Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How to Have Happy Holidays Without Money.

This Thanksgiving weekend Evan and I spent a day organizing his room. I explained to him that our local homeless shelter would be coming to pick up items we didn’t need any more, and giving them to families who did need them. When I told him many of these kids had no books or toys, he suddenly became enthused about giving. After we finished his room, I kept on through the rest of the house. By the end, we had countless bags of clothing, books, toys, dishes and other things to give away, which made me realize, if I have this much to “stuff” to give away, first of all, I am a rich woman. Second, I would like to live with less “stuff”. And the holidays are coming…

Several years ago we made an agreement amongst our friends and family to adopt a FIVE-HANDS gifting tradition, and it’s not only been a huge financial relief, it’s given us the gift of time, and made gift-giving much more fun.


HANDmade : My favorite gifts are the ones that were thoughtfully and lovingly made by my kids and friends. I have a Christmas ornament from my family in Texas that means the world to me, and a collage on my wall made by my best friend.  I still have every macaroni picture frame and handpainted figurine made my kids when they were little. Now that they’re older, instead of macaroni art, they make me mix CDs of their favorite new music, or frame photos they know I’ll love. Even if you're not "crafty"- you can make a copy of a CD you love, or share photos you've taken. I make my kids an ornament every year on which I write (in permanent marker) the big events of their lives that year. It is so much fun unpacking them and re-reading the ones from years ago. My daughter made me coasters out of old kitchen tiles- putting our family photos on them.
So cute, right?

For more great ideas, here is a wonderful blog : the36thavenue
Making gifts together is a GREAT way to spend family time!

HAND-me-down : My daughter had been coveting a Calvin Klein t-shirt of mine forever, so one year I wrapped it up and put it under the tree. I can’t decide which she got more excited about that year, the old t-shirt or the Disneyland tickets we bought her. Similarly, there are family heirlooms, old photos that can be reproduced, secret recipes that can be shared, classic books and albums that can be handed down.

SecondHAND. The last couple years, we’ve made a game out of seeing who could find the most perfect gift from a thrift store or yard sale. That was a really fun one- the hunt was full of laughter. It’s even more fun if you can do the yard sale/thrift store day together with friends or family and make it an event!

Helping HAND (donations to charities). I often give gift certificates for KIVA micro-loans. You choose what country, family or person to loan the money to, and track the progress of the loan. For instance, $25 can buy a farmer in Africa a goat so she can make cheese to sell at the local market.
Another thing I like to do is buy gifts that are helping a community. Last year I bought Amy a hand-beaded ornament made by the Masai tribe in Africa. This helped to buy food for the tribe.

HAND-in-hand: the best gift of all is time spent together. a movie, concert, play, dinner  are wonderful, but time together doesn’t have to cost money. Museums, a special hike, a picnic, a snow day or trip to the beach will all create memories that will last long beyond an iPad or video game. Cute gift certificates can be made for these things- but the most important thing: Make a date and stick to it. (Nothing is worse than a promise made for time together that isn’t redeemed.)

One of the happiest holiday memories my family has is from 1995- a year after our home had burned down. We were bankrupt and broke. We had no money to spend, so we never set foot inside a mall. We stayed home and watched holiday movies, and baked cookies and did crafts with our kids. We went Christmas caroling. We made each other gifts, we made our own Christmas cards. We spent time with family and friends. It was the coziest, most sparkly holiday ever.

Maybe you’ll consider trying some of these ideas this holiday season. And please share any holiday ideas or traditions you have, too!

Monday, November 19, 2012

How I lost Everything, and Why I'm Grateful

Love is a lot like fire. A small flame will be extinguished with the slightest puff of air, but put wind to wildfire, and watch what happens. In my experience, tragedy was the wind- the small wind that killed every small flame, the Santa Anas that caused love to erupt in furious glory. This is a story about fire, and passion, and total devastation, and love.

On the morning of November 18th, 1994, mine was the happy family who seemingly had it all; a strong marriage, two kids (one girl, one boy), a gaggle of adopted rescue pets. My husband Troy and I each had our own businesses that we ran from the large home we were renting. We volunteered at our kids’ schools and in our communities, threw fabulous parties, took business trips, had lots of friends and a busy social life.

But that night, we went to bed in a burning house. A freak electrical short would begin smoldering in the walls as we slept, erupting into hellfire in the middle of the night. The fire pressed us up against the windows, gasping for air, our skin burning. We were forced to jump from second story ledges with our four-year old son, onto the cement below. (Our daughter, thankfully, was at a sleepover). The inferno raged, windows blowing out, our animals trapped inside, as we stood at the side of the road, helpless, sobbing, unable to get past the walls of flames to save them. Troy put his arm around me, wiped the tears from my face and said, “God’s got them now…and we will come back stronger.” I wanted to believe him, with everything in me I wanted to believe. But just the night before, I’d had a horrible, vivid dream that we would lose everything. Little did I know, fire was only the beginning.

We were released from the hospital the next day, November 19th,  injured, homeless, jobless. We had not a single possession. Our lives were a blank canvas, at once terrifying and liberating.

We thought we had lost it all that night; our five beloved pets, our memories, our accomplishments, both our jobs, and our home- (with no renter’s insurance). But in the coming year, we would suffer much greater loss that no insurance policy could have protected us from: the betrayal by friends, the loss of faith and trust, and perhaps the hardest to endure – the loss of self.

Until that night in November, I was the strong, independent woman who owned a national business, volunteered for my kids’ school, flew to New York every season to sell my clothing line, was the Daisy Scout leader, and singing at gigs on weekends. I was also the woman who had been carrying a secret all her life. Standing toe to toe with Death awakened me. I could no longer hide from the truth of my own life. First I would have to unravel completely to find out who I was, what I was made of. Everything I once felt certain of would be shaken loose like soil from the roots of an upturned tree, leaving me raw, exposed. Eventually I would have to find a new way to take root within myself.

While busying myself with so-called important things, I had managed to outrun my past for a long time. But with all my distractions burned away, all that was left was the real me- the girl whose father was in prison, whose mother worked nights in a bar and had to use food stamps to buy groceries. The truth was that I had been born to two teenaged rebels – that my conception was a terrible mistake my grandfather had tried to end. My real name and birth certificate were hidden. I was told by my mother to never tell anyone who I really was, who my father was, where I came from. I obeyed.

Tragedy weakened my fault lines - allowing my inner demons to come out and dance. The strong image I had once projected evaporated like the mirage it was. Friends who had been attracted by my strength and perfect image were repulsed by my weakness, and began to pull away one by one, leaving me to experience this time of intense loss alone. And then, as one catastrophe after the next hit, I unraveled. I became clinically depressed, struggling with persistent suicidal thoughts. I didn’t know it then, but I was in the grip of post- traumatic stress disorder from both our fire and my childhood. In the coming years, I would have to fight harder than I ever knew I could to pull myself back to center- to be a woman my husband and children could be proud of.

My sweet, kind and generous husband, who was and still is the love of my life, had grown up in a Brady Bunch world. He had never been faced with anything like the catastrophes we endured. The next several years would test his endurance and courage, and his ability to love me.

Together, Troy and I worked hard to come back from the edge of disaster, but experienced such a long run of bad luck we began to wonder if someone had put a hex on us. We were ripped off by shady landlords. We lost three homes in the span of two years. While I was homeless, my business partner embezzled all the profits from our company, destroying me financially. We lost our credit, were forced into bankruptcy, and, because life has a sardonic sense of timing, both our cars blew up (and then one was repossessed) and our son needed surgery. And yet, through all this, we experienced beauty in the wreckage. There were new friends that showed up at just the right time, work opportunities that saved us when we were on the brink. And there were perfect, joyful moments with our children that gave us hope. There were times when we were so destitute, our utilities were cut off. Instead of crumbling in defeat, we chose to pitch a tent in the backyard and camp with the kids, roasting marshmallows and looking at the stars. Some days knocked us flat with depression. But on other days, we got up and played guitars, wrote songs, made art, and had parties- just the four of us. With nothing, we created, and celebrated, and found out that our hearts had the amazing ability to regenerate after being shattered.

Tragedy brings out the best and worst in people. It brings out the do-gooders and opportunistic scavengers alike. It shows you who your true friends are, and who they aren’t. And it widens every crack in the foundation of a marriage, until you wake one morning to find the Grand Canyon running straight through your living room.

Troy and I had a deep, soul-mate kind of love. We were optimistic people, believing in the golden rule, that all people were basically good at heart. We believed that living honest lives and being good people would insure us against tragedy. But life taught us  otherwise. Bad things do happen to good people. People are not always good at heart- in fact, some are just plain rotten. In addition to the stresses upon us, our faith was shaken, our belief systems shattered. We had each brought our fair share of baggage into the marriage, and it was all dumped out on the floor now.  Weakened and depressed, we were no longer able to be a light for each other. We couldn’t keep each other afloat when both of us were drowning.

After three years of taking life’s punches, we were pushed to the point of separating. Troy packed the car with his belongings and we tearfully broke the news to our children. But when it came time for him to drive away, neither of us could move. It was too painful to stay together, and too painful to part. On that day, we had to make a choice between love and fear. After days of crying and soul searching, we chose love. We found ours was a big flame, the winds of tragedy only making it more fierce.

Fire has a way of purifying and reforming. During a forest fire, the intense heat causes seedpods to burst open. After years of lying dormant, only catastrophe could make them take root. The scorched earth then becomes fertile soil, making the forest lush with new and different life. So it was with our lives. In the aftermath of all that loss, new seeds were planted that blossomed in ways we never could have foreseen.

Faith is not something that can be manufactured, or gleaned from books. Faith is hard earned, and, like courage, like a beating heart, is a muscle that must be worked. I had to try with everything in me to believe, when there was nothing to believe in. If I didn’t, my children would grow up in a hopeless world, and that was unthinkable. For their sake, I had to find my faith. I had to believe that there was a reason for everything we had lost. I had to open my eyes to see that there was hope in the midst of every crisis. There was the kindness of others who came to lift us back on our feet, like stars that shone brightly in the darkness. There was the discovery that, although we had lost everything, we still had our ability to dream, to love, to create, to hope, to remember. No fire could take that from us.

Tiny sprigs of hope began to spring up through the cracks, when we made the choice to risk our hearts and believe in goodness again. And gradually, because of that faith, things began to shift.

After the bankruptcy we worked diligently rebuilding our credit, and four and a half years after the fire, on the day of our tenth wedding anniversary, we bought our dream home- a cabin nestled in the side of a mountain- it’s foundation bolted on rock. We renewed our marriage vows, and were given the keys to our home.

Eighteen years have passed since the fire. Cristen and Taylor have grown up, and we have since been unexpectedly blessed with another son, Evan, as well as a grandson, Ayumu. My house is once again alive with rescued pets, cluttered with sentimental treasures, my photo albums full with new memories. There is a comfortable distance separating us from that time, and yet it will always be a part of who we are. We are stronger now, and dare I say, although I would never want to re-live those years, we are better for having lived through it. I found faith and courage in the ashes. I found my true self. Our marriage, our family, and most importantly, our optimism and spirit survived. There is not much that can shake us anymore. We shrug off challenges others might view as catastrophic. We know what catastrophe is. We can still see it in our rear view mirror.

What I learned is that every tragedy holds a gift, an opportunity for us to learn and grow. I believed this the day after the house burned down, in a Pollyanna sort of way. I didn’t know then how hard I would have to mine for it, how deep I would have to dig, how much I’d have to lose to find myself. Writing my book (What Doesn’t Kill You- How I lost everything and found myself) has helped me to see clearly the beautiful moments- the tiny miracles in the middle of mayhem that bloomed like lilies in the muck.

I’ve learned that life offers no guarantees, and no insurance policy will truly protect us from unexpected tragedies. Our possessions, job titles, our stations in life are fleeting, and even our relationships with those we most love can change. All we really have is what we carry inside us; our spirit, our courage, faith, and our ability to love.

Here is what I now know for sure: Every day that we are alive is a new beginning. And just like that forest after a wildfire, there is a seed of greatness in every one of us, waiting to break open. It is never, ever too late to bloom.

We still live in our mountain home, cemented in rock.
It is one block from the fire station. 


Wednesday, November 14, 2012


Riding bikes at the beach makes me happy, and it's free.
It’s day 10 of my 21-day meditation challenge, and I’m feeling great. As always, when I meditate, inspired thoughts come to me, as do all the positive thoughts that I know to be true, but sometimes forget. For instance, these simple rules of happiness. 
Confession: I am a happiness junkie. For many years, I suffered with anxiety , PTSD, and depression, so in trying to dig myself out of the hole, I read countless books on happiness, written by the world’s best thinkers: The Dalai Lama, Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, Marianne Williamson, and even pop-culture happiness books, like The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. Through all of those books, these are the messages that have stuck with me, rules, that when I’ve followed them have proved to be absolutely true. Here is what I know will make me happy:


Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

If you want love, be loving. First to your self then to others.
If you want gratitude, be gracious. First to your self then to others.
If you want recognition, acknowledge your self and others for the strides you’ve made. 
If you want to be valued, be valuable.
If you want to be understood, seek to understand others.
If you want success, be happy for others’ successes. Note: Never be jealous of others’ good fortune. Instead see their victories as what is possible for you and for everyone, and be grateful to them for showing YOU what can be done
If you want kindness, be kind. First to your self then to others.
I remember once I had finished loading groceries into my trunk, and as I went to return my shopping cart to the front of the store, an older woman watching me said, “You are a good person” I smiled and thanked her as I walked away, but in that moment I was teary-eyed. I know she was making a comment about my returning the cart, but those simple words were so healing to me, and just what I needed to hear that day. This was years ago and I have never forgotten it. Just a few small, kind words can stay with someone forever. So please, say a few kind words…to yourself, and to others, every day.

Ask yourself before you make a choice, will it make me happy? Will it bring happiness to those around me? If not, then please, don’t do it.

Make a list of the things that make you happy. Go on…do it. Don’t stop writing until you can’t think of anything else. Post it where you can see it every day.

Now do at least one of those things every day. Put it in your calendar if you have to. Reach out to a friend to keep you accountable to it. But do the things that make you happy.

There are certain self-destructive behaviors we all participate in: binge eating, drinking to excess, gossiping, judging others, negative self-talk…

We do them because they bring a fleeting moment of satisfaction, but never do they bring happiness to us, nor to others. In fact, they ultimately bring deep unhappiness. The next time you get the urge to do one of these self-defeating behaviors, STOP- and replace it with one of the things from your happiness list.

I will end this with my favorite quote from Mahatma Ghandi:
 “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”
Living in truth is living in harmony. Be true to yourself. Be true to who you are. Speak the truth- always. Live your truth.

To sum it up - GIVE what ever it is that you want to receive. Be good to yourself and to others, steer clear of negativity, live in truth, and I promise, you will feel happy.

*For more inspiration- read  The Power of Positive, which includes my essay, "Chutes and Ladders" --a story about the power of perseverance and overcoming adversity told through the eyes of my (then) four-year old child, Evan.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

My Meditation Challenge

Last week, Deepak Chopra was on Oprah's life-changing show "Super Soul Sunday" speaking about inner peace, abundance, happiness, and how it can be attained through meditation. He offered viewers to take his 21-day meditation challenge – though I think it’s funny to call it a “challenge” when it is the most peaceful, least challenging thing you can do- and just see how it changes your life. I signed up.

I’ve meditated on and off since I was 20 years old. At that time, I was following the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda ( read Autobiography of a Yogi in college, and was hooked). I meditated 45 minutes every morning and every night, and fasted every Monday. Back then, mostly I just fought with my young self in every meditation--got mad at myself for having such noisy thoughts, mad at the world for distracting me. I didn’t reach any state of nirvana, but I still think it was good for me. I meditated the whole time I was pregnant with my daughter Cristen, and I believe it made her the strong person that she is.

Since then, I’ve been faithful, fallen away, then come back to the practice many times. I’ve busied myself with other “more important” things (than my own inner peace…imagine that!)

It was meditation that led me to my writing career. It was through meditation that all my ideas for my nonprofit organization came, as well as all the plans for the workshops and programs. It was through prayer and meditation that I found my biological father. So how have I let it slip from my life again?

Deepak said that prayer is talking to God, meditation is listening. This is the perfect time in my life to listen.

So I began this daily meditation on Monday, and this is how I’ve been affected by it.

Monday: After meditation that morning, I had a career setback. Something I had waited for months to happen, fell through. Normally, I would have been crushed by something like this, but this time I didn’t get upset. I trusted that it was only a temporary setback, and still felt positive and hopeful about my project.

Tuesday: On election day, I seemed to be the only one in my circle of friends who was relatively calm. Four years ago I was kind of a wreck, but this time I knew everything was going to work out, and it did.

Wednesday: I found myself feeling peaceful toward people, even when they were posting angry post-election rants on facebook. I didn’t take any of it to heart.

Thursday: I began thinking a lot about the fractures in my extended family, and what I might do to heal them.

Friday: In prayer, instead of asking for help, I found myself asking to be of help.

Saturday:  feeling a deep yearning -  to fix the messes in my life, to bring my grandson Ayumu home, to HEAL. There is that still small voice coming through, and though it whispers, it is becoming too loud for me to ignore.

I don’t have any clearcut answers to solve my problems yet, but I will continue with this challenge, and see what comes of it. I feel like changes are taking place, even if I can't see them yet.

I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

In the meantime, If you’d like to take the 21-day meditation challenge yourself, the link is here. Deepak sends you a guided 15-minute meditation every day -  a recording with gentle music and his voice. And it’s free. What have you got to lose?


Sunday, November 4, 2012

Peaceful politics: What do you stand FOR?

It’s been said that when Mother Theresa was asked if she would join an Anti-War march, she said, “No. But when you have a march for peace I will be glad to join.” When seeking direction in my own life, I always think Mother Theresa’s wisdom is a good place to start. Especially when it comes to politics. We've all had a good earful of what politicians and voters are against, but I would rather know what someone stands for.

This is what I am FOR.

I am for women maintaining the reproductive freedom we fought so hard for. One of my closest friends was raped at knifepoint in her first year of college, and became pregnant from the rape. If the republicans had their way, women like my friend could be forced to carry a rapist’s child to term, or, forced to “prove” the pregnancy was the result of a rape. Life is complicated. Nothing is black and white. I am for letting a woman choose what happens to her body.

I am for funding of Planned Parenthood. It is because of Planned Parenthood that I have never been in a position to need an abortion. When I was in my teens, Planned Parenthood provided me with healthcare and birth control and education. If not for them, I likely would have ended up 16 and pregnant, like my own mother. Planned Parenthood also provided healthcare to me as an adult when I had no health insurance. Planned Parenthood is where I went to have my pregnancy test -- they gave me the very happy news that I was pregnant with my daughter Cristen. Without Planned Parenthood, there would be more children in the foster care system, which would be the real tragedy.

I am for all citizens, gay and straight alike, to be able to serve openly in the military, to be able to legally marry the person of their choosing. I have two gay brothers, and many gay friends with children. I want their marriages and families to be on an equal basis with my own. I want them to have every right I have.

I am for all citizens having available healthcare. I was one of the uninsured Americans you hear about. Because of my past history with skin cancer and anxiety disorder (pre-existing conditions), I was turned away by Blue Cross, Blue Shield, Health Net and all the others. I spent 6 years without health insurance, including during my pregnancy with Evan. If I had become seriously ill or injured during that time, my family could have lost our home, our savings….lost everything. Because of Obamacare, I can no longer be denied insurance. I am FOR Obamacare.

I am for government funding of Pell Grants. Because of President Obama’s support of Pell Grants for college students, we were able to get our adult kids through college.

Though I’ve listened to him speak, watched the debates, and read articles about him, I’m still not sure what Mitt Romney stands for, but I have read the Republican party’s platform, and they stand AGAINST everything I am FOR.

On Tuesday, November 6th, because he is FOR all the things I am FOR, I will be voting for President Obama. That is my choice, and I respect your right to yours.

America is a democracy, a glorious two-party system, designed to ensure that no one party obtained too much power. The idea was that the parties would discuss differing opinions and compromise, settling on those ideas which are in the best interest of all. If we all shared what we were FOR, maybe we could find some common ground, and get this political system working again.

Please, before Tuesday, think about what you are FOR, educate yourself on the issues at hand, and please, please please…VOTE.