Wednesday, November 22, 2017

It isn't enough to be grateful: 10 ideas for action

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows I am a fan of gratitude. Keeping gratitude front and center in my life has helped me through some of the most difficult things I have ever experienced. It helps keep me grounded and, I hope, encourages me to maintain perspective on being one among many in the world.

In this season, when we are bombarded with reminders to be grateful, to be thankful (at the same time that we are bombarded with advertising for more stuff) I find myself thinking that gratitude isn't enough. It is important. It is an excellent first step, but it is just that, a first step. If all we do is list what we are grateful for then not think of it again, it has done nothing to change our lives, the lives of those around us, or the world. If we don't let people know we appreciate them how will they know? If we don't act to perpetuate the things we love, how will they be maintained?

Here are some ideas for turning gratitude into action. I hope you find this useful. I'd love to know how you act upon your feelings of gratitude and how you change the world.

  1. Start with a list. Write down what and whom you're grateful for and a little bit about why. 
  2. Make it a habit. Write down a few things you are grateful for every day.
  3. Tell someone you are grateful for them and why. It might be uncomfortable or embarrassing but it's worth it; would writing a letter make it easier? We all like to know that we are appreciated and remember, that person may not be around forever. Let them know while you can.
  4. Share something you love with someone you love. Gratitude can be viral and it's fun sharing something you are grateful for and enjoy with someone you love and are grateful for. If more people share your sense of gratitude for something then they are more likely to help it remain in existence.
  5. Make a donation or volunteer to support something you are grateful for. For example, I am grateful for the internet. I am acting to try to protect Net Neutrality so everyone can have access to a free and open internet. I've also made donations to organizations that provide reduced cost internet to needy communities.
  6. Protect the things you're grateful for. Be active in your community to keep the things you love safe. Love the outdoors? Work to keep public spaces public. Grateful for your education? Make a donation so someone else can go to school. Speak up when someone suggests that no one cares about something you are grateful for.
  7. Ask others what they are grateful for. Listen to their answers. Maybe you'll learn something new about that person or yourself. 
  8. Don't be too hard on yourself if you need a gratitude break. This season can be tough for a lot of reasons. It's easy to feel as if we're not good enough because the dinner wasn't perfect, we didn't get the right gift or we aren't grateful enough. Give yourself a break, we're all doing the best we can.
  9. Encourage others to express gratitude. It can be embarrassing to name the things you're grateful for. You can help others realize that it's a generous and good-feeling thing to do.
  10. Be grateful for yourself. You may not realize it, but you make the world better every day, by being aware and grateful of what's around you, by being generous when you can, by offering others the chance to share what matters to them. You are worthwhile and I am grateful for you. Thank you for being here.

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Thursday, October 26, 2017

50 for 50, day 50: So now what?

This is the final post of 50, celebrating my 50th birthday. You can read more here.

I set up these 50 for 50 blog posts as a kind of personal challenge. I wanted to see if I could do it, I missed blogging, and I hoped I might say something useful along the way.

So now what? 

Life is now what. Life continues. Tomorrow I turn 50 and I doubt if I will actually be much different than I am today. It's unlikely my hair will all have turned white or my breasts will suddenly sag down to my knees. I won't be appreciably wiser or richer or more enlightened. I will feel much the same as I do today. I will continue from moment to moment, trying to learn a little bit more as I travel forward.

That's the way life is. If we are very lucky we learn that no matter what is thrown at us the only thing we can really control is how we respond. We can become bitter or more compassionate, we can do our best to respond with kindness (though tempered with steel sometimes) or we can be dismissive, we can curl up and hide or we can try to create change. I hope I tend towards compassion and kindness and strength and hope. I don't always. All I can do is try again.

I've been thinking a lot lately about how we are each the center of the universe. No matter how hard I try I will always see the world through my eyes so, for example, right now when my back is still giving me some trouble, it's hard for me to remember that not everyone has back trouble, that not everyone needs to be careful as they move. As I move forward into 50 and beyond I hope I remember this; we each are the center of the universe. Our own children will be the most important children. Our own pains will be the most important pains. Our own beliefs will be the most real. I hope remembering this makes me more able to see the world broadly, more able to connect and more able to create meaningful change. 

So what do I want to leave you with, you kind people who are taking some of your time to read this post? A few things.
  1. I am so lucky. Or blessed. Whatever you want to call it. You are, too. We are lucky to have the chance to try again and try differently, to fail again and fail better. We are blessed to have relationships and love and hope in our lives. 
  2. If I had a chance I would do it all again. Even with the pain and the sorrow, I would still have my parents, I would still love Kevin, I would still try and fail and try again.
  3. Love is worth the risk.
  4. Eat cake and ice cream (or whatever your equivalent may be) even when it isn't your birthday. Use the good china more often. Our time here is so brief. Please live your life.
  5. Don't be afraid to look foolish or be too afraid of what others think. Your own heart, your own standards are what will guide your life. If Brother Blue could live his life out loud and so powerfully, we can do the same. If I let fear stop me I never would have become a storyteller, a writer, or much of anything.
  6. I love you. All of you. Love is the easiest thing and I will not be a love miser.
Happy birthday to all of you. I'll see you soon.

Laura

p.s. I'm inviting anyone who wants to, to make a birthday donation to something they know I would love. You can find more here

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Wednesday, October 25, 2017

50 for 50, day 49: With gratitude for my life and for you

This is post 49 of 50, celebrating my 50th birthday. You can find the rest here.

Yesterday I posted one of my favorite poems, a reminder to love ourselves and treasure our lives. I am so grateful for my life and for all of you who help make it what it is.

I am grateful for my body, mind and spirit.
I am grateful for my resilience.
I am grateful for my weaknesses as well as my strengths.
I am grateful.

I am grateful for all of the friends who have sustained me in spite of my failings as a friend. If you are reading this then you are one of them.
I am grateful for those of you I've never met in person, but who have shown me kindness nonetheless.
I am grateful for the passing kindnesses from strangers.
I am grateful.

I am grateful for books, for words, for poetry and story and song.
I am grateful for my own voice.
I am grateful for the ocean, for trees, for the chipmunks in my back yard.
I am grateful.

I am grateful for the pain.
I am grateful for the love.
I am grateful for the laughter, the tears, the wrenching silences and the howls.
I am grateful.

I am grateful for the strength to fight and the moments of rest.
I am grateful for my passion.
I am grateful that sometimes I make a difference.
I am grateful.

I am grateful for the chance to witness.
I am grateful for the chance to mend.
I am grateful for my place in this world, for this moment, for this life.

I am grateful.
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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

50 for 50, day 48: Love after love

This is post 48 of 50 celebrating my 50th birthday. You can read the rest here.

Every so often I will copy out this poem by hand and give it to someone I love as a birthday gift. I know of no better celebration of coming into yourself, finally, than this. I would like to think that here, at the cusp of 50, I am learning what it means to be home in myself.

Love After Love
- Derek Walcott

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

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Monday, October 23, 2017

50 for 50 day 47: Wishes

This is post 47 of 50 celebrating my 50th birthday.

I used to be a big fan of wishing. I've read the stories and know the risks; wishes are fickle things and not to be trusted, but I wished anyway. I wished on birthday candles, on the first star of the evening, on eyelashes and ladybugs and shooting stars and and and... This time of the year, four years ago, I was frantically wishing on anything I could think of, wishing that we would find out why Kevin was getting sicker and please make him well.

I don't tend to make wishes anymore. Not that way, anyway. And honestly, I feel so much more aware of the dark side of wishing that I just don't know if I could phrase that which I most yearn for in such way that it could not be corrupted. After all, I kept wishing for Kevin to be okay and, by some theologies, he now is.

All that being said, birthday wishes are special. There is something so intimate and knowing about making a wish on the day that celebrates your arrival into the world. I had a late lunch today and the waitress gave me ice cream with a candle in it at the end of the meal. "Make a wish!" She said with a big smile. By instinct, I did. I made a small wish and blew out the candle, then froze, feeling that traumatized fear that my wish would go awry.

I don't really think it will, of course, but still... it was an uncomfortable and surprising moment, both in the wishing and in the reaction.

My birthday is at the end of this week. If I were to make a wish, at this time in my life with my history of wishes as a folklorist, a storyteller, a widow, it might be something like this:

May I inspire kindness in all those I meet. May we all treat each other as we wish to be treated when we are at our best. May we receive blessings from all we meet and may we bestow equal blessings.

Maybe this isn't a wish so much as a creed I can consider carrying as I move forward through the rest of my life. Maybe that's what the best wishes are, after all, a roadmap that gives us a guide and agency to the best, kindest life.
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Sunday, October 22, 2017

50 for 50, days 45&46: With gratitude for Kevin and Charley

This is post 45&46 of 50 celebrating my 50th birthday. You can read the rest here.

I am so lucky. I have been blessed with amazing partners in my life. Each has given me different gifts (even if I didn't see them as gifts at the time) and each has helped me learn about myself, my capacity for love, and what being in a relationship means to me.

My partners before Kevin helped me understand how I wanted to be treated in a relationship, what parts of myself I was willing to give up and what parts must remain. They loved me to the best of their abilities, just as I loved them. I am grateful for their part in my history.

I have written so much about Kevin, about how he loved me, how he welcomed me into his life and his family, about how well we worked together and the love between us. He was a gift to the universe and especially in my life. Our relationship certainly wasn't perfect, none are, but I still marvel at the fact that we were at all.

The love between us was so powerful that when he was diagnosed it was never a question of him being ill in isolation. We had cancer, even though we both knew I would physically survive this illness and he would not. He told me once that he had the easier job of it. I don't agree particularly, but I understand what he meant. He didn't have to learn how to live without me. I had to learn to live without him.

Kevin helped me learn and grow and love. He helped me learn to be strong and embrace my strength. He gave me permission to never dumb down. He helped me see myself as powerful and able. He saw me as someone who could conquer her fears, whether of writing or standing up for myself or any of the other gremlins that haunt us. He helped me learn to love myself in ways I never would have thought possible. After all, if someone I admired so very much found me lovable, how could I tell him he was wrong and I was not worthy of love? I am so grateful for his presence in my life as my friend, as my lover, as my partner in the world, as my beloved, as the love of my life. I am so lucky.

After Kevin's death (and I have to say, that phrase still shocks me) I was stunned to find that I, too, didn't die. In some ways I did. Parts of me died with Kevin and will never return. I miss who I used to be sometimes, but what I have found, much to my astonishment, is that those vacancies inside of me are making room for new growth. Some of that growth is welcome, there are ways that I think I am a better person than I was, while some is dark and uncertain. But it is there, I am still growing.

What's more, I don't know if I could have survived his death had I not been loved so well before he died. He loved me so deeply and so thoroughly that I thought I would never love again. In fact, the power of his love gave me the courage to open up my heart.

I haven't written much about Charley directly. Where Kevin was extroverted and comfortable in the public eye, Charley is introverted and private, so I have worked to protect his privacy. This post is written with his permission and approval, so you know.

I didn't expect to find myself in another relationship, and certainly not within 18 months of Kevin's death. Charley and I met with different expectations of what could be between us, but his gentle nature, his intelligence, his own gifts to the universe, and his acceptance of Kevin as a constant factor in my life and my heart, helped me see him as someone whom I could love and accept love from.

Once I made that leap it became possible to imagine him as my partner, my friend, my lover, my beloved, the love of my life now. It isn't easy. There are days when I miss Kevin and am inconsolable. When that happens Charley embraces me as I cry or, if I ask, leaves me alone. I can't imagine how hard it is to leave the person you love alone when they are so sad, but he does it. And there are days when I feel guilty that I am so happy with Charley, that I am not still in widow's weeds, or guilty that I make Charley live with Kevin's ghost. Through all of it he tells me that he loves me, that he knows Kevin is part of the deal, and that it's okay. Some days I am able to believe him.

Most of the time Charley and I simply have a life together, doing all the things partners do. We laugh and bicker, talk and are quiet. Externally he and Kevin are very different, but in the essentials they are similar, both good men. Both smart, funny, kind. Both love me and care for me as best as they can. Charley takes extraordinarily good care of me and I am humbled. I don't know of I could have accepted his care had I not had to offer care for Kevin, care he accepted with grace and love. I know I am better at accepting care and love now than I was. They both have taught me about that.

I think the idea of soulmates has some merit, but the way we interpret it is wrong. Kevin was my soulmate. I have a different soul now, my old one died with Kevin, so Charley is also my soulmate. I am so profoundly lucky to have these two extraordinary men in my life.

I am so grateful. I am so lucky.

This is what 50 looks like. Loving for all she is worth and knowing that love sometimes looks like grief and sometimes looks like joy.
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Friday, October 20, 2017

50 for 50 day 44: Wonder

This is post 44 of 50 celebrating my 50th birthday. You can read the rest here.

Webster's Dictionary defines wonder as:

noun:

  1. a cause of astonishment or admiration 
  2. a miracle
  3. the quality of exciting amazed admiration
  4. rapt attention or astonishment at something awesomely mysterious or new to one's experience
  5. a feeling of doubt or uncertainty

verb

  1. to be in a state of wonder
  2. to feel surprise

Wonder is one of my favorite feelings. That sense of amazement and mystery when you experience something wondrous is something I search out on a regular basis. I love knowing that the world, the universe, even my own backyard, that each of these are full of wonders. I strive to increase my capacity for wonder. I don't want to become jaded, someone who no longer notices the small and the large.

Wonder is part of how I define myself. I am a teller of wonder tales, new and old. I speculate, I wonder, about all kinds of things. I keep my imagination supple with a steady diet of wonders commonplace and unknowable. I try to admire the wonders around me, whether it's a friend telling me of their life, the chipmunk's paw on my hand, or the staggering beauty of autumn change. I even try to welcome uncertainty, because it is in those moments of questioning that I am more likely to grow and learn.

Wonder is a basic part of who I am. I'm not suggesting that I am any more imaginative or prone to speculation than anyone else, but I do exercise that part of myself on a regular basis. I know it is one of the things that is essential to my wellbeing. It is certainly not my only basic state, but it is one of my very favorites.

I wonder, what are your basic states? Wonder? Joy? Anger? Hope? I'd love to know.

This is what 50 looks like. Trying to wonder at the world like a five year old.
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Thursday, October 19, 2017

50 for 50 day 43: Gratitude for my work

This is post 43 of 50, celebrating my 50th birthday. You can read the rest here.

If you've ever heard me perform then there is a reasonable chance that you already know that, when I was little, I wanted to grow up to be a paleontologist, a fireman, and the President. It turns out that none of those were my career path. I have wandered through many jobs (as have so many people) including retail, human resources, epidemiology, sewing, short-order cook, on and on and on. Now I have work I love. I am one of the lucky ones.

Many people never determine their calling. If they do it may seem too preposterous, too far reaching to pursue it. If they do pursue it, many find that it ceases to be their calling and instead becomes just another job. What's more, work takes so much of our time and energy (at least in the U.S.) that having a poorly matched job has a significant impact on the rest of your life. I think many of our societal woes come from false expectations about work (linked to the American dream) and the pain of being caught in the wrong job for the right reasons.

I am lucky. I found my calling at a fairly young age and have since been able to pursue it without it changing into just a job. I told Brother Blue a story when I was 19. He shook his finger in my face and said, "You have the power," and in that moment I knew that I did. A few years later I met him again, told a story at his weekly gathering, and by the time I was done I knew I would be telling stories for the rest of my life. I didn't know how, I didn't know if I could make a living from it, all I knew was that storytelling was my mantle. My Excalibur. To have denied it would have been denying the core of who I am.

I'm lucky that I found this calling when I was still young enough to believe I could pursue it. I hadn't yet been worn down by years of struggle in challenging jobs, by questioning my own abilities and passions. I was still young enough to believe it was possible.

Now, 25 years later, I am still telling stories. Maybe more importantly, I am teaching others how to tell their own story, creating performance opportunities, applying storytelling skills in other realms. My work infused my life; the two are inseparable. This isn't always easy. I am working harder than I ever have before and when I make mistakes I feel them far more sharply. It's hard to not fall prey to imposter syndrome, self-doubt, and jealousy. Still, I am lucky.

I know not everyone has the opportunities I have had. Not everyone has had the financial security to take the risk. Not everyone has been blessed with kind of support I've been surrounded by. I know I am privileged to be able to do this. Certainly I've had to make choices. I make less money than I did in the corporate world, so I've had to learn to economize more. I never stop working, I need to remain alert for every opportunity. I don't have paid vacation, sick time, or automatic health care and retirement savings.

I wouldn't change a thing. I am so lucky. I do work that I love, work that I hope has a positive impact on the people I meet and the world, work that matters. I am humbled and I am grateful.

I sometimes imagine what I would do, were I offered three wishes. After the obligatory "more wishes please," I usually imagine something good for me, something good for those I love, and something good for the world. Maybe the good for the world wish would be that we all could find and pursue our callings. That it was not a piece of privilege but something available to everyone. That we lived in such a way that this was sustainable for ourselves and each other. I don't know if this would make the world a better place, but I bet it would help.

This is what 50 looks like. Grateful for my work and my place in the world.
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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

50 for 50 day 42: With gratitude for my parents

This is post 42 of 50 in celebration of my 50th birthday. You can read the rest here.

I don't know anyone who would describe their relationship with their parents as "simple." I don't think it can be simple. We are animals with brains so large that we have turned the basic act of passing on our genetic material into the stuff of dreams and nightmares. My relationship with my parents is no less complex than most, but now, as I near 50, I can finally be grateful for them.

I think every set of parents imagines that their relationships with their kids will be better than the ones they had with their parents. I don't know if that is the case. I do know that they will be different. And I have finally come to believe that most parents do the best they can. I know mine did.

My parents are Harvey and Florence Packer (neƩ Green). They both grew up in American cities, the children of immigrants. They met at a party in Washington D.C. in 1966. Family lore has it that when my mother told my father that, as a librarian, her job was to read, he turned to a friend and said with wonder, "She reads!" He wasn't being sarcastic. Reading was part of the foundation of my parents' relationship, and of our family. They married a scant three months later and I came along ten months after that.

I think we have a cultural tendency to either idealize or demonize childhood. It was either wonderful and mythic or lurid and dark. Certainly the stories are better when we think of it that way. Mine had moments were mythic and others that were dark. Mostly it was a childhood filled with childhood things. School, friends, adventures, homework, family dinners, books, and more.

My parents certainly planted the seeds that have led me to my life's work. My mom was a children's librarian and I remember her telling me the folktales she would later tell the kids in her library groups. My dad would tell me stories from the radio dramas of his youth and would craft adventure stories just for me. I understood from birth that stories mattered and that telling them and that the connections forged in imagination were vital.

As I grew things became more complicated, they always do, but there are still shimmering memories. Going camping in the VW van. Watching the fire and the sparks that drifted up to become stars. The foods my mother cooked that I still associate with comfort. The silly faces my father made to make me laugh. They did the best they could to raise me to know my own intelligence and to know I was loved.

Older still and things became even more complex, but again, there is bright, there is dark, and there is the rest of the time. Hearing my father boast about my SAT scores. My mother dancing around the kitchen when she was proud of me. The way they looked at each other.

I grew older and moved out into my own life. My parents and I drifted away from each other and back, a kind of tidal movement maybe, where the ocean cannot deny the shore. Even at its most stormy, we each did the best we could.

It was never easy. It was never less than complex. But my parents, their relationship with each other, and with me, has of course shaped me into who I am.

I chat with strangers, the way my father did. I love junky monster movies, the way my mother does. I read, as they both did.

The last few years have held a sweetness I never would have expected. No parent ever expects to have to comfort their child for the loss of a spouse. Just as a parent never expects to outlive their child, so too they don't expect to outlive their child's mate. My parents did. They had to try to find ways to help me through my great storms of grief, even as they were experiencing their own, even as they were seeing the ends of their own lives creeping closer.

They did the best they could, and that was enough. The rifts in our journeys through darkness and light were smoothed over and, while maybe still an uneven path, there was finally a track we all could follow together.

My father died in the summer of 2016. I was there, holding his hand as he drew in his last breath. Prior to his death we sat together, watched a lot of baseball, said we loved each other and that we were sorry for the harm we had each inflicted. I am so lucky. I don't think everyone has that chance.

My mother now lives 30 minutes away from me. We talk almost daily and we end each conversation by telling each other I love you.  I don't know how much more time I will have with her, but I am grateful for it.

My parents gave me gifts of intelligence and words and music and books. They taught me (intentionally or not) how to be strong and resilient and ultimately forgiving. Now, as I turn 50, I know how lucky I am. It was never easy, but not many of the things that most shape us are.

Thank you Mom and Dad. I love you.

This is what 50 looks like. Still my parents' child, no matter how old I am.
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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

50 for 50 day 41: With gratitude for social media and knowing I am not alone

This is the 41st of 50 posts celebrating my 50th birthday. You can read the rest here.

I have such mixed feelings about social media. I expect you do, too. There are ways that it's limited discourse, increased volatility, and certainly had a painful effect on our culture, and it's easy to focus on the negative impact. To do so would be limiting because, while social media has had some disastrous societal impact, social media saved my life in my darkest days and I bet I'm not the only one.

As you well know, I was shattered by Kevin's death. Many wonderful, loving people did their best to help me, but (as with any trauma) one who has not been through it can't truly get what it's like. Through social media I found others who had lost their beloved. Others who had lost their beloved at a young age. Others who had lost their beloved from pancreatic cancer. I found people who had stories close enough to mine that I knew they understood what I was experiencing and all I had to say was "today was a hard day." Most of these were on Facebook. I will not name them here because they are understandably private. If you need to know about them please contact me.

Through these widowed peoples' Facebook groups I found an online community that let me to an organization that hosts Camp Widow. At barely six months past Kevin's death I went to one of their events. The first night there I wandered into the hotel bar for the mixer. I saw everyone chatting, talking, laughing, and the enormity of his death, of my loss, came crashing down on me. I couldn't stop myself from crying.

Have you ever sobbed in public? I have, repeatedly. Most of the time people look at you then look away. They don't know what to do and are embarrassed, afraid. I started crying and immediately two women came over to me and, without hesitating, held me. One of them cooed to me, "We know, we know. You just cry." They did know. For the first time since Kevin died I had the overwhelming sense that maybe I wasn't alone in the world. That maybe I could find a way through because they did know.

I remained active in online grief support forums through Facebook, Soaring Spirits, Widowed Village and others. I could always find someone there, no matter the hour, and I know that this  companionship, this community born out of loss, is the only reason I didn't entirely disappear in my grief. No one there ever told me to get over it or stop, they just kept me company as I howled out my pain. If you think some of what I've written here is raw, it's nothing compared to some of the talk in these safe places.

As time has passed I've come to need this support less and less, but not entirely. I still check in, both for support and to offer support to those in a different part of the journey than I am. I check in to remember that I am not alone.

I don't know what I would have done without social media support, without those women embracing me, without this blog. None of that would have happened without social media. I am speaking only from my experience here. I know there are people for whom social media has been isolating, damaging, or even fatal. I am so sorry if that has been your experience.

I was moved to write this post because of the #metoo posts overtaking Facebook and Twitter. Again and again I am seeing expressions of relief at finally being able to name it. By naming we start to reclaim our own power. By knowing we aren't alone we can sometimes feel a little relief. If we find allies then maybe we can begin to change things.

Social media is by no means a panacea. The world is louder and more rancorous because of it. But it is a tool, and like any other, can be used for good or for ill. We get to choose to be passive and accept anything that comes through it or be active and seek out the resources that will be of most benefit to us. I am so grateful that you all were there when I needed (and will need) you. I never would have found you without social media and without you I don't know that I would have survived.

This is what 50 looks like. A little too obsessed with Facebook and Twitter, and so grateful to know I am not alone. #metoo
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