Why I am thankful: a look back to 1986

Pixie grazing

Thanksgiving 1986

Snow flurries drifted down.

I woke up alone in a four-bedroom house. It had never been a home. I had only lived there 13 months.

The house was going to be sold and the proceeds divided however the divorce court decreed my parents should split them.

I peered in the fridge for some breakfast. A plastic gallon container had only enough milk to cover the bottom. I poured it over some stale raisin bran flakes.

I crunched the mostly dry cereal.

I put on jeans, a sweater, a hat, mittens and my coat, a wool Russian military jacket I found in
a used clothing store in Minneapolis.

I had nowhere to go. I walked the streets of the subdivision. The houses had packs of cars parked in front of them. Inside bodies moved across the yellow lights shining out. Blue TVs flashed and every so often I could hear the murmur of crowds from inside the houses. Families filled the homes.

I had no family like that. I had no home like that.

I walked on.

I walked past the gas station, closed on the holiday. It had a vending machine for bait. “How Minnesotan,” I thought.

The grey sky drooped over me. I walked along the frozen lake. Snow twisted and untwisted in swirls from the wind gusts.

“I will always be alone,” I thought.


Thanksgiving week 2016

The light spread long warmth over the field. I grabbed my camera, a combined surprise gift from friends on my 40th birthday.

“I’m going out to get some pictures,” I told my family.

I sat in the pasture and the pony came close to me to graze the still-green grass. It had been a warm fall.

Out of all the acreage, she chose to be close to me.

She had been starving when she was rescued. The horses in the herd with her had died. But she survived. The people at Longmeadow brought her back to health. Then we adopted her, skittish and shy though she was.

Over the past five years with us, her friendly, confident self bloomed.

I sat with her and listened to her eat. The sun set.

I came inside, inside my home with my husband and son.

My son helped me pick the best photos and edit them.


I am thankful for my home.

I am thankful for my memories of no home because now I know what I have.

I am thankful for my family.

I am thankful for my memories of being alone because now I know what I have.

I am thankful that ponies can forgive and learn to love.

I am thankful that people can forgive and learn to love.

I am thankful for today.

I am thankful for today.


Wherever you are, may you know the presence of God and feel the peace that transcends understanding. I wish you a Thanksgiving full of enough to eat and a heart full of hope!

Pixie grazing

Pixie grazing

Pixie grazing

Pixie grazing

Pixing grazing

Pixie grazing

National Puppy Day

IMG_20160309_195316Yesterday was National Puppy Day.

It was the best National Puppy Day ever for me, because I have a puppy!

I’ve had the puppy for about a month.

In January after we lost our beloved dog, Mercy, I wanted a puppy so much that I couldn’t think about anything else.

My husband said, “I think a puppy might overwhelm us. Maybe we should wait until summer after D [our son] graduates.”

I scoffed. How could one puppy overwhelm us?

All we have to do is work full-time, commute, get our son though the last months of high school and take care of our other 6 animals.

What would be overwhelming about a puppy, especially a tiny Chihuahua mixed breed puppy?

What’s fun about puppies


Here’s what’s fun about puppies! They are small, untrained dogs! So they have all the needs of dogs with some bonus aspects.

Such as, you get to teach them housebreaking. I know why it’s called housebreaking. Because your back breaks cleaning up the house.


Our new little guy is named Mufasa. He’s got an incredible story that I’ve told you about. We are crazy for him.

He seems to be crazy for us. And sometimes, just crazy!

We live in a single-wide trailer, 15 feet wide and 65 feet long. For those of you unfamiliar with today’s modern mobile home lifestyle, it means our home is skinny enough to go down the highway. It is long like a bowling alley.

Mufasa likes to go to the far end, turn around and then run as fast as dogly possible through the length of the house and bounce off the couch so he flies. Then he goes again.

As you can visualize, this is wildly entertaining. So entertaining, that it makes watching a movie difficult.

We’ve given up watching our Netflix and now we watch Mufasa.

Sometimes I like to quote my husband back to him in these moments, “Remember how you said, ‘I think a puppy might overwhelm us.’ And then I said, ‘I don’t think a puppy would overwhelm us.’”

More fun puppy facts


Another amusing fun fact about puppies is that they teeth just like babies. Except somehow I don’t remember going through as many chew toys with my son!

I’m not surprised that Mufasa struggles to understand the difference between what is his for chewing and what is ours. Ours, for not chewing. If you had itchy teeth and you had to choose between a soft leather shoe and a knobby plastic fish that is “scent-infused with salmon,” what would you pick? So I don’t blame him one bit.

He did choose the one pair of shoes that didn’t belong to us. They belonged to my son’s new girlfriend. So we went shoe-shopping this weekend.

The incredible toy box of Mr. Mufasa

Sticks: classic toy

We have a huge selection of dog toys. I even have a toy box I put them in. We have a soft rabbit, a crinkly baboon, a rainbow worm, a salmon-scented knobby plastic fish that looks so vaguely obscene from a distance I usually crop it out in photos (if you really want to see it, I included it in the photoshow below), two rubber Kongs, a grey mouse, a red rubber toy, something Himalayan made from yak’s milk and two knotted ropes.

Every evening, I put the toy box down for Mufasa. He puts his whole head in and shakes it around in the toys. He can’t believe his luck. We like to run a small family gambling ring on which he will choose first. I often win with my baboon bet. But knobby fish and Himalayan yak milk stick make a strong showing.

We went to the store yesterday to buy more kibble. We bought five-star food, because it’s Mufasa. My husband said, “Do you realize we spent more on the animals’ food than on our own groceries this week?”

We got home and I fixed dinner for all of us. I snuck some chicken from our people dinner into the dogs’ bowls, because it was National Puppy Day.

But if you’ve learned anything about me, you know I celebrate National Puppy Day every day!

Story of Mufasa: dog-eared but valuable

What is a dog’s life worth?
Hours of time and thousands of dollars?
Or something else?

The beginning

People are mean. Do you agree? I’ll tell you a story.

The Chihuahua puppy had no home. He was left to starve in the streets of Kansas City. He had a thin dull coat. He shook from the cold with winter coming. He shuffled and hurried and huddled along the concrete walls hungry and alone. His ribs grew sharp and gaunt. His eyes crusted over. He was afraid.

People are mean. They turn away from need. They leave the little ones alone in the cold to fade and go hungry. They walk past suffering.

The middle

People are kind. Do you agree? I’ll tell you a story.

A woman took pity and trapped the Chihuahua puppy. A rescue organization called Paws Crossed Inc. (on Facebook) reached out to her and offered to take care of him.

Nettie, Mufasa’s foster mom, gets some puppy kisses 

Nettie, a volunteer with Paws Crossed took him in as her foster puppy. She fed him and he got his strength back. Within a week he transformed into a lively, tail-wagging puppy. She put a sweater on him when it was cold. His coat took on a shine. He ran with joy.

She named him Mufasa. She showed him love.

He came when she called him.

Then as he was getting stronger, they brought him for medical care.

Bad news. He had a fatal heart condition. He survived starvation, cold and the streets, but now he wouldn’t make it without surgery.

The surgery would cost thousands of dollars.

Paws Crossed started fundraising to save him. People donated for him to get the surgery. The vets at Mizzou fixed his heart so he could have a long life.

People are kind. They give lavishly and freely. They see suffering and offer healing. They open their homes. They teach the little ones what love is.

A second beginning

We were looking for a new second dog to live with Cookie, our Chihuahua mix. We lost our beloved Mercy in January.

We looked at a  beautiful, bossy female dog with blue eyes, a chocolate coat and a faraway look. She wasn’t the one. Another bossy female wouldn’t be a good match for our current bossy female.

We looked at a young hound (Vincent, so sweet! someone should adopt him). He wasn’t the one. Too big to be a good match for our Chihuahua mix.

The photo I saw that made me apply. Courtesy of Paws Crossed Inc.

My friend, Kristen, sent me the link to Mufasa. Ears for days. A happy look. Friendly with other Chihuahuas.

He was the one! I applied for him. Then I wrote my husband an email: “What do you think of this dog? I applied for him.” Yes, that is how strongly I felt. I couldn’t wait!

I learned his story that I am telling you now.

We also learned he still has a problem. He’s so active running around that it’s hard to get a clear photo of him!

We picked him up on Saturday.

People are mean.

People are kind.

What is a dog’s life worth?

Is it worth nothing? Is a dog a piece of trash scuttling along the streets in the cold?

Is it worth thousands? Is a dog a symbol that brings out the best of our power to give, to care and to heal?

Is a dog’s life worth this and more?

Is a dog’s life worth a lifetime commitment? Yes, I say, yes.

How little I care about Christmas

Carefree Christmas started this year. It wasn’t on purpose. I didn’t know it was going to happen. I’ll start from the beginning.

As a kid, I knew Stressful Christmas.

Christmas is portrayed as a family-oriented holiday about homecoming and gathering around the table. Ours were more like a day of weeping behind a slammed door.

My mom struggled with her mental health issues. Limited daylight hours and cheerful songs in every store made this time of the year worse for her. Tell depressed people they should be feeling joy when it’s dismal and dark out. You might as well spit in their faces while you are at it.

I was about 16 when my parents separated and I was on my own. Then it was the time of Outsider Christmas.

I worked at a movie theater. I appreciated the distraction of working on the holiday. Some of the ushers wore Santa hats. The fake red fleece didn’t match the terrible stiff brown polyester jackets they had to wear, but the hats added a sense of the season.

Because I didn’t have a family to return to, I often was a caretaker for friends’ homes on Christmas while they went home.

I remember Santa Cruz under the palm trees and feeling the ocean breeze. I used to walk in the middle of the street as I went from one friend’s house to the next. The streets were empty, no traffic, everyone tucked in their homes. It was the one day of the year in this tourist town I felt I owned it. I was the only one out, walking, wandering.

I entered the silent homes, watered the plants and filled up the cat bowls. As I stood and looked out their windows, I imagined I would always be alone on Christmas. (I was full of these sorts of dramatic thoughts in my 20s.)

Then I got married and had a baby. It started the phase of Memorable, Modest Christmas.

It had to be memorable because I had a child and I wanted him to have all the happy memories I didn’t.

It had to be modest because we never knew when a job loss was around the corner. I didn’t want him to have a big Christmas one year and then a small (sad) Christmas the next.

It’s a lot of pressure to make Memorable, Modest Christmas. I concerned myself with small details that seemed largely important. For example, we had to have a chocolate orange that you whacked and broke into separate pieces. If the stockings didn’t have chocolate oranges come Christmas morning, it WAS NOT CHRISTMAS.

Sometimes they were hard to find and we drove from store to store. But darn it! We would have chocolate oranges.

I find it impossible to force myself to be happy. Even if the holiday is supposed to be happy. I cannot make myself feel it. But I felt that pressure of every other person delighting in the day that is December 25. Every other (not dysfunctional) family making memories that they would treasure for years to come.

And then there was me, stressed out, trying to be happy and make Christmas memorable and yet still modest.

Fortunately, my son survived my conflicted holiday attitude. He’s 18 now. As far as I am concerned, my job as Master Memory Maker (while still keeping it modest and replicable) is over.

I’ve never been so happy and relaxed at Christmas. I’m not worried about anything. I don’t care. I love the songs, the food, the cards, the lights, the parties and the gifts. But I don’t need them.

I was walking through the store with my husband the other day.

“Oh, look, chocolate oranges!” I said.

We stopped at the display.

“Should we get them?” he said.

“No, we don’t have to,” I said. “I don’t need them this year.”

He gave me a look to make sure that the pod people hadn’t snatched me up in replacement. I smiled back.

“Weird, isn’t it? But I’m just not worried about it,” I said.

We walked out of the store, without chocolate oranges, but with a sense of acceptance.

Christmas can be a lot of things depending on where you are in life. I hope yours is happy enough. But if it’s not, Dec. 26 will come soon enough.

Much love to you all!


Open letter to my son as he turns 18

Me and Derek 2005

D and Sula the dog 1997When I was 18, I felt a pressure to do big things. I felt like I needed to make a big impact.

I wondered what success was. Would I be successful?

Now it’s been almost 30 years. I have done a few big things: got married, had a baby, bought a house, graduated from college with my undergrad degree and my master’s.

I see now I need to do small things with the rest of my time here on earth. I thought the big things would be most important. But I can only do a few of those.

Small things, I can do every day.

When someone looks thirsty, I offer him cold water.

When someone looks sad, I make her tea.

When someone seems lonely, I look in her eyes and really listen when I ask how she is doing. I give hugs as often as I can.

I don’t know if I am successful, by most people’s definition. We live in a single-wide trailer. We drive cars from the 1990s. We have enough money for food and yarn, but not enough for big trips or expensive clothes. Our life is simple.

But I feel successful when I look at you, my biggest thing, a whole new person.

I hope I have made a positive impact on your life with the small things I had to offer: a glass of water when you were thirsty, a cup of tea when you didn’t feel good, a hug if you felt lonely.

Your life looks long in front of you now. You might feel like you have all the time in the world.

I felt that way too, when I was 18. It isn’t true. Our lives are short. Our loved ones leave us too early. They always leave us too early.

I don’t have to tell you to do big things. You will. You will get awards. There will be ceremonies and celebrations. The big things will happen.

But your days—your life—will be made of small things.

Be present for the small things. Smile. Listen. Give where you can, as often as you can. Be patient. Be kind.

I love you with my every element, my whole being, my life. As you turn 18, may God bless you now and forever.

Happy birthday to my most beloved son!

A bit of kindness in my teeth

Curb and bradoon horse bit image from Wikimedia Commons

I have bad teeth. Always have. By the time I had all my adult teeth, most of them already had fillings.

It wasn’t a surprise that I needed two more root canals and crowns when I was only 20. The problem was I was poor.

Not charming poor, as in “let’s decorate with used furniture.” Hard poor like I needed to work at jobs where a meal was part of my shift.

The dentist told me it would be $1,000 to fix my teeth. An impossible number.

My brother heard about it. “I’ll pay for you,” he said. “You can pay me back over time.”

I fixed my teeth. When you make $6 an hour, it’s a long way to $1,000. Paying him back took years. After a while, he said I could work it off by helping around his house.

This week was his birthday. He’s been gone five years now since his suicide.

Stories that involve mental health issues and drug addiction are never pretty. They don’t end neatly like they do in the movies with miraculous recoveries where everyone is happy and inspired, stronger for having gone through it. These stories are told day by day, sometimes moment by moment, even five years after.

I’m not going to say he was easy to have as a brother or that I was a good sister.

But on his birthday as I went for a walk, I felt the crowns in my mouth with my tongue and thought, “He’s never far from me. His kindness lives on.”

This week, be generous to someone who needs it.

May God bless you.

May you be remembered for your kindness. May you be remembered.

Postcard from Springfield, Missouri

I recently took a fun trip to Springfield, Missouri, so my son Derek could compete in the Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) state finals. Enjoy these highlights from our visit!

All photos by Derek Howard, howderek.com

The food!

Great diner food from Anton’s Cafe

Outside Anton's

Mmmm pancakes with lotsa syrup
Mmmm pancakes with lotsa syrup

Best meal during the trip from the Grad School

I had the Fit Chic with chicken on basmati rice
I had the Fit Chic with chicken on basmati rice
Derek had the steak sandwich
Derek had the steak sandwich

The zoo!

We had a lot of laughs with the animals at Dickerson Park Zoo.

The peacock let us get up close and personal.
The peacock let us get up close and personal.

You can feed the goats.

And you can feed the giraffes! They had the most gentle mouths. They stuck out long dark tongues and we placed the giraffe crackers on them.

What a treat to feed the giraffe!
What a treat to feed the giraffe!

The competition!

Best of all, we came home victorious.
Best of all, we came home victorious.

Derek took State Champion in website design, and second in networking.

We’ll be visiting Chicago for Nationals this summer.

Hope you enjoy some good food and good times this week, too!

Gift of a lifetime

I dreamt I was an astronaut preparing to leave earth. Every moment seemed sweeter because I knew it might be my last seeing the ordinary times.

In a café, I saw someone heartbroken, finding comfort with a coffee and scribbling in a journal. I felt how much it means to love and feel disappointment.

In a restroom, I appreciated the friendly chatter between the women next to me as we washed our hands, talking about nothing important but with warmth and humor in the tone of their voices, amused by the details of life.

Under a bridge, I stood protected from the rain. I looked at the concrete underbelly construction with awe, impressed by the initiative and ability for humans to build great structures.

From a hilltop, I looked down over a lake where children swam. Their pale bodies looked like slim stars on a blue water sky. I heard their laughter echo up the hill. It was the happiness of summer and nature.

When I woke up, I thought, This is why we have mortality. All the ordinary holds sweetness because we will leave it.

I remember my dreams because of my brother. When I was a child, he told me about one of his dreams.

“How could you remember it?” I asked.

“You can remember your dreams if you want to. When you go to sleep tonight, tell yourself you will remember your dreams. And you will,” he said.

That night, I repeated in my thoughts that I would remember my dreams. I did. I have ever since, my whole life.

This month marks five years since my brother died of suicide.

Remembering my dreams is a gift he gave to me. God rest his soul.

Photo by  NASA
Photo by NASA

Scott Berkun’s new book, The Ghost of My Father

Scott Berkun launches his new book today, the Ghost of My Father, a thoughtful memoir of family and reflection.

Scott Berkun

Scott BerkunI first came to know Scott Berkun’s writing while I was at a communication seminar on campus where I work. One of the required books to read was Confessions of a Public Speaker. I got myself my own copy and was drawn to someone with years of public speaking experience who openly showed what was behind the curtain.

As a person immersed in web, social media, writing and speaking, I hear much about experts who know secrets they would be happy to reveal for a price. Not the case with Berkun.

Generous with his process and materials, he engages his readers with questions and curiosity. I don’t know him personally, but he has been a great help to me in my professional development as a writer and speaker. I use his Speaker Checklist at each conference where I speak.

He’s a clear and graceful writer, his skills honed from years of putting thoughts to paper. He opens up mysteries using his considerable intellect, much as Houdini exposed spiritualists of his day.

He’s recommended books to me that I have relished and showed all his readers the process of making this memoir. I voted on the cover (my bench choice won!) and read the raw excerpts on his blog. I’ve learned from him as he’s gone along, seeing how he markets this memoir and rallies his fans to support it.

Celebrity often comes with condescension. Again, not the case with Berkun. Honest with his readership, he doesn’t shy away from confessing he doesn’t know everything.

In his heart, he is a learner.


The Ghost of My Father by Scott BerkunLoyal readers of my blog know I’ve gone through two drafts of my memoir, with a fresh rewrite planned for next year after I finish my devotional.

I read a lot of memoirs so I was interested to see how a writer I know in other contexts would approach this genre.

With this personal story, Berkun turns his intellectual power of careful examination to his own family. In Berkun’s memoir, you won’t find extreme drama like in Liar’s Club or Hope’s Boy. Instead, we read a story of difficulties most people will recognize.

The effects of his father’s affairs are described in poignant detail. We learn of Berkun’s personal transformation from a kid eager for his father’s attention to a man who sees his father as “a fool”.

As hard as he looks at his family dynamics, he looks at himself even harder. He seeks to connect the events of the past with his current outlook. How many times has he reached out to his father? Why does he repeat what didn’t work?

In the end, being a best-selling author who has studied business processes and the cognitive aspects of creativity doesn’t change Berkun’s role as son.

That is the truth for all of us. No matter how many accomplishments and experiences we add to our lives, we will always remain sons and daughters who long for our parents’ acceptance, acknowledgement and affection.

We want our parents to be people we understand and respect.

I had great compassion for his father as I read. I could see parts of my own father and parts of myself. As parents, we underestimate our influence. His father, whether unable to feel or unable to express himself, lashes out in short bursts and retreats in silence for long periods, leaving everyone stranded in their own interpretations of what the silence means.

In that silence, the seed of this memoir was planted.

With vulnerability and reflection, Berkun wrestles with the question, why can’t my father love my family the way we need to be loved?

He writes, “Art is how you find yourself.”

He can’t make what he wants to: a stable, close family. He makes the next best thing: art.

The pain, the confusion, the frustrated desire to connect but be unable to: all this becomes material for art in the form of this memoir where growth still seems possible. We see a tentative peace in his family. Optimism for his nieces and nephews. An offering of his own family story in hopes of helping others.

Ghost of My Father is available now (read an excerpt: bit.ly/ghost-excerpt). Fifty percent of the profits will be donated to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound and Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.