Story Submitted by Vicki Bills

The saying tells us to count our blessings. It’s 2020, the year of COVID, thousands dying alone, to mask or not to mask, parents homeschooling, unemployment, sports played in a bubble, colleges e-learning, meetings on Zoom. Blessings?

I guess some blessings would include having time to organize, read, binge watch tv, chat on Facebook, learn a new hobby, etc. My adult son lives with me, and we thought it was great to have someone else to have with us to ride out the pandemic. Gratitude for a companion wore thin at times. You’re going to wear that shirt in public? What are we having for dinner? When am I doing laundry next? Do we have to watch that show again? It became almost a curse.

But then a true blessing appeared. (A true blessing is a good fortune that seems to involve–however small–divine intervention.) In early April during the rainy season, a mama cat chose to deliver her litter of kittens outside our screened porch in the plants. To be hospitable, we opened the door, provided water and food, and made a comfy box for her and her kittens to shelter.

On the third day, Mama cat moved all of the kittens but one. The Humane Society gave us advice and supplies because we had to bottle feed this little furball with closed eyes every few hours, even during the night.

Little by little, she grew, opened her eyes, answered to her name Penny, wobbled on tiny legs, “meeped” at us, and snuggled on our laps. She made us laugh as she tripped over her own feet or fell into her water dish. It felt like we were seeing some ordinary event that seemed extraordinary to us. She apparently thought I was her mother and still follows me everywhere.

But the story only gets better when, two weeks later, a half-sister from an earlier liter cried outside during a storm. We were on our way to give her to the shelter when my son named her Socks. You can’t give away a pet after you name her, so we adopted her too.

They keep us laughing all the time chasing each other, running over and under the furniture, learning new tricks, and demanding ice cubes when we open the freezer. Then they chase the ice cubes around looking like the Bolts on ice. If they are tussling with each other and one meows in pain, we call their names and ask what they are doing. They just look at us with their paws around each other’s necks like they are being innocent.

They have changed the way the isolation has been for us. They peek out at us from a hidden space between books. They try to hide everywhere, like the dryer or dishwasher. They watch tv and put their paws on the screen to follow the action, especially when the Bolts played. Although we rescued them from their situations, they rescued us from feeling isolated and missing socialization. We definitely have made two friends for life. We’ve ordered toys and treats to amuse them even if they love to play in a plain bag or toss our socks in the air. The love they give us and elicit from us is a wonderful, unexpected experience. Yeah, I’d say they are a blessing.

Story Submitted by Caryn Willens

At age 67 I began training in a 200 hour Yoga Teacher training curriculum 🧎‍♀️. Not so unusual you say? How about this…I didn’t know how to do yoga! I just woke up one morning & decided to become a CYT ( Certified Yoga Teacher). So, there I am in a class of 18, 19 & 20 somethings who were proficient in movement & yoga! WHAT DID I GET MYSELF INTO??? Well, I did it. And here I am CELEBRATING 🤸‍♀️ my accomplishment at age 70, on the beach in Del Mar, CA leading my friends in a yoga class at sunset in front of the Pacific Ocean. You’re only as young as you think you are!

Story Submitted by Deborah Bostock-Kelley

Zen has been difficult to come by this year. But I’ve discovered that going back to my roots with song lyrics and poetry, online choose-your- own-adventure books for adults, coloring in my adult f-it coloring book, and reading my dad’s three-part novel has been able to help with stress and make me feel more relaxed. I’ve also discovered YouTube. Before the pandemic, I used YouTube to look up a song or get help with a website issue. Now, I’ve found so many interesting/odd people my husband and I follow. Who would have thought we’d enjoy watching kids eat foreign food or Irish people try spicy candy or watch people who watch people and react, but it happened. I’m hoping Zen will come by means of theatre in 2021.

Story Submitted by Darouny Bounsengsay

Zen has been especially hard to find this year – I’m sure for all involved in the chaos that was 2020. It’s taken root now in a couple of different places in and situations in my life and I’m thankful I’ve been able to find it. Quarantine, in a sense, was a personal blessing in disguise. (These words are not being written to lessen the severity of the global and local lasting effects of Covid-19. I assure you I have taken it seriously.) When the news first broke about the pandemic, I was working full-time at a restaurant. Just a few short weeks after, I worked my last day before the world shut down. Zen? Relaxation? Calm? Peace? I had no understanding of what those words meant at that time. No idea they could apply in such a time of chaos. Didn’t think I could find any of those things while I was stressing about unemployment payments, bills, food, feeding Ellie – any and all things I could stress, I was. Bridd and I were laid off together and for the first couple of days we didn’t know what to do with ourselves. We had become so accustomed to constantly moving, working, or socializing every day that when we had to stop it felt like the human equivalent of Newton’s first law of motion – A body in motion will stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force. We didn’t have zen. Shoot sometimes it felt like we barely had time to breathe between our restaurant jobs, brewery jobs, family, friends, and general life activities. It was a great blessing to be able to settle in and make our house a home. Bridd and I were hardly home and it was unfortunate the only way to get us to stop and even attempt to relax was because it was forced upon us. I also didn’t have zen with restaurant. I was unhappy and no longer loved the job. Taking a break, albeit a forced one, actually brought that joy and peace back. I focused more on what I missed about the job there than what I loathed and hated. Funny enough, I found my zen at work during quarantine. I am ironically writing this from my second job as I pull 6 day work weeks balancing a 9-5 position and serving on the weekends. Quarantine and any zen we had found seems like it was eons ago rather than just a couple of months ago, but here I am back into the thick of it with a new focus on finding those moments in the day that are quiet and reflective, so I can pause and try to find the zen of the day. To those of you who feel like you never stop moving, your zen is out there, but please try not to let it be a global shut down that helps you find it.

Story Submitted by Suzanne S. Austin-Hill

Between retirement and the pandemic, I find myself with a lot of free time these days. Plenty of time to clean, but only if prompted by a still, small voice (who historically doesn’t speak up very often). One day in April, I was led to organize one particular shelf of a unit in my home library. I found a framed photo of Cathee, a dancer-teacher sister-friend of mine. Only after I finished said organization would I allow myself to email her. In her reply she included a link, , and told me to type in VIRTUAL to access a variety of exercise classes, some of which she was teaching. As I went to my computer, I thought of the times I completed the information survey at a doctor’s office and had to “fess up” that I exercised maybe 0-1 times a week – Non-Impact Aerobics (NIA) with Gail – and she moved in March, then the facility closed due to COVID. Well that facility, Optum (formerly DaVita) is now offering virtual exercise classes, too. Go to The pandemic provides no room for excuses as to why I can’t exercise. I do NIA with Gail every Wednesday morning and a mid-day Wednesday DESKERCISE mini-class with Cathee. And I’ve always wanted to study Tai Chi and Martial Arts, so Steve, another one of the Instructors at Baptist, is helping me to do just that on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. This is yet another reason why I’m so glad I listen to that voice!

Story Submitted by Loretta Beckman

I am a fulltime caregiver. Paul, my strong handsome husband is no longer able to care for himself due to a degenerative neurological disease, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. My life was once filled with great conversations, teaching full time, managing projects, going on vacations, lots of socializing with friends, long walks and Yoga classes. In the midst of my very different life now, I have something that is a life saver to me.

Hatha Yoga is my salvation. Every day as I take my first deep restorative breath and feel my muscles relax and I quiet my busy mind, I feel decadent. Yoga time is exclusively focused on me.

Yoga adds so much to my life. It is my chance to be in control. It helps to restore my health. If I have a headache it reduces my pain. As I progress through my practice every move is beneficial, taking the kinks from my neck and shoulders, limbering my joints and alleviating arthritis pain. I maintain balance to stay centered, calm and strong. As I move through my vinyasa I have the energy and fluidity in my limbs to feel confident in both body and mind.

In many ways Yoga is a motivator. I’m such a guru. I spend hours looking through books and at videos for new moves that I can master which brings me a feeling of accomplishment that is often missing during my day. Additionally, part of my practice is about routine and purpose, helping to bring some normalcy to an otherwise unpredictable day/life.

Yoga is my salvation and my strength both mentally and physically. I am blessed with the ability to continue practicing my poses everyday. You are a reliable friend my prana.


Story Submitted by Sheri Whittington

It’s More Than Just a Choir

In an article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette dated February 2, 2020, Jeremy Reynolds writes: “1 in 6 Americans sings in a choir — and they’re healthier for it”. He continues, “more than 17% of adults in the U.S. participate in a choir of some sort, up from 14% in 2008. That’s about 1 in 6 adults, according to a recent study by the service organization Chorus America. The study identifies numerous beneficial reasons: Singing in groups has been linked to better mental and physical health, a sense of belonging and feeling connected to others, better social skills, increased civic engagement and volunteering, developing leadership skills and much more.”

So that study represents over 54 million adults who were singing together in an organized setting when the article was written on February 2, 2020. As we now know, seven months into this pandemic, singing in a choir today, is possibly one of the deadliest things you can do. We also know now that the virus is airborne and is spread very expediently through the deep breathing, articulation, and projection required for choral singing. That is over 54 million Americans who were singing in choirs both community and religious, and both professional and amateur who represent now a large group of isolated, displaced Americans.

There have been many studies like the one referenced in the article that prove that singing in a group or choir has many physical and psychological benefits. Extraordinary discoveries like breathing and singing together can cause the members heartbeats to synchronize as well. There are reports and new findings in neuroscience of the effects of how singing together can be a transcendent experience, and it can have measurable calming effects to the mind and the actual heart muscle. Science is starting to understand perhaps why music sooths the savage beast, and why music in the form of rhythmic drums, moving, dancing, singing, chanting, etc. has been part of human history for as long as we have records. I believe it positively moves the soul, brings us viscerally closer to our fellow humans, and brings us closer to our God or higher power source in a way science can’t yet define, and we can’t yet fully understand.

As one of the 54 million Americans, I have been heartbroken and lost without my choir. I know the reasons above definitely make up part of the positive benefits I’m missing, but again, in that way we can’ t explain, I am also missing some extraordinary people. I have a fabulous family, and I’m thankful for them every day. However, my choir family is that added family that I choose. We try to keep in touch now through the pandemic, but in so many ways, we are each other’s touchstone. I can’t begin to list the ways this group of amazing individuals cares for each other and supports each member from birth through death. I truly don’t have words to describe the depth of community, love, and acceptance, that I am blessed with by my choir. It would be the same as trying to scientifically define love. We can’t explain it, but we can feel it!

Reference articles if interested:

Article: 1 in 6 Americans sings in a choir — and they’re healthier for it by JEREMY REYNOLDS – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Chorus of America & National Endowment of the Arts, and others.

Story Submitted by Noa Friedman

Time and time again, educators and artists are burdened with the task of fighting for funding for arts in schools because for some reason, cutting arts funding is the “go to solution” for the “how can we save money?” problem. The decision makers figure that an education in the arts is dispensable, even though endless amounts of studies can prove that opinion otherwise. Why is the funding for the arts considered superfluous and so often the first thing to be cut when its impact has been proven to be essential?
I attended Howard W. Blake School of the Arts where I majored in theatre. Now, even as a junior in college, I often reflect back on my time in high school with such fondness. Not because of any of the science or math classes I took, but because of the time I spent in the theatre department. These were critical years for me. These were the years that made me realize that I wanted to pursue a career in the arts and landed me at the University of Florida studying towards a BFA in acting.
The value of an Arts education expands far beyond the stage as well. Exposure to the arts enhances a person’s abilities in all other subjects. It teaches a person confidence and teamwork. It reflects positively in a student’s performance in their math and English classes, leading to them becoming a more successful and well-rounded human being . I firmly believe that would not have graduated as Valedictorian of my high school class had it not been for my exposure to the arts. Without a doubt, my work ethic and intelligence have been shaped by the skills I learned as a right-brained thinker.
I love the arts. My life IS the arts, and as cliché as it may sound, the access that I was given to the arts in my formative schooling years have shaped the person I am today. Why strip that kind of opportunity from future classes of students?
The arts in schools are essential. To deny that fact would be doing a disservice to yourself, your community, and generations of students to come.
The arts give us so much. Please return the favor.

Story Submitted by Emma Friedman

Having access to an arts education has shaped me into the person I am today. I can’t not imagine what my life would be if I didn’t have access to an arts education in some of my most formative years. It is the reason I wake up every morning with an excitement for doing things. It is the reason why I excel in all other academic subjects. It is the reason I am constantly surrounded by the most incredible human beings and introduced to the most committed, passionate, creative, and inspiring educators. Everything I am is a direct result of having an arts education. It is absolutely crucial that every child is given the opportunity to experience the magic that an arts education has to offer. Hillsborough County, do the right thing and keep funding arts in schools.
Art is creativity. Art is culture. Art is Problem-Solving. Art is History. Art is what makes us human. After all, “the earth without art is just eh”.

Story Submitted by Sushama Kirtikar

Charcoal sketching and oil canvas painting were my favorite leisure activities growing up in India. My grandfather was a commercial artist who did caricatures for news magazine covers and his fine arts paintings of portraits stand today in a couple of museums. My mother is a natural artist and always stoked the fires of my art work. She guided and encouraged me all along. After coming to the US I dabbled some in my art. As I started a family I got involved in the pursuits of raising a family, managing a household and establishing a career. In the last 4 decades my art work languished.

A few years ago while training to become a certified coach I took the Values in Action Character Strengths Survey which immediately highlighted ‘Creativity’ as being on the lower rung of the survey: in fact it ranked #22 out of a total of 24 character strengths! I stared disbelievingly at this revelation. I have always thought of myself as a creative person. What was this?! It put a huge dent in my self-image. Something had to be done to rectify this unexpected upsetting of the apple cart.

I didn’t know where to start. Yes, I have on occasion busied myself with crafts such as cake decorating, knitting and sewing, particularly making gifts for others. But that was never my passion. Visual arts like drawing and sketching were my true passion. How was I going to pick it up again? Someone suggested ‘doodling’. I tried my hand at it and found it to be silly. But wait, it seemed to unlock something within. The first night I saw visions of colorful shapes in my sleep. A creative spark of some kind had been awakened. Nothing tangible yet, just a crack.
Then, I came face to face with cancer last year. It hit hard with full force. I went through a tough journey of comprehending, researching, information gathering and decision making. That was all grist for the mill. This was followed by treatments and multiple surgeries. I came home after complicated reconstructive surgeries, relegated to a wheelchair and total leg elevation for the first few months. My daughter gifted me with an adult coloring book of mandalas with a set of color markers. That opened the door.

I gave myself permission to immerse myself into what felt like self-indulgence. Ouch. Such a harsh inner critic could only be silenced by the realization that since I could not move I could allow myself to ‘play’. It took being immobile to free me up. To think of creativity as ‘frivolous or play’ was a travesty. I have always valued the creative arts as a gift to mankind. But it looks like I valued and admired it in ‘others’ not in ‘me’. I had to be dutiful and tend to mundane matters. Where and when did such self-destructive thinking permeate my psyche? I am still shocked by the utterly enervating effects of such oppressive thinking.

I began my journey into the world of colors. I got my feet wet (pun intended) by playing with colors and filling up the mandalas one at a time as they started to burgeon and burst with hues I did not even know existed. Now, my mother, my daughter and my 3 1⁄2 year old granddaughter name each mandala as it is finished. Each one tells a different story as I pick diverse color schemes and play wantonly letting my instinct and imagination run wild. I no longer feel guilty engaging in coloring. It relaxes me; I notice how the vital signs begin to self-regulate as my breath, heart rate and pulse stabilize and even out. It is the magic potion that soothes any stress whether it is global concerns, national politics, career pivots, house repairs, personal health or concern for loved ones in this pandemic. It is truly a panacea to all discontent. Art is a gift that needs to be received with grace, held with humility, cultivated mindfully and shared generously with others to spread its joy. It has a ripple effect, multiplying and growing as it roils and blends, bathing this one and that one with its infinite glory and beauty. So when my granddaughter announces to me over FaceTime while I am doing sketches for her on a large pad that stands on an easel, “Aji, you are the best ‘drawer’ in the world”, I take that with a smile and think, “Thank you for calling me a ‘drawer’, best or otherwise. I am so grateful for the fact that my long lost love of art has finally come home to roost.” The artist within me has thrown me a life line.