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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Green Bowls

After my father died last year, the task of cleaning out his condo fell primarily to my sister and me. She, our brother and sister-in-law, and I all wanted to keep a few things as mementos of our parents.

My brother took our father's World War II Navy uniform and some Navy photographs. My sister wanted a ceramic cat. I kept three green ceramic mixing bowls. Although all are green (one is green and white), they are not part of a set, as each bowl's color and style are different. Fortunately, however, they are the right size to nest inside one another, which made carrying them home on the airplane a bit easier.

I have put away my set of glass mixing bowls and now use these old bowls exclusively. I have no idea how old they are or where they came from. There are no markings on them that can identify the brands, manufacturers or when they were made. Nor do I know their source: did my mother buy them, or did she get them from her mother long ago?

These bowls are deeper than my newer mixing bowls, and as strange as it may seem, they have the 'personality' or character the newer bowls lack. It isn't just the color, texture or composition of each bowl, either. The largest of the three shows evidence of age and many years of use. They have a history, and they are a link to a simpler time. I wash them by hand, not in the dishwasher, and I don't know whether they can be used in a microwave. And that's OK. I am happy to wash them by hand. Microwave ovens and automatic dishwashers weren't even in use when these bowls came into the family.

I'm sure these old bowls have little monetary value, but they are valuable to me. These simple green bowls are a connection to my late mother, who was an excellent cook. Using them often brings back memories of the wonderful meals she created from scratch for her family. I am nowhere near the cook my mother was, but using these special mixing bowls still sometimes conjures up memories of Sunday meals after church, the entire family seated around an antique oak dining table. Aside from the occasional meal of liver and onions, and the stewed breaded tomatoes, everything was delicious. Some of our favorite meals included fried chicken with mashed potatoes, gravy and corn, and roast beef with noodles. Chicken and dumplings (homemade, of course) and homemade cinnamon rolls are other favorites.

But more than just being a connection to my mother, these bowls also serve as a connection to a simpler time, a time when doors were left unlocked and kids played in the neighborhood on their own all day with no worry about their safety. My childhood was a time of family togetherness, of evening and Sunday meals around the table, of homemade food prepared from fresh ingredients, a time of simply sitting in the back yard on a hot summer day.

No, these simple mixing bowls are much more than just old pieces of kitchenware. They are reminders that sometimes the most precious things we inherit aren't pieces of jewelry, money or other 'valuables,' but simple, utilitarian, everyday items rich in memories.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Paying It Forward

Last December, my daughter and I stopped by a grocery store to pick up a few items. I was shocked when the man ahead of us told the cashier that he was buying our groceries. After thanking him and telling him he had just made my day, I added that I would pay it forward.

one dozen yellow roses for delivery next dayA few times since then I have recalled my pledge, but the situation never seemed quite right. But recently, as I stood in the express line with my three items, I noticed a young man in line behind me. He was buying a dozen yellow roses. "Perfect!" I thought. "This is my chance to pay it forward."

I told the cashier that I wanted to pay for the flowers, in addition to my purchase. Both he and the young man were shocked. I explained that someone had bought my groceries one day, and that I was just paying it forward.

I relate this story not to brag, but to encourage others to pay it forward as well. Small acts of unexpected kindness or generosity can brighten the day not only of the recipient, but of the giver as well. It just feels good to do something nice for someone, with no expectation of repayment or anything in return. An act of kindness to a total stranger makes the experience even sweeter.

Paying it forward is quite simple. Just be on the lookout for opportunities to help someone by doing a random act of kindness. This can be as simple as helping someone carry their groceries to the car, or paying for a meal for a veteran or homeless person, or raking a yard when the homeowner is away. The person should be someone you don't know, or don't know very well. If the recipient of your kind act wants to pay you back somehow, suggest that he/she instead pay it forward.

This is important. We want to start a cycle of paying it forward, an ever-longer chain of people doing something nice for someone else with no expectations or strings attached. Suggest that the person you helped do the same for another person, or even for more than one person. People have paid the toll for the next five drivers in line at a bridge or toll road; others have anonymously paid off strangers' lay-away charges during the holidays. The possibilities are limitless, and they don't have to cost a lot of money.

After the horrible murders of teachers and elementary school children in Newtown, Conn., late last year, NBC News reporter Ann Curry sparked a movement to encourage people to carry out 26 acts of kindness, one for each of the victims. People enthusiastically embraced this simple way of not only honoring the victims of a senseless killing spree, but also as a way to do something positive and make the world a better place. They are, in effect, paying it forward. Many also used this as an opportunity to teach their children to pay it forward, by creating and carrying out their own acts of kindness.

The news and Internet are filled with stories of abuse, suffering, killings and people who just don't care. A single random act of kindness won't change the world, but maybe, just maybe, it will brighten the day of someone else. Maybe an unexpected act of kindness will make somebody decide to pay it forward, too. I will never know whether the young man with the roses will pay it forward. I hope he will.

At the very least, my little act of kindness brightened this young man's day, and most likely the store clerk's, too. As someone posted on Facebook, " [I] still find myself being more kind, patient and tolerant on a daily basis. Those first 26 acts of kindness changed my life. I needed this to realize there is still so much good inside me and in the world."

It feels good to know that I fulfilled my pledge to the man who paid for my groceries. And now I'm on the lookout for more little ways to help. There is no downside to this. Even if your kindness isn't appreciated, you should feel good.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Gift

Today I want to write about a very special gift.

First, some background. I adopted my daughter from Russia the day after her 11th birthday in 2004. The intervening years have been a roller coaster ride of good times and bad, of challenges and victories, of setbacks and progress.

Like many children with a history of trauma and time spent in an orphanage, she doesn't always think or react the way a child with a more stable, loving upbringing would. She has attachment issues, and forming appropriate relationships is a challenge for her. It has taken me years of research, reading, experience and talking with therapists and other adoptive parents to sort of understand how her brain works.

But despite everything that has gone on, her adoption has been a gift. It wasn't a gift from her birth parents, who neglected and abused her and who ultimately lost their parental rights. But her adoption was a gift to me nonetheless. The gift was in being able to help, and watch, my daughter learn to deal with her traumatic past, a past that will forever haunt her to some degree. She has had to learn to love and to be loved, to allow me to take care of her, and to realize that she deserves a loving mom and a wonderful life. She is a wonderfully kind and compassionate young lady (now 19 years old). She loves little kids and animals, especially dogs. Her gift to me has been allowing me to help her grow from girl to young lady, from one who was unable to give or accept love to someone who now believes that she deserves to be loved, from someone who saw no future to a young woman looking forward to a bright future.

Recently I experienced adoption from the other side of the fence, when my daughter became pregnant at the age of 18. She isn't in a position to raise a baby, so she decided to put the baby up for adoption. As an adoptee herself, she rightly worried about her baby daughter suffering from the attachment issues with which she has struggled. But a friend of mine, a developmental psychologist, has reassured us that the baby shouldn't be faced with attachment issues since she will not spend time in an institution, being passed from caregiver to caregiver. She will be raised in a stable, loving, two-parent home. Her needs for affection, food, clean diapers and other essentials will be met on demand rather than according to a predetermined timetable as in the orphanage. The adoptive parents have been educated about attachment issues and how to help their new daughter form strong bonds with them. They have received instruction from the adoption agency, and they have read books about raising an adopted child. I shared my hard-won knowledge about attachment issues with the mom. And the baby went home with them when she was just two days old.

Giving a child up for adoption is a challenge for most mothers. It is not an easy decision to make, no matter how wonderful the adoptive family is. My daughter's head knows that she did the right thing. Her heart, on the other hand, still aches from the decision. Signing the court papers formally and irrevocably relinquishing her parental rights was a heartbreaking act.

I hope she realizes that her selfless actions were a wonderful gift to the family that adopted this baby girl, a family that longed for a child to love. It was a gift to the little baby as well -- the gift of the best chance at a wonderful life given by the young woman who grew to love her over the 10 months of her pregnancy. And although she probably wouldn't want to admit it, it also was a gift to herself. Now she can pursue her hopes of going to college, something she would have been unable to do had she tried to raise the baby herself. I told her recently that since she has made the painful decision to put her baby up for adoption, it is now up to her to take full advantage of the opportunities open to her. And by choosing an open adoption, she will be able to watch this little girl grow up, to follow her progress and to be part of her life. The baby will one day know her birth mother and the love she has for her.

Adoption is a gift. It is a gift to the child who is adopted and given a loving family. It is a gift to the adoptive parents, who are given the opportunity to raise and love a child. And although it may not seem such, it is a gift to the birth mother, who is able to offer her child an opportunity for the life she is unable to provide at that time in her life.

I am incredibly proud of my daughter for the gifts she has given the world, as an adoptee and as a birth mother.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Lobos Spotted on the West Mesa

"Lobos Spotted on the West Mesa" screamed a headline over a close-up photograph of a wolf. It was part of an on-line ad for the University of New Mexico, whose sports teams are known as the Lobos.

Photo by Joan Hellquist
How ironic is this? And how very sad. The state's flagship university has as its mascot the lobo, or wolf, a species fighting extinction in this state. The Mexican gray wolf is the rarest and most unique subspecies of gray wolf. Sadly, there are no lobos to be spotted on Albuquerque's West Mesa, or in the rest of the state except for a very small area in the southwestern corner.

Efforts to reintroduce the Mexican gray wolf into part of its former habitat in the so-called 'boot heel' of New Mexico and small areas of Arizona began in 1998 with the introduction of 11 captive-bred wolves. The goal of 100 wolves in the wild by 2011 has fallen far short. The 2011 census showed 58 wolves. The 2012 wolf census found 75 wolves, including 20 pups, so seeing a 30 percent increase over the past year is encouraging. However, several wolves were found dead last year, either shot or poisoned. Some of those executed were the alpha members of their packs. Emotions against reintroducing wolves into the wild run very strong among the ranching and cattle communities. Despite federal compensation for any cattle killed by wolves, many cattle ranchers persist in their hatred of wolves.

In addition to the removal of gray wolves in Idaho and Wyoming from the protection offered by the federal Endangered Species Act, the New Mexico Game and Fish Commission claims that it is powerless to prohibit trapping in the Gila Wilderness, part of the gray wolves' native territory. Sadly, a good number of these animals end up shot and killed by cowards.

Since moving to New Mexico, I have been blessed with the opportunity to spend time in the company of wolves and wolf/dog mixes. Every experience with them has been unforgettable.

I love going to see Hokshila, a timber wolf. Weighing more than 120 pounds and standing 6'3" on his hind legs, Hokshila clearly loves people. He sticks his muzzle through the fence and leans against it whenever anyone stops to pet him. I have spent time sitting in the pen with Liberty, a quiet wolf/malamute mix and cancer survivor. Bindi, the wolf/coyote/husky mix, is seemingly everywhere. He is allowed the run of the property (all of it is fenced). At one point he 'melted' onto the ground in pleasure as I massaged his neck and ears. So much for the big bad wolf of fairy tales and myth.

Photo by Sue Isley
On a visit to another wolf sanctuary, my face was smothered with kisses by Dakota, a timber wolf who planted his paws on the shoulders of visitors to his enclosure. He is hardly the ferocious beast portrayed by the anti-wolf crowd.
Another time, I really got a sense of how much these animals love kids. One boy, perhaps 8 years old, was visibly terrified when he first spotted Hokshila. The boy's body stiffened, and his face was frozen in fear. A few minutes later, he and his two younger brothers happily posed for a picture with Hokshila. What happened during those few short minutes to change the boy's perception of this big wolf? Clearly something happened on a non-verbal level. Hokshila had turned terror into acceptance, a face frozen with fear into a face marked by a big smile.

A young mother sat on the grass with her baby, who could stand up with some assistance from his mother. Bindi, who had not shown much interest in other people at the public event, walked up to them. The mother stood her baby up, and he reached out for Bindi, who promptly covered the baby's face with kisses. While startled, the baby did not cry. Bindi then sat down in front of the mother and baby in a protective posture, as if saying "Don't even think about hurting this baby!" Bindi recognized the vulnerability of the baby, and his protective instincts kicked in. He wasn't menacing or growling at people to keep away, but his alert face and posture clearly showed that Bindi was on the job.

It was fascinating to watch people's reactions to the wolves. Some were apprehensive and stood back, while others were very interested in meeting the animals. Most seemed pretty blown away after spending a few minutes with animals usually maligned in the news media, fairy tales and cartoons. One young man walked by, made a U-turn, and stood looking at the wolves. "I don't like dogs," he said. But soon he was tentatively offering his hand to one of the wolves, who promptly licked it in greeting. This young man spent a long time talking to the founder of the rescue group. By the time he left, his attitude toward the wolves was remarkably different. Education and a positive experience made all the difference.

Perhaps some day there really will be 'lobos on the West Mesa,' not the kind that wears cherry-and-silver T-shirts, but lobos of the four-footed kind.

Friday, February 1, 2013

A Can-Do Attitude

I recently read an article in New Mexico's Senior Review called "The Benefits of a Can-Do Focus." I've been thinking about this over the past few months as advancing age has caused some unwelcome physical changes.

For example, I no longer have the muscle strength in my legs that I am used to after 33 years of running, as well as several years of intermittent bicycling and hiking. This change is particularly noticeable when I try to hoist myself up a large boulder on the hiking trail, or ride my bicycle up a hill. I also don't bounce back as quickly as I did in the past from a strenuous day of physical activity. But rather than dwell on these changes, I decided to accept them, to continue to stay physically active, to focus on and appreciate the things I still am able to do.

I no longer run, but I walk  3 to 4 miles every day. I no longer go on 10- to 15-mile hikes, but I still am able to hike 5 or 6 miles at a time for several days in a row. I am in better shape than nearly everyone else I know, regardless of age. So I appreciate what I can do, not what I am no longer able to do. I can't lift a 50-pound bag of flour at the food pantry where I volunteer, but if I grab one end and another volunteer takes the other, together we can hoist the bag onto the table.

According to the article, research shows that it takes a mere 21 days to change an old habit. Most people begin to notice a difference after only seven days of awareness and effort. After two weeks, people begin to instantly self-correct their slip-ups. And after 21 days, the new habit should be pretty well in place. Isn't it worth an investment of 21 days to make a positive change in our life? Focusing on what we still can do is so much more pleasant than dwelling on what we can't do. And that can-do focus will make us happier overall.

Sure, we all have bad days. We all have setbacks, disappointments and failures. We get angry. As we age, we inevitably have aches and pains. I have arthritis in my hands and elbow. Sometimes the pain makes it too uncomfortable to do something I enjoy, such as cooking. When that happens, I either ask my daughter to help out, or I take an ibuprofen and a break and wait for the pain to subside.

Complaining tends to beget complaining and for me, a foul mood, but a positive attitude can lighten our mood as well as the attitude of those around us. Did you ever notice how if one person starts laughing, a chain reaction of laughter often ensues? Wouldn't you rather be happy than always complaining? I know that I sometimes still fall into the trap of complaining. But when I realize what I am doing, I at the very least stop complaining.

Taking on a positive attitude and focusing on what we can do and what we have creates and attracts new energy and a more positive environment. And we never know when our positive attitude will give a much-needed boost to someone else. Nobody wants to be around someone who is always complaining and negative. Negative energy attracts more negative energy. Positive energy attracts positive energy. I have been around people who are incredibly negative about everything, and it drains my energy just to be near them.

So rather than worrying about what it is we can't do, how about celebrating what we can do? How about making a real effort to be happy. As Abraham Lincoln said, "Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be."