When You’re Lost, Do You Stress or Stay Serene? And What’s the Message?

I was on my way to give a talk about A Remarkable Kindness in the town of Carmiel in northern Israel with my son, Ari, a few weeks ago. We got lost. We ended up pulling into the bus station—I had no idea it was even there until that moment.

I always tell Ari that there’s a reason things happen. This time, he said to me, “So what’s the reason we’re lost?”

“I don’t know,” I told him. “But when I find out, I will let you know.”

Then, last week, I had to pick up my daughter, Libby, who was taking the bus to Carmiel. She said, “Mom, do you even know where the bus station is?” (My kids and Jonny know my absolutely guaranteed ability to get lost no matter which continent. Jonny always jokes that if I had navigated our motorcycle trip to Alaska, we would have wound up in Argentina.)

“As a matter of fact,” I told Libby, “I do know where it is because I got lost there a few weeks ago!”

We don’t always know why something happens. Sometimes we find out the reason weeks or months or years later. We might never know. Maybe there are mysteries meant to remain mysteries. And that’s where faith comes in. Believing when it’s so difficult to believe. Besides, as my sister, Cynthia, always tells me, “We are never lost. We know where we are.” That is why when I’m lost, I no longer stress but stay serene. Maybe I’ll see something new. Maybe I’ll learn something unexpected.

And sometimes we get lost and stay lost. Sometimes it feels like we’ve been wandering far longer than Moses in the desert. Forty years! Everyone jokes that it’s only because Moses was a man and refused to ask for directions. But maybe those Jewish slaves needed to wander to lose some of their old habits—and their negativity. After all, they got their freedom and still complained about the manna. Maybe they had to learn to be grateful.

I’m posting this photo of Grandma Jamila. Jamila Hir, also known as “Grandma Jamila,” from the Druze village of Peki’in, northern Israel, who creates natural soaps from olive oil and medical herbs. She employs hundreds of Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Druze workers and her small business brings in $50 million in profits and exports to 40 countries. She is also a widow, a mother to five children, a grandmother to 15 grandchildren, and five great grandchildren. (Interesting sidebar: Dr. Ruth Westheimer featured Jamila in her book, The Olive and the Tree, about the Druze of Israel.) Jamila, as well as Dr. Ruth, are fabulous role models who remind us to give time…time.

Today’s tool: We do not always know why we make the wrong turn in life. And we do not always know why things take longer than we think they should, but eventually we get to where we are supposed to be.

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Foraging for Words and Weeds

foraging 4.jpgInspired by my friend, Abbie Rosner, author of Breaking Bread in Galilee, I went foraging for wild spinach down the road from my house.

I was also foraging for words while writing. Stuck. Even though I’ve written one novel (and drafts for five more) it never gets any easier. (Jenny, are you paying attention?)

So here are photos of the enchanted spinach forest. foraging 3The spinach leaves are the ones that look a bit shinier than the others, sort of diamond-shaped.

I cleaned the spinach (last time Abbie found four snails in the leaves!) and steamed it. Then I sprinkled it with olive oil, lemon juice and salt. Now back to writing…

foraging 2 Here’s what the dish looked like:

which I eventually ate with brown rice. Boosting up my brain cells! Abbie also said that wild plants have more vitamins and minerals than cultivated vegetables because they have to work harder to survive and pull up more nutrients from the soil. Leaving my desk for even a few minutes gave me time just to think about what I was writing. It’s all inspiring!foraging 5

 

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Tool For Tuesday: Today is a Gift. That’s Why It’s Called the Present.

What's blocking your vision?

What’s blocking your vision?

Colette said, “What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner.”

I’m going to do a tahara — a burial ritual — at the cemetery in our village in a few hours. Whenever I get a call to go to the burial house (and it’s only once every few months, thank goodness), I’m immediately given a sharp jolt of awareness about being alive.

Sometimes, I confess, I go through my day, from one activity or gotta-do or gotta-get-through without perspective on how good I have it. Like the photo above, there’s something blocking my line of sight. Something that stops me from appreciating all my blessings. (FYI, that photo was taking while visiting my college roommate, Mary Eldred. We hiked in the Independence Mine State Historical Park in Wasilla, Alaska. No, we could not see Russia from there.)

So, that’s why I keep participating in the hevra kadisha, the burial circle. It is very unnerving, humbling, spiritual and powerful. It reminds me again and again to remember that sooner or later, the circle of life closes.WHB sunset 1

Edith Wharton is credited for saying a good one, “If we’d stop trying to be so happy, we’d have a pretty good time.” Sometimes, happiness is beside the point. Sometimes, we can change our lives and find serenity just by being aware, being present in the moment.

Just for today, I want to remember to clear away all obstacles that prevent me from seeing, and truly appreciating, all my blessings.

It’s after the burial circle ritual. The woman who died was named 94-year-old Rachel Weitzman. She had beautiful white hair. Her hair, in fact, was the inspiration for the white hair of the character, Sophie Zuckerman, in A Remarkable Kindness. Rachel was from Holland and survived the Holocaust. She embodied the spirit of my message above. She was always so full of appreciation and wonder. I used to see her down at the beach when we went for our early morning swim.

As the other members of the burial circle and I were doing the tahara, dressing Rachel ever so gently in her burial shrouds, we noticed the numbers given to her at Auschwitz, tattooed on her arm. One woman in the burial circle commented that it was a fitting tribute to bury this woman who survived so much on International Women’s Day.

I wonder how many Holocaust survivors are left…And how many people still deny that it happened. The witnesses and the proof are dying out and soon there will be nobody left.

May her memory be a blessing to all of us.

 

 

 

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The Cutest Dogs Love The Mom Who Took Off On Her Motorcycle

This dog belongs to a book club that read my book!

Thank you to Barley (AKA Bara Hotchkiss) who sent me this photo!

My friend, Barley, (also known as Bara Hotchkiss) sent me this photo of her dog reading The Mom Who Took Off On Her Motorcycle along with her.

Which made my day, because I was having a tough time writing my new novel (no title as of yet–Yes, Please has already been taken).

Sometimes any kind of work — even writing — feels like drudgery. And even though I already wrote one novel, I realized that this fact doesn’t make writing the new one any easier.

What I also realized is that sometimes we just have to sit there and “shovel shit from a seated position,” as Stephen King described writing. Sometimes, we don’t have any energy but we just have to do the work. Whatever it is…and the next day is a bit better!

So if you’re having a hard time doing whatever, feeling like you are going through the motions, remember that some days are like that.

Just keep doing what you are supposed to be doing.

 

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Which Part of “Trust Yourself” Don’t You Get?

The hairy guy is Ari; the statistics gal is Libby, on the left!

The hairy guy is my son, Ari; the statistics gal is Libby, on the left!

My younger daughter, Libby, left her statistics test feeling fine about how the test went for her. Then she spoke to other students. Comparing answers, she realized that she got a lot of them wrong. No surprise there, she told me. Every one of her brothers and sisters who had taken statistics had struggled with it. Her brothers even called the subject, Sadistics.

Then she called me yesterday to say she got a 97 on the test. Those other students? Their answers were wrong, not hers.

How often do we discount our own abilities? We assume the next guy is smarter. In the middle of a test in high school, I glanced at the answers of the boy sitting next to me. The kid was smart. Waaaay smarter than me. I cheated. I changed my answer. When I got the tests back, I saw that my original answer was right. But I didn’t trust myself.

That was the last time I cheated. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the last time I questioned myself.

We can trust ourselves just as much as we can trust someone else.

Today, I can trust my own mind, my own perceptions and my own abilities.

If you are one of the three people who did not see this review about my talk in Rome, read here.

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Behind the Scenes at i24TV News: My Television Interview and a Marketing Secret

Reporting from i24News.TV :

Live on i24newsTV

Live on i24newsTV

To entertain all of you folks who are battened down because of Snowzilla ’16, here’s a replay of my day at i24news TV at the Jaffa Port where I went to speak about A Remarkable Kindness. First, I got there and saw fishermen working on their nets and preparing their catch of the day.IMG_0313

Then I went up to the studio. Little did I know, there are more than two hundred people working at i24TV, serving up news in English, French and Arabic. The offices had the hum of newsrooms, once, long ago, when people still read newspapers. (If you visit the newsroom of a newspaper these days, you will see that they’re kind of lonely places because most of the editors now work at home.)IMG_0378

My meeting was called for 2:45 PM and at 2:47 PM I was whisked into the make-up room where Aaron applied my make-up.

IMG_0367 IMG_0369

From there, I went to the dressing room. Liat Lukatch is a shoe designer who also serves as dress-up, go-to gal. (Keep an eye out for li-lu shoes.) No stripes, by the way, and no white. The sweater I was wearing got the green light.

I met Oded Grober, host of Culture Daily.

Oded Grober preparing to go on air.

Oded Grober preparing to go on air.

He went through a quick run-through of some of the questions he might ask. “You’ll only have six minutes and you’ll see, it will go very fast,” he warned me. Due to technical difficulties, I had to wait a few more minutes in the cafeteria that overlooks the sea.

See the sea in the background?

See the sea in the background?

I made sure to get all my coughs out (I’m battling a cold) and then went into the studio. I was on the air. Afterwards, I went into the editing studio; the producer is Keren, a powerhouse of a five-foot-tall young woman.

That's Keren, who has more energy than ten people put together. Those guys do the editing of each TV segment.

That’s Karen Snir, who has more energy than ten people put together. Those guys do the editing of each TV segment.

IMG_0413

It was fun! Here’s the link. I learned not to tease about myself, which I do when talking about THE MOM WHO TOOK OFF ON HER MOTORCYCLE. It is said that we should not speak badly about anyone, and that includes ourselves.

Humility is something to strive for but that does not mean putting ourselves down.

Here’s the link.

From wikipedia:

The channel’s owner is Patrick Drahi, and the CEO is Frank Melloul, who previously played a critical role in establishing the French 24-hour news channel France 24. journalist Lucy Aharish is one of the leading anchors. She is Israeli, Muslim, and wonderful. You can read more about her here.

One of thegoals for the station according to Melloul is to change the international “point of view about Israel.”[2] Although the station receives no funding from the Israeli government, Melloul has said that i24 will battle prejudice against, and ignorance about Israel with “facts and diversity.”

All this shows me is that it is never too late to try new things. All the people there were half my age but I think I was having the most fun!

 

Posted in A Remarkable Kindness, How to Change Your Life, publishing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Pope Francis in the Great Synagogue and Guess Who at the Open Door Bookshop in Rome on the Same Day.

Just an hour before I spoke at the Open Door Bookshop in Rome, Pope Francis was speaking at the Grand Synagogue just a few minutes away. It was the third time in modern history that a pope visited the synagogue. Quite incredible. Just to put this in perspective, historian David Kertzer, who wrote The Popes Against the Jews, said that throughout history, the Vatican forced Jews to live in ghettos (the word itself is Italian) and subjected them to forced conversions, expulsions and persecution. And now the Pope said, “Every human being, as a creature of God, is our brother, regardless of his or her origin or religious affiliation.”

The first Pope to visit the synagogue was Pope John Paul II, now a saint, who made his historic visit in 1986. That visit came after the Vatican’s 1965 Nostra Aetate declaration that repudiated the charge that Jews were collectively responsible for killing Jesus, and stressed the religious bond between Jews and Catholics.

The Great Synagogue in Rome is at the heart of the Jewish ghetto. When the Pope spoke at the synagogue (which is breath-taking, lovely and oh-so-inspiring), he said, “From enemies and strangers we have become friends and brothers.”

So what does this have to do with my speech? In my novel, A Remarkable Kindness, I stress the difference between religion and spirituality. Religion divides people; spirituality is what unites us. Religions stress their way is the only way; spirituality is each of us defining our own path to God, however we understand God. Someone once asked Rabbi Abraham Twerski, “What’s the difference between a religious person and a spiritual person?” He replied, “A religious person is scared of going to hell; a spiritual person has already been there.”

Here are a couple of things I learned from giving this talk:

Never let fear stop you from trying to do what you want to do. I was scheduled to give my talk in English but in Rome…do as the Romans do. I thought, perché no? Why not? I lived in Rome for a few months in 1980, working as a freelance journalist. If I could ride a motorcycle after six lessons to Alaska, I could still speak in Italiano. Si? Not really, but I did my best. Everyone was friendly, empathetic, and they all helped me out when I stumbled, which brings me to my second lesson.

Never be ashamed to ask for help. 

The Open Door Bookshop is in Trastevere, a special part of Rome that is filled with cobblestone streets and winding passageways. The bookshop — filled from floor to ceiling with used English and Italian books) is located in a building that dates from Medieval times. When Jonny and I decided to go to Rome for our birthday weekend January 16-17, I sent an email to the owners of the shop to inquire whether they’d be interested in my coming to speak. I was delighted to receive a reply from Lavinia and Paola, two sisters who own the shop with their third sister, Sabina. They live up to their name, Open Door, open mind. (And how rare is that these days?)

The Fabulous Sisters, (from left, Paola, me, Sabina & Lavinia Mauriziio)

The Fabulous Sisters, (from left, Paola, me, Sabina & Lavinia Mauriziio)

Always, always use humor. While giving my book talk, I told the story about how I once took a ballet class in Rome and the teacher pointed at me during one lesson and kept saying, “Jew! Jew!” Or so I thought. “Jew,” written as “giù” means “Down.” She was just telling me to go lower!

Open Door Bookshop

Don’t give up hope, no matter what. I wanted to bring a bit of light to this dark world. I wanted to share with the audience how in our region of the Galilee, Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druze work and live in peace. That is a rare, rare thing these days. It is my message of hope. I am reminded of the Midrash, “Only in darkness can we see the light.”

Give it all you’ve got. No matter what you’re doing, doing it as well as you can. I thought there were going to be five people at the talk (including Jonny and me). No matter. I still would have spoken and tried my best. I made LOTS of mistakes but I bet I gave people expressions to laugh about later.

Signing after my talk

Signing after my talk

Finally, for all you writers out there, you can do marketing wherever you are. Be willing to write emails and ask people if they’d be interested in inviting you to speak. And for everyone else, the truth is that a stunt woman rode my motorcycle for me and that same stunt woman spoke in Italian for me.

When we step through our fear and into the fire, we find our stronger, braver self waiting for us on the other side.

 

Posted in A Remarkable Kindness, Being a Hero In Your Life, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Women’s Fiction Writer Amy Sue Nathan: “Don’t Let Anyone Tell You that You Can’t.”

AMY SUE NATHAN

AMY SUE NATHAN

I’m delighted to welcome back Amy Sue Nathan, author of the novel, The Glass Wives, and her newest novel, The Good Neighbor. Amy has honored me by being my cover girl! Huh? Her spectacular blurb is on the cover of my novel, A Remarkable Kindness. So, here is our Q&A.

Diana Bletter: After writing The Glass Wives, how did you so seamlessly write The Good Neighbor? Some writers (me, included) say their second book is a struggle. You seemed to have accomplished this well.

Amy Sue Nathan: Thank you! I’d had the kernels of the idea for The Good Neighbor since before my debut novel was published, so I was thrilled to have the chance to write it! I have heard about the “sophomore novel” curse, or struggle, or issue, but I think every novel is different and poses new challenges. First novels often take years and are the culminations of many goals. The next novel may be under contract before it’s even written, or when it’s partially written (my situation) so there’s a deadline and some knowledge of how it all works, which can be daunting. I think that accounts for a lot of the stress.

Diana Bletter: Tell us a bit about your fabulous blog, Women’s Fiction Writers Blog, (named one of Writer’s Digest‘s 101 BEST WEBSITES FOR WRITERS 2015!), and why you think it’s so successful.

Amy Sue Nathan: I started my Women’s Fiction Writers blog in March 2011 (we’re coming up on the five-year blogiversary!) because I wanted a place to write and read about the kinds of books and authors I liked most. While I read widely, I enjoy women’s fiction most of all, and the blogs or sites I frequented didn’t touch on this genre at all. Part of that is the ambiguity of the label. To me, women’s fiction is a story that is character-driven and centers on a woman’s emotional journey. What does that mean? It means that her goal is to be okay with herself, with or without a romantic relationship or anything “conventional.” I also call it a family drama, or book club fiction. I also think that women’s fiction is upmarket usually, meaning that it does take language into account, not only story. Well, it makes sense to me! 🙂 I think the blog is successful because we hit on these topics, general writing topics (a lot of blog readers write many things), and in my interviews (over 150 authors so far) I ask questions I want the answers to. I figure I can’t be the only one!

Diana Bletter: What are you working on now?

Amy Sue Nathan: I’m revising book #3 to send off to my editor this spring! It’s about a woman who leaves her hometown during her best friend’s funeral and goes back six years later to deal with the fallout.

Diana Bletter: With two books published and a third on its way, what are some tips you can give new writers? Is there anything you’ve learned that you’d like to share?

Amy Sue Nathan: I guess my main advice is to be open-minded, to learn, and to write. We get stuck sometimes, thinking we know it all. We don’t. So while you’re writing, continue to read, learn about craft, and admit that there’s always more to be done. Most of all, don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do it.

Diana Bletter: Finally, this blog, www.thebestchapter.com, deals with how we can make each day part of the best chapter of our life. Are there any new ways you are taking care of yourself since we last spoke?

Amy Sue Nathan: Hmmm…I do try to work for an hour or so and then GET UP. I also have a part-time job outside the house a few mornings a week. Writing is very solitary, and my kids are grown and flown, so this forces me to be out of the house with other people. Also, the more I have to do the more I get done. I’ve also ramped up my freelance editing. And yes, I’m working on balancing it all. That’s trickier than novel writing! nathan cover

I really like the cover of Amy’s latest book–you can find it wherever books are sold. (And please support your independent bookstores!)

Thank you, Amy! And folks, remember Amy’s motto: Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t. That goes for anything you set your mind to.

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What People Say About You is None of Your Business.

Libby and I jumping for joy by the stormy Mediterranean Sea.

Libby and I jumping for joy by the stormy Mediterranean Sea.

That goes for writers, too. If someone likes your book, that is great. If someone doesn’t like your book—well, not everyone is going to love it.

A writer friend once told me how she was so excited because her book was going to be reviewed on The New York Times Book Review. I was a wee bit envious at the time since that has never happened to me. But the book reviewer found her book superficial, shallow and unimportant. Ouch! My friend said it took her a while to start writing again, she was so pained by those stinging words. They slashed right through her.

So on Friday, I read a wonderful review of my book here. Just a few adjectives made my heart soar:  fantastic. Poignant. Grace. Sensitivity. Really, it was a physical thing. I could feel myself floating. Then, of course, to remind myself that I am not so all-that, I read a review of my book with a completely different take. This second review found my book predictable, and said I used a lot of subject-predicate-adjective sentences. I had to look it up! I had no idea what she was talkin’ about. The review was lousy. The previous sentence is an example of what she meant. Ouch, ouch and ouch! Oy vey.

I was asked a while ago to write a blurb for a book that’s coming out next year. I didn’t love the book and at first I wasn’t even going to write something. But then I thought, why not be generous with praise? Someone out there is going to like this book. Someone will find it helpful and interesting. As I always told my kids, “It’s the same price to be nice.”

What people say about us is none of our business, whether we’re writing a book or simply being ourselves. As Rokelle Lerner wrote, (and I’m paraphrasing here), “We can’t use other people’s criticism as ammunition against ourselves.”

So, if you are writing, keep writing, no matter how many bad reviews you get. If you are in a writing group, however, or if you are in the process of writing and someone gives you helpful suggestions, that is different. If you need to work on changing something, change it. We cannot be defensive. We must be willing to change. Avoiding sentence similarity, that is me from now on. Working, writing, living. Yup! We gotta keep doing the best we can. And we have to fill our own well. Not with any outside thing. Not with any glittering sparkly praise but from the inside.

Here is a new take on the old Serenity Prayer: G-d, grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the courage to change the one I can, and the wisdom to know it’s me.

Handling a bad review? Criticism? How have you dealt? My new policy. Do NOT read reviews about A Remarkable Kindness. Oh, I take that back. I have 25 5***** reviews on Amazon!

Posted in A Remarkable Kindness, Acceptance | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Christmas Eve, My Sister’s Birthday, and Nittel Nacht.

When I was growing up, my family hung out at home and played cards on Christmas Eve. Like eating Chinese food on Sunday nights, I thought this was just another quirky thing that my suburban Jewish family did. Little did I know that my parents were following a distinctly Jewish tradition for Christmas Eve that began as early as the Sixteenth Century.
Known as Nittel Nacht, the holiday derived its name from Natal Domini, the birth of the Lord. According to scholars such as Michael Wex, since Jews in Europe and Russia were deathly afraid of pogroms and attacks on Christmas Eve, they closed their synagogues, darkened their study houses, and stayed home. They held a vigil—not for the Messiah but for marauders—and passed the time by playing cards. Until I learned about Nittel Nacht, I felt like a Marrano, a secret Jew, who followed inexplicable customs like lighting Sabbath candles in the closet.

My sister Cynthia’s birthday is December 24. (Happy birthday, Shmoogie!)

Cynthia and I getting a hug mixed with Chanel Number 5 and cigarette smoke from our mother

Cynthia and I getting a hug mixed with Chanel Number 5 and cigarette smoke from our mother

It was always tough for her because when we were young, nobody was around to celebrate with her, and her birthday was way overshadowed by Christmas. Every year, we watched with envy as other children sat on Santa Claus’s lap and handed him their gift list.

Except for movie theaters, everything else in the vicinity of our house was closed on Christmas Eve so Cynthia and I continued to hang out with our parents long after it was all that appealing. Once we were old enough, we went to comedy clubs in New York City, discovering that they’re the perfect refuge for patrons (as well as the stand-up comics) who are either Jews or who want to stay away from home sweet home.
According to a 2012 Pew Research survey, thirty-two percent of American Jews have a Christmas tree in their home. A couple of times, I am sure that Cynthia and I begged for a Christmas tree, but our parents quashed that idea: to them, it was akin to being Jewish Uncle Tom’s. But they did teach us a game they’d invented called Points, in which the four of us drove around town, looking at decorated houses and giving the most points to the most elaborate Christmas displays.

We shouted when we spotted baroque manger scenes, life-sized Santa Claus figures (this was long before inflatables) and houses with more than just a wreath or two. Cynthia and I favored extravagant multi-colored light displays with angels and enormous candy canes but my mother argued that they were ongepotchket, or too much of everything slapped together, and preferred giving more points to elegant, understated homes.
In the early 2000’s, when Jonny and I spent a few years living on the East End of Long Island, we passed on Points to the next generation. Then I discovered that our sons had joined some other friends and placed some reindeer on their hind legs behind other reindeer in the display on the village green. Sorry to those who are offended. The boys weren’t being sacrilegious, just pulling off a bawdy adolescent prank.
But now that I am back in northern Israel, I confess (mea culpa) that I really miss Christmas. I miss the holiday muzak, store cashiers with their red-and-white stocking hats, and the gift-giving. Most Israelis don’t even exchange gifts on Chanukah—they do their gift-giving on Rosh Hashana, the start of the Jewish New Year. This past Sunday, feeling nostalgic, I drove around the nearby town of Akko, trying to play a game of Points. There was one store selling Christmas decorations but there wasn’t much going on.
Later, I went to work teaching English in my after-school program. In the middle of the lesson, bomb sirens went off and we ran in the direction of the synagogue where the rabbi happened to be just leaving. There is a high wall and we stood there. Three rockets were fired from Lebanon, believed to be in retaliation for the targeted killing of Hezbollah terrorist Samir Kuntar. (He was the terrorist who infiltrated Nahariya by sea in April 1979 and killed Danny Haran, and his four-year-old daughter Einat. Their other daughter, Yael, two years old, was accidentally smothered to death as she and her mother, Smadar, hid from the terrorists.)
The rabbi recited a psalm. We waited, listening. After ten minutes, when everything grew quiet again, we all went home. We might not be playing cards on Christmas Eve—but we’re still keeping watch.

What’s the best gift we can give ourselves on Christmas? Remembering that tomorrow is uncertain and yesterday is gone forever. All we have is right now. That’s why it’s called the present.

Posted in Gratitude, Thought For The Day | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments