The Girl and the Hat

Giving the gift of warmth.

Years ago, a girl was given a hat. While the giver meant well, it was the ugliest hat the girl had ever seen. She knew she’d never wear it, but, having been taught to be polite, she sincerely thanked the giver for his kindness.

This was long before the girl realized that it was okay not to keep a gift if she really didn’t like it (provided she was subtle and tactful in its disposal or re-gifting). So the girl relegated it to the top shelf of her closet. When she moved across the country, it was stuffed into a box, and it traveled with her from state to state until both girl and hat reached their destination.

We humans spend entirely too much time clinging to unwanted things. They weigh us down. They slow us down.

There’s no need to describe the hat in question, because ugly for one person may not be ugly for another. Know this: It was well-made. It was warm. Beyond that, it is probably best if you just imagine your version of the world’s most unappealing hat.

The packing box that housed the hat joined several others that the girl never quite got around to unpacking. This was a collection of things she didn’t really need or want, but that she hesitated to part with. This sad hat was just one more element in a pile of useless guilt clutter that we all seem to carry around with us so as not to hurt people’s feelings.

Years went by. During that time, the girl was going through several emotional growth spurts, and was beginning to view the world through a different lens. Having finally clawed her way out of desperate poverty, she became more aware of her good fortune and unearned privilege, even as she bore witness to the unmet needs of others at every turn.

The girl came to realize that if something in your life can languish in a box for years, then all it’s doing is taking up space. She was surrounded by useless stuff. But this stuff didn’t have to be useless. None of this stuff asked to take on the role of the albatross around her neck. It began to feel as though she were holding these things hostage, or preventing them from realizing their full potential. It was time to set them free.

When the hat finally returned to the light of day, the girl discovered that it wasn’t really that ugly. It was just not her style. Not even a little bit.

The hat was in excellent shape, and surely someone out there would love to have it. With winter rapidly approaching, and so many people desperately trying to keep warm while living on the streets, the hoarding of this hat began to feel like a criminal act to her.

Several dozen homeless people passed by her office every night. She watched that parade of desperation and, due to her inaction, felt complicit in a world too cruel and selfish to face up to its own yawning privation. So, one bitterly cold evening, she took the hat to work. The girl pinned a sign to the hat which said, “Free to anyone in need. Stay warm!”

She folded the hat neatly and placed it on a clean and sheltered curb in front of her office door. She felt as though she were sending her only child off to college. It was an odd sensation.

“Live your best life,” she told the hat by way of farewell, and then she returned to her nice warm office and set to work.

Between tasks, she wondered what would become of the hat. She hoped it would go to someone whose need for warmth was particularly acute. She wondered if she’d see it some day on the head of one of the many marchers in the desperation parade. This hat might be destined to save someone’s life.

But its legacy might be more humble. Perhaps it would simply go to a scholarship student who needed a little warmth while walking back to the dormitory. Maybe the hat would worm itself into the student’s quirky little heart on the way. There would be no shame in that, either.

What if no one took it? She worried about that. How sad it would be to leave work at the end of the shift, only to discover that the hat had languished there for 8 hours, waiting for its life to begin. It would have been rejected, again and again, by the various passersby. That would be a fate worse than being shut away and neglected for years.

But the girl needn’t have worried. When she left work, she was pleased to find that the hat was gone. She would never know the rest of the story, just as we can never know what happens to any of the people or things that we set free.

She sent well wishes skyward, hoping they might accompany the hat on its new journey. She knew she couldn’t change the entire world, but at least one person would not be quite as cold on this night. The hat was gift of warmth and comfort for someone who was out in the cold. That was a start.

Whether that warmth and comfort lasted for more than an evening was not for her to decide. She wanted to think that it would last a season or a lifetime. But in the end, that would be up to the hat and its wearer.

Stay warm and well, Dear Reader. Winter is coming. Please share any hats and coats and gloves that you don’t need with the wider world.

Nope. This isn’t the actual girl or the actual hat.

Are you wondering what to bring to Thanksgiving dinner? How about my book, Notes on Gratitude? Place your orders now! (Or any other time, since we’re on the subject.) And… thanks!

The Side Effects of Spreading Joy

My recipe for getting out of a dark place is to shine a light.

I’ve often thought that if I had to stay in an emergency shelter due to some natural disaster, I’d volunteer at that shelter. It would sure beat sitting there, feeling terrified or in shock or completely and utterly helpless. What can I do? Scrub toilets? Do paperwork? Read to children? Pass out toothpaste? Anything?

I’m now even more convinced that I’d want to do that. I created a project for myself recently, and it was even more satisfying than I anticipated. I learned so much from it. Much of what I learned I wasn’t expecting.

It occurred to me that due to the pandemic, a lot of people would be struggling to give gifts this holiday season. Having identified a problem in my mind, I set about trying to think of ways to solve it. Gazing out the window at my little free library (I do that more than I care to admit), it occurred to me that books make great gifts. But I’d want people to be able to give brand new books, and they aren’t cheap.

Okay, first I needed to obtain the books. So I set up a Gofundme campaign, asking for donations. I set a goal of $500. It started off slow, because folks were more focused on the election and all the stress that was causing. But once that was behind us, people really became generous.

When I got 550 dollars, I was thrilled! I started doing research as to where I could get the biggest bang for my buck. I asked people on the Little Free Library Stewards Facebook group, and got a lot of great suggestions about bulk sellers and scholastic type organizations. There are dozens of publishers out there if you search.

Finally, I settled on Usborne Books, because Jordan, their independent consultant, contacted me and said that for every dollar I spent, they’d give me an additional 50 cents worth of books! So my 550 dollars turned into 825 dollars just like that! Woo hoo! And I have to say that the quality of the books I received was outstanding. (Here’s Jordan’s webpage, if you’re interested in working with her.)

With Jordan’s expertise, I was able to focus mainly on book collections where the individual books could stand alone. I didn’t want books that required reading book one before you could move on to book two. But book collections are much more affordable per unit than individual books are. After I placed the order, two big boxes of books arrived at my door in no time flat. They were for a variety of age groups. I was so excited!

And then, after that, another 50 dollars rolled in. What to do? Get more books, of course, but where in this short timeframe? I went to the dollar store and got a bunch there. Then I happened to look at the books at Costco, and found some collections there. Not as cheap as I’d like, but not bad. So I threw in a collection of Dr. Seuss books and a collection of Newberry Award books, such as Charlotte’s Web. I received a few donations of new books as well.

I went home and piled all the books on the dining room table. 180 books in all. Holy cow. That’s a lot of books. The pictures below are only a few of those.

I knew I didn’t want to gift wrap the books in advance, because every child, every person, is different. I also knew that parents would prefer looking at the books to make sure they were appropriate to their values and their child’s interests and reading level. But the theme of this whole project was that books make good gifts, so I decided to cut some Costco wrapping paper to the proper size for each book, and put that wrapping paper inside the book. Once the gift was chosen, they would then have the wrapping paper to wrap it with.

Speaking of the appropriateness of this project, I wanted to appeal to the widest audience possible, so I made sure that none of the books were religious or political. And I also used neutral, or, at the very least, winter-themed wrapping paper. These books don’t have to be Christmas presents. They could be for Hannukah, Kwanza, Winter Solstice, Festivus, Birthdays, whatever. That was very important to me.

Not for nothing, cutting wrapping paper for 180 books is quite the undertaking. Yes, I watched Netflix as I worked. Even so, thank goodness Dear Husband lent a hand, or I’d probably still be sitting there, aching back and all.

Here’s the part of the project where I started to panic. How would I get these books into the hands of people who needed them the most? This was more of a challenge than I first thought.

Not even in my wildest dreams would 180 books leave my little free library within a month, unless I really advertised. Unfortunately, if I spread the word on community forums, I would also risk attracting book resellers. These resellers have been known to steal the entire contents of little free libraries, and then sell the books on Amazon. That would defeat my purpose of getting these books to people who couldn’t afford to buy books. All my work would have been for naught. So I would need to get creative.

Where would I find families in need? Hmm… my first thought was the local women’s shelter. And then after listening to a heartbreaking story on NPR, I also thought of the food bank. I contacted both agencies, and they were quite happy with my idea. So I divided the books into 3 piles: 60 books for the women’s shelter, 70 for the food bank, and 50 for my little free library.

The women’s shelter was easy. I simply dropped off the box of books with the director. They were very happy to have them. Done.

The food bank turned out to be a lot of fun. We were allowed to set up a table, outside, next to the food bank line, and we could talk to people as they came in. “Would you like to give someone a book? It’s free.”

There was a bit of a feeding frenzy at first. Some people took more books than they had children. I had to put a stop to that. I wanted to spread the love. Some people were really shy, and had to be encouraged to take one for each child. Others thought they’d have to pay for them.

A great deal of the people in line at the food bank barely spoke English, and were thrilled to get books so their children could assimilate into the culture in advance of going to school. And reading those books to the children would help them practice the language, too. I could just imagine a mother sitting with her toddler, saying, “See? In English, a dog says ‘woof’.”

In about 2 hours time, the food bank books were gone, and I had a silly smile on my face. Now I was left with just the 50 books for the little free library. I didn’t want to put them out all at once, because of book resellers. I decided to put out about 8 at a time and replenish as needed.

Unfortunately, they weren’t moving. I even did a big sidewalk chalk sign that said, “Books make great gifts!”. Still nothing. Sigh.

Finally, I decided to post information about it on my little free library’s Facebook group page and hope for the best. After chatting with a few of the regular patrons, they asked for some books for families they were trying to help out. They gave me the ages of the children in question, and I put together packages for them to pick up. It was fun, choosing the books for each child. I felt like Santa’s helper.

I also reached out to a few local educators that I know, and asked them to spread the word among parents. I have about 30 books left, and that’s a workable number for my little free library. It’s amazing. I’ve given out 150 books so far!

As I said, this project has taught me much. First of all, I’m getting back just as much joy as I’m giving out. This has been a truly gratifying experience. Second, I’ve met a lot of amazing, generous, and hardworking people that I would never have talked to otherwise, and that has been a thrill during all this isolation.

That leads me to the biggest lesson of all. I’ve been spending a lot of time, just like everyone else, stressing out about the pandemic, the social unrest, the political unrest, and the environment. I have been in a very dark place, as have we all. But while I worked on this project, I didn’t focus on any of that. I didn’t think of Trump even once. I just poured everything I had into this positive act, and I can’t begin to describe how good it felt.

So my recipe for getting out of a dark place is to shine a light. If you do that, it will come back to you. And there’s nothing like it. Those who are obsessed with greed and hate have no idea what they’re missing.

Happy holidays, dear reader.

An attitude of gratitude is what you need to get along. Read my book! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

Staying Power

I have held things in my hands that are about 400 million years old.

I have held things in my hands that are about 400 million years old. You can, too, if you’re into fossils. It’s always a profoundly special feeling, touching something like that. It’s humbling. It makes me realize that my life is but a tiny blip in the overall scheme of things. It makes all my problems seem inconsequential. I find that extremely comforting.

I’ve given several beloved family members ammonites as gifts. You can often buy them cut in half, so the beautiful petrified spiral chambers are revealed. They get one half, I keep the other. Then I can say that we now are connected over millions of years. The gift of staying power. The closest thing you can have to immortality.

Here’s the one I gave my husband for our first Christmas, and of course, the other half I gave to myself. I don’t know which is the “better” half, but it makes for a beautiful whole, indeed.

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Love Languages

People have very unique ways of expressing love and also of feeling loved.

A friend of mine turned me on to the book 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman. Have I read it? No. I’m already overwhelmed without adding another book to my reading list. But the subject intrigues me quite a bit.

I have always noticed that people have very unique ways of expressing love and also of feeling loved. I think it’s important to know what signifies love to your partner, so you can express it in a way that means the most to him or her. It’s also interesting to examine what equals love to you, so that you can see when someone is expressing love to you in a way that you’re not noticing.

If your partner’s love language is touch, for example, and he touches you a lot, that’s his way of expressing love, even if your language is different. Learn to appreciate it. And touch him a lot. And tell him what means the most to you.

Here are the 5 types of love languages that Mr. Chapman has identified, in no particular order:

  • Acts of Service– This is the one I relate to the most. Having someone do something for me when they can see I’m overwhelmed is practically an aphrodisiac to me. Want to show me you love me? Do my laundry! My boyfriend recently went to my house and left some chicken in the fridge for me so that I wouldn’t have to make lunch for the next day, because he knew I’d be exhausted. That moved me to tears.

  • Quality Time– Pay attention. Listen. Focus. If you want someone to feel special, just be there.

  • Words of Affirmation– Some people feel most special when they hear “I love you” or “I’m proud of you.”

  • Physical Touch– We’re not just talking sex, here. This means hand holding, or even just resting your hand lightly on your partner’s arm.

  • Receiving Gifts– This isn’t about being a gold digger. This is about being really touched by the effort it takes to obtain or make the gift, and the thought you put into determining what that person would like.

This is a fascinating avenue of inquiry. If you want to know what your love language is, take the test here. You may learn quite a bit.

I don’t know if Mr. Chapman gets into this in his book, but there are also a lot of toxic “love” languages out there. Here are a few I’ve seen:

  • Feeding– When food equals love, it tends to bring on health issues. I’ve seen many mother’s do this. “Eat hardy!” “Did you get enough to eat?” “Let me make you your favorite cake.” It’s a form of love, I suppose, but it’s very destructive.

  • Jealousy– I’ll never understand people who actually enjoy it when their partner is jealous. “He must really love me if he gets that upset.” That’s not love. That’s a warped control dynamic.

  • Teasing– It may start off as cute and funny, but over time it can evolve into insults and cruelty. Again, not the best path to go down.

What makes you feel most loved? Let me know in the comments below!

Love Languages

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Who Gave Me This Gift?

Here lately, I’ve been having quite a few frustration dreams. You know the kind. I’m lost and no matter how hard I try, I can’t find my way out. Or I keep cleaning, cleaning, cleaning, but the place is still a mess. Or I’m running in slow motion. Or I’m trying to say something really important, but no one is listening.

Just the other day, I was thinking about these dreams as I fell asleep. I was trying to figure out the source of my frustration. I was feeling… well… frustrated that I couldn’t reach any conclusions. And those thoughts, as I drifted off, triggered an even stranger dream.

In this one, I had been given the gift of a tank top. I do like tank tops, but it’s the dead of winter, so I was a little befuddled by this. I decided to try on the tank top anyway. It fit well, but I felt some strange lumps in the shoulder straps. I reached up and pulled out a wrench. And then a screw driver. And then a hammer. And then a saw… and so on. It was like the hardware equivalent of a clown car.

And then a voice said, “You have all the tools you need.”

That woke me up out of a sound sleep. Because… who was that?

The current thinking in terms of dream interpretation is that every actor in your dream is a manifestation of yourself. But that wasn’t me. I know it in the very marrow of my bones. My Id is not that confident. My Superego couldn’t be bothered. It wasn’t any part of me. Who, then?

A friend of mine theorizes that it was God. Her spiritual beliefs and mine aren’t very similar. I don’t anthropomorphize my higher power. And even if I did, in the Trump era, it’s safe to assume he or she has much bigger fish to fry.

Could it have been my mother, speaking to me from beyond the grave? Or my late boyfriend? My father? My sister?

I don’t know. I just know it wasn’t me. It was a good message, though. If it had been a sinister message I’d be worried. But it was a positive message. “You have all the tools you need.” The minute it was said, I believed it. So I’ll just focus on that.

Sometimes you just need to take the gifts that are given to you, and say thank you.

Voice of God

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Just Because It’s Yours Doesn’t Mean You Have to Keep It

I used to know a guy who had a photo of a cat. “Cute cat,” I said, “What’s his name?”

“I dunno. A pen pal sent that picture to me 30 years ago.”

“Are you still friends?”

“No.”

“Then why are you keeping the photo of a long-dead cat that belonged to someone you no longer know?”

“Because she sent it to me.”

He also keeps every gift he was ever given, including clothes that he never liked that never fit, and toys that he never played with that he’ll never sell. It’s a thing with him. He’d rather be a dumping ground than hurt someone’s feelings.

Personally, I can’t remember the vast majority of the things that I’ve given to people. So unless something is outrageously expensive or a family heirloom, if I’ve given you something that you don’t like, use, or need, feel free to get rid of it. You were not put on this earth to preserve my psyche. If it’s that fragile, then your hoarding my tchotchke isn’t going to keep my morale intact anyway.

We place entirely too much emotional value on “stuff”. I guarantee you that there are very few possessions that are worth your life. If your house is engulfed in flames, I doubt you are going to run back inside to rescue that cute pair of shoes.

Now that I live in a tiny little house, I’m trying really hard to pare down. It’s teaching me to be selfish and cold-hearted. In a good way.

If I’m reluctant to part with something, I examine that instinct closely. Why am I keeping it? Am I doing it for me or for someone else? Because here’s the thing (yes, there’s always a thing): No one else has to live in my space. I’m the one who has to dust, maintain, trip over, and be irritated by the stuff I choose to keep. George Carlin made a very good point when he talked about our houses being very big boxes with lids.

The older I get, the less I’m willing to deal with the detritus of life. My time is even more limited than my energy. It’s a safe bet that when I die, 95% of what I own will wind up either in a landfill or in the hands of complete strangers. How’s that for perspective?

Incidentally, this theory works for emotional baggage, too. Food for thought.

Anonymous cat

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An Introvert Throws a Party

Now that I’m a homeowner, I decided to have a housewarming party, for many reasons. First of all, it would give me the incentive to actually unpack. Second, this is a very close-knit community, and I really want to become a part of that. This would give my neighbors a chance to get to know me. And it would be a delightful mix of old friends and new, coming together to make my house a home. I really like that concept.

No, it wasn’t a cheap plea for gifts, although some people did bring some thoughtful and lovely ones. But it was a potluck, and I’ll be eating leftovers for at least a week. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

I am a classic introvert, and I haven’t thrown a party in at least a decade for good reason. The planning and preparation stressed me out. Who to invite? Who won’t show up? I need to clean x, y, and z. How will my dog Quagmire behave? I need plates, cups, chairs, condiments…

The party was to start at 6:30. No one showed up for the first 25 minutes. This gave me plenty of time to try not to freak out. “Nobody loooooves me!” It also gave me time to think about all the people that I invited who told me they weren’t coming. They love me enough to not stand me up, but not so much that they’d actually come. “Ouch! Stop that!”

In the end, 15 people came, and it was a wonderful time. Well… except for the Quagmire incident.

I needn’t have worried about how he would behave. He showed his ass from the very start. The first person who had the nerve to enter the house without his permission got attacked.

I was mortified. There was blood and peroxide and band aids and apologies. But the attack-ee was a lot more gracious than I would have been in similar circumstances.

Quagmire’s piss-poor behavior gave the party an awkward start. And he spent the rest of the evening in time out in the bedroom, barking his fool head off. (Had I known no one would see that room, I wouldn’t have bothered to clean it.)

But if you overlook the initial crisis in confidence and the canine violence, a lot of friends from various parts of my life came together and made new connections. The time flew by. The food was good. And apparently I’m not going to get sued. I’d consider that a success.

But introvert that I am, people suck the life out of me. So even though I had a great time, I was really glad when it was over. I slept for 10 hours straight that night.

So, that’s me done with the party obligations for at least another decade. Whew. There’s a load off.

Housewarming

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My Unbirthday Plans

According to Alice in Wonderland, if I’m not mistaken, any day that is not your birthday is your “unbirthday”, and is worthy of celebration. But that kind of sounds like work to me. So I pick the day that is 6 months away from my birthday, and celebrate that as my “official” unbirthday. On that day, I give myself gifts and/or I pamper myself. I celebrate the very “me-ness” of me.

But this unbirthday is going to be very special, indeed, because it will be the first night that my dog Quagmire and I will get to sleep in my brand new (to me) house! Granted, I’ll still have a few more days of moving, and, let’s face it, probably years of unpacking, and the place will probably be a shambles, with boxes everywhere, but still… I’ll be in my home.

Do you get the significance of that? After years of being at the mercy of landlords with their arbitrary rules, and sometimes their outright cruelty at worst and personality disorders at best, I will be free. Free to make a home of my own. That night I will lie in my bed and look up at the ceiling. My ceiling. And I’ll reflect on how stressful it has been to get to this point.

And I’ll be proud of myself. Because I did it. I made it. And with any luck, I’ll never have to freakin’ move again.

And I’ll probably order pizza delivery, eat it while taking a bath in my nice big tub, and give Quagmire a few extra treats. Because I can. And because God knows we’ll have earned them.

Happy unbirthday to me!

unbirthday

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The Past Isn’t Going Anywhere

I heard that somewhere recently and it really struck a chord in me. I know so many people who dwell in the past. They’re bitter about unresolved issues with people, or they’re longing for better times, or they are using the past as a convenient excuse not to move forward, or they are just exercising a lifelong habit of facing backwards. It makes me sad.

All that time we spend gazing at bygone experiences is really wasted energy for the most part, because that stuff does not require any care or feeding. It will always be there. It doesn’t need your nurturing or attention. On the other hand, what is happening right here and now, with the people who are standing right in front of you, most certainly does need your focus.

I’m not talking about reminiscing. It’s nice to recall happy memories every now and again. I’m talking about obsessing. I’m talking about being so stuck in your ancient history that you cannot progress. People who make that mistake rarely look up to see those around them. They don’t stop and smell the roses because they don’t even realize that any are in their midst. They are missing the everyday gifts that are given to all of us: the feeling of wind in your hair and sun on your face. Potential friends. Opportunities. Growth.

Am I some sort of expert at facing forward? Hardly. I have my issues. But at least I’m making an effort. I hope you are, too.

Take a moment to breathe in the now, and be grateful for it.

LiveNow

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The Anatomy of a Great Day

Have you ever had one of those days when everything seems to be wonderful? I had one about a week ago. (Thank you. More please.) So I decided to sort of dissect the day to see what I could do to increase its frequency.

I got up at 5 am, and was well rested for a change. I went to work and it was a pleasant day with no surprises or unexpected catastrophes. I even crossed paths with a coworker that I haven’t seen in about a year (different schedules, different bridges), and had a really pleasant conversation with him.

I got off work at 3 pm, and, having finally discovered a farmer’s market that’s actually open during my off hours, I went there. I reveled in the fresh fruit and vegetables, walking through the market several times before deciding which of the embarrassment of nutritional riches I would settle upon. I got a few huge heirloom tomatoes, still warm from the vine, and some red leaf lettuce. I looked at the artisan pizza with longing, but decided to save that for another day. Instead I treated myself to a locally made chunky peach popsicle.

I drove through a beautiful neighborhood I’d never explored, and fantasized about living there. Then I came home, fed the dogs, and made a salad with my newfound treasures, adding some carrots, mozzarella cheese, walnuts, nutritional yeast and ranch dressing that I already had on hand. It was the best salad I’d ever eaten, probably because of its freshness, local origins, and the fact that I was sitting in the sun in my back yard, watching my dogs play and hearing the birds sing. I also knew I was being kind to my body by eating something healthy that was also delicious.

After that I read a book while taking a long bath in lavender Epsom salts. My dogs kept stopping in and saying hello. I asked if they’d care to join me, but they politely declined.

Then I settled in to bed at a frightfully early hour: 5:30pm. Normally I wouldn’t think of turning in that early, but I had plans. As I drifted off, I was enjoying the concept that I can go to bed pretty much whenever I want to. I answer to no one. What unbelievable freedom!

I set the alarm for 11:45 pm, and got up and made myself a bowl of popcorn. I then repaired to the back yard once again, to enjoy nature’s light show in the form of the Perseids meteor shower. I ate my popcorn and thought about our vast universe, and how it makes me realize that any problems I may have seem to pale to insignificance in that context.

The night was pleasant and I love the fact that there seems to be not a single bug in Seattle that disturbs me in the slightest. I went back to bed around 1:30 am, and spooned with my dogs until it was time to get up for work.

So what made this day so great? So many things. I indulged myself. I pampered myself. There was no stress. I got exercise for my body as well as my mind. I felt the sunshine on my face, and I ate and rested well. I had pleasant encounters. I hugged my dogs. I appreciated nature. I relaxed. I broke my routine. And most of all, I maintained an attitude of gratitude every step of the way.

I think staying in the moment and acknowledging life’s gifts as they present themselves to you, as well as treating yourself with kindness, is the recipe for a happy life.

meteor