12 Meaningful Ways to Support Generous Businesses This Holiday Season

Fundraising. Ugh. It seems like a four-letter word to me – even though it has way more letters than that! Asking people for donations is pretty high on the list of things I LEAST like to do.

But the reality is that very few important get done without fundraising. That’s why, despite my distaste for it, I find myself doing it more than I want. If that has annoyed you, I’m sorry . . . But not really. 🙂

Most recently, I collected donations for a charitable auction to support the Activity Club at my kids’ high school. The Activity Club sponsors many meaningful programs, such as providing food and toiletries for high schoolers in need, connecting high school and elementary students through a mentoring program, providing scholarship opportunities for seniors, and coordinating an after-prom party and a Baccalaureate celebration in the spring.

Soliciting donations is never a fun pastime, but soliciting donations from businesses DURING A PANDEMIC is especially difficult. Many small businesses have struggled to stay afloat since Covid drastically altered shoppers’ budgets and routines. I expected that donations would be hard to get – and for good reason. But I was wrong! The generosity of the companies listed below was mind boggling, and most of them are small businesses. I can’t overstate my appreciation for their generosity, as well as my gratitude for the individuals who contributed, as well.

I don’t know about you, but I feel better about spending my money (and I probably spend a little extra) when I know the business profiting from my purchases has a spirit of generosity and a love of community. As you are Christmas shopping this season, please consider the ideas below and support these business owners, who have been generous even during a time of economic struggle. In addition, I hope these ideas motivate you to investigate more local businesses needing support in your own community!

ONLINE OR IN-STORE SHOPPING

1. Birch Bear Co.

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you already know I’m a superfan of this company that started as a little t-shirt shop on Etsy and has now expanded to print t-shirts, sweatshirts, blankets, and more. I wear Birch Bear shirts often and have gifted them to my mom, my SIL, and my friends. The owner, Kayla, has become a friend, even though we have never met and we live a state apart. Most importantly, Kayla’s creations are THE BOMB. (I know that my slang is outdated, but if you were a teen in the 90’s, you still appreciate it. Don’t lie. ) Long story short: shop at Birch Bear Co. You won’t regret it. Customer service is top notch, and Birch Bear will even help you design what you need this holiday season.

Here are a few of the faves that I wear or have gifted, including the Still Chasing Fireflies design <3:

2. Just a Jar Design Press

You guys, Just a Jar Design Press is a quiet little shop in my hometown of Marietta, Ohio, and let me just say two things about this business. First, the owners Sara and Bobby Rosenstock are personable and kind. Second, this business has been flying under the radar for too many people for too long! Just a Jar Design Press produces woodcut and letter press posters, t-shirts, and greeting cards. Their prints are absolutely beautiful, and you can buy their greeting cards individually or in bulk. If you are buying mass-printed cards at the store, trust me – you need to STOP. 🙂 These cards are hand-pressed, and the artwork is beautiful. The cards themselves are a gift! This Marietta, Ohio shop is a gem, and, fortunately for all of us, Just a Jar’s talent is available online. I know from experience that their customer service is excellent and quick, as well. Check out these pictures from the Just a Jar Design Press website showing how one of my favorite cards is produced:

3. Patterson’s Farm

Patterson’s Farm is a successful small business owned by the ultimate “girl boss,” soap-artisan, and goat mama – Kathy Patterson. I will let Kathy speak for herself with this description from her website: “I milk my dairy goats every morning, and use that raw, fresh goats milk to make luxurious skin care products. The addition of goats milk to soap creates a bar that is truly a treat for your skin. Then, the art begins. Roses, swirls, hand piping, pour techniques, clays, micas, embedding, scent blending…this isn’t grandma’s soap!”  Patterson’s Farm is in Marietta, Ohio, but the products are available for online orders. In full disclosure, I put my Christmas order in on Saturday, and it was hard to stop putting things into my cart. Kathy is a Star Seller on Etsy with over a thousand five-star reviews and quick customer service. I can’t recommend one product because I have tried many and enjoyed them all! Her products make wonderful gifts, from a stocking stuffer to a beautifully packaged box of products!

4. Wit & Whimsy

Wit & Whimsy is another Marietta, Ohio, business with an online shop, AND it is one of my favorite shops on Front Street near the river. Wit & Whimsy sells “unique gifts and uncommon goods for your personal lifestyle.” Owner Laura Pytlik has such a kind and generous spirit; when I spoke to her, she was quick to talk about the artisans she works with rather than focusing on her own creations (like a skeleton-key necklace my mom bought me for Christmas) or her own lovely shop! Wit & Whimsy is the ultimate one-stop gift shop – clothing, jewelry, keychains, artwork, and so much more. Products are made in the United States, with many made by artists in Ohio and West Virginia (including Kathy Patterson above). You MUST check out what she is offering online, but please stop by the shop to see even more products when you have a chance to visit! Here are some of my favorites from the Wit & Whimsy website and blog:

5. Dad’s Primitive Workbench

Dad’s Primitive Workbench is another of my favorite shops in downtown Marietta. When I visited Dad’s Primitive Workbench recently, I was delighted to discover that it is owned by one of my former students, Charlie Clay! (I will share that fun story with you later!) Charlie’s business has expanded to include online shopping, with many pieces of boutique clothing available in his online store. Please check it out, but I truly hope you get to visit his store. Charlie’s brick-and-mortar location is packed with products – from clothing to jewelry to stickers to rustic decor to seasonal decorations to candles – all displayed just beautifully. I shared this store with some friends in August, and we left with a bag filled with boutique jeans, a bracelet, a fall wall hanging, and a pumpkin and floral accent. There is a lot of variety in this eclectic small business! I think this picture from the website illustrates just how cozy Dad’s Primitive Workbench is. Marietta peeps, GO TO THIS STORE before Christmas!

Photo from Dad’s Primitive Workbench website

UNIQUE CHRISTMAS SHOPPING IDEAS

6. Home Improvement Gift Card

If you live in northern Columbus, check out Holmes Lumber (a division of Carter Lumber) in Sunbury, but if you live somewhere else, consider buying a gift card from a home improvement store near you. During Covid quarantine, most of us grew tired of the painted walls we were staring at, but prices for home improvement have increased, and many people have been forced to tighten their budgets. A home improvement gift card may not seem like an exciting gift to give, but I’m betting that most of the adults in your life wouldn’t mind an excuse to make a trip to a home improvement store near you! Just make sure that the business you choose carries the types of products you think the recipient may want or need.

7. A Yard Card Greeting

Let’s be honest: Some people on your Christmas shopping list aren’t easy to buy for. Maybe they are grandparents who don’t want or need any more “stuff.” Or maybe they are kids who already seem to have ALL the things advertised on television. Why not think outside the box for loved ones who might appreciate something different? One unexpected option that will definitely bring a smile to their faces is a yard card, sometimes called a yard greeting! If you live in the northern Columbus, Ohio area, I recommend renting your greeting from Cardinal Yard Cards, a small business run by some student entrepreneurs. If you live elsewhere, know that yard sign businesses became especially popular during quarantine, so there is likely a yard sign business near you! We have both bought and received yard cards, and they have created special memories and neighborhood chatter, so consider sending a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy New Year” greeting. As Cardinal Yard Cards shares on their website, “We believe when you really want to say it, the best way is to display it!”

Photo from Cardinal Yard Cards website

8. A Cooking Lesson or A New Kitchen Gadget

Since my son is a senior in high school and I am a hot mess thinking about it, I’ve been intentional in planning an activity for us to enjoy together each month until his graduation. The time we have spent together each month has been priceless. I highly recommend considering gifts that are investments in your relationships rather than gifts that are investments in the things that will eventually decompose in a garbage dump. (Sorry, but I’m a realist!) For example, create a gift basket of ingredients, recipes, and kitchen gadgets, and plan a time to cook the meal together. Or sign up for a local cooking class to learn something new AND spend time with one another. In Marietta, I highly recommend visiting The Cook’s Shop.

A note about The Cook’s Shop . . . When I was soliciting donations, I expected small businesses to decline, especially during this period of financial recovery, but I was disheartened by businesses that wouldn’t respond to messages at all. The shining exception was Dagmar Kupsche from The Cook’s Shop, who sent a kind reply expressing regret that she could not help, while also mentioning that Covid had negatively impacted the business. I was impressed by her. If you live in Marietta, check out The Cook’s Shop’s unique kitchen items and please support them this Christmas!**

9. A Life Coaching Session

Adjusting to life during a pandemic has been difficult. The personal losses and increased isolation motivated many of us to evaluate the pace and the priorities of our lives. If you know someone who is interested in self-improvement, who wants to hit the “reset” button after the past 18 months, or who generally wants to live with more intention, a session with a life coach may be a perfect option. Why not contact a life coach in your area and pay for a session for your loved one as a gift? In northern Columbus, I recommend Lesley Cross at Bridges Counseling of Ohio. While Lesley is a licensed counselor, she is also a certified life coach who can offer coaching services to help someone reach a personal or professional goal. If you can help someone reach their full potential, there is truly no better gift than that!

10. Tickets to a Local Attraction

I’m not a gambler, but I’m willing to bet that your local community hosts interesting events that you haven’t even explored yet. We humans tend to overlook the engaging opportunities that are right under our noses while we wistfully fantasize about the excitement of someplace else. Do some research and discover what is available right around the corner. For example, does someone on your list love history? Consider buying them tickets to tour a local historical home or a museum. Many towns have quirky tours and landmarks to visit if you really explore. In my hometown of Marietta, Ohio, Ghost Tours are available through Hidden Marietta. That sounds like a fun evening to me! The Washington County Historical Society is also a generous source of local history in southeastern Ohio, but you can check out your own local historical society and your local visitor’s bureau to find more ideas tailored to wherever you live.

Photo from Hidden Marietta website

11. A Gift Card OR a Meal Delivered from a Local Restaurant

Some of the best local eats are found in small, family-owned establishments. Before you buy a gift card to a chain restaurant that catches your eye in the grocery checkout line, consider stopping by a local small business and buying a gift card there instead. Even better, tell a mom or dad you love not to cook dinner one night during the busy holiday season and have dinner delivered to them, or pick it up and deliver it yourself. You are not only giving the gift of delicious food, but also the precious gift of TIME. In Marietta, Ohio, I recommend a gift card to Austyn’s, a long-time favorite that serves mouth-watering meals and is owned by a high school friend of mine. If you live in central Ohio, The Whitney House is always a special treat and is also owned by local friends. Last year, the boys and I started a new tradition of ordering from The Whitney House two nights before Christmas, and we are already looking forward to doing it again. Both Austyn’s and The Whitney House are beloved and generous within their local communities, and when you support one of them, you are supporting a local family and their local employees!

12. An Invitation to Get Coffee at a Local Coffee Shop

Instead of buying a gift card to the most famous coffee shop on the planet, buy a gift card to the local coffee shop down the street. Tuck it into a mug or an insulated cup with a note that says, “Let’s meet for coffee!” And THEN get a date on the calendar as soon as the gift is opened. Now you have gifted a friend some time away from home, free coffee or tea, and an opportunity to become even closer friends. Voila! It’s so simple! If you live in Marietta, Ohio, you can swing through the drive-thru at Stoked and then drink your coffee by the river or in your breakfast nook with a friend. Alternatively, the two of you could shop downtown and then enjoy the ambiance created by the old brick walls at Jeremiah’s Coffee Shop on Front Street. Both are local businesses that are managed with a spirit of generosity!

Christmas shopping is not only a way to show your love to friends and family, but also an opportunity to support small businesses all over the country, invest in family-owned businesses at the heart of your local community, and reward businesses big and small that are generous in giving back. Hopefully these ideas will spark your own creativity and inspire you to explore new ways to shop this Christmas season!

Happy holidays!

~Mary Ann

Losing Someone, One Memory at a Time

Last week, the world lost Willard Scott, a weather man and television personality best known for his sense of humor, his kind persona, and, of course, his Smucker’s jars. As I was watching the tributes after his death, it struck me just how strange it is that the people we love are here . . . and then they’re not. Just like that. In a matter of days, minutes, even seconds sometimes, everything changes.

The death of Willard Scott also got me thinking about one funny, friendly guy I knew very well. I knew him from watching him play with Matchbox cars on the floor with my children, his grandsons. I knew him from helping him collect quarters representing all fifty states and from listening to his detailed stories of growing up in the hills of West Virginia and serving in Vietnam. And, although his body failed quickly when he contracted Covid in the fall of 2020, I was reminded how Alzheimer’s disease had stolen him from us slowly over a decade, like a thief who empties your jewelry box by silently slinking off with one precious gold chain or gemstone at a time.

Until there is an empty box.

It takes you a while to notice that those precious things are missing when they are stolen so slowly. And once you do, it’s impossible to retrieve – or even fully understand – the extent of what you’ve lost.

Because it’s not just about the jewelry or the memories that are missing. It’s about the thief’s betrayal, the hurt, the anger. It’s the fact that an enemy has infiltrated your borders and you, always on guard, weren’t even aware of it.

Your safe zone is no longer predictable.

Your safe zone no longer feels safe.

I remember when we first noticed the repetition. The questions that were asked not long after they had been answered. The stories that, although they had always been favorites, now played in a loop in his dialogue. I remember the dread that we felt. Could it be? No, surely it wasn’t. Not him. Not now. Not yet.

Just look at him! He is healthy and strong!

I remember the sadness of his wife, my mother-in-law. The long, slow, painful grief. The mourning of each new task he could not do on his own. The physical and emotional exhaustion she felt when she knew that he needed her help but wanted desperately to maintain his sense of dignity and independence.

I remember the conversations about the car and his beloved old blue truck. Should he drive here? Should he drive there? Should he drive anywhere? How do we tell him that we are no longer comfortable with him driving his grandchildren? Who is going to tell the protector, the man who owns the keys, the guy who always sat in the driver’s seat, that he is going to ride shotgun from this day on?

I remember the time on vacation when I knew how much I didn’t know about caring for someone with Alzheimer’s. When my mother-in-law had no choice but to send him into a men’s restroom alone because a grown adult man isn’t welcome in the women’s restroom. But he shouldn’t have been alone in there. We paced the sidewalk nervously until he returned to us safely, and I realized that this was just five minutes of the war that the two of them were battling every day. And my heart hurt deeply, knowing I felt only a fraction of her pain.

I remember the weeks when the care-taking was becoming too intense for one woman without a team of medical professionals down the hall. The choices. The love and the guilt and the grief.

The toll it took on a family.

I remember it all.

But I also remember what an amazing life my father-in-law had lived before Alzheimer’s, what a playful grandfather he was, and what a kind spirit he had. Alzheimer’s steals so much of the present and the future. But we are fortunate that, at least for the family of a person with Alzheimer’s, it cannot steal the past.

When my father-in-law, Keith, traded his shoes for metaphorical wings, our family was heartbroken, not only because of the physical loss of such a wonderful human, but also because we had a new enemy. Keith had died from Covid, and the entire world was on pause because of the virus. Vaccines weren’t yet available, travel was still discouraged, and large gatherings were prohibited. Around the same time that we lost my father-in-law, a friend had experienced multiple losses in her own family, so the prospect of inadvertently exposing grandma to Covid while grieving the loss of grandpa was just too much for me. Mourning together is supposed to be healing, but there was a reasonable risk before vaccinations that mourning together could have been deadly.

Even though I felt this was the right decision, I was sick with guilt. How could we honor the richness of a grandparent’s life and love without being with our family to grieve for him?

Alzheimer’s had stolen my father-in-law’s memory, but Covid wasn’t going to steal his legacy.

We were fortunate that our family made a special effort to live-stream the funeral service so that we could, at least, all be together in spirit. The boys and I devoted the rest of the day to remembering their “Pappy Ware” by doing things that reminded us of what he loved. It turned out to be really special, so let me share who he was with you through our plans that day.

One of Keith’s earliest jobs was in a bakery. He reveled in sharing those memories with us, describing how shiny and clean he would keep that place despite every surface being dusted with flour and sugar on the regular. I always imagined him smiling while he worked. And I imagined that it was really hot in there, but that it probably smelled delicious – you know, like warm donuts. We researched to find an old-fashioned donut shop like where he would have worked, and we landed on The Original Goodie Shop in Upper Arlington. We picked out our donuts together, ate them together, shared memories together.

Keith grew up in the country – and I mean IN THE COUNTRY, the kind of country where windy roads snake deep into the hollows and the mountains of West Virginia. Although he didn’t return there often, he weaved stories about his childhood there with his sisters and and his brothers, about times when he got himself into mischief, and about his mother teaching in a one-room schoolhouse. I don’t remember all the details, but I recall one story about a little toy horse that he shared many times. He enjoyed hunting and watching shows about the outdoors. We felt like we needed to spend some time in the woods that day, so we visited Highbanks and took this beautiful photo on our drive. We agreed he would have liked it there.

After our donuts and some time in the woods, we joined our family for the funeral service. After the service, my boys released balloons in Keith’s honor, just like their cousins were doing 130 miles away.

Keith’s favorite cookies were oatmeal raisin. We thought a fun, meaningful way to share his love for others would be to bake his favorite cookies and then share them with some friends. So we did, and I used molasses in a recipe for the very first time. We packed them into baggies and small plastic containers and distributed them, explaining to friends that this was an extra special delivery. I have baked these once or twice since the day of Keith’s funeral, but it seems like there was an extra magical ingredient in them when we made them that particular day.

Of course, we looked through photographs, and we watched a video created from photos that everyone in the family had shared. Keith was a kind, loving grandpa with a gentle spirit and a strong bear hug. He especially enjoyed when the grandkids were young!

Many of my memories of Keith come from sitting around the table with his family. He always sat at the head of the table, and we all enjoyed many meals and holidays together. Keith enjoyed a down-home, comfort-food kind of meal. Although I don’t remember him eating lemon ice cream, he was always grateful for a lemon cookie or a lemon bar. We made a home cooked meal we thought he would enjoy, with a lemon dessert in his honor.

Christmas ornaments, to me, are little treasure chests bursting with memories. In my imagination, my kids will want my ornaments someday when I am gone, despite the fact that they are probably only worth some spare change at a yard sale. They know how much I love them. We added a special ornament to our tree in memory of their grandpa and his love of hunting and the outdoors.

I don’t know if my father-in-law ever watched Good Morning Vietnam or if he would even approve of it, but he served in Vietnam, and he talked about it a lot throughout his life, especially during his final years when his memory was constantly rewinding to his teens and twenties. Watching this seemed like a way to share a cultural touchstone with them while also helping them “see” a bit of his experiences. It wasn’t as engaging as I remembered, but I think it still mattered in the big picture of our day.

Throughout the day of the funeral, I shared pictures of our adventures with Carol, my boys’ grandma, so that she would know that we were honoring Keith’s life with her. At the end of the day, I felt like we had connected with his memory in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. In some ways, it felt MORE meaningful than the traditional ways that we mourn people. But we missed being with our people. We missed their hugs the most.

My incredibly generous friend in Marietta, Sarah Sauls, spearheaded a community memorial months later in honor of the lives lost during Covid. It was an opportunity to mourn and to gather. It was a chance to be present with Carol in the celebration of Keith’s life.

We placed flowers in Keith’s honor into a wreath. Then the beautiful wreath, decorated with memories, was set afloat in the river.

It was a moving tribute.

We watched the flowers and the wreath float away from us, just as Keith’s memories had floated away over the past decade due to Alzheimer’s.

Next weekend, “Keith’s Squadron” will walk in southeastern Ohio to raise money for Alzheimer’s research. It is so special that the team, including my sister-in-law, nephews, and others we love, will walk in Keith’s honor this year. Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease that has likely touched us all in some way. The boys and I would love for you to help raise money for their grandpa’s team by clicking on this link. Please help. Maybe, just maybe, we can prevent future generations, including ourselves, from floating away, one memory at a time.

Lots of love to you all! Thanks for devoting a few minutes of your day to honor Keith, and thanks for supporting such an important cause if you can. Alzheimer’s is a horrible way to lose someone you love. ❤

Life Lessons from the High Jump Pit

Photo by Morris Watkins, Jr.

This post was originally shared on my personal Facebook page in April, early in the high school track and field season. With track seasons moving into regional and state finals, I wanted to share this as a thank you to my son’s track coaches – and as a reminder of the significance of the PR (personal record). Enjoy! ~Mary Ann

Last night, my junior broke his PR (personal record) in the high jump by several inches for a new PR of 6’2”, placing first in his favorite event! It was pretty amazing to watch considering our memories of his first attempts to clear even the lowest bar just a couple of years ago.

As he was jumping, I heard a stranger further down the fence loudly encouraging him. The man called him “Blue Shoes.” He cheered for him and engaged with him between jumps, as you might expect from a family member or friend. As a result, I met Mr. Watkins and his wife, who have a granddaughter on the team, and who shared their photographs of my son’s jump with me today.

It turns out a track meet is a great way to make some new friends.

Last night, the blue sky, the warm sun, the “catching up” conversations among the parents, the encouraging cheers for every single participant, the new friends, the diversity of student athletes… it was like track and field was wrapped up like a gift and tied with a bow.

It was perfect.

Photo from Canva.com

My boys have played a lot of sports, but the atmosphere of a track meet is different, and I could not love it more:

In track, you can participate in several different events. So you can come in first 🏆 and last 😢 on the very same day.

In track, you can decide to try something completely new in the middle of the season – even though you may not be any “good” at it. You are encouraged to try everything – to voluntarily experience the discomfort of something new, to embrace the inevitability of occasional failure when you are adventurous.

In track, people cheer just as loudly for the last person to cross the finish line as they do for the first.

In track, a PR is celebrated. A PR may be only two seconds faster or an inch higher, and even with the PR, you may have come in last. But you beat your own self, kid! So throw some confetti! 🎉

In track, the kids from the other schools congratulate you. They become your friends. You inspire one another. It’s both competitive and friendly.

In track, the athletes are tall or short or thin or muscular or anything else you can imagine. In track and field, there is a place for you. For every “you” who wants to try.

In track, you didn’t have to start expensive training when you were three-years-old to be successful.

In track, you don’t have to conquer someone else to secure a spot for yourself. That fact alone transforms a group dynamic significantly.

Basically, track and field is kind of like the world I want to live in.

The kind of world where personal growth is celebrated and failure is safe and competition is friendly, and everyone experiences some success and everyone is humbled on a regular basis.

The kind of world where a guy who doesn’t know your name calls you “Blue Shoes” to encourage you and then kindly friends your mom on Facebook to send photos and share in your joy.

The kind of world where everyone is aiming for a new personal record.

So, please, please, PLEASE – try to PR in something tomorrow.

Set your own personal record in anything.

Actually, try to PR tomorrow in EVERYTHING you do.

Be just a little nicer. Help just a little more. Listen just a little better. Learn just a little something new. Waste just a little less time doing something that isn’t good for you.

Because small, consistent improvement creates a significant positive change over time. Each little PR matters.

I learned that from track. Just by standing on the outside of the fence, looking in. 😉

To those who spent many beautiful (and some not-so-beautiful) spring evenings at the track coaching teenagers in running, jumping, vaulting, throwing, and LIFE – THANK YOU!

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.

Confucius

After the Darkness of Winter, There Will Always Be the Beauty of Spring

Planting bulbs during quarantine, November 2020

Hey, friends! In November of 2020, I shared this on my Still Chasing Fireflies Facebook page, and the words have been on my heart this weekend as I prepare for my second covid vaccine tomorrow. Nature reveals so much to us in its patience and its promises. I hope you enjoy revisiting these words with me!

From November 2020:

With more time at home this fall, I finally remembered to buy spring bulbs.

I intend to buy them every year, but I always forget until spring, when I observe other people’s blooms with regret. So tonight, with Tom Petty’s voice in my ear, I worked my fingers through the cool dirt.

With all of the bulbs dumped together onto the soil, I broke up the thick clumps of earth and carefully worked to hide each delicate bulb from the light. Gently, I nestled each baby flower into it’s own dark pit, buried each one in its own hole, alone.

And I thought to myself, “We just have to make it to spring, little bulbs.”

We just have to hang on until the sun warms the earth, and we emerge from our holes, and life will look normal again. We just need to be patient. We just need to trust that spring will come. We just need to embrace the quiet and store up our energy and expect to grow.

And imagine…. When all of these flowers erupt from their lonely dark places to dance in the sunshine with the other bounty of the earth… And when our doors are finally propped open, welcoming parties of friends and family without worry once again…

Hang on, friends. Use the next few months of dark times to grow more beautiful. It’s painful. It’s tiring. It’s hard to understand.

But nature is full of answers. So choose to bloom.

Spring is coming…

The daffodils are growing! March 2021

Guess what, you guys?!? SPRING IS HERE! We made it! Tomorrow I will get my second vaccine, just as my bulbs are sending gorgeous green shoots up through the soil. Somehow spring has extra special meaning this year.

While it is certainly tempting to ONLY look forward as the blossoms erupt and the front doors swing open, especially since reflecting on the past year elicits AT LEAST a little bit of pain for most of us, these days between vaccines have been an important time of reflection for me. I’ve spent some time reflecting on what the challenges, the losses (from the annoying ones to the truly devastating ones), and the conflicts of the last year revealed about who I am at my very core. I recently and intentionally took some time to revisit all of my blog posts, all of my personal social media posts, all of my comments on my pages from the last year – and I thought about who those words revealed me to be. Where do I see evidence that I have grown in my faith, my knowledge, my generosity, and my love for others? When do I feel confident that I was I assertive at the right time, for the right reasons, and in the right way, and when did I completely miss the mark? When adversity hits us again – and it will – how do I want to react differently?

I learned several years ago that when adversity hits, it evokes intense emotions, and intense emotions strip us of our filters. In that way, adversity shines a light on who we really are, at our core, at that moment in time.

It’s no fun going through hard times. But hard times do have the potential to change who we are, and in a good way. But that change is impossible if we refuse to look in the rearview mirror, at least for a minute.

I hope that you, too, will take a little bit of time to reflect on the past as life begins to look more normal. And I hope you are as excited to see the spring blooms as I am!

Enjoy the sunny blue skies. Enjoy the colorful new life erupting from the earth. And TREASURE the hugs of friends and family as soon as its safe – and I hope for you that is SOON! I have a greater appreciation for smiles and hugs than I ever did before!

HAPPY SPRING!

~Mary Ann

There will always…
be winter…
But there will also always…
be spring. ❤

Yep. Valentine’s Day is For You, Too.💕

Happy Valentine’s Day!!!

This morning I decorated for Valentine’s, as I have since the boys were little chubby-cheeked bundles of energy who generally left me exhausted. Even though I was tired, I would stay up late and cut out hearts to make the morning special.

My oldest will be 17 in a couple of weeks, and he still smiled at the hearts taped all over the kitchen this morning. 💕

Throughout this week, I have enjoyed all the Valentine’s pics and especially the “how we met” challenges that have been shared. Love is such a wonderful thing! 💗 But I also want to give a shout out to the people who won’t get chocolates or roses or whatever special gifts are on the Valentine shelves this weekend. I want to remind you of a few important things that you already know – things that might get buried in your thoughts in February under a heaping pile of conversation hearts.

1. Love is not a finite resource. There is plenty to go around, and it does not end just because a loved one is not close. When someone passes away, their love stays with you, and it still envelopes you. It is with you, even in your pain and your grief.

2. When someone decides they don’t love you anymore, that HURTS REALLY BADLY – but there is no empty “love hole” inside of your heart. You are still loved so abundantly that the space fills right back up. Let yourself feel the fullness of the love around you. Let yourself treasure the love you DO have rather than dwelling on the love you don’t. Your heart is not compartmentalized. Love seeps into all the empty places if you allow it.

3. Our happiness is actually MORE connected to the love we GIVE than to the gifts we receive. Unlike love, time IS a finite resource. Will you be happier waiting for someone to love you or actively loving on other people with that time?

4. You are not “unwhole” if you don’t have someone to buy you flowers today. You are a complete person, and you can buy the flowers for yourself. And I don’t mean “you can buy them for yourself” as in “you are perfectly capable of going to the store.” I mean you can buy a GIFT and GIVE it – with love – to yourself. Treat yourself, think about yourself, and talk to yourself with love – the same way you would treat another person.

And, hey, an added bonus is that when you get to treat yourself, you always get what you want. 🤣 What I wanted last night was a heart-shaped pizza so that I didn’t have to cook dinner. 🍕❤️ And I got it. That is also a long-standing tradition that I share with my kids, and when they move out, I will continue it and share it with someone else. When life changes, you can still continue old traditions, or you can make new ones. It’s up to you!

There is such beauty in loving relationships that have stood the test of time. The effort and love that devoted couples give to overcome obstacles and sustain their marriages is truly heroic. Love is sometimes the hardest of work. This is not, in any way, a condemnation of Valentine’s Day.

But if a forever relationship is what you always wanted and, for whatever reason, your life did not pan out that way, it’s easy to scroll through the heart pics and spiral into a fantasy world where everyone lives in a gated community on a pink-and-red cloud, and you were never given the code.

That’s why it’s important to maintain some perspective. We’ve all watched enough Dateline to know that the perfection captured in a snapshot has probably been filtered or photoshopped, at the least.

Or buried in a hole in the backyard. 😳

Joking aside, the point is that relationships can be wonderful, and they can be terrible. Either way, they aren’t easy. Or perfect. Or the solution to every negative feeling or problem that we face.

I am thankful for Valentine’s Day and a celebration of a feeling (love), a choice (love), and an action (love) that makes the world a better place, starting in our very own homes. I don’t want to be sad today, and I don’t want you to be sad either! Don’t wait to receive love today… give it, instead!

And remember that life is a journey, riddled with unanticipated twists and unexpected turns that no level of planning can control sometimes. I truly cannot wait to see where my path is going, and maybe even whom I will meet, along the way!

HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY!!! 💗💕

**Hey, everyone! Thanks for continuing to hang out with me here on the rare occasion when I have time to write right now! A friend (thanks, Michelle S!) read this post on Facebook (Still Chasing Fireflies on FB) and suggested we think of Valentine’s Day less as a day ONLY for couples and more as Happy Love Day! I think that’s kinda awesome – because I have a lot of love for all of you!**

An Invisible Grief

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This morning I was struck by how heavy our feeds have been with the weight of grief and sadness in 2020. So many loved ones have experienced devastating losses. Social media has become a way for us to share a tiny piece of these heartaches, and I appreciate seeing all of the supportive messages, the warm embrace of friends, and the memories shared through heartwarming photographs.

But I want to say something to you about invisible grief.

Please, please, please understand that this is not about me and my needs in 2020. My heart is at peace, and I am happy, and my family has always had a tremendous village around us. I recognize that my choice to be open and vulnerable in ways that most people won’t has opened doors to receiving love and to healing that have helped me so much. 💕 And I feel a responsibility to write, because I can, for the people who are hurting without being noticed.

There is a chance that someone you know is going through a divorce right now. There is a chance that this person is experiencing the intense pain and grief of a loss that they feel they cannot post about. There is a chance that this person is facing their first holiday without their spouse, without in-laws who are their family, without their normal traditions, or maybe even without their own kids. There is a chance that someone you know isn’t sure who they are supposed to be buying gifts for or who should be on their Christmas card this year. Just imagine how painful that is.

But they likely don’t feel that they can post about this. Maybe because they are protecting other people’s hearts. Or because they are worried about legalities. Or because they don’t want a friend of a friend to say that “it’s probably for the best” – or other comforting things that aren’t so comforting. Or because if they post memories or old pictures, people are going to gossip, and people are going to suggest that they need to move forward at a pace we don’t expect of people grieving other losses.

When I was growing up, well meaning people who believe divorce is too prevalent (and I agree that it is, but not for this reason) said things like “Divorces shouldn’t be so easy to get. That’s the problem these days – it’s just so easy.”

Let me assure you that no one who has actually experienced a divorce would ever say that.

Divorce was never the vision I had for my life and my family. I wish things had been different. However, I recognize that I am so fortunate, in some ways, in how my story has unfolded since then, in the strength of all of my relationships, and in the stability and outcomes we have carefully, painfully, and intentionally managed to create. This is not the norm for most families. I have a strong faith, the best friends, an incredible family, and open communication. But even with these things being true, divorce is still, by FAR, the most challenging thing I have ever experienced. I cannot begin to explain to you how difficult it is, on so many levels, even under the best worst circumstances.

It is so, so hard.

So please take a few minutes to reflect today. Maybe someone in your life isn’t “fine” right now. And maybe you didn’t realize how they are hurting because their pain isn’t socially acceptable to share on Facebook. Or maybe because they aren’t on social media at all, or because they needed a break from seeing all of the perfectly posed family pictures for a few months.

You can let them know that you see them – that their quiet pain is not invisible to you. You can say that you don’t know the full extent of what they are going through, but that you imagine it is difficult and painful, and that you care. You can remind them that they are doing a really good job of keeping all the plates spinning while working through some really hard things.

Who in your life is suffering this season in a way that will never be posted?

Love her.

Love him.

Please – love your friend who is sharing their hurt with you today.

But don’t forget to love the friend who isn’t. 💕

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The Lemonade Stand

The Memorial Day sky today is stunning – a brilliant blue sprinkled with cotton-candy clouds, punctuated by the towering tops of the trees. Leaves of striking emerald green wave hello from branches that were bare just a few weeks before. Like magic, and without fanfare, nature did what nature does, bursting out of its winter slumber just as we were all safely taking shelter inside. But how could anyone avoid the lure of summer on a gorgeous day like this?

Ohio has been heating up the past few days, proven by the influx of baby pools in front yards, the angry skin tormenting cheeks and noses, and the gush of hot air that greets you upon opening the door. Summer in Ohio feels a bit like living in a toaster oven. And since we switched to summer temperatures in Ohio rather quickly, some of us have done some stupid summer things – like going for a run during the hottest hours of the day without plenty of water.

Don’t do that. It’s not a smart decision.

One of those stupid people was me. After a three-mile run today through thick air and under a blazing sun, I was parched, with a half a mile or so to walk home. That’s when I saw an oasis in the midst of the concrete grid of the suburbs: a lemonade stand with the most adorable homemade sign and a tantalizing pitcher of ice cold lemonade.

Of course, having left my home to go running, I hadn’t taken any money with me, which was a shame because 1$ for 2 lemonades is a steal, plus I was really, really thirsty. But home wasn’t too far away, and I could probably crawl that far if worse came to worst.

What I hated even more than missing a lemonade while dehydrated was telling the three exceedingly hopeful little girls that I didn’t have 1$ to pay them. I just KNEW they would be crushed with disappointment. There is only so much traffic in the ‘burbs on a holiday, so there was a lot riding on every potential customer.

I felt such empathy for them. My childhood friend and I sold rocks at a table on our dead-end street once. It didn’t go so well. The first of many of life’s tough blows, I guess.

I smiled and broke the hard news. “I’m sorry! I didn’t bring any money on my run today.” I finished with a shrug and a disappointed frown and social distanced myself to pass on by.

Those girls did not skip a beat.

“That’s okay. We don’t mind. We want to give it to you.”

Wait, what? One generous little girl added, “For FREE.”

I was HOT. And I was THIRSTY. So I agreed to a free lemonade but promised to come back and make it up to them later. “We’re gonna be here for a long time,” they said. And as I walked away with my lemonade, one of the girls shouted, “Happy Memorial Day!” Before she could finish, the others chimed in, too, with a staggered chorus of sweet Memorial Day blessings.

As I walked the rest of the way home with my lemonade, I was absorbed in reflection. (Running is always my best thinking time anyway.) I was so touched by this small act of kindness. It reminded me that the things that we give, even the little things like a 2 for 1$ glass of lemonade, matter. They make a difference. They brighten someone’s day. They prompt a smile. How many little kindnesses would it take to brighten our communities and our cities and our country and our world?

It reminded me that what those girls were willing to sacrifice – .50 or 1$ – was a lot of money from their youthful perspective. But they were willing to give to someone wholeheartedly, without reservation. To a stranger, even. Where do we lose that generous spirit as we grow up?

It reminded me that those girls were using cups and lemonade mix and a table and chairs that their parents had generously provided. The kindness the parents had shown toward their children was paid forward as kindness to me. So often we think of people as either “givers” or “takers,” but love, kindness, and generosity are like vines, growing and winding from one person to another until communities are literally woven together. There is no end to love, just expansion, and there are no “givers” and “takers,” only people who will sit on both sides of the table at some point.

It reminded me that we reward children for so many things these days. Grades. Athletic achievement. Participation. Even just showing up. But how much do we celebrate their character? If we ask our kids to describe themselves, do they talk about what they do or do they talk about who they are?

When I got home, I wrote the girls a thank you note and rounded up lots of change to pay them what I owed, plus a generous tip. I wanted them to know how much I appreciated their kindness, especially on this very special day.

Because they also reminded me that while most of us will not die in a heroic act of sacrifice for our country, maybe there is no better way to honor those we have lost than by living a life defined by the kindness and generosity that we show to others.

What Students Are Missing the Most This Week

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I currently teach for an online high school. Online schooling is the best option for SOME students. It is NOT the best option for ALL students. It is also a term that is being used pretty loosely at the moment; “remote learning” is maybe a more accurate description of what will be happening in most homes for a while. But this post isn’t about online schooling.

All of my teacher friends who work in school buildings are working incredibly hard – shedding tears even – to figure out how to do their jobs a different way with little training and without the tools that online teachers have. Also consider that when online teachers are hired, they may not know what they are doing, but everybody else working there does. There are “veterans” to call for help. Not so for most of our brick-and-mortar teachers right now. So many of them are excellent at their jobs, and they just want to provide the BEST for their students. They love your kids! My heart hurts for them. 💔

Most people don’t understand that students enrolled in online schools are expected to work 5-6 hours per day – basically, a school day. For my students this week, it is business as usual. Most people also don’t understand that online students DO have live classes with their teachers. Yes, we have class “together” at the same time. They can see me if I turn on my camera. We can talk to each other with our mics. There is a real-time running chat where they can ask questions. This is different from most online college courses that many adults have experienced.

Monday and Tuesday before our lessons, we took some time to allow the students to share how they are feeling right now. Some of them are very anxious about what is happening outside their homes. The pictures of bare shelves scare them. The constant stream of new information confuses them. Just like the adults, they are rattled.

My students are lucky that their schooling still provides a bit of routine in a confusing time. But many have siblings home from school now, parents home from work, vulnerable people they are worried about, and financial concerns at home. We empathized with them when they said that focusing can be difficult in the midst of all the unexpected change.

My co-teacher and I listened to them and responded to their comments with reassurance. We helped them look for the good and reminded them that it’s not their job to worry – the adults are working together in amazing ways to support each other and create solutions.

After class yesterday, it occurred to me that maybe even more important than the education many students are missing this week is the comfort they are missing from their teachers. And I mean all of our students – from kindergarteners to seniors. My sons often come home from their schools and begin sentences with “Mrs. Scott said…” or “Mr. Chid said…” because they trust their teachers’ wisdom and reassurance so much. Teachers reinforce what we parents are saying at home, or in some cases provide the only calm, encouraging voice a child or teenager hears. They aren’t just teaching content. They provide safety and stability.

Teachers are so important. All of them. My teacher friends are trying to do the impossible this week – either teach online students who are completely (and expectedly) distracted or figure out how to teach an entirely different way with limited time and resources.

Everyone is doing their best under the circumstances.

Maybe don’t worry so much about your kids falling behind in math or English this week. Maybe take some time to look them in the eye and check on how they are feeling. When they express concern, maybe even ask them, “What do you think Mrs. Smith would say to you about this?” Not because you aren’t MOST important as the parent, but because your child looks to their teachers to back YOU up. Your child would have gotten comfort from you AND comfort at school if things were different. And I know that it is hurting your child’s teachers not to be able to share that message themselves… so maybe you can do it for them. ❤️

#bettertogether

Coronavirus Isn’t the Only Thing That’s Contagious

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There are many different words that one could use to sum up the situation over the past few days.

Unprecedented.
Crazy.
Disappointing.
Historic.
Frightening.
Surprising.
Volatile.
Unpredictable.
Confusing.

And, of course.. contagious.

None of those are particularly positive.

On a scale of “good” to “not good at all,” the past week was a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad” week for many people. The elderly and those with pre-existing conditions are concerned about getting sick. Healthcare workers are concerned about potentially exhausting the capabilities of our medical system. Teachers are concerned about providing adequate educational opportunities for kids who won’t be at school. Parents are concerned about losing hours at work, paying their bills, finding childcare, and stockpiling toilet paper. Pictures of empty shelves, coronavirus emails from every store and organization in America, and endless announcements of new cancellations are leaving us all a bit edgy.

At one point while discussing the news, my son looked at me and said, “2020 has been a TERRIBLE year.”

That’s a pretty rough assessment when we haven’t even closed the door on March yet.

As an educator, I DO think that it is important to be informed and to take this situation seriously. As I have told my boys when they have complained about cancellations, “Your sacrifice might be saving someone’s grandma,” and I’m not joking. But it’s easy to get caught up in the fear and the extremes and the self-imposed isolation. In fact, yesterday I found my thoughts spiraling into a dark pit of every “what if” that my imagination could unravel – mostly because I had read something that was not exactly accurate. Sorting through all of the information can be challenging. Sometimes you just have to stop yourself, take a deep breath, and recalibrate.

So that’s what I did yesterday afternoon. I stopped and re-evaluated and reflected on what I’m ACTUALLY experiencing – which is a lot of people doing really good, really generous, and really selfless things. In pausing to reflect on my personal experiences over the past few days, I was a bit surprised at how POSITIVE my interactions have been – even with low-hanging, ominous clouds threatening to rain down “the unknown.” (And honestly only a little of what is happening is actually “the unknown” at this point, if we cooperate with the experts.)

On Friday, I squeezed my car into a narrow spot in the packed Kroger parking lot. I was fully expecting empty shelves and grouchy shoppers, people grabbing up supplies like they fought for Cabbage Patch Dolls in the 80’s. To my surprise, it seemed like shoppers were in an extra friendly mood. It was like we were all on the same Kroger team – ALL of us against the coronavirus. We actually NOTICED each other, which is different. At the deli case, I had an uplifting chat with a friendly guy who brought his elderly mother to buy some necessities before hunkering down for a while. On another day, we might have stared at our phones instead of making a meaningful connection, but this time we talked and then waved to each other while waiting in the checkout lines. In the checkout line, I met a friendly woman from West Virginia who was visiting her son’s family. I watched her patiently and kindly allow the man in front of her to hold up the checkout because he had forgotten to grab something he needed to buy. Nobody complained about the lines or checked the time impatiently. Three different times as I shopped, I heard employees discussing how much extra they have been working this week – but they continued to stock shelves, smile, and chat with customers as we walked by. I heard one employee say, “I think it’s going to be like this for a while…”

Friday evening, a few girlfriends were stopping by my house to decompress after the crazy week. I mentioned in a group chat that I could use a roll of paper towels if anyone had an extra until I could find some to buy. I hadn’t realized I was out, but that shelf at Kroger had been empty anyway. The first friend walked into my house with two rolls of paper towels from her personal supply, even though you know she could sell those things on Ebay for $20 a roll right now. Perfect! That should suffice. Soon, the second friend knocked at my door with two more rolls of paper towels from her pantry. Please note that no one here was stockpiling; they were just being generous with the limited supply that they had. When I told her I no longer needed them, she insisted that I keep them to have a couple extra and avoid the store. I know they are “just” paper towels – but I felt the love, you guys. Loving people is really simple. The third friend didn’t know what had already happened, so she let herself in and then handed me a pack of more paper towels. She had been at Lowe’s when I texted, so she had bought them for me. And she refused to take a dime.

After I had gone to Kroger, I realized that buying groceries (and toilet paper and hand soap and sanitizer) feels comforting because it gives us a sense of control (even though that’s a bit of an illusion), which maybe explains why some people are buying SO much stuff right now. But it seems to me that this will all balance out – IF everyone will express what they need AND also share what they have with someone else.

Yesterday, there were some local (and misleading) posts about the coronavirus that created alarm. Despite maintaining a healthy balance of caution and calm throughout this situation, I felt my anxiety rising to high alert, and I didn’t like it. I thought, “Why am I feeling this way, and what would make me feel better?” And I knew the answer – talking to people who are smarter than I am. I reached out to a couple of trusted friends in the medical field after watching the governor’s press conference (which was helpful in itself). One of the friends I reached out to lives nearby, and I see her often. She calmly and honestly shared what she knows and how she feels (cautious and concerned but not alarmed) and what boundaries seem reasonable for our families. I also messaged with another good friend who works in an ER, a friend whom I don’t connect with nearly often enough, and she also calmly and honestly shared her training and her perceptions of the situation. She is concerned, as well, but she wisely told me, “There is no need to panic until the ER nurses panic, and I promise I’m not panicking.” I was so grateful for the kindness and expertise of these two women and so many other family and friends I know in the healthcare field. I know I’m not the only one asking them questions in their personal time, and I am so thankful for their willingness to educate us and to help people they don’t even know, even at the risk of harm to themselves. Seriously, what would we do without these people?!? We don’t think about them nearly often enough.

In addition to all of those experiences, I connected with one of my cousins yesterday, got a message from a dear former coworker I haven’t talked to for a while, texted with some friends who always make me feel safe and loved, shared resources with several teacher friends who have been asked to instantly learn a new way to teach, found comfort and ways to help through my faith, and spent extra time with my two favorite boys.

Listen, I don’t like what is happening right now.

I don’t like it at all.

And I know that it can be scary.

But somehow when things get bad, we get better. In fact, some of us act like completely different people. We remember to smile at people. We dig deeper to give to others. We notice our neighbors. We stop for a minute to help. We slow down to connect. We find space in our hearts to feel grateful. We reprioritize and remember what is actually IMPORTANT.

The worst brings out the best in us.

And that, I hope, is contagious, too.

When Your Year Ends With Hurt and Heartbreak

 

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So long, 2019. To be fair, you had some high points. We shared some really exciting moments, and it was fun getting to know you.

Well, mostly it was fun. But sometimes it wasn’t.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful, 2019. I mean, we did make some amazing memories, you and I, and I appreciate those times for sure. Remember the quiet mornings when we sat with a book on the porch swing at the cabin and watched the sun as it rose above the rugged mountain peaks? Wow, 2019. That was incredible. Or the week when our troubles were swept away with each crashing wave that pounded the Carolina shore? I loved that week, 2019. I really did. The boys have grown and matured, and my oldest started driving – which still doesn’t even seem possible. You were with me when I let go of some old things and embraced some new things, when I looked at myself in the mirror and saw a different woman staring back, when I started imagining a future that I hadn’t been able to envision before. You didn’t spare much time for me to write last year, but you helped me rediscover who I am, take some risks, achieve some professional success, and go back to school. You reminded me that the writing will come, that every minute with my high school student is precious, and that every conversation with my middle schooler is more important than anything else I could be doing in that moment.

My heart is overflowing with gratitude for those moments. I’m thankful for the lessons, the wisdom, and the relationships that we cultivated together, 2019.

To be honest, I thought we were friends.

I didn’t realize how needy you were until you orchestrated such an ugly grand exit. It turns out you were kind of a jerk.

In these last two weeks, 2019, you got me thinking about how I want to be remembered. I want my legacy to be so much different than yours. I hope that the last thing I do is to help someone, to encourage them or feed them or share some meaningful, hard-earned advice. You know, something beautiful that my friends will reflect on in my absence – You heard the last thing that she did, right? Of course, she was helping someone! That’s just who she was! I’m not saying that will happen or that I’m deserving; I’m just saying that’s the legacy I would hope for.

That’s why I don’t understand what you were thinking, 2019. You chose a completely different path – and for that you will be remembered.

That’s the thing about tragedy. It is memorable.

Typically at this time of year, I feel inspired to write some profound reflections on the past twelve months and to shower the Internet with my eternal spring of hope for the future. That spring is still flowing, 2019 – surely you have noticed that I ABSOLUTELY REFUSE to allow any day or week or year to drain it – but there are ominous clouds hanging all over my community this week. One hovers right above my sweet friend’s home, and there is no ignoring its shadow. In our joy and celebration, in the glow of the fireworks and sparklers welcoming the promise of 2020, there has been pain. The deep, dark kind of pain that seeps like oil into every hollow space within your heart.

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Listen, 2019, I’ve been around the block a time or two with some of your friends who’ve come and gone before, and I already know that Joy and Suffering coexist with us on this rotating planet. I also know that we often forget that both are with us, without fail, all of the time. When we celebrate, we don’t invite Suffering to the party; if she is excluded, then we can pretend for as long as possible that she doesn’t exist. And when we are suffering, we forget that Joy awaits nearby, clouded by the darkness. She is a loyal friend, patiently waiting until we can see through the thick fog and embrace her once again.

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As you waved goodbye last night, 2019, even though you left our Worthington community peppered with black clouds and sorrow, I know that Joy was with us as we rang in the new year. Some people felt her warm hug as one year gave way to another. But for those who didn’t feel her presence, I hope that they will trust that she is quiet and she is patient and she is kind. I know that when their hearts are ready, when there is a bit of room where some of the sadness has leaked out, she will slip inside and fill each void. You may have delivered my family and friends some heavy blows, 2019, but I trust that our wins will outnumber our losses in the end. The human spirit is strong. God is good. And dark clouds, unless we tether them to us, gradually give way to the light.

But it takes a while.

As I grow older, every year passes quickly, but for some reason, 2019, you especially seem like a blur. I would have sworn that just yesterday I was sitting around a friend’s kitchen table with a small group of wonderful people getting stomped in a trivia game called Smartass. (That really is the name of the game, not just the name we used for my friend’s husband, who we now know is significantly smarter than the rest of us.) But that wasn’t just yesterday. It was New Year’s Eve 2018. Joy had a seat at the table. And so did our friend Jamey Shiffer.

We laughed and played games and stayed up too late. We gushed about how grateful we are for this community, how thankful we feel that our teenagers found such an amazing group of friends, how our kids were the catalyst for us parents finding one another. It’s a joyful, indelible memory of ringing you in, 2019.

So, seriously, how could you? We were so kind to you. We toasted your arrival. We cheered with excitement when you finally showed up at the party – even though you were the guy who didn’t make an appearance until midnight. But this week, right before we could bid you farewell, you stole someone from us.  You took an incredible husband, an exemplary father, and a loving friend from his beautiful wife and his daughters, whom we love so much. You left an empty chair at our New Year’s Eve table. You sucker punched us on your way out the door.

Last night was more somber, but we clinked our glasses to 2020 around the same table, together. There were some laughs and some tears, there was some joy and some pain, there was some sadness and a whole lot of love. There may have been some loud cheering when we heard that you, 2019, are now gone. There was Jamey’s presence and his legacy – so different from yours – the kind of legacy that makes you hug your friends more tightly and love your neighbors more generously and treasure the time with your family more passionately. And there was hope – so much hope that it spilled out of the windows and seeped under the doors. It enveloped the house and hovered over the street and floated like mist all around the neighborhood and beyond.

2020 Pink

Because here is the greatest irony of all, 2019: The rain from your storm clouds is replenishing our spring. You thought that the downpour would drown us, but instead the heavy raindrops from your black clouds are soaking into our dry ground. They are trickling through all the cracks and crevices, and there is a silent transformation percolating beneath the surface. The pain will gradually – very, very slowly – be filtered from the rest until clear, fresh hope and the purest kind of love pour out.  And what was meant to break us will be given a purpose, a purpose and a hope that will nourish our souls.

Until then, we will keep our heads above water.   We will keep one another afloat.

So I welcome you, 2020! My heart is heavy, but I am happy to greet you and to accept your hope and your promise.  I am ready to prepare for the great things that you have in store for the people whom I love so very much.

And if you are sad today, this first day of 2020, remember that Joy is quietly waiting to slip into your heart.  She will be there when you are ready.  You will recognize her, like a friend whom you have dearly missed.

Here’s to happiness and healing in the coming year.

And to the Shiffer family, and to the other families in our community and in my hometown who also experienced tragic loss, we send you all of our love.

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