Flora Thompson

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Author Flora Thompson. I knew nothing about her-but the excerpt that was included in the review that I read and it resonated with me so much so that I had to have this book.

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This particular book is edited by Margaret Lane who so admired Flora’s work that she researched and complied previously unpublished writings of hers. In this edition Ms. Lane has written a lengthy introduction which, I am finding is just as wonderful as Flora’s writings.

The introduction gives the reader a history of Flora’s life.
Flora lived in the 1890’s in the north Oxfordshire countryside. The daughter of  poor parents she grew up virtually uneducated past an elementary education however, she had an unaccountable gift for writing and a poetic streak that turned every ordinary experience into something precious.

She was a naturalist and spent hours walking in the woods and forests and then writing the details of those times of solitude with such vivid detail that you are sure you smell the Heather and hear the crackle of leaves.

She wrote of the ordinary lives of people during the 1890’s in such a way as to make the reader feel as though they themselves had the experiences.

The most amazing thing to me was that because of the circumstances of her life, Flora was not able to pursue her writing talents until much later in her life. She married a man who thought she was silly for wanting to be a writer often demeaning her for it. She was able to get a small job writing “romance” stories (which she really didn’t like doing) but because she was being “paid” for it-her husband allowed her to continue writing (while reading that I was thinking…wow what a jerk she married).

And it wasn’t until the later years of her life that she wrote a minor classic.
Throughout those difficult years she had one friend, a doctor/writer that she met by writing a review of one of his works. Through all the years they stayed good friends and he never stopped encouraging her.

This book is not on the “best sellers” list and you probably will not find it on your local book-store’s shelves and my review of it here probably falls flat.

Truly, this is one of my favorite books.

The struggle of her life growing up poor and possessing this wonderful gift…and not being able to use it-absolutely touched me. Couple that with the fact that she is a woman after my own heart-who was inspired by the natural world around her.

It’s a book that I find myself taking outside to my little patio that faces Mt. Fukuchi. In between reading I sip coffee and look wonderingly at the mountain and imagine what her life must have been like.

Someone put together a website for her you can find it HERE.  

The book is more than just a “good read” to me. I am touched by the life of this author and she probably could never have imagined that someday a woman after her own heart would be sitting somewhere in Japan, reading her works and pondering.
But then again….never could I have imagined myself sitting in Japan on a little patio, in a quaint little Japanese village….reading Flora’s book, or any book.

That also sets me to pondering.

Life, we just never know what it will bring.

Flora Thompson 1876-1947

— TRIBUTES —

“James P Norris was brought up in a country cottage in Chilton, Bucks, which he describes as a ‘semi-feudal’ village. He feels a great affinity for Flora, particularly as his father was the village postman. He wrote the following verse as a tribute.”

FOR FLORA THOMPSON — ENGLISH WRITER

You were of my kind
Of my people of my soul
Of the hidden violet, of the wild rose,
And the lark sang above you
Over those flat fields
Where the golden beads of wheat
Whistled softly in the wind.

Your blood was of the labouring people
Your heart was in the heart of England
And though the flowers were fragrant in the fields,
In the cottages the women
Scraped and saved their pennies
To give their children life
While the winter winds blew hard against their doors.

You did not know the words
That trembled in your mind when you were young
You did not know
You were marked by the love of words
To create the texture of your English life
So that we could take from you
The power in your aspiring heart
Which bid you, against the odds,
To shake your words at us
As hawthorn blossom in the Juniper wind.

And when the words came from you
And the wild rose bloomed
And labouring men gave off their sweat
In the English fields
They became a tower of history
Because you lived amongst them
And kings became small
As village men and women worked and loved
Under the English sky
In the lark songed wind.

James P Norris

Challah

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My first-ever handmade challah.

I observe the Shabbat (Sabbath) beginning Sundown Friday to Sundown Saturday. For a long time I have wanted to try baking challah- not that we must have challah on Shabbat it isn’t a commandment. It’s just that I think that a loaf of challah is so beautiful and makes the Shabbat dinner table look so pretty.

There is also a lot of symbolism in challah that I think reminds us of why we observe the Shabbat.

It takes a while to produce a loaf. Bread-baking takes time but that’s ok because I didn’t want it to be a fast activity. I wanted to take my time and savor the process.

Some of the things that I thought about this afternoon while I was preparing my challah:

There are seven basic ingredients is challah: flour, sugar, water, yeast, eggs, oil,  and salt. The number 7 reminds me that we are commanded to rest on the 7th day.

I made my challah into a three strand braid. The three strands reminded me of this scripture:

Ecclesiastes 4:12  And if a man prevail against him that is alone, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

The number three also reminds me of The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit.

The bread itself reminded me of the command to remember  Yeshua’s sacrifice and resurrection. It also reminded me of the scripture:

Matthew 4:4 But he answered and said, “It is written: ‘A man does not live by bread only, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ “

This particular recipe called for 6 minutes of kneading so I embraced that part of the process and used the time to pray. I think I went a bit over time in kneading. I had a lot to pray about.

I also spent time contemplating the upcoming month of Elul and the 40 day period of repentance and introspection until Yom Kippur- the Day of Atonement.

The table looked so beautiful tonight-so much so that my husband asked many questions. This “loaf of bread” was the catalyst that opened up some very good discussion about faith.

I used to think that participating in rituals like this was not necessary and actually they aren’t. Our salvation isn’t based upon whether or not we bake challah on Shabbat. However, today I found that this task of mixing and kneading and contemplating ….it really enriched my Shabbat. I could see that it gave something to my husband also- who is just in the beginning stages of learning this new faith.

I adhere to the Shabbat, Feast Days and other mitzvot alone here. There are many ways we can observe the Shabbat even if we do not belong to a congregation.

I just read an excellent blog post about observing the Shabbat alone-you can find it HERE.

 

 

Mists

I woke this morning around 6:30 am and went about my morning ritual of opening the engawa curtains and letting the morning light in.

Standing a moment, I drank in the peace of the morning garden and then gazed out over the valley and Mt. Fukuchi beyond. This morning the valley and Fukuchi San were blanketed by fog. Actually it had already dissipated a bit as the sun was making its way up over the mountains.

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This was the first morning that I had seen the mist this season and as I was cooking breakfast I made a note to check the ancient Japanese calendar.

Sure enough-exactly correct.

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What is most interesting to me is that someone in the past had such a keen sense of the subtle changes of the seasons and noted them down. Makes me wonder how many other things aren’t noted.

We no longer hear the shrill morning cries of the cicada. They have gone silent. They have such a short life span above ground. Their larva survive for up to 17 years underground before emerging during the hot summer months to a life span of only about a week or so. Incidentally the song is loud enough to cause permanent hearing loss in humans should the cicada sing just outside the listener’s ear.

There is a haiku by Matsuo Basho that I love:

Nothing in the cry
of cicadas suggests they
are about to die

They sing with all their might after having lived in darkness and seclusion for years and years even thought they have but a week or so to enjoy life in beautiful sunny gardens.

They always remind me to choose joy no matter what the circumstances.

It is Friday morning here. I am going to go bake challah for the Shabbat and enjoy the slowly cooling temperatures.

 

Obon- Come and Gone

 

A little bit about obon for those who don’t know what it is.

Obon- the season of remembering the dearly departed.

Depending upon where you live in Japan- Obon is celebrated in either July or August. In our area it’s August 13,14 and 15.

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Households have a family altar called a butsudan. This is where the photos of deceased ancestors and “name plates” are kept. The butsudan is usually kept at the eldest son’s house or the parents house if they are still alive and serves that family including grandparents, great grandparents and everyone included.

A few photos of our family butsudan below. This butsudan is about 170 years old and has been in the family for all those years. My husband said that it could be older-he is actually going to check the records to see who it originally belonged to. It is hand-crafted and about a year ago some repair work was done on it. The company that did the work offered to purchase it because it is very rare. I won’t mention the price they offered but all I can say is that it would have built us a nice little house. Of course-this will never be sold.

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This is the priest who usually comes to say the ritual chants.He has been a friend of the family for years.

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The butsudan is not where the ashes are kept. The ashes are placed in an urn either at a grave as in the first photo above or in the local nokotsudo- literally a cremains storage. They all look similar but different. Basically there are little compartments that open to house the urn with the cremains. In the countryside they tend to be modestly designed as in the second photo.

internet photos below

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Obon is more than just a time of remembrance in Japan it is believed that during Obon the ancestors come back to earth to visit family. On the first night of obon a 迎え火/mukaebi – “welcome” fire is lit. In some places the temples actually light a huge fire but mostly the welcome fire consists of lanterns.

If it is the first obon or “hatsubon” for a deceased loved-one a large lantern is hung outside the genkan. The butsudan is also  more elaborately decorated  with many rented lanterns and baskets of offerings. These are very expensive. I was shocked at the prices. One lantern-purchased can cost around 3-400 USD.

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photo from this website

There is a cemetery across the valley -tucked into the mountainside. They have a huge “DAI” in the form of lights strung through the cemetery grounds. The Cemetery is a branch of Daimonji temple in Nara-thus the “DAI” shape. During obon they light up the DAI and we can see it blazing from our back patio.

Other temples and cemeteries do different things but in one way other the other they light the welcome fire so the spirits of the dearly departed can find their way back to earth.

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the cemetery across the valley

Also during obon お供え “osonae” or offerings for the ancestors are placed on the butsudan and at the nokotsudo. The offerings are varied but usually consist of things that the deceased liked-cans of juice, beer or little bottles of sake. Perhaps some cigarettes. Favorite snacks. The stores sell specially packaged fruit assortments to fit on the butsudan or you can buy pieces of fruit and arrange your own as my mother in law has done in the photos above.

There is a special type of sugar/starch sweet called rakugan 落雁 that is a popular offering.

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These aren’t really made to be eaten. You can buy them in assortments prepacked or singles. At the end of obon they are taken to the local temple and burned in a ceremonial fire. My husband said that when he was a child they would sneak some and eat them-times were hard back then. Candy was not something they enjoyed much so a “stolen” rakugan was a special treat. Of course the adults knew what was happening but no one said anything about it.

In every village a designated area is set up for ceremonial dances called 盆踊りbonodori. Usually everyone that attends- dances. There is a group of dancers that practices the bonodori and they lead everyone who comes.

Bonodori are held by village and are for all the families having hatsubon that year. I can hear the taiko drums at the bonodori in our village if I stand outside in the evening.

The nokotsudo are also laden with offerings during this time and people go there or to their family grave plot to pay respects, pray, light incense and remember-it’s called 御墓参り/ohakamairi- or going to pray at the cemetery / nokotsudo.

Obon is also a time that the family gets together for a meal. This was the first year that our family didn’t do that. Okasan (mother) just had her surgery and ottosan (father) wasn’t so well so obon slipped by rather quietly this year. We were going to take ottosan to the family cemetery but it was raining and he is already unsteady on his feet.

It felt a little strange not doing the things we always do on obon.

We are praying for a speedy recovery for okasan so that we can plan family time at our favorite onsen in Yamaguchi. She seems in good spirits so we do have hope.

 

 

 

Risshu- Autumn’s Arrival

There is an old Japanese agricultural calendar that is still acknowledged in many places around Japan.

The ancient Japanese calendar divided the year into 24 and then 72 separate “seasons”. I found it fascinating. I also found it to be very accurate.

In olden times a lunar calendar was used, based on the waxing and waning of the moon, which meant that the position of the sun and the dates on the calendar would gradually shift out of sync. It is possible that the 24 season calendar was a way to compensate for this, and provide a calendar that satisfactorily depicted the changes in the seasons which matched with daily life.

And beyond that, each season of the 24 season calendar was then divided again into three more, to create the 72 season calendar. Each of these 72 seasons lasts just five days or so, and the names of each season beautifully depict the tiny, delicate changes in nature that occur around us, year in year out.

“Spring Winds Thaw the Ice”, “The First Peach Blossoms”, “Damp Earth Humid Heat”, “The Maple and the Ivy Turn Yellow”.

Copied from the 72 Seasons app-

As a “nature lover” I found that following along with these mini-seasons brought me such joy and opened my eyes to the subtle changes one might otherwise not notice or really think about.

The beginning of autumn happens around August 7th or 8th on this ancient calendar. While that may sound off-I guarantee you it isn’t.  This is something that I became aware of before I even knew about this ancient calendar. I began to notice that right around the first week of August the old sakura tree across the street began to show signs of Autumn.

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Sure enough it was the same this year. This photo was taken August 7th of this year. Right now the tree is about 45% yellow.

Just a couple of weeks ago I noticed that the sunlight was different. It had lost it’s stark brightness and cast a more subtle light across my kitchen windows.

I had such a lovely treat. On the very eve of risshu I stepped out into the garden after dinner to view the moon and was kept company by a koogori- an autumn cricket. The very first one that I had heard this year. How fitting that he chirruped for me on the eve of the first day of autumn.

I’m quite confident in calling it a “he” as only male crickets chirrup.

The rice fields have begun to fade, the emerald green seas slowly fading to gold. Soon the valley will be filled with the hum of rice harvesters.

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The gardens are winding down and planting of winter vegetables will begin soon.

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I see all that is left are the late summer vegetables. The crows are happily picking through what the gardeners have left behind in compost heaps.

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My tomatoes are winding down. I think this might be some of the last I will glean. The late summer / early fall peppers are in full swing. That was the very last eggplant that I managed to get off of my one plant.

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The evenings and mornings are beginning to bring cool breezes. This evening was so lovely that we decided to grab a bento from the local convenience store and drive up to Fukuchi Dam for an impromptu early autumn picnic. As the sun slipped lower in the sky we felt the zansho or “last lingering heat of late summer” dissipate as cool breezes blew down from the mountains. Had we been wet from a swim in the dam we would have been chilled.

We saw that the momiji trees are starting to turn and looked forward to the mountains splashed in autumn color.

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The dam was so peaceful and calm. Such a wonderful blessing amid all the insanity right now.

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No one else was up there. We had the entire area to ourselves. In nice weather there are usually several joggers / walkers here. It’s a good distance around the perimeter of the dam and an awesome place to exercise. The entrances to several hiking trails are also found throughout.

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We are praying for peace and cherishing each moment….

Here is the APP that has been created so you can follow along with the 72 seasons.

Just a note….

A while back I had a comment from someone and the comment went something like: “it must be nice to have such an easy life”. 

Many times I’ve thought about that comment and many times I wanted to say this-my past has been filled with pain. I’ve suffered severe abuse on many levels from childhood and on into my previous marriage. For the first 35 years of my life there were many times when I tried to will myself to stop breathing because I didn’t want to continue to live. I even attempted suicide. 

I’m writing this to those of you who are  perhaps suffering abuse in some form. Don’t give up. Personally I prayed and God healed my life. The healing process was a long hard road but without the supernatural help I don’t know that I could have made it out of that darkness ” alive”. 

Many don’t want to hear that or believe it. That’s their choice. All I can say is that I found truly- nothing is hopeless. Nothing. There isn’t one life that cannot be redeemed. 

The life you read about here on this blog is a life that was redeemed. Not just my life but my children’s lives. It didn’t come easy. I had to crawl forward at times. 

But here I stand today- a shattered life made whole. 

So if you have ever read my blog and felt ” envious” of my ” easy life” just know that my life now is a life made beautiful from ashes. 

I just wanted to say that because I don’t want my readers to think I’ve lived some fairytale life. Well… Perhaps Grimm’s fairytale….

From the Hermitage

As I said in a previous post I live the life of a part-time (accidental) hermit.

According to the dictionary:

a hermit is a person who lives in seclusion from society, usually for religious reasons.

The definition is interesting to me because I never really thought much about hermits and their reasons for living that way before we moved to Japan.  After about three years of being here I noticed that I just sort of naturally slipped into the lifestyle without trying. Not on a full-time basis of course. I wouldn’t want to live that way all the time. I don’t think we were meant to live solitary. I enjoy the relationships I have with my husband’s family. I also enjoy the friendships I have.

However, I don’t spend a lot of time with “people”. I’m guessing that I spend 80% of my time alone-well, at home with my dog. Unless I am out at the farmer’s market or just exploring the countryside.

A good part of my time is spent at home-at the hermitage. And while I’m not a part-time hermit specifically for “religious” reasons I do spend a great deal of the time praying – praying while I am working in the garden or doing other chores. Praying while I am working on a crochet project or while cooking. Sometimes the prayers are just thanking God for everything that we have and all the blessings big and small.

Today was such a day.

After I got hubby’s breakfast and bento cooked and him out the door I made myself a wonderful breakfast of banana and blueberry pancakes and enjoyed them while looking out at the garden.

I could sense the subtle change of sunlight through the bamboo shades. That subtle shift of brightness that signals the wee beginnings of the season change to the observant.

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 This morning the semi were all over the garden as I worked to clean up the yard and cut down the cucumber plants. Their bodies act as thermostats. When the sun shines hotter they vibrate louder.

I noticed that some sort of pest had invaded the cucumbers so it was time to cut them down. Just as well. We have eaten enough cucumbers for now.

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There were all sorts of critters outside keeping me company. Dragonflies are my absolute favorite.

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Parched brown grasshoppers are in abundance. Every time I moved several of them scattered, hopping straight up into the air. I was bombarded several times.

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This praying mantis was shy and hid behind the wood trellis while I cut down the cucumbers. It came out after I was done but scuttled back to its hiding place every time I came around.

I noticed the faded wreath on our garden gate and made a note to take if off and redo it for autumn. I always put a seasonal wreath on the old little gate. Several times I have been puttering in the kitchen with the window open and noticed little old ladies stopping to admire it. This one is a bit neglected and it’s time for something nice. Especially if it gives little old ladies so much pleasure to see.

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I had a lovely and simple lunch of tomatoes and coconut flat bread with a glass of ice-coffee.

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And then I got to work removing the rest of the seeds from my sunflower heads.

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I wonder if I can freeze them so they won’t get buggy. I want to save them for the birds this winter.

There are so many semi (cicada) “shells” stuck to things in the garden. As I observed one I thought…soon…the empty shells are all that will be left of them as the summer fades to autumn and crickets take their place in the continuous symphony of the planet.

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After a nice shower and a little rest I decided to sort out my latest “work in progress”. This is a colorful and eclectic afghan that I am making. It will be the first item that I make for “us”. I have given away every single thing that I have ever crocheted. This one will be for our bed.

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I allowed my mind a rest today. Mother-in-law has surgery on Monday. We have a typhoon on the way…but I didn’t worry about any of it. Everything will be okay. It will be just as it should be.

xo

Contemplative Mountain Cafe

Sometimes when you have a lot on your mind it is refreshing to get away to someplace peaceful to think -or not think as the case may be.

Last Sunday we did just that. The past two weeks have been spent running from one hospital to another. Hospitals are not fun places to have to hang out so- when Sunday came along we decided to drive up to Hikosan mountain-one of my most favorite places around these parts.

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The drive up takes you through a narrow little valley that winds up into the mountains running from Fukuoka prefecture into Oita. Several rivers run through the valley criss-crossing, narrowing and widening as they forge their way through.

Some of this area was hit hard about three weeks ago when we had such heavy rains. This home was gutted by the river as it quickly crested and overtook its banks. We passed by several homes that had been destroyed or badly damaged.

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We could see that there was still much debris to be cleared out and hauled away. The river bed was piled with logs, pieces of furniture and other objects all tangled up into heaps. Huge triangular concrete breakers had been thrown about like Lego. It was just a real mess for several miles. We talked about how much effort was needed to try and get things cleaned up and the river bed made safe again.

We wondered if it could be done before the next big storm. As I write this there is a strong typhoon headed our way-Typhoon Noru.

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It was sobering to drive through the area. My husband commented on how terrified people must have been at the sound! I never thought of that until that moment. Can you imagine having your home right there near the river and hearing the roar and ear-splitting explosion like sounds of tons of rock, wood and debris come crashing through? With water everywhere evacuation must have been a nightmare.

We fell silent as we drove on past and began to climb higher into the thickness of cedar and bamboo forests. I know that both of us were thinking about the past two weeks and what the future may hold for us.  Driving through there was such an awesome example that despite the storms of life, we needn’t worry. Everything passes and in the end it will be alright. The sun will shine again.

I was surprised to see that autumn was silently announcing its arrival on the tips of momiji trees. Momiji are the famed and beautiful Japanese maple trees that paint Japan in autumn brilliance.  This is higher elevation and is much cooler than the valley floor below. But still…it seemed early for the trees to be tinged in orange already.

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Nearing the “top”, which isn’t really the top of the mountain just the place where the cafe is located, the scenery becomes spectacular.

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We just love this little cafe. It’s perfect. Perfect for us anyhow. There are never really many people there when we stop by which is usually on a Sunday afternoon. I’m sure they have traffic here and there but Sunday afternoon is when folks are on the mountain. This is a hiking area. People come by bus from other prefectures and areas around Japan to hike the famous Hikosan mountain. I have hiked it before-spectacular! Tough hike though.

In the hiking areas you’ll notice stands like this filled with “sticks”. These are hiking sticks you can borrow if you don’t happen to have one.

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Back to the coffee shop-

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Such a wonderful little place. Great coffee and lovely desserts. They also have lunch items on their menu. They don’t offer a lot of variety but we don’t go there for the food. We love it because of the atmosphere.

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The owner told us that there are several amateur photography groups that visit and have coffee. She showed us a couple of albums that had been given to her as gifts-awesome photos. The group that gave her the album just happened to be from our little town.

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We enjoyed coffee and a sweet treat- set against the backdrop of such a serene setting and talked about what things the future might hold.

As I said before it seems that soon our lives will change as we move into the role of caretakers for elderly and ailing parents. This was something we always knew would happen and accept these coming changes joyfully.

I think my husband was concerned about how felt about it. It’s a huge life change and will require much. It will require letting go of many of our earthly possessions as the home we will possibly be moving into just does not have room for much “stuff”.

Honestly-stuff doesn’t matter much to me. I have heard folks mention that they “just couldn’t” part with things they have gathered over the course of 30 years or so. Frankly, I can’t wrap my head around being so attached to material things. I’ve never been a person that cares much for material possessions because I see them for what they are. Many times they just get in the way of living life to the fullest.

It’s just stuff. In the end it won’t mean anything. Where your heart is -there your treasure will be.

What I really value are relationships and this is what will be strengthened and nurtured as we make decisions about the future.

Monday is the big day. Mother in law has her surgery. Cancer is mean-it takes no pity on an old woman.  This particular cancer is aggressive but she wanted to fight so-we said-we will all stand behind you. We aren’t sure what the outcome of the surgery will be but I am praying for the best.

We are holding father-in-law up also as he battles Parkinson’s and tries to comfort the wife he loves.

This is life. This is how it goes.

The thing that I am most thankful for right at this moment is the peace I have in knowing that no matter which way things go for us personally- it will be okay.