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Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: Saying Goodbye to An Average Year

It's the end of another year, and one that I won't be sorry to see in my rear view mirror.

2011 has not been a good year for me. I ruptured an ear drum early in the year, which left me nearly deaf for a couple of months (I have little hearing in one ear already). I was diagnosed with arthritis in my hands and I suspect it is in my elbows as well. Lingering pain from a fall more than two years ago has made my shoulder and both arms hurt. My daughter suffered through three bouts of tonsillitis and a strep throat to end the year. Other bad things happened to our family this year as well.

On a more positive note, I got to spend quite a bit of time with the wolves and wolf-dogs in the rescue for which I volunteer. I went on some interesting photographic excursions with a local amateur photography group. I visited the Grand Canyon with my daughter, and revisited Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks in Utah. I started volunteering with a local food pantry, and I made considerable progress on my book. I also took care of several home improvement chores, some necessary, some optional. And we started planning a trip for the summer of 2012 to Russia, where my daughter was born, with a stop in London while we're in the neighborhood, so to speak.

My daughter has just four classes to complete before she graduates from high school. I am continually amazed at how mature and grown up she is now that she is 18. She has changed so much since I adopted her 7 years ago.

I have just a couple of things I want to accomplish in 2012:
  • Finish my book and get it published
  • Brush up on my Russian language skills before our trip
I have to decide whether to renew my photography Web site next year; I've sold only a handful of pictures, and it hasn't been a good investment of my money. I also want to figure out how to increase readership of my blog. Actually, readership is way up, but the number of dedicated followers has remained flat. But I published 53 posts this year -- a record for me. I hope my readers enjoyed my writings and got something from them.

So 2011 has been a mixed bag. If I were to give the year a grade, it would be a C. I hope that at this time next year, I'll be able to assign a grade of A.

Happy New Year, everyone. I hope your dreams for the new year all come true.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

My Grown-Up Christmas List

With thanks to the creator/s of the song "My Grown-Up Christmas List" for the inspiration, my Christmas wish is the same as it always is. And sadly, my dreams seem as unlikely to come true as ever. I don't wish for massive amounts of money or a new car or a bigger house. My wishes aren't even for myself. I have everything I need to live a comfortable life.

No, the things for which I wish are things over which I have no control, and which, sadly, seem to be moving further and further from ever becoming reality. So here are my Christmas wishes:

I wish for an end to the slaughter of wolves. I wish for rescue for all animals suffering in any way, physical or emotional. I wish comfort and love for them, for loving homes, food for their bellies and an end to their pain. I wish for an end to forcing dogs to live their lives on chains, for an end to dog-fighting and puppy mills and pet shops that exploit these animals. I wish for strict penalties for those who abuse non-human animals, children and the elderly, not community service or probation.

I wish for a warm bed and hot food for the homeless people of our country. I wish for jobs for the unemployed, for the safe return of our military forces serving in the world's most dangerous places, and for an end to abuse of children, the elderly and the animals. I wish for a world that respects and cherishes the planet on which we live, and all those who dwell here.

I wish for a kinder, more generous America, one that no longer turns its collective back on the most vulnerable among us. There is no reason why, in the wealthiest country on Earth, people go hungry because they cannot afford food for themselves or their children.

I wish for people to get involved in their favorite cause, whatever it may be. Don't have money to donate? Give your time and talent instead. Write a letter, join a protest or boycott, hold a bake sale or garage sale to raise funds for your favorite group.

I wish that people would open their hearts throughout the year, not just at Christmas. I wish that people would respond to the unsung heroes among us, as they did to a recent NBC News story about a woman in Arkansas who spent her entire life savings to provide tutoring, meals, toys and love to poor children. Viewers in less than a week donated more than $200,000 to this one effort to help the neediest. We need that kind of outpouring of support throughout the year. I wish that more people would find the unsung heroes in their own communities and see how they can help. Find the small groups of people struggling to make a difference locally.

I wish that more people would share the gift of life by donating blood and by signing up to be organ donors upon their death. I wish that people would reach out to those in need by visiting a lonely senior in a nursing home or hospital. Take a meal to a neighbor in need, or rake the leaves or shovel the driveway for someone, just because.

It doesn't matter whether you are Christian or Jewish, Buddhist or Muslim. Keep the spirit of Christmas alive in your heart throughout the year. Keep the spirit of love and compassion alive, keep the light of hope burning.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Becoming a Family

Seven years ago this week, I became the mother of an 11-year-old Russian girl. I had traveled literally half-way around the world, to western Siberia, to appear before a stern judge who would decide whether to approve my application to adopt a beautiful, shy girl known as Yul'a. I guess she approved of my application and my answers to her questions, because it took only a few minutes of deliberation before she returned to her courtroom with an affirmative response. She also, fortunately, approved my request to waive the standard 10-day waiting period -- a time ostensibly set aside in case I wanted to change my mind about the adoption.

As someone who hates cold weather and snow, I wasn't thrilled with the thought of flying to Siberia in late December. But I had no choice. I was told, with only a short advance notice, what date to appear in court. The date was not negotiable. I had expected not to get the call until spring, as the typical wait after submitting the dossier of required documents was usually several months. My dossier went to Russia in September. I don't know, and never will know, the reason for the quick turn-around. Maybe it's because I speak Russian. Maybe it's because my undergraduate degree is in Russian language. Maybe it's because I had lived and worked in Moscow for several months and had made half a dozen trips to the capital city.

I flew into Moscow, and after a couple of days, went on to Tyumen', a large city in the heart of Russia's gas and oil region. The day after my arrival there, I met up with my interpreter, facilitator and driver for the 40-mile trip through the Russian countryside to the village of Berkut, where my daughter lived in an orphanage with approximately 35 other kids.

The director, a nice woman named Ol'ga Mikhailovna, greeted me warmly, and I gave her the  numerous scarves, gloves and mittens I had brought for the kids. We chatted for a short time, and then she sent for Julia (who was in school), after explaining that Julia had no idea I was coming for her that day. She felt that Julia would have been too excited to do anything had she known of my pending arrival.

Julia looked stunned to see me. I had tears in my eyes and was barely able to speak her name. Because it was her birthday, I had brought some hard candy (I was told not to bring chocolate), a cake and some oranges. The children and staff had a little party in the multi-purpose room, then Julia gathered her meager belongings and changed clothes. She was required to leave all her clothes behind, so I had brought some new outfits for her to wear until we got home. After taking a few photos, we were on our way back to Tyumen'.

After court the next day, we set out on a whirlwind of visits to various offices to obtain a new birth certificate (with her American name) and a Russian passport. We had time to do some sightseeing and shopping at a local department store before flying back to Moscow the next day. We went directly from the airport to get pictures taken for Julia's required U.S. visa application, and then to a doctor's office for a physical and chest x-rays.

The U.S. embassy was closed for a few days in honor of Christmas, so we did some sightseeing and shopping in Moscow, and we got to visit Linda, an old dog I had befriended during my time in Moscow. Linda remembered me, wagging her tail and whining when she saw me after 5 years. The city was brightly decorated for the upcoming New Year's holiday, the major winter holiday in Russia, with decorations and 'Christmas' trees everywhere. Russian Orthodox Christmas isn't celebrated until Jan. 7, and New Year is the big holiday. So we spent a quiet 'American' Christmas spending time together, taking pictures along the Moscow River and visiting the magnificent Christ the Saviour Cathedral across the river.

By the Moscow River.
Once we got Julia's visa from the embassy, we prepared for the long trip home on the Russian airline, Aeroflot. Our departing flight was delayed by several hours, so we missed our connecting flight from Seattle to San Jose, Calif. When we finally got home the next morning, Julia snatched the house keys from my hand as I paid the shuttle van driver. She was so excited to be home! 

Things went smoothly for a few years, and then the problems started. Like many adopted kids, Julia has reactive attachment disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and ADHD. The latter can be treated with medication. The first two -- things adoption agencies don't talk about -- can be treated with lots of therapy, but they will never be 'cured.' Our path together has been a rough one at times, filled with failures, disappointments and heartache. But together, we have weathered the storm. Julia is a remarkable girl (now a young lady of 18) who has overcome more trauma than most adults will face in their entire lives.

The changes she has made through the force of her determination and inner strength, with her remarkable insight and with the help of some awesome therapists, have been nothing short of remarkable. She has learned to be part of a family, to be a daughter, and to trust. She has learned that she is worthy of being loved.

I pray that we have come through the worst of the storm, and that calmer waters await us. But as I continue to remind her, we are in this together. She knows that she will always have my support and love. We are a family at last.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Best Christmas Ever

Christmas is still a week away, there is no large Christmas tree in our house (just a couple of table-top fiber optic trees), but this already is the best Christmas I can remember. I have but a single gift for my daughter; she is struggling to find something I want or need for Christmas. And so am I. There is nothing of a material nature I want or need. There is simply nothing to be purchased that is on my 'have-to-have' or even my 'would-be-nice-to-have' list.

I am blessed with savings and a government pension to support me through my old age. My health, save the bursitis and arthritis, is very good. I have a wonderful daughter who has overcome more trauma in her almost 18 years than most people will face in a lifetime. I live in a beautiful state with wonderful outdoor opportunities. I volunteer with two non-profits whose causes I hold dear: feeding the hungry, and educating people about wolves. I enjoy many opportunities to photograph nature's beauty, and I have time to continue working on the book I am writing. I can look out my living, dining or bedroom windows and gaze on the massive Sandia Mountains nearby. Through my volunteer and leisure activities, I have made some good friends.

My daughter disliked the large public high school she attended and was struggling with several of her classes, so she will finish her senior year via correspondence school, which will result in her obtaining a diploma from a boarding school in Utah while living at home. She has but four courses remaining. So she is closing in on an important milestone in her life -- getting a high school diploma. For one so young, she has a remarkable insight into herself, her learning style and her way of dealing with things.

She should find out on her birthday whether she will get a part-time job at a local Wendy's restaurant, something she has wished for for a long time. An incident earlier this year caused both of us considerable stress and anxiety, but it now appears that we soon will be able to put that behind us and look forward to a happier year in 2012.

This year I am even more aware that Christmas isn't about decorated trees or holiday parties or spending huge amounts of money on "the perfect gift" as the never-ending television commercials scream. It is about being grateful for the blessings in our lives, it is about appreciating all that we have that so many others do not (whether it be a place to live, a job, food on the table or good health). It is about doing things for others, not from a sense of obligation, but because we can and because it is the right thing to do. It's about being grateful for the little things -- blessings all -- that make our lives so special. And it is about remembering the reason for the season.

Friday, December 9, 2011

One of the Pack

In looking back on this year, I want to share something that happened last summer. I got to spend a weekend at the home of the woman who founded and operates Wanagi Wolf Fund and Rescue while she took a rare weekend off. I was not, however, just house-sitting. I was responsible for a dog, eight wolf-dogs and three wolves (plus five birds). 

As a volunteer with this group, I have met all of the canines several times. Pulling up to the gate, I was greeted by four barking sentries: Silver Bear, an old wolf/malamute; Hozho, an Australian shepherd; Milagro, a mixed breed dog with a bit of wolf in his background, and Bindi, a wolf/coyote/husky. After I spoke to them for a couple of minutes, they remembered me and I entered the gate.

Then the barks and howls from the back of the property started. As I walked around the corner of the house, Hokshila, HHthe big timber wolf, howled his greeting. He was joined by his partner Prema, who while new to the rescue, has greeted me warmly the last two times I saw her. After setting my belongings on the porch, I visited each animal in turn. Next was my old friend Liberty, who greeted me with sniffs and kisses. Then I entered the pen of brother and sister wolf/malamutes Kola and Wihopa. Gray wolf Dadyoe, previously rather nervous, barked his delight at seeing me again and kissed my fingers through the fence.

Shunka and Shadow, the newest pack members, hadn’t completely accepted me, so I didn’t enter their pen. Instead, I talked quietly to them, frequently using their names. Eventually, I won Shunka’s favor by having him sit, and then giving him small pieces of chicken jerky. Shadow sat and took the jerky, but she continued to bark at me the rest of the day.

Having greeted the whole pack, I started taking pictures. I was once again struck by the beauty of these magnificent animals. Kola and Wihopa have gorgeous golden eyes and love attention and tummy rubs. Hokshila is a gentle giant. Liberty, a cancer survivor who lives with lupus, has always been one of my favorites. He possesses such a quiet dignity. And despite his previous life of beatings and starvation, he holds no ill will toward humans.

Again it hit me that these were not dogs I was visiting, giving ear scratches and photographing. These were wolves and wolf-dogs, terribly misunderstood and in many quarters, hated, feared and despised. As ancestors of dogs, wolves certainly have many characteristics in common with dogs, physically and psychologically. The Wanagi wolves go for walks on leash, and they know how to sit on command. They will gently take a treat or dog cookie when offered. They have been socialized. A select few sleep in the house at night.

It was so peaceful sitting outside, listening to the gentle rain falling, watching the wolves and getting to know their personalities. Later, as I typed on my laptop, Milagro slept soundly on the couch a couple of feet away. If he awakened and I spoke to him, his tail thumped rapidly.

During the night, I heard the animals howl several times. What a wonderful sound that was. Sometimes the entire pack howled; at other times, only one or two animals could be heard. They undoubtedly sensed something in the area, a pack of coyotes, perhaps. As soon as it started getting light outside, I began to get their breakfast ready. The knowledge that breakfast was on the way really set off a clamor.

The term ‘wolfing down their food’ couldn’t be less accurate. My two domestic dogs inhale their food, while the wolves eat their meals slowly. There was no squabbling over food, either, although I kept a watchful eye to make sure nobody got greedy. The wolves eat a combination of dry and canned dog food, various powders and additives depending on their particular dietary needs, and a variety of other foods, including cheese, steamed vegetables and yogurt. Those animals that need medication take their pills in globs of cream cheese.

I love being in the presence of these magnificent, forgiving creatures. All of them were rescued from lives of starvation, brutality or abandonment. Yet they love people and warmly greet those they have met before. They especially love children. Spending time with these animals is such a treat. I know how very fortunate I am to be able to interact with them and to be welcomed so enthusiastically whenever we meet. Their human mom refers to me and other special friends of the wolves as their 'aunties.' I am honored to have that appellation.

I pray that some day, people will understand the important role wolves play in maintaining a healthy environment. Most of all, I pray that the persecution of their wild brethren will cease, and the wolves will once again be allowed to exist as they did for thousands of years.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Finding the Positive in Winter

I spent a good part of an early December day at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, photographing geese and sandhill cranes by the thousands.

Although the sun came out for a while in the afternoon, temperatures remained in the low 30s, and a cold wind quickly made my fingers hurt. It was a fun day spent with a small group of other amateur photographers, but I was very happy to get home that evening.

Readers of this blog will know that I am not a big fan of winter weather, so the first order of business was to get some warm food. A hot shower helped me warm up even more.

That night, in bed under my blankets, I realized that one thing I do like about winter is the feeling of being warm and cozy in my bed. I love lying between flannel sheets and feeling the comforting weight of the three blankets that keep me warm. I like to keep the house at 59-60 degrees at night, and feeling warm in bed is a really special feeling. Of course, that means some chilly times until the house warms up in the morning, but a cup of hot tea always warms me up.

Another thing I like about winter is comfort food. There is nothing like a bowl of hot soup for lunch to drive away the chill. I do more cooking during the winter, making chili, soups, stew or casseroles. I've also been baking quite a bit since the temperatures became cooler. That, however, has the downside of my 'having' to eat the cake or cookies or whatever else I have baked.

After many months of wearing shorts and short-sleeve tops in the high desert where I live, it's nice to slip into a comfortable sweatshirt or sweater in the morning. I much prefer to exercise outside rather than on the treadmill in the garage, so unless the weather is really nasty, I'll put on my fleece coat or parka, depending on the temperature, and head outside for a walk. I love feeling warm, snuggled in a nice coat on a chilly winter day.

Winter also can be a good time for photography. The New Mexico sky never fails to amaze me, and I enjoy photographing snow scenes.

Of course, I could do without the snow and ice winter sometimes brings. But at least there are a few positives to this often-gloomy time of year. And it feels good to be able to find something to like about my least favorite time of the year.