Counting on Thanksgiving.

Last year, we held a placeholder Thanksgiving, an empty day where there should have been a crowd, a marker to keep the tradition going.

It worked. Thanksgiving is on.

My parents traditionally have hosted our extended family on Thanksgiving. (And by “my parents” I mean: my mother invites, counts heads, arranges flowers, rents tables and chairs, sets out nuts and cheese and crackers, and used to cook the turkey and stuffing, now outsourced to our friend Chef Ike; and my dad warmly toasts her efforts.)

Suffice to say my mom still does a lot. In fact, she would be forgiven if in recent years she has been silently tiring of it (to be clear, total supposition on my part), perhaps counting down to a handoff of the responsibility. But for 2021 she is recharged, revving and raring to go, thrilled to have it back. It is a parallel energy to a certain high schooler I know who looked forward to returning to school after having been locked with his parents for more than a year. Things we grow tired of and take for granted, we appreciate anew.

Full disclosure: I am pretty sure my Dad is less revved about having a crowd of people inside their house, even his favorite people. But he is going along for the ride.

Thank you, Mom, for making it happen. Thank you, Dad, for allowing it to happen, despite the fact that there is more than 0% risk (I see you). Thank you vaccines for making gathering again possible. Thank you grandparents and great-grandparents for setting the example of prioritizing family. Thank you parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, spouses, children for following them. Thank you rituals. Thank you fall, and cloudy skies. Thank you red leaves, wherever you may be.

Maybe it is too soon to be grateful. Thanksgiving is four weeks — a lifetime — away. We know life takes turns we do not want or expect. But can it ever be “too soon to be grateful?” Impossible. What we can be grateful for is what we have now — the idea of the gathering to come, the sweet anticipation, the energy it swirls in us, all of which is present this very moment.


Last year’s piece, “A Placeholder Thanksgiving. Keep it Warm.”

The memories come all at once, out of order.

Cousin Ken sitting in the middle of my folks’ living room, strumming folks songs on his guitar, offering Puff the Magic Dragon for then-pre-schooler Rebecca…and Kum-bala-laika for his mom Leona and my Grandma Lilli, calling them back to their father singing with his mandolin, bringing them to tears.

Every year, Greg showing up early so as not to miss any of the Dallas game. (Good luck today, by the way.) A football game on the front yard, where everyone but my dad got older, my sister and cousins and me replaced by our children.

If I strain, I can even remember when our grandmother still brought a “second” turkey to accommodate the growing family gathering, before we needed to fix a plate for her and bring it to where she sat. Before my mom eventually decided to leave all the cooking to Chef Ike — but Barbara kept bringing her apple cranberry fruit crumble thing, my favorite.

This year I’m making Barbara’s apple cranberry thing, which turns out to be very easy and will always be my favorite, though it may not taste the same since it won’t be scooped from the same ceramic baking dish.

This year we are apart. Hold the day, keep it warm, and we’ll be together again next year.

The well-loved recipe, by my aunt’s dear friend Susan Goldman.

Balance

The earth proceeded through the vernal equinox this weekend — the moment when day and night, light and dark, are balanced. Even in southern California, it is definitively spring. The air is cool, the light is new. There is an undeniable feeling of rebirth. We are coming out of a year-long winter, a drawn-out season of anxiety. We are collectively rediscovering our balance.

I learned this weekend that yogis mark the vernal equinox by practicing 108 sun salutations. 108!

Why 108? Well, according to The Wellness Universe blog, the number 108 is auspicious in many religions and wisdom traditions: there are 108 names of Buddha, beads on a Catholic rosary, and 108 is a multiple of “chai” – the Hebrew word meaning both 18 and “life.”

I heard about this equinox practice during a “Zoom Shabbat.” Our wonderful Rabbi Amy Bernstein, who had been put through this practice earlier in the day by our mutual yoga teacher Nicole Sherman, noted an essential lesson she learned from her ordeal of 108 sun salutes: Life gives you hard things; you do them. You don’t have to tell yourself a whole big story about them. You get through them, moment by moment.

Listening to meaning she drew from the experience, I wondered, Could I do 108 sun salutations? What would it feel like? What might I learn? I resolved to try it.

During the 90 minutes it took me to get through them (twice as long, I might add, as our yoga teacher reportedly took), I jotted down the lessons that popped up for me. I wrote them down because I sensed that they would apply as much to life, and writing, as to yoga:

  1. No matter how well you think you can multitask, you cannot. (Don’t think you can keep count in your head.)
  2. Simple tools can help manage your task. (In this case, tally marks saved me).
  3. Take breaks if you need them.
  4. A change of venue can recharge you.
  5. Slow down; pay attention.
  6. Take lots of deep breaths.
  7. Everything is better when you can be present in the moment.
  8. You have the power to re-value something bad into something good (e.g. “I am so freaking tired I can’t keep going” can become “I am getting stronger.” Or, “this draft sucks” can become “I am one draft closer to getting it right.”)
  9. Don’t panic if you get lightheaded.
  10. Notice where things gets bumpy, and try something different next time it happens (and there will be a next time).
  11. Celebrate milestones on your way to a larger goal.
  12. Find new things in the familiar. (When days feel the same, small tweaks can make them unique.)
  13. Get lost in flow.
  14. Find strength in community — other people are on this path with you.
  15. As you near the end, each moment feels more precious.
  16. Drink plenty of water.
  17. Reward yourself for your accomplishments.
  18. Nothing, I mean nothing, beats a hot bath after a hard day.

Wishing you a week of balance and strength for whatever tasks you face.


Book Recommendation!

To bring this piece full circle, I must recommend Claire Dederer’s bestselling memoir, Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses, which I recently discovered while taking Claire’s online memoir class offered by Hedgebrook. (Hedgebrook offers many excellent online course, which you should check out here.)

Praise for Poser:

“Poser is a powerful, honest, ruefully funny memoir about one woman’s open-hearted reckoning with her demons.”–Dani Shapiro, The New York Times Book Review

“Why did Claire Dederer take up yoga? Short answer: for the same reasons that Elizabeth Gilbert changed her life in Eat, Pray, Love and to much the same funny, charming, self-deprecating, stealthily inspirational and (quite possibly) best-selling effect.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“Funny, well-observed, and ultimately inspiring.”–People (four stars)

“Let me be honest about something: I love yoga, I live for yoga and yoga has changed my life forever — but it is very difficult to find books about yoga that aren’t incredibly annoying. I’m sorry to say it, but yoga sometimes makes people talk like jerks. Thank goodness, then for Claire Dederer, who has written the book we all need: the long-awaited funny, smart, clear-headed, thoughtful, truthful and inspiring yoga memoir. To simplify my praise: I absolutely loved this book.”–Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love

A Prayer for Leaders from Dr. King.

I do not know what a prayer is, though I have recited my fair share. I know it is more than a wish, or hope, or thanks. It is outward — a conversation with the universe. And inward — uncovering an intimate truth.

P-R-A-Y. Pop of lips, rip of air, long sigh of an open mouth. Pray. Move the air with your breath in the direction of another being. Will they even know you’ve done it? Can a prayer shrink a tumor? Bring success? Repair a country?

Why pray?

Pray because words exhaled together may shift something too cosmic for our animal brains to know or understand.

Pray because sometimes it is all you can do — when you are not the one who wields the scalpel or sews the sutures or bathes the infirm; when you are not the one placing a hand on a Bible swearing to lead a country out of chaos; when you are on the periphery of your friend’s pain, and it means something to her that you promised to do it.

Pray not because it changes the world, but because it changes you,” my rabbi’s answer. Pray because it focuses your intention. Propels your next steps. Rebuilds your strength. Restores your equipoise.

Pray because it is a love offering. Because nothing is wasted. Because it couldn’t hurt. Pray because it is your impulse and that is reason enough.

This week, pray to fulfill the words the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke 65 years ago:

To do this job we have got to have more dedicated, consecrated, intelligent and sincere leadership. This is a tense period through which we are passing, this period of transition and there is a need all over the nation for leaders to carry on. Leaders who can somehow sympathize with and calm us and at the same time have a positive quality. We have got to have leaders of this sort who will stand by courageously and yet not run off with emotion. We need leaders not in love with money but in love with justice. Not in love with publicity but in love with humanity. Leaders who can subject their particular egos to the pressing urgencies of the great cause of freedom. God give us leaders. A time like this demands great leaders.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Aug 11, 1956, “The Birth of a New Age” Address on the Montgomery Bus Boycott

I do not know how to pray. I cannot proclaim that I believe in its power. I pray anyway. For so much.

How to Dance in the Rain: Another Lesson from My Grandmother

I wake Friday morning. Think: Another day. Another gift.

Full from Thanksgiving, I dress for a jog, or maybe the YMCA. Whim will decide.

A jog would mean fresh air and sunshine and — the big payoff — an expansive ocean view. The gym would mean maybe I pick up some weights, challenge my muscles. That’s important for a woman my age, I hear. I jog toward the gym.

I choose an elliptical at the end of the row, to put some space between me and the other post-indulgence machine-runners. It asks my weight and my age so it can choose how hard I should work. I lie about my age. By a lot. It’s not vanity; this machine doesn’t know how strong 49 can be.

My view from this machine is split: on the right, through the open double doors, I see the elementary school across the street. I am looking directly at the windows of Aaron’s first-grade classroom. I play a trick on myself; I time travel. “Imagine it is 11 years ago,” I tell my brain, “and Aaron is 6 and learning double-digit addition and subtraction, using the newspaper’s box scores to add each quarter of the basketball games.”

The trick makes me nauseous. I can’t sustain it for a second. That little boy is almost 18, graduates high school in months, then will leave for college. Fuck!

It goes so fast.

On the left side, my view is of televisions mounted to the wall. They are there to distract us, keep us pedaling, jogging, climbing, longer. Trying to stay healthy, longer. Trying to make our time here longer. On one TV is a college basketball game, all eyes on the coach. I time travel again, forward this time, and imagine that coach is Aaron, and I am on this same elliptical machine watching him live his dream. I believe in his dream. I smile. Thinking about the future doesn’t make me nauseous like returning to the past did.

The hardest challenge is being right here, now. I once wrote on a rock, “Be here now,” trying to create a reminder to help me stay present. Emmett found my rock and poked fun at my solemnity, writing on the back, “Where? HA! HA!” I found it on my desk. It was so Emmett, I had to laugh. I can take myself too seriously.

At the Y, a man I’ve known all my life walks in. We went to kindergarten together at that school across the street. Then his daughter and Aaron went to kindergarten together there. She’s also on the edge of what’s next. “How’s the college stuff going?” he asks. This can’t be happening, I want to say. They are only five, I want to say. Hell, WE are only five! “Great,” I say.

It goes so fast.

I walk home, it’s time to get ready to leave for the unveiling of my grandmother’s gravestone,. It has been a little more than a year since she died, and her name has been added to join my grandfather’s. We chose Thanksgiving weekend so all of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren could be present.

We gather under a white canopy on a picture perfect fall day in Los Angeles. We have no clergy, we only need ourselves. Our memories. Where to beginThere are so many, my sister says. This is not the end of telling stories, my mom reminds us. My aunt shares, “Some people wait for the storm to end, and some people dance in the rain.” Lilli danced in the rain. My cousins tell of the evil eye she gave to anyone who asked her age, including her kids. We laugh. And on we go.

I have brought my “Be here now”/”Where? HA! HA!” rock to leave on her gravestone. I love how it marries her occasional word of wisdom with her abiding need to crack herself up. I have spent hours telling her stories about things my boys had done, hoping to give her a laugh, perhaps a funny anecdote she could retell herself when she needed something to cheer her. I tell my family the story of the rock, from my intention to Emmett’s rewriting. We crack up. It is perfect.

I try to be present now, to cover my ears to the siren call of future and past. I give thanks for a family that holds these memories with and for me, a family connected by shared love and history, by reminders to dance in the rain, and laugh as hard and as often as we can.

We all put rocks on the gravestone. They are decorated and glittered and painted, some with words evoking Lilli, like LOVE and FAMILY and BROOKLYN. We cover every space, we make that gravestone look like a party, the best party you ever went to. We ask each other what will happen to the rocks, noticing that all of the others around here are bare. There is talk of returning with Gorilla Glue, perhaps adding a new story to the canon.

More Lessons from Lilli Diamond: good for what ails you.

I hear my grandmother’s voice almost daily. And some days multiple times.

This day I am standing at the kitchen counter on a winter Sunday, just past noon. She is not yet two months gone.

I’m in my bathrobe, showered, after my ritual Sunday cardio-funk dance class. Dance class is usually good medicine. I usually feel happy with the first bar of music blasting from the speakers, the first stretch, the beginning of movement, and downright exultant by the last breathless bow. But not today. Today it didn’t work. I am a little depressed.

I am at the kitchen counter, and I have just sliced a mango into a white bowl with a tiny chip at its rim. When did I get these? Post-engagement, pre-marriage? Twenty-plus years? I used to remember details like these. I have cut open a pomegranate and sprinkled pomegranate seeds onto the mango. It is beautiful, orange and red. I pierce the fruit with a silver-plated fork embossed with an elaborate script H. H for Heisen, for Selma & Aaron, my husband’s grandparents. I rescued them from a hidden box of silver last week, rather than let them continue to sit, tarnished and untouched.

I take a bite of my fruit, and it is a sweetness like no sugar, no cookie, no cake any human could make. A ripe mango is proof of divinity, if nothing else. The pomegranate seeds burst with juice, and yet more sweetness. I give gratitude for this deliciousness. I congratulate myself for buying them, for not forgetting about them until they are brown, for not being too lazy this time to cut into the pomegranate and confront its greedy, intricate design, trying to keep its seeds prisoner.

And I think, how can anyone be depressed eating mango and pomegranate, on a sunny winter afternoon, while wearing a bathrobe? It can’t be sustained.

And then, like a reward, I hear my grandmother’s voice. As I slip my fork again and again into the chipped white bowl, putting bite after bite of sweetness into my mouth, my redheaded guardian extols the health benefits of my snack in her distinctive style: “Pomegranates have lots of antioxidants, they are SO GOOD FOR YOU!” It’s a voice that could be saying, “You just won tickets to Disneyland!” This is a celebration.

I exhale, and try to release the dregs of whatever has its teeth in me. It’s always the little things that bring me back. I wrap my soft robe tightly around me. I appreciate the counters I’ve decluttered and wiped clean, my transparent effort to bring similar order to my mind and soul, and I nod to myself, thinking, “Grandma, you are so right.”

 

We Always Root for Overtime

The car clock says 7am as I turn right on PCH, Aaron in the passenger seat next to me, on our way to school. We are tired from sleeplessness related to this unconscionable heat wave, and to Grandma Lilli dying.

He says, “I don’t know why I haven’t really cried since the first night,” the first night being Sunday, October 22, when he walked into my bedroom to say he couldn’t sleep because he kept thinking about Grandma Lilli, his great-grandmother. We had been with her earlier that day, and we knew she was on the threshold of death. He did not yet know that I had just been on the phone with my sister Marni, who had told me that she was now gone.

When I told him, he cried out and crumpled onto my bed. I put down my journal and pen (once again Lilli was acting as my muse), and we talked about life, and about death, this experience bringing mortality to his mind.

“I can’t believe I’m already 16,” he said. “It goes so fast.”

I know, I said. I told him that when I felt panicky like that, I ran through the chapters of my life – way back to pre-school, then little kid, pre-teen, high school…and on and on. “So many chapters and each so full… all before I even met Daddy!” We did the same for him. I wanted him to feel how much a life could hold, even one just 16 years long.

We turn onto Topanga, the temperature deceptively, temporarily cool, the day’s promised heat still to come. “There’s no right or wrong way to feel,” I tell him. I am telling myself, too.

My sorrow has been less intense than I expected it would be. I wonder aloud about the reasons for that: Gratitude for her long life, I think, and for its quality. Her recipe: show up with joy and enthusiasm; believe you can do anything; see miracles everywhere; laugh a lot, and love unabashedly, and loudly. One tiny example of “love unabashedly, and loudly”: Every time I called her, and said, “Hi, Grandma, it’s Laura,” I’d receive an effusive, “LAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUURRRRRAAAAAAAA!” in response, as if nothing better could have happened in the world at that moment than a phone call from me. (And I know she had the same, authentic response when any of her family called.)

“You reap what you sow,” I explained to a friend who marveled at our family’s devotion to Lilli when she learned that my sister, my cousin, and I each gladly spent a night in the hospital with her a couple months ago. Lilli planted the seeds of our devotion with her own.

So I tell Aaron, a basketball player, my theory about why my sorrow is tempered: “We left it all on the court with her.” The showing up with love for birthdays, graduations, his basketball and baseball games, his brother’s MMA classes, his cousins’ plays and dances; the enjoyment; the I love you’s. We left little room for regret, and maybe regret is where sorrow lives.

Aaron is quiet, then adds his own sports-related observation. “I think Papa loves overtime and extra innings so much because it’s like a little bit of immortality.” My heart catches, thinking about my father, my son, their relationship as close as mine with my grandmother. My dad has much in common with his mother Lilli — the showing up, the love for his family, his youthful exuberance, his dogged pursuit of his favorite pasttime (for her dancing, for him football), long past the time many of his peers have set theirs aside. He always roots for overtime. More important than the outcome, even, is the chance for more of what he loves.

“I feel like all the time I had with her, my whole lifetime, was her overtime.” I think of my husband, whose own beloved, incredible grandmothers died, respectively, twenty years, and more than thirty years ago, way too soon, so much time left on the clock.

Oh my child, yes. With intense, outrageous, cheer-at-the-top-of-my-lungs gratitude for the miracle of Lilli Diamond’s overtime. All the while knowing with a touch of melancholy, that even overtime comes to its bittersweet end.

 

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An Upbeat Playlist for Stressful Times

We entered singing. My sister and I had ascended the stairs into the “great room” of Belmont Village to visit our grandmother, and the joint was jumping. Residents had gathered to hear the musical stylings of a guest singer. It was impossible to refrain, so why try? We opened our voices and danced over to her. (It is easy to spot her, the redhead, from behind, or really from any direction.)

When she saw us, she bestowed her perennial gift, a contagious, nearly-crying smile that says better than words can, “I’m so happy to see you.”

I needed that. Then the singer said, “Remember, music is the best medicine.” I needed that, too. This past Sunday, at dance class, the music, the dancing, the singing along. I need it. You know you need it, too. These are trying times. Play your music loud and often.

Without further ado, a (starter) playlist for stressful times. Play loud.  Play often. Dance. Sing. Repeat.

  1. Michael Jackson (just about anything, but let’s go with Wanna Be Starting Something
  2. And another Michael Jackson, Black or White
  3. American Authors, Best Day of My Life
  4. Marvin Gaye, How sweet it is (to be loved by you)
  5. Stevie Wonder, Signed, Sealed, Delivered.
  6. Kinky Boots, Raise You Up

(And, for a change, try a nice quiet 10-12 minutes with the Calm App gratitude meditation. Be grateful for your lungs, and legs, and all the other parts needed for dancing your stress away.)

Love,

Laura

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How I Found My Hakuna Matata

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Going on a safari was on my mother-in-law Joyce’s bucket list, not mine. Still, we gratefully accepted the invitation to accompany her. (We’re givers, I know.)

For a year we received e-mails from Joyce admonishing us what to do to prepare for the trip to Tanzania (not the least of which was practicing taking a shower with our mouths closed). Care packages of DEET and rain ponchos arrived at our house. I stored them in a drawer and hoped I wouldn’t forget where I’d put them many months later when it came time to pack.

The safari loomed in the future for so long. Now we have been and returned. It is over in time, but not gone.

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When you don’t know what to expect in an experience, you allow room for surprises. Sure, I expected that I would enjoy seeing a place on our planet unique in its preservation of land and animals. I expected that I would ooh and aah over elephants and giraffes and lions and baboons. I did not expect, however, that the pace of our journey, slow and in the moment, would linger quite so long when I returned to “real life.” Call it the Hakuna Matata Effect; it lasts.

I’m not speaking of the red dust that still clings to my suitcase. I’m speaking of the less tangible residue, like the first Swahili words we learned as we rushed to get everyone and six suitcases into a jeep on our way to the Arusha airstrip for a propeller flight to the Serengeti. “Pole pole,” he said (poh-lay poh-lay). “Slowly, slowly.” We’ll get there. Just breathe. It takes the same amount of time to move calmly as it does to feel rushed and to rush others.

I’m speaking of the melodious sound of Swahili, embodied in this ear worm of a song taught to us by our very patient driver/guide Ellison (and which essentially translates to, “What’s up, dude? Everything’s cool; no worries in Tanzania.”):

 

I’m speaking of my continued longing for the sound of only birds and animals and wind, instead of the sounds that fill my habitat: houses striving for perfection with incessant remodels; hammers and power saws; lawnmowers and leaf blowers; fire engine sirens; airplanes droning; electronic devices buzzing and dinging.

 

 

Mostly, I’m speaking of the perspective gained by traveling outside of my culture, which all-too-quickly fades upon reentry. For a week I was not constantly connected to cable “news.” For a week I watched animals who knew nothing of North Korea or Russia or the United States, who cared nothing about SAT Prep classes or Bar Mitzvah caterers or glitchy WiFi at the office. I am not saying I wish I were Maasai, or that I would like my world to constrict to hunting and gathering. I am saying I needed the reminder that some of my concerns are cuckoo creations of my cultural bubble. They have no intrinsic universal value, and I can choose which to ascribe to, and which to let go.

I cling to the residue of Tanzania. For a week, I was with my family, away from the push/pulls that animate our lives at home. For a week we lived a starkly different pace — on the go at 6 am, eating breakfast and lunch in the quiet of the bush, in bed at dark, falling asleep to those sounds of nature. For a week our eyes set upon the unfamiliar beauty of flat-topped acacias and rocky outcroppings that shelter lion cubs. And for a week we spent 8-10 hours bumping around in a jeep looking for glimpses of animal action, and peeing outside when Ellison decided the threat of lion or leopard attack was low. Joyce said it was the trip of a lifetime, and that she will never do it again.

Me? I’m ready to plan my return.

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P.S. Bonus video: Watch an elephant multi-task, and listen to our amazed commentary. And finally, the words to “Jambo buana” song, written out for us by Ellison.

 

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New Year’s Wishes for My Children.

My dear boys,

May you continue to have the courage to step into the beautiful unknown, with a sense of humor, with a sense of adventure, and with your brother close by your side.

May you reach out for help when you need it, and may you generously share your many, many blessings with a world that needs what you have to offer.

I love you,

Mom

This is Marriage. This is 18. This is Life.

We had planned a quiet anniversary celebration, since the school board transformed what used to be a summer night into a school night a few years ago.

Our first anniversary was a trip with friends to Hawaii.

Our third was a walk to a park with our baby in a stroller.

Our fourth through seventeenth…well, who can recall the details? A few dinners, a few nights with sick children, a few vacations, a search through my mind’s records would likely reveal.

But our eighteenth anniversary will be remembered as the day we got our first puppies. Two.

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Officially I have lost my mind.

After years of saying no, I felt ready for a dog. A single dog. We discussed this in May, decided to wait until the end of summer, when travels were done. And then today our friend brought over four puppies for us to choose from.

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The cuteness was the problem. How to choose? Add to that so many voices– the friend giving them away, my mother-in-law, my sons, my nieces, even my husband — insisting that a single dog would be lonely without a companion.

I tried using the rational mind: “Most people we know with dogs have just one dog.” And “My mental health is more important than the dog’s mental health.” But the rational mind does not always win. Because, remember, the cuteness.

When it was time for the woman with the puppies to go, pressure was applied. But it didn’t take that much. And now we have two dogs.

And so an 18th anniversary becomes trip to the pet store for supplies. Becomes friends coming over to see the new puppies. Becomes nieces coming back and back again to cradle the pups. Becomes an uncle coming to visit. Becomes my sons trying out names and playing with them and cleaning up after them, and feeding them and getting pillows for their bedtime crate. Become my incredulous parents popping by to wish us a happy anniversary. Becomes an impromptu barbeque, and opening a bottle of champagne and Martinelli’s cider, which had been cooling in the refrigerator since last year.

If ever there is a time to uncork some celebration, this is it. This is 18 years of marriage. Kids. Family. Friends. Blessings abounding. And, now, dogs.

This is life: Full and overflowing, throwing some caution to the wind, saying yes.

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Watching Olympics is more fun in a group.

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Let’s hope this lasts all night…?