Monday, January 14, 2019

Bundles of Joy by Judy Vandevelde

Out of nowhere into our arms
This tiny bundle of joy
A bit of heaven in human form
A precious baby boy

Beautiful tiny baby hands
Clenching at our heart
Little fingers and sturdy feet
Ready for life at the start

Bluish eyes and twinkling smile
Hair that’s touched by the sun
We watch him as he learns and grows
With love for everyone

A tiny sister comes along
As sweet as a baby can be
She loves to share a rhyme or two
While sitting on your knee

She dances as she moves about
And jumps and claps her hands
There’s kindness in that little face
As before you she stands

You give her a kiss
She blinks her eyes
Will you get my teddy bear, please?
Let’s read the rhyme about the Five Little Monkeys

My life has changed so much
Watching my grandchildren grow.
They sing and play and run around.
Gifts of love, I know

Merry Christmas by Charlie Plyter

The lady pulling the sled was my mother. Walking with her on that cold 24th of December in 1942 was my Aunt Helen. My mother was six months pregnant and my aunt was five months along. The streets of Newark were passable but snow covered, so the sisters carefully chose their way avoiding ice and the occasional drift. My father was at work at a defense plant in Rochester and my sisters and I were at Grandma’s. My aunt’s husband was in the Marines and stationed somewhere in Africa, according to what he wrote. He had devised a scheme to keep her aware of his whereabouts that somehow escaped the scrutiny and the scissors of the censors. He was in service to his country, but the sisters were on a mission of their own; a Christmas mission.

We had a Christmas tree but Aunt Helen did not, so they were off to get her one. They had a $1.10 between them, a tidy sum during the Depression days of WWII. Word had it that a farmer was selling off his inventory of trees in the parking lot of Ferrell’s Garage for as little as $1.00. It was two o’clock and, if they hurried, they might find one and get home before dark. The parking lot of Schofield’s Diner was a good place to take a breather. The aroma of coffee and fried onions filled the air and as one they said, “Wish we had money for coffee and a snack.” They did not. The dollar was for the tree and the dime, well maybe it could be used for a cup of coffee each on the way back. It was cold standing there so they moved on.

The three remaining blocks went quickly as the brisk temperatures spurred them on. As they approached Ferrell’s they were shocked to see a sign that read, “Trees $3.00”. It stopped them in their tracks. There was a dilapidated truck parked near the remaining trees and inside was a man asleep at the wheel, as it were. He had a distinguished looking white beard and moustache. My aunt knocked on the window and he stirred, smiled and opened the door of the truck. “Ladies, you are just in time. I was just about to load up and go home. Santa’s coming tonight.”

Playing on his kind looks my mother explained about her sister having a husband in the Marines, that they had walked more than a mile thinking the trees were going to be a dollar. He scratched the side of his jaw and, with a thoughtful look on his face, announced, “Special price of one dollar for the wife of a Marine. Pick one out.” They did not need any further urging and in a minute or two and had one picked out. They gave him the dollar, he offered to tie the tree to the sled and my mother gratefully accepted. He put the dollar into the pocket of his overalls and from the cab of his truck produced some red twine. They shivered as he made a production of tying the tree to the sled, weaving the twine in and out of the branches. It seemed like an excess of caution, but finally he turned and said with a smile. “Better safe than sorry. Looks like I got you started on the decorations what with the red twine. Looks good with the green.” They thanked him for his generosity and thoughtfulness and started home.

Once again Schofield’s Diner was a good halfway point and a good place to take a rest. My aunt produced the dime she had left, held it out. Their eyes met and with a nod it was agreed they would spend it on coffee. Mother pulled the sled close to the door of the diner so they could keep an eye on it while they drank the coffee. “Sure wish we had money for a doughnut,” Mom remarked and Aunt Helen agreed. The door of the diner opened and out came Doc Johnson. “Florence, you better get home and get that tree decorated because Santa is on his way, but I see you have already started.” They looked where he pointed and there in the limbs secured by the red twine was a $5.00 bill. As they enjoyed the coffee and doughnuts they agreed that Santa had already arrived.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018


“What ya doing, Bud?”

“Just sitting. Enjoying the universe. Staring at the stars.”

“Yeah. Beautiful aren’t they?  Someone once said, ‘there are billions and billions of them’.”

“Yep. Some dude named Carl Sagan, if memory serves.”

“Right. And like them, he too is long gone.”

“Got that right.  Really long, long gone.”

“But, you and I and the rest of us are still here.”

“Yes. Not like them.”

“Well, maybe Yes. Maybe No.  They’re still out there. Somewhere amongst the billions and billions.”

“And, eventually they’ll come back and try again.”

“Think they’ll ever get it right?”

“You mean like us?  Maybe. They keep trying. Gotta give them that.  Maybe next time.”

“Well, we are here. And, they aren’t. And…we are still in charge…for the time being.”

“Yeah. Strange how History repeats itself every 50 million years or so.”

“Yep. Well, it’s past my bedtime.  Gotta go. Goodnight, Bud.”

The Grasshopper rolled over on its side and dimmed his 1,000 eyes to sleep as his friend, the Wasp, flew back to his nest to rest.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Where to Dwell by Patrick Wegman

Geraldo Rivera.  He is well known as a journalist and media personality with a flair for the dramatic.  While not currently one of my favorites in the field, his expose’ back in 1972 of the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island would lead me to become involved in a short lived career years later in rural Illinois that would be one of the most eye opening and influential experiences of my life.  The opportunity was at the same time both heart wrenching and rewarding in the deepest sense.
For those not familiar with the expose’ Willowbrook would become synonymous with the mistreatment of the retarded and mentally ill (often lumped together as one group).  It was a situation that would lead to massive changes for how we treat some of our most vulnerable citizens today.  My story is about some people I worked with and for in the 1970s.
It is neither an indictment nor judgement of any individuals or a system that was in place back in the late 40s through the 70s (There is no value at this stage in pointing fingers). It is simply a story about hurt and hope.
Some of the names were Franklin, Gladys, Doug, Gene, Roberta, Emory and Manning, who were brothers, Elizabeth and so many more too numerous to list here.  They came from places in Illinois with names like Alton State Hospital, Chicago State Hospital, Dixon State Hospital, The Neuropsychiatric Institute and many more.  While initially the goals of these “hospitals” were somewhat laudable, or at least well meaning, (the history of these types of places varies from state to state and country to country) in most instances they ended up becoming holding pens, places to control and hide a segment of the population that most people did not want to deal with.  In many instances conditions deteriorated to the point of mistreatment or outright abuse that often led to premature deaths as was the case at Willowbrook.
Barb came to us (the staff at a sheltered workshop in central Illinois) with a severely bent frame which included a deformity where she could not raise her head up straight.  We learned that it was because of hours and hours of sitting in a hallway with nothing to do for days and weeks and months and years.  Yet she could still warm your heart with a smile. 
Elizabeth was another sad story.  She was forced into an institution by relatives who found the required number of doctors to sign forms that indicated she should be put away.  We soon learned she had not been retarded or mentally ill and yet she was sequestered for decades with people who were and subsequently she took on the persona that was the norm in order to get by.  Yet she could still smile and often did.
There was Franklin who, like many others had been put on Thorazine and other such “medications” that left him pacing up and down all day repeating many of the same phrases over and over (I remember one  was about helping his dad with a Chevy when he was a kid) and constantly rubbing his head. Often he would look for cigarette butts on the floor.  The withdrawal from these powerful drugs is very painful for the person on them as well as those who observe the withdrawal, for different reasons.   In most cases the effects of these drugs were irreversible.  Yet Franklin could smile as well and give a quick hug as he passed you while pacing. Actually any kind of caring human touch was more than welcome from most of our friends having been in places where human contact was mostly in the form of being herded from one place to another, often in a manner that was abusive, within the institutions from whence they came.
            Doug was, by most standards, unattractive and made strange noises.  Gladys babbled on about nothing thinking she was being quite eloquent.  Gene was abnormally quiet.  He, like many others coming from the institutions, was not trusting of those in places of authority.  Yet (you guessed it) most had very engaging smiles.
For the most part social skills were non-existent.  The reason for this could sometimes be attributed to legitimate, verifiable conditions but for the most part it was because no one treated them as beings worthy of verbal exchanges.  They were mostly spoken at instead of to or with.  
When they came to the sheltered workshop in the morning they all seemed happy to be there. They had somewhere to be that was at least somewhat stimulating and as a staff we were determined to make their lives a little better hoping to help them find a sense of purpose, pride and fulfillment.   Of course we were underfunded, as was the case at that time for most programs trying to handle the flow of people being de-institutionalized, but we had amazing staff that could make a little go a long way.
There was Cookie and Jimmy a hippie couple who constructed their own yurt and did quite well living off the land.  But they didn’t just “turn on, tune in, and drop out”.  They took their skills and talents and ran the arts and crafts part of the program getting people who never created anything to fashion some great pieces of art using pasta, yarn, glue and other types of media associated mostly with kindergarteners but to these folks were items that let them express themselves for the first time ever and they were quite proud.  It was for most of the people the best part of the day.
There was Cindy who led the daily living skills class, no small task as many of our folk had never even been taught even basic hygiene.   She was 70ish, sharp as a tack and could relate to these people as well as anyone I had seen up to then and since.  It was a beautiful thing to watch her interact with them treating them as equals and beings of value.  She was everyone’s Grandma in the best sense of the moniker.
Susan was the nurse par-excellence.  Distributing pills was her main responsibility (not easy as there were many to pass out).  Her demeanor, while carrying out her job was her best medicine.  Then there was Carol who taught speech both individually and with small groups.  Trying to teach “speech” to older people with tremendous impairments is almost hopeless (I know because I would fill in for her on occasion) yet somehow with her skills and upbeat personality she was able to help her clients communicate on a level most would consider basic but for many we served was a great accomplishment.
I could go on and on about the individuals who were cared for and their caregivers.  For me it was an experience which even today, some 40+ years later, I find myself getting emotional over.  Both from the sadness and hurt our friends endured physically and, even more so, emotionally and psychologically but also because I do remember the triumphs (as small as most were) and the feeling that what we all experienced was something special.  Then, of course, there were the smiles, wonderful smiles emanating from people who had every reason to remain angry and bitter but who chose instead not to dwell there.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Clinging OR Hold Fast by Barb Walker

I sit on the deck as summer fades to fall and eagerly await its arrival. Cooler temperatures. Bright colored leaves. The smell of them in the air. The childish pleasure of kicking through piles that have fallen to the ground, enjoying their crackle and crunch underfoot. The smell of woodsmoke. Cool evenings snuggled under a blanket on the sofa. Fall is lovely. It brings joy to my heart simply to think of it. Thoughts of fall and God mingle in my mind, the two getting mixed up with each other as feelings of home, a deep breath of peace, and a surging sense of joy.

As I anticipate the arrival of my favorite season I look about me and see the last of the summer’s flowers. I gaze at the vegetable garden I’ve been tending for many months. I know that soon both will be gone. I won’t sit on the deck and look at the pink bouncing heads of my cleome, or say good morning to the Portulaca that makes me think of my mom and grandfather. The last of the vegetables will soon be harvested, the plants pulled up and the ground left to rest until next spring. As I think of these things I realize my feelings of joy and contentment are swiftly being replaced. I’m saddened by the passing of these sights of summer, fearful of their loss. And I realize I’m clinging.

I’ve spent a great deal of my life clinging. To things. To people. To places. To ideas and ideals. Flowers fade. Seasons change. Anticipated events come and go. People leave. As a matter of fact, often in my clinging I’ve forced people away. I think of the fear inherent in my desire to hold on to something. I wonder at my need to cling. My clinging has stemmed from the fear of pain and emptiness, disappointment, confusion, the need to belong and feel loved. As I think of these things I realize that not once in any of these situations has my clinging been helpful.

As thoughts of clinging flow through my mind I realize I’m learning to cling less to people, places and things and more to something that, in clinging, offers positive returns for my efforts. As I think of that thing the joy of clinging blossoms inside of me. The possibilities available in this clinging fill me with hope. To God--my Father, Creator, Protector, Comforter, Savior and Lord--I can cling without worry or fear of loss or negative repercussion.

At times my clinging, even to my Father, is driven by the same old fears, the same old pain, but that’s okay. God can heal those things, whereas people, places, and things offer only a band-aid. Clinging to my Father doesn’t cause him to panic and push me away in fear, nor does he draw me in only to misuse me for selfish purposes. I can bring him everything I have to offer and cling to him for everything I need and it serves only to strengthen my relationship with him. He quiets me and comforts me because he has infinite resources of love, patience, tenderness, wisdom, and peace to offer me. He transforms my thinking so I can learn to understand my unhealthy behaviors and replace them with healthy ones, to think healthy thoughts. In the process, I cling to him more and find that fears and pain subside, discover that the clinging is also at times driven by a positive desire to enjoy this relationship--to seek the peace, hope, and love, to cherish and praise the one who makes these feelings possible.

I’ve found the one thing, the only thing, worth clinging to, the only thing to which I’m meant to cling. And the most beautiful thing is that, in clinging to my great God, no matter the reason, the fear central to my need to cling to my old targets slips away. The emptiness is filled. The fears relieved. The disappointment and pain soothed. The confusion made clear. I find the place I truly belong, where I’m loved beyond measure.

Fear the Lord your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name. He is the one you praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes. – Deuteronomy 10:20-21

Friday, August 17, 2018

Santorini Surprise by Kim Lawrence-Breuer

“We’re not in Kansas anymore” came to mind when we first laid eyes on Santorini, Greece, so different from anything back home, with its white washed buildings clinging to cliffs perched high above the Agean Sea. After a ten hour flight, followed by a two hour layover in Athens to catch our small plane to the Island, we at last arrived to the quaint, boutique hotel. Despite our exhaustion we were eager to explore, not wanting to waste a minute of our 48 hours. Before heading out I sought out Maria the friendly villa manager, “Is it too early for dinner”, I asked, my preconceived notion late afternoon was siesta time.  She assured us everything on the Island was open from early until late.  The steep street out front took us to the main plaza of Fira, Santorini’s capital. Suddenly a frantic rush of traffic came at us from all directions with little regard for our lives, as we jumped back in the nick of time.  I was also on my way to breaking my neck with these ridiculous, platform sandals, that had no business being on uneven, cobblestoned streets.  Soon however we discovered a delightful taverna, making everything fade away. “Good evening Mademoiselles” our hostess warmly greeted us, who seemed to anticipate just what was needed as she led us to a quiet corner. Here was our first taste of Greece where we fell hard, especially for the unusual white eggplant, so sweet it melts in your mouth, only cultivated on the island with its volcanic soil. A double scoop of gelato cooled our palates, making for a great first impression of what Santorini will offer.

The next morning we took Maria’s sage advice to get right up with the alarm, even though our jet lagged bodies believed it was 1:00 am back home on EST. Fueled by a hearty breakfast of eggs with tomatoes and feta, followed by Greek yogurt with toasted walnuts, drizzled with the most heavenly honey. This was no ordinary tasting honey. That’s because Greeks have taken their honey seriously for 3,000 years. Fueled by a hearty breakfast and strong coffee, we made our way up winding steps far above the streets, where a shopping paradise existed. Here expensive goods mingled with touristy souvenirs. Boutiques abounded and we weighed in on the trendiest styles, observing women wearing loose, gauzy pants and flowing blouses, in sharp contrast to the guys who sport super tight pants with fitted tops. Which they pulled off nicely to our eyes. Speaking of eyes, everywhere we went the big blue eye stared back at us. It was embedded in jewelry, clothing, even furniture and is believed to ward off sudden bad luck caused by the evil eye. Apparently the gaze of blue eyed people are thought to project the evil eye best.  Careful not to stare too long at others, my blue eyed daughter and I did not want to be accused of casting any spells.  At the end of a long, day our bags were filled with all things Greek; olive oil soaps, sea coral bracelets and painted ornaments and coasters with island scenes.

A breathtaking path took us to bars and restaurants lining the cliff’s edge where we went in search of more Greek food and views of the famous, fiery sunsets. Here friendly but never pushy staff stood outside toting the virtues of their establishments. We settled on one based on the scope of its menu. The moussaka layered potatoes, eggplant and tomatoes topped with melted feta, and spanakopita, a flakey feta filled spinach pie, didn’t disappoint. The service was what we had become accustomed to, efficient but never rushed, for the Greeks pride themselves on being gracious hosts.  As headed back, we stopped to watch patrons have their feet nibbled smooth by tiny, garra rufa fish. Although tempted to dangle our tired dogs in the giant fish tank, we were anticipating a glass of home grown Retsina wine from our quiet patio, with the moon rising low in the sky over darkened waters.

Copyright © 2018, Kim Lawrence-Breuer. Material may be reprinted or distributed only with author permission