Gratitude

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Mindful Mondays: Walks Without Destinations

One of the things I like best about living in the South is that winters are shorter and milder, but also less gray than they are in colder areas. Even more than the cold, the eternal grayness of winter is what tends to get me down. It’s been cold enough in South Carolina for us to get some snow flurries last week, but the sun has still been out most days and the sky has been clear and bright. Today it practically feels like spring.

I’m an on-again off-again runner. At different points in my life I’ve trained for and run half marathons and marathons, while in other seasons I’ve done no running whatsoever. I’ve been trying to get back into running for the past month or so with only limited success. It’s always hard to start again once you’ve stopped completely, which I suppose should be incentive not to quit in the first place, but it never seems to work.

In all the self-pressure to get my rear in gear and start running again, I forgot how nice it can be just to walk. On these clear and bright winter days I am content to walk for miles, wandering through neighborhoods I’ve never seen before and down streets I’m still learning the names of. Sometimes I walk while I talk on the phone to my sister or to my mom. Sometimes I walk with my husband and we dream about the houses we pass and an imaginary future where we might live in one of them. But sometimes  I walk with only my own breathing for company, and these are the walks I like best of all.

These are the moments when I’m not so focused on where I’m going or how fast I’m getting there, but simply appreciate where I am. On these walks I can go as slowly as I want to. I can pay attention to the way the roots of the oak trees ripple under the sidewalks, breaking through in some places, and to the chalk drawings left behind by little artists who forgot to sign their names. I walk until I find myself wandering back home, at peace with myself and with the world around me, knowing that even if it only lasts an hour or two, it will be enough.

My eyes already touch the sunny hill.
going far beyond the road I have begun,
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has an inner light, even from a distance-

and changes us, even if we do not reach it,
into something else, which, hardly sensing it,
we already are; a gesture waves us on
answering our own wave…
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.

~”A Walk” by Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Robert Bly)

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Giveaway-winners

And the Winners Are…

Hope you are all having a lovely Christmas with family and friends! Ours has been lovely despite being 80 degrees with 100% humidity and bouts of heavy rain in Louisiana. Feels like we are in a rainforest.:)

This is just a quick post to announce the winners of the giveaway (!) My sister Anni drew the names out of a bowl, so the results are completely unbiased. 😉

Drumroll please….

The fiction prize pack winner is Paige Nguyen. You will be receiving copies of The Way of Kings, Peace Like a River, and Station Eleven.

The nonfiction prize back winner is Ben de Wachter (בנימין). You will be receiving copies of An Altar in the World, Searching for Sunday, and Pastrix. (And don’t worry, these are all female authors but they aren’t geared towards women specifically).

To claim your prize please send me an email (lily.e.dunn at gmail.com) or Facebook message with an address I can send them to!

Congratulations to the two winners and thank you to everyone who participated and to everyone who is part of this community.

Merry Christmas!

 

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10,000 Followers Giveaway!

Yesterday something kind of amazing happened. This blog hit 10,000 followers. To some of you that may seem like a lot and to others it may seem like a little, but to me it is almost incomprehensible and completely humbling, especially since the majority of these followers have come within the last year. I know that not everyone who follows my blog reads every post, but I am still overwhelmed by how many people at some point clicked that “Follow” button to show a measure of support.

When I first started this blog almost five years ago, I was right out of college working as a full-time nanny and needed a creative outlet to keep me writing. I wrote sporadically and without much focus and only about five people even knew about my blog because I didn’t share my posts on social media or even tell my friends about them. As I moved into a season of wrestling with my faith, I started to explore some of my questions, my doubts, and my revelations through blogging. I occasionally shared these posts on Facebook, but my audience was still very small.

After moving to Korea, I had a wealth of strange and interesting life experiences to write about and process through. At the same time, I discovered the spiritual memoir genre and found that blogging about my faith helped me sort through my jumbled thoughts and feelings. I started to connect with other bloggers who wrote about similar topics – what it looks like when the faith you grew up with doesn’t quite fit anymore and how faith can change and grow over time. I had opportunities to guest post and invited others to share on my blog. As I grew into this community, I became more serious about blogging as a means of working out my own story and my own faith while connecting with other people. I sought to present my authentic self with my questions and doubts and problems, and hoped that through my vulnerability others could identify with me and feel less alone.  I started to hear from readers who told me that these little essays meant something to them and I started making real life friends with people who read my words.

I know that some of my you came here to read about my travel experiences, some came to read book reviews and recommendations, and some came to read about my faith-wrestling, but all of you have made my life richer and made my moments of vulnerability worth it.

To help express my gratitude to those of you who have joined me on this journey, I’m hosting a little giveaway. There will be two winners and those winners will each receive a book pack with 3 of my favorite books. One set is nonfiction books and the other is fiction. (It was SO HARD to choose just 3 books for each!)

The nonfiction book pack includes: Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans, Pastrix by Nadia Bolz Weber, and An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor.

The fiction book pack includes: Peace Like a River by Lief Enger, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, and The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson.

The rules are simple.

  1. You must be a follower or subscriber to this blog. (If you are not a follower all you have to do is scroll to the top of the page and look underneath the picture of a younger and svelter me with the little bio. There is a button right under that that says, “Click here if you’re awesome!” Click that button. All this means is that you will be notified when I post something new. )
  2. You must EITHER “like” my Facebook page, which I will link here. (Literally just click the “like” button) OR follow me on Twitter @lilyellyn. If you don’t have Facebook or Twitter just tell me that in the comment you leave.
  3. Finally, leave a comment below telling me either how you found this blog and why you started following OR what your favorite post has been. Be sure to include whether you are more interested in the fiction or nonfiction book pack if you have a preference.

This giveaway is open internationally so anyone can enter.Submissions are open for 1 week and will close on Wednesday, December 23rd at 11:59 PM EST. There is only one entry per person. At the end of the submission period I will collect the names of everyone who submitted and draw two names randomly. I will announce the winners here in a blog post on Christmas Day so be sure the check back.

You guys are seriously the best. Thank you for being a part of my life.

Giveaway banner image credit via StephanieHowell.com

Where Grief and Gratitude Meet

Last week felt like one giant win for Chaos, Fear, and Grief.  It was a week marked by terrible loss. Innocent men and women in Paris and Nigeria and Lebanon and Syria lost their lives to violence. Men and women in my country lost their sense of human decency to fear and self-preservation. A friend of mine in South Africa lost two of his friends last week to cancer. And Jonathan and I and the rest of the Wheaton College community lost two of our beloved English professors in the space of three days. I don’t have words for the collective grief of the world right now. I barely have words for my smaller, personal grief, but I feel that I need to say them anyway.

Grieving people talk about how to make sense of loss or come to terms with pain. I don’t know how to do either of those things. I only know how to say thank you.

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Brett Foster was 42 years old, a brilliant man and gifted poet with an extraordinarily kind and generous spirit. Jonathan and I actually met in Dr. Foster’s Ancient Literature class at 9:00 AM Monday morning our very first day of college. Dr. Foster, listening to you read The Odyssey and The Aeneid brought these epics to life for me in a way I’d never experienced before.  I can still hear your voice in my head when I read them today. Thank you for sharing your passion, your insights, and your love for words with me.

The summer after our freshman year at Wheaton, Jonathan did a summer study abroad program in England led by Dr. Foster along with a few other professors. One afternoon he announced his intention to see a special exhibit and invited anyone who wanted to to join him. Jonathan was the only student who showed up, so he and Jonathan went tot he museum by themselves and spent the afternoon together. Jonathan remembers how incredibly kind, genuine, and down-to-earth he was, even as a professor spending time with a student.

Thank you for seeing beauty in the world, but more than that, thank you for bringing beauty to the world through your words, through your authenticity, and through your generous spirit.

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Roger Lundin was dear to me in ways I don’t know that I can explain. Of all of my professors at Wheaton, he was perhaps the one who left the biggest impact. His death was sudden, unexpected and also much too soon. Dr. Lundin was big in every sense of the word – a tall man with long lanky limbs ending in large hands and feet, a huge, booming voice, a staggering intellect, and an enormous, tender heart.

He had a memory like no one else I’ve ever known. I once went to his office to discuss a paper I was having trouble with. “This is what I want to talk about, but I’m just not sure how to tie it in with the larger historical context.” He leaned back in his chair and thought for no more than 15 seconds before saying, “There’s a book I think you can find in the school library,” he named an obscure title, “and around page 140 there is a paragraph near the bottom of the page that speaks to exactly what you’re saying.” I left his office and went to the library where I found the book and the passage exactly where he said I would.

Last fall when Jonathan was applying for graduate school, he asked Dr. Lundin to write him a recommendation. Being nearly five years out of college, he was apologetic and tried to remind him of who he was. Dr. Lundin wrote back, “Of course I remember you. I think of you and Lily often and wonder how you’re doing in South Korea.”  He said he would be delighted to write the recommendations.

Most significantly for me, though, he had a dear and tender spirit. Through years of classes with him, I was repeatedly moved by the way he spoke of his wife – someone he regarded as the best and most vital part of himself and whose wisdom and input he not only deeply respected, but found essential. During my senior year at Wheaton when Jonathan and I were engaged I started seeing a therapist. I was trying to come to terms with how someone as deeply afraid and distrustful of men as I was could possibly enter a marriage. I remember telling my therapist, “There are only four men in the world I’ve never felt threatened by or afraid of in some way: my dad (though I was deeply afraid of his disapproval), Jonathan, my friend Leigh’s dad who I grew up with, and Dr. Roger Lundin.” (I’m sure there were people I wasn’t thinking of, but that’s how I felt at the time. You get the idea, I had issues).

Dr. Lundin, I think I remember ever story you ever told. Thank you for making me love Emily Dickinson and Dostoyevsky, for introducing me to Milosz, and teaching me that literature and faith were inseparable. But mostly, thank you for teaching me not to apologize for who I am, and for making me believe that there were men in the world who could be trusted and that marriages really could be beautiful, equal partnerships.

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I confess that I don’t want to die and I think it’s brutally unfair that these men died last week. I am one of hundreds, of thousands, of students whose lives were shaped by these men and in a small way, it comforts me to know that I am just one of many who care deeply that these men lived and mourn deeply that they’re gone.

There is nothing I can say to make this sting less. All I’m left with is, “Thank you.” Thank you for sharing yourselves with me, and with so many others. Thank you for showing me how to live a life that matters. Thank you for being exquisite examples of lives well-lived.

The following is a poem that Dr. Foster wrote as he neared the end of his life. I want to finish with just this, Dr. Foster, you did give the sickness and the shivering meaning. And you and Dr. Lundin both showed us all how to go out singing. I’m deeply saddened that you’re gone, but I am profoundly grateful for the lives you lived.

Isaiah 43

I am making all things new! Or am trying to,
being so surprised to be one of those guys
who may be dying early. This is yet one more
earthen declaration, uttered through a better
prophet’s more durable mouth, with heart
astir. It’s not oath-taking that I’m concerned
with here, for what that’s worth— instead just a cry
from the very blood, a good, sound imprecation
to give the sickness and the shivering meaning.
Former things have not been forgotten,
but they have forgotten me. The dear, the sweet,
the blessed past, writes Bassani. Tongue is the pen.
Donning some blanket of decorousness
is not the prophet’s profession, not ever.
Not that I’ve tasted the prophet’s honey or fire:
I’m just a shocked, confounded fellow
who’s standing here, pumping the bellows
of his mellifluous sorrow. Yet sorrow’s the thing
for all prophets. Make a way in the wilderness,
streaming your home-studio-made recordings
from a personal wasteland. These are my thoughts.
I can’t manage the serious beard. My sackcloth
is the flannel shirt I’m wearing. But the short-circuited
months have whitened my hair, and it’s not
for nothing that Jeffrey calls me, with affectionate
mockery, the silver fox. It’s a prerequisite, finally—
being a marginal prophet, but a severe attention
to envisioned tomorrows must be present, too,
must be perceived as possible, audible, or followable.
There’s a hypothetically bright future for everything,
each wounded creature that is bitten, or bites.
And speaking of things overheard, you heard right:
if I have to go out, I am going to go out singing.

Autumn in Boston Public Garden

What’s Saving My Life Right Now: Update

Back in February I wrote a post called “What’s Saving My Life Right Now.” This question comes from Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Leaving Church. Taylor tells the story of a time when she was asked to speak on this topic. At first it seemed like an unusual thing for a priest-turned-professor to speak about, but as she composed her speech, she realized it was powerful to reflect on the graces of a particular season. She made a note to ask herself this question from time to time.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the things in my life that are hard: missing Korea, experiencing constant rejection on the job front, continuing to struggle with a chronic ear infection I’ve had since July, having to pack up and move (again!) in a few weeks, the return of my panic attacks, and now this huge natural disaster in my new city.

I would be quick to extend compassion and grace to anyone else in this situation, but I find that It’s difficult for me to give myself that same measure of grace. I feel that it is not OK that I haven’t figured out a stable job situation, that I can’t get over this ear infection (which is costing a small fortune in doctor’s bills), that some days I am utterly overwhelmed by daily life when I am so very fortunate compared to many. Life is short and precious and I don’t want to spend mine feeling overwhelmed and hopeless when there is so much beauty I could be enjoying. There is a disconnect between the life I want to lead and the life I find myself living.

I wrote recently about my experience with the Lord’s Prayer — about asking for daily bread and receiving manna just for one day. Two days ago, manna came in the form of a letter from a reader named Steph who just moved to the middle-of-nowhere Texas after several years in South Africa. In so many ways, we are leading parallel lives. Like me, she moved to the US for her husband to go to graduate school. Like me, she is having trouble acclimating. Like me, she is unsuccessfully looking for a job that won’t kill her soul. Basically, we’re the same person. But in her letter she reminded me of the value of focusing on the things she loves about where she is and what she’s doing. She reminded me of some of the things that I love about being back in America. Her letter inspired me to do an update on what’s saving my life right now.

Here’s my list. Leave me a comment about what’s saving your life right now. I’m a collector of ordinary grace.

  • The library. The public library system in Columbia rocks my socks. It’s similar to Raleigh’s library system in which there are many smaller branches scattered around the county, but the full collection is extensive. You can easily request any book you are interested in and have it delivered to your closest branch so you don’t have to drive all over town to get a particular book. There is also an extensive collection of audiobooks (which I love listening to when I’m spending time in the car running errands) and dvds (including full seasons of TV shows). And it is all free!!!!

  • My bathtub. After two years of showering in a wet room where my shower head was connected to my sink, I am grateful for both a separate shower with a curtain and especially for a tub where I can sit with a book and relax.
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  • Fall candles. In the last year or so I’ve really gotten into scents, both in terms of perfumes and house scents. In my opinion, fall candles are the best of all the candles. My favorites right now are Leaves, Pumpkin Pie, and Marshmallow Fireside from Bath and Body Works and my Tobacco Vanilla one from Paddywax.
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  • My cats. I’d forgotten how much joy those little jerks bring to my life. Even when their demands for attention disrupt my day, I can’t help loving those warm little bodies curled up against me and t their ability to make a game out of anything, like systematically pushing things off the counter or stealing twist ties from the kitchen and later drowning them in their water bowl so they are good and dead.

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    If you try to take this twist tie, I will murder you in your sleep.

  • Friends. Being in Columbia has allowed us to see many of our friends more often than we did in Korea, but even more often than we did before in America. We’ve seen our good friends in Charlotte three times in the two months we’ve been here. I’ve seen all of my college roommates twice, my best friend from childhood once, and I’ll see another of my best friends from home this coming weekend. I’ve also started to make new friends in Columbia through my friend Lorien’s Bible study, through the church we’ve been attending, and through Jonathan’s program. These friendships are gifts and they make life brighter.
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Everyone should have friends to go to IKEA with.

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The Unhappiness Project: Why I’m OK With Being Unhappy

A few months ago I read Gretchen Rubin’s book Happier at Home which is sort of a sequel to her uber popular book The Happiness Project (which I haven’t read). I wrote a mini-review of this book here, but the short version is that for me personally, I found her list of resolutions and things to do make life “happier” a little exhausting. More than that though, I found myself thinking a lot about the concept of happiness and whether or not pursuing happiness is valuable, worthwhile, or even right.

Many people, particularly in Western society, live with some idea that happiness is a right that human beings are entitled to. We act as though our default setting as human beings is happiness and that if we aren’t feeling happy, we need to figure out what’s wrong and adjust it so that we can get back to the state of happiness we are meant to be in. We view unhappiness and unhappy people as something to be avoided at all costs. So we distract ourselves with busyness, numb ourselves with medication or other substances, try to buy ourselves material happiness through consumerism, or drive ourselves to earn more, achieve more, be more social, take more vacations, cross more things off of our to-do list, often because we think these things will bring us the happiness we want and feel we deserve.

I was raised on pat little phrases like, “God is more concerned with your holiness than with your happiness,” so it’s always been somewhat ingrained in me that happiness is not a basic human right, nor is it something I’m entitled to. And while I struggle against the view I described above (because this is the world we live in and it’s easy for me to adopt some of those messages without even realizing it) my bigger struggle with happiness comes from something else I’ve been told my whole life. That happiness is dependent on your circumstances, but joy isn’t. That I can (and must) choose joy.

My struggle with unhappiness is compounded by the guilt I feel for not being happy. I’ve often felt that allowing myself to stay unhappy without actively fixing it or “choosing joy” in spite of it was both selfish and sinful. Not because I’m entitled to happiness, but because being unhappy in spite of the many good things in my life is wrong, ungrateful, and selfish. And so I try to fix myself. I try to create, or choose happiness in a season where it isn’t coming naturally. And I find myself discouraged by the weight of disappointment when I can’t seem to do it.

I don’t want people to think of me as an unhappy person. I don’t want my husband, who loves me and is constantly concerned with my happiness, to be burdened with a wife who can’t be pleased or who is chronically unhappy. But I am understanding more and more what it means that I am a Highly Sensitive Person. The traits of passion and compassion and emotional excitability that make up some of the best parts of my personality are the same traits that cause me to be deeply affected by sadness, and sometimes prone to anxiety and depression.

I recently saw the new animated movie, Inside Out (which is terrific, by the way). The movie takes place inside of a little girl named Riley’s head where her major emotions are personified as the characters Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness. Sadness gets a really bad rap because she’s such a downer and the others want Riley to be happy all the time. *Spoiler Alert* But in the end they realize that Sadness is an essential part of who Riley is and that Sadness actually creates opportunities for feelings of joy, comfort, and peace.

The message of this movie was exactly what I’d been wrestling to articulate about my own self-discoveries. I’ve been learning to accept that unhappiness is not the worst thing. In fact, sometimes unhappiness is the right thing.

Two weeks ago a girl I went to high school with lost her husband in a car accident leaving her a 26-year-old widow with 5 small children. One week ago there was a shooting in a theater in my hometown, the same theater I’ve been to dozens of times throughout my life, and two young women lost their lives through a random act of violence. A few days ago my best friend’s father died of cancer just two months before her wedding.

These days I find happiness more difficult to grasp. In the past when I’ve gone through periods of sadness I’ve asked these questions: How many times am I allowed to cry about this? How sad is it OK for me to feel on behalf of other people’s tragedies? How many days or hours am I allowed to get over my sadness before I owe it to God and to the people in my life to be happy again?

I don’t want to ask these questions anymore. The answer is, and should always be, “As many as I need. As sad as I feel. As long as it takes.” And that’s OK. Being unhappy is not the same thing as succumbing to utter hopelessness. It doesn’t mean that you don’t believe there is any good in the world. It (usually) doesn’t mean that you’ve decided to never be happy again. It simply means that you are human. That you live in a broken world. And that right now you are reacting to that brokenness with unhappiness. And that’s a good thing. (Also, it means you probably aren’t a sociopath).

More and more lately, when I recognize that I am unhappy, I try to identify why. Is it because of a choice I’ve made or am making? Is it something that could be easily fixed? (i.e. I’m unhappy because my clothes are too tight, and I can choose to exercise more and eat healthier). Is it because of something I am choosing to hold onto and obsess over that I need to let go of? (i.e. holding a grudge, getting worked up about small things). Is it a chemical/physical thing that I should seek counseling or medical attention for? Or am I unhappy because there’s something wrong in my life or in the world that I can’t fix or change? Then maybe the right response is to let myself feel unhappy. To lean into to the discomfort of that feeling even as I remember the beauty and the hope in my life. I can take my cue from the Psalms of David, from Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb, from Jeremiah the weeping prophet, who didn’t avoid or cover-up their unhappiness, but expressed it.

I am sad right now. AND I have a wonderful husband and I am two weeks away from moving back to America and seeing my friends and family, and I have more than enough food to eat and clothes to wear and I am thankful for these things.

I am not happy. And that’s OK.

Photo Credit: Symphony of Love, Flickr Creative Commons

Thankful Thursdays, Special Edition: My 200th Blog Post

Today is a special day. Not only is Thankful Thursday, but this is the 200th post I’ve published on this blog. That’s a lot of words, friends.

I’ve had this little space for more than four years, but I’ve only become serious and about blogging and more focused in my topics for the past 18 months. I’ve thought several times about going back and taking down some of my oldest posts, which feel so different from what I write now, but I can never bring myself to do it. Because I’m thankful for where I’ve been and I’m thankful for where I am now.

Blogging has opened doors for me – not in the big, exciting money-making kind of way, but in terms of relationships. I’ve made friends in the past few years, genuine friends-of-the-heart, whom I never would have met if it weren’t for our blogs. Working out my feelings and my faith in this space has given me the courage to grow and to change, to have hard and necessary conversations and to become more of the person I’m meant to be.

I am so deeply thankful to all of you who read what I write here and take the time to interact, to be a part of my life. Your encouragement, advice, compassion, and kindness are inspiring to me. Whether you are someone who has been here for a while or someone who is visiting for the first time, please know how genuinely grateful I am for you.

In the spirit of thankfulness, I wanted to share two of my favorite pieces on gratitude from some far better writers than I. The first is a poem by the great e.e. cummings and the second is a passage from a book of essays by Andre Dubus that I share here every year on Thanksgiving.

I Thank You God for Most This Amazing

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

-e. e. cummings

This passage comes from Andre Dubus’ essay “A Country Road Song.” At the age of 49, Dubus suffered a devastating injury when he stopped on the side of the road to assist with a fatal automobile accident. While pulling the survivor out of the wreckage, he was hit by another car. He was injured so badly that he eventually lost one of his legs and was paralyzed in the other. This essay is about his memories of running.  If you have a chance, you should read the entire essay because it is so much better than just this excerpt.

“When I ran, when I walked, there was no time: there was only my body, my breath, the trees and hills and sky…I always felt grateful, but I did not know it was gratitude and so I never thanked God. Eight years ago, on a starlight night in July, a car hit me…and in September a surgeon cut off my left leg… It is now time to sing of my gratitude: for legs and hills and trees and seasons…I mourn this, and I sing in gratitude for loving this, and in gratitude for all the roads I ran on and walked on, for the hills I climbed and descended, for trees and grass and sky, and for being spared losing running and walking sooner than I did: ten years sooner, or eight seasons, or three; or one day.”

I hope today you are reminded of some simple graces in your life as I have been reminded of how undeservedly blessed I am to have this space to share with all of you.