Twelve Days of Christmas Tue, 25th December, 2013 thru Sat 5th January, 2014
I will celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas this year by remembering and, where possible, reconnecting with 12 people from my past and present who have been instrumental in shaping the person I am today.
These dear friends and mentors, however, represent much more than treasured memories. They were there at the creation, as it were, participating sometimes unknowingly in shaping my beliefs, my values, and even the very trajectory of my life. Take away any one of these people, and I would not be the same person.
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On the twelfth day of Christmas...
Finally, day 12, and the Christmas tree is toast. Despite the blizzard outside my front door, I'm having warm thoughts about some wonderful friends I have made since last April after joining the Gateway Men's Chorus (GMC). One couple in particular, Michael Dorn and Andrew Hernandez, have taught me the true meaning of welcoming and acceptance.
Despite him singing in a different section, I happen to sit next to Michael in my first weeks at rehearsal. He took me under his wing and helped me navigate unfamiliar waters. As the social activities coordinator, he always made sure I knew about upcoming social events, giving me the opportunity to get to know other members outside of rehearsal. Even more important, Michael and his partner Andrew went out of their way not only to invite me to their own barbecues and holiday gatherings but specifically to welcome my wife and kids as well, and that has meant a lot to me, and to Betsy as well.
Welcoming, in fact, is hardwired into the DNA of GMC. From the first day, I was welcomed with open arms by this community of singers that are really like a family as much as a choral arts organization. The lessons for how to welcome newcomers were powerful. The music director, Al Fischer welcomed me and decided to give me a chance despite that fact that I had already missed several weeks of rehearsals in the current concert cycle leading up to the Pride concert last June.
Beyond welcome and good will, there was organization: The same day I arrived, I got a binder of music, perfectly organized, and was introduced to the chorus manager and to the section leader. By the next week I had a personalized name tag and was connected to the online information and social networks. (And of course my dues were efficiently collected, with convenient credit card payment right there in the rehearsal hall!)
It was a lesson in welcoming, not only spiritually but organizationally, and a reminder that welcoming is more about deeds than slogans. It's a lesson I hope to incorporate into my personal and church life as we all reach out to connect with the diverse LGBTQ community in greater St. Louis.
Michael, thank you to you and Andrew for being that gateway for me, bringing me into your community of caring. Being accepted for who I am, even if I don't fit into anyone else's neat and tidy boxes, is the best gift anyone could ask for this holiday season.
Blessings to all for a 2014 filled with peace, joy and friendship.
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On the eleventh day of Christmas...
It's now day 11 and I'm thinking of a special person in my life who is teaching me a thing or two about loyalty. This person, Lori Block of San Francisco, is not completely comfortable with the title, but she is my "boss" at work. But more specifically, she is my mentor and occasionally my protector. From her I'm learning what it means to be "family"—what it means to be loyal 110 percent.
I have learned that it all comes from her commitment to mutually caring relationships. She forms these with her best clients, with her fellow Principals in the firm, and with her direct reports and other more junior members of our team.
The flip side of this, which is the part that is harder for me to learn, is knowing when someone is not your friend, when they have violated trust or showed respect or (worst of all) disloyalty. These are relationships that may need to be repaired, if possible, but loyalty cannot be provided equally to all. Otherwise, loyalty to your true inner circle is meaningless.
You know someone is fiercely loyal when he or she believes in you even more than you believe in yourself. But when it happens consistently enough, you start to believe in yourself, too. And that's the point. Fierce loyalty makes you want to be strong enough and good enough simply because you want to be worthy of this loyalty and to demonstrate trustworthiness in return. If push came to shove, I know she would put herself in the line of fire, even if I didn't want her to.
Best of all, fierce loyalty creates a safety zone, where you can talk about anything (or anyone!) and know you are always on firm ground. Some bosses actively avoid personal contact with their direct reports in a misguided attempt to accrue more authority to themselves. But Lori's approach allows for intimacy and friendship that is rare in the workplace, even rare among some families.
Lori, thank you for believing in me. You know I will pass it on to others for whom I am a mentor and cheer them on to greater things.
P.S. I want my San Francisco Giants hat back… I look great in that hat. I promise not to wear it in St. Louis. What was that about loyalty?
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On the tenth day of Christmas...
Good lords-a-leaping, it's already the 10th day of Christmas and our tree is starting to look more like a cactus than a conifer. Today I'm remembering another person who has been instrumental in my spiritual development: Reverend Thomas Perchlik of First Unitarian.
For many years now I have been cultivating my Unitarian Universalist beliefs, but after Thomas came to us a few years ago I have felt my spiritual universe steadily expanding. Thomas will be the first to remind us that he is a UU, period, but it's clear that he draws inspiration from—and finds beauty in—a variety of religious traditions.
It must have started with his playing of the Native American flute during worship services. It was such a refreshing alternative to all the talk that characterizes protestant worship. It's pure spirit and it opened the door to exploring Native American spirituality, including their symbolism, stories and spiritual practices.
But there is so much more, including beautiful writings and folk legends from Hinduism, Buddhism, and from Sufism and other Islamic traditions. But my favorites will always be the coyote stories. I take great inspiration from the thought that beauty and truth can be found everywhere, not confined to a single book.
The catalyst for my spiritual exploration over the past year was Thomas' Christmas Eve sermon in 2012, where he offered a set of 12 spiritual practices, one for each day. My loyal readers may remember my daily blog entries during that time. I've added the link under Thomas' picture in case you're interested. That was a lot of fun, and I felt and experienced things I never had before. I never knew what power lay in a simple lighted candle, but it is powerful when you approach it with a spiritual goal in mind.
Most important, Thomas has helped me realize that I want to pursue UU ministry, and that is a powerful new direction for my life. It will take several years to make it happen, but I know this is what I was meant to do.
Thomas, I can never thank you enough for quietly opening a window that lets a little love and beauty into our lives each week. I hope I can succeed in following in your footsteps, following the music of the piper.
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On the ninth day of Christmas...
On the ninth day of Christmas I felt unconditional love, the kind of love that I am still learning how to give. Day nine is all about the person who is not only the love of my life, but who represent the love in my life. Of course I'm talking about the wonderful alto I met in the Alexandria Choral Society back in 1992 shortly before her 30th birthday.
The first time I experienced Betsy's unconditional love was with a warm and wet French kiss—from her miniature poodle, Hannah. The first time I arrived at Betsy's small house on Groveton Street near Alexandria, VA, I was greeted at the door by this enthusiastic creature who's affection knew no bounds. And I've been living in that world of unconditional, unbounded, freely given Betsy love ever since.
The amazing thing about Betsy and the way she lives her life is that once she chooses to love someone (and dogs definitely count as someones) it is forever. Admission to Betsy's circle of unconditional loving is not a fleeting joy, it's a lifetime membership. Her best friends from college are still her best friends today. Whether canine, human or otherwise, Betsy's love is constant, despite all our worst behaviors.
Though I had an inkling of how Betsy loved early in our relationship, it was revealed most fully when we had our beautiful children. She has impressed me over and over, to this very day, with her ability to maintain compassion, appreciation and complete devotion in the face of the daily cuts and bruises inflicted by those she loves. Make no mistake—it's not some kind of martyrdom. She doesn't want to be a saint. She's not making a sacrifice. Her consistent love just is, like a hot spring or like the sun itself.
Make no mistake, unconditional love is not some kind of Disney-esque fairy tale—it's often hard work and she is not immune to hurt. That's always part of the deal when you love anyone or anything. But I've finally figured out why it's worth it: When you are ever present to loved ones, this also means you are first in line to receive all the hugs, insights, revelations and the host of other joys that come with being present, with heart and arms open.
So thank you, Betsy, from all of us, for being that ever present, unshakeable and consistent source of love in our lives. You have given me, in particular, a greater gift than perhaps you'll ever know.
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On the eighth day of Christmas...
Day eight and I'm already starting to have a new appreciation for how the George you know actually came to be. It's a rewarding journey, continuing today with reflections on how I came to love all the beauty that abounds in the world of human culture. And in large part I have one very special woman to thank for so much of the beauty that has touched my life, and that is Kerry Krebill, former music director of the Alexandria Choral Society (ACS).
To meet people after moving to D.C. I looked up choirs in the yellow pages (remember those?) and I found ACS listed there. I did a simple audition with Kerry, who determined that I was a tenor despite having sung baritone in college. My life has never been the same since.
As part of Maestra Krebill's world, I was exposed to countless examples of beauty and the very best of human culture and achievement. It began with Renaissance music, sung in an authentic, spare style appropriate to the period. I soaked it in like sunshine, absorbing it into every pore in my skin. And soon to follow were the more challenging but equally beautiful contemporary choral compositions that gave me a new appreciation for 20th Century harmonies.
But it was about much more than just the perfect beauty of a Renaissance motet. Kerry is a bon vivant, exploring with enthusiasm all the great creations of human culture: wine, food and architecture among others. I wanted to taste it all and just being around Kerry made me feel like that could actually be possible. For some people a vacation is booking a cruise or a nice hotel at the beach. For Kerry, it's collecting a group of dear friends and renting a villa together in Seville.
The most cherished memories are from a choral music tour of Italy in 1992. I had no idea I even liked Italy but Kerry and other ACS singers encouraged me to join them. I thought I would give it a try, having no idea the world of beauty and wonder that was about to be opened to me. We sipped wine in a hilltop town in Orvieto, and sipped some more in beautiful Montepulciano, and yet more around the main plaza in stunning Sienna. But that was just the wine. There was the music, too, of course. We sang a mass in the gorgeous glittering cathedral of San Marco in Venice and even sang a beatification mass with Pope John Paul II at St. Peters. It was pure magic.
Kerry taught me that life is meant to be enjoyed to the fullest, engaging all your senses and delighting in the beauty that is all around us. There was never a hint of snobbery—it was all an adventure, available to anyone who took some time to educate himself and appreciate the exquisite craftsmanship that human beings are capable of.
Kerry, molto grazie for all the beauty you brought to my world, not the least of which was the opportunity to meet the beautiful person I would later marry. May beauty continue to follow you each day of your bountiful, wonderful life.
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On the seventh day of Christmas...
Already the seventh day of Christmas. The new year is upon us, and it’s a fitting time to reflect on the person in my life who for me has always represented positive change and new possibilities. One of my dearest companions in this life, Jane Leader Soderquist, was there at the beginning of my “new” life that began on Feb. 20, 1990.
It was a new decade, and I had just relocated to the Washington, D.C. area from rural Indiana. I had met Jane during my first big adventure ever: studying abroad in Nottingham, England. Jane was my “bridge to somewhere” and she, along with her dear and loving family in Bethesda, MD, welcomed me to D.C. with open arms. The simple words spoken by Jane’s mother, Carillon Leader, changed my life forever: “Sure, you can stay here…” Those words, and the kind hospitality that anchored me in new soil, changed my life forever—bringing me at once a new time zone, a new community, a new job and a new circle of wonderful friends.
Best of all, Jane introduced me to Indian food. For that alone, she deserves to go to heaven (all seven of them).
For Jane, life is always an adventure that she embraces with enthusiasm and optimism, and a healthy dose of that rubbed off on me. Perhaps it came from her growing up in a Foreign Service family where she spent much of her childhood in exotic locales, including Venezuela and India. Though I know she often craved a little more stability, which she later created for herself so beautifully in her adult life, I think her upbringing taught her to look for the good in new places and for friendship in new faces.
Yes, Jane was a bridge to somewhere, and it didn’t end with my relocation. She continued to be both the source of, and inspiration for, more adventures than I could count. Some of the dearest friends of my life were made during this three-year adventure in D.C., including the alluring alto from Missouri who would become my spouse, life partner and the mother of my children.
The best piece of advice Jane ever gave me was this: “You have to make it good where you are.” In other words, be present to the life and relationships you have here, today. Don’t neglect them while pining away for a different life, one which may never come. Perhaps she was uniquely qualified to give this advice. Perhaps in a way she was giving this advice to herself. I have often failed to live up to this ideal, but about a year ago I resolved to get back in touch with this important principle of Jane-ness—and it has blessed my life in unimaginable ways.
Jane, thank you for teaching me that change is good...to look for the good things... and latch onto them when they appear.
May each of you be so fortunate to have a bit of Jane-ness in your life. Happy new year, and happy new beginnings.
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On the sixth day of Christmas...
It’s day six of Christmas and thoughts turn to my college days—and in particular some of my first serious male friendships. I owe a lot of my social development to the men of Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, Alpha-Alpha Zeta chapter, at Butler University. And in particular, I owe a lot to my fraternal big brother Richard Tewksbury a.k.a. “Tewk.”
I had never seriously thought that I would join a fraternity when I was first accepted to Butler in 1985. But I was recruited early by a brother who was also from Shelby County, Kurt Blackmore, and I decided to check it out. It turned out to be a great decision for me, and it taught me how to have quality male friendships as an adult. A friend recently shared with me an article about how the majority of men in our culture, at least heterosexual white ones, have very few intimate friendships despite having more of a need for them than ever. So I’m proud to say that Tewk was one of those great friends who taught me how, a few short years later, to be a friend and mentor to the younger brothers who came after me, including my own little brother Scott Waldron.
As I finished my freshman year in 1986, I realized that one of the most impressive things about the classes of juniors and seniors who were serving as our big brothers was that they had successfully eliminated hazing from our frat house traditions—despite the fact that they had been hazed themselves as freshmen. These guys will forever have my thanks and gratitude for exhibiting the moral courage to break this cycle of abuse, competition and domination that so often characterize relationships among men in our culture. We younger brothers absorbed and maintained this new culture through our senior year and I’m very proud to say that hazing is ancient history at Alpha-Alpha Zeta to this day.
Tewk was always someone I could talk to, someone who introduced me to dry red wine (yuck!), and someone who shared his revelation that occurred by his senior year (after doing some student teaching) that Butler actually had pretty high academic standards. In short, Tewk modeled for me how to be a thoughtful, caring and responsible grown-up. I even played piano for his wedding, and I counted his fiancée and soon-to-be wife, Lisa, as a friend as well.
Unfortunately, I have not been in touch with Tewk for several years, and I suspect he goes by Rick as a grown-up. But I do remain in touch with the values he lived, which is to be a friend, mentor and role-model for younger guys. As an educator, I’m sure he continues to be an inspiration to young people.
Tewk, thanks for the being the big brother that I never had in real life. I wish you all the best!
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On the fifth day of Christmas...
Confidence and Creativity
The person I'm thinking of today on this fifth day of Christmas was one of the most influential people in my young life. Imogene Shofner, the junior high and high school choir and show choir director, was a constant source of inspiration to me from the 7th through the 12th grades. She helped me discover and develop my musical talents, challenging me when necessary and sharing in my successes every chance she got.
The joy I found in singing has become an essential ingredient in the adult George that most of you know. I found myself in a choir, I made my best friends in choirs, I met my wife in choir, and choirs will be part of me until the day I die. (If one believes in heaven and choirs of angels, perhaps my choral career can even extend beyond the grave.)
Imogene encouraged me to develop my musical and leadership skills. She taught all of us to stand confidently, sing out and make eye contact with our audience. These skills have given me confidence in front of an audience, serving me very well in college, in my business career and in my time in the pulpit conducting lay-led worship services. She also encouraged me to attend Butler University in Indianapolis, where she had studied music at the Arthur Jordan Conservatory of Music. Butler turned out to be a perfect fit for me, allowing me to continue my love of music even though I was not a music major and expanding my world view, quite literally.
Imogene always had faith in me and my abilities even when I did not. I'll never forget the time she announced changes to a show choir performance we were working on. It was a Dick Clark-style pop music review of hits from the 50s, 60s and 70s. I liked the planned finale just the way it was and pushed back publicly on her announcement that she was rewriting the ending. Uncharacteristically, she cut me off and said it had been decided, end of story. I withdrew and nursed my wounds for a few days, only to find out that the change she had planned was to feature a new song that I had written (taking us into the 80s...).
Of course I was ashamed that I had dared to question her judgment when all along she was planning a tribute to local homegrown talent that included my own amateurish attempt at a pop ballad. That experience taught me not only to have faith in my own talent but to bring fresh thinking to every musical creation, pushing the boundaries where necessary, fusing old and new to make something unique.
Thanks in large part to you, Imogene, I have no fear of failure. Thank you for nurturing this beautiful and satisfying part of me. As so many of your former students would agree, our contributions to the world are really your own.
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On the fourth day of Christmas...
Service in Community
Forget about the four calling birds: This fourth day of Christmas I’m remembering a special couple that influenced my life as an adolescent. Today I’m remembering Vernard and Nora McClanahan, the preacher and organist, respectively, of my childhood Baptist church in Fairland, Indiana.
This was my formative experience in learning how to be a member of a religious community.
Rev. McClanahan was the quintessential country preacher, quick with a folksy quip, a vigorous handshake and an easy laugh. Nora was his wife and accomplice, timing the soft music just right to make the traditional Baptist altar call as alluring and emotionally satisfying as possible.
Learning of my interest in music and the fact that I been taking piano lessons from Mrs. Alley (also a church musician at another Baptist church), the McClanahans offered me an opportunity to become the church pianist at age 14. I had been baptized by then and saved by Jesus at least twice (I wasn’t sure it took the first time, since I still felt as sinful as ever…). So I took the next logical step and contributed actively to the music program of the church, which is a habit I have maintained to this day.
As a youngster, it was appropriate that I always played second fiddle to Nora’s organ playing, as we attempted (usually successfully) to play piano and organ simultaneously on the congregational hymns. This, I now realize, was how I first learned to accept the role of a mentee. I also learned patience and humility, as I did not always agree with the rhythms I heard emanating from the console organ across the small sanctuary but had to “play along” just the same to make sure the two instruments continued to sing with one voice.
In other words, it was a lesson in how to put the communal worship experience first and my own ambitions second. It was a lesson in respecting those whose experience had something to teach me. And it was a huge lesson in how making good music (and making a good life in general) is 20 percent performance and 80 percent listening.
Thank you, Vernard and Nora, for the opportunity to contribute to our beautiful little community and for the precious gift of followership.
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On the third day of Christmas...
On the third day of Christmas I find myself on a road trip to visit family in North Carolina. It’s pure coincidence that the aunt I will visit tonight is the next person who gave me a great gift that has shaped my life.
Aunt Franny, the next-to-youngest sister of my mother, was (and still is) young and full of life and love for the world. She was the antithesis of rules, boundaries, chores, Sunday School and homework. Time spent with Aunt Franny was pure pleasure.
She took me under her wing like a little brother and especially in the carefree summer time she always had something fun for us to do. We rode around in her car, listened to 8-track tapes of Gloria Gaynor and Donna Summer. We went fishing and swimming. We rode her bay mare, Jake-o, around my grandmother’s farm and played with Jako-e’s filly Spanky. We waxed her Dodge Charger in the shade behind the farmhouse. She was confident and fearless, changing her own oil, catching and throwing softballs, and cleaning fish she caught in the nearby creek.
She let me and my brother hang out with her friends, Susie, Cotton, Bev and so many more, listening to them play guitar and sing. I wish I could remember the songs she wrote. I just remember one line: “Take my hand and walk with me…”
I never told her this, but I realize now that she was my best friend as a kid growing up, and her influence is still felt in my life today as I do many of the same things: enjoying the love of good friends, listening to music and having fun outdoors. Even Gloria Gaynor and Donna Summer have their place in my iTunes library. Maybe our lives have diverged a bit. Instead of waxing the car, I’m more likely to be gardening, and you’ll catch me running in the woods instead of cleaning fish. But the same joy and love of life is there.
I’m very happy to say that, even as a retired 50-something, she is still opening herself fully to life’s rich possibilities. This summer she will finally marry the love of her life, showing us all that she still has so much more to give. I know she will never run out of ideas to keep her hands busy and her spirit engaged. Someday, when she tells the story of her life, she will be able to say with confidence that she accomplished everything that was truly important—that she loved life fully and it loved her back.
Thanks, Franny, for taking time out to make memories. Thanks to you, I have a treasure trove of them. Ama la vida.
On the second day of Christmas...
Awareness of Others
This second day of Christmas, I am remembering a valuable gift given to me by another essential person in my life—my father. This gift was a sensitivity to the needs of others, including showing courtesy and respect to all, whether friend or stranger. Perhaps as the middle child of nine growing up, Dad found getting along with others essential to getting his needs met. Or maybe it's just because he is a naturally kind and considerate person. But the lesson I continually absorbed from my father, among others, was that other people deserve to be treated as we would like to be treated.
This kindness manifested in many ways, starting with respect for elders, then extending to neighbors and friends, and even co-workers and customers he served. People were referred to as ladies and gentlemen and treated accordingly. Even strangers in the checkout line were worthy of a kind word or a shared humorous observation. When teaching me to drive, courtesy to other drivers was a lesson I learned well and have now passed on to my own son. Dad went out of his way to see the goodness in people, to assume innocent motives, and to pay the appropriate compliment to the sower of a fine garden or the baker of an excellent pie.
In this way, my father, likely without knowing it, made the world a warm and safe place for me. Because I, too, see the goodness in people and enjoy their diverse contributions to our shared human experience, I have become comfortable with being a citizen of the world. The stranger, for me, is not a threat or a challenge but an opportunity to make another connection with a fellow human being. And in so doing, the boundaries of my universe and my love for humanity expand a little farther.
Thank you, Dad, for teaching me to live and work well with others. It's a practice that fills my life with peace, joy and endless possibilities.
On the first day of Christmas...
Space to Be Me
There's a special one who was literally present at the creation… My own mother is the obvious starting point for this 12-day journey of gratitude for those who have shaped my being.
My mother is as fundamental to my existence as the Earth itself. As the worshippers at the Buddhist Deer Park Monastery near my birthplace in California have so beautifully prayed, “Dear Mother Earth, breathing in, we see that we and all of our ancestors are your children. With your patience, stability, endurance and creativity you have raised us and guided us tirelessly through many lifetimes…" Likewise, this extraordinary person who did the largest part in raising me provided all these things and more. The home she did her best to create for my younger brother and me was the soil that nourished us and, like the terroir of a French wine, blended its earthy character with that of our own.
Though of course one's mother bestows innumerable gifts, both treasured and otherwise, the one I'm most thankful for is that of space. By that, I mean a vast and verdant playing field in which to learn and grow and explore. She'll be a bit shocked to read this, maybe preferring to think that she did right by us in her careful attention to setting boundaries and limits that kept our exploring safe and within the bounds of Christian respectability.
Despite her own childhood filled with abuse and desperately hard farm work, she did her best to make sure that my brother and I had a childhood. There had been no space for that in her own youth, and to this day she mourns theloss of her own childhood. Oh, make no mistake: there was a list of chores for us to do each day after school and every day during the summer—mowing the lawn, pulling weeds, helping with laundry and cooking, cleaning the bathrooms and the like.
But when the list of chores was accomplished, there was always time to be kids. I rode my bike, played in the creek, wandered fields with the family dog, climbed trees, played piano, built a clubhouse, pressed my little brother into service creating plays and tape-recorded radio programs. And when I was older, I listened to loud disco music, played spin-the-bottle with adolescent friends in the hay loft of grandma's barn, and kissed girls in the cornfield (well, one in particular—you know who you are…).
This Christmas, Mom is self-conscious about the fact that she can't provide us with gifts that are commensurate with the loving generosity in her soul. But Mom, rest assured, you have given me the greatest gift possible, which is the space to become the person I am today. And for that I will always be profoundly grateful. I can't help but feel that I am, in some ways, living life for the both of us, enjoying an abundance of love from my family and a degree of material comfort that have always been just beyond your grasp.
Merry Christmas, Mom. Let's play together soon. It's your turn to explore.
The 1st Gift of Christmas: Space to Be Me
The 2nd Gift of Christmas: Awareness of Others
The 3rd Gift of Christmas: Loving Life
The 4th Gift of Christmas: Service in Community
The 6th Gift of Christmas: Brotherhood
The 5th Gift of Christmas: Confidence and Creativity
The 7th Gift of Christmas: New Possibilities
The 8th Gift of Christmas: Beauty
The 9th Gift of Christmas: Unconditional Love
The 10th Gift of Christmas: Fearless Exploration
The 11th Gift of Christmas: Fierce Loyalty
The 12th Gift of Christmas: Welcoming