The Struggle is Good, and It’s Ours

It’s hard for me to address subjects that are so broad and meaningful and close to my heart. I rarely can express it adequately. People freak out when I open my figurative mouth in this forum and come to my husband in a flat panic thinking our world is falling apart. While I wish they wouldn’t due to the sheer unaffordable distraction of it, the thing is that they aren’t wrong.

It is. Our world is in pieces. It’s hard. Brutal. Filled with fear and an unknowing uneasiness. I know it looks like a flat disaster from the outside. And, there is no context for where we walk. It is, at the most base level, completely uncharted territory. I don’t like the raw and the ugly and the unpredictable. And, it has unpacked and moved in. I like certainty and peace and security ever so much, and I’ve had so little of it in my life.

However, that’s not the fight we’re in. And, we are in it. We’re here for the growth and for the challenge and for the struggle. Mostly, we’re here for each other, and the dance is both brutal and beautiful. My biggest fears are other people telling my husband who I am and whether I’m worth it or not, and my biggest gifts are the assurance that he is in this wilderness with me, 100% committed to the new and bold and hard. For me. For our children. Because he values me as a unique person, gives me room to move in the world how I need to and deeply appreciates what I bring into his life after 25 years together.

We had a conversation the other night. While my husband doesn’t read my blog, he says with some frequency that I should write about certain things we talk about, and this was one of them. In exploring the idea of having healthy relationships with institutions, we lamented the fact that there seems to be so little useful support for people trying to navigate hard and unconventional things. Wouldn’t it be transformative if dogma could be set aside, and we could all live by the Hippocratic oath of first, do no harm? It would still be hard here, but it would be hard in a way that didn’t leave me looking over my shoulder for other people’s priorities to unpack in my bedroom. Let people succeed. Cheer them on. Get out of their way, and let them get to work.

We have significant disagreements at this point about life and philosophy, but our greatest strength, I think, is our willingness to be present and engaged in them together. In hard ways. In meaningful ways. In ways that lead to the lowest lows swinging wildly into the highest highs of my life. If I could have looked into the future and seen how this would all play out, I would have ran, no doubt. I would not choose it with my eyes open. But, I like to believe that there was a time and a place and a knowing that led me here, and that it is what we both need. We are exactly where we should be.

As first-world humans, our relationship with struggle has become soft and privileged, and like most people, I seek to dodge, avoid and deflect. We both miss the quietness we had when everything lived in a dark corner of our closet, but we both draw from an ever-deepening well of love and commitment that allows us to pick up the sword and keep fighting the good fight, back-to-back, every day, to protect our home and family. The words of Jordan Peterson resonate with both my husband and I, and we’ve come to see the struggle as a necessary component to a meaningful life. We regularly find these on YouTube and share them with each other, and this was today’s gem.

Our success is never a sure thing – it would be counterproductive to think otherwise. It is volatile and painful many days. However, your success isn’t any more sure than ours, though it looks so much quieter over so many other fences. But, we’re alive here, engaged, wrestling, sometimes “drawing blood,” doing the work and loving with every fiber that we can muster. I’ll take that as a pretty good sign for us. I hope you can, too.

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By Their Fruits Shall Ye Know

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There is another sex abuse scandal in the LDS church right now. (Who am I kidding? I know of several, but this one is national news/a Big Deal.) You would think, with my background, hearing about this kind of thing would sting, or hit home, or something. Sadly, it doesn’t really. I have thoughts and feelings about the principles of it, but I don’t have super intense emotional responses to this kind of thing because it’s just so damn common and so damn familiar. Thinking that – writing it – does elicit sadness in me, and I guess that is where my heart sits in it. It’s sad. It’s unfortunate. It’s broken and selfish and wrong.

And, so familiar.

My semi-public abuse confrontation was just wrapping up about a year ago, and I was in the middle of it when McKenna Denson released her audio of the confrontation with her perpetrator, former MTC president Joseph Bishop. I sat in bed with my husband one night and we listened to the entire thing. We had already walked through a good part of the process we engaged in at that point. I had (still do – maybe one day I’ll feel free to make those available, but I have concerns that make that not possible at this time) my own recordings from various meetings we had been in with different people, including my perpetrator and my mother (not the same individual, just to be entirely clear.) The thing that really struck me the most as we were in the middle of all this trauma is how familiar this all sounded. The professed regret coupled with quite half-hearted remorse and excuse making. I heard that again today when listening to the audio confession of Sterling Van Wagenen. (Seriously, at one point in this interview, Sean is talking to Van Wagenen about his motivations, with him saying how sorry he was for what he had done. This dude calmly talks about his sex addiction, business struggles and marital problems, discussing how it was all falling apart the night of the abuse and his wife wanted a divorce. He says how he was so distraught and so depressed and he knelt down and said this heartfelt prayer. And, then the story hangs there in mid-air with this pregnant pause. Because what he isn’t saying is the rest of it. “I knelt down and said a heartfelt prayer…………………………………. and then I got up and decided to abuse a child as a way to cope.” Guys, this what religious trauma looks like. This, right here, is where it’s born.) It is disconcerting, but it is not even close to surprising.

I felt very positive when I left the first meeting I had with my ecclesiastical leader. I felt (and still do) that he was genuinely alarmed and intended to do the right thing. I wasn’t completely bulldozed in the meeting with my perpetrator. There was some acknowledgement, and to this day he is very deferent to me, my husband, my sister, anyone he thinks may have the “upper hand”… However, I also experienced his absolute inability to be completely honest with himself let alone me or anyone else. He would tell different stories and different parts of the story to different people depending on what they already knew. When his wife found out and separated from him, he very bitterly exclaimed to her how I had ruined his life. (A bit ironic there, yea, but I have a pretty thick skin at this point. Being consciously healthy under pressure will do that.)

You know, you can say what you want, I guess, about what is and isn’t the case, what did or didn’t happen, or what anyone’s motivations may be, but let’s just go right back to the Mormon constructs we know so well : by their fruits shall you know them. I continue to be honest and open and as frank as I know how with anyone I communicate with about it, and I sleep very well at night knowing what my motivations were and are. It’s up to them and God, I suppose, to decide if they can say the same. I did everything I could, and I feel free from any further responsibility in that.

One of the most eye-opening experiences when confronting abuse in a religious construct is the discernible inability of the religious institutions involved to really have any concept of justice and morality in facing these issues. It is so apparent to me that both myself, McKenna and now Sean Escobar are also intimately acquainted with this. It’s not a fun club, but there is a certain comradery of knowing in it that I think is what drives us all to use our voice to educate, inform and advocate for healthier communities, families and churches, if possible. It’s a hard fight. It feels very up hill. However, something that Sean said in his podcast really struck me, enough so that I posted it on my Facebook page. “You are as sick as your secrets.” (If it’s not this episode, it’s the next.)

I honestly don’t feel that most of the people involved in these situations want to do wrong or cover up or sweep things under the rug. I may have said this on the blog before, and I know I’ve said it in conversations with probably a dozen people. Good people want to do good, but when institutional priorities (traditions, dogmatic structures, reputation) are at odds with priorities and needs of individual people, the priorities of the institution win every. single. time. It’s not even close to a competition. If we want to improve these statistics and protect children, we have to have institutional priorities that people can embrace and feel safe with. If that’s not possible, we collectively have to vote with our feet and walk away until they get enough of a message to be compelled to change. At least that’s how I see it.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Truth and openness and honesty and frank conversations slowly move the needle. I feel like what I did in my community was a pretty small thing. What Sean Escobar and McKenna Denson have done is most assuredly much bigger. (I almost feel embarrassed to speak about this like my platform is equivalent to these two rockstars of abuse advocacy.) But, I think what we would all likely agree on is the value that we find in taking pain and doing something good with it. One voice is very small, but adding each voice can eventually make enough noise to make a difference. We’ve all been given a different burden to carry. Take those bruised pieces, plant them in beautiful ground and go do good in the world with the power your knowledge gives you. By their fruits.

I’ve Had Four Marriages

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Last Saturday was our 23rd anniversary. While it may seem that this fact and the title of this post are incongruous, they aren’t really. If you are lucky, like I have been, these marriages will all be with the same person. This is a concept I first heard attributed to the marriage therapist, Esther Perel. While I’m not sure I’m all in with her entire philosophy, this idea does ring true to me. It is inevitable that people will change, and carrying a marriage through these changes in one (relative) piece is a trick that many people fail to achieve and for good reason. Even when you do, I think it’s a feat, an effort, a gift of ebbing and flowing that is never entirely finished.

My first marriage was immature – full of wild ups and downs but infused with hope and naivety. My third marriage was incredibly painful – it felt out of control, and I was uncertain whether we would walk out together. I often felt lost in the valleys of it without perspective or support that could reach me. I remember sitting in our home that was almost completed, with my red master bedroom wall reflecting off the white cabinets that were waiting to be installed and wondering with all sincerity if I would ever sleep a night in this room or if it would all fly apart before we got to that point. We were mired in hurt and trauma that was eating us alive. I deeply missed my second marriage, with its years of peace, predictability and easiness.

To be honest, I still do, even though I know the victory that my current and fourth marriage is and has been. It isn’t as easy, but it is grown up. I am a woman in this relationship – an adult that makes adult decisions in a way that makes a concerted effort to respect those around me. However, it’s also new – we’re newlyweds in this place, and there are things that are still up in the air, not negotiated, unknown. It is disconcerting when I remember how easy it was 10, 15 years ago. But, while I remember that and feel nostalgic, I couldn’t go back there, not even if I tried. I’m not that woman anymore. That woman was naive, compartmentalized and not entirely honest with herself let alone her husband. It was soft there and so safe, but I couldn’t stay and grow. Had I known what I was walking into to get from there to here, I would have put my head in the sand and answered, “No, thank you!”

I can’t say because, blessedly, that is not how life works, and you don’t get a heads up or a preview of what is coming. While this fourth marriage isn’t what either of us expected and certainly not what we signed up for, I like to think that it is what we need. Things are not as peaceful here as that “happy, easy marriage,” but my soul is quiet, confident, *at peace* for the first time in all our years together. I know who lives in this place, most especially myself, but even my husband is a more transparent and understandable entity. He naturally prefers predictability and tradition and sameness, but that is not what lives in the house we dwell in together, and he stretches and grows and loves more because of this fact. I know I challenge him – I always have – but it comes in more profound ways at this point in our lives, in a way that requires the deep love cultivated over time to make palatable. Our immature beginning couldn’t have supported this.

I remember a moment when my youngest was a baby, and it was very hard. I saw an older couple walking down the road holding hands, and I wanted that, so very badly. Today I am able to find perspective in that moment because I realize that you see what you look at and, often, that’s what you lack. The truth was that I have had stability and security in all four phases of my marriage that I’m sure many people saw and longed for. I value those things but I don’t really notice them to be remarkable because, well, for me, they aren’t.

Perspective and insight are incredible gifts, but they are never, never free. We have been through a lot. But, we are still here, together, in the same space, after 23 years and four distinct stages of our marriage. I feel humbled to have lived with and learned from this man and our marriage. And, that, in itself, is worth celebrating. Here’s to many, many more!

Faith, Fear and Fundamentalism

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I spent a good deal of my adult life being motivated by fear. I have always been a thoughtful person, someone who questioned and looked for context and nuance and meaning. However, I was raised in a social structure that had very prescribed ways to do, think and be. This was a conundrum for me for many, many years, and it created a dichotomy that I found very difficult to reconcile. In fact, I never have.

Polygamy has been a real spectre in my life. It’s not something I discuss an awful lot because it’s a real part of the real lives of people I really know and deeply care about, and, in reality, it is a very complex issue. However, I have strong opinions about it, and, while I do try to be fair in my assessment, I wouldn’t call them particularly positive. I still look at the influence that this belief has in my everyday life as the “other woman” in my marriage, even though there is really no one else. It is the thing that to this day makes me feel never quite worthy, never quite good enough. I guess that the easiest and kindest way to communicate this is that I fought very hard for several decades to find a way to fit into this box that was so necessary to my religious tradition. One of the scariest steps I ever took was to let myself admit that it wasn’t healthy for me, and I had to just say no to living that lifestyle. I vividly remember that day and the fear that accompanied it.

“What if I’m wrong?”
“What if I really will lose everything?”
“What if I have completely missed the boat here, and I will be alone forever?”

And, that’s the day that fear stopped holding the rudder of my life. Because once I faced those questions and contrasted them with the price I would pay for continuing to ignore my own heart in favor of messages whose sources I wasn’t confident in – because, hey, what if? – it became abundantly clear that I must take the risk. I would rather live in a way that felt true to my spirit and be potentially alone than to follow someone else’s agenda out of fear. I ugly cried for an entire day and half the next, afraid that my husband would leave me, but I have had peace in that decision from that day forward. (I wish that I could say that I haven’t succumbed to the fear again, but I have. The difficulty this causes in my marriage can overwhelm me on bad days.)

I’ve heard people talk about the Mormon traditions surrounding the afterlife as “sad heaven” because the fear message of separation from friends and loved ones if you go off-script is so prevalent. (In fact, it was strongly reiterated from the pulpit of LDS General Conference just this last weekend.) Mormonism is built upon the principles of agency and personal responsibility as well as a strong emphasis on knowing the truth for yourself. Yet, if you don’t follow the herd in lock step or your revelations aren’t the right ones, we’re told that you will be not only damaging yourself but damning your family unit. I find these messages difficult to reconcile. I think, in fact, that they are quite contradictory and it’s not really possible for religious people to have it both ways. Is God’s priority our heart even if he has to wander the wilderness to find it? Or, is God’s priority following the rules even if our heart isn’t really in it?

I talked last week about how we teach each other how to be better and how grace and connection are the currency of persuasion. I am really not sure why this approach often seems to not translate in religious structures because human nature doesn’t change based upon our environments – it’s quite universal and consistent. I get that motivating with fear works, at least for some people and for a time – it did for me. But, it was temporary. It was an empty faith that owned me more than me embracing it. It wasn’t authentic let alone powerful.

I don’t know what it takes to bring people back to religion because I’m not there. I would imagine that it is unique to each individual and that, for some, a different path will always be more healthy for them. I can say that it isn’t fear and judgment and shame. Those things brought me to my faith crisis, and when I put them down by the roadside, it was a blessed and blissful relief. When I recognize them around me, I shy away in concern that they will overwhelm my life again. What I can say is that, if I ever do change my perspective and decide to participate in religion again, it will not be motivated by fear. You cannot be bludgeoned back into the fold, but I think you can be loved back into the fold.

I am under no illusion about the certainty of my position – I know I could be wrong. However, I believe in a God that knows my heart and knows that my life choices continue to be made in integrity. I am doing the best I can with the knowledge, information and resources that I have. I believe that God wants my heart above all else and that the wilderness is likely the only place we can meet. I no longer fear that.

Social Media and the Stupid Things We Say

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A few weeks ago, I said something really stupid. It was insensitive and thoughtless. I do this sometimes. We all do. I was at a wedding, and my sister had just showed me a photo she’d taken of me when a very dear friend of mine walked up and gave me a massive hug. I criticized the picture of myself using the “R” word. This isn’t a word I consider part of my vocabulary, but I was raised in a different era, well before political correctness, and it slipped out before my brain registered that it was inappropriate. It did register that, but it happened too late, and I said it. In front of my sweet friend. Whose child died from a severe handicap. (Yea. Let that sink in. :/ ) Luckily for me, my friend is kind and forgiving, but most of all, my friend knows me and that this thing I said and did is out of character. She could have called me out, and I would have deserved it, but she didn’t. That fact was humbling, and I made a silent commitment to try harder to not say hurtful things.

I have thought a lot about this and how it moves in our world lately. I have witnessed two separate incidents in the last two weeks where someone publicly said or did something that other people perceived as inappropriate and hurtful. Upon being called on it, the people and/or organization in question apologized sincerely, but continued to be attacked as not enlightened enough, not sincere enough and just overall not worthy enough for the offended parties. Dozens of people jumped on the bandwagon to magnify the offense and loudly lament what cesspools of humanity we all wallow in. I was deeply bothered by both incidents. I think the biggest factor in things like this happening is that we are, more and more, interacting with people that we have no relationship with. People have always had hard conversations that resulted in both personal and social change. But, the construct where this is happening divorced from actual knowledge of your opponent, at least on a basic level, is historically quite new.

I believe that we should all work for a better world. I believe that we should all have the right to express what we think that should be. But, the fact is, that we don’t all agree on those ideas. And, none of us can dictate to the other side of the conversation what they should think and how they should react. That, by definition, makes it not a conversation at all. Yelling louder to drown out another’s opinion is not only ineffective but also quite a weak approach to promoting change. Because, while bullying can alter what people feel comfortable expressing, it can never change someone’s heart. In reality, resentment will merely bury things that could be better addressed more gently in the face of light and love. Kindness and humanity change perspectives; meanness merely makes people not like you.

I posted this on my Facebook page last year, and this train of thought brought it to mind again:

Every social interaction is a mutual and usually unspoken contract between the people or group involved. Therefore, no one person, regardless of their status in the group, gets to unilaterally decide or change that contract. If you don’t want to engage in that contract, that’s your call. But, you can’t demand that other people comply with interactions they haven’t agreed to. You can unequivocally do whatever you want, but you may find yourself yapping at yourself in the mirror at the end of the day. If your goal is to engage with people in community, those people ultimately get to decide if they agree to that relationship.

I can have strong opinions. I post them here. My husband, my friends, and my family definitely know this about me. I also genuinely try to be a kind and caring person. These things are not mutually exclusive. I have had some pretty intense conversations with left-leaning friends about things as controversial as abortion. Because we have a relationship and know some of the ins and outs of each other’s lives, we were able to dialogue about it without them implying that I don’t care about women in difficult situations and without me implying that they are baby killers. Neither of those positions would speak to our mutual respect and understanding that we both have good intentions behind our beliefs – things that allow an actual dialogue to happen that helped us both to genuinely understand an opposing position.

I don’t have all the answers on how to fix all the complex social issues that we face in today’s world. I struggle with them myself. What I can say is that things that seem impossible to reconcile seem to quiet down when we experience them on a personal level. It can be hard to love a faceless group, especially when they aren’t like you, but it’s much easier to connect with a person through a story and a life you can touch. I think that if more people approached hard things this way, on both sides of the aisle, the world would be a better place, whether our disagreements be religious, political or personal.

 

By That Same Spirit

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I don’t read near as much as I did when I was actively navigating my faith crisis, but I do occasionally pick up books that catch my eye when I see them mentioned. Recently, I read Truth Seeking by Hans Mattsson. I think one of the reasons these types of stories still appeal is that faith crises follow a very similar track, and anyone who has experienced one can relate to the journey of fellow travelers.

If you aren’t familiar with Hans Mattsson, he was the high-ranking area authority that was at the center of the Swedish rescue. The church sent their historians right from the top to meet with a core group of Swedish members who were deeply troubled by historical issues in the church. Instead of the questions being resolved, this meeting led to the defection of dozens of very faithful families. Frankly, it was a bit of a disaster for church headquarters though that isn’t really the point of this commentary. What really struck me when reading this book was a very brief few paragraphs that are close to the end. Mattsson’s connections meant that he was good friends with general authorities in the church. When it became clear that he wouldn’t be able to reconcile the historical issues and would leave, one of these people sent him a last-ditch letter in an attempt to persuade him to stay. This is a brief excerpt of what really stood out to me:

You are too good of a man to come to the other side unrepentant. You will quickly remember…that you allowed something to happen to your spirit, and you changed. You will also recognize that you can no longer do anything to change that because the same spirit that you had here in this life will be with you on the other side, and you will feel miserable when you realize that you have been bound to Satan.

I have no idea if other religious traditions use this paradigm, but the idea that you will possess the same spirit you leave this world with is something that I have always been familiar with. It is often used in this context, where it comes across as a bit of a warning which, from a black and white way of thinking, makes sense.

I genuinely appreciate people who care about me enough to be concerned about the changes in my life. The truth, however, is that I haven’t changed that much at all through this process. My conclusions are different than they were before. My relationships with people and things have shifted. But, my character is exactly what led me here, and I find a lot of confidence in that fact. The ability to look at an issue objectively is a positive in my life. The desire to know where the facts lead at all costs isn’t a scary thing for me. I am extremely comfortable anymore with uncertainty and don’t stress near as much as I used to about it.

I could be wrong in my conclusions. I am not infallible or incapable of misreading the facts. However, my ultimate desire to genuinely sort things out, should that be the case, will right me quite quickly when I reach my judgement day, I have no doubt. Because, if missing information changes the overall picture of how I see religion, it will be my nature to reassess that and move on in the direction of greater clarity. I trust that process a lot at this point and don’t fear it. I trust God and my ability to discern much more than I trust men and the messes they make in the midst of dogma.

I have a few favorite quotes that guide how I interact with issues like these. I’ve liked them for a long time, though it’s probably only been a few years that I’ve felt brave enough to live by them.

“Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.” – Thomas Jefferson
“If we have the truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation. If we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed.” – J. Rueben Clark
I have never felt more honest and at peace with my relationship with God. The concept addressed here, that you don’t just magically morph into a different person when you die, rings true to me. Still, rather than being a warning, it has become quite a comfort. I am doing the best I can with the information I have and will continue to live my life by that standard. Rather than a dance with the devil, integrity leads one to truth, even if the journey is more windy than one would expect. Because of that, my spirit is strong, and my conscience is clear.

Taking the Good With the Bad

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In an almost serendipitous fashion, life has a way of being a study of contrasts. You can be deep in an experience of heaviness, feeling the weight of the world upon you, suffocating and life-sucking, only to be plucked back up into joy and life and love. These moments are particularly sweet when marked against the bitter.

I’m no stranger to divorce. My parents’, firstly, with all its implications and the way it nudged my life and changed it forever. My parents were amiable and decent, but it’s impossible to take things that were bound together apart without damage. I’ve watched members of my family walk through it and heard them express the wish that it could be different, despite the fact that I’ve seen the reasons why, and they were valid. There usually is a good reason, though it sometimes takes time to see where the responsibility lies from the outside. Sometimes you are never quite sure. Sometimes it’s mutual selfishness. I wish it wasn’t this way, and that people were always as good as they should be and that children were always put first. But, it’s not, and it’s painful to watch, even from a distance.

Walking from this experience made the good news we received a few days ago particularly sweet and poignant. We have two beloved family members that intimately know the pain of betrayal that leads to divorce and have walked it under some of the most extreme circumstances I’ve ever witnessed with grace and dignity, not to mention a depth of character that is rare indeed. I got the most amazing text letting me know that their friendship and mutual support had become something more, and they were engaged. They are both exactly what the other has been missing and, despite what I expect will continue to be complicated, I have no doubt that they will build something lasting and beautiful. This news was very much akin to sunlight breaking over a very cloudy sky to me.

I think it’s easy to see events like this, especially in such a dramatic fashion, without realizing that they are poignant moments frozen in time that were actually built from the everyday, mundane moments of life. I’ve lived moments like this. We all have. Sometimes, I’ve succumbed to less-than-admirable motives, and people I love have suffered. Mostly, though, my marriage has grown into the opposite, with longevity and love the result of two partners that have chosen to look beyond ourselves (at least I like to think so.) The truth is probably a slow realization of the former that gave us both the fortitude to choose the harder but better way. While people rarely weigh the thousands of tiny actions that make up life, the fact is that these are the make-or-break things that happen to us, as normal as they appear. And, marriage has a way of making it impossible to ignore when you haven’t lain it all on the table.

A few years ago – five, probably – we were in the darkest part of our marriage. There was so much hurt and disappointment and blame, and neither of us were doing well at managing it with kindness and love, really. I came across a Ted Talk that sunk deep into my soul and shaped how I began to look at relationship. I’ve taught classes on the concepts of the bridge between the worlds and the relational space since and continue to recommend this talk it to couples I know.

I sincerely hope that all my readers are in a good place in their lives, but having lived it myself and seen others go through it as well, I’m not that naive. Either way, the 20 minutes it will take to watch this are well worth the time. I hope your week has not been cloudy, but for those that know the feeling all too well, maybe this can be your own sunshine breaking over the gloom. “The adventure of life is not about discovering new landscapes. The adventure of life is seeing the old ones with new eyes.” Choose love. I’ve found it to be so worth the price.