Unconventional

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 | Psalm 125 | James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17 | Mark 7:24-37

As much as we know it to be true that we aren’t perfect, that we can’t do everything or know everything, there’s something in our society that has conditioned us to believe that we can be those things. Our working norm is that we just need x, y, z to get to that better, bigger, happier place.

Think about a baby shower. A whole list of items promises the parent(s)-to-be that everything will be bright, new, and perfect. Those of us who have been through the phase a time or two or four know that really there are just a few essentials you need. Everything else you need is intangible, but you won’t typically find those items on the registry: items like babysitting while you shower/nap, meals and snacks for the family, phone-a-friend permission at 3am when you’re pretty sure your baby is going to starve to death because you can’t tell if they’re nursing properly, a list of resources for a counselor, lactation consultant, mommy groups . . . you get the idea. In fact, if these are the kinds of things you brought to the Pinterest-perfect baby shower, you’d be getting all the strange looks because your gifts were unconventional at best.

Speaking of “unconventional,” the realtor and I were swapping homeopathic remedies the other day, and I told her of a time when we lived in Fayetteville and were having a pizza party, thanks to my husband’s wood-fired oven in the back yard. The rock patio in front of it wasn’t finished yet, so we had a lot of rocks sort of positioned and scattered around, and there were some places in the flagstone that were sheeting off, leaving some very sharp rocks exposed. Along with our hedgeapple tree in the back, the ground was a landmine of dangers for the barefoot kids inevitably running around, no matter how much we told them to wear their shoes.

My oldest refers to this time in our lives as our “hippy” phase. At best we were pretty granola, but I was surrounded by folks inclined to a more natural lifestyle, which suited me just fine. Of course one of my kids cut his foot on one of the rocks, across the bottom of his foot like a crescent. I fretted over whether to take him to the hospital, wondering if they’d really be able to do anything, worried we couldn’t afford the co-pay. One of the lovely, earthy ladies at the party assured me not to worry, that it didn’t look that bad. She asked if I had any onions and clay. (Fortunately my husband was too busy making pizza when this was all suggested!) But in my gut I trusted her, and after cleaning it as best we could, we used the onion skin and clay to make a pack over the wound, wrapping it with plastic wrap to hold it in place. I could check it in the morning.

When morning came, and I wondered if I had lost my mind, I checked the cut and decided we’d take him to the walk-in clinic. You can imagine the look on the doctor’s face when I told her what we’d done. After she wrote a prescription for an antibiotic, she looked at me incredulously. “If I give you this prescription, you will give it to him, right?” “Of course I will,” I told her; I meant it and followed through. And he’s still doing okay, as far as I can tell, and he says he remembers that night. Taking a little unconventional advice saved me a lot of worry and money (which would have been worth it had he been in danger). I still keep clay on hand for spider bites.

When we cross over from the conventional to unconventional, the whole environment feels precarious, doesn’t it? Do we risk ridicule? What will others think? Will it even work? Am we even right? There’s a lot of uncertainty in unconventionality, and above all things, we fear what we don’t know.

These examples, though, aren’t too far outside the realm of normal or acceptability. What we read about in the Gospel according to Mark takes us to a whole other level.

Not only is an unaccompanied woman approaching Jesus and the disciples at table, but she is a Gentile unaccompanied woman. The only thing I could think of similar in our time would be if I entered the men’s worship space of the Bentonville Islamic Center during their Friday prayers and went straight to the Imam to ask for help. “Unconventional” would be a mild word to describe such an action. I couldn’t imagine doing it unless it were a dire emergency, and for this mother, it is. There wasn’t an ER to which she could take her possessed child. In their time and place, the Jewish people, God’s chosen, are the “children,” and everyone else, the Gentiles, are the “dogs.” I don’t think I need to give examples of the racial slurs used today, for even by mentioning their existence, you already are thinking of them. Could you imagine our neighbor the Imam dismissing me in a time of crisis with demeaning words? Could you imagine if we were getting ready for worship when someone came up for help or assistance, and I cast them away, referring to them with a slur of our time while in the same breath referring to our blessedness?

Why is it okay for Jesus to do it? Is it okay?

We want to jump to the end result: the woman stood her ground, and her daughter is healed. Everything worked out okay.

But we can’t skip over the hard realities, and we know there are many ways we can view what is. There’s a reason why we have several news channels, why we even have four gospels. We all interpret our present moment through our particular lenses. Those lenses, in turn, affect how we judge other people’s actions and reactions.

A woman finds Jesus when he’s trying to go unnoticed. She begs for healing for her daughter, but Jesus points out that the children are fed first, that it’s not fair to throw their food to the dogs. But she points out that even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs, and Jesus says that her daughter is healed, cleansed of the demon that had possessed her. The woman returned home and found the demon gone from her child.

As unconventional and unacceptable as it was for the woman to approach Jesus, so, too, was his offering healing to the Gentile woman, someone from the outside. She was an “other” in every sense of the word, yet Jesus extended his healing grace to her and her daughter. When I read this, I acknowledge that Jesus is using unfavorable images and language, but I see him making a statement of their reality, calling out the dissension in the community. He’s calling it out, and even as she recognizes the duality, the conflict, the woman also recognizes her need and the presence of that which will nourish her and her family. It reminds me of the hemorrhaging woman who had nothing else to lose and just needed to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment. They have faith. They believe. They respond wholeheartedly and vulnerably in the presence of Christ, and they are healed.

Jesus had to state what was the contemporary norm, what was considered conventional and acceptable. To us it seems very un-Jesus-like because Jesus is all about standing up for the poor, the sick, and the needy. He is! Yet he was also in the midst of his faithful followers, who were probably shaking their head in agreement with him even as they looked upon the woman with disdain, if they regarded her at all.

But Jesus crosses over into the unconventional when he listens to the distressed woman, engages with her in conversation, and then heals her daughter as she requested. Because no matter what the social norms were or are, Jesus is about doing the will of God, and God is for everyone, even if our society can’t see that or live into it, evidenced in our ongoing disdain and massacre of one another.

Our gospel continues with what seems like another general healing story, a little more graphic than we’re used to, with Jesus plugging a man’s ears and spitting and touching tongues and all, but a healing to be celebrated for sure. Jesus heals the deaf and mute, giving them ears to hear and mouths to speak. He healed them with curious actions–one might say they’re unconventional–and a word unfamiliar to us: “Ephphatha” or “effata,” meaning “Be opened.”

Open ears and open mouths. Jesus is also known to open eyes, too. Those with eyes to see and ears to hear know something about the way of Jesus. Those with open mouths apparently couldn’t keep them closed as they zealously proclaimed the marvelous deeds of Jesus.

Is it another healing story? Yes. Is it more? I believe so.

Even today, we need to know–however we can–what is going on around us, and we need the courage to see it for what it is, even if we have to call it out. Abuse, harassment, fraud, racism, discrimination, bullying–we could be and probably are witness to any of these things on any given day. Unfortunately, it’s been the norm, the convention, not to ruffle any feathers, to pretend we didn’t notice, or to let it go. Whatever we see is the demon in the child, and we are the mother. Do we bind ourselves to conventionality, our societal norms and expectations, to keep things functioning however dysfunctionally so that everything looks okay on the surface? Or do we realize the crisis of the situation? That we’re only as healthy as our weakest member? Do we have the courage of a mother who is willing to go before God saying, “I’m not leaving until you grant me what I need to get through this.”

Giving unconventional baby shower gift certificates and using homeopathic poultices are baby steps compared to the steps Jesus asks us to take as Christians. May our ears be open to hear the direction God calls us toward, our courage be strengthened to stand strong in the face of the adversary, and our love of God be reflected in our true love of neighbor and ourselves. I look forward to the day when such radical love is the norm.

 

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Let Go

Often I think of the need to let go or the act of letting go.  This afternoon I pondered that I have indeed let go – past tense.

I let go of some guilt (because I haven’t let go of it all, of course).  I let go of some expectations (ditto not letting go of all).  I let go of nearly all of my ideas of perfection (I’m trying, folks!).

When I let go, I find that I gain something else: a lot more breathing room.  Each exhale, in fact, is a letting go of that which we don’t need; we need to exhale.  All day and night, we are taking in thoughts, emotions, worries, anxieties, joys, etc.  We take in so much.  If you’re anything like me, eventually you have to step aside or sit down or go away for a while to let go, clear the mind, and breathe some fresh, clear air — in and out.  It’s lovely to take in a deep breath, to let out a deep sigh.  If I were better at letting go, each breath would be a new moment, not holding on to anything but keenly and mindfully observing that which is before me in that moment.  (And maybe I wouldn’t sigh quite so deeply as often.)

To clear one’s mind doesn’t mean we rid ourselves of the lessons learned from our experiences, the wisdom of our lives, or the emotions we feel and have.  We are very much of this life of ours, but we do not have to be so attached, clinging to it as if it were all that this life is about or as if someone could take it from us.  Such dependency seems to me as if it boils down to fear.  Being fully mindful and present, I believe we can open ourselves completely to the possibility of being in full connection with others.  In a way, that means we become vulnerable, possibly losing ourselves into the whole.  Is that a bad thing?

We have to let go.  Let the children play on the big kids’ playground.  Let our daughters go to the movies alone.  Let the children out of our eyesight, even for an entire weekend.  God grant me strength to let my children drive, fly, go to college, fall in love, be heartbroken, and discover themselves.

Mostly, though, I hope that I can let go enough to do my best, to love as deeply as I can, and to keep on breathing in all that is the blessed life of mine.

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Bedside Manner

At the day’s end, when I’m most exhausted, our youngest still makes sure that I come to tuck her into bed.  As parents, this is something my husband and I have always been pretty good about.  No matter how the day has gone, we make sure the last thing the kids hear before they slip into slumber is some variation of “Good-night-sweet-dreams-I-love-you.”

The act of getting on my knees beside her trundle bed reminds me that it’s time to be here, now; it pulls me into the present.  Perhaps knowing that she’s about to be my sole focus, that she’s about to have my utmost attention, is what brings her to bed so giddily.  She is usually very excited and giggily, or, if truly tired, she snuggles into her pillows and covers with deliberate intention, placing her hands together methodically and tucking them beneath her sweet, plump cheek before closing her eyes.

Sometimes she beats me to it.

“I love you, Mommy.”

Are there sweeter words?  They’re like balm to my maternal soul that has been battered and wounded.  All is well.

“I love you, too, Precious,” I reply, knowing that attachment is a dangerous thing, but the Lord of the Rings reference has become a running joke around here.  She is, after all, very “precious to me,” precious to us.

Sometimes I linger a while, resting my head beside hers.  Eyes closed, I listen for her breath to slow, to deepen.  With older sister in the bed slightly above, I’ll send my love to her again, too — out oud if she’s awake, intentionally if she’s not.  I settle into this supplication of devotion.  It’s not a comfortable position, mind you.  Circulation gets cut off at one limb or another, but I stay.

My hope is, of course, that the children will remember we tried to send them to bed with our love, even on nights when we kept them out or up too late and when they had long since fallen asleep.  When they’re too big to carry, we sleep-walk them, guiding them in the right direction.  (“Honey, your bed’s this way.”)  Sometimes they need literally to be steered.

Every child wants his/her parent’s or guardian’s attention.  We all want an outward and visible sign of the love that is either said too much or not enough.  I suppose the nightly ritual we have going is like our parental sacrament.  If the kids could experience this paternal love and affection as an outward and visible sign of an inward, invisible grace of God, then it would be, indeed — at least for us.  I’m okay with that.  It replaces the worldly attachment with a greater Love, one eternal and truly unconditional.  It’s not my aspiration to make every evening sacred.  It just is when it is (which is probably always), and some nights I’m more aware of it than others (and not nearly as often as I’d like).

Maybe I should start my days on my knees or on my meditation cushion, giving thanks for all that is and for the potential that is yet to be.

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This meditation led me to  my Lenten practice of extending my maternal blessing to my children, morning and evening.  I don’t always get to touch their foreheads, but even saying “bless you” or “blessings to you” somehow carries with it more deliberate Love than our vernacular “love you!”  I’m working on it.  As I said, it’s a practice.

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What Mary Knew

Of the four children smacking their cocoa-sweet lips and held captive by The Polar Express, one has a birthday this week, two days before Christmas.  Ten years ago I was 40 weeks pregnant, great with child.  But it wasn’t my first.  I had my support in place.  Preparations had been made.  I knew what to expect, more or less.

In this fourth week of Advent, I love that we light a pink candle to honor Mary.  I love remembering that she surrendered to something greater than herself, that she humbled herself to be a servant.  She didn’t know . . . she couldn’t know what was in store.

Every time I picture Mary or try to work with any kind of visualization or exercise of lectio divina, I have a sense of what Mary might have known.

Surrender.

What was happening was beyond her control.  It wasn’t just about Mary the innocent young woman suddenly expecting child.  As with every mother bearing child, from the moment the baby is conceived and grows, the mother can only do her best to keep healthy.  The formation of the child is left to genetics and the miracle of life.  A mother-to-be can seek the wisdom and comfort of other women to learn all that she can, but when it comes time to birth, there is no bringing forth of life without letting go of one’s identity.  Virgin Mary to Holy Mother of Jesus.  Can you imagine what Mary experienced alone in that stable?  Do you think she found in herself the capacity to pity poor Joseph standing helplessly by?  Could there have been a woman from the Inn who had mercy?  Such details are left unaccounted.

Next thing we know is that there’s a baby in a manger.  Mary has a child, a dependent.  This child’s existence depends upon her care and attention.  She knows this.  With her surrender, though, she knows this child she cares for is not hers alone.  She cares for this precious child not only as her own but as one of God’s . . . as God.  Did she know this?

Could she truly sense this from the beginning?  Could she know the heartache that would come?

From the very beginning, this would be beyond her comprehension.  She might never fully understand.  She could only do her best to do what was required of her in every moment.  She would live fully into each moment, keeping her heart as open as possible to live into the will of God.  This would be the best she could do.  It’s the best any of us can do.

Oh, that I have the humility to live into every moment with awareness and true surrender.  May I raise my children so that they will grow into the beings they are meant to be, not what or how I want them to be.  May I have the strength to be a mother of strength, love, and acceptance.

My children are blessings to me.  I am surrounded by abundance, and I understand this mother role . . . more or less.

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“My Fav’rite”

Right now, our youngest describes things according to her preference.  For example, she says, “Chickies my fav’rite,” and “Worms not my fav’rite.”  (“Fav’rite,” of course, is her way of saying favorite; she just drops the “o” sound.  I wish I had a sound clip because it is absolutely adorable and otherwise completely enunciated.)

In her toddler world right now, she is the sun, and everything else revolves around her.  If you’re not her fav’rite, then you might as well be on the dark side of the moon.  She has a look for you if she thinks that way, and those of you who know her know what I’m talking about.  🙂

In my world right now, I have many favorites shining forth.  Quality time with family and friends, sunshine, gardening.  I don’t get to spend nearly enough time in these arenas, but I love them dearly.  I also love the results of spring cleaning and even the time spent doing so, if I can tap into the right frame of mind.  The skies before a storm.  Watching the chickens find what I cannot see in the dirt.  Listening to others speak their Wisdom.  Feeling that which cannot be seen in another’s suffering.  Watching the miracle of birth unfold in more ways than one.  Learning.  Growing.  Loving.

What may seem like the dark side of the moon in my world is really just like night time or lying fallow in the earth.  The love I feel for everything these days, the compassion I find in oh-so-many places and faces — expected and unexpected, the suffering I know about or stumble upon, all this combines and swirls in the One.  Truly this is a Mystery, but I trust it.  I trust that all things rise and fall in my awareness.  What needs to be done will be done.  What needs to be known will be known.  I hope that I’m where I need to be when I need to be there.

Maybe my busy life is more simple than I realize.  With the right frame of mind and a solid, grounded presence, there’s an altered time, if even time at all.  We can experience life moment by moment, and that is definitely one of my fav’rites.

(photos of some fav’rite moments: Ashton reading, Alexander making artful eggs, Avery & Dino (his chicken), and Autumn making cookies)

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Present Enjoyment

“Presence is the straight and narrow gate through which one passes to Wisdom.”

Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Way of Knowing

When being present is as easy as enjoying a morning cup of coffee while listening to the doves cooing outside or retiring to bed after finishing a good read, life is light.  Sign me up for living life in the present moment!  This is the easy part.

It takes far more effort to be present when the kids plead for us to come play outside with them.  How could any decent parent deny a request for “tickle tag,” especially when the little boy is positively giddy with excitement?  Somehow we compromised and ended up outside in the garden while the kids played.  Promise of a weekend bonfire guaranteed more time together outdoors.

The effort to be present when the kids are screaming and arguing all around, when cleaning up all their garbage from the past weeks in the van (including leftover pancake and peanut butter — how long ago was that?!?), when at the end of the day no one has really done their chores or wants to do anything else, is supremely difficult for me.  I want the moment to be over.  I want to get to the moment that will be more enjoyable.

See.  That’s my laziness.  I don’t mind being present, mindful, what-have-you, so long as it doesn’t take too much energy on my part.  Admitting you have a problem is the first step, right?  But I realize there’s no growth in that.  I have consciously boosted my awareness to include the more difficult moments.

Now, what might seem incredibly difficult for you probably isn’t for me.  I’m a doula; some of my greatest gifts for calm and comfort come in what can be highly stressful situations.  I’m not easily grossed out or afraid of the truly tragic. (Now, if someone beside me smells bad in the checkout line, I will likely make my “stinky face.”)  My most difficult lessons surround an appreciation and respect for myself and for those nearest and dearest to me, namely, my children.

I love being a student, though.  Regarding my children as the best teachers I’ve ever had increases my appreciation and respect for them.  One day they will understand this because I’m quite certain that right now they don’t!

So for now I’ll enjoy the present, realizing that time truly flies.  I led the La Leche League meeting yesterday without any children in tow.  I shared that my three-year-old had stayed the night with a friend, much to some shock, I’m sure.  But a fourth child brings a new level of letting go into the process of parenting.  I’m fully aware, though, that enjoying the present moment also means letting go of attachments.  I don’t have a baby anymore.  My oldest is a pre-teen.  The children are growing and changing every day.  I do myself and them a favor by savoring the time we share, the lessons we learn.

Wisdom is all around us.

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Vegetarians Among Us

Among the many choices we have in this life, we get to choose what we eat.  We have options.  I’m sure animals in the wild have options, too.  They show preferences toward certain plants; some edibles are probably tastier than others.  They could eat the poisonous ones, but survival instincts tell them to steer clear.  Undoubtedly the human race would be better off if our survival instincts were so strong that we would opt not to put poison into our bodies.  I digress . . .

Our two older children have decided to become vegetarian, and so has one of their friends.  Lately, out of necessity, most of our meals have been vegetarian anyway, but now it’s becoming part of the meal planning.  Actually, we need to do more meal planning, incorporating intentional vegetarianism into the diet, making sure the nutritional value is there.

Being responsible parents, we did ask for their motives.  It may seem hard to believe, but “going vegetarian” can still be a fad.  We wanted to make sure their intentions were clear, good, and stable.  While we cannot be 100% sure, their dedication in the past week or two has shown stamina and dedication.  We even asked if they would prefer we only purchased local meat, where we could go see how the animals were treated.  The kids have said they’re not opposed to eating occasional fish, but otherwise, no meat.  I’ll have to learn how to cook fish (and stand the smell of it — ugh).  We move forward.

Fortunately, there are many resources to be had, both online and in print.  We also have friends who have wonderful recipes and are willing to share their experiential knowledge.  And my experience shows me that if you raise conscientious, free-thinking children, you have to be willing to work a little harder, go the extra mile, and support them in their endeavors and choices.  Nurture them; that’s another choice we have.

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What a Mother Should Never Forget

My youngest and her equally young friend pick raspberries in the autumn wind and sun, bundled in their jackets, their hands turning red.  Of course, on their return inside, there’s a heap of jackets, socks and shoes near the rocking chair/climbing gym.

My boys and their friend huddle around their DSes, plotting, sharing and exclaiming together as new levels are achieved.  A day home from school means anything can happen.  Today I’ll witness them conquer new worlds.

My oldest retreats to her room.  A house full of young ones is not her ideal.  Weeks can be stressful, especially when one has to balance living in the world with an old soul in a young body.  I should know.  She asked almost pleadingly if she could play on her DS today, too . . . after chores, of course.  I agreed.

Tonight we jump-start the Halloween celebration by dressing in costume and going to a classical concert of “spooky” music.  Tomorrow we celebrate a birthday, All Hallow’s Eve and our friendships at a couple of Halloween parties.  But as my husband remarked, we should celebrate the kids, with the kids, this weekend.  After he attended the three parent-teacher conferences, he was reminded (and thus reminded me) how wonderful our children are, how blinded we can be by being with them so much and getting muddled in the day-to-day routines.  This weekend, we celebrate.

And as their mother, I should never forget how holy each day is that I see the joy in their eyes, the fragility of their person,  the Light in their lives.  Whether we  birth our children in body or heart, whether they are with us in body or spirit, these things among many are what a mother should never forget.

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With a heart full of Love, I give thanks.

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Time to Sit

Yesterday morning started with the normal frenzy of a young family household getting three kids ready for school and then a mom trying to decide which thing to do first, followed by a slew of other things.  I let my three-year-old determine the first course of action.  She wanted to go to the gym to see a friend; I knew I needed to go to the gym.

Ironically, I sat on the stationary bike reading in preparation for a class I’m leading today.  The topic:  HeartMath, compassion, patience, changing my concept of time, being fully present.  My legs pedaled along, my eyes moved forward, and I tried to sit quietly, absorbing my reading.  I appreciated the irony of my multi-tasking.

My three-year-old changed my course, again, as she decided to go home with a friend.  Suddenly, my morning opened even more.  Pottery?  Writing?  Sewing?  What to do next on my own.

I had told a friend we would come play, but now I was alone.  I called her anyway, and found her scurrying to clean before her mom showed up.  But her toddler insisted upon being carried.  I found myself volunteering to come help her clean for a bit; I’d still have time to go home and do something before my afternoon appointments.

At my friend’s house, rather than cleaning, I was asked to hold the toddler.  He melted into my arms and chest and soon fell asleep.  All I had to do was hold him.  All I had to do was be calm and still.  I was given time to sit, holding that precious reminder that children bring us just to be.  My friend got to clean without an aching back, and I got time to be still, snuggling with her warm babe.  I left not long before her mom arrived to a house mostly restored.

I didn’t have time to go back to my own home, but I did have time for coffee and a snack at another friend’s house.  I arrived at my afternoon meetings peaceful and present.

Maybe I should let my youngest help me make decisions more often.  Maybe I just need more time to sit.

Thanks be to the children.

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Are You Happy?

This is an extremely loaded question.  There are many levels to a person’s well-being.

What I’m wondering is if you’ve given thought to your own happiness of late.  How do you define being “happy”?

When I was in high school, my senior year I gave posters to some of my closest friends, duplicating by hand 365 reasons to be happy around and around the posterboard.  I don’t know if they still have the posters tucked away somewhere, rolled up in a closet, or if they trashed them upon one of their many moves.  I wish I had kept that list.  I’d like to look it over, see which ones still apply 10+ years later.

I think I’m due to make a revised list.  Feel free to post a comment adding your reasons.  When we get to 365, I’ll make a separate new post with 365 reasons to be happy.

By feeling happy, I mean having an overall sense of well-being, feeling in accord with yourself, others and the world, following the “right” path.  For me, it’s that overcoming rush or shiver that spills forth, and I could just sing out in operatic song “life is so good!” if, indeed, I could sing in opera (which I can’t and don’t).

I’ll get us started with five:

1. Watching my healthy, sleeping children.
2. Belly-laughing about something my husband has told me.
3. Finding a rainbow with the family — bonus if it’s a double rainbow.
4. Having no late fees, penalties — bills paid in full, on time.
5. Helping a mother recognize her own accomplishments.

Like I said, feel free to add yours in the comments.  I’ll add some, too, and when we reach 365 (or more), I’ll make a new post.  You have reasons to be happy; share the love!!

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