Category Archives: Personal

November Emmanuel

Friends, you wouldn’t believe the relief I feel tonight.

My Christmas tree is up, the stockings are hung, and Christmas music is playing in the background.

For years, I’ve looked down my nose at people who listened to Christmas music before Thanksgiving and who put their Christmas tree up before December. I grew up in a very liturgical denomination and Advent has always been sacred to me; therefore, I protected it by refusing to bring the Christmas boxes up out of the basement until December, turning the radio off if Christmas music came on before Advent, and painstakingly ignoring the flashy, gorgeous, tempting Christmas displays in store windows.

This year, I didn’t have the heart to put Christmas off one more day; my 2-year old became contagiously excited about All Things Christmas while at Target today, and I caved. When we got home, I dragged the Christmas tree up from underneath the stairs. I pulled out my collection of Nativity scenes and hung the wreath on the door. We played Christmas music and made a second trip to Target for more Christmas lights. We talked about Baby Jesus and ate Christmas M&Ms.

The relief washed over me. But why?

At first I thought it was because Thanksgiving comes late this year, and my husband’s birthday is the same weekend, which sets me up for Christmas failure because then I am late getting everything ready, and before I know it, Advent is almost over and I feel like I’ve missed it.

But as I thought about it and watched my babies’ joyful faces as they played with the Little People Nativity scene and the Mr. Potato Head Santa Claus, I realized what was truly going on in my heart—this has been a tough year. Filled with hurt and hard and ugly and messiness. The promise of Emmanuel—God with us—is too beautiful and too hope-filled for me to ignore simply because of too many blocks on my calendar. I need something to look forward to. I need something to celebrate. I need to be reminded of where my hope comes from.

So no longer will I roll my eyes at friends posting on Facebook about listening to Christmas music in November. And no longer will I scoff at Christmas lights going up as the Halloween decorations come down. Instead, I will join my 2-year old in his excitement over Baby Jesus and allow the hope Emmanuel offers to fill my spirit. Merry Christmas.

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Halloween communitying

The babies and I just got back from a ten-day trip in which I met up with my younger sister at my older sister’s house for a visit. That doesn’t happen often, and every single moment was precious to me. I felt like Jim and Pam taking mental pictures at their wedding—so many images remain in my heart of my family fellowshipping, and I couldn’t be more grateful for that time.

We got there Halloween afternoon after a long—long—day of airplane travel. After warm greetings and lots of hugs, we put the kids and babies in costumes to head out for trick-or-treating. Baby V was supposed to be Buzz Lightyear, but he wasn’t convinced. IMG_0586

Baby A was content as The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

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My sister lives on a small street with few children, so we drove to a neighboring neighborhood. My, was I overwhelmed.

We live downtown, but in a modest area. We don’t have driveways—we have alleys. And we typically get only about half a dozen trick-or-treaters, but we treat them very well with lots of candy. Each year I wait with eager anticipation to ooh and ahh over the children who ring our doorbell.IMG_0589But this was unexpected. In this neighborhood, decorations were almost Claire-Dunphy elaborate. We didn’t ring a single doorbell; the candy-hander-outers all sat in their driveways, most with firepits and caldrons full of candy. Many had music playing and many were dressed in costume to greet the children.

I teared up at the sense of community I felt half a country away from my own community. This American tradition was bringing together people of all shapes, colors, beliefs. All in the name of candy. But really, all in the name of community, of wanting to share something special with their neighbor, of wanting to know each other and be known. The sounds of chitchat and laughter astounded me and caused me to talk a bit louder and laugh a little more. By the time we got back to my sister’s house, I was energized by being a part of this neighborly effort to be kind and a blessing to one another. I lay awake that night thinking about it.

IMG_0590And almost 2 weeks later, I’m still thinking about it. How do I translate that experience to my own neighborhood? How do I engage my neighbors instead of retreat into my community? How do I teach my children the importance of being warm and welcoming to people who may be different instead of finding refuge in people who are just like them? How do we, as a family, participate instead of isolate?

How do you navigate these waters?

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Asking for help

Last night, Kara sent me this article written by her friend and editor, John Blase. [Backstory: I am a fan of this man. He is a poet and a dear friend of the late Brennan Manning, whom I credit with helping me understand the gospel. I met Mr. Blase at church a few months ago and became my alter ego, DorkyMouse. I couldn’t strand four words together to form a complete thought, and yet he was so kind and gracious. If you’re not already a fan, you will be.)

The article made me cry. I thought back to just over a year ago when I was pregnant and about to pop. We didn’t know that Kara’s cancer was back yet. We thought she was on her way to physical health and wellness. But still, she was weak from fighting. And she kept nagging me, wanting to come over and help me with something.

I’d say, “I’m just pregnant. I am fine. I can’t even think of anything for you to do!” She offered to have her girls come and vacuum and dust, she said she would do all my laundry and change my sheets, and she even volunteered to scrub my floors.

Good grief, I’d say. There are so many sick and hurting people in our community. I couldn’t possibly ask you to go to work for me.

But she was persistent and I finally asked her and Polly to come and clean out my fridge. And what a gift! It was disgusting, and climbing back in there to throw out all the grody stuff and scrub the shelves was too much with my huge belly. But more than that, I saw such joy in Polly and Kara’s faces. They sang as they worked, joked around, played with Baby V and gave him squeaky kisses. No wonder Kara wanted to help me. It’s a blessing to help others.

And now Mr. Blase has captured Kara’s heart so well in her willingness to allow people into her life, into her home, to help her. As I read, I had one thought—what if one reason we shrink from asking for help is that we’re afraid that person will say no? What if they reject us when we’re already down?

I think that is a very real possibility for many of us. We’ve all been hurt and we’ve all been rejected and we’ve all been mistaken about relationships. What if I ask for help with my children, marriage, home, depression, anger, confusion, and it turns out that friend is not a safe place? Not only did I misjudge our relationship and get rejected, but now they know my mess, my ugly.

That is so convicting to me. I want to be like Kara and Polly, willing to come into my home and clean the grossness with joyful hearts. I want to be a safe place for friends’ messes and ugliness. I never want them to fear approaching me and asking for help. I always want to experience the joy and blessing of helping one another.

Trust me, I am unlovable

Last week I posted this post on my struggle to pursue in the face of rejection, and I noted that I am unlovable. I heard from several of you through email and text, telling me how lovable I, in fact, am! Oh, how my heart sings! I am very grateful for women who love me well.

But make no mistake—I am definitely unlovable. If you love me, you overlook much to do so. You overlook my pride and sarcasm, my condescending tone and self-focus. You overlook my awkwardness and thoughtlessness. You choose, every day, to love me despite myself. You choose to focus on things you like about me, forgiving the ugly in me. And am I ever glad.

Please let me explain why it’s important for me to talk about this—if I do not recognize how unlovable I am, I will never be effective at loving others. If I think I am lovable and deserve the love of others, I will expect others to be lovable and work to earn my love.

Gross.

Love is a gift. It is not earned, like trust. It is something that only the giver has control over.

If you are married, you know that every day you wake up and decide whether you will love your spouse or not. And you are likely keenly aware that your spouse makes the same decision.

Nothing about me attracted God’s attention. He didn’t notice me one day and think, Wow, look at her—she’s so witty and clever and fun and amazing; I think I’ll love her! If he did, the ugly sides of me would change his mind very quickly. Instead he decided, for reasons known only to him!, that he would love me. He loves me well regardless of how I am behaving, regardless of how I am failing or succeeding, and regardless of what I’ve accomplished. He also loves me regardless of how well I love him.

So when I pursue someone, I understand that while I might be impressed with many things, I will encounter their ugliness and it will inevitably hurt me. And I have to be okay with that.

If you are in a personal relationship with me, I have offended you, let you down, and disappointed you. And yet you forgive me and move toward me despite myself. That takes vulnerability and humility and courage, and boy am I ever grateful for it in you!

All that to say, I am unlovable and I’m okay with that. You’re unlovable, too, but it won’t stop me from reaching my hand out for yours. Thanks, friends.

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Surprised by hope

A sunny day in June, my family and I were pulling into the campsite in our favorite place in the whole world—where Aaron and I spent our honeymoon and where we go back every summer for our anniversary to share this haven with our babies—when my phone rang. I almost just totally ignored it, but instead I looked at the number. Emily. My friend and midwife and sister to my very close friend.

I answered.

Meredith lost the babies, she said. I don’t remember what questions I asked. I don’t remember her answers or anything other information she offered. I do remember being a puddle of tears by the time Aaron came back to the car from checking us in.

Meredith was pregnant with twins—Livia Rose and Lucy Eleanor. They had found out earlier in the week that the girls had a serious condition and would need medical intervention, but sometime in between that discovery and Meredith’s arrival at the proper medical facility, Livia and Lucy had peacefully gone to Jesus.

A few days later, we arrived home and Meredith gave birth to her daughters.

I realize the flatness of that last statement. But how can I express what it was for Meredith to experience labor pains for children she would never mother? To bring babies into a world they would never see? To cuddle babies who would never breathe?

Meredith asked me to visit her and the babies at the hospital. I am not sure I had ever felt so honored in my life as to share the gift of seeing these sweet girls the rest of the world would miss out on.

I was shaking with anticipation and grief when I arrived. People, I was terrified. I was scared of seeing my Mer as a bereaved mother. I was scared of seeing her girls forever still. I was scared of seeing her valiant husband crestfallen. I grasped the flowers and teddybear loveys I had brought with both hands to steady my quivers. I took a deep breath and put on a brave face. I willed my tears to stay put.

Why am I ever surprised by this: What I saw, what I experienced, what met me was Grace.

That time in the hospital is private to me, a priceless and precious gift that I ponder and sometimes mention to Meredith, wondering in its beauty.

I was surprised by beauty.

Since then I have been surprised by hope.photo

I’ve experienced my share of grief. Heaven is a daily topic in The Bungalove. Dreaming about the New Earth together is a favorite pastime of Aaron’s and mine. But that was challenged when one of my closest friends lost her baby girls. My grief settled in my belly, a resolved sigh of trusting God’s Sovereignty.

I was blessed to hear some of Meredith’s thoughts as she started processing her loss. The effect of the grace and beauty of the hospital room experience and the love that overwhelmed me there started to fade as I grappled with the suffocating helplessness of watching Mer grieve. I couldn’t fix her heart. I didn’t have good words for her and I was clumsy—at best—loving her. I lost my ability to will my tears back, and they would flow at strange places and strange times. Meredith was articulate in her grief, asking poignant questions and realizing the far reach of her loss. We talked about what she would never share with the girls and cried at the quiet understandings of what it would mean to travel life as a mother of twins the world never knew existed.

Then something happened. I one day told Meredith that the most impactful thing for me as a bystander in the hospital room that day was seeing the love her husband had for her. I felt like an intruder as I watched how he loved her, how he climbed into her hospital bed to hold her steady through the shattering sobs, how tenderly he spoke to her, how he anticipated her needs. Here he was, a father who had just lost his children. He was hurting just as much as his wife, and yet he put her needs before his. He had never experienced this kind of loss, yet his love for Mer took over and dictated his actions—he loved with confidence and grace. Thinking about it even now overwhelms me.

I don’t know what Meredith would say, but this conversation was a turning point for me in how my heart approached this grief. I felt like we started talking more about Heaven and the New Earth—our dreams as well as our questions and doubts. And as we talked, I couldn’t help but notice the impact Livia and Lucy had had on me. Which seems improbable as they never even took a breath.

For one thing, my terminology has changed. When I say, The Girls or The Twins, I am specifically referring to Livia and Lucy. My relationship with Mer has changed—not only has she graciously and generously allowed me to walk with her, I relate to her differently because of the depths her soul has dived. She understands a piece of me she didn’t before, both because of loss but also because she is a mother now. I think of Livia and Lucy every single day. I daydream about what they are like and what it will mean to see them reunited with Meredith some day. I remember their perfect little bodies in the hospital, and I wonder what they look like perfected in Heaven. I grow excited about seeing Meredith not just as a mother, but as a mother to them. I don’t know what that will look like or mean in Heaven, but instead of just confusion, I have excitement, too. I have hope.

The grief that settled in my belly is still there. But hope has settled in as its companion. A hope that was born out of the despair of having nothing to trust but Jesus in the midst of an impossible situation. My piddly faith in turning to God in my tears and calling out, This hurts and my Mer hurts and I don’t know what to pray except help me trust! has planted more seeds of faith, which bloom hope.

Thanks to Livia and Lucy’s too-brief existence, I trust God differently now. My hope in God spreads farther and reaches deeper than before. My concept of love has been bolstered and expanded. My relationship with their mother has deepened. I hold my children a moment longer with each hug, understanding better the fragility of life. And my eyes have been widened to more of the brokenness around me; I don’t shy away as much as I used to, I think about the joy Livia and Lucy brought us in their short lives, and I yearn to know that joy in others, even if it means walking through some ugly with them.

Tomorrow is Meredith’s due date. A day for tears for what was taken from her and her husband but also a day for celebrating the gift of Livia and Lucy. You see, I believe that we will be reunited with them someday in Heaven but I also believe that their tiny lives have significance on this earth, in my life. God created them and numbered their days with joy and purpose. So I celebrate. With sadness and confusion, I celebrate. If you see me tomorrow and I am wearing these flowers, know they are for The Girls, my Mer’s girls, Livia Rose and Lucy Eleanor, who have changed me forever through blooms of hope.FullSizeRender(5)

The unlovable’s attempts at love

blythepic1We have a saying in our bungalow: You are so lovable!! Meaning, easy to love, meaning, loving you is effortless. It’s more a commentary on the lover than the lovee; when I say this to my husband or one of my babies, I am really saying, I know how to love you well.

Which is easy to say when your babies are one and two.

I was recently asked how I have personally built intimate friendships and strong community for our family. My answer: Pursue, pursue, pursue, and be ready for rejection 99% of the time.

The face of the woman who asked me the question fell. But I already have suffered so much rejection, she said.

I frowned. Me, too. I can’t even tell you how much rejection I have experienced and do experience on a regular basis. Man, loving people is hard, and I am not good at it. I brainstorm for every person I decide to pursue: how I can I love her? What would make sense to her? How can I show her that I have noticed her and I want to know her? How can I convince her that I want to be friends?

It makes me miss second grade when all it took was a shy smile across the classroom to pair up as buddies, when holding hands showed the world your delight in each other.

As a little girl watching my Mamma, I thought that at some point I would know exactly how to love others, what to say in difficult situations, how to make women feel safe. Instead, I am clumsy and say awkward things. I struggle to make eye contact and rely way too much on texting. I forget women’s names and don’t know how to relate to their children. When someone accepts my pursuit and decides to be my friend, it is truly a miracle.

I would say this is a confession, but I think it’s pretty obvious: I am not lovable. I am not easy to love. I am selfish and controlling and spend way too much time thinking about stupid things that don’t matter in the end. Yet for some reason, God has decided to love me and he does so passionately and perfectly. Thanks to the certainty I have in that love, I can continue to take risks and reach out to others knowing I’ll likely be rejected.

Rejection stings. But the safety of God’s arms around me overwhelms.

The Hardest Peace giveaway!!!

Today is the day of The Hardest Peace giveaway. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU to all who entered and who are supporting Kara. I know many of you have never met her but have fallen in love with her through her story. Today I picked up my personal order of The Hardest Peace at the bookstore. The kind-faced clerk asked, Did you go to her book release party? I smiled, Yes–she is a close friend. The lady’s smile disappeared. I’m sorry, she said.

I almost laughed. I know she was saying, I’m sorry your friend is sick; I’m sorry your friend is dying; I’m sorry you will have to live without her. But how could anyone be sorry to know my Kara?! I wanted to respond kindly, gently: Don’t be sorry–this life is fleeting and before we know it, we will all be together in the fulfillment of hope and joy.

And now I get to share that promise of hope and joy with a reader! I enlisted the assistance of one chocolate-faced helper.

First, we wrote down a name for every entry.

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We put the pieces of paper in a bowl. My chocolate-faced helper is taking a picture with his phone, too.

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Then my chocolate-faced helper picked a name and exclaimed: Ta-da! Me. Safe. Day. (I saved the day!)FullSizeRender(2)

Is that better?

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Ah, this is clear. Congratulations, Shannon! I will email you presently.  FullSizeRender(4)

 

Encountering Kara

DSC00895One of the fun things about having a beloved friend publish a book is that I get to introduce her to friends and family. Sure, she has her blog that approximately 3 trillion people follow, but reading her story linearly and in one big chunk is different. While a blog can jump around from topic to topic and have different purposes in each entry, a book is centered around certain themes. In The Hardest Peace, Kara uses her story of cancer to celebrate God’s love for her—how he pursued her, how she learned more about his character and love from Jason’s love for her, how she understood the depth of his passion for her through her own love for her children. And, of course, how God is using cancer to continue to woo her as she depends on him day by day—often moment by moment—just to function.

You see, this is not a typical book about living and dying with cancer. Kara is not trying to triumph over cancer, but to triumph over the selfishness that prevents her [all of us…] from living a full life and loving big. She is not lecturing her reader about how we should live; she is preaching to herself, reminding herself of God’s love and how rich life is because of it, despite external circumstances. And strangely (but effectively), she is really not trying to tell her story, but to frame her story in a bigger one—the story of God’s love for us and the life we can find in him.

If you don’t know Kara, you would love meeting her. She is just about as girl-next-door as you can get. Knock on her door and you might find her standing on the other side in a ratty t-shirt, coffee in hand. Her living room might be strewn with Legos and children’s books. Maybe the breakfast dishes are still in the kitchen sink. But that is why we can trust her—she lives honestly and unpretentiously. If you say, How are you feeling today? you might get an answer that makes you sad. Kara lives out of an honest place and speaks out of that place, too. Reading her book you will encounter an honesty so refreshing and so gentle that your heart will be comforted knowing there are people like her in our world.

Here is the deal: Kara knows that she is not likely to encounter a miracle cure for her cancer. But she also knows that she encounters the miracle of God’s love every day. She lives in the confidence and hope of being restored and redeemed in Christ some day. And reading her book, you will want to live that way, too, whatever your circumstances.

I am doing a giveaway of her book tomorrow. If you haven’t entered, please go to this blog post to do so. And if you don’t win, I encourage you to buy the book anyway. In fact, buy two, because I guarantee you’ll want to share.IMG_0101

 

Today is the day!

first Anberlin picToday is the day! I woke up giddy, first thinking about my baby girl’s first birthday, and then thinking about the release of The Hardest Peace. Kara birthed this book with many labor pains and much joy, and I am so thrilled for the world to hear her story of Grace and Hope in the midst of brokenness.

Reading her book is surreal for me. I read her manuscript as she was writing, but that was in real time. When she tells the story of Harper’s question of if her mama will die of old age or cancer, my mind drifts to when Kara texted me in tears that night. I cried with her, I cried for Harper, I searched for Grace in that moment and begged God to lavish it on Kara and her family. When I read of Kara’s redemptive conversation with Ella over a big, fat, juicy hamburger, I remember seeing them afterward when Ella came over for her voice lesson, traces of sauce on her beautiful face.

How strange to see these moments captured on paper, in a book.

I wonder what it’s like for Jason and Kara to read part of their story in print. I dream about their children reading it some day, reading the letter Kara wrote to them at the back of the book.

I dream a lot these days. I can’t help it, having a [now] 1-year old and a 2-year old. But I dream of other things besides my babies: I dream of Heaven. I dream of seeing my parents, our nephew who was stillborn, my cousin who died when he was only 5. I dream of seeing my aunt and cousin together, Kara and my mother talking [and talking and talking]. I dream of seeing Jesus and asking him all my questions. I dream of my story being redeemed and finally understanding the purpose of pain and brokenness in my life.baby kissesReading Kara’s book brings Heaven to mind. While God has not redeemed her body from cancer and from her hard story, he is redeeming her heart already. She tells her story with an eternal perspective, meaning, she understands that her story has eternal significance, that God has purpose in it, that God will (and is) bring beauty and restoration from it. That her story, as suffocating or overwhelming as it may seem at times, is not the point—Jesus is the point. It’s Jesus’ story being told, and we have the awesome privilege of being a part of that greater, Great story.

Reading Kara’s book will make you fall in love with her and Jason. It will make you hate cancer, if you didn’t already. It will make you curious about our church plant. It will make you think about your own story and the hard in your life. It will make you look for redemption and hope in the mundane. It will make you wonder if God will redeem your brokenness. But most of all, it will introduce you to the Grace of God, his lavish and undeserved love.

I will be doing the big giveaway on Friday. If you haven’t entered yet, please visit my last blog post and enter now! And if you are not the big winner, I hope and pray you will still read this book and be introduced to Kara, to Jesus, to Grace.  IMG_0101

The Hardest Peace

I have an icon on my computer that is labeled “Kara”. Stored in that folder are multiple Word documents of Kara’s manuscript for her book that comes out October 1, The Hardest Peace. As she wrote, she shared with me, sometimes asking for input and sometimes just because I begged to see it and be a part of the process, which was so fun and exciting.

The timing of the book release is personal for me—it is also my baby girl’s first birthday. With this impending day, I’ve thought a lot about a year ago, how unbearable that ninth month of pregnancy became, how desperate I was to give birth, and how worried I was about Kara. You see, the doctors suspected cancer in other parts of her body. She was scheduled for surgery just past my due date to see what exactly was going on. Aaron and I had asked her and Jason to take care of our 18-month-old son when I was in the hospital. Kara was desperate to have that time with her little buddy, and in all honesty, I wanted that for both of them, too. My little boy adores, as in loves, Kara and her entire family.    VonAndKara

But it didn’t happen. Ann wasn’t ready in time; actually, the same day Kara was admitted into the hospital for her surgery, I was admitted to be induced. My high-risk pregnancy necessitated intervention just as Kara’s cancer did.

As I was being checked in, the nurse asked me for a contact in case something went wrong and I wanted clergy notified. I imagined Jason being called at the other hospital, away from Kara’s side, to minister to me in an emergency. I couldn’t fathom asking that of him, and the tears started rolling. Aaron calmly gave the nurse another pastor-friend’s info.

While I was in labor, I experienced a strange paradox. We hadn’t heard from Kara or Jason reassuring us of good news from her surgery. In my heart, I already knew the awful truth. With each labor pain, I knew I was closer to holding my baby girl, but my mind was conflicted knowing I was also closer to my Kara-fears being confirmed. I sobbed with the labor pains—sobbed. My nurses thought I was crying from the pain; I was, but it was a heart pain of understanding what Kara was facing and what we would all be asked to face.

The inevitable happened: my beautiful Princess Squish was born and Kara’s spreading cancer was confirmed.

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In the months since then, I’ve watched with joy as my baby has grown and developed. And I’ve watched with joy Kara labor with love writing her book, her hard story. There were times I wondered if Kara would live to see her book published. Each day with her is a blessing and a reminder of the biggest blessing to come—eternity with Jesus and Kara and my parents and all the saints.IMG_0132

Some days, Kara would text me about her writing process and then email me chapters; I would stay up reading until Ann’s cries to be nursed reminded me of how late it was. These chapters had me laughing, crying, thinking, meditating, reflecting. If Kara had asked for input, I would always have to go back and read a second time because I so easily got lost in her story, unable to even remember her original question to me. I couldn’t put her book down, and I gladly reread those sections!

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Last Friday, on the very day of Kara’s book release party, a package came in the mail from David C. Cook. Kara generously and graciously chose me to receive a giveaway copy to give one of my own readers. I’ve devoured my copy of the book, delighting in its polished prettiness. I don’t have to tell you that Kara’s book will have a profound impact on you or that you won’t be the same person after reading it.

Here is the fun part, the part that I’ve been antsy to blog: the giveaway! Let’s get the word out about her book so that others can be blessed by it, too. Please share one of the links below on Facebook, Twitter, your own blog, wherever. Then come back here and comment that you shared. I will then randomly select one of the commenters to win a free copy of The Hardest Peace. If you share more than one place, leave more than one comment.

Mundane Faithfulness blog

The Hardest Peace on Amazon

The Hardest Peace on B&N

Thank you for being a part of this journey and for helping me get the word out not just about this fantastic book, but about this beloved, remarkable woman.IMG_0138