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Catching the Joy as It Flies

Frost-covered rose

“Catch the joy as it flies.” – Emily Wadsworth, one of my favorite life quotes

This December has rushed up and disguised itself as a warmer month — maybe September or October? Daisies and roses still bud and bloom beside the foundation of my house, and I picked my last round of tomatoes from the garden at Thanksgiving.

It seems like we should be freezing by this time of year. The years I lived in Prague, 2009 – 2013, were snow-filled and frigid, and the past two in southwest Ohio have been the same. So this year when it came time to hang Christmas lights outside, a few of my neighbors stood out in shorts on a weekend in mid-November and strung their lights. It’s a different year entirely. Is it like this where you live?

Frost-covered rose

Some say they need snow and a frosty chill to feel like it’s Christmas. I agree on some counts, but on others, I think Christmas is defined by what we choose to find. As Abe Lincoln said:

“People are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

I run those words through my mind often — they are true, I think. I would like to be one to not only choose happiness, but to work to keep a good life balance. We need a healthy measure of things which bring us energy versus the things which drain us of our energy. Choosing happiness is easier when our life is filled with good things.

Catching the Joy as It Flies

One thing I find myself reaching for this time of year, snow or no snow, is joy. There is something exciting about the early darkness, the warmth of a candle or sitting beside the fire, the pure anticipation of change.

As the Christmas season approaches, the other thing I grapple with is simplicity. I long for the simpler, kinder, warmer — not the rushing, the frenzy, and the quest for more stuff. I have a feeling I’m not the only one.

What can we do?

Many of you know I have 3 great sons. They are a hoot, always keep life hopping, and can be counted on to ensure there is always plenty of food. They’re teenagers, after all. And they all play basketball, which means it’s school basketball season.

This is where I spend a lot of my time — which I LOVE and wouldn’t have it any other way. Courtside, beaming, proud, sitting in my trusty stadium seat, taking it all in.

catching joy courtside

That basketball, watching my kids doing what they love, that is where some joy flies.

Other sources of joy? I don’t know how it works for you, but for me, when I stop and take a look at everything around me, the important things emerge. It’s not the busy things, the rushing around and buying presents or hurrying to squeeze another thing into the calendar, but the stopping and listening that brings peace.

Sometimes the simplest things can restore our joy and sense of well-being. One warmer-than-normal evening last week, I took our dog for a walk — it was a beautiful night filled with Christmas lights, talking with neighbors, finding balance in a world which doesn’t stop turning.

Sometimes, we need the simple things to remember what’s most important.

I hope this season you’re able to catch some joy as it flies.

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The Essential Hour

“Women have sat indoors all these millions of years, so that by this time the very walls are permeated by their creative force, which has, indeed, so overcharged the capacity of bricks and mortar that it must needs harness itself to pens and brushes and business and politics.”- Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

 

This month, I’ve focused on writing about health, since it’s January and the beginning of a new year.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about having Celiac disease and being gluten-free for 6.5 years. Last week, I devoted to allergies, one tangled web of problems I’ve lived with all my life. Both Celiac and allergies, though, are not hindrances. They are springboards, I convince myself, to find creative ways to live well, still.

This week, I want to share one of the most pivotal concepts which has helped me with personal well-being.

The Essential Hour

When my oldest son was born sixteen years ago, I didn’t know anything about being a mom. The nurses at the hospital taught me how to change a diaper and the other necessary moving parts of being responsible for a precious tiny person’s life. But what those nurses didn’t tell me was how little time I would have and how frazzled I would be.

The first days at home with my oldest as a baby, I felt the veil of sleeplessness and showerlessness creep up on me, that by the end of the second week, I remember wondering how I would ever manage. It seemed every waking and sleeping moment was focused on meeting everyone’s needs but my own. I felt exhausted, depleted.

At one of my son’s first check-ups, his pediatrician surprised me. He wore a vest and bow tie and wire-rimmed glasses, and smiled and said, “I have a prescription for you, Mom.”

He scribbled on the old-style prescription notepad. “This, I want you to take seriously.” He tore the paper free and handed it to me. It said, “Rx: 1 hour of time for yourself each day. A happy mom makes a happy child.”

An hour of time for myself each day? I laughed. But the doctor was right.

When life did settle into a routine, I began to see what he meant. The hour was essential. It was for doing something that filled me back up, something unique, not to become rich or famous, but because it brought joy. And that joy makes all the difference.

Jennifer (me) painting
Jennifer (me) painting

If I could take time to listen to what was tugging at my heart, and spend some time doing it, even if it was in short spurts of time, I felt more whole. I began to make time to write or paint or exercise or read.

The essential hour isn’t just for moms of newborns. It’s for all of us. Because life leaves us whirling, with little time to remember who we are and what we love.

It doesn’t matter if we’re working outside the home or working to care for those we love inside the home, life can crowd out the essential hour. There is always one more thing to do.

If we don’t take and make time to nurture ourselves, and our own well-being, then when the children are grow up (they almost always do, faster than we think) or when the career ends (it always does, eventually), there is not much left of ourselves.

The Strategy

The essential hour can begin as one hour per week and build up to one hour per day. It can happen morning, noon, or night. My friend Nina wakes at 5 am to do what she loves before her family of six is awake. I, too, rouse myself to write at 5 am in the summers, when the activity level is high. The difference that one hour makes is unmistakable. I feel human, three-dimensional, whole. And when I don’t, I’m fragmented at best.

What do you think? Do you make time for an essential hour? Do you have a strategy you want to share?

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The Stillness Dancing

Pelicans riding waves

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing. – t.s. eliot

 

Years ago when my boys were small, my days and nights were filled with diapers and bottles, sippy cups and Cheerios, belly laughs and toddler tantrums. I was the mom with a baby on each hip (my younger two are very close in age) and a preschooler holding onto my belt loop. My life felt full to overbrimming with joy and fatigue and love.

One woman I knew at the time also had three children, and was always angry, yelling, and frazzled. Always. I got it–my mother did that. Life is hard, and as much as we try,  the stresses of life pull at both ends of us until, like a rope, the threads begin to split, fray, and break.

But ever since I can remember, I’ve known that wasn’t something I wanted. It happens sometimes, of course. I’m less than perfect, and definitely human. But I’ve chosen this life I have as a mom and a wife, and know I have only one shot at it. I’ve always hoped for it to be fun yet peaceful, somehow.

I remember standing at the beach with my toes in the water, watching pelicans swoop down and ride the space just above the waves, and whispering to myself. I wanted to learn how to maintain that sense of calm, of stillness, in the midst of the busyness, swirling days, and life’s frequent storms.

I realized I wanted to make the most of my days, wherever they led me.

 

Pelicans riding waves
Pelicans riding waves

 

Now, twelve years later, I have two (almost three) teenagers in the house, and my days are even fuller. They involve gym bags and sweaty shoes, the need for a full refrigerator with a side-hobby of being a short-order cook, laundress, taxi driver, and cheerleader. These are the days. I love them. I know they won’t last too much longer. My life feels stretched and pulled in new directions–all good things–and yet, with all that is going on and squares on the calendar filled with no extra space, I find one thing to be most important.

I need time to re-center, allow myself to refuel, and to regain balance from the swirl of demands that comes with modern American life and keeping up with three active sons.

Time. For Stillness.

The Stillness Dancing

In recent years, my family and I had the incredible opportunity to travel and see much of Europe–three years ago, we stood in Greece at the edge of the Aegean Sea.

My husband and our boys did this:

 

Nafplio, Greece
My husband and sons looking at fish in the Aegean Sea, Nafplio, Greece

 

And for me, this is what I saw:

 

Aegean Sea, Nafplio, Greece
Aegean Sea, Nafplio, Greece

 

Stillness.

Beauty.

Being with those I love.

Those are the times I feel myself come most alive.

As t.s. eliot wrote, and in “the stillness the dancing.”

There may be craziness all around, and yet, if we can be still, there will be dancing.

 

December is a traditionally busy month filled with family, friends, charities, parties, Advent, and Christmas … where do you find your stillness?

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Summer’s Day

Summer Flowers

 

Summer Flowers
Summer Flowers

Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

And summer’s ease hath all too short a date;

Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimme’d;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

-Sonnet 18, William Shakespeare,
from my favorite Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, 1953

 

Summer’s Day

This summer, with its sunshine and warm breezes, its vibrant colors in flowers and sky, has captivated me.

June Instagram (I'm at @jenniferlynking)
June Instagram (I’m at @jenniferlynking)

Above, a few photos I’ve posted on Instagram, a kind of photo journal of things I love as the days go on…

I’m enjoying getting to have my boys around … the years pass too quickly and soon they’ll be grown and off on their own. We’re getting to do things we didn’t get to do when we lived in Prague, and my oldest son has recently gotten his driving temps.

Time definitely sweeps by, whether we want it to or not. And so I’m living with more intention. I’m getting up when it is dark to write and revise on my novel with a clean brain, before the house gets moving. Then, the beauty of summer and its allure grabs me and I remember all over again that these moments, this time, are the essence, and I’m trying to remember to soak it all up.

Enjoy this week at the peak of summer!

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14 Favorite Quotes on Life and Laughter, Travel, and Daring Greatly

I have always loved inspiring quotes and photographs.

In college, I taped cards from Successories to the side of my dresser–photographs of mountains and paths through enchanting forests, of oceans and eagles soaring, all with quotes to remind me that the goal was somehow bigger than the Calculus problem I struggled to finish. Quotes seem to be a lifeline when I’m stuck with a busy schedule and easily forget the Bigger Goals, when I can hardly see the bigger picture and keep me focused ahead on what is most important…

… Especially in Changing Times

I’m currently working on rewriting my bio on my About page — life is changing for me. My family and I have now lived one whole year back in the US after our four years in Prague. My oldest son is almost finished with his first year of high school and in a week, I’ll have not one, but two teenagers in the house.

Everything is different about life in the US as opposed to life in Europe. One major difference is the intensity in which Americans seem to do all things.

Almost minute by minute, I need to remind myself that busyness does not equal excellence. Busyness leads to burnout. And so I find myself returning to images and quotes which help me to remember what inspires me, what moves me, and what makes me tick.

It seems strange, this passing of time. Laundry and packing lunches, restocking the refrigerator and shuttling my sons to and from their activities fill my days. The most important thing for me during this whirl called American family life is to keep it all in perspective. Too soon, my sons will be grown and the house will be too quiet. It’s important to be present for all the moments — for the basketball games and milestone birthdays, for quiet times of solitude and in loud times of celebration, laughter, and sharing — but it’s also important to remember who we are in the midst of the tangle of modern life.

I need anchors through this swirl of days to keep me close to what matters most — for me: family and friends, writing and reading, creating art and music, and the faith which underpins them all — these are the things I value most.

14 Favorite Quotes on Life and Laughter, Travel, and Daring Greatly

Explore Dream Discover Mark Twain quote at jenniferlynking.com

On Living Well:

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain

“Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.” – Carl Sandburg

“There is a rawness and a wonder to life. Pursue it. Hunt for it. Sell out to get it. Don’t listen to the whines of those who have settled for a second-rate life and want you to do the same so they won’t feel guilty. Your goal is not to live long; it’s to live.” -Max Lucado

On Laughter and Friendship:

“It isn’t what you have, or who you are, or where you are, or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about.” – Dale Carnegie

“I love people who make me laugh. I honestly think it’s the thing I like most, to laugh. It cures a multitude of ills. It’s probably the most important thing in a person.” -Audrey Hepburn

“[E]very day you should reach out and touch someone.  People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back.  — Maya Angelou

“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”― Anaïs Nin

On Daring Greatly:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” -Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States 1901 – 1909

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” -Aristotle

“The winner’s edge is not in gifted birth, in a high IQ, or in talent. The winner’s edge is in the attitude, not aptitude.” -Denis Waitley

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” ― Martin Luther King Jr.

On Travel, Reading, and Beauty:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” ― Mark Twain

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.” ― George R.R. Martin

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart” ― Helen Keller

RosesSeptember_092012_ 078

Do you have a favorite quote you keep near when times are changing? I’d love to hear it … please leave it in the comments. Thank you!

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The Importance of Free Time, Especially While Juggling a Busy Schedule

Margin is the space between our load and our limits. It is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating.

– from Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, by Richard Swenson, M.D.

Timeless moments with my guys a few years back, Maremma, Italy
Timeless moments with my guys a few years back, Maremma, Italy

It’s that busy time of year, back to school, when the school supply lists arrive, the class open houses begin, and I, as a parent, begin to feel completely overwhelmed. I have three children I love dearly, one going into high school, one to middle school, and one into intermediate.

This year, probably more than the previous 4 we spent in Prague, the back to school experience is almost shocking, fully American, packed to the 120% limit.

It’s not so much the list of “one blue two-pocket folder, vinyl, no clasps; one red vinyl folder, no pockets, with clasps …” and 50 other items to buy for one child. I can do that.

It’s not the arrangement of bus times, parent-teacher conferences, making of lunches, paying of school fees. I can organize the times and rearrange the budget to fit those things in.

But for me, it’s how free time evaporates instantly with the start of school. It’s the loss of moments of bliss, for the spontaneous game of Bananagrams or dessert on the deck as the sun goes down. I realize I have to work — hard — to build free time in.

Margin = Free Time

I’m a writer, and the concept of Margin makes sense to me. Margin is the white space to write extra notes or to doodle in fun figures beside the the concrete text which has already been written on the page. Dr. Swenson’s point in his book Margin is true for me. I believe in building in free time, or margin, into a busy schedule–to help preserve sanity.

Margin is the opposite of overload. If we are overloaded we have no margin. Most people are not quite sure when they pass from margin to overload. Threshold points are not easily measurable and are also different for different people in different circumstances. We don’t want to be under-achievers (heaven forbid!), so we fill our schedules uncritically. Options are as attractive as they are numerous, and we overbook.

I believe we need free time to remember who we are. We need free time like we need air to breathe. It reduces stress, creates meaning, and allows us the chance to focus on what is most important.

To keep margin in my life, I know I’ll have to say no to things that are good.  But without a certain amount of free time in these busy years with three active sons and husband, I will lose who I am.

My Busy Schedule Survival Kit

  • a paper calendar, with months and weeks at a glance
  • a clear list of personal priorities and goals
  • date nights with my husband and fun nights with girl friends
  • incorporating open times, intentionally, into the schedule
  • an open eye for moments to spend with each child

I know it’s going to be a great year. I’m looking forward to soaking it up, one day at a time.

How about you? How do you build free time into your schedule? (I’d love to hear tips that work for you!)

 

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Craving Roses, Grasping Thorns

Butterfly wings

“But he that dares not grasp the thorn should never crave the rose.” -Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights

Czech field and National Forest
Czech field and National Forest

June is a beautiful month in Czech Republic. Everywhere, outside of Prague, vast fields of grain stretch out across the hills and into the mountains. The fields’ seafoam green coloring in June could almost pass for ocean. Here, two photos of the field and forest at the end of our street.

Czech Republic scene in June
Czech Republic scene in June

Here in Czech Republic, my family lives in a house very modest in size by US standards, but the fenced-in yard is even tinier — our grass is about the size of an average US living room. But despite the small size, we love it. Less stuff = bliss. And I still grow flowers …

Marigold and Salvia
Marigold and Salvia

Continue reading Craving Roses, Grasping Thorns

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7 Ingredients of a Great Getaway Vacation

my favorite Getaway spot, along the Italian coast

Every now and then go away, have a little relaxation, for when you come back to your work your judgment will be surer. Go some distance away because then the work appears smaller and more of it can be taken in at a glance and a lack of harmony and proportion is more readily seen.” -Leonardo da Vinci

 

I once had a friend ask me how I could enjoy taking vacation. Looking back at her, I didn’t know what she meant. She explained further. “I don’t get to relax at all when we’re on vacation. The kids are always at each other. Mealtimes are the worst, and they never want to ride in the car, or airplane. It’s like we shouldn’t even try to go, because vacation never turns out like I hope.” I didn’t really have an answer for my friend on that day, but the conversation has never left my thoughts.

Since we’ve lived in Europe, my family and I (my husband and I have 3 school-aged boys) have had the incredible opportunity to travel extensively. But, we have taken advice from very wise friends before we left the US. They encouraged us to travel as much as possible, because the expat assignment is such a unique opportunity to see the world with our family. We have taken that advice to heart. So far in our 2 1/2 years in Prague, we’ve traveled to 21 countries, and in this year alone, we have stood with our toes in the Baltic, North, Mediterranean, Tyrrhenian, Ligurian, Adriatic, and Aegean Seas. (the 7 Seas!)

Dreamy. Absolutely!

But, all travel comes with its hardships. I have learned a little about travel and what suits me and my family.

One thing is this:

Travel in and through foreign cities is not relaxing.

It doesn’t matter if I’m overlooking Prague:

 

Prague
Prague

Rome:

 

Rome
Rome

Amsterdam:

 

Amsterdam
Amsterdam

London:

 

London
London

or Athens:

 

Athens
Athens

Traveling in and through dense crowds of people does not equal a restful and relaxing vacation.

Instead, I am learning what is relaxing, and what makes up the kind of vacation (the one I highly prefer) I call a Getaway. Because it is just that, a getaway from the busyness and stresses and pressures of everyday life. An escape.

My definition of a Getaway: to step away from it all, to let the soul catch up to the body Continue reading 7 Ingredients of a Great Getaway Vacation

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Writing Wednesday: How to Make Time to Write

a treasury of books, in Strahov Library, Prague

“Serious writers write, inspired or not. Over time they discover that routine is a better friend to them than inspiration.” -Ralph Keyes

“The scariest moment is always just before you start.” — Stephen King , On Writing

About seven years ago, I attended my first big writers conference. I remember being so very overwhelmed, as most aspiring writers feel when they dip their toe in the ocean that is publishing. But in my dizzying haze, one particular piece of advice struck me so hard that it has stuck. It was on how to clear the schedule so that you can do what you love — write.

a treasury of books, in Strahov Library, Prague
a treasury of books, in Strahov Library, Prague

 

Isn’t that the thing all writers struggle with?

Writing is hard work, and for most of us, writing has to happen along with the rigors of everyday life. Finding time to write is one of the most difficult parts of writing.

Usually, when I meet new people, this is how the exchange takes place:

“What do you do, Jennifer?”

“I’m a writer.”

“Oh my gosh! I’ve always wanted to write a book! I have about five ideas for stories, and my mom told me I should write a book about ____. I’ll do it after … [substitute one] Johnny’s out of diapers, my kids are in school, my project finishes up, when I have some extra time.”

Many people want to write a book. It’s making time and finding the courage to move beyond the blank page that moves the wanna-be’s into serious writers. So, how do we find / make the time to write?

My thought is this: Take a season (say, for the next three months) and take a hard look at your daily schedule and monthly calendar. Figure out what you really want to do, and make the time for it. Clear the calendar. Put the bottom in the chair and type. It will come, and soon the book will be finished. But clearing the calendar is essential.

Tips for Clearing the Calendar for a Season to Write:

  1. Make a short list of your essentials — things that cannot be wiped off of the calendar. For me, this begins and ends with my family, adding in a bit of time to recharge with close friends and a weekly tennis match.
  2. Determine what time of day / night you prefer to write. I’m a daytime writer, beginning as early as possible.
  3. Find a writing time block that can be repeated most days that doesn’t interrupt the essentials. I use every last drop of school-time, when my boys are in school.
  4. Clear off the non-essentials from that time block. This isn’t easy– it’s the PTA volunteering hours, and all of the well-meaning activities that can steal entire days away  for weeks in a row. It’s hard to say no, but it’s also impossible to write a book without the bottom in the writing chair. It’s not a popular thing to say no– I can vouch for that.
  5. Turn off the internet, the radio, the television, the cell phone, and the washer and dryer. Everything that is a distraction will be a distraction. Make a pact, like “I’ll write 500 words and then check my email.” And stick to it. The words add up quickly without distractions!
  6. Evaluate your writing routine. Do you want to clear the schedule for just a season (writing one first draft?) or do you want to make this writing thing a habit, a serious gig?

As with a post from a few months ago, How to Finish Your Novel in 2011, figure out your plan, your target word counts, and stick to it. Because once the calendar is clear, anything is possible. You’ll have your work-in-progress in good shape before you know it. And soon, you’ll hold a finished book in your hands. There is no better feeling.

Bonus: an excellent post from friend and debut author, Sarah Jio, on balancing writing with her three young sons. I love this post, titled, Yes, You Can Write A Novel With Small Children Hanging On You. Her highly-acclaimed novel, THE VIOLETS OF MARCH, came out this month.

Question for you: How do you make the time to do what you love?

 

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Live Simply, Live Well

Simple Beauty

Live simply, live well. -the sign that hangs above my kitchen sink

Simple Beauty
Simple Beauty

Have you ever noticed how children seem to love things that are not “toys”? You know … the pans and spoons a toddler chooses over the latest singing gizmo that cost $29.99. Or my boys’ favorite when they were younger– measuring cups and a sink full of water, instead of the pricey toys that lay at their feet. Most of all, I always marvel at how people of all ages can spend an entire day happy and entertained on a beach covered with sand. It’s the simplest things that sometimes are the best.

One year, on vacation at a Florida Panhandle beach, I noticed a sign propped against a window at a beach shop. It said, “Live simply, Live well.” And in the center, a bucket and shovels are painted as sitting in sand. Though we didn’t have any spare money, I scraped enough together to buy it, because it was one of those things that I couldn’t leave the beach without.

Since then, it has served as a favorite reminder for me in this always complicated world. Simple is better for living well.

What do you think? Do you have a favorite sign hanging in your home as a reminder of what is important? What does it say?