Author Archives: Carole Howard

About Carole Howard

Most recent book is a travel memoir, TALES OF A SILVER-HAIRED VOLUNTEER: Going Far and Giving Back, which tells the stories -- amazing, inspiring funny -- of her five volunteer experiences in the developing world. Previous two books were Deadly Adagio, a murder mystery set in West Africa and About Face, contemporary fiction set in NYC and West Africa. World traveler, violinist, yogi, grandma, community organizer.

A Tree Grows in Warwick, by Carole Howard

Next week is Arbor Day. It doesn’t get as much commercial attention as, say, Valentine’s Day or Groundhog Day or Mother’s Day.  But it’s very special to me, and here’s why:

Back on Arbor Day 1980, when my daughter was in first grade, she brought one of those itty-bitty evergreen shoots home from school.  It was a scrawny little stick with some pine needles, maybe 6 inches tall, in one of those frozen orange juice containers, Minute Maid, I think.  We’d only recently moved from the big city to the country and, I’ll admit, it was thrilling.  And adorable.  (“Oh how cute.  She got a ‘tree’ to bring home from school.”)

With appropriate ceremony, we waited for a warm and sunny day.  We dug a hole and stuck it in the ground.  It didn’t take long, certainly not long enough for the glee we were feeling and our sense of the significance of the moment.  Maybe we watered it after that, but I honestly can’t remember doing even that.  Mostly we forgot about it, except for an occasional, “Honey, remember when….?”

IMG_4033Here it is now, complete with the former first grade planter herself (and her mom, aka moi).  Her daughter is now about the age she was when she brought home the seedling. Yikes.

Now, of course, I wish I’d planted 50 of them.  It was so easy.  It’s so beautiful.  No muss, no fuss……. and now a tree where nothing stood before.

Actually, many of our plantings evoke that same “Remember when….”  There’s the magnolia in front that I blogged about two years ago, or  the apple tree planted in memory of my brother, or the trees — a maple and a pin oak — under which my- daughter-the-evergreen-planter got married.  And on and on.

weddingHave you ever heard the Chinese proverb that says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago.  The second best time is now.”

So … what are you waiting for?

 

 

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Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio,  in which Emily wanted more out of life than to be a good little Embassy wife in West Africa. She was expecting music, though, not murder.

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To Know Home, Leave Home, by Carole Howard

Sometimes people ask me why I travel so much — or used to travel so much. Certainly, on a beautiful hopeful spring day like today, with my magnolia advertising its splendor to come, I wonder myself. Then I remember that time at JFK airport:

The Customs agent looked at our form, then at us, then at our two trolleys piled high with luggage, and back up at us.

“How long have you been gone?” he asked.

Uh-oh. This wasn’t going to be one of those routine passages. We were a little nervous about the plentiful cheese in one of our bags. We knew it was legal to bring it in – even declared it on our Customs form – but we didn’t know if this agent knew, too.

“Five months.” I didn’t say “sir” but I would have if I’d thought it would help.

“Did you have a good time?”

A surprising question. And was he smiling? “It was great.”

He grinned. “Welcome home.”

 

I knew my delight was disproportionate to those two little words – the “home” as important as the “welcome.” This man was a stranger, and all I knew about him was that he was American, so we were connected not just by the dirt we stood on but by the culture from which we were formed. We’d both know a certain amount about our history, would laugh at the same culturally-referenced jokes, understand how Texans are different from Vermonters. We’d eat hot dogs, maple syrup, and coffee in containers.

I didn’t know if I’d actually like him if I got to know him. No matter. The U.S. – in the face of this Customs official – was hugging me.

I love traveling, seeing new things, learning about other cultures and other languages, other ways of seeing the way things can be. And I love coming home. In fact, home is better because I travel. Otherwise, it would just be “normal,” invisible.

I know how to do things at home. I can joke around with servers in restaurants or complain to the customer service rep at the cable TV company. I know when I’m entitled to ask for a refund or exchange, and I know how much leeway to take with the “5 garments allowed in the fitting room.”

If I didn’t spend time overseas, I’d never be aware that one could either know or not know these simple things. They’d be more like breathing. Who knew that it’s culturally specific to smile at a stranger on the street when you make eye contact, and that if you do it in France, you’re considered crazy?   When you have the experience of not knowing how to do everyday things – how to get sheets that fit your bed, then return them because you erred – it can seem like a very big part of your exciting but sometimes difficult life.

I never feel much like an American, whatever that means, when I’m in the U.S. But I’m very American when I’m in another country. It strikes me that I feel like a New Yorker mostly when I’m with people who are not from New York. I feel Jewish when there are no other Jews around. And I suppose, if I were with people from another planet, then I’d feel like an Earthling.

So when I travel I’m not just learning about other cultures. And I’m not just learning about my own, by seeing the differences in other places. I’m learning how much of me is rooted in my culture.

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Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, published by Indigo Sea Press.  It’s a murder mystery with a musical undertone, set in West Africa.

 

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Under the Surface, by Carole Howard

When I posted my last blog (Turning Swords into Plowshares), we were about to leave for some volunteering and some vacationing in the Dominican Republic. Mother Nature kindly reminded us why we like to escape the winter by providing a massive snowstorm that delayed our flight for 24 hours.

The trip was an eye-opener, though not exactly in the way we expected. As for the work we did, well, let’s just say I’ll never get a job constructing cement walls, though I’d have a better shot at a job painting bee boxes or schools. There were five of us volunteering and, in truth, I think the amount of work we got done in five days could have been done better by a couple of Dominicans working one afternoon. Plus they’d get paid. But we quickly realized that wasn’t the point. Or, rather, it wasn’t the whole point.

To understand the rest of the point, you need a little background.

12654133_10205814999629617_268236841898087572_nBack in the 1930’s, there were very productive sugar cane producers in the DR and not enough Dominicans who wanted to work in them. So the government of the DR invited the neighboring Haitians to come and work. (Haiti and the DR share an island named Hispaniola.)

So far, so good.

Unfortunately, the DR didn’t give the workers citizenship, and when they had children, the children also didn’t get citizenship. And neither did those children have Haitian citizenship. It’s now three or four generations (and one massacre) later, the sugar cane factories have closed and there are about 2,000,000 Haitian Dominicans who are, ironically, neither Haitian nor Dominican. No citizenship, no work papers, no nothing. Even if there were jobs, they couldn’t get them. Let’s just say the word “poor” doesn’t do any of it justice. Neither does “desperate.”

They live in communities called Batteys (bat TAYs), until the DR deports them to “their” country where there’s even less for them. That’s where we worked, in the Batteys. So it wasn’t just about the work we did, it was also about the demonstration of fellowship for a group of people in an impossible no-exit situation with not many friends.

One of the things that struck me – actually, it hit me over the head – is that I knew nothing about this terrible problem. I bet you don’t either. Syria, yes. Dominicans of Haitian descent, no. My experience in the Dominican Republic made me realize there are almost certainly many other tragedies we know nothing about.

“Tragic” doesn’t even come close.  Do you want to call attention to something you know about that we might be unaware of?

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Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, a murder mystery set in West Africa, published by Indigo Sea Press.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Swords into Plowshares, by Carole Howard

As soon as I press the “publish” button for this post, I’ll head to the airport for a week-long volunteer vacation in the (warm and sunny) Dominican Republic, where I’ll be turning swords into plowshares.

Well, not literally.

But it’s the same idea. I’ll be part of a team building a medical clinic (a good thing, like a plowshare) out of empty plastic bottles and plastic bags (bad things, environmentally speaking). Pretty cool, right?

Of course, first I’ll have to learn how to do it. And that’s just as appealing to me as the doing itself, especially as I’m interested in sustainability. (See “It’s Never Too Late”)  Being part of a team will also be energizing for me. And, of course, let’s not forget that I live in the Northeast, so it’s not a coincidence that I signed up for a trip to somewhere warm and sunny.

I don’t need any of the abundant research that’s been done – some scientific, some spiritual/psychological – to tell me that helping someone else feels good.  Whether it’s because my brain produces more dopamine or because it makes me hyper-aware and hyper-grateful for how lucky I’ve been and still am, whether it’s because of the human connections or the escape from my head, I just know from experience that it works. Have you had that experience too?

If you need convincing, you can check out the gazillions of hits on Google.  For instance, this or this. Of course, that raises the question of whether it’s really altruism if it pleases you. However, I’m now officially old enough to give myself permission not to worry about things like that.

I haven’t gone on a volunteer trip since 2009, and never to a Spanish-speaking country, and certainly nothing that involved building anything out of anything. New experiences, new ground, new people. And warmth and sun and water in January.

I’ll tell you all about it in my next posting, in exactly a month. I’ll have access to the internet while away, so if there’s anything in particular you’d like to know or see, let me know. Meanwhile, hasta la vista.

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Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, a murder mystery with a musical undertone, set in West Africa and published by Indigo Sea Press.

 

 

 

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Happy Kindness to All, by Carole Howard

Two Jews and an Episcopal missionary walk into a bar.  In Uganda.  Really.

A little backstory:  My husband and I were doing two months of volunteer work on behalf of American Jewish World Service.  We’d become good friends with “Samuel,” the American missionary doctor who’d left his practice in Southern California to provide urgently-needed medical care — no religious conversion required — in the middle of nowhere in Uganda.  He’d built a clinic with no water or electricity, at least not at first. He was the real deal – not two months of volunteer work like us.

A friend and I amid the stunning scenery.

Every evening, we’d walk along a red-brown laterite dirt path through the greenest hillside I’d ever seen to have a post-workday beer at the nearby fancy hotel.  We always had stimulating conversations about the problems of the world and their complexity, as well as how they might be fixed. Plus enjoy some laughter. Just casual conversation among friends, right?

Over one of those cold beers, Samuel casually referred to our “mission.”  Geoffrey and I made eye contact.  Hmmmm, what to do?

We didn’t want to feel like we were pretending to be something we’re not. Then again, he was a missionary and we really liked him, so we didn’t want our fundamental difference to divide us. Even so, we had to be honest.

“We’re not on a mission, Samuel; for us it’s just volunteer work.”

“Oh really? What’s the difference?”

“We’re not believers.”

“You believe in friendship, kindness, compassion, brotherhood, peace, charity, things like that?”

“Yes of course.”

“Then you’re believers.”

Ordinarily, I bristle when someone tries to tell me what I do or don’t believe, feeling they’re just trying to validate their own belief with the appearance of unanimity. This time, though, was different. What Samuel said made sense to me: regardless of the source of our impulses, they were the same.

Now that’s the kind of religion I can believe in: Be kind to others. In fact, the Dalai Lama once said, “My religion is simple. My religion is kindness.”

And so, in this holiday season of 2015, when the world sometimes seems too awful to contemplate, when we hear about fanaticism of all stripes and see consumerist frenzy wherever we look, I’d like to bring us all back to what it’s about. Whether you celebrate Chanuka, Christmas, Kwanza, Bodhi Day, the solstice, Id al-Adha, or nothing in particular, it’s about being kind. Not because God will punish you if you don’t, not because it’s a sin not to, but simply because……. Well, I don’t know what the because is (any ideas?), but I know it’s right.

Perhaps because, in the end, it’s the only way we can all get along. And survive.

So Happy Kindness to all!

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Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, published by Indigo Sea Press.  It’s a murder mystery with a musical undertone, set in West Africa.  Some of its characters are kind, while others….. not exactly.

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That Silent ‘e’ Speaks Volumes, by Carole Howard

The mailman came to the door to deliver the John Gnagy (NEGGy) “Learn to Draw” set I’d ordered. (You can Google him if you’re too young to know who he was.)  Looking at the mailing label, where Carole Goldsmith was written as clearly as could be, he nonetheless asked, “Does kuh-ROLL-ee Goldsmith live here?”  My visiting playmates overheard and forever mocked.

ATbpAb5T4That sealed the deal: I hated my name.  Why couldn’t my parents have named me Carol instead of Carole? They said it had something to do with Carole Lombard, whoever she was.  Certainly the mailman had never heard of her.  Neither had my friends.  So there I was, a short skinny kid carrying around a big, heavy mockable name.  No fair.

I can’t remember when that feeling changed, but somewhere along the way it certainly did.  I now AM Carole.  Not Carol (who’s she?) nor Caryl (my best friend in college), nor any of the other iterations I’ve seen.  Carole.  That’s me.  In fact, when people misspell me, as they often do, I’m compelled to correct them.  I know it doesn’t really matter if the woman on the phone who’s taking my order for double-size yellow flannel sheets writes my name as Carol instead of Carole.  What’s really important is the size and color of the sheets, right?  Still, I make sure she gets the name right, too.  If it’s Carol, it’s not me, even though it sounds the same.  I guess you could say that “e” is part of my identity.  An important part.

I married a man whose name is also spelled in an untraditional way, Geoffrey instead of Jeffrey.  He hated it when he was a kid, too.  Gee-off and Goofrey were his albatrosses. Only our really good friends get both of our names right.  And I like that.  It says something, if only that they’re paying attention.

You’d think two parents who’d suffered with untraditional names wouldn’t inflict the same burden on their daughter.  But we did, sort of.  Geoffrey wanted to name her Jordan, while I thought it would be a burden to give her a name that’s usually for boys, Jordan Baker notwithstanding.  We compromised on Jordan as her middle name and, predictably, she hated it for a long time.  I believe her name-hatred lasted even longer than mine had.  The story has the same ending, though:  Now she’s grown up and loves it.  It’s distinctive.  It’s her.

Do names, and their spelling, shape the perception of the thing being named? Would people react to me differently if I were Marion?  Would I, in fact, be different if I were Marion?  This is a Zen-like question because, in fact, I am Carole.  And I’m happy about it.  I couldn’t be anyone else.

“Carole” looks so much prettier, rounder, softer, and generally lovelier than “Carol,” with that rude straight line at the end. (My apologies to any Carols out there — I know I’m  not being objective.)  I can’t imagine being Carol.  Thank goodness my parents knew who I really was. And now I do, too.

How about you?  How do you feel about your name?  Do you think you’d be the same person if your name were different?

 

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Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, a murder mystery set in West Africa, published by Indigo Sea Press.

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Never Too Late, by Carole Howard

I already know how to read. And write. I can ride a bike, speak French, drive a manual transmission, knit, and a whole host of other things. You do too, of course, though your list will differ from mine.

The rub is, though, that I learned all those things a long time ago. When you’re young, you learn things all the time, but when you’re not so young and not in school, you know a lot but you don’t learn as constantly or as much. (And it’s not because you know everything!) Yes, you learn practical things like shutting down a recalcitrant computer or where to put jumper cables after you left the interior light on overnight.  But that’s different.

I was lamenting – okay, maybe I was whining a tiny bit – about how I miss learning.  A friend asked me the obvious question, “Well, Carole, what kinds of things would you be interested in learning?” In other words, “Put up or shut up.” And I knew right away. Calculus, which had defeated me in college, even though I’d been a math whiz in high school. Or maybe music theory, which I’d never learned, even though I play the violin.

The next obvious question: “What’s keeping you from learning them now?” Second verse, same as the first: “Put up or shut up.”

As it turns out, a friend also wanted to learn music theory and she knew someone who could teach us. So Marilyn and I have a one-hour weekly lesson, with homework in between. I even got school supplies: manuscript paper, a binder, a nice dark pencil.

1395164645My brain is moving in ways it hasn’t moved for a while. It’s difficult. It’s wonderful. It takes concentration and focus. It’s tiring. It’s stimulating. It’s very cerebral, and there’s actually a lot of math involved, too. It’s like traveling: being exposed to something you hadn’t experienced before.

This is not the same as a bucket list. It’s not a place I want to go or a particular experience I want to have. It’s the learning that’s important. And thrilling, even more than the actual content. I highly recommend it. So I ask you the question my friend asked me: What would you like to learn?  And are you at the “Put up or Shut-Up” point?

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Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, a murder mystery with a musical undertone, set in Senegal, West Africa.   She loves music theory and plans to love calculus next.

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New Lives, by Carole Howard

We’re a country of immigrants. And every immigrant has a story.

When my husband’s great-grandfather came to America, like many immigrants at the time, he planned to send money for his wife and family to join him. (Little did he know that at the time he left, his wife was pregnant. He thought he was leaving a wife and five children but there would soon be six.)

Before he had a chance to send anything, though, his wife and eldest daughter were killed in a pogrom (an IMG_2367 organized massacre by Cossacks, usually of Jews in Russia or eastern Europe). The village collected money to send the now-five children to America, with the eldest – my husband’s grandmother Ida, aged 13 at the time – as the head of the family, carrying the newborn. They walked to the train, took the train to the ship, and eventually walked down the gangplank into a new life.

Quite a story.

My grandmother’s immigration story was also dramatic. She was 16 at the time and yearned to go to America; she spoke of nothing else. Her parents asked the rabbi for advice. He thought the girl only wanted to go because her parents were against it. He advised them to give permission, even give the money, to call her bluff. Uh oh, rabbi, not exactly. Off she went.

Her father later journeyed to fetch her, but was turned back at Ellis Island because of ill health. The second time he tried, he was admitted. While in America trying to get his daughter to come home to Poland, though, he died of a heart attack. She stayed in her new life.

Fast forward to today and the stories and images of Syrian migrants. Their troubles at home are unimaginable and their journey treacherous. They walk for weeks only to encounter a non-crossable national boundary, or they get in dangerous overcrowded little boats though they can’t swim.  They’re yearning for a place to live in peace, to work, and to be able to promise their children a future, a new life.

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Never was it so true.

Any interesting/horrific/funny/unusual immigrant stories to share?

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Carole Howard is he author of Deadly Adagio, published by Second Wind Publishing.

 

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Have it, Give it, Still Got it, by Carole Howard

Once upon a time, boys and girls, there was a magical place. Anyone who had enough of a thing could give some of it away to someone who didn’t have enough. The magic: as soon as the person gave it away, her supply would be replenished.

wand-clipart-canstock7512335Let’s say you had enough food to eat. More than enough, even. You could give some of it away to a family down the street that had fallen on hard times. As soon as you gave away a turkey, a bag of potatoes, milk, breakfast cereal, tomatoes and cookies, they were all replaced in your cupboard, exactly as they had been. A turkey for a turkey, a bag of potatoes…… well, you get the idea.

In this magical place, it also worked for clothing. (A tee shirt for a teeshirt, woolen socks for woolen socks.) Housing. (Have two houses? Give one away and it comes right back!) Books. Money. Anything you can think of. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful place to live?

Too bad things don’t really work that way.  Except…wait!  There is something that does.  Blood. You have enough blood. Some people don’t. Give away some of yours and your body replaces it. Simple. Magic? Not exactly.

My husband and I started donating blood about a year ago, and we now do it every 56 days, the maximum frequency allowed. It helps that we live ½ mile from the blood-donation trailer of our local hospital, yes, but I’d like to think we’d do it anyway. It’s so easy. It’s so valuable. We have plenty. Others need it. No-brainer, right?

It all started when my husband decided – don’t ask why, it’s a long story – he wanted to donate one of his kidneys to anyone who needed it, not necessarily a friend or relative. It’s called an “undirected donation.” We went through the process of having him tested, physically and emotionally. He and his kidney passed with flying colors.

In the end, though, I exercised my marital veto power. My reasoning was that, even though the statistics for the recuperation of donors were excellent, the statistical sample contained very few people his age. So we decided to help people in a different way: we donate blood and get our friends to do it, too.

Some problems are hard to solve, others easy. This one’s not rocket science: if you give some of your blood away, it’s replenished. No magic necessary.

Have you ever donated blood? Would you consider it?

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Carole Howard is he author of Deadly Adagio, published by Second Wind Publishing.  She’s happy to give her blood away, and happy to get it (and the cookie!) back again.

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I Expected to Like My Hiking Trip, by Carole Howard

And I did. Yellowstone National Park, with its spooky-looking landscapes of mud bubbling like pea soup, steam emerging from below, and, of course, geysers. Grand Teton National Park, home of bears, elks, bison. A week of beauty, exercise, good food with good people. In a word, perfect.

Yes, it really was faithful: every 90 minutes.

Yes, it really was faithful: every 90 minutes.

A real live elk with gorgeous antlers

A real live elk with gorgeous antlers

 

What I didn’t expect, though, was how much I’d love the three-day train ride back home. The pleasure snuck up on me; it wasn’t until the end of the first day that I realized how much I was enjoying it. Why did I like it so much, you ask?

Good question. Bad answer: I’m not sure. I just know I did.

You know that bit about “Life is about the journey, not the destination”? Yes, yes, but for a task-oriented closure-seeker like me, the destination is just begging to be reached, beckoning with crooked finger and seductive look, saying “Faster, Carole, faster.” On the train, though, it really was all about the journey, the moment. It was about observing the continually-changing scene outside the window, reflecting on it, zoning out to it. There was no closure to be achieved, other than getting to NY, and I was only too happy to extend my vacation, so didn’t particularly need that closure.

Long distance trains are, I discovered, a bubble in time. Nothing needs to get done; there are no meetings to attend or commitments to fulfill. All I needed to do was just be. Should I read? Or go to the observation car? Or maybe it’s time for the Dining Car. Or a nap in the sleeping compartment.

Then there was the community. (See Community.)  At each meal – and there were eight between Salt Lake City and Poughkeepsie – we were seated at a table with two strangers, from 6 years old to about 70. They were always interesting, sometimes downright fascinating. We heard about competitive pumpkin-growing contests, about role-playing to prepare U.S. Marines for the wartime realities of Iraq, and lots more. We were African-American, white, Hispanic, Anglo, Amish. We were America. These strangers became friends, even though we knew we’d never see each other again.

And, of course, the motion of the train and those choo-choo sounds (there’s no other word for them, really) were supremely comforting.

At the end of the trip, I was amazed that I’d taken far fewer pictures than usual. Even back in the days when it was expensive to get all those pictures developed, I snapped away. And in the digital age, we usually printed out the shots we wanted to include in our albums, now numbering 27.

But not this time. Again, it was about the journey, not about documenting the journey. I was happy to just be there, and didn’t need to show anyone, including my future self, what it looked like. Contentment in the moment. How about you: do you take pictures when you travel? Do you print them out and put them in an album? Or leave them in your phone and/or computer? And then what? Has your picture-taking changed over time?

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Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, published by Second Wind Publishing.

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