Friday, December 31, 2010

December 31, 2010 ~ Day 22
Secret Night Meetings

If you were to ask my elder son to confide in you about the worst thing that ever happened to him, there definitely days when he would respond without hesitation, "My little brother". Or, as his favorite cartoon character Olivia would say, "My little BOTHER".

Theirs is the classic tale of siblings two years apart. A dramatic story of displacement, hurt, sorrow, hatred and chronic revenge... with moments of genuine comic relief and even (dare I say it) love! thrown in for good measure. The transition from only child to sibling probably wouldn't have been so bad if our second baby had been a girl. (When we announced my third pregnancy, my oldest son, age 3, kissed my belly and said, "Be a girl, baby... PLEASE be a girl!")

He feels no sense of competition when it comes to little girls, as they are so clearly like apples and oranges. "Barbies are for GIRLS," he will come home and announce after school... "Disney Princesses are for GIRLS". My son has a very refined sense of what separates girls and boys - perhaps most obviously and essentially, his treasured 'pee-pee'. I'll never forget the day after preschool (where bathrooms are co-ed) when he came home and asked me in all seriousness, "Mommy, why don't girls have pee-pees? What happened to theirs?"

Anyway, a girl would have been ok... at least so he tells us.

Instead, his successor to the kingdom - the second heir in line for our throne - was another boy. Worse still, a boy that looks almost identical to him. From the time his brother was a year old, people would often stop me at the park or in the elevator as I pushed them in our double stroller to ask if they were twins. Which, given that my older son is over a foot taller and much more muscular than his baby brother, often prompted my snarky inner voice to reply "Yes, this is my son and his midget twin". (I haven't said it out loud yet, but the line is living like a viper in my head just waiting for its awesome smart-ass delivery someday.)

Having a baby brother proved to be the single most annoying thing we parents could have done to our oldest child. Actually, it wasn't so bad for the first six months until the little one started crawling around and grabbing toys. At that point it became all out war. Suddenly our older son was biting, scratching, pulling hair, sitting on, kicking and even punching his little brother. (Not all at the same time, but you get the point.) That behavior didn't stand for a second, and soon our elder boy learned that overt aggression typically ends in time-out.

Then he got tricky. He would kneel by the baby and pretend to smile and play nicely until the grown-ups would turn away and then suddenly we would hear our baby shriek, turn around and see that big brother was in the middle of biting his head or pulling his hair. This was both supremely frustrating and also a little bit funny at the same time. As soon as he'd been caught, our older son would pretend it was all a big mistake as if to say, "Who me? Oh, I was just giving the baby a little kiss, I don't know how my teeth got into his skull..." while gingerly sidling away.

The trickiness became harder for him to conceal once his little brother started talking. I believe our younger boy's first full sentence may well have been "(Brother) MEAN, (Brother) HIT ME!!! NO HIT ME!!!" That said, the second one has always been a laid back little guy and quickly learned to be a master manipulator as well. Sometimes we would catch him as a toddler pulling his older brother's hair, hard, and then crying loudly before his brother could react ~ mainly so that we would all turn around just in time to see the big guy pummel him back.

Since the role of household strong-man had been snapped up, our younger guy adapted quite readily to playing the victim and developed an impressively annoying blood-curdling shriek. Here is a fairly typical hourly exchange:


"What happened honey? Are you hurt?"

With eyes like saucers brimming with tears and a quivering lip... "BROTHER made a mad face at me!!!"


Well, it's been a long three years, six months and seventeen days since these boys met (but who's counting) and the story of their rivalry hasn't ended yet. They have refined their strategies and tactics, but there isn't a day that passes without me having to pull one of them off of the other. About six months ago they actually drew blood when punching each other in the face, first the little one on a Saturday followed by his big brother the next day. Definitely not our finest weekend as a family.

Which is why the night meetings are so amazing.

The night meetings are a secret.
The night meetings take place after bedtime.
The night meetings can only be attended by brothers.

I stumbled across a night meeting for the first time shortly after we moved into this house, about a year and a half ago. It was about ten pm and I was bringing some folded towels upstairs when I heard little voices chatting amiably. These little voices were foreign to me, as there was no screeching, yelling, whining, bossiness or tension at all. These were the sweetest little voices you can imagine.

"Brother, brother..."
"Are you still awake?"
"Brother, it's going to be my birthday!"
"I know. And then my birthday is next month. But do you want to know the most amazing thing?"
"Do you know when our mommy's birthday is?"
"Our mommy's birthday is at CHRISTMAS. It is December."

I stopped short, unwilling to interrupt one of the only civil dialogues I had ever heard the two of them share. Sitting down on the stairs in the dark, I listened. For almost an hour they chatted with each other about their days, their toys, their friends, mean kids at preschool, and us - their parents. It was so pleasant and polite, I fairly well had to pinch myself. I didn't want to move or make a sound, lest they hear me and stop talking.

At the time I thought this was an anomaly, a rare and special occurrence. Over time though, my husband and I would hear them tiptoeing around in the dark upstairs or stumble upon them late at night looking at books together. We began to realize that while our sons make a career of hating each other by day, they have an entirely different relationship by night.

Then one day as I put them to bed, I saw the big one give the little one a sneaky wink. The little one piped up, "Don't forget the meeting!" and then he giggled wickedly.

"Meeting?" I asked, "What meeting?"

The two of them burst into peals of hysterical laughter. Thankfully at the ages of five and three, neither of them can keep a secret.


"Oh yeah? What do you do at these meetings?"

"We play with our GUESSING BOOK!"

"Guessing book? What's that?"

"It's the Way Things Work book mommy! We look at the pictures and guess how the machines work!"
As if to further explain, they then tugged the rather thick and heavy book out from under the toddler bed in their room, and proudly displayed the machine they were currently 'figuring out' - a contraption full of ropes and pulleys.

Readers, if I tell you that my heart melted on the spot, I think you'll believe me. Just the thought of my little boys chatting and dreaming together about how the large loud world around them functions and where they fit into all of it... pretty much the stuff mommy dreams are made of.

Now that we're wise to the night meetings, my husband and I make a special effort to get our boys to bed earlier at night. We want them to be well rested for school the next day, but even more than that, we've agreed to tacitly encourage them to spend this quality time together in a format where they feel unfettered by the need to impress us or compete for our attention. We always make sure to tell them, "Now go to sleep and no meetings tonight!" before we tuck them in, with a big smile, just so they will have the sense that getting together to read and talk is a fun little rebellion for two.

I always wanted a brother or sister close to my age when I was growing up. I adore my own brothers and sister but they were all mostly grown and out of the house by the time I was a small child.

We love that our sons have discovered a secret joy in each other, that despite all of their pomp and bombast, they know the constancy and strength of a friendship bound by blood. Deep down, my husband and I both feel that by creating this family and giving our children multiple siblings to love and hate, hit and hug, cry and giggle with... we have given them the blessing of a lifetime.

Sixty years from now, my two boys and their sister may be the only people left who still remember my husband and I when we were fairly young and full of plans for our future... and who can help each other recall what it was like to be a child in our home.

So boys if you're reading this someday, the meaning of life in today's article is pretty simple -

There's nothing like a brother. Or a sister.

Family is important.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

December 30, 2010 ~ Day 21
Keep Showing Up

I make a lot of mistakes. I always have, for as long as I can remember. Worse, the kind of mistakes I make are sometimes not repairable. Some of them have changed the course of my life or the lives of others.

Here is a mild example. I swear in front of my children. This is a terrible, terrible habit and I try so hard not to do it. I don't mean to do it, and I honestly feel awful about it when it happens. Old habits die hard, and swearing is a habit I got into about twenty years ago when my strict, overly protective father forbade me to cuss. Using swear words at the age of fourteen and fifteen felt like the ultimate in rebellion, because I was a pretty naive kid. I didn't run around with 'bad' boys, break curfew or get into trouble with the law. But I did develop a mouth like a sailor, which in retrospect I can easily see was my whole-hearted attempt to break through to adulthood and become independent of my parents.

For a long time, swearing became so much a part of who I was I didn't even notice it. I never swore at work, of course, but out with girlfriends to see a show or get dinner I am sure I must have used the word "f&$k" millions of times just as an adjective. I honestly think it made me feel grown up. Most of my friends swore too, so I never felt out of place doing it.

Now that I am a mother, the swearing has taken on a much uglier guise. Every word that comes out of my mouth is a vocabulary lesson, and once my children are exposed to cuss words I can't take them back. I can't clean their ears or erase their memories... so now all of my children know the word s&#t, which is extremely horrifying. They are 5, 3 and 1, and their college educated stay-at-home mother has inadvertently taught them how to swear. No matter how many times I tell them that mommy shouldn't have used that bad word, it is out there. I try to ignore it when I hear them experimenting with the language, so that they won't develop the same sense of power with those words that I learned to feel. I try to say "Rats" and "Gosh Darn" when I drop heavy things on my foot or trip down a staircase. I've even set up a jar to drop pennies into every time I say a swear word so that I will show my kids how bad my behavior is and that I am actively "paying" for it and trying to change.

In the end though, this is just one of the millions of mistakes I make all of the time. Many of which I am so ashamed of.

I forget things, like appointments. I forget important things, like birthdays. I forget that I have loads of laundry in the washer and they end up needing to be washed all over again. I get so wrapped up in washing dishes that I don't always listen to my boys as they try to tell me stories. I manage to ignore the people I love most in the world, all because I am foolishly telling myself that it is important to have a clean house - even though the reality is that our house is never clean, no matter how much I clean it.

I say things that I don't mean and which sometimes can't be taken back. When I was in my early twenties I told my father in the middle of a heated argument that he was an old man and I wouldn't miss him when he was gone. Now he is dead, in a really hideous manner - because Alzheimer's is truly hideous - and I can't take back those words and tell him how much I loved him and how much I miss him every single day.

I get unreasonably angry and defensive. My sister once shared very well-intentioned criticism of the fact that I was moving in with my now-husband, while we were dating. I was so taken aback, I didn't speak to her for over two years or invite her to our wedding reception. Looking back, that was terribly immature. I could have accepted her views as being different than my own and chosen to hear only the love and good intention in her words. I didn't, and that was a huge mistake. (I'm just very lucky that she waited patiently for me to grow up a bit, and was generous about forgiving me when I finally did.)

Over a decade ago I lost the respect of a then-boyfriend that I had loved and lived with for years. I wrote some letter to him while he was traveling far away which neither of us saved. I cannot to this day remember exactly what it said but in essence I think it was a criticism of his lifestyle and some of the friends he was traveling with. I'm sure that letter was just the proverbial straw that broke his back, there must have been deeper problems underlying that I didn't know about - but not only did he not write or call me at all for the next five weeks, his first action upon returning home to our house was to break up with me. Much later I learned that while he was gone, he reconnected with an old home-town friend and they fell in love. I believe he is married to her today.

And while his love for this woman would surely have taken place whether or not I wrote that letter, because I believe that things like love are destined and you can't thwart fate's plans... I still wrote the letter. I sent it. I made that huge mistake (could have waited to speak with him in person, could have been less judgmental, could have accepted him for who he was) and spent years regretting it after. It was a huge mistake. That said, I thank God for that mistake now, because perhaps without it I might never have met my husband and had these three adorable, precious (unfortunately swear-word literate) children.

Still, I make so many mistakes.

I wish I could take them all back! I wish I could be the best of myself each and every day. My gut hurts just thinking about the times I have forgotten to wash my kid's clothes the night before school or my son's soccer shirt the night before a game. Spray n'Wash will go only so far! I wish I could take back all of the years of cumulative mistakes, because they have brought so much pain... most of all to me. I guess one could say that any wisdom I have today, I won the hard way.

The meaning of life for today's column is to keep showing up. Even with the worst mistakes. Even with the greatest feeling of failure and self-doubt. Even when you feel like you can never show your face again, you've messed up so badly. Keep showing up. Keep trying. Don't give up.

Some parents run away from their responsibilities and their children. Some husbands and wives give up on each other when money gets tight, health goes downhill or kids take the front seat. Some friends stop calling or reaching out when their close friends don't return a call or make contact for a while. Some employees quit their jobs when the work load gets too hard or they get a boss with whom they don't see eye-to-eye. Some people commit suicide when they feel like life's handed them a bum dance card.

It's easy to understand why people make these choices. All of us have been in that low place at some point, where we were so depressed or frustrated or defeated that we just wanted to walk away. I really get it. I've been there. Recently.

But if there is any one lesson that I hope my children will someday get out of reading this blog, it is that no matter how big of a mistake they could ever make, their dad and I love them anyway - no matter what. And I hope they will be brave enough to take responsibility for their actions and keep showing up for life, even if that means apologizing or humbling themselves in some way.

I have so much pride that it is very hard for me to admit when I have made a mistake, but I force myself to do it all the time. Tonight I asked my children with sincerity to forgive me for using a swear word in front of them - again - when I accidentally burned their dinner. I hate that I am teaching them by my example to make mistakes. I want to be their supermom. I guess for now I'm just their mom. I hope I will be able to teach them by my example to learn from mistakes.

Either way, I'll still be here in the morning. Trying again, and hoping optimistically for just one day with no mistakes in it.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

December 29, 2010 ~ Day 20
Buzz Lightyear and The Dump

Well now I've really done it. At the tender ages of five and three, I've managed to pass along my eco-guilt to my two eldest children. It's bad. This is definitely something they're going to be talking over with a therapist in about twenty years. I can almost hear the future conversation...

"...and then my mother told me that all of my new Christmas toys would end up in a landfill someday, filling me with such anxiety and remorse that I could no longer play with them or even look at them without disgust."

Therapist: "Did you express the anxiety to your mother at that time?"

"Yes, I actually remember saying to my mother 'If Buzz Lightyear is going to end up in a landfill and hurt the Earth, I'm going to punch him in the face.'"

Think I've taken some dramatic license here, readers? I only wish. This is actually exactly what my five year old son said to me about an hour ago... right before he went down for his nap and only moments after both my boys got into a yelling screaming crying fight about which one of them had more toys that were made of plastic and whose toys were going to kill the planet first.

It all started when I tripped for the fifth time in as many minutes on LEGO pieces scattered all over the floor around the kitchen. Frustrated, I commented that I wished our families would give my children toys that weren't going to end up in a landfill some day.

The boys asked me what I meant and it took me a few minutes to explain the concept of how different materials disintegrate over time and why the invention of plastics has permanently changed the natural degradation process of man-made objects. They asked me about how long it would take their artwork, the Christmas tree, the couch, their clothes and even our car to break down into its components.

That's when I did it. I picked up a two inch tall plastic figure and told them, "What's really sad is that this little piece of plastic will still be here on this Earth even when your great-great-great-great-grandchildren aren't alive any more." They looked at the lousy little toy with big eyes and I could see that I'd made impact. "I hate plastic!" my son said. "Me too!" shouted his brother. "Its BAD."

"That's why we should try to ask for gifts that are recycled or recyclable next year," I said, and then gave them a big hug and went about my merry way to shove all of the big cardboard boxes from their new toys into the big blue recycling bin behind our house.

I came back in from the rain to find my three year old sobbing hysterically.

"What is it?" I asked, "Are you hurt?"

"Mommmmmeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! HE (pointing to his big brother) says that Woody's hat is going to sit in the landfill for a thousand years!" Big, fat crocodile tears are sliding down my three year old's pudgy cheeks. "And Woody's boots too!!!"

By Woody, he was of course referring to the enormously popular figure from the three Toy Story movies... a highly coveted toy that my younger son was thrilled to receive only a few days ago.

My older son looked embarrassed (to have been caught teasing) but happy. "That's right, but I don't have Woody, I have Buzz."

By Buzz, he was of course referring to the enormously popular friend figure from the Toy Story movies ~ Buzz Lightyear ~ the other highly coveted toy that my older son was thrilled to receive only a few days ago.

All three of us looked at the Buzz toy and I could see a new idea forming in both of my boys' heads. "But mommy LOOK," said the three year old, "Buzz is made out of plastic too!!!"

The five year old started to turn pale and I could see his lip begin to quiver. He looked a little purple around the eyes. And that's when he said it... the words that will surely be repeated in therapy some day: "If Buzz Lightyear's going to end up in a landfill and hurt the Earth, I'm going to punch him in the face!"

Oh geez, what's a mother to do. These are some of the tricky issues I never imagined navigating with small children... how to deal with media, consumer culture and our environment and how they often contradict each other. The Toy Story movies may encourage children to keep and recycle their toys (what could be more powerful than that scene in Toy Story III where the toys make their way to the dump and almost get incinerated?) but at the same time, Disney/Pixar releases a gazillion plastic toys to market to small children which will all mostly end up in that very same dump.

Hypocrisy? Who knows. Maybe Disney/Pixar really hopes that all of the children that buy their Buzz and Woody toys will actually keep and play with those toys for countless generations, carefully handing the toys down for hundreds of years. All I know is, we looked for recycling numbers on Woody's cowboy hat and boots today and found nothing. These toys were not created to be eco-friendly, just profit-friendly.

I'm looking for warnings on the Buzz Lightyear box right now, actually, and while it does say "Not for children under three years" there is nothing about the environmental cost of producing or trashing these toys. I'm thinking about this more and it makes me a little grossed out that the environmentally friendly movie WALL-E (all about a friendly little trash cleaner robot trying to rid the Earth of its mountains of garbage) actually came out with a slew of plastic toys, t-shirts, games, etc. All of which will end up in landfills.

So I just googled "Disney/Pixar Toy Recycling" and got NOTHING about eco-friendly toys. But to my horror, I did find this: For $42.99 we parents can invest in the Imaginext Disney / Pixar Toy Story 3 Playset TriCounty Landfill Junkyard. You must think I am joking but I AM TOTALLY NOT JOKING. We can actually spend a sizeable amount of money to buy a pretend plastic landfill that will soon end up in a real landfill. You know, that is shameful.

So I did a little more digging (forgive the pun, I could have said I was mucking around but I think you get my point LOL) and I found to my horror on an environmentally friendly children's site called "Healthy Kids Go Green" that these plastic toys may NEVER actually decompose. The projected number is ONE MILLION YEARS. Excuse my language but WTF???

And I quote:

"Here’s how long scientists think it may take certain items in our garbage to decompose in a landfill:

(These times will vary depending on soil
and moisture conditions.)

banana – 3 to 4 weeks
paper bag – 1 month
cotton rag – 5 months
wool sock – 1 year
cigarette butt – 2 to 5 years
leather boot – 40 to 50 years
rubber sole (of a boot) – 50 to 80 years
tin can (soup or vegetable can) – 80 to 100 years
aluminum can (soda pop can) – 200 to 500 years
plastic 6-pack rings – 450 years
plastic jug – 1 million years

Styrofoam cup – unknown? forever?
glass bottle – unknown? forever?"

I wanted to know how this was possible, so I looked further for some kind of reputable site and found the following information from HowStuffWorks.Com:

What Happens to Trash in a Landfill?

"Trash put in a landfill will stay there for a very long time. Inside a landfill, there is little oxygen and little moisture. Under these conditions, trash does not break down very rapidly. In fact, when old landfills have been excavated or sampled, 40-year-old newspapers have been found with easily readable print. Landfills are not designed to break down trash, merely to bury it."

So there you have it. I can't reassure my boys that their Buzz and Woody toys aren't going to sit in a landfill for up to a million years... because apparently, they just might.

I started out this article worried about passing on my eco-guilt to my own children, but now I remember why I have eco-guilt in the first place. It seems that our family's lasting contribution to the planet and our fellow humankind will be five or six years worth of disposable diapers, used, and about ten tons of plastic toy trash.

Crud, I need some ice cream. I think I'll go join hands with my now psychologically-damaged children and sing Kumbaya. Either that, or I'll get really pissed off and go sue these guys on behalf of my grandchildren's grandchildren. They might be geniuses but clearly they didn't have the balls to say, "And with this film, there will be only biodegradable toys".

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

December 28, 2010 ~ Day 19
Sally Goodrich, A Mother

Photo by Musadeq Sadeq / Associated Press / April 20, 2005

I was driving in my car today with my three children listening to NPR when we heard the story of Sally Goodrich, a tale that moved me to tears. As a memorial to this extraordinary woman and her cherished son Peter, I would like to share their story here today in my own words.

Their lives... and deaths... seem to hold many powerful lessons about the meaning of human existence and interconnectedness.

On September 10, 2001 Sally Goodrich was a remedial reading teacher and program coordinator for at-risk children in the North Adams, Vermont schools. She was also the proud mother of three children - Peter, Foster and Kim, and loving wife to husband Donald.

Yet by the end of the following day, Sally's world had changed even more profoundly than most Americans affected by September 11th. Her beloved son Peter, 33, had been aboard United Airlines Flight 175 when it crashed into the World Trade Center. Peter, a bright and talented software developer, would never hug his mother again.

Torn apart by grief over her son's murder, Sally began to drink. Three months later, she learned that she had ovarian cancer. Overwhelmed, she contemplated suicide. "Everything was destroyed," she says. "My life, my faith, my ability to live. I had nothing left," she shared in a 2007 Readers Digest interview. Struggling through her chemotherapy, Sally and Don grieved.

Then one day, they received an email from Major Rush Filson, a Marine and old friend of Peter's. In it he told of the extreme poverty and illiteracy he saw in his Afghan work, and asked if the Goodriches would be willing to gather school supplies for children in a village southeast of Kabul.

Sally later confided in a Boston Globe interview, “That was the beginning. I call it the moment of grace. I knew Peter would have responded to that e-mail; I knew I had to in his name. For the first time, I felt Peter’s spirit back in my life.”

Together Sally and Donald Goodrich formed the Peter M. Goodrich Memorial Foundation, which over the coming years worked tirelessly in Afghanistan to build a school for 500 girls in Logar Province, provide assistance to two additional schools in Wardak Province and also support a local orphanage. The foundation also helps Afghan exchange students attend New England schools, some of whom have eventually earned scholarships to eastern colleges including Bates, Mount Holyoke and Williams.

As they worked to help Afghan children, Sally and Don made many trips to Afghanistan to see how their school was doing. At times the news was not encouraging. On one particular visit, they learned that the families of students were being threatened with death by the Taliban through hundreds of 'night letters'. One student had been shot and another wounded. Although warned not to travel outside of Kabul to visit the school, Sally Goodrich insisted upon going. She stated quite firmly that the girls had to take great risks to go to school every day and so she was going to take the risk to go there and be with them.

She described visiting the campus where kindergartners through eighth graders gathered to learn how to read and write in Dari (a local language) and English, along with other subjects. The girls, dressed in uniforms of white head scarves and black smocks, would cluster around her and beg to show her all of the things happening in the school. As a teacher, Sally felt right at home. She loved the girls and expressed her joy in learning to them. As she said to Reader's Digest, "Helping these children gave us our lives back. I don't know how to thank them."

In 2009, the Goodriches learned that a Taliban resurgence in the village where their school was located had made it unsafe for them to return and that some of the school leaders had chosen to work with the Taliban.

Although saddened by this news, they were able to reflect on the circumstances that made this possible. Said Sally in a VPR interview, "I know that suffering is the universal language that prepares us for greater insight and understanding. We have seen the rugged beauty of a country never valued for itself, and met noble generous people who helped us understand the circumstances that laid the ground for 9-11."

Sally Goodrich mourned the loss of her son Peter until her death last week from ovarian cancer on December 18th, 2010. Yet through giving back to children in the very territory where plans for Peter's death where created, Sally regained her faith. As she told World News tonight in April 2005, “I have regained my sense of trust and hope, and I have seen the best of human nature. I’ve been the most unfortunate of women, but I am now the most fortunate of women.”

As the mother of three children myself, two boys and a girl, I feel very close today to Sally Goodrich. I never knew her personally or even knew of Peter's story until this afternoon. However thanks to her loving heart and amazing compassion, the legacy of both of their lives will continue forward.

Tonight I will be praying not just for Peter and Sally and their family, but also for the Afghan families who bravely sent their daughters to the Western-style school southeast of Kabul against the orders of the Taliban. I imagine that those families and daughters, now once again under Taliban rule, have also suffered terribly.

All families in this story, Goodriches and Afghans alike, are connected through great pain and hardship. Yet I believe, in a more spiritual way, they are also connected by love, forgiveness and heightened understanding.

In the end, we are all one. Rest in peace, Sally Goodrich. I pray that in some way you are now reunited with the child you loved so much.

Monday, December 27, 2010

December 27, 2010 ~ Day 18
At Home In The World

I love to move. I know that probably sounds crazy, because most sane middle-aged adults (especially the ones with children) like to find a place to live, make it wonderful and build a life there. I'm not even sure where my yearning to move comes from, since I lived for the first seventeen years of my life in the same house. As a creature of habit who loves tradition, you'd think I would dig my heels in and hold on to one of these places.

Maybe we haven't found the right house yet. There have been only three structures in my 35 years that really felt like "home" to me... out of the many dorms, apartments, condos, houses and craftsmen-style bungalows I have inhabited. Not including college, I have lived in fifteen different places in the past fourteen years. Some were extremely short-lived... (the record: slightly more than 2 weeks in Studio City, Los Angeles) while one special place near the beach lasted a five full years until I met my husband.

Lately this same wonderful man has been motivated to explore the potential for us to own our own home again... which we did once, for about a year. I've gotta say, I'm not as thrilled about this as most women would be. I love the idea of trying something new, but hate the finality that would come with being locked into a mortgage. I'm sincerely uncomfortable with what could happen to us financially if we invest in a place and realize down the road that it isn't right for our family for a variety for reasons including quality of local schools, bad neighbors, electrical or plumbing problems, mold or even crime. If the economy takes another dive, the "asset" of owning a home might turn out to be a real liability... at least in the short term.

A house is a really big commitment. Other than having children, buying a home with the one you love is one of the heaviest commitments two people can enter into together of their free will.

That said, I love my husband and it is really important to him to own a house.

So, I've been looking around. Not at specific houses, rather, I've been checking out different communities in our city. Trying to get a sense of their flavor... the people who live there... whether we would fit in or be happy.

And so far I've discovered that I don't feel at home anywhere right now. I'm hoping this is a feeling that will pass.

There are four main communities I've been checking out. For the sake of privacy, I'll give them their own special monikers.

(a) Wealthytown - This beach community has great schools and a pretty affluent demographic. I used to teach there and I know firsthand that some (although certainly NOT all) of the folks there can be a little snooty. I really love the safety of the neighborhoods and the excellence of the schools. That said, I don't feel that comfortable in Wealthytown. I feel like I would constantly be making jokes about my thrift store clothing and our stained furniture, just to sort of laugh off how pricey everything is in this place. I worry that my children would grow up with a false sense of reality, living in a place that is a fantasy-land compared to so much of our country. Wealthytown is also hard to access from the freeway, which would make my husband's commute to work a little difficult.

(b) Hometown - This beach community is where I grew up. It is just as beautiful as Weathytown but with less pretension and a lot less expensive. Many couples our age live there now, even though when I was growing up there were almost no families with children in my neighborhood. I guess a lot of those older folks who lived around us when I was growing up have now passed on, leaving behind a relative abundance of older fixer-upper homes in a safe neighborhood with good elementary schools. The problem with Hometown is that it is a little isolated. There are very few parks to take the children to, few grocery stores, even the post office and bank are relatively challenging to access. I can see this causing problems on a daily basis. The middle school and high school are apparently nothing to write home about either, so a move to HomeTown wouldn't likely be permanent.

(c) ArtyGritty Town - This inland community has a host of awesome craftsmen houses, many of which are in great condition and might even be within reach financially. It is very close to one of our favorite areas of the city to go out in for dates... an urban area that has enjoyed gentrification recently and now plays host to several outstanding local restaurants and pubs. Most of our "cool" friends from the local music scene live around or near this area and we lived there too for about three years. We loved it. When I see the kind of people walking their dogs, skateboarding or pushing their strollers along the streets I do feel very connected to them. It is a vibrant, diverse area. The problem? The flight path, local schools are not very good and there is significantly more crime than where we live right now. It would be tough to move back with kids, knowing those things.

(d) OurTown - The beach community where we currently live is beautiful, clean, safe and has highly rated schools and great parks. We've lived here for three years now and we both mostly love it. There is a pretty nice mix of people here thanks to local military families. There are just a few major drawbacks. First, we will never be able to own our own home here as it is one of the most expensive communities in the United States. Staying here will consign us to renting forever. Secondly, transportation becomes an issue since there are limited routes to enter and leave OurTown... routes that could easily become significantly compromised in the event of an earthquake or other disaster. This becomes even more concerning when it comes to our children. Were an earthquake to happen while my sons were at school and I was away from OurTown running errands, I literally might not be able to get back to them at all. I'm not really ok with that.

These are the four main areas that my husband and I have narrowed down within our city for long-term living. There are countless other neighborhoods but since we both grew up in this city, we know the others well enough to know that these are the 4 for us. Yet, I spent all day today driving around the streets of these neighborhoods with my kids and I didn't feel pulled toward any single one of them. Hours and hours devoted to combing each block for rent and sale signs, and I came home feeling far more confused than when I left. I've been looking around like this for weeks and our options seem blurrier now than they did before we started the hunt.

I don't feel at home in the world, right now. I want to be wherever my husband and children are... but I'm not sure where that should be.

I realize that this is the kind of negligible problem that billions of people around the world would love to have. "Gee, poor you," they would think, "Should you choose the nice community... or the nice community! What a tough life." And they would be right. I have no right to complain. I am grateful for the options we have, and we are lucky to have options.

I just wish I knew where we belonged. I wish there was one community calling our names so loudly that it was impossible to ignore. I wish I would awaken with a fire in my belly and a vision in my head which made it really clear that we were meant to stay here in OurTown forever... or uproot and head across the city and hunker down in Wealthytown.

If I drive down enough streets, sometimes in circles, it is easy to start feeling a little lost. Is there meaning in this pursuit? I choose to believe that the answer is YES. If we keep traveling all roads with clear eyes and an open heart, sooner or later, one of them will surely lead us home. I'll let you know when my family actually gets there.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

December 26, 2010 ~ Day 17
Rebooting The Holidays

One of the best parts about life is that until the moment we die, it is always possible to start over - try something new - reinvent ourselves - learn more - and even heal or strengthen challenging relationships. This wonderful truth was proven today by my family... that is, the family that I was born into.

I am the youngest of five children. We are a very diverse group. Between us over the years we have been a surfer, an actor, a dancer, two teachers, a financial sales manager, a theater manager, a waiter, a counselor, a vice-principal and a talent manager. (Lot of managing in there... apparently we all like to lead.) We are separated by age, with the oldest being over twenty years senior to the youngest. Half of us live on the West Coast, half on the East Coast.

I share a parent with each of my siblings, but not necessarily the same one (two with mom, two with dad). We have disparate interests ranging from golf to indie rock to crafting and needlepoint. We differ significantly in our views on religion, politics and relationships. Some really love pets, others are allergic, and some own pets despite their allergies. Some of us couldn't wait to be done with school at age 18 and others earned graduate degrees and take classes for fun. Some of us are parents of teens, some are parents of toddlers, some of us don't have kids at all.

Every single person in my family has a good heart. I can say this with 200% conviction, there isn't one of us that would ever intentionally hurt another human being. We are all generous by nature and we tend to be the type of people who, even if we have only $10 in the bank will gladly lend or give you $5.

We are also the kind of folks that will be there for each other in a second if ever there is a problem, even if we don't always see eye-to-eye. My brothers and sister have each at different times let me crash on their couches, supported my dreams, weathered my past failed relationships and given both emotional and financial support to me in times of crisis.

I love my family. I understand my family. I basically always get along with my family. Yet, family holiday dinners have - for a long long long time - been sort of awkward and pressured. Thanks to our many differences in perspective and life situation, when you put the whole lot of us (with our respective spouses and children) around one big table, the conversation typically stalls and there are a lot of long silences.

It has been like this for a very long time, by which I mean, decades. Our holiday routine is so engrained, robots could perform it. Traditionally the holidays look like this:

(a) My mother cooks for a week before the holiday and thoroughly exhausts herself
(b) My siblings come over on the day of the holiday to help my mother finish the cooking and my own family of 5 always manages to be late for the actual meal, which is usually dinner
(c) At last we all sit down at the table, say grace, and then it becomes very silent with random siblings trying to break the awkward silences by asking generic questions such as: 'How is work going lately?' and 'Did you see that baseball game last week?' Someone may crack a joke and we all laugh politely, and then fall silent again.
(d) We wash dishes and clean up for an hour
(e) If it is Christmas, we spend hours opening way too many presents that cost us all way too much $
(f) The kids are tired and it is time to go home
(g) We are relieved that Christmas is over for another year

Since the death of my father though, the unspoken rules of the holiday season seem to be lifting and my mom seems more open to switching things up. So this year when my sister mentioned to me that she would like to change the holiday routine, I sprang at the chance. I was nominated by my sibs to convey to our mother that we wanted to do it differently this year... and to our joy and surprise she was very accommodating. Apparently we have all noticed the awkwardness and been too polite to mention it to each other.

We decided to rebuild the entire holiday from the ground floor up. We changed the date to the 26th so that we could leisurely celebrate Christmas with both sides of all of our respective families. We made it a daytime gathering, where football watching was allowed. (Thanks, mom!) We brought in almost all of the food ourselves in potluck fashion, so that our mother wouldn't be tired out from cooking. We limited present giving to the grandchildren only... and we all brought our favorite boardgames.

From the first moment, I could tell this day was going to be a success. When my brother and sister-in-law came in wearing matching football jerseys, it was clear that the vibe was totally different. We set the table with compostable paper plates. This wasn't going to be a pose-in-front-of-the-tree year. Very cool.

During the game, the men congregated around the television while most of the ladies made their way out to chat at leisure. When the children opened gifts, we took the only photos of the day... of their happy, shiny little faces.

Best of all, when the gift giving and pie eating were over - we all actually sat around a table playing games for hours. Laughter - the heartfelt, shoulder shaking, belly aching kind - erupted from around the table frequently during rigorous rounds of "Apples to Apples" and "Taboo". Everyone was having so much fun, we all forgot about our differences.

Instead of the typical awkward three hours, we actually spent seven hilarious and extremely relaxing hours at my mother's home today. It was a blast. At the end we all agreed it was the best Christmas we could remember having in years. There was so much good will and love, it really felt to me as though we'd hit the RESET button.

I love the fact that you can be part of a family for 35 years and continue to grow together, change, and develop those same relationships... make them stronger, happier, funnier and more integrated. There have been years in the past when I never would have believed it was possible for us to share a holiday like this. It just goes to show that it is never too late to begin again, and where there is real love all things are possible. I'm glad our family didn't give up on Christmas, or on each other.

I am really looking forward to Easter!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

December 25, 2010 ~ Day 16
A Cow, Not A Cup

Dan West was an ordinary American farmer placed in extraordinary circumstances by war and fate. As a Church of the Brethren relief worker in the Spanish Civil War, West was handed the job of rationing portions of milk to hungry children. One day as he fulfilled his duties it occurred to him that "These children don't need a cup, they need a cow".

From this humble inspiration sprang Heifers for Relief, an organization formed in 1944 to provide needy families with both livestock and training. No longer would impoverished parents have to rely upon outside aid to feed their kids... instead, they would be granted the gift of lifetime use of an animal along with instructions for its care. There was only one condition. Recipients agreed to 'pay it forward' by agreeing to donate one of the animal's healthy offspring to another needy family. This way, each gift could continue giving.

West's philosophy reminds me of the ancient Chinese proverb ascribed to Confucius... "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

I could write a much longer article on the history of American agricultural subsidies to farmers in developing nations and the tremendous harm they have inflicted upon local economies. That, however, would not be very Christmasy.

So instead of a treatise, how about a brief explanation of US farm subsidy policy for anyone unfamiliar with how it works.

Each year the United States produces an enormous amount of food, beyond our actual needs. Because these few crops flood the global market, the price of the food drops ~ not just in our country but around the globe.

When prices are too low to be profitable, American farmers are compensated with US government subsidies. These government subsidies actually motivate American farmers to plant mainly the crops that the US government will subsidize even in the case of drought or blight... usually staple crops which include cotton, corn, soy and wheat. (The over-production of corn explains in part why you can find corn or corn syrup listed as an ingredient in almost every processed American food, also in other products ranging from ice cream to biodegradable kitchen trash bags.)

Unfortunately, the US policy of flooding the global market with certain products also has a strong effect upon farmers worldwide, especially those in developing nations whose governments do not subsidize food production. A farmer in Africa, for example, would be equally affected by the overproduction of wheat in the American midwest... but without a government subsidy his family would suffer great financial hardship and even hunger.

The US government responds to this situation by sending large amounts of US federal aid to the farmers in developing nations. In turn, this encourages the African farmer and his peers to become less independent and more reliant upon millions of dollars of foreign aid to survive. It is an ugly scenario. If the United States would simply stop government subsidies of food production in our own country, the global food market would normalize and African farmers would likely be able to feed their kids with the profit from their own agriculture.

It is a tragedy that the "starving children in Africa" actually got that way due to fiscal policies in Washington DC affecting agriculture in the Midwest. What the "you can help a starving child in Africa" commercials should really be saying is... "You can help by calling your local Senator and Congressman and demanding the end of US farm subsidies".

From my view, this is where organizations like Heifer come in, with their simple yet excellent idea of giving impoverished families a source of food instead of short-term relief or cash that will soon be spent. The committed staff at Heifer have worked for over 65 years to help farmers and families achieve a new level of health thanks to their vision that it takes long-range commitment and involvement to create real change.

This is how the Heifer approach works:

First, Heifer will enter a world community and help the people to figure out their own situation. Farmers/families are asked to identify for themselves what they need, what resources they have access to, and what positive shifts they would like to see taking place within their community within a five year period. They must come up with a detailed plan to identify concrete goals.

Then, the community receives a Heifer "living loan". In order to be ready for this loan the farmers must develop the skills and environment necessary to successfully house and care for their animals. Sometimes this entails planting trees and grass for the animal to eat, or constructing a shed to protect the animal from climate stress.

When the environment is ready and the farmer has been trained, the animal at last arrives. With it the farmer or family will receive innumerable lasting benefits: milk, eggs, draft power, wool and ultimately offspring to pass on to another Heifer recipient.

In the last stage of the process, the farmer/family evaluates progress. When they are ready to create new and more far-reaching goals, they may push forward and continue to expand the cycle of success by identifying new areas of need and applying for new living loans. The crucial steps with each cycle include developing a vision, deciding upon needs, implementing a self-created strategy and ultimately reflecting upon progress.

What I love most about the Heifer approach to eliminating global hunger and poverty is that it is sustainable. Heifer is not in the business of giving handouts. Rather, they are giving dignity-health-hope to millions of people around the world, "one family and one animal at a time".

The results of Dan West's dream are impressive. As the Heifer website notes, "Since 1944, the total number of families assisted directly and indirectly [around the world] is 13.6 million—more than 70.5 million men, women and children. In 2009, a total of 1.63 million families were assisted within the four program areas in which Heifer operates" (Africa, Americas, Asia/South Pacific and Central/Eastern Europe).

I love looking through the annual Heifer gift catalogue. You can give symbolic gifts to your friends and family which simultaneously serve to support others half-a-world away. From the gift of honeybees given to farmers in countries ranging from Uganda to El Salvador - who rely upon the income from honeybees to produce products including beeswax and honey... to the much grander scale gift of llamas, cows and goats... every gift you share with your friends will also bring joy and sustainable livelihood to farmers and families in need.

The largest and most powerful gift available through is an Ark... fifteen pairs of animals given around the world in areas with the greatest need!. Each ark includes pairs of cows, sheep, camels, water buffalo and many more.

Christmas is typically a time of giving gifts and sharing love with our fellow man. Our family hopes to give the gift of Heifer every year... and we hope you will consider it as well. Affording lifelong income and dignity to other human beings ~ surely these kind of gifts are a lot more about respect than they are about charity.

December 24, 2010 ~ Day 15
Ack! Merry Christmas!

It's just past midnight and I'm hoping that my good intentions will help me squeak this blog back about an hour so that it will count for the 24th... a day that turned out to be wonderful and exhausting all at the same time, and which still hasn't ended because Santa has to wrap all of the presents before the boys wake up in the morning... (and I need to be awake to help place them under the stockings for him, seeing that he's a pretty busy guy).

The best part of today without doubt was sitting around the table, just our little family of five, eating takeout Chinese food and each sharing one thing that we were grateful for. I was especially touched that when we got to our eighteen month old daughter who can say less then twenty words, and my husband asked her what she was grateful for, she said "Brothers". (Well, it came out more like "Bwava" but we all know what she means by that.)

Much as I adore my three older brothers and older sister, I always wanted a sibling close to my own age growing up. So, it is really special to me that my children (mostly) like each other and play together all day long.

Today in the car I told my children again the Nativity story and they were fascinated by the birth of baby Jesus. They're still so young, he is the character in the story that each of them can relate to the most... the baby in the manger. They asked me a lot of questions like, "What did baby Jesus eat, mommy?" and "Did he have brothers and sisters?"...even, "Did baby Jesus like trains?" They were especially excited to know that they would be celebrating his birthday tomorrow.

I am not a fan of the materialism of Christmas in our country, but I really do love seeing the magical-mystical-spiritual aspects of the season through the eyes of my children. When we light candles their eyes glow with wonder; when we bake cookies, they dance around the kitchen. These children are still young enough to believe in miracles and Santa Claus, for which I am truly grateful.

Merry Christmas to you all... I look forward to writing a longer December 25th blog later today. For now, the meaning of my life will be found in watching my children awaken joyfully full of anticipation and happiness... which means I have a lot of wrapping to do.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

December 23, 2010 ~ Day 14
Life Is What Happens...

...while you're busy making plans.

Sometimes we just awaken and enter a day that turns out to have a lot of unexpected twists and turns. I guess the main thing to learn from those days is to try to let go and roll with the road as it winds.

I worked for my husband's company today until about 5:30pm. Just as I was about to take a break and begin writing this daily Meaning of Life column, our babysitter let me know that our daughter was once again refusing to eat and drink and sitting listlessly and whimpering. I took her temperature and sure enough, 103 degrees F. Again. Despite Augmentin for the past 10 days! She took the last dose yesterday night and apparently today, the fever was back in full force. So either the antibiotic did not do the job, or it is a new virus or bacteria.

Anyway, within the span of ten minutes I went from leisurely writing to scurrying across the city when our pediatrician told me over the phone to get my little girl into their office ASAP. Apparently it isn't a great sign when a fever recurs right after a "recovery" from pneumonia.

The next few hours then consisted of driving, waiting for a very long time in a sick children's waiting room, waiting for even longer in the doctor's patient room (whatever those are called) and then waiting some more to get the results of a quick swab flu test. (Negative). My daughter was pretty darn sweet and patient for a little person with a 103 degree fever but I can guarantee you that BOTH of us wished we were somewhere else.

Now we continue to wait. If the fever doesn't break in 3 days (Merry Christmas!) we are to take her to the local Children's Hospital on Dec 26th to get a chest x-ray to see if she has "a pocket of pus in her lungs that the antibiotics were unable to reach". Which they would then have to surgically drain. Ugh.

Really praying for the fever to break.

So, life today turned out yet again to be what happened when I was busy making plans to write and spend time with dear out-of-town friends. This is one of the constants I have found in my quest for the discovering the "meaning" of it all.

On a funnier, happier note - this same 18-month old daughter came into being on the exact day that my husband and I discussed - for the first time - if and when we wanted to try for a third baby. Our brief conversation went something like:

"So, we've always said we wanted three children and I'd love to be done being pregnant before I am 34 because that is when all of the risks seem to go up."

"Yeah, I think three is a good number. The real question is, are we really ready for a third yet?"

"Maybe not just yet. I think we should wait until after the holidays before we try. Why don't we think about it and then discuss again in a few months after Christmas is over?"

"That sounds good to me. We should try to figure out our budget and really plan the timing."

...and then about ten hours later, one thing led to another and our little girl was on her 34 week journey into the world.

Her life (literally!) is what happened when we were busy making plans :-)

That's all I've got for today. It's been a long, draining one. But, tomorrow is Christmas Eve and I am asking Santa for healthy kids this Christmas... so I've got high hopes for the December 24th blog.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

December 22, 2010 ~ Day 13
A Place To Hang Your Hat

We've had pretty intense weather here on the West Coast this week, including heavy rain and strong wind that lasted for days. Despite the urge to stay in our cozy house, we were obliged to venture into the wet world yesterday to keep an appointment at the other end of town.

The freeway was flooded with a foot of standing water and motorists in front of our car were riding their brakes every time they hit a deeper pool of water, sometimes fishtailing a bit. With this in mind, we exited the freeway and drove carefully across the city using surface roads that connect each community to its neighbors.

As our car went through the downtown area, we passed under several large bridges. My older son pointed out the window and said, "Look, homeless people". His little brother shouted, "Where?" and then, "I see them!" as we drove by several people huddled on the ground in sleeping bags, hugging the wall under the bridge.

This is not the first time my children have seen homeless men and women and it was not our first conversation about why people become homeless, or what it might feel like to lack a house and a family to care for you during tough times.

However, it was the first time my little guys had seen homeless people enduring severe weather. Rather than looking at homelessness as urban camping, I think it started to bring home the message to my children that being homeless is scary... and in this case cold, wet, miserable and very sad.

We talked for a while in the car about how folks become homeless, and what keeps some of them chronically homeless. I don't have all the answers for the endless questions that my children ask about such tough issues - but I did tell them that every single one of the people they see on the street was once a baby that some mother loved and cuddled and rocked to sleep. Every human life has value... and every human being was precious to at least one person at some point in their lives.

In an act of synchronicity, one of my college friends on Facebook posted an article yesterday evening from the New York Times Blog about a "Plan to End Homelessness".

Many of my children's most pressing questions were answered in this article. For example ~

Q: How many people are homeless all of the time?
A: Around 700,000 people are homeless in this country on any given day and 120,000 of them are chronically homeless

Q: Why don't they find a place to live?
A: Many of the homeless have not been able to find stable housing due to mental illness, substance abuse problems or because they wouldn't be able to bring their pets.

Q: Who are the homeless?
A: The group Common Ground surveyed almost 14,000 chronically homeless people and found that 20% are veterans, 10% are over age 60, 4% have HIV/AIDS and 47% have mental illness.

Q: Why don't they have jobs?
A: Many of them have not held down steady work due to addiction, mental illness or life-threatening diseases

Q: Why don't we give them houses mommy?
A: The answer to this question is the subject of my blog today.

When I was eighteen years old, having just completed my freshman year of college, I worked downtown for a law firm as a glorified secretary where I was paid slightly more than minimum wage. The hours were long but I felt motivated and excited to achieve great things in my future.

As I would walk to work every morning, having awoken at dawn to shower, dress and eat before work, many homeless men would ask me for money. I recall feeling highly annoyed at them and thinking, "If I can get a job and make something of myself, you can do it too!" I didn't always agree when my then-boyfriend would give all of the coins in his pocket to panhandlers. (I always felt good about giving food though.)

Seventeen years later, I have a different take on the matter. I understand the complexities of homelessness and I now know that any of us have the capacity to become homeless if we make choices that upend our lives... choices to experiment with drugs that surprise us by becoming an addiction; choices to join the military and fight a war or wars that may give tremendous psychological stress, scarring and PTSD. Economic forces beyond our control can take away our jobs and our homes. Death can take away family or friends that may have once watched out for us to keep us safe and well. Unexpected disease or accident can create hospital bills that bankrupt a family. A lot can happen to muck up a perfectly good life, and many times it is through no fault of our own.

I still struggle though with how to give money, what is the best way to give that also empowers people without enabling their vices. Which is why I loved the New York times article about the 100,000 Homes Campaign.

The goal of the campaign is simple yet lofty. Within 3 years, permanent supportive housing will be located for 100,000 of the most vulnerable homeless on the streets of America. Since the launch of the campaign this past summer 7,043 homeless (at time of writing) have been housed within 64 different communities around the country - including my own. $121,000 dollars have been raised for move-in kits, and there are 933 days remaining for the large goal to be reached.

All of this became possible in the early 1990s when Pathways to Housing made clear to government that permanent housing was the first resource people needed to stabilize their lives, rather than being forced to jump through rehab programs before becoming eligible for permanent homes. Only when settled within permanent housing were many of the chronically homeless able to overcome their addictions, manage any diseases, "clean up" and then find jobs and create healthy lives.

As it turns out, it actually costs cities a lot less money each year - 40% less in Los Angeles, for example - to provide supportive housing for the homeless, rather than leaving the people on the streets. If you are an economic conservative, you may be surprised to know that giving a homeless person a stable shelter is actually a lot more cost-effective in the long term than letting them flounder on their own.

As David Bornstein's blog explains, "People who live on the streets tend to cycle through emergency rooms, addiction treatment, psychiatric care and jails. Housing them yields huge cost savings for society. In Los Angeles, the nation’s homeless capital, 4,800 chronically homeless people — about 10 percent of the city’s homeless population — consume half a billion dollars in services annually, well more than the remaining 90 percent."

In their work to end homelessness, the New York group Common Ground realized that what we think of as "the homeless" were actually a generalized label for many different subsets. Information about whether the homeless person in front of you is diseased, mentally ill or a veteran becomes critically important because many cities and organizations set aside large chunks of money to help rehabilitate people in these disparate groups - e.g. a "veterans" fund, even if they don't have money specifically set aside for "the homeless".

With this in mind, the group has created a streamlined process to help put vulnerable homeless together with support from non-profit groups, foundations and businesses. Local volunteers in each city are asked to go out on the streets between 4am and 6am in order to ask homeless strangers about their lives and health, for three mornings in a row. This has been tremendously successful, and I was thrilled to learn that in my city alone several hundred volunteers turned out in the middle of the night to lend a hand. Local volunteers are also able to contribute money to assist the homeless with furniture for their new house and also their move-in expenses.

The idea of "homeless" may seem vague and scary to my children. When we know though, that the lady pushing the shopping cart is Mary - a dog lover who nursed her elderly mother until they were evicted and who suffers from diabetes - it puts a recognizable face on this widespread problem. The man sleeping under the cardboard box may actually be Dan, a veteran who suffers from a traumatic brain injury and PTSD.

These are real people, and now I know of a good way to help out. Whether you consider yourself to be liberal or conservative, a philanthropist or just a plain old Stay-At-Home-Mom like me... getting the homeless into supportive housing makes sense for our country from an economic AND emotional standpoint. Not to mention, I personally feel like the streets of our city will be safer for both the homeless and my children if we make sure that everyone has access to a stable home... and a fresh start in life.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

December 21, 2010 ~ Day 12
It's All In Your Point of View

Today my family and I went to see a beautiful home for rent belonging to a husband and wife who are about to make a radical change in their lifestyle and plans. (Given the fact that we will probably not ever be able to own a home in the community where we currently live, we have been looking around at other parts of the city to see what it would cost to rent or even buy in other areas in close proximity to good schools for our kids.)

We're far from making the decision to move. However, we're meeting some very interesting folks in the process of looking around!

Lars and Renee (not their real names) are a successful couple in their 40s (well, they look like they're in their 40s!) who have recently decided to step back from their careers and spend time traveling the world together. They have no children and are not tied to any kind of schedule or routine. Spontaneously, they have decided to put their careers on hiatus and enroll in a Semester at Sea! Over the course of 104 days they will travel to 11 countries around the globe, including Brazil where they will enter the mouth of the Amazon River and travel to the port of Manaus.

During their time at sea they will travel to locations as diverse as South Africa, India, Vietnam, Japan and Hawaii. ( Wow!!!) They will also spend a great deal of time learning about the cultures that they will be interacting with, reflecting and meditating on what it means to be a global citizen, and learning through immersion. As the program website describes, "Students have the opportunities to learn through action, contemplation, reflection, and emotional engagement, as well as through acquisition of information."

I have always thought of Semester at Sea as being a kind of junior year study-abroad program facilitated mainly by colleges for young students. It never occurred to me that these programs would also be offered to alumni and also as "enrichment voyages" for adults.

What I love most about the fact that Lars and Renee are leaving everything behind for the next four months to hop on a boat and sail around the world, is the spirit with which they are doing it. They intend to leave behind all of the (extremely beautiful) material goods that they have accumulated for the benefit of whomever rents their home, so that they can "start fresh" when they return to California and really begin a new life together. They've been married for eleven years, and yet it seems like they are actively rebooting their life together and their marriage through adventure!

Most people I know cannot afford to quit their jobs and simply travel for a while... or at least, they would never believe it was possible. That being said, I do think that there are many ways to live and travel throughout Southeast Asia and even parts of Mexico that can be extremely economical - even for a family on a shoestring budget.

When I was young many of my friends would go with their families to Hawaii for vacations. Hawaii seemed to be the "it" vacation of my childhood, yet my own family never went there. After a while, the Hawaiian islands took on an almost mythical significance for me ~ these tantalizing tropical locales that I could only dream of and see in movies. Years later when I graduated from college, an old friend of mine and I actually did it - we saved our money and flew together to Maui where we hiked, swam and relaxed for ten days. Since it was an off season (March) I think we paid about $400 roundtrip each... it may even have been less. The islands themselves, which on a globe looked quite remote and unreachable, turned out to be a mere six hours away.

That trip changed my philosophy about spontaneous living. Letting go of my old mantra ("Maybe someday I'll get there...") I coined a shiny new belief -- "If you want something, make it happen. Hawaii is only a few hundred dollars and six hours away."

My brother must have figured this out a decade before I did, as he picked up and moved himself to Hawaii when he was just out of high school and 18 years old. Knowing only one person in Hawaii when he arrived, he got a job, found an apartment, made friends and surfed every day. He didn't let anything - including our parents - stand in his way from making a huge life change. Although he finally made his way back to our California town to settle down, I've always gotten the impression that he cherishes his memories of Hawaii and his experiences there.

So, the meaning of life today turns out to be, "It's all in your point of view". Whether you have financial resources or family obligations, anything is possible with the right mindset. Believe in yourself, make a plan, make it happen.

Bon Voyage, Lars and Renee! May your journey through the world be exciting and life-changing in the best of all possible ways. Thanks for reminding us to embrace adventure and spontaneity!

Monday, December 20, 2010

December 20, 2010 ~ Day 11
The Farmer's Luck

When our oldest son was born, one of my best friends gave him a book called "Zen Shorts". This wonderful hardcover children's story is both a work of fiction and a collection of Buddhist teachings. During the past five years we have read Zen Shorts to our children hundreds of times and I have grown very attached to the fable of The Farmer's Luck.

In the story (retold in my words) the Farmer has many things happen to change his life. Each time something significant happens, the villagers feel either sorry for him or envious of him. Yet, the Farmer never takes his luck - either good or bad - for granted, for he understands that it is likely to change yet again.

When his son brings home a wild pony, all of the villagers are envious of their family for having caught such a wonderful horse. They say, "Such good luck!" and the Farmer replies, "We'll see." A few days later while training the horse, the son is thrown to the ground and breaks his leg. "Such bad luck!" they villagers say. "Maybe," replies the Farmer. When the army rolls into town conscripting young men for battle a few days later, they can't take the Farmer's son due to the broken leg. "Such good luck!" cry the villagers. "We'll see..."

I love this fable, because it makes bad things seem more bearable... and when good things happen, it teaches my kids not to take their happiness for granted.

This afternoon I am feeling pretty anxious that I have to drive over the bay bridge that connects our community to the rest of the city, in the pouring rain and wind. When I was driving the bridge earlier today, our car was skidding all over its lane and I prayed very hard for us to make it home safely so that my children would be okay. Now that they are home for the rest of the day, I feel more at ease but still very sorry that I have to cross it again and drive two hours on the freeway in such miserable conditions... just to get up to a doctor's appointment and back.

I can hear my inner self saying, "Such bad luck!" as I look at the wind tossing around leaves and toys in the back yard. Then the optimistic part of me replies, "We'll see!" Perhaps the storm will turn out to be very good luck, although I'm not sure how.

One of my closest friends has recently returned from spending a year in Ecuador and she described for me how treacherous the winding roads are there and how easy it would be for the buses that she rode on to get to the indigenous village where she did her doctoral research to accidentally go off of a cliff. She told me about a comforting conversation she had with a missionary who had traveled those same roads for 20 years. The woman believed, "When it's my time, I will go... and if it's not my time, I will be fine".

I love that sense of connectedness to a larger plan. Just like the mythical Greek Fates ~ goddesses who spin the thread of life and cut it at their whim. According to the legend, we each have a thread spun and measured at birth. When your string is cut, your time has come... and if your time has not come, you will survive any event no matter how severe.

Today as I traverse these watery and windy roads, I hope that the thread of my Fate is long and strong. And wherever you are, be it amid a heat wave or a blizzard, I will pray the same for you. After all, the threads of our lives are interwoven keeping us connected forever :-) and we never know exactly why events happen until we can look back upon them with the clarity of time. As the Farmer advises us, "We'll see..."

Sunday, December 19, 2010

December 19, 2010 ~ Day 10
Direct Line To Santa

Just in case you've been wondering, I've got Santa's direct line. I was just describing to my boys yesterday how hospitals and birth centers give out Santa's telephone number and email address in the "New Baby" packet shared with parents when all babies are born. (The number also comes with every adoption packet, and all teachers get it with along with their teaching credential.)

The best part about the holiday season is experiencing it through the eyes of children who believe. Here are some of the questions my kids have asked about Santa and the reindeer in the last few days:

Does Santa sleep?

Can Santa call us when he is busy?

How does Santa make his reindeer fly?

Does Santa go to give presents even at the North Pole?

Does Santa give presents to his elves?

How does Santa get shoes and what kind does he wear?

Do the reindeer gallop in the sky?

Do reindeer make Christmas trees?

Does Santa use paint?

Where does Santa get his sleigh?

Is there really such a thing as Rudolph the red nosed reindeer?

How do they make the toys?

How does Santa buy equipment?

Are reindeer strong?

Does Santa say "Ho Ho Ho" when he is flying too?

What snack does Santa like the best? What do the reindeer like? Would zucchini be ok?

How do reindeer get Santa's attention when they are flying?

How far can reindeer fly? Do they practice during the year?

How bad does a kid have to be to get coal?

One of the most beautiful part of the holiday season is watching how it brings adults together, even perfect strangers, to create something memorable and sweet for children.

For example yesterday at the store Sports Authority, a very kind checkout clerk and two of his managers all worked closely with me - in front of my kids - to use my credit card to put T-ball and Basketball equipment that fit my sons on a special "Santa Hold". This involved extensive paperwork and much smiling, but in the end we were able to leave all of the merchandise we had reserved in a special section of the store for Santa to come and pick up sometime this week.

Belief in forces that are mysterious, generous and even magical - surely this is an important part of the meaning of life. Until the age of science and reason, human beings had a far stronger relationship with the unknown and the divine. And while that relationship with God or unseen forces was often abused by humans in positions of real power (e.g. Spanish Inquisition, Salem Witch Trials) there is also something that we may have lost when we stopped believing that lightening and thunder were signs of displeasure from the gods... or that even the greatest of miracles could take place suddenly and without explanation.

So today, I will be calling Santa personally to ask my children's questions. I rejoice in the fact that at least for this year, Santa is something special for them to dream of, yearn for, and think about happily.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

December 18, 2010 ~ Day 9
The Power of 10%

Could you commit to giving 10% of all of your earnings from now until the day you finally retire to help desperately poor people around the world? (In my case that would be at least 30 years of annual giving.) If you knew that you were bringing food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, healthcare to the sickly, hope to the downtrodden and life to those who might otherwise lose it... could you make the 10% sacrifice? Permanently? Even in times of economic downturn or unexpected personal need?

This is the question explored in depth by native Australian Toby Ord and the other members of GivingWhatWeCan.Org, an international group bound together by the ethical and economic commitment to give a minimum of 10% of all of their current and future income until retirement to humanitarian groups and aid organizations where they think their money can do the most to eliminate poverty in the developing world. So far the 64 members of this organization - who hail from nine countries around the globe - have given more than $22 million dollars to accomplish this goal.

Ord , 30, currently attends the University of Oxford where he is a postdoctoral research fellow in ethics. He describes the inception of his idea: “I discovered that by donating most of my future income to the most efficient charities, I could save around 500,000 years of healthy life. Since I already had most of the things I value in life on my student stipend, I realised that my money would do vastly more good for others than it could for me and decided to make a commitment to donating to the most effective charities I could find. Many people contacted me asking how they could do this as well, and so I set up Giving What We Can.”

Giving What We Can focuses solely on aiding the world’s poorest nations because the members feel that is where their money can stretch the farthest to do the most good. On their website they give the example of blindness. In the United States it apparently costs upward of $50,000 (really?!) to train one guide dog and also teach its recipient how to best use that dog. This stands in stark contrast to the effect of using the same dollar amount to provide inexpensive, effective eye surgery for people in developing countries. For the same money, “We could cure enough people of Trachoma-induced blindness to prevent a total of 2,600 years of blindness.” In a smaller scale example, if a dollar can buy a single hamburger in our country it will stretch much, much further to create meals for multiple people in the Third World.

There is also a more emotional, evocative argument for giving now. “If we wait to fix our own problems, we may wait forever... If we can’t help those far less fortunate than ourselves now, when will we?”
This is a very good and realistic point, from my perspective as a middle class United States citizen. When I was younger, I thought I should wait to give major funds to charity until I was older and more established. Now that I am actually older and settled, there are so many more things pulling upon our family finances than I ever would have imagined! From diapers to clothing and shoes, healthy food for a family of five (why oh why are vegetables more expensive than corn syrup!), a family car, medical expenses and maintaining a home in a safe neighborhood... we have less discretionary funds now than we have ever had. It isn’t likely to change anytime soon, either. Down the road I foresee braces for the kids, sports and artistic activities, music and language lessons, vehicles and insurance, college tuition and then our own home and retirement expenses to consider.

So, if we don’t make a commitment to give now, I really don’t know when we will ever find a “better” time to donate a significant part of our income.

My husband and I went onto the Giving What We Can website today to take a ‘look around’ and were quite surprised to learn thanks to their helpful How Rich You Are tool that despite how thinly our budget is stretched each month with our three children and their seemingly infinite needs, we still fall within the top 10% of the world’s wealthiest people. This is quite eye-opening, as we typically compare ourselves to the community in which we actually live... not to communities half a world away that we have never seen.

In fact, the impact that our family alone could make is quite startling. Using their What You Can Achieve tool, we learned that by donating 10% of our current income per year for the rest of our lives, even assuming no increase in my husband's salary, we could save over a thousand lives and produce well over one hundred thousand hours of school attendance and general health. 1000 lives!

I’m not sure if our family is ready to make the 10% commitment yet -- especially when our church would love to see us make a similar 10% lifetime commitment to them as well -- but I do feel that Giving What We Can is very well thought out, highly researched organization dedicated to doing true good for humanity. I want to do my part to spread the word about their website and pledge... perhaps one day our family will join the ever-growing list of names around the world of regular people just like you and me who have committed to love and provide for their fellow man as generously as possible.

The members of Giving What We Can are often asked why they focus solely on poverty when other issues including climate change are of equally vital importance. They answer that the burden of climate change is likely to fall squarely on the backs of the world’s desperately poor people, who will suffer much more quickly and significantly than wealthier citizens who are able to make changes in their home, career, lifestyle and medical care to ameliorate the effects of climate change. That said, the group agrees that if a member is sincerely convinced that working to prevent catastrophic climate change is the best way to make a significant difference in the lives of the world’s poor, it would be acceptable to give pledged funds to environmental foundations..

I listened to Toby Ord speaking on NPR today about giving and his words really rang true for me. As Ord says, “As an undergraduate, I often argued with my friends about political and ethical matters. I regularly received the retort: ‘if you believe that, why don't you just give most of your money to people starving in Africa?’ This was meant to show that my position was absurd, but as time passed and I thought more about ethics, I found the conclusion increasingly sensible: if my money could help others much more than it helps me, then why not?”