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Posts Tagged ‘service’

The holidays can bring such joy — families gather together to share specially prepared meals, exchange gifts, and savor the particular magic that seems to permeate the air. Frosty windowpanes frame displays of trees and candles whose lights dance about merrily. The cold makes noses jauntily pink, and hot cocoa and spiced cider warm everyone back up. The scents of cinnamon and pine waft through the air.

Of course, that’s the ideal, what sparkles in our memories of favorite holidays. It’s also possible, with busy lives and the demands of work, kids’ last days of school before the winter break, and just trying to get ready for the expectations of what the holidays should be — grocery shopping, endless treks to the mall to get the toys and gadgets on the kids’ wish lists, getting lights strung around the house — to lose sight of the true meaning of the holidays.

Here are a few ideas for ways to bring back that wonderful feeling that can be the hallmark of this special time of year.

Get ideas from Grandma.

Ask an older member of your family, such as a grandmother or great-uncle, to share a tradition from his or her childhood and incorporate that this year. Grandma may tell you how when she was little she put her shoes outside the front door to have them filled with goodies from Santa Claus, instead of in a stocking next to the fireplace. This might work particularly well if you don’t have a fireplace and the children worry how Santa can get to their stockings without one!

Shake the family tree.

This free land of ours is a melting pot of many countries with their own unique practices surrounding the holidays. Your family may be a mixture of Russian, British and Norwegian, for example. Look up Christmas traditions that are common in Norway, perhaps, and pick one or two to incorporate this year in your celebrations. Christmas Eve dinner there usually features pork or lamb ribs or even cod, according to visitnorway.com, followed by the opening of gifts waiting under the tree. Get a recipe for Norwegian-style ribs and try that as a main course, and do the same for the traditional cookies — goro, krumkaker or berlinekrans.

Plan to volunteer or give back somehow as a family.

Depending on your family’s size and the ages of your children, it may be easy to find some way to give back to your community in some way or it may be a bit more challenging. Little ones won’t have a long attention span or may not be old enough to help out at homeless shelters or places that provide free meals, for instance. But anyone can find some way to serve others. Donating cans or boxes of nonperishable food items is a simple option; children can help Mom pick out vegetables they like and want to share with others. Take a box or bag full to your local food pantry. A more one-on-one way to brighten someone’s day is to visit a nursing home. Share your talents, such as music, or just sit and visit and ask an older person about his or her life. Ask him or her about long-ago traditions or holiday memories, even.

Re-emphasize your faith.

lightOur holidays are based on religious events, after all. Find a way to focus more on “what it really is all about.” Make an advent calendar that takes the whole month of December leading up to Christmas Day to remember miracles Christ performed. I’ve been enjoying the LDS Church’s #lighttheworld initiative this month so far, which gives an idea of something to do service-wise every day of the month leading up to the 25th, based on what Jesus did in his life.

Gift a memory.

It can sometimes be difficult to find just the right gift for a loved one. This year, try “throwing it back” by finding an item that reflects a favorite toy or experience the recipient had as a child. Children of the ‘80s had Atari game systems; try giving him a classic video game set in the form of an app. Maybe your grandma misses the beautiful farmhouse she grew up in; give her a framed photo of it or an ornament that harks back to it. Or try a charm for a bracelet or necklace. Have some fun!

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According to Goodreads, I read 51 books this year, a total of 18,639 pages. There were just a few more that I didn’t enter onto the site, but that pretty well sums it up. Thanks to that site, I end up not having to plow through many stinkers, so I did enjoy almost all of the books I read. A few stand out, however. Here are my 10 faves from this year of reading.

Young Adult

illusionsIllusions of Fate, by Kiersten White: This was practically perfect. I borrowed it from the library but then had to buy it because I loved it so much. Kiersten White has created a world not unlike ours, set in a time much like that of the early 20th century, but has imbued its nobility with magical powers only they know about and use. Her heroine is smart and courageous and all too human, and though she is “just an ordinary girl,” she is a force to be reckoned with. That’s what makes her — and the book — so great. I just lost myself in the setting, the characters and their interactions with each other, and the story. I absolutely adored this book. Bonus: it’s clean. I rated it Mild on Rated Reads.

Circus Mirandus, by Cassie Beasley: This middle-grade book is about faith, magic and hope. It’s about opening your eyes to the possibilities. It’s about family, love and dedication. It’s sweet, poignant, delightful. It’s written for children, sure, but adults will be charmed as well. It’s one of those books everyone should get to read and keep on a bookshelf at home. And since it’s for younger readers, it’s clean. I rated it None on Rated Reads.

The Storyspinner, by Becky Wallace: This book with a strong female heroine is an engaging tale of danger, cunning, political intrigue, magic and a few touches of romance. The plot and writing are excellent, seeming to have come from a more seasoned writer, and once I got into the story, I could hardly put it down. It’s clean; I rated it Mild on Rated Reads.

weight of feathersThe Weight of Feathers, by Anna-Marie McLemore: The prose in this Romeo-and-Juliet tale set in the Central Valley of California that swings between two carnival families is just so, so lovely, and the writing is so masterful it’s hard to believe this is a debut novel. It’s gotten some hype, and it actually lives up to it. I rated it Moderate on Rated Reads.

Challenger Deep, by Neal Shusterman: This book is one of those Important Novels people should read to gain a bit of empathy, understanding and awareness about mental illness, particularly in teens. It could have foundered in less skilled hands, but Shusterman has the chops to make this brilliant. He writes in an author’s note at the end that his own son “journeyed to the deep” and with his help, he’s “tried to capture what that descent was like.” He also points out the reality that helping people who are dealing with mental illness “is not an exact science, but it’s all we have – and it gets better every day as we learn more about the brain, and the mind, and as we develop better, more targeted medication.” I rated it Mild on Rated Reads.

Fiction

lake houseThe Lake House, by Kate Morton: Yes, I adore Kate Morton’s books. This one did not disappoint. Morton is a master at crafting these kinds of novels: long and richly detailed stories of family secrets that span generations and decades, that have long-reaching consequences. As I reluctantly and slowly closed the back cover, I was overcome by that sadly delicious, mixed feeling of completion that means a book has brought me much gratification as I’ve taken it all in but regret that the experience is over and can’t be duplicated. And it’s clean reading: I rated it Mild on Rated Reads.

Us, by David Nicholls: The book is practically perfect: it examines so beautifully a longtime marriage between two very different people, the highs and lows and in-betweens, without resorting to cheap plays for readers’ sympathies. Even serious matters that could, in the wrong hands, be maudlin are deftly and lightly handled. Nicholls’ previous book, One Day, was a good one, but it did resort to a big bang of a twist that could be seen as a nasty trick by the writer. Here, however, the story plays out naturally and is balanced wonderfully. There are laugh-out-loud moments that gave me no choice but to read them aloud to whoever was near and descriptive passages that made me in awe of Nicholls’ cleverness. I can’t say enough about how well written this book is. It’s not clean reading, though: I rated it High for strong language on Rated Reads.

Nonfiction

body of truthBody of Truth, by Harriet Brown: I have not yet posted a review of this on Rated Reads, but it’s coming soon. I’m also hoping to write a nice in-depth analysis on here in coming days. It’s that important. Brown shares what she’s learned in a decade of examining research on weight, obesity, eating disorders, etc., as well as from interviewing hundreds of women and scientists. The reality is this: our society is completely obsessed with weight. And though the media and doctors tend to go on certain “truths” as givens, those are not necessarily true or even based on solid research. Weight is a very complex matter, and we still know far too little about how best to regulate it. We certainly know far too little about how to help people lose weight and keep it off “for good.”

A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn: Husband-and-wife writing team Kristof and WuDunn explore ways that we can all make a difference by donating our time, talents or resources to help others in this world. Even a little helps. They share inspiring stories and then tell readers specifically how to make our money or time really count. I was galvanized by this terrific book. It’s simply inspiring, but it’s also practical and addresses concerns and problems with charities even as it shares solid advice on how to tailor your giving to your own interests and capacities. I rated it Mild on Rated Reads.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, by Caitlin Doughty: If you are a fan of Mary Roach’s fascinating book on what happens to our bodies after death, Stiff, you are likely to appreciate Caitlin Doughty’s book focusing mostly on the aspect of cremation. While the book is informative and curiosity-slaking while also liberally sprinkled with dry wit and gallows humor, it’s also a reminder that Americans today are far removed from death. And this is much of Doughty’s point: after spending about a year working at a crematorium in Oakland, California, she then decided to pursue the career and attend mortuary school. The experiences served to incite in her a passion for helping people in our culture reacquaint themselves with death. Rather than fearing aging and death and dead bodies and shoving all we find distasteful off onto professionals who work behind a screen, we would be better served mentally and emotionally if we had more to do with the whole process. I rated it High for language on Rated Reads.

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Path AppearsI’ve written before about how I wish I could do more to give to others, whether it’s money or time. So many worthy charitable organizations exist to address all kinds of needs, and so many individuals and families need all kinds of things. So I was heartened and inspired by a fantastic book I read last week, A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, by husband-and-wife writers Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. In short, this couple wrote that they often long to give and help those in need around the world but have been unsure of the best ways to help and the best organizations to give to or through. So they’ve “done their research” and created a book that shares what they have learned.

Their conclusions: giving not only benefits others, but it is a source of great satisfaction and fulfillment for those who give. And, even better, just a small donation of time or money really can make an impact, more than we imagine. Then the authors give specific tips on finding a charity to hone in on: 1) “Find an issue that draws you in and research it. … Choose one that speaks to you.” Then do some research yourself to find “ratings, reviews, and critiques” of the charity. 2) “Volunteer, get involved, or do something more than just writing checks.” Use your talents and skills in a place where they will fit and can be “put to good use.” 3) “Use your voice to spread the word or advocate for those who are voiceless.” Kristof and WuDunn write that this step is often overlooked or given short shrift, but it is vital to not only “talk up” what we know and do some “PR” but also to “hold governments — our own and others — accountable for doing their share.”

Not only do they give tips on how best to get involved, but they share a list of “useful organizations” that “do strong work in education, crime and violence prevention, family planning, public health, and quite a bit more.” They emphasize that this isn’t a “screened list” but just groups they have seen personally doing “impressive work.” It’s a few pages long and certainly a nice place to start.

I wrote quite a bit about the book on my book review site, Rated Reads, so you can read more details there. I just can’t say enough about how inspiring this book is. The more of us who get inspired to help and figure out the best ways that we can make a difference, the better for the whole world!

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A few nights ago, I was blessed with the opportunity to meet a man who must absolutely wear his life out in service to others. I was sitting at a high school football game selling cookies to raise money for the marching band, and the other parent I was working with said hello to this particular individual, who was at the game volunteering with the police department as a security presence for these kinds of community events. Mr. B, as I’ll refer to him, stayed to talk a while and spoke of the things he’s been doing; he retired from being an elementary-school teacher a few years ago. In addition to helping out with the police, he and another man help repair bicycles for the homeless once a week; he has spent a month in China during the summer of each of the past few years teaching practical English to young people; he regularly does mission trips with his church to Central America with his wife; he helps in other ways to aid the poor and homeless. I was absolutely blown away by his dedication to doing good. In addition to that, Mr. B’s late brother’s wife runs a foundation dedicated to raising awareness about traumatic brain injuries, and he’s involved in that in some way too.

In this time when we are at odds politically about how much we feel government should be involved in people’s lives, in providing for very basic needs (food, shelter) and slightly-less-basic needs (like health care and education), it still strikes me how very important it is for all of us to give of ourselves to our communities and the world at large. If every person volunteered their time just a little every week, according as their schedules and particular obligations allowed, think about what good would happen. Without any government outlays of tax dollars or resources, so many people would be helped. Even those who are the ones more “in need” can often do something to give back, even if it’s just making a few phone calls or coordinating others’ efforts.

Very likely, we would have far less need of government to take care of so many people. And think about the benefits to each person who is volunteering: an improved work ethic for themselves and those they care for; more compassion and empathy for those who are in more need or experience different kinds of struggles; an appreciation for how we are all connected and how what each of us does affects so many others.

I have written about how so often when I see so much need that I wish I could do more, but I have to remind myself that just helping one person (throwing back that one starfish…) is something. But if each of us did a little more, … wow. So many starfish would be back in the sea, alive and well and thriving.

This is a fun little way to remember to give the best gift you can give.

This is a fun little way to remember to give the best gift you can give.

At this season when we start thinking about giving thanks and giving gifts, perhaps one great gift we could give is to find a little something extra we can do for our fellow men, right in our own communities, and then sustain it past this season, right into the coming year and years. Our efforts, even if they’re small, do make a difference.

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Photo courtesy of Google Images

Photo courtesy of Google Images

Most people have probably at one time or another been to a potluck: a delicious event in which there are tables full of food brought by all the participants. The variety of gustatory pleasures can be almost overwhelming. If done right, there’s plenty for everyone. The basic rule is this: bring enough for yourself (or your family/group) and a few more.

What a great rule! Lots of people can eat as long as pretty much everyone who comes brings just a little more than they need. This can take care of those who can’t bring something for one reason or another.

What if everyone lived life by this philosophy? Take care of yourself and your immediate family and then reach out to help just a few others. Watch out for them and their needs; check in on them regularly, be friends, make sure they have food and shelter and someone to lean on. I’ve already written about how it can be overwhelming to think about all the needy “out there” and how it’s simply not possible to help them all. But it is possible to just help one at a time, starfish-style. I’ve also written about my church’s home- and visiting-teaching programs, in which pairs of people are assigned to take care of a few others. It’s just a few. When ‘most everyone steps in and takes a list of people to help, everyone has an automatic pair of friends to turn to when some need arises, whether it’s more “practical” or just a listening ear. It’s a simple but beautiful system.

I’m not discounting the work of a lot of great organizations in the world that help those who are needy in one way or another, but life would certainly be happier and more comfortable for everyone if all who were able did their share plus just a little bit more. Yes, let’s all adopt the potluck philosophy.

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Whew! It has been quite a week in this country. The election seems to have brought out the worst in everyone, just before the vote and since the results were announced. I’ve been pondering on several topics connected to what has gone on and what people have talked about (or yelled about or written about in scathing words), and one has been the great divide in how people see wealth, or the lack of it. I have observed a lot of heated discussions about the rich, the poor, and what it means for individuals and the government to provide aid to the poor (thereby “taking” from the rich or even the middle class in the form of higher taxes).

What I’ve thought about is that everyone can give of their time and talents, whether they have money to spare or not. Money is not the only resource we all have. Even the poor can give of who they are and what they’re good at.

I live in California, where there are particularly bad problems with the economy, the state budget, and social programs, particularly education. I’ve observed in just the past four years while I’ve lived here most recently just how much education has suffered. Class sizes have gotten larger and larger, and schools’ budgets have gotten smaller. At the same time, I’ve been encouraged to see individuals doing all they can to help schools by just giving of their time. I have four children, one in high school, one in middle school, and two in elementary. My youngest is in half-day kindergarten. The teacher, as most do, asked through notes home if any parents could help out in the classroom. Given that I volunteer in a variety of capacities and write and do editing (part time, the only thing for which I earn any money) out of my home, I can’t give a lot of time to one area, but I can try to do something. So I told the teacher I could help out once a month. I did that the first time a few weeks ago, sitting in the back of the class and helping students with some projects. I watched the teacher manage a huge class of 30 5-year-olds. THAT is a huge job, let me tell you. I also watched one other parent sit at a table and go through all of the children’s daily folders and check that homework was done and everything was in order. She relayed the necessary information to the teacher. I was amazed to learn that this parent is there EVERY DAY, for the whole 3 1/2 hours the students are in the classroom. She volunteers that much of her time. And believe me, it definitely looked as if the teacher would have a hard time doing without her. She was pretty busy with that class FULL of little kids.

Not everyone can give that much of their time. But everyone can do something. Giving of ourselves makes us truly human, in all the best ways, I think. And it brings such a sense of satisfaction to us, while we’re providing needed help to others. It’s important for each of us to give of ourselves voluntarily and from the heart. At the same time, however, I think some people can sometimes use a little nudge. This is the only place in this post I’m going to really write about my “political” view, but here goes: I firmly believe that if people are being given assistance, from the government or from a faith-based organization or other group, then they can give something back for that aid. I love how Habitat for Humanity works: it requires that people give “sweat equity” to help build their own homes. They are provided a wonderful new home of their own, and they put in hours to build it and others’ homes. That’s part of why I like to donate money to that organization; I like its philosophy. I don’t think that requiring this kind of “payment” is all about “fairness,” though that is a part of it (if you’re going to get something, you should work for it in some way); it’s also about helping people to feel that they are valuable and able to give, able to work somehow. Those who are just given things without earning them tend to not feel as confident about themselves. So… I’m not against there being a government-sponsored safety net. Everyone ends up in a rough patch at one time or another, so it’s vital to have something available. But I would like to see that those who use that net for a while give back. Hunt for a new job, perhaps, for half of your day and spend the other half volunteering somewhere. This is just a general idea.

At any rate, I salute those in our society who work hard to take care of themselves (that’s SO many of you!), and then still spend more time working hard to help others. Whether you give money or time or any other of your particular resources, you are helping to build and maintain civilization.

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I think about the idea of “enough” so often that I considered using it as part of the name of this website. In the end, obviously, I didn’t, but the concept comes to my mind frequently.

I’m not the type of person who wants more things. In fact, I’m usually working to get rid of things. Years of moving have taught me to pare down wherever possible. (I’m not a minimalist, however: I love my kitchen gadgets, and I use them. That’s a topic for another post.) I’m satisfied to keep a computer for seven or eight years or a TV for 10 or 15 years, even if they’re getting snazzier, wider and thinner. I have some clothes I’ve worn for years; I have a sweater I just adore that I bought in high school (guess it’s stretched out over the years…). So “enough” doesn’t apply to stuff. Well, it does, actually: I can say with confidence I have enough stuff.

No, “enough” applies to actions. I worried in high school if I had enough on my list of activities to show my dream university I was fit to enter. (I did.) Mostly, I’ve worried over the years if I’ve done enough. As a mother for about 16 years now, I think I worry the most if I’ve done enough for my four daughters, who are truly the most precious gift I’ve been given. I have generally been of the opinion that children will do best if given plenty of free time to find their own way, to keep themselves occupied and use their imaginations and their own inner resources. I haven’t scheduled them in lots of activities or sports or lessons. I haven’t spent all of my free time finding ways to keep them busy or happy. Even knowing that this strategy seems to have worked pretty well for them so far, I have moments of wishing I could just do more or be more for them because they are so amazing, so talented, so delightful. Because they are my only offspring, and these years I have of them living at home with me are my only chance to raise them: I just get this one shot. Because they deserve everything I can offer, everything the world can offer. Again, not stuff, but opportunities.

I’ve given my girls time. I’ve read with them, countless hours curled up on our beds, usually at bedtime, with countless books, many of which are now well worn, pages slipping out of their bindings, bits torn off corners. As they’ve gotten older, I’ve just sat and listened to them talk, telling me about their days, about their friends, about all kinds of thoughts swirling in their heads. I’ve not generally considered that a sacrifice, especially now that I have a high-schooler. She in particular has so much to say, so much that’s entertaining and interesting, at turns humorous and sweet. I cherish these tete-a-tetes. We’ve had “the talk,” we’ve talked about life and the big things, about faith and family; we’ve also talked about all the hilarious things that boys do and all the tasty morsels she ate for lunch. It’s been a pleasure; it’s been a treat.

Perhaps it’s a direct result of that time I’ve spent with them that I feel the urgency to do more, to give my girls the world. I’ve seen inside their souls and seen all that is possible, and I want to give it to them. Now that my oldest has realized how much she enjoys dance, she’d like dance lessons. But when would we fit those in among the band concerts and rehearsals or church activities or that extra class she’s taking in the evenings? Or as I see how much is lacking in our educational system nowadays (thanks to legislation, lack of funding and the bad economy, you name it…), I wish I could home-school or supplement with some somewhat structured lessons of my own. Oh, there’s so much I wish I could do.

But time limits me. Energy certainly limits what I can give. My budget limits me. My own needs, weaknesses and limitations keep me from being able to give all. (If you read about my struggles with my mental health, this will seem even clearer.) The number of children I have limits how much I can give to each, in some ways (I can’t be two or three places at once, sadly). But those things don’t limit how much I love.

At the same time, I know when I think about it seriously that my limitations are just part of life, even part of my children’s lives. They live in the same world I live in, where you can’t get everything you want, where you can only do so much, where the people around you aren’t perfect. No one should be handed everything on a silver platter, now or ever. Life isn’t perfect. There are always disappointments, always choices to be made between two or three good things. Giving my children everything would be doing them a disservice.

So I know in my head that I really am doing pretty well by my girls, that they are happy and well-adjusted, that they truly feel loved and secure. It’s just I struggle on some days when particular things crop up that I wish they could have or do. I wage a battle in my mind and — eventually — conquer my feelings of “not-enough” with the knowledge that they are happy, that they are loved.

I also struggle with that feeling of doing or being enough outside of my small family sphere, with the wide world around me. Every day, I see people and organizations that desperately need help, that need money, that need volunteer hours. There are children all around the world who need food; who need clothes and shelter; who need a strong, loving parent. And I don’t have to look far to be aware of those children. Teachers I know have those children in their classrooms. My daughters have these children as peers. Every time my oldest, in particular, mentions to me how grateful she is that I cook healthy food for her, that she has a comfortable house and plenty of clothes, that she has two parents in her home who love her, it’s because she has been reminded at school that all too many other kids don’t have those things. And my heart breaks, it just starts opening wide and trying to send feelers out to all those other children who don’t live in my home, to show them that someone cares. Oh, how I often wish I could parent so many other kids. Practically, however, I know I’m at my limits with the four I have right now.

There are so many worthy organizations out there that I could give time to. It’s hard to limit myself to just a few. Even as I say yes to one, I know there are many others I simply must say no to. It makes me feel bad to have to choose, to say no. It breaks my heart. The need is great so many places right now, especially, with our economy the way it is, but the need is always great in terms of hearts that need healing, souls that need to be nurtured.

I can only keep reminding myself of a story that I’ve heard a few times over the years. A man goes walking on a beach early one morning and finds a young man on the shore, bending down and picking up starfish and throwing them into the ocean. He keeps bending to the sand, grasping one starfish at a time, and throwing. The beach is just covered with starfish, who are likely going to die if left where they are, washed up on the sand. It seems a ridiculous endeavor, this picking up starfish one at a time and throwing them back. So the man asks the thrower, “Why? Why do you bother? You can’t possibly save them all. This won’t make a difference.” The young man’s reply, as he threw yet another starfish wide into the ocean, “It made a difference to that one.”

That’s the philosophy to which I cling in those times my heart breaks because I can’t possibly save the world. There are so many people in need, so many causes that are worthy. But I have to tell myself, what I do matters to “that one.” I just read about Mother Teresa’s similar thinking: “If you can’t feed a hundred people, feed just one.” I am making a difference to the four children with whom I’ve been entrusted. I hope to make a difference to the women I’ve been assigned to watch over in my church’s visiting teaching program. I hope to make a small difference in what I write here, that if what I say helps just a few readers, I’ve spent my time wisely. You, my friends, are my starfish. I wish I could rescue all the starfish lying on the beaches of the world, but I’m throwing back one at a time.

I watched this video for the first time yesterday and thoroughly enjoyed it. I hope that I can just make one person’s burden lighter each day because I’m willing to share. Enjoy this beautiful, inspiring message.

 

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