Believe in Santa…

I have been thinking recently about the person responsible for leaving treats in stockings and gifts by the tree on Christmas morning. Who munches on cookies washed down with warm milk by the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree? I believe it may be Santa Claus.

Do I think a jolly old man slithers down my chimney on Dec 24? Hmm…I’m not really sure. Although I do leave the cookies just in case. I think Santa Claus is alive in the spirit that ties us all together. At Christmas time, music is gentle and kind, people are generous and thoughtful, and the world around me twinkles with merriment and joy. Neighbors call out holiday greetings, children giggle and toss snow, families come together. It is in the dark hours of late December that we seek goodness between each other and share the bounty of our lives.

Last Christmas was a hard one for our family – our first to be separated into two homes. But it was alive with the spirit of Santa Claus. A friend surprised us with a card at the Christmas Tree Farm saying that our tree was her gift to us. A neighbor came by to help decorate it and brought us shiny new ornaments that sparkled in the colored lights while another came by with her massage table to give us Christmas massages. Throughout the month, we found gifts from a secret Santa peppering our home in unexpected places. Four days before Christmas, I got a call that my dad and step-mom were going to surprise us with a holiday visit from Indiana, and for the first time in over 25 years, I had all of my parents under the same roof for Christmas Eve and woke with them and my children on Christmas morning.

But even more was happening outside my home. In the weeks before Christmas, a good friend survived a dangerous surgery. Another friend’s husband found an amazing job that would allow her to stay home with their young daughters full-time. A woman I know who was afraid her cancer wouldn’t allow her to live through Thanksgiving found liberation from her pain enough to host Christmas Eve with extended family. My neighbor’s daughter healed from a surgery that she had to undergo three days before Christmas. With enough thought, everyone could remember something wonderful that happened around the time of year when Santa Claus makes his appearance. I found a few more pennies on the ground, I had good interactions at difficult meetings, I heard favorite songs and noticed the clock turn 11:11 more frequently (an enchanted wishing time). I magically found a sense of calm in the middle of an emotionally stormy time. It’s like that every year during the Christmas season.

Is it miraculous? Is it religious? I don’t think so. I think Santa Claus is simply the energy between us – the tie that binds us. At Christmas time in our culture, we peel off some of our cynicism and allow ourselves to be vulnerable and open to the kindness of others. Maybe there is a jolly old man in a wooly red suit sitting in the frozen tundra of the North Pole helping us to find this freedom to give and show the respect and love that we should show each other year-round. Maybe there isn’t. But instead of a bumper sticker asking what would Wellstone, Jesus or John Lennon do, what about a bumper sticker asking what would Santa do? WWSD?

Surely he wouldn’t pack away his good will with Christmas ornaments into a box in the garage on New Year’s Day. I can’t imagine him lying, honking and shouting unkind words to someone who doesn’t notice the light has changed or underhandedly trying to manipulate documents or situations to benefit himself. No, Santa would find the good in any situation. He would smile and open the door for the person next to him – of any age. He would donate what he could and would share his time and effort if he couldn’t give money or things. He would think before he spoke and wouldn’t lash out in hostility to innocent people because he was having a bad day. He would offer ten positives for every creatively constructed negative bit of information, and he would look for opportunities to share sparkly magic. He would compliment a pretty hat, he would notice bright earrings, he would be interested to meet a new friend. He would listen to friends’ concerns, remember their important days, light candles or pray to send energy to people having important events in their lives. And in so doing, he would bolster and grow his own stockpile of love and happiness because it would come back to him tenfold. How else could he share his magic with so many people around the world?

How can I not believe in Santa Claus? I live with the hope that I can somehow emulate what I think he stands for. I strive to share his magic with the people around me by being open, honest, loving, kind, fair and thoughtful. I donate my time. I try to treat people with respect –even when they aren’t returning the favor. I try to see where help is needed and offer a hand whether it’s picking up a dropped earring or raising funds for field trips. I’m human, and I don’t always succeed in these endeavors, but when in doubt, I try to live up to Santa’s example and tap into his spirit – at any time of the year.

And so, I’ll always leave out carrots for reindeer and look out at bedtime on Christmas Eve to see if Rudolph is dashing through the park outside or flying overhead in the starry, cold sky. And on Christmas morning, I’ll always look to see if the cookies are eaten – just in case. I don’t need gifts. I have plenty. I have two beautiful daughters that I love and of whom I am utterly proud, my mom has moved to Eau Claire, my brother and dad are healthy and having good lives. I have friends that surround me in my darkest days with hugs, love and support that I would never have imagined. My cup overflows. No, I don’t need things. I just wish we could all remember to keep out the spirit of Santa Claus when we pack away our ornaments and decorations. I wish we could continue treating each other with the love and respect he inspires in December. I see that devotion come out every year, I hear stories of unexpected kindness, and I find unexplained magic in my daily life. Is it a jolly man, a spirit, an energy? I don’t know, but I feel it and I see it shine when Santa Claus is near. And because of that, I believe.

Christmas Gifts

With the holidays fast approaching, people are trying to find the perfect gifts to give.  Some want to give a sentimental gift, others want to show their humorous side.  For many people this will be a chance to show how they feel about someone, and for others the gift they give will stylishly fulfill an obligation.  In any case, everyone wants to come up with a gift that will convey just the message they want to send.

Sometimes the memory of a perfect gift outlasts the given item.  The thoughtfulness or creativity that was woven into it inspires a happy feeling for years to come.  I recently asked a few women around the Chippewa Valley if they had any such gift memories to share.  Some had ones that warm the heart, and others had funny memories.  Here’s what they said:

Jan – One year when my sister didn’t have much money, I came downstairs Christmas morning, and her sewing machine cabinet was there by the tree. She wanted to give it to me for my gift, as she knew I loved to sew and didn’t have one. I protested, saying it was too much, but she insisted, a little teary-eyed. That was pretty cool.

Barbara – I grew up in a family where money was tight, and my mother made my clothes.  One year I begged for a robe I’d seen in the Sears catalog – it was beautiful. To my delight it was under the tree on Christmas morning, my first store-bought item, and I wore it until it was threadbare.  After my mother died many years later I was going through her things and found the pattern and some material from that robe.  She had secretly sewn it herself – complete with a borrowed Sears tag – so that I would have my dream come true.

Amanda – When I was a senior in high school, my boyfriend of 18 months worked with – and probably begged – my mom to allow him to get me a kitten for a gift.  She was a sweet little orange kitty who lasted quite a bit longer in my life than my boyfriend.  He went on to date my best friend four months later, and now she’s his wife.

Ann – My sweetest Christmas gifts came from my husband.  Three weeks after we met in October 1991, he went to Texas for work and was already thinking of being with me at Christmas.  My gifts came from that trip – a stuffed armadillo and a Texas longhorn sweatshirt.  And yes, I still have them.

Glenda – One of the best Christmas gifts I ever received arrived under the tree the year my daughter was 11. It was in a huge box, and I couldn’t imagine what a child her age could afford with her small weekly allowance. On Christmas morning she could hardly wait until I opened the big package and then several inside it, each one smaller than the last, each individually wrapped. At last I came to a small ring box, and inside was a gold ring set with a tiny ruby — my birthstone. She had spotted it in the jewelry store window and saved every penny she had to buy it for me. The little girl is now 40, and the ring remains one of my most treasured possessions.

Pat -  My Aunt Pepper was known for giving meaningful gifts, but one year she shook things up.  She gave me a crazy brown and white purse made of fake fur.  Its strap was a chain.  I was grateful for the gift that had been chosen and given with love, but I wasn’t about to take it out of its hiding spot in the back of my closet.  A year later, I found it again and realized that my hip aunt had been incredibly fashion-forward and given me something that was indeed very cool.  It became my favorite purse.

No matter what the gift or who the giver, there are thoughtful and funny gifts that pepper our memories.  Maybe it’s a piece of special jewelry or a traditional gift that passes between family members. It could be a child’s hand-made treasure or a gift certificate for romantic dance lessons meant to rekindle a flame.  In any case, remembering these gifts recalls the affection we shared and inspires us to keep the tradition alive.

My own memory involved a gift that didn’t cost much but is worth its weight in gold.  My brother works in Los Angeles and knows that my favorite Christmas movie is “It’s A Wonderful Life.”  Several years ago, a book came through his publicity office about the making of the movie.  He called Jimmy Stewart’s publicist and thoughtfully arranged to have it autographed to me.  In the movie, the actor’s tender character ultimately realizes how incredibly important each of our tightly interconnected lives is – a lesson worth revisiting at least once each year.  In my book he wrote:  “To Lesley – I send you all my best wishes and have a merry Christmas,  James Stewart.”  I wish the same for everyone.  Happy Holidays.

 

Life of Travel

My first rush of travel adrenaline hit me on the St. Louis airport tarmac in an airplane headed to Indiana.  My mother had sent me at age 14 to visit my father for spring break.  She had told me how exciting it was to feel the press of one’s body into the seat when an airplane accelerated and leapt from the ground into the great unknown, and she was right.

Before boarding the plane, I had passed through a cluster of orange-robed Hare Krishnas who provided a book that eventually set me on a 15-year course of vegetarianism. Their exuberance was captivating to a young girl, and “A Higher Taste” was just the right length book for my trip.  I boarded the plane in Missouri loving burgers and stepped off with a certainty that I’d never touch one again.

The following year, Mom and I packed our things and moved to London for a semester abroad.  She wanted me to see what life was like in other places and to look back at my own country through a foreign lens.  Although our address was in a swanky neighborhood, we shared a house with 25 college kids stacked two to a room. On weekends, we traveled to museums and theaters in London or to nearby countries.  We celebrated Halloween in Paris, walked quietly through Anne Frank’s secret home in Amsterdam and wandered flower-covered hills in Aviemore, Scotland.

On a trip to visit a friend of my mother’s in Marseille, France, I met her younger brother, who was only a few years older than I.  As we strolled around a double-decker carousel in the city made famous by Alexandre Dumas’ “Count of Monte Cristo,” it became clear that Raoul and I were relating as if language wasn’t a barrier for us.  We were tight friends by the end of the weekend despite not having a single common word.

Another excursion took us across the English Channel on a tour that had been arranged for a group of young businessmen but had a few extra seats available.  Mom and I were the last two people on the coach, and I plopped down next to a lanky music lover named Lee with whom I quickly struck up a camaraderie. On the ferry to Belgium I stood at the bow of the boat awash in sea spray and laughed with him and his friends.  In the weeks after the trip, Lee brought local color to our lives.  One evening, he brought a car to Hyde Park and taught me to drive from the “wrong” side of the car on the “wrong” side of the road. Another time he took me to an ice-skating rink where I quickly learned that the major difference between ice- and roller-skating is that ice makes for a wet bottom on anyone who sits and laughs after falling.

Our friendship didn’t end there. After Mom and I returned to the United States and moved to California, Lee showed up on our doorstep with his brother and friends as they toured this country.  And when I went to work in Greece for a college summer, I stopped through London on my way to and from Athens to meet up with Lee for a curry.  He continued to introduce me to his friends, and some have become as close as family.

Two years ago, Mom and I returned to England to visit with those friends at their North Sea cottage for Easter.  From the couple’s children I learned that the Easter Bunny delivers oversized chocolate eggs to English children in lieu of the bunnies to which I am accustomed.  And from me they learned to dye eggs – something they had never done. I had brought a dye kit from home and was initially worried that we could only find brown eggs at the market.  Fortunately, the dark eggs yielded rich jewel tones when dyed. And they tasted just as delicious after I taught the kids how to bash the eggs in contest on Easter morning and then make them into a wicked new creation that made everyone howl in delight – deviled eggs.

My summer in Greece included the expected pilgrimage to the Acropolis and a surprise appreciation for the best tomatoes on Earth, but it was richer and more interesting because of the people I met there.  I worked for a concert promoter in Athens and went around the city and country touting the upcoming performances of music icons Nikos Karvelas and Anna Vissi.  In between tour dates, my local co-workers became my friends and tour guides.  They coaxed me to join them topless on a Greek beach – something the locals don’t consider risqué – and taught me how to speak basic Greek phrases and read words written in capital letters – the only alphabet I was able to master.

After a late night on the town in Athens, my new friend, Marina, insisted that we go to an underground club for after-hours celebrating.  I was surprised when we actually went underground and found ourselves in the basement of an office building where Greek folk music was played on traditional instruments.  Marina and I joined the other women in the room to dance on paper-covered dining tables while our dark-haired companions bought pie tins filled with carnation heads whose petals they broke apart and tossed over us in appreciation.

More recently, I took a trip to the Cook Islands to celebrate a landmark birthday.  I went as a travel writer and was joined by four other writers and a tourism representative whom I met on the airplane to the South Pacific.  Two days after we all met, we flew to the tiny island of Aitutaki, where we snorkeled in a cerulean lagoon with turtles, fish and coral.  We lunched on grilled bananas, fresh papaya and seared ahi, and we got to know each other’s life stories.  That night, we sat on the balcony of my beachside bungalow listening to classics like Peggy Lee’s “Fever,” telling tall tales, and watching a tropical rain fall.  When the shower moved offshore and the moon began to rise behind us, we noticed a gentle white arc appear over the ocean.  It was a moonbow – something none of us had ever experienced before. We all agreed that the best way to savor the moment was to wade into the warm sea toward it, laughing and sharing the chance event.

I still feel my mom’s identifiable rush of adrenaline when an airplane roars down the runway and pushes me into my seat as it takes me off to new adventures, but when I look back I realize that the most special memories I have had aren’t tied into where I was, but with whom. It is people who have added color and texture to who I am and what I do. Leaving home does shed the baggage of daily life for a brief period, but I always return with exotic new bags in tow.  These are in the form of the new relationships I’ve created with the people I’ve met. It doesn’t matter if I’m learning a different diet in St. Louis, being blessed by a medicine man in Rarotonga or laughing with friends on my front porch, at the end of the day, it’s the people who make life colorful, interesting, challenging, different and memorable.  I don’t need to grab my passport and head out of town to find the best that world travel has to offer, I just need to phone a friend.

 

What is Thanksgiving?

Norman Rockwell did a pretty good job of showing just what the American Thanksgiving tradition should look like. In one of his most famous pictures, Grandpa looks on while Grandma sets an enormous turkey before him. Around the table generations of smiling family members await the moment when Grandpa will pick up the carving knife and begin the annual feast. It’s an image we know as Americans whether we have seen the picture or not, and we aspire to re-create it each year when our families gather and begin a celebration of abundance.

But in reality, it isn’t always like that. When I was in school abroad, I had Thanksgiving dinner in a swanky hotel restaurant. I’d saved up my British pounds for the special meal but was the only person in the restaurant aware that it was an important holiday and a time for turkey and cranberries; in London they couldn’t care less about an American tradition, but I was able to have a lovely baked Dover sole.

I shared this story with my friend, Ann, who laughingly told me she hasn’t had a traditional Thanksgiving since she’s been married. Her three middle- and elementary school-aged kids have never shared Thanksgiving with their dad. In Wisconsin Ann is known as a “hunting widow,” and there are women all over the state who nod and say that their life is the same. The men in their families are not sitting at the head of the table ready to carve a turkey on the Thursday holiday afternoon; they are sitting in a tree stand covered in blaze orange and waiting for a big buck to wander past. The women who share these stories at first seem subdued, but then a little smile creeps across their lips. They love it! Hunting widows relish the Thanksgiving holiday as a chance to gather with women friends, shop at wine sales and enjoy a week off from having their husbands at home.

At church I asked a friend who has traveled extensively if she has had any Thanksgivings that weren’t exactly “traditional.”

“Well, I’ve never had a Norman Rockwell experience,” Ruthie laughed. “I’ve had Thanksgiving in Venezuela three times, and the hardest part was finding the turkey!”

Her husband’s job had taken them to South America for three years where they celebrated with American expats and people from other countries who were interested in the tradition.

“Non-Americans are intrigued by the holiday because it isn’t religious and doesn’t require gift-giving,” she explained.

Twice Ruthie spent Thanksgiving in Copenhagen with her husband, a fan of pumpkin pie. Unfortunately, pumpkin pie filling is hard to come by in other countries, so he tried unsuccessfully to sneak a can through airport security on his way to Denmark. After a long explanation to the airport staff, he was let go – without the can of filling. Fortunately, there was a sign hanging in the Denmark airport advertising a shop that sold American foods. After a long train ride, a subsequent subway ride and a lengthy walk, Ruthie and her husband found the tiny shop. In it, there was one small shelf that contained mostly Pop Tarts – what must they think of American cuisine? – and a can of pumpkin pie filling. In Denmark, Ruthie explained, finding turkey was the easy part.

Pumpkin pie is, indeed, an important component of the Thanksgiving meal. In our home we have two different kinds. My mother prefers the old-fashioned variety, but my daughters have been turned on to a cream cheese type that is equally delectable. And pie isn’t the only dessert on offer. In years past, I have been invited to share Thanksgiving with close friends who recognized how difficult it was to be thousands of miles away from my California and Vermont family members. They took me in as one of their own, and when a birthday fell right on Thanksgiving Day, the birthday girl’s father and I spent hours creating a turkey-shaped birthday cake. We dipped cookies in melted orange-colored chocolate to make tail feathers and used an ice cream cone for a decorative hat. The masterpiece was ultimately presented with more fanfare than the poultry centerpiece had received.

Barb, a retired university professor, told me that she was surprised to find how many people are alone on Thanksgiving. In the first year after her divorce, she invited displaced students to her home to celebrate the holiday together. The students were displaced by distance that precluded their going home for a long weekend, so they joined together to become a family with whom they could share the holiday tradition.

Military service sometimes forces people to be apart at holiday times, too. Around the globe, American service people pull together on Thanksgiving to honor the holiday while their families at home lean on one another and create a new kind of family that celebrates with an empty seat at the table and waits for another year.

My daughters and I were invited to have Thanksgiving at the house of a Canadian family several years ago. The family had lived in the United States for three years at the time and was happy to share their traditions with us. Kady sewed turkey-shaped placemats, and her kids made decorative place cards. We talked and laughed and ate until we were stuffed. They had adjusted to our feasting tradition just fine.

“We celebrate Thanksgiving in Canada, too, but we do it a month earlier,” Kady clarified. “But this Black Friday thing? We definitely don’t do that!”

Ah, yes…the holiday tradition of shopping. In other countries feasts are shared in honor of the harvest, and celebrations are held in which gifts are exchanged. But is there any other country in the world where people cap off their holiday with a revered day of shopping? And Thanksgiving wouldn’t be complete without someone falling asleep in front of a football game – another sacred institution.

But shopping, football, feasting and hunting are secondary to the true tie that binds this holiday tradition together. Deeply tucked in between the Black Friday ads, reclined barcaloungers, recipe cards and hunting gear is the magic that keeps us celebrating this annual feast. Norman Rockwell captured one part of it in his painting, but he couldn’t encompass it in its entirety. Rockwell depicts family, the element that glues us together and packs the airports during Thanksgiving weekend, but family isn’t limited to the people who share a gene pool. Family includes all of the people with whom we share laughter, love and life. At Thanksgiving we honor the people who came before us and treasure those who have held our hands when we have faced life’s biggest challenges and enjoyed its smallest pleasures. It is said that we can’t pick our family, but the people who open their hearts and share themselves with us become a treasured kind of family that can be as strong and reliable as any genetic connection. At this time of year – no matter where we are – we welcome the excuse of a harvest feast to celebrate family – however we define it.  What a tradition!

Change It Up!

 

A little change in your pocket is a good thing, but a change of pace is equally important.  In order to keep things interesting, it’s important to consider changes that might open doors, provide serenity or lengthen your life.  Here are some ideas that might be just what you are looking for.

Attitude:          A positive attitude is key. Studies show that it takes less energy to smile than to frown and that pasting a smile on your face will actually release endorphins that will make you feel like smiling in your heart.

Diet:                You are what you eat, so eating junk food will probably make you feel like junk.  Spring is in the air.  Take time to head down to the farmers market and find some local produce to use in an easy recipe you find on line.

Body:               Your body is a shrine.  Keep it fit.  Bike or walk down to the market, call a friend and make a standing date for an hour-long sunset walk. Dedicate the extra hours of longer days to keeping up your shrine.

Spirit:               Twenty minutes a day of meditation can relieve stress and anxiety and make you better able to approach life’s challenges with calm and clarity.  But even taking a few minutes to notice the beauty of nature, take a breath of clean air or enjoy the gentle swaying of spring leaves can rejuvenate your spirit.

Perspective:    It’s easy to judge people, but why waste that energy? Catch yourself in the act of judging the people around you and try to imagine walking a mile in their shoes.  Trying to see through their eyes might inspire you to understand them – or at least to send them a little compassion.

Focus:              Life is busy.  Try to trim down the extraneous and focus on what is truly important. In most European countries, shorter work weeks and longer vacations are the norm.  There, people value human connection and quality down-time over elusive financial gain.

Location:         Play a game of “get lost.” Jump in your car, hop on your bike or lace on your shoes and go explore a part of town that you haven’t known before.  You might find a favorite new coffeehouse or discover a funky gift shop that strikes your fancy.

Habits:             It’s easy to forget how short life is.  Instead of thinking that you can’t do something or that you’ll get to it “someday,” embrace life right now.  Sign up for that French class, learn to throw clay on a potter’s wheel or buy a book and start doing yoga.

Noise:              Turn off the noise.  Don’t waste precious moments blocking out your thoughts or conversation with people around you by zoning out on the TV, Wii, iPod, computer, DS or other electronic device.  If you’re alone, grab a book, do a crossword puzzle or take a deep breath and listen to the birds outside.

Style:               Add a little zing to your outfit with colorful scarves and necklaces from across the color wheel.  Do some little unexpected thing with your outfits every day, and you will be lauded as a style guru.

Horizons:         Go farther afield than you ever dreamed.  Don’t have a passport?  It’s time to get one.  Save up for a trip to another country where you can taste food, hear sounds, meet people and experience a whole different way of life.  Savor the change.

The World:      Volunteer or donate your spare change to causes that will leave the world a better place than you found it.  Making a change in the lives of less fortunate people will not only improve their world but will fill your own emotional cup.

Undeez:           Our great-grandmas were right. Your skivvies may not be seen by anyone but you or an emergency room doctor, but if they are lovely, you will have a foundation of beauty.  You’ll approach your day knowing you are gorgeous from the skin out – and that can change your life.

Attraversiamo

I recently snuggled in with a cup of tea on a cold night to watch “Eat, Pray, Love.” If you haven’t seen the movie, I won’t spoil the ending, but it is about a woman whose life is in transition. She is searching for herself after a hard divorce, and her experiences take her around the world to eat, pray and love.

In the movie, the word “attraversiamo” plays a significant role. It is Italian for “let’s cross over.” The main character is crossing over into her new life and her new view of herself. Other characters share their experiences of change and crossing over in the movie, and it led me to think about how many ways attraversiamo affects all of our lives.

I started talking to friends who laughingly shared vignettes with me about times their lives hinged on a clear moment that changed their paths forever. In some cases, the moments were fleeting and unplanned. In other cases, there was great thought given to the impact of decisions made. One friend I talked to belongs to the Threshold Singers and thought of crossing over as a metaphor for death which is the ultimate “attraversiamo” that we will all endure.

In every case, there was at least one moment that the women I know could identify as life-altering. Some women declined to share their attraversiamo moments with me because there were too many to count. I have to agree with that. I can think of two in my life that have jarred me out of my reality into something completely new and unexpected.

The first time, I was an assistant publicist in Los Angeles with a penthouse office in Beverly Hills and clients like Barry Manilow, Florence Henderson, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. Barry had just returned from a concert tour in Australia where he’d gotten me a lovely t-shirt. It was then that I had my moment. I’d received free passes to a new movie and was sitting in the back of the theater when it happened. The movie was “When a Man Loves a Woman,” and in it Andy Garcia played an airline pilot. I love to travel. I’d been to school in London and travel as often as possible. When I saw Andy Garcia land his fictitious plane in Denver and welcome his passengers home, I knew I needed to do that, too. The t-shirt from Barry was nice, but I wanted to go to Australia myself. The next morning, I headed to the Santa Monica airport before work and signed up to learn how to fly. That moment in the dark theater crossed me over to an eventually successful airline career and a family and home in northern Wisconsin, somewhere I’d never even considered. I still need to get to Australia, but I have gotten as close as the Cook Islands – and who knows where my next crossing over will take me.

There are a jillion moments of change in our lives, some quite significant. But it’s fun to trace them back to a single moment when something took us out of our box, challenged our sense of normal reality and inspired us to take a chance on something that changed who we are forever. I asked some friends if they would be willing to share their stories with Queen readers, and some agreed. Perhaps their stories will be reminiscent of yours, or maybe you will find among them inspiration to find your attraversiamo yet to be.

Mary: My crossover was when I wanted to be a physical therapist in a children’s hospital, but I wasn’t given that opportunity by my father. He allowed me to be a teacher or a nurse. I chose a nurse, and went to Madison, WI, where I started to date my now-husband who I had met when I was sixteen. I have retired from nursing after 45 years. I have the same husband, and I have five children with 11 grandchildren! It has been very rewarding – difficult at times – but never without wonderful rewards!!

Sandra: My crossing over was when I moved to WI. I didn’t have family here and found it difficult to make friends. It was awful. All I know is family. I had so many siblings that I didn’t have to make friends; my family supplied me with built-in friendships. Other people didn’t have the same tolerance as my sibs, and if I am honest, I had to develop tolerance for others outside my family. Authentic relationships are very important to me. I like to be with people I can voice my opinion to as well as listen to their views. Sometimes we agree, and sometimes we agree to disagree. My family has always provided that comfort zone of complete acceptance. So, I crossed over and made a decision to invest in people here. I have a new collection of family. It has been a brilliant journey – and sometimes difficult. Through these challenges I have discovered a better version of myself.

Juli:  My crossing over was business school, but not because of a career that took me to CEO heights. Grad school was supposed to be my safety net; it would get me work that would enable me to live comfortably on my own. I wanted to make sure I didn’t have to rely on anybody for my financial security. Instead, it gave me an opening to talk to a guy I fell head over heels for. He was a marketing guy with a love of all things Internet, and I just so happened to be taking a class about building your own website (circa 1998 – still a new thing). Later, my degree provided us with my bigger salary to take care of our new family when things were unstable for my new husband’s work. My MBA didn’t provide me a CEO title…I guess I’m CEO for my family. And it didn’t provide me a safety net to be on my own…I’m not. It provided me the tools to partner with a man, raise a family together and be the safety net for all of us.

Jennifer: I am someone who has always done what was supposed to be done. I impressed teachers and won awards. I never played hooky or cheated or experimented with anything. My “crossing over” decision came when I left a 14-year marriage and moved my children across the country to Eau Claire, WI, where I felt they would have a chance at a better future. The marriage on its face looked strong and normal, but in reality was fraudulent, bleak, emotionally toxic and financially devastating. I moved myself and my five children with only a small U-Haul and a few boxes of possessions to a place I had visited one time, trading a house in the suburbs and a marriage to a lawyer for a tiny rented duplex and food stamps. I expended nearly all my meager resources and relied heavily on the help of other people. It was not the default decision, and it wasn’t widely accepted by people who thought they knew what truly occurred in my marriage and condemned me for my decision to leave it. I let it all go and crossed over with my children into what I am certain is the right place. They are thriving now where they were stagnating before, and this has made all the difference.

Ruth: I was a social worker after college with a degree in psychology, but I was booted from social work because I refused to urge patients to leave the safety of the hospital and live with distant relatives in a small apartment. “You are not suited to be a social worker,” my boss said…which was true. I turned to education instead and went to night classes to become accredited for k-3. If I wanted a job in NYC, I would need more courses – the most boring, terrible courses – so, I needed to get out of NYC. In 1953 I went to a teacher’s employment agency to find openings and found one in Anchorage. I was fascinated by the last frontier. It really was the last frontier; it was just a territory then. I jumped on a plane and knew from the first that it was the right decision. I had gotten a letter from the Anchorage teachers union that said they would meet my plane and help me get settled and find my way. I lived in Alaska for 10 golden years. I got married there and had my three children there. When I left, it was reluctantly. I always wondered what my life would have been like if we’d stayed. But those 10 years were golden.

Bobbie: As for myself, I really can’t think of a single major attraversiamo. In many ways my life has been one of exploring what’s on the other side of many mountains, and that lifelong endeavor has brought me at this time to Eau Claire, WI.

Stephanie: I was six when Molly, my youngest cousin was a baby. During a Christmas visit, we realized that she had a terrible aversion to my mom and would scream any time she was near. For some reason Mom and I were left alone in the house with Molly for a short time. Sure enough, she exploded in her diaper, but there was nothing my mom could do about it without making things worse. So, she looked at me….really LOOKED at me….and said, “Well, this is just what you’re going to have to do; you’re going to have to change the baby.” I was always full of self-doubt, but she delicately balanced getting me to do what needed to be done without having me fall apart or get too shy. She talked me through it, every single step. It seems mundane now, but at age six it felt like brain surgery; it was such a grown-up thing to do. That triggered something in me and made me realize what is ingrained in me: that “undesirable” or “unimportant” tasks give me pride and fulfillment – specifically when I am helping children. I can help them feel better and be filling my cup at the same time. I became a child care junkie then and now realize the importance of education in fulfilling my goals. I am lucky enough to work with children every day now and know that working in early childhood education isn’t just being a teacher in a classroom. It’s so much more.

Glenda: I was sitting alone in the graduate library at the University of Missouri writing a paper for one of my classes when it struck me that this was not the kind of work I wanted to do. I wanted to write timely, immediate stories that people would read and discuss. One day a friend introduced me to a colleague of hers who was an MU journalism professor. During lunch I was telling them what I hoped to do but that I hadn’t decided how to get there when her friend blurted out, “Why aren’t you in journalism?” After that the pieces came together as if the gods were applauding their agreement. I was admitted to the MU journalism school, and they accepted many of my English credits. Meanwhile the English department asked me to come back and teach, thus giving me a way to pay my tuition. After graduation I went on to a career that has included dinners with the president, tea at Buckingham Palace, flying over the Serengeti in a hot-air balloon and dancing with headhunters in Borneo. I could not have imagined the places my journalism degree would take me.

Sandy: The moment that changed my life was in 1986 when I was fortunate enough to get picked to attend the week-long American Federation of Teachers’ Educational Research and Dissemination (ER&D) Training Program that teaches teachers about educational research and how it is applied in successful teachers’ classrooms. To my surprise, the following year I was selected to become a National ER&D Trainer, which meant I got to teach teachers from all over the country. After several years of training teachers, I was asked to work with two University of Oregon professors to develop and ultimately teach two new educational research topics. During this time I was also selected to travel to different cities to see how teachers were implementing educational research. I got to meet and talk with a number of the top educational researchers in the country. Several of the other national training teachers became some of my best friends. Knowing the educational research made me a much better teacher because my students benefited from the strategies and research that I was able to implement in my classroom. Knowledge is power, and it launched me into my crossing over.

Kay: I was 35 when it came time for me to cross over into a new way of looking at life. I had been hungry for a husband and a family and was scouring the clubs and activities around town to find the man who would kick it all off for me. It wasn’t pretty. One night I sat down and had a full-on pity party because I didn’t think I was going to find him. I was devastated. My pity party went on for about three hours until I started thinking of my beautiful nephews whose mom needed help. I had a lot of friends who needed an extra set of eyes or arms around to help with their small kids, too, and I realized that my role in life didn’t have to be that of wife and mother. I embraced the idea of being a helpful friend and aunt, and it changed how I approached my whole life. My family noticed a change in my attitudes, and I felt happier. I was free from the expectations I had put on myself, and I could just be me. The man of my dreams never would have taken a second look at the woman I had been before that night, but I was lucky enough to find him a few years after I had crossed over into my new self. He wandered into my new life, and we now have the child I’d dreamed of. It took an internal attraversiamo for me to find my dreams come true.

Eco-Friendly Yard Space

Temperatures are rising, summer is on its way, and the heat is on to surround your castle with the most attractive and eco-friendly yard in town.  Create beauty around your home in a way that includes respect for Mother Nature, and you might find that your yard work load will be reduced as you make an environmentally responsible space.

First, it is important to decide what kind of yard represents your style.  Are you looking for a way to cut your water use?  Do you want to use all natural products on your property?  Is a game of catch on a verdant lawn what you enjoy?  Or are you a person who longs for a simpler life and wants to make as little work as possible for yourself?  Xeriscaping, organic gardening, traditional lawns and hardscaping can all be done in ways that keep the environment healthy and provide a striking setting for your abode.

Explore the benefits of xeriscaping as an alternate to having a grassy yard.  By grouping plants with similar requirements together, you can manage and reduce water use by as much as 60%. Native plant species are already adapted to local rainfall and may require no additional water at all.  Artfully arranged berms with indigenous flora can add colorful interest to an otherwise water-hungry lawn.  Look to yews, lavender, sedum, thyme and hemlocks for variety without a high fertilizer or water demand.  Colorful boulders, statuary or fountains scattered thoughtfully among plants provide an eye-catching change of pace.

Xeriscaping and water conservation are important in all areas of the country, not just arid climates.

Jean VanPelt of the Colorado WaterWise Council says, “There is no reason why the seven principles of xeriscaping can’t be applied anywhere in the United States.”

Those principles are:  plan and design carefully, improve soil, irrigate efficiently, zone plants together according to water and light needs, mulch, choose native or low-water turf grass, and maintain xeriscape appropriately.

In addition to being water-conscious, organic gardeners make it their goal to use as few chemicals as possible on their landscape in an effort to keep poisons out of the watershed and animal population.  Fertilizers run off yards into city drains and eventually enter lakes and streams where they cause an overabundance of weeds and algae that disturbs riparian habitats and food chains.  Birds and animals of prey can digest toxic pesticides in the food they eat.  As they die off, pesky bugs and rodents remain without any kind of natural predator.  In either case, nature’s balance is shifted out of alignment.  The organic solution is to get creative.  Spray diluted soapy water on plants to eliminate aphids, and spread pine needles around acid-loving plants to add nutrients without the use of harsh chemicals.  Yard and kitchen waste can be piled in the far reaches of the yard or in a store-bought compost bin to decompose and produce a rich fertilizer for gardening.

A lush, emerald lawn can also be achieved in an environmentally aware way.  Bob Rastani, Rastani Landscape Design in San Diego, says that grass consumes more water than any other vegetation.  Although a healthy lawn can be an effective erosion control, grass requires intense water management to induce proper growth and reduce runoff pollution.  The best plan is to water grass once each week with a slow soak early in the morning.  Yards generally require 1 inch of water per week and may cultivate fungus and disease if watered during the evening or nighttime hours.  Mow frequently with blades that are sharpened two to three times each year to cause the least distress to the grass, and let the clippings fall as you cut.

Says Rastani, “Everybody should mulch their clippings or they are bagging up a natural fertilizer.”

Another way to make the most out of a grassy yard is to call your local extension office for a soil test to determine the chemistry, quality and density of your soil.  This evaluation will direct you as to how much fertilizer, insecticide and water to use.  Visit a local landscape company to determine what kind of grass is best for where you live.  A properly watered and tended lawn will naturally crowd out many unattractive weeds and cut down on the need for chemical supplements.

Hardscape requires the least amount of water, fertilizer and homeowner effort.  By putting in a patio, pathways, walls and planters, a yard can become an easy place in which to gather and enjoy long summer days.  Incorporate potted plants, stone benches or tastefully placed xeriscapes, and your simple space can become an enchanted garden.  Point downspouts from gutters into attractive rain barrels for future watering needs or at least direct them toward a permeable surface where rainwater can make use of the earth’s natural filter before it seeps into lakes and streams.

Eco-friendly landscaping can be attractive and showcase your own personal style, and it doesn’t require much more labor than you already devote to your yard.  In fact, these options will relieve you of enough work that you’ll have time to enjoy the paradise you create.

 

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Why December 25?

Carols ring from in-store speakers, twinkly lights sparkle on rooftops, menus are being planned and families are poised to gather.  Christmas is near, and people all over the world are counting down the days until December 25.  Some do it in a purely secular spirit and look forward to holiday parties and Santa’s treasures.  Others take a more religious view to the holiday and focus on the celebration of Jesus’ birth – but not a birthday.

Scholars agree that biblical clues indicate that Jesus was not born on December 25 but that the day has been widely agreed upon as a celebration of his birth.

Why not celebrate Jesus on his actual birthday?  Records do not exist for that specific date, and biblical clues are conflicting.  One thing is certain, though, he wasn’t born in December. Bethlehem is chilly and often rainy in December, and the shepherds are not in the field.

The bible suggests that Mary and Joseph were headed to Bethlehem in order to register for a census and pay taxes in the city of Joseph’s origin.  Because farmers were done with their harvests in the fall of the year, that would have been the most logical time for such a census and taxation to take place – when the farmers were flush and finished with work.

Fall is also a time of harvest festivals and celebrations, and it’s a time when Israelites would make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem for Sukkot, a week-long celebration that follows Yom Kippur.  This would be a time when homes and inns would be overflowing with family and friends gathering to honor the harvest and join in their religious ceremonies.  It would be a time when a too-full inn might offer a stable as lodging to a young expectant couple.

Two other festivals encourage Israelites to gather in Jerusalem: Passover and Shavu’ot. These happen in the spring of the year and inspire some thought that Jesus was a spring baby. This theory would coincide with the shepherds tending their flock in the fields at night because spring lambing would require around-the-clock observation.

There are more detailed clues, too, that are given in the bible’s book of Luke. Here, the pregnancy of Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, is detailed. Luke writes that Mary conceives during her cousin’s sixth month of pregnancy and that her son is born six months after Elizabeth’s.  Through a complicated exploration of biblical clues, the date of Elizabeth’s conception can be narrowed down to June, Mary’s to December, and the ultimate birth of Jesus to September.

If it’s possible that Jesus was an autumn baby, why do we celebrate his birth in the darkest days of winter?  According to Reverend Julianne Lepp, a Unitarian Minister educated at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, it has ties to pagan traditions.

“The early beginnings of Christmas, in fact, have direct roots in the winter solstice celebration that took place at Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture,” Lepp explains.  “When Christianity was introduced to the Roman Empire in the early 4th Century, the church allowed the Saturnalia tradition to continue, but concluded the week-long festival with a day dedicated to the birth of Christ, or Christ Mass, better known today as Christmas.”

In fact, Emperor Constantine was a Christian convert who sought to combine pagan worship and Christianity. Mithraism and other pagan religions honored the rebirth of the sun at the winter solstice, and it married well with the Christian birth of the holy son.  Rome first celebrated the birth of Jesus on December 25 in 336AD, and Pope Julius I made it official in 350AD.

“In seeking the return of the light we seek to restore balance,” says Lepp. “It is an age old quest of restoring our tired hearts and rekindling joy in the darkest of nights. It is the real hope of the season.”

This hope is reflected in the Christian and pagan traditions that remain dear at Christmas time.  Yule logs burn brightly under mantles festooned in holly – both customs that come from the Scandinavian celebration of solstice.  Candles burn as they have since Saturnalia festivals when they were given as gifts to chase away darkness. Wreathes, pagan symbols of life everlasting, decorate front doors.  Colorful decorations on evergreen trees recall the original fruits, nuts and cookies that were hung reverently on trees that showed power over winter demons by maintaining their color throughout the winter months.

Even more recent Christmas traditions can be traced to the rebirth of light at the winter solstice.  Santa’s sleigh may stem from a Norse myth of Freya who rewarded good deeds with gifts in the days following the winter solstice that she doled out from her stag-drawn chariot.  And Santa himself is a warm and shining light that emerges in the darkest days of the year to bring joy around the world – just as the sun is beginning its reemergence into the northern hemisphere’s coldest days.

 

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Valentine Fun for All Ages

Mid-February has celebrated both fertility and romance for 2000 years, but Valentine’s Day has only been considered a holiday for children in the recent past.  Now many kids learn the traditions of the holiday as early as preschool broadening the scope of the holiday to make ageless fun for everyone.

A decorated shoebox stuffed with humorous cards and a few small candies has been a typical American elementary school experience for the last 50 years.  During that time, busy lives, multiple children and exposure to media have forced an evolution from simple, homemade salutations into store-bought squares printed with Sponge Bob and Strawberry Shortcake.  But there is still room for old-fashioned paper hearts, stickers, lace and glue.

Steve Langhorst, principal of Bierbaum Accelerated School in St. Louis, Mo., says that parents should use discretion in recognizing Valentine’s Day with their children.  Instead of focusing on adult romantic love, they might take this opportunity to reinforce the qualities of friendship and caring in their children.  At school, he likes it best when he sees kids passing out personally created cards with an exchange of kind greetings.

Says Langhorst, “The messages we do encourage revolve around friendship, not love, but still being kind and nice to all.”

So, what about creating a custom card?  They don’t look as fancy, and they aren’t always perfect, but they can be simple to make.  A paper heart makes a happy face with an upside down heart sticker as a perky nose and one right side up for a sweet smile.  Glue on two googly eyes, and it’s a valentine to share.  Familyfun.com has lots of simple ideas that are easy to make and encourage quality family time that can be squeezed into a busy schedule.  Start in January on the project so that the creation, dedications and signatures happen a few at a time and remain a fun after-dinner activity instead of a rushed obligation.

In addition to exchanging valentine cards, many schools have classroom parties or special snacks to share.  Kady Carroll, a Canadian mother of three who is experienced with treat creativity, suggests dipping marshmallows on craft sticks in melted chocolate and then pink sprinkles.

“Arrange the sticks in a vase of crumpled tissue paper, and offer a bouquet of sweets to the class!” says Carroll.

At home, too, Valentine’s Day can be a special celebration of family love and appreciation.  Start the day off with a red and pink valentine breakfast.  Red food coloring added to milk, oatmeal or scrambled eggs will make your little valentines smile.  Decorate a bowl of pink yogurt with sliced strawberries that look like little red hearts.  For a mid-day surprise, slip secret notes into lunch bags with heart-shaped sandwiches.  At dinner, create a valentine pizza together.  Shape the dough into a heart, and let the kids pile on their favorite toppings.

For a sweeter activity, roll out the dough!  Store bought cookie dough bakes up as well as scratch, and decorating cookies with the kids can brighten up a frosty February weekend.  Pink, white and red frostings can be slathered on heart-shaped cookies and decorated with red hot candies, conversation hearts, fancy frosting shapes, words and candy sprinkles.  Decorate a box for the confections with paper, markers and stickers, and a heart-felt gift is ready to share.

Craft stores, supermarkets and greeting card companies tempt romantics in February with projects, treats and communiqués for all ages.  It is the one time of year when we freely express love and affection, and even children are in search of the perfect way to convey their sweet message.  When asked what kind of valentine the average kid would prefer to receive, 9-year-old Elijah McCarty responds with a blush and a shrug, “I guess it would depend on who it’s from.” That message remains ageless the world over:  It’s about who you fancy.  The rest is just delicious, pretty and fun.

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Sidebar:

Create valentine fun all day long and bring the magic of friendship and love into your life:

*Make a treasure hunt with clues written on paper hearts for your valentine to sleuth out.

*Take a tulip, valentine or baked goods to someone who is alone on this day and remind yourself and your kids of the loving spirit this holiday celebrates.

*Bake a heart shaped cake and pile on the frosting.

*Send photo valentines to loved ones who are far away…this might be a great time to make up for belated holiday greetings that just didn’t get done in December!

*Have a candlelight dinner for the entire family and tell stories about how friends and loved ones came to be cherished in your life.

*Write down ways to help others on paper hearts and put them in a jar.  For the weeks following Valentine’s Day, pull out a heart and implement the suggestion:  Clean a playground, visit a nursing home or cook for a local shelter.  Spread the love of the season.

*Celebrate Valentine’s Day all week by dedicating each day to a different family member.  On Johnnie’s day, carry him piggyback downstairs to breakfast and let him choose a special after-school activity.  Suzie might get to choose what the family will have for dinner and plan an outing. Let the kids decide what special things to do for Mom and Dad on their honored days.

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Timeless Fashion

How to make styles last when budgets tighten…

A struggling economy needn’t mean you can’t look like a million dollars. The key to looking good regardless of your bank balance is to build a wardrobe around pieces that won’t go out of style. Timeless fashions can literally be worn forever.

Cuts, patterns, cuffs and hems do slowly change over time, but with a few basics in your closet, you can be appropriately attired every time you step out of the house. Image consultants around the globe agree that a few standards form the basis of a chic wardrobe that will withstand the tug-of-war between longevity and vogue.

“It’s very possible to create a timeless wardrobe,” says London fashion stylist Rebekah Roy, “and in these tough economic times it might actually be the best way to spend money on clothes.”

By investing in a few important, well-made pieces, the savvy shopper can create a stage upon which less expensive and more hip pieces can be spotlighted.  Then, as trends change, it will be less costly to replace accessories and underpinnings with up-to-date items that complement the initial basics.

“Create a wardrobe that starts with classic pieces in neutral colors,” advises Michelle Sterling, founder and principal of Global Image Group in San Francisco.  “Then add character pieces that have flair and interest.”

The building blocks of the timeless, classic wardrobe should come in foundation colors:  black, navy, khaki, beige or gray.  Bright and flattering colors that resonate with the person wearing them should act as accents.  To make the selections more useful and timeless, choose “seasonless” fabrics like tropical-weight wool that can be worn in any climate at any time of year.

“To keep your clothes in style for as long as possible, don’t choose styles or cuts that are too exaggerated,” warns Micki Turner, San Francisco Bay Area image consultant.  “Stay away from unflattering too-tight pants or ultra-pointy shoes that are overly trendy.”

Most image consultants suggest going through old clothes to shed those that are out of date or no longer fit.  Once a closet is pared down to only those things that are most flattering to the wearer’s body type and personality, the following items are essential:

 

  •  Simple black dress:  can be worn with a cardigan around the shoulders on a summer afternoon or accessorized with chunky jewelry and a hip jacket to be worn at night.
  • Trench coat:  adds warmth with class.
  • Jacket: an all-purpose classic style will pair with slacks, a skirt or even a pair of jeans.
  • Suit: pinstripes add height and are slimming, but black is always appropriate.
  • Skirt: make it modest, comfortable and age-appropriate.
  • White fitted blouse:  can be worn with jeans and dichroic glass jewelry to be funky or with slacks and pumps to be evening elegant.
  • Cashmere cardigan:  slings over the shoulders for a casual but chic look.  Choose one that doesn’t ride down on the hip.  Mid-waist length is best.
  • Neutral heels:  keep them skin-toned to add length to the leg.
  • Black pumps:  an unexaggerated toe will keep these ultra-useful shoes in style.
  • Slacks:  flat-front is slimming, but be certain the legs aren’t too skinny or too full and that the waist isn’t too high or low.

Not sure where to obtain these mid-priced classics?  Brooks Brothers, Gap, Banana Republic and Ann Taylor are known for their classic lines and core wardrobe items.  Hugo Boss, Chanel, Armani, Gucci and Ralph Lauren are also safe bets for core items that may cost a bit more but are made to last.

Amanda Sanders, NYIC Image and Wardrobe Specialist, suggests fostering a good relationship with a drycleaner or a tailor who can update worthwhile basics as time and trends move gently forward.

Once the classic necessities are obtained, it’s time to get creative.  Update shoes and handbags; add ruffled shirts and bright scarves.  Accessories don’t have to be expensive to be stylish, and they can keep the timeless wardrobe from appearing lost in time.

“One or two less expensive trend items can make the classics stand out,” says Sanders.  “If you have good quality things in your closet, you won’t have to constantly reinvent your wardrobe.  Just stick to things that look good on you, stay appropriate to your age and remember: If it’s not flattering, move on!”

 

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