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Back to Essentials

Most of us lead lives filled with too much stuff, too much information, too many papers, too much to do, too much clutter. Unfortunately, our time and space is limited, and having too much of everything is like trying to cram a library into a box: It can't be done, it's hard to enjoy the books, and sooner or later the box will break. Our problem is living without limits... Once you've learned to set limits, you will learn to make the most of those limits - by choosing the essential and then simplifying. That's when the power of limits can really be seen: When limits force you to reduce yourself to only the essentials.
~ from "The Power of Less," Leo Babauta

There is a nifty blog my med school daughter (the supreme time organizer) turned me onto awhile back, written by life style and efficiency guru Leo Babauta, called Zen Habits (ZenHabits.net). In the quest for making that which is limited (time, effort, resources) go as far and as efficiently and applied as meaningfully as possible, Leo developed a system of limits, focus, and task management tools that enabled him to do accomplish multiple goals as diverse as lose weight, become a marathoner, build one of the top 50 blogs in the world, double his income, become an early riser, write and sell two books, eliminate debt, complete two triathlons, etc. , and do so with quality time for self and family. His system, which I began reading over the holidays in the book "The Power of Less," is fairly straightforward: set limitations, choose the essential, simplify, focus, create habits, start small. One goal at a time.

Easier said than done, right? Of course, philosophically the idea of identifying and choosing to focus and organize one's life around the essential is very compelling. We all want what we think of it as happiness or success via prioritizing and follow-through. But as the author suggests, in today's age of relentless information flow and exchange, of continuous multitasking to ever expanding sets of goals, and generally over-committed professional and family life, "How do you know what's essential? That's the key question. Once you know that, the rest is easy." Babauta goes on to say that once we've identified the essential, then reducing projects, tasks, streams of information, commitments, clutter, etc., is a process of employing disciplined elimination in small increments and the formation of new habits that support life with LESS done BETTER.

I sit here at a desk that on the face of it fails one "The Power of Less" rule: de-clutter the desk. My manuscript in process, bent and dog-eared notes, edited print pages and research sit to the left of my laptop, and on the right, my inbox overflows with holiday shopping receipts, stacked sales tax records for my accountant, online bills to pay, and a slew of year-end solicitations from everyone from AAA to The Wildlife Federation Fund. Yes, my desk, where I've already misplaced my cell phone (under that pile of pen, book, coffee cup and notepad?) is an Epic Fail in the streamlined and prioritization department. Like most of us, my desk is both work space and bill-paying space, as well as home-planning space. How do I identify the essential? And therefore limit the inundation of things to do?

I thought about this question of essentials late Christmas night over a Macallan sitting in my living room, gazing reflectively at the beauty that is a decorated Christmas tree. The college kids were asleep, my husband away on call at the hospital, the fire crackling and falling to a low red glow in the stone fireplace. At that moment, the essential, as it always does at Christmas, seemed crystal clear to me: Number one, gathering together with the ones you love. Check, time for family. And then, thinking of my husband who had curtailed his holiday to return to the hospital, I realized that work, even on Christmas Day is important. Check, adequate time and rest for excellence in work (hence a nap, and an early holiday dinner with family). As I worked my way through the thoughts that presented themselves, from the importance of rest for the one kid post-surgery, and the importance of love to the kid with a new "significant other" coalescing on the horizon, the importance of meaning in occupation (that work matters, is done well, and results in feelings of security, e.g. providing for family), dedication to continuous acts of charity and kindness, to thoughts of professional contentment and the value of peer recognition and teamwork... Well, other than including fun and recreation, time to play, hadn't I just covered my basics?

Here then is where I will start working to eliminate the clutter in my world: everything from overwhelming on-slaughts of data and email to calendar commitments, right down to the essentials. My list looks like this:
Together time with family
Acts of charity and kindness
Excellence in work
Meaning in occupation
Professional contentment
Time to play

What are your essentials? I'll explore more in the next blog on my own personal steps toward limiting the extraneous to focus on my personally identified essentials. And if you're in the mood (and have the time!), do check out Leo's blog - ZenHabits.net.
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The Family Tableau

by Robert Hass

On the morning of the Käthe Kollwitz exhibit, a young man and woman come into the museum restaurant. She is carrying a baby; he carries the air-freight edition of the Sunday New York Times. She sits in a high-backed wicker chair, cradling the infant in her arms. He fills a tray with fresh fruit, rolls, and coffee in white cups and brings it to the table. His hair is tousled, her eyes are puffy. They look like they were thrown down into sleep and then yanked out of it like divers coming up for air. He holds the baby. She drinks coffee, scans the front page, butters a roll and eats it in their little corner in the sun. After a while, she holds the baby. He reads the Book Review and eats some fruit. Then he holds the baby while she finds the section of the paper she wants and eats fruit and smokes. They’ve hardly exchanged a look. Meanwhile, I have fallen in love with this equitable arrangement, and with the baby who cooperates by sleeping. All around them are faces Käthe Kollwitz carved in wood of people with no talent or capacity for suffering who are suffering the numbest kinds of pain: hunger, helpless terror. But this young couple is reading the Sunday paper in the sun, the baby is sleeping, the green has begun to emerge from the rind of the cantaloupe, and everything seems possible.

It is the 19th of December. The Winter Solstice is in two days, the Christmas and New Year holidays pushing forward on the heels of a tough week of national loss. American families are in mourning, in confusion about what is and isn't the nature of the human heart. This morning I happened across this lovely, muted prose poem by Robert Haas, a poet of great gravitas and dignity I had the great good fortune to hear read from his work at Stanford during his tenure as United States Poet Laureate. Somehow in revisiting this poem ~ a poignant gentle sketch of a family outing ~ I came to my own sense of hope again. Of possibility that all of us will, in the passage of time, heal. And in the fullness of days, find peace once more in our hearts and possibility for goodness in the day.

Let us look to the warmth of family and friendship for the truth of the human spirit. Let us join hearts in these holidays and keep faith in goodness.
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The American Story: Sandy Hook Elementary Massacre

The world
was whole because
it shattered. When it shattered,
then we knew what it was.

~ from "Formaggio," Louise Gluck

Dear Friends,
This terrible massacre of school children and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, outside Danbury, is still unfolding in its terrible details. I intended an entirely different blog today, but honestly, I find myself welling into tears at my desk. WHY? These innocent children, many of them among the very youngest, are dead. Eighteen confirmed as of this writing, but the numbers seem to keep climbing.

I cannot, as a mother, separate myself from the heartbreak and terror I know lies in the heart of each of the Sandy Hook Elementary families and teachers, their friends and relatives. Elementary schools are among our most close-knit education "families"...a dedicated community of educators, parent volunteers, and part-time librarians, language, art and gym instructors. The mission of elementary school is more than the teaching of learning fundamentals - it is also the encouragement of youngsters in early socialization skills: development of trust and comfort away from home, ease under the direction of unfamiliar adults, feeling safe in large groups. Sometimes the experience of school itself is a huge emotional and mental undertaking for the very young.

And then there are parents, who tremble on that first day and every day after they watch their children walk out the door on their way to school. We, who know our children are for the school day, solely in the safekeeping of others. How will any of us truly comprehend this horror come true - our worst nightmare? While I live in Washington, my own daughter went to school in Connecticut. We have dear friends there. Sandy Hook Elementary is every school. I do not know why this tragedy occurred here, or now. But I pray with all my heart for the families and faculty, staff and first responders. This is not the "American Story" we should be familiar with, but unfortunately, it is now the most common.

It is time to do something about gun control in America. Enough innocents have died at the hands of the violent. It is up to us to stop gun violence, in any way we can.
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Parenting, The Advanced Course

We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations.
― Anaïs Nin

The holidays are a perfect for running smack into dysfunction. There was a fascinating interview yesterday on the TODAY SHOW (http://today.msnbc.msn.com Today's Moms, "The Toughest Part of Parenting: When They Grow Up,") with developmental psychologist Susan Engle. She veered into a personal discussion of the struggle and patience required in her own life observing her adult son struggle with significant life decisions in which she yearned to intervene, as one most certainly would in the face of risk parenting a younger child, but which to her surprise her son forbade her to do anything but listen. What seemed evident from her commentary is that parenting remains a prime directive our entire lives as parents but differing skills become beneficial to both parent and adult child as we mature.

For most parents, the words of Mark Danielewski ring true, "Maturity, one discovers, has everything to do with the acceptance of 'not knowing.'" As Susan Engle confided in her television interview, even if we could rush in and solve our adult children's dilemmas in life, we would be wrong to do so: self-discovery is one of the chief benefits of the rocky challenges of adulthood. An admission and acceptance of "not knowing" - whether you or your child fall intellectually on the side of knowing everything or nothing at all - becomes one bridge to supporting adult children through difficulty without falling into the trap of "directiveness."

But is the aging parent only allowed to sit on the sidelines, reeling from the punches, both emotional and economic, of children making less than stellar progress toward maturity or responsibility? For years there has been an established practice in family therapy which asserts that the path to smoothing over difficulties with adult children is through the practice of unilateral, unconditional acceptance and tolerance. Welcome, in other words to the Doormat Years. As a parent myself, I would challenge this as anything but a practice of self-effacement on the part of parents that enables self-centered thinking in the adult children in question.

All dynamic and meaningful relationships are to a degree conditional. "Supportive listening" should not equal disowning one's personal rights and liberties. Adult children are old enough to make their own decisions, yet this form of conventional therapy tells us the success of our long-term relationship depends on our ability to stomach the results. This is particularly downer advice for older remarriages and blended family dynamics. Not permitted to object to your own adult child's behavior? It is fairly certain then your point of view is not welcome regarding your spouse's.

An interesting book by Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, an expert on parenting adult children and family dynamics, and research scholar at Brandeis University, titled "Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships With Your Adult Children," focuses on constructive interaction. Let's not talk doormat, let's talk. Her research advises making the most of the relatively healthy years in the lengthening time span between empty-nest parents and adult children. Boundaries, flexibility, patience, the pleasures of independence. Relationship is only as valuable as the mutual give and take and respect present between parent and adult child.

It may not be that our children, as Susan Engle's son did, outright ask us to abide outcomes and not intervene, but I believe that in time, a little roughened at the edges by life, the kids we gave our very best to will one day knock on our doors for honest insight and advice. In the meantime, we can think about all the things we'd like to say, and spend our free time on the sidelines living lives put on hold to parent. Everyone has a little growing up to do.
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Final Thesis

Everything needs it: bone, muscles, and even,
while it calls the earth its home, the soul.
So the merciful, noisy machine

stands in our house working away in its
lung-like voice. I hear it as I kneel
before the fire, stirring with a

stick of iron, letting the logs
lie more loosely. You, in the upstairs room,
are in your usual position, leaning on your

right shoulder which aches
all day. You are breathing
patiently; it is a

beautiful sound. It is
your life, which is so close
to my own that I would not know

where to drop the knife of
separation. And what does this have to do
with love, except

everything? Now the fire rises
and offers a dozen, singing, deep-red
roses of flame. Then it settles

to quietude, or maybe gratitude, as it feeds
as we all do, as we must, upon the invisible gift:
our purest, sweet necessity: the air.

~ Mary Oliver

A dear friend is losing her only parent. She has moved from caregiver toward wellness, to caregiver through dying. My friend and I have both been in this hard place together before. Through the loss of her sister and my husband and my mother to cancer within months of one another. My friend shifted priorities to co-raise her nieces, and parentless and widowed, I became a single parent.

Here we speak quietly again, my friend and I. Her journey moves with inexorable suffering and patience toward new loss. Her best friend, her mother. A few days ago, my friend, who is also a Buddhist priest, sent me this beautiful poem - words written by Mary Oliver during the days her partner lay dying. Somehow, this poem lingers in my mind. There is something intimate and sharp throughout. As double-edged as love itself is, as life is. Oliver's words expose the powerful strength born of human grounding within relationship and our simultaneous awareness of the erosion of presence itself. The hug and the sucker punch.

My friend possesses a gentle truth that for most of us remains unbearable to embrace. Transition at its core is about life, perhaps even more than simple living. The compassion and strength and presence we bring to dying, of oneself or others, is the final thesis on life. In these moments we say what we've come to say, or we never do. Breathe, and listen. As Oliver writes, "You are breathing/patiently; it is a/beautiful sound. It is/your life..." In the space between heart beats lies the singularity of presence. Love.

Today's words go out to my beautiful brave friend and her equally beautiful and brave mother."It is/your life, which is so close/to my own..."
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Simple Truth

Some things
you know all your life. They are simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter, and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.

- from "The Simple Truth," Philip Levine

The beauty of love is that it is capable of great patience, tremendous tenacity, it stretches, it attaches, it slowly builds like bone in the new body. It has been a journey, for me, this life. And in the coming...the gestating of new forms of connection and partnership, of family. Evolving in new ways of being, new shapes to the lives we lead. It is the simple truth to say that living is a cycle of ever-becoming. And while neither easy, nor pristinely beautiful, not perfect in process, the becoming is perfect in intent. It is perfect in joy, grounded in the earth, heavens, and self. The human heart is a warrior and a monk. And it speaks a simple truth. Belong.
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Be Your Peace

There is a law in psychology that if you form a picture in your mind of what you would like to be, and you keep and hold that picture long enough, you will soon become exactly as you have been thinking.
- William James

It's been a most interesting few months of late. My husband and I, talking about this next phase of life, both together and individually (he is about to become a grandfather through his oldest son), have invoked that old truism, Life is What You Make of It. It feels important to us both to transform "gateway events" - the celebratory, the sorrowful or unexpected, all that is joyful and generational - into meaningful life choices. To remember that each gate we pass through is an opportunity to chose. And in choosing, we make life.

Certainly one can drift hopeless through the days and life will happen, more accidental than desired. But if you believe as William James, the philosopher (brother to Henry James, the well-known novelist), that we all possess the personal authority to invoke and intend the life we most desire, then why toss on the tides instead?

I've been receiving reader email lately on the seemingly unavoidable stress of the holidays, family life, and work. I'm thinking of all the bits of wisdom I might offer, having grown up in a thrifty, financially-challenged military and then later, single parent family; and, in my own life raising two kids through the sorrows, financial and parenting struggles that losing a co-parent and spouse bring. While mulling these challenges over, I realized the bright star on the horizon through everything, in my mother's life and my own, was a vision of survival. Intention. While there was never any way to know how or why we would get the job done, we both adopted constancy, check and check-mate with life on an almost daily basis. My mother leaned heavily on the practical, and her spiritual faith; I leaned more knowingly into the reality that only one person could make any certain difference and that person was me. I took every shot, walked through every open door, left no card unplayed. And at the end of the day, having done my best, I accepted the universe was in charge of the rest.

Interestingly, a side effects of this habit of holding onto a vision, is the dissolution of personal stress. Daily stress arises in part from the cognitive dissonance between what we expect of ourselves and life, and what we can do, or accept. The gulf between expectation and reality can leave us anxious and dissatisfied, worried. Choose a personal "Joy" vision this season. As your family or in-laws arrive in town, or you travel for the holidays, contemplate how delightful these days might be, how you feel about family and its importance to you, what you can do to Be the peace and joy you desire. Even if only you hold to that beautiful tranquility and love, it will be enough. Peace rubs off on others, it always does.

I have heard it said that Peace is Joy sitting still, and Joy is Peace jumping to its feet. We're jumping into new dreams, my hubby and I. And I hope you do too. Find your own perfect constellation in these holidays, my friends.
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The ability to honestly and quietly reflect on one's life is one of the most powerful tools for personal growth. Reflection means to bring to life the truth of what's really going on. It's similar to meditation in that you are allowing the truth of the moment, without bias or personal agenda, to surface. Reflection allows you to see your own contribution to a problem, the ways you might improve, and the blind spots in your thinking. It helps you eliminate any tendency you might have to blame others for your mistakes, make excuses that don't serve you, and break free of old habits. In this way, rather than repeating mistakes, as so many of us do... make graceful adjustments that guide toward success.
- Richard Carlson

October 1 marks the beginning of the season of spice. Days imbued by the garnet and golds of autumn. And, a slowing down process. I feel myself easing into an acceptance of the quiet, cold dark ahead that will be winter. October is basking in the last golden afternoons of sun; lying in pastures of green turning brown under summer's final blue enamel skies. At the farmer's fruit orchard this Sunday we picked apples and pears - the pears so ripe off the tree the juice ran down my chin. Surrounded by kids and red wagons, we chose our front porch "Cinderella" pumpkin. This rich cornucopia of harvest traditionally marks the end of the growing season.

Here's a secret: fall marks the beginning of my personal growing season. The season for reflection. For reviewing the active pursuits and plans of the past year and determining those goals and activities that yielded positive results and those that did not. Now is the time I set aside for day-dreaming and assessment. What am I glad of? What still feels missing? How do I want life to be different next spring? I suppose I view myself as a kind of natural perennial coming into my own dormant season. After the hard push and work of the warm, bright part of the year, I kick back and go quiet. Fall leads to a thinking, inner nurturing period.

Over the years, I've learned to work with this aspect of a seasonal nature. To plan my writing projects around cycles of action and reflection. I respect what Richard Carlson has to say regarding the importance of reflection as "one of the most powerful tools for personal growth." Without this pause to assess, we might very well muddle on indefinitely - failing to reboot our internal compass as needed. One thing I've learned in life is that when that "check engine" light comes on it's more than a warning. Ignore at your own risk.

This month's essays will encompass a theme of reflection. Beginning with mental and physical housekeeping: Simplifying daily life. Emptying the extraneous stuff from the day. Letting go of the white noise and narrowing in on the steady signal we all send from within ourselves about how we're doing, what we need, what we love or need to cut free. Symbolically, stillness can be as simple as focus on just one project or goal - holding that one thing in a sea of mental space to invite it to expand and take hold. Practically, we might decide to redesign the morning routine so the family gets to the breakfast table with time to enjoy the meal without the usual chaos and rush. I have discovered that for me meaningful shifts of understanding arise within dedicated moments of "open emptiness." The quiet in stillness. Silence on a solo run. The connection of just holding someone's hand.

I made a revision of my own morning that invites in more of the tranquility I crave: rising earlier (something I am organically indisposed to do). My husband, an anesthesiologist, begins his day at 5:40 a.m. The effort to be at the table beside him, hot coffee in our cups, has yielded an unexpected "together" time I treasure. Outside all is dark and cold, but we sit within a halo of yellow light pooling over the breakfast bar, sharing the quiet. And bonus! After he leaves for the hospital, I have this wonderful extra hour before my morning run to enjoy silence, sip a second cup of coffee, and reflect.

So my friends, what one thing can you simplify - today - that will give you space for deeper reflection? I suspect it's worth the effort to examine those routines, distractions, obligations. Yank the weeds. In that uncluttered earth more you will grow.
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The Places You'll Go

Convocation 2012. Stanford Unviversity
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who'll decide where to go...”
― Dr. Seuss, "Oh, the Places You'll Go!"

There are so many jumping off places in life - that first day of Kindergarten, perhaps a religious commitment or confirmation, maybe just saying "no" when others push "yes"... And there's that BIG one, college. My son has been through the grist mill when it comes to higher education. His first commitment was to a military service academy. He and his plebe buds survived summer military training and advanced through the ranks to become upperclassmen, training hard in military skills, and core science and math academics. He rode for the cycling team, became a respected leader within his company, and majored in Computer and Electrical Engineering. In my son's case, fate intervened shortly after making his junior year formal service commitment: he was released on an honorable, medical discharge. It took awhile for him to sort through the whys and hows, and the sucking vertigo of dislocation he felt personally as well as in his education. Yet he handled it all with dignity and personal quietude, centered in adaptation and faith in life. I was privileged to experience the kind of man my son actually had grown to become: the kind that doesn't quit, even when there is no Plan B.

The following year was one of regathering a sense of purpose, redefining new education and career goals, and finding a way to stay productive and positive while living and working on his own, and waiting, once again, through the agonizing and uncertain process of college applications. This time as a transfer student - with fewer slots and greater odds against him wherever he might apply.

Tuesday, September 18th: Move-in day, Convocation, and the new class of 2016 is officially admitted to Stanford University. As parents and students sat in the golden sun on the old Mission-style quadrangle of Stanford's central campus, President Hennessey spoke about the beauty of beginnings, and the uncertainty that can accompany that first step. He reminded the new freshmen that they should believe in themselves, because the school certainly did. The President, and the Dean of Admissions, also specifically referenced the handful of transfer students scattered throughout the audience. How impressed they were by unique backgrounds of achievement and challenge, and their importance, as members of the Class of 2014 and 2015, to the development of ideas and community throughout the university. The faculty acknowledged the same strength and focus in the new class of admitted transfer students I witnessed take hold in my son: The ability to take that first step into the unknown, and if life or expectations change, retake it yet again.

As often as life requires.

I sat beside my son listening to the closing benediction, more proud of him than I had ever been, and for vastly different reasons than most of those parents beside me. There is pride in watching your children accomplish their dreams the first time, but there is a deeper faith seeing them doing so, because they have to, again. Creating Plan B, dusting yourself off and starting over, is character - built from the guts and muscle of life.

“You're off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
So... get on your way!”

― Dr. Seuss, "Oh, the Places You'll Go!"
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Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life's cultivation: but of the adopted talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous half possession. That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him. No man yet knows what it is, nor can, till that person has exhibited it.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Last night I, like thousands of Americans, tuned in to watch the Democratic National Convention, which followed closely on the heels of its counterpart, the Republican National Convention. As a former high school debater and lifetime lover of speech and rhetoric, political speeches offer an opportunity to witness the art of persuasive speaking, hopefully at its finest: Fresh new thinking, eloquently expressed passion, thoughtful arguments in continuance of our nation's Presidential debates. What startled me in its complete unexpectedness, was to see a woman I know and admire stand on the podium, and in her friendly, humble way, introduce First Lady Michelle Obama for her keynote address.

In a short introduction, this woman I admire so greatly, spoke softly about those who serve our country and their families; and about our national obligation to our wounded warriors. What few know that I and many many military academy parents know, is that Elaine Brye, whose husband was a combat pilot in Vietnam and who calls home a family farm in Ohio, is more than a veteran, mother, and teacher. Four of her five children serve in different branches of military service, and the fifth, graduating high school, hopes to be on his way soon. She is the kind of woman to devote a year to public service, teaching in Kabul. And most important to my personal experience, a volunteer parent liaison who reaches out to other military academy parents, as she herself has been, to offer the comfort and support necessary to bolster our commitment to our sons and daughters on the unique and challenging journey of attending a military academy on their way to military careers and public service.

In 2009, as my son began his military education and service at the United States Naval Academy, Elaine Brye was the new friend on the other end of a phone call, a hug, an encouraging email. She was the voice of reason, the archive of things past and the wisdom of experience. She was a shoulder to many to cry on when things grew dark or discouraging. She was always that one person, parent-to-parent, you could count on to listen and offer support, knowing that honor and youthful commitment aside, these were our kids. And there she was, smiling and full of light on the stage of the DNC, grasping hands in welcome with our First Lady. I caught my breath in awe, watching her stand there, quiet and real, living testimony to what her passion is - America's men and women in military service and the support of their families.

The post-script to this epic moment for me is that nothing in Elaine's life would have struck any of us as a path to here. She has, as Emerson urged, simply expressed her best. Her unique passion and full-throttle energy, her love of others. Even her warmth to send a Christmas card to the White House, thanking the First Lady for her support of our military families. Her years of selfless dedication made her that right choice to introduce to the DNC and those of us watching at home, the First Lady to America's President and Commander in Chief. Emerson is right: None of us yet knows what our best is, nor can we, until we have exhibited it.

Elaine Brye found her moment, and through her, love shines.
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