into the ocean, just as she had hoped.”

Keith’s documentary, Maire’s Journey, showed at several film festivals.   Thanks to the support of Drs. Kim Eagle and Monika Leja, Maire’s boat is now on permanent display at the U of M Frankel Cardiovascular Center.  During the Covid pandemic, Keith rewrote the script he authored in 2014 and is currently shopping it in L.A.  With any luck, the world may come to know Maire’s story.

Thanks, Keith, for all you did to fulfill one special young woman’s last wish.  And for sharing the good, the bad and the ugly of a beautiful story.

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Care to read (and see) more?

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

THIS JOURNEY really started in Chicago before World War II with the passion of Holling Clancy Holling to get children interested in the natural world. Holling was born in Michigan, but studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and then worked at the Field Museum of Natural History. Outside work, his vocation was to produce colorful children’s books that would draw families toward the wonders of the natural world—and the first peoples to live in North America.

Paddle to the Sea appeared in 1941 just before World War II, which was auspicious because an interest in colorful children’s books boomed during the war years when the materials used in many children’s toys were rationed. The book was honored with a prestigious Caledcott Honor.

If you are intrigued by Holling’s work, many of his delightful books are still available. You may also want to look at Minn of the Mississippi, which follows a turtle down the big river, and Pagoo about a crab in a tide pool.

This year, 2021, is the 80th anniversary of the original Paddle to the Sea, which has taken on a whole life far larger than the original hardback, including locations along the fictional boat’s journey that are marked today in locations around the Great Lakes.

Click the cover to visit the Criterion DVD’s Amazon page.

The next huge leap in Paddle’s journey was the commitment of the famed Canadian naturalist, author and filmmaker Bill Mason to create a movie version of the little canoe’s journey. While largely unknown in the U.S., Mason is revered in his homeland, including a Canadian postage stamp honoring him in 1998, a decade after his death.

Mason’s approach to retelling the story on film is now a legendary story of a low-budget filmmaker strategically planning each step. Mason even spent time training to become an expert wood carver so he could personally make all the versions of the boat needed for the filming. In some cases, Mason and friends even defied posted limits along the waterways and risked their safety more than once to achieve some of the most dramatic shots.

In 2008, the 20th anniversary of Mason’s death, the prestigious Criterion Collection released a fully restored version of his film on DVD.

Perhaps in the future, we will see Keith Famie’s next chapter in the Paddle journey.

Burton and I shared our motto, ‘Keep Paddling,’ with dozens of guests at our farm in northern Michigan in honor of our 25th anniversary

Our friends Bob and Conita Bihler stand on either side of Burton and me at our farm-themed anniversary party.

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In a recent column, I shared the motto of actor Andre DeShields: Keep Climbing.  Burton and I live by a similar motto: Keep Paddling.  We turned our motto into the theme of our 25th wedding anniversary celebration.

In 1992, we hosted a big anniversary party at our farm in northern Michigan.  Several dozen guests drove up from Detroit.  Though the weather had been dubious for weeks, that day Mother Nature strutted her stuff.

The sun shone warm and bright in what felt like a celestial celebration of our milestone.

During the day, guests enjoyed trail rides on horseback and hay wagon rides through the countryside.  That night, in a big tent near the old red barn, we inhaled the smoky scent wafting from grills and savored barbeque.  Tables were topped with checkered cloths, silverware wrapped in red kerchiefs elevated to napkins.  A Country Western band played in the open doors of the barn, with stacked hay bales as a backdrop.  So many guests drove from Detroit that the event reportedly boosted the economy of West Branch, MI, home to dozens of discount shops on the route north.

Kerchief napkins were printed with the date of the party and the motto: Keep Paddling.  That motto continued to motivate us through our subsequent marriage issues and my bout with cancer.  With Burton’s current challenge of CNS lymphoma, it motivates us still.

My sister, Anne Towbes, and David Singer play guitars for a campfire singalong.

Taking the mic that night, I told the story behind the motto.  “People ask how we’ve managed to stay married for 25 years,” I said.  “The answer is printed on your kerchiefs.  Lots of you have tied them around your necks.  They read: Keep Paddling.”  I told the story behind that motto.  The story takes place on a farm, so it was especially appropriate that night.

Years later, the motto still applies. We’ve all come through a grueling pandemic that stole millions of lives and countless moments of remembrance and celebration.  We’ve experienced more solitude than we’ve ever known and called on an endurance we didn’t know we had.  To boost your spirits, here’s the story I told the night of our 25th anniversary party and the motto that still applies…

Two frogs on a dairy farm jumped into a bucket of cream.  They slurped and slurped but soon realized they couldn’t get out of the bucket.  They paddled for hours.  Eventually, an exhausted frog said to his buddy, “This is hopeless.  We’re doomed.”

“Keep paddling,” his companion urged.  “We’ll think of something.  Just keep paddling.”

The next morning, the dairy farmer peered into the bucket.  One frog had sunk to the bottom.  The other was sitting on a pad of butter he’d churned up all by himself, licking the flies that swarmed from all directions.

“So the moral of the story,” I said,  “and the way you stay married for 25 years: you keep paddling.”

Burton and I have continued to paddle for 53 years.  Due to the stroke that paralyzed his left (dominant) arm, he paddles only with his right arm now.  But he paddles the best he can and remains remarkably upbeat.

If something is getting you down, dear reader, hang in there.  A swarm of flies may not be your heart’s desire, but the Universe has other surprises in store.

However hard the going gets, just keep paddling.

Care to see more photos from the party?

Sarasota pianist Steve Fancher improves foster care through the All-Star Children’s Founcation

Three years ago, I wrote a column on a big-hearted Sarasota lady with a dream. (“Graci McGillicuddy envisions kinder, gentler foster care”)   A former teacher, Graci was dismayed by child abuse cases occurring in Florida.  She dreamt of creating a better approach to foster care.  She and husband Dennis have made that dream come true with the All-Star Children’s Foundation. To see for myself, I visited the campus.  What Graci and Dennis have accomplished is remarkable.

Graci McGillicuddy is in the center with a scarf. Left of her is Steve; right of her is her husband Dennis. Around them are some of the center’s staff members.

According to its website, All-Star “provides children victimized by abuse with a very special place—a place designed to soothe, empower and inspire.”  All-Star lives up to its promise.   Children receive “trauma-informed” treatment in a 5-acre site ringed by bright and stylish residences (designed by Graci) and a club house.

The McGillicuddys found four dedicated professionals to oversee All-Star.  One is multi-talented Chief Development Officer Stephen Fancher.  Steve’s a pianist trained at Trinity College of Music, SUNY Purchase, with a masters in piano performance, and a conductor.   At All-Star, he also conducts fun and games.  During my visit, he taught residents aged 3-20 to play ukuleles and mesmerized them with piano refrains from Beethoven and the Beatles.

Two good friends, Jackie Blanchard and Phyllis Keyser, both former educators, joined me on my visit to All-Star.  Within five minutes of meeting Steve, Jackie murmured, “Little does he know he’s your next column.”  Right she was.

From central Connecticut, Steve graduated from the U. of Conn., attended renowned Trinity College of Music in London and earned a masters in piano performance from SUNY Purchase, NY. He became certified and taught music in elementary school.  His first daughter was born in 2010.  At the time, he was a full time conductor and music educator in the Tri-State area working in Stamford, CT, and  Chappaqua, NY.

Realizing his job had led to his missing the first 2 and ½ months of his daughter’s life, Steve decided to change directions.  He studied for and received a stockbroker’s license and started a financial services business with his brother-in-law.   In September, 2012, he moved to Sarasota.  He joined Merrill Lynch as a financial advisor—a position he held for 4½ years.

“I wasn’t satisfied by the financial services industry,” he says.  “I wasn’t committed at a deep level.”  He decided to combine his business and musical backgrounds and seek a position in arts administration.  A mutual friend (past Laurel Oak resident), Andrea Bilan, was then in development with JFCS.   The agency needed a major gifts officer.  Steve took the position.

18 months later he toured All-Star.  He decided, “this is where I want to be.”

Musical talent often runs in families.  My grandmother played the piano well.  My sister Anne inherited her ability and still takes lessons.  Plus she can sing.  Sadly, my destiny included neither strength.  After five childhood years of tortuous piano lessons, my repertoire consists of Chopsticks. And no one aside from yours truly appreciates my 5-note singing range.

Steve’s dad Richard, a sales rep for aeronautical engine company Pratt & Whitney, played the organ at  Christ Episcopal Church in Middle Haddam, Conn. and sang with the New England Chamber Choir. Steve’s brother, a supermarket manager, is a self-taught guitarist who plays with top local bands.

Steve says, “I didn’t realize not every family could sing Happy Birthday in 4-part harmony.  I had as much musical education as possible.  My brother can’t read music past a basic level but he can play anything.  That’s always annoyed me.

“Piano’s a big part of who I am.  I see myself as a teacher.  I love conducting and teaching singers and players how to make music together.”  Steve says he “tried” to take some time off from the piano when he was in financial services. “I couldn’t do it.”  He joined the Sarasota Key Chorale as a tenor. The Chorale is a chorus of about 100 musicians who sing with the orchestra.  Music director Joseph Caulkins is one of Steve’s best friends.

Steve’s loved piano ever since he can remember.  His mother has a photo of him sitting at a  piano at 3.  As a boy, when not playing baseball or soccer, Steve practiced piano.   He played Beethoven and Bach by age 10.  When he was “tall enough to reach the pedals,” he played the pipe organ in church. “ It was useful for making good side money.”

At 12 or 13 Steve recalls his brother’s earning $4.95 an hour working at a grocery store.  Steve made $22 an hour teaching high school students.  By the time he reached high school, Steve says, he “never had a real job.”

At SUNY Purchase, Steve studied with organ and music theorist Anthony Newman who’s collaborated with Leonard Bernstein, Itzhak Perlman and many more legends.  Steve says, “To be a good classic pianist requires a ton of practice.  From the time I was a teen through my mid- 20s I averaged 6-8 hours a day.  To play a Beethoven sonata requires hundreds of hours.  I never walk by a piano without playing it.   I’m very improvisational.  Give me a request—”Let It Be,” “Rocky Raccoon”—you name it, I’ll play it.  It’s a cool party trick.

“My mindset about a piano is: this is only alive when I’m playing it. Music is a combination of soul and artistry.”

Steve’s wife, Michelle, teaches third grade.  Their children, Piper, 10, and Sophie, 6, have taken music classes since they were babies and “understand music is a natural part of their lives.”

Steve, 44, has the same enthusiasm for his work at All-Star.  He deems the McGillicuddys “two of the most dedicated people on the planet.”  About their approach to developing trauma informed foster care, Steve says, “I feel as though we’re on the path to something transformative.  Graci and Dennis are aware this is more than the fulfillment of their dream. It will grow into something bigger than both of them.  The seeds have been planted.”

While in most foster families, biological siblings are separated, at All-Star they stay together.  The agency educates, supports and empowers the adults around a child to promote “safe, trusting relationships.”  Programs are implemented and researched with the aim of creating intervention models that can be replicated around the country.

“All-Star transforms the role of the clinician not only by relating to children but by working with foster parents, tracking outcomes and producing data to back up their approach.”

A Clinical Support Coordinator works with the child welfare system to “break down silos and collaborate” on occupational therapy.  All-Star doesn’t wait months for Medicaid approval.   The Clinical Support Coordinator works promptly and directly with school and court systems “to make sure kids get what they need.”

In playing the piano and in fundraising, Steve taps into both sides of his brain.  He enjoys working with many talented people who’ve made Sarasota their home.  “We’re lucky to have people who were CEOs and giants of industry now participating to make our community a better place.”

Thanks, Steve, for sharing your story.  And for making beautiful music—literally and figuratively—in Sarasota.

Oncologists teach me to trust and actor Andre De Shields to keep climbing

Andre De Shields performing in Hadestown.

In 2004, Burton and I needed a break from my stage 4 cancer treeatment.  We flew to Florida for a doctor-approved getaway.  We happened to have season tickets to Sarasota’s Florida Studio Theater.  The regional theater was staging a production of  “Metamorphoses,” about the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.  Two years before, the play had won 3 Tony award nominations.

To recap: Orpheus, the mortal son of Apollo, adores and marries Eurydice.  She’s bitten by a snake and dies.   Orpheus, a musician, plays his lyre to express his grief.  He plays so beautifully the gods are moved to let him travel to the underworld to bring Eurydice back.  Hades, god of the underworld, agrees to let Eurydice follow Orpheus out.  One condition: Orpheus must trust that Eurydice is behind him.  If he  turns around, Eurydice will fall back and be lost to him forever.  Orpheus walks and walks, looking straight ahead.  At the last second—he’s out of the tunnel; she’s not—Orpheus turns around.  Eurydice tumbles back, gone forever.

In great art, we often see ourselves.  In recent months, I’d survived chemo and was still undergoing radiation.  I’d been trudging through a medical process with no certain outcome.  I related to the doubts that beset Orpheus.  As the lights turned on, I was drenched in tears.

Recalling that experience, I was thrilled when Anne and I got to see “Hadestown,” a musical version of the myth, on our sisters’ trip to NY in 2019.  I was blown away by the staging, the New Orleans jazz/blues-like music, and the talent of the Broadway cast.  Andre De Shields, in his 70s, killed it in the role of Hermes.  A showstopping actor, singer and dancer, De Shields previously starred in “The Wiz” and “Ain’t Misbehavin.”

I was as moved by the story that night as I’d been more than 15 years before at “Metamorphoses.”  I remembered  my response to the earlier show—how uncertain I’d been, how moved by the message.  I felt joy in recognizing how hard it had been to trust my doctors and believe in my chances.  Joy in knowing—despite the severity of my case—I’d made it out of that tunnel.  I’d been cancer free long enough to see our oldest son David teach his oldest son Hunter to fire a baseball, to witness the bris of our youngest grandchild, Beau.  Long enough to say a blessing at our youngest granddaughter Lindsay’s bat mitzvah.

Andre De Shields won the Tony award for Best Actor in a musical in 2019.  He was 73 at the time, just four years younger than I am now, which leaves both of us miles past the spring chicken freeway ramp.  De Shields had wowed me in “Hadestown,” and I’d rooted for him.  He  accepted the Antoinette Perry (Tony) medallion with remarks he’d had a lifetime to consider.  His thoughts are worth remembering.  I share them here with you in hopes you’ll appreciate his wisdom as much as I do:

“One, surround yourself with people whose eyes light up when they see you coming.  Two, slowly is the fastest way to get where you want to be.  And three, the top of one mountain is the bottom of the next.  So keep climbing.”

Elana Eda Rubinfeld and Trong Gia Nguyen spoofed the art world

Trong Gia Nguyen and Elana Eda Rubinfeld

One of the joys of being involved in the arts is the people I meet.  Elana Eda Rubinfeld’s a recent Sarasota art friend who told me a story so entertaining I included it in my upcoming book and share it here with you.

In 2002, Elana collaborated with Vietnamese artist Trong Gia Nguyen on a project that was as clever as it was outrageous.  Trained as a painter, Elana often included subversive elements in her paintings, such as a soldier in full military gear wearing pink lipstick.  (That would have seemed considerably more outrageous in 2002.)

Elana and Trong came up with a subversive gambit, their Art Hijack project.  They recreated paintings  stolen from museums, private collections and even Saudi yachts in the past 40 years, claiming the paintings belonged to fictitious Hungarian collector Rick Haatj.  (The name’s an anagram of Art Hijack.) They deemed Haatj “the world’s most passionate collector.”  Elana says, “The paintings weren’t that well done, but all together they made a pretty convincing performance art piece.”

The duo convinced a once ritzy hotel in midtown Manhattan to loan them a penthouse suite decked out with draperies and a piano.  They sent invitations for the premiere of the Rick Haatj collection to friends, collectors and critics.  Having done P.R. for art galleries, Elana knew how to write a press release and where to send it.  The release claimed, “This is the world premiere of an important collection you need to know about.”

A new winery from Hungary donated wine; a pianist from Juilliard played the piano for free.  About 100 guests showed up, including stringers for the NYT and Artnews.  The event was “kinda cheesy but really funny,” Elana says.  “Everybody stayed for hours.  And said things like, ‘It’s cool that you’re showing a Picasso.’”

Elana and Trong met a man who was starting an art fair in LA in 2005.  He offered Art Hijack a booth for free to remount the Private Collection of Rick Haatj.  All the other booths at the fair had stark white walls.  Elana and Trong covered their walls with red velvet panels and hung them with fake works attributed to Picasso, Duchamp and Matisse.  They convinced an antiques dealer to loan them a desk and chairs.

“When people stopped by the booth, we’d say, ‘Of course you’ve heard of Rick Haatj.  It was a performance about what’s real, what’s hype, what’s passion, what’s connoisseurship.  All issues central to art collecting,” Elana, currently an art adviser, says.

A large man with a woman on each arm stopped by the booth.  “You’re telling me I’m buying an actual Picasso?” he demanded.

Elana tried to explain.

He yelled, “You’re a liar, and I think this is bull#!*t.”  He ended up buying two paintings.  Most of the others—fakes painted by real artists—sold as well for $5,000 apiece.

Elana and Trong tried some other projects, but none succeeded like the Rick Haatj Collection.  Eventually, Elana says, “I got a real job.”  She went to work at both P.S.1 and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Creating spoofs on the art world continues.  Maurizio Cattelan is famous for challenging social norms and hierarchies.  “America,” 2017, was a solid gold toilet installed in a restroom at The Guggenheim.  It traveled to Cattelan’s solo show at The Blenheim Palace where it was—Surprise!—stolen.   Last December the contemporary Italian artist presented “Comedian” at the Art Basel art fair in Miami.  Two editions of a banana duct taped to a wall were sold for $120,000 each.  A third was eaten by the performance artist David Datuna as part of his performance “Hungry Artist.”

While I’m an art aficionado, I sometimes shake my head in wonderment.  My grandmother observed, “Money doesn’t care where it goes.”   A contemporary response from the urban dictionary: true dat.

Trong Gia Nguyen and Elana Eda Rubinfeld with one of their Picassos.

Tim Jaeger paints murals about Sarasota history and diversity with help from his friends

Tim Jaeger with friends at the Famous Lido Beach Casino mural. Tim painted the mural with the help of artist friends Paul Lee (left) and Julie Kanapaux (lower right)—both Ringling art school grads.

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Some 400 years ago Shakespeare opined “What’s past is prologue.”  That quote from “The Tempest” is engraved on a statue in front of the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C.

Tim stands with son Jett, wife Cassia Kite-Jaeger and daughter Nina.

Tim Jaeger buys into that sentiment.  Director and Chief Curator of Galleries and Exhibitions at the Ringling College of Art and Design, Tim works to involve the community in the visual arts.  Tim’s an artist, art historian and visual storyteller.  He reaches out to other artists and community members to assist him in creating historical murals.

In the 1950s, Overtown and Newtown, north of downtown Sarasota, FL, were almost exclusively black neighborhoods.  Many residents worked harvesting celery in the Celery Fields near Laurel Oak, the golf and tennis community where Burton and I spend much of winter.  In the 1920s, the Celery Fields were part of 300+ acre Fancee Farms.

In 1994, Sarasota County purchased the farmland to revert it to its original rainwater storage function.  Dirt was moved from one side of Palmer Road to the other side.  At the time, I considered the project an example of needless government spending.  Glad to admit I was wrong.  The dirt that was moved became a man-made hill—the highest point in Sarasota.  It’s now a popular spot for bird watching and hiking and the headquarters for The Sarasota Audubon Society.  And downstream flooding is no longer a problem.

But back to Overtown.  At the time, African-American residents longed to cool off on weekends at area beaches.  Due to Jim Crow laws, those so-called public county beaches were segregated.  Black children cooled off in neighborhood water holes after rainstorms.

In September, 1955, Sarasota NAACP President Neil Humphrey Sr. led a “wade-in.”  Dozens of Newtown residents piled into cars and drove to Lido Beach just off tony St. Armand’s Circle.  They jumped into the water or strolled the shores.  About 100 protesters showed up again the next month.  Sunday wade-ins and car caravans continued for several years.  Humphrey and his NAACP successor John Rivers and Overtown/Newtown residents continued demanding their rights to enjoy public beaches through wade-ins or drive-bys.  While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination, the beaches still weren’t integrated for several more years.

Last year artist Tim Jaeger decided to honor that struggle.  Commissioned by the Arts & Cultural Alliance of Sarasota, he created two 7’x8’ murals at the pavilion on Lido Key.  From on-line photographs of the events, Tim designed five panels illustrating the wade-ins and car caravans.  Images feature residents of Sarasota’s African-American community, many unable to be identified.  To help conceive and paint images, Tim enlisted community groups including the Preservation of Overtown Committee and a diverse team of artists.

“I believe in the collective spirit and the power of art to preserve history and encourage conversation,” Tim says.  “The more ideas and dialogue that go into a project, the greater the appreciation that results.

“With the rapid development of Sarasota, a lot of history is being lost.  We need to know where we came from to know where we want to go.  I hope my work brings greater awareness and that greater awareness leads to better understanding.”

The Lido pavilion was part of the Lido Beach Casino, opened in 1940 as a Works Progress Administration project. Designed by Sarasota School architect Ralph Twitchell, it housed a ballroom, restaurants, shops and a pool with a high diving board.  Its modern white walls and glass block represented a break from the Mediterranean Revival style that dominated much of Sarasota’s earlier construction.  The casino was popular with locals and tourists alike.  On weekends, the USS Sarasota battleship dropped off troops for R&R.

My Ringling friend Anne Garlington introduced me to Tim at a quilt exhibition he mounted at Ringling in January.  “Ringgold + Robinson: Storytellers,” featuring African-American female artists Faith Ringgold and Aminah Robinson, was delightful.  It was prescient in referencing social issues that have lately overtaken the national dialogue.

Tim’s grandfather, G.M. Jaeger, was a draftsman.  Tim credits him for his artistic talent.  The Depression prevented G.M. from pursuing a career as an artist, but Tim’s proud to own his work.  Tim was one of five children.  His dad was an Episcopal priest.  “Our family didn’t have much money,” Tim says.  “My mother figured ways to keep us occupied.  Pencils and paper were cheap.”  One of Tim’s siblings became a graphic designer; another, a poet.

“I feel fortunate to have been fourth of five,” Tim says.  “I had to develop sharp elbows just to eat at our table.  It helped to make me competitive.  I also feel lucky to label myself as a pre-internet artist.  That propelled me further into using my hands.”

Tim’s wife, Cassia Kite-Jaeger, hails from Auburn, Nebraska, where her father’s a fifth-generation cattle farmer.  Cassia’s a fiber artist who teaches at IMG Academy.   The Jaegers have a son, Jett, 12, and a daughter, Nina, 7.  Both are artistic.

Tim first heard of Ringling from a trustee friend of his grandfather who brought a catalogue to church.  “I dissected it,” Tim says.  He entered a month-long, pre-college program at RCAD, loved it, received an award and then a full four-year scholarship.

“I was a goofy kid raised in Western Kentucky,” Tim says.  “I moved to south Florida for art school—one of the best decisions I ever made.”

Fellow Sarasota lovers are happy you made that decision as well, Tim.  Thanks for sharing your talents, and our history, with us.

Tim stands in front of a beach scene he painted in oil and acrylic on canvas: “Human Nature #3”

Meditation in motion: Reaching out despite the pandemic through art, family and spiritual practice

Our granddaughter Camryn looks out over Jerusalem on the morning of her bat mitzvah.

Sarasota’s a town where many smart people choose to retire.  One of them is David Houle.  He bills himself as a “futurist, speaker, thinker” and writes a monthly column in the Herald Tribune.  I usually skim columns and try to absorb the gist.  Not so Houle’s latest.  I read it word for word, then sat back, took a deep breath and decided to share his insights.

Houle introduced a term we’ve experienced on a gut level this past year: cognitive dissonance.  Houle defines it as “the conflict between what one thinks reality is and what it actually is.”

Whew.  If that doesn’t describe what the world’s been going through.

Houle explains, “…The reality you expected for 2020 was not what actually happened.  Instead, you were in familiar surroundings at home with familiar people, but there was danger outside, your workplace was now at home.  Your vocabulary expanded to include ‘social distancing,’ ‘double-masking,’ ‘vaccines,’ ‘COVID-19,’ ‘quarantines’ and ‘shutdown.’  And, of course, you went out at odd hours to find toilet paper, paper towels and, if you were lucky, antibacterial wipes.  What is this reality?”

Collectively we’ve suffered staggering losses.  The loss of friends and family to an invisible enemy.  The loss of freedom to casually move about, to gather in a restaurant or go on date night to a movie.  The loss of the ability to simply board a plane and alight in L.A. or Paris or Rome.

In last week’s WSJ, Candace Taylor writes poignantly of losing the everyday companionship of a best friend and neighbor.  Due to the pandemic, her friend left Brooklyn for the safety of a summer cottage.  She decided to stay.  Taylor concludes, “The virus took all our plans and assumptions about the world and tossed them into the air like confetti.  It turned leavers into stayers and stayers into leavers.  But mostly, in ways life-shattering or simply just sad, Covid robbed us of our people.”

Burton’s and my personal losses predated the pandemic.  With my husband’s brain surgery in 2018 and resulting stroke and partial paralysis, our reality had already shifted.  Our big and social life of travel, fashion, restaurants and parties shrank overnight.  Talk about cognitive dissonance.  When quarantine became the norm, we’d already faced (“adjusted” would be too generous a word) our new reality.

One of the hardest moments for me predated the pandemic.  Granddaughter Camryn celebrated her bat mitzvah in Israel in 2019.  The rest of Andy and Amy’s family traveled there for the occasion. Burton and I witnessed the celebration on Zoom from our house in Franklin. MI.   Better than nothing.  Still, no comparison to being there in person with hugs and joyful tears, surrounded by the ancient limestone walls and worn pavers of Jerusalem.

But Covid has taught us new ways of coping.  We appreciate each other more than ever.  We treasure what get-togethers we can.  We find new ways to spend our time.

For me, two things have made our looooong quarantine more bearable.

At the start of the pandemic, I began work on a coffee table book about collecting art from Detroit’s first avant-garde art movement.  Recalling experiences I’d had and art friendships I’d made, especially with dealers Jackie Feigenson and Mary Preston, allowed me to travel back in my memory.  Detroit’s Cass Corridor & Beyond; Adventures of an Art Collector will be published this year by Read the Spirit, publishers of my second book, Godsigns, and of this column.  I hope you’ll enjoy it.

I also initiated a practice of meditation.  For 15 minutes each morning, I focus on my breathing.  Messy, uninvited thoughts bounce around my brain like kids in a puddle.  But I keep trying.  A meditation instructor said that when distracted, “Simply begin again.”  And so I do.  Over and over.  I’m convinced it’s helped to smooth the rough edges.

Psychologist Emma Seppala, Ph.D, recommends breathing as “the little known secret to peace of mind.”  She recommends a simple exercise she claims slows your heart rate and lowers blood pressure.  Inhale as normal then exhale through mostly closed lips twice as long.

16 years ago, in treatment for stage 4 cancer, I was freaking out over what I perceived as my imminent demise.  At the time, a wise psychologist asked how I was feeling that very minute.  “Okay,” I said.  “Try to stay in the moment,” she advised.  Meditation helps me do so.

On another happy note: in a few days, youngest granddaughter Lindsay will be bat mitzvahed in Glencoe, IL.  A lot closer than Jerusalem. The good Lord and United Airlines willing, I’ll be there.

The theory of cognitive dissonance is credited to social psychologist Leon Festinger.  In 1957 he proposed that inconsistency among beliefs or behaviors creates psychological tension.  Tension causes us to change inconsistent behaviors, reducing dissonance, or add behaviors to restore consonance.  Meditation helps improve consonance– a fancy word for peace of mind.

According to Houle, even before Nasty Nineteen reared its unwanted head, we were in for rough going.  In his new book, The 2020s: A Decade of Cognitive Dissonance, Houle cites the climate crisis, the future of artificial intelligence and global wealth inequality as other issues likely to create disruption.  That’s not counting humanitarian problems at our border, the political divide in this country, astronomical national debt and other unforseen issues.

Namaste, earthlings.  We’re still in for a bumpy ride.

Keep breathing.

Keep reaching out.