My late grandmother made this small nativity, and it’s one of my most treasured possessions. We had another casualty this year…the donkey fell off of the mantle directly onto the tile hearth, entirely missing the soft carpet directly in front of it. I was very lucky he broke into only three pieces. Some Gorilla Glue and poster paint later, and he looks nearly brand new. He looks significantly better than poor Mary, who suffered an identical fate nearly twenty years ago, on a mantle four houses and three states ago. I reconstructed Mary from many more pieces and no paint on hand, a job my husband labeled as hopeless. But the set means a lot to me, and you can’t have a nativity without the mother of God.

Unpacking the Christmas decorations every year is a walk down memory lane, but I look the most forward to the family pieces:  this nativity and another cheap plastic one from the same grandmother when I was very small; a ceramic lighted tree made by my other grandmother, and which will one day be my Christmas tree in my nursing home room; the lighted Christmas bells which hung over my grandparents’ door when I was very small, and now hang over ours; and the little wind-up Christmas carousel we found in my late aunt’s things when cancer took her way too early. If I ever die in a house fire, it will be trying to save the Christmas boxes.

Grandparents are special, and these things bring back many happy memories. They are all gone now, but I had the special blessing of knowing all four of my grandparents as an adult. There was grandpa who always happily made the effort to saddle up the horses for us kids to ride, and his feisty Irish wife; theirs was a true 60-year love affair. My other grandmother was an amazing cook, forever ruining me on store bought cookies and sweets. I easily turn my nose up and walk away from them to this day…compared to grandma’s, they’re not worth eating. But her husband, one of only two people to have shown me complete and unconditional love, was the one who made all the candy at Christmas. Peanut brittle and divinity and homemade caramel corn and both chocolate and peanut butter fudge. I never knew he was the candy maker until a couple of years ago…I always just assumed it was grandma. So again this year I’ll dig out the family recipes and think of where I come from. I’ll think of happy childhood memories, and I’ll miss these strong people who helped shape my life, giving me both roots and opportunities beyond their wildest dreams. I miss them, but a part of them lives on. Here are two of grandpa’s best recipes–you’ll be glad if you choose to give them a try. Happy holidays!

Peanut Butter Fudge

Bring 2 c. sugar and 2/3 c. milk to soft ball stage (until a small amount dropped into cold water forms a soft ball, generally after about 15-20 minutes of slow boil).  Quickly add in:

1 c. marshmallow creme 

1 c. peanut butter

1 t. vanilla

Pour immediately into foil lined 8×8 square pan, let set.

Grandpa Kaufman’s Caramel Corn

1 c. butter

2 c. brown sugar

1/2 c. light corn syrup

1 t. salt

1/2 t. baking sofa

1 t. vanilla

6 qt. popped unsalted/buttered popcorn (about 1 1/2 c. unpopped or 3 microwave bags)

Melt butter in a saucepan. Stir in brown sugar, corn syrup, and salt.  Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Boil without stirring for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, add baking soda and vanilla.  Pour over the popped corn in a large roaster, mixing well. Bake one hour at 250, stirring every 15 minutes. Remove from pan quickly, before it sets up.  Cool completely, break apart.


I pulled up the last prolific pepper plant this Thanksgiving week, after the second hard freeze finally took it out. The freezer is jammed with this year’s haul; they should last us all winter. The last tomato plants came out the week before, but we still have a few green ones to enjoy before the long wait for next year’s crop.

It’s always sad to see the garden go, and I think about the next one I’ll plant all winter long. My absolute favorite is the tomatoes. Everything’s better with home-grown tomatoes:  hamburgers, salad, BLT’s, even tacos. I’m now down to growing only peppers and tomatoes, after years of growing lots of things. After all of that practice, my garden is down to a science:  3 hours of ground prep and planting in the spring, then just 30 minutes a month of maintenance through the summer, after a friend’s painfully obvious recommendation of black fabric to keep the weeds down. More tomatoes than we can eat and peppers all winter for very limited effort and cost–it’s a great return on investment.

I garden now just like I live:  increasingly stripped down to the bare essentials, with years of experience to guide me as to what matters and what can be put aside. I don’t need more zucchini or cucumbers than my whole block can eat, and I sure don’t need the work it takes to grow them. Just like I don’t need a lot of the junk that I chased for too much of my life. In the same way that I’ve honed my gardening to minimal effort for optimum gain, I’ve also honed the way that I spend my precious, limited time. I now spend more time investing in people…it’s the only thing I’ve found that makes this long, hard life worth living. I find time for family, for friends, for coaching others. I spend far less time than I once did on housework, on watching TV, and at work. There’s limited meaning in those. My house will be too clean…and too quiet…someday soon. And for the first time in my life, I am spending a little time trying to make the world a better place, even if it’s only a tiny drop in the bucket. My stripped-down life means I now have a bit of time to be a voice for the voiceless, to support the targeted, to add one more voice for tolerance. I may no longer grow a big garden, but I’m eager to see what my new harvest will bring.

“A garden requires patient labor and attention. Plants do not grow merely to satisfy ambitions or to fulfill good attentions. They thrive because someone expended effort on them.”  –Liberty Hyde Bailey


A leader whom I admire said this week that we need to drive out fear, versus using it as a tool for power. We were lamenting that this has been an election of fear. I told him part of my truth, but not all of it.

I told him that my brother-in-law is terrified that his Mexican wife of 20 years, the mother of their two daughters, will be deported. I told him that my gay friends are afraid their marriages will be dissolved. I told him that a sweet, young Vietnamese friend was disturbed by a horrible racist incident on her campus in Minnesota. I shared how troubled I was at the stories of harassment of blacks and Muslim women wearing hijabs, and of Hispanic children bullied at their schools with taunts of being deported and building the wall. And this is the experience of a privileged white woman since the election. But I didn’t tell him the rest.

I didn’t tell him that I’ve lost sleep over these last couple of weeks for fear of slowly losing our civil rights and democracy to an autocrat who trades in fear. I didn’t tell him how I’ve struggled to understand how so many could overlook such overt sexism, racism, and bullying for a single issue or for politics. I couldn’t admit that I’ve been unable to watch the news or open a newspaper since the election, as it’s too depressing to think about a racist overseeing the country’s law enforcement, or an isolationist as national security adviser, or a white supremacist whispering in the ear of the man in the most powerful job in the world. I’m having trouble coping with news stories about ripping families apart through the immediate deportation of 2-3 million citizens, or how there’s “historical precedence” for a Muslim registry or even internment camps. My world changed overnight, and I’ve struggled to cope with it all. My struggle is embarrassing and shocking at the same time:  after all, I’m a 50-year old strong and successful woman. How can this have impacted me so?

But I’m my mother’s daughter, and I knew that I would eventually pick myself up. The shock and fear are starting to wear off, being replaced by determination. I’ve started taking action, and that is lessening my fear. I will fight to keep the gains women have made over these last 50 years, for myself yes, but especially for my teenage daughters. I will be vocal in support of the right to basic dignity and protection that my LGBT family and friends deserve. And, as scared as I am of the thought, if necessary I would face water cannons and prison to ensure that the freedoms of religion and speech remain bedrocks of American democracy.

My favorite Bible verse is Romans 8:38-39, and it reminds me that neither principalities nor powers can separate us from the love of God. And in Philippians 1:30, Paul invites us to join him in the battle. In my immediate reaction, I nearly forgot Who always has been and will be in complete control. But He has always needed arms and legs. I offer mine. I am not afraid.

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality…I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”  –Martin Luther King Jr.


I realized shortly after the election that I need to do something…something to move myself and the causes that I care about forward. It’s still early, and I don’t yet know what shape my actions will take, though I’ve assured my husband that I’m not going to do anything radical…that’s not my style. I’m practical and execution oriented, so I’ve begun looking for practical ideas to execute. I’ve already settled on my first few.

First, I’m working to reassure terrified family, friends, and strangers, including the West African Muslim woman in Minnesota shouted at to “Go home, you’re not wanted here!”, though she was, indeed, born here. I assured her that the man who yelled that was the minority, and not her. I’ve chosen to begin wearing a safety pin as a “safety zone” sign for those like that woman who’ve been persecuted for their race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. I’ve signed MoveOn’s electronic petition to elect a New Democratic party chair. I hope that both parties will learn lessons from what millions of Americans voted to tell us, but I can fight to make sure that at least the opposition party does. And I’ve written letters to my Congressmen – all of them – to let them know that I expect their support fighting acts of overt racism and aggression. We can’t afford to go backward on civil rights and basic human decency. This is America, after all, Reagan’s “shining city on a hill.” I encourage you to write to them as well – let them hear from thousands of us. Feel free to copy, and here’s where to find your congressperson:

Dear Congressman _________,

I’m writing to let you know that your constituents need and expect you to condemn and strongly support enforcement to fight the examples of harassment being reported.  As a key political leader, we need you to stand up for the rights of all of our citizens and help set a tone that intolerance won’t be tolerated.  You can make a difference in protecting all of your constituents, particularly those most vulnerable. Voices of authority will be especially heard.

Thank you in advance for your support of basic human decency and protection of the rights of all our citizens.


Kelly J. McCleary

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”  –Martin Luther King Jr.


Having had less than 24 hours to start to sort out the lessons of yesterday’s results, I’ve settled on at least one reality:  that sometimes, after multiple steps forward, it’s human nature to take a step back.  After 50 years of civil and women’s rights gains, moderating attitudes toward sexual orientation and same sex marriage, and an unprecedented explosion in the racial and religious diversity in this country, we were bound to hit a bump.  Not all movement is guaranteed to be forward.  In fact, there’s only one thing that causes forward movement in the first place:  us.  We only got here because the generation before us was willing to risk much to make change happen.

As I’ve reflected today on what this change in direction means for our country and how we got here, I had to face a cold stark fact:  I’ve done little in my life to take responsibility for picking up the baton from those who’ve gone before me and advancing it another lap.  If I’m honest with myself, I’ve been content to coast on their efforts.  I realize that I somehow assumed that their progress was enough to get the ball rolling, and that it would continue on its own momentum.  I now see that I was wrong.

We knew that after this election, half of the country would be unhappy.  Half of the country voted for change, and their message was heard.  But I, too, want change.  I want to ensure that the progress we’ve made not only is not lost, but that we start moving again at an even faster pace.  Therefore, I realize that my only acceptable response to yesterday’s results is to take action myself.  I have no earthly idea yet what form that action will take.  But I will.  I must.  Join me…together we can change the world.

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”  –Mahatma Gandhi


I find the older I get, the better I seem to see. I’m not talking about my eyesight…I finally had to get bifocals last year. What I’m talking about is real vision:  how I see the world, and what I believe that I understand about it.

I don’t remotely have it all figured out; I still feel like I’m picking my way through life in a dense fog. But each year the fog lifts a little, and I feel like I see a little more clearly. And those things that I can now see better may seem obvious to many, but they’ve been hard-won lessons for me:

• Nothing is more important than my relationship with others, except my relationship with God.

• Most people are good.

• Dogs are love.

• Exercise and brush your teeth religiously.

• Material things mean nothing except for the memories that some of them help us hold onto.

• Grow a garden.

• Eat at home.

• Prayers are answered.

• Miracles happen.

• I’m worthy of love.

What do you now see more clearly?

“Worship is a way of seeing the world in the light of God.”  –Abraham Joshua Heschel


This week I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen for awhile. She’s originally from Romania, but has been living in Brazil the last couple of years. We met at orientation on day one of our new jobs; Romania is my favorite travel spot of all time, giving us an early connection that stuck. Her globetrotting life stories are so much more interesting than my Kansas girl background.

I’m beyond grateful to have had the privilege of getting to know many amazing people from all over the world. I can’t fully articulate how, but I know that they’ve changed my perspective, and positively so. I’ve had so many learnings, large and small, that stand out over the years. There’s the young Filipino woman who emigrated to New York at age 13. She told me that she still dreams in Tagalog, though she’d been in America longer than her country of birth. There’s the tall, blonde German friend who married a woman from Singapore and had two beautiful boys who looked stuck between two continents. I remember my shock at a woman from Malaysia sharing that she was reluctant to speak up in English, afraid of saying something wrong. It hadn’t occurred to her until I told her that us single-language, ethnocentric Americans were instead in awe of her ability to speak English, given how radically different it is from her native Chinese. I heard the story of how many cattle and goats were required for the dowry of a Kenyan friend’s wife, as we sat around their family dinner table outside of London. I learned how a dear friend from Brazil became the man of the house at age six, when his father was killed in a freak accident after a tree fell on his car on his way to the bank to purchase their first family home. My friend is the most courageous, fearless person I’ve ever met.

Then there’s the friend who had the privilege of traveling the world for 30 years. Though he retired to Florida from very unexotic Minnesota, his gift for story-telling about his quixotic global adventures had me in tears more than once. I still think he needs to write a book about them.

I’m scheduling coffee to catch up with my Romanian friend, now that she’s back in the States; I’m eager to hear the stories of her adventures in Brazil. And this Kansas girl’s life will be just a little richer for hearing them.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”  –Mark Twain