Meeting the Neighbors, Episode One: The Broomsman

Jim Richter, broomsman

Listen to this story. Seriously. It’s even better than reading.

At the corner of 10th and Ritter, Jim Richter has a corner on his vanishing little corner of the market.

He’s 77, and he learned to make brooms in high school, at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. In those days, blind people learned handcrafts like chair caning and basket weaving and piano tuning. After graduation, Richter says, he applied for upwards of 200 jobs, and in every single case, employers said ‘you’re a nice guy, but …’

At first, Richter sold his brooms door-to-door, but eventually he figured out that people would come to him.

“That looks good in your hand,” he’ll say as he gives you a broom from the teepee-shaped bundle he has tied up neatly beside his folding metal chair.

A guy in a copper-penny Cutlass convertible, big as a Chris Craft, honks as the car floats around the corner and into the stream of traffic on 10th Street. “You know that guy?” I ask, and describe the car.

“Son of a gun, what’s he doing over here?” Richter says, and he laughs the kind of laugh that makes me want to hang out with him all day. “Usually he’s up on the north side. You never know who you’re going to see out here.

Richter gets around, selling at corners and post offices one all over town, and he may be the last guy in Indiana who still makes a living in this old-timey way. To hear him tell it, brooms — and broom corn — were once big here. These days, Texas grows most of the broom corn, he says, and he imports his wares from a sheltered workshop in Alabama.

An older couple pulls over and asks Richter about his brooms. He rattles off the prices, and the woman asks him: “Do you make them?”

“Not anymore,” he says. “I used to, but I have a full-time job just selling them now.” They thank him, and walk back to their car.

“As long as there’s a market for brooms, I’m gonna sell ‘em,” Richter says. “People say ‘Well, you know we see you out here in all kinds of weather and all that, how do you do that?'” I say, “Well, does the Walmart close every time it rains or snows? If you’ve got a good product, and you’re doing a good job of selling it, there are people out there to buy it.”

A love story in clay: Bill and Jayne Harris

Bill and Jayne Harris are high-school sweethearts who have carved their life’s work together, first in wood and now in clay. Bill, who is also the elected chief of the Catawba Indian nation, creates traditional Catawba pottery, carrying on the family legacy of his grandmother, Georgia Harris. Jayne sculpts clay, making beautifully expressive female characters that represent, as she says, “the strength of the world.”

The Harris’ were first accepted into Piedmont Craftsmen Inc. for their wood carving and are now exhibiting members in clay. They live in Fort Mill, S.C. Christine and I met them one sweet early summer afternoon last year, and their story has stayed with me. I think it always will.

Rob Levin, artist in glass

An an art form, says Rob Levin, glass is “wonderful, mysterious, miraculous.” Levin has been living and working in the North Carolina mountains for nearly all of his 40-year career, and he’s known for his inspiring use of color and form.

Christine Rucker and I met Rob last summer, as part of our work for a series on crafts artists who belong to Piedmont Craftsmen, Inc., a Winston-Salem based guild, and a guiding light for the arts-and-crafts revival of the past 50 years. Each of them inspires me in a different way, and yet they share a few common traits: determination, passion, and a true, deep sense that they are creating meaning in the world by making art. At some point or another, each of these artists faced the wolf at the door, and each of them found a way to keep making a living through making art. In this material- and security-obsessed world, I’m grateful to have met a few of the risk-takers and the dreamers who offer the rest of us another view of how to live.

Listen to Your Elders, Part Two

“If you’re lucky enough to know love, hang onto it,” says Ellen “Lennie” Gerber, “because it’s truly a wonderful thing to have.”

Amen, sister.

Lennie and her partner, Pearl Berlin, got married this year at the synagogue in Greensboro, N.C., 47 years after they fell in love. I wish I’d met them long ago, but I’m sure glad our paths crossed this summer.

There’s a super-cool documentary about them, called “Living In the Overlap.” I hope you’ll be inspired by their wisdom in this short sequence, produced on behalf of the Winston-Salem Pride Festival, but the documentary will give you so much more.

Lennie and Pearl are Grand Marshals for the pride festival this year. If you’re in Winkytown on Gay Pride Day (October 19) go downtown and wave as they pass by in the parade.

Listen to Your Elders

In a 1965 sermon at Temple Israel in Hollywood, “Keep Moving From This Mountain,” the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said: “The moral arc of the universe is long, and it bends toward justice.”

My conversation a few months back with partners Frank Benedetti and Gary Trowbridge prompted me to think about King’s words. Over the course of nearly 50 years now, Frank and Gary have, in word and deed, demonstrated the courage of their convictions and the power of love and truth, thus helping to bend that arc toward justice. “I am convinced that if we do nothing else but be honest, and be ourselves, we can bring about change. But you can’t do it if you’re hiding, and pretending to be something you’re not,” Frank says.

Frank and Gary are Grand Marshals for the 2013 Gay Pride Festival in Winston-Salem, “Live Proud.” This is just a brief excerpt of an interview conducted for the organization. And if you’re in Winkytown next week, go downtown and be sure to wave at these amazing men when they pass by in the parade.

The Wood Guys

Joel Hunnicutt and Brian Bortz, Artists in wood from Michelle Johnson on Vimeo.

Christine and I have been criss-crossing the Piedmont and Western North Carolina for the last several months, dropping in on some of the most amazing, creative and inspiring folks we’ve ever met. I’m happy that you are able to meet them, too, through this project for Piedmont Craftsmen. It’s one of the first — and maybe the first — professional crafts guilds in the Southeast, and it’s been going strong in Winston-Salem for almost 50 years.

Brian Bortz left the corporate world in the mid-90s to strike out on his own as a maker of fine furniture. Joel Hunnicutt ventured full-time into his work making his spectacular turned wood vessels after selling his insurance agency in Siler City. We quizzed them a lot on how their experience in the business world informs their work now.

We always come away from these visits with beautiful footage, great stories, and — for me, at least — important lessons about how to take calculated risks, how to plan your work (and work your plan), how to keep from freaking out in the lean times, and how to keep your sanity when the deadlines loom and things go wrong.

Ghree Lockard: A Fish in Water

Ghree’s story is the last of six pieces in a series called “Story of My Life,” produced with funding from the Wake Forest University Humanities Institute and exceptional cooperation from Group Homes of Forsyth.

Ghree is one tough cookie, and she doesn’t let anything slow her down. She has cerebral palsy, so she has a lot of trouble keeping her balance, and learning — particularly math — is tough. But for me, the takeaway from Ghree’s story is this: When you fall down, get back up.

The whole collection of pieces is available here.

Crossing the Inner Sea

I know I keep saying it, but I’m one lucky woman. Some months ago now, I got to spend a couple of days with a group of young men involved with the College Success Foundation of the District of Columbia. They were in North Carolina at the tail end of an intensive summer academic program. I met them at Morehead City, just as they were about to board the fishing vessel “Continental Shelf.” We took a mighty bumpy ride over the Beaufort Inlet to Shackleford Banks, in the rain. None of us, myself included, was really ready for the rain, and so we all swaddled ourselves in makeshift gear made of garbage bags.

I’ll be blunt: I expected whining from this group of city boys, but how wrong I was.

They were in it, and nothing could stop them from soaking up every moment of the day.

Here is a snapshot of that day, in their words and in the photographs of David Wilson.

Angels Talking: Cecilia’s Story

A car accident set the course of Cecilia Henry’s life when she was just six years old. The girl nearly died from a traumatic brain injury, and doctors told Cecilia’s mother that she would never again walk or talk. When it was time to discharge her from the hospital, the neurosurgeon announced that he had arranged to send her to live at a home for profoundly disabled children.

Her mother refused.

Cecilia eventually recovered her speech, and began to walk again.

“God just brought her out of it,” said her mother, Dianne. Cecilia, she says, is “an angel” and a miracle.

Whether or not you believe in angels, to be in Cecilia’s presence today is to be with someone on whom the noise and conflict of everyday life is meaningless. And for me, that is miracle enough.

This story is part of our series “Story of My Life,” featuring six residents of Group Homes of Forsyth. The series is meant to explore Henri Nouwen’s assertion that our hearts, not our minds, make us human.

“God Is So Good”

When Christine Rucker, Phoebe Zerwick and I started the “Story Of My Life” project a year or so ago, we did so with the words of the late Henri Nouwen sounding in our heads. Nouwen is a writer, scholar and priest who spent the later years of his life working with profoundly disabled people in a L’Arche community near Toronto. “What makes us human is not our mind but our heart,” Nouwen said, “it is not our ability to think but our ability to love.”

It’s been a challenge to present these stories in the rich fullness they deserve, because some of these folks don’t use words. Still, we hope that their spirits shine through photographs, and that the words of those who love them and care for them will convey some adequate sense of the meaning of their lives.

In James Loudermilk’s case, words aren’t really necessary. He has music.

My Name is John


How do you tell the story of your life without words?

Meet John Linville, a resident of Group Homes of Forsyth and one of the subjects for our series “Story of My Life”.

John is one of a set of triplets, born prematurely in a time when, as his sister says “it was incredible that any of them lived.”

John’s inability to speak is probably the result of some kind of injury at birth, and he lived at home long after he grew to adulthood. Now he lives in a group home, where he’s learned to do a lot of things for himself and gained a sense of independence he didn’t have at home.

Stay tuned for more “Story of My Life” installments.

Bending Toward Justice

On May 8, North Carolina became the 31st state to adopt a constitutional amendment banning same-sex couples from being legally married. Gay marriage is already illegal in the state, but voters overwhelmingly approved the amendment anyway.

The amendment was opposed by a wide-ranging coalition of legal scholars, progressive religious leaders, CEOs of the state’s largest corporations and ordinary folk, gay and straight. The opposition made a lot of compelling arguments about why the amendment shouldn’t pass. The Coalition to Protect NC Families used video and social media brilliantly in its campaign, in my view, but so did a lot of unaffiliated and passionate others. Documentary filmmaker Frank Eaton did some mighty fine video advocacy on the issue, and musicians from near and far followed Greensboro singer/songwriter Laurelyn Dossett’s lead, either by recording her “Vote Against Amendment One” song or writing and recording their own.

For those who oppose the amendment, May 8 was a pretty bad day.

News of the North Carolina vote was everywhere, and then, the very next day in the wake of it, President Obama said the words out loud that so many people had been waiting to hear: “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

Such is the context in which The Campaign for Southern Equality brought its “We Do” campaign to Winston-Salem on Thursday.

One by one Thursday, under the scrutiny of a phalanx of reporters, photographers and videographers, 10 couples walked into the Forsyth County Register of Deeds office to request marriage licenses. One by one, they were refused. Reporter Laura Graff wrote beautifully about it for the Winston-Salem Journal.

She invited me along to shoot video. At first I was only going to mosey down to the Government Center sometime before 5, to witness a couple of the protesters get arrested when they refused to leave the Register of Deeds office. But I decided to go for the afternoon. And I’m so glad I did. What I saw Thursday was a beautiful display of love, courage, dignity, respect and compassion — the clerks whose hands trembled as they denied the licenses, reciting lines from little pieces of paper taped to the counter in front of them, “We cannot issue you a marriage license because it is not allowed in North Carolina, under North Carolina law.” The county manager who carefully and softly spoke to the women occupying the office. The sheriff’s deputies who eventually led the women away in handcuffs. And of course the families themselves, who have all been living out their love and commitment to each other in the shadow of injustice, without the rights and protections extended to heterosexual partners.

I feel like we are living in a particular historical moment now, one in which as a society and a culture we’ll soon be big enough, brave enough and grown up enough to set aside the notion that only heterosexual couples should be granted the multitude of legal protections conveyed by marriage. On Tuesday I felt ashamed to live in North Carolina. But Thursday? Thursday was a whole different day.

Life Coach

My sister got all the athletic talent in our family, so I’ve never been on a ball diamond for more than a few tortured hours during compulsory school games (always relegated to right field, where I could do little harm). But you don’t have to be an athlete to understand this story. It’s an homage to a great coach from a grateful player, looking back on his boyhood experiences.

Last summer, my friend Chris English went to Fayetteville, North Carolina and spent a couple of days with Iverson “Smitty” Smith, his boyhood baseball coach. Smitty had a profound impact on Chris. “He wasn’t just a coach,” Chris says, “he was a life coach.” Chris sometimes calls me for a little editing help, when he gets on a tight deadline or needs another set of eyes and ears. I love working with him, because, well, he just has the most wide-open heart for story, and he makes amazing photographs.

At first Chris just intended this to be a feel-good story to celebrate an unsung, humble hero. But it took on additional poignancy and urgency when Chris learned that Smitty is suffering an inoperable, malignant brain tumor.

We should all have a Smitty in our lives. Godspeed, Coach, and keep fighting.

Greg’s Story

Meet Greg Silvernail, the first of six group home residents we’ll be featuring in a new and improved “Story of My Life” project over the next few months.

Christine Rucker and Phoebe Zerwick did most of the field work on this project, so I’m mainly just their most interested set of eyes and ears.

Greg’s wide open spirit and energy is evident the first time you meet him, and you had better be willing to live at a sprint when you’re with him. He plays soccer, rides horses, sings in the Inner Rhythm Choir, volunteers at the Y and the library, and when he’s not out playing or volunteering, he’s studying or visiting with his mom and his brother Henry.

We should all be so loved.

Stay tuned. This project will eventually also have a gallery exhibit featuring Christine’s photos and those taken by each of the participants in this project.

Body Mechanic

My friend Nancy Crooks is a genius. No, seriously. She is a really gifted body mechanic who has devoted her life to learning all kinds of healing touch methods.

A while back, she asked me to do a video for her that would explain her work with Mechanical Link, a really rather esoteric and obscure technique developed by a couple of French osteopaths. She ran across it for the first time a few years ago while training with a therapist in Washington state.

Without going into the gory details, it’s a technique that attempts to unlock the body’s own healing potential by effecting changes in the fascia system, the web-like structure that extends underneath our skin and around all our organs. It’s cutting-edge stuff, and not a lot of research has been done on it, but Nancy has worked with a bunch of folks who swear by it.

This is the first time I’ve ever ventured into making a video for a “client” (funny even to think of my friend as a client), but it was a learning experience to be sure. As a journalist I can make all kinds of independent editorial decisions, but for this it was necessary to work with Nancy every step of the way, adding things she felt I’d neglected, taking things out that she felt didn’t belong. But I loved it, and I’d do it again.