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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.