February Book Review Club:  Mosquitoland by David Arnold (YA)

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When Mary Iris Malone (Mim) learns that her mother is sick, she steals money from her stepmother and runs away from her Jackson, Mississippi home to return to her hometown of Cleveland and be with her mom.  Mim boards a Greyhound for Ohio, but her bus trip is anything but routine.   With bus accidents and encounters with poncho-wearing sexual predators and homeless teenage bullies, Mim finds herself off course and eventually road tripping with Beck, a college student on a mission, and Walt, a homeless boy with Down syndrome. There are some interesting revelations at the end of the book.  One involving Mim’s mom could be anticipated; the others are more surprising.

Mosquitoland has an escapist appeal, as a road trip book. It’s a story of finding friends in unexpected places.  Mim has struggled with friendships her entire life, but when liberated from the normal contexts of school, family, and home, she finds she can make connections with people.  Her first friend on the road is an elderly woman in sensible shoes who she initially bonds with over shoes.  However, Mim’s experiences are not all carefree.  She faces physical danger at a couple points, managing to escape bad situations with a combination of ingenuity and sheer dumb luck.

The biggest appeal of this book is definitely Mim herself.  Mim is quirky, inquisitive, sarcastic, and fiercely loyal to her mother.  We get to know her quite well between the first person narration and the letters she writes to Isabel through her journey.  While Mim is loveable, she is also a brat. She steals $880 from her working class stepmom, and she has written her own family history so her mother is a wonderful bohemian capable of no wrong and her father is the anxious killjoy.

Mental illness is an important part of Mim’s story.  We learn early on that Mim suffers from mental illness, like her Aunt Isabel, and this is the source of much of the tension between Mim and her father.  Her dad insists on medication, which Mim does not want to take, and switches her therapist when she had already bonded with her first therapist.  I appreciate that YA literature addresses mental health these days.  I went through severe depression in high school, and it was a bit like spending four years as a bat.  I would go to sleep the moment I got home and then wake hours later in the dark, disoriented, and I never felt like I was ever truly awake or interested in anything around me.  I would have appreciated a novel like this in the early nineties.

My only real critique of this book is that Mim’s love interest is far too old for her.  The relationship never gets physical, but the age difference between Mim and Beck is uncomfortable.  Overall, this is a likable, smart, and fast-paced novel, which I highly recommend.

For more  February book reviews, please visit Barrie’s blog:

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@Barrie Summy
FCC Notice:  I read a library copy, and since then, I have purchased a copy for my stepdaughter

10 YA Books to Get Teens Through the Next Four Years

In summer and early fall, I thought my stepdaughters, soon to turn 13 and 15,  would spend the bulk of their teen years with the first female U.S. president in office.  Like many, I did not think the most qualified candidate would lose to the least qualified.

This isn’t the America I want for them. I don’t want my girls to start dating in a world where sexual assault is normalized.  I don’t want their Muslim school friends to worry over the decision whether or not to wear a headscarf.  I don’t want their black friends to live in fear of police violence. I don’t want their gay friends bullied or threatened.

I am grateful both of my girls are free thinkers with no shortage of strong opinions and both have a diverse group of friends, even growing up in suburbia.  Both of them have been eager to volunteer and to give to the less fortunate.  They are both smart and ambitious and interested in the world around them.  I do not doubt they will become powerful women.  And my powerful girls need books that open up the world for them, make them think, and cultivate empathy.

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The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon.  Given current events, this book about immigration and deportation is one of the timeliest things you could give a teen reader.  Natasha’s family is family is twelve hours away from being deported to Jamaica when she meets Daniel.  The two teens have little in common –Natasha is practical and scientific and Daniel is a poet under pressure to become a doctor– but they fall in love. The Sun is Also a Star has done well with critics, earning a 2017 Printz Honor and several other awards, and teens will love it as much as the critics

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.  Junior has grown up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. He is a gifted student and a good basketball player, but he is not tough in the way that is prized on the reservation.  When a teacher encourages him to go to the all-white school outside the reservation, Junior agrees with his parents’ support, but his decision is viewed as a betrayal on the reservation, even by his best friend.  At his new school, Junior is surprised when he makes friends, but he does so while living a double life, one where he disguises his poverty and his difficulty in getting to and from school each day.  Throughout one school year, Junior experiences losses, several surprise triumphs, and makes peace with his identity.

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All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely.  In a routine trip to the store for chips, sixteen-year-old Rashad, a black high school student,  is mistaken for a shoplifter and becomes the victim of police brutality.  The incident is witnessed by Rashad’s white classmate, Quinn, but the cop who beat Rashad had helped to raise Quinn.  The story is told in alternating perspectives of Rashad and Quinn by two different authors.

The historical novels of Cat Winters:

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The Cure for Dreaming is the story of would-be suffragist, Olivia Meade, who wants to go to college, ride a bicycle, and vote.  Olivia’s father wants her to marry immediately after graduating high school and alarmed by his daughter’s independence. Mr. Mead hires a traveling mesmerist to hypnotize his 17-year-old daughter so she will accept the world as it is and be unable to argue, and all that Olivia will be able to say when she is angry is, “All is well.”  It works, but the mesmerist also gives Olivia the ability to see people as they truly are as a protection in her newly fragile state.

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The Steep and Thorny Way is a loose retelling of Hamlet, set in 1920’s Oregon.  Sixteen-year-old, Hanalee Denney learns that Joe, who was convicted of killing Hanalee’s father in a drunk driving accident,  is out of prison and back in her hometown of Elston, Oregon.  When she consents to meet with Joe, he tells her that her father’s only injury from the accident had been a broken leg, and he had not been in any danger until he was under the care of the town doctor, who is also Hanalee’s new stepfather.  Hanalee, who is the daughter of a white mother and black father, begins investigating the local rumor that her father is a ghost wandering the country road and she also begins to investigate her new stepfather to see if he might be a murderer and a member of the local Klan.

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Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson.  Speak is, to the best of my knowledge, the first YA novel to deal with the issue of rape in depth.  Now many YA novels focus on rape and consent including Maria Padian’s Wrecked and Louise O’Neill’s Asking for It, but Speak broke the ground for the others.  Ninth grader, Melinda Sordino, begins high school as the most unpopular girl in the school.  She called the cops at a party over the summer and even her closest friends have abandoned her as a result.  She is unable to speak about what happened to her at the party, or even think about it, and over time she finds herself unable to speak at all.  It is not under Melinda realizes that she is not alone in her experience that she is able to speak up for herself.

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I’ll Give You the Sun
by Jandy Nelson.  Noah and Jude are twins with extremely different personalities. At thirteen, introverted Noah looks to his art to save him and develops a crush on a neighbor boy, while Jude’s priority is on her social life and adventurous hobbies such as cliff-diving. At sixteen, the relationship between the twins has been destroyed, and Jude is now the anti-social twin. Noah is outwardly the more successful twin, but beyond the surface, he isn’t doing any better than Jude and is more firmly wedged in his closet than he was at thirteen. The novel alternates chapters narrated by Noah at thirteen with chapters narrated by Jude at sixteen.

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None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio.  Kristin Lattimer is eighteen when she learns that she is intersex.  Kristin never got her first period in spite of being in her late teens, but it never occurred to her that this might be unusual since she assumed her athleticism delayed it.  When she loses her virginity, it is unusually painful, and she goes to the doctor and finds her reproductive system is not entirely female.  As Kristin struggles with her gender identity, news of her diagnosis spreads through her school and Kristin, who was the homecoming queen, becomes the most bullied student.

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Women in Science by Rachel Ignotofsky.  This nonfiction option is not written specifically with teens in mind, being more of an all-ages coffee table book, but it is ideal for girls aged 12-17 who are thinking about college and future careers.  This book provides short bios and illustrations for fifty women, both famous and lesser known, in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

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Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World edited by Kelly Jensen.  This one just came out, so I have not yet read it, but it certainly seems timely.  Here is the description from Amazon:

“Forty-four writers, dancers, actors, and artists contribute essays, lists, poems, comics, and illustrations about everything from body positivity to romance to gender identity to intersectionality to the greatest girl friendships in fiction. Together, they share diverse perspectives on and insights into what feminism means and what it looks like. Come on in, turn the pages, and be inspired to find your own path to feminism by the awesome individuals in Here We Are.”

FCC notice:  I have not received any free copies of any of the books listed.  I have either purchased my own copy or read library copies.

Additional reading:  

10 Diverse Reads by YA Authors of Color (Teen Vogue)
#BlackLivesMatter Reading List for Teens (School Library Journal)
Where to find diverse books (We Need Diverse Books)

Why I Marched

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Like many at the Women’s March on Washington, I was a first-time marcher. My bus ticket was a Christmas gift from my husband who knew I wanted to attend, and our bus drove through the night on Friday and Saturday.  I had followed all the instructions on everything you should and should not bring to a rally or on a bus. I had studied all of the safety advice on avoiding potentially dangerous people, what to do in the event of tear gas, and knowing your legal rights at a march.

I was nervous about the possibility of something going wrong and people getting hurt, but I decided to move on with the now viral advice of Carrie Fisher:  “Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.”

The hardest part of the march for me was not the possibility of getting tear-gassed and trampled or even the grueling double-red eye bus schedule, it was calling someone I loved to let them know I was attending. This is someone who I love and who loves me, but who has extremely different political beliefs than I do. This conversation went even more poorly than I had expected, and I was left with the horrible feeling of disappointing someone.  But I had to go because I believe in bridges rather than walls.  Because I am concerned about being on the right side of history.

So I went.  A bit hurt, a bit nervous, but determined.

As a stepmom of teenage girls, I want to be a good example for my girls and I want to make the future better for them.  In four to six years, when the girls go to college, sexual assault will still be rampant.  It might be worse, given the renewed patriarchal zeal. I want a safer world for them where they are not grabbed without their consent or graded on their appearance on a scale from one to ten. I want job opportunities for them, where they make as much money as their male colleagues.  I marched for them, for myself, for my sister and cousins, for friends, and for the women who don’t realize they need it.

One of the women in my group wore a sign that said she was marching for her daughters, granddaughters, and nieces.  On the back of the sign, she had glued photos of her female family members, smiling and optimistic.  It received many positive comments throughout the day, as everyone was there because of love.  Love for family or friends or the ideals of a nation. We all marched because there were things we needed to protect.

It was a women’s march, and as concerned as I am about women’s rights, I was not there strictly due to women’s issues and neither were my fellow marchers.  There were many #blacklivesmatter posters, both from black and non-black marchers.  For my sign, I opted to use a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote –“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”– to show that this march was for all of us: male and female, all races, all religions, all sexual orientations, immigrants and natural born citizens.

I may have some disadvantages as a female, but as a white Christian I also have many advantages.  I can wear a cross around my neck without strange men threatening to set me on fire, the way women in hijabs have been threatened.  I can claim my faith without someone threatening to put me on a registry.  I want Muslims, and any other marginalized religious group, to have the same religious freedoms that I enjoy.  My whiteness also protects me, allowing me to live without fear of the police.

Being under attack for your skin color, your religion, or your sex is personal.  It’s not something you get over.

As the daughter of immigrants, immigration policies are also personal to me.  My parents, born and raised in South America, are hard-working and honest.  They didn’t know the language when they moved here, but they learned quickly and built the life they wanted, centered on God and family.  They worked hard so my sister and I could attend private colleges.  My parents are not murderers and rapists; they are patriotic, full of gratitude, and deeply decent.

In addition to being the daughter of immigrants, I am also the wife of a school principal and the sister of a teacher.  This too is personal.  Our educators work hard for their students and deserve support rather than micromanagement and scapegoating.  Our students, 90% of whom attend public schools, also deserve our support.  I want a secretary of education who actually knows something about education and not just the power of a hefty donation in furthering one’s agenda.

The backlash against the march has been widespread, and many of those denying the legitimacy of the protests are female.  “What rights am I missing?” women cry, even as the Office on Violence Against Women is scheduled to be cut, a slap in the face to the 1 in 3 women who experience physical violence from an intimate partner in their lives and 1 in 5 of women who are raped in their lifetime. “Why can’t these women stop complaining and just give him a chance?  He won. They need to get over it.”

We aren’t angry feminists lashing out against imaginary grievances.  We are feminists, it is true, and current events have left us angrier than we have been in a while.  But it isn’t anger that brought us to the streets. It’s a hope in a better world and a willingness to do our part to bring that about. It’s love, not hate.

I marched with five of the women on my bus, and all of them make the world a better place.  One works at a shelter for domestic violence victims.  Others of our group volunteer at the same domestic violence shelter, creating a shelter for the pets of those families, so families do not stay in bad situations out of fear that their abusers might kill the family pet.  We had a social worker.  We had a woman who worked in education for decades, both as an elementary school teacher and as a professor, and holds two master’s degrees and a PhD.  She is now retired, but she’s still devoted to kids, working as a volunteer librarian at a school in Detroit.  Another woman is a mother to more than a dozen adult children and a grandmother to more than twenty.  In women like this, I see hope.

As a Christian, I believe in hope and reconciliation.  I believe in a God who will make all things new again, and expects us to do the same in the current life on this earth, not just the afterlife.  We are expected to feed the poor, clothe the naked, heal the sick, and care for the earth which has been entrusted to us.  Political activism is one way for me to love my neighbor as myself.

Now the march is over, and I am so very grateful for a peaceful event for DC and for peaceful events all around the world. I am grateful for all the women and men who stepped out of their comfort zones to take to the streets, following in the footsteps of Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, and many other champions of justice.  Voices have been heard, and now it is time for the work to be done.

The Power of Small Donations

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Image credit: Ashley Schweitzer via Minimography

It was the week after the election.  It was late morning, and I was seated in an auditorium at work, waiting for a lecture on polio to begin.  I was drinking coffee and  feeling antsy, which has since become my new normal, and guilty.

I was feeling the weight of all the causes that would need to be supported over the next four years: civil rights, immigration, women’s rights, protecting religious freedoms, the environment, healthcare, the sciences, etc.  I may have voted blue, but that is where my responsibility as a citizen begins rather than ends. I felt like I had to donate to all the causes and volunteer for all the organizations.  The problem, of course, is I have a family, a full-time job, and due to a financially weird 2016, a bit more debt than is wise.

The speaker, a man who had written a Pulitzer winning history of polio, took the stage, and he was exactly the encouragement I needed that day.  While I learned new things about the development of the polio vaccine and about early public health campaigns centered on the vaccine, what interested me most was the history of the March of Dimes.

These days, the March of Dimes focuses on birth defects, but in the beginning it was devoted to the eradication of polio.  The March of Dimes did not want to be an organization that depended on extravagant donations from the powerful few, but a movement of the people.  They chose a dime as their suggested donation because everyone, no matter how poor, could spare a dime for a good cause.  And it worked.  During that time, the March of Dimes gained more donations than any other health-related organization, with the sole exception of the Red Cross.

Hearing the March of Dimes history made me remember another story.  A church I used to attend had partnered with a local food bank.  One of the deacons spoke in front of the church, asking for our participation.  He didn’t encourage us to all go home and clear out our pantries.  Instead he asked that, each week, each family or individual bring one can or other non-perishable food item with them to church.  Just one, which wasn’t a financial drain on anyone.  However, when you have a church with 600 or 700 people, it makes for a very full food bin every single week, and it’s sustainable over the long term.

I have become a believer in the power of small donations. I am one person who wants to make a difference.  All around the country there are millions of other people who also want to make a difference.  We don’t need great wealth, but we do need all of us.

My four-year goal, or at least the financial part of it, will be to make a small donation to a different organization every month. I used the Jezebel list as my starting point and made my own list.  I am trying to make the organizations as varied as possible, to benefit as many groups of people as possible.

This is my list, as far as I have planned it out:

Already Donated:
November:  NAACP Legal Defense Fund (civil rights)
December:  RAINN (sexual violence)

Future Donations:
January: Sierra Club (environmentalism, to be donated 1/20/17)
February:  Community Foundation of Greater Flint (the Flint water crisis is an issue that is close to home for me)
March: Council on American-Islamic Relations
April: Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund
May: National Immigration Forum
June: Southern Poverty Law Center (fights against hate groups)
July: Human Rights Campaign (LGBTQ rights)
August: Native American Rights Fund
September: Anti-Defamation League (fights anti-semitism)
October: PEN America (protects free speech)
November: Campaign Zero (policy to address police violence)
December: National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

Tentatively, I am planning to move away from the national organizations you see listed here for 2018 and give mainly to local organizations.

I am still developing my four-year plan, beyond the financial aspect, and I imagine it will be a work in progress the entire time.  Right now, I am committed to a small monthly donation, participation in local political groups, and some volunteer work. I am trying to do what I can and let go of what I cannot.

Like with donations, I am remembering that I am part of a whole, like a vivid dot in an impressionist painting.  It’s when you step back and see the whole picture that you can appreciate the beauty.

Book Review:  The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

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Told from the perspective of the prophet Nathan, The Secret Chord is a historical novel about the Biblical King David.  The novel begins just before David meets Bathsheba, when a restless King David orders Nathan to pay visits to his mother, brother, and first wife in order to write down David’s life story.  We first get to know David through these narratives and also through Nathan’s own story of how he first met David.  When Nathan returns to court, it is to learn of David’s affair with Bathsheba.  From that point, the story of the golden boy turned king becomes a tragedy.

I was excited to read this as Geraldine Brooks is one of my favorite authors, and I have read all of her historical fiction and one of her nonfiction books. What I admire most about her is how she manages to capture time periods that are so very different from our own time and culture, and I never feel like she is modernizing her characters or their points of view as many historical novelists do. I also love how all of her stories focus on faith in some way. Her characters are always perfectly developed and her writing is beautiful.

What Brooks has done very well in The Secret Chord is capture the earthiness of David: the shepherd boy accustomed to the quiet loneliness of fields, the young man who lived a nomadic and crude existence on the run from Saul, and the king given to excesses in women and food.  She delights in his contradictions:  both poet and warrior, both worshipper and murderer.

The prophet Nathan is an effective foil to David.  The two men’s stories are linked, but in nature, they are very different. Nathan is a soldier only because that is what is expected of men of his time.  He dislikes David’s refusal to show any mercy in battle, and he lives a quiet and celibate life. I didn’t like how Nathan was portrayed as serving David, as opposed to serving God, but otherwise I loved the character of Nathan, who was much more likable than David.

I love how this fills out all of the “whys” of the Biblical story.  Why was David not at war with his men when he first saw Bathsheba?  Why was he so easily overlooked by his family?  In some cases, I felt the need to go back to the Bible story to work out which details were in the Scripture, and which were Brooks’ invention.  The world she creates feels ancient, and the stories that are her own invention feel natural.  She does use spellings that are unconventional to me –Saul is Shaul,  Jonathan is Yonatan, Solomon is Shlomo, etc.– which I needed to get used to.

Although I love Geraldine Brooks, and this book has so many merits, I did struggle with it because of the violence. The violence isn’t gratuitous, given the nature of the book.  She is writing about Old Testament events, which are full of blood and absolutes, and I tend to not read the Old Testament histories when I want an uplifting devotional.  I do not stomach violence well in books or movies, so even though the violence was essential to the story, I did not like it.

The Secret Chord is a very intriguing novel, and it will appeal to fans of Brooks’ previous work, and possibly fans of the The Red Tent (although this is definitely a more masculine story than that one).  It will not please any fundamentalists as the David/Jonathan relationship is definitely portrayed as being romantic.  It also won’t appeal to anyone strongly opposed to violence in fiction.

I do recommend this novel in spite of my hesitations regarding the violence.  Just don’t read it while eating because there will inevitably be a scene where a skewered person’s entrails are spilling out of them like ribbon.

FCC Notice: I bought my own copy.

Why I believe in new year’s resolutions.  And new blogs.

NY_stocksnap_jorigekuzmaite.jpgImage credit: Jorigė Kuzmaitė via StockSnap

I love making new year’s resolutions at the beginning of the new year.   The holidays, as wonderful as they are, always leave me tired, overfed on all the wrong foods, and longing to live normally and more simply again.  In the words of Bilbo Baggins, I feel like “butter scraped over too much bread.”

When the new year arrives, I am relieved.  On some level, I remember that I hate January because it traditionally comes with the worst weather of the year.  But I can ignore that because January is a fresh start.

In January, the calendar is blessedly blank.  Salads are fresh and lemony after a month of holiday foods.   My tired body is eager to ease into a yoga practice.  Staying home with a book is much better than going out.  My wallet finally gets to relax.  It is time to re-center.  I may have detoured in a wild forest of frosted Christmas cookies and overscheduled days, but I’m ready to be back home.

I think everyone needs a fresh start sometimes.  I detour from the person I want to be, and the new year is time for me to reflect on who want to be, who I was intended to be, and reorder my life accordingly.

If I’m not careful, I can detour into Bridget Jones territory. Bridget always begins a new year with a new diary and new resolutions.  “Everything is going to be different!  I will be skinny!  I will be career focused!  I will not die alone and get eaten by wild dogs!” At age 21, I related strongly to Bridget, craving the glamorous life I was sure was lurking around the corner.  At age 38, I still relate more than I care to admit, but I’m no longer looking to turn into someone else each new year.

I want this to be the year where I fall in love with my life.  I’m not an in-the-moment person.  I’m an in-the-middle-of-my-task-list person, fully absorbed in micromanaging my own life. I’m not terribly impressed with the state of my career, and  I’ve been disappointed in myself for decades now for not completing a novel yet.  I spent so much time focusing on the areas where I feel inadequate that I miss the beauty of my own life.

I have a beautiful life.  I have a blessed life.  I have love, meaning, a wonderful family, a beautiful home, a job that provides what I need, a church, and opportunities.  This year, I want to be more in love with my husband, to be more generous and loving with my family, to appreciate my cozy home more, to notice the beauty in the world,  to find more meaning in my job, and to get to know my friends better.  In some ways, this blog will be a tool to help me do this.

I also want this to the year that I fall in love with writing again.  I have wanted to write a novel since I was nine or ten.  This is the year to put aside regrets and do what I love.

I also want this to be the year that I speak up at last. Like most women, I’ve been raised to be nice, to be concerned with how other people think of me.  I believe firmly in the importance of being kind, but I’m over being nice.

With the new year also comes my new blog.  I loved my last blog, but I wanted more flexibility with the template, and I was starting to feel like I had outgrown Blogger after 10+ years.  I’m no longer a young girl typing out sarcastic rants to the blogosphere.  I’m nearing middle age, and I have a better idea of who I am and what I have to say.

Fifty-percent of The Cat’s Meow will be book related, mostly book reviews with some lists and essays to balance it out.  The other half will be the personal blogging I’ve done for the last 10 or 11 years, with light-hearted content like favorites lists and silly stories about my pets blended with more personal memoir-type writing and also some travel writing.  I have a blog calendar, which is new to me, and my goal is to post once a week.

Thanks for following me to my new blog.  I wish you a happy new year, full of peace, blessings, good books, time with loved ones, and opportunities to do good.  And may your voice always be heard.