Experience the Magic

Give yourself and others an unforgettable gift this holiday season

By Sue Baldani

The Nutcracker has become a beloved holiday tradition for many families over the years. The New Jersey Ballet Company (NJBC) is celebrating its 50th anniversary performance at the Mayo Performing Arts Center (MPAC) in Morristown.

Assistant Director of NJBC, Paul McRae, was actually in the initial production 50 years ago at the age of 14. “In our production, we have magic, we have explosions, we have a battle scene – we have something for everyone,” he says. “It’s a really heartwarming, uplifting storyline and a good way to introduce someone who is not familiar with ballet. It’s just eye candy for the audience.”  

Managing Director of NJBC, David Tamaki, who has developed some new choreography for this year’s performance, has also been involved with the Nutcracker for many years. “I performed my first Nutcracker when I was 5, so this year will be 35 years of me participating,” he says.

In a normal year, NJBC performs throughout the state from Bergen County down to Cape May, and it does a number of performances at the Mayo Performing Arts Center, he adds.

“In 1971, George Tomal, Joseph Carow and I believed New Jersey Ballet, which was established in 1958, was well-positioned to present a holiday tradition to New Jerseyans,” says Carolyn Clark, who founded NJBC.  “Hence the birth of New Jersey Ballet’s Nutcracker. Messrs. Tomal and Carow created the choreography, which we still perform today, and the great Edward Villella was our first Cavalier! 

“And today, we have been continuing their legacy at the beautiful Mayo Performing Arts Center. Hearing the roar of the crowds and seeing the standing ovations at the end of each performance is priceless.” Carolyn also thanks the patrons for their support.

In this enchanting story, which is set to Tchaikovsky’s iconic score performed live by New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, young Clara is given a colorful nutcracker at a party, and after she goes to bed, a magic spell takes effect. In the ensuing storyline, fantastical characters such as giant mice, child-size soldiers, a Sugar Plum Fairy, and of course, the Nutcracker, who turns into a handsome prince, cavort and dance on stage to the audience’s delight. It’s a tale that transcends time, and resonates with people of all ages, sexes and religions. When it’s over, it also lets the audience translate what really happened in their own way.

“It’s up to everybody’s interpretation to decide if it’s a dream [that Clara has] or if it really happened,” says Marketing Director, Kotoe Kojima-Noa, who has been with NJBC since 2001.

Catherine Whiting, one of the company’s dancers who has portrayed Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy, grew up in South Orange and has been with NJBC for 22 years, first as a child in the NJBC School. She loves performing in the Nutcracker and at MPAC.

“MPAC is very welcoming to the New Jersey Ballet Company,” she says. “We’ve been performing there for decades and it’s such a beautiful theater. And I know audience members love going to Morristown for the shopping and the restaurants – it really makes for a full experience. It brings me joy to know that my audience is having a really great day and I get to finish it off for them with phenomenal storytelling.”

The Mayo Performing Arts Center is also close to home and very reasonably priced. Along with ample parking, there is a train station within walking distance for those who prefer to leave the car behind.

Whether experiencing the Nutcracker for the 50th time or the first time, the magic never gets old. See it on your own, with your loved one, or with your entire family. It will be a performance you won’t forget for a long time, and you may even dream about the Nutcracker yourself. Or maybe it won’t be a dream at all!

For more information and to buy your tickets, go to https://www.mayoarts.org/

Written for Chatham & Short Hills Lifestyle magazine published in New Jersey.

Holding on to Blessings

By Sue Baldani

During the height of COVID and being quarantined, we were anxious and scared. Without a doubt, it was a very difficult time.

However, I believe some positive things happened during this period too that we can be thankful about. We were able to slow down and spend time with our immediate families. With restaurants closed, more people were able to improve and expand on  their culinary skills. Bread baking became so popular that supermarkets ran out of yeast! Other hobbies, such as knitting, crocheting, or playing an instrument were also explored and sometimes mastered.  

Children and teenagers didn’t have any place to go, and families once again sat down to dinner and spent time having conversations around the kitchen table. With movie theaters, bowling alleys, and other entertainment venues closed, a lot of us found enjoyment in simple pleasures such as reading, building jigsaw puzzles, and playing board games.

The world stopped spinning for a while and people were able to slow down along with it. It may have been a forced opportunity, but it was an opportunity no less. It also reminded us to be thankful for our health, our families, and our cherished friendships. None of these treasures should ever be taken for granted.

Now that things are opening up again, I hope we don’t lose that sense of family, the importance of being together, and the pleasure of getting lost in a book or in playing a game. Let’s hold on to some of those quarantine habits, and when our lives once again seem to be speeding by, let’s remind ourselves to slow down, take a breath, and come together once again.

Written for The Country Register newspapers published throughout the U.S.

Local Buzz

Delicious and natural honey made in Tennessee

By Sue Baldani

When Lenny Magill, owner of the GlockStore in Nashville, bought a farm in Hampshire, Tennesee in 2019, he thought it would be a great idea to use a part of the property to curate bee hives and make honey. He said to himself, “How hard could it be? It’s not like you have to feed bees.”

“It’s not quite as easy as I thought,” he says. “I was very lucky that I was able to get involved with the Columbia Area Beekeepers Association.”

Richard (Dick) Brickner, the president of the association, even came out to help him set up the super frame boxes, where the bees make their hives and produce honey.

“The first year we had two boxes and just let the bees do their thing and thrive, and in the winter they used that honey to eat,” says Lenny. “Luckily, they produce more than they actually eat.”

The bee hives, now numbering five, are checked two to three times a month to make sure they’re healthy and that the queen hasn’t left. “My wife Tammy is fascinated by them and loves the whole queen bee concept.”

Initially, Lenny and Tammy, who have been married for 31 years, figured they would just keep bees and use the honey themselves. But when they had over 200 pounds of honey coming in, they knew they had to do something with it. So, Full Auto Honey Company was born. “We bottled it, put a label on it, and now sell it in our GlockStore and online.”

Lenny doesn’t use any pesticides on the farm, and the honey is all natural. “The honey is in its raw state, very lightly filtered, not pasteurized and there are no additives. It’s totally pure.” Many supermarket brands actually add sugar to make their honey sweeter, he says.

It’s been a real learning experience. He discovered that honey pulled in the spring is actually very different from that pulled in the fall. The spring batch will be lighter in texture, color and taste whereas honey pulled in the fall will be darker and have a more caramel taste to it.

“Also, it’s supposedly good for you to eat local honey because it allows you to become accustomed to the local pollen which cuts down on allergies.” A natural antihistamine!

If others are interested in starting their own beehives, Lenny says they can actually mail order a nuc (as in nucleus) which comes with the queen and about 10,000 bees. “You set them in the hive and they get busy making honey. As long as the queen is there and laying eggs, they will stay with the hive and work for her.

“We originally bought 50,000 bees and now have about 500,000 bees in five different hives. When it gets warm and the sun is out, they come out and swarm around, but when it gets cold, they stay in the hive and get into a big ball and vibrate. That’s how they keep themselves warm.”

Honey was not the only reason he wanted to create healthy hives on his farm. “I also heard that bees were endangered, and so I thought it would be fun to have our own brand of honey and help the environment at the same time. It’s been a great experience so far and we’re really happy that we did it.”

To purchase Full Auto Honey, go to https://www.glockstore.com/Full-Auto-Honey-Co.-Tennessee-Wildflower-Honey?quantity=1&custcol9=271, and to watch the June honey pull and future pulls, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lwio95-eWCI&t=223s. It’s truly interesting and informative.

Written for Brentwood Lifestyle magazine in Tennessee.

Making Lemonade Out of Lemons

How one young widow turned her grief into joy

By Sue Baldani

Losing someone we love is perhaps the hardest challenge we will ever face in life. If we’re lucky, we can comfort ourselves with the fact that the person lived a good long life. But what if that person was taken from us way too soon? How do we come to terms with the additional heartbreak that goes along with that grief?

The answer for Mattie Jackson Selecman was to help others through their pain. A widow at 28, she never imagined losing the love of her life so young, and so soon after their marriage.

“Ben was a very easy man to fall in love with,” says Mattie. “Just talking about him brings a smile to my face. He was one of those people who was just joyful and had a huge personality.”

Ben Selecman, an assistant district attorney for Davidson county, was only 28 years old the day he fell and hit his head in 2018. That head injury proved fatal, and took place only 11 months into their marriage.

“He always said he wanted to live life to the fullest, and the abundant life that God says we can live, and he really did in his own way in his 28 years,” she says.

In order to cope with her grief, Mattie turned to her other love, writing. “My college degree is in writing and my dad is a songwriter and my mom wrote a book. So, it was natural for me to try to process my grief that way and everything I was having to face so unexpectedly.”

Her father, Alan Jackson, is not just a songwriter, but one of the most successful country artists of all time. Her mother, Denise Jackson, is the author of It’s all About Him: Finding the Love of My Life and The Road Home.

Mattie’s written outpourings of grief and hope have now been turned into a book. Lemons on Friday: Trusting God Through My Greatest Heartbreak, will be available on November 16 via Harper Collins. “Truthfully, I didn’t start out intentionally writing a book, but at one point I realized this could have power to help people who also feel crippled and stuck in their pain, in their tragedies and their losses,” says Mattie.

What also gave her inspiration for sharing her story was another book that helped her cope. “I always loved C.S. Lewis and he wrote a small book called A Grief Observed after he lost his wife to cancer,” she says. “I was reading that pretty soon after Ben died and I had this very poignant moment when I thought, ‘Someone out there really knows what I’m feeling right now.’

“I felt so seen in that and it just put words to the chaos that I felt inside. So, I thought, what if my story and my heartbreak and hope and questions on paper can do for someone else what it did for me?”

The title and subtitle of the book reflect her strong faith, and is what she attributes, along with her family and friends, to getting her through the worst of her grief.

Lemons on Friday was from a metaphor that came into my head,” says Mattie. “I remembered the saying to make lemonade out of lemons, and I remember feeling like what more bitter, sour, awful and unwanted thing could have happened to me and being helpless to make something good out of it. It’s about my journey of surrendering that bitter and sour tragedy to God and knowing he was the only one who could make it sweet. The Friday part is the acknowledgement that if we’re true believers we don’t really live on resurrection Sunday, but instead are living on crucifixion Friday, feeling helpless and wondering how long we’re going to have to hurt until our Sunday comes.

“That’s the focus of the book. How can I be honest about the heartbreak and the pain I’m in, and how do I also hold tight to the fact that sweet days are coming, that Sunday is coming?”

Some readers who preorder the book will gain access to Racing the Dark, a song Mattie co-wrote with her father. “The song was very unexpected,” she says. “It wasn’t something I intended to do, but last fall at the very end of the most serious quarantine, I wrote the lyrics. I love writing but I had never written a song, so I sat down and wondered if I could. I thought it couldn’t be much different than writing poetry and I had grown up around music so I knew how songs were structured.”

Racing the Dark is a story of the loss of a marriage and one that is closest to her heart. “I wasn’t trying to write Ben’s and my story – it wasn’t about us – it was about a wife losing her husband and battling the desire to run away from the pain and then eventually having the strength to come back knowing that the only way she can begin to heal is not to run from but face the dark.

“My instinct is to power through and stay busy and push down the pain, but the Lord has reminded me in very tough ways that you cannot do that.”

Sharing her story and her talents is allowing her to heal her own pain, and hopefully that of others. “If I’m able in some small way through this book and my story being published to make someone who doesn’t have faith or who doesn’t have that support system feel like they’re not alone in their pain, then that’s my greatest hope.”

Mattie is also helping people in another way. Two months after Ben died, she and Brooke Tometich launchedNaSHEville, a company that designs and sells clothing, accessories, and more that also focuses on giving back to local nonprofits.

“We wanted to do something that celebrated Nashville – we’re Nashville natives – and something that celebrated women in a way that was inclusive, positive and faith based,” says Mattie. “We are a for-profit business, but we give back to nonprofits to support the people in these organizations doing the really hard work. We give them a percentage of all of our product sales, and before COVID, we did a lot of fundraisers for different nonprofits in town serving one of three missions.

“Before Ben passed, he helped us build out our mission against human trafficking,” she says. “As an ADA for the Davidson County District Attorney’s Office, he worked a lot with the trafficking courts there and just had a heart for it.”

The company also focuses on helping orphans and widows. When they first started working on NaSHEville, Mattie and Ben were married. The accident happened a month before they planned to launch so they pushed it back a little. All of sudden, Mattie found herself as the woman representing the widows in the company.

“I’m so grateful to see that his death and all that I have been through help others get through their own hardships,” she says. “Helping others is the greatest way you can heal and bring joy back.”

[Side bar]

[Box 1] To order Lemons on Friday, go to https://www.amazon.com/Lemons-Friday-Trusting-Greatest-Heartbreak/dp/0785241272.  The book is available for preorder now, and some readers will have the opportunity to receive Racing in the Dark, a song cowritten by Alan Jackson and daughter Mattie Jackson Selecman.

[Box 2] Racing the Dark – a special offer for those preordering

“Dad put a melody to it and I was so honored. All you want as a kid is for your parents to be proud of you, and it was really fun because it was never something I imagined doing with him.”

[Box 3] NaSHEville

To find out more about NaSHEville, go to and https://www.nasheville.com/ or follow on Instagram at @ NaSHEville.

Written for Brentwood Lifestyle magazine in Tennessee.

Meet the friendly and fearless Sid Mittens

By Sue Baldani

When Karen Robertson and fiancé Vann Friesen were looking to add a Maine Coon cat to the family, they knew they needed one who was not easily cowed. With Vann’s two children, 14-year-old Teague and 16-year-old Tolan, plus Beckett, a 150-pound Newfoundland and Billy the black Lab, their household was a busy one.

“We asked the breeder to please find us a bold cat,” says Karen. “She delivered with Sid Mittens, that’s for sure.”

He was 10 weeks old when they brought him home in November 2019, and they originally named him Sid Vicious, after the punk band musician. They later changed his name due to his large paws, which they called mittens. Today, the 18-pound Maine Coon loves hanging out with his big dog brothers and the rest of the family.

“He’s extremely tolerant and sweet,” she says. “Anyone can pick him up and snuggle with him. Vann’s daughter Teague, though, is his favorite person.”

Sid also has his own Instagram account (sid_mittens_mainecoon) with 122 followers. “People definitely notice him and he has a small but loyal following. He actually has many Russian followers; apparently Maine Coons are huge in Russia. He’s constantly getting private messages in Russian!”

Favorite treats – Shaved, flaked fish cat snacks

Favorite napping places – On the dogs’ beds

Written for Bend Lifestyle magazine in Oregon.

Coping with COVID

What we can do to help ourselves and our families enjoy better mental health

By Sue Baldani

COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on our country and the world at large. Not only have millions of people lost their lives or are dealing with the long-term health issues of the virus, but its effects are being felt in a myriad of other ways as well.

Being out of work has caused great financial strain, and living under a cloud of uncertainty has led to mental fatigue. While vaccines and other measures have helped curb the spread, COVID-19 variants still have people on edge.

With no end in sight, scores of people are looking for ways to overcome the depression and anxiety that have either begun or have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Mental health professionals have been inundated with calls for help over the last year and a half.

“Requests for therapy blew up, which I can totally understand because people lost their jobs, or couldn’t work or were worried about their finances and how they were going to survive,” says Brittney Henderson, a licensed marriage and family therapist with her own practice, Luminous Clarity, in Westlake Village, California. “All these anxieties, and they didn’t have any help with the uncertainty of it all – we had never been in anything like this before.”

Dr. Bethany Vaudrey, a clinical psychologist who founded Sunlight Psychological Services in Agoura Hills, California, saw a big increase in demand for services as well. “I think all of us have struggled with the uncertainties, health fears, losses of socialization and recreation opportunities … it has been such a hard season.”

As with adults, there has also been a noticeable increase in COVID-related mental-health issues among children. Their once structured lives of school, playdates, summer camps, and birthday parties had been totally upended this past year and a half. “Structure leads to predictability, which in turn leads to feeling in control,” says Dr. Vaudrey. “As humans, we are most comfortable when we feel capable of controlling what happens to us, and predicting what is coming. COVID has made us all feel powerless, and has removed our capacity to know what to expect in our own (short-term) futures.

“And kids are very attuned to the stress of parents (even when we think we are hiding it so well!) and little ears overhear and understand so much,” she adds. “In my practice lately, I see kids discussing their anxiety about these social issues (e.g., political fighting between family members, parents disagreeing over COVID precautions, friends disagreeing over masks or vaccines, etc.) more than I see anxiety about actually contracting COVID itself.” 

So what can adults and children do to overcome these challenges? The number one action is to reach out to others, whether it be a friend, a therapist, a member of the clergy, or someone else you trust.

“It’s important to find someone you can connect with,” says Lori Donnelly, a clinical hypnotherapist who founded Wolf Creek Wellness with offices in San Rosa Valley and Tarzana in California. “You have to have that rapport, and if it doesn’t feel comfortable or you don’t click, then you should find someone else. However, it’s important to have someone who will challenge you as well.

“People don’t need to suffer,” she adds. “There are ways to move away from your pain and out of your trauma and stop the loop of suffering. People get stuck and they just don’t know there are options out there or they think that no one can help, or they are stigmatized by therapy.”

“If you don’t reach out or express it, then you’re internalizing it and that weighs on you and creates anxiety, depression and anger,” says Henderson. “These feelings are going to come out at some point, so letting it out little by little is a release. There is support out there, so reach out.”

In addition to talking about their feelings, there are other things people can do to help alleviate stress and anxiety. “I like mindful walking,” says Henderson. “You go outside, which changes the environment, especially if you’ve been in the house for a while, and you shut your eyes for a minute and just listen. Name something you hear, like a bird chirping, and name something you feel, like the sun on your face or the breeze. If you’re paying attention to your senses, then you have to be present in the moment and your brain can’t go elsewhere.”

Also focus on the tactile, she adds. “Pay attention to your steps, where you feel the pressure on your foot when you’re stepping. Do you feel it on the heel, on the ball of your foot; is the ground firm or squishy? Really focusing on the tactile forces you to be present in the moment.”

There are many techniques for children as well, says Dr. Vaudrey. “Parents can give the gift of predictability in the home by being consistent in routines, schedules, and rules/consequences. These structures make life feel safe and help kids relax. Sometimes when things feel crazy, we are tempted to relax the structure at home as a treat or privilege for kids. Although counterintuitive, this actually increases kids’ stress!

“Another small way to help manage kids’ anxiety (and their accompanying controlling behaviors) is to yield decision-making power to your kids (in areas that won’t compromise your structure). Give kids control over things that are reasonable for kids to control. Toddlers can pick out their own outfits or choose between two parent-offered options. Early elementary kids can help with meal planning or choosing chores. Teens often do a great job of helping decide a reasonable curfew, rules, and consequences.”

Fortunately, many schools have opened for in-person instruction, which will give children that much needed structure. However, being in school again and with their classmates can bring on mixed feelings.

“Students are really responding differently to being around other students,” says Devon Hiltibran, a marriage and family therapist and the high school social emotional wellness counselor at Oaks Christian School in Westlake Village. “For some, it feels awesome and exciting, while for others, it’s anxiety provoking.”

“You can feel the mixed emotions of students adapting to life back in the classroom,” adds Gaia Altshuler, the middle school social emotional wellness counselor at Oaks. “Our counseling offices are a space for students to stop by to talk about their concerns, grab some tea and a mint or take a moment to color or play with fidgets. These activities can support their regulatory system when feeling overwhelmed or anxious.”

“Parents can support their children by creating space for them to identify and communicate their feelings,” says Hiltibran. “Allow them to say they feel mad, or scared, or nervous or confused.”

She also suggests that parents ask their children how they’re feeling, and invite them into conversations over dinner or during some other quiet time. In addition, she adds, parents should encourage children to use positive and adaptive coping strategies like listening to music, creating art, or exercising.

Parents should also validate their children’s fears. “It could be helpful to remind children of all the efforts their school has made to provide a safe environment,” says Hiltibran.

“If kids have questions, answer them,” says Henderson. “Don’t lie or sugarcoat. If they’re worried about COVID or getting sick, you can tell them that mommy or daddy (or whomever is caring for them) is going to do everything in their power to keep them healthy. There are little stress balls, stress putty and worry stones for kids which can be helpful for them to have with them. They have something to do with their hands which can be soothing and ground them.”

One good thing that has come out of the pandemic, says Donnelly, is that some people are finding a better balance in their lives. “My clients are now finding the time to do more healthy things and are changing their lives in more positive ways.”

So, find some enjoyable things to do with your extra time. Adopt a pet, try a new hobby, or acquire a new skill, such as playing an instrument or learning a new language. And, if you or your children are feeling depressed or overcome with anxiety, don’t hesitate to reach out to one of these professionals or someone else who will actively listen. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Instead, it’s a positive step toward a healthier and happier life.

Written for Conejo Valley Lifestyle magazine in California.

Family History Month

By Sue Baldani

October is Family History Month and it’s a great time to learn about our own family backgrounds. Surprisingly, many of us don’t know many details except maybe what country our ancestors are from and how our parents met. But there is so much more!

Luckily, there are many websites that can help you ask the right questions, such as https://familyhistorydaily.com/free-genealogy-resources/family-history-interview-questions. There are over 100 great sample questions on this site alone, and you can also add your own to the mix.

It would probably be most interesting to start with the oldest person in the family, for example, your grandmother or grandfather (if you are fortunate enough to still have a grandparent in your life). And then move on to parents, aunts and uncles, and whomever else you care to interview. Record the interview so you can transcribe it later, or do it the old fashioned way with pen and paper. Then, share it with the rest of the family.

Here are some questions to get you started:

How did you and (dad, grandpa, uncle) meet? When was that?

Who do I most resemble in the family (looks and personality wise)?

What are some special holiday traditions or recipes that were passed on to you?

Are there any special family heirlooms that were handed down to you?

Did you have any animals or pets growing up? Which was your favorite?

What kind of clothing did you wear? Was it homemade or store-bought?

What did you want to do or be when you grew up?

What was/is your favorite hobby?

What were your favorite toys or games?

What major world events have happened in your lifetime? How did they impact your life?

What accomplishments are you most proud of in your life?

What do you want people to remember the most about you?

Of course, there are also plenty of free and paid online genealogy sites like Ancestry.com, but wouldn’t it be more fun to sit down with relatives and let them tell you all about their lives? Plus, while you’re getting all kinds of interesting information about your family history, you’ll also be giving them the gift of your time, the pleasure of your company, and a chance to reminisce. And that is probably the best payback they could ever want.

Written for The Country Register newspapers published all across the U.S.