The Thoughts of Your Heart

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The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

Genesis 5-6

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. . .And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. . .

Mark 1:29-39

I’ve never been one to focus on wickedness or demons.  I joke that we are more of a “all you need is love” kind of Catholic family.  But lately I see such a darkness in this world.  That darkness has to come from somewhere.  Sadly, it comes from within us.  We have demons within us—addiction, violence, hatred, jealousy, envy—that must be cast out of us if we are to live a full life with Jesus.

Recently I’ve been devouring thrillers.  I love the page-turning, climactic, pulse-racing nature of these books.  I felt an insatiable desire to finish them immediately, to read non-stop at the expense of my husband, my children, my work, and my own personal well being (hello shower! hello prayer!).

Suddenly I discovered I was having difficulty falling asleep at night.  I couldn’t turn off my brain, struggled to wind down.  What could be the problem here?  The books I was reading had opened my imagination to some very dark plots, which in turn filled my mind with some very dark thoughts.  It didn’t help that I was consuming these books the way a glutton would go through a whole bag of potato chips in one sitting.  I felt like I was crouched over a bowl of chips and salsa, saying just one more bite, I promise! I had to admit to myself that this was a problem.

It went against the way I was raised and how I have always operated.  Reading is good.  No one can question the value of reading.

Yet the books I was reading were the equivalent of consuming two pizzas, a couple of ice creams sundaes, a few liters of soda, all in a day.  Just as that would be filling my body with junk, I was filling my mind with dark, twisted stories that brought me no consolation.

In the end, it comes down to this: does this bring me closer to God or separate me from Him?  Sometimes we need to guard our thoughts. Making sure that the words and images we put into our minds and allow to animate our imaginations are from God and not a product of the demons and darkness within others needs to be a priority.

So instead of spending the evening swiping through a story of a terrible marriage and the horrible events that occur because of it—watching the suspense light up the pages in the darkness of my toddlers’ room as I lie on her floor and wait for her to fall asleep—I’ll read something that showcases the beauty of this world, that nurtures my soul and encourages gratitude.

Immediately!

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. . .the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.

And passing along by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen.  And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him.  And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets.  And immediately he called them; and they left their father. . .and followed him.

And they went into Capernaum; and immediately on the sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught. . .And immediately there was in the synagogue a man with an unclean spirit; and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?. . .But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him.”

Mark 1:14-28

IMMEDIATELY.  The word “immediately” appears four times in my gospel reading for today.  That seems pretty significant.  So often I think that I must take time to deliberate.  I spend days, weeks, even months researching, plotting, planning, and mulling over a decision in my head before I consider taking action.  Often the process spirals into worry.  We are taught to approach serious decisions with careful consideration, and the assumption is that this will take some time.  That truly good discernment can only occur when great time is spent on it.

Jesus shows us otherwise.  Sometimes we need to act right away.  And usually those times involve Him and where He is leading us.  I suppose the key is determining if the call is actually coming from Him or instead from forces of this world.  If He is truly the one reaching out to us and compelling us to act, then we don’t need to stop and think or engage in a lengthy pro/con debate about the scenario.  We just need to do it.

This can feel very risky.  When I try to imagine the risk those fishermen took that day, I grow uncomfortable.  What would their families think of them?  How would they make ends meet?  What if they were too hasty and later experienced regret?  These are all feelings of this world, brought on from the judgement of others.  In the end, we have to trust that Jesus has a plan for us and that saying YES to Him immediately is the only way to go.  As we are reminded, the kingdom of God is at hand.  Let our thoughts align with our actions and follow Him.

Jesus in the Wilderness

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This year I hope to read through the entire Bible using a daily Catholic Bible that provides 20 minutes of readings from both the Old and New testaments. Monday, January 1st appropriately begins with Genesis and Mark, the earliest gospel.

Behold, I send my messenger before thy face,
who shall prepare thy way;
the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. . .
[After Jesus was baptized by John]
. . .The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days. . .

Mark 1:1-13

These days I often feel like a voice crying out from the wilderness. Trying to balance working from home, raising a 3 year old and 7 month old, keeping up my home, managing the bills and doctors appointments and the other necessities of life, all the while my husband works 60 hour weeks, can leave me feeling stranded in a no man’s land and alone even as I am constantly surrounded by two precious little beings. Group texts with friends help ease the need for connection, but the isolation is still real.

This passage reminds me that even John and Jesus were in the wilderness at one point in their lives. In fact, God actually SENT Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted.

A wilderness is defined as a wild and uncultivated region, as of forest or desert, uninhabited or inhabited only by wild animals; a tract of wasteland. We all have those wilderness times in our lives. Often we feel alone or abandoned when we are in them. Perhaps instead we need to cling to the image of Jesus in the wilderness and ask Him to be with us in ours, pray that He will give us strength to face the wasteland of our sorrow, the wolves that try to devour our souls, the darkness of the seemingly uninhabitable places in our hearts. If we open ourselves up to Him, He will be there. He knows; he has been there before.

Ironically, it is often in the actual physical wilderness that we have the easiest time finding Him. When I take to the woods, explore a trail in a state park, or just sit out on the porch watching a thunderstorm, I experience my deepest connection with Him and suddenly in this “uncultivated region” I am able to truly cultivate Him in my heart.

Love in the Time of the Flu

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I am a mother.  My life is dedicated to living in love for my little ones.  Sometimes that love is less of a feeling and more of an action.  And sometimes it is not what I do but what I accept and allow to happen to me, sacrificially accepting burdens in love without complaint.

Or maybe with some of the loudest and most vocal protestations ever registered on the Richter scale of motherhood woes.  See, I’m still working on that last part.

Love is having the flu but not actually being able to acknowledge you have the flu.  Because moms don’t get sick.  Or can’t.

Love is burning your arm on the side of the roasting pan in a Nyquil-induced haze and not even realizing you did it until two days later when you finally discover the source of the mysterious pain you’ve been experiencing.  Because your 6 month old has the flu and that has dominated all of your consciousness.

Love is realizing that everyone capable of eating solid food in the house devoured the treats your co-worker gave you for Christmas—EXCEPT YOU—and not even really caring because, hey, it’s not like you need the extra calories.  And really, you’d exchange chocolate for sleep at this point, right?

Love is reading that book even though your throat burns and you think you are about to hack up a lung and wait you have to also sing while reading and do the voices, too!  Because you’ve given her less attention than usual and you know her little heart feels it.

Love is letting go of the slip up or poorly worded remark made by the man who works 60 hour weeks to provide for your family.  Because you know that, like you, he’s so exhausted he probably didn’t even think it through.

Love is a snuggle with your girl, praying you are no longer contagious, and hearing her say, “I love you so much, Mommy.  You are so special to me.”

Love is holding that sobbing baby even when you would give anything to set him down for a shower.  Because when he looks up at you and smiles, you see your face reflected in the light of his eyes, and you know that just for now, for these precious few months of these short first years, you are his whole world.  And you would give anything for his whole world to be full of love.  Only love.

 

 

 

Heaven on Earth

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We long for heaven.  Sometimes we forget we can have it right here on earth, thanks to the Mass!

Pope John Paul II said that Mass is heaven on earth.  Scott Hahn wrote a whole wonderful book about it.  When we praise God at Mass, we are praising Him with the angels.  When we watch bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus and receive the Eucharist, we are one with Jesus.  What could be more heavenly?

Walter Ciszek, an American Jesuit priest, volunteered to go to Poland in the late 1930s, as the shadow of war and Naziism swept across Europe.  As the Germans invaded Poland and the Soviet Union began its crushing march across eastern Europe, Ciszek fled with other Polish refugees into the Soviet Union, where he secretly said Mass and ministered as priest.  He was eventually arrested by the Soviet police on the pretense of being a spy and held for years in a notoriously horrific prison.  From there he was sent to Siberia to serve 15 years of hard labor.  During this time of extreme suffering, he turned to those around them and cared for them in their suffering.  He risked all to celebrate Mass.

“We said Mass in drafty storage shacks, or huddled in mud and slush in the corner of a building site foundation,” Ciszek wrote.  “Yet in these primitive conditions, the Mass brought you closer to God than anyone might conceivably imagine.”

Heaven was on earth.  Even in a shack in the mud in a Soviet prison camp.

As I pace at Mass with a crying infant or carry his toddler sister out in the midst of a tantrum, let me always remember that even then, in that seemingly challenging moment, I am in the midst of Heaven on earth.  Jesus is everywhere and can be present for everyone.  And Heaven is right here if we open our hearts to it.

The Terror of 3 a.m. and the Liturgy of the Hours

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I know I always need my faith. All day, every day, at every time of day. But it’s those middle of the night wakings with a newborn when I need it the most.

I have struggled with anxiety all of my life. I was an anxious little girl. I was an incredibly anxious teenager. I was an anxious young adult. But some time around 30, things started to fall into place. I found coping strategies. But mostly I surrendered to God, developed a strong prayer life, and became comfortable with who I am and where I am. (I’m also a huge advocate for getting the right medication for yourself when you need it.)

I was in a good place. I was in the best place of my life. I became convinced I had things under control. Maybe that was the problem. I had things under control. After all, I have always known that control has always been my biggest issue, my most significant trigger, and the way God has frequently chosen to reach out to me, teach me, and help me to grow closer to Him.

When they pulled my son from my body and held him up for us to see, he was purple. He was not breathing. They poked and prodded him, and he remained unresponsive. He was rushed off to the NICU. I lay back, numb and immobile, as they sewed me up, and knew I could do nothing to help him, had no way of saving him. It was all beyond me.

After a short NICU stay, he was fine, I was fine, and we came home together and healthy. It was ideal. You could not have asked for a better end result. That’s what I tried to focus on. And yet, buried deep inside me was such overpowering fear, inexpressible and indefinable, fear of everything, terror for what might happen and for a future over which I have no control.

All day I would go about my life caring for my children, cooking our dinner, doing the writing and research that comes with my work as a historian. I felt confident in my decisions, grounded and sure about my life and my place in the world. But all that would change at the cries of my newborn son in the darkest part of the night, when all the world was asleep, and I was alone but for him. At 3 am all the terror came in waves, pounding over me until I struggled to breathe. I rocked him and tried to pray, tried to believe that my words mattered, that I wasn’t alone, even in that lonely hour.

Every single bad thing that had ever happened or could ever happen came to me and drowned out all the good, all the beautiful moments of our lives. At 3 am, the darkness was winning. I feared for the future—job loss, money problems, supporting our children, accidents, sickness, kidnapping, death, and some things too terrible to even put into words, that must remain unspoken and unwritten.

I downloaded the Laudate app and started to get back into my old, wonderful habit of the Liturgy of the Hours. Welcoming God into every part of my day and taking regular time out to pray had always helped me before. I would turn to this solace again. Yet it seemed I was just going through the motions. The words were so lovely but I felt dry and unmoved. What was the point? Was this even doing anything? I needed help. Real help.

Then one morning while praying I read words that made it all better. It was almost instant. I had never experienced anything like it.

This was where I was. This was what I needed to say, and what I needed Him to hear.

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And then, further down, an answer. A true consolation that moved the depths of my soul.

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I still have anxiety. I still struggle. But I don’t wake up in terror at 3 am, gasping for breath and drenched in sweat.

This is why we pray, even when we aren’t feeling it. This is why we sit in communion with Him even when we may be feeling spiritually dry or abandoned. He is always there. He is always with us. Just when you think it’s all over, that you can’t take anymore, He reaches out and lifts you up. He will carry you through it. He is carrying you.

Personal prayer to God is important. It is crucial that we come to God with our own words. But equally important are prayers, psalms, and readings that come to us through the tools the church gives us, like the Liturgy of the Hours. We discover so much about ourselves and our God through them. Turning to the Liturgy of the Hours, the psalms, the saints, and the prayers of our Church are ways of surrendering control, of recognizing the truth—we can’t do it ourselves. We need help. His help, the help of the saints, and the help of our Church.

I was never alone. I felt alone. But I was never, not once, alone.

Hospitality and Shame: why we must open our homes and our hearts

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Since becoming a mother, I have struggled with hospitality.  This seems counter to the way things should go.  To be maternal is to be nurturing and hospitable, right?

I come from a long line of people who turn the house upside down in a massive clean up effort before leaving for vacation.  A family gathering requires days of dusting, vacuuming, mopping, scrubbing, scouring, sorting, organizing, putting away, and arranging.  And that’s just for the interior of the house.  The lawn must be mowed, the garden weeded, the front porch swept, everything pruned and pristine.  This is my background.  But this isn’t me.  Somehow this compulsive clean gene was not transferred to me.

Perhaps I should rephrase that.  The desire to be clean and neat is there.  The frustration and anxiety that comes from a messy and disorganized house is there.  I just don’t seem to have the ability to care for my children, work, feed the family, maintain a certain minimal level of basic self-care and hygiene, and have a home that is spotless.

Consequently, my default is I can’t have people over.  People should never seen your dirty dishes.  When a friend sets a foot on your floor, it should always be spotless.  When they walk up to the front door, there should never be a scattering of Tonka trucks, a collection of autumn leaves, and nubs of sidewalk chalk to greet them.

Basically, they should never see how you really live.  So I have to ask myself—how do you truly build friendships when you must deny the daily workings of your life?  How do you nurture intimacy when you must hide the real way you live?

On Sunday, I had friends over.  True, beautiful, wonderful friends, whom I trust and love.  We tidied a bit, and I cooked a quick and easy (but tasty) chili.  In my single days, I threw elaborate dinner parties and prided myself on my cooking.  But on Sunday, I put out wine, cheese, crackers, Cheerios, and sippy cups.  And guess what?  We had a blast.  No one seemed to notice the imperfections of my home.  No one seemed to need it to be pristine.  What we did notice—what mattered—was the laughter, the great conversations, the warmth that came from being together.

I thought about my hesitation and dread when it comes to welcoming people into my home.  I really examined it and tried to get at the root of my worry.  I discovered fear.  And then I realized that the source of that fear was shame and pride.

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When I have a clean house and cook an amazing meal, I feel pride.  Conversely, when my house is messy, and I throw together a meal, I feel shame.  My dirty floors elicit deep shame within me.  When friends enter my home and see how I manage—not slovenly, but not especially neat, either—I feel vulnerable and exposed.  But this shame gets in the way of building relationships.  It separates me from my brothers and sisters in Christ.  It leaves me alone, alienated, and disconnected.  This is not what Jesus wants for me or for any of us.

According to St. Pope John Paul II, “Shame limits our ability to see each other fully.  But Genesis 2:25 tells us that Adam and Eve were unashamed.  They were not afraid to open up to each other, to become vulnerable.  They saw and knew each other intimately, in the peace of their interior gaze.”

Vulnerability is the key.  We will never form true friendships, never develop intimacy with those around us, and never experience connection with God and our neighbors unless we open ourselves up to them.  That means being vulnerable.  It means letting them see us in our yoga pants and make up free face, with dishes in the sink and children’s blocks lining the living room floor.

Do you really want a friendship with a person who will judge you because of your floors?  Do you really believe that you can be close to someone who holds you in contempt because your baseboards have dust on them?  True friends don’t care about these things.  Real friendship isn’t built on this.  We need to set aside our shame and be vulnerable.  We need to stop fearing rejection.  The people we were meant to be with—the real friendships that will stand the test of time—will not care a bit about unfolded laundry.  I promise.

Let’s learn to overcome our shame and open our hearts to Jesus and our homes to his people.  He loves us no matter how full our sink is.  And so will they.

Memorare

It means to remember.

Today I conclude a Novena.  I dutifully prayed the Memorare for nine days.  I know what my intention was when I started.  It’s still my intention when I awaken in the morning and when I lie down to sleep at night.  But somewhere around 2 a.m., awakened by my infant’s cries, groping in the dark, I start to wonder.

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The loneliness, the utter stillness, the foggy, fearful, heart wrenching jolt from my sleep causes me to question.  Perhaps it is all wrong.  What if I’m asking for the wrong thing.  It’s happened before, and I lived to thank God for denying the very things for which I begged him.

I first truly learned and embraced the Memorare four years ago when I was expecting our first child.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  This statement always comes with an amendment, one that used to cause a sharp pain but now is more a dull acceptance.  I miscarried our first child.  Twenty-three days later, I found out we were expecting our daughter.  It was stunning and miraculous and terrifying and joyful all at once.  Almost too much for me to take in.  I spent the first months of my pregnancy just trying to comprehend it all.

At the time I was teaching and the job necessitated an hour-long commute across the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, a 24 mile long bridge, and then a fight with rush hour traffic into the city.  I left the house in darkness, scraped ice off the windshield of the car, and was exhausted before I even arrived to work.  The day stretched before me as one endless trek I had to push my way through.  My classroom was on the second floor, and I climbed those stairs too many times to count.  Everything was downstairs except our classroom—the office, cafeteria, gym, music room, library, bathrooms, all essentials.  Once I actually tried to keep track and when I had reached 10 times up and down the stairs before 8:00 am, I decided to keeping track.

The Memorare was almost foreign-sounding to me, exotic, almost medieval.  Though a cradle Catholic, I had not been exposed to it before.  But in the midst of this constant, laborious, exhausting climb towards the end of my pregnancy and the end of those long hours teaching and commuting, I turned to the Catholic radio station.  Every day as my car’s wheels met solid ground and I emerged off the bridge, the station would broadcast the Memorare.  And just about at the same time, the sun’s rays swept across the lake, glinting bright against the waves, and broke across the high rise I steered onto.  The whole vista of the city lay before me, the breaking dawn enveloping us, and the ancient words to Mary spoke to my soul.

So every day when I heard the Memorare I would place my hand on my growing abdomen and beg—please, heart, keep beating.  Please, my sweet baby, live.  Stay alive.  Grow and thrive and be born and be placed in my arms and live long, long after I am gone.

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She was born.  And she lived.  And I did, too.  But it wasn’t easy.

Severe preeclampsia, a placental abruption, and an emergency C-section.  We survived.  For a moment, it wasn’t guaranteed.

I am six months out from having my son.  Our second baby.  Polyhydramnios, preeclampsia, and my darling boy born not breathing and unresponsive.  He is fine now.  I am fine now.  Well, almost.  My blood pressure has not returned to normal.

I know this should mean no more babies.  I know that two difficult, complicated, dangerous pregnancies should mean that I have no interest whatsoever in going through it again.  Intellectually I understand.  Too risky.  I have two beautiful children.  Count my blessings.

But oh how I long for a third.  At least one more.  Honestly, I long for more babies with all my heart.  But I would take just one more.  Every day I struggle to make peace, to accept that this must be God’s way of telling me that our family is complete.  And every day my heart hurts.

My intention was for my blood pressure to normalize and for us to be able to have one more baby.  For me to be healthy and the baby to be healthy.  For us both to live.

Was this right of me?  Is it a good intention when I already have two healthy, beautiful children lying in their beds just down the hall from me and other women, suffering from infertility, are desperate to have just one?  Should my intention have instead been for God to help me make peace, for me to accept what must be His will?

I don’t know.  But I’ll keep praying.  To remember.  To remember what I went through, what my children went through, what my husband suffered with worry.  But also to remember God’s mercy and love.

My Sunday Best Fourth Edition

Today I wore my new skirt from E-Shakti.  They described its color as “hydrangea.”  Isn’t that dreamy?  [Sidenote: We still have hydrangea blooming on the side of the house.  This is the latest they have ever gone.]  My shirt was from Amazon.com, brand Polo Association.  This was the first time I wore this outfit.  I spent the whole time imagining I was in a period piece, possibly Grantchester or Call the Midwife.  If I had unlimited funds, my entire wardrobe would look like something out the 1950s or early 1960s.  I’m particularly fond of the first season of The Dick Van Dyke Show; how lucky was Mary Tyler Moore?!

E was gleefully pointing at the moon, which was still faintly present in the sky.  The moon is one of her top 20 favorite things.  She’s mildly obsessed.

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Today everything clicked.  E behaved just as she always does.  In fact, I forgot to bring her sippy cup to church, so my husband headed home to get it as E compulsively mumbled “Wawa Wawa Wawa.”  Good thing we only live 5 minutes away and are always early.  Something like that used to feel like a setback, but now I roll with it.  It’s amazing how a change of attitude alters your perception and sets up your whole day for success (for the most part).  Despite juggling and wrestling with and chasing E and spending a good portion of the time in the narthex, I felt at peace.  I keep coming back to the word ENOUGH.  I felt full of God, satiated.  He was enough, I was enough, the simple pleasures, challenges, and work of this day that He gave to me were enough.

Today’s gospel was a beautiful one, and the deacon gave a remarkable homily.  I actually got to listen to it because it was my husband’s turn in our rotation/dance with the toddler, and he was in the narthex at the time.

The deacon said that to delay God’s call was the same as denying it.  We are all called to say YES to God, just as Mary did.  FIAT.  She gave him all of herself.  There is nothing on earth that matters more than God.  We are called to follow Him first and foremost, even if it means turning our back on the conventions of this world.  He comes before job, finances, personal preference, comfort, even family.  If we embrace this kind of existence, it will completely transform our lives, and force us to reprioritize all aspects of ourselves.  We have free will.  God gives us a choice.  In choosing Him, we always gain freedom, though it might not be the world’s idea of freedom.

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I listened and felt even more peace.  Why put off what God is calling us to do?  Why delay what we know is best and deny our love?  My husband and I have longed for another child, and we have decided that despite what the world might deem practical, in direct opposition to a culture that values granite countertops and luxury SUVs more than sticky little fingers and carseats, we will be open to life.  Had we waited for the “right” time—when our careers were perfect, when our bank account was perfect, when our home was perfect—we would not have had our sweet baby girl E.  She is the joy of our lives, and produced a perfect love that cast out all fear.  There is no perfect time.  But God’s love for us is perfect.  So we unite our will with His and wait to see all the joy that He will bring us.

Linking up with Rosie at A Blog for My Mom!  Go check out everyone’s Sunday best.

Pretty, Happy, Funny, Real in Early Summer

[Pretty]

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Our summer roses are in bloom.  We are enjoying this rose bush that was planted decades ago, was here when we moved in, and has required nothing from us but a good pruning twice a year.  It smells divine, as a rose should, not like roses you buy at a store, and reminds me of the old man who lived across the street when I was a little girl.  He would give me beautiful roses that smelled like heaven.  I’m sure St. Therese would agree!

[Happy]

Enjoying mojitos made from fresh mint in our garden while watching baby girl splash in her pool on a quiet summer afternoon.  Having the woods back up to our yard makes life grand.  Bird songs, frogs, and crickets.  Yes, please!

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We are also enjoying fresh produce from my father’s garden that makes the tastebuds sing.  How wonderful to have delicious tasting tomatoes and cucumbers as opposed to the sterile offerings of the grocery store.  I made this summer corn salad from Taste of Home, a favorite!

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[Funny]

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Baby Girl’s laughter as Daddy squirted her with the hose!  E has discovered the water, and she loves it!  Wawa, wawa, wawa.  I hear it all day long!  I ask her if she is a baby; she answers with an emphatic “NO!”  “Well, are you a little girl?”  “No, no, no.”  So then I take another route, “Are you a big girl?”  She looks at me like I am crazy: “No.”  “Well, what are you then?”  MONKEY SOUNDS.  Yes, Baby Girl is a monkey.

[Real]

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The seeds I believed would never come up have sprouted.  In fact, they were coming up a day and a half after they were planted!  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  I’m taking this as a sign from God and a metaphor for life.  My husband and I have planted seeds, are trusting in God, and something will come from it all.  God has a plan for us if we trust in Him and have hope.  He will provide.

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