People Who Care- Angels & Money Dropping out of the Sky

I don’t go out and solicit for money for my non-profit, River House PA. I’d rather be putting what little time and extra energy I have left over from being a writer into just being with the Veterans. I quietly go about doing my important work at helping them get better and every now and then, angels drop out of the sky to help.

That would be “Women Who Care,” a women’s organization in my local town of Orwigsburg, organized to do, you guessed it, be of help wherever they are needed because they care. How wonderful. A member of the group, Deb Cooper, my dear friend, invited me to speak at their monthly dinner meeting. I told them about River House and shared stories of the Veterans getting better, of one Vet hiking 4 miles on crutches with one leg, up and down the Blue Mountain, crossing a rocky stream and descending down a steep game lands road hill that makes us wipe out every time on our cross country skis. Wayne was a rockstar and gave every Vet a reason and a purpose to fight the good fight, to get better and heal and make better choices in life.

I told the Women Who Care about my upcoming programs and how the Vets LOVE to inner tube as it makes them feel like kids again and takes them back to their happy childhood. I told them we only have a handful and I have to get them to share and what I really want to do is let them go down the Little Schuylkill River like Huck Finn and forget life and their nightmares. One of the Women Who Care looked at me across the table and said, “You want inner-tubes? We’ll get you inner-tubes.” OK!

The women said they enjoyed doing hands on work and so I mentioned that they could sponsor an event and bring the food for dinner. Fifteen covered dishes! Women who care, I bet you cook up some pretty sweet casseroles and pot luck recipes. How lucky the Vets who sign up for that event.

I left that evening with 15 new comrades in my work to help these Veterans get better.

The very next day, I was invited to speak at luncheon benefit for International Women’s Day. It was being held at a huge engineering firm outside Reading, Worley Parsons. The young women in charge, Kristine Wessner is the niece of my wonderful friend, Dale Derr, Director of Berks County’s Veteran’s Center. Kristina gave me a short list of River House PA topics she suggested I cover in my talk over lunch, and then asked me what kind of sandwich I would like to eat for lunch- Italian, ham on roll, or turkey sub? I was surprised to hear that but also happy to hear it would not be a formal lunch and I didn’t have to get too dressed up. My husband said, “They probably want you to come in to entertain them over their lunch break.” Whatever.

The fifteen or so engineers that shared their lunch with me, as they unwrapped their hoagies and opened their crackling potato chip bags, seemed very interested and asked good questions. Dale Derr was there and he spoke first about his program and then I spoke second. They were very nice people, especially Kristine.

As I’m gathering my belongings and heading over to say good bye to Kristine to thank her for the opportunity to share my non profit with them, she was occupied counting a boat load of money with her colleague. A ton of ones, many fives, tens and twenties, they gathered the wad of bills together and handed it over to me. “This is for you, for your Vet programs,” they said.

What’s this ?” I asked incredulously.

They told me that they held a fund raiser, the first of its kind, where they pre-ordered sandwiches from a local grocery store and sold them to the employees along with homemade cookies, chips, and drinks. ALL THE PROFIT went to River House PA, as in $374. I couldn’t believe it. I had no idea. They girls also generously gave me a large plastic tub of leftover homemade chocolate chip cookies and a large cardboard box half full of individual chip bags, as I was holding a RH event in the next few days and always need a ton of food to feed the guys.

I packed up my car with a swelled heart. First the Women Who Care and now Kristine Wessner and the engineers at Worley Parsons who also care very much. It sure is nice that there are so many out there wanting to help, doing their part anyway they can, so I can do my important work. Such healing work for us all, helping and taking care of each other. America should could use more of this right now and I feel very blessed to be the recipient. Passing it forward!

Sticking Together- A Cat Does Yoga

 

The kitties in our family have to be as independent as they can. They don’t come into the house as a rule, not because we don’t like their company but because they need to be able to take care of themselves, as in growing substantial fur to be able to live out in the south-facing sunroom through the winter. We go away a lot and they need to be able to sleep out there. There is a swinging cat door in our sunroom that enables them to go in and out at will, and they prefer digging in the flower garden or leaf debris to have a bowel movement. One time, a fat raccoon stuffed himself through their cat door and somehow knew there was a loaf baking pan of dry cat food to gorge himself on. Of course, our kitties high tailed it out of there and left the coon to his own meal. Our neighbor kids feed the kitties (as well as the goats) when we go away for a long time but for a few days, they are more than fine.

Our cats are pretty independent. They don’t feign affection and will visit you if you’re weeding in the garden, walking through the onion row right where you are working and they will come out to greet you on the driveway, roll over to get their belly rubbed, but if you try to pick them up and maul them, they will run away. They are in charge. They embraced this independence we pushed on them pretty seriously.

My husband does not normally go away for very long but this past week he was up at Ridgway, PA at a huge international chainsaw carving event. He normally goes for only a few days, not a full week. And me, I am not normally home alone without him and not normally attached to my computer and desk as if I had shackles on. Right now, I am on deadline to complete my manuscript about alternatively raising and educating our kids- A Big Life. May 1 the completed manuscript must be handed in as polished and perfect as possible. I am not used to such focused, fevered dedication. I do little else but eat, sleep, go to the bathroom, and write. One hour’s walk is all that I am allowed. I have the phone, my e-mail and Facebook to connect.

This past week, it grew crazy cold for early spring and we got hit by a historic snowstorm. I decided to let the kitties in and hang together through it all. One cat severely hesitates at the door, walks around for a few seconds inside when I grab him and drag him in, but makes a quick run for the door in a very short amount of time. I think it is too hot for him. The other little shrimp of a cat, has found that he loves being indoors in the winter, however. He is at the front door in the morning as soon as his treat of wet cat food is devoured.

One of the reasons we made it a house rule of no indoor kitties was because a cat prior to these did not know enough to go to the door when she needed to pee and deposited it on our living room rug or other inappropriate places. These kitties however, have a voice and a brain and let us know when they need to go out.

This little cat who spent this past week with me, I’ve discovered has some amazing skills and quite a cat brain. One evening, I stretched out on the library floor up here in the loft on my yoga mat and put on a Rodney Yee tape to work out with. The cat got off the futon and came down onto the carpet alongside me. OK. Not weird. BUT, he proceeded to roll onto his back just like me and proceeded to stretch his limbs while I was. I had a Yoga for Abdomens tape on so I spent all of my time on the mat, mostly on my back. When I did “the cat” position, I looked over at him and would have been downright scared had the kittie moved into that one. He did not. But when Rodney instructed me to spread out my arms, the cat took his and stretched them out and touched his paw to my torso. It was the weirdest thing because this went on for the whole 20 minutes that I was on the mat, him mimicking me. I have NEVER seen this behavior before.

I guess my kitty knew we had to stick together, and he was there for me through this hard week of being alone, working very hard on my book, and I was there for him during this cold and snowy weather. How wonderfully strange.

The Power of Music & Art

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The first time I had the Veterans from the Lebanon VA Hospital inside my home for an event, I wasn’t concerned about my privacy or property. Even though every event brings new faces, they always feel like family after sharing a few hours of an experience with them. I was concerned where I would put them for the very cool event we had planned that involved music and art.

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We first planned a walk, of course, right here on Red Mountain, on the ridge with the silly goats, to get the Vets outdoors in nature and moving. And then the real fun began. Some time ago, I was put in touch with a professional cellist, a friend of a friend, who wanted to offer a classical music program to my Vets in the re-hab program. Our handmade log home was a beautiful setting for a solo performance.

Maire-Aline Cadieux has been teaching music for almost 30 years as a professor at Kutztown University, and playing for 45. She recently discovered that she enjoys less formal performances because they allow her to have more of a connection with the people who are listening. She found that they really feel a part of the whole event, more than at a more traditional concert. When she heard about what we are doing for the vets at River House, she thought it seemed like a good place for this kind of music-making.

Before her performance, she came early enough to join in on the hike and get to know the Vets. As did my friend, Wilfreda Axsmith, a silk painter and fabric artist. Wilfreda discovered a wonderful meditative art of drawing designs called Zentangle that she would share with the Vets before Marie began to play. This was after dinner of course, brought to us by the generosity of sponsor, Carolyn Schwartz in Colorado. Thanks Carolyn & Bill. She and her husband Bill cycled the 50 mile Camino de Santiago with our family across Spain some years back and she wanted to contribute to the cause and sponsor a meal. The Vets signed a thank you card to her and Bill and I propped a photo of them up by the card so they could connect a face with their gratitude.

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After dinner, Wilfreda set up a large tablet on her portable easel and gave the Vets tips on how to start and do a Zentangle. “Zentangles are miniature pieces of unplanned, abstract, black and white art created through simple, structured patterns called tangles. Zentangles are not only exquisitely beautiful, they are fun and relaxing to create.The process of creating a Zentangle is a form of “artistic meditation” as one becomes completely engrossed in making each pattern, deliberately focusing on “one stroke at a time.” The creativity options and pattern combinations are boundless.

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Wilfreda printed off examples that she passed around to help them come up with design options. Some Vets went upstairs to our balcony and watched Wilfreda’s demo over the railing. Everyone got cozy on their chair or sofa or stool and turned all ears on Marie and her cello.

Kahlil Gibran said, “Music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life bringing peace, abolishing strife.” We saw it happening in our home right before our very eyes. Hearing Marie’s bow slide along the strings of her cello and have that beautiful instrument speak to all of us, in our warm log home, was mesmerizing. The Vets sat back and peacefully drew, as their minds emptied and their hands worked. Probably no one in the room had ever been so close to a musical instrument like a cello before, nor heard its sweet voice so intimately. It was a huge treat. Maria von Trapp said, “Music acts like a magic key, to which the most tightly closed heart opens.” I looked around and I didn’t see anything closed in the room.

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Marie played music by Bach: the Prelude from Suite No. 1 in G major, and the Bourreés from Suite No. 3 in C major. She told the Vets to imagine ball rooms and people in very elaborate (and heavy!) dresses dancing together, with most of the motion being subtle, from the arms and feet.

Next she played two dances by Squire: Danse Rustique and Tarantella. She told them to imagine a barn dance, and a flirtation between a young man and woman and then a frantic dance meant to cure a toxic spider bite!

They quietly and meditatively drew and drew. I thought about what Gustav Klimt said, “Art is a line around your thoughts.” Marie was so happy to share her gift. She said, “Music making brings me such joy. I want to involve people who might find some healing and peace from that joy.”

I never know when I schedule these programs if the Vets are going to think them lame or feel intimidated because they never did anything like it before. Last year, we only scheduled events once the weather warmed up and we could be outdoors the entire time, eating and connecting around the campfire. But I didn’t want to waste so many of the winter months if there was a way to offer some winter programs. Staging our last two event with St. John’s UCC Church in Orwigsburg as we used their space to get together, and then at our home, enabled us to help the Vets year round.

You never know what kind of therapy will resonate with each Vet. It is an individual thing. I believe nature is the great healer but there are so many other ways to seek and bring peace back into your life. I see my role as Director of River House PA to introduce as many tools in their tool box as I can. Music or art might do it, yoga, meditation, who knows until you try it out.

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I am indebted to folks like Marie & Wilfreda who give up their time and expertise to help my Vets. The ability to change someone’s life for the better lies in these bi-monthly events. You just don’t know whose heart these chords will resonate with.

Marie finished up with the “Tango for solo cello” by Carter Brey while the Vets put their finishing touches on their art work. Of course, they all wanted to take their little gems home, a reminder of their great day with RiverHouse PA as it added one more rung on the ladder of health, as they learn ways to rise above the sadness and a life of damaging habits. As Pablo Piccaso said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of every day life.” I would say it was a very successful evening here at River House PA!

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Veterans Stretch Themselves in More Ways Than One

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Amy Cook the recreational therapist from the Lebanon VA Hospital was skeptical about getting the Veterans in the re-hab program to do something unusual (for them) as Yoga. These guys were toughies, she told me, and would be hard to convince to try something weird like doing Yoga.

Yoga isn’t weird, Amy,” I told her. There’s been lots of studies showing how healing it is for everyone, but especially for people suffering with post traumatic stress disorder.

We had not had a scheduled River House PA event for a few months as I was traveling in Asia with my family over the holidays.

I know Yoga isn’t weird but these guys don’t know you. They are a new group, I’m afraid they won’t come.”

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And so we decided to hold a Owl Pellet Dissecting Class (that sounds weirder than Yoga to me!) and an Night Owl Walk as our first event for the new year. That was hugely successful and everyone learned a lot and thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Everyone left hugging. I said to everyone as I embraced them, “Make sure you come next time,”

Oh, I’ll be there for sure.”

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But the group of Veterans piling out of the vans in the parking lot of St John’s UCC Church in Orwigsburg, were mostly new guys. Many of the Vets form two weeks ago had already cycled out and graduated from the program. Alright, I thought, they are stretching themselves already, just by trusting enough to come here.

Yoga instructor, Ed Folk, offered to put on the special class for free in the beautifully carpeted peaceful gathering space at the church. He regularly teaches a Tuesday evening class that my friend, RH friend Susan McCartney joins in on and also helps coordinate between our organization and the church.

My friend Bonnie Boyer, who has the Second Floor Yoga studio in Orwigsburg, PA, lent us her mats. The vets filed in, grabbed a mat and rolled them out on the floor.

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Ed began slow, doing some head rolls, shoulder shrugs, some of the guys even had a hard time sitting on the floor with their legs crossed. Some of them got the message that they should wear comfortable loose clothing, other swore tight constricting jeans, but they made the best of it.

Ed was the most unassuming instructor for the Vets. Many poses he would say, now you can take your arms over your head , or lift up your leg behind you, but only my more advanced people can do that, I can’t. That made all of the vets feel OK about their performance which is paramount when you are trying to win them over to a new activity like Yoga. Even my board member, Mike Schnurr, Vietnam war vet who tells me has bad knees and a bad back and who knows what else bad, said he wasn’t going to do it at first (just come for the camaraderie and food afterwards) and I said , “Oh yes you are,” and he did, in the rear, but I opened my eyes and peaked, cause I joined in just for the fun, and he was looking real good. One time, I peeked and saw everyone with their eyes closed and a blissed out calm and peaceful look on their faces and I felt so proud of them. Maybe this will resonant enough with one or two to use it in their tool box of aids and helps to get better and choose a healthier lifestyle.

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That’s what these River House events are for, to give them tools and give them hope that we at RH believe in them and are here for them as they work to navigate a new life.

Afterwards, Nancy and Tom List, certified teachers of Transcendental meditation, gave a little info session on the fabulous results many Vets are getting from practicing TM. This form of meditation helps reduce and in some cases eliminates symptoms of ptsd as it takes practitioners from a state of noisy thinking to a state of inner quietness.

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Then, we ate- homemade chili and corn bread and cake and fruit. The evening’s event was sponsored by Fran Pepoon from California, who is originally from the Reading area and believes in our misison. The Vets signed a thank-you card to her while they went up for seconds. Everyone helped with the clean- up some of the guys dove into the sudsy dish water, and left as always, with a full belly, a full heart and more tools in their tool box for getting better. We have so much fun at RH events, learn so much and enjoy each other’s company so much, who needs drugs and alcohol. We’re learning a better way, stretching oursleves to embrace new things and people. Life is good.

PS -Once again, if anyone wants to sponser ($200) or co-sponsor ($100) and just contribute to making these events happen, message me. If you live nearby, you can join in the fun on that event and meet all the Veterans so they can thank you in person.

 

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Batting Balloons Through the Years

When my kids had a birthday, I used to wait until they were asleep and take colored crepe paper (pink for girls, blue for boys) and decorate their doorways of their bedroom, twisting and taping and creating a grand exit. Their chair at the kitchen table would also be decorated with streamers and a helium “Happy Birthday” balloon would be tied from a rung with a ribbon.Their place setting had an etched glass and a special fancy plate with their wrapped presents and card sitting on top. I thumb tacked up the 12 foot long Happy Birthday sign across the log ends but the real treat is what happens in their bedroom when they first open their eyes.

Todd and I blew up at least two dozen large colorful balloons that we placed on the floor of their room, forcing them to swim through the balloons to get out. As soon as they pushed open their eye lids on their special day, it felt special for them. That was the whole idea. When we heard their little feet padding on the wood hallway, we began to sing “Happy Birthday” loudly from our perspective beds. Then we spent the first half hour of their birthday lying on the floor and the bed batting them up into the air, taking turns, passing them back and forth, trying not to let them hit the ground and yelling when they did.

This was just the start of the big day. They got to choose their heart’s desire of breakfast, lunch and dinner. The years they attended public school, they got a wellness day and were forbidden to go to school. Todd wasn’t allowed to go to work that day either. I baked their favorite cake and they got to decide what we all did together from sun up to bedtime. Sometimes it was going to see the new Harry Potter movie, other times it might be riding an elephant in Thailand. It ran the gamut, from local to very far away.

When Sierra and Bryce were very little, they spent the first part of the morning fashioning a construction paper cone hat with ribbons or strings of seed pearls hanging down from the point. In magic marker, “Happy Birthday” was written on the hat. It was secured around their neck with Christmas ribbon and it was worn all day long. That way, everyone, from the mail lady to the postmaster to the grocery store cashier would know what special day it was. And they’d throw out quarters or lolli pops to honor them.

I pulled out their birth photos on their special day, as embarrassing as it was to see their naked mom with the huge belly pushing their bloody heads out, and the photos from their first year of life too. I had Sierra at a birth center and Bryce right here in our bedroom, so Sierra was present to watch the miracle of her brother being born. It always felt like their birthday was something I, their mother should equally celebrate, as I had a big hand in making it happen.

I wanted my children to know that they were valued and celebrated. As their mother, I honestly felt as though I celebrated their presence in my life every single day they were with me. They were my greatest joy and the gift I was most grateful for out of my whole life. Their actual birth day was the most special.

What Marianne Williamson said about little children struck a cord with my heart:

And how ungrateful and irreverent to listen so little and watch so casually when angels themselves have moved into the house. I have never seen such honest demonstrations of enlightenment as in happy children. They laugh a lot, yet hey are very serious. The understand everything without letting on that they understand much. They are old and young, innocent and loving. What are we doing pretending to know more than they do? And why are we putting the things of this world before their well-being? We tend to treat children as we treat God. Not always well.

I believed in the importance of ritual and raised Sierra and Bryce in that same vein. Rituals and traditions enrich a family’s life and are an excuse to come together and share and make memories. They help us celebrate life and each other.

Our family often went on long trips over winter break and the holidays. As Bryce’s birthday is December 29 and Sierra’s January 23, we often celebrated in some far flung country. When we packed for those trips, I secretly bought balloons along and somehow tried to blow them up without the birthday child knowing. The idea was to surprise. This tradition did not stop, no matter the age. If we were with our adult children on their birthday, they got balloons.

This past winter, our family was on holiday in Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar. Sierra’s husband Eben was along as well as Bryce’s girlfriend, Calan. I was also celebrating my birthday on this trip and for the first time, I had my bed and room filled with balloons by Calan and Bryce. They burst in come morning with a garbage bag and unloaded them on top of me. We proceeded to all lie on the bed and played a game of balloon batting for a good half hour. In sixty-one years, this was my first personal bed of birthday balloons and it felt wonderful. (I take that back, in doing research I remember my daughter and her then boyfriend, Eben, flooded me with balloons on their sofa when we visited them in their tiny apartment in China when I turned 56.  That had been a wonderful surprise too as every balloon bed bash is because you never know if your loved ones had gotten their shit together or not to remember the balloons especially if you were  not at home).

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Next after my birthday in Vietnam, was Bryce’s. To make his day special, Calan rented a a bungalow in Ninh Bihn on a lake and cycled along the edges of rice patties and boated down drowned valleys with Vietnamese captains handling the oars with their bare feet. Our side by side double beds had mosquito netting draped from the ceiling down the bed’s sides to the floor. They would provide the perfect holding container for balloons.

During dinner that night, Calan excused herself and said she wasn’t feeling well and was going to lie down. But what she really was doing was blowing up balloons. She stuffed them into a garbage bag and hid them between our bed and the bungalow’s bamboo wall. Then in the early am, she pretended to get up and pee and her and I gently, slowly, lifted up the one end of the mosquito netting and filled the bed with colored balloons, then woke up the happy birthday boy. Although Bryce was turning 25, he was not too young for batting balloons.

Batting balloons seems like a silly thing and almost a dumb thing to continue into adulthood, but my children don’t feel that way. To remember to buy them, stay up late enough to secretly sneak away to blow them all up, then having childlike fun as the whole family bats them up into the air, is a lovely simple pleasure. It speaks volumes on how much you care. It warms my heart that it means enough to them to want to continue it themselves, even before they become parents. This is the true test that something that you did in their childhood meant something deeply to them- they continue it in their adult lives- the true litmus test of importance. 

I saw a video on FB the other day, of very elderly folks in a home, sitting around a long cafeteria like table, in wheelchairs and such. They sat on both sides of the long table and each had rulers in their hands. A few balloons were being batted back and forth between them. Ballon Volleyball. Adult recreation. That will be Todd and I someday. The kids can visit us in the old folks home and join in on the fun. They will have had a lot of practice.

LET’S RIDE! Many Hands to Make a Non-Profit Work

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It started with my board member, Annie Schnur. She sent the message…”My friend Kathy Jones is going to an auction in Philly in February and she said that on the inventory list are used police mountain bikes. They do need repairs but are we interested ? She said in the past they went for. $10.00 apiece ! She would handle the bidding and bring them up to her shop. I have no idea how many or what shape they are in. ” My answer was “YES!”

Then Tom Bucci got involved. Tommy regularly attends and helps out with River House PA functions but is connected to the Coatsville VA Hospital, as an employee and as volunteer with dog therapy. He offered to bid for RH and drive down to Philadelphia to pick them up after the auction is over. It took a lot of paying attention to watch the bidding, which climbed higher and higher. “I’ll pay up to $150 for the 5 bikes,” Tommy generously offered, who hoped to keep one of the bikes for himself, which we were happy to agree too.

Then the bidding went past $150 and he asked, “How high do you want to go?”

I involved my husband, Todd’s best friend, Shawn Shoener, who once was the head bike mechanic at the local bike shop. We brought up the auction website and blew up the photo of the bikes to look closer as to what brand they were and in what kind of shape they were in. They looked like good bikes, but without the seats and seat posts. “Keep bidding,” I instructed Tommy, and so he did.

Tom won the bikes at $310, which brought each bike to $60 without the repairs/parts and tuning. When Tom fetched them in Philadelphia and brought them over to our house, Shawn looked up the model numbers and said that some of the bikes were $1200 new. We did well.

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Shawn and Todd went right to work looking them over, taking notes on what parts were needed and immediately drove to a bike shop trying to find the missing parts. Todd picked up where Shawn left off, purchasing parts and putting the seats on. Then Shawn will need to tune them up. Come spring, we will have four great mountain bikes added to our fleet so we can take the Lebanon VA Hospital Veterans on a bike ride on the Schuylkill River Trail. It is my hope to get some of the graduates from the program who have gone on in their lives to go an extended bike trip down the pike.

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All these hours of work and time spent, (as well as $ from Tom Bucci) out of the kindness of their hearts, to help our Veterans. It warms my heart. I can’t do this myself and I am glad that I do not have to. Thanks to my husband Todd, Tom Bucci, Shawn Shoener and Annie Schnurr and Kathy Jones for thinking of us in the first place.

Another wonderful board member, Tim Minnich has a GoFundMe page started to get more bikes as we could use a few more in our fleet. I also purchased a few other other mountain bikes at yard sales. If anyone has a mountain bike that is in good shape hanging in their garage, we could put it to good use.

Thank you everyone for all that you do. Let’s Ride!

BREAKING NEWS! It’s Official! “A BIG LIFE” being published by Skyhorse, NYC

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Just received the signed contract from my Manhattan publisher, Skyhorse, who will release my new book, “a BIG Life- Using the World of Nature and Travel to Create a Lifetime of Family Learning. It will be published in the spring of 2018. Anyone who would like to work together scheduling a speaking gig/book signing in your town in 2018-19, message me- at a library, outdoor shop etc. Am so excited to share all that we have learned with parents everywhere.

OVERVIEW

Emily Dickinson asked, Why not have a big life?” To Cindy Ross and Todd Gladfelter, a big life” for their family means one filled with abundance, passion, and purpose, a life that requires taking some risks and thinking in new ways.

Their story begins in the Rocky Mountain wilderness on a unique and extraordinary journey: two parents leading their very young children 3,100 miles along the backbone of the continent on the backs of llamas. This singular and epic family adventure plunged author Cindy Ross’s one-year-old son, Bryce, and three-year-old daughter, Sierra, into a life-changing experience that lasted well into their teens.

The family’s Canada-Mexico trek across the Continental Divide spanned Sierra and Bryce’s formative, most impressionable years. Because they grew up in the wilderness, traveling and leading an adventurous life, encountering challenges, and having their senses extraordinarily stimulated, they were irreversibly changed… for the better. 

The Continental Divide Trail illustrated to Cindy and her husband, Todd Gladfelter, what experiential education can do. It gave them the conviction, skills, and courage to pursue education in this way. The impact was so positive, Cindy and Todd were inspired to commit to and create a whole new way of nurturing and supplementing their children’s education. They focused on two major arenas for learning: The Natural World and Travel. The result:  A BIG LIFE, an inspirational family adventure story that shares experiences from twenty-five years of extraordinarily rich learning.

A deep believer in Richard Louv’s worldwide advocacy of reconnecting children to the natural world, Cindy shows us real-life examples of how the rich environment presents a multitude of ways to teach and learn. One of the most concrete results of a childhood spent closely connected to nature is how it feeds creativity. More than ever, creative thinking and problem solving are essential to building and maintaining a healthy, sustainable world. In this age of world connection and the necessity to understand and work with people all over the planet, it is also increasingly important to raise children who are broad-minded, empathetic and knowledgeable about other cultures. This can best be accomplished by transporting our children out of their insulated, narrowly-focused lives and into the big world.

Before her children left for college, Cindy orchestrated learning opportunities for them in more than a dozen countries. The family typically spent a month or more, once or twice a year, in some far-flung destination, actively experiencing a stimulating culture. They moved about largely by foot and bicycle, living simply and being exposed on an intimate level. But just as important, and more accessible for many parents, were the opportunities Cindy provided for learning closer to home. For example, in “Learning from our Ancestors,” she traces the rich experiences they had while finding relatives in their Polish and Sicilian homelands as well as spending time with her children’s great grandmother just twenty miles away and hearing about her life. Or, in Learning from “Traveling to a ‘Developing’ Country/Community,” they visit an impoverished village in the hill country of Thailand as well as share intimate stays in New Mexico’s Navajo Country.

Although exceptional storytelling is so important to initially captivate readers, Cindy knows that after she inspires, she has a repsonsibility to help guide her readers. As they read of each new educational idea found in the individual chapter topics, they will then find concrete ways to implement change according to their own family’s needs and lifestyle. First A BIG LIFE inspires, then Cindy guides and directs…walking the talk. She maps out how take the first steps, providing solid informaton, and time-tested, nuts and bolts advice, on every individual chapter topic. All will not be boring and dry in this section, however, because Cindy has an honest, open, deeply human style of sharing her own journey of learning to balance needs, individual personalities, maintaining energy for the “job,” how to afford it, and the challenges that persuing an alternative lifestyle of learning naturally involves. At the end of the book will be an extensive Appendix of organzations, webistes, prorgrams, and clubs to help parents get started.

Besides gaining a storehouse of knowledge, Sierra and Bryce received intangible gifts from the experiences illustrated in these stories: values not always fostered in a traditional curriculum but crucially important to raising children who will grow up to be good people and creative thinkers. These values — compassion, empathy, resilience, self-reliance, and appreciation, among others — are learned more powerfully and penetratingly when children are actively engaged.

The real gift A BIG LIFE has for parents is that this type of learning opens up new possibilities, beyond and in addition to the traditional classroom experience. It empowers parents to believe they are not only capable, but actual ways that they can be their children’s best and most important educators. Playing a more active role in their children’s education will help them raise the well-rounded adults our world needs.

Adding a rich dimension and complementary voices to the book, Sierra and Bryce will share their honest thoughts and impressions about their unorthodox education, along with some of Bryce’s illustrations.

  A BIG LIFE is for parents who are seeking inspiration, who love to read a good story, and are looking for an unorthodox way to raise the happiest, healthiest and brightest children they can. Just as Cindy and Todd modeled how to live a life and craft an education for their own children, their story will be a model and a guide for others.

Being Home is Enough

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My son came home this weekend. Although we spent some very special weeks with him and his girlfriend, Calan, in Asia over the holiday, and Todd and I had been to Philadelphia to see him, we had not had him home with us for three months. It felt too long. There is something different about your child being back in your home, that is so joyous. It is hard to explain unless you are a mother.

To be able to wake up and have them be there in the flesh is such a wonderful way to start your day. Seeing that face, which you love so much, and landing a kiss on that cheek, inhaling their own special scent. Making them coffee in the morning and delivering a hot cup of tea in the evening, it sounds very small but it is very big.

We went for a daily walk in the woods, him letting me discuss my latest ideas for my new book, him sharing his feelings of progress teaching his new illustration class- checking in with each other. “How are you really doing?” and honoring them with the gift of paying large attention. How many people in your life take the time to ask that and want to hear the truth.

We cooked special meals for him- his favorites- bar-b-que spare ribs, pesto with pasta from our own basil leaves, strawberry/raspberry cobbler from our orchard- the fruits of the warm summer frozen away for weekends like this. We worked side by side cutting up veggies for a salad and shared sentiments over the daily depressing news. We lit the candelabra and poured glasses of wine and held hands in prayer and thanksgiving.

We let the silly goats out and played in the snow with them. He and his father made a huge snowman and gathered sap in jugs from our maple trees to boil into syrup. Most of the day and night Bryce helped his father design a magnificent new website for his chainsaw art. He dedicated his whole weekend- his choice, and neglected his own personal work to do it, happily.

I went to bed tonight after kissing my son good night and telling him to sleep well and said, with some regret, that we didn’t do anything special this weekend. And then I realized that everything is special when your children are home. Just knowing they are sleeping in their bed is a gift. I recently read in a wonderful novel, Small, Great, Things, ” by Jodi Picoult, “I have such a short amount of time to be your Mama.” I agree. I wish that I had two whole lifetimes to spend with my children. One is certainly not enough. (Sierra- it is time to come home too)

Quilting for a Good Cause

I knew where I was headed- to a large shed outside Dryville, PA that had been used to pack and sort apples when the farm was a working orchard. Dozens and dozens of old Order Mennonite women were coming together to this farm to quilt. Some driving their buggies from up to 6 miles away, others hiring van drivers to bring them. Only one car, that of my midwife, Patti Lee, was in the pull off, besides mine. I thought I knew what to expect, but I wasn’t prepared for what I saw inside.

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When I opened the door, I was shocked to see six large queen sized quilts stretched out across the room, with anywhere from 12-20 women seated on all four of the quilt’s sides. They older women wore dark colored dresses with small flower prints, the younger women- light colored dresses with small flower prints- all wore little white caps. Every age was represented from late teens to their seventies. Most had only had one hand on top of the quilt, needle and thread in hand, and a metal thimble on their middle finger to push the needle through the fabric. The other was mysteriously missing, under the fabric applying pressure and guiding the needle back up as they made their perfect measured stitches.

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There were quite a lot of children, all breast-feeding age – maybe a few dozen, and most played quietly in groups on the floor or sat in teenage girls laps on chairs alongside the window. These girls were the baby minders, brought along to help with the babies and toddlers. No child yelled or threw a fit while I was there but played happily.

Many women looked up when I entered the room, me feeling conspicuous in my canary yellow down jacket, big hoop earrings, long hair and an armful of silver bangle bracelets. Patti introduced me and announced that I was the woman who ran the non-profit for Veterans, River House, which will be the recipient for the one quilt Patti was sponsoring.

They looked up at me and smiled shyly. I waved. Patti brought me over to our quilt and explained that the design she chose to have made for the auction was called the “Ragged Star.” It is an 8-pointed star design is a Depression era pattern. The design creatively turns fabric scraps and rags into useful bedding.

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Laura Brubaker, a former client of Patti’s, has a quilt shop just north of Kutztown, just off Rt 222. A hand painted and lettered swan sign directs friends and customers to the shop. Patti visited Laura’s shop and selected the pattern first, the “Ragged Star” design, then spent another hour or more going through bolts of fabric and a box of fabric scraps. They pulled together colors that were reproductions of fabrics from 1810-1865. Patti also purchased the thread, needles, batting and backing for the quilt- part of her donation to River House’s November Auction. Edna Leid, also a former client of Patti’s, was paid to cut out the fabric pieces, arrange them into the Ragged Star design, and machine stitch the quilt top. Machine stitching the pieces into the quilt top design makes the quilt much stronger than hand sewing the individual pieces.

The ladies showed me how the quilt was stretched on a quilt frame that allowed the quilt to get wound in toward the center as the outer stitching was completed. As time went on, the women got so close to each other across the frame, one one playful older Mennonite woman commented, “Pretty soon I can kick her over there.”

The women who were quilting the layers together, were all friends, and shared lively conversation while they worked. They all took time out of their busy lives to do this service out of the kindness of their hearts. One full day, from 8:30- 3:00 they will work nearly unceasing except for an amazing pot luck lunch. Our quilt top will be completed in one long day!

Patti brought me around and introduced me to each group of women and told me the story behind each quilt, and who would be honored to receive either the quilt, or the money from auctioning it off. All the quilts being stitched that day in the former apple sorting building, were being made to raise money for good causes- toward medical expenses for a young man who had a liver transplant, as a thank you gift for work done by a friend, for an auction to raise funds for special ed at one of the one-room schoolhouses.

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Since the mid 80s, this one day quilting blitz event has been happening, initially to sew a quilt to auction to raise money for the Pennsylvania chapter of the American College of Nurse Midwives. It expanded over the years to include more women who were or had been midwife patients and more quilts as fundraisers various good causes. One year they quilted in the Rotunda of the state capitol in Harrisburg! All the other years, the midwife’s quilt went to a midwife group in Haiti, where Patti does service work, teaching their midwives the important and necessary skill of safely delivering Haitian babies. This year however, Patti wanted to donate the quilt to my organization, River House PA.

The ladies who were making River House’s quilt asked me some things about my Veterans, who they are and then shared how much compassion they felt towards them for what they are going through.

It was heartwarming to watch the women sewing away for me, for my organization, for my Veterans and I was so grateful. But what was even more moving was the fact that Patti delivered almost every single woman’s’ babies in that room. Some of the older women birthed a dozen babies each and now Patti is catching babies for some of those original babies. Patti also delivered mine over 25 years ago and she has been delivering babies in this community of old Order Mennonites for 28 years. Wow. What a lot of LIFE GIVING.

That’s how I see the work that we do at River House PA too, helping to give the Veterans their life back, by showing them a healthier, more joy and peace-filled way to live. Whether its hiking through the forest, floating a wild river, stretching in a stress-reducing yoga class. And when our Dinner/Dance/Auction comes around on Veteran’s Day, November 11 at the Topton American Legion, Patty’s Ragged Star Civil War era quilt will be front and center on the auction block. Don’t miss seeing it and bidding on it and you might be lucky enough to win it and take it home to grace your bed. If any of you have a piece of art, or craft or item or an outing you can offer for auction, get in touch with me. Proceeds go to help with operational costs of the organization (liability insurance etc).

We are so grateful to dear Patti Lee and Mennonite ladies of the Kutztown area!!!

Breaking Free, because sometimes we just need to

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The day was bright and clean and exquisite when I woke up today with the first beautiful snow of the year. It clung to the branches, coating everything in white beauty. I left the radio off. I did not want to hear what Trump did lately. Not today. He wasn’t going to spoil my morning. I pulled on my high rubber boots, looped a knitted scarf around my neck, slid a pair of sunglasses over my glasses and went out for a walk in the forest.

As I walked the trails around our Red Mountain, I had to duck and detour as the evergreens were so heavily laden with snow that they hung down and blocked the trail. They looked over burdened, pushed down. But they leaned on each other, supported each other in their heaviness. They reminded me of how so many of my friends feel now.

I had to shake my husband awake four times last night, as he was having nightmares and needed to be released from them. It’s the news. NPR raises our blood pressure and sinks our disposition. Todd is staring again at the end of the day. He lies in bed and looks at the ceiling and I bug him to hug me, engage. What is it? What is wrong? Trump. Every day it is something new and bad that Trump has done. There’s not a day that goes by that some new sadness doesn’t takes hold of our happiness, caused by him. Five weeks in Asia was good for Todd and I to disengage and live without politics. Since we are home, it is back to the same anger and sadness.

My daughter spends the first half of her day signing petitions, making phone calls, reading the news. She is supposed to be writing her thesis paper at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her work and her life is dedicated to helping marginalized people and their land- victims of flooding, droughts, climate change disaster. She takes what Trump and his administration is doing, personal. That’s why she is moved to fight, resist.

I am proud of my little girl but she struggles to find joy, hope, even time to do her important graduate work. I told her that I, personally, had to back off. With my looming deadline for my new book rapidly approaching, I have to disconnect and get my own work done. For it is important work, as I craft a way to help parents take their power and responsibility back and help educate their children. Our family’s way is through experiential education but after Betsy De Vos does her damage, parents are going to need to hear voices crying in the wilderness for alternative help. I can help. I can help more that way than making phone calls and being miserable. I cannot be a good writer and be depressed. So I have to limit my connection. I told Sierra to think about it too. It feels like we are deserting our sisters and brothers who are charging on but it is difficult to learn moderation and balance and honor the fact that we need and deserve to take care of ourselves too, to be happy. We are no good to anyone if we sink so deep that we hit inertia.

The wind blew like a howling wild animal when I left the forest and entered the open field on my walk. I contemplated not walking that particular loop out by the open field, but then thought, why not. Why not feel the fury, the passion, the discomfort. The top layer of snow blew with such force that it reminded me of walking down the beach at Cape Hatteras 27 years ago, when Todd and I went on the 70 mile backpack to conceive our little girl. The sand particles blew by our feet in sheets like the snow did in the field this morning. The wind sculpted the snow into miniature hills and valleys, like contour lines on a topographic map, looking remarkable like the sandstone formations in the Desert Southwest, where the wind does its creating too.

I felt alive out there in the wind, snow blowing around the land and the sky like it was going crazy. It feels better to feel this than the pain of stillness, emptiness, hopelessness. I felt invigorated to return to my desk and continue work on my chapter, “Learning from History.”

I’ll give Sierra a pep talk when I return home. I’ll put on some Irish music for my husband instead of “Morning Edition.” And when I went back through the trail, I took my time and shook out the evergreens, releasing the snows hold on them as it fell to the ground and they, sprang up straight and free.