Jim and Karin Billings’ true story of ‘Planes, Trains and—a Wheelchair, too.’

Vacations are supposed to be relaxing, fun or exciting, right?  For Karin and Jim Billings, this year’s annual trip to Europe proved a little too exciting.  Their European holiday turned into a European nightmare.

Karin invited friends to wear a hat to her 80th birthday celebration. I created a hat with a brown papier-mâché pony on top, reflecting Karin’s love of horses.

Readers of this column met Karin in March, 2020.  I featured a story on the gay Jewish cat wedding Karin, who loves cats, once hosted.

Karin, 82, is German by birth.  She and Jim travel abroad every year.  This past summer, Karin, a painter and retired equestrienne, decided to take a special painting for each of her seven great grandchildren. She also wanted to gift them much of her formal silverware and some expensive Meissen pottery. The couple agreed to hand-carry the pottery and check everything else in four suitcases.

When their plane from Sarasota to LaGuardia was delayed, Jim got them rebooked on a flight to Atlanta. He knew there were regular flights from Atlanta to LaGuardia. Arriving in Atlanta, the couple rushed to the Delta gate to learn their flight was canceled. Delta couldn’t book them on any other direct flight. What seemed a better option: an American Airlines flight to DC, connecting to LGA with a midnight arrival. That meant racing to the Delta baggage claim office and having their four checked bags off-loaded.Though the Delta manager advised against it, Jim insisted.

The couple opted for a flight through Miami where they arrived at 2:15 am. In the mostly empty airport, they met a fellow traveler. They joined him in the Turkish lounge for breakfast at 5am when the lounge opened. Meantime, they attempted to snooze in massage chairs.

Their flight from Miami made it to LaGuardia. The bags were another story.

With five hours before they needed to take a taxi to the ship, they weren’t overly concerned.  The first Delta flight arrived. No bags. They hustled to the Delta baggage claim office at LGA, which called the baggage claim office in ATL. No answer. The second Delta flight arrived. No bags. If the third flight arrived on time, they might still be able to claim the bags, take a taxi and board on time.

No such luck.

Karin Billings with with her painting of Dior, an Andalusian that belongs to her dear friend Eva in Wellington, FL. Eva just went through a rough chemotherapy treatment. Karin did the painting as a Get Well gift.

Jim and Karin boarded the Queen Mary 2 with the clothes on their backs, the Meissen porcelain and a few garments they bought in the ship’s store.

“We decided to keep smiling,” Jim said. To retain their senses of humor, Jim says, they kept telling themselves “how lucky we were not to be bothered by all the unpacking endured by our fellow passengers.”

Arriving in Hamburg, Karin’s hometown, they were greeted and hosted by family members and Karin’s old friends. One friend, Christian von Humboldt, introduced them to a journalist for “Horse” magazine. She wrote a feature on Karin’s silver medal win in the Munich Olympics 50 years ago.

Their two-week stay in Karin’s “beloved” hometown proved “delightful,” Jim says. It was time for a flight to Paris, a train to Le Havre, a two-week cruise back to NYC, a flight to Tampa and a drive home. Any frequent traveler knows the travel experience can be challenging. Self-proclaimed “seasoned traveler” Jim misread the itinerary for the flight to Paris, confusing check-in and boarding times. Missing the flight, the couple hustled to the train station to catch a fast train to Paris. No luck. It was a Friday; no room on the train. Next best option: a train to Kassel with a two hour wait for a train to Frankfurt, then Paris. They needed to race to catch the first train.

“That’s when the trouble began,” Jim says.

The couple each had two carry-on bags. Running, Karin tripped over a bag. She picked herself up and though in pain, Jim says, “in typical Karin fashion, she toughed it out.”

In Kassel, they had a long walk to the main station. In Frankfurt, another long walk to catch the last train to Paris. That train stopped some 40 kilometers short of Frankfurt while rocks were removed  from the tracks. In Frankfurt, another long walk. The couple arrived in Paris just after midnight. “Karin was really hurting,” Jim says. After a night in a hotel, the next morning they caught a train to Le Havre.  By now unable to walk, Karin needed a wheelchair. When they finally arrived at the ship, the ship’s doctor deemed it “too dangerous” for Karin to travel. After “much discussion,” he agreed to let Karin stay on board if a local doctor approved. They found a clinic; X-rays appeared negative. All aboard.

The first port of call was St. Milo, France. Karin stayed in bed. The next stop: Ferrol, Spain. There “out of desperation,” Jim arranged for an MRI at a local hospital. It, too, appeared negative.

Though Jim calls Karin “one of the toughest people I’ve ever known,” her pain became “unbearable.” In Lisbon, an ambulance sped the couple to a hospital. Karin’s oxygen was low; her heart showed signs of A-fib; she had a fever.  A CT scan revealed a broken rib and a crack in her D-12 vertebra.

Karin spent two weeks at Hospital Da Luz in Lisbon. A tube in her right lung drained excess fluid from pneumonia. Strong antibiotics stabilized her condition. Though the couple wanted to return home, Karin would need continuous oxygen, regular injections of antibiotics, and the ability to lie flat. Two options: air evacuation on a private jet with a doctor and paramedic for $250,000. Or a lay flat first-class seat on a commercial jet accompanied by a paramedic for $50,000. They chose the latter.

Arnold, the paramedic, told the purser Karin might need supplementary oxygen during the flight. Had he arranged for it? No. The purser ordered the threesome off the plane. Arnold promised oxygen wouldn’t be necessary after all. After much more discussion, they were allowed to stay on board. At cruising altitude, Jim noticed Karin’s oxygen was dropping. Luckily, a doctor on board was a cardiologist. He ordered the purser to provide an extra oxygen bottle.  During the nine-hour flight, Karin’s oxygen bottle was replaced three times. 40 minutes from Miami, Karin needed another bottle. The purser refused, saying the plane was descending and Karin’s oxygen concentrator was “adequate.”

“’Adequate’ wasn’t good enough,” Jim says.  He sought out the cardiologist who ordered the purser to provide another bottle.

At last, the couple landed in Miami. Jim refused to get off the plane until a wheelchair and more oxygen were available. Wheelchair: no problem. Oxygen? The purser insisted they’d find a medical office “somewhere in the terminal” to supply it. In “a rather tense moment,” Jim—whom we all know is a consummate gentleman—refused to leave the plane without oxygen. The purser was “livid,” Jim says. She called the captain. He insisted the plane had a quick turn-around. Passengers were ready to board.

“Are you willing to risk the health of my wife?” Jim demanded.

30 minutes later, oxygen arrived.  The Billings left the plane.  But Karin’s ordeal wasn’t over yet.

Back in SRQ, Karen says she “suffered” through two and one-half weeks at Sarasota Memorial Hospital undergoing various tests and receiving IV antibiotics through a PICC line.  Finally released to go home, she continued receiving antibiotics for a total of eight weeks.

The couple had both looked forward to “returning to our house, friends, community and cats,” Jim says.  They were grateful to sleep in their own beds and “sneak into the kitchen for a snack.”  Their view through the lanai had been altered.  Hurricane Ian had demolished their pool cage.  Half ended up in the pool; the rest was spread around the yard—some on the front lawn.

For Karin, coming home was “unsettling.”  Though happy to be home, she felt insecure.  Having been in a hospital for over four weeks, she’d become “comfortable” knowing she was cared for.  “She was even beginning to like the food,” Jim says.

There are two heroes to this story.  Jim sent friends a write up of what the couple endured.  His advocacy for Karin was nothing short of heroic.

I was honored to be among the first friends Karin allowed to visit.  I’d survived Stage 4 cancer, a crisis I described in my 2012 memoir, GodSigns.  Prayer played a significant part in my healing.  Karin requested I pray for her. I was glad to do what I could to bring her comfort.

Though Karin’s not sure she’ll play golf again, I’m confident she will.

Meet you on the first tee, girlfriend.  Thanks for the inspiration.  You’re a rock star of recovery.

Shanda Sullivan fulfills sister Penny James’ dying wish to publish her memoir about the cost of her once glamorous modeling life, addiction and health issues

Shanda, her husband Patrick and friends.

Shanda Sullivan knows the joy of having a sister.

And the pain of losing her.

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

When Shanda’s sister Penny James died at 77, in 2019, Shanda was bereft.  She was also determined to fulfill Penny’s dying wish—to finish and publish her memoir, How Nature Healed a Broken Soul. No small feat considering that both sisters dealt with serious health issues, Shanda isn’t a writer—and Penny was brutally honest in telling her story.

Shanda has suffered from Multiple Sclerosis for 35 years. Penny faced challenges as well, contracting Raynaud syndrome, a painful disease associated in her case with scleroderma.

Beautiful and outgoing, Penny led a high powered young life.  She was Miss Colorado, 1962, and a runner up to Miss USA.  A fashion model during the Twiggy era, Penny was represented by top NY agencies Wilhelmina and Eileen Ford. She appeared on five Playboy covers but refused to do a centerfold. Her life wasn’t as enviable as it appeared. During what Shanda calls her sister’s “difficult” 20-year marriage, Penny suffered “dangerous alcohol addiction and self-esteem challenges.”

In her memoir, Penny writes of rubbing elbows with Cher, Jackie O and Ali McGraw in New York in the 1960s and 70s, and of the glamorous life she led. “Having a keen fashion sense can attract royalty. Crossing legs at the right angle while sitting and sensually using body curves to full advantage while wearing an Yves St. Laurent garment could be far more effective than a college degree in ‘getting a man.’ A marriage proposal from a rich, powerful gentleman promised the peace of mind that comes with financial security and… an exciting lifestyle. Knowing how to dress was a free ticket into the newly opened Studio 54…”   

Penny’s husband had a fling with fame as well. A plastic surgeon, he briefly starred in a syndicated tv series “Today’s Health.” Penny spent many hours teaching him how to appear comfortable and convincing on camera.

Regarding her Jet Set younger years, Penny recalls a trip to Greece with her husband and his nurse/mistress. They dined at the home of an Onassis cousin on whom her husband performed a rhinoplasty. She mentions another evening at the home of Golden Globe nominated actress Carlin Glynn. Robert and Lola Redford and Dustin Hoffman were there, dressed in jeans. About the evening, Penny writes, “My flowing gown and leg placement at a flattering angle didn’t cut it with this group…. I came home and knew my world was crumbling.”

After 20 years of marriage, Penny and her husband divorced. In her memoir she examines the price she paid for her so-called glamorous life. “…as youth faded, that sense of security was lost.  Was I afraid of being tossed out with the trash? Drugs propped up my self-esteem, then turned on me, bringing desperation and insecurity I hadn’t known before.”

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

After 11 years in the spotlight, Penny gave up her modeling career and the pressures of the ‘60s and ‘70s party scenes in Chicago and New York. In the 1980s, she moved to a 100-year old farmhouse in northeastern Pennsylvania. There she found the peace of mind that had eluded her. An  attentive neighbor was a bear she named Sophia. In Muffin: A True Story, a charming children’s book Penny published about the experience, Penny writes, “I heard an odd sound, a delicate tap… tap… tap.”  She looked out the window to see a black bear peering in at her.

“She seemed polite and good natured,” Penny writes. To entice the bear to stay, Penny tossed out a donut. “The bear had such good manners. She picked it up, ate it carefully, then wanted another.” Many more donuts followed. Tapping occurred daily. Before long, Sophia clicked her teeth together, signaling to three cubs it was safe to descend from the tree where they hid.

Even the Muffin story was part of the roller coaster in Penny’s life.

Here’s the sad epilogue to this story: While Penny relished her relationship with Sophia and her offspring Muffin, the National Park Service advises against befriending wild animals. Attacks, though rare, most likely occur when bears are “protecting food, cubs or their space,” the park service says. Bears that are too comfortable around humans run the risk of encountering other less friendly humans. Such was the case with Muffin and three of her cubs. All four animals were shot and killed by a hunter.

Penny developed achalasia, a rare digestive disease that impedes digestion. She handled her  complications with grace, writing, “I am a patient with achalasia, scleroderma, pulmonary hypertension, AFib and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Yet I’m still alive and look healthy.”

Shanda says joining AA allowed her sister “to develop a relationship with God and begin her healing journey.” Penny reached out to others. As a volunteer, she shared her story with female inmates at Riker’s Island, reading to them and collaborating on a sculpture garden featuring a totem of branches and twigs.

“Penny believed we’re all connected on God’s earth with zero degrees of separation,” Shanda says. Zero degrees describes Shanda and Penny’s relationship. In her memoir, Penny credits her sister for tireless medical advocacy and moral support. “Shanda has always been the one beside me when I’ve really needed help.”

I met Shanda, who lives in Virginia, several years ago at a Cowboy Poetry Festival in Elko, Nevada. Our dear friend Richard Webb convinced us to fly from Florida across country and then drive for about three hours to this small but lively western town. A bonus of attending, including the high voltage poetry of Paul Zarzyski and music of Texan Tom Russell, was meeting Shanda.  Her husband Patrick served on the board of the Elko-based Folklife Center, which organizes the annual event. Poets and singer songwriters perform around town on stages including the high school gymnasium.

Though more low key than her sister, Shanda shares Penny’s determination. Developing MS at 37, Shanda more recently had breast cancer—twice. For now, her MS symptoms are “relatively mild.” She theorizes the disease may have been slowed by chemo she took for breast cancer.  Shanda was born and raised in Colorado. She was a flight attendant for United Airlines until MS ended her 20-year career in the air. With a close friend, she then started what became a successful interior design business.

Shanda’s husband Patrick is a retired navy pilot, aeronautical engineer and professor (aka “rocket scientist”).  A “super duty” pilot in Vietnam, Patrick flew a MEDEVAC to pick up wounded brothers—something he did on alternate days off after flying Navy helicopter gunships and SEAL ops.  Aboard USS Enterprise, the first nuclear aircraft carrier, Patrick took charge of on-board filming, arranging the opening scenes in the original “Top Gun” movie with Tom Cruise.  When Shanda and I first spoke, Patrick was away, escorting his friend, legendary  cowboy and blues singer 91-year old Ramblin’ Jack, on tour of Nashville and the South.

As maternal and caring as Shanda is, she and Patrick didn’t have children, lest pregnancy worsen her MS. She’s as devoted to her other two sisters, Bobbie and Sheila, as she was to Penny. During the four months Penny underwent chemo, Shanda convinced her sister to live with her and Patrick. She accompanied Penny to appointments. As challenging as those months were, the sisters still managed to “be silly and laugh.” They especially delighted in composing a tray full of beautiful but inedible foraged mushrooms.

Penny, sober for 34 years, called Shanda every Sunday to go over a Bible passage. Joining AA helped Penny recover a sense of sanity. She believed her story might help others through difficult times. “She wanted others to know they could learn from her mistakes and come through them, as she did,” Shanda says.  When ill health prevented Penny from finishing her memoir, she asked Shanda to complete it—a seemingly impossible request considering that on top of her existing health issues, Shanda had lately been diagnosed with Lyme disease.

“I stared out the window thinking I might never be able to garden again, no less complete Penny’s book and publish it,” Shanda says. “But it was a deathbed promise, and in our family we were taught to be tenacious. So I did my best. I learned how hard it is to turn a rough manuscript into a finished, edited, and finally published book. Especially when it covers such painful moments in the life of someone I dearly loved.” The experience, she admits, “took a toll.”

Thanks, Shanda, for sharing your resilient sister and equally resilient self. On Nov. 8, you’ll turn 72. Happy and HEALTHY, well-earned birthday wishes.


A Penny James Gallery from her heyday in media







For Maureen Kaiser, age is no barrier to chasing her dreams as a singer/songwriter

That’s Maureen in the broad-brimmed hat. This is the cover of her 2020 album. Click on this album cover and you’ll visit the Amazon page where you can listen to the songs and purchase her music, if you like it.

Some lucky people can sing.  Some join choirs.  Others enjoy karaoke.  Some merely dream of life behind a microphone.  It takes a rare, brave person to become a singer/songwriter when she’s pushing 50. That takes chutzpah!

I met Maureen Kaiser when she owned and operated an American Speedy print shop in Bloomfield Hills, MI.  25 years ago, she married Joe Kaiser, a friend Burton and I knew through a business-related organization.

Married to Joe, Maureen opened an event planning business.  At a conference, Maureen participated in a team building exercise.  She suggested writing a theme song for the conference.  What seemed like a good idea was “stalling out,” Maureen says.  A line “just popped into my head and out of my mouth,” Maureen says.  “Make a right hand turn on Mayhem Lane.”

Spending about an hour on the exercise, Maureen contributed most of the lines for the song.  Enjoying the exercise, that night at the resort she sat in the bathroom and wrote four songs—melody and lyrics.  The next day she sang her theme song for fellow conference members, who applauded her efforts.

When Maureen returned home to Scottsdale, AZ, she registered Mayhem Lane as an LLC.  Her next thought: “What to do with my newfound lust to write?”

Maureen decided to take her newfound hobby seriously.  She participated in several songwriting boot camps in Nashville.  These were “deep dives,” she says, into songwriting, recording and the logistics of the music industry.

Needing an accompaniment, Maureen bought a guitar.  She signed up for private lessons in her home, five days a week for six months.  She practiced every day and most nights, she says, “Until it clicked and my right hand was talking to my left hand.  I wasn’t great, but I was good enough to show a real musician what I wanted.”

Maureen worked with eight studio musicians on her first batch of studio recordings.  She “kept joking” they should form and band.  They rehearsed for over a year.  Three albums later, after the group had learned most of Maureen’s catalog, “We made it official and became Mayhem Lane.”  Last year, Maureen and her band performed at six gigs.  They have six more on the books for the next year.  As if that weren’t enough, this gutsy gal has started teaching songwriting workshops at corporate events.

By the time a conference is over, Maureen says, the groups she’s engaged with will have written a theme song and learned the lingo and etiquette of songwriting.  She says her workshops “are designed to engage and enlighten the participants while they enjoy a creative experience.”

During COVID, Maureen says, “I realized Keith Urban or Miranda Lambert weren’t going to call.”  She decided to do what she could to increase the chance that some professional singer would like her creations.

She put together a band of professional musicians she found from Nashville studios and in her home town of Scottsdale.  They’ve recorded dozens of Maureen’s songs that are professionally produced and released on most streaming platforms.  She hopes some of her tunes will be picked up for commercial use.

Maureen’s songs have a country vibe and usually convey a message.  One of her favorites is “Fly Like Amelia,” about Amelia Earhart.  Maureen cut it with a male vocalist, Jacob Morris from Nashville, and 14 year old Evie Clair, a female singer from Season 12 of “America’s Got Talent.”  One line from the song, “Be firm like Rosa,” references Rosa Parks, an African American Detroiter who refused to sit in back of a bus.  Maureen wrote the song with her granddaughter in mind.  “I don’t want anyone bringing her down.”

Maureen has produced 3 and ½ minute homemade videos of a few songs. Another personal fave: “Brothers Together,” a song she dedicated to fire fighters and first responders.

All Maureen’s songs are on her website, musicbymayhemlanelyrics.com, and many streaming platforms including Pandora, Spotify and Apple Music.

Maureen keeps coming up with “cowboy one-liners” and makes notes whenever they strike.

Maureen’s husband Joe is “100% on board” with her new career.  She calls him her “biggest cheerleader.”  As a thank you, Maureen wrote “I Dreamed of You” as a birthday gift for Joe and gave him the song rights.  She starts every set with the song, she says,  “It fills my heart with gratitude.”

Maureen has partnered with Detroit-based Taja Sevelle, a singer/songwriter who co-wrote with Prince and has her own private label.  Taja’s best known for her 1987 single “Love is Contagious” and for the non-profit organization, Urban Farming, she founded in 2005. Maureen says Taja’s and her “personal styles of writing blend together, and we’re creating a new vibe.”

Maureen finds people in the industry “kind and willing to help.”  Lately, she holds songwriting meetings on Zoom. One songwriting partner, Nashville-based Sherrie Austin, co-wrote “Bad for Me,” the title track to a Blake Shelton album, and songs for George Strait, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.  Another partner, Will Rambeaux, has had songs recorded by Faith Hill, Dolly Parton and more.

Maureen was thrilled when 17-year old barrel racer and up and coming country singer Abigayle Holt included two of her songs on her EP.  Maureen was first drawn to Abigayle when she viewed film of her singing the National Anthem at a rodeo. Maureen calls Abigayle “the poster child of the person I dreamed would want to do my music.”

Maureen continues to take voice lessons, though she’s “most comfortable” singing background vocals.

About her later in life career, Maureen says, “I wish I’d started sooner.  But If I had and it didn’t work out, I might have given up.”  She continues to stay up late writing songs and to take voice lessons.  She believes “everyone has a song in them.”  She’s doing her best to bring all of hers to life.

You go, girlfriend. Thanks for the inspiration.  And the gift of knowing it’s never too late to be what we might have been.

Click on this photo of Maureen and you’ll visit here website, featuring a 3-minute introductory video about her musical career.

Sarah discovers that 12 Steps are part of a life-long journey

My friend Sarah, appropriately protecting her identity as she shares her story with us this week.

Sarah was one of the funniest girls in my high school class. Hence, one of my favorites.

What I did not know at the time was that she was also one of the most conflicted. With two “highly functioning” alcoholic parents, Sarah grew up immersed in addiction issues. Unlike her parents, she eventually mustered the courage to do something about them, which is why Sarah agreed to let me share her story with all of you—but, of course, not her full name, which you will understand as you read.

Sarah’s parents had experienced their own traumas. She was born just two weeks after her parents were devastated by the death of their 2-year-old son to TB. Sarah’s aunts and grandmother pitched in and doted on her. As a toddler, Sarah felt “adored.” She loved going to her grandmother’s house where she “was treated properly—like a princess.”

But at home? Her parents both were very talented and “movie star gorgeous.” Her father had served in the medical corps in World War II and saw the carnage that came with the Allied landings in Europe. He returned to the U.S. believing he could have saved more soldiers’ limbs—so, he went back to school and became a surgeon. Her mother was a professional artist, although she never got over the death of a child to TB.

Both parents turned to alcohol every day.

Sarah also faced a number of other challenges in her family. “I wasn’t as pretty as my mother or sisters. So I worked at being funny and fun.” Around 9th grade, Sarah realized that alcohol was a serious problem in her family. “So I fixed the problem. I poured out all the liquor in the house.”

Her parents “went batshit.”

That’s partly why Sarah was sent to board at Kingswood School Cranbrook, a prep school in Bloomfield Hills, MI. After six weeks of boarding school, Sarah was frustrated. “Nobody realized how special I was. And school was really hard.” Home for Thanksgiving, she cried to her parents, “Don’t make me go back.”

Sarah has never forgotten her father’s response: “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.  But your mother and I are spending thousands of dollars trying.”

Sarah snapped, “Just remember who the boar and the sow are.”

Back at boarding school, Sarah decided the food wasn’t bad. She competed with a friend to see how many dishes of apple crisp they could eat. She put on weight and tried, but failed, to run off the extra pounds playing field hockey. “My classmates all seemed slim and gorgeous. A couple tried to teach me to put my finger down my throat, but I couldn’t do it.” She spent 10th, 11th and 12th grade “still trying” to lose weight.

After graduation, Sarah went to Finch College in New York City. Then, in her sophomore year, she got pregnant and eloped with her boyfriend Tom. Both of his parents and her mother were “horrified.” Her father was resigned.

There was a bright period when Sarah and Tom settled into a home in a lovely Ohio suburb. “I was hitting my stride,” Sarah says. “I got contact lenses, played tennis, joined the Junior League, had a social network. We had three beautiful, smart children. Tom’s father was a big sponsor of our symphony.

“But at cocktail parties, I was drinking and eating too much. Everything tasted so delicious. To control my weight, I started taking diet pills. They just made me drunk faster. I mixed alcohol with diet sodas.”

In her mid-30s, Sarah realized her husband was having an affair. She and Tom attended marriage counseling. The counselor asked Tom, “Why are you here?” Nodding toward Sarah,  he said, “To get her fixed.” Later, Tom told Sarah, “This marriage would have worked if you weren’t so damn dumb.” They divorced.

Sarah internalized Tom’s criticism. “I went into a sad spiral.”  She started dating, but “it was going badly.” Then, her parents both died between Thanksgiving and Christmas in 1982.

Worrying Tom had been right about her being “dumb,” Sarah took a Stanford-Binet IQ test. With nervous fingers, she opened the envelope for her results. “It was a big, fat number. Oh, I said, so that’s not why the marriage ended.”

Sarah’s parents had left her “a little money,” and she decided to go back to school. She “crammed two years of classes into eight months.” When she realized she’d made the Dean’s List, she says, “I burst into tears.”

Over the next ten years, Sarah held a variety of jobs in Cincinnati, including working in a dress shop and an ad agency—but Sarah still was drinking and gaining weight.

“My rear end would have stopped a freight train. But shoulder pads were in. They helped balance the bottom.” By age 50, Sarah was running out of money. She could no longer afford her “pretty little townhouse.” She binged on self-help books. She was unemployed. One night she “fixed a fabulous meal for four and ate every bite.” She filled three tall glasses with ice and bourbon and a splash of water, downed them and fell asleep in her wing-back chair watching Jeopardy. She awoke “wedged” into the chair and had trouble getting up.

It’s often said no one can cure an addiction problem until they’ve hit bottom. Sarah hit bottom—literally. She realized, “no matter how big your earrings are, they won’t stop anyone from noticing your ass is stuck in a chair.”

That’s when she resolved to take action and called a friend who was a member of Overeaters Anonymous. The organization was founded in 1960 by Rozanne S and two other women, following the 12-step pattern of Alcoholics Anonymous, founded in 1935.

At first, Sarah was hesitant to attend the group, telling her friend that she would be embarrassed.

“Sarah,” her friend replied, “they already know you’re fat.”

In fact, Overeaters Anonymous’s thousands of local groups welcome anyone “recovering from unhealthy relationships with food and body image.” Many come because they are overweight; others come to the group because their “unhealthy” relationship to food amounts to anorexia or bulimia. Unlike various nationally known dieting organizations, however, Overeaters Anonymous does not prescribe any specific plans or diets. Instead, participants encourage each other through the 12 Steps to take control of their lives and find their own paths toward healthier living.

Sarah was impressed by the group’s approach. She chose a sponsor. “I chose someone who said she’d prayed I wouldn’t want her because I’m so confrontational.”

“Everybody has a sobriety date,” Sarah says. Hers is January 21, 1995, the date of her first meeting. As Sarah talked with her sponsor and others in the group, she developed a plan that “with God, one day at a time” would control her compulsive eating.

Sarah recalls writing out answers to questions about what triggered her eating. She realized that for her food meant comfort. “But the comfort didn’t last. I realized it still could, as long as I stuck to a food plan.”

Eventually, Sarah lost 113 pounds.

“Now I understand how much I can eat,” she says. After a small lapse—gaining 10 pounds in her early 70s—Sarah says, “I finally leveled out. She’s been following the plan, and helping others do so, for 28 years.

Sarah has been attending both Overeaters Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings since 1995. She says, “I got to the point of admitting I was powerless over food and alcohol. My life had become unmanageable. That admission is the First Step. I realized I’d also been coming on strong in relationships. What I really needed was to be quiet and calm. I have no control over other people, places or things. Myself—maybe. With God’s help.”

She says, “I realized I’d been beating myself up with thoughts like I wasn’t smart enough; I wasn’t pretty enough like my sister. Whatever my first thought is, I’ve learned to pause.”

And the past? Well, Sarah says, “We all start out as a cucumber. Once we’re pickled, we remain a pickle. We can’t go back to being a cucumber. I take responsibility for my life.”

A stronger, wiser Sarah has held a series of jobs, including as a parish administrator and as a staff assistant, now, at Northern Kentucky University. She was delighted to receive a Student Support Award for faculty and staff members who most help support students.

Sarah no longer internalizes others’ criticism of her. “I realize I just married the wrong guy,” she says. Introspection, sobriety, weight control and self-help work have led her to shed her earlier insecurity. Today, she says, “I actually like myself. I have gifts to give and am happy for the opportunity to serve.”

To keep herself centered, Sarah repeats lessons and positive messages she’s gleaned from AA.  One is making amends. When you’re wrong, promptly admit it. She apologized to her children for being hard to get along with for so long. Another: The three Cs. When dealing with someone else’s addiction, realize you didn’t cause it, you can’t change it; you can’t cure it.

Certain slogans continue to resonate.

“Let go and let God.”

“Are you trusting God or are you playing God?”

“ Your mind is a dangerous neighborhood; don’t go there alone.”

“A 12 step program is not for people who need it; it’s for people who want it.”

Sarah says, “12 Step programs are simple, but not easy.” She has forgiven her parents for slights that occurred in the past. She says, “I’ve come to understand we all do the best we can.”

Amen to that, girlfriend. Thanks for sharing your journey. And for inspiring others to live their best, and healthiest, lives.

Care to learn more?

To find an Overeaters Anonymous meeting near you, visit the group’s website.

To find an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting near you, visit the group’s website.

Santa Barbara’s Suzanne Duca and ex-monk Ross Quigley share funds and philosophy in a modern non-marriage

Another first in my quest, dear reader, to introduce you to fascinating people: My first ex-monk.

Ross Quigley and Suzanne Duca

Raised Catholic, in 1978 Ross Quigley, then 28, sought “a contemplative, monastic life.” He lived at the Franciscan Retreat in Danville, CA. The next year he joined the “Spiritual Life Institute,” a Catholic Carmelite monastery in SW Nova Scotia. Later he spent time at monasteries in Sedona, AZ; Crestone, CO; and County Sligo, Ireland. Ross was what he calls “an apostolic hermit.” For 23 years he lived “in solitude and community” with men and women, aiming “to be personally, passionately present.”

Eventually Ross realized that while he’d learned to meditate and focus his mind, he was a workaholic. He decided he’d been spending too much time working on publishing projects and doing tasks around the monastery. He’d sought a contemplative life but had gotten too busy to stay disengaged.

“I’d lost my way,” he says. “Instead of going deeper, I kept focusing on another To Do list. To be me, I needed to go somewhere else.”

Ross left the monastic life and decided to go home again. He returned to Santa Barbara, CA, where he’d grown up and where “the air felt like home.” In this next phase of his life, a yoga teacher introduced him to Suzanne Duca.

Suzanne was on a break from teaching Art History at Moorpark, CA’s Moorpark College.  She was in San Francisco, working with the Making Waves Education Foundation. The program empowers and educates “historically underrepresented and underserved people.”  Suzanne is devoted to improving educational opportunities for others.  She and former husband, Reece Duca, had created and sold The Learning Company, an internationally recognized developer and marketer of educational software. Suzanne and Reece set up a family foundation to support human services, open spaces and recreation. They fund scholarships for inner city and local schools in Carpinteria, CA, and Taos, NM.

Suzanne lived in Carpinteria, near Santa Barbara. While she was in San Francisco, Ross watched over her home. On her return, Suzanne became friends with Ross. Inviting him on hikes with her girlfriends and introducing him to potential dates. When nothing developed between Ross and Suzanne’s prospects, Ross says, “she started introducing me to her gay friends. Nothing happened there either.”

Despite failing to spark Ross’ romantic interest in anyone else, Suzanne, now 73, and Ross, now 72, became good friends. Eventually very good friends. They realized they shared an interest in walking the Camino de Santiago spiritual trail through France and Spain. They headed overseas together and “became close,” Suzanne says, while walking the 1000-mile trail.

Ross sums up their relationship. “Suzanne started seeing me herself and hearing my stories.  Along the way we became romantic and committed lovers.”

But marriage was not in the picture. Suzanne says, “My first marriage ended in divorce. I didn’t want to risk another failure.”

The couple are now 22 years into what Ross calls “a friendship/lover relationship.” He says, “With my Catholic upbringing, I told Suzanne I couldn’t promise to spend the rest of my life in a marriage. I have nothing against it; it’s just not necessarily for me. But Suzanne and I live a committed life. If we’re still together in our 80s, maybe we’ll get married.”

Suzanne admires the effect Ross has on others. “He’s like the Pied Piper,” she says. “He gets together with informal groups of men for coffee and meaningful conversation. He helps a lot of people to be more honest and in touch with themselves. In that aspect, he’s still really a monk.”

I sense Suzanne’s meaning. Ross radiates a kind of inner peace. He says, “So many people live in fear. I’m not afraid to be simple, humble or foolish. I’m happy to carry around a kind of joy and to share it with others.”

Part of Ross’ commitment to Suzanne included nurturing her through a horrific accident four years ago.  An expert, lifelong skier and one time ski instructor, Suzanne was skiing at Red Mountain in British Columbia north of Spokane.  She was gliding down a trail at the end of the day when another skier merged from a much steeper trail without looking and head butted her.  “It could happen to anyone,” Suzanne says.  “My helmet probably saved my life.  I don’t remember anything about it until a doctor stood above me and said 99% of my face was damaged.  Luckily the crash didn’t harm too much of my brain.”

One long surgery and prettily restored face later, Suzanne’s back to leading an active, productive life.  Her home sits on a bluff in Carpinteria.

Several years ago, Suzanne and Ross took over a monthly singer/songwriter program they’d enjoyed attending.  Hearing the program was about to cut back, Suzanne protested.  “You’re filling a huge void in our lives,” she said.  The organizer suggested Suzanne and Ross take over the event, and they did.  (The founding couple still help out.)

With lawn space for 140, Suzanne and Ross invite a singer/musician of Americana music to perform in their front yard.  Suzanne sends out an email inviting guests to each monthly summer concert, first come/first served.  The setting, overlooking the ocean with horses grazing in paddocks, plus complimentary buffet dinner and beverages, render concerts quick sell-outs.  Guests make cash donations to performers.

Suzanne and Ross are especially excited to have Nashville Hall of Fame, American country music singer/songwriter/musician Marcus Hummon as their latest artist.  Hummon’s “Bless the Broken Road” won the Grammy for Best Country Song in 2005.  Hummon is currently working on “American Prophet,” a pandemic-delayed Hamiltonesque musical about abolitionist Frederick Douglass.  (After checking it out on You Tube, I prophesize “American Prophet” will net an American Profit.)

Thanks, Anne Towbes, for introducing me to this terrific twosome.  And thanks, Suzanne and Ross, for all you do to make California, and our world, a more harmonious place.


Getting lost at the Detroit Institute of Arts led the Rev. Keyon S. Payton to find something special with friend Brenda Rosenberg

From left:  Rufino Lin, Davona Boyd, Brenda Rosenberg, Keyon S. Payton at Mumford High School in Detroit

I love how the universe, or God, or Source or whatever you call it presents astonishing coincidences when we’re open to them.  BFF Brenda Rosenberg and her new friend Keyon recently had such an experience.

Brenda knows what it feels like to be shot down in her efforts to create peace among people of different faiths and backgrounds. Ever hopeful, when one approach doesn’t work, she tries another. Having once managed fashion apparel for 900 Federated department stores, in the last 20 years Brenda’s turned her formidable focus on a thornier problem. With partner Samia Bahsoun, an American citizen born in Senegal, Africa, of Lebanese descent, they’ve created and presented programs around the US.  And in spots as far flung as Haifa U. in Israel and as guests of King Abdullah in Jordan.

Brenda describes her peacemaking work as fostering “relational equity.”  She’s lately teamed up with the Rev. Keyon S. Payton, lead pastor of Pontiac, MI’s New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church.  They hope to create an Institute for Trauma and Economic Justice (ITEJ). Keyon, with degrees from Morehouse, Princeton and more, is working on his doctoral studies.

He recently came to the Detroit Institute of Arts to support Brenda at a signing of her new book, Charmed. That visit—Keyon’s first to the DIA—sparked a series of Godsigns.

Nature called.  Keyon asked a security guard for directions to the loo.  Unsure whether the closer restroom was open, the guard sent him to a farther one.  Keyon took a couple of wrong turns, eventually finding the loo on the other side of the DIA.  On his way back he noticed a display of photos by Detroit students.  He walked up to them.  In the middle of the grouping, he spotted a photo of a hand holding a silver medallion inscribed with the Lord’s Prayer. Studying the photo, Keyon realized the hand was his own. The photo was borrowed from a mailer Keyon produced for Michigan United, a group promoting justice for underserved communities.

Keyon’s a friend of Rufino Lim, an art teacher at Detroit’s Mumford High School. “Mr. Lim”  focuses on photography. The image Keyon discovered was submitted by Davona Boyd, a teenage student of Mr. Lim. Keyon told Brenda about the photo he’d come across after making a couple of wrong turns. Seeing the picture, Brenda concluded, “Two wrong turns made a right turn.”

In the description accompanying the photo, Brenda learned Davona was a student at Detroit’s Mumford High School.

Several decades ago, Brenda herself was a student at Mumford.  Her drawing of a dragon had won first place in an art contest and been exhibited at the DIA.  That honor, Brenda says, “empowered me to see myself as an artist.”  Brenda became an accomplished photographer, as readers of her new book Charmed will attest.

Brenda and Keyon visited Mumford and met Davona Boyd, a bubbly senior.  Visiting Mumford had yet another benefit for Brenda.  She’s been producing stunning wallpaper panels from photos she’s shot around the world.  In Nevada, horseback riding with husband Howard, Brenda had taken a photo of wild mustangs racing through valleys and over mountains.   The Mustang is the mascot for all Mumford sports teams.  Brenda’s mural of mustangs will soon enhance the lobby of her alma mater.  It will be installed the last week of July by the Detroit Wallpaper Company.

Brenda’s determination has amazed me for more than 50 years.  Godsigns readers have met Brenda before.  Keyon’s story is equally amazing.  Stay tuned.  Your ECC (ever curious columnist) has another humdinger in store.

An ex-Catholic priest, Floridian Dino Silvestrini is now a married pastor

Dino with his wife Dee.

Attending a memorial service, I was intrigued by the engaging clergyman who conducted the service.  I caught up with him in the parking lot.

Pastor Dino Silvestrini, 65, grew up in a rural Catholic parish and “felt a vocational call” in second grade.  ”I’m not sure what compelled me,” he says.  He attended mass at 7:30 every morning.  A pastor noticed his regular attendance and asked him and another student to meet him in the sacristy.  “I thought we were in trouble,” he recalls.

Quite the contrary.  The pastor invited him to become an altar server.  Dino lived near the church and began serving at weddings, funerals and holy hours.  By high school graduation, he says, “I was sure I wanted to be a Catholic priest.”

In 1984, Dino was ordained.  For over 25 years, he served as a Catholic priest.  As time went on, “I didn’t feel challenged to the extent I’d hoped.  Being in the priesthood was meaningful but lonely.  I’d spent eight years training for the priesthood, but after my staff left at 4pm, the walls began to cave in on me.  I felt attracted to women and didn’t want to spend the rest of my life by myself.   It was a confusing time.  I fought my feelings for years, but finally realized I could reinvent myself as a chaplain.  Same circus, different tent.”

As a chaplain, Dino, performs many of the same rituals.  He counsels people, visits patients in hospitals, performs burials and preaches sermons.  Having undergone an official process of laicization, he no longer celebrates Mass or administers Catholic sacraments.

Dino officiated at a memorial service for Faith Storm Graves, the105 year old mother of my good Florida friend Phyllis Keyser. Faith and her husband, Ellis Lee Graves, were missionaries in Brazil.  Ellis died in 2015.  At the time, Phyllis found a coin etched with the numbers from John 3:16, the beloved Bible verse that promises eternal life for Christian believers.  The discovery comforted Phyllis who still treasures the coin. (See my 2015 column, “Beloved Presbyterian minister lives well, loves well, and leaves well.”)

Faith, a longtime breast cancer survivor, outlived Ellis by several years.  She demonstrated the spunk daughter Phyllis inherited.  Each year, Faith reported on how she was faring.

“98: Feeling great.”

“99: Doing fine.”

“Don’t you laugh: I’m 99 ½.”

100: “Please bow; I’m 100 now.”  Phyllis decided that occasion merited a parade.   She decorated a golf cart from the home to resemble a carriage.  Phyllis’s son played the horse.  Faith wore a tiara and a cape.  A red carpet lined the parade route which was populated with residents from Westminster, Faith’s continuing care retirement community in St. Pete, FL.

By 104, Faith was done.  She announced, “104. I want no more!” She got her wish a year later.

Pastor  Dino sent her off with a lovely eulogy.

Service to others has been a hallmark of Dino Silvestrini’s life.  An athlete, he grew up in Iron River, MI, a town of under 3,000 in the U.P., and coached JV basketball at a Catholic school in nearby Marinette, WI.  As Pastor of St. Rita’s in Trenary, MI, his assignment was affiliated with St. Therese, in Au Train.  The small mission church was in danger of closing.  To support St. Therese, Dino came up with a fundraiser and ran 23 miles from from Trenary to Au Train.  Sponsorships produced $14,000 for St. Therese.

In 2010, a month after leaving the priesthood, Dino moved with his mother to Florida.  Out to dinner with a friend, he noticed a woman on the dance floor, introduced himself and called her the next day.  He and Dee have been married for 11 years.  At the time, Dino thought his clerical career was over.  He began applying for civil jobs; he was a groundskeeper for the Baltimore Orioles and a teacher’s aide.  His perceptive wife suggested he was “wasting” his time and should resume his pastoral duties.  So encouraged, Dino became a chaplain for Suncoast Hospice in St. Pete and was later hired as chaplain for Westminster.

His favorite part of the job?  “Sharing in the joy of peak moments like baptisms and weddings.”  The toughest? “Helping people cope with death.  I try to offer solace, encouragement and guidance.  It’s a privilege to share in a person’s faith life.”

His thoughts about the celibacy requirement for Catholic priests?  “Many Catholics forget celibacy wasn’t imposed on priests until the 12th century.”  Before that, he explains, when a married priest died, the church property reverted to his wife.  He says the Pope mainly introduced celibacy to protect property rights.  In recent years, a shortage of priests has led to more discussions about dropping the requirement, he says. “But I don’t see things changing any time soon.”

Regarding pedophilia scandals in the Catholic Church that broke in the early 90s, he says, “The hardest part was all of us were tarred and feathered for the sins of a few.  To wear my clerical collar in public at that time was not a pleasant experience.”

Wife Dee’s a real estate broker.  When possible, Pastor Dino joins her in conducting open houses to make sure she’s safe.  These days, this one-time altar boy is on the job by 6am and “excited” to come to work. He’s a happily married and happy man.