Arriving at Some Moments of Self Surrender

Winter Stillness

Sometimes, winter, a season filled with mostly grey skies and bare trees evokes a sense of gloom.  This time of shadowy days matched my mood as the new year began.  I spent New Year’s Eve in a hospital room.  I felt deflated as I watched television—the ball drop, people kissing and champagne flowing from bottles.  Unfortunately, my formal wear for the evening was a hospital gown accessorized with an IV.  No matter where I looked, I couldn’t generate the exuberance that is often associated with New Year’s.

I complained bitterly about the uncomfortable bed and the constant interruptions often during the middle of the night—to take blood or check my vitals.  Frequently, like an apparition, a strange voice barked through the intercom awakening me during my futile attempts to sleep.  Apparently crossed up telemetry wires led the voice to inquire loudly,  “Is anyone there?” rather than directing a nurse or nursing assistant to check on me.   I wondered how I would ever recover from the awful cold virus that held my body hostage if I was getting only 2-3 hours of sleep each night.  As I continued to ruminate about my state of discontent and medically unnecessary hospital stay, my young African American evening nurse offered another perspective with her response, “But we would have never met and we wouldn’t have all the conversations that I needed so badly.”

Surprised and shocked, my mind quieted.  Deep below the chatter of my petulant complaints a small voice added, “Maybe this trip to the hospital isn’t just about you. It could be serving a larger purpose.”  I thought back to my older, Euro American daytime nurse and our discussions around her potential retirement.  When I mentioned that I had stopped working nearly five years ago, she brightened when I suggested the book, The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50 by Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot.  “I am going online and download it tonight,” she noted.  “I am really struggling with this decision and I think reading that book will help me out.”  Here was another exchange that would not have occurred if I had not been admitted to the hospital.

My next opportunity to express my dissatisfaction came when wrapped in several sheets and a blanket I sat shivering in a wheel chair outside one of the echocardiogram rooms.  Inwardly I wailed about how my miserable cold landed me in the hospital for two and a half days for an echocardiogram!  My inner agitation added to the chill in the air.  I asked myself, as the standard issued hospital gown with hospital socks and the blanket began quickly losing their heat, “Why aren’t they taking me, what is the delay?”  Then it occurred to me that the staff might be working with a patient much sicker than me.  After all, I could walk around and although I suffered with a very bad cold, I wasn’t short of breath or retaining fluids.  Besides, I was going home in a few hours so what was the rush?  Once again, I remembered that the current situation wasn’t just about me.

As I moved back into my own bed at home with many more days to recover, in the silence that surrounded me I began to reflect on how often I, like many others, focus mostly on myself; on my schedule, my life, and my family.  I frequently observe drivers swerving in and out of lanes, causing others to brake suddenly so they can arrive at church “on time.”  I am guilty as well of rushing to arrive at a doctor’s appointment only to sit in a waiting room for 10-20 minutes.   Like my compatriots, I stand impatiently in the grocery store checkout line, or at the post office, thinking about the time I am wastingAnd to what purpose I ask inwardly would I devote this precious lost time if I could regain it?  Would it be used to sit with a sick friend or spend more time on Instagram or Facebook, to bake dinner for the widow next door or binge watch the latest popular television show?  Had I ever thought to surrender in any given moment my nicely covered egocentrism in favor of a plan that worked best for everyone, for people that I may not even know?

I pondered about how I arrived at this place on my journey where my desires reign supreme and occupy my mind throughout the day.  Reflecting on my past, I remember being more thoughtful as a child, helping mostly my Mom by starting or cooking dinner for my family, a unit that operated best when everyone worked together.  My family served as a microcosm for the many more communities I would belong to; my classroom where I helped other students with assignments, my school by selling candy to fund field trips, my neighborhood where we took care of each other through crises like job losses, divorces, and deaths, my country by voting and volunteering and my world by praying and lightening my carbon footprint with recycling and using less water.  Had I lost this caring spirit that encourages me to move beyond “me” to “we” or does it remain within patiently waiting for an opportunity to emerge?

When I pause and think about how I might move beyond my self-centered motives, or combine what I need with the needs of others, I feel more peace and joy.  I also feel a sense of wholeness.  Yet I know such thinking and actions require me to surrender my little self to a much larger one.

As the year continues, I hope to inspire others to reflect on the primacy of self sometimes to the detriment of the common good and how different it feels to live from a more expansive life view.  I know there is something special about living from an inner sanctuary that allows me to experience how interconnected we are and helps me to feel more Peace and Joy in my heart.  What about you, what might you need to surrender to feel more of the Peace and Joy that resides in your heart?

Photo courtesy of Columbus H. Brown, Candid Imagery Fine Arts

Looking Beyond to the Collateral Beauty

“Don’t cry because it is over.  Smile because it happened.”

Dr. Seuss

Although the Academy Awards have come and gone, conversations about the Oscars spur me to view as many of the nominated films as I can.  However, one of my favorite films last year, Collateral Beauty was not considered for any awards.  I didn’t understand the horrible reviews and small audiences for a film with such a profound and deep message.  I concluded after a year in which most media outlets devoted their time to trash, to the very base instincts of society, that people are addicted to fear, insults, fake news, and social media overload.  Thus, I suspected that Collateral Beauty, a movie that contains no sex or an overabundance of violence (i.e., no kill count), seemed boring to many.  Yet when I looked beyond the unrealistic storyline, I found some engaging dialogue and an overall message of love designed to speak to our souls and uplift our spirits.

What is collateral beauty you might ask?  I had no idea how the concept was being framed for the movie, in fact I hadn’t thought about what it might mean until the end.  I had heard of collateral damage, defined as the ”general term for deaths, injuries, or other damage inflicted on an unintended target.”  In military terminology, it is frequently used to account for “the incidental killing or wounding of non-combatants…The unintentional destruction of friendly targets is called friendly fire.”

I’ve always felt, though, that collateral damage is a euphemism designed to distant or distract people from digesting the real death toll and destruction wreaked on the lives of “unintended targets” who find themselves in unwanted wars and physical conflicts.  I wonder if people who engage in domestic violence in front of children, or gang members whose bullets miss the intended victim and instead kill or maim a child or elderly person, consider the long-term consequences of the damage they inflict. The deception of describing the loss of innocent life as incidental, just a person at the wrong place and at the wrong time, keeps us all from feeling the brunt of such news.

Given that definition, then, could collateral beauty denote?  It is that stubborn new growth that occurs after a fire has destroyed a forest or a community of homes.  Sometimes the new growth manifests as the loving actions of those who are moved by a tragedy to offer their help by making meals, bringing clothes, warm blankets, and water to fellow human beings who find themselves in a tragic situation.  I find collateral beauty everywhere.

When I think of examples of collateral beauty in my life, my transplants and recovery from various illnesses immediately come to mind.  My donor family lost a beloved daughter and sister and in the midst of their grief, they chose to donate a heart, liver, two kidneys, and some cornea that immediately brought new life to five people.  One family’s heartbreaking loss became a joy and relief for another.  And as I suffered through my recovery, friends, colleagues and new acquaintances emerged from their busy lives to offer prayer, food, company, and rides to and from the transplant clinic.  Incredibly, six women from my former support group in Detroit each chose to take vacation time and travel by plane, train and bus to spend a week caring for me after my mother exhausted her unpaid family leave.

Collateral beauty frequently appears during the terminal illness of a loved one.  Elizabeth Lesser writes about her experiences of donating bone marrow to her sister in the memoir, Marrow: A Love Story.  Lesser describes the poignant healing that came as a result of conversations with her sister which resulted in their reconciliation after a lifetime of conflict.  Sometimes collateral beauty appears in just those moments of presence, the baring of souls when people realize that their time together is limited and waning.  In essence, collateral beauty is the love that emerges in the midst of devastation, whether it is in the loss of a loved one, destroyed homes, or a tragedy that affects an entire community.

In addition to introducing moviegoers to the notion of collateral beauty, the movie also elicited questions about how do we spend time, what love looks like in our lives, and what does life mean when one realizes their death is inevitable and possibly imminent?  Recently I spent a week being present with my older brother who was visiting.  We are both older and less physically vibrant than we were a few years ago.  He suffers some effects of a stroke he experienced six years ago and I deal with chronic medical issues as a transplant recipient.  We shared stories.  I cooked for him and we reminisced about the events that bonded us for life.  I knew that clearing the calendar and sharing this precious time with him was what love looks like and the best use of our time in the midst of our mutual physical suffering.

It takes time to see collateral beauty and frequently I don’t possess the patience to pause long enough.  It requires looking beyond what I see with my eyes or hear with my ears.  It allows a glimpse into the often unseen love that permeates all.  Wherever there is seeming devastation, there is also collateral beauty—the healing, the joy of what has been, the celebration of a certain heavenliness on earth.  If I stop for a moment to savor all of the beauty and goodness of life rather than focusing on what is missing or how I might want it to be, I gain a certain sacred perspective.  It reminds me that beauty can be seen in anything as long as I allow my heart to see it, to feel the sadness and the joy, to perceive the whole rather than the fragments.

I believe Howard Thurman would characterize collateral beauty like this:

The seed of the jack pine will not be given up by the cone unless the cone itself is subjected to sustained and concentrated heat…It is not too far afield to suggest that there are things deep within the human spirit that are firmly embedded, dormant, latent, and inactive.  These things are always positive, even thought they may be destructive rather than creative.  But there they remain until our lives are swept by the forest fire: It may be some mindless tragedy, some violent disclosure of human depravity or some moment of agony in which the whole country or nation be involved.  The experience releases something that has been locked up within all through the years.  If it be something that calls to the deepest things in life, we, like the jack pine, grow tall and straight against the sky!

Meditations of the Heart, p. 82-83

Where are the moments of collateral beauty in your life?  Would pondering such times or being present to others bring you closer to the peace and joy in your heart?

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Howard Thurman and the 2017 Presidential Inauguration

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Lately I’ve been pondering what my historical mentor and spiritual guide, Howard Thurman might say as we inaugurate the 45th President of the United States.  I suspect he would not be on Twitter or any other social media platform.  I don’t think, like me, he would be blogging about it either.  But I believe he would have an opinion and perhaps some recommendations about how to live in the current social and political atmosphere.

Dr. Howard Washington Thurman experienced great social transitions in his lifetime.  Born in 1899 in Daytona Beach, Florida, Thurman lived through the severity of Jim Crow legal segregation, state sponsored domestic terrorism, and a host of racial insults and indignities.  He spoke of the time when he had been invited to give a talk at a major meeting only to learn that hotel would not serve him lunch in its main dining room.  Thurman was so enraged that he decided to forego eating and walk through the city instead.  I sense that during the walk he heard some of what he would later talk and write about in his classic book, Jesus and the Disinherited.  This same book inspired Dr. Martin Luther KingJr., to begin his civil rights work and he carried Jesus and the Disinherited whenever he marched.

In preparing to live through the Inaugural weekend and the days to follow, Howard Thurman would likely advise us to; 1) use our outrage constructively, to better someone else’s lot rather than become bitter.  2) He would discourage the use of violence and instead admonish us to use our energy to educate and enlighten, and to wake up those who sleep in the fog of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, classism, and materialism.  3) Thurman never thought that changes in laws and social policies meant much if they did not change people’s hearts.  He would want sustained, regular exchanges between people who are different because he felt this would create the Beloved Community that he and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., dreamed of.

Howard Thurman knew from spending time with his grandmother, Nancy Ambrose, a former slave, that what sustains people through challenging, difficult and sometimes horrendous conditions is their internalized knowledge that they are holy children of God.  He believed this spiritual self is what Jesus was trying to awaken in his own oppressed Jewish people in the hostile Roman society they lived in.  Clearly right now in 2017, there are so many who need such an awakening, a shift in personal identity that includes an exploration of a deeper spiritual nature, especially among those who perceive themselves to be powerful as well as those who think of themselves as powerless.

If I were fortunate enough to have lunch today with Howard Thurman, I think he would suggest a few antidotes to the media circus, confusion, and chaos of actual news, fake news, and tweets in lieu of actual conversation.  I imagine Thurman would smile and instruct me to be still.  Take some pause pockets so I can create a deep, peaceful sanctuary within my mind and heart.  Create my own inner retreat, a sacred space that I can return to again and again and again to dim the lights and lower the volume on the cacophony of the outer world.

Next, Thurman would sit back and quietly suggest that I go outside and commune with nature.  Certainly walking along a beach, taking in its quiet calm, and watching the birds glide across the azure sky with billowing clouds, or observing how gently snowflakes float to the ground would engender some peace.   Feeling the cool breeze and watching the trees sway in the wind, noting their strength even in the midst of storms is how Thurman sensed a Oneness with everything.  This connection with the All helped him most when the “tempests of life” as he called them blustered through.

Finally, after finishing a luscious dessert, I suspect Howard Thurman would lean in and remind me to increase my practice of inner authority.  Inner authority is just another manifestation of living from a sense of authentic Self; the one God created and a Self deeply embedded in the Presence.  Mastery of this principle is vital for people who suffer any form of discrimination, particularly individuals from visible stigmatized groups, because although a body may be assaulted or a mind temporarily disturbed, “The inner sanctuary cannot be breached without consent.”  It is only by our own inner authority that we allow it to be disturbed.   By being rooted in and living from the Spirit of God, whether that Presence is within us or in nature, one can develop the “authority” to move against oppressive forces in one’s life.*  Thurman portrays it best in this short excerpt from his book, Meditations of the Heart.

The Inward Sea

There is in every person an inward sea, and in that

sea there is an island and on that island there is an

altar and standing guard before that altar is the “angel

with the flaming sword.”  Nothing can get by that

angel to be placed upon that altar unless it has the

mark of your inner authority.  Nothing passes “the

angel with the flaming sword” to be placed upon your

altar unless it be a part of “the fluid area of your consent.”

This is your crucial link with the Eternal. (p. 15)

In summary, Howard Thurman would believe that contemporary times are ostensibly no different from the times he lived in—just the players on the stage have shifted.  Even if laws or policies are altered, a real change won’t occur until hearts soften and we learn to embrace each other—enemies and friends—with love and compassion.  He would certainly admonish me to pay attention to my thinking, because that determines what I see in the world, and to cultivate a greater rootedness in God rather than putting my faith and power in elected officials.

Howard Thurman would also remind me

 to be still and listen each day for what my role is

in the change I wish to see in the world.

I am certain he would know that quiet, inner listening

brings more peace and joy to the heart.

 

If  you would like to spend some solitary and contemplative time, listening and learning about Howard Thurman, visit the Howard Thurman Retreat Day (available online until March 31, 2017), sponsored by the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation.  For more information and to register, visit the Shalem website, shalem.org.

*Lerita Coleman Brown, An Ordinary Mystic: Contemplation, Inner Authority, and Spiritual Direction in the Life and Work of Howard Thurman.  Presence: An International Journal of Spiritual Direction, 18, 14-22, 2012.

A Lifetime of Gratitude

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I don’t like the custom of sitting around the holiday table and sharing that for which I am thankful.  I always feel self conscious and believe I need to express something spectacular or worth mentioning.  Having heat in our home when so many go without shelter or the fact that we can afford to pay the utilities top my list of blessings.  The mere fact that I am alive and able to prepare some portion of the meal always seems like an obvious choice for sharing.  Yet when it comes to gratitude, I can think of a thousand things a day that inspire my awe and thankfulness.  Right now I see remnants of fall, tall oak trees retaining their leaves until new ones buds, shrubs that vary in color from a rosy salmon to deep plum.

I remember many years ago when I was nearing age 40, I decided to throw a party for myself.  It had become clear that I needed to learn to celebrate myself instead of bemoaning the fact that no one was surprising me with a celebration.  I diligently made a list of about 90 people, some friends, others colleagues to invite.  I showed it to my friend, Terry, who smiled and gently said, “Lerita, you cannot fit 90 people in your town home.  Why don’t you invite the 40 people who helped you to make it to age 40?”  I thought it was a brilliant idea.  Thus, a simple and elegant party with friends from my varied life of work, church, sewing, and book club became one of my most treasured memories.

Now that I am past the season that emphasizes shopping and baking I find myself yearning for more simple moments of gratitude.  Pausing for some reflection on this and the 22nd Anniversary of my heart transplant, I decided to make a list of the top five people or occasions that fill my heart with joyful appreciation.  These are moments of light or enlightened people who brightened me in the darkness and who made me the person I am today.  Here is what is on my all time gratitude list.

1) My parents, but not for the typical reason people give. Certainly, I wouldn’t be here without them but I thank my parents most for being so hard-working, devoted to their children, and self sacrificing so my siblings and I could attend Catholic or Christian school.  Catholic school is where I learned to be disciplined and to orient my day around the Great Spirit.  At an early age and in this setting, I became aware of an unseen but very present Spirit available for comfort and guidance.  Thank you Mom and Dad, for all of the financial, physical, and emotional sacrifices.  I wish you were still physically present so I could express my thanks with many hugs and kisses.

2) A heart transplant 22 years ago.  I cannot think of anything that is more transformative than to face death.  I realized that I had to shift from being a driven workaholic to thinking about something and someone other than myself and my career.  Despite the terror and outright physical suffering involved, my transplant triggered a spiritual awakening in me that is beyond measure.  The trauma demanded that I cultivate trust, create an awareness of the love and care from others and generate in me a totally different way of viewing life.  I now understand that life is about forgiveness, healing, love, connection, peace and joy.

3) Fall. The simple, elegant, and natural beauty of fall leaves me in awe each year.  It is by far my favorite season (with the exceptional beauty of spring following in second place).  Each October-December, I look outside of my bedroom or office window into a yard of varying colors of greens, yellows, browns, and fiery red leaves.  The Japanese maple trees were particularly spectacular this fall.  So many of them look like they were on fire.  I cannot believe that people rush past them or can drive down a tree-lined street without being moved by the colors.  Quite frankly, I pause, frequently because I find it disheartening to see something so beautiful without acknowledging its existence.  I suspect the same could be said for falling snowflakes and new snow.  But there is some special about yellow, orange, and tan leaves across a backdrop of green leaves and forest green pines.

4) My spiritual teachers.  I still remember when, Jan Willis (author of Dreaming Me: Black,  Baptist and Buddhist—One Woman’s Spiritual Journey) taught my college roommate and me, how to meditate.  We didn’t have any idea what we were doing as we sat cross-legged on the floor, with our beads, chanting a Sanskrit mantra for Dorje Sempa, the deity to end all suffering.  The practice of finding a way to quiet my mind, whether through chanting, focusing on my breathing or being still, opened me to an entirely new world of readings by wisdom figures from all over the world.  Since that time I’ve been moved and blessed by the teachings of Howard Thurman, Thomas Kelly, Rumi, Hafiz, Richard Rohr, Nan Merrill, Joyce Rupp and a host of others.  Now when I take my daily quiet time, I read a prayer or inspirational reading in English with the same intention; to heal, to be a healer and to end all suffering in the world.

5) An awareness that there is something more in the world than what I see with my physical eyes.  I know there is an energy force of Love that permeates everything and that Stillness holds it all together with a deep peace.  I feel happy that I can dialogue with Something more vast than my mind can imagine.  If I had to choose just one thing to be thankful for, it would be a growing awareness of the Presence and that I can turn inward at any time to access whatever guidance I need.

This deep sense of gratitude is what is motivates me in this new year and on this special day in which I honor my heart donor, Jody Goetz and her family as well as hold my kidney donor, Jennifer Lund in that gift of a heart.  During the holiday season I tended to rail against all of the commercialism, emphasis on gift giving, and seemingly temporary concern with those less fortunate.  Now I don’t have to focus on what I don’t like when I can concentrate on what easily pleases me.

I will always be grateful for my parents, heart and kidney transplants, fall, spiritual teachers, an expanding spiritual awareness, and the people who have helped me to remain alive and thrive.  I find the love sparks great peace and joy in my heart.

So what’s on your top five list of people, places or events that create a deep sense of gratefulness in you?  Can you nurture this spirit in yourself today and maintain during 2017?  Will creating an all time gratefulness list and sharing the spirit of gratitude bring you closer to the peace and joy in your heart?

“…And a Happy New Year”

The “And a Happy New Year” tune reverberates in my mind almost like an ear worm.   “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”  Time passes quickly. During the month of January, it always seems like New Year’s Eve and Day were just yesterday when in fact they were a few weeks ago.  I remember sitting on the couch staring at the television bleary-eyed from watching nearly nine hours of college football.  Exuberant but clearly exhausted, I willed myself to stay awake until the perennial ball (or peach in Atlanta) drop.  I’m never certain why I engage in this ritual.  I’m either hypnotized or a victim of too many years of conditioning so I feel compelled to toast even with a non-alcoholic beverage and kiss someone at midnight.

Yet the ebullience of starting a new year, the excitement emerging from the awareness that I can erase the board and begin again slowly dissipates.  Typically, as I return to work or my daily routine, and later in January or as the February doldrums approach I notice that the thrill is gone.  I ask myself how I can make the merriment and excitement of my New Year’s celebration continue after the holidays; after recovering from staying up so late and eating too much artichoke dip, mini-quiches or from large holiday spreads filled with turkey, lobster mac and cheese, or lemon layered cake?  I want to keep the exhilaration of the new year yet I cannot make being happy a New Year’s resolution although I have tried to in the past.  Since I love making lists, I decided to create one to kickstart a year in which I maintain the peace and joy.  I want to share a few items that involve a little letting go and a little adding to.

1)  Letting go of my time urgency perfectionism would certainly alleviate nearly all of the anxiety that builds each time I run out of the house for an appointment or as a project deadline approaches.  Releasing the tendency to watch the clock would lessen my impatience with stop lights, slower drivers, and anyone who appears to obstruct my frantic path.  Likewise relinquishing my proclivity toward self-judgment might rid me of some of the shame I pile onto my heart anytime I make a mistake.  Mistakes are gifts serving as guideposts to where I want to be.  Now I understand that real perfection is more about wholeness–embracing shrubs with their dead leaves, cherishing well worn dishes, and ignoring a spot or two on the rugs.  The shift truly involves a change in my perceptions,  a re-focusing of my attention.

2)  The next thing to pop in my mind was the question, “What made me happy as a child?”  I loved to lay on the couch and read a good book with a green apple in hand.  In my childhood home the brown fabric couch in the living room sat between two mahogany brown end tables each with a standard gold lamp crowned with an off white lamp shade.  The couch with its worn out cushions wasn’t particularly comfortable but it sufficed.  Now I recline on a lovely forest green chaise lounge that sits next to a large cathedral window allowing the sun to shine on my face.  Great fiction and non-fiction allows me to escape into other worlds and munching on a green apple during pounding rain, singing winds or lightly falling snow affords me an opportunity to exhale and just be.

I also remember the adage, “An apple a day, keeps the doctor away.”  I don’t want to discount the health benefits of eating apples.  I am certain there are many.  However, I wonder if the sheer joy of doing something that made my heart sing kept the dis-ease at bay.  I suspect the obvious connections between joy and harmony, wholeness and health remain exiled to a back corner of my mind.  But a good book and a green apple are still my antidote to illness and I plan to make reading a welcomed habit throughout the year.

3)  I also love to sit outside in the wind no matter what season.  For me, nature is calming to my spirit; restorative, and offers a gentle serenity.  Warm summer breezes, or a crisp, frosty but not biting cold wind is what I yearn for.  Next time I notice the branches swaying, I’m grabbing a coat and heading out the door.

4)  Warren and I paused from the holiday rush and watched the PIXAR movie—Inside Out.  I was awed by the advancement of technology with the combination of animation and almost real life characters.  A fabulous movie in its storyline and presentation I felt a surge of energy afterwards.  Stopping to watch a movie is what Julia Cameron and Mark Bryan describe in The Artist Way as an artist’s date.  Watching this imaginative movie filled the well that had been depleted by Christmas shopping, meal preparation and far too much entertaining.  I think each of us needs to fill up more often—we wouldn’t think to drive a car without refilling the gas tank.  Even plants and trees pause their growth to re-energize during the winter.  I must make time to restore myself regularly instead of pushing, pushing, pushing.

5)  I plan to allow the creative spirit of mine to flow like a river–sewing new fashions, crochet-edge stitching fleece blankets for family and friends who are struggling or are ill.  I’ve even decided to hire a sewing consultant who can assist with those pesky sewing problems that permit unfinished sewing projects to clutter up my closet.  Clearly I need balance to what I perceive to be the drudgery of washing dirty dishes and clothes, picking of the house, and paying bills.

So what are you going to make your year a happy one that continues until next December?  Perhaps as you pause, listen deeply and more often to your heart, it will whisper to you what it desires and guide you to how you might maintain the peace and joy until 2017 and beyond.