Make Your Christmas More Meaningful

Aaron Burden

It’s hard to believe that Christmas is a few days away. I have been busy but not SO busy that I forget the reason for the season. There are many wonderful sights and sounds during the holidays and it is easy to get caught up in it all- the quest for perfect presents, home holiday decor, parties, cookie recipes, you name it.

Heidi Sandstrom

This holiday, I want to challenge you to think about Christmas differently. Think about it other than presents, alcoholic beverages, and a zillion cookies. To help you, I’m going to share my favorite things about the holiday. This is in the hopes that you will go deeper into your heart and look beyond the tangible into the intangible. And, I’m hoping you will share your favorite enriching experiences with me so I can open my gratitude circle even wider.

  1. Giving. This is the biggest charitable season of all. I try to support my church’s ministries and be as generous as I can afford to be. When my kids were little we rolled up dollar bills and put them in the Salvation Army buckets. We didn’t have much back then but we gave a little every chance we could. I’ll bet you my adult kids still put dollar bills in SA buckets.
  2. Friends. I’ve had numerous opportunities to spend extra time with friends. We do this anyway but at the holiday season it is even more meaningful. The food and presents are nice, but what I really enjoy is quality time and unconditional love.
  3. My family. I took my mom to see The Nutcracker a couple of weeks ago. It was a bit challenging but the Benedum staff (Thanks Steve!) was wonderful. We enjoyed the ballet and I think my mom absolutely loved the experience. I am looking forward to Christmas Eve and Day when I am with many of my family.
  4. Church. My church service and our choir is so beautiful all the time but I especially love the whole experience at Christmas. We had our holiday program recently and all the young ones sang. They sounded like little angels! Church is one of the best ways to experience unity with the reason for the season.
  5. Children. We took Penny to the Christmas Light Up in Clinton, PA.  and it was enchanting. If you want to have a great experience, take a small child to a Christmas event. Sit back and say very little; watch their faces glow. This is why we need to give young ones the gift of our time and energies. Just for things like this.
Mom and I at The Nutcracker

This is a season of love and gratitude. It is easy to get caught up in the stress of the holidays so remember, easy does it. Go for experiences, not necessarily material possessions, and remember to be generous with those less fortunate. This will transform the holidays for you.

What is your most meaningful Christmas or holiday tradition? I’d love to hear from you. Merry Christmas!



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The Treasures of Christmas

Poinsettia 3
Janoski’s Poinsettias- So Beautiful

“And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

So here we are in the “in between” week, the week between Christmas and New Year’s that gives us a chance to catch our breath. It’s a good time for rest, relaxation, and yes, reflection. Maybe you’re with family, friends, and your children. Maybe you have time off from work and are taking a well deserved break.

I did a lot of entertaining the last few days. My cousins are here from New York, my sisters are both in, and my (soon to be born) granddaughter’s other grandma made a visit to Pittsburgh to spend Christmas with us. Talk about blessings. Jess’ mom Ann brought me this oh-so-cool gift of special M&M’s with my son and Jessica’s picture on them (no kidding). They were even in this box with little feet on them.

Holiday M&M's
Is This Adorable or What?

I am looking forward to getting to know Ann and Jessica’s family better in the coming years. A new child is so bonding and we will all have Penelope’s best interests at heart as we go forward. She is due on January 9, 2016 (my son’s 30th birthday ironically) but really, she could come at any time. We are anxiously awaiting her arrival.

What are the treasures of Christmas for me this year? It was quality time with my husband’s family on Christmas Eve. Then Christmas Day with my kids, cousins, sister and husband, Jessica and Ann, and especially another holiday with my mom. She never fails to keep up with it all, staying up late, getting up early, and always ready for whatever we want to do. I tease her about the planning we do- the food briefings for Christmas were months ago- but it’s all in jest. Really, her entertaining skills were my basis for what I do today. 🙂

The true treasure was keeping the origin of Christmas in my heart despite the rush and commercial tugs of the holiday. It was about coming back to center, recognizing and honoring what this holiday truly means. I wrote a post about the Navitiy icon for the Orthodox Christian Network and it was even an education for me. That is the great thing about writing for them. I learn in the process too.

I want to wish you a very happy New Year and thank you for all your love and support this year. I am truly blessed with such a beautiful group of family and friends. It makes my life so rich.

Christmas Morning 2015
Sunrise Christmas Morning 2015


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Everything is Bigger at Christmas

Aaron Burden

It’s hard to believe that Christmas is only one week away. I have been busy but not SO busy that I forget the reason for the season. There are many wonderful sights and sounds during the holidays and it is easy to get caught up in it all- the quest for the perfect presents, home holiday decor, cookie recipes, you name it.

I went shopping with a friend the other day and in every store we went into, the gift ideas were overwhelming. It was all about the red and green and white and lovely and sparkly. It was clothes, jewelry, perfume, gift wrap, slippers, purses….I could go on and on. It was hard to reign myself in but I did stick to my budget pretty well. It was a tough challenge.

Heidi Sandstrom

So many things are bigger at Christmas. I wanted to take a few minutes to share what I think is the better of the bigger. I hope you share your favorite thing(s) with me in either the comment section or on my Facebook page.

  1. The trees are bigger. I love big trees and I was lucky enough to see The Nutcracker at the Benedum Center this year. The concert hall is beautiful enough to begin with but add a tree, big red ribbons, and musicians and it gets downright gorgeous. I basked in the light of the tree and then in the amazing ballet. I took my mom with me and I’m sure this will be a memory for years to come.
  2. Our hearts are bigger. This is the biggest giving season of all. Don’t forget to write a check to your church or favorite charity. If it’s not in your budget, do some acts of loving kindness. Donate the stuff you no longer wear to the nearest shelter, serve dinner at the soup kitchen, help a neighbor by shoveling his/her driveway.
  3. Expectations are bigger. This is the one thing I try to keep in perspective. It gets easier as I get older. Material things do not hold that much meaning for me any longer. I temper my expectations to allow that everyone is busy, overwhelmed, and tired. I make the effort to love everyone for who they are and not what I think they should be. I keep the focus on love and the reason for the season and I’m a much happier person.
  4. Appetites are bigger. There’s so many good parties with sweets and food. It’s such a temptation. I read those “How to Eat Less at your Office Party” articles but the fact is, I don’t feel good when I overeat. I don’t want to get carried away so I do my best to temper my intake. I save my appetite for those things that I truly want and that’s my splurge. Let’s hope I can keep this attitude. 😉
  5. We miss our departed loved ones bigger. I miss my dad, grandparents, church friends, good friends who I’ve lost. I light my prayer candle almost every day and remember them often. I cannot bring them back but I know they would want me to keep going, keep loving, and keep them in my heart. That’s what I try and do.

I wrote a post for the Orthodox Christian Network this week and it’s up. Click HERE for the link. I wrote about St. Nicholas and I talked about my grandfather (who was named Nicholas) and it brought back so many memories of him. I can see him in his backyard walking or tending his huge gardenia plant in the sunroom. I can hear him chuckling over his favorite tv shows and I can feel the warmth of his hugs. I read my post to my mom and she loved it. We were in heaven over the picture of her parents. I’m almost certain that photo was taken the night before or the day of my wedding. What a wonderful ordinary into extraordinary moment this was for both me and my mom.

Keep your heart in the right place and this Christmas will be a good one. This post dedicated to Alex – May your memory be eternal. 

Heinz Hall- Even the chandelier is gorgeous!
Heinz Hall chandelier- You are the Light of the World
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A Family Tradition- Greek Baklava!

The Baklava, fresh out of the oven
The Baklava, fresh out of the oven

When I first got married (many years ago!), I wanted to learn to make Baklava. You’ve probably tasted it at Greek food festivals or weddings. It’s a delicious, sweet cookie/dessert that’s been around for ages.

My Aunt KC gave me her recipe and I wrote it down. Since then, we’ve both made subtle changes to the original but the outcome is just as awesome.

The Recipe!
My historic original recipe!

Phyllo dough no longer comes in big sheets (in the Athens box!). I don’t use crushed zwieback any more. But this recipe is priceless to me. I had to finally place it in a plastic sleeve to keep it from falling apart. I don’t have the heart to discard my ancient piece of history so I am going to attempt to re-write my recipe here. If you’re comfortable handling phyllo dough, this recipe is a cinch. If you’re not so experienced with phyllo, give it a try anyway. Just keep moving so the dough doesn’t dry out.

Greek Baklava

1 lb. of walnuts, chopped between coarse and fine (not too fine!)

1/2 cup sugar

2 teaspoons cinnamon

15-20 sheets of phyllo – I use one tube of Athens phyllo dough, thawed in the fridge for a couple of days. Or you can thaw on the counter for a few hours.

8- 10 oz of butter (no margarine!)

9 x 13 glass (preferably) pan

Silicone basting brush

Syrup Ingredients

3 and 1/2 cups water

6 cups sugar

squeeze 1/2 lemon

1/2 orange, cut up in slices

1 cinnamon stick or 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon


Grind the nuts and place in a large bowl. Add the sugar and cinnamon. Lightly mix. Set aside.


Melt the butter over low heat. Be careful not to burn it or let it brown. Make an assembly line of sorts. Place a 9 x 13 (preferably glass) pan in front of you. Place your saucepan of melted butter and your brush above or next to you. Place the phyllo dough next to the pan. Start by laying 5-6 sheets of phyllo down in the pan, buttering each layer lightly.

My daughter Michelene making Baklava!
My daughter Michelene making Baklava!

Sprinkle 1/3 of the nut mixture over the entire pan and smooth it out. Butter two more sheets of phyllo over the nuts (go slow or the dough will rip), another 1/3 of the nuts, two more sheets of phyllo, then the final layer of nuts.

First Layer of Nuts
First Layer of Nuts

Layer at least 5-6 more sheets of phyllo on top of the last layer of nuts, again buttering between each layer. I don’t saturate each phyllo layer, just a good light coating of butter. Do butter the top layer of phyllo very well.

Place the finished product in the refrigerator for 10 minutes. While it’s in there, pre heat your oven to 300 degrees.

After ten minutes the phyllo will be hardened. Take a good knife and score the baklava before you bake it. I like to do a diamond pattern (see the picture at the opening of this post). I achieve this by making four long lines, length wise across the pan. Then I start at the top left corner and slowly make diagonal cuts about an inch or less apart. Don’t think the phyllo will cut perfectly. It may give you a hard time but just keep at it, working slowly.

Tip: I don’t make my pieces too big. It’s perfect when you can eat one in two or three bites. You are welcome to make your pieces bigger!

Bake the baklava for about an hour. Keep an eye on it after 50 minutes. It will make your whole house smell wonderful. Pull it out of the oven when it is a medium golden brown. You don’t want it too dark.

Let the baklava cool completely (preferably over night). When you’re ready to syrup it, combine the water, sugar, lemon, orange and cinnamon and bring to a light boil. Boil the syrup for 10-15 minutes until it is slightly tacky.

Take the syrup off the heat and set a timer for 5 minutes to briefly cool it. After cooling, take a measuring scoop or soup ladle and fill it with syrup. Lightly pour the syrup over the baklava, going back and forth over the whole pan.

My original recipe calls for 2 cups of syrup per pan but that may be too much. I really just eye ball it. When the syrup comes about half way up the sides (an advantage to having a glass pan), that’s when I stop.

Let the baklava sit and absorb the syrup. Within a couple of hours, you should be able to cup it (use pretty cupcake liners- one piece per liner). Arrange a few in a pretty box or tin and what a gift. Or, arrange on a holiday platter and dazzle your guests.

A few tips:

I usually place a piece of aluminum foil over the pan after I syrup it. I don’t seal the foil yet. You don’t want an airtight seal until the syrup is absorbed. Later, you can seal the foil and this will keep it fresh.

Save the ends of the rows of baklava. They’re not great for presentation but they make a delicious topping for ice cream sundaes. 🙂 Don’t forget the honey or chocolate syrup drizzled on top!

The syrup recipe will make enough for 3 pans of baklava. If you don’t use it all, it makes a delicious simple syrup to use in your tea for the winter.

Resist the temptation to pour hot syrup over hot baklava. One should be hot and one should be cold. Cold baklava, hot syrup.

Baklava with Coffee
Baklava with Coffee

If you make my baklava, please let me know how it turns out. Happy Holidays!





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Finding Holiday Peace of Mind

Winter Sunrise by Jim C.
Winter Sunrise by Jim C.

“The Simple Path
Silence is Prayer
Prayer is Faith
Faith is Love
Love is Service
The Fruit of Service is Peace”
Mother Teresa

How are you finding holiday peace? I have to tell you- I am not finding it at big box retail stores. It’s not in the canned music on the radio station either.

Instead, I am finding peace through time with friends and family. I am also finding it through tiny bits of service.

I don’t have much extra money these days so I look for creative ways to serve others. Last week, a good friend of mine gave me a pail of dog food. She lost both her pets a few weeks ago and I said yes to the food for my dog Jordan. Here’s what happened on the way to my mom’s, less than an hour after she gave me that pail.

I was driving up a long hill and noticed a small dog running across the road. I slowed down. Then a young teenage boy appeared, running after the dog. I slowed down even more. Next thing you know, the dog runs back across the road and the boy is flailing his arms as if to stop traffic.

I remembered that dog food in the back of my car. I pulled over and flipped open my hatchback. I grabbed a handful, sat down on the ground, dropped the dog food next to me. Can you guess the rest?

I called the dog and here he comes. It takes less than one minute. The boy grabs the dog while it goes for the dog food. In between hugging his dog, the young man says at least three or four grateful thank you’s in a row. I said “thank you for helping me do a good deed today.”

My Grandson Gavin (L), Anna, My Daughter Michelene (R)
My Grandson Gavin (L), Anna, My Daughter Michelene (R) making sandwiches!

At my church two weeks ago, fifteen plus volunteers assembled 240 ham sandwiches to make 120 lunches for the hungry families of FOCUS Pittsburgh, the Orthodox ministry center in the Hill District. Jim and I delivered them next morning and wow, was that a good feeling.

Small ways to serve, and BIG ways to serve. I read with interest the woman who went to Toys R Us in Bellingham, Mass and paid off $20,000 worth of layaways. (I wondered how much her personal wealth is. Maybe that was most of it?) Or 9 year old Jarrett who cashed in a $160 tablet he won in a school fundraiser, grabbed tags from the angel tree and bought gifts for 15 children. Amazing.

It’s nice to do great big things but it is also very fulfilling to do small things. I believe it doesn’t matter if you do non profit work for a living (I did for a long time). When I get paid for work, I don’t count it as service. We all have a few extra hours to do something for someone else less fortunate this holiday.

My friend Daleen recently wrote a post on keeping dollar bills handy for those Salvation Army buckets. I personally never pass one up. I give small amounts but when I think of those like me (who also give small amounts), I bet those add up to BIG amounts.

No matter your contribution, this is what I believe the season is really all about. Kindness, compassion,  new birth and life. We owe it to ourselves and others to give in the most generous way we possibly can.

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Girl’s Day Out

Sewickley Creek Greenhouses at Christmas
Sewickley Creek Greenhouses at Christmas

The weather had been blustery for a couple of days, but luckily last Wednesday it gave us a break. That’s when my mom, Aunt Joy, Michelene (my daughter) and I came together for a girl’s day out of lunch and Christmas window shopping.

Soergel's Yellow Truck
Soergel’s Yellow Truck

We chose a local Eat’n Park as our starting point. After having lunch there, it was only a short ride to Soergel’s Orchards and Greenhouse. They’ve been around for ages and Michelene even remarked that my mother had taken her there as a small child. We were not disappointed when we decided to look in Soergel’s bakery for a sweet treat. Even with choices of baklava, chocolate or pumpkin gobs, or small lemon merigue pies, Michelene chose sugar cookies that turned out to be pillowy puffs of almost cake like goodness, with a fine sprinkle of sugar on top. With a cup of coffee, it was the perfect winter treat.

I was happy to have Michelene along as we maneuvered mom and Aunt Joy through aisles chock full of Christmas treats and treasures. Soergel’s has an amazing Christmas shop with lots of ornaments, decorations, ribbons, sleigh bells and table linens. It was a feast for holiday eyes and hearts.

Fun at Soergel's and their delicious bakery
Aunt Joy (L), Michelene, My mom Katherine (R), Fun at Soergel’s

After some time at Soergel’s, the ladies were still game for one more stop. We hit Sewickley Creek Greenhouses on the way back to my mom’s. We could smell the pine and candles when we walked in the door of this beautiful greenhouse and gift shop. The owners were so friendly and asked if we needed help with anything. We loved just walking around and looking at all the gifts.

Sewickley Creek Greenhouses Golden Tree
Sewickley Creek Greenhouses Golden Tree
Sewickley Creek Lemon Curd Candles
Sewickley Creek Lemon Curd Candles

Here’s what I think of on these kind of days. Every moment is precious and I will remember these days with a fondness. So if I get a bit tired or distracted along the way, I stop and remind myself to be in the moment. I have this experience with my mom, aunt and daughter that time will never erase. My friends tell me to enjoy every minute. I think that’s good advice.



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The Year the Tree Fell Over

Christmas Tree 2014
My Christmas Tree – 2014

I spent a quiet evening last night setting up my Christmas tree. As I drank my hot cocoa and sifted through boxes of ornaments, I couldn’t help but think of a few memorable tree stories from my past. Here’s a couple that really stick out in my mind.

Twenty or so years ago, Jim bought a live tree (probably pre-wrapped) and it was so big on the bottom he had to trim it back. Unfortunately it was still slightly lopsided and wouldn’t stand up without tipping over. In order to get it straight, Jim wired it to the radiator in the living room.

A few days later I was out and my pager went off. I found a pay phone (remember those days?) and called home. My son John said “Mom, the tree fell over and it’s on the living room floor.” First thing I said was “Did you get hurt?” (Answer, No) Then I said “John, is it unplugged?” He said yes. I said with a smile, “Just leave it alone.” I’m sure we stood it up later but that tree sticks out in my mind as a real winner.

Almost ten years ago my asthma was so bad I decided to get an artificial tree to see if that would help. I love a real tree but I have to tell you- an artificial one is just too easy. I bought a pre-lit tree from KMart, a nice Martha Stewart one, and set it up. It was great.

Except that two years later those pre -lit lights were toast. Big splotches of them were burned out and changing the bulbs didn’t work. I was ticked. It was a tight year financially and I couldn’t afford a whole new artificial tree. So I sat, night after night, for about a week and pried those lights off (wrapped very tightly I tell you!) from around those tree limbs. I had huge conversations in my head about the whole racket that these pre- lit trees created. You know- get a tree, you only have it for a couple of years, you then need a new one, how convenient!….on and on!

In the end, it was worth it because I still use that tree. It’s fine and actually quite beautiful. You have to look close to see that it’s not real.

My Charlie Brown Tree
My Charlie Brown Tree

This year, I mentioned to Jim that I was thinking about putting a live tree somewhere. Either inside or outside of my mudroom and lo and behold, during the high winds last week a pine tree fell in the adjacent woods. Jim cut the top off and Viola! I have my live tree! I had some old light strands and I wrapped them around it. It’s a bit of a Charlie Brown tree (that’s probably why it fell) but it works and lights up my backyard very nicely. Thank you God, for this beautiful little tree.

When my grandson Gavin was little, maybe 5-7 years old, he would often play in the living room where the Christmas tree was. I would notice the ornaments were sometimes shifted around. He loved to do this and most of the time, I didn’t mind. This is a very good memory.

I’d love to hear your favorite Christmas tree story if you’d be willing to share. Comment on my Facebook post or right here, on this blog. I’d love to hear from you.




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Celebrate Me Home

My son John and I, Christmas Day
My son John and I, Christmas Day, Photo by Christina Machuca

How was your Christmas? I hope you had a chance to be with loved ones and the special people in your life.

Did you travel? Are you home?

I think wherever we are on Christmas Day, that is home. Home is where we can put our feet up, sip a toddy or a good cup of coffee and eat one of our aunt’s delicious cookies.

Home is where our dog is, our children are and the fireplace is lit. There is laughter and music, jokes and good times.

We cherish those we are with and miss the ones who are gone. Our heart breaks a bit but is mended by the knowlege that their memory lives on in our soul forever and ever.

I found this video of one of my favorite songs and it is my Christmas card to you! Blessings to you my friend, for the rest of this year and the year to come! 

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Far From Perfection

Christmas Tree

So Jim tells me the emergency room (where he works) has been swamped the last couple of days with all kinds of non urgent cases. I wonder if it’s the stress of the holidays and maybe the dis-EASE born of pressure, overspending, and overeating that most of us are not even aware of. Plus it’s a full moon. Always a factor for consideration.

Used to be I could never get Christmas quite perfect enough. There would always be some small thing I was unhappy about- my own presents, not enough money for everything- you name it and there in would lay my dis-ease. Over the years, I’ve had to get over myself and my quest for perfection in everything. It’s just too much work.

When I was in the big throes of menopause a few years ago, I honestly wanted to check into the Hyatt during the days of Christmas. My responsibilities (or my perception of them) so overwhelmed me I didn’t know how I was going to get through it all. I didn’t want to take medication; I wanted to figure out how to manage without a meltdown. I did it and I have my family to thank for it.

I divided up food obligations and asked for help. We ate out a couple of times or ordered pizza when I wasn’t up to cooking. We rolled up in old blankets on the couch instead of matching sheets and comforters. I got through those hot flashes by easing myself into a humbler, less complicated existence.

Also important is my conclusion that God loves me no matter my flaws. My failed dessert, my dusty house, my occasional impatient words to my husband or kids- thank goodness I am forgiven all of it. I am not unique in the sense of my suffering and the sooner I get over that, the better off I am.

My holidays are not entirely stress free now but they are much better. Years ago I saw a close friend of mine react so calmly in the face of a hostess calamity. She had been through the death of her husband only a few years before. We were outside in her yard and a huge table filled with potluck dishes decided then and there that it wasn’t equipped to handle such a load. Down that table came, crashing to the ground and with it, all those donations of salad and dessert. I watched as my friend calmly finished what she was doing (at the other end of the yard) and allowed her friends to grab and handle the mess. What an example she set for me.

People who have been through the wringer emotionally, financially and otherwise, can sometimes achieve a level of acceptance and serenity about life that serves as an example to the rest of us. Allowing myself the opportunity to work through the great pain and dis-ease of wanting perfection but falling far from it, is the best gift I can give myself.

How are you handling the pressure this holiday season? What have you let yourself off the hook for?

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Make A Joyful Noise


Beside them the birds of heavens dwell; they sing among the branches. Psalm 104:12

The holiday season is upon us and though it seems the nature world is quiet, it is really not. Birds are still singing and deer are crunching along on the snow covered spots in my backyard.

I’m not a big fan of winter but this year it doesn’t seem to be bothering me. After the past few years of hot flashes, the coldness is a welcome relief and my sleep has been deep and comforting. This is something to be thankful for.

I bought a big bag of birdseed and when it snowed last week, I fed the birds from my backyard feeder. They put on a show for me and I am comforted by their presence. I think their colors are a beautiful backdrop to white snow.

DSC_0666Something interesting happened on Monday. I am reading a book that I will be reviewing, and it mentioned sending an “intention” out (more on this when I write the actual review!). So I did. I don’t even remember what the intention was, but it had something to do with my wedding planning business.

That night, I had a dream about a bride and a wedding. I did not recognize the bride but she was lovely. In the dream I was a part of her wedding. The next day (I kid you not) I received an email from a young woman, asking me to assist her with her wedding.

I have no idea if it was the intention or the timing or maybe a little bit of both. Perhaps it is just faith. I am approaching this business, my event planning business, from an entirely new position. Years ago, I was fairly aggressive when I was self employed. Things were good; I was successful and happy. This time, I am determined not to be a bothersome pest. I believe that if someone needs me, God will put me in their path.

JOYLast Christmas, you may remember that I received a word at a gathering of friends. That word was JOY. I have to tell you, it has been a joyous year despite many challenges, including my mother’s illness and my departure from full time employment. I kept JOY in mind all the year through and I am grateful for the many blessings I have received.

I hope you are living joyfully! How have you been?

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