Happy–or something–New Year

peace-and-quiet-SSI hope everybody had lovely holidays, whatever that means for you. For me it was peace and quiet, lots of writing, some time with friends, and some time to think. In my holiday felicitations, I wished people a safe, joyous, happy, healthy, prosperous, and possibly nutritious new year.

But that list isn’t complete. I also wish you a meaningful new year.

2013-0510-mother-theresaTurns out, happiness and meaning are not necessarily joined at the hip, though you’d think they were. You’d think a life that makes a difference for others, that puts our highest goals and most noble aspirations into action would make us happy. For most of us, nope. Meaningful effort is hard, and while rewarding, doesn’t necessarily make us happy-happy. Might make us feel alive, connected, important, honorable or empowered… but sheer, giggly, joyous happy…. nuh-uh.

Most of us grasp this intuitively. Mother Theresa did a lot for a lot of people, raised awareness of dire poverty, served as a role model. Nelson Mandela lead a movement for equality and racial justice while spending decades in prison. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., saw the mountaintop, gave speeches that still inspire us–and gave his life.

STO_OB056009puppies.jpgTheir lives were heroic, and hard. Really hard. Scary hard. Life-on-the-line hard. I’m not suggesting you live in the slums of Calcutta, spend decades in prison, or risk death to address social injustice (unless that’s your preference). For right now, just pick something that’s meaningful to you–literacy, homelessness, world hunger, stray cats, public art, clean air, stray teenagers–and do something about it.

green_wall_feature_09Giving money is nice, but you will feel a greater impact if you DO something. Adopt a cat, write to your legislators, plant a tree, take a box of clothes to Goodwill, bring vegan donuts to the office, babysit for the overwhelmed mom at church. The result will be a warm fuzzy, empowered sense of having made a difference, and enough small differences can make a very great difference indeed.

tiny-house-floor-plans-front-cover-300x450And we need that warm fuzzy. It’s proof that the media–who seem to have nothing better to do than emphasize all that’s wrong, sad, and frightening–doesn’t have the whole story. Proof that we each make a difference. Proof that we’re still a species capable of hope and kindness. We need this too, as individuals, as families, as communities and a society.

So in addition to all that other good stuff–health, safety, happiness, good food and enough of it, loving friends and family–I wish you a little meaning.

When you were growing up, did anybody around you evidence  belief in a cause? How did you know it? If you could give one day to any cause, what would it be?

To three commenters, I’ll send signed copies of Tuesday’s release, “A Single Kiss.”



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28 comments on “Happy–or something–New Year

  1. My Grandmother believed in the Golden Rule. She gave her time and her talents to our family and to others. Nana always had time to make a fabulous dinner for a sick friend or to listen to a family member or a friend who needed advice or reassurance. I can remember people saying what a good listener and how kind Nana was to others. And she made the BEST brownies…ever. 🙂

    I remember some advice she gave me. She suggested that I always have the basic ingredients to make a pie crust, brownies and sugar cookies and to always have eggs and milk on hand. Nana suggested that I double recipes and put half in the freezer.

    I remembered this advice when I joined our church’s baking group about 25 years ago. I am asked to cook a dinner for a family in our church every other month. I enjoy cooking and helping other so this is a win win for me. It’s a wonderful feeling to prepare a meal for a family in my community. It’s a simple way for me to give back and to be nice to someone else. It’s that simple.

    I try to be an active listener at home and at work and to focus one what is being said to me. I think it shows respect and caring for the other party. Also, I have tried to foster the spirit of volunteering in my family. We have volunteered at shelters providing and serving meals.

    I volunteer through work. There are lots of opportunities to read to preschool children, serve food In a homeless shelter or bake a batch of brownies for a neighbor. I’d love to volunteer in a literacy program for younger children. Reading can open up so many opportunities.

    • I think with that cooking stuff, whatever’s in your heart becomes one of the ingredients in what you serve. If you’re dwelling on love and joy, on good memories and gratitude, then that gets into the brownies.

      Just a theory, and might explain why home cooking will always trump the fast food version. Easily.

  2. Since we are ending the Holiday Season, it seems appropriate to write about my own family’s holiday tradition of *making room* at the Thanksgiving or Christmas Table for someone who would not be able to spend the day with their family. We often had friends from college who were not able to go back home, kids estranged from their families or oldsters who wouldn’t be able to spend the day with their children due to their infirmity or lack of funds to travel to them. The holidays were much richer and full of meaning for us those years we had guests. When my husband was a Resident, we had medical students as guests at our own family holidays, keeping up the tradition of my parents.

    I have volunteered in the autism community for over 25 years but it’s something that just *is* for me, since my eldest son has autism. It feels like giving back to those who gave so much to us when we needed help.

    I live in the Midwest, with winters cold, snowy and often bleak. Every holiday season since we’ve moved to the community where we now live, I’ve made it a point to donate food to the local food bank once a week. I donate coats when there is a coat drive or mittens when there is a mitten drive or blankets when there is a blanket drive. The two things needed most by the most vulnerable in our community are food and shelter and warmth in some way. Donating food and some way to keep warm is basic and it makes me feel like I’ve made some sort of small difference in the world!

    • One of the people whose path I crossed in the foster care biz was a PhD educational psychologist. He started following up years later with the parents of his toughest clients, “Did anything we did help? Did any of it make a difference?”

      You know this population, know their weariness and bewilderment…

      Their response was that just being with somebody who knew what they were going through, who didn’t judge them for their exasperation and anger, made a huge difference.

      And that’s “just” what you do. Make a big difference, that is.

  3. Boy, there are so many causes that it boggles the mind – sadly.

    A favorite of mine has always been the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Most of my “physically active” volunteerism was done during my fifties and early sixties. Physical problems have slowed me down to the point that I can only support them monetarily – but they need that too. They provide all sorts of help for the poor – from providing food to help paying utility bills.

    We were poor when I was a child and more than one Christmas would have been pretty bleak had it not been for the baskets of food and the boxes of presents they brought us at Christmas. That group always has and always will have a soft spot in my heart. God has blessed my life. It is a privilege to be able to give back.

    • We remember, forever, the people who truly helped us when we truly needed it. We recall as well, the ones who talked a good game, but never got around to suiting action to their words.

      Well done, you (and St. Vincent).

  4. When I was a young teenager, waaaay back in the seventies, my parents were part of a gospel quartet.They would go to local nursing homes and senior centers to perform concerts,and I remember rolling my eyes with typical teen superiority over how “uncool” I thought it was- until they dragged me to one of their concerts! The joy I saw on those faces has always stayed with me, and one of my first jobs was in a nursing home. I went on to work with Developmentally Disabled adults for thirty years and was rewarded every day.My father also volunteered at the local Salvation Army after he retired,almost every day until he was 81- he was a real “Felix Unger” type of neatnick, and they loved him dearly!

    • I played pit piano for a musical production when I was in seventh grade, and the cast and crew went to a nursing home to perform some of the numbers. I had never BEEN to a nursing home.

      Cried all the way home. Could not at that age have said why I cried, but the director knew enough to let me have my tears.

      Your parents knew where the music would do the most good. So did you.

  5. I remember growing up that my grandmother always gave to the church and sent clothes for the poor or those who had less than we did. I always remember her saying that she and her family had money problems growing up and now that she could, she wanted to help those like she was helped.
    One of the causes that I have always championed is the Humane Society and the ASPCA. I feel that we as a society have to help the animals that can’t help themselves. I even donate items to the Goodwill because if I can’t use it, someone can. I think that everyone need to try to help out weather it’s at a homeless shelter, animal shelter or someone that you know that is going through a hard time. It will warm your heart.

    • Sheryl, you are so right. When we do something to look after somebody else, our brains release some feel good hormones. We’re wired for kindness and generosity. Just writing a check doesn’t have the same result (which in some ways, make financial generosity even more remarkable).

      Nothing else can make us feel quite as in charity with life, as showing some charity where it’s needed.

    • I’ll bet that was cheerful work, too. I’ve heard many older folks say, “This place is getting to be too much for us,” which is not the same thing at all as, “I’m of living near the trees and flowers, and where I can hear the birds sing.”
      Does anybody ever get tired of that? Nope, but the work gets to be too much, so we part with what we love anyway.

  6. I think I would want to work with kids that go through the foster care system. I lost two of my sisters to the system. When I found my sisters again I asked what I could do for them they said it was enough to know that I cared. I would like other kids to know that someone does care.

    • A happy ending! Because of situations like yours, Gail, there’s a much greater emphasis now on keeping siblings together, even if they can’t be placed together. Sibling visits are court ordered, and adoptive parents can be required to keep them up.

      Glad you found each other again!

  7. My parents believed in visiting elderly relatives all during the year, not only during the holidays. We visited our great-grand aunties and uncles who shared family memories with us. Most times their stories were spoken in Hawaiian and/or Hawaiian/English “pidgin”–and shared with us with parental translation, when needed. It was wonderful hearing them laugh with their toothless smiles, teary eyes and happy voices. We shared our love of music and song with them throughout our visit.

    Visiting shut-ins–at any time of year. They don’t have to be elderly–vets, hospice patients or anyone who needs a friend.

    Hau’oli Makahiki Hou (Happy New Year)!

    • Genie, I’m often amazed at the stories my own siblings don’t know about THEMSELVES. My brother John was prone to strep, until my mom (with the doctor’s OK), let John try to fight it off once on his own. He was nine years old, never got strep again.

      He didn’t know that, because he’d left home thirteen years before I did. I was simply around to hear more stories because I was near the bottom of the sibling pile.

      Now the stories are yours, so you MUST pass them down. Must!

  8. My parents were big on considering the other person’s point of view… why & what might insight riot behavior in otherwise decent people (we lived very near Detroit… I graduated high school in ’69). I find I do this automatically now and while it isn’t a “cause” per say, it makes it easy to understand other perspectives.

    The part I have a hard time with is “at what point can I honorably assert my own feelings in the matter?” I get tromped on when I fail to honor this consideration.

    • Wow, that’s quite a legacy. The scariest thing we can do, often, is listen open-mindedly. For some of us, that’s beyond our courage. Without people like you to model constructive dialogue,we’re doomed to division and isolation.

      Keep up the good, hard, work. Please.

  9. My thing has become animals, mainly cats that have been left to fend for themselves in the trailer park when one of the trailers empties out. I’ve been feeding a very beautiful tabby and white tom cat that is so loveable, he was left when the neighbors to my east moved out in early December. Much as I might want I can’t bring him indoors because he hasn’t been neutered and I’ve got females that aren’t spayed. I took a large pet carrier, that I brought home from beside the dumpster and turned it into a shelter for him. It’s got the padding from a twin mattress in it along with a small down comforter but I’ve only seen him in it one day when it was raining. I think he uses it a night, at least I hope he does, because when I go out in the morning the plate I feed him on is empty and there’s white cat hair on the brown comforter. I feed him in the morning and if the food is gone by evening I feed him again. I’ve also got another unneutered male in what used to be the master bedroom/bath that I brought inside in the fall when we were due rain for over a week. I’d put them together but I’m afraid they’ll fight so I do what I can for the one outside.

    • Herd management… and with stray cats, it’s endless. I’ve asked my brother the animal nutritionist why nobody makes feed-through birth control for cats. I think the answer is that shelters would be out of business in a hurry, and pleading the cause of destitute cats earns them a lot of funding.

      Am I cynical or what?

  10. My mother spent her life supporting a variety of causes. She would take us to nursing homes at least a couple times a month to visit with the elderly residents. (These visits ended when one of our favorite ‘Grannies’ nearly died right in front of us – Not the lesson mom wanted us to learn when we that young.) We also helped feed the homeless at food banks and a Teen Challenge rehab location. All our old toys and clothes were collected and donated as well.

    I adore animals, but I know that it is very dangerous to work in a shelter or foster animals — I’d be a big time foster fail and adopt all of my fosters. I can’t afford that. 😉 All 3 of my cats are ones who adopted us – 2 have been with us since they were 2 days old. We rescued them before they ended up in a shelter – but we have gotten more back from them in love than it would have cost to adopt them at a shelter.

    If I had only one day to dedicate to a cause, I’d try desperately to encourage children to read and help them find something to prove that reading can be fun. When my kids were in elementary school, I was a full time mom and volunteer. I discovered my favorite work was book fairs simply because I could help kids who were not interested in reading find books that could open their world and encourage reading and learning. We got donations from local businesses for gift certificates for the kids who couldn’t buy books and I was finally able to convince the PTA to allow us to use a portion of the profits for books for individual children.

    I love that the kids remembered the fairs for years and that we were able to drive up interest in reading (and of course help them achieve more academically). By the time my kiddos were in high school, I figured most of their peers had forgotten these fairs, but several teens told me through the years that some of their fondest memories of elementary were tied to book fairs and thanked me for helping them discover good books.

  11. I was off for two weeks for Christmas Break. What struck me the most was spending time with people I enjoy. I had dinner with one girlfriend. I went on an outing and a party with another girlfriend. My husband got my female cat a new cat toy for Christmas. She just loved it. She fell asleep holding it Christmas Day. I hope in the coming year I’ll spend more time with people I enjoy.

    • Oh, you said a mouthful, Anne. I am not a big fan of AA, for reasons I can discuss with anybody offline, but one of their concepts is “change your people, places and things,” and there is wisdom in that.

      Hang with the people who support you and give you energy, try to avoid The Other Kind. That’s tough when you work with them, it’s a real challenge when they’re in your family (teenagers? inlaws?). I need to do better at this myself, so thanks for the reminder.

  12. I more or less grew up under the god helps those that help themselves. That never really worked for me and I tended to be the one that did the opposite of everything lol. I still can’t seem to ask anyone for help but I enjoy helping others. I started volunteering as a teenager (candystriper) and I’ve done so ever since with various groups from girl scouts, women’s clubs and American Legion. But I do think my real calling is with animals. I do what I can with ferals/strays and wish I could do more.

  13. One of the things I love is how we all have different causes. Mine is the overworked, under-funned, average woman, particularly one who is creative but doesn’t make time for creativity. A day to play is a gift we should all give ourselves more often – regularly – like a weekly artist date.

    • Myrna, I think half the reason I’m having such great fun in my fifties is that I neglected this aspect of self care for decades. I read, but I didn’t play the piano, write, bake (much), garden (‘cept for bulbs). All my generative energy went into childrearing and paying bills.

      Things are better now. I agree we need to play and create, but think most guys are even farther behind than the gals are. EVERYBODY needs a personal playground. Everybody.