Sunday, December 26, 2010


The Rocky Road – Author Unknown

“In ancient times, a king had a boulder placed on a roadway. Then he hid himself and watched to see if anyone would remove the huge rock. Some of the king's wealthiest merchants and courtiers came by and simply walked around it. Many loudly blamed the king for not keeping the roads clear, but none did anything about getting the stone out of the way. Then a peasant came along carrying a load of vegetables. On approaching the boulder, the peasant laid down his burden and tried to move the stone to the side of the road. After much pushing and straining, he finally succeeded. As the peasant picked up his load of vegetables, he noticed a purse lying in the road where the boulder had been. The purse contained many gold coins and a note from the king indicating that the gold was for the person who removed the boulder from the roadway. The peasant learned what many others never understand.”

“Every obstacle presents an opportunity to improve one's condition.”

I’ll go one further. Every obstacle presents an opportunity to mature and become stronger. As I look back over the past year and the many obstacles I and other family members and close friends have faced, I am certain of one thing. I feel stronger, wiser and more powerful having traveled my own personal rocky road during 2010. Birth, marriage, divorce, job loss, legal woes, financial concerns, sleepless nights, serious illness, and death were all part of this year's path. No doubt every reader can relate. Yet, despite worry and depression over events beyond my control, here I sit feeling optimistic about the future. I believe that like the song "Going on a Bear Hunt", I'm not going to be afraid - I'll somehow surmount all road blocks. If I can't move the rocks I'll simply figure out how to go around them, and encourage others to do the same.

Here are ten strategies for traveling a rocky road:

1. Train yourself to develop a positive attitude. This CAN be done, but it takes work.

2. Decide to have empathy for others. Put yourself in their place and think how you would feel, and what would make you feel better.

3. Do good deeds without expectation of payback.

4. Develop your listening skills, so that you listen more than you talk.

5. Offer to help someone who is in difficult straits. Running errands, taking a friend or neighbor to the doctor or shopping, offering emergency care for a child, or any other task that would lower someone's stress level, can make a huge positive difference when one is feeling low.

6. If you know someone with children is having marital problems, offer to help out with babysitting so that the people involved can have some alone time.

7. If you see that someone is "stuck" and unable to move ahead in their life, try to find out what the sticking point is, and see if your fresh ideas might be helpful. Example: A young person I know has recently moved with her family far away from friends and her comfort zone. She wants to go to technical school, but doesn't know how to find out what steps she needs to take. I have experience in this area and have received permission from her to explore what she should do first. Thinking about her takes my mind off my own troubles.

8. Go to a nursing home once a month to visit residents there. My mother, along with her friend, baked a birthday cake every month to share with those having birthdays in that month. Many people in nursing homes are forgotten or ignored by their family members and friends, and this small gesture might be the only outside, positive, caring contact some of them have. Visualize how you would feel in this situation; in fact, it could happen to any of us some day!

9. If you have time, explore the idea of becoming a "big brother" or "big sister" for a child in need. Go to to learn more. Thinking about others helps remove rocks from the paths of those others as well as one's own.

10. Smile often and have a pleasant, welcoming expression on your face. Say hello. Try it everywhere from the supermarket to people you pass on the street. You will be amazed at how you feel and others respond.

Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea and Listen to the Wind encountered many 'rocks on the road" in Pakistan, where he started schools so that children could learn and have a future. Some of the "rocks" or problems included no place to conduct school, no school supplies, and no bridges to transport materials for making and conducting those schools. In these books we learn how stones along the way were used in the building of bridges and classrooms. One man made a huge difference by removing the rocks on the road figuratively and literally.

Thinking about rocks in our paths makes me think about rocks on the beach. Some are jagged and rough, while others are smoothed and flattened by the water's constant motion, creating good skippers. It seems to me that, in a way, life's rough waters bounce us about and change the way we look and feel. In other words, we're shaped by our problems and how we solve them.

Here's to 2011 and whatever rocks the year may have in store for us. Let's resolve to move the rocks like the man in the fable above and like Greg Mortenson in Pakistan. We may be pleasantly surprised at what's underneath.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain'd
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight
'Till by turning, turning we come round right

Simple Gifts, by Joseph Brackett,
American Songwriter (1847)

Years ago, as a single mother of three children, 12, 10 and 8, the Christmas holidays were an emotional and financial struggle. Many are facing that same struggle today. It didn't help that we were living on Mercer Island, in an area and time when divorce was still uncommon there, and most folks had the financial wherewithal for the latest in fashion, toys and exciting experiences. An example of the latter was a neighbor who invited one of my sons on a private plane flight to Portland for lunch. It provided a wonderful experience, but also an unattainable hope or expectation for my children.

I experienced a kind of discrimination implying that single mothers were somehow deficient in parenting. If a child from a "broken home" was guilty of a misdeed at school, comments would be something like, (Tsk, Tsk) "Oh, well, what can you expect, coming from a broken home." With a high degree of shame, I confess to having had similar thoughts myself before falling victim to single parenthood.

With minimal child support I was forced to hold two jobs, leaving my children to fend for themselves at times. Looking back I now realize how helpful it actually was to be living in a community which valued intact families and neighborhood connections. If I couldn't be there for my kids, my neighbors could.

I remember always being "a day late and a dollar short" when trying to provide my children with whatever was in at the time, clothing or toy-wise. At one point owning a VCR was a big status symbol among their friends, and finally, after these wonderful machines were common in most Mercer Island family rooms, I scraped together enough for a Magnavox VCR which Santa presented to all three as their main Christmas gift. I think I designed a treasure hunt to get the gift, which added to the fun. Of course renting the VCR movies presented another financial problem because of the membership fee at the video stores. I was truly thankful when that was no longer necessary.

Looking back I realize how many opportunities I deprived my children of by trying to" keep up with the Jones". You never really can. How much better it is to face what you have to face and put a positive spin on it. Giving creative, simple, inexpensive, or even free gifts all beautifully wrapped, containing certificates and gift idea cards would have sent an important message about frugality to my children.

Here are some examples:

1. Dollar Store Adventure Certificate A pre-Christmas present. Present the coupon along with the dollar amount you have determined will work for your family. Such stores are everywhere, and are a wonderful source of items for all occasions. I would be willing to bet that if you gave your kids five or ten dollars to spend they would have a lot of fun trying to choose the right five or ten things that would give the most bang for their bucks. Watching them having fun shopping is actually a gift being returned to you. Completing the adventure might be a stop at the local Dairy Queen or other ice cream store.

2. 'Smore Making Certificate. Each child could have their own certificate, redeemable on a date to be mutually agreed upon. Wrap the certificate up with a box of graham crackers, Hershey bars and bag of marshmallows. A preview taste test would be permissable. Make the 'smores in the fireplace, and serve with some hot cocoa. If you don't have a fireplace, an electric burner works fine. I tried a candle as well, and it also works, although the marshmallow caught on fire a couple of times. As with anything involving flames or heat, this should only be done under adult supervision.

3. Monster Sleepover Certificate. Present it all wrapped up, and include a monster activity sticker book available at your local supermarket, Target or Fred Meyer store. Each child gets a certificate to invite a friend to sleep over. Requirements would be wearing a monster costume, and playing monster games. If you have more than one child, the sleepover certificates can be combined for one big affair.

4. Model and Makeup Party Certificate (Presented all wrapped up along with a bottle of inexpensive nail polish.)This would probably be a girls only party, although little boys might enjoy playing some kind of role. Is there a little girl on the planet who doesn't love dressing up and putting on mom's makeup? Your old clothes, high heels, wigs, hats, and anything else that could be fun for dressing up, can be used. Ask relatives and friends if they have some old clothes they would be willing to loan for the event. Have a curling iron, hair dryer, makeup and nail polish available. Turn the kitchen sink into a beauty salon station and have the girls take turns shampooing each other. Let them also take turns being manicurists, doing each others' nails. When finished, put on a fashion show, with picture taking and champagne (sparkling apple or grape juice).

5. Grand Prix Extravaganza Certificate wrapped up with a special hot wheel race car which you can buy very inexpensively these days. Your child can invite a group of like-minded car racing enthusiasts for a hot wheel Formula One race. Ask each guest to bring their favorite car for Race Day. If some kids don't have such a vehicle in their toy collection, buy a few extra at places like the dollar store. Part of the fun will be having the kids design the race course. This can be simply done by tilting pieces of plywood, or other flat materials, from a chair to the floor and use masking tape to define the lanes. After each race, the course can be repeated for as long as the children remain interested. You can even get a toy trophy for the grand winner and ribbons for all participants - again at the dollar store. Giving each kid a car party favor would be an additional hit. For people who like to bake, a car shaped cake with appropriate frosting would add to this memorable party. Don't forget to take pictures of the participants and cake for later posting on Facebook or other posting, if you have that capability

So, how much have you spent?

Total Approximate Cost of five gifts: From $15.00 to $25.00 depending on the Dollar Store allowance. See the breakdown below:

1. Dollar Store $1 to $10 cash depending on your cash gift.
2. Cost of a box of graham crackers, ($3.29) bag of marshmallows, $1.19 and some Hershey Bars ($ .99 each) Approximately $6.00 although prices vary from store to store
3. Create Your Own Monster Activity Book ($1.50) or other monster book similarly priced.
4. Bottle of nail polish (Wet and Wild) $ .99, Sparkling Grape, $1.00
5. Hot wheel $1.00 - $1.49, cake mix and frosting, approximately 6.50 for two

at Safewy.

And what is the value?

You have five gifts that are exciting to open, provide some immediate fun, and keep on giving for weeks to come. As you plan for each event, the children have the joy of adding their own unique ideas , not to mention anticipating what lies ahead. The value added is in providing the most unique Christmas ever, with memories that will live on for your family and others as well.

Like the song, above about "Simple Gifts" if you create a set of unique gifts for your children, you will be "in a place that is just right for you."

Now click on the YouTube site here to receive my simple gift to you. It's a beautiful rendition of "Simple Gifts" with music and scenes. Have a wonderful, joyful, and frugal holiday season.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


I first learned about Santa Lucia during my freshman year at the University of Washington. Because half my DNA was Swedish, and for some other crazy reasons I won’t go into here, I found myself studying Swedish language and literature. Let’s just say that Dr. Walter Johnson, head of the small department, was quite persuasive.

I knew very little about my father’s Swedish relatives, but by immersing myself in the language I began to explore my roots, and December 13 found me and a number of other girls in the department getting ready for the annual Santa Lucia Pageant held in a large social hall across the street from campus. I was to be one of the attendants, gowned in white, with tinsel in my hair and a plate of cookies in my hand. The girl chosen to be the Lucia was a striking dark blonde, also dressed in a long white gown. On her head would be a crown of lighted candles, and she too would be carrying cookies. An engaging little guy dressed in red pranced along in front, playing the role of Tomten, the elf equivalent of Santa. The lights were dimmed, the hauntingly beautiful Santa Lucia song began to play, and we processed in, our faces aglow as we reenacted once again a tradition going back generations.

I didn’t realize then how important this tradition would become in my life. I went on to spend my junior year at the University of Stockholm where I was chosen to be the Santa Lucia, returning to be given the honor yet again at the U.W.

What is it really all about? In Sweden the festival of Santa Lucia begins on December 13. With the winter solstice approaching it signifies the coming of light to a dark and dreary world as well as the beginning of “Jul” or Christmas. Stories abound about how the tradition came to Sweden, but it originated in Sicily in about 300 AD. Legend has it that there a Christian girl named Lucia was blinded and slain because of her ministrations to the poor, attaining martyrdom. However it came to Sweden, Santa Lucia pageants are held all across the country on or close to the thirteenth. On that morning the music of Santa Lucia is heard everywhere as white robed girls with lighted candles on their heads reenact the age old story to honor the martyred saint.

In homes all over Sweden children wake up in excitement as they prepare to wake their parents with candlelight, singing, coffee and special saffron buns. The oldest daughter gets to wear the crown of lighted candles. Younger daughters wear tinsel in their hair. Sons become star boys, wearing pointed hats and carrying star tipped rods as they parade through the house.

Now on or about December 13 one can find the Santa Lucia reenactment from Stockholm to Seattle, from Fresno to New York City and in locations all over the world. For the past twenty years my husband and I staged a Santa Lucia party for a large group of friends and family. Over the years I had gathered enough long white dresses in many sizes and mens’ shirts, so that whoever showed up could participate. After dinner, the children were all ushered into a back room to assume their roles for the pageant. The oldest girl there became the Lucia, while the others were attendants or princesses and star boys. It was a holiday highlight for many, and with the passing of so many years, children who once played a part, now had children of their own doing the same. After processing throughout the house to the old familiar Santa Lucia song, passing out cookies as they went, the group was positioned for picture taking, and must certainly have felt important to be the center of so much adulation and attention. Glogg, a potent spiced wine, was then set aflame, and served as a fitting end to our annual festival of light.

For years in December as a teacher I gathered up my costumes, battery operated crowns, tinsel, star hats, and cookies and reenacted the Santa Lucia pageant at our school's holiday assembly. The students in this inner city school were predominantly African-American, and I like to think that their exposure to this Swedish tradition was an important part of their multi-cultural growth.

Now retired, I will be subbing tomorrow in a class where the teacher is allowing me to bring in some of my own ideas for the day. So once again I am gathering up my crowns, gowns, and cookies to bring the tradition alive for still another audience. Santa Lucia will shed her light on a new crop of students, hopefully promoting multicultural understanding in a warm and caring fashion.

To see more about the story and to hear the Santa Lucia song being sung, click on the following site. It might touch your heart and bring you joy.

Sunday, December 5, 2010


"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead

Last night my husband, Vaughn, and I hosted a table for ten at the Festival of Trees auction in the former Leopold Hotel's Crystal Ballroom in Bellingham. Although it is now the Leopold Retirement Residence, I fondly remember the once grand hotel as the site of my senior prom in 1955. Seeing that slowly rotating glittering ball was thrilling then, and is equally thrilling now, despite the change in circumstance.

My son, John, introduced us to the Festival of Trees four years ago, knowing that I would love participating in this very unique form of philanthropy - an auction of gloriously decorated Christmas trees. Sponsored by the Health Support Center in Bellingham, twenty-two organizations are provided many services as a result of the auction and other fundraising efforts.

Guaranteed to put even Scrooge in the Christmas spirit, the evening went something like this. Upon entering we got a bidding card and a table number. Walking into the grand old ballroom, we were treated to the sight and sounds of the Bellingham High School Strolling Strings in holiday garb, as they wandered about playing holiday favorites. Tables seating ten were ringed by sixteen uniquely decorated and lighted Christmas trees, each with its own theme, and each decorated and donated by dedicated volunteers.

To name only a few: A tree named "A Poinsettia Christmas" featured handmade felt poinsettias, while a fanciful Grinch was poised atop the "Grinch Who Stole Christmas" tree . "Twas the Night Before Christmas" tree was laden with different Santa ornaments and topped by Santa, a sleigh and eight reindeer made by the decorator's son. All of the trees were set to be auctioned off to the highest bidders. Organizations such as brain injury and Parkinson's support groups, National Alliance on Mental Illness, Northwest Braille Services, Kids Council Northwest and seventeen other worthy causes would benefit by the evening's fundraiser. In addition, auction participants were treated to a silent auction where everything from jewelry to wine and getaways was available for bidding.

Participants feasted on a wonderful roast beef buffet. To get dessert required another creative form of giving. A myriad of delectable desserts, all different, were available for viewing to one side. Each table had a dessert envelope in the middle and people were encouraged to put whatever they could afford in their table's envelope. At a designated time the envelopes were collected and the contents counted. Tables with the most money got first choice of dessert, and so on until everyone had something yummy to eat. Our table, with pick number three, feasted on a calorie laden chocolate cake. Table center pieces were auctioned off in a similar fashion.

After we ate, the evening's master of ceremonies-auctioneer and the center's executive director shared the mission of the Support Center before the bidding began. Caught up in the spirit of giving we successfully bid on "Greetings From The Sea", an evergreen laden with all kinds of handmade sea animals such as starfish, sea horses, crabs and other unique ornaments perfect for our nearby beach cabin.

By the evening's end, sixteen final tree bids ranged from $250 to $1200 were made, which, along with the silent auction, centerpiece auction, dessert contributions and $40.00 per person dinner added up to a successful evening for the Center and its member organizations.
Because of the generous donations of auction gifts, food, venue, decor and other costs there was very little overhead.

A wonderful addition to the Festival is how the trees are delivered to the new tree owners. I understand that early Sunday morning HSC staff, a volunteer tree delivery coordinator, and Boy Scout Troop #23 arrived at the auction site to bag, load and deliver the trees. At a pre-arranged time today, two scouts and an adult came to our house with the tree, set it up in a unique rolling stand, positioned it where indicated, and filled the stand with water. We are now enjoying a seaworthy vision of loveliness in keeping with our view of the Strait of Georgia. To make this experience even better, the same boy scout troop will return on January 6 to pick up the tree and stand for disposal. The trees are taken to a park and rec facility to be chipped and used for mulch. The stands are stored for use the next year. It is an efficient and well run process.

It's a great feeling to know that last night we made a difference in a small way to some important organizations because of the Health Support Center. It is also important to remember that groups like it are working across the country to help others in time of need. To know more about the important work of this organization click on its name. You can also surf the web to find similar organizations in your community, or better yet, find a group of likeminded individuals and start your own festival of support. So many people in need would be grateful.

In the meantime, a heartfelt thank you to all "groups of thoughtful, committed citizens who are changing our world." Have a joyous and rewarding holiday season.



The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein is a serious thought-provoking story, ostensibly for children, about giving, what it means for giver and receiver, and if we are ever faced with the concept of giving too much. It's a soul touching book. I read it to my elementary school students around Christmas to help them think about gifts from the heart, and how parents might feel when it comes to meeting their kids' requests and needs. Children get it, especially those with a developing sense of empathy. For adults there is an even deeper understanding of what seems to be an underlying message. That message one needs to determine for oneself. Listen to the entire story by seeing and hearing The Giving Tree on Youtube, and share it with your kids. Ask them some questions like the ones you find on the Common Sense website here. This website is definitely worth checking.

If you are a teacher, here is a writing idea for students that might prove interesting. After reading the story and a discussion period, give them writing paper with a space above for illustrations. Write this story starter on the board.

"If I could give anything to anyone I would give ____________ to __________.

You can add depth to the writing by having the students tell "why" they would choose to do this. The students will be eager to share. You might be surprised at the results.