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Tiny Beautiful Things

1 Mar

I recently read the most wonderful book: Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed, the author of the best selling memoir, Wild. This lovely little book is a compilation of letters sent to the author while she worked writing an advice column for the Rumpus called Dear Sugar. My childhood friend Michele (one of my fellow creative soul sisters) recommended it to me as she understands my constant angst about trying to find happiness through creative expression.

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I needed this book right now. I haven’t felt like myself lately. Each morning when I turn on the television I want to either scream or cry at what’s happening in our country. I need to start my next novel and every time I sit down at the computer–I’ve got nothing. I stare blankly at the screen until I finally give up and log into Facebook where the political posts made me even more depressed. Just before falling asleep in bed each night, my brain manifests all kinds of wonderful and exciting writing ideas, then when I wake up the next morning, I can’t remember a single one.

The best thing about Tiny Beautiful Things is that we learn something that we already know: life is hard sometimes. We are all sad and raw and completely lost at some point in our lives. the trick is to understand that with each experience there’s a lesson to be learned. We don’t always pay attention, but it’s there.

I’m not sure what my lesson is lately. Certainly, I need to feel more gratitude for what I have. And I have so much. So I will pay attention to all the tiny beautiful things that are right in front of me.

 

 

 

Marching

24 Jan
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My daughters, Nora and Isa with my husband, Rene at the Los Angeles Women’s March last Saturday.

This past Saturday I marched. While my husband and two of my daughters drove to attend the women’s march in Los Angeles, I opted to participate locally in Santa Barbara and marched down State Street with two of my closest friends. I’ve never attended a protest march before, and I’ve got to say, it was a magical experience seeing so many people come together to make a statement. But then, I’m a white woman of privilege, and this gives me the option of feeling good about my participation. I’m allowed to pat myself on the back for taking part in this wave of change.

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The crowd in De la Guerra Plaza, Santa Barbara

It’s difficult to admit to myself that because I’m white, my life is easier than those of my family members and friends of color. I can try to assert that as a woman, I’ve been on the receiving end of sexist and misogynistic behavior, but the truth is that because of my color, (or lack thereof) I’m given a free pass to do pretty much what I want with my life. Although for almost thirty years I’ve been married to a man of color while living comfortably in liberal Santa Barbara, California, I’ve gotten comfortable wearing my upper middle-class blinders all these years. I’ve deceived myself into believing that most people are color blind.

They’re not.

We’re not.

I’m not.

The sooner we talk about this, the sooner real change can happen.

Please read the following for some valuable perspective on this issue.

From my author friend, Tracey Baptiste’s Facebook page:

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Tracey Baptiste

January 22 at 5:15am ·

This picture has been making the rounds, and making people feel a lot of things. Some think it’s an image of defiant division on a day of unity. It’s not. But I’ll get to that.

There are a lot of things about this image that I love. I love the faces of the women, the colors, the composition: the way the foreground is off to the side, and the background is centered. I love the juxtaposition of the sign and its message with the women standing behind and above it. I love that the holder of the sign is looking away, sucking a lollipop.

This image holds many ideas at once: beauty, defiance, mockery, chill, joy, power, bravery, which is probably why it strikes a nerve with different people for different reasons. It does much of what I was taught art is supposed to do: provoke, entertain, speak real emotional truth.

But there is another idea I see in this picture: betrayal.

People are hurt by this photo because “not all white women…” except that’s not the point of the sign. The sign is hyperbole. But the feeling of betrayal this woman feels, and is expressing are not.
She has come to the march with her sign, with the very women she feels have betrayed her at her back. But she has come anyway because there is a bigger cause. A bigger fight. She probably feels if it was a black issue that none of these women would stand with her as she is standing with them, but she has come anyway. And she has come with a clear communication to those around her that their activism has not been intersectional. Their calls for unity are hypocritical. But there she is.

This is not an image of divisiveness. This is an image of unity with the very people who would divide HER, despite their divisiveness.

I love this photo.

ETA: Photo credit: Angela Marie Peoples co-director of Get Equal Now

 

From my daughter, Leah’s Facebook page in response to an article in the Huffington Post: 

 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/before-you-celebrate-the-zero-arrests-at-the-womens-march_us_588617e4e4b0e3a7356a3ee4?

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There are so many thought-provoking pieces available on the significance of the women’s march this past weekend. They all put into words what I haven’t been able to articulate over the past few days: the feeling of simultaneous joy and discomfort that refuses to settle in my stomach. Because, let’s be real: the march, a beautiful display of love, respect, unity, and progress, was also evidence of the continued issues of intersectionality (racism, classism, cis-predominant and anti-trans sentiments, ableism, etc.) that exist within the realm of feminism and women’s rights.
I just want to say…as a biracial, white-brown woman, I am used to the nausea that comes with feeling two things at once. The feeling when you are both right and wrong; both white and brown; both privileged and oppressed; both an activist and the perpetrator. But for those of you experiencing it for the first time – namely, the first-time protesters who marched on Saturday and are all of a sudden being told that your activism was only motivated by convenience and Facebook likes – listen to me. Take a deep breath. It’s okay!! You, and those who are saying these things, are both right and wrong. Yes, both. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. But you marched, or thought about marching – you’re an activist now. And to be an activist is to face your own faults, privilege, and mistakes head on, humbly, and with the understanding that just because showing up late is better than not showing up at all, that doesn’t mean that everyone has to celebrate your arrival.
I am fortunate in that my contradictions lie directly in the diluted melanin of my skin – it’s like my light-brown tone serves as a constant, visual reminder that I can have two truths at once. To my white women friends and family members, I am sorry you do not have as obvious of a cue to own your dual realities, because it is going to take so much more effort to get used to your co-existing identities of being both the oppressed and the oppressor. And I am sorry for wishing this transformation upon you because I know that being called out for your privilege is not a good feeling – but it is a necessary one, because it is truth.
So don’t avoid the articles like this one. Seek them out. Embrace the discomfort. Preach the duality of your identities to those who might not have woken up yet, but are on their way. Because we are all needed right now, at the marches, on the phones, and in the everyday conversations that change minds and promote empathy. We all need to show up, shut up, and get to work.

 

Let’s start talking.

Really talking.

Thankful

26 Nov

There is nothing more blissful than a rainy Saturday afternoon. Even better, being able to get outdoors during a break in the rain and revel in the beauty of this wet day. Even though my heart is heavy about what’s happening in our country right now, I’m choosing to set my worries aside for one lovely, quiet afternoon and reflect upon all the gratitude I have for my wonderful life.

There is a lovely park near our home that used to be a private ranch but is now a county park open to the public. Numerous hiking paths meander around a small lake filled with all kinds of water fowl. Come along and take a walk with me. Perhaps you will even be able to smell the wet earth…

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I absolutely love the vibrant red of these berries!

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Before long, these grasses will be bright green.

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The dogs (and Rene) are so happy to get out of the house!

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A new tree popping up in front of trunk of a dead tree

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Almost felt like I was in the English countryside!

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Nothing better than the scent of wet Eucalyptus!

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Stow House at Rancho La Patera in Goleta, California

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And because it’s Thanksgiving week, I can’t resist sharing a photo of my wonderful family.

Shine

9 Nov

Today I mourn for the America I thought was mine. I’ve been holding back the tears all morning long, not because my candidate lost, but because I’ve realized that the ideals I wholeheartedly believe in—equality, respect and love for others has been superseded by hate, fear and ignorance.

I came across this post by Anne Presuel on Facebook this morning and it touched me deeply. I share it with you in the hope that you see yourself as a fellow lightworker.

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“As a country, I believe we have chosen this path. As a country, we have said that we think a man like Trump can lead us into a better tomorrow.

I think we are going to enter into a dark-night-of-the-soul period now that will require ALL of the lightworkers to step up in a bigger way than ever before.

We have no choice but to go through this. And in going through this, we are going to learn as a country what love truly looks like. Because when a choice is made from a dark place of fear and hate, light must shine in order for healing to take place.

So, lightworkers, you are up to this. We can do this. The next 4 years (at least) is going to ask us to be someone we don’t even know right now. But we can do it.

I’m personally so sad that we’ve chosen this, but sometimes a deep dark-night-of-the-soul is what’s needed in order to grow in consciousness and awareness.”

–Anne Presuel, November 9, 2016

This is the start of a new beginning of light. Let’s shine together so bright that we blind the world with love.

Midlife Crisis

17 Oct

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I’ve recently decided that I’m going through my first real midlife crisis. At least I hope that’s what it is—perhaps I have another 54 years ahead of me. Whatever it is though, I’m struggling to find the joy lately.

I could blame my depression on several things:

1) No takers on my novel so far. I do have one agent still looking at it, but no word back yet. I’m savvy enough to know that for new writers trying to get published, this is not uncommon. It’s still hard on the ego, though.

2) The ELECTION. Like a looky-loo at a car accident, I’m sickened but at the same time, strangely captivated. I can’t seem to pull my eyes away from the tragedy playing out on television while eagerly waiting for another car (or scandal) to plow into that already huge pile of carnage.

3) My children are growing up and leaving me. I know this is as it should be, but shedding my role as caretaker of four is harder than I thought it would be. Thank goodness I still have six years left with Isa.

4) Getting older sucks. Menopause, wrinkles, aches and pains all remind me that while inside I’m still that sixteen-year-old girl, my body proves that she is long gone. I should have loved her more when she was around.

“White-privileged, first-world problems,” my husband admonishes me. “Get over yourself.” As a person of color, he’s allowed to say this to me. Growing up poor in Mexico, he knows about real poverty, discrimination and suffering. Sure, I’ve had my moments of pain, but fully understand I’ve lead a privileged life. After recently calculating our wealth on Globalrichlist.com. I’m actually embarrassed to admit how far up on the scale we are. I have NO reason whatsoever to complain.

Still, I can’t seem to shake this feeling of “What if?” What if I’d starting writing earlier? What if I’d made exercise a priority throughout my life? What if I’d traveled the world when I was young and had the energy? What if I’d learned to love myself a long time ago?

Hey Jess—do you want some cheese with your whine?

Okay, rant over. No one can fix me but me. I need to look for the good, so I’m off to practice some intentional gratitude.

I’ll start with a heartfelt THANK YOU for following my blog. I truly appreciate your readership.

There. I feel better already.

Just to remind myself of how lucky I am, I’m posting some photos of things I’m grateful for:

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Black-eyed Susans in the garden

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Time spent with my beautiful daughters

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My daily view of the Santa Ynez mountains

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Isa and our babies, Cody and Leo

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The vibrant color of this late autumn hollyhock.

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There are really no words to express my gratitude for my family.

The Bully

12 Aug

I live with a bully in my head who says awful things to me all day long—despicable things I would never dream of saying to a friend, let alone an enemy (if I had one.) Yet I find myself listening with rapt attention to my tormentor, choosing instead to believe the negative rhetoric when I should be grabbing it by the collar and telling it to SHUT UP once and for all. It’s like having a personal Donald Trump in my brain. Even as I write these words, Donald is telling me that I’m a terrible writer, that no one cares what I have to say—that I’m basically a DISASTER, folks.

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I’m sure my depressed state of mind can be attributed to quite a lot of recent rejection and the fact that I still haven’t found an agent to represent my novel. I was off to such a great start back in May. After querying some agents, several requested to read the full manuscript. I happily emailed my novel off to them, halfway expecting them to all say YES! Your novel is exactly what we’re looking for! Please sign with us!

Yeah, right. Instead, it was “While your writing is quite good, no one here is willing to take on your novel as a project…” or “This is not the right fit for our agency, but as the literary business is quite subjective, I’m sure there are other agents out there who will feel differently…”

We’ve all heard the stories—writers pasting up their rejection letters on the wall or keeping a file folder of rejection emails—or how now famous writers received hundreds of rejections before finally publishing that bestselling novel.

I know I’ve just begun the process of many months—maybe even years of trying to get published. As of today, I’ve received over twenty-five rejections—twenty five people telling me that they don’t want me. I know this is to be expected, but it still hurts. I will hold out hope that I soon hear from the one agent who liked my story and told me that although she had a pile of manuscripts to read, mine was on her list. She told me to be patient.

I will wait. I will keep sending out queries. And I will fight with everything I’ve got to ignore that annoying Donald Trump voice in my head.

That bully is going down.

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The Pacification

19 Apr

 

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My son, Nino is graduating from University of California Santa Barbara this coming June. He is an art major who specializes in printmaking. This week he’s having a solo art show at UCSB’s Glass Box Gallery entitled “The Pacification” which explores his relationship with his father. Since many of you won’t be able to attend, I thought I’d share some of his work on my blog.

I’m so proud of Nino for following his passion. He started U.C.S.B. as an Economics/Accounting Major and I knew this was not the path he should have chosen. Luckily, he realized that creating art is what makes him happy and changed his major. In July he’ll be off to live in Oaxaca for sixth months where he will continue to study printmaking.

Here is the explanation behind this show and some examples of his work:

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The artist, Nino Mireles

Breathe

12 Feb

I recently read the inspiring book—When Breath Becomes Air by Dr. Paul Kalanithi. It’s the story of a highly educated man with degrees in English literature and biology who becomes a renowned neurosurgeon and neuroscientist. A lover of literature and philosophy, Kalanithi writes eloquently about his family, his education, and being diagnosed with stage four lung cancer at age thirty-six.

Here’s a doctor who treats terminally ill patients suddenly facing his own mortality. Before he dies, he’s able to write this poignant book about the true meaning of life.

I guess what really resonated with me about his story was that for years Kalanithi put life on hold while working diligently to become the best possible neurosurgeon—spending hours and hours studying, researching and performing surgeries to leave his mark on the world. Yet in the end what really mattered was not his career, but his wife, baby daughter and extended family.

Why does it take something so devastating to wake us up to what’s really important? When my own daughter was diagnosed with cancer, I thought I had learned my lesson. Yet after almost ten years it’s still a struggle for me to consistently take pleasure in the little things. That darn “if only” pattern of thinking seeps into my subconscious, constantly diluting all the precious joy.

Fortunately, I have found a way to break free from these negative thought patterns—by practicing gratitude. Every day as I go about my daily tasks, I try to consciously think about how very lucky I am.

Today was full of the little things: Sleeping in because of a school holiday; breakfast out with Rene and Isa followed by a glorious walk to our local butterfly preserve. Watching the dogs romp happily through the grass, soft and green from the recent rains. Running into neighbors at the local pizza parlor and joining them for lunch and delightful conversation. A trip to the library. Little things, really—but oh, so very big.

Life is short. Be kind and show gratitude. Nurture relationships.

Revel in the beauty around you. LOVE. I will die someday and so will you.

Breathe deeply before that breath becomes air. It’s that simple.

The House Next Door

4 Sep

fall 5I can’t quite believe it, but they’re finally gone. A sense of peace has settled in over the neighborhood and for the first time in a very long time I feel like I can breathe again. I no longer have to close every window, turn the ceiling fan on full blast and shove foam earplugs into my ears just so I can get some sleep at night. Now I fall asleep to the sound of singing crickets, wind chimes tinkling in the breeze and the train conductor sounding his forlorn whistle while stopping at the station a few miles from my house. For the first time in years, I can finally leave the windows wide open during an August heatwave.

Living in close proximity to your neighbors has many benefits—those of which I’ve certainly reaped over the years. My kids have always had other children to play with—currently, my ten-year old daughter’s best friend lives right across the street. There are a couple of homes on our street whose kitchen larders are like a veritable corner market from which I can borrow on a never need to pay back basis—a stick of butter, a cup of rice or a roll of toilet paper are mine for the asking (Thank you, Annie and Bonnie.) Our neighbors are friendly, mostly made up of semi-ethnically diverse middle class (if there still is such a thing) productive people who all go to bed at a reasonable hour because they have to get up in the morning to go to work. Other than a persnickety, older childless couple who has managed to alienate everyone in the neighborhood, all of us get along just fine.

Enter the “Renters” as I call them. The house next door to us has been a rental for over twenty years and for the most part the tenants didn’t cause any real problems other than the occasional loud party. They kept to themselves and that was fine with us. Then the New Guy moved in.

We always made it a point to be friendly with the people who moved in and out next door and we were with the New Guy, too. We’d chat with him for a few minutes, wave from our cars and return his mail that had been mistakenly delivered to our house. Things were fine until we noticed that the New Guy and his roommates lived a little on the wild side, having an exorbitant number of parties in their backyard, and not just on the weekends. And these backyard parties were epic—with massive alcohol consumption, cigarette and pot smoking, and raging bonfires that would last until the wee hours of the morning. These people had no idea how to talk to each other in a normal tone of voice. Everything was amplified—every word communicated with a shout. Let me make it clear that they were not free-wheeling college students whose frontal lobes hadn’t yet matured—they were all adults. On numerous occasions I had to yell at them to please turn down the music and take the party indoors which sometimes worked but mostly didn’t. I even called the police a few times but didn’t want to sign a complaint because you never know what people will do when you put them on the defensive.

Then the New Guy decided that he wasn’t going to pay for his refuse or recycling pick-up anymore. He left dozens of bags of trash to accumulate and rot in his side yard and soon there were rats visiting on a nightly basis. We would sit in our hot tub and listen to the skittering and rustling on the other side of the fence as the rats feasted on an unlimited amount of delicious garbage. Before long, the rats came over to our side of the fence looking for a warm place to bed down in our laundry room. Last winter alone we trapped at least ten rats. Along with his pet rats, New Guy also had two Pit Bulls (they were actually great dogs) and a pet pig.

The New Guy also had some questionable aquaintances. He wanted to help out a friend who recently got out of prison (we figured this out after repeated visits to their house by a parole officer) and decided the best thing would be to let his friend live in a rundown trailer that was parked in the driveway. It was a pretty nice set-up—including a huge flat screen television which every evening would flicker blue light into the neighborhood along with the smell of constant cigarette smoke from the chain-smoking parolee. I know, I know—here I am sounding like a judgmental old lady who is spouting “not in my backyard” but seriously? Living in a trailer in the driveway?

The noise next door began to escalate. New Guy drove a big truck with a loud engine, but worst of all, he had a stereo woofer in his car that he would play so loudly that it actually made our house vibrate. Often I would go to bed at eleven p.m. and the backyard next door would be quiet—I’d breathe a sigh of relief and sink into a welcomed slumber only to be awakened a few hours later by loud music and people partying. How these people drank so much and still managed to go to work the next day is beyond my comprehension. As time went on, more junk began to accumulate in the front yard and the house deteriorated even more. The stress of living next door to these people was beginning to get to me.

Suddenly, there was some good news. The homeowner decided to move back in to the house with his family. The New Guy was given his evictiion notice. My heart leapt with joy when I saw the U-Haul truck parked outside one afternoon. The owner is currently fixing up the house and will move in shortly. I got to peek inside the house before the owner carted off three full dumpsters worth of trash. Let’s just say I’ve never seen anything like it before in my entire life.

I’m happy once again on the street where I live, in the house that I love and where I can go to bed each night with a sense of peace and tranquility.

And who says there are no such things as miracles?

The Long Road Home

26 May

Eight isa pile of puppiesyears ago, our lives changed forever.

The doctor sat us down in the hospital room, his face full of concern. “We finally know what it is,” he said, quietly, “She has a form of leukemia.”

For two agonizing days, my husband and I had been pacing the hospital hallways waiting for the bone marrow biopsy to tell us what was wrong with our daughter. Now a pediatric oncologist with tired eyes and a stethoscope around his neck was telling us that our fourth child—our baby girl—had cancer.

Those ominous words should have expelled all the air from my lungs, buckled my knees out from under me, or caused me to run screaming down the hospital corridor—but they didn’t. Oddly, I felt only relief. We finally had a definitive answer as to why my two year-old was so sick. Yes, it turned out to be cancer—but at least we knew what it was and could immediately get started on saving her life.

I can do this, I told myself, not realizing that our ROAD TRIP TO HELL was about to begin. For the next two and a half years, our family would travel down that bumpy, pot-holed road, the gas tank running on empty, the tires balding and the radiator constantly threatening to overheat as we navigated our way through a cancer diagnosis without a map. Isa, strapped into her car seat, would thrash about in the back, sweaty and miserable as she crammed Lays potato chips into her mouth, the salty snacks the only food she ever wanted to eat. In the rearview mirror I watched in horror as my beautiful daughter morphed into this hairless, grotesque creature with a protruding belly and swollen cheeks. Her normally sweet brown eyes were filled with an unrecognizable fury caused by the steroids that we crushed into a white powder and mixed with cherry syrup, feeding it to her each night like a special treat.

The constant fear was the worst part—the multiple surgeries to infuse chemo into Isa’s spine; the weekly lab reports signaling her low blood counts which indicated a non-functioning immune system. This meant staying indoors, constant hand-washing and no visitors. A high blood count report meant that I could actually breathe again until the next round of chemo started. For years my hands rarely left Isa’s body as I felt her skin for any sign of fever. When her skin burned with a temperature over 101.5 it meant a trip back to the hospital—cool skin under my fingertips meant no infection and it was such an enormous relief it was like diving into a refreshing swimming pool on a hot, summer day.

Now, eight years after Isa’s diagnosis of cancer, the lives of our family have returned to normal—if there even is such a thing. Isa is perfectly healthy with no long-term effects from the chemotherapy. Now I can’t even remember the names of all the medications she took. Our daughter is blossoming into an intelligent and thoughtful young girl with a wicked sense of humor. Every day when I see her beautiful smile and hear her laugh, my heart fills with gratitude.

And although we are beyond delighted with our happy outcome, we do carry residual sadness in our hearts from losing children we have known and loved during this long trip. That sorrow gets easier as time goes on, but it will never go away. And I believe that’s a good thing—because in remembering those who have died, we are more apt to cherish those who are still here with us.

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As we approach the eighth anniversary of Isa’s diagnosis, I’m truly thankful for what our family went through all those years ago. I’m grateful for the friends, family and those in the medical field who supported us back then—and who still support us today. I’m grateful that this experience changed me, and that I’m not the same woman I used to be. I’m more loving, more appreciative, more present in the moment, and more at peace with myself than I was before Isa got sick. I’ve realized how incredibly strong I am. I understand that there is only right now, and most importantly, that not only is it acceptable for me to put myself first at times—it’s often necessary. After all, I’m the one behind the wheel.

Our long road trip was arduous and exhausting and I consider it a miracle we arrived home safely. I’ve no doubt there will be other journeys as our family navigates down that long road of life, but lately it’s become a much smoother ride. So smooth, in fact—that now we can actually take time to roll down the windows, breathe in the sweet spring air and marvel at the scenery.