пятница, 30 декабря 2011 г.

Chasing a Dream

By Melissa Harding

There are some defeats more triumphant than victories.
~Michel de Montaigne

I was 200 yards away from the finish line when my legs stopped working. In a moment faster than I could blink, I watched my dreams crash helplessly to the ground. Lifting my face from the dirt, I looked up and saw the horror in my dad's face. In his eyes I saw the sweat, the time, and the work we had put into our dream. The miles we had run together, all for this race, flashed across my mind. This race was the pinnacle of my hopes, the climax of my existence -- the State cross-country race of my senior year of high school.

I was the fastest runner on my team, and I was supposed to make it into the top fifteen. We had been working towards this race for three years. It was everything to me, and it was everything to my dad. He was a runner and was exhilarated by my success in running. He made it to every race, even flying home early from business trips to see me run. I always listened for his voice, which rang above the crowd -- telling me to relax my arms, calling out my time. He pushed me. He cheered for me. He believed in me. We spent countless hours on the sandy canals of Arizona. Breathing in the dust of the desert, the blossoms of the orange groves, and the stench of the dairy farm, we made our way across the city. We pounded miles and miles into our running shoes, marking with every step the path to greatness. It was a journey that was just ours. A dream passed on from one generation to the next.

I will never forget that November day. It was hotter than normal -- too hot. My throat felt like a field of cotton, cracked with the summer heat, as I waited for the gun to fire. This was the day we had waited so long for. This was the day I was destined for. I gazed out at the crowd; dozens of familiar faces from church and school flickered across my view. They had come for me. They were counting on me. I saw my dad set his watch, worry and excitement etched across his face. Adrenaline pumped through my body, and the race began.

For the first two and a half miles, I felt great. I had never before been so ready for something. The weeks leading up to the race were filled with regimented practices and a strict diet. My friends hadn't seen me in weeks, but they understood the sacrifice required to make my dream a reality. The sizzling sun beat upon my back, blinding me with its brilliance. Nothing was going to stop me, though. Determination focused my mind, and perseverance guided my steps. As in all of my races, I didn't start out in the front. I loved the thrill of passing people as my endurance overtook their premature speed.

Without warning, my strength began to subside. My lungs fought to take in enough air, and my feet transformed into cement bricks. I still don't know what happened in those last few moments. Neck and neck with one of my greatest rivals, I could see the finish line. I had begun the final sprint into glory when my knees buckled and my legs gave way. Nothing I could do would make them hold my weight. They were as weak as Jell-O.

I watched with agony as runners rushed by me. Even though I knew my dreams of victory were destroyed, I had to finish the race. With all of the strength left in me, I got on my hands and knees and crawled, inch by inch, across the finish line. Voices, both foreign and familiar, cheered me on. They gave me the courage to keep going until the very end. The paramedics were there in seconds, sticking me with needles, covering my mouth with an oxygen mask.

My eyes scoured the crowd for him. Although my coach and teammates rushed to me, offering words of encouragement, there was only one person I wanted to talk to. Fear pulsed through my veins as he pushed his way to my side.

As the tears spilled over, I whispered, "I'm so sorry, Dad. I'm so sorry I disappointed you."

He looked at me with sadness and said, "You could never disappoint me. Sometimes these things just happen. All that matters is that you did your best."

"But we worked so hard. What about our dream?"

In that second, the world stood still. He reached over for my hand, holding back his own tears, and said, "Don't you know that you are my dream come true?

It wasn't long before my running shoes were back on, marking a new path for my journey. I learned something from that race -- something I will never forget. All of the miles, the tears, the sweat, and the pain my dad and I experienced together were not for a race. When he pushed me to go faster, to work harder, or to breathe deeper, it wasn't for a dream that was unfulfilled. I thought my dad was running after a prize. What I realized, though, was that he was running after me. To him, I was the greatest prize he had ever won.


четверг, 29 декабря 2011 г.

One of Those Days

By Dena Dyer

It was one of those days.

I'd been cooped up in the house with two kids, had a work deadline, and could feel a sinus infection coming on.

The day had started pretty well. That morning, I was cuddling in bed with seven-year-old Jordan and two-year-old Jackson. Jordan said, "Jackson is so cute, I could die!"

Contented sigh.

But it was all downhill from there. Later that day, Jordan and Jax were playing with markers. At one point, I noticed that Jordan had scribbled "kick me" on Jax's lower back above his diaper. I had to laugh, but I also had to work at getting the marker off with an unscheduled bath.

As for the newly tattooed toddler, his day was spent screaming at the top of his lungs and taking off his diaper.

By two o'clock, I was ready to run out the door screaming. When the baby's naptime finally came, I tried to work, but then I realized that this was one of those times when I just needed to be still.

And so I was.

Turning off the computer, I poured myself a cup of tea, sat in my favorite chair and opened my journal.

With a smile, I saw that my life hadn't changed much in the past few months. One entry read: "Jordan brought me two dead crickets, a fake fingernail, and (oh, yes!) some crumpled rose petals from the bush in the backyard." As I kept reading about my little boys' antics, I started to chuckle. Hey, I thought, I don't need sitcoms or the funny papers. I have two boys!

Continuing in a quiet -- and slowly improving -- mood, I opened the scriptures.

The book of Isaiah is a particular favorite when I'm feeling insecure, frustrated or unsure. Once again, I was comforted and encouraged by the Word, and by being in God's presence.

I didn't hear any audible voices or bells ringing, but as I told my husband later, "The crazies went away." I was able to regain my equilibrium and realize that it's okay to feel nuts once in a while. God loves me anyway.

Contented sigh.

Those moments of grace in the midst of mommyhood help me remember that each day, with God's strength, I'm doing the best I can in the roles I've been given.

And that's enough.

I need those times with my Maker to remind me that my boys are not burdens -- they are my biggest blessings! In the midst of Crazyville, He helps me keep my perspective -- and a sense of humor.


вторник, 27 декабря 2011 г.

The Twelve Days of Christmas

By D'ette Corona

A fellow who does things that count, doesn't usually stop to count them.
~Variation of a saying by Albert Einstein

From the minute our neighbor and best friend's daughter, Olivia, was born, my son Bailey thought of her as his little sister. Bailey, being an only child, took her under his wing right from the start and loved to watch her grow and change. As Olivia began to talk and see the world through toddler and then little girl eyes, she looked up to Bailey as if he were her big brother and friend. With Bailey being thirteen years old and Olivia only four, there is quite an age gap. But I watch in awe as my son patiently plays kitchen with her, allowing her to prepare fake food for him. He knows how much enjoyment she gets from that and that gives him enjoyment, too. He even gave her his favorite swing set when he thought he'd outgrown it, only with the hope that he can still be a "little boy" again and swing on it when we go to her house.

With each holiday that approaches Bailey tries to share with Olivia the excitement that is to come... especially at Christmas. As Christmas was approaching last year Bailey talked to Olivia about how exciting it is when Santa arrives. He knew this Christmas she really understood and loved everything about the holiday from building gingerbread houses together to playing in the snow. Snow is definitely an unusual occurrence in Southern California but my husband drove up into the mountains, filled the back of his truck with snow and drove it home. He then dumped it out onto our lawn. The snow didn't last that long but the memories did.

Bailey really wanted to make the upcoming Christmas special for Olivia. He came up with a plan to surprise her by placing a small package on her doorstep each morning leading up to Christmas. He wanted to be her Secret Santa. We modified the words to the "The Twelve Days of Christmas" to reflect some of the things in her little world. So, the fun of shopping began.

On the first morning we printed the lyrics to the song, modifying the theme just a bit, to match his special gifts. We only gave her the lyrics for that specific day so as not to spoil the surprise. On the first day, he delivered a bag of pears and a partridge ornament for her tree. On the second morning instead of two turtle doves, he delivered a turtle bath toy and Dove chocolate. The third day, coming up with the three French hens, was a bit harder but we did find what we thought looked like a hen ornament. The fourth day we found a bird plush toy that made real bird sounds when you squeezed it.

What fun he was having each morning! I stood in the window in the early morning and watched him cross the street, drop the package at her front door, ring the doorbell and then run away as fast as he could. Each morning I watched as Olivia would swing the door open trying to catch her Secret Santa.

By day five we were having a ball and looking forward to delivering the glazed donuts symbolizing the five golden rings. The geese-a-laying and swans-a-swimming on days six and seven were hard for us but when we stumbled upon a Mother Goose book and a swan story book we felt proud of ourselves. By day eight trying to outsmart the cutest little girl ever was becoming more difficult. She was watching out her window! Bailey waited. When she finally left the window he was able to deliver the surprise for day eight... a bottle of Nestle's Chocolate Milk and French Maid Barbie. As her love for Barbies and all things girly was obvious, day nine of ladies dancing was easy. Her gift was a ballerina Barbie. Lord's a leaping on day ten stumped us, but what better gift to give than a frog pool toy that winds up and swims through the water. On the eleventh day, eleven pipers piping, he left a Christmas pipe cleaner craft kit.

We had made it... day twelve had arrived and it was time to deliver the final gift and reveal his identify. For twelve drummers drumming, the best gift to give your "little sister," especially when she doesn't live in your house, was a drum set. Instead of drummers drumming we could hear Olivia pounding on the drums. And she started screaming with excitement and delight when she discovered it was Bailey who had been her Secret Santa. She knew that it meant he cared so much about making Christmas magical and fun for her.

Although the age gap seems huge now, as adults I don't think it will be so bad. And since my friend and I are secretly hoping this friendship will blossom into something more in time, I only hope his future mother-in-law can find it in her heart to forgive him (and me) for the drum set that got plenty of use by a beautiful little girl.


How I Spent My Christmas Vacation

By Cindy Hval

By and large, mothers are the only workers who do not have regular time off. They are the great vacationless class.
~Anne Morrow Lindberg

Day One: Here's a parenting tip for the New Year; never ground your children from the Nintendo and the Xbox the day before Christmas vacation begins! However, I managed to keep four boys busy decorating cookies. The over-use of cinnamon dots left our snowmen looking rather bloody, but the boys seemed to enjoy that.

Day Two: I thought it would be fun to spend the afternoon singing Christmas carols, but if I hear "Jingle Bells, Santa Smells" one more time, I'm going to scream! I took our oldest son out to buy presents for his brothers. He is really thoughtful. Too thoughtful. Two hours too thoughtful. I've never spent two hours in the Dollar Store before today. I never will again.

Day Three: My husband isn't speaking to me. He took our seven-year-old Christmas shopping. Many hours later they're back. Having bested his brother's shopping time, our younger son was quite pleased with himself. My husband, however, was not. "Have you ever spent THREE hours at the Dollar Store, trying to get a kid to spend his allowance on his brothers?" All I said was, "Why do you think I sent you?" Now it's colder in here than it is outside.

Day Four: Since the current temperature is a whopping five degrees, it would be nice if there was snow on the ground. All we have is ice. Unable to bear the whining about the Nintendo, I bundled up the children and sent them out to play on the ice. They played happily for ten minutes. Unfortunately they discovered the painful difference between ice balls and snowballs. Hot cocoa soothed fragile nerves -- until we ran out of marshmallows.

Day Five: It's Christmas Eve. Eight hours with the in-laws, sixteen people for dinner and children who've discovered Grandma's ceramic reindeer holds M&M's. Around midnight, snow began to fall and silence descended as well. I filled the stockings to the soft strains of "Silent Night" and enjoyed the fragile peace.

Day Six: Christmas morning, 4 AM. "Mom! Mom! It's Christmas! Santa came, he came!" Through the dim glow of the clock, I gaze blearily into the big, blue eyes of a wide-awake boy. "If you don't get back in bed this instant, Santa is going to make a return trip to give you a lump of coal," I growled. "It is NOT Christmas morning when you can see the moon and the street lights are on." I kept the stocking and the child trudged back to bed. At this point I wasn't even sure he was mine.

Day Six officially: Christmas morning, 6 AM. Ho Ho Ho! The blue-eyed boy came back. He really does belong to me.

Day Seven: The kids played happily. The Nintendo/Xbox ban has been lifted. Now I am the one that is whining. My pleas to the grandparents for restraint had once again fallen on deaf ears. Now, it's been left to me to figure out where to put all this stuff. I waded through colorful debris and stepped on G.I. Joe's pistol. I think it's permanently embedded between my toes.

Day Eight: We are out of batteries already! Fights broke out over whose turn it is to play Nintendo. You'd think a forty-three-year-old man would be better at sharing.

Day Nine: The rain fell, the ice melted, the children whined and I cried.

Day Ten: I called the daycare on the corner to ask about their rates. "Oh are you going back to work?" the owner asked. "No," I replied, "I'm going crazy." She hung up on me.

Day 11: I staggered home from the mall where I exchanged one remote control car, which never "remotely" worked, one set of jammies labeled too lame to be worn by a twelve-year-old and one set of dishes so hideous that they prove beyond all doubt, I am NOT my grandmother's favorite. My husband greeted me at the door, waving the Visa bill. I turned to run, but could still hear him bellow, "Can you explain this one-way ticket to Hawaii?"

Day 12: When I was a child, Christmas vacation seemed to last a couple of seconds, but now I understand why Mom would cross each day of vacation off the calendar in bright red marker. Four lunches are packed and ready to go. Four backpacks wait by the front door. I realized I might have been rushing things when my oldest child refused to get out of bed. I checked the clock. It was 5 AM. The streetlights still shone and the moon was faintly visible in the dusky sky. I sat down in the living room and smiled as I sipped my coffee. I'll let the children sleep a little bit longer while I enjoy the first day of MY Christmas vacation.


Dairy-Free Queen

By Johnna Stein

Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.
~Gilbert K. Chesterton

Tears drenched my cheeks as I traveled the short distance home from the allergist. The shocking news made all the sense in the world, but my mind refused to accept it. Me, an asthmatic at the age of thirty-two? The dentist, wary about my long list of drug allergies, had insisted I see an allergist before he dared administer Novocain.

That morning in the allergist's office, after answering pages of questionnaires, the nurses had pricked and prodded me. All for a Novocain problem? Then, the breathing tests. The nurse had shaken her head and urged me to try harder the second time. I managed just under 70 percent. She explained, "Your history of bronchitis and double pneumonia this past year was a red flag for asthma. Now we've confirmed it. The good news is that you have no allergy to Novocain."

Good news? Good grief!

The nurse armed me with antihistamines and inhalers for my mold, dust mite and cat allergies. The inhaler did relieve the tightness in my chest. For the first time in a year, I felt like I could take deep breaths. Amazing that I'd gotten used to a lack of oxygen in my blood. No wonder I wanted to collapse on the couch each evening after long days with my two preschoolers.

Questions bombarded my brain. Would I always have to take medicine? Would I continue to suffer from pneumonia and bronchitis? What about our health insurance? I envisioned myself carting around an oxygen tank on my back with plastic tubes running to my nose. Would I get better?

With medication and slight changes to my environment, my health improved dramatically in a few weeks. I adjusted to the idea of taking medicine and got on with my life. Advice poured in from well-meaning family and friends, but only one comment stuck. My friend Dana shared the recommendation from her naturopath who had recently treated her young children suffering from chronic ear infections and colds. He removed all dairy foods from their diet and within weeks, they all regained their health. Without dairy products, they remained perfectly healthy.

As a child, I had some food allergies but outgrew them. I never enjoyed drinking milk, but loved ice cream, yogurt and cheese. I parked the information Dana shared with me somewhere in my memory, but didn't really give it much attention. Give up ice cream? That would be a bit drastic!

Within months, we found ourselves moving our worldly belongings across the ocean to live in The Netherlands, my husband's homeland. At the Dutch family doctor, I received ongoing treatment for my asthma, which seemed to be worsening in spite of our new mold and mildew-free living environment. About every three months, I came down with a new case of bronchitis. Instead of searching for the cause of my downward spiral, the doctor only increased the strength of my inhalers.

After a frustrating year, a nurse friend warned me, "Your lungs become damaged every time you have bronchitis and have to increase your medicine. You need to find what's causing the asthma to worsen." Once again, I pictured myself with an oxygen tank strapped to my back.

My fear turned into prayers. God, what is causing the asthma? Just tell me and I'll do whatever it takes. I don't want to end up with that tank on my back. Then, from the recesses of my mind came Dana's story about eliminating dairy.

Was that it? Did I need to eliminate all types of dairy from my diet? Impossible in Holland! This country is dairy land -- the best yogurt and cheeses in the world! That would mean no more ice cream! Christmas loomed just around the corner. How could I survive the holidays without dairy? I refused to listen to those crazy thoughts.

Just days after New Year's, the doctor prescribed yet another, stronger inhaler to help clear my lungs. That potent medicine was the final straw. I made up my mind and shared my difficult decision with my husband, "Babe, I'm going to try to go off of dairy for the next eight weeks to see if my asthma improves. Will you be willing to adapt your diet in the beginning to help me out?"

"Whatever it takes, I'll help." And he meant it. He and the kids could still eat their ice cream and cheese, but all those fabulous Dutch mashed potato dishes made with creamy butter and milk would need serious adaptations.

Within two weeks, I noticed a big difference in my breathing, and by the end of eight weeks, my lungs felt open again. My energy levels increased and I suspected I had found the answer. As a small trial, on Easter, I poured yogurt dressing on my salad and treated myself to a big piece of Mont Blanc whipped cream pie. The next day I was treated to an asthma attack and flu-like symptoms when all my glands swelled. The proof was in the pudding.

From that point on, I ate dairy-free. The first six months were the most challenging. I focused on all the foods I could no longer enjoy: ice cream, chocolate, melted cheese, pizza, etc.... Life felt so unfair! Finally, I realized how many amazing dairy-free foods I could have and chose to focus on all the healthy choices I was forced to make.

I became the dairy-free queen. It required being creative and adapting my favorite recipes to be dairy-free. I scrupulously read the labels on every package and discovered the code words for hidden dairy ingredients like casein and whey. I hunted down soy and dairy-free products in the grocery and health food stores.

After three months, I stopped using my daily inhalers. For the next five years I used them only sporadically when exposed to cats or molds. In the past three years, I am happy to report that although I keep a light dosage inhaler on hand, I haven't needed it.

Right from the start of my dairy-free endeavors, I tried to reintroduce slight amounts of dairy into my diet about every six months. I knew my life would be much easier if I developed a bit of tolerance. Finally, four years ago, I found I could ingest small amounts of butter or chocolate without any adverse reactions. Chocolate! Whipped cream, ice cream and cheese are still no-no's, but I don't mind. I can eat chocolate!
Giving up dairy meant regaining my health in more ways than one. I no longer suffer from asthma, my cholesterol (genetically high) stays in a healthy range, and I can manage my weight because of all the high calorie desserts that I politely decline.

When I first said I'd do whatever it took, I'm not sure I meant it. The price of a dairy-free lifestyle seemed too high to pay. But now, the rewards far outweigh any sacrifice I've had to make.


A Deed a Day

By Shannon Anderson

Happiness is a by-product of an effort to make someone else happy.
~Gretta Brooker Palmer

I cast a warning glare and mouthed the words "Just a minute!" as my daughter tugged my hand. I was stirring chili with the other hand and balancing the phone between my shoulder and chin. The clothes dryer buzzer sounded as my husband walked in with our other daughter. The dog was scratching at the door, and we had about twenty minutes to eat before we had to take the girls to their next activity. My husband seemed a bit annoyed that dinner was not already on the table. The girls started arguing about who had to let the poor dog back into the house.

That night, I had a heavy heart thinking about how mindless my family's routines had become. We were becoming taskmasters who performed each day's activities as if we were on an assembly line. We had become absorbed in our own activities and not very considerate towards those around us. We needed to do something to bring back some meaning into our lives. It needed to be something that would refocus our own agendas and energize us toward the common good.

I purchased a journal, labeled it "Our Deed Diary" and held a family meeting. I told my husband and our daughters that I wanted us all to think about doing a kindness for others every day. It could be for each other or for people outside our home. The purpose was to reduce the focus on ourselves and brighten someone else's day in the process.

We talked about what a good deed would mean for this "project." We decided that a good deed was doing something nice for someone else that they were not expecting. It could be as simple as making a card for your teacher or going out of your way to give someone a compliment for something he or she did. We decided to record our deeds every day and discuss them over dinner. The girls seemed excited at the prospect of this new "game" we were playing. My husband rolled his eyes. I said a little prayer.

When I first conceived of this project, I thought that one deed a day was too easy. Let me tell you; it is harder than it seems. We all, of course, do things for others on a regular basis; but this had to be something above and beyond what we already do. Sending birthday cards to people that we already send cards to every year would not count. This had to be an unexpected effort on our parts.

We had a rough start. We were supposed to talk about our good deeds and write them in our Deed Diary at dinner every day. On some days, someone would forget to do a good deed, while on other days, we would forget to write our good deeds in the diary. After a few weeks though, I found myself waking up in the morning trying to decide what good deed I could do for someone that day. My daughters began to rush to me after school to tell me a good deed they had done for someone that day.

We have been doing good deeds for nearly a year now. I am happy to say that it is making a difference in our lives. Instead of always wondering what the day will bring for us, we think about what we can do for someone else. At dinner, we have an instant conversation starter, as we all share our stories.

I have expanded the deed experiment to my first grade classroom. I started out by having every student write a letter to someone in the school to thank him or her for something he or she does for us. It was most touching to observe the janitor, nurse, librarian, and other school staff hang our notes on their walls while beaming because they felt appreciated.

In my classroom, every student does not have to do a good deed every day, but our class, as a whole, tries to show at least three kindnesses to others each day. We record them and I am most boastful about how thoughtful the students are towards others. When a student spills his or her crayons, you wouldn't believe how many kids scurry over to try to help and clean them up! Just as with my family, keeping and sharing a Deed Diary changed our whole outlook on life.

Who would have thought that trying to do a simple kindness a day would be so rewarding? I feel my daughters and first grade students better understand the old saying that "it is better to give than to receive." They have felt that indescribable feeling of inner joy that you can only experience by giving to someone else from your heart. The best thing is that you feel so great about doing something for someone else, you don't even look for or expect anything in return. So, when someone does reciprocate, it is an enormous and positive bonus. When someone does something nice for me, I now think of it as, "What a great idea! I'll have to do that for someone too!"


воскресенье, 25 декабря 2011 г.

Blooms of Wisdom

By Kathy Harris

I'd rather have roses on my table than diamonds on my neck.
~Emma Goldman

My mother loves flowers. As soon as warm weather comes around, you will find her planting, mulching, watering, weeding and fussing over everything from tulips to mums. For a number of years we lived next door to each other, and she spent as much time in my garden as she did her own. After the blooms became plentiful each summer, she would cut colorful bouquets to enjoy inside the house -- both hers and mine. I would often come home from work and find a beautiful arrangement of fresh flowers on my coffee table or bathroom vanity.

Shortly before Christmas one year, a local florist offered a bouquet-a-month special. It seemed to be a made-to-order gift for Mom, a great way to thank her for all of the flowers she had given me through the years. I couldn't wait until Christmas so I could give it to her!

After the holidays, in early January, I drove her to the florist to pick up her first month's bouquet. The small bunch of mixed blooms the florist handed her, while fresh and colorful, would hardly fill a small vase.

I was so embarrassed.

But, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and moms are good at soothing their children's feelings. After we returned home, she began to arrange the half dozen stems she had received.

"Mom, I'm sorry," I told her. "I can't believe how skimpy that bouquet is."

She looked at me and smiled. "It's okay," she said as she adjusted the flowers. "It allows me to better enjoy the beauty of each one."

I was struck by the insightfulness of her remark, because it illustrated how much she loves flowers, each and every flower. Yet it also related, so poignantly, to life in general and helped me to realize something bigger and more important -- that when we have too many good things we often fail to enjoy the beauty of each one.

Thanks, Mom, for helping me understand that less is sometimes more.


Kali's Gift

By Melanie Marks

The only gift is a portion of thyself.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Okay," our Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Woodland, said. "It's time for the gift exchange." I was actually sort of excited. Not ecstatic or anything. But I knew what a lot of the girls had brought, and any of those gifts would have been really great. Especially my best friend Sara's gift. She had made fudge and put it in this super cute bear mug. I love fudge and figured it would be fun to have the bear mug for drinking hot cocoa over Christmas.

And rich Megan Perkins had wrapped a bottle of expensive perfume. Her favorite kind, she said. Megan always smelled really good. I wouldn't mind smelling like her for the holidays.

Actually, all the girls had brought cool gifts. Mrs. Woodland had us put them all on our classroom table, next to the manger scene she had set up. Mrs. Woodland had just finished telling us the story of Jesus's birth, something she did every year before we had our class Christmas party.

We opened the gifts like a game. We each drew numbers and we got to go up to the table and choose a wrapped gift when our number was called. Or more accurately put, we could choose a wrapped gift -- if we wanted to. But we didn't necessarily have to. We could take a gift from somebody else that had already had their number called -- if we thought we'd like that gift better than the wrapped ones.

Some of the gifts really got passed around. Like Sara's. Everyone likes fudge.

Still, everybody seemed to like the gift I'd brought. I was relieved, since I hadn't paid much for it. It was just some cheap nail polish -- but in a cool color -- and I'd tied a fingernail file to it with a pretty ribbon.

I'd hoped the girls would like it -- but I'd been worried they wouldn't. After all, I hadn't had very much money to spend. I was basically broke and I still had my mom's Christmas gift left to buy. I wanted to get her something special. Something cool. But that was the problem. Cool things seemed to cost a lot of money... and I just didn't have any.

When it was my turn, I didn't take a wrapped gift from the table. And I didn't take Sara's either, though I really wanted to. Just being around fudge was making me hungry. But I took the perfume Megan had brought instead.

"Bummer," Beth groaned as I took the bottle from her.

"It's for my mom," I wanted to explain, but I didn't bother. It was none of Beth's business. It was no one's business. I didn't have enough money to get Mom something as special as she deserved, but the perfume was really nice. She might really like it... and maybe she would let me borrow it sometime.

I was busy thinking about the perfume and whether Mom would like it or not. I guess that's how I missed how the incident happened. But suddenly there was a big commotion. It had been Hannah's turn to choose. She was the last one. And no big shock, she didn't go for the last wrapped gift on the table. Instead she'd taken Sara's gift from Lauren.

Well, that meant Lauren had to take the wrapped gift. She'd huffed all the way up to the table. Everyone knew the last gift was from Kali. That's why no one had chosen it. Kali was really poor. I mean really poor. And she always brought lame gifts -- gifts no one ever wanted. I guess everyone knew today would be no exception. And it wasn't. The gift Kali had wrapped? A pair of crocheted potholders. Potholders!

"I don't want to be stuck with these," Lauren whined. "I want my fudge back."

"No way," Hannah protested, keeping the mug of chocolate out of Lauren's reach.

"Then I want Megan's perfume." Lauren came over to take my perfume. "Come on, Melanie, trade with me."

I shook my head. The game was over. I had gotten the perfume fair and square. No way was I giving it up.

Mrs. Woodland cleared her throat. "Melanie, why don't you trade with Lauren?"

She was always doing this to me. Making me take the dorky gift. Last year I had to take the broken gingerbread house, and for Valentine's Day I had to settle for the messed up valentine. And I always, always got stuck with Kali's lame gifts. It wasn't fair.

I was about to tell Mrs. Woodland off. Tell her I was tired of being the nice guy and getting stuck with the lame stuff and stinky deals. I was about to tell her what she could do with her potholders.

Then I noticed Kali sitting silently in the back of the classroom. She was sitting there all alone with her head bowed. Suddenly I felt ashamed of myself... and the rest of the class. Poor Kali. She had obviously worked hard on the potholders. And they were really nice... as far as potholders go.

And she probably didn't want to give them to us any more than any of us wanted them. Probably her mom had dragged her to church this morning. Probably she had tried to fake sick or something so she could stay home and not have to go through this. I know that's what I would have done.

"Sure -- I'll take the potholders," I said to Mrs. Woodland. I gave my best effort to smile. But it was kind of hard. I felt sort of sick. "They're really pretty." I glanced over at Kali -- wanting to say something nice to her. Wanting to make up for how horrible Lauren and Hannah and I had acted. "Did you make them yourself?"

Kali nodded, but I already knew she had. Our class had learned to crochet as a craft project last year. None of us other girls really got the hang of it. Obviously Kali had.

"They're really pretty," I said again.

"Here," I told my mom after church, handing her the potholders as soon as I hopped into the car. "They're an early Christmas gift. I'll get you something else too -- something real."

"They're beautiful," Mom said, actually beaming.

She seemed so delighted with them, I was worried she was confused or something. "I didn't make them," I confessed quickly. "Kali Harris did."

"I know," Mom said, still beaming. "Mrs. Woodland told me what happened in class today. She says she relies on you to keep peace in the class a lot." Mom gave me a hug. "Mrs. Woodland said you handled the situation wonderfully. You're growing to be a very thoughtful young woman -- that's the best Christmas present a mother could ask for."

I rode home from church with a happy heart, knowing next year I would be honored to get Kali's gift.


The Man on the Bridge

By Phyllis Jardine

Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.
~William James

"It's okay, all is well, drive carefully." This was the message my weary brain formulated back in the fall of 1997 when I first encountered the "man on the bridge." I'd been to meetings in the city of Halifax all day and was tired and anxious to get home to the Annapolis Valley -- a little over an hour's drive.

As I approached Mount Uniacke, the weather changed and the road became treacherous -- the first storm of the season. Frightened, I gingerly picked my way towards home. Tension rose as tractor trailers swished by and my old sedan moaned and groaned.

Gripping the wheel, I noticed my headlights outlining a lonely figure shrouded in mist on the Highway 101 overpass, just outside Hantsport -- my halfway-home mark. As if guiding me through the storm, the mysterious man slowly raised a large hand in a friendly gesture. I sounded my horn in appreciation and continued my journey safely home. Since that November day, I always looked for the man on the bridge. Faithfully, he stood there, almost motionless, his rosy-cheeked face welcoming weary travellers. And whenever our grandchildren were with us, the man gazed kindly as they waved with excitement at seeing his outstretched hand and slight grin. Others mentioned that they too had tooted to the man. People who travelled to work in the city called him their beacon on the bridge.

Then one day on the last leg of a long journey home from New Brunswick, my husband and I noticed there was no mysterious man standing on the Bog Road Bridge. Where was the large quiet figure? We missed him. No one we talked to knew what had happened to our messenger on the bridge. We didn't even know his name.

Soon a letter appeared in the daily provincial newspaper asking about Nova Scotia's gentle giant, the ambassador who welcomed all to visit his Annapolis Valley. We learned that our overpass friend's name was Freddie. And although he had been ill, Freddie planned to return to his post on the bridge, cautioning all to slow down and enjoy the ride home.

We also learned that complications at birth in 1954 had left Freddie with some challenges. In his early years he had attended a special training school in Truro, NS, but he'd returned to the Valley at the same time an overpass was being built -- just down the road from his home. A lover of trucks, Freddie would stand on the overpass bridge facing east, waving to all the truck drivers. They honked their horns in return, pleased to see a stranger's token of friendship. (A long stretch of highway and a steep incline leads to the overpass, which can be seen for at least a kilometre away.)

When the weather is balmy, Freddie, who is a keen hockey fan, can be seen wearing a colourful hockey jersey; he owns jerseys of all thirty National Hockey League teams -- many of them gifts. On stormy days he wears a bright safety vest, a gift from his hometown of Hantsport. In good weather or bad, he offers a gift to all who travel Highway 101, helping people to forget their trials and tribulations, if only for a little while.

Through the years his impromptu bit of human bonding has touched many hearts and steadied many nerves. Internationally renowned Wolfville artist, Alex Coleville painted his 1996 work titled, West Brooklyn Road, after being inspired by Freddie. It features a man on a bridge waving to a truck driver.

In no small way, Freddie's sense of neighbourliness has been an inspiration to all of us here in Nova Scotia. Waving, after all, is a gesture of goodwill. And in our fast-paced world, even the grumpiest person feels better after being greeted by a hearty wave.

Freddie has found what we all seek in life: A reason for being. Like a shepherd watching over his flock, he stands tall, guiding us home -- on the newly named Nova Scotia bridge: The Freddie Wilson Overpass.


Food Should Be Fun

By Fallon Kane

You do it with your own two hands, so there's a sense of pride. You really do forget all our problems, because you're focusing on the food.
~Rachael Ray

I am not your average seventeen-year-old. This is epitomized by the Christmas gifts I got this year. In addition to the usual teenage girl stuff (a Katy Perry CD, jewelry, really cute mittens), I also got a stainless steel skillet, a square griddle, a ten-speed hand mixer, a baking spatula, and rubber prep bowls. And they thrilled me to no end. As you can tell, I love to cook.

Sitting here now, I smile as I think about the day before that Christmas. On that Christmas Eve, I spent hours in the kitchen, up to my elbows in flour and sugar. I scooped peanut-butter cookie dough onto baking sheets, then popped a Hershey's Kiss in their center right when they came out of the oven. I used a wooden spoon to roll out the sugar cookie dough I had prepped the night before and cut out cute little snowmen and stars, before rubbing them with egg wash and sprinkles and placing them in the oven. Later that night, I sautéed a handful of chopped onion in butter before adding spinach, artichokes, and cheese to the pan to make the most delicious dip ever. I loved every second in that kitchen, my nose filling with warm aromas and my ears attuned to the sizzle of vegetables. Cooking is pure bliss.

A little more than a year ago, I would never have said that cooking was anything other than a danger to be avoided. But I have grown a lot since then.

You see, after Christmas when I was fifteen, I made a New Year's resolution to lose weight. It started out innocently enough. I cut out chocolate milk and juice in favor of water, and scaled down my portions. I already loved running and was a member of a gym, but I kicked my workouts up a notch. I began to lose weight slowly but steadily. I was pleased with the results but wanted my ideal body to come more rapidly.

I should have seen that coming. I am, and probably always will be, a perfectionist. I do not like to settle for being in the middle or doing "well." To be the best, the brightest, the fastest, and now, the skinniest -- I jump into projects full force to obtain my goal.

Calories became my obsession. The calories I ate, the calories I burned. It seemed logical to me that I should attempt to burn off every calorie I ate. So I stuck to a strict 1200-calorie-a-day diet (which in reality amounted to probably less than 1000), and burned over 800 calories a day in cardio. I hoped the remaining 400 would be burned from forty-five minutes of full-body strength training.

I panicked if my diet changed even a little. I remember one time when my mother, trying to coax me into being less anxious about food, made me a baked potato with grilled chicken and steamed broccoli. I could not finish it. How was I supposed to know how many calories were in it? Most of my diet was centered on frozen meals and packaged foods that had very precise serving sizes and calories. This plate of food was sheer madness!

Oddly enough, it was during this time that I began to watch cooking shows. My thought was if I could not enjoy the taste of food, at least I could enjoy the sight of it. So Rachael Ray, Giada De Laurentiis, and Bobby Flay became my regular viewing buddies.

I really think I can attribute a good portion of my recovery to those cooking shows. The hosts had such a light and passion in their eyes when they talked about this meat they were searing, or how wonderful the crusty bread would taste when spread with this tangy sauce. Rachael Ray was particularly influential. She was always smiling! I'll never forget something she said on one episode -- with great sincerity, she insisted to the camera: "Food should be fun!"

Wait a second. How could food be fun? Food made you fat. Food was very scary.

But gradually, that message began to sink in. Maybe my thoughts about food were skewed.

Other factors played into this realization as well. I was called down to the nurse because my teachers were worried about my rapid weight loss. I got into fights with my mother over the state of my body. I began to have panic attacks when I could not go to the gym. My best friend showed me a text conversation she had had with another one of my friends about how I looked like a skeleton.

Then, slowly but steadily, I began to catch on. I realized that I was hurting my body. I had no period, I had trouble sleeping and, worst of all, I was causing my family and friends anxiety. It took some time, a lot of support from my loved ones, and therapy, but I finally accepted the idea that I needed to gain back some weight.

I also began to put some techniques I learned from my cooking shows into practice. Not necessarily cooking techniques at first, but how the hosts savored and appreciated the food in front of them. Enjoying every bite, appreciating a food's texture and taste, really brought home the idea that food was a good thing. Then I could put the actual cooking techniques into practice.

For what I believe is the first time in my life, I have achieved a healthy balance. I still love to run and work out, but now, if I have a very active day, I know I need to eat more. I eat very healthily, but I do not count calories as much. I recognize that I need to put nutritious food into my body, but I also know that the occasional pizza and the more-than-occasional piece of chocolate will not hurt me.

Now, I am hungry. I think I will make an egg white frittata with any vegetables I can find, and serve it alongside a freshly sliced tomato and a healthy scoop of salsa. Yum!


Special Delivery

By Lynn McGrath

Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
~Matthew 6:8

As the wife of a pastor and the mother of six small children, I understood firsthand that many times money was not always in abundance. We knew that being in the ministry would challenge us to walk by faith and although we didn't always like having our faith put to the test, we loved seeing the hand of God at work.

I needed a pair of sneakers but we did not have the money. I knew from past experience that the Lord could and would supply me with all that I needed. I remember kneeling by the edge of my bed bringing my petition before the very throne of grace! When I had finished praying, I gave it no second thought for I had cast my care on Him and I knew in His timing, He would answer.

Little did I realize how quickly the answer would come and how I would be a witness to God's creativity in providing for my need. It was a beautiful summer day and I went to bask in the sunshine by sitting on my front steps while watching my children play in the yard.

No sooner had I sat down then an unfamiliar dog came into the yard and made his way toward me. Normally I would have been frightened, but for some reason I wasn't. I noticed he was carrying something in his mouth. To my great surprise, it was a sneaker! I thought it very odd but I took the sneaker, which he apparently wanted me to have. I remember thinking, "Too bad there's only one!" It was not only a high quality leather sneaker, but it happened to be my size! Since there was only one, I took it and threw it in the trash.

The next day, again while sitting on my front steps, the mysterious dog came back carrying the other sneaker! I gently took it from its grasp, and ran into the house to rummage through the trash from the day before to rescue its mate. The rescued "mate" needed some TLC. I cleaned it thoroughly and stood there staring at the two sneakers. They were so incredibly nice that I felt compelled to locate their owner so that I could give them back. I went from house to house showing my neighbors the sneakers and asking them if they had lost them. Time and time again, the answer was "no."

I realized then that the sneakers belonged to me... that my heavenly Father had heard my plea and had answered my need by way of a special delivery!

A Gift to Each Other

By Kristi Hemingway

Where thou art -- that -- is Home.
~Emily Dickinson

I was born with a wandering spirit. After college, I joined a theatre company and traveled all over North America and Europe. I was far away and broke most of the time, but no matter where I wandered, I made it home to Colorado for Christmas. This was a fairly significant feat, and yet I had managed to do it every year without fail. It sometimes involved days and nights of driving through blizzards, gallons of espresso, twelve-hour plane rides, lost baggage, and customs officials who always seemed to pick me for scrutiny.

Our holiday traditions were pretty average -- tree, presents, way too much food, Christmas Eve service at church, watching the movie White Christmas with my sister. Nothing extraordinary happened, but living so far away made it essential to be there. I needed to stay current in my siblings' lives. I wanted to know my nieces and nephews and have them know me. If I wasn't there for Christmas I feared I would just fade out of the family.

My fiancé Calvin and I traveled back to Colorado for our wedding, which was the "opening ceremony" of a huge Fourth of July family reunion. I wasn't a girl who imagined my wedding as the pivotal point of human history anyway, so a simple affair was just my style. But even small and simple broke the bank for us. We headed back to work in Europe knowing there would be a slim chance of another trip home anytime soon. Christmas would likely be a cozy twosome.

"This is okay," I told myself. "We're our own family now. It will be romantic." Plus, our tour ended in Switzerland, so that's where we'd be stuck for Christmas. Definitely worse places to be!

But as the tour drew to a close, my morale crumbled. Watching our teammates excitedly depart, talking about cherubic nieces and nephews, trees, stockings, and family traditions, left me feeling less than lucky about my own situation. Yes, I was a newlywed and the world was supposed to be rosy, but in truth, spending our first six months of marriage in a van with a team of kooky performers and sleeping on pull-out couches in people's dens had placed a strain on the marital bonding process. Our harmony was a little off-key, to put it mildly. Three solid weeks of undiluted togetherness was looking about as awkward as the sixth grade dance and even less appealing. A little padding of friends and family would have been so much less stressful.

The lack of company wasn't the only check in my negative column, either. We had no home. Like I said, we traveled in a van and were housed as part of our performance contracts. Being on break meant that we'd have to find a place to stay. Someplace free. And who wants a couple of bickering vagabonds hanging around at Christmas? Even if someone did take pity and invite us into their "stable," I was really stretching to dig up any gratitude for someone's pull-out couch.

Then there was the shortage of trappings and trimmings. Our performing-artist-lifestyle left us without discretionary funds, so gifts were pretty much out. And to top it all off, Calvin got sick with an infected wisdom tooth. He was delirious with pain. So much for romance.

First things first. Although Calvin and I were alternately ticked off and bewildered by one another, I did still have regular moments of fondness toward him. I didn't enjoy seeing him in pain. Especially because it made him all whiny and meant I had to do all the driving. We needed to get that tooth taken care of. We prayed.

"Lord, we haven't been very nice to each other lately and we know that bothers You. We're going to try and improve, but in the meantime Calvin's in a lot of pain and it's Christmas and all, and we were hoping that maybe You could toss us a miracle or something. A little sprinkle of healing power. Please."

It was something like that. Not a very spiritual sounding prayer, just desperate. We stopped on our way out of town at the home of our area representative, Jean-François, to drop off a calendar for our next tour.

He took one look at Calvin and declared with widened eyes "zut alors!" This can mean many things, but in this case it was an expression of alarm.

He made a phone call. He spoke way too fast for me to follow his French, but it sounded very emphatic and convincing and twenty minutes later the source of distress was being extracted from Calvin's jaw by Jean-François' friend, who also happened to be a dental surgeon and who also decided he didn't want to be paid since it was two days before Christmas. God is so cool, and His people can be really cool sometimes too. On this day He was also really speedy, which was such a nice bonus.

While Calvin was being repaired, I wandered the streets of Lausanne soaking up Christmas Spirit from all the colors and lights and using my tiny store of Swiss francs to buy a few chocolate coins, a nice writing pen, a recording of Calvin's favorite artist, and a few other tidbits. I could wrap each one separately and tie little bows and we could have a miniature Christmas. It would be a peace offering -- my promise of a fresh start. Our harmony had already improved with the pressure of touring off our shoulders. A little privacy might be tolerable after all.

With that thought came the reminder that we needed a place to stay. We actually had an offer but I had put off phoning them. Timothy and Pierette were the elderly uncle and aunt of a colleague. They lived in a remote mountain village a couple of hours from Geneva, and we had met them earlier that tour. Timothy was an egg farmer and Pierette ran the general store in the village. They mentioned that they had a little apartment in their basement and that we were welcome to stay anytime, including the holidays.

Why hadn't I called them? I had a picture in my mind of a spider-infested stairway leading to a dank room with a bare flashlight hanging down, a chamber pot in one corner and a hot plate with questionable wiring in the other. I was thinking WWII, French Resistance. This would be the space between two walls where they hid Jewish neighbors and secret radios. Of course this was neutral Switzerland, so none of that actually happened here, but my imagination always tended toward the dramatic. There would be an old wooden door with a broken latch. Chickens would be pecking outside the door and snow would blow in through the cracks. We'd sleep on separate army cots under threadbare blankets and we'd have scrambled eggs for Christmas dinner. Truthfully, I was kind of reveling in the whole sad and wretched picture and imagining the screenplay.

I was brought back to reality when Calvin arrived, all swollen-cheeked. "Tho, dith joo make dath phwone cawwl?"

Darn. We really had no alternatives, but I was sure the experience itself wouldn't be as fun or glamorous as the eventual movie version. I prayed again. "God, I miss my family. So far, marriage is not really what I expected, and I feel like Heidi going to stay on some mountainside in a scary basement with some old people I don't really know. I want to make the best of this. I know it's really not all about me. I know I should ask You to help me grow up and be selfless like You, but I also want to pray that we have a really nice, fun holiday together."

I made the call, got directions, and turned the van up the winding mountain road. As we pulled into the little town we had to wait for a herd of cows making its way down the main street. With Calvin mumbling the directions through wads of cotton we arrived at Pierette's general store.

I knocked hesitantly. The door flew open and Timothy and Pierette greeted us like their own grandchildren back from a war, or a refugee camp, or from just having received a Nobel Prize. We were ushered directly into the parlor where a fire was crackling and a tree was twinkling. There were cookies right out of the oven, and hot chocolate with lots of whipped cream.

Over steaming cups they asked us all about our tour, all about our wedding, all about our families. We learned all about egg farming and life in a tiny Swiss village. We laughed, and smiled and ate cookies. God had answered our prayer. He knew what our marriage needed, and He prepared this place for us long in advance. This was the most calm, nurturing place in the world to spend Christmas, or any other day for that matter. Of course I hadn't seen the little apartment in the basement yet, but Pierette said we were welcome to join them upstairs as much as we liked, so maybe we wouldn't have to hang out with the spiders.

The phone rang, disrupting our relaxed conversation. We heard a "zut alors!" in the conversation. Timothy returned to us with a frown.

The village was in an uproar. The pastor was sick. He had a fever and had lost his voice. There would be no Christmas Eve program. This was a considerable crisis, tantamount to the plague or a foreign army marching over the Alps. Timothy and Pierette exchanged distressed glances and Pierette immediately began clearing away the dishes. Whenever a solution is unclear, it's always helpful to tidy up in Switzerland.

Calvin raised an eyebrow at me, and I answered with a grin and a nod. This was a no-brainer! We jumped up and offered to save the day.

We'd been doing nothing but Christmas programs for weeks. We had a vast repertoire to choose from. Relief spread over our hosts' faces.

We began gathering props, running lines, and planning all the music we could do with only the two of us. With a quick change of clothes we set off. We chose a play about two lonely people who meet in an airport on Christmas Eve. As the characters hesitantly begin to converse, they share their stories, their loneliness, and a reminder of God's gift to us in the birth of Jesus. My character, a believer, realizes that they were put there for that reason -- put there to answer one another's need. They read the Christmas story from the book of Matthew, and share an impromptu celebration.

Calvin's character, with spiritual eyes opening for the first time, declares, "You'll have to lead me. I've never had a real Christmas before."

We were in the zone. We were a perfect team that night, and I remembered why I had chosen to spend the rest of my life with this man. Performing this play on Christmas Eve, for these people, was perfect. As I spoke my lines, the truth of them penetrated my own heart -- we answered each other's need. We were put here for that reason. The paradox of God's sovereignty struck me. Somehow, in the complexity of God's love and provision, He cares about my smallest details and desires. And yet, at the same time, it's all about Calvin, and it's all about the man in the front row with tears streaming down his cheeks, and it's about Pierette and her general store, and the dental surgeon, and all of my teammates at home with their families. We are God's gift to each other. Like a master composer, He brings all the instruments together, each with a different tone, each playing a different part, and He makes it turn out so beautifully.

After the program we were invited to the evening meal, full of cheese and chocolate and all the yummiest Swiss things. Not a single scrambled egg. Later, we grabbed our suitcases and at last made it down the staircase to the place that would be home for the next three weeks.

The staircase was steep, and the basement was indeed dark and creepy. We opened the apartment door and were greeted by twinkling lights, a small decorated tree in the corner, and evergreen boughs, all adorning a newly remodeled, sparkling clean studio. There was modern plumbing and a kitchenette with perfect wiring. There was a tantalizing fruit basket on the table and a big, soft bed covered with the whitest and fluffiest down comforter I'd ever seen. Calvin spontaneously lifted me over the threshold.

"Merry Christmas," I sighed. He set me down, wrapping his arms around me. I wrapped back. We were God's gift to each other.


вторник, 20 декабря 2011 г.

Evergreen Faith

By Connie Sturm Cameron

Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to prayer offered in this place.
~2 Chronicles 7:15

As I stood at the kitchen sink washing dishes that late October evening, I couldn't stop staring out the window. Thousands of sweet-smelling evergreen trees of various types and sizes dotted the country property we'd recently purchased. They looked beautiful to me, but because they hadn't been trimmed and shaped for years, the previous owner told us they were unmarketable. We'd hoped to sell the trees to offset the costs of repairs to our 150-year-old farmhouse.

"They ain't worth nuttin'," he had said. "They're too spindly on top."

Even my husband Chuck reluctantly suggested, "Maybe we should bulldoze them and start over."

I didn't believe they were worthless, and I especially didn't think so that night. With the soft light of dusk shadowing their majestic frames, the trees glowed.

I piled the dishes into the sink, unable to get my mind off the trees. As I kept glancing out the window, the view became more compelling, drawing me outside among the trees.

I thought I was being silly. Why would I take a walk while it was getting dark? Soon the skunks and bats would be out.

Then, out of nowhere, a voice inside me said, "Walk among those trees and pray over them."

The last golden rays of the setting sun were rapidly fading. It didn't make sense to go outside, so I decided to just pray from the kitchen.

But once again, more firmly, I heard in my mind, "Walk among the trees."

This time I obediently peeled off the yellow dishwashing gloves, tossed them on the counter, and without a word to anyone, slipped quietly out the front door.

The cool crisp air smelled of rich earth as I began my journey. A lone owl hooted in the distance. Dew was already forming on the ground as I climbed the steep hill that was home to several hundred Norway Spruces and White Pines. The closer I got to the grove, the headier the scent of pine. How I loved that smell. Happy, carefree childhood memories of Christmas enveloped me whenever I inhaled that wonderful, pungent aroma. Evergreens invite a sense of permanence and stability. Unlike other trees their needles don't completely shed, and they're hearty enough to withstand extreme weather conditions.

As I walked in and out of row upon row, an uncanny sense of oneness with the trees filled me. They were part of God's creation, alive and vibrant. Like me, they had worth and merit. And, like me, they weren't perfect, but still had a reason for being.

I stooped, noticing patches of tall grasses softly matted down where deer had nestled for the night. God used these pine trees to bring protection and pleasure to His creation. Birds softly chirped and their light feathers rustled as they settled in for the night in the thick pine boughs. I began softly singing, in awe of our Creator.

I continued walking, reflecting on how a few weeks earlier I had contacted several local tree nurseries in search of a buyer. Just a few were interested, but none had made us an offer. Having always lived in the suburbs I had no idea how expensive it would be living in the country. It seemed we were always putting money into something: tractor repairs or new attachments, gravel for our long lane, auto repairs for all the extra driving on rough country roads, pond upkeep, garden equipment, and of course the ongoing expenses of our old farmhouse.

As I turned and started toward home, I prayed, "Please God, help us partner with someone who wants and needs these trees."

The outside lights glowed when I finally reached the bottom of the hill.

"There you are," Chuck said, sounding relieved. "What are you doing out here? It's getting dark."

"Thinking... and praying over the pine trees," I said. "I know they are worth something and I think we should contact more nurseries to see if anyone is interested."

"Sure, honey. If it makes you feel better, I'll give Bill another call tomorrow," Chuck said, a slight teasing tone in his voice.

Our friend Bill owned a nursery and was very knowledgeable about pine trees, but when he'd come to look at them, he hadn't seemed interested.

At that moment, as we stood outside the front door, the phone rang. I dashed inside to answer it, almost with a sense of anticipation.


"Hello, Connie? This is Bill. Is Chuck there?"

I ran out the front door and told my husband who it was.

"Yeah, right," he said, reaching for the phone in my outstretched hand. "You're kidding, aren't you?"

"No, honey... here!"

I walked back inside and refilled the sink with fresh hot water, barely resisting the temptation to stay outside and eavesdrop.

When Chuck finally came in, he slowly hung up the phone, shaking his head in disbelief.

"What did Bill want, honey?" I asked, although deep down I already knew.

"He wanted to know if we still had some trees for sale." Chuck paused and swallowed hard.

"He has an interested buyer."


понедельник, 19 декабря 2011 г.

My Husband, The Sculptor

By Sally Schwartz Friedman

Youth is the gift of nature, but age is a work of art.
~Stanislaw Lec

"So what will you do now?" well-meaning friends asked my husband when he retired as a New Jersey Superior Court judge.

Vic would smile, shrug and answer that for a while he might just "float." Decompress. Rest his brain and senses after a lifetime in law.

I worried. A lot.

I was fearful that this man with whom I had shared my life would be bored or lonely or lost. I was concerned about how he would fill days that had once overflowed with important concerns and challenges. I suppose every wife of a newly-minted retiree has those dark-of-night anxieties.

"I think I'll take a sculpture course," my husband announced one day as we were having dinner. I almost choked on my chicken -- he might as well have said, "I think I'll train to be an astronaut."

Never in our forty-four years together had Vic shown or expressed any interest in sculpting. Never in all that time had we actively sought out a sculpture exhibit.

But in this brave new world of retirement, I was to learn that lives are reinvented, and deeply buried yearnings burst forth. And thus it was with Vic -- and sculpture.

My only involvement was to suggest a few likely venues for courses. As a longtime arts writer, I thought I could provide at least that much. As it turned out, it was Vic himself who finally identified the local arts center where his new venture would unfold.

I admit it was slightly weird to watch my husband, most often seen poring over voluminous law texts, as he gathered sculpting supplies, from planing tools and tiny sculpting knives to a simple bucket for his clay.

And there was a slight déjà vu about the September morning when my beloved student went off to art school for the very first time. In other years, I had stood by the kitchen door to watch each of our three daughters march into that big world out there, lunch boxes and backpacks in place.

This time, it was a taller person with silver hair, a man dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt, not his former suit-and-tie/briefcase ensemble, who was off to school. I admit I got a bit misty watching him leave the house.

I spent the morning of Vic's first sculpture class worrying. Would this absolute artistic novice feel intimidated? Would his fellow students be latter-day Michelangelos with limited tolerance for the new kid on the block?

As it turns out, I needn't have anguished.

My husband came home from that first class with obvious exhilaration. For starters, he'd gone and done something unexpected. Score one for a new retiree willing to "try on" a brand new experience.

Vic also discovered, over the next several months, that he had some talent for figural sculpture. Mind you, no museums have come begging for his works, which include a pretty decent female nude (yes, a live model did the posing) and my favorite, the profile of a young man.

By winter, my husband was also taking a drawing class, buying charcoals and drawing paper, and finding that there was, indeed, life after law. Fortunately, the class didn't conflict with the second semester of sculpture.

The astonishment: a man who had never ever done more than doodle was exploring a whole new part of himself. Torts, dockets, motion days and sentencings were receding, and human anatomy and perspective/proportion were on the ascendancy.

Vic is quiet about his life in the arts. He talks about it only when asked. And for now, his artistic efforts are stashed in an upstairs room, not yet ready, he believes, for prime time display.

But as my husband flexes his art "muscles" and takes those first tentative steps into brave new endeavors, I'm standing by the sidelines cheering him on.

After all, Michelangelos are born in every generation.

And who's to say that they can't be retired judges?


воскресенье, 18 декабря 2011 г.

Fantasy Fudge

By Carol McAdoo Rehme

There's nothing better than a good friend, except a good friend with chocolate.
~Linda Grayson

Her Christmas fudge was a holiday tradition. She made it as gifts for neighbors, relatives, coaches, schoolteachers, business associates, and church families. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, looked forward to receiving a plateful. It was her specialty, and it came out perfectly -- every time. It fully deserved its name: Fantasy Fudge.

In giggling stealth, the two of us stood in her pantry nibbling the last of her secret stash while our husbands and kids played table games downstairs.

"Is there a secret ingredient?" I licked a creamy smear from my fingertip.

"Nope." Vic laughed. "Nothing secret. I just follow the recipe on the marshmallow crème jar."

"Give me a break. It can't be that easy!"

"Yep. It's that easy." She looked at the empty candy plate, stuck it in the dishwasher, and tossed the used plastic wrap into the wastebasket. "Tell you what, let's make another batch and I'll show you."



And she did, in spite of our combined nine children romping through the house in joyous holiday confusion. Ignoring the clamor, Vic did what she does best: whip up a batch of melt-in-your-mouth fudge.

She dissolved the grains of extra-fine sugar into a bowl of fluffy margarine and thick, evaporated milk, and then stirred the mixture on top of the stove with a wooden spoon.

My mouth watered.

"Take the butter wrapper and grease the pan," she ordered, probably to keep my nose away from her bubbly concoction. "And you can chop those pecans, if you'd like to help. Not too fine, though. Leave them a bit chunky."

Vic lifted the heavy pot off the burner. With a practiced hand, she added a generous slosh of real Mexican vanilla and a tumble of chocolate chips. I nearly drooled when she spiraled the hot spoon into the jar; marshmallow crème flowed out in a tidal wave.

"What next?" I asked.

"I stir like crazy." And stir she did, until the concoction was glossy. "Pour in the pecans," she said.

"How many?"

"As many as the fudge can hold."

She held the pot over the prepared pan. Lap upon lap of thick fudge flowed like rich, redolent lava. By twos and threes, a lip-smacking crowd of children and husbands followed the heavenly aroma into the kitchen singing out:

"What's that we smell?"


"Can we have some?"

But her elder son twisted his lips. "Who's it for this time?"

"You'll see." In one smooth motion, Vic traded the woody evergreen on the center of the gnarled oak table for her steaming masterpiece. Her eyes crinkled at the corners.

"There's only one way to eat fudge," she announced. Dispensing a handful of spoons and ringing us around the table like a crew of wranglers at the chuck wagon, she invited: "Dig in!"

Dig in? Our eyes widened. We looked at each other in disbelief. My husband raised an eyebrow and nodded at the soup bubbling on a burner at the stove; each of us, even the youngest, knew it was time for lunch. Everyone hesitated -- barely -- before a symphony of thirteen spoons clinked and clanked against each other as they plunged around the fringes of warm Fantasy Fudge.




The hungry horde of us caroled the same, satisfied chorus.

My eyes met Vic's across the crowded table. And that's when I understood. Her recipe might have come straight from the jar, but there was a secret ingredient, too: Indulgence. Decadent, generous, unbridled indulgence.

Vic recognized that sometimes fudge should be made, and eaten, simply for the unrestrained pleasure of it. And, of course, for the warm memory years later.


суббота, 17 декабря 2011 г.

She Called Me Grandma

By Ann Summerville

Gone -- flitted away,
Taken the stars from the night and the sun
From the day!
Gone, and a cloud in my heart.
~Alfred Tennyson

As I stare at the silver-framed picture another tear falls from my eye. Like a bright shining star the little girl came into our lives -- a four-year-old daughter my son-in-law didn't know he had. Our family greeted her with open arms and we quickly settled into bi-weekly visits. Dates were marked on a calendar and we waited for her arrival with anticipation.

One weekend, we sat in a chair huddled against each other while I read a story -- a story of a princess -- and my heart skipped a beat when she called me Grandma for the first time.

At the grocery store, I gathered gummy snacks with Barbie pictures on the box, rainbow-colored cereal and coloring books. As in a dream, our lives changed instantly.

I study the smiling face from the picture and can hear laughter in my mind. Brown eyes look back at me -- kind eyes like her dad's. She looks sedate, but the first pictures taken were of exaggerated poses, a scrunched-up face and clawing hands when she imitated a monster and finally the face with childlike innocence that I look at now. Sparkling lights twinkle from the Christmas tree behind her. The purple velvet dress with an apple green sash reminds me of the Nutcracker ballet we went to that day.

Newly married, my daughter and son-in-law knew the mother only wanted money but they battled for consistent visitation. They fought through the unyielding legal system and became frustrated when their voices were not heard. The excuses came early. She was sick, she was visiting an aunt, she simply couldn't come. The court order meant nothing -- the judge ignored the mother's actions. "Contempt" was a written word of no consequence, and the battle continued.

While ordering the cake for her fifth birthday I waited anxiously. I gripped the phone in my hand and wondered if the mother would show up at the pick-up point with my granddaughter. The phone rang.

"We've got her," said my daughter.

I breathed a sigh of relief as I bought the cake and picked out helium balloons. It was months before we found out where she really lived. On that happy birthday, she quickly discarded her shorts, pulled on a lavender dress with flowing tulle, donned a crown and clipped on pink, heart-shaped earrings. She pranced around the room in plastic slippers with a Disney princess pictured on the strap. Her friends and cousins surrounded her when she pulled off a pink plastic sheet to reveal a dollhouse taller than she.

"This is the best birthday of my whole life," she said.

Each weekend she entertained us. She chased her friends and cousins, splashed in a wading pool and played board games with her dad. Her happiness and sense of humor were infectious. We laughed as she painted a picture of her Barbie doll -- a picture of exaggerated features with thick black eyelashes, a small body and wide skirt. She painted the face with a mixture of white and red and called the color "valilla."

Wearing a fringed skirt and red cowboy hat she rode on a metal horse at the Cowgirl Museum, painted pumpkins for Halloween, climbed on an alligator statue at the zoo and made a gingerbread house before Christmas. We took her to the Nutcracker, where her eyes grew large as she watched the ballerinas. During the intermission she kicked off her sparkled shoes and twirled in the carpeted foyer -- her black tights wrinkled around slender ankles. She jumped and pointed her toes, leaping across the pale green carpet. At the end of the last scene she slumped her head onto her dad's lap and, like the ballerina, fell asleep. If only the dream had lasted.

We decorated her bedroom and made pink, polka dot curtains, painted furniture and stacked the shelves with Disney movies and books. The toy box overflowed. The last weekend I saw her, she was running up and down the stairs with a green and red stuffed parrot bouncing on her shoulder and a black pirate hat on her head. Behind her were friends and cousins wearing eye patches and similar hats. They wielded plastic swords and orchestrated mock battles in the hallway. If we had only known that her mom was already living in a different town, and preparing to move to another state, we would have held her tighter, whispered "I love you" more times, and been reluctant to let her go. Alas, we found out too late that she would be gone from our lives. The laughter echoes in our minds but the room with the polka dot curtains is empty. There will be no more bouncing on the bed, using her Barbie doll as a microphone, no more little hands moving furniture in the doll house and no more running down the stairs calling "Grandma" as she runs into my arms.

Today I hear the husky voice of my daughter. We tell each other she will find us one day as we layer her toys and her favorite purple dress in a box. On top is a picture book of the Nutcracker. We hope that if she returns, the contents will trigger memories of the happy times spent with us. We each wrote letters, letting her know how much we love her and we shed more tears than we knew were possible. The letters are tucked into the keepsake box.

Maybe one day my daughter will have children. Meanwhile, my arms are empty but I will remember that smile and the word that gave me so much joy -- "Grandma.


пятница, 16 декабря 2011 г.

She Needed a Hug

By Lorie Bibbee

When a teacher calls you over to talk about your son, it's not surprising that a wave of "oh, no" comes over you -- especially when your son is the kind of person who loves to make people laugh, even in class. My son is one of those people. If he notices heaviness in the room, he will do just about anything to lighten the mood. We had been working with him to understand that there are appropriate times and places to do this, but sometimes he still struggled with it. So when his teacher called me over after a field trip one day, I got that sinking feeling.

Every Christmas season, our Christian school takes different classes of kids to sing at the nursing homes in our area. This year, my son Jesse's class was going to visit with the residents. A smaller group was going to see the Alzheimer's patients. Jesse had been hand-selected to go into this locked unit.

When the teacher called me over to discuss Jesse's actions after the nursing home visit, I simply didn't know what to think. My father-in-law, who had dementia, lived with us for a while, and I knew that Jesse understood what these people were going through, and how upset they could get if there was a commotion. But I also knew that he might try to help his friends feel happier if they were getting uncomfortable at the nursing home.

The teacher told me that as the children were passing one door, they noticed a little lady sitting on her bed, watching them pass. Jesse saw her and, without asking, went into her room and gave her a hug. She started to softly cry, as did the teacher and several of the students. Seeing their tears, my tenderhearted son came out looking like a whipped puppy and asking if he did something wrong.

The teacher simply asked, "What made you go in there?"

"She looked like she needed a hug," he responded. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make her cry."

Thankfully, the teacher wrapped her arms around Jesse and told him the truth.

"Jesse, your arms were the arms of Jesus today. She obviously needed that hug. Thank you for loving her the way He loves her."


Winston's Boy

By Lisa Preston

It isn't the size of the gift that matters, but the size of the heart that gives it.
~Eileen Elias Freeman

By late December in Anchorage, Alaska, the streets are sheeted in bumpy ice with crusts of snow mounding at the road shoulders. It made for tricky driving and tiring night shifts at work. I was eager to fall asleep, glad to be almost home. Just before turning off the main road for the final blocks to home -- I saw the body.

The little dog was at the edge of the street and appeared undamaged except for the smallest bit of dried blood on his nose. Undoubtedly, he'd been hit by a car and there his life had ended. His coat was a lovely cinnamon, with thick rich fur that suggested a Chow ancestry. I checked the tag on his collar and learned that "Winston" had only been a couple of blocks from home when he died. He was small enough that I could have picked him up, but something made me hesitate and instead I left him there and drove alone to the address inscribed on the tag.

The front yard of the house had sleds and balls and assorted bright plastic toys. I went past these things with a lowered head, held my breath while I knocked, and sighed with relief when no young faces, nor any adults, came to the door. I thought about leaving a note, but again hesitated, not knowing what to write. How could a note let the parents know what had happened and yet not tell the children?

Winston's tag had the phone number as well, so in the end, I simply left a message on the owners' answering machine, giving my name and number, asking that they call me about their dog. Before going to bed, I called the animal shelter and asked that they pick up the body.

The sad situation was gone from my mind as I awoke and went back to work, but when I came home again, there were messages waiting on the answering machine. A young boy was calling over and over, wanting to know if I had a dog.

Yes, I had a dog. Jack was a large, strikingly beautiful Golden Retriever, feathered in every shade of yellow from the palest silvery gild to a honey red as burnished as Winston's coat. With the dawning realization that the family must have called the shelter, I felt my mind lurch. Suppose the boy thought that I was the one who had hit his dog? I called him back with reluctance, dreading talking about his loss at all, hesitant to see his sorrow.

His voice sounded as shaky as I felt. "I was wondering if you have a dog," he asked. "And if so, if I could give Winston's Christmas presents... to your dog?"

Jack and I went over right away. The boy was older than I thought he'd be, maybe ten or eleven and he was alone at home. With the friendly enthusiasm typical of his breed, Jack went right up and plunged his face into the large grocery bag the boy was holding. Wrapped present after wrapped present came up, clasped gently in Jack's jaws. Dog treats, a rawhide chew toy, a ball. With tears on his cheeks, the boy helped Jack pull the paper off each gift and inspect them one by one.

I don't know if the boy told me his name. I couldn't have remembered, could hardly trust my voice not to crack when I thanked him and drove Jack home with his new belongings. That boy's profound sense of Christmas, wanting to give gifts in his grief, was an experience to keep in the heart forever and so, while it was a brief encounter and I was sad for his loss, I'll always treasure that time I had with Winston's boy.


четверг, 15 декабря 2011 г.

The Match

By Kathy Lynn Harris

Somehow destiny comes into play. These children end up with you and you end up with them. It's something quite magical.
~Nicole Kidman

In the months before becoming a mom for the first time, most women worry. We worry about the health of the baby. We worry that we won't know what to do when the baby cries and cries. We worry about how the baby will change our marriages, our careers, our lives. We worry about what kind of mother we will be, and if it will be enough.

But when your first child is not growing inside you, but inside another woman -- a young girl who will be your baby's birth mother -- your list of worries changes and grows.

Along with all of the normal concerns, you worry about whether or not there has been sufficient prenatal care, or whether drugs and alcohol are being used. And sometimes you worry about whether you'll be able to love an adopted child the same way you would love a child you had conceived... the same way you would love one who shares your DNA, your pale skin, and your husband's long eyelashes.

We received the phone call from our adoption agency in late summer that a birth mother and birth father had chosen us to parent their unborn child. The baby was due in just six weeks.

We'd heard stories of these life-changing "match" calls. I always envisioned that when the call came for us, I would shed happy tears, maybe jump up and down, and dance a little "our dreams are coming true" dance. I assumed that my elation would be something uncontainable, spreading over us like wildfire.

Instead, I was startled by my reaction. There was a small bit of cautious joy, yes. But it was fleeting, and then far outweighed by another, more overwhelming non-emotion that I hadn't been prepared for: numbness.

It was like I had stepped into a cold, rushing creek in the middle of a hot day, and I knew I should be feeling the relief, or the movement of the cool water around my ankles, the tickle of creek bed mud loosening beneath me, the warm, inviting sun on my face. But I didn't. I couldn't.

Psychologically, I knew I was protecting myself, keeping my heart safe behind a wall of control. After all, adoptions can be risky. People change their minds. A birth parent can have a change of heart just before the baby is born, or right afterward.

You can prepare a nursery, buy a crib, tell your close friends -- and still end up without a baby. I understood this. And I couldn't set that knowledge aside.

We met the young birth parents soon after our match call. Jill and John (names have been changed) seemed to be resolutely aware they weren't in a position to provide for another child.

Also at that first meeting, Jill asked if I wanted to accompany her to a sonogram appointment the next week. I was touched that she would share such a private moment with me. When I told her that, she said, "Well, I'm thinking of this as your child now." The statement seemed to swirl around me. I didn't know how to respond. Was this my child?

At the sonogram, I sat beside Jill and watched the images on the computer screen. This baby, the one that Jill believed would be my child, was a boy. It was the first confirmation of the baby's gender we'd had. I waited for emotion to come barreling toward me. It didn't. My feelings seemed frozen, iced over.

The technician printed out sonogram pictures for both of us. Jill smiled at me. I swallowed another lump of anxiety and took the photograph with shaking hands.

I wanted to believe this was my baby, the soul I would love unconditionally and raise into adulthood, the toddler I would read Goodnight Moon to every night, the child I would hold and comfort when he scraped his knee, the son we would take camping every summer and plan birthday parties for every fall.

I wanted to believe my hope of having a family would be realized in this black-and-white image of bone and tissue. I wanted to believe the long little toes I could so clearly make out would soon be the ones I would count and tickle in the evenings as I rocked him in front of a warm fire.

But nothing inside of me told me this was true.

The remaining weeks of Jill's pregnancy went by quickly. Just after midnight on October first, she called us. She asked if we were ready for our son to be born.

Jill and John allowed us to be in the room during the delivery, another touching gesture. We stood nearby, but not too close, waiting in those final minutes as Jill pushed. We watched as the baby came into the world, red-pink and slippery and a little mad about the whole ordeal.

Looking back, I remember those moments as if I were outside my own body, watching a scene unfold before me. I remember the room seemed too bright. I remember my husband held my hand. I remember tears running down his cheeks, something I had rarely seen. I remember biting my lip so hard it bled.

And I remember thinking: This is Jill's baby. But is he mine, too?

While the doctor and nurse attended to Jill, another nurse took the baby aside for all those rush of things necessary right after birth. Then she motioned for us to come over.

I was hesitant at first, almost like a child waiting to sit on Santa's lap. I had looked forward to this for so long. But now, I felt uneasy, unsure.

I gingerly placed my pointer finger in one palm of this perfect, beautiful creature with eyes the color of the sea and a full head of brown hair. With more force than I could have imagined, he curled his full hand around my finger and held it. He didn't let go, and neither did I.

It was in that all-consuming moment that I knew. Absolutely and without doubt. With that simple, reflex motion of an infant's hand responding to mine, it was as if every cell in my own structure underwent a transformation. I couldn't have stopped it if I had wanted to. This was my child.

The months following our son's birth certainly contained no more assurance than the weeks prior to his birth. In our state and many others, adoptive parents are merely foster parents for several months, until the birth parents can officially relinquish their parental rights. And then there is additional time between that event and when the adoption can be finalized.

But unlike those weeks after our match call, the months we spent as "foster parents" were full of unprecedented and unmarred joyfulness and excitement. We loved as if there were no tomorrow -- or as if there were a million tomorrows.

It's been three years now. Our son is happy and healthy, and continues to amaze us every day. When he hurts, I hurt. When he laughs, I laugh. Some days I wonder just where I end and he begins.

And when I look at him, he may not be a reflection of my hair color, or the shape of my nose, or the exact color of my eyes, but he is, undeniably, a reflection of me -- my love for him and my husband, my values, my sense of humor, my way of seeing the world.

I still worry, of course. But now, it's about a high fever, or preschool, or cavities in his light-up-a-room smile. It is never, ever about whether or not he was meant to be mine. Or whether I was meant to be his.