The story of a coat. . . .

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There it is, a rather unremarkable Liz Claiborne, down-filled car coat with fleece lined collar, black in color. It keeps one quite warm in the frigid winters that we are reluctantly becoming accustomed to here in Arkansas. We are becoming used to them because of the introduction of “polar vortex” and “arctic blast” into the vocabulary of our local meteorologists. This coat may look somewhat nondescript, and that quality is central to this story, which is (unfortunately) all-too-true.

The reader may be aware that a couple of weeks ago we experienced here in the mid-south the rapid and brutal cooling that follows the path of an arctic front that dipped unusually deep into the heart of our great country. I doubted the predictions and left for work early one morning clad only in my usual long-sleeve undershirt, scrubs, and a fleece jacket. Mid-morning found me impressed enough by the frigid temp as I left the hospital to drive across town to the clinic that I called my sweet, always-willing to help husband and asked him to bring my heavier down coat from the closet to me. He delivered it to the clinic while I was seeing patients, and my return trip to the hospital was oh-so-much more comfortable! Thank you, sweetheart!

That afternoon everything was harder than it should have been. Procedures that should have taken 45 minutes took 90. The procedure that should have taken an hour took almost three. There was an extra procedure added on. Suffice it to say that when I finally left the hospital, I was very glad to be doing so. I drove toward home in a state of exhaustion. All I wanted was a quick bite to eat, my pajamas, a rerun of Castle while holding my husband’s hand, and deep, dreamless sleep. That’s what I wanted.

However, I generally check on my 88-year-old mother on my way in–her house is about a mile before ours–and this day was a day for a face-to-face visit. It would be a quick one, I vowed to myself. And, it was. She assured me her arthritis was not acting up too badly and the psychotic cat (that she loves dearly) was in a mellow mood. She bemoaned the fact that Thursday night TV was just unacceptable. I agreed, hugged her, and said good night.

As I approached my vehicle, I pulled a set of keys from my pocket and began pressing the “clicker” to unlock the door. No headlights flashed. I pressed the lift-gate button. Nothing. I pressed the panic button. No horn sounded. What could be wrong? I guessed the thing had batteries. I tried to open the door lock with the key, but couldn’t get it to work. After a couple of minutes of futile attempts, the wind biting the exposed skin of my face, I reentered Mom’s warm house and called my husband, for the second time that day, asking to be rescued. Soon I saw the lights of his truck and went out to show him how the stupid “clicker” wouldn’t work. And, I am just so tired, I complained. Did you bring your extra set? I couldn’t even get the key to open the door. See? And I pulled a set of keys from my pocket and pressed the door lock button, and headlights flashed and the door unlocked. I stood in stunned disbelief. Just a short while ago–but, wait. Those first keys–were they different, somehow? Reaching into my pocket again, I pulled another set of keys from it. Oh, no! I had swiped somebody’s keys! I must have picked them up unthinkingly. One of my co-worker’s is stranded at work on this awful night. And, no, I don’t feel like figuring it out, but I’ve got to……….

Once again, my knight in shining armor steps in to rescue me, his dramatically distressed damsel who was alternately in a state of panic or whining about what a terrible day it had been already and I was just too tired to deal with it. I called the only physician left in the cath lab at that late hour. Yes, she was sure she had her keys. I finally obtained the numbers of all the cath lab team that had finished the day with us. They were home and had driven themselves home. Sure, they had their keys. My husband and I drove to the clinic to see if anyone seemed to be stranded there. Nope. All appeared well. Lot empty except for cleaning staff.

My shoulders slumped. My head throbbed. It’s no use, I murmured, near tears of frustration. Go home. I’m out of ideas. And, we did. Drive home, I mean. And I ate something–I can’t remember what. And donned my PJs. But no Castle, I said. Bed for me. And, somehow, I slept.

Awakening the next morning, I was immediately aware that the key mystery remained unsolved. I readied myself for work. It was still freezing cold, and I donned the black coat. It was only as I was sitting in the driver’s seat glaring at the mystery keys which accused me from the console, that I really looked at this coat that had hung in my closet for almost a year between wearings. Somehow the fabric of the coat was not quite as shiny as I remembered. It really didn’t look the same at all. And, didn’t my coat have a zipper closure and snaps? This one has toggles?! And the cuffs are different! I became suddenly aware of the humiliating truth. I had not only swiped someone’s keys. I had stolen her coat. Granted, it resembled mine. But I HAD KEPT IT ALMOST A FULL YEAR–EVER SINCE THE LAST ICE STORM LAST WINTER!!!

The mystery was soon solved. I routinely hung my coat in the nurses breakroom on 2North, where I daily entered the hospital.Today I held the coat in question up for all to see. Does anyone recognize this coat? I somehow have the wrong coat. And these keys were in the pocket. The charge nurse exclaimed that she did remember that last year one of the nurses had searched in vain for her coat after staying at the hospital for three days during that last big ice storm. And she had had to have her car rekeyed. Had feared it stolen, as a matter of fact. She took me to the manager, who verified the story and contacted the victim, who, of course, is the daughter of a dear couple, her mother a former co-worker. (Let’s just magnify the humiliation and mortification by making the victim someone you really like and whose family you know.) As a matter of fact, the manager said, your coat is still hanging in the breakroom. We’ve wondered who it belonged to.

So, I now have my coat. She has hers. I have apologized excessively. She has been only too gracious. She did say that my coat hanging in the breakroom began to bother her through the summer. After all, her coat was missing and someone didn’t even care enough to take theirs home. It just reminded her of her loss. So, there ends the mystery of the coat and keys. But another mystery remains. A friend of mine insists that there should be a lesson to learn from this. That all such embarrassing moments that so prove our imperfection as human beings should be used to make a point, to illustrate a sermon, to teach a truth. There should be a moral to the story, so to speak. I confess that the lesson escapes me, at least for the moment.

If the reader can find one, please let me know. Till then, I’ll just wallow in my embarrassment! (Not really. Confession is good for the soul, you know!)

A tribute. . . .

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This time of year always makes me a bit sad. Three years ago on November 11th I was watching BlueBloods when the phone rang. It was my niece, Lisa, calling to tell me that my older brother, C.S. “Robby” Roberson was dying. The next few days would be etched in my memory unlike any other piece of my life. That’s Robby–the picture above–but I didn’t know him at the time that photo was made. I think that was his senior picture perhaps, maybe about 1962. A handsome guy. At that time I was aware of his existence but had no idea how our lives would come together and how important he would become to me, how his death would change me.

You see, Robby and I are products of the same father but different mothers. Our dad was first married to Robby’s mom, who gave birth to his brother, Bob,  and him. That was wartime–World War II–and when Dad was sent to Guam, like so many “dear John” stories, his wife moved on, establishing herself in California and the two boys with her, blocking any and all attempts for him to have a relationship with his sons. When Dad was discharged from the army, he returned to his roots here in Arkansas, met my mother, married, and fathered me and my brother, Alan. We were marginally aware we had two brothers in California. They seemed a world away.

Yet the story didn’t end there. In 1989 I received a call from my cousin, Janet. In one of those convoluted family stories, it seems that Dad’s first wife was sister to his brother’s wife. Therefore, Janet is cousin to both Robby and me. Robby had developed a curiosity, a hunger if you will, to know more about his siblings in Arkansas, and he had called her to see if he could possibly get photographs of us. Instead of sending pictures, she called me and gave me his contact information. I am forever grateful to her. Shortly thereafter, I made “the call”, announced that I was his sister, was cautiously received, and there the real story begins.

The first years of our relationship were a bit difficult. Our brother Bob had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer and was dying. Robby was very preoccupied with that tragedy. I, on the other hand, just wanted to reunite Dad with Bob before that was made impossible by either’s death. Robby was very protective of Bob, who had never come to terms with Dad’s absence from their lives, and nixed the proposal. I only once spoke with my brother Bob, on his birthday (maybe his last one). I got his phone number somehow and repeated “the call”, introducing myself as his sister, and cordially wishing him a happy birthday. He was polite but obviously uninterested, and there our nonexistent relationship ended. I thought that perhaps my relationship with Robby would soon suffer a similar fate.

But God had other plans. Robby and I chatted on the phone and wrote letters (yes, “snail mail” with stamps and everything), and, ultimately, exchanged e-mails. His letters were written on long yellow legal pads with a blue fountain pen, and he always signed them with some combinations of the signature, “Robby, your brother, Me”. We grew to know each other. We shared the current events of our lives. He talked about doing a “stake out” as a vice cop in Long Beach. I told him about my daughter’s baptism, and he commented with some dismay, “You’re not one of those ‘born again’ people, are you?” “Yes”, I replied firmly. That’s when he told me that he was an atheist. “There’s nothing after we die. That’s the end of it all.” I was troubled but knew not to push the point.

Then, call it fate, destiny, coincidence, or the hand of God, we met. I was in San Francisco at a healthcare conference. He said it was a short flight from Long Beach to San Francisco, so he and his girlfriend flew up. I think he needed a buffer for our meeting. I had one, my coworkers, who were eager to witness this reuniting of siblings. He appeared at the door of my hotel room with a rose and a striking resemblance to our brother, Alan. They had different mothers, it is true, but I guess our dad’s genes were dominant because they had the same mannerisms, expressions, vocal inflections. And, both were cops.

Robby wined and dined all of us girls, with an emphasis on the wine. I left the encounter with the sense that he was probably alcoholic, which was proven true as our relationship continued to develop. But, develop it did. The next step was taking Dad to California to meet his son and grandchildren. Then Robby came here, dismayed to find it is a “dry” county. However, he found an economy size vodka (which I think my dad poured down the drain when he thought his son was drinking too much). He and Dad talked a lot on that visit, giving Robby a better understanding of the events of his childhood and bringing Dad some closure as his health began to fail. Robby was back when Dad, after a difficult heart surgery (trouble restarting his heart when it was time to come off the pump), asked me to “call Robby”.

Then came the first surprise call from Lisa. Robby was near death with bleeding from his stomach related to his alcoholism. He was taking prescription meds with the alcohol. His home was in disarray. It was obvious now that he wasn’t just a drinker, he was an alcoholic and was drinking himself to death. He was hospitalized and, after an intervention by his family and friends, signed himself in to rehab. I wasn’t able to be there but faxed my plea for his sobriety and life.

Our relationship made a shift. On one of his visits to Arkansas, he attended Easter service at church with us. On one of my visits to him, I gifted him with a Bible. On another trip to Long Beach, he asked what I wanted to see or do on my visit. I asked to attend church there with my family, and he was right by my side. I remember being a little surprised when he recited the Lord’s Prayer flawlessly with the rest of us, until I remembered that it is integral to AA’s meetings. The girls told me they sometimes observed him to be reading the Bible, when he thought no observers were present. My daughter sent me to Long Beach for R & R with my brother, and he took me to Catalina. On the ferry back to Long Beach our boat was “socked in” by the heaviest fog I had ever experienced. I remember Robby in the bow of the boat with a watchful, vigilant expression, as though he had every sense dialed up a notch. I knew then our situation could have been a bit perilous!

Then, one early fall day in September, I’m not really sure of the year, I think perhaps 2007, Robby called. “Are you sitting down?” he asked, and then proceeded to share with me that he had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. In my nurse mind, I feared the worst but, of course, said nothing of the sort to him. He had surgery and radiation and chemotherapy. He by then had retired to Idaho and was fortunate to have access to an excellent cancer center. When we made a road trip to Yellowstone in 2010 we made a long detour to visit. I was somewhat reluctant to “drop in” uninvited, but my husband insisted. I had sensed Robby’s deep-seated need for privacy as his e-mails had almost stopped. I knew things were not going well. He was a shadow of himself.  His voice had changed. He still had difficulty swallowing but gamely ate some of his favorite white chili and blueberry cobbler. We headed home the next day. I thought I was saying good-bye.

Then came “the call” of another variety. Not a call of introduction, but a call of announcement. Robby was dying, in hospice. He had not asked for me, but his daughters thought I would want to know. I was on a plane the next morning and by his side that afternoon. The girls told me that he had visited with the hospital chaplain before his transfer to hospice. He had “made his peace” with God. They said he had prayed a prayer of thanksgiving, too, and that he expressed gratitude for his sister, Kat. There is a lump in my throat as I type these words. Three days later, on November 15th, Robby exited the pain of this life and entered a better place.

Why do I write this now? In remembrance. In thanksgiving. In love for a dear, good man who truly made a difference in my life. Robby was intelligent, strong, and full of passion for life. He was a good father, and I suspect, an even better grandfather. (Most of us are better the second time around, I think.) He was admired as a peace officer. He was my brother, friend, confidante, and adviser during some very difficult passages of my life. I miss him everyday, this remarkable  tower of a man that I was honored and blessed to know as my brother. I needed to reflect and share and give tribute to his life, for he is now part of who I am.

Robby and me on Catalina Island.

Robby and me on Catalina Island.

I love you and miss you, Robby, more than you know.

Wendell Berry

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If you haven’t read any of Wendell Berry’s work, you should. Jayber Crow is my second read from this author. I doubt I would have ever been exposed to his writing except for the gifting of a couple of books by a good friend. Both Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter impressed me in a unique fashion.

Trying to analyze just what Berry’s writing inspires in me is a challenge. The books are not “quick” reads, at least for me. There are too many thought-provoking insights into human thought, emotion, and behavior. I have to read and then digest and then read again. The descriptions of the fictitious Port William “Membership”  invites one into a memorable world where God’s creation is appreciated, frugality is a way of life, and community is  family. I love the images of traditional farming in the era before machines took over. I am intrigued by the author’s ability to describe with great insight into human nature the life journey of both men and women. I am gratified to read of the spiritual questioning that occurs in the lives of his characters. His stories are full of love and dislike (never hate), joy and sorrow, good fortune and tragedy, and details of the everyday lives of his characters that create in the reader’s mind a realization of the impermanence of this life and a desire to cherish each day. They are very much chronicles of living and dying with unforgettable characterizations that hang around in one’s cognizance for days and weeks and, I suspect, a lifetime.

Berry has been characterized as a “writer of brilliant moral imagination”, and I believe that thread of morality is one of the pieces that draws me into the world of Port William.

One last note: Jayber began his life thinking he had been called to be a preacher. However, he finds himself questioning the spiritual truths that he is supposed to be teaching. A wise professor advises him:

…You have been given questions to which you cannot be given the answer. You will have to live them out–perhaps a little at a time (From Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry, page 54, Counterpoint Publishers, 2000)

Isn’t that what our lives are about? Our hearts seek answers to spiritual questions, and it does, indeed, often take a lifetime to answer them. I think about the moral dilemmas we face in this generation–issues of sexuality and gender and substance use and caring for the less fortunate and how to provide healthcare and domestic violence and gun control. The list goes on and on. And, like Jayber’s professor notes a bit later in the text, I suspect it may take more than a lifetime to find answers. That is life’s essence, isn’t it? Searching for God. Searching for love. Searching for answers. Searching for the truth.

Out of the fog…………….

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Sometimes my mind is like this fog. Details are fuzzy. Focus is absent. Clarity of thought seems impossible. Thoughts weigh heavy and gray in the corridors of my mind. It may be disappointment or worry, grief or exhaustion,  frustration or anger, depression or distraction that renders my mind temporarily incapable of orderly, logical action. On mornings like that I just long to retreat from the responsibilities which await me. To my mind and body it seems that the best course of action would be to crawl back between the covers, burrowing down into that warm little world that I just left behind, feeling the comfort of my husband’s presence beside me, and just refusing to show up for the day’s activities. But, on most days………

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the fog gradually begins to disperse as the sun’s rays break through. I need the light to illuminate my mind and warm my heart, but how? It cannot come from my determination, for that is weak. Nor from my physical strength, for I feel I have none. The will to persevere comes only from God’s grace and the ultimate light that shines forth from His love.  I try to encourage myself to open to that light, to lean on His loving arms as they lift me up, to yield to His gentle prodding as He encourages me to carry on the work of this life. And, at last………..

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the day breaks forth in my soul, bright and clear. The blue sky is reflected in the pond as the gentle wind turns the windmill, which offers a lesson within itself. The head of the windmill turns, you know, seeking the strongest breeze. And, when it finds that stream of air, it stops in place as the wind turns the blades to create power for the pump which oxygenates the water. What if we kept our hearts and minds in constant search of the strongest stream of God’s spirit, constantly adjusting our vision and attitude and attention to seek His will for the day? And, what if, as we located the power surge of God’s spirit, we paused and let its refreshing, rejuvenating, energizing, inspiring force flow through us to bring light and love to the world around us? What would this world be like then?

Lord, grant me the grace and strength to lean on you and to seek your power this day.

For the child in each of us…………

As an introduction to this piece I must announce that I am the established queen of children’s book readers and choosers. And, yes, I’m humble about it, too! No, just truthful. When family and friends gather at our house, I am often seen off to one side, with one or more willing children and a stack of children’s books. I read with passion–different voices for each character and relishing the flow of the words off the tongue. My favorite gift to give to adults with children or grandchildren is a select children’s book. It struck me that you, reader, might be interested in some of my favorites–only a few premier choices–maybe more to follow later.

Choice #1:

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Miss Suzy is a classic with forty year anniversary editions released a few years ago. It is the penultimate good conquers evil story with a happy ending. Suzy, a gentle gray squirrel, is displaced from her home by a band of mean-spirited red squirrels. However, she finds refuge in a nearby attic, where she finds a lovely dollhouse residence and offers the benefits of home to a troop of toy soldiers, who then save the day. Children love this story, perhaps because Miss Suzy reminds them of being mothered and cared for and because all is well at the end when,

“The wind blew gently and rocked the tree like a cradle. It was very peaceful, and Miss Suzy was very happy once more.” (Young, Miriam, Miss Suzy, Parents’ Magazine Press, 1964.)

Choice #2:

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Cindy Ellen, A Wild Western Cinderella is a delightful Cinderella story by Susan Lowell. Adults will enjoy the references to the Cinderella we grew up with and the magic of how Lowell’s words flow off the tongue when the book is read aloud. There are great sound effects to portray. Again, good wins out, and there is a magical, happy-ever-after ending, as befits a classic fairy tale. Lowell has adapted several classic childrens’ stories to a wild west setting. I love them all, but this is my favorite, perhaps because Cindy Ellen’s fairy godmother voices such GOOD advice for all us girls!

……said her fairy godmother. “Magic is plumb worthless without gumption. What you need first, gal is some gravel in your gizzard. Grit! Guts! Stop that tomfool blubbering, and let’s get busy. Time’s a-wastin’.” (Lowell, Susan, Cindy Ellen, A Wild Western Cinderella, Joanna Cotler Books, 2000.)

Choice #3:

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This book joined my library in the mid-70’s as my children were receiving books in one of those “book clubs” for children. It is a humorous read with plenty of opportunity for vocalization of accent and dialect, if you are not offended by the word “derned” (as in, “derned if you do, derned if you don’t”). I’m having trouble pinpointing the exact reason it came to my mind other than the fact that it’s just FUN! It begins:

“One day old Man Whickutt set off down the mountain with his donkey and his boy, going to the mill. Donkey, he carried a sack of corn; boy, he carried a stick; and Old Man Whickutt, he carried the boss words to keep them both going straight.” (Calhoun, Mary, Old Man Whickutt’s Donkey, Parents’ Magazine Press, 1975.)

This whole post stems from my passion for reading to children. That passion stems from the love of words, the love of a good story, the love of children. What better gift to give a child than a book? Reading that book to as many children as possible, instilling the same love of words and story to the children, inspiring them to look for the underlying moral of the story, awakening their imaginations to other times and places–what sweet memories this creates. This list barely touches my treasure trove of books, each with its own set of memories–the child or children who loved it and our time spent together with a good book. I pray you will find your own favorites (or try these) and begin making your own memories. A good children’s book is a treasure.

Lessons learned

What a journey I’ve been on the past nine months! For it was just nine months ago that I posted my first blog! And, since then, self-published the first of what I hope and pray will be many novels and started writing the sequel. I was, and am still, such a novice, feeling my way through both the creative process and the technical aspect of writing in the digital world, struggling to grow my platform, and, most importantly, discerning who I really am as a writer. I’ve learned some lessons (and need to master many more).

Lesson learned #1: Early morning awakening can be a blessing! More times than I can count during the development of Freely Given (the first book of the Four Corners series), I awakened at three a.m. and was blessed with a sudden revelation, an epiphany if you will, regarding the direction the story should take. I have learned that those quiet early morning hours are to be welcomed as a special time when the spirit can be at rest and the mind can be open. Sometimes it is simply a time to be present with God. People who I characterize as the strongest prayer warriors I know often tell me that early morning awakening is their signal that someone needs prayer. One dear saint tells me at those times she prays “through the alphabet”, lifting up those whose names begin with each letter. For me it seems that my creativity is at its peak, although I cannot conceive of actually approaching the keyboard at that hour. The ideas have to be filed away, ready to be put into play during the next opportunity to write.

Lesson learned #2: You don’t have to know the ending when you are beginning. I was dismayed when, early on during the writing of the above mentioned book,  I didn’t always have a sure sense of its ending. How gratifying to find this Robert Frost quote printed on a bookmark picked up at a local writer’s conference. Writing anything, I think, is discovering. Life, I know, is discovering, for is there anyone of us who knows our own life ending? We just need to keep beginning!

I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering.

Robert Frost

Lesson learned #3: The Christian faith is, it seems, completely and uncontrollably, central to everything I write. As I view stats of this blog, posts bearing the tag faith are the most viewed. It seems that Christian, rather than popular, fiction is my calling.  Readers of the book frequently reference the thread of day to day Christian life that flows through the story. One gentleman noted, “You could be a preacher.” Really? The book was originally intended to be a romance! And, I guess it is, if one imagines one’s relationship with Jesus as a romance. He does, after all, woo us and call us to an eternal relationship with Him. The Bible calls us, the church, His bride. Sounds kind of romantic. But I am forced to consider: Is it possible for inspirational contemporary fiction to be popular in our culture?

Lesson learned #4: Writing is work! I so admire my fellow bloggers who are so prolific. To turn out the quality and quantity of your work strikes awe in my writer heart and mind. You are truly focused and gifted. As for me, life as wife, mother, grandmother, daughter, nurse, etc., etc. carries on. A TV commercial (I cannot remember what product was being advertised—take note, ad agency) last evening caught my ear–the phrase “the human race” was used to focus attention on the demands of 21st century American life. It seemed very apropos. And, for now, writing must be more of an avocation rather than profession as I race on.

So, back to my lessons for now! May you, dear readers, have a blessed day! What lessons will you learn?

Kathy Parish headshots 2014 (3 of 6)

A cleansing breath, please………

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Lately a repetitive refrain has been playing in my mind–“The world is going too fast! Slow it down! Or, maybe, let me off?”

It’s strange the way God uses the little book above to interrupt my frenzied busyness. After a particularly busy weekend (which is supposed to be a time to rest, correct? Or did I make that up?) I came across the perfect quote. It goes like this:

If you could once make up your mind in the fear of God never to undertake more work of any sort than you can carry on calmly, quietly, and without hurry or flurry, you would find this simple commonsense rule doing for you what no prayers or tears could ever accomplish. The instant you feel yourself growing nervous and like one out of breath, you should stop and take a breath.

(Elizabeth Prentiss as quoted in Mary Tileston’s compilation titled Daily Strength for Daily Needs, copyright 1997, Whitaker House Publishers)

I have a dear friend who often remarks, “Cleansing breath”, when we are faced with technical or interpersonal difficulties at work. The comment used to just remind me of Lamaze childbirth exercises! However, wouldn’t it be lovely if the simple act of taking a “cleansing breath” became our reminder of the true breath of life, God’s spirit dwelling in us? And, how lovely would it be when that reminder reframed our attitudes from frustrated, helpless, hopeless, overwhelmed, and angry to flexible, capable, hopeful, in control, and serene?

Now, granted, I suspect Ms Prentiss lived in a time a little slower than ours. I am almost certain she was NOT a nurse! However, there is to be considered the reality that we 21st century Americans are encouraged to overcommit and use the word no with great reluctance. We do want to be considered team players and good citizens and superhuman in every facet of daily life. I was gratified to find Ms Prentiss’ words giving me permission to be judicious in my commitments.

So, dear readers, the next time you feel at the end of your rope, tie a knot, hang on, and, just, Breathe!!

Kathy Parish headshots 2014 (1 of 6)