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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Be the Change You Want To See

Starting a new year often prompts people to make vague, and usually unsuccessful, promises to change. People swear they will start exercising, change their eating habits, stop smoking or lose weight. Few of them will succeed.

But what if each of us went beyond these pledges of personal improvement, and decided to do something positive on a larger scale? Perhaps collectively we can make a difference and start to bring about change in our world.

What moves you? Is it homelessness, finding a cure for a disease, or helping unwanted dogs and cats? Maybe your passion is helping kids or abused women. Think about what moves you, and then find a way to take action: volunteer, adopt a homeless animal, write to your elected officials, donate money, sign up to be a 'big brother' or 'big sister,' visit a lonely senior, take part in a walk-a-thon, crochet blankets for newborns.

Nearly everybody can help, regardless of age. An 11-year-old girl in Albuquerque made it her mission last January to provide toys to needy kids. She spent the year saving her money, setting up a lemonade stand, and asking friends and neighbors for support to buy toys. Just before Christmas, she delivered the toys to an organization that distributed them to kids who otherwise wouldn't receive anything at Christmas. And she delivered a lot of toys, too. If an 11-year-old can do this, why can't we adults do something to make a real impact on others?

A senior citizen was moved to help the homeless by making sleeping bags from old clothes and giving them to people forced to sleep on the streets. Her effort has now spread to many states, and hundreds of sleeping bags have been sewn and distributed to those who really need them. Another senior citizen has crocheted more than 700 hats for newborns in local hospitals.

My wish for the new year is that people decide to do something, anything, to make a difference in the world, no matter how small. There are so many issues, so many causes, that need help. Regardless of your interest, age or financial situation, find a cause that touches your heart, and get involved. Make it your resolution to do something to make this world a better place.

The group you help will benefit, you will feel good about helping, and the world will be a better place.

As Gandhi said, "You must be the change you want to see in the world.”

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Opening The Door to New Possibilities

Christmas Eve was unique for me his year. We got a last-minute invitation to dinner at my daughter's friend's house. I don't like last-minute things, but I figured we should go and dutifully put on my nice red sweater, poinsettia earrings and black boots.

We were treated to a traditional, homemade Polish Christmas Eve dinner: borshch, golubtsy (stuffed cabbage leaves), pierogi (stuffed dumplings), breads, fish, something made with honey and poppyseeds, and fabulous desserts.

Tradition calls for no alcohol or meat until midnight Christmas Eve. Before we sat down to share the meal, we each took a piece of oplatek, a thin, white wafer. Each person broke off a small bit of wafer from every other person, wishing each other a Merry Christmas. All the while, a fire burned in the gas fireplace and Christmas music filled the house.

I was seated next to the grandfather, who had flown in from Poland a week earlier. He had lived and worked in the U.S. for many years, returning to Poland a couple of years ago. So my concerns about not being able to communicate with him were for naught.

After dinner, the girls sequestered themselves in the friend's room, the mom drove the dad to a party, and the grandfather and I sat and talked about life under communism, Eastern European politics, Russia, how Poland has changed, even photography. We talked about subjects I had studied in college but never had had a chance to explore with someone who actually lived through them. I shared my experiences of living in Moscow. All the while, one of the family's miniature dachshunds slept on her blanket next to me on the couch as I stroked her face.

I am so glad I didn't make up an excuse not to join this family for dinner. This great experience reminds me that I need to be open to new things and experiences, and not to take the easy way out. I could have stayed home and been bored; instead, I had a fabulous meal and interesting conversation. And I got to partake in some Polish customs I knew nothing about until then.

I now have something else to work on in 2011: being consciously open to new possibilities.

Merry Christmas, however you celebrate it.

Friday, December 24, 2010

My Christmas Wish List

There is a Christmas song called "My Grown-up Christmas List." Here is my Christmas wish list for this year. Nothing on this list can be purchased, nothing can be manufactured. These things are all intangibles, and many can be created only through our actions.

I wish
  • that my daughter continues to be happy and do well.
  • that the economy improves and people are able to find jobs.
  • that we see the beginning of a more respectful attitude toward our planet and all of its inhabitants.
  • for an end to all forms of abuse: animal, elder, child and spousal.
  • for an end to hunger.
  • that all our troops will return home safely from Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • that the homeless will find shelter, the dying will find comfort if not a cure, the lonely will find companionship, the unemployed will find jobs, orphans will find families to love them, and 'unwanted' animals will find loving homes.
  • that the world's hot spots will know peace rather than conflict
  • that we will stop exploiting animals. I wish for an end to slaughtering animals for fun, fashion or because we 'don't like' them. Wolves, coyotes and other predators deserve to live, too. Animals should be valued for what they are, not for their cash value.
  • for an end to puppy mills, pet shops that sell puppy mill dogs, and irresponsible 'breeders' who care only about the money to be made.
  • for an end to dog fighting and other blood sports involving animals.

And from my dogs:

Dear Santa: We don't really want or need anything for ourselves for Christmas. We have it all: a loving family, warm beds, toys and food. But please, Santa, could you bring these things to the other dogs who don't have anything this Christmas? We've been good girls this year. Love, Mila and Tia

These are my prayers this Christmas. Perhaps if enough people put these wishes on their Christmas list, some of these wishes can come true.
    Merry Christmas, everyone. Have a wonderful, safe holiday

      Monday, December 20, 2010

      A Letter to My Daughter

      Dec. 20 and 21 are very special days in my family. Dec. 20 is my daughter's birthday; Dec. 21 is our 'anniversary.' On that date in 2004, we became a family when a judge in Tyumen', western Siberia, Russia, granted her approval of my request to formally adopt my daughter. 

      This is a letter to my daughter.

      Dochen'ka, I am so incredibly proud of you, of all you have achieved and of everything you have overcome to get where you are today. And I am so happy that you are my daughter.

      Little did I know when I met you the night of Aug. 4, 2004, how much our lives would change. I had no plans to adopt you; I was just going to host you during your visit to America for a couple of weeks. Fate had other ideas, however, and it became obvious very quickly that we are meant to be together. Sending you back to Russia to await your adoption hearing broke my heart. I will always remember the look of anguish on your face as you passed through the security line to begin your long journey back to the orphanage in Russia.

      Just four months later, I was in a Siberian courtroom to make your adoption final. It was the day after your 11th birthday. I was clueless about raising a child from another country, especially one who had suffered the trauma you had endured. Of course, at the time, I had no idea of the trauma in your past and how it would impact us. I just knew that no matter what life would throw at us, we would get through it together.

      Getting to where we are now required a long and challenging journey for both of us. It has been a journey of self-discovery, marked at times by anger, despair, hopelessness and fear. You felt angry, hopeless and afraid to let anyone love you. I was in despair and fear of losing you to the forces of evil with which you had aligned yourself. Your out-of-control behavior caused me incredible terror and many sleepless nights.

      Over the past 18 months, I have seen you make many changes, haltingly at first, but later with increased confidence. There were setbacks and disappointments along the way, as well as hurt and anger on both sides. But despite it all, our relationship grew stronger.

      After 11 weeks at Second Nature therapeutic wilderness program, you began to show an inner strength and self-confidence I had never seen. I was in awe of the changes I saw in you emotionally and physically. That growth continued during your time at Sunrise. I know you struggled, you fell back, you wanted to give up. But you did not give up. And not giving up is one of your strengths. You are strong in so many ways.

      As you worked through the lessons taught at Sunrise, a world of self-discovery opened to you. You learned to accept my love and to realize that you are so very worthy of being loved. You overcame your lack of trust and fear of loving others by accepting that while loving may make you vulnerable to being hurt again, it also brings great happiness.

      From seeing no future for yourself, you now look forward to college. You developed your creative side through photography, scrapbooking, knitting, crocheting and painting. You demonstrated your compassion for animals with your many volunteer hours at an animal shelter near our home in New Mexico. Through your work with dogs too frightened to move from their kennels, you had a profound impact on their lives and on their chances of being adopted.

      You have been home for nearly seven months, and you have remained on track, making good choices and positive friends. You are mature beyond your years, and you have shared your life lessons with some of your peers. You volunteered to speak with a woman struggling with a son adopted from Ukraine. You are looking ahead now, talking about college and careers and someday, a family of your own. You are happy, something you weren't before. Finally, you know what love is.

      So on your 17th birthday, I want you to know how very proud I am of you. You are truly a remarkable young lady. You are part of my family and my life forever. You are home.

      Monday, December 13, 2010

      Are You Rich?

      Do you feel rich? I do, but not in the monetary sense. We may not be among the wealthiest people in the country, but I bet most of us don't have to choose between buying medications and food, or between paying the heating bill and buying groceries.

      Do you live in a place that keeps you warm and dry? Do you have food on your plate every day? Do you have warm clothes to protect you from the winter cold? If so, you are better off than millions of your countrymen. Things are worse than usual during these rough economic times, with many people out of work for months or even years. More people than ever are struggling just to get by.

      Those of us who have been blessed with a nice place to live, with warm clothes and a pantry full of food, can help our less fortunate brethren. Donating money to a food bank, soup kitchen or agency that helps the poor, homeless or elderly is one way. But even if we don't have much extra cash to spare, there are other ways to help.

      Volunteering is one way to be of service, and all it costs is your time. Food banks and soup kitchens are overwhelmed with volunteers during the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons. But they need help year-round. Or how about visiting a resident of a nursing home or assisted living facility? Many of these people have no one to visit them, to chat with or to play a simple game of checkers or cards with them.

      If you're like me and my daughter, your closets are full of clothes you haven't worn in years. Maybe they're out of style, maybe you've outgrown them or maybe you're just tired of them. Whatever the reason, there are people spending the night on the cold streets who can really use your unwanted winter coats, sweaters, hats, scarves and gloves. In Albuquerque alone, between 3,000 and 5,000 people spend the night outside because they have no place to live. Temperatures already are in the teens overnight, and Albuquerque's frequent howling winds make temperatures feel even colder. We went through our closets recently and found six perfectly good winter coats, three sweaters and two sweatshirts that we no longer want. I dropped those off at a store that is collecting warm clothes for the needy, along with six pairs of gloves. Donating these clothes won't cost us a dime, and it will free up space in our closets. If you can knit, crochet or sew, how about making some warm scarves or hats to donate?

      When my daughter got a new, larger bed, we were left with six sets of sheets we no longer need. Some are brand new; one set has never been used. Those were donated to  church-run 'free store' that provides household goods at no cost to the needy.

      A woman I know in California, an up-and-coming singer/songwriter, wrote a song called No Place Like Home. That song, and the video produced in conjunction with it, inspired her to get involved with homelessness organizations. She organized a benefit concert in San Jose recently, at which she collected donations of clothes and easy-to-carry snacks such as granola bars. She also donated proceeds from the sales of her CDs. Since then, she has been asked by homeless groups in Palo Alto and San Francisco to organize concerts in their cities. She is making a difference by donating her time and talents, and by raising awareness.

      Take advantage of grocery sales and stock up on non-perishable food items to donate. Many stores have collection barrels at the store entrance. One of our local stores recently featured national-brand canned vegetables at 3 cans/$1. Soup, pasta, cereal, canned stews and chili, juice boxes, canned tuna and peanut butter are all good items to donate. I'm always amazed at how much food I can get simply by watching for sales.

      One of my annual traditions is donating money to the Southwest Indian Foundation for a couple of food baskets for needy members of the Navajo Nation. I've done this in lieu of gifts for friends at Christmas. This year, I also plan to donate money to provide Christmas stockings for Navajo children; at $5 each, this is a small price to bring joy to a child who otherwise might not receive anything for Christmas.

      Many utility companies offer programs through which we can add a bit extra to our utility payments, to help those on low fixed incomes pay their heating bills. Skip a couple of drinks from Starbucks and donate $10 to help an elderly person stay warm this winter. What a wonderful gift that will be to a senior citizen struggling to pay the heating bill, or suffering in the cold to save money on heat.

      We can forgo things we want but don't really need, and use that money to help others. It isn't a real hardship to skip eating out once in a while, and donate the money to an agency struggling to help those who most need it. My daughter and I spent more than $50 a few weeks ago on one dinner (no dessert) at the Lonestar steakhouse. That money could have helped provide a lot of food for others.

      Adopt a needy family and provide a holiday meal. I did that a few years ago through my church in Houston. Volunteers were asked to buy everything for a complete Thanksgiving meal for a family. I had a shopping list of suggested items, everything from a cake mix to a roasting pan and a turkey. I adopted two families and provided complete meals for them. I felt good knowing that I had made a difference, if only for a day, in the lives of two local families.

      Some stores have 'giving trees' that have basic information about a person in need, such as gender, clothing size, etc., and a short 'wish list.' People are encouraged to 'adopt' someone and buy a Christmas gift for that person.

      My daughter and I both love animals, so we find ways to help them during the holidays, too. I recently ordered a new bed for one of my dogs, but it was too small. Rather than hassling with returning it, I decided to donate it to an animal shelter. Shelters and rescue groups always need dog and cat food, toys, pet beds, cat litter, towels and cleaning supplies. Many include a 'wish list' on their Web sites. Volunteers are almost always needed, too.

      My message is simple: We don't have to be celebrities. We don't have to be wealthy. We aren't expected to cure the problems of hunger or homelessness or loneliness.

      We just have to choose to do something to help those less fortunate than we are. Even a little bit -- money, time, canned goods, a warm coat -- can make such a difference in someone's life. Imagine the impact we could make if everybody did a little something to help, not just at Christmas, but throughout the year.

      Tuesday, December 7, 2010

      What Happened to Christmas?

      What happened to Christmas?

      As we know, Christmas started as a religious holiday, to celebrate the birth of Christ (although the birth was more likely in April than December). Then it morphed into something quasi-religious, with the addition of Santa Claus, reindeer, polar bears and snowmen. Now it seems that Christmas is all about shopping, getting up in the wee hours of the morning the day after Thanksgiving to stand for hours in the cold, being pushed, shoved and elbowed, standing in long lines to pay for your merchandise, and spending money that will put you in debt for months.

      The season of giving has become one of crass materialism. Everything is about spending money, getting "the perfect gift" (a phrase I detest) and having an absolutely flawless family gathering. Christmas shopping used to begin in earnest the day after Thanksgiving. Now stores put out their Christmas trees and other items as early as August! A radio station in Albuquerque started playing nothing but Christmas music on Nov. 1. The television airwaves are filled with commercials for "perfect gift" ideas: everything from a washer and dryer, sweaters and perfume, toys, to hearing aids! Stores extend their business hours. Newspapers are packed with colorful ads from every kind of store, from office supplies to arts and crafts to hardware stores. Every shop has ideas for "the perfect gift."

      Again this year, I am staging my own mini-protest. I refused to go shopping on Black Friday; I've done that only once in my life, more than a dozen years ago. I went to the store about 6 a.m., bought the one item I wanted, and went home. What little shopping I do is done on-line or before the holiday frenzy starts. My 86-year-old father wants and needs nothing. I haven't exchanged gifts with my brother and sister and their families for many years. My nieces and nephews live in Alaska and Illinois; I live in New Mexico. We seldom see each other, and the kids have rooms full of toys, electronics and sports equipment already. Exchanging gift cards seems stupid and pointless, so we don't do that, either. Instead, I donate to charity.

      This year's Christmas will be special, not because we were able to find "the perfect gift," but because it will be the first my daughter and I will spend in our new house. It will be special because last year at Christmas, we stayed in a hotel in Santa Fe and therefore missed all of our traditions.

      This year also will be special because we will make it special with the memories we will make. Last year, we spent a day painting two bedrooms in our new house, working together and helping each other. My daughter crocheted a throw for me, as well as doing a painting. We laughed so hard one evening in the hotel room as she tried to take a picture of us for a photography class that I had tears in my eyes. When I mentioned that to her recently, she pulled out her scrapbook that had a page of pictures from that evening of hysterical laughing. We still laugh about that experience. We also had a friendly competition to see who took the better photographs as we explored Santa Fe. Those are the things I remember about last Christmas.

      For us, Christmas is about doing things together: putting up the tree or making cookies, for example. And it's about our unique family traditions. I always make fudge, sugar cookies and Russian teacakes, and sometimes peanut butter cup cookies as well. This year, my daughter wants to include her favorite Russian dish as part of our holiday meal. Maybe this will be the start of a new holiday tradition.

      Our tree is decorated not with mass-produced, 'Made in China" items, but with ornaments purchased in Russia: painted wooden 'eggs', bells, figures in traditional Russian dress, Grandfather Frost figures. The tree also holds numerous dog-themed ornaments, some representing dogs past and present. And we have several ornaments made by Native Americans that reflect their cultures and the Southwest way of life.

      Memories of time spent together, and handmade gifts -- gifts from the heart -- mean so much more than another pair of slippers or gloves or another sweater. Spending time with loved ones, donating time or money to help the less fortunate among us, putting thought and effort into making a gift -- THAT is what Christmas is all about.

      Friday, December 3, 2010

      What Makes You Smile?

      What makes you smile? I was thinking about this the other day after I saw a couple of burros in a corral along the main road through the village of Corrales, NM. I always smile when I see burros. They look so friendly and peaceful. So I started thinking about other things that make me smile:

      • Sunflowers
      • Black-eyed susans along the highway
      • Being outside on a beautiful, warm, sunny day 
      • Hiking
      • Puppies
      • My daughter coming home from school
      • Hot air balloons
      • Watching my dogs be silly while squirming on their backs, feet in the air
      • The beauty of nature
      • Red rocks
      • Certain pieces of music 
      • The sound of a whale exhaling as it breaks the ocean's surface
      • Pygmy goats
       Other things make me happy, other things bring me pleasure and fun, but these things actually bring a smile to my face. I love driving the roads in Utah lined with black-eyed susans. Sunflowers have the same effect, although I don't see them as often. We plan to grow some in our back yard next year.

      Something about seeing, and hearing, a hot air balloon also results in a smile. I love the sound of the propane burner shooting flames into the 'envelope' of the balloon. I love the colors, the unusual designs of some of the balloons (did you ever see a large cow balloon flying overhead, or a kangaroo or a giant Pepsi can riding the winds?), and the sense of freedom these balloons represent.

      And of course, seeing a beautiful mountain, a crisp blue sky, red rocks or any of nature's colorful canvas will invariably bring a smile to my face. I also love watching puppies fall all over themselves as they play, and seeing my dogs enjoy a roll in the grass, or even on their beds.

      The things that make me smile aren't expensive or fancy. Most of them are things I see in the natural world. They aren't things I can buy at a store. There are no fancy cars or expensive personal items on the list. My smile comes from the enjoyment of simple things, of things that speak to my soul.

      Smiles, I think, are very under-appreciated. A smile can have a dramatic impact on both the giver and on the recipient. A smile can change a sad, dreary day to a happy one. A smile costs nothing to give, yet its value and impact can be immense.

      There are so many wonderful quotes about smiles; all of the quotes below are by 'author unknown':
      • Every day you spend without a smile is a lost day. 
      • A smile is the light in the window of your face that tells people you're at home. 
      •  The world always looks brighter from behind a smile. 
      •  Life is like a mirror, we get the best results when we smile at it. 
      •  If you don't have a smile, I'll give you one of mine. 
      • A smile costs nothing but gives much.  It enriches those who receive without making poorer those who give.  It takes but a moment, but the memory of it sometimes lasts forever.  None is so rich or mighty that he cannot get along without it and none is so poor that he cannot be made rich by it.  Yet a smile cannot be bought, begged, borrowed, or stolen, for it is something that is of no value to anyone until it is given away.  Some people are too tired to give you a smile.  Give them one of yours, as none needs a smile so much as he who has no more to give.  
      Think about what makes you smile. It doesn't matter what it is: watching puppies at play, enjoying the outdoors, or spending time with a loved one. Just figure out what makes you smile, and make sure you make time for those things or people. Smiling is an easy, inexpensive way to enrich your life.

        Friday, November 26, 2010

        Thankfulness

        I love Josh Groban. He has such a magnificent, rich voice. And his songs seem to have more depth than the usual pop-song drivel. When I heard the song 'Thankful' from his new Christmas album, the lyrics really hit home. 

        "Some days, we forget to look around us.  
        Some days, we can't see the joy that surrounds us.  
        So caught up inside ourselves, we take when we should give.
        So for tonight we pray for what we know can be,  
        And on this day we hope for what we still can't see.
           
        It's up to us to be the change
        And even though we all can still do more,
        There's so much to be thankful for."

        This song, which I first heard on-line on Thanksgiving evening, reminded me that the spirit of Thanksgiving should not be limited to just one day. Rather, that spirit should pervade and guide our lives, our thoughts and our actions every day. 

        NBC News reported on a scientific study that showed that people who have 'an attitude of gratitude' are happier than those who do not. Gratitude, or thankfulness, does indeed make for a happier person. I know this from personal experience. 

        It's very easy to dwell on what we don't have -- a fancy car, a vacation home, physical beauty -- and to overlook what we do have -- a reliable car that gets us where we need to go, a home that keeps us warm and dry, inner peace.

        As I write this, it's 20 degrees outside. I hate cold weather; it makes me miserable and cranky. Yet here I am, snug and warm inside my house, in a fleece robe, drinking hot vanilla cinnamon tea. The sun is shining; my daughter is asleep; my dogs are snoozing. My world is still quiet. I have had a couple of hours to myself.


        I guess it's a sign of getting older, and perhaps wiser, but I am so much more aware of the things in my life for which I am, and should be, thankful. Whoever it was who first said "Count your blessings" was a wise person indeed.

        Sunday, November 21, 2010

        On Writing

        I have been doing quite a lot of writing lately. I've enjoyed writing since I realized I had some talent in that area during middle school, and I worked on my middle school's student newspaper. After a hiatus from writing except as required for school, I worked as the director of communications for a large California humane society for 8 years; in addition to serving as editor, I did much of the writing and photography for that publication. I even got a couple of awards from the Dog Writers' Association of America. I also wrote a column for the local newspaper (unpaid) while in grad school.

        I worked in NASA public affairs as a public affairs officer and manager for many years. But that writing was constrained by far too many 'guidelines' and limits to actually serve as a creative outlet. The best part of that job was being able to write for a now-defunct NASA publication, without the usual limits and restrictions. The publication ended its run after just a couple of years for budget reasons. That was a real loss, as many believed that this magazine was the best tool NASA had for reaching out to a general, non-technical audience.

        A couple of years ago, I was asked to co-author a book with a therapist who specializes in attachment issues. The subject: My experiences raising an adopted daughter. I have written more than 150 pages so far. I started this blog about a year ago. I have only a dozen 'followers,' but the number is growing slowly and I have readers from more than a dozen countries.

        Now, I am feeling called to do more and more writing. I would love to have my writing published somewhere, or at least to have a wider readership. Someone asked me several months ago what I did, and my reply -- "I'm a writer" -- startled me. I thought to myself, "Where did that come from?" I had never up to that point thought of myself as a writer. Yes, I wrote as part of my job, but was I really a writer? I have had articles published in a variety of niche publications, in addition to the newspaper column. But I have never been paid to write.

        I enjoy writing when I am inspired to write. I'm not looking for a writing job with deadlines and requirements for articles of a certain number of words. I enjoy writing about whatever appeals to me at the time, using as few or as many words as I think appropriate.

        Writing is such a wonderful emotional outlet, and I love manipulating words and sentences until they feel 'just right.' I don't have a lot of creativity, and I don't think I could ever write fiction or poetry. But I absolutely love writing about things that are important to me, things that move me, and experiences I have had.

        I don't for a minute believe that what I write about is world-changing, and I don't have the pomposity to think that my writing is on a par with John Steinbeck, Jack London, Tony Hillerman (my favorite author) or other real writers.

        Still, people tell me they find my writing uplifting and inspiring. They enjoy reading this blog, and I hope our book, if it ever gets published, will be helpful to others struggling to deal with the emotional baggage of an adopted child.

        So until I get 'discovered' as a writer, I will continue putting my words into this blog and hope that maybe someday, when I say "I am a writer," that statement will actually be true. Until then, I hope that my musings will inspire, or at least entertain, my handful of readers.

        Tuesday, November 9, 2010

        Giving Thanks

        It's that time of year again. The nights are cold, the leaves have turned a beautiful gold, the sky is a crisp blue, and the sun sets early. Stores have already rolled out their Christmas campaigns. One Albuquerque radio station started playing nothing but Christmas music on Nov. 1. I love Christmas music and I own probably 40 Christmas CDs, with everything from saxophone music to acoustic guitar, New Mexican, brass, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and many other styles. But I refuse to listen to Christmas music for the next seven or eight weeks.

        First, I want to enjoy the beauty of Fall and the blessings of Thanksgiving, a holiday that increasingly gets lost in the pre-Christmas hysteria. I confess to having bought some ingredients for my traditional fudge and Christmas cookies, but only because the items were on sale. And I won't be baking until the Thanksgiving holiday is finished.

        This year, which has brought many significant changes in my life, I have so much for which to be thankful. My daughter is home and doing well after living in a residential center in Utah for nearly a year. In June, we moved to our fabulous house in New Mexico, with awesome views of the Sandia Mountains.

        I have joined several Meetup groups and I have gone hiking several times, as well as visiting the site of an old Puebloan compound, with other interesting activities scheduled for the rest of this year. I have ramped up my interest in photography, in a place that offers limitless opportunities to take pictures. One morning I got up and drove a scant 5 miles to an area that is home to hundreds of cottonwood trees shimmering gold in the brilliant sunshine against a crystal blue sky. I was greeted by the friendly waves of a group of Native Americans as I drove through their pueblo. I am surrounded by the harsh natural beauty of the high desert. I live less than an hour's drive from the unique and beautiful city of Santa Fe. I attended the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which featured more than 500 hot air balloons. I have volunteered at a couple of events with the Wanagi Wolf Fund and Rescue, getting to meet and interact with its amazing resident wolves and wolf dogs.

        The current economic downturn has had little effect on me. My investments have increased by more than 4% this year, I received a buyout from my job with the federal government, and I have health insurance, which millions of Americans don't have. And unlike so many others, I have no debt. Not having a monthly mortgage payment is a wonderful feeling.

        I am healthy, and although I no longer run, I have walked nearly 1,200 miles this year. I discovered a great rural road on which to ride my bike. My hips still hurt much of the time, but not so much that I have had to give up walking, hiking and bicycling. Since summer 2009, I have lost 15 pounds and my blood glucose levels have returned to normal. My blood pressure and resting pulse are excellent, and I am not afflicted with any of the problems that beset so many people of my age.

        I continue to enjoy writing this blog (although it would be nice to have more people read it!) and working on my book, which allows me to pursue one of my favorite activities, non-fiction writing.

        Last year, I didn't bother with a special Thanksgiving meal, as I was alone on the holiday. This year, my daughter and I will share a traditional turkey dinner, although she far prefers the stuffing and potatoes to the turkey. But the important thing will be spending the holiday together in our new home.

        Although living with a teenager can be a challenge, with all the drama and mood swings that age brings, we have a good relationship and she recently commented to a friend that she can talk to me about anything. I am grateful that we have such a good relationship. And I am blessed to have such a wonderful daughter. She has come so far since her traumatic childhood in Russia.

        A cyberfriend has suggested thinking of one thing every day for which we are grateful from now until Thanksgiving. That's a great idea, and one I hope to implement. I have so very many things for which to be grateful this year, and I am more aware than usual of my blessings.

        I want to share my good fortune with those not as fortunate. I have started buying canned goods to donate to the annual food drive, and my daughter and I both have coats we plan to give to the winter coat drive. Albuquerque winters are bitterly cold, and I much prefer giving our unwanted coats to people who can really use them, to leaving them hanging in a closet. One of my coats belonged to my mother. I have it for sentimental reasons, but I believe that she would prefer that it go to someone who really needs it. She was that kind of woman. Sharing our good fortune is the least we can do when we have been so richly blessed.

        I have feelings of peace and happiness I don't ever remember having. I love New Mexico and my new life here. Life is good. When I sit down to Thanksgiving dinner this year, I will be more mindful than ever of the many blessings in my life.

        Friday, November 5, 2010

        Lessons From My Dogs

        Others have written about what we humans can learn from dogs. But I thought it would make an interesting topic for this blog, too.

        What can our dogs teach us? I was watching my dogs thoroughly enjoy themselves as they explored the back yard, rolled in the grass and enjoyed the sunshine. So I started thinking about the lessons I have learned from my dogs over the years.

        Rejoice whenever you see a loved one again.

        Take time to stop and explore the wonderful world around you.

        Greet everyone with a wagging tail (or in our case, a smile).

        Get up every morning excited to start a new day.

        Be loyal and faithful.

        Forgive readily and don't carry a grudge.

        Find pleasure in the simple things, such as a walk, a snooze in the sun or a roll in the grass.

        Never pass up the opportunity to run and play.

        Be silly once in a while.

        When someone you care about is sad or upset, stay close to them.

        Don't bite if a growl will suffice.

        If someone is bothering you, walk away.

        Never pass up an opportunity to show people you love them.

        Don't forget to play with your toys.

        Don't worry about tomorrow.


        Is it any wonder that dogs have been human companions for some 15,000 years? They cannot speak with words, their lives are short in comparison with ours, they can't invent things or create beautiful literature and art. But oh, the lessons they can teach us.

        Enjoy your life.

        Friday, October 22, 2010

        The Benefits of Being Positive

        I got a comment in response to one of my recent blog posts that my "posts are always so positive." I took that as a real complement, as being more positive is something I've been working on.

        I always considered myself a fairly negative person, although it isn't something I gave much thought to. But my daughter commented to someone that she thought I was a positive person, always encouraging her to be positive, to try her best, to never give up, to see the good in a situation. Then that person told me that she, too, thought I was a positive person, seeing the humor in even dark situations and never giving up no matter how desperate, challenging or seemingly overwhelming the situation in which I found myself.

        So I started thinking: If these two people think I have a positive attitude, maybe I really do. Is it possible that I had had a distorted or inaccurate view of myself all these years? I also realized that I use humor -- albeit a dry sense of humor -- to lighten the mood and help me deal with stressful situations. This was totally unconscious on my part. I didn't think "I need to make a joke about this to relieve my stress." I wasn't even aware that I was using humor to reduce my stress. Apparently I did a good job of finding humor, as my friend has told me that on more than one occasion, she was reading a message from me while driving (not a good idea), and started laughing so hard she had to pull over to the side of the road.

        It's much easier to be negative and to complain than to be positive. It's easier, but it takes more energy and a far greater toll on me psychologically. I have reached the point in my life where I don't want to be around people who are always negative. It is so emotionally draining. Sure, I am negative sometimes, I whine and I complain and I have bad days. But I don't do this a lot, and I am aware when I do this and I make a point of stopping before it gets out of control.

        I am amazed at how much our thinking and attitude influence our outlook on life. I have a saying on my computer monitor that asks "Who's in Charge?" People at work used to think this question referred to "Who's in charge?" of the office or the department. No, it was simply a reminder to me that I am in charge of how I feel, how I react, and of which emotions are most prevalent in my thinking at any given time. The quote is from a book by psychologist Wayne Dyer, Gifts from Eykis, a book about self-discovery.

        It's really easy to be negative. But I find that when I am negative about something, my entire outlook goes south. It is so easy to generalize a negative feeling about one thing, and suddenly I'm negative about everything. Drivers are more stupid, traffic more frustrating, commercials more annoying, and I seem to hit every red light in town. Nothing goes right. I have to stop myself before I dig a hole that takes a lot of work to get out of. Self-pity does not become me at all.

        These days, I try to make a point of "looking on the bright side" as much as possible. I'm not always successful, of course, but I do try. Sometimes, such as when I had a recent health scare, it is nearly impossible to be positive. But keeping busy and not focusing on the 'what if' scenarios helped a great deal.

        Since my move to New Mexico, I am making a conscious effort to appreciate the natural beauty around me. Even on a rare 'down' day, I can find something positive: sighting a road runner, a beautiful desert plant, the gorgeous azure New Mexico sky.

        I have been an advocate of self-discovery and personal growth for several years. I've taken day-long and weekend classes in how to discover the 'true' me, and how to let my true light shine. Taught by a woman with a Ph.D. in psychology, these were not just 'feel good' classes. They led to actual changes in me, in my thoughts and in my actions.

        I think self-discovery is so important to our growth as humans. Every so often, we need to step back and take a fresh look at ourselves. As I learned, our image of ourselves can be very incorrect or out of date. I lived for decades thinking I was a negative person, when in reality, I'm just the opposite. How my self-image got so off base I don't know. I guess it doesn't really matter. What matters is that I now have a more accurate picture of myself. And that updated self-knowledge feels good.

        I don't like getting negative or critical feedback, but I have found it useful to ask someone I trust a great deal about both my positive and negative traits. Honest, constructive feedback has proven useful in identifying areas that need improvement, and in motivating me to make changes, no matter how small. It's exciting and rewarding to make positive changes, to grow and develop myself, to reach out in new directions.

        Even at my age, change is not only possible. It is rewarding and empowering!

        Monday, October 11, 2010

        Hozho

        Hozho. It's a Navajo word that often is translated as harmony . But to the Navajo, this word cannot be translated so simply. Its true meaning, complex and multi-layered, reflects a state of being one with the world.

        I ran across this word recently while reading a book by my favorite author, the late New Mexico author Tony Hillerman. Not speaking Navajo, I don't have a good sense of the depth of meaning of the word. But harmony is a start.

        Hozho also has been defined as beauty, order, truth, balance, and clarity of action, thought and thinking. It is the way traditional Navajos strive to live their lives. Those who are 'in hozho' feel that their lives are in harmony with their environment, at one with the world around them. Those who are 'in hozho' walk with beauty, perfectly balanced and in tune with the world, yet still a unique part of it. Traditional Navajo life is focused on obtaining and maintaining hozho. The Navajo respect and honor the natural world, and they are mindful of its importance to their own well-being.

        When hozho is lost, the Navajo hold a ceremony to restore themselves to balance and harmony. As Hillerman wrote in Sacred Clowns, "The system is designed to recognize what's beyond human power to change, and then to change the human's attitude to be content with the inevitable." I admire the fact that the Navajo acknowledge that there are some things beyond their power to change; instead, they learn to accept what they cannot change.

        It seems to me that hozho is something that is seriously lacking in our world. Modern society is so out of balance with our environment, with nature, with ourselves. We clearcut forests, we pollute the air and the water, we build homes in areas without the resources to support still more people. We take over the habitat of other animals, then we complain when they wander into "our" neighborhoods in search of food. New Mexico is considering an 80 percent increase in the number of black bears to be killed each year because they are becoming 'pests.' A similar fate may await female cougars, in an attempt to reduce the number of animals able to reproduce and add to the 'problem.' Yet we continue to build in the bears' and cougars' habitat, and to graze sheep and cattle in the animals' traditional hunting grounds.

        I live in the high desert of New Mexico, where water is always in short supply. Yet wherever I drive, I see bone-dry, sagebrush-covered land being cleared for more new homes and businesses. Vacant land is plastered with 'land for sale' signs. New roads are being constructed. Where will the water to support thousands of new residents and businesses come from? A system woefully out of balance now will only become more unbalanced in the future. How do we restore balance to a world out of control, where nothing seems to matter except pursuit of ever more profit? How do we balance human greed with the environment's need for protection?

        The 1/2-acre lot next to mine is still undeveloped, although it is for sale for $95,000. How I wish I could purchase that scrub-covered lot to protect it from development. I know that in better economic times, that lot, and numerous others in my area, will be sold and a large house built on each one. It saddens me greatly to see the never-ending drive for 'development' of our open spaces.

        I would like to think that a Navajo ceremony could restore hozho to our world, but I don't have faith that balance can be restored. We humans are taking from Mother Earth in quantities that cannot be sustained, whether it be water, land or resources. And we are 'giving' our planet endless pollution in the form of trash, greenhouse gases and environmental disasters.

        Harmony or balance is something I, like many other individuals, seek in life. I seek to live in harmony with the natural world. I try to limit my impact on the environment by recycling, by not buying unnecessary items, by using my own bags when I shop, by driving a hybrid vehicle. Yet my small efforts seem so insufficient and useless when confronted by the never-ending building and construction I see going on around me.

        The Navajo approach to life is expressed in the following prayer:

        In Beauty May I Walk

        In beauty may I walk.
        All day long may I walk.
        Through the returning seasons may I walk.

        Beautifully will I possess again.
        Beautifully birds . . .
        Beautifully joyful birds.

        On the trail marked with pollen may I walk.
        With grasshoppers about my feet may I walk.
        With dew about my feet may I walk.

        With beauty may I walk.
        With beauty before me, may I walk.
        With beauty behind me, may I walk.
        With beauty above me, may I walk.
        With beauty below me, may I walk.
        With beauty all around me, may I walk.

        In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk.
        In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, living again, may I walk.

        It is finished in beauty.
        It is finished in beauty.


        What can we do to get our world back 'in hozho'? Will we ever be able to 'finish in beauty,' or have we already reached the point of no return?

        Wednesday, September 29, 2010

        What Would You Do if You Weren't Afraid?

        "What would you do if you weren't afraid?"

        I love this quote from the book Who Moved My Cheese?. This little book presents, in simple terms, a guide to dealing with unexpected change and the fear of the unknown that often paralyzes us and keeps us from reaching our goals.

        I usually don't let fear or the 'what ifs' deter me from doing something I want to do. When I was offered the opportunity to live and work in Moscow for 3-1/2 months, some people I know worried that I would be taking too much risk, that I would be beset by Gypsy children, or that something else terrible would happen to me. Sure, I had heard stories about Westerners being mobbed by Gypsy children; I know a guy to whom this happened. But I wasn't going to let the fear of something that might happen rob me of the chance of a lifetime. So I accepted the invitation and I had a great time. I had experiences few will ever have: working in the Russian Mission Control Center, visiting the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center and a space museum operated by one of the Russian space powerhouses and not open to the public. This wasn't just a 2-3 week business trip to Moscow, which I made both before and after the more lengthy trip. I actually lived in an apartment, shopped in local stores and talked with average Russians. I was careful and used common sense when I explored Moscow; I didn't walk alone at night, I walked with confidence, I kept my camera and money out of sight. And of course, the fact that I speak Russian increased my comfort level. If I had given in to the 'what ifs', I wouldn't have taken advantage of this great opportunity. And I would have missed so much.

        Last September, while looking at houses on the Internet, I spotted a house in New Mexico that had everything I was looking for. I couldn't believe my eyes. After a hastily arranged 1-day trip to Albuquerque, I returned to California and a few days later made an offer on the house. My offer was accepted, and I soon found myself the owner of two homes. After an initial bout of panic at the thought of paying mortgages, insurance and property taxes on two properties, I realized that I was meant to own this house. It was just too perfect to pass up.

        I didn't let fear stop me from pursuing my dream house. Although I had to postpone my retirement by six months, everything fell into place. I qualified for a 'buyout' offer and I was paid for more than 250 hours of unused vacation time. I had to dip into my savings, but when the dust settled and I finally sold my house in California, I had a nice bit of money to add to my savings. Best of all, I got the house I wanted in a place I love.

        Perhaps the most notable thing I did despite my fear and the warnings of others was to adopt my daughter, at the time an 11-year-old orphan from Russia. I was single and had no other kids. I had no idea how I would raise a child, much less one from another country. There were times I questioned my sanity in adopting her. We went through some very rough patches for a couple of years. But I felt that we were meant to be together. We both knew it within a couple of days of our first meeting. So, despite serious fears on my part and misgivings from family and friends, I decided to proceed with the adoption. To my surprise, the adoption process that typically took 6 to 9 months took fewer than 4 months. I believe this was meant to be. Had I let my fear of the unknown or the 'what ifs' hold me back, I would not now be sharing my life with my beautiful, sweet, kind daughter.

        There was one time when I let fear hold me back. I wanted to become a veterinarian, but my fear of the required math and science courses kept me from even trying. That is a decision I have always regretted.

        How many opportunities, how much happiness, how many new experiences, do we miss out on because we let our fear control us? I don't make major decisions on a whim. I do a lot of research, and I give these decisions a great deal of thought. I gather facts, figures and information. I ask questions. I certainly consider the possible downsides and pitfalls. I listen to my gut as well. What does my intuition tell me? Then I make an informed decision. One friend has said she enjoys watching me work through everything to reach a decision, and she is impressed by the speed with which I decide on something. I never set a deadline for myself; I decide when it feels right. If saying 'yes' doesn't feel right, I don't proceed.

        I don't let fear rule my life. It bothers me when others dwell on the 'what ifs' and things that could go wrong. I can't worry about everything that might happen. If I did that, I would be paralyzed with fear and inaction. I would miss wonderful opportunities. I would be too afraid of life to actually live.

        So ask yourself, What would you do if you weren't afraid? Allow yourself time to reflect on this question, and on your answer. Life is short, too short to waste it in fear.

        Friday, September 24, 2010

        Four-Letter Words

        I think it's time for us to replace the old, 'dirty' four-letter words (you know the ones) with some new ones. The new words are positive, hope-filled words. They are spoken not in anger or out of frustration, but in a spirit of support and kindness. Thanks to some of my Facebook friends for suggesting words to add to my original short list.

        Look at these words, and think about how they make you feel. Sense the positive vibes, the feeling of peace and encouragement they offer. Think about what the world would be like if more of us used these new four-letter words in our thinking, speaking and actions.

        Hope -- What can YOU do to bring hope to a person or animal without hope?
        Love -- How do you show your love? Can you do more to show love, even to those you don't personally know?
        Help -- What can you do to help a person or animal in need?
        Life -- What can you do to celebrate life, or to improve the life of another?
        Care -- How do you show you care? Is there something more you can do?
        Home -- Everyone deserves a home, be it a person or a domestic animal. I know a woman, a musician, who is putting on a concert to raise funds and collect necessities for the homeless. She is putting her concern into action to help those who don't have a home.
        Pray -- If you believe in prayer, how about praying for those less fortunate.
        Good -- Do good, be good in your dealings with others.
        Give -- Give of yourself, of your time, of your talents and resources. Sometimes a seemingly small thing can make a huge difference in someone's life. Give a complement. I recently complemented three women at my daughter's school for being so responsive, thorough and organized in dealing with a situation that at previous schools had been a real struggle. They all beamed when I complemented them.
        Best -- Give your best in everything you do. Be the best mother, friend, dog owner, employee, volunteer.
        Glad -- Be glad for (i.e., appreciate) what you have. As the song says, "It isn't having what you want, it's wanting what you have."
        Nice -- Be nice to those you encounter. This is sometimes difficult for me, because it isn't easy to be nice to telemarketers who interrupt whatever I'm doing.
        Kind -- It's an old saying, but "Practice Random Acts of Kindness" is a wonderful philosophy to live by.
        Heal -- The world is full of hurt, emotional, physical and environmental. What can you do to help heal someone's hurt, or to help heal our beautiful planet?
        Soft -- Isn't this a great word? Imagine the feeling of a soft blanket, or a soft voice. How does 'soft' make you feel?
        Warm -- 'Warm' is a wonderful feeling experienced when we help others with no thought of what's in it for us. It's also nice to be warm on a cold winter day.
        Hugs -- I've never been much of a hugger, but my attitude has changed. I love to get a hug from my daughter or from a friend I haven't seen in a long time. A hug can express so much more than mere words. It can also be a real pick-me-up to someone going through a rough time.

        Other four-letter words with positive connotations are safe, soul, calm, kiss, pets and kids. You can probably think of others to add to this list.

        I hate seeing trash on the roads. I can't do much about cleaning up the world's garbage, but I can at least clean up my little piece of the world. So when I'm out walking, I make a point of picking up any bottles or cans someone has tossed into the bushes or ditches. I take them home and put them in my recycle bin. It's a small, but positive, step.

        Likewise, let's take a small, but positive, step by incorporating a few of these words, and the things they represent, in our daily lives. I believe it will be a start to making our world, or at least our little corner of it, a more positive place.

        Tuesday, September 21, 2010

        September 21 is World Gratitude Day

        Today, Sept. 21, is World Gratitude Day. Started in 1977 by the United Nations Meditation Group, this day reminds us to take time to think about and celebrate the many people and things that bring joy into our lives. What will you celebrate today? Special friends, family members, the great outdoors, your good health? There are so many things to value, so many people to appreciate.

        World Gratitude Day is a great day to stop and think about the people and things for which we are grateful. For starters, I appreciate my beautiful home, my wonderful daughter, my good health, the fact that I have health insurance and a reliable pension. I am healthy and happy.

        I do appreciate so many people and things in my life, but I don't do a very good job of expressing my gratitude to them or for them. Last year I made a 100-item gratitude list, and there are times when I pause to consider how grateful I am for something in particular. Since moving to New Mexico, I have been acutely aware of how much I appreciate living where I do, and being able to enjoy the natural beauty all around me. I also really appreciate having my daughter back home, happy and doing well. Being more aware of my gratitude is something I'm working on doing more frequently, as well as letting people know that I appreciate them.

        World Gratitude Day is a day to celebrate our very existence on a planet that, as far as we know, is the only one in the universe capable of supporting life as we know it. Our planet provides us with everything we need to survive: air, water, food and abundant natural resources, and with the things we need to thrive, such as natural beauty and recreational opportunities. Whether you like the ocean, the desert or the mountains, our beautiful planet has something for everyone.

        One of the things I have been working on over the past year is to incorporate more gratitude into my life. The gratitude list was a good start, but to really have an impact, gratitude needs to be practiced on a regular basis. Some have found that keeping a gratitude journal or a daily gratitude list is helpful in keeping them mindful of the many things in their lives for which they are grateful. I haven't had the discipline to do that, but it's something to work on.

        Even in the midst of challenging times in life, there is room for gratitude. Sometimes a terrible situation turns out to have an unpredicted benefit. Maybe we learn something about ourselves as a result of going through a particularly difficult challenge. Maybe a new opportunity presents itself. Maybe we make a new friend or find a new love interest. Stay open and look for opportunities to be grateful.

        "Praise the bridge that carried you over," wrote George Colman The Younger. What a great way of expressing gratitude even for difficult times.

        Start each day by thinking about something for which you are grateful. Determine in your mind that today will be a good day. Think about something positive: Today I have a job, I am healthy, I am having lunch with a friend, whatever you can think of. One small example: I hate getting up early, but I have to get my daughter up and ready to catch the school bus at 6:30 a.m. This gives me the opportunity to walk my daughter to the bus stop, and to walk my dogs on a cool, calm morning and watch yet another beautiful sunrise over the mountains. For those small things, I am grateful.

        Even if you're worried about something, try to see the positive in it. I was very worried about what my dog's ultrasound would reveal. But I set the worry aside and focused on the positive: A veterinarian trained in ultrasonography would do the ultrasound and I would know for sure what is going on in my dog's internal organs. Good or bad, the information would provide answers. I am grateful for the technology and for the skilled veterinarian to provide these answers. And I am grateful to have answers.

        Give people complements -- sincere complements -- and thank them when you appreciate something they have done for you. I've tried to make a point of telling my daughter when a particular outfit looks nice, or to thank her when she does a good job of helping around the house, when she gets a good grade on a test, or when she does a chore without being asked.

        Practice random acts of kindness. My daughter, a student driver, frequently lets other drivers go ahead of her. She holds the door for people. See somebody struggling to reach an item high on a grocery store shelf? Grab the item for them. Pay the toll for the car behind you. Surprise someone by doing something thoughtful for no reason at all. Buy a surprise gift, send a card, deliver a home-cooked meal to someone who is feeling under the weather. Or just tell them how much you appreciate their friendship or guidance. I just joined a new Random Acts of Kindness Meetup group in Albuquerque. The group has just four members so far, but I'm looking forward to learning what kinds of things we come up with.

        Volunteer. There are countless volunteer opportunities available, both formal and informal, from delivering meals to the homebound to mentoring at-risk kids, helping clean a river, teaching an adult to read, walking dogs at an animal shelter, offering to take an elderly neighbor grocery shopping or mowing someone's lawn just because it needs it. Volunteering makes both the donor and the recipient feel good. Several years ago, I volunteered with an organization that helps the elderly remain in their homes. One day I scrubbed out the bathtub of a very old woman, swept the area around her mobile home and tidied the place up. Another time, I organized the kitchen of a widower who had had a stroke, putting the most commonly used cooking utensils, pans and dishware where he could easily reach them. I took one woman grocery shopping. This was such a small thing for me, but she was unable to drive and it made a huge difference to her. When I was finished, I felt good about helping these senior citizens maintain their independence.

        We all have dark days and challenging times in our lives; that's part of being alive. But if we make gratitude a part of our daily routine, it will soon become a foundation of our very existence. It feels good to be appreciated, and it also feels good to be grateful. Everybody wins.

        Sunday, September 19, 2010

        Lessons To Be Learned from a Newspaper Ad

        Reading the Sunday paper today, my attention was drawn to the words at the bottom of an ad for Naturalizer shoes.

        Be flexible.
        Go lightly.
        Find balance.
        Move softly.
        Breathe easy.

        So, with apologies to Naturalizer, I thought this would make a good blog topic.

        Be flexible. This phrase can refer to so many things, from being physically flexible (something I'm currently working on to aid my bursitis) to being mentally flexible. I see it as a reminder not to become rigid in our thinking and outlook. Be open to new possibilities and to new ways of seeing the world. Be flexible and willing to change your opinion about something or someone.

        Go lightly. Again, the possibilities are many. Go lightly in the world. Don't use more than you need, whether it's water, energy or food. Recycle and reuse. Minimize your impact on the Earth. See the humor in things, and don't take yourself too seriously. Find your own 'lightness of being.'

        Find balance. This is a wonderful life lesson. We should all strive for balance in our lives. Balance work with play, activity with rest, crying with laughing, social time with personal time. This lesson is a difficult one for me, as for so many people. Life in 21st century America doesn't lend itself to balance, so it requires a real effort to find and maintain a balance in life.

        Move softly. Move softly through the world. Deal with others with respect. Minimize your negative impact on the world. Be firm when necessary, yet gentle. Think of the great people who have moved softly yet had tremendous impact: Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Rev. Martin Luther King.

        Breathe easy. This is another dictum that is difficult for me. It is difficult to breathe easy, but oh so easy to become caught up in worry, fear and the 'what ifs' of life. But as I have learned during the past couple of challenging years, "Nothing gets done until we feel the peace inside," to quote a friend of mine. Things will happen as they are meant to. Sometimes those things are positive, and sometimes they are negative. But our worrying and fretting about them won't change the outcome. Trust in your higher power, Mother Nature, or whatever your source of strength.

        So, here are today's life lessons, courtesy of an ad for shoes in the local newspaper. It always amazes me where I will find the inspiration or the kernel of an idea for a blog post.

        Wednesday, September 15, 2010

        Write a Blog, Feed a Homeless Dog

        This blog post is a bit different from what I usually write about, but it's for a cause very close to my heart: helping dogs in animal shelters and rescues.

        How often have you had the chance to help feed shelter dogs simply by writing a blog post? I've never had that opportunity, but right now, I, and all other bloggers, have that chance.

        You may have seen the wonderful, moving commercials on television about the Pedigree dog food adoption drive. I usually end up with tear-filled eyes from watching them. "Don't pity a shelter dog," says one. "Adopt him."

        According to the Pedigree Web site, more than 4 million dogs end up in shelters and breed rescue organizations every year. Pedigree created The Pedigree Adoption Drive to help shine a spotlight on the plight of these homeless dogs.

        This year, the Pedigree Adoption Drive is raising awareness about homeless dogs by donating a bowl of food to shelter dogs for everyone who becomes a “Fan” or “Likes” the Pedigree Adoption Drive on Facebook. So far, more than 1 million bowls of food have been donated. This is a really easy way to help.

        Now to the reason for this special blog post: For each blog that posts about the Pedigree® Adoption Drive through September 19, Pedigree® will donate a 20-pound bag of its new Healthy Longevity Food for Dogs to shelters nationwide. It’s that easy. And best of all, the dog food drive is not limited to pet blogs. So spread the word to all the bloggers you know! Once the blog is written, simply go to http://www.lifewithdogs.tv/2010/09/write-a-post-help-a-dog/ and leave a link to your post.

        So that's why I am blogging about a different topic today. All of my dogs have come from shelters, breed rescues or off the street. I worked for a large humane society in California for 8 years. I have been a shelter and rescue group volunteer and I was a foster home for golden retrievers. My daughter puts in countless hours at a local animal shelter. So these animals have a very special place in my heart. Until they can find homes, I can at least help feed them.

        It’s a simple way to help: Write a blog post, help a dog.

        Sunday, September 12, 2010

        What is a Real Mother?

        What makes a 'real' mother? I started asking myself that question recently after my daughter, whom I adopted from Russia nearly 6 years ago, said something about her 'real' mother. She didn't use this term to hurt me; in her view, her 'real' mother is the one who gave birth to her. To her, I am her 'adoptive' mother. I prefer the term 'birth mother' or 'Russian mother' when referring to the person who gave birth to her.

        When introducing my daughter, I don't say "This is my adopted daughter." No, I say "This is my daughter." The issue of her adoption arises only when necessary, for example, when I explain to staff at her high school that she needs additional support because English is not her native language. Most of the time, I don't even think of her as adopted; she is, simply, my daughter.

        There is no dictionary definition of 'real mother.' I don't think it is possible to define the term 'real mother,' because it is a matter of 'just knowing' what a 'real' mother is. In my view, a 'real' mother is the woman who raises, teaches, nurtures and stands by her child, whether she gave birth to the child or not. Genetic connectedness isn't really important. My daughter's Russian mother didn't love her; she didn't care for or about her. My daughter suffered a lot of trauma because of her birth mother. This trauma still, and probably always will, affects this beautiful child. The Russian mother put her own interests far above those of her children (yes, unfortunately, she had other children besides my daughter).

        I, on the other hand, have put my daughter's interests above my own, sometimes losing sight of my own needs in the process. I have sacrificed and suffered because of some of her actions. I don't blame her for the things she did that caused me such distress; she is like many other adopted children who suffered childhood trauma. And I'm not remarkable in putting my daughter's interests above my own; it is simply what a 'real' mother does. We don't think "Oh, my child's interests and needs are much more important than my own." We simply do what we know in our hearts is the right thing to do, as mothers.

        I have to admit that I was hurt by my daughter's reference to her 'real' mother. If I'm not her 'real' mother, who am I? Am I a 'fake' mother? I am, after all, the person who has always been there for her, through good times and bad. I am the person who has battled with schools to make sure she gets the accommodations she needs, and to which she is entitled under the law. I am the person who drove around looking for her and who called the police and who suffered sleepless nights when she ran away from home. I am the woman who missed work to take her to the emergency room after she disappeared for several days. I am the mother who comforts her when she is sick or scared or upset, and who provides guidance and support as she navigates the turbulent waters of the teen years.

        Don't these things qualify me, and not the abusive alcoholic who gave birth to her, as her 'real' mother? In the end, it doesn't really matter what term is used to describe me, because I know that I am the 'real' mother.

        I am the 'real' mother because I am the woman my daughter calls Mom.

        Tuesday, September 7, 2010

        A Dream Come True

        I'm a city girl. I grew up in and have always lived in highly urban areas. Still, I have loved the outdoors for many years: hiking, backpacking, camping, outdoor photography. Being outside in the sunshine and fresh air is so important to my emotional well-being.

        Recently one of my long-held dreams came true when I attended a talk by Stephanie Kaylan, founder of the Wanagi Wolf Fund and Rescue just north of Albuquerque. She spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at the Open Space Alliance visitor center. While Stephanie provided a lot of information and stories about wolves, the real stars were her two sidekicks, Hokshila and Bindi.

        Hokshila is a timber wolf, a massive, beautiful animal who stands 6'3" on his hind legs and weighs anywhere from 117 to 130 pounds, depending on time of year. Bindi, a New Mexico gray wolf/coyote/Siberian husky mix, is much smaller.

        I have admired the beauty, power and intelligence of wolves for many years, but this was my first opportunity to actually see wolves up close. Seeing Hokshila when I walked into the room took my breath away. He is such a large animal, and obviously extremely strong. And yet, his favorite people to greet were the children present. Hokshila wore a harness attached to a short, wide leash, and his power was obvious. As he pulled to greet people in the audience, he risked injuring Stephanie's shoulder joint. Yet he would sit on command and gently take a biscuit from her hand.

        Anybody who still believes that wolves are aloof, solitary, evil animals is badly mistaken. Bindi, like Hokshila, loves people. It also is clear that these animals are attached to each other. When Bindi was taken outside for a bathroom break, Hokshila watched through the window, obviously missing his buddy. Bindi's best friend, however, is Stephanie's dog Hozho. He reportedly follows her everywhere and loves to just 'hang out' with her. Because Hokshila was grieving the recent death of his female companion, a new female wolf from a rescue in Oregon will soon join him to help ease his grief.

        I have never understood how people can love dogs, yet despise the wolf, which is, after all, the ancestor of the dog. Wolves live in family groups; the entire pack helps raise the young. If a wolf is injured and unable to get to food, another wolf will take chunks of meat to it. Wolves hunt to survive, not for recreation. And when they hunt, they do so in a coordinated fashion, working together to bring down their large prey. More often than not, they are not successful in their attempts to bring down a large animal. Wolves prey on the old, the sick, the young and the injured. In that way, they help keep the population of prey animals -- whether deer, elk, moose or buffalo -- healthy and strong. Stephanie mentioned a study in which a researcher examined the femur bones of animals killed by wolves. Every one showed signs of disease. In addition to keeping the prey herds healthy, not attempting to take down a healthy animal such as a moose or buffalo drastically reduces the chance of a wolf being seriously injured by the prey.

        After the presentation and a short break for Hokshila, we were allowed to pose with him for a picture, for a $10 donation to the Wanagi Wolf Fund. This was an opportunity I wouldn't pass up for anything. My daughter used my camera to take pictures of me with Hokshila, and I took pictures of her with him. Kneeling beside this very large predator was such an awe-inspiring experience. I had to remind myself that this was a timber wolf, not a domestic dog, around which I had placed my arm.

        I was walking on air the rest of the day after meeting these wolves. I found it hard to sleep as I replayed our brief meeting in my mind. These animals, which too many people fear and hate, are loyal, intelligent, loving, beautiful creatures. Hokshila, Bindi and the other wolves in refuges cannot be released into the ever-diminishing wild, as they can no longer fend for themselves. Because they were raised by or lived with people, they have come to associate people with food. If released, these animals would likely either starve or seek food from people.

        Wolves have been human companions for thousands of years. Because of the relationship that developed between wolves and early humans, we now enjoy, and benefit from, the love, companionship and service of hundreds of breeds of dogs (and even more mixed breeds). Rather than fearing wolves (remember "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?", the evil wolf in "The Three Little Pigs," "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Peter and the Wolf"?), we should emulate their spirit of cooperation and concern for other members of their pack.

        These magnificent animals offer us so many opportunities to learn from them. It is up to us to decide whether we will be open to their generosity, or whether we will continue to exploit them by breeding wolves and wolf/dogs as pets, most of which end up chained to trees, caged, abused or dumped at animal shelters when they mature and do the things that wolves do. Some people apparently see having a wolf or wolf/dog as a status symbol, although the vast majority have no clue what it takes to keep these animals physically and mentally happy and challenged.

        Wolves have largely been exterminated from their natural habitat. Efforts to reintroduce wolf populations into a small portion of their former range have met with mixed results. Too often, they are hunted and killed by cowardly people who fear the wolf.

        I have contacted Stephanie about volunteering with her rescue group. She needs people to help with all kinds of things at the refuge, including -- get this -- helping to socialize some of the wolves and wolf/dogs by spending time in their large enclosures with them! I'm still waiting to hear back from her, but I so hope I will be able to volunteer with this group. I've been trying to determine where I want to volunteer since I retired, and this sounds like the perfect thing for me. I love animals, especially canines, and I love being outside. And just think of the opportunities to photograph these magnificent animals!

        I believe we owe it to captive wolves to provide as nearly natural a life and environment as possible, to treat them with respect, and to learn as much as we can from them. Hokshila, Bindi and the other wolves and wolf/dogs in refuges are ambassadors from their species to ours. Will we be receptive to the message they are trying to deliver, or will we continue to exploit and kill them?

        Friday, August 27, 2010

        Blessings

        I was sitting on the patio one recent late summer evening, watching the sun set over the Sandia Mountains. The day had been beautiful, considerably cooler than usual. The air was still, with just a hint of autumn. A few pink-tinged clouds streaked across the sky. I could hear neighborhood dogs barking, an unknown bird squawked in the tree, and insects buzzed. The world seemed at peace. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, I felt very blessed. Like most people, I don't give much thought to the many blessings in my life. Instead, I tend to put most of my energy into dealing with problems, challenges and difficult situations.

        That evening, as I sat alone on the patio, I realized that I am blessed in so many areas of my life. Although it took a while and I didn't get the price I wanted, I nevertheless sold my house in California, despite the terrible housing market. The buyer paid cash and wanted a very quick close, which made the process easier than usual. And best of all, I sold the house before the anticipated dip in the economy.

        I have no debt other than routine monthly bills. I have a pension (a blessing in itself) and investments that should provide income for a comfortable retirement. I live in a beautiful house with wonderful architectural features inside and out. From most rooms in the house, and the back yard, I have awesome views of the Sandias. I live on a 1/2-acre lot, which provides both privacy and quiet.

        I live in a state that offers so many outdoor, photographic, historic and cultural opportunities it's hard to know where to start. It has the bluest sky I have ever seen. There are no significant weather or environmental risks here -- earthquakes are extremely rare, and there are no hurricanes or tornadoes, just the occasional flooding or snowstorm.

        I am in excellent health; my hip and shoulder joints hurt frequently, but otherwise I am in great health. I have medical insurance, which so many do not. My daughter is happy and doing well after a couple of extremely challenging years. I also share my life with two happy, healthy rescue dogs. I was able to retire from my government job at a good point in my career and with a buyout to send me on my way, so now my time is my own. I can drive to Santa Fe or go for a bike ride and explore rural roads whenever I want to.

        I have benefited from a good college education and I had two successful careers, one as the communications director for a large humane society, the second as a senior public affairs official/manager for NASA. Both contributed greatly to my success in life.

        I am blessed with smaller things, too. I have walked all the streets in my small subdivision, and I have noticed that my house is one of only a couple that have fully landscaped yards. Many have yards that are nothing but dust, dirt, boulders and sagebrush. My front courtyard and back yard are beautifully landscaped. My house is situated on the lot so it provides perfect views of the mountains and maximum privacy. It has lots of windows and skylights to let in the gorgeous New Mexico light.

        I love animals, and we are visited frequently by roadrunners, quail and rabbits, and I have seen coyotes on nearby roads. My daughter, who shares my love of dogs, volunteers at a local animal shelter. Although I have not yet met most of my neighbors (it has been too hot to spend time outside), people are generally friendly, and often wave when they see me walking.

        There are a few things I miss about living in California (mostly my wonderful orange and peach trees and the moderate climate), but I am blessed to be living where I now live. My life is comfortable, and I believe I am where I am meant to be.

        It's good to spend a bit of time thinking about one's blessings. The past two years were extremely stressful, both physically and emotionally, but again, I was blessed to have come through them a stronger, better person than I was.

        I know a therapist who frequently talks of being 'mindful' of our emotions and attitudes. I am happy to be 'mindful' of the many blessings in my life.

        Friday, August 13, 2010

        Lost and Found

        I've been feeling a bit adrift lately, and I realized that I have lost myself. This is somewhat surprising, since I feel very much at home in my new house and in New Mexico. I love the high desert, the mountains, the brilliant blue sky, and the local culture with its blend of Native American, Anglo and Hispanic influences. I've been retired for just more than 2 months, so one would think that without the daily grind of work, I would find it easy to be myself. Not so.

        Since my daughter has been home (she got home a couple of weeks before we moved after being away for a year), my life has been filled with moving, unpacking, ongoing, repeated phone calls to insurance companies and service providers, and driving. So much driving. On three consecutive days one recent week, I made four round trips to take my daughter to the animal shelter where she volunteers and to volleyball camp. That was in addition to trips to the grocery store, post office, mercantile and gas station. Even keeping this house clean seems to take more effort than in the past. Dust bunnies proliferate on the dark laminate floor in the living room, and keeping things picked up is a never-ending process.

        So although my days are busy, they are far from fulfilling. I've done a little bit of writing on my book, and I've written a couple of blog entries. I have taken a lot of photographs (this area is a photographer's dream), but what do I do with them? I have some good pictures, but they're all just sitting on my hard drive. I tried selling some of my images via a Web site, but after paying for the site, I sold not a single image over the 12 months the site was active. So my creative outlets aren't exactly what I had hoped for. Both photography and writing are highly competitive fields, difficult to pursue professionally.

        I find that I am happiest when I am either exploring a new place or walking or hiking outside. I also enjoy riding my bicycle early in the morning, before the heat gets oppressive. School started this week, so I will have more time to myself. My daughter takes the school bus to and from school, so once she leaves at 6:45 a.m., the day will be mine until she gets home around 3 p.m. I plan to do a couple of fun things every week: driving to Santa Fe for the day, volunteering, hiking or whatever else appeals to me. I recently joined an on-line hiking community called All Trails, which I hope will provide me with information about local hiking trails, group hikes and other outdoor events in which I can participate. I'm also putting together a list of interesting places to visit within easy driving distance of home. Today I visited Coronado State Monument, which in reality is the ruins of an ancient pueblo near the Rio Grande River. I spent a couple of hours exploring and taking photographs.

        So I'm finding that I really have to work at enjoying my retirement. As a newcomer to this state, I have to make an effort to get connected with others. And that is a challenge for me. It's so easy to just stay home, which I love to do. I have always loved being a homebody, and getting connected takes a lot of mental effort on my part.

        It's also hard being a single mother. It's a huge responsibility, especially with a daughter who needs lots of attention. And with two dogs in the household, there are always things that need to be done: brushing, nail trimming, vet appointments. It's so easy to lose oneself in caring for the others in the family. Like so many other mothers, I put myself last. I take care of everybody else first. If there is time or energy left over, I do something for myself. But I am learning what many others have learned before me: I am worth the effort it takes to do something nice for myself. I deserve to have fun. I am not just "Julia's mom" or the person who drives her everywhere. I have qualities and talents to offer the world, too. And I deserve to be happy. So after feeling miserable and sorry for myself for 24 hours, I decided to do something positive. My first step was joining All Trails. The second, and harder part, will be actually going to a group hike.

        I tend to do things in a methodical way, cautiously and incrementally. But I will get there eventually. I've been buying new clothes for the 'new me,' and I'm still thinking about where I want to put my volunteer efforts. Several things are possible: adult literacy, animal work, food bank, open space alliance.

        The search for the real, retired me will be an on-going process of self-discovery marked by trial and error, progress and set-backs. It's always interesting to find out what life has in store for me, and what is just around the corner.

        Tuesday, August 10, 2010

        When Will There Be Justice?

        I need to rant. I am fed up with cruelty, neglect and exploitation of the innocent and weak among us. The victims are animals, children and the elderly. There have been so many stories lately about absolutely horrendous acts of cruelty against animals. In far too many cases, the guilty party gets a slap on the wrist, if that. Courts have traditionally not taken animal abuse seriously, although numerous studies have linked animal abuse to such things as serial murders. Much animal abuse is considered a simple misdemeanor. Prosecutors and courts, overwhelmed with other cases, often are reluctant to pursue charges and serious sentences. The feeling that "It's just a dog" or "It's just a cat, or horse or whatever other animal" is far too prevalent.

        Animals are not the only victims of human stupidity and cruelty, of course. Child abuse is another plague that is tolerated far too much in our society. A 2-year-old girl died in Albuquerque a few weeks ago after her mother left her strapped into her car seat for nearly 3 hours. The mother had 'forgotten' that the child was in the car when she took her 4-year-old to an appointment. Outside temperatures were in the mid-90s. The temperature inside the van? 135 degrees.

        A local man donned boxing gloves and punched his 2-year-old son at least 15 times in the head and torso, at one point hitting the child so hard he flew off the bed. The boy suffered brain damage and was put on life support until his organs could be donated. The father waited nearly an hour to call 9-1-1. His explanation? He was trying to teach his son how to box.

        A 2-year-old child in Concord, CA, was mauled to death by three of the family's five dogs when the child wandered into the garage where three of the dogs were. Where were the family members responsible for watching the child? As a result of their carelessness (that's far too generous a word, in my opinion), the child died and all five dogs were put to death.

        I believe it is time for the gloves to come off and for people to be absolutely outraged that in a supposedly 'advanced' country like the United States of America, such things are allowed to continue. Punishment needs to fit the crime. No more excuses about how the perpetrator had a 'hard' childhood, or didn't do well in school, or comes from a dysfunctional family, or grew up 'in the hood' or whatever other lame excuse is offered to excuse the abuser's behavior. It seems that the more advanced we become technologically, the more primitive our behavior becomes.

        I know that jails and prisons are overcrowded. But we as a society need to start dealing with these thugs seriously. No more probation or 'time served.' No second chances. Abuse is not acceptable in any form, and those who abuse others need to be held accountable and punished appropriately.

        I have a problem with people who are intentionally cruel to animals. People like the man who left his dog locked in a cage, with no food, water or shade, in 100-degree temperatures for three days. Imagine the suffering that poor dog endured. Or the group of three young people who viciously beat to death a baby llama, apparently for the 'fun' of it. Those people need to face harsh consequences.

        I know that the number of dogs and cats being put to death in U.S. shelters and animal control facilities has dropped considerably since I left my humane society job in late 1988. More people seem aware of the importance of spaying and neutering. But sadly, the puppy mills that mass-produce dogs for sheer profit continue to thrive. People out to make a quick buck continue to produce 'designer dogs' such as golden doodles, puggles (pug/beagle mixes), labradoodles and other ridiculous combinations while millions of mixed-breed dogs are put to death every year because there are no homes for them. And people willingly pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for these mixed-breed 'designer' dogs while others die.

        Don't get me wrong; I have nothing against mixed breed dogs. My Mila is a Lab/beagle mix, and I have shared my life with several wonderful mixed breed dogs. My heart dog, Jackson, was a Jack Russell terrier/cattle dog mix. But purposefully creating a new 'style' of dog simply for marketing purposes is just plain wrong. I am not an animal rights advocate. But there is so much more to be done to protect animals in this country.

        I try to live a life of minimal impact on the earth. I recycle everything; I reuse and I give away things I can no longer use. I drive a hybrid car. I walk or ride my bike on short errands. I am a conscientious omnivore, trying to make informed choices about what I eat and drink. But I am tired of the animals with which we supposedly share this planet being treated as disposable goods. Far too many people treat animals as either disposable commodities or as nuisances to be exterminated.

        People purchase or adopt a puppy. The puppy gets no training, and of course it grows up to be a big, ill-mannered, out-of-control dog. The dog gets dumped at the local animal shelter, if it's lucky, to become someone else's problem. A lovely German shepherd puppy named Emily was adopted from the shelter where my daughter volunteers. A couple of weeks later, Emily was returned. Why? The family didn't have time for her. Didn't they think of this before taking on the commitment of raising a puppy? Are they that stupid??

        People allow their female dog to have a litter of puppies "because she's such a great dog and would be a wonderful mother." Sometimes the animals suffer because of human ignorance. Other times, animals suffer because of human stupidity.

        Albuquerque news media has been full of stories of stupid people causing the death of innocent animals. Example: A couple and their little dog go camping in a national forest where camping is not allowed. They store food in their tent. And surprise, a bear wants the food and attacks them as they sleep. The people were injured but not seriously. The little dog was killed and eaten by the bear. And the bear? It was tracked and shot by rangers for being a threat to people. This is a true incident that happened in New Mexico a few weeks ago. More than 30 bears have been executed in New Mexico for being 'nuisances' to people just this year. We take over their habitat, destroy it or build houses in their territory, then we get upset if a bear dares to walk across our property or do what bears do -- search for food.

        Example: The endangered Mexican gray wolf has been reintroduced into parts of New Mexico, in an attempt to reestablish packs of these magnificent animals in part of their former territory. Recently, three alpha males were found shot to death. The alpha male of another pack, which was wearing a radio collar, has been missing since April. In the most recent case, a dead cow, also shot, was found not far from the wolf's body.

        Wolves are the precursors of dogs. Millions of people in the United States share their lives with dogs. So how can these magnificent animals be so hated? Wolves are killed for 'sport' (something I will never understand) or because they are supreme predators and eat moose (a favorite object of hunters in Alaska) or occasionally cattle. So we should exterminate them? I just don't understand.

        I feel so helpless when I read about yet another case of abuse, whether the victim is a child, an animal or an elderly person. What can I as an individual do to help? Fortunately, the courts seem to take abuse of another human being more seriously. But what of the 'lower' animals who are far too often the victims of human cruelty?

        What justice is there for them? How long will those of us who care (and there are millions of us) sit by and wait for justice for those who cannot fend for themselves?