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Home management tips

Renee Ellison's tools for effectively managing your home--including finance and domestic skills..

Steps for conquering sorting old family photos without feeling overwhelmed

Tuesday, 24. May 2016 by Renee Ellison


Do you have boxes of old family photos that seem overwhelming for you or your aged family members to sort and identify? So it was for my mom, too—until we came up with a system for overcoming the overwhelmed feeling and plowing through the project to completion.  These are the steps that worked for us.

# 1:  I largely did the bulk of it for my elderly mom, and away from her, so she didn’t have to feel overwhelmed, even for one minute. I only asked her about two kinds of pictures:

1) about persons I couldn’t identify.  If she couldn’t remember or didn’t know, we pitched those (figuring that if they weren’t meaningful to her, they wouldn’t be meaningful at all to her progeny).  If she did recognize them and they were significant to the family tree, I wrote some brief identifications in pencil on the back of them.

2) about some select keystone pictures of her own childhood, so she could amplify the events and feelings around those pics.  Mom enjoyed this part immensely.  I only showed her a few of these pictures a day, so it didn’t feel rushed.

#2:  I removed all of the photoprints from the old albums, because those old albums take up enormous space, the pages turn brittle, and the covers break off.  I had to pull some of the photos out of decaying sleeves with a pair of small needle nosed pliers (this worked great, and was fast).  I set all of them in shoe boxes; they condensed wonderfully down to manageable size.  We went from large, heavy boxes of chaos down to super-organized little boxes, all neatly labeled and organized, that could be stored on a shelf in anyone’s hall closet.

#3:  I threw out all pictures that were of only scenery or wild animals, or were far-away shots or cloudy and unclear and underexposed shots, or unfavorable shots of a person—a photo the person would feel embarrassed about or unflattered for posterity to see.  Not all pictures taken are worth keeping; just because they exist doesn’t mean they have to remain existing and use up people’s time viewing them, down the road, in future generations.

#4:  Next I went to a high-end shoe store and asked for as many shoe boxes as he would give me—boxes with removable lids on them—and sorted the pictures into those boxes by person.  All pictures with only one person in them went in these boxes—each box labeled with only one person’s name on the outside, in huge print.  All group pictures went into that particular family’s box.

#5:  After all of the pictures were sorted I then arranged the contents of each box, further grouping those pictures by event or time period—filing them in the box by grouping events or time together—and then stuck 3x5 cards tall-ways with little titles on them stating what that section of pictures was about.  The viewer then pulls just that section of loose pictures out of the box to view them, and then puts them right back in the box, under that section’s title.

#6:  Mailed pictures (or full picture boxes) to each individual who would treasure them.  (An option would have been to take a quick photo via cell phone, to email someone who could then reply if they wanted to have the originals.)

#7:  I distributed the grandparent and great grandparent pictures to their descendants as evenly as I could, so each person had “roots” pictures. smile

#8:  I collapsed—and rejoiced that it was done for all time and that the job was so meaningful.

For more on this topic, order our guide for preserving your family papers and photos.

Filed Under: Home management tips

Are commitments scary or sacred?

Friday, 25. March 2016 by Renee Ellison


Apparently, making a commitment to anyone, in any direction, freaks out modern man.  Engage in anything but a commitment.  In effect, commitments seem to be generally regarded as tantamount to suicide, or at the very least, are viewed as traps to avoid.  Note that all four of these categories of commitments are falling apart in our current society:

1. Commitment to marriage.  We would rather cohabit indefinitely, or drop the difficult intimate relationships we have been in.
2. Commitment to parent children (or even to birth them).  We find them a consummate irritation, from the womb to the tomb.
3. Commitment to eldercare.  We prefer to abandon them.
4. Commitment to pay our bills.  We prefer to make the other guy pick up our slack.

Our behaviors belie that we view commitments as downright scary, a wrong direction for the exertions of our wills.  Modern man prefers the slushy place of ambiguity in relation to all other people and contracts.

Some people are apartment hoppers, living in rentals without paying rent just long enough to get kicked out, and then leaving to go do it again somewhere else, artfully escaping any fiscal responsibility.  People shack up, or live in “open” marriages with several people, simultaneously.  Students demand to go to colleges well beyond their means, get there at any cost, and are surprised and incensed when the bill comes due.  Adult business bankruptcies abound.  Parents give over their children to be raised and schooled by others.  And we hide our elderly in institutions, abandoning them.

Anything goes.  Parameters of any sort, in any direction, suffocate our “free” spirits.  We want to be able to drink all we want, buy all we want, entertain ourselves all we want, play all we want, work to climb the corporate ladder, etc.—all without being tied down to any relationship, in any direction.

Why do we so desperately eschew commitments?  What is it, exactly, that we are afraid of?  We know full well that it is a commitment of our future self to a course of direction, and that seems insurmountable to the comforts of our immediate self and its increasing lust for self-soothing.  We “handle” our future by refusing to go there—by buttressing ourselves with ways “out” in every direction.

Instinctively, we know that all commitments are a plunge into the unknown, and we simply have no faith in ourselves (and no God to help us, since we dispensed with Him) to “go there.”  Instinctively, we know that it will require self-denial, at some level—and we must not deny ourselves.

The Enemy of our soul has broadcast nothing but bad press about commitment.  He has convinced us not to go there.  He has made “gulping at the thought” the correct response.

What, however, might be hidden in the idea and practice of commitment that was set there by the LOVER of our soul?  Surely if it was built into the fabric of “the way life works” by the intelligent design of our Maker, if we jettison it might we lose something that is germane to our happinesses?  What if we were to receive commitment as a gift from our God, and lean on Him for the power to do it, all the way through it?

Let’s hold on a minute with that idea of not wanting to deny ourselves.  Strangely, if we look closely, we see that cities, communities, churches, marriages all grow out of the fertilizer of self-sacrifice.  Without sacrifice we cannot have community.  We won’t have any.  We end up replacing all community with a dysfunctional conglomerate of isolated individuals, running helter-skelter in all directions at once, loaded with the baggage of endless “personal rights.”

When looked at a little closer, self-denying commitment has silver linings all over the place.  When we embrace commitment as a necessary part of human life, we find that it gives us a clear and distinct GPS to one path—forsaking all others, for example—that in turn helps shore up and define our own identity.  Conversely, traveling infinite paths in all directions eventually leads us to personal chaos and floundering, because soon we find multiple personal desires at cross-purposes.  Falling in love with three people equally, at once, leads us into a nightmare of what to do with tonight.  Wanting a relationship with a man but not with a pregnancy with his child leads us to confusion on the way to the abortion clinic.  Wanting a classy car but disdaining the self-denial to achieve the finances to purchase one leaves us in a quandary of conflicting self.  Wanting to belong to a family, but not wanting the family to belong to us when it ages, plunges us into conflict with ourselves.

When, alternatively, our paths are well-defined by our commitments, the question then becomes what will we do, given this course and no other?  What our character is made of becomes evident when we take that path.  Commitment brings self-realization; we discover who we really are. Modern man would rather stay out of that spotlight.  We would rather walk in delusion about our true identity.  We prefer to live in an opium den of what we might have been, rather than experience who we are.

The parameters of limited time, limited finances, limited space and limited relationships (we each have a web of individuals into which we were born, and into which circumstances thrust us) all force our personal priorities to be expressed.  And, incomprehensibly, and progressively, somehow, someway, we emerge as better souls, now with depth, in the middle of such limitations.  We become—we are in fact, actualized—amidst the limitations.

Of course, if we are not interested in “becoming” or “emerging”, we’ll prefer no fences, and no parameters.  We’ll feast upon delusions and virtual realities and there we will sit, banqueting upon hot air, growing fatter, and fatter, and fatter, until we become big blobs of nothing.

Filed Under: Home management tips

The false promise of a mortgage

Tuesday, 02. February 2016 by Renee Ellison


A mortgage is laced with a false promise.  It purports to be doing one thing when in reality it is doing quite another.  For the first decade or so, new homeowners come to realize slowly and gradually that their principal is hardly budging—despite their faithfulness month after month in paying what is required.  The bottom line?  The bank will get its money—by using yours.  It is rigged to do that.  Banks live on floating interest from one investment vehicle to another.  But what about you?

Look at it this way.  For a good long while, as a new homeowner who didn’t make much of a down payment, you will actually only be renting your house from the bank, with none of the freedoms normal renting allows.  All of the house maintenance and improvement expenses will be yours.  No one else will cover these costs for you.  The yearly taxes and insurance will be yours as well.  And you may find yourself trapped in immobility, if you should be offered a better job at more pay somewhere else, until you can sell the house.

In the end, when a “home owner” crunches the numbers on a 30 year fixed mortgage, he may be dismayed to discover that he has paid nearly double what his house originally sold for— because of this steady, relentless, compounded extraction of interest.  Debt is never the best scenario—no matter what golden package it is presented in by our culture.  The individual pays dearly for this false hope, and the country eventually collapses under it.

The American Dream based on these easily-acquired nothing-down “no collateral needed” mortgages has now turned into the American Nightmare, while a slew of investors became rich on derivatives—worthless mortgages re-packaged in bundles and re-sold.  But now the false lie crumbles down around us like a house of cards.  Now, as a country (and as individuals) we finally pay the piper.  T’aint purty.  Our economy is contracting by the day, and the stock market is staggering under the debt load.

So what is a young couple to do, who want to own their home?  The only way you can work down that principal on a mortgage is by paying two payments a month.  The first will satisfy the bank’s insatiable hungers; the second will apply directly to the principal.  Banks won’t let you get at that principal-reduction any other way.

But what is an even better way?  If the couple is willing to become “saving-money-maniacs” for a time, working hard, taking on one and a half to two-PLUS jobs each (i.e. working one of the weekend days, and working evenings for an hour or two) and living as frugally as is humanly possible (either in a rental, or in your folks’ driveway in an RV, or in the house that you are buying), not even buying such things as toothpaste or deodorant (make your own—you get the point) for four years, throwing $25,000 a year into savings from their combined earnings—at the end of those four years they can own a $100,000 house debt-free.  This saves the couple $80,000 that would have otherwise been wasted in interest via a full term mortgage.  Think of the vacations that could have been taken or the second house that could have been procured, that they could instead have re-invested in a second modest house that now earns them rental income for the remainder of their lives.

It is even better to begin this bull’s eye focus in your early teens, making every day count toward building this nest-egg of savings while still living for free in your folks’ home. 

Either way, it is best to earn the money before you even make the house purchase.  If, on the other hand, you were to follow the American Dream [Nightmare] and take on a mortgage to “buy” a $100,000 home before your four-year stint at “work-mania,” you must realize that you will waste something like four years of payments going only to interest.  It is a wash either way, whether you buy or rent.  You’ll lose the money both ways.  Moreover, if you take the buying route you will incur hidden additional costs for upkeep and improvements—diminishing the speed at which you can save. 

Of course, be extremely careful what you buy, keeping in mind these vital house purchase principles:

—Buy a house with a good foundation and roof—a structure that only needs cosmetic repairs.  If, however, you are buying it only to improve it and flip it, earning profit from it, use your own free elbow grease to improve it.  Concentrate on making the kitchen and bathrooms the best they can be.  And put extra effort into making the yard gorgeous for curb appeal.

—Buy the poorest house on the block.  That way you can improve it and not out-price it for that neighborhood to be sure to get your “improvement-monies” back when you re-sell it.

—Always counter-bid.

—Wait for a smoking deal.  Don’t fall in love with any house emotionally.  Stay detached until you get the “deal of the century.”  Remember that there will always be another house and a better deal somewhere else.  There is a house on every corner.  Don’t rush to do this.  Watch the market for a while—do research—knock on doors and ask the neighbors what they like and what they don’t like about that house and about their neighborhood—and keep your eyes peeled for the desperate homeowner who must unload his home quickly, at way below market value, because of extenuating circumstances.

Let’s crystalize even further what we are proposing is your best route to long-term financial success.  A home mortgage can be a good investment tool IF:

You have the savings to afford it AND all the other expenses.  You must be able to make a sizable down payment—i.e., at least a quarter of the total sale price of the house—and STILL have $1,000 saved for emergencies, PLUS all the money you expect to need to fix the house up, PLUS 3 months of living expenses.  (If you don’t have enough savings to do all 4 of those, you are NOT ready to have a mortgage.)

You are able to negotiate a screaming deal.  There’s a house on every corner, and in between—and you never can make as much money as on the day you make your house purchase, by agreeing on a price that is well below market value, after you have counter offered.  Don’t fall in love with a house.  Stay committed to your principles and look for God to honor your respect for His principles.  Realtors and sellers are not focused at all on those principles.  Of course they want you to fall in love with it and give them all your money—and then a lot more.

The house is in a highly re-sellable location, in a non-faltering economy.  There are economies that are good to buy in and economies that are not good to buy in.  It’s up to you to weigh the outside economic factors.  If the stock market is tumbling day after day, that can burst a housing bubble in a hurry.  In that scenario, people get stuck owing their bank more on their house than they can now sell it for.  This has happened and does happen; you have to watch the news carefully.  Remember, the root of the word MORTGAGE is mort (death) and gage (covenant or agreement).  Once you sign on the dotted line you become a slave to that mortgage.  Therefore, if you are going to have a mortgage you want it to be in an area where you have a high possibility of pulling your investment out of it if and when you must leave it.

You plan to stay there indefinitely—i.e. your income/employment situation there is very stable.  Otherwise you get into the nightmare of needing to live somewhere else but you are straddled with a house you can’t sell.

• A building inspection is a necessity.  Does it have a good roof and a good furnace?  How solid is its foundation?  How well is it insulated?  Older houses tend to have very poor insulation, which means way higher heating and cooling bills.  Ask to see the utility bills for the last three months; those can be hidden bills you didn’t anticipate.  When you are a home owner you are on the line for all of these repairs: roof, foundation, etc.

Work, and work hard while you are young and you’ll gain yourself elderly freedoms and financial advantage galore.  Nearly all of your peers will not be on this fast track; most of them will spend a lifetime enslaved to someone else’s agenda for them.

To read more on this topic, read our 10 Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary People Who Got Free of House Debt and Sure Financial Steps for Beginners.

Filed Under: Home management tips

Can’t get on top of cleaning your house or office space?  Clutter got you down?

Friday, 18. December 2015 by Renee Ellison


Cleaning up, organizing and de-cluttering your space can feel so good, it is like scratching your soul!  Being able to see everything and grab everything (without digging) gives you instant power over your days and your activities.  You start on top of life rather than scrounging around on the bottom, just trying to get up to see-level before you can even begin your trip to the top.  You’ll be far more productive, sharper and more focused if you get your personal external world in order.  Why?  Because letting go of the grip of excess stuff helps define where you are headed (not where you’ve been) and releases all the attendant emotional life that went with that stuff. 

Personal clutter (not someone else’s—that is a different problem) is often associated with two issues: 1) not saying NO to enough outside ACT-ivity to get command of your inside CON-nectivity, and 2) buried personal anxiety.  It is important to take a look at those underlying emotional issues before cleaning and sorting down; otherwise you may find yourself buried in excess stuff, yet again, and soon.

Maintaining the wonderful new condition of your sorting/cleaning labor is solely the result of locating a permanent place for everything.  And not just any place—your optimal organizing-aim is to find prime real estate for all of your prime stuff (frequently used objects).  You don’t want to use prime real estate for sub-prime objects.

Thus, you’ll want to store frequently used objects close to where you use them.  Conversely, put infrequently used objects in more out of the way places.  But make sure that in both storage places, each object is instantly observable and easily grab-able.  Just because you don’t use an object much doesn’t mean that when you do want to retrieve it you should have to go to herculean work and wasted time digging it out to procure it. 

How do you achieve this with limited space? You apply one or more of the following remedies:

A.) Pare down further
Your stuff must fit in your house.  As you know, to optimally organize, you’ll be wanting to find containers that fit in your shelving and drawer spaces.  Accordingly, think one thought beyond that to remind yourself that your largest container is your house!  We don’t have the luxury (or nightmare) of owning an infinite amount of stuff.  There is a boundary to every person’s material world.  You begin with your own parameters.  Here’s a governing principle: if it won’t fit, I can’t have it.

B.)  Within that larger context, if there is not enough room on your in-house shelves, for easy grab-ability of all objects, do one of three things: 
1) Build or buy more shelves.  If you do not have enough square footage on the ground for more shelving or drawers, then go up into the air!  Install one continuous shelf above your door frames and along the ceiling of each room, with L brackets underneath, as needed, just one foot down from the ceiling.  Banker’s boxes fit nicely in that ‘ceiling’ space.  These large white cardboard banker’s boxes can then be filled with lighter weight stuff (off season clothing, bedding, etc.) and can be labeled clearly.  This newly added one foot storage area is instant, rent free space!  (If you are renting a storage unit someplace, do the math.  You could probably re-BUY everything in it with the composite rental fee from over a year.)  So you see, if you feel cramped, you may not need a bigger HOUSE, you just may need some more SHELVING—at one-one-thousandth the price!
2) Consider putting some stuff in containers under beds.  Buy bed leg risers to make this possible.

Now that we’ve finished tackling the practical sorting steps, let’s examine your emotions in relation to clutter.

Compulsive buying (and sometimes going into debt to do it) and/or compulsive gathering can produce temporary emotional highs.  To get a handle on this, examine what your emotional state is immediately prior to buying or collecting.  Try to peg what stress or unresolved emotions the “high” is relieving.  Identify that emotion, and embark on finding a better way to fill it.

Old habits are never beaten back by force of personal will.  Self-will is no match for the bad habit’s power.  Bad habits are so strong, they are beaten back only by replacement. What will the new “go-to” habit be?  Determine this ahead of time.

Once your home/job space is uncluttered by finding and creating an exact spot for everything, there is strong evidence (via people who have done it well) that it will actually stay uncluttered.

An excessive hoarder brings items in one at a time and can’t let go of them.  It becomes a defeating dynamic for such a person.  An excessive spender may be looking to the actual act of buying, over and over, to gain an addict’s high to relieve subtle personal pain that has been caused by an unresolved dynamic.

Internal conflict can keep the would-be sorter/cleaner stuck in neutral for any one of these reasons:

1)  The task seems too overwhelming.
      Solution: break the task into bite-sized pieces.

2)  No time to do it. 
      Solution: determine to say “NO” to other activities for a while.

3)  Identity issues: “I’m just not WORTH having a clean house.”
      Solution: remind yourself of the truth that every human being was made to enjoy order.  You are no exception.

4)  Perfectionism: “If I don’t know the PERFECT place to put something, I’ll do nothing.”
      Solution: put it somewhere, and tell yourself that you can upgrade/tweak the arrangement later.
5) Indecision: thoughts like “this is too unique, too rare, to let go.”
      Solution: recognize that your needs are more important than a thing’s needs.

6) Paralyzing grief: “I can’t let go of mom’s (hubby’s or child’s) stuff because that would feel like I was throwing him or her away.”
      Solution: think instead, those objects served him/her well.  They were personal picks of theirs.  He/she contributed to my life; now it’s time to contribute to others’ lives, my way.

7) Stuck in the past?
      Solution: remind yourself that the past no longer exists.  Your life is in the present, only.  How can you well-order your life to make it less chaotic?  You only get one shot at this.  Life is not a dress rehearsal.  It is the real deal, passing by day by day.  You can’t afford to be stuck.

P.S.:  If the clutter is someone else’s issue, give them their own territory to do with as they will.  Let them observe your joy over creating your own neatness.  Inspiration happens in a person’s wake as they speed past—never by attempting to “whip” the other person into shape.

Filed Under: Home management tips

The anatomy of a mid-life crisis.  Want it?

Sunday, 13. December 2015 by Renee Ellison


Many, many men go through a mid-life crisis.  But, typically, not so many women go through this same sort of “hit-the-wall” passage in their middle adult years.  Why? because women still garner tremendous meaning and significance through the raising of children and grandchildren.  In fact, statistically, it has been shown that mothers of small children and women raising needy grandchildren have the lowest suicides rates of the total spectrum of humanity.  Why? because they are needed.

Now back to the men—and women who suffer mid-life crises.  What goes on here with this syndrome?  Usually, it began in junior high and high school when we tended to grow outrageous fantasies about what life would deliver to us.  Our illusions were grown in the fertile soil of media entertainment and storybooks, coupled with our own juvenile driving insistent inability to master any self-delay or self-denial in reference to our emerging self.  Then, for years and years we fertilized our unrealities rather than weeding them out.

Then came the victimization stage.  Out came the measuring sticks, and nothing, absolutely nothing measured up in our circumstances or relationships—not even close.  Thus, loudly, our protestations began—the masked cries for help.  “Hey, what I’m experiencing doesn’t fit with how life is supposed to be.”  This was followed by the engulfing “me-ism”/entitlement/blame scenario.  Rather than dump the illusion and recalibrate, we clutched the illusion even more vigorously.  In order to make sense of it all, we pandered to self even more.  “This is only happening to me; no one else goes through what I go through.  Look at me.  Take care of me.”  As this unfolds, others tire of the myopia and generally withdraw.  The resultant isolation makes the malcontent even more lonely and perplexed.

But finally, in some drowsy hour, often deep in the night when the noise stops, the truth wills out.  The clutch is finally released.  But is it over?  In many cases, no, it is not.  Often, depression marches right in to replace it.  There’s your mid-life crisis.

So, what does the self-made “victim” DOHe/she frantically now sets out to RE-DO early life.  Find a different spouse.  Go out and change my CIRCUMSTANCES—find BETTER ones.  For surely the right circumstances will deliver the right kind of life.  The only problem is that now, as an older person, all the original plethora of potential spouses is gone—most of the options are used ones and/or defeated ones—and few and far between ones, at all.  And one’s own fading beauty and fading energy make all the “catching a fairy-tale mate” far more sluggish.  And when he thinks he finds one, he doesn’t count on the question of “what THEY will look like in old age?” or ACT like toward HIM in the final chapter?  Is this BETTER than what I’ve got?  Hmmm…I hadn’t thought about old age at all—only my immediate hour.  I thought I could reject with impunity.  “I’ll reject you, but you will feed me lunch!”  Face absolute aloneness in my final hour? —hadn’t thought about that, either.  The only important hour is this current one.  Or be rejected by my grown children and spouse in response to my prior rejection of them?  I thought that there was only ONE person who MATTERED in this story.  Arrghh.

And how goes the self-crafting of new circumstances?  Can we even do it?  Or do we find dead ends at the end of every furtive, darting idea?  In addition, we find to our own chagrin that we can’t even DEFINE what we want now—like trying to catch a butterfly.  Every butterfly caught now immediately loses its magic and lies stiff at the bottom of our jar.

Then escapism must be the solution?  Drink, drug, and bury oneself in entertainment?  Embark, too, on enacting all kinds of little delicious suicides—like self-sabotage?  Relationally increase methods of manipulation and control.  Demand more.  Or try on some type of adult screaming? i.e., louder self-made assertions about how life is supposed to be for me, wafted with more energy into mid-air.  Or perhaps it is found in “buy, buy, buy,” like a maniac.  Surely a new Lexus will do it.  Debt or die.  Is not such a life a catastrophe?

When the mid-life crisis disorder is looked at under eagle-eye scrutiny, we find that experiencing mid-life crises is a New World (a first world) problem.  When we set it in its historical context we can identify different sorts of role models for weathering the mid-term storms.  There, we find examples of nobility, courage, endurance, strangely cropping up in mid-life and old age.  Honest earlier recalibration worked.

If we look even deeper at this modern syndrome, we can note that there is something even better than secular recalibration, engineered by our own wits, to weather mid-life.  Could there be some spiritual answers?  What if the disillusionment was planned by an all-knowing and all-wise God?  Now, let’s back up and re-do this challenge as a believer—even as a backslidden follower of the Lord.

What if God takes every believer through a “world-let-down” on purpose? —insisting that He ALONE is our core?  What if it is part of His school of discipleship for eternal people?  What if it is His graduate school of maturation?  If the job is done well on our behalf, we find, to our initial shock, that nothing in life is as we imagined it!  Nothing.

In fact, Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his matchless little book, Life Together, asserts that every community of relationships, whether it be one’s family of origin, one’s marriage, one’s own family, one’s church, one’s neighborhood or job and work setting, has to crash—and with it, all the aspirations for perfect circumstances have to crash, too.

The restored objective, after falling through the fragile floor of worldliness, is to begin again on spiritual turf.  Through gentle nudgings we now find that life is to be lived in the adoration of our Maker (habitual gratefulness for the smallest of graces—which then mushroom into thundering praises—living waters flowing out of us in torrents in eternity) and responding to His impulses for what to make of life, by our own exertions and influence, moment by moment.  Only then do we step up to the wondrous platform of real life. 

Far from demanding that life serve us, we find that the entrance level requirement to this far more fulfilling world is that we serve life. We begin by putting on the apron, and rolling up the sleeves.  The hunt is on for the needs of others, this time—not the junior high scramble to make it into the in-crowd, myself.  Getting outside of self is the bastion of fulfillment.  How do we sustain it?  By refueling at the throne—treasuring the infinite sweet embraces of our Maker.  As the old hymn writer wrote: “Let me to THY bosom fly.  Other succor have I NONE!”  This, alone, is reality.  And here, on this sure turf, there are no mid-life crises—nor, much to our wildest delight, are there any POST-life crises, either!

Filed Under: Home management tips

Origins of birthday celebrations

Saturday, 05. December 2015 by Renee Ellison


Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the quantity and pressure of too many children’s birthday parties?  If you want a way out of this relentless demand, here it is!

Did you know these historical facts about the celebration of birthdays?

• The first birthday celebrations noted in recorded history were around 3,000 BC, and were those of the early pharaohs only (i.e. the kings of Egypt), not of the common man.
• Often, prisoners were released on this day.  (If this is familiar to you, you may have read it in Genesis 40: while Joseph was in confinement in the house of the captain of the guard, the cupbearer was released—and this eventually resulted in Joseph himself being released.)
• In Egypt and later on in Babylon, only the birth dates of royal sons were celebrated.  Some royal women’s birthdays were celebrated, such as that of Cleopatra (her husband—who was also her brother—slaughtered their son and gave him to her for her birthday present).
• The birthdays of children were never celebrated, unless they were the male children of royalty.
• The date of a person’s death used to considered be more significant than that of his or her birth.  (If this seems at least vaguely familiar, you might be thinking of how in Scripture, we are commanded to remember the death and resurrection of the Messiah—but nowhere is there even a suggestion to celebrate His birth.)
• The Greeks took the Egyptian idea of a birthday celebration and added the custom of baking a sweet birthday cake, in honor of their goddess Artemis.  It may be that the cakes had lighted candles, representing moonlight, the earthward radiance of this fabricated goddess.
• With the rise of Christianity, the tradition of celebrating birthdays ceased altogether—until about 1,300 years later.  Most of the early followers of Yeshua faced a difficult life that could include suffering and martyrdom for their faith; perhaps this fact influenced them to celebrate the death of a faithful believer, which was “the true deliverance, the passage to eternal paradise.”
• The early church fathers regarded birthday festivities as a relic of pagan practices, and they wanted to avoid them, in their pursuit of personal holiness and purity.
• In A.D. 245 a group of Christian historians attempted to pinpoint the precise date of the Savior’s birth.  They were opposed in this by the church (i.e., the Catholic Church), which decreed that it would be sacrilegious and sinful to observe the birthday of Christ, “as though He were a King Pharaoh.”

(Source: Charles Panati, Panati’s Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things (New York: William Morrow, 1989), pages 31-33)

For more on this topic, read the post dated 1/28/2013.

Filed Under: Home management tips

Overcoming personal management challenges

Friday, 27. November 2015 by Renee Ellison


How to crawl out of feeling overwhelmed by any personal challenge

We’ve all heard about the power of setting goals, but not so much about applying those principles to anything small that repeatedly personally trips us up.  We’ve thought about goals as something you do when you set out to swim the English Channel or triple one’s income, but not about cleaning house and sorting down that mess in the garage or basement, or losing weight or getting out of debt or trying to juice for better health, or overcoming negative depressive self-talk. 

Just for fun, let’s revisit goal setting as a mad scientist would.  Let’s get down to the cellular level to discover how to make its principles work for us, right now, with any challenge, no matter how big or small.  By doing so, this time, we won’t be numbered with those who make unrealistic goals in January and quickly forget them by February.  By understanding the exact progression of the steps, we’ll crawl out of our personal holes by the dozens!  Victory is just around the corner; in fact, you’ll find it at the end of this list!

1.  Write down your goal. This takes your vague sigh/wish out of grey matter/brain fog and sets up a citadel in lead on your paper. There is something powerful about seeing your little “impossibility” in writing.  Writing becomes a bridge across your Rubicon.  It begins to go to work, “rat-a-tat-tatting” on your subconscious. 

What you write must be specific and measurable.  It’s like eating a steak: you don’t stuff the whole thing into your mouth at once.  You bite off little pieces and digest them well.  Phrases like “I want to overcome alcoholism,” “I want to clean my house,” “I want to get in shape and be Miss America,” “I want to get out of debt,” or “I want to say only positive things to myself” won’t work.  Start hacking and whittling at your large idea, then rummage through the shavings and pick up one little piece to tackle aggressively.

So let’s take the above examples and re-write them in this newer, smaller, more powerful way.
• I will go to an AA meeting.
• I will sort my bedroom drawers, beginning with the small dresser.
• I will make a green salad tomorrow morning—or right now.
• I will not spend money on perming my hair this month, nor on eating out.

2. Now to further gain power over your goal, rewrite your goal on a 3X5 card—as a fait accompli.  At the outset, re-word your goal as already accomplished—completed before you’ve done one thing to bring it to pass!
• I no longer drink
• I have all my drawers completely sorted down
• I am slimmer by 15 pounds.
• I say 5 encouraging things to myself a day.
• I have paid off $100 of my debt.

3.  Visualize your goal. 
Now affix your 3X5 card to your morning mirror.
Re-read it every day, aloud.  This engages the auditory memory trigger in your brain.

Also, post for yourself a picture of someone who has already achieved it or of the visual end results.  This takes your goal into the visual imprinting eye-gate of your brain.

Continuing the examples above with this third step:
• Post a magazine or website’s picture of a clean room.
• Post a picture of a health guru.

Got it?  Your written goal sits next to a picture of your written goal, and you hear yourself repeating it each morning, verbally.  This solidly embeds your goal into both hemispheres of the brain and into your emotions.

4.  Next, write down your obstacles toward achieving your goal.
If there weren’t obstacles, you would have already achieved it!  This step is what most of us missed when we wrote down a goal and attempted to attain it in the past.

“I don’t make a salad because the kitchen is too cold in the morning and the vegetables and lettuce are too cold and the faucet water is too cold, and I don’t keep the right combination of vegetables in the fridge to even make a salad, and I don’t like the taste.”

5.  Now write how you will overcome each obstacle.
• I’ll put a little radiator heater in the kitchen to warm it up quickly.
• I’ll pick a salad recipe, make a list and shop for the exact ingredients for my salad and I’ll purchase them as my first priority not my last priority.
• I’ll prep all the veggies the night before and put them in little containers.
• I’ll make a salad dressing that tastes good that helps me get the salad down.
• I’ll remove all the ingredients from the fridge when I first get up before making my bed and getting dressed so that when I assemble them they are warmer to the touch.
• I’ll make a salad large enough to last two days instead of one.

6.  Next, decide on a time and a place for each goal.
• I will go to an AA meeting Monday at 3 at town hall.
• I will sort my drawers for 15 min. every night at 8 p.m.
• I’ll prep my vegetables at 7 each evening.
• I’ll exercise around my city block, and do so at 5 each evening.
• I’ll try to go one hour countering every negative thought with a positive one.

7.  Keep records.
Document your current status toward achieving each of your goals.  You do this by keeping a record of what you actually did today.  Then determine, did that dive-bomb your efforts or did it help them?  What will you do to get a better grip on the objective tomorrow?  If you are in debt and your goal is to resolve that problem, keep a record of all of your receipts so that you can log them in and tabulate them by the end of the month to see where your money actually went.

8.  Decide on a reward for yourself for when it is achieved.
Your reward doesn’t have to be huge or expensive.  It can be doing something—like hiking in a new area, or even just having an entire bowl of large strawberries—more than you usually allow yourself!  Tell someone about your victories or record them in a private journal.

9.  On the heels of such success you might want to start in again with another goal?!  What will that be?

In closing: remember to review seeing and saying your goal each day.  Be your own best coach.

(For more on this topic, download the e-book on Goal Setting and Time Management, or the Kindle book on Conquering Self-induced Stress.

Filed Under: Home management tips

Organizing your home school materials

Monday, 26. October 2015 by Renee Ellison


For much more on this topic, read our booklet/e-book/Kindle book, Razor Sharp Teaching Tips for Homeschool Moms.  It is loaded with practical proven ideas.

Meanwhile, here are some of the general organizational principles for getting your homeschooling shipshape:

(1.) Begin with labeled containers.  No matter how tight the budget is for a family, containers are a must.  Start on some level, using any sort of container—even with just cardboard boxes you bring home from the grocery store and store under the beds.  You always start conquering organizational chaos by organizing in containers.  The principle?  Everything has a place, and there’s a place for everything.

(2.) Visual clarity.  You can see it at a glance.

(3.) Easy grabability.  No stuff is stored behind other stuff unless it is duplicates of the same thing; there’s no digging for anything).

(4.) Like things with like things, and back-ups for frequently consumed items.  Ideally, you want to have on stock two or more of everything you commonly use, so you never run out of anything.  If you do this, you will seldom if ever have to do emergency shopping for food or school supplies.  When you get down to the last one, you note it on your shopping list so you remember to re-stock that back-up second thing on your shelves.

Organizing your school stuff:

In addition to arranging picture books by size, if you have some early readers of various sorts, arrange those by level of difficulty so that you escort the child through all of them progressively.

Arrange everything so that your family members (including your husband whenever he’s taking over the homeschooling when you’re not available) don’t have to ask you where anything is.  They will know by looking.  Localize all of your school stuff near where it will actually be used, on shelves either under a counter eating area or flanked along a wall next to your main projects/schooling table.  Build long shelves at waist height, using 8-12” deep boards held up on each end by bricks cinderblocks—free from somewhere—and then group all your supplies (like things with like, down to minutiae—i.e., no pencils in with the markers).  Separate out everything into its own container.  Group all of your school books and workbooks together.  Top it all off with a large wall map of the world, a large map of your country, a large clock, a large calendar—all on the wall in that area—and each child’s large homeschool to-do checklists.

Set your young children’s flashcards in little white plastic baskets (3 for a dollar? cheapo at Walmart—either in their kitchen container area or the general container area).  Their size is 5 inches by 6 inches by 2 inches.  These let your flash cards breathe and flop backwards and forwards with some air and finger room in there, as opposed to using tight 3X5” metal/plastic index card boxes.  Stick a card upright for a marker to separate each type of flashcards, and label each division of cards on this upright card.

‏Summary: general organizational principle:
Your overall organization principle is arrange your stuff so that anything you do repetitively, you want to do optimally.  In other words, spend as much time as necessary up front on getting it organized exactly right, so that you will have to spend no time organizing it later smile

Filed Under: Home management tips

Intentional family camping

Thursday, 15. October 2015 by Renee Ellison


Years ago, Dr. James Dobson did research to identify what people thought were the most effective activities to bind a family together.  At the top of the list, after having a strong faith, came family CAMPING, with not even a close second.  Apparently, camping embodied the bulk of people’s fondest memories.  Children LOVE to be squished into tight places WITH their parents, in ever-new “on the edge” surroundings, a unified force against the elements!

To make camping a success and not a fiasco, one must become at least moderately intentional about PREPARING to have a good experience.  That means thinking through a fair number of details ahead of time.

So, whether you have camped before but want to improve your efforts at camping or you are brand new to its challenges, here is a bit of practical hand-holding to help you boost the experience into the list of “fun things we did as a family”—and not a blackout bad memory!

To begin with, you want to think of CONTAINERS.  The first container you’ll have to consider is your major overall container of how you will transport all of the stuff.  Determine whether that will be your car trunk, a rack on top of your car, the back compartments in an SUV, the open back of a truck, or a small trailer that you pull behind your vehicle (which means you’ll have to get a trailer hitch, too).  The finished size of that space, established by you ahead of time, determines how MUCH stuff and what weight and size of things you can take with you—because it all has to FIT.  Some people with SUV’s like to put columns of plastic drawers in the back so that when they open up the back of the van they have an instant tailgate kitchen already organized and ready to go.  Others like to construct wooden shelves in a small trailer so that all of their boxed stuff is neatly labeled and easily grabbed whenever they’re camping.

The first two big items to consider are your sleeping tent and a kitchen tent (if you want one).  After hours and hours of research we have three suggestions of real winners for tents for FAMILY camping (not hardcore lightweight back-backer single guys : )  Those guys can survive with a nylon tepee tent—which only weighs 24 pounds and only involves staking the sides, setting one lightweight pole up into the middle of the inside of the tent, and presto they are done.  No floor, of course, on this unit.

Sleeping tent
Cabela’s Big Horn III and Cabela’s Alaknak tents provide oceans of space for a family.  (The Big Horn has no internal poles to deal with—providing a large dome-like interior atmosphere.)

The Kodiak tent is a light weight canvas tent (canvas breathes better than nylon) and is super easy to put up for a single mom with children, or a single widow.  It has a sealed in floor for those who are squeamish about night crawlers, spiders, snakes, etc. gaining entrance into one’s tent withOUT a floor.

And, finally, a Davis tent—which may be the ultimate in large canvas tents.  It weighs a lot, but once constructed feels like a real house.  It is ideal if you are staying in one spot for a long time.  Hunters love them.  They can also be four season tents with the ability to add a stove.

Kitchen tent
Why would you want a kitchen tent?  Because if ANY inclement weather appears, it can immediately shut down your cooking efforts indefinitely.  Menacing weather of high winds, rain (with its attendant mud afterwards), hail, tornadoes, dust storms, etc. quickly drives you back into your car or sleeping tent until it blows over—which could last anywhere from a half hour to all afternoon or evening to several days!  If you want to keep your paper plates, chairs, and utensils from blowing all over the mountains you’ll have to provide some secure kitchen space.  An E-Z-Up shelter with tarps for sides will help in this endeavor, securely anchored with super strong tent pegs and taut ropes tied through ALL of the grommets on the tarp walls.  Or some outdoor tent gazebo which has both screened walls and tarp walls that can rapidly be let-down or unfurled when a storm approaches.  Or another canvas tent with no floor.  If you pick a tent gazebo with ONLY screened walls the weather will march right into it and either lift it up in the air and hurl it into the nearby lake or collapse it all over your stuff.  Obviously for your kitchen enclosure there is no need for flooring other than the dirt.  You don’t WANT flooring, other than dirt, so that people can troop in and out of it to eat without taking the time to remove shoes.

Be sure that you lock away all perishable food each time you leave your camp site and each evening after dinner.  You don’t want food smells attracting unwanted animals.

For both your sleeping tent and kitchen tent, look for used deals on Craigslist or E-Bay.  Some people start out with great expectations, but then sell their gear with dashed expectations not too long afterwards!

Selecting your campsite
Pick a place higher up rather than lower down—so that if any torrential rains come you won’t be flooded out, as the water pools down below.  If you find yourself with a lower spot as your only possibility, be sure to dig a small trench around the base of your tent—to collect and divert water should that become necessary during a downpour while you are sleeping some night.

If you pick a place higher up, make sure it is not all the way up on top of a hill.  You want your tent site tucked in closely a ways down from the extreme top edge, so that you don’t catch sudden winds that tend to blow on mountain tops.
Preparing your tent’s foundation
Give time to making a smooth foundation for under your tent, before setting it up.  Bring a shovel and rake along to get rid of any unwanted stones or fallen branches and twigs so that they don’t poke holes through the floor of your tent.  Bring along a rubber mallet for pounding in your tent stakes.

After each trip, hose down your tents and thoroughly dry them in the sun.  If your gear is stored dirty, its lifespan will be shortened.  If you pack wet gear, it may become moldy.  Then fold up and keep all of your camping gear packed and ready to go in ONE area of your garage, trailer, or other storage area.

Sleeping bags
Your next most important purchase is DOWN sleeping bags.  The deeper temperatures the bag is tagged for, below zero, the better.  Then you want a thin self-inflating 3 or 4 inch air mattress underneath (there’s nothing worse than having to inflate your air mattress by some manual means when you are already exhausted from putting up your tent).

Exped Down mats are the luxury liner warmest mats—but you have to inflate them.  There are several other easier models that work fine, obtainable from REI, for instance.  But if warmth is a higher priority, then go with the Exped mat.  For added insurance, purchase a thin exercise mat to put below your air mattress in case the air goes out of your air mattress in the middle of the night (and check for deflation before you go to bed, each night, top them off with some more air, if some was lost in the last 24 hours—this is a miserable job to do in the middle of the night, so tend to it BEFORE going to bed).  The exercise mat ensures that you won’t be sleeping directly on the cold ground.

If you are the kind of person that just can’t get warm—bring along a polyester warm blanket to further cut the air on top of your sleeping bag for when you first go to sleep.  Your body will warm up in the night and you can toss this extra layer off later.

Keep in mind that when coolers are full of ice and food they become super heavy.  So opt for several smaller coolers instead.  In addition to being lighter, this allows you to even categorize the types of foods via each cooler.  Put cheeses and yogurts in one, pre-cooked dinners in another, drinks in another, cut up veggies and fruit bowl contents in another, etc.  The 28-qt. Coleman Extreme is ideal for this; it is built to retain the coldness longer.

Ice solutions
If you freeze your water bottles WITH water in them—either your own concoctions of bottle and ice or the large six packs of pre-bottled water—tossed around in the cooler individually, you double-whammy your space—because you can drink them as they defrost. 

You can buy several half-gallon cardboard containers of juice or rice milk, and freeze these with the liquid IN them.  Because these become blocks of ice, they last far longer—and again you can drink them when they’re unfrozen.

Another way to keep the cold ice coming is to cram ONE cooler completely full of ice packs (no food at all in this cooler).  Each ice pack will keep all the other ice packs cold for a week!!!  Remove one ice pack a day to put into your food cooler and you’ll not have to return to town so often to refurbish your ice.
Food choices
Pre-cook as many meals as will fit in your cooler.  It is wonderful to be able to open and dump dinner in a pot and have it hot and ready in five minutes.  Often there is no time or WAY to cut up the ingredients for dinner right there on the scene.  And you may be too exhausted from just mere survival which takes more energy than at home—or long day hikes, hauling water, etc.  For additional quick meals bring along dehydrated soups and canned food (don’t forget a can opener) as well as bars and supplements and super food powders. 

Cooking utensils
Keep a duplicate set of all cooking utensils that you will be using so that you don’t have to ransack your house trying to remember what to take each time you go camping.  Have all of these things already packed, for camping use only, and keep them packed for easy quick retrieval for fast getaways. 

Cooking burner
A simple lightweight Coleman one-burner Powerpack stove may be all that you need.  This is a large 3 inch burner which runs on a propane canister and takes both small and large pans.  It has a metal frame to keep pans from slipping off while stirring.  Heat your tea or coffee or hot water first, and then set aside and heat your main meal in a separate pan, within mere minutes of each other.  Purchase a butane lighter-stick to make lighting this stove far easier than using tiny matches, and burning your fingers.

An American Camper propane heater delivers 10 hours of marvelous heat with each can of propane fuel.  This is far easier than bringing along a wood-burning stove for short trips in the fall.

In addition to flashlights which only yield light directly ahead of you, purchase several LANTERNS that will give you light in all directions.  You need two or three.  One for your kitchen area, one for your tent, and one outside the entrance of your tent, if coming home to the tent in the dark.  Have BOTH battery operated and SOLAR operated versions of each of these so that if you run out of the other, you always have the opposite fuel for backup.  Goal Zero makes good solar equipment—an excellent source of renewable free energy. 

Solar oven
(This item is totally optional).  American Solar Cookers are FREE heat source ovens.  Some enjoy them so much that they use them every day in their regular non-camping life as well.

Keep in mind that even if you bought the most LUXURY editions of all camping equipment it would total far less money than any RV purchase—or hotel bills.  Nowadays, hotels have become so expensive for families that the popular phrase “spend a night, not a fortune” is on the lips of many travelers as they seek less expensive alternatives.

For further reading on this topic, download our Survival Planning for Simpletons e-book (also available as a Kindle book, and in print).

Filed Under: Home management tips

Escorting your elderly parents through their final chapter

Sunday, 20. September 2015 by Todd Ellison


If you have elderly parents, here, to help you shepherd them through their last days, is a compilation of helpful quotes from Atul Gawande’s excellent book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End.

Many of us need help in even just opening a discussion with our aging parents about the important issues facing them in their final stages.  As Gary Smalley has noted in Making Love Last Forever, experts have found that death and sex are two of the most difficult things to discuss.

Although Dr. Gawande doesn’t write from a Judeo-Christian perspective, he (aHarvard Medical School surgeon and professor) is effective at front running some thoughts on the complex issues that face the elderly.  You as a believer can read these management strategies within the context of our faith in the resurrection—adding the very real hopes and eternal realities for your parents which are absent from this book’s presentation.   

“Being mortal is about the struggle to cope with the constraints of our biology, with the limits set by genes and cells and flesh and bone [and, we would add, the personal and loving sovereignty of Almighty God].  Medical science has given us remarkable power to push against those limits…  But again and again, I have seen the damage we in medicine do when we fail to acknowledge that such power is finite and always will be.

“We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine.  We think our job is to ensure health and survival.  But really it is larger than that.  It is to enable well-being.  And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive.  Those reasons matter not just at the end of life, or when debility comes, but all along the way.  Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same:
• What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes?
• What are your fears and what are your hopes?
• What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make?
• And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?”  (p. 259)

This is a good way to think, at this juncture in life: “living for the best possible day today instead of sacrificing time now for time later.” (p. 229)

Dr. Gawande has come to believe that “whatever we can offer [a person who is in this situation], our interventions, and the risks and sacrifices they entail, are justified only if they serve the larger aims of a person’s life.  When we [medical staff] forget that, the suffering we inflict can be barbaric.  When we remember it the good we do can be breathtaking.” (p. 260)

“At least two kinds of courage are required in aging and sickness.  The first is the courage to confront the reality of mortality—the courage to seek out the truth of what is to be feared and what is to be hoped.  Such courage is difficult enough.  We have many reasons to shrink from it.  But even more daunting is the second kind of courage—the courage to act on the truth we find.  The problems is that the wise course is so frequently unclear.  For a long while, I thought that this was simply because of uncertainty.  When it is hard to know what will happen, it is hard to know what to do.  But the challenge, I’ve come to see, is more fundamental than that.  One has to decide whether one’s fears or one’s hopes are what should matter most.” (p. 232)

Dr. Gawande observes that the default setting of the medical establishment has been “You took the most aggressive treatment available.”  On the other hand, “This [new] business of deliberating on your options—of figuring out your priorities and working with a doctor [him not as the Dictator or even as the Information-provider, but as a collaborator in interpreting the data and trying to fathom the unknowns] to match your treatment to them—[is] exhausting and complicate, particularly when you [aren’t able to ]...parse the unknowns and ambiguities.  The pressure remains all in one direction, toward doing more, because the only mistake clinicians seem to fear is doing too little.  Most have no appreciation that equally terrible mistakes are possible in the other direction—that doing too much could be no less devastating to a person’s life.” (p. 220)

Dr. Gawande summaries a study Daniel Kahneman reported in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, that found that there are two ways to evaluate experiences: how we apprehend them sequentially as they’re happening, and how we think of them afterwards.  How we think about the afterwards, sticks with us a lot longer, and what we tend to recall are the most intense periods and the very last period of the experience.  [Thus, how an experience—including a person’s life—ends, is crucial.]  Kahneman called it the Peak-End rule.  A key point here (pp. 238-239), is that “We have purposes larger than ourselves.  Unlike your experiencing self—which is absorbed in the moment—your remembering self is attempting to recognize not only the peaks of joy and valleys of misery but also how the story works out as a whole.  That is profoundly affected by how things ultimately turn out.  ...  in stories, endings matter.” (pages 236-238)

“I am leery of suggesting the idea that endings are controllable.  No one ever really has control.  Physics and biology and accident have their way in our lives.  But the point is that we are not helpless either.  Courage is the strength to recognize both realities.  We have room to act, to shape our stories, though as time goes on it is within narrower and narrower confines.  A few conclusions become clear when we understand this: that our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; that the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life; that we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture, and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone’s lives.” (p. 243)

“Technological society has forgotten what scholars call the `dying role’ and its importance to people as life approaches its end.  People want to share memories, pass on wisdoms and keepsakes, settle relationships, establish their legacies, make peace with God, and ensure that those who are left behind will be okay.  They want to end their stories on their own terms [we would say, on the terms God dictates for them].  This role is…among life’s most important, for both the dying and those left behind.” (p. 249)

Filed Under: Home management tips