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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?