Holding On to the Ship’s Wreckage

Man-Shipwrecked-at-Sunset--87235This morning I read these words from today’s reading in the Orthodox calendar I often refer to with my Morning Prayers:

God desires and seeks the salvation of all. And he is always saving all who wish to be saved from drowning in the sea of life and sin. But He does not always save in a boat or a convenient, well-equipped harbor. He promised to save the Holy Apostle Paul and his fellow-travelers, and He did save them. But the Apostle and his fellow-passengers were not saved in the ship, which was wrecked; they were saved with great difficulty, some by swimming and others on boards and various bits of the ship’s wreckage.Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov

I woke up early with messy thoughts. Some were about a conversation I had with a friend yesterday, in which I am sure I hurt her feelings. I plan to call and ask her forgiveness today. Other thoughts were the reverse—my ongoing battle with forgiveness and letting go of past hurts done to me or others in my family, even unintentionally. And finally, I was absorbed with a continuing struggle with my lack of moderation in food and drink, and my subsequent weight gain. I have now gained back 12 of the 17 pounds I worked so hard to lose last year.  I am plagued with increasing pain in my right hip for which I underwent physical therapy three years ago. It cleared up after the therapy, but now it has returned, and I feel that my weight gain has something to do with it.

Shipwreck-1024x512

 

New Year’s resolutions never really work for me, but I understand why people have them. If I had them, they would certainly include (1) exercise more and (2) eat and drink less. Those things would surely help my physical struggles. But this morning I’m thinking that my priorities need to be rearranged. My resolutions should be (1) forgive and (2) repent.

Repentance isn’t a popular word. But our retired pastor at St. John gave a wonderful homily about it yesterday. It wasn’t “preachy” but it spoke to my heart. It was about “turning back” as the prodigal son turned back to his father. And about “turning away from” as he turned away from his wreckless life. I thought about how hard it is to do that—to turn away from the very things that are hurting me. And even about how hard it is to turn back… to God, to friends whom we have hurt or whom have hurt us.

In Saint Brianchaninov’s quote above, I am struck by the image of being saved by holding onto various bits of a ship’s wreckage. I see my life—both physical and spiritual—as that wrecked ship. I would love for God to just reach down and pull me out of the storm and set me on calm ground (like my favorite beach in Florida) but I am learning that He doesn’t always work that way. I might have to swim to shore or hold onto those bits of wreckage. I might even struggle with my weaknesses for the rest of my life—again, both physically and spiritually.

Not very happy thoughts as I enter the New Year… and yet I do feel some measure of comfort as I pray for God’s help and ask His forgiveness. Again.

Thanksgiving and Gluttony

gluttonyThanksgiving—a favorite American holiday—lands on the calendar every year just a week or so after the Orthodox Nativity Fast begins (November 15). While most of the world, and certainly most people in the West, are preparing to feast on their favorite recipes for turkey, dressing, casseroles, and pies, Orthodox Christians are trying to balance that tradition with a very different one that comes to us from our Church. While it’s not as strict as the fast we keep during Great Lent (before Pascha/Easter), it still involves quite a few days with no meat or dairy, and even a number of days with no seafood or alcoholic beverages. This tradition flies in the face of the festivities most people are enjoying during these weeks leading up to Christmas. I always struggle with this culture clash.

But this year, I’m a little more ready to embrace the fast—or at least to try for some moderation. Why? I’ve been overcome for several months now with an old enemy of the flesh—gluttony.

The Church Fathers have a lot to say about this vice, which St. John Climacus calls “the door of passions” in The Ladder of Divine Ascent. If marijuana is the “gateway drug” to more harmful pursuits, over-eating can open that same door to excesses in other areas of our lives. An overly full belly can lead to sloth (who doesn’t want a nap after stuffing ourselves?), depression, alcohol abuse, and to the abuse of other pleasures which aren’t in and of themselves “evil.”

A few more words from the Church Fathers:

The great attraction of gluttony is not necessarily concerned with large quantities of food, but in the temptation to have just a ‘little taste.’ But if the wish for a taste succeeds in making you a slave to gluttony, the Evil One can then give you up utterly to destruction. For, just as water that irrigates many furrows makes those furrows fertile, so also the vice of gluttony, proceeding from your heart, irrigates all of your senses, raising a whole jungle of evils within you, making your soul a lair of wild beasts. (St. Basil the Great, On Renunciation of the World)

For me gluttony isn’t so much about eating huge amounts of food—although binging is a problem at times—but mostly about craving certain foods or drinks. I can really relate to these words from Abba Dorotheus:

There are two kinds of gluttony. One is when a man seeks food that pleases him and does not always want to eat very much, but wishes to eat only what pleases his palate. Another is when a man is overcome by a tendency to eat much …. He only wants to eat and eat, nor minding what the food may be, only caring to fill his belly. (St. Abba Dorotheus, Directions on Spiritual Training)

I get “stuck” on certain foods at times, and am strongly attracted to eating at nice restaurants with white table cloths and good china… or at certain bars and drinking out of just the right glasses. This type of gluttony is known as “gourmandizing.” My recent visit to New Orleans offered many opportunities for this activity.

So I went to Confession Saturday night and talked with my priest about gluttony. It’s a complicated issue for someone like me who struggles with eating disorders, and who more often than not cares more about being skinny and looking good (and even about my health)  than being godly and doing the right thing for spiritual reasons. He was very understanding and non-judgmental. I appreciated his words of advice, but mostly I felt the spiritual power of the sacrament strengthening me for the pilgrimage ahead. I want to enter into the Nativity Fast, but also enjoy the culture’s festivities. As is often the case, it comes back to moderation.

807c3295e6d88c31570994e1b33c4147Bill and I are off to Seagrove Beach on Wednesday, where we will spend Thanksgiving alone at my favorite place on earth. We’ll walk for miles along the edge of the ocean, burning up calories and soaking in the salty spray and the sunshine—it’s supposed to be in the 70s while we’re there. And we’ll enjoy fresh gulf fish at our favorite seafood restaurants. I think it will be easier than cooking all those rich Thanksgiving dishes, although I love doing that when our children and grandchildren come for the holiday. And yes, I’ll miss the traditional celebration, but I think this venue will offer a good opportunity for a healthy mix of feasting and fasting.

If you’re entertaining family this Thanksgiving, I hope that your time together will be rich with love, laughter, and favorite foods that feed not only your appetites but also your souls.

I Can Sleep When I’m Dead

He Qi. Christ in the House of Mary and MarthaChinese, ca.2005

He Qi. Christ in the House of Mary and Martha
Chinese, ca.2005

A couple of weeks ago I did a post about Barbara Crafton’s “almost daily eMos” from her online site, “The Geranium Farm.” Crafton takes a work of art and reflects on it in these posts, and I look forward to them every day. Today’s post shows a contemporary Chinese painting by He Qi, “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary.” As Crafton reminds the reader of the scriptural account of these two sisters and their different approaches to serving Christ as a visitor in their home, I thought about how I have played each role during different seasons of my life—sometimes the busy Martha, serving my family and volunteering for everything at church, and sometimes the contemplative Mary, metaphorically sitting at Jesus’ feet.

Crafton shares an essay she wrote earlier, “Lazybones,” as part of her reflection on Mary’s seeming laziness set against Martha’s physical acts of serving. I love these words from Crafton’s essay:

People who sit and read—anything—are honoring their Mary selves. I am sure that starting anywhere, even with the silliest of novels, is just fine: the efficiency you build as a reader and your growing sophistication as a person will lead you toward more substantial fare, and to grow in knowledge of any kind is to grow closer to God.

During a more intense spiritual season of my life, I only read religious books. I must have devoured fifty volumes by early Church fathers, monastics, mystics, church historians, and theologians during a two-year period in the mid 1990s. I withdrew from “the world” in the sense that I also didn’t listen to secular music and rarely watched television. When I came out of this season, I found myself starved for good literature, good music, and good theater, movies and television drama. As I began to write seriously, my thirst for reading increased. It was as if the words I devoured in novels, memoirs, and essay collections had become the fuel for my own work. That’s still true today.

indexI couldn’t go to sleep last night. I went to bed around 10:30, but I had another bout of “monkey mind” and just couldn’t turn it off. So I got up around 1 and read until about 2:30 this morning. I think I finally fell asleep around 3 a.m. My current read is British travel writer Richard Grant’s amazing book, Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta. It’s about the move he made from New York City to the small Delta town of Pluto, Mississippi, where he discovered what he calls the best-kept secret in America. And because I probably have ADD and usually read two to three books at a time, I’m also reading Barbara Crafton’s short book, The Courage to Grow Old, which is a soulful reality check for those of us in our sixth decade and beyond.

Sometimes, as a writer, I just sit. Yes, I sit and read, but sometimes I just sit. This would appear lazy to someone who doesn’t understand that sitting still is part of a writer’s work. This sitting can take place in front of a blank page on a computer screen, or on a bench by the Mississippi River, just a few blocks from my house. It can take place in my living room, or (maybe especially) when I’m driving alone on a trip. I rarely turn on the radio when I drive, enjoying the familiar or new scenery, but also allowing my mind to wander in a way that it rarely does when I’m at home. I’ll be doing that tomorrow, as I drive over to Little Rock to visit a friend. And although it’s not part of the Mississippi Delta, the miles of flat fields and the occasional crop duster flying over my head on Highway 40 between Memphis and Little Rock will remind me of Grant’s life down in Pluto, Mississippi, and the lessons he learned there.
So I’ll walk through my Friday a bit sleep-deprived but filled with images and words that feed my soul. Like Jason Michael Carroll says, I can sleep when I’m dead.

It’s Always Going to Be About the Weight

Kate and TobyI’ve been watching the new show, “This is Us,” on NBC. It follows a family with triplets (well, two triplets, since the third died in childbirth, and the parents adopted a third baby who had been abandoned at the hospital) and the daughter has a weight problem. Shown as a girl of around eight, she was already a little chubby, and her mother was encouraging her to eat fruit when her brothers were eating sugary cereal for breakfast. Then there’s a discussion between the two of them where the mother says, “You know I love you. I’m just trying to help.”

Those scenes take me back to my own childhood—well, actually my adolescence—when I gained weight too quickly and my mother started in on me. But she wasn’t as gentle as the mother in the TV show (played by Mandy Moore). So I’m watching to see how their relationship changes as the daughter gets older. (The show goes back and forth between decades, showing their childhood and later the kids as adults.)

2016-0818-ThisIsUs-ChrissyMetz-1050x1050-CVIn the scenes where the “triplets” are adults, “Kate” (played by Chrissy Metz) is seriously overweight. In one scene in Episode 2, Kate meets “Toby” (played by Chris Sullivan) at a therapy group for people with weight/food issues. Toby is attracted to Kate and convinces her to go on a few dates, but as he pushes for intimacy, she is obviously afraid. There’s this one scene that tells it all for me, when Toby asks her to go somewhere with him where they can just be themselves and not think or talk about food and weight issues. He says something like, “Life is not just about being fat.” She replies, “For me, it’s always going to be about the weight.” As Avery Thompson says in Hollywood Life:

It invades every aspect of her life, and she just can’t change what she feels in her core. Her confession is an honest one. Not many people have the guts to talk about what really troubles them deep down in inside so openly.

I felt her pain in my gut a she said this. And I understand that it’s “what she feels in her core.”

There’s a slim young woman in Kate’s overeating therapy group who has body-image distortion issues. I also identified with her, from back when I was running an aerobic dance business in the 1980s and weighed 116 pounds. I would look in the mirror—in my spandex tights and leg warmers—and still believe that my thighs were too fat. (Of course I’d give anything to weigh 116 again.)

So when Kate says it’s always going to be about the weight, I worry that I’ll never be free of this obsession. I worked so hard to lose that 15 pounds last fall, winter, and spring, and then so easily gained back 10 of it this summer, and now I’m ready to start losing it again. But the prospect of having to focus on everything I eat (again) isn’t a happy one. I’m tired of this lifelong battle. Of course when I share this with people, I get lots of suggestions about different diets and lifestyle eating choices. And it’s not that I don’t appreciate people trying to help, but I’m pretty well informed. But “knowing” is only half the battle, if even half. For me, it’s about waking up every morning and as part of my morning prayers asking God (and Mary of Egypt, my patron saint, and my guardian angel and Mary the Mother of God) to help me that day to be disciplined in my eating and exercise habits, and to please help me lose weight.

I’ve been praying that prayer almost every day since I was a teenager. I’m sixty-five years old. And now I’d really like to lose 25 pounds, which sounds like moving a mountain.

Anne Lamott said (in an article for Oprah Magazine in 2009) that one thing she did to become the person she was meant to be was “…whenever I could, for as long as I could, I threw away the scales and the sugar.” She makes it sound so simple… to quit caring about her weight, but also to quit eating sugar. Neither is something simple.

And so I begin again. Today. I’m going to try to talk to myself as a kind, sweet, supportive, non-judgmental mother would talk to her daughter. As I know my own mother thought she was doing, God rest her soul. I’m going to try to quit blaming her. I’ve already forgiven her, which is a big step, but taking responsibility for my own actions and leaving her out of it is much harder. Today I’m going to focus on my writing projects (three!) which I love—proof-reading galleys for one book; working with an editor on the manuscript for another; and honing marketing plans for a third—and hopefully the joy this work brings me will flow over into a more positive focus on food and exercise. Deep breath. Here goes….

Mental Health Monday: Brain HQ

This morning I read a short article in the August 8 issue of Time Magazine that is intriguing. It’s a health piece in their “The View” section, this one on longevity:

 

“Health: Can brain training protect you from dementia? New evidence is promising” by Alice Park. (I couldn’t find an online link to the article, but here are more pieces by Park in Time.)

 

Park writes about a study at the University of South Florida that tracked 3,000 healthy older people ten years after giving them a five-week training program. Well, one of the randomized groups did the computerized program focusing on processing speed. And ten years later? That group saw a 33% reduction in the amount of dementia or cognitive impairment compared to the other groups, who received different or no training.

brain-hq 

A researcher at the University of Alabama created the program, which was later updated to an exercise called the Double Decision, which is now available as a smartphone app called BrainHQ. It costs $96 for a one-year subscription. I’m considering downloading it and giving it a try. Jerri Edwards, who led the study at South Florida, says, “I think everyone over 50 should start doing it.” I might give it a try….

Mental Health Monday: Insomnia Redux

7834597_origAlmost nine years ago I wrote a post (for my old blog) about anxiety, insomnia, and related matters. I titled it “Once You Know Where True Is.” I re-read that post this morning, having been awake since 3:30 a.m. I can usually trace the source of my (infrequent) insomnia to anxiety, and I think that was the case again last night/this morning.

 

I spent some time on the internet researching possible causes. I worked out on the elliptical machine. I read. I watched Law & Order reruns. I watched the house turn from dark to light (a happening that I’m rarely awake for). And now I’m exhausted and a bit nauseated and it’s almost 8 a.m. and time for me to get started on my day. So instead of writing more for this post, I’ll just encourage you to click on the link for the post from 2007 if you want to read more. Please come back Wednesday… I’ll try to be awake!

Mental Heath Monday: Marriage—the Full Buffet of Satisfaction

Bill and I at our rehearsal dinner, June 12, 1970, the night before our wedding, in Jackson, Mississippi.

Bill and I at our rehearsal dinner, June 12, 1970, the night before our wedding, in Jackson, Mississippi.

In the early years, you fight because you don’t understand each other. In the later years, you fight because you do.—Joan Didion

That wonderful quote was featured in an article in the June 13 issue of Time Magazine, which came out a week early, of course. But June 13 is our wedding anniversary—we will celebrate our 46th next Monday. I was going to write this post on that date, but we’ll be in New Orleans, so I’ll probably just share a couple of photos next Monday.

marriagecoverThe Time Magazine article, “How to Stay Married (and why),” by Belinda Luscombe, editor at large at Time, explores the institution of marriage from several angles. From a mental health point of view, many of us think, as Luscombe shares in her article, that marriage “should—and could—provide the full buffet of satisfaction: intimacy, support, stability, happiness and sexual exhilaration.”

Those benefits might not all be present in many marriages today, but research shows that while the long-married couples agree that marriage is hard, they also agree that it’s the best thing in their lives. Luscombe says:

For those who can stay the course, indicators that a long marriage is worth the slog continue to mount. Studies suggest that married people have better health, wealth and even better sex lives than singles, and will probably die happier. Most scholars agree that the beneficial health effects are robust: happily married people are less likely to have strokes, heart disease or depression, and they respond better to stress and heal more quickly.

June 13, 1970

June 13, 1970

Bill and I were young when we got married—I had just turned nineteen and he was twenty-one. And of course we’ve had our good times and our struggles, as anyone has if they stay together through all of life’s challenges. Luscombe offers suggestions for making this staying together business not only viable, but enjoyable. Referring to Gary Chapman’s book The 5 Love Languages, she encourages married couples to

figure out what specifically makes your partner feel loved. (According to Chapman, it’s probably one of five things: words, time, kindly acts, sex or gifts.)

I can see how Bill and I have learned this over time—especially the words, which I think we have turned from effort to habit, frequently saying things that build the other person up. And kindness is a huge deal as we grow older. It’s probably one of the words I would use to describe what I love most about my husband. Chapman’s next suggestion:

And the other is to learn to apologize—properly—and to forgive.

My pride keeps me from being the first to apologize sometimes, but I think we’ve both softened a great deal over the years and are much quicker to forgive, which is essential.

Another researcher says:

The most successful couples began to embrace one another’s interests.

There was a time when I resented my husband’s career. A successful physician and clinical trials researcher, he travels a lot and works from home when he’s here, which was hard when the children were still at home. I chose to be a stay-at-home mom for many of those years in order to provide some consistent parenting. Instead of being thankful for his successful career, I avoided talking about it. Many years later—after the children were grown—I began to show more of an interest in his work, and I couldn’t be prouder of him and what he is accomplishing. Whereas I once asked him about his work during dinner, out of politeness, I now ask out of genuine interest. And I believe his interest in my writing has also grown. These are not things that come naturally, as we are polar opposites in our career interests. On the other hand, it helps that we both love sports, music, theater, movies, travel, entertaining, and fine dining—all activities we are thankfully able to enjoy at this stage of our lives.

The last thing that Luscombe mentions in her article that caught my attention was this piece of wisdom, also from Gary Chapman:

Another helpful adjustment is to drop the idea of finding a soul mate. ‘We have this mythological idea that we will find a soul mate and have these euphoric feelings forever,’ says Chapman. In fact, soul mates tend to be crafted, not found…. And how do you make a soul mate? Practice, practice, practice.

The concept of a soul mate is one that I believe more women than men consider. Maybe that’s because of how we’re wired. As Luscombe says:

One of the more controversial ideas therapists are now suggesting is that men need to do more of the ‘emotional labor’ in a relationship—the work that goes into sustaining love, which usually falls to women.

In my parent’s generation, a good husband was someone who provided well for the family and was faithful to his wife. My generation has wanted more—sometimes to the detriment of relationships that might have grown into something sustainable without these expectations. I think there’s lots of wisdom in Luscombe’s article, and today I am so thankful that Bill and I stuck it out during the hard times. I can’t imagine not being married to him, and I miss him when he’s traveling. I was seventeen the first time I fell in love with him. This time it’s even better. I’m looking forward to as many more years as God allows us.

Mental Health Monday: Mind, Heart, Body

So, after almost nine years of posting on my blog three times a week, this morning I forgot about it. First. Time. Ever. Hope this isn’t a preview of coming distractions. I was about to leave the house on errands around 11 a.m. when my son sent me the new banner he and his wife designed for my web site, and when I went to the site to see it, I remembered that I hadn’t written a post for Mental Health Monday.

Maybe the best thing I can do for my mental health is not overreact. I did other good things this morning: I exercised 20 minutes on the elliptical. I ate ¼ cantaloupe. After splurging a bit this weekend, my weight was back up a pound. I was so hoping to lose another 5 pounds before our trip to Paris (May 6) but at this rate it’s not happening. Trying to think like a French woman of a certain age and eat tiny, tiny servings, even of really delicious food. But here’s what happens:

MIND: I know what to do.

HEART: I want to do the right ting.

BODY: I ignore my brain and heart and eat more than I should.

Okay, Body, today we are going to listen to our mind and heart. Let’s go.

And thanks for the new banner, Jason and See!

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Mental Health Monday: The Twelve-Minute Impulse, Decisions and Apples

food-temptation-craving-sweetsEvidently there are two (French) secrets to getting and staying slim: “the decision and apples.”
That’s what Tish Jett’s internist told her. Jett is the author of Forever Chic: Frenchwomen’s Secrets for Timeless Beauty, Style and Substance. I’m devouring this book in preparation for our trip to Paris in a few weeks, but also because I’ve always admired French women-the way they dress, their natural-looking complexions, their slim and youthful bodies.

Six months after starting my weight-loss program, I hit a wall—emotionally and physically. I had lost 17 pounds, but I keep gaining back 2 pounds, then losing them again, then gaining them back. I feel stuck. I’m tired of counting calories and I’ve had a few emotional struggles that sent me on binges. Not the really big, bad binges I used to indulge in, but off the track and up the scales, for sure.

So this morning as I continued reading in Jett’s book, I found some strength to carry on. Part of Jett’s research for the book included interviews with friends. (She lived in France for ten years.) All of them slim. None of them ever diet. But their whole approach to food is based on a mindset I’m trying to adopt. Like her friend, Alexander Fourcade, an internist and mother of three daughters between the ages of sixteen and twenty-six, who has never been on a diet:

Diets are passé…. They are too mentally time-consuming. I don’t even think about eating anymore. I know what’s good for me and what isn’t. My body tells me. I’m attuned to how I feel when I eat well, or less well. When I make exceptions for wine, champagne, or a dessert, it’s a conscious decision and I enjoy every second.

I was right there with her for a while, but lately some of those exceptions haven’t been completely “conscious decisions,” and I end up depressed.

So what’s a “woman of a certain age” to do when dieting isn’t working? Again, Jett’s internist says:

There are two secrets: “the decision” and “apples.”

He keeps several apples in his car for those times when he’s hungry or just having a craving. And Jett’s friend Francoise never leaves home without hard-boiled eggs  when she isn’t sure healthy food will be available to her. Another friend, Anne Francoise, always keeps a bag of almonds in her handbag. Apples. Boiled eggs. Almonds. Not Reece’s pieces or potato chips or Cokes.

I remember going on a road trip with a friend who successfully lost 30 pounds and kept it off. She kept small containers of tuna in her car—the pop-top kind—so she could pop one open for a quick protein snack. She carried bottled water, and instead of stopping at gas stations (unless she actually needed gas) she stopped at state park type rest stops, which were less likely to have lots of tempting fried foods and sweets.

These ideas sounds good, except that they seem to only apply to people who actually get hungry. In her book Jett says that people eat for two reasons: hunger and pleasure. I rarely eat because I’m hungry. In fact, I love the way I feel when my body gets physically hungry, and I often do my best mindful eating in that state. It’s when I’m bored or anxious that I look to food to replace those unpleasant feelings with pleasant ones.

Another physician Jett interviewed talked about another important issue for those of us who struggle with food cravings:

An impulse lasts for twelve minutes…. She suggested that we can overcome an impulse by immediately doing something for twelve minutes, like polishing our nails, for example, or making a phone call. Mindfulness helps us identify the menace and keeps us in the moment; then we decide.

Of course I’ve been trying to practice mindfulness for some time now, but this twelve-minute impulse thing is intriguing. I often get cravings when I’m out shopping. I want to hit up a drive-thru for something really “bad” like ice cream or French fries and Coke. Or going through the checkout line at the grocery—after purchasing all healthy foods—I’ll pick up a package of mini Reece’s. Other times cravings hit when I’m alone at home and struggling about something emotionally. I try not to keep potato chips and other “trigger carbs” in the pantry for this reason.

There’s lots of other specific, helpful information in the book, but these are the gems I wanted to share today.  Forever Chic also has lots of information about skin care, hair care, and wardrobe choices, all of which I’m enjoying and some of which I’m applying. I was already on track with good hair care (and spending a fair amount of money on good hair cuts and color) but my skin care regiment needed revamping. Thanks to Jett’s wisdom, I’m making some changes that I hope will result in healthier skin.

I’ll close with one of my favorite quotes from the chapter on healthy eating:

With few exceptions, my friends and the women I met while writing this book told me they are gourmands at heart. Translation: they love to eat and might fleetingly consider larger portions of their favorite foods if they didn’t love some of their favorite clothes even more.

Most of those women can still wear clothes they purchased ten or twenty years ago, because of impulse control and good choices. And so I continue the journey with renewed enthusiasm… less than a month before we leave for Paris!

Mental Health Monday: Refueling

0af53dd512b1b9d1087806c4ab807f6dRunning on empty, so I’m trying to refuel.

Please come back on Wednesday!

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