Contributor Archive

The Small Moments

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

Whenever I’m asked if we sell educational toys or books that build self-esteem, I wince a little inside. As parents, we all want academic excellence and healthy self-esteem for our children. But when I hear about parents feeling pressured to ”enrich” their children’s lives with systems to teach babies to read or DVDs that ”teach” toddlers self-esteem, I wince.

Not an ”educational toy” was in sight last weekend as my grandson busied himself creating a robot from a cardboard box. Taking a quick break to watch me use my curling iron, he asked what the stand on the bottom of the iron was. I showed him how it elevated the iron off the counter, preventing it from being burned. Later that afternoon, when he was having a difficult time getting his robot to stand by itself, he rigged up something that enabled it to stand perfectly. When I asked how he thought to do that, he reminded me of the curling iron stand. Little did I know my explanation would become an educational ”tool.” But that’s the point. Educational tools and toys are pretty much free for the picking whenever we choose. Sadly, they weren’t chosen for a little girl I was walking behind recently. When the girl lagged behind to smell some beautiful flowers, her mother harshly admonished the girl to ”STOP IT!” As the mom resumed chattering on the phone, talking about how her daughter was just diagnosed with allergies, the now-skipping girl began singing, ”I have allergies, allergies!” When she interrupted her mom, asking, ”Mommy? What’s allergies?” the mom exploded with, ”I AM ON THE PHONE! What is WRONG with you?!!!”

Ironically, never have we been so inundated with books and tools to give children a head start cognitively and to boost their self-esteem and confidence. But in the case of this little girl, how many interactive DVDs and educational toys will it take to undo the message her mom was sending? In pondering the different learning experiences of these two children, I began thinking about the importance of parenting between the lines. In other words, when it comes to raising children, it’s not so much about the big stuff — the trips to amusement parks, the enrichment programs, and the array of expensive toys and technology. It’s about the little moments in between that help prepare our children to navigate the world.

The winter holiday season is full of big moments, but let’s not forget all the small ones our children are absorbing — how we respond when they ask if reindeer have wings or if they can help wrap presents. My hope is that we use these small moments to stop and listen to our children’s questions and remember that no thing can ever replace the value of connecting with our children when it comes to educating and building self-esteem.

Overwhelmed? You’re Not Alone.

Friday, August 26th, 2011

I was talking with some other parents this weekend, and one word kept cropping up in our conversations: ”overwhelmed.” When did parenting (and life!) get so pressure-filled? It just feels as if we’re faced with so many decisions to make on a daily basis. Do we vaccinate the twins, homeschool our son, enroll our youngest in both soccer and baseball, and is our daughter really mature enough to have a Facebook account? And then there is all the advice from friends, family, parenting books, blogs, and even nannies on TV! No wonder we’re overwhelmed; we’re overloaded!

Add to this our fervent desire to make the right choices — i.e., ”perfect” choices (so our children won’t end up in jail or join a cult) — and it’s enough to make us wonder why we didn’t stick with raising goldfish! But does the likelihood of our daughter ending up either with a Nobel Peace Prize or on a psychiatrist’s couch for the next 25 years really hinge on whether we enroll her in the local elementary school or the pricey private one across town? Are we really that powerful — and are our children really that fragile? If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a parent over the past 27 years, it’s that good decisions don’t always guarantee good results. How could they when there are so many variables (genes, peers, natural disasters, etc.) that we have little or no control over. Fortunately, this also means that bad decisions don’t always result in bad outcomes.

I think we sometimes forget that our children’s lives (as well as our own) are a work in progress. Thomas Edison’s boyhood teacher told him he was too stupid to learn anything; Winston Churchill failed the sixth grade; Steven Spielberg dropped out of high school (twice); and Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. They all ended up accomplishing great things, despite whatever decisions their parents made or didn’t make. As long as we parents and caretakers are motivated by love and a genuine desire to see our children grow into independent, contributing adults, I’d like to think that they’ll find their own way too — regardless of our choices. We cheered them on as they took their first wobbly steps, and they eventually learned how to get around. There really are no guarantees other than that our children will wobble, probably fall, hopefully get up, and (best case scenario) try again. Summer is such a great time to lighten up. When we start getting that feeling of overwhelm, let’s try returning to the simple formula of just being there for our children, cheering them on, providing a safe place for them to fall, and then letting go of the outcome. May you and your little (and big!) works in progress enjoy loving times together and smooth landings whenever possible!

Happy 14th, Erin!

Friday, January 28th, 2011

Given the way teenagers are portrayed in the media and on the news, I’m surprised anyone has children any more! Luckily, not every child transforms into a teen terror once they hit their 13th birthday. I’d even go so far as to say that for every teenager who fits the stereotypical image of the surly, self-absorbed, and non-engaged teen, there are a hundred who are not. My cousin Erin is a shining example. When I named Chinaberry’s ”Erin’s Bracelet” after her, I wrote how she brings beauty and delight to life. She does this by living her values and following her bliss, volunteering at the Humane Society, playing tennis, sewing, gardening (she’s a vegetarian), and now she’s taking guitar lessons. With the gusto she puts into her days, she has no time to be surly or sullen! Today, her 14th birthday, I celebrate all the teens out there who, like Erin, are engaged in life and want to make a positive difference in this world. In the midst of all the reports of school shootings, substance abuse, and gang activity, let’s remember to acknowledge the countless teens who are making this world a better place.

Break Away From the Herd

Monday, January 24th, 2011

Leave it to my dad to find enlightenment from a herd of one-track rabbits. Eons ago when he drove one of those open-car, hand-cranked railcars for the Milwaukee Railroad (Hello, Elmer Fudd?!), he said that rabbits would get on the track in front of him, and once they started running, they couldn’t seem to figure out that all they had to do was jump off the track to avoid their demise. I don’t know if my dad realized what a powerful life lesson he imparted with this story, but it’s about the best metaphor for life a dad could share with his daughter.

Just as life never pans out for rabbits running from trains, it doesn’t fare too well for us when we’ve got railcars of pettiness, negativity, and — well, you fill in the blanks — heading our way. I don’t know what motivates rabbits to continue in their folly, but I have an inkling of what compels us as people. Long before wheels and railcars were invented, group survival was where it was at, and I still fall prey to its siren song of ‘there’s safety in numbers’ as well as that strong desire to be ‘included’ and the fear to change.

In that sense, it takes a brave bunny to break away from the herd (especially when that herd is its family of origin!). But I’ve found life is so much sweeter when we take a daily look at the track we’re on, our traveling companions, and what we have stuffed in our brain’s baggage compartment. Over the years, I’ve learned that if it looks like a train, sounds like a train, and smells like a train, it’s my cue to take the nearest exit. There’s no need to hurl insults at the rabbits who choose to remain, or throw rotten eggs on the railcar, track, or conductor. Just get yourself off the track now. Refuse to spend one more minute of your precious life huffing and puffing in order to stay out of harm’s way. You’ll never out-run a moving locomotive, and it’s no fun trying.

Truly, life is too short to settle for being steamrollered by anyone or anything. It’s a new year. The next time someone in your life wants to engage in drama, trauma, or just plain petty meanness, choose to get off the track! You can do it. A beautiful world of unlimited possibilities awaits you. Wishing you all a Happy New Year and Happy Trails!

Encouraging Your Kids to Live Their Bliss

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

Recently I was on a flight with a self-professed high school ”nerd.” During our 2-hour flight, I told him the good news — that if he’s a nerd now, I can pretty much guarantee one day he’ll be living The Good Life if he can survive the next four years without dropping out — of school or life. School life, I told him, is not kind to nerds, but real life is, as 20-year high school reunions can attest to. The teen years can be such a brutal time in our children’s lives. They don’t have the life experience to know that this conform-to-the-herd-or-be-a-nerd time is so temporary in the grand scheme of things. They don’t yet understand that a whole new world awaits in the not-too-distant future — where the dweeb of the lunchroom can be the CEO of the boardroom and the mousy girl in hand-me-down clothes can win an Oscar one day.

The key is to help our children discover what it is they truly want to do, what makes their heart sing, and let that define them and motivate them rather than their peers’ opinions of their shoes or how they wear their hair. If we parents/mentors don’t create the space for our kids to be real and feel listened to, where else will they find it? If your 16-year-old’s heart’s desire is to draw cartoons, encourage it, celebrate it, allow him to  experience a sense of mastery in it, and explore possible career paths involving art even if your practical side is screaming.

My airplane buddy has a passion for World War II history and would love to work in a museum one day, but his mom is hoping he’ll become an ultrasound tech because they’re really in demand and make good money. If I could have coffee with his mom, I would first applaud her for raising a son who knows his bliss. If she said, ”Well, I don’t see how it’s going to put bread on the table!” I’d agree with her that it might not be easy, but then I hope I’d have enough gumption to tell her I hoped her son would find the courage and the means to live an authentic life. I might even share one of my favorite quotes by Howard Thurman: ”Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Since it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever meet this boy’s mom, I guess the next best thing is to write this to all the moms (and dads!) out there whose children are entering that stage where true passions and interests often take a backseat to their peers’ opinions, especially if their interests are not ‘cool.’ We can’t control what their peers say, but we can control what we say. The world may need more ultrasound techs, but my hope is that each of us looks for what makes our children come alive in the world and helps to nurture it. Wishing you all a beautiful spring full of hope and new life.

Lessons From Feral Kitty

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

The Real FK - Feral Kitty

The Real FK - Feral Kitty

Dear Friends,

I’ve never been a cat person, but all that changed when ‘Feral Kitty’ came on the scene. Over the past year I’ve watched this creature transform from a hissing flash of white fur darting through my yard to a welcoming, purring presence on my doormat. In exchange for some kibble and a lot of space, I’ve learned more about relationships from this feisty tomcat than from a year of couples’ therapy with my ex!

Prior to being Feral Kitty, F.K. lived life as a domesticated cat in training with my grown daughter who had adopted him as a feral kitten. Despite her love for him and all her best efforts, she could not socialize this cat whose feral roots ran deep. No longer willing to put up with scratches on her son’s face, and knowing that no one else would ever adopt this surly, scratching mean machine, she finally gave up trying to change him. She decided to accept his feral nature and set him free — in my yard.

Although the food I left out for him every day would disappear, I didn’t see him for months, nor did I really expect to. I accepted his wildness and supported him in it. And here I am, a year later, in love with my good buddy who greets me at my door step every morning.

It’s funny how when we let go of our own agendas and just love someone unconditionally for who they are (as opposed to who we want them to be!), we end up getting the love we’d hoped for in the first place! It’s such a simple concept, but I think a lot of our resistance has to do with giving up what is actually more just an illusion of control. When we let go and let people be themselves, everybody wins.

Because F.K. is a feral cat, he doesn’t need a litter box or cute little cat toys. He does, however, need food, wide open spaces, and a covered place to sleep each night (underneath my house). F.K.’s happy; I’m happy. He has total freedom, and I don’t have to deal with litter boxes or fleas in my house. How much happier we’d all be if we supported each other in our uniqueness like this. Why do we insist on turning our night owl friend into a morning lark or Mr. Life-of-the-Party into a stay-at-home recluse? We can either accept and support each other’s unique needs or we can release our loved one ‘into the wild,’ but wishing for someone to change his basic makeup rarely has a happy ending.

During the holidays we’ll find ourselves at gatherings with all kinds of ‘unique’ people — the niece who refuses to go to college, the 56-year-old cousin who still isn’t married, or the uncle who dropped out of law school to become a clown. Each of them has the right to live life according to his or her own desires, as long as it’s not harming anyone else (speaking of which, yes, F.K. is neutered!). This holiday season (if not the whole year or the rest of our lives!), my hope is that we can suspend our need to change or control others and just enjoy them for the one-of-a-kind people they are. Who knows what lessons or love might be in store for us by practicing a little more acceptance?

It’s Her Story

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

Recently a friend was telling me about some “interesting” choices her grown daughter had made. Instead of a “WHAT was she thinking???!” judgment fest, our conversation took a 360-degree turn when this grace and wisdom came from my friend’s lips: “Oh, well; it’s her story!”

As a seasoned parent, this concept was not new to me, yet I felt a renewed sense of clarity when my friend worded it this way. I first experienced this revelation 18 years ago when my daughter Kathryn was born with profound disabilities. I wondered if I would ever get over the grief, but Kathryn’s father pointed out that I was not disabled. Without underestimating the role of parenthood, he reminded me that I still had my own life — separate from our daughter’s.

When our babies depend upon us for their very survival, the thought of them as separate entities is so difficult to grasp. We may even have visions of them growing up to be little extensions of ourselves. And who hasn’t at one time or another felt that ego-driven delight when our child appears to be a “chip off the old block”? The truth remains, however, that each child comes into the world the author of his or her own story, separate from us.

When my older daughter, Ann, who is now a mother herself, recently told me about one of her “interesting” choices, prefacing her announcement with, “Mom, tomorrow I’m doing something you’re not going to be happy with,” do you think I thought, “Oh well; it’s her story”? Ha! Within seconds, I was spewing out the “Mark my words, Ann . . .” spiel. Sigh.

I flash back to when I was a young mom, and we’d spend summer vacations with the girls’ great grandmother. This woman was a pediatric nurse in the 1920s, so you can imagine some of our conversations: “You’re going to SPOIL her if you’re always holding her!” “You’re only feeding her breast milk? Rice cereal is what she needs!”

Maybe George Orwell was right when he said, “Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.” But how does this benefit us really? As mothers, must we continue to pass on this torch of “My way or the highway”? Is being “right” worth the toll it takes on our relationships?

This summer, whether you’re a mother or a daughter, a father or a son (or combination thereof!), let’s not be so quick to point fingers of judgment at each other. The next time we feel ourselves bristling with those “How could she?!” feelings, let’s replace them with the realization that “It’s her story” as we do our best to live our own with grace, wisdom, and gratitude for family.

On Children
by Kahil Gibran

“They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls.”

Chinaberry’s Quest for Safe and Effective Sun Protection

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

AOL News released an article today saying that many sunscreens may actually be accelerating cancer. Chinaberry Inc. couldn’t agree more. For over a decade, our company has been researching safe and effective sunscreens for our two catalogs, Chinaberry.com and IsabellaCatalog.com. We were on the anti-oxybenzone, retinol, and paraben bandwagon when just about every sunscreen label included these ingredients.

A few years ago, when more and more companies began using nanosized titanium dioxide without having to disclose it, Chinaberry decided it was time to oversee the production of our own private label sunscreen, Perfect for the Sol. Janet Kelly, a licensed esthetician working for Chinaberry, says, “It had gotten to the point where even once-reliable vendors were utilizing nanotechnology to help their sunscreens appear more like the mainstream chemical sunscreens people were accustomed to. The problem with that is we haven’t even begun to understand the serious health implications related to nanotechnology. To be on the safe side, we developed our own natural sunscreen that is guaranteed to be free of synthetics, retinols, and nanotechnology. We feel it’s the best natural sunscreen available.” So if you’re ready to throw in the beach towel, along with your sunscreen, after reading the latest research on the dangers lurking in your tube of sun protection, know there IS a safe and effective alternative.

Years of research went into creating Chinaberry’s Perfect for the Sol. Its SPF 25 offers full-spectrum protection against UVA and UVB rays, it’s biodegradable, and it’s great for both your face and body. It’s not too greasy, doesn’t appear chalky-white, and the very subtle smell of essential oils of vanilla and lavender makes it perfect for men, women, and children. In addition to the active ingredients of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, it includes an abundance of anti-aging and moisturizing ingredients such as rose hips oil, green tea, and shea butter (all organic). While it is water-resistant, it is not waterproof because it doesn’t contain petroleum (that’s a good thing!).

To read more or to place an order, go to the Perfect for the Sol page on the Chinaberry website.

To contact us with any questions or concerns please email Janet Kelly at PublicRelations@Chinaberry.net.

Don’t Just Stand There. Do Something!

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

On a flight to New York last month, I experienced the wisdom in the phrase ‘Don’t just stand there. Do something!’ By the time we were over Omaha, nature called, so I joined some fellow passengers waiting in line for the bathroom. TSA would not have been happy with how many of us were standing in the aisle. I wasn’t happy either, as the line seemed to be at a standstill. When I noticed one of the lavatory doors said ‘Vacant,’ I pointed it out to the woman next to me, and she said the last passenger who used it had said it was ‘dirty.’ That was that. End of story. We continued to patiently stand in silence. Finally, my curiosity (not to mention impatience!) got the best of me, so I sought out a flight attendant and told her what I just told you. Within three seconds, we had two working restrooms, and the line began moving again. (It turns out the last user just didn’t know how to flush the toilet!)

An unflushed toilet really isn’t a big deal. What kind of is a big deal, though, is that nobody spoke up to find out what was going on, let alone what could be done to help the situation. It was the old herd mentality in action — accept the way things are, don’t question it, and don’t rock the boat (or plane). Because it was a long flight, I had plenty of time to think about how this shows up in our everyday lives and how easy it is to allow little annoyances to grow into big annoyances or even life-threatening crises when nobody speaks up or takes action. Albert Einstein said, ‘The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.’

Since this is a Dear Friends letter and not some political editorial, I’m not even going to bring up how this ties into global warming, poverty, or educational issues. I’m thinking more about looking at what’s not working in our personal lives. While summer is the perfect time to chill, it’s also the perfect time to get off the couch and take action. It’s a wonderful time to ask ourselves, ‘What’s wrong with this picture’ and then take steps to make it right. Sometimes it’s just a matter of knowing where to go to get help.

This summer I encourage us all to not just stand passively, unquestioningly, in the aisle while summer 2010 slips away. If there’s something not quite working in your life or something you’ve always pictured yourself doing in the summer months, let this be your time to not just stand there, but to do something about it!

I Think it’s Time

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

”I think it’s time,” my friend Kathleen said as she looked at the wilted tangle of vines hanging from the basket on my patio. Last summer, they were a lush tumble of bright blue morning glories. The thought of now chucking the whole shebang into the compost bin felt a little harsh to me. After all, I had known these vines from the time they were little seeds in a packet!

I know I’m not alone in sometimes hanging on to things that no longer add any value to my life. Some of us stay in relationships way past their shelf life, others stubbornly refuse to lose the spare tire ’round our middle, and others fiercely hold on to our big hair like it’s 1987. Instead of making way for the new, we rationalize our resistance with all kinds of excuses: ”If I lose weight, I won’t be able to wear all my beautiful clothes.” ”If I rip out these dead vines, I will admit defeat as a gardener. (Besides, it’s not like the whole plant is dead. Every morning, there’s one blossom that looks great.)” But for someone who has always followed William Morris’ words ”Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful,” since when is 99.9% dead a keeper for me?

Mother Nature’s got it down with spring. There are no stuck places in Nature. Everything runs its natural course, so there’s a beautiful flow that ultimately results in new life, new beauty. But what do we do? We hold on, even when what we have is 99% ugly. We hold on to our pain, anger, and resentment, and we wonder why we experience headaches, depression, and possibly even cancer?

We need to welcome spring into our beings. As Kathleen says, ”I think it’s time.” Let’s ask ourselves what it’s time to let go of. Spring is the perfect time to say goodbye to everything from that volunteer job that no longer brings joy to that 4-year-old jar of capers left over from the company picnic.

My hanging basket is once again an object of joy and beauty, this time with orange nasturtiums and blue and white allysum. I don’t miss the 1% of beauty my one lone morning glory blossom brought me. My basket reminds me of the importance of letting go and clearing space for the new. And if I feel this good after replanting a hanging basket, cleaning out my bedroom closet could very well catapult me into nirvana. Wishing you all a springtime of release and renewal!