PTSD and Your Feet

I had PTSD for many years, but no clue what it really meant and how it affected my life. Those were pre-internet years in my 20’s when I was burned-out and too exhausted to care. I remained too exhausted to care for many years thereafter.

I didn’t know what I felt most of the time. I’d been conditioned since childhood to focus on markers in my environment, and to accept the reality of my significant others as to my identity and wellbeing.

Thankfully, that feels like a long time ago. But I still appreciate clues as to when stress is brewing within.

One clue is to watch my feet.

I had no idea until I moved in with Jack, ten years ago, that when I am stressed or anxious or going into fight or flight, I move my feet a certain way.

For instance, Jack and I would be sitting side by side on the couch, with our legs stretched out and resting on the ottoman, watching a movie. My feet would be crossed at the ankles, (my usual position when sitting on the couch).

I became aware that sometimes, for no good reason, I’d find myself rubbing my feet together. They wouldn’t itch or feel uncomfortable or unpleasant. There was physically no rationale for me to be doing this. It was a weird, unconscious, instinctual thing, which I had no trouble stopping once I became aware of it.

Somewhere along the way, I realized my rubbing-feet were manifesting internal stress I wasn’t in touch with and I eventually found various ways to release it. (See my book PTSD: Frozen in Time.)

Joe Navarro wrote a wonderful book about body language called What Every Body Is Saying (An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People).

It’s a fun, highly readable book. He talks a lot about the survival brain and how our bodies react to stress and trauma. He said, “Having conducted thousands of interviews for the FBI, I learned how to concentrate on the suspect’s feet and legs first, moving upward in my observations until I read the face last. When it comes to honesty, truthfulness decreases as we move from the feet to the head.”

I learned, from the many books I eventually read about PTSD, that in a trauma situation, faced with fight or flight (or freeze or collapse), the psoas muscle deep within our core is activated first because it allows us to run or take a stand and fight. It’s evolutionary behavior, so it makes sense our feet and legs show our stress. Those of us with PTSD can get triggered any number of ways. I can’t feel my psoas muscle, but I can watch my feet to get a hint.

Sometimes at night, I’m very tired and so sure I’ll fall right to sleep the minute my head hits the pillow. I get in bed, turn off the light, close my eyes and…find my feet rubbing against each other. I know better than to ignore it.

I sit up then and do an inventory because something is bothering me and I know if I don’t release that stress or emotional energy, I won’t sleep for a long time, no matter how pooped I am.

I hope, Dear Reader, you sleep deeply and well tonight and have pleasant dreams. I hope I do, too.

PTSD and Feeling Paralyzed

I was diagnosed with PTSD in my 20’s and immediately put on medication. At the time, I was like, Great, man, fine, whatever you want to call it, just give me something to make me feel better.

I didn’t know anything about PTSD, what caused it, the symptoms, and so on. I was just in a zombie state, numb or in despair, unable to sleep more than an hour or two a night, unable to keep a job very long. I was barely surviving.

There was no internet back then. Even if there were, I don’t know if I would have done that much research. I was in too bad a shape. You may know what that state of affliction feels like.

The meds helped insofar as I could sleep again. Sleeping regularly, I got my physical health back and, therefore, could keep a job much easier. (More on my story in PTSD: Frozen in Time.)

For about twenty years after diagnosis, I continued to live mostly in the dark as far as understanding PTSD.

Although I was socially adept at work and developed a successful career, I became increasingly isolated outside of the office.

When I was home in my apartment on weekends, I’d go from feeling fluid, self-assured, smart, and successfully independent on Friday evenings to feeling a complete failure at every level on Sunday nights–curled up on my couch feeling afraid, demoralized, physically cold (despite environmental warmth), almost paralyzed (despite athleticism), and in despair.

I did not understand this weekend-metamorphosis and shoved it out of my head the rest of the week.

Sometime in my 30’s, I read The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis. (Subtitle: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse).

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that my childhood trauma was not sexual abuse, but I had so many of the same survivor symptoms that the book spoke to me, especially on the issue of boundaries.

It’s been many years since I read that wonderful book, so please forgive my inexact and dusty paraphrasing of what I recall. If memory serves, the authors suggest something to the effect that adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse sometimes don’t realize—at an unconscious, visceral level—that their bodies are their own now, under their power and control alone, and no one can touch them unless they say so.

They may understand this intellectually, but physically moving gets the message to the survival brain and calms the body down.

I remember them saying it might be helpful when a person is having trauma symptoms to pull their bodies back into the present moment by punching out or kicking out or somehow through movement letting their body/minds know there is no one in their personal space now. The adult survivor is physically free, they can move in whatever direction they want to go, no one is going to stop them. No one can come into their space unless they allow them (barring unthinkable scenarios).

This was an epiphany to me at the time. A real paradigm shift. It was the first book I read that related to what I was going through, years before I read a ton of books on PTSD (beginning with Peter Levine’s Waking the Tiger.)

I thought of this recently because, since my husband’s death, I have experienced periods of feeling frozen again–tiny, powerless and paralyzed with fear.

But I’m not little anymore or powerless or frozen. It’s just a feeling, albeit an unpleasant one.

So…this morning I got out of bed (just physically moving sometimes rids me of the frozen, tiny feeling, although a workout or walk is more satisfying), had my berries, and started planning a brief road trip.

I’m going to drive up north to the town where my uncle and cousin live and check out apartments. Although the area I live in is beautiful, it’s shot through with the sadness of Jack’s illness, multiple hospitalizations and passing. Plus, I know almost no one here.

Also, the area up north is the closest to an “old neighborhood” for me after Chicago. I visited my dad and uncle there for over twenty years.

I hope you are having a day filled with moments of wellbeing and that you will hear a song or some music today that heals your heart.

Almost Felt Normal Today

It’s about 6 p.m. in Tucson at the moment. I’d like to take a nap, but don’t want to. I don’t want to wake and remember Jack is gone. So here I am writing a quick blog.

I know I have a good cry coming up. I’ve probably said this literally a hundred times to Jack, but why stop now? I hate crying.

Who does, right? It’s just that with my history, I’ve had to do a lot of it in the last four and a half years.

Oh well…as I wrote in my book (PTSD: Frozen in Time), I didn’t cry for decades so….it’s just that sometimes it feels like throwing up and that’s no fun.

I had a good break for a while, though. A really nice break. My emotional well-being was pretty beautiful. I evened out. But as would be expected after Jack’s death, I’m feeling pretty sad.

***

This morning, I got up early, had breakfast, exercised and went to a support group meeting.

It was great. It got me out of the house and out of my head, gave me perspective, and pushed my consciousness aside enough to hear what’s going on in other people’s lives.

I burst into tears twice. Once in compassion for another and once when I shared the sadness I was feeling.

I was talking with this one woman. She didn’t understand why she’s been feeling so angry lately and why she’s crying all the time and it’s been five years since her (violent, sexual) trauma and she doesn’t want to talk about it anymore and she feels like she’s going nuts and, after “getting past” childhood trauma years ago, why is this one so hard to kick and “Where is God in all this?”

Oh man, what can you say?

Sometimes a person needs to just get it out. Most of the time, I’m not asking to be fixed, just listened to with compassion and understanding.

Besides me, two other women came up and briefly shared their experience and she really bonded with one who had literally the exact same trauma situation happen to her (although by a different perpetrator).

What a mystery life is.

***

After grocery shopping, I got in the car, turned on the radio and heard an old song, “A Summer Song” by Chad and Jeremy. I burst into tears. It wasn’t even one of our songs. I won’t play our songs at the moment.

“A Summer Song” was actually before my time. I was seven or eight when that came out, but we had the forty-five when I was little. I always thought it was pretty and soft and gentle. It sounded kind and loving and that’s what Jack was. Kind, loving, and gentle. (But also a tough fire fighter from the south side of Chicago!)

***

Well, that’s all for now. I’ve got a good cry on my schedule, then dinner and hopefully I’ll find a classic movie to watch before an early bedtime.

Last night, I watched “The Quiet Man”. It was wonderful. Maybe I’ll do “Casablanca” tonight. I haven’t watched it for six months.

You know the line, “We’ll always have Paris.”?

Well, I’ve never been to Europe, but for the fifteen years before I met Jack, I dreamt the most frustrating dream several nights a week. I kept trying to get to Paris and I never could get there. There was always some issue with the plane.

The night before I moved in with Jack, I had the happiest dream of my life even though it lasted but a moment.

In the dream, I stood in the sunlight on a beautiful, cobblestone street in Paris.

I’d finally made it.

 

Felt Frozen This Morning

I haven’t written for a while because my husband’s congestive heart failure and kidney disease got worse, and he died two weeks ago.

I feel lousy.

I feel sad almost all the time. I sob periodically.

I’m mad sometimes. Not at anyone in particular, just mad–like a crazy, inarticulate I-hate-the-world feeling the kind a little kid would have.

I miss Jack so bad, I don’t have words to do justice to the feeling.

Woke up this morning with that frozen feeling, a sort of an inner paralysis. I felt tiny, too, which goes back to old childhood trauma.

I am familiar with that feeling.

I’m glad I went through so much releasing of trauma energy years ago because now I read my body pretty well (after decades of physical numbness when I didn’t have a clue), but I’m still learning.

Like last night, I had the worst back pain ever for no physical reason. I did sleep on the living-room couch for months across from my husband, who had to sit up to sleep (due to fluid in chest/lung area), and I slept in a cot in his room when he was hospitalized, but I never had back pain from these things.

Years ago, when I was fired from a job in my late twenties, I had almost immediate back pain that no physical repositioning or drugs could alleviate. It went away with time and new interests, (although I did start a life-long practice of crunches to strengthen my lower back.)

Through the years, the lower back pain returned and I came to associate it with a sudden withdrawal of support. Certainly, my losing Jack qualifies.

I wondered how long I’d have to put up with the excruciating back pain. I can’t afford a chiropractor at the moment.

As for pain pills. Forget it. (See my book: PTSD: Frozen in Time)

Then I started crying for about twenty minutes.

My back pain went away.

A couple hours later, I got that TMJ feeling in my jaw.

Man, I hate that pain. Hadn’t had it for decades, not since I was in my early 30’s and feeling so much unexpressed rage about my childhood. I worked out a lot of that over the years, especially with punching bags and hitting (smashing) tennis balls as hard as I could across from a ball-machine. I gave away the big kickbox-type punching-thing when we moved from Chicago to Arizona. It’s too hot to play tennis in AZ at the moment. Plus, I’d need a ball-machine.

Around midnight, I started crying again. When I finished, my jaw pain was gone.

I’m so lucky I can release the physical pain with crying. I hate it, but imagine the alternative.

So anyway, when I woke up feeling that old paralysis this morning, that little girl freeze of fear, I knew I had to make a move.

Some move.

Any move.

I started this blog entry.

Cried.

Then I called and left a message for my brother.

Cried.

Then I called the Pension Board and Mutual Aid Board.

I’m going to take a shower when I’m done writing this, and take a walk plus do sprints. (Only in the low 90’s at the moment!) I don’t feel like it, but I know I’ll feel better.

I hope to see my Scarlet Tanager friend. He reminds me of a cat I had once. I’d be reading in my apartment, lost in a book for a couple hours, paying no attention to Kitty. She’d do something to get my attention, run quickly, madly, from one corner of the studio to the other several times, and then stop and lick a paw as if nothing happened. When I’d say, “What’s going on Kitty?” She’d look so disinterested, as if to say, “What’s that? I have no idea why you think something is going on. I’m just minding my own business here.”

The Scarlet Tanager does something like this when I start walking. He’ll come out of nowhere, race ahead and stop at a bench or tree branch a few feet ahead of me. I’ll stop, in real awe and wonder, and say, “Hi beautiful Scarlet Tanager. What’s going on?” He’ll turn his head this way and that, as if to say, “What’s that? I have no idea why you think something’s going on. I’m just minding my own business here.”

I will bring him a strawberry today. I read they like strawberries.

 

Did Your Life Turn Out the Way You Dreamed it Would?

Jack got a three-lead pacemaker implanted two weeks ago. During surgery, I sat in a waiting room a chair away from a hospital volunteer. She was a beautiful woman in her late 60’s, a New York transplant, and a great listener. I talked and talked as if I was on Concerta. Nerves, I guess.

I don’t know why, but I desperately wanted to ask her if her life had turned out the way she dreamed it would once upon a time. Before I could ask, the surgeon came in to see me and the volunteer left.

I never had the urge to ask anyone that question. I suppose it’s because in the past few months I’ve had a lot of moments, during trauma release exercises, when I’ve felt bad that my life turned out the way it did. It seemed such a waste. So much numbness, despair and pain. So little happiness.

I remember wanting to be a writer after reading Charlotte’s Web. I wrote a lot of stories, but wasn’t obsessed with writing. I wanted adventures out in the world! I played outside a lot with my cousins who lived in the same apartment building. I loved to run and ride my bike and go to the library and school and the penny-candy store and church. I was in love with life. Everything was exciting or wonderful or a thrilling mystery. I was filled with love and thought life would always be as wonderful as it was then.

From nine to thirteen, during the trauma years, I was frequently sick with strep throat and spent a lot of that time watching old black and white movies in bed. How wonderful to play a part, to be another person, how freeing. And to be applauded and admired for it? That was for me! I dreamed of going to New York someday and becoming an actress.

In high school, I had symptoms of PTSD. In the early 70’s, I certainly didn’t know that’s what they were. The biggies were hyperarousal, insomnia, exaggerated startle reflex, nightmares, intrusive thoughts and hyper-vigilance. When I was 16, numbness, depersonalization, and the sense of a foreshortened future set in.

I remember sitting in my boyfriend’s basement “rec-room” with my friends. We were drinking and listening to music. One by one, each was saying what they planned to be in life and where they saw themselves at thirty. When it got to me, I said from habit I’d be an actress, but the truth was I didn’t sense any future at all. It was like an invisible wall, infinitely thick and immutable, stood one inch from my face all the time, a barrier forever in place between me and any possible future. Of course, I acted as though I had a future, but I didn’t feel I had one and so didn’t much plan for one. It was kind of like I was dead in a way. I didn’t know what to make of the feeling. I assumed it would go away.

This last year, (I’m sixty now), I’ve felt bad sometimes because my life seemed a waste due to decades of untreated PTSD, particularly numbness punctuated with episodes of rage and despair. I had no interest in hanging out with other people when I felt numb, angry or depressed, so it was a life lived mostly alone, avoiding all triggers.

My life might be interpreted as “successful” on paper. I looked good. I was socially adept. I did well in my career, once I got one going (mid-30’s). I accomplished certain things artistically that some might consider noteworthy. I even became an actress (in my twenties), but my unpredictable symptoms of numbness, depersonalization and derealization undermined my ability to act and thus any sustained success and enjoyment it might have given me. I gave it up.

In a way, my dreams did come true insofar as I became a writer, albeit a business writer, and an actress, however briefly.

Long ago I imagined those dreams would bring me happiness. They didn’t. Neither did any accolades I received or money or beautiful living arrangements. Nothing broke through the numbness, the dissociation. Not for long anyway.

How can you feel happy when you can’t feel? When you can’t feel, how can you love?

I wish I could’ve somehow transcended PTSD, but that was impossible. It’s nature’s response to unreleased trauma energy.

Jack’s heart was attacked by a virus. Congestive heart failure was his body’s response. He certainly can’t transcend it, although he can take steps to get well.

He feels bad sometimes because he feels he isn’t good company anymore. He can’t help it that he has congestive heart failure. He can’t help that he’s exhausted most of the time. It’s not his fault. I feel compassion for him.

Having PTSD wasn’t my fault either. It’s worthy of the same compassion.

The best thing I can do for the little girl I once was is to do everything I can to create a life of well-being now. Feeling whatever is inside is essential. In fact, the only adult happiness I’ve known began when my meds stopped working at forty-nine. (See my book PTSD: Frozen in Time .) Sometimes it is painful to feel and release sadness and anger, but the payoff is joy and happiness. In the end, that’s all my little-girl selves wanted.

I’ve wasted enough of my life looking back with regret, imagining how it all could’ve turned out so differently, so much better, if only this person hadn’t done that, if only I hadn’t done this. No matter how many times I check in with the past, it’s always the same.

I personally feel I agreed before I came into this incarnation to grapple with these issues this time around. I don’t think I knew the details, just the issues. However it came to be, I’m putting in a stop-order on regrets for the dream life of happiness I didn’t have.

Enough is enough. Time for compassion, tears and joy.

 

PTSD, Caretaking and Acceptance

In 1978, I took care of my mother when she had cancer. I was twenty-two. I didn’t know I had PTSD back then. They actually hadn’t come up with the term yet.

My feelings were buried in those days and that was normal for me. So were being hyper-vigilant and suffering from insomnia.

I do remember being puzzled one night in 1979, when I realized I’d lost any sense of a future. It was a bizarre visceral sense, as if a huge, thick, immovable wall had somehow come up inches from my face where before my future lay open. This, I’ve come to know, is what they call “a sense of a foreshortened future”.

I also had an exaggerated startle response, which embarrassed me, and woke every night at two in the morning unable to breathe. I thought it had something to do with smoking. I didn’t know you could have panic attacks in your sleep.

During the day, I was the personification of “normal”. I was cheerful and energetic and ever-helpful, until I burned out and became sick right before my mom died.

It took about six months after she died before I regained any wellbeing. The hardest part was feeling guilty for burning-out. I didn’t know then I could’ve asked for help. I didn’t know I could’ve said “I’m so tired, I need someone to help me here” or “I need a time-out, some kind of break, to rejuvenate.”

I just kept going like a machine until I wore out.

So here I am, almost forty years later, taking care of my dear husband, Jack, who has Congestive Heart Failure and Kidney Disease. Since we moved to Arizona in August, he’s been hospitalized six times.

The experience of caretaking is different now compared to when I was twenty-two and frozen inside. One big difference is I feel my feelings now since going off the PTSD meds a few years ago (see my book: PTSD: Frozen in Time).

Sometimes the feelings are overwhelming.

And when I say overwhelming, I mean terrifying.

I am afraid of Jack suffering, of his being unable to breathe and going back to the hospital, of his kidneys giving out from the diuretics, of the possibility he’ll get a stroke, of my burning-out and getting sick and depressed.

Sometimes, I just feel scared. I wake up in the night able to breathe just fine, thank God, but I’m scared and can’t figure out specifically why. I calm down and the fear goes away when I say the following quote to myself. (It’s from the book Alcoholics Anonymous.)

“And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situation—some fact of my life —unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment. Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in God’s world by mistake. Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober; unless I accept life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and in my attitudes.”

When I was little, everyone in my family denied reality and I did, too, both involuntarily from the “freeze” of fight/flight/freeze/collapse and consciously, when overwhelming feelings came up in response to the insane behavior of those I lived with. My feelings were buried and I couldn’t release the trauma energy, which determined the quality of my life for decades to come (numbness, despair and occasional rage).

When I unconsciously fall back into burying feelings, which is essentially denying reality, fear blooms in my stomach like a sickness. But if I take a few minutes and detail the reality of what’s going on in the moment, and cry it out and/or talk it out and/or run it out—then I feel better, more grounded. I get my perspective back and I don’t feel scared anymore. I might feel concerned, but not scared like a powerless kid. I can come up with solutions.

Some people think acceptance is resignation. For me, it’s the first step to taking action.

So here I am, not clinically burned-out, but on the way there if I don’t take steps to prevent it. My biggest issues are hyperarousal, hyper-vigilance, hyper-focus on Jack 24/7 and feelings of isolation. I must get out of the house and out of my head several times a week to feel balanced. Thank goodness, I can go to support meetings and be reminded to accept the things I cannot change and change the things I can.

I need to come up with more ideas, though, because this is how I feel today: I’m so tired, I need someone to help me here and I need more time-out, some kind of break, to rejuvenate.

I’m not a machine anymore. I may have been treated like one once upon a time, but I never was.

Meet Anthie, My New Plantie

I heard a knock on our door last week and opened it to find our upstairs neighbor holding out a Spirit Anthurium. She was giving us a gift for no other reason than to be wonderful. God bless her. I looked down at Anthie and said, “Hello Anthie!” She was positively bursting with joy.

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I never had an anthurium before. I looked it up and they represent new beginnings and celebration. How perfect for us with Jack getting better (“Celebrate, celebrate, dance to the music”) and the beginning of our new life here in AZ.

We couldn’t bring any of our plants from Chicago. They would’ve died in the mover’s truck. It was hard for us to let them go, but we found them good homes. I’d done their portraits in colored pencil before we left and immediately hung them in our new place.

***

I read my first book by a shaman about eight years ago. He said plants (along with trees and stones and everything in nature) have spirits. Not only that, but he said the spirits of plants want to help us if only we’d ask. I’d never heard of this worldview, but it resonated.

Not long after, I was up in the wee hours buzzing with hypervigilance, buckling under from a bad tummy and buried-trauma-energy manifesting in pain every which way. I wandered from window to window in the dark of our high-rise apartment and finally stood in the kitchen where we had several plants on a ledge. I’d bought one of them at a grocery store a couple months before and it was not doing well. I repotted her, gave her fresh soil, misted daily, trimmed the dying parts, but she was fading fast. It was upsetting. She was clearly dying. I couldn’t think of anything more I could do to save her.

I remembered what the shaman said and, even though I felt a little foolish, kneeled down and whispered to her, “If you can heal, so can I.”

Within two days, that plant turned around. Her leaves turned dark green and she multiplied so fast I had to buy a larger planter. I couldn’t believe it. I also began to get better through various non-traditional means. (See PTSD: Frozen in Time.)

img_1315-2(Healing plantie third from right.)

***

When I got off the meds years ago, I was utterly discombobulated by incredible physical pain and energy shooting through my arms and legs every day. I meditated a lot, not just for stillness at the center, but for answers and help.

One day, I’d gone deep into a feeling of relaxed floating inside of a wave. Many times, when I was in that state, a sort of screenshot would open up in my head, startling me out of the trance mode. The screenshots were always helpful or epiphanic. So this day, I’d been in a kind of despair, needing comfort and assurance I wasn’t dying. (All my pain and bizarre symptoms made me feel like I was dying, even though the doctors could find nothing.) I floated in a deep relaxed blank when a screenshot slowly appeared. It was of the leaves of the first plant I’d ever gotten. They were around me in a gentle embrace. There was so much love. My eyes quickly opened. I was incredulous.

***

I read a book about plant spirits and the author suggested you invite the spirit of a plant to join you on a walk. Since they’re grounded all the time, they appreciate the opportunity to move. It was my habit at that time to dance to music in the living room when Jack went out. I walked over to Little Mama (see below), the plantie that held me in meditation, and invited her spirit to hop on mine and dance with me. I started the music and let loose. I was swinging around and doing my thing. I lifted my arms up and out and suddenly felt long tendrils reaching beyond my fingers into the air. I kept dancing, but I have to tell you, it freaked me out! It’s one thing to read this stuff, but when you experience non-ordinary reality happening, it really blows your mind. At least it did mine.

 

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My dancing partner, Little Mama.

***

A wonderful book called The Secret Lives of Plants details one scientific case study after another showing plants have some kind of consciousness. The more you bond with a plant, the more love you show it, the more it is connected to you. I love that stuff.

I’ve been getting back to meditating again now that Jack is better and free time is opening up. I laid me down the other day, thinking of Anthie and wishing my ability to meditate and blank my mind was better developed so I could communicate with her. I fell into one of my old-time deep floats and, lo and behold, I got a screen shot of her. She was sitting next to our dining table and beside her stood what I think was her spirit–a soft, misty, yellow energy emanating light in a sort of stalk-like shape.

***

I am glad my worldview changed ten years ago. I’d been cynical all my life after losing my faith in a loving, interventionist Supreme Being because of genocide, molestation and slavery, not to mention what felt like a complete lack of response to my prayers as a child.

It’s true there are horrible things that happen in the world and sometimes no one intervenes, or what interventions there are appear fruitless, at least temporarily. There are also wonderful, miraculous things that happen that give me a sense of awe and wonder. As I always say, it’s a great mystery

I want to take action, if I’m able, when bad things happen. I also want to focus on those phenomena that give me a sense of awe and wonder.

Welcome Anthie!

P.S. Check out the coolest blog with gorgeous pictures of the faces of flowers. Don’t they look like they’re smiling and posing? From My Garden – Patricia Grace