The Nativity Scene

A simple nativity scene is the only Christmas decoration I put out this year. It’s a drastic departure from the years I obsessively decorated every corner of our home. My dad once joked, “Don’t stand still, or she’ll tie a red bow on your butt.”

In the past, our nativity scene fought for space among all the snowmen, Santas, elves and reindeer I pulled from several plastic tubs of decorations. As I thoughtfully arranged the nativity scene on our fireplace mantle this week, my mind wandered back to a memory I had all but forgotten.

It was the day after Thanksgiving, and the Jaycees were putting up Christmas decorations in town as they did every year on this day. I looked out the passenger window of my dad’s car with a flutter of holiday anticipation as we drove down Main Street.

On every light post was a familiar friend I hadn’t seen for a whole year. Against the silver afternoon sky, their colorful lights twinkled, but for a few bulbs that hadn’t worked in years. I greeted each one as we drove past ~ Santa, candy cane, angel, tree, Santa, candy cane, angel, tree. The angel was my favorite. 

I was ten now, old enough to be part of the live outdoor nativity scene held each year at the Central Church of Christ. It was a staple of Christmastime for as long as I could remember. I was scheduled to play an angel for two nights in December. We passed our church where the make-shift barn was being built.

In just a couple of weeks, I would stand on Tenth Street dressed as an angel next to a real donkey and sheep. (Baby Jesus was a doll wrapped in blankets lying in the manger.) I shivered both with excitement and the thought of standing in the cold from five to eight o’clock. I wondered if I could wear long underwear with my costume and if I’d get to pet the barn animals. 

December flew by in a flurry, and it was suddenly the day of my participation in the live nativity scene. My mom took me to the church to pick up my angel costume after school. It was cold and raining as we ran inside. 

“We’re in for some very nasty weather,” the preacher’s wife said. Looking at me sympathetically she said, “We’ve decided to cancel the nativity tonight.” By morning, freezing rain coated every sidewalk, tree limb and phone line. As rarely happened, school was cancelled for two days. I never did get to be part of the nativity scene. 

I emerged from my childhood memory as if from a dream. My hand tightly held the little angel from our nativity scene. In the absence of all the distracting tinsel and trinkets, my heart and mind were free to conjure up the memories, magic and meaning of the season.

For a suspended moment I was, at last, dressed as an angel standing on Tenth Street next to Mary and Joseph, the wise men, a shepherd boy, a donkey and a sheep in celebration of the beauty and wonder of a baby born in a manger on Christmas day. § 

The Gift of Miracles

It’s a wonderful time of the year to believe in miracles! Albert Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as if everything is a miracle.”

Consider the ubiquitous trees strapped to car tops, beckoning from store windows or decorating your home. While all the earth lies brown and dormant, an evergreen tree remains fresh and verdant, unfazed by winter’s harsh cold and snow. Underneath all the tinsel, lights and ornaments is a miraculous symbol of eternal love and life.

Our fresh-cut Christmas tree stands outside on the deck off the living room. Through unadorned glass doors, it twinkles with simple white lights. We frequently see birds flutter around the tree and alight on branches like a scene from a greeting card.

In my mind, birds carry garland in their beaks and gracefully drape the tree with gossamer ribbon. Woodland animals gather around the tree and sing carols. They are dressed, of course, in winter coats and scarves. And why not? Birds, deer, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, foxes and raccoons are such magical creatures.

Just imagine seeing one for the first time! Sweet, cute, funny and majestic barely begin to describe them. The sight of one flying, hopping or scurrying through our yard thrills me and ignites my imagination.

The holiday season brings out the child in us. As we get older, it’s easy to become cynical, to take for granted the miracles and magic, and focus on the muck. Perhaps we get a little too big for our britches, too smart and sophisticated for visions of sugarplums and the like. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.”

With the innocence of a child, take a closer look at nature this season. A brilliant star, a red poinsettia, a silent snow, a newborn baby all offer tangible proof of the marvelous miracles all around us.

Maybe then we will be inspired to do the very grown-up work of seeing and manifesting intangible miracles of grace, forgiveness, courage, hope, faith and love ~ all the beautiful things the holiday season is really about. §

100 Ways to Lighten Up

It’s summertime, and the living is easy. We feel lighter, brighter and a little more relaxed than the rest of the year. Beautiful weather lures us outdoors. Day trips and vacations offer rest and reconnection. Butterflies, flowers, hummingbirds and lightning bugs decorate life with color and joy. While we do our best to squeeze out every drop of summer, here are 100 easy ideas to help us keep a sunny vibe long after the season fades away.

Lighten Up in Nature ~ 1. Spend time outdoors every day.  2. Watch a squirrel’s funny antics. 3. Listen to birds sing.  4. Watch the sunrise or sunset.  5. Dine alfresco.  6. Feel the wind in your hair.  7. Take a hike.  8. Wish upon the first evening star.  9. Pet an animal.  10. Stay in awe of our wonderful world.

Lighten Up Your Home ~ 11. Arrange a vase of fresh flowers.  12. Clean so it sparkles.  13. Let the sun shine in.  14. Give away 10 (or 100) things.  15. Light a candle.  16. Add a pop of color.  17. Play cheerful music. 18. Put everything in its place.  19. Make sure it smells fresh.  20. Fill your home with positive energy and love.

Lighten Up in Mind & Spirit ~ 21. Take several deep, slow breaths. 22. Limit news and social media.  23. Practice yoga.  24. Stop trying to figure it all out.  25. Spend some time alone.  26. Meditate and pray.  27. Read something uplifting.  28. Avoid negativity.  29. Write down the problem and list some solutions.  30. Have faith.

Lighten Up Your Relationships ~ 31. Be fully present.  32. Be responsible for your own happiness.  33. Put down your phone.  34. Give good hugs.  35. Agree to disagree sometimes. 36. Have fun together. 37. Forgive.  38. Accept each others’ quirks.  39. Don’t gossip.  40. Be a fountain, not a drain.

Lighten Up Your Wardrobe ~ 41. Be comfortable.  42. Add a jaunty accessory.  43. Develop a personal style.  44. Have a small wardrobe you love.  45. If it’s shabby or drab, get rid of it.  46. If you don’t wear it, pass it on. 47. Forget about trends.  48. Have a signature color.  49. Choose easy-care clothing.  50. Feel radiant in everything you wear.

Lighten Up with Healthy Habits ~ 51. Eat for energy.  52. Drink plenty of water.  53. Bend and stretch.  54. Go to bed early.  55. Move with a spring in your step. 56. Get a massage.  57. Go for yearly check-ups.  58. Quit unhealthy behavior.  59. Unplug. 60. Be grateful for what your body can do.

Lighten Up Your Beauty Routine ~  61. Wake up with a cool shower. 62. Wind down with a warm bubble bath. 63. Decide to age gracefully. 64. Find an easy hair-do. 65. Follow a simple skin care regimen.  66. Keep makeup and perfume light and fresh.  67. Don’t over-do anything. 68. Be skeptical of advertising. 69. Remember, beauty is an inside job. 70. And hope doesn’t come in a jar.

Lighten Up with Good, Clean Fun ~ 71. Dance.  72. Tell a silly joke.  73. Re-read a favorite children’s novel.  74. Go bowling or rollerskating.  75. Play a board game.  76. Bake cookies for the neighbors.  77. Sing your heart out.  78. Draw, paint or color a picture.  79. Watch a G-rated movie.  80. Put up your feet and do nothing.

Lighten Up in Your Community ~  81. Do your job with a cheerful heart.  82. Smile at everyone.  83. Be nice.  84. Be a courteous driver. 85. Keep a sense of humor.  86. Be a good role model.  87. Don’t take it personally.  88. Lend a hand.  89. Remember your manners, even if everyone else forgets. 90. Quietly adopt one cause you believe in.

Lighten Up with Words of Wisdom ~  91. Life’s too mysterious to take too serious. ~Mary Englebreit 92. Think happy thoughts. ~Peter Pan  93. The Serenity Prayer ~Reinhold Niebuhr  94. Nothing can dim the light that shines from within. ~Maya Angelou 95. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. ~Gospel Hymn 96. Leave everything you do, every place you go, everything you touch a little better for your having been there. ~Julie Andrews 97. Those who bring sunshine into the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves. ~J.M. Barrie  98. Let your light shine before others. ~Matthew 5:16  99. Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see a shadow. ~Helen Keller 100. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. ~Martin Luther King, Jr. §

 

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Empty Nest – a story for Mothers’ Day

A plump, orange-breasted bird and her mate began building a nest atop a porch light of a house that sits on a gravel road aptly named Robin Drive. The middle-aged couple moving into the home didn’t notice the birds gathering the grass, twigs, and mud necessary for the perfect nest. They were busy feathering their own.

The robin was peacefully resting in her finished nest when the lady walked around the corner of the house carrying an armload of empty boxes. She came nearly eye-to-eye with the bird, startling them both into brief hysterical flapping. The robin gave a sharp alarm call, “Peek! Peek!” and flew to a nearby tree.

The anxious bird was relieved to see the woman and her husband study the nest with a sense of reverence and mystique. She felt sure the nest on Robin Drive was a safe place to lay her eggs, one each day for four consecutive days.

The next three weeks or so, the robin felt like a welcomed guest. The people avoided disturbing her as they worked around their new home. The lady made a habit of tip-toeing a few feet away from the nesting bird and whispering, “Hi, Little Mama, I’m sorry to bother you.”

When the robin flew off in search of food, the man carefully photographed the four sky-blue eggs inside the nest. Once the beautiful eggs hatched, they watched the blind, featherless brood instinctively open their mouths, trusting their parents would feed them almost continuously.

The robin knew time with her sweet babies would be brief. As she whistled them a lullaby in the protection of their nest, she reminded herself of the two lasting gifts she would give them ~ roots and wings.

The lady sympathized with the mother robin when the babies were big enough to hop out of the nest, but not yet strong enough to fly well. It’s a dangerous time for the fledglings. The day the little birds were capable of flying completely on their own was bittersweet.

It was May when the lady saw the robin hopping around the yard near the birdbath. “Hi, Little Mama,” she said. Looking at the empty nest on the porch light, she confided, “I know just how you feel.”

She sat down on a tree stump and was quiet for a minute. “You were a good mother,” she said. “They’re going to be just fine.” Perched on the edge of the birdbath, the robin sang a rich and comforting tune. §

 

Bloom and Grow

The unfurling of tiny green leaves and sweet blossoming flowers had me longing to write about personal growth ~ that natural urge to enrich and improve ourselves and our lives. I wasn’t exactly sure where the topic would take me, but I had a great quote from Mark Twain, and I felt certain something would emerge once I sat down to write.

I’ve returned to my hometown the past few weeks to care for my mother while she’s had a series of minor surgeries. She is recovering well from her most recent procedure and was up and about after breakfast this morning. “I think I’ll go to the library and try to write for a little while,” I told her.

Except for wireless Internet, the library hasn’t changed much since Mom took my sisters and me there when we were children. I intended to walk up the staircase to the second floor where I sometimes studied as a teenager, but I got lost in a memory of holding tightly to the oak banister wearing a red plaid dress and pigtails. I nostalgically ran my hand over the railing, worn smooth from use, and realized it had pulled me all the way up to the third floor where the children’s section used to be and still is.

Exchanging pleasantries with the librarian, I asked if I could sit at a small table and do some work. I positioned myself near a window hoping to be inspired by an elm tree bursting with new buds. There I sat in a quaint wooden chair, ignoring my laptop but absorbing every sight and smell of the familiar room.

I rose dreamlike and slowly ran my hand along a bookshelf, lightly touching the spines of Sounder, James and the Giant Peach, The Secret Garden, The Chronicles of Narnia and other childhood stories that still touch my heart.

For nearly an hour I tried to focus on writing, but my thoughts kept turning to a little girl I once knew who sat cross-legged in the corner happily reading Little House in the Big Woods. I shook her out of my mind and read the quote I had jotted down by Mr. Twain.

“What is the most rigorous law of our being? Growth. No smallest atom of our moral, mental, or physical structure can stand still a year. It grows ~ it must grow smaller or larger, better or worse ~ it cannot stand still. In other words, we change, and must change, constantly, and keep on changing as long as we live.” 

Springtime helps us understand what Twain was talking about. The sudden appearance of leaves, grass, and blooms are obvious reminders of the miracle and beauty of growth. The transformation that comes each spring is easier for us to appreciate than the much slower moral, mental, and physical growth to which Twain refers.

One day you’re a child sitting in a little chair reading a library book, and five decades later you’re sitting in the same little chair trying to write something meaningful ~ something that will encourage us to keep growing in mind, body, and soul like flowers in springtime. §

10 Things to Do While Waiting for Spring

My mom gave me a paperwhite bulb kit as a holiday hostess gift. I put the soil in the white ceramic container and planted the bulb with the pointy tip just barely peeking out of the soil. I sat the pot near a window that gets plenty of direct sunlight and watered it as directed. The green stem grew quickly and produced a promising bud, but it never bloomed. The flower needed direct sunlight. Unfortunately, our forecast the past two months could be titled Fifty Shades of Grey, a book I’m sure I’d find as distasteful as our weather of late.

Are you feeling a little like my pitiful paperwhite ~ droopy, unproductive, and bit yellow around the edges? I’ve given up hope of my paperwhite blooming, but not on spring’s arrival. Here are ten ways to get us through the final stretch while we wait.

  1. Spread some sunshine. I’ve done my share of grumbling about the weather, but I’m challenging myself to go the whole week without complaining about it. Put a smile on your face, a spring in your step, and hum that Temptations’ classic, “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day. When it’s cold outside, I’ve got the month of May.”
  2. Buy some fresh flowers. It’s amazing how a bunch of inexpensive, grocery store flowers boosts my mood. Separate them into several containers, or plop the whole bunch in a single vase. Flowers help us possess what Albert Camus called an invincible summer, even in the midst of winter.
  3. Do spring cleaning now. Start in the kitchen by removing everything from the cabinets and pantry. Give all the shelves a good wipe down and put everything back neatly, discarding expired items and donating things you don’t use. Go through the same process in your bathrooms and closets. When warmer weather arrives, you’ll be free to go out and enjoy it.
  4. Shake up your routine. Especially in the winter, we can fall into a dull and monotonous routine. For a change of pace, take a different route to work, stop someplace for breakfast or coffee, browse a bookstore, shop at a different grocery store. Give yourself a little something to look forward to each day.
  5. Wash the car. As a child, I would often surprise my dad by cleaning his car, and it’s something I like do for my husband now. Crank the heat, climb in, and clean all the interior surfaces and windows. Pick up trash and wayward objects and vacuum the seats and floors. Go through the car wash, knowing full well you’ll hit several large muddy potholes on your way home.
  6. Escape from reality. A tropical vacation would be wonderful, but we can leave the world behind on a budget. Duck into a movie theater, stroll through a museum, go to the library, or binge watch a Netflix series. I recommend Monty Don’s French Gardens and Big Dreams Small Spaces, two delightful British gardening shows.
  7. Plan your spring garden. Decide what plants and flowers you want to grow in your vegetable garden, flower beds, and pots this year. Look at gardening books and magazines for inspiration. The photos are so beautiful you’ll bring them to your nose hoping to smell their delicious fragrance.
  8. Savor the sun. When the sun does make an appearance, however briefly, welcome it with open arms. Sit in a sunny window and bask in its warmth. Close your eyes and imagine you’re at the beach. One of my favorite quirky things to do on a cold sunny day is sit in my car and read.
  9. Finish indoor projects. You probably made a mental list of things you planned to do while cooped up indoors this winter. Paint bathroom. File paperwork. Organize photographs. There’s still time to check off a few things before spring arrives.
  10. Enjoy the season. By this time of year, even those of us who like winter need to be reminded of its beauty. How lovely that on a dreary February day, it’s perfectly acceptable to stay in our comfy pants, curl up by the fire with a cup of hot chocolate, and dreamily wait for spring. §

Winter Inspires Simplicity

The first thing I see each morning is the top of an enormous oak tree through a ceiling-high bedroom window. As I awaken, my eyes trace the tree’s bare black branches painted on the winter sky. Having let go its cluttered leaves, the tree inspires me to follow its lead and simplify.

Based on the popularity of books and television shows on the subject, I know I’m not alone in my urge to simplify, nor am I the first to be motivated by nature. Isaac Newton wrote, “Nature is pleased with simplicity.” He was referring to mathematical principles and philosophical reasoning, not kitchen cabinets and sock drawers, but I think his point remains.

During his time at Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau observed, “Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with nature herself.” Wouldn’t we all accept an invitation to more ease and goodness?

Inspired by the winter landscape, I am beginning the new year by simplifying. Like beauty, simplicity is in the eye of the beholder, but maybe you can relate to my goal of tackling the following areas.

Physical Possessions ~ I’m reconsidering every item in every drawer, closet, shelf, box, cabinet, glove compartment, and secret nook and cranny. I’m keeping only things I love and that align with my idea of a simply beautiful life. Uncomfortable shoes, be gone!

Health and Finances ~ I don’t know about you, but during the winter months I tend to put such things on the back burner. I have experienced the relief of being on top of my game in these areas, and I’m not going to wait until spring to feel that way again.

Digital Footprint ~ Newton and Thoreau didn’t have to worry about this one, but it’s a struggle for me. Photographs, emails, documents, passwords, downloads and “the cloud” hang over my head. I hope to take control of my technology, before it changes and this old dog has to learn more new tricks.

Activities and Pursuits ~ Just as we have limited space in our cupboards, we have limited space in our days. I’m letting go of vague dreams to travel the world or become a gourmet cook who is fluent in French, but I am fully committed to a small number of true passions.

Thoughts and Emotions ~ Sometimes intangible baggage prevents us from simplifying. Just like physical clutter, we have to let go of the stuff in our head and heart that keeps us from living our best life.

I hope you will join me in answering Thoreau’s call to simplify, simplify! If we get stuck, winter’s inspiration is right outside the window in the clarity of a shaft of sunlight, the peace of dormant fields, the freedom of geese in flight, and the beauty of a snowflake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More Nature in the New Year

Rather than making New Year’s resolutions, some people dedicate the new year to a well-chosen word to be infused into each day of the next twelve months. The goal is to focus on a word that would improve all areas of life. My word for the upcoming year, perhaps not surprisingly, is nature.

Most of us could benefit from more nature in our lives. The term “nature deficit disorder” was coined by Richard Louv in his book, Last Child in the Woods. Although not a formal diagnosis, it describes the physiological, physical and cognitive costs of human alienation from nature. Research continues to support the positive impact nature has upon our mental and physical health.

Here are ten ways to start 2019 with a closer connection to nature ~

  1. Get outside. Drink your morning coffee on the porch.  Leave the closest parking space for someone who really needs it. Go for daily walks or take up an outdoor sport.
  2. Bring nature indoors. Keep fresh flowers on your desk. Set a pinecone or feather on the mantle. Open the curtains and crack a window for some fresh air and the sweet sounds of nature.
  3. Learn about nature. Do a little research about your natural environment. What kind of bird is that? Is the moon waxing or waning? What species of trees grow in your yard or neighborhood?
  4. Protect nature. Recycling is important, but reducing and reusing is even better. Be aware of little choices. Order ice cream in a cone, and you’ve eliminated one paper bowl and a plastic spoon.
  5. Feed the birds. Discover the fun of attracting birds by providing fresh water and feeding them. You and your feathered friends will be glad you did. Read my post The Joy of Feeding the Birds at https://thesimpleswan.wordpress.com/2018/11/25.
  6. Take an outdoor field trip. Especially during winter, a day trip to the zoo, botanical garden, or state park can feel like a rejuvenating mini-vacation for the mind, body and soul.
  7. Read a nature-themed book. A few old favorites include A Gift from the SeaA Sand County Almanac, The Secret Garden, Walden and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. On sunny winter days, I like to drive to a pretty spot and read in my car.
  8. Use natural products. Toxic ingredients lurk in most household cleaning and personal care products. Try cleaning with pure, inexpensive products like vinegar and baking soda. To learn about clean and safe skin care and makeup, visit my gorgeous friend’s website at http://www.beautycounter.com/natalieschultz.
  9. Grow something. A beautiful orchid or paper white narcissus will fill your home with cheer. Tend a few potted herbs placed near a sun-filled window. Start planning your backyard garden and dream of spring blossoms and summer harvest.
  10. Eat plant-based foods. A sure way to feel more connected to nature is eating foods in their natural state, straight from the ground with no packaging or preservatives. If you stumble upon a doughnut tree, please let me know.

Winter Solstice Inspires Us to Shine

Growing weary of the dark days? Take heart. The Winter Solstice arrives this week and, for good measure, will coincide with the glow of a full moon. Nature remembers what we sometimes forget. Darkness is always ousted by the light.

This return to light isn’t just a positive affirmation, wishful thinking, or snappy campaign promise. It’s indisputable, mind-blowing scientific fact. In the Northern Hemisphere, the shortest day of 2018 comes on December 21. That’s when the sun will be at its lowest point in the sky.

Solstice, in Latin, means to stand still. At the Winter Solstice, the sun reaches the latitude called the Tropic of Capricorn. The southward movement of the sun seems to stop before it reverses direction and begins its path northward bringing longer, lighter days.

The Winter Solstice also marks the beginning of our astronomical winter. (As opposed to the meteorological winter which began December 1.) Some may bemoan the upcoming season, but we can choose to find peace in the quiet beauty of winter knowing that spring is on its way.

According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, this year the Full Cold Moon will reach its peak during the Winter Solstice. That might mean more when you realize the next full moon to peak during the Winter Solstice isn’t until 2094! I don’t know about you, but I think we could all use that extra dose of beauty and light about right now.

Are the world’s troubles troubling you? Perhaps a loved one is going through a difficult time. Maybe you are experiencing a dark time in your own life. The Winter Solstice can signify a turning point, a time to release the darkness in favor of the light and positive energy.

Nature is urging us to see the light and be the light. So put another log on the fire, burn the candles, and string up those holiday lights. Bask in the promise of the stars shining in the night sky and the one atop the tree. Fill yourself with warm, twinkly light so you can go out and shine.

We already know how, but here are five things I’m working on ~ smile, say nice things, don’t complain, be grateful, and lighten up. In the words of John Lennon, “Yeah, we all shine on, like the moon, and the stars, and the sun.”

 

 

 

 

The Great Amaryllis Race

One Christmas when my children were quite young, they were unexpectedly fascinated by the big red flowers that bloomed in pots at their grandparents’ home in Wisconsin. Grandpa Bob, a crusty farmer and Marine, patiently explained how he forced amaryllis bulbs to bloom for the holidays.

The next year, and for many years after, my children and their grandfather participated in a holiday tradition known as the great amaryllis race. Shortly after Thanksgiving, they each opened a box containing a pre-planted amaryllis bulb, and the race was on!

I watched my children stare at their pots of dirt whispering magic words, wishes, and prayers urging the bulbs to sprout. Within a week or so, green pointy stems nudged out of the dirt, thrilling them to no end.

They carefully watered their plant, moved it to the perfect light, turned the pot to encourage the stalk to grow straight, and expertly used the thin stake to keep it from falling over. Day by day, centimeter by centimeter, they watched their plants grow.

Throughout December, my children regularly called their grandparents from Florida with the amaryllis report. “Grandpa,” my son would excitedly say into the telephone, “mine is the tallest!” Getting out a ruler, his older sister would object, “No, they are both exactly four inches tall.”

Eventually the slender green stems reached more than a foot. By Christmas day, the buds at the top magically unfurled revealing two, three, or even more separate flowers that burst opened into five-inch wide, scarlet blooms.

Whose amaryllis grew the fastest, biggest, or with the most flowers became secondary to the miracle of watching a pot of dirt transform into something so beautiful. Though they did feel sorry for Grandpa Bob whose amaryllis, year after year, never seemed to do as well as theirs.

There’s no greater joy than seeing your children excited about something so pure and wonderful. I don’t know if I ever thanked their grandparents for starting that special holiday tradition, but I am forever grateful. At a time of year when kids can become materialistic and self-centered, the great amaryllis race taught my children important values including patience, care, faith and hope.

The metaphors are too plentiful to do them justice, but aren’t we all a little like that amaryllis bulb, so full of amazing potential? We must root ourselves in good soil, provide optimum conditions to grow, and patiently wait until we fully bloom into all we were meant to be.