Tag Archive | Jennifer (Smith) Schuler

A Gift from My Father

By Jennifer (Smith) Schuler

On Thursday, October 3, my father passed away. He was not only an accomplished individual, yet he was a wonderful dad. A hole has been left in my heart and a special part of my life is now missing because he was a dedicated follower (and fan!) of Off the Merry-Go-Round. In my life, he was the biggest supporter of all my writing pursuits and professional accomplishments. He was also the person who supported me most as an adoptive parent.

That now sometimes makes it hard for me in both these areas of my life because they are the two most important things to me, and I am missing his words of encouragement. On a positive note, though, as he knew he was becoming weaker he began writing me more letters than usual with encouragement in those areas – all of which I saved. When I feel ready to re-read them, I think it will be then that I fully realize that I still and always will, have his love and support with me.

Dad was my biggest supporter as an adoptive parent.

Dad was my biggest supporter as an adoptive parent.

In the end, my family and I were blessed to have Dad with us for as long as we did – he was 94 years old and fully cognizant until his last breath. His heart basically just gave out that morning as my mother sat down beside him on the bed to ask how he was feeling that day. So, he left this world with my mother by his side and, though he was transported to the hospital, for the most part his last moments were in the beautiful farmhouse they lived in for 49 years, and which he treasured so much.

As my Dad got older, I used to think that although of course I would be sad when he passed away I would feel more matter-of-fact about his death because he had lived so long and, well, “that’s life.” Now, however, I realize that no matter how old your parents are, it hurts to lose them and though of course that raw pain will soften over time, it will never completely go away.

Despite my father passing away when my son was 4 years old, his memory will live on in the every day little things my son and I do together - which are similar to what Dad did for me.

Despite my father passing away when my son was 4 years old, his memory will live on in the every day little things my son and I do together – which are similar to what Dad did with me.

For awhile, it was a little difficult to get back to life – especially to my writing, and I basically cancelled writing, and life, for October. My OTMG colleagues were wonderful to fill in for me, and I am so appreciative of all they did for me and for my family to honor my father’s memory.

I dedicate this blog piece, and the rest of my writing (and living!) career, to my beloved father, R. Winfield Smith. Below is a piece I had published in the Summer 2006 edition of Faith & Family magazine in their Summer Lights section which was titled, “Daddy’s Girl Still.” The poem that accompanies it I had written shortly after I received the necklace mentioned.

I love you, Daddy – always.

“Daddy’s Girl Still”

For a little girl, a father is a very special person. He can be her light in a world of darkness. He can be the rock she clings to when she is battered about in life’s storms. He can be a constant presence in the changing seasons of life.

On my 12th birthday, my father gave me a garnet necklace accompanied by a note explaining that the garnet is my birthstone. This year, I am 38 years old, and my beloved dad turned 87. After all of this time, he still has a handwritten note I scrawled in pencil as a “thank you” for that gift. Although the writing has faded noticeably over the years, it is still legible.

Dad still has my thank-you note, and I still have his necklace.

A Gift From My Father

Advertisements

“Mommy, I Don’t Want You to Sing Right Now (and Other Ways Your Child Will Hurt You)”

Be-bopping to the music on a long car ride

Be-bopping to the music on a long car ride

By Jennifer (Smith) Schuler

Can you remember the first time your child told you they love you? I do. The first time your child says “I love you” – unprompted and unscripted, is a very special moment. In the journal I keep of my son’s ‘firsts,’ I recorded the following (excerpted) entry. My son was 2 ½ years old.  

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Our evening time together was something we treasured and held sacred. Dad and I read you stories after getting you ready for bed, and then we would say prayers together. As you grew older, when we tucked you in it usually proceeded in the same way … we would ask you to turn out your light and then “hop” into bed so Daddy could give you a kiss before I sang to you.

This evening, after I sang ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,’ you raised your head off your pillow, looked me right in the eyes and said, “I love you!” Oh my goodness, your first initiated “I love you” – how very precious.

I love you too ~ always.

As a family brought together through adoption, the mother-child bond I have with my son happened differently than the automatic bond between a mother who carries her child in her womb and gives birth to her baby. Our bond had to be formed and molded through late night bottle feedings, holding him close to my heart, and lots of song and play.

Out of all those shared moments and experiences, I believe what “sealed the deal” is singing to him. Throughout most of our days, I sang lullabies, nursery rhymes and hymns. When I sang the Doxology (Praise God from whom all blessings flow…), my son was entranced. He would stop whatever he was doing and just stare at me, smiling. Then I began making up songs about our daily routines – getting dressed, preparing breakfast, going to the library, folding laundry. Usually the songs would rhyme, and my son seemed to enjoy hearing about our family and activities through these musical lyrics. When he was old enough to understand humor, I made up silly songs about anything that would make him smile or laugh. We created beat and rhythm by drumming on our laps or the kitchen counter. Using our musical instrument set, we played along to cds, and added background music to our “family songs.” Music had become a part of our daily lives, and I don’t recall a day that has gone unaccompanied by a song.

My son and I create music every day

My son and I create music every day

Just as I remember my little boy’s first “I love you,” I also recall the first time he told me he didn’t want me to sing. We were in the car listening to one of his favorite cds with lively song versions of nursery rhymes. As usual, I began singing along when my son stated simply, “Mommy, I don’t want you to sing that now.”

What???

Fortunately, I know enough about child development to realize wanting me to do or not do something is a normal part of my son finding his place in this world. He was simply experimenting with his affect on the people around him and his environment. He had begun seeking his autonomy.

Over the course of parenthood you may be surprised by something your child says. Children feel one emotion at a time and in a big way. Your child is over-the-moon happy, or she unleashes unbridled anger at not getting her way. The important thing to remember is that your little one really isn’t trying to hurt you. As difficult as it is to not take it personally, remaining as neutral and impartial as you can sets the stage for a successful resolution to whatever is upsetting your child. If you instead focus on what your child is trying to express and keep it all in perspective of a normal developmental stage, it will be much easier to respond appropriately.

Below are suggestions for responding to the words, “I hate you!” These tips can also be used in other situations where your child is angry and upset, and unleashes a verbal assault on your ears. Responding gently will keep everyone’s emotions in check and help your child find positive ways to express her feelings.

Coping with Your Child’s Autonomy

“I hate you!” I have not heard this phrase … yet. This one is hard not to take to heart, especially when you love your child more than anything in the world and assume he has the same unconditional love for you. Of course when things are good your child is content, and looks at you with great affection and adoration. When things are bad, however, life is bad, you’re bad and your preschooler “hates” you. In reality, he is learning how to express he is upset with you or that something is not right in his world.

How to respond:

* Remain calm. This is always important in the face of a verbal deluge or physical temper tantrum. During his rant fest, your child is already out of control. If you lose your ability to handle the situation calmly emotions will escalate, your child will feed off your anger, and the incident will become more out of control. Keep an even tone in your voice and exhibit open body language. Your child will eventually calm down when he sees that in spite of his emotional state his environment remains peaceful. Knowing that you are there to hug and support him makes it easier for him to correct his behavior once he regains his composure.

* Avoid shaming or belittling your child’s feelings. It’s tempting to respond to your child’s “I hate you!” with “Well, I love you.” Yet this only shames your child. Saying, “Oh, you know you love Mommy,” “You don’t really feel that way” or “There’s no reason to get so upset!” belittles your child and does not acknowledge her feelings.

* Acknowledge your child’s emotions. Reserve judgment and without mocking show your child what her facial expressions and body language (scrunched face, clenched fists, hands on hips) look like. Then name her emotions. Becky Bailey, developmental psychologist and early childhood education specialist, suggests in her column on the Baby Center website … “Remember that your child is still learning to manage her emotions. She needs help expressing her feelings, and her way of asking for help is to play a kind of emotional charade game: She acts out her feelings, and it’s up to you to figure out what she’s getting at and how to help her. ‘I can tell from the way you’re acting that you feel angry. You seem frustrated that you can’t get that dress on your doll.’ If she nods in agreement, follow up with, ‘That’s very upsetting!’

* Model alternative emotional responses. When children “freak out” they are only mimicking what they have seen their parents or others do in many situations — express a strong emotion with one simple word: “I hate waiting in traffic!” or “I hate when my hair gets so frizzy!”

* Help your child voice his feelings appropriately. Give your child positive wording that helps him express his feelings without invoking such strong reactions. “When you feel this way say, ‘I feel mad. Please help me.’” Demonstrate other options for expressing emotions and frustration. “You could ask Mommy to help you get the tag in the back before you put on your shirt.” “Let’s pick out another shirt that might be easier to put on.” Offering choices is also helpful when your child lashes out because he can’t have something he wants: “You may have a lollipop after lunch; for snack this morning, you may have a banana or an apple.”

Remind yourself that your child’s behavior is normal, and in no way indicates how he really feels about you. This will make it easier for you to help him cope with strong emotions and express his feelings.

Helping my son feel safe to express his emotions has strengthened our bond

Helping my son feel safe to express his emotions has strengthened our bond

How have you responded to hurtful words your child has said? What suggestions do you have for dealing with a child’s raw emotions while maintaining your composure? We would love to hear your stories and ideas!

“Summer Fun in Your Own Backyard”

Find simplicity and balance in your summertime activites

Find simplicity and balance in your summertime activities

By Jennifer (Smith) Schuler

We have been reading and sharing many bloggers’ stories of graduating children, growing pains, and emptying nests. I feel a little left out because my son is only 3 years old. However, though I don’t have a child heading off to college, my family is preparing to feel a similar financial strain when he begins attending private school in the fall.

For us this will mean we need to shift our priorities in some areas of our household budget. Although little tweaks can make big differences in a bottom line, we fear there may be no grand family vacations for awhile!

Therefore I have been thinking about what we can do for some family fun – not only closer to home, yet perhaps even right here in our own backyard. With a little clever thinking, I’ll bet my young son won’t even know the difference. All he’ll know is that he is having a great time!

It’s wonderful to be able to get out of town and escape with your family on a fun-filled vacation during the summer. Yet sometimes that just isn’t possible – either with work or other commitment schedules, or because finances are tight. Here are some ideas for how to have a little summer fun with your children – right in your own backyard! Remember, summertime is for slowing down and letting go of some of those school year stresses. So as the famous song goes … “don’t worry, be happy!” Enjoy just being together even if you are simply hanging out and spending uninterrupted quality time with each other!

And don’t miss a photo gallery at the bottom of this post, illustrating all of these activities!

Turn Your Location into a Destination!

+ Add a twist to what your children learned during the school year. Just because school is out doesn’t mean the learning needs to stop. Kids learn best through play and engaging in the world around them anyway, so this also doesn’t need to come in the form of an indoor rainy day lecture. My son studied metamorphosis in preschool so we spent time around our butterfly bushes looking for different species and checking them out as they gathered nectar. Since the bushes border our deck, we sat leisurely at our picnic table – sharing snack while we observed nature around us hard at work!

+ As you spend time outside, tell your child a story. When you create a story from your surroundings, it is almost like you are in a book and gives a new twist to story time. You can create one based on a story you already know – such as the heart-pounding adventure tale we spun about the great giant Abiyoyo – or make up a new one. Either way, it’s fun to narrate your playtime!

+ Invite a close family friend to visit. Sometimes just a fresh face in your house – and someone new to play with (and spoil) your children brings excitement!

+ Turn unexpected expenditures into unique adventures! When we lost an enormous tree due to a summer storm, our planned trip out west was cancelled by the $4,000 removal bill. Instead of taking a family vacation, or purchasing the playground set we wanted, we let the chopped logs and sawed off stumps entertain our son. In fact, he continues to play in that area and doesn’t beg for a jungle gym! You’d be surprised what a child will enjoy doing using common outdoor and household items.

+ Let your children help with outside (or inside) chores, and teach them new responsibilities. Chores do not have to be mundane; my son and I have sung, danced, and paraded our way through many a household task. They also don’t have to be complicated. Whatever the experience, though, make it age-appropriate, simple (for a young child), and most   important – fun! My son loves to garden with his daddy, and is learning lots about nature and caring for the land at the same time.

+ Introduce a new outdoor toy. New doesn’t always mean large, complex, or expensive. We bought a nice sand & water table for a reasonable price. It came with a sun umbrella, sand tools, and water toys! Being able to relax in a comfy deck chair and watch my son enjoy the simplest of toys already had me less worried about entertaining him through the summer. Your child can even have water play in a tub filled with bubbles and bath toys if you can’t get outdoors or make it to a pool.

+ Eat ice cream! Need I say more?

Take a Trek Around Your Neighborhood for More Fun!

+ “Dine out” at an unexpected (and less expensive) place. My son and I have taken to eating an occasional lunch or dinner at our grocery store. You know the familiar saying, “Never go shopping when you’re hungry.” We have taken that to heart, and to him it is pretty cool!

+ Or just eat in! For a true money saving meal, we have started cooking more at home. Teaching your children to cook is one of the most important life skills you can help them master. There are also many “academic” skills you can subtly weave into food preparation – from reading (recipes), to math (measurement), to critical thinking (what to do if an ingredient is missing). Move your meal outdoors to put a unique spin on the usual dinner routine. Picnic table or picnic blanket – either way will give your kids a thrill!

+ Check out your local library’s summer class schedule. Ours runs classes for all ages year-round yet during the summer, program themes increase and so does the fun! It is good for your children to hear new people read, as well as to experience activities and crafts led by someone other than their parents. These classes have saved our rainy days and our let’s-get-out-of-the-house days, yet they are good for any day!

+ Let your children see you having fun! Once in awhile, take your child with you to a class (as long as it’s okay with your instructor, and safe and appropriate for kids to be present); or let them see you engaged in a hobby or exploring an interest.

+ Make a friend! Even a short, low-key play date with a new pal can make for a more interesting and lively day!

+ Dress-up, arts and crafts, and indoor/outdoor games are engaging and fun. Although I don’t consider myself a “crafty” or “athletic” person, I do try to offer my son materials to create various forms of art media and engage in a variety of physical activities.

+ Simply relax. In our society, often motion = productivity or fun. Yet just slowing down a bit during what is supposed to be those “lazy, hazy” days of summer can be refreshing. Wind down, take time to smell flowers, and nap. At the very least you’ll have energy for all the fun you’ll be having with your family in your backyard!

Hopefully some of these activities will bring you and your family a simple, inexpensive, and fun-filled summer. You may find that it takes less effort to entertain, keep happy, and even tire out your children than you think. Enjoy!

Click on any of the thumbnail images below, to open a photo gallery:

What are your ideas for simple, inexpensive summer fun? Please share with our community so we can all get ready to hit the … well – backyard!

How to: Make Little Changes to Your Home to Create a Fab New Look!

By Jennifer (Smith) Schuler

Our Little House in the Big Woods

Our Little House in the Big Woods

When we bought our home in 2006, we had a small house and BIG plans. We would take this quaint, though somewhat neglected, “bungalow” with barely-enough-room-to-squeeze-into bathrooms, tear it apart – one room at a time – and give it a (major) facelift!

Then, without warning, life happened. You know what I’m talking about … transition into new job life; loss of new job life; kid on the way life; I wasn’t expecting that expense life. Suddenly, all the money those fancy renovations take to make happen wasn’t there.

Big plans and shattered dreams. Or were they? Could this little house with great potential, yet in need of much work, ever become our dream chateau in the country?

As it turned out, yes it did – and so can your home … no matter how small. It may appear otherwise, but few of us live in those sprawling 7 bedroom houses we so often drive by. Since we live in a Washington, DC suburb our monthly mortgage is more than some people pay for a mortgage and two car payments! Yet, at just 1,184 square feet, our house is very small compared to what most people would consider livable square footage.

What we began looking for was balance. Balance between making our wish to turn our house into a home come true – and knocking down a wall to expand our square footage in order to achieve it!

Just one of Susan Saranka's many helpful decorating books for small houses and spaces!

Just one of Sarah Susanka’s many helpful decorating books for small houses and spaces!

That’s when I finally picked up a book I bought some time ago: The Not So Big House by Sarah Susanka (she has written a number of books on this subject). The premise of the book is that a “Not So Big House” exchanges space for soul, and that their owners, rather than spend their budget on spaces they never use, tailor their houses to fit their lives. Additionally, their home design expresses something significant about their lives and values without going overboard. So this past fall, we began those upstairs renovations we had longed for and they are now nearly complete. Ms. Susanka’s book gave us the help we needed to find that balance, and to “have our cake and eat it too!”  

Do you face the same dilemma, or just want to give one area of your house a “lift?” If so, use these tips and suggestions to get started on home renovations, upgrades, and design and decorating ideas you put off in the past due to cost and logistical concerns.

Go for It!

+ Read, research, and write/map out your ideas. When I put my researched ideas and creative thoughts on paper and carried them around my house as I considered them, I finally saw our ultimate dreams could come true.

+ Contractor is key. Hiring a professional, skilled contractor helps you get what you ultimately want and gives you peace of mind in the process! I believe in the “don’t try this at home” philosophy. Painting the walls in your guest bedroom is one thing – creating arched entrance ways or installing crown molding is entirely different.

I don’t want to discourage checking references, yet keep in mind that these (and even photographs of project work) are easily faked. We no longer check references for things such as paint jobs and house cleaning services. Instead, when we find a service provider we like, we hire them for a small, less significant job first to see how that goes before launching into a bigger project. We also never give a paymentupfront,” and always make sure one of us is home during the work phase.

We hired an experienced gentleman who tended toward a perfectionist nature. He took a little longer than another contractor might have, however he finished the job in a reasonable amount of time. He was upfront and honest, produced what we wanted, charged just for materials and time, required only smaller payments throughout the scope of the project, and provided invoices with a service/cost breakdown.

+ Proceed slowly and with caution. No matter how well thought out and prepared you are, little glitches do happen along the way. It is easier to add something to your project than take it away so consider your plans carefully!

+ Do it right the first time. The do-it-yourself projects of previous owners created the need for a good bit of repair and renovation on our house that would not have been necessary if handled properly the first time. When the bathtub in our son’s bathroom needed new piping, we were unable to get to the pipes from the access door located in his bedroom. Shelves, in the form of sloppily sawed wood boards painted white, had been nailed directly over it! Needless to say, those are no more. If you do it right (and well) the first time, it really will last forever!

+ Live with it! Once you have a renovation idea, think about it for awhile. Make the project come to life in your mind and then once complete, live with it before moving on to something else. We did not add objects to our beautiful new hallway display case until a “theme” came to mind a few weeks later.

We have many options to consider for showcasing items in our new built-in display case.

We have many options for showcasing items in our new built-in display case.

+ Simply updating furniture and accessories can change the look of a room. Rather than spend thousands of dollars to replace the white IKEA-style cabinets in our kitchen, we unscrewed the thick plastic white handles and installed simple silver ones we picked out at our local hardware store. This little change immediately gave the cabinets a sleeker, updated look for little expense and effort!

Kitchen Cabinet Handles - After

Kitchen Cabinet Handles – After

Kitchen Cabinet Handles - Before

Kitchen Cabinet Handles – Before

+ Small touches make a big difference. When redecorating, you may wish to keep the essence of your original home. Built in the early 1960s, our house has elements of the “retro” style popular then and remnants from the more simplistic era of do-it-yourself home projects. We gave a “nod” to our home’s original style – for example, leaving the tiny square floor tiles in the upstairs bathroom, and keeping the homemade closet shelving in the bedrooms. We created a more current look throughout our house by tweaking the appearance of what we chose to keep and adding fresh, modern paint colors to the walls!

+ Let your interests inspire your decorating, not overwhelm your surroundings. Part of turning a house into a home is reflecting your interests, cultures and memories. We have an affinity for Native American culture, value nature and the outdoors, and feel connected to our son’s African American heritage. Rather than clutter tabletops and shelves, and cover every inch of wall space, we share our interests by carefully choosing and arranging items of special significance. As an example, we enjoy our beautiful native bird species so a mysterious painting of an owl waiting out a storm hangs on one wall, a custom-framed arrangement of birds common to our woodland property is clustered on another – and we left the rest of the birds outside! A good friend has also successfully incorporated this decorating tip. When you visit her home, you see what holds meaning and value to her family on display in a corner dining room china cabinet. Rather than being haphazardly scattered throughout her house, these treasures are enjoyed in one special place.

The perfect wall to show off our custom-framed bird paintings

The perfect wall to show off our custom-framed bird paintings

+ Your house and its appearance is a reflection of you. De-clutter! Purge thy surroundings! If you haven’t looked at it, worn it, remember where you got it, or even thought about it in a year – it’s time to toss it! If you feel you really can’t part with that stack of “antique” books old Aunt Martha passed along to you, arrange them in front of a pretty backdrop, take a photo, and put it in a frame to display on your end table. Now send those books a-packin’ down to the local book store. You might even get some extra spending money in exchange! Another easy way to cut down on “stuff” in your house is to regularly sign up for charity pickups; we do that monthly. When I know a donation truck is coming, it makes it so much easier to get rid of unused items – after all, I have to give them something. I keep an empty box in the corner of my office at all times, drop things in as I purge, and there you have it – an instant tax write-off!

Everyone has their own decorating style and sense of what “looks good.” My husband and I just happen to be super-organized, and like clean lines and well-defined, clutter-free spaces. Our home renovations and decorations reflect this. As you consider what you ultimately want your home to look like, consider your personality, interests, how you live – and design your home accordingly. Use some or all of the above tips to get started, yet remember that the most important thing is that your house feels like home!

Our "new and improved" Home Sweet Home!

Our “new and improved” Home Sweet Home!

Do you have additional decorating tips and renovation stories you can share with our community? Many people begin work on home projects in the spring and summer so please join the conversation!

Small Changes You Can Make to Help Improve & Save Our Environment

By Jennifer (Smith) Schuler

Earth Day is April 22nd.

Earth Day is April 22nd.

Earth Day is Monday, April 22nd – Go Mother Earth! Indeed there is much to celebrate on this annual occasion which was first held on April 22, 1970 in the United States. It became an international event in 1990 with organized events in 141 nations.

As we clean up some of our past environmental messes and come up with ideas to better care for our Earth in the future, there exist more groups than ever to help us do just that. These organized groups address environmental issues on local, national, and international scales.

According to author Andrew Rowell, the largest and most influential environmental organizations in the United States are the “Group of Ten” comprised of organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club, and The Wilderness Society.

Public awareness and environmental sciences have certainly improved in recent years, and environmental issues have broadened to include concepts such as “sustainability” – as well as to address new concerns such as ozone depletion, global warming, acid rain, and land use.

Additionally, environmental movements often collaborate with social movements such as those that work for peace, human rights, and animal rights; or who are opposed to nuclear weapons/power, poverty, and hunger. 

Pretty “big picture,” isn’t it? In a couple of my past blogs, I have written about topics that involve a “little things” focus. Here, I intend to do the same because when you think about environmental issues in too big a context you can become overwhelmed and even complacent. Have you ever thought, “What can I do?” or, “Does my small part in all of this really make any difference?”

Well…yes. Doing little things, making small changes, and focusing on doing your part can make a big difference. Even if you are not part of an environmental group, there are many other steps you can take to contribute toward improving our environment and making Earth a cleaner, healthier, better place to live – for us all!

Here are simple and easily implemented ideas to get you started – from the outside in:

The Great Outdoors

+ Take a look at the property you live on. If you have acreage, consider its location. If you live in an area where your land meets certain criteria, you can apply to the National Wildlife Federation to have it certified as a wildlife habitat area. I speak from experience! Receiving such a certification as we have means you have taken steps to provide a viable area where wildlife can thrive.

+ Start a compost pile. Do you have a spot outdoors that would be an ideal location? When you research this environmental tool, you will find there are many ways to create one even without a large plot of land. Cleaner and more convenient than a compost pile is a compost bin which is easy to build and can even be used on a porch or patio. Our compost pile is contained by bricks, and once it has built up through the fall and winter my husband uses it in the spring to jump-start our garden! We bought a stainless steel, compact pail that we keep next to our sink. In it, we collect and store our compost (fruit peels, rotten tomatoes, vegetable skins, etc.) until we have enough to take outside to our pile. The special odor fighting insert helps keep the pail’s contents a secret.

Putting in a garden yields the best in natural, "home grown" food!

Putting in a garden yields the best in natural, “home grown” food!

+ Put in a garden. Gardens come in many forms and sizes. My husband designed a small one in our backyard to grow a few of our favorite vegetables using organic methods. After a year of trial and error to get it going, he planted and tended to a row of blueberry bushes bordering the garden – yielding more berries each season. Next step is a few fruit trees! We have also grown vegetables, such as tomatoes in big planters, and strawberries in large flower pots on our deck.

+ Plant trees. Whether you buy saplings or trees with some growth, planting adds oxygen to our environment and creates natural habitats.

+ Add flowers and plants wherever you can. We invested in several flower/plant/herb boxes and lined our deck railing with them. The bees and butterflies seemed appreciative, and this little step which we saw as simply beautifying our favorite outdoor gathering place has contributed toward many life cycles. Plus, you get the benefit of a beautiful outdoor retreat on a warm spring or summer day!

Ahhh...a lush garden retreat!

Ahhh…a lush garden retreat!

Indoors

+ Sign up with your energy company for their energy savings program. The ways to save energy vary by company, as does the level of participation. BGE in Maryland offers “Peak Rewards” in which we participate. Even the higher level has proven of little inconvenience to us. We receive big savings on our monthly bill – and save the environment at the same time!

+ Develop an awareness of your electricity usage patterns. Are there lights that are on unnecessarily? Our home has many big windows that let the sunlight in – we have very little use for lights once the sun comes up!

+ Add motion detector lights and switch to more efficient light bulbs. This reduces electricity usage and conserves energy.

+ Use cold water for washing clothes whenever possible. Warm and hot water is usually not needed to effectively clean clothes.

+ Become conscience of your water usage habits. How often to you turn on a water faucet? How long do you leave the water running? Consider cutting back on the length of your showers and turning off the water while you brush your teeth.

+ Recycle. Establish an easily followed process. Throughout the day, we put recyclable materials (what is accepted as such varies by county) in a non-descript box on top of our kitchen counter. When our recyclables pile up, we take the box to our upper deck and distribute into two bins – one for paper and cardboard, and one for plastic and cans/jars. On weekly pickup day we empty the bins into the large containers the county provides (stored outside) and take them to the end of our driveway. When we read on a product what recyclable materials were used in its production or container, we know we had a part in that!

We can all make a difference if we just do our part!

We can all make a difference if we just do our part!

These are just some ideas for conserving energy and resources, reusing materials, and contributing toward a cleaner environment that we can all live in and enjoy! So this Earth Day, take a pledge to look around you – just outside your door or around your home can be far enough to make a real global impact when we all make a little effort or a small change.

What are some little things you do to help improve our environment? We would love to hear from you!

“The Healing That Chronic Pain Brings Part 2 ~ Dealing and Healing: How to Cope”

By Jennifer (Smith) Schuler

We don’t value our health until we lose it.” That quote appears on a banner at the medical center where I receive treatment for back pain. In Part 1 of my 2-part series on chronic pain, I shared the story of my life before and during chronic pain, and the unexpected blessings it can bring.

Slow life down and count your blessings!

Slow life down and count your blessings!

Here are some helpful tips I have learned along the way in dealing with chronic pain or supporting someone you know experiencing it.

Dealing and Healing: How to Cope

*Rally your support system. Dealing with insurance companies, navigating our health care system, and being proactive about your care is difficult and often confusing. Doctors are typically narrowly focused, and sometimes there is little to no coordination between practices or sensible dissemination of information. You must research, and push your doctors to give you the care you deserve.

Identify family members or friends who can accompany you to your doctor appointments. Make sure you are comfortable with that person knowing your medical history and keeping it confidential. Ask them to listen extra hard and take good notes. It is very easy to miss something important when you are in pain, or when you have multiple practitioners to visit.

Surround yourself with family members you know will “go the distance” with you, and friends who lift you up. Spend less time with those who don’t “get it” or don’t seem to understand what you are going through. Those who dole out platitudes, or give you the “at least you don’t have cancer” talk – perhaps even judging your medication and treatment plans, are not people you need to invest in emotionally.

My childhood friends are my family!

My childhood friends are my family!

*Advocate for yourself – and find an empathetic, well-versed pain management doctor. This can be your primary physician or a specialist.

If one doctor doesn’t take care of you and your pain needs to your satisfaction, find one who does. Be sure you are comfortable discussing how you feel, and working with them to find a management program that is tailored to you. This is different for every person. As a stay-at-home mom and writer, with a husband who works a job and a half, my pain management plan might look far different from that of an older retired person with fewer daily responsibilities. It is not often during the course of a 12 hour + day on the go that I can simply fall onto the couch and ice down!

*Seek evaluations and counsel from many professionals. I am big on second (and third and fourth) opinions, and recommend working with a variety of people who specialize in certain areas.

Having more than one eye on a problem generates more than one solution. I call my group of doctors and other specialists “Team Jennifer!”

*Do everything you can to make your life easier. You have enough to deal with – your focus should be on your healing, not whether your coffee table is dusted!

Chronic pain affects many facets of a person’s life, and can mean significant adjustments. Since some daily life changes involve spending money, you have to decide what you can afford or accommodate. We hired a housecleaner, ordered groceries through a delivery service, and found wonderful babysitters to wear our busy little 3 year old out a couple of days a week when he wasn’t in preschool.

In the past, I played “super mom.” Now I am often exhausted – from battling daily pain, caring for my little boy when my husband is not home to help, and coordinating my healthcare. Even daily life routines can become overwhelming. Over time, though, I have seen that I can be a super mom just by being present. My son has become accustomed to the modifications I need to give myself a break and physical relief. He enjoys getting my ice pack for me, and reminds me to do my back exercises and take walks with him outside. He even asks me how my back is feeling! You will not meet a more empathetic 3 year old, and frankly I think we could use more people like that in this world.

My son feels good about helping me out!

My son feels good about helping me out!

In the long run, I found that there was actually a huge blessing to be found in my condition – I gained time with my son. We bonded over snuggle time and story time. I have no regrets!

*Reduce your stress level as much as possible. Contrary to popular belief, usually stress does not cause pain. However, stress often aggravates an existing condition.

Difficult as it may be, force yourself to take a hard look at your life – professional and personal, and cut out those things (or people!) that cause physical discomfort or emotional turmoil. Leaving my part-time job and making a few other adjustments helped my healing. For example, travel (even a short car ride) became too painful for me. So, we invited our family and friends to visit us, yet asked if they would stay at an area hotel so I wouldn’t have added hosting responsibilities. Trust me, those who really care won’t mind! Additionally, with the help of a wonderful chronic pain therapist (if you don’t have one, get one!), I identified and embraced those among my family and friends who could be supportive, and let go of stressful, toxic relationships.

Let your good friends take you away from it all!

Let your good friends take you away from it all!

*Remain connected and allow others to be there for you. This can be hard when you don’t feel well. Sometimes, it may seem easier to withdraw. However, isolation is not good for your healing in the long run. When I embraced life again, my vitality began to return.

Dance On!

Dance On!

As bad as you may feel – physically and emotionally, reaching out and plugging back into life as much as possible given your condition will help! Allow those emotionally healthy people in your life to be there for you and to help you when you need it. When you get better you can return the favor. Here’s to your health!

Are you or someone you know dealing with chronic pain? Please share how you are coping or your advice for handling the complications it can bring to your life – your insight may help someone who is looking for answers!

“The Healing That Chronic Pain Brings: Part 1 ~ Hidden Blessings”

Despite the smile on my face, being laid up is not fun.

Despite the smile on my face, being laid up is not fun.

By Jennifer (Smith) Schuler

Do you know someone who is sick or battling an illness right now? Likely, you do. Everything from the common cold and broken bones to arthritis and cancer takes its toll on everyday lives. Each is difficult to deal with, and everyone reacts differently to pain and suffering. In the medical center where I receive treatment for back pain, a quote hanging on a banner reads, “We don’t value our health until we lose it.”

Once I was vivacious and active, and enjoyed running, hiking, kayaking and lifting weights. I worked with personal trainers and took fitness classes. My husband and I were on the go a lot – and working out was part of every day. We even made sure there was somewhere to run on vacation! I expected I would always be moving in one way or another, but 2 years ago my physical capacities and mental strength disappeared. Or so I thought …

One evening in December 2011, I said to my husband, “I don’t feel right. Something’s wrong.” That was the beginning of countless doctor and specialist visits. Diagnosis and choosing a treatment plan also involved multiple tests, x-rays, and scans. I battled endometriosis first. That disease, although not life-threatening, is extremely painful. Whereas each person’s pain level differs, it is not affected by how much endometriosis you have – rather by what it is doing inside your body.

Endometriosis spreads like wildfire and is very difficult to “stamp out.” Following a laparoscopic procedure to remove what could be seen, I endured a round of treatments to keep it “at bay.” Finally, a hysterectomy became necessary. Laparoscopic or not, that surgery can take up to a full year to recover completely.

Although endometriosis causes a good deal of abdominal pain, it can also have a “wrap around” effect and cause lower back pain. When my back pain did not subside several months following my second surgery, I had a new battle – to find out what was going on now.

Dealing with insurance companies, navigating our health care system, and being proactive about your care is difficult. Doctors are typically narrowly focused, and there can be little to no coordination between practices or sensible dissemination of information. You must research, and push your doctors to give you the care you deserve.

I learned I had a degenerative lower disc, an annular tear, and arthritis. So my battles began anew, and I started treatment programs and healing regiments to recover full use of my back and reduce my pain level. Only now am I beginning to feel a little better. I found out my disc tear will heal some (it can take up to 18 months), yet to what extent remains unknown. This means that my future holds hope for healing, but I don’t know what my lifestyle will be like.

Chronic pain affects many facets of a person’s life, and for us meant significant adjustments. I stopped working part-time and my husband works two jobs. We hired a housecleaner and ordered food through a grocery delivery service. Travel, even a short car ride, became too painful for me. Stress aggravated my condition. My husband rearranged his work schedule to drive me to outpatient procedures. We had no care for my son during these times, so he came too.

I was often exhausted – from battling daily pain, caring for my little boy when my husband was not home to help, and coordinating my healthcare. Even daily life became overwhelming to handle.

back painI felt very alone. It seemed others didn’t understand that my world had turned upside down. If I talked about it, I usually received platitudes or the “at least you don’t have cancer” talk – even judgment about my medication and treatment plans. I was ready to give up, and for a time went to a dark place within that I was not sure I would come back from.

Finally, one specialist convinced me to see a chronic pain therapist. This started my healing process. Over several months, and lots of pushing on her part, I finally emerged from my isolation and began reaching out into the world around me. She taught me how to reconnect with those who could be supportive; to let go of stressful, toxic relationships; and to make new friends and get involved in my community. She showed me how to embrace life again, and slowly my vitality began to return. That awakening also helped my physical healing which evolved to include massage, dance classes, and yoga sessions.

Reaching out and plugging back into life helped me. I am not completely healed, and still have bad days physically and emotionally, yet for the first time in over 2 years I have a glimpse of life on the other side of chronic pain. Hopefully, that will include more pain-free days and an active lifestyle. I am also able to look back at my physical pain and emotional despair, and see that although I experienced a trying time in my life, there were hidden blessings in the midst of my struggles. Ironically, dealing with chronic pain, and finding myself “off the merry-go-round,” has brought healing and clarity to my life:

*I know who my friends are. Unfortunately, there are few people who can handle supporting someone who is sick for a very long time. I am thankful for my best friends, Jen (our blog panel member) and Karen S., who have carried me through this ordeal.

*I can do more than I think I can. My husband says I get more accomplished in a day than women who don’t have chronic pain.

*I was forced to slow my life down and sit on the sidelines as an observer. One good thing this has affected is spending time with my son. Sometimes I worry about him dealing with the family dynamic of chronic pain, yet my husband is quick to point out how caring and empathetic he is at such a young age. I have been able to slow down time and watch him grow – inch by glorious inch!

*I discovered hidden talents. My doctors said no more running. This is hard for me to embrace (what, no more half marathons?!), yet I learned to dance which my doctors encourage to build core muscles and keep joints moving without impact!

*I have grit. It takes great mental fortitude to handle over 2 years of ongoing pain and still function with some normalcy!

Are you or someone you know dealing with chronic pain? Please share any hidden blessings you have found amidst the pain!