Chronicles of an Island Girl’s First European Adventure: London Part I

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The Eye and the Rain

I never cared to visit London until the 2012 Olympics. Of course after the country was put it in an international spotlight, I wasn’t the only one interested in going. (Now I can’t wait to go to Brazil! But Brazil has always been on my travel wish list.) My first impression after landing in London was “why is it so cold.” We traveled from France to London via Easy Jet to London Luton Airport. It felt like 60 degrees when we got off the plane. London Luton is like the airports in the Virgin Islands. We walked off the plane, down the stairs, unto apron, then into the airport. When the cold morning air hit my face, for a second I wondered if it was summer in this part of the world. Then I remembered that France was a hot 90 something degrees. Putting the chill aside, it felt good being in an English-speaking country. We were able to negotiate our cab fares! (The little things we usually take for granted.) After reaching to the hotel we set out to find something to eat.

On our first stroll through the Marble Arch area in Westminster, England we were startled by the loud horn blowing on a delivery truck as we crossed the road. The group hurried across the street but the horn blowing continued. We looked back to see a Dominica flag in the truck, driven by two men – one wearing a visible Gucci chain. For those who may not know, a gold puffed Gucci chain is a trademark piece of Caribbean people, specifically Virgin Islanders. It’s a surefire way to identify a Caribbean person; it’s right up there with the hibiscus earrings. We started waving and shouting “ehhhhyyy” at the guys. It turns out that we were not being run out of the London street, but instead given a real island-styled “hail up” – and it felt really good. The truck kept on its way, and we kept on ours – wondering if and how the drivers recognized us as island people.

The guys in our group wanted to go to Brixton in southern London, where we were told has a large Caribbean population, for some island food. But we were too hungry to venture all the way down there at the time. We ate at Giraffe’s then headed out to sightsee.

While we had found many historical marvels in Paris, I found the Eye of London to be a modern marvel. It’s described as a revolving observatory. In essence, it looks like a gigantic ferris wheel. A misunderstanding with my boyfriend had dampened my spirit a bit as I rode on the Eye. But the 360 degree views of London from aboard the eye were a must see. I had been looking forward to seeing Big Ben. But after I did, the Eye stole all of Ben’s glory.

As we were leaving the Eye it started to rain. And I was unprepared. One couple in the group was equipped with a complimentary umbrella provided by the Marriott Marble Arch where we were staying. As she said, “If a hotel offers a complimentary umbrella, that mean it rains a lot.” We waited out the rain a bit, then decided to go ahead with the rest of our sightseeing. Passing by several double decked sightseeing busses, we came across the iconic London phone booths, then headed for Buckingham Palace.

It started to rain on the way to the palace. Then it started to pour. The group had to decide if it made sense to continue or to head back to the hotel. Since we were nearly there we continued. The experience was pretty cool, as my boyfriend and I walked and talked – in the rain. The palace wasn’t too much fun in the rain. We plotted our way back to the hotel.

Luckily for us, the wifi at the Marble Arch Marriott Hotel was pretty good. We used our extra time to check in with family and friends back home.

For the first time in days, I got a full night’s rest!

Stay tuned for more on my European Adventure.

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Chronicles of an Island Girl’s First European Adventure: Paris Part 2

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The Day of Awe
We had three big locations planned for our second day in Paris. It was Saturday and we decided to plan our stops more carefully as to not tire ourselves as we had done the day before. We planned on heading out around noon. But no one woke up until about 1:30 pm. We met up at 3 p.m. to head out. The first stop was Notre Dame. We had been using the Metro for getting around – a system I have yet to figure out. Living on a small island with no metros, it’s hard enough trying to figure out the system in New York or DC, but Paris was a whole other beast. Not to mention, I’m “directionally challenged,” as my boyfriend says. Praise God for the Metro riders in our group who took the lead.
I immediately liked Ile De La Cite, where the Notre Dame is located. There was something about the area that felt familiar and welcoming.

We stopped for lunch at an open air outdoor restaurant before making our way to the cathedral. I was in awe upon seeing the Notre Dame. It looked so huge and powerful. The architecture and attention to detail were magnificent. Within the walls of the Notre Dame were hundreds of intricately carved faces. The inside of the Notre Dame was dark and a live mass was in session when we entered. As we walked deeper into the building there were dozens and dozens of small lit candles. Along the walls were spaces dedicated to saints. As we passed to the far right of the pulpit, the scent of Frankincense and myrrh was overwhelming. I felt like I was transported to a few centuries in the past. My boyfriend was creeped out by the Notre Dame. While I reveled in the history, he wanted to leave. We left the inside of the Cathedral and headed to the side so that we could go to the top of the massive church, but the line was too long.

We headed for the next stop on our list – the Luxembourg Garden and Palace. I am used to seeing street performers in train stations. In Paris we saw a whole band! In one metro car there was a violinist with a moveable amplifier and taped accompaniment. We got up, started dancing and began a cha-cha line on the train! Before I knew it, strangers had taken out their cell phones to capture us. I just hope we don’t end up somewhere on the internet!

The Luxembourg Garden was beautiful. I immediately envisioned lavish outdoor weddings being held there. When we reached the middle of the garden, a few people in our group stopped for crepes. We saw the wrap for the crepes made to perfection right in front our faces. We rested for a bit while our friends enjoyed their warm snack. For the entire day we were careful to take our time. We wanted to be fresh for our most anticipated stop.

A good friend suggested that we visit the Eiffel Tower later in the day so that we could have the experience of seeing it in the day and the night. That was the best advice.
As we headed toward the revered monument our pace picked up the closer we got. We had a new sense of urgency and a new burst of energy. Then there we were, a few hundred feet away from the Eiffel Tower. It was surreal. And like all good tourists, we stopped to take pictures. When we reached to the bottom of the tower, all heads pointed to the sky staring at the structure. It was gigantic. I gained a new respect for 19th century engineers. As with all other structures in Paris, it was intricately artistic. I just kept staring at it. We soon got in line to go into the tower. It was a long line and the estimated wait time was two hours. Honestly, I wanted to wait to go inside of the tower. The group decided to head to the Seine River for a river cruise. The sun was setting and the Eiffel Tower was lit. It was beautiful. It was dark by the time we got on the boat. And without warning, the Eiffel Tower started to dazzle with sparkling white lights. It was magnificent! Us on the water and a dazzling Eiffel Tower! The night had cooled down considerably and I was chilly. Our boat trip was romantic. I was intrigued with the detailed carvings on the bottom of the bridges and the rich history of the city.

When we got off the river cruise everyone was hungry. Or group had various diets. I am vegetarian. Three of the group were pescetarian (they eat fish but no meat or poultry). Two in the group ate anything. It was almost midnight and we needed a restaurant that could satisfy everyone. After reading the menus from a few restaurants, we settled on this one spot not far from the Eiffel Tower. I wish I could remember the name, because there I had the best meal of my entire trip – a goat cheese ravioli. The server was friendly and worked hard to meet the needs of my pescetarian friends – who insisted that their “smoked salmon” be cooked. By this time, the men in our group were hungry and borderline “angry.” They knew what they wanted and they wanted it done correctly. Most of us had not been impressed with the food in Paris so far. But tonight everyone enjoyed their meals. It was the bill that surprised us after we had filled our bellies. A glass of Coke was €9. That’s almost $12 for something we easily buy back home for $2 at the maximum. The guys also decided to get extra plates to go, since it was their best meal so far. I won’t tell you about the rest of the bill. Let’s just say the owner of the restaurant would be happy.

We left the restaurant in a walk/run mode to catch the train back to La Defense. We were told that the last train left at 1 a.m.

Last Day in Paris
On our last day in Paris we decided to head out to the Lafayette Mall, buy souvenirs and explore the surrounding La Defense. It was Sunday an I was totally disappointed that the Lafayette Mall was closed. I was so disappointed that I wanted to go down to see for myself. Instead we headed to the nearby Les Quartes Temps Mall. It was there, in the food court that I had the best drink ever – the Josephine Baker. It was a frozen smoothie-like drink made from passion fruit, coconut and mango. The drink surely did justice to our ultra sexy icon.

Later we hit the Charles De Gulle Place for souvenirs. That evening we had some packing to do. Our next stop was London!

Stay tuned for more on my European adventure.

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Chronicles of an Island Girl’s First European Adventure: Paris Part 1

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Too Much to Do; Too Tired to Do It

When we landed in Paris it was dawn. It was about 8:30 am when we got to the Renaissance Hotel in La Defense. My body was on the 2:30 am time that it was back home. I was tired. The first thing I was interested in doing was sleeping.

I got about 4 hours of sleep. The group decided to meet at 1:15 pm to set out. We left from La Defense and headed out by foot, not quite sure where we were going. Right outside of our hotel was the Grande Arche De La Defense, that we decided to bypass since it was so easily accessible. The day was hot. But a cool breeze made it nice. Our first stop was Arc de Triomphe – a huge arch of whom history I still don’t know.

From there we did plenty walking downtown at Charles de Gaulle. High-end stores, open air baristas and souvenir shops lined the streets. We spotted some Ferraris and Maserati’s cruising down the street. Then we noticed some parked at the side of the road, offering anyone with a driver’s license a 20-minute drive for a fee. It was €89 to drive the Ferrari. The men in my group were tempted, but reasoned that they’d like to blow out a Ferrari on the open road, not creep on crowded city streets.

We stopped for lunch at Leon de Bruxelles, whose specialty is mussels. The place wasn’t too vegetarian friendly – I made do with a small salad and cheese croquette – but those in the group who had mussels said it was the best. Service was a bit slow. But in the end when we tabulated our bill we included a 15 percent tip. One guy in the group gave an extra €10 for good measure. Needless to say, we got the most enthusiastic farewell from a waitress ever. Later a waiter at another restaurant told us that tipping is not mandatory in France and there is no pressure on customers to tip unless they had excellent service.

On the walk from the Arch downward, the further away we walked from Charles de Gaulle Place, the more we noticed Paris’ amazing structures and landmarks. There were lots of intricately carved structures and monuments. Unfortunately the city was not as tourist friendly as expected. While everything was written in French, we had hoped to meet some informational guides who could explain some of the awesome things we were seeing. Trust me, we were armed with maps and guides, but they were not enough. The language barrier didn’t help. Most Parisians didn’t seem approachable.

We kept walking in search of the Louvre Museum, then low and behold, shooting up to the sky from behind a canal, we saw the Eiffel Tower in the background. Cameras came out in an instant. We posed and posed some more. This was the epiphany of Paris. It was the ultimate must-see thing for the group – we were so excited. The day was really hot. So we stopped by a mobile vendor, at first to buy some water, but ended up buying homemade ice cream too. “Not that powered Haagen Das they try to fool you with,” the owner told us. He “used the real vanilla beans” in his product, he said. His gelatos were perfected over four generations of gelato making, he said. And he was right. They were excellent. He had a mango gelato that tasted like the freshly picked fruit. By far the friendliest Parisian we had met, he went on to tell us he grew up with black people and had black friends. He even gave us a raised closed fist salute while saying “fight the power.” We all looked at each other and smiled. He was the first person in Paris to make us feel genuinely welcomed. The sighting of the Eiffel Tower and our new-found friend really made me feel good as we headed to the Louvre Gardens and Museum.

By the time we reached to Louvre Gardens we were all tired. We rested for a bit under some trees and had to really convince ourselves to continue the journey, for after the Louvre, we planned on going to the Eiffel Tower. We reached the Louvre hoping for some cold A/C to revive us. The air conditioner could barely be felt. I had observed a pattern in Paris. The A/C in the hotel was at a minimum, the air on the metro was almost non-existent, now here in this museum we were sweating. Is this Paris’ way of saving energy and lowering its carbon footprint? We didn’t get the reprieve we had hoped for and were too tired to even walk around. It was a long day. We plotted out way back to the hotel, and saved the Eiffel tower for a next day. When we got back to the hotel it was around 8 pm. I needed to sleep badly. By 1 am I was wide awake. Go figure. My body was still on Atlantic Standard Time.

Stay tuned for more on my European adventure.

If you missed the first episode, read it here: Chronicles of an Island Girl’s First European Adventure: Getting There

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Chronicles of an Island Girl’s First European Adventure: Getting There

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If six months ago someone had told me that I would be traveling to another continent, on a “buddy pass,” by myself I would have called them crazy. As a matter of fact, in retrospect, I am crazy, sort of. When my boyfriend invited me to go to Europe on a three-country tour with him and some friends, I told him that I would think about it. I pondered on it for a while, thinking that I won’t be able to find a sitter for my children and that my best option would be to pass up the offer. That was until I told a couple colleagues. One flat out said to me, “I didn’t know you were on drugs,” when I told her that I didn’t think I could make it. One coworker was especially optimistic. She kept telling me “you deserve it Nanyamka, and you’re going to go.” Every time she saw me she asked about how the planning was coming along. Every time I came up with an excuse, she found a solution. When she asked her regular questions “have you packed yet” and “so what sites do you want to see,” I dare not told her that I wasn’t sure if I was going, unless I wanted a scolding. Truth be told, it was because of this dear colleague that I made up my mind to go.

Eventually my boyfriend explained that he had secured buddy passes for the group, which meant we would travel for a fraction of the price – if we actually got on the plane. Buddy passes work on a stand-by method. If there are empty seats on the flight, pass holders get to fly, in order of priority. This was NOT what I had in mind for international travel. I mean, what would happen if all the flights were all full? But my boyfriend assured me that he would check the flights regularly and arrange my tickets through the airports where it was more likely that I get a seat.

Because of all this and the fact that I had so much going on at home and at work, I wasn’t excited about the trip. Actually, my friends and family were more excited than I was. That was until my boyfriend called from Paris. He went up two days before we did. At that moment I realized that this was a great opportunity and we would have a blast! And on that day, my ticket was purchased – two days before my departure.

The first leg of my flight was St. Thomas to Puerto Rico, but it was a regular ticket, not a buddy pass. In Puerto Rico, the agent told me, “just wait for me to call your name,” which gave me hope that I would get on my PR-ATL leg. In that flight I had the good fortune of sitting with a Virgin Islands couple who were heading back to Illinois where they live. We had an engaging, eye-opening, spiritual conversation. You know the feeling when God put you in a certain place at a certain time for a reason? Yep, I was meant to meet that couple.

The ATL-Paris leg didn’t seem too promising – I was number 12 on the stand by list – but I kept the faith. It just so happened that I met two of the other people in the group at the airport. We were the last three people called to board the flight. Whew, that was close. I had been mentally preparing myself for the eight-hours and 24 minutes flight. I don’t enjoy flying: sitting in a cramped seat for so long, the cold recycled air, being thousands of miles in the air with no control – I can go on and on. I respect airplanes and pilots. No matter how many flights I’ve taken, I still count it a miracle to be in a gravity-defying air-suspended machine. I pray hard every time I get on an airplane – whether it’s a 20 minute flight on the tiny Seaplane in the Virgin Islands or on a jumbo trans-atlantic flight. Because I had only slept for 90 minutes the night before, I hoped to catch up on my rest. Getting ready for international travel within two days was, well tiring.

I did rest a bit, but I had great entertainment. The Delta seat back multi media screens are awesome! I’m not much of a movies person. I prefer to read on flights. So before this eight-hour flight, I had never paid much attention to it. I had watched a movie or two on it, but never explored it further. This thing is amazing. Tabs features up-to-date movies, HBO, tv, music, games, sky kids and my flight. I watched “The Hangover II” and “This is 40.” For me, my flight is the coolest thing. There is a moving map that let’s you know, in real time, how many minutes you have to reach your destination and an map that shows the plane’s actual location. Channel 13, the R&B station was the bomb. Ok forgive me if I am going overboard with this, but all this time, I had no idea how cool it was.

The flight attendants are preparing for our second meal and we are scheduled to land in Paris in about an hour.

Stay tuned for more on my European adventure.

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Develop a Spiritual Relationship with the Creator

The most important relationship you’ll ever have is a spiritual relationship between yourself and a higher power. Relationships with other people are good, necessary even. But in our darkest hour our spouses, family or friends may not be there for us; not because they don’t want to, but often because they cannot. So we should take the time to develop and nurture our spiritual selves. Our mother can’t do it for us. Our father can’t do it for us. Our husband or wife can’t do it for us. This is work that we must do ourselves. In the end, it’s the most important.

Are Virgin Islanders Rude?

Do we have a culture of rudeness in the Virgin islands? I ask this in the most serious way. Over the past few weeks I’ve been hearing complaints about our customer service – or rather lack-there-of – from all segments of our community. I’ve been fielding so many complaints recently that I’m wondering if somehow I’ve become a defacto complaint box. Perhaps the rudeness has gotten to a point where people are just venting to the closest listening ear.

A friend who lives in the states recently told me that I don’t have a “VI mentality.” A VI mentality? What is that, I asked him. “You are not rude and closed minded,” was his reply. Hold up. Wait a minute. So the definition of a VI mentality is being rude and close minded? As a Virgin Islander I was offended an expressed that to him. His reply that was I should be glad that I don’t have a VI mentality. He had missed my point altogether. If the the label of “VI mentality” means being rude, unreasonable and close minded, all of us in the VI should be concerned. The irony of that particular situation was that this friend is one of the proudest Virgin Islanders I know. He always proclaims to “carry the Virgin Islands on my back.” And although I explained that he was unfair to negatively characterize a “VI mentality,” I couldn’t get him to back down. I pointed to all the wonderful people who exuded good customer service, positivity, etc. He replied that they were all exceptions to the rule. Perhaps he was right. Perhaps I didn’t want to accept what I know is true.

Another friend of mine who relocated from the states to St. Thomas for a position at a private company was so happy when he was able to start a small business on the side. Small business are the backbone of the economy, right? He was even happier when he got a small contract from a local public utility. After completing the work for the utility, he got the run-around regarding his payment. After months of being told that someone was working on processing his payment, he decided to visit the office. What he soon learned was that in fact, no one was “working on it.” But it wasn’t that he had gotten the run-around for months that made him vent to me. It was what the employee said to him the minute he walked into her office: “Meen feeling good today you know. Wha you wan?” He was speechless. He couldn’t believe that a public employee would greet anyone in such a manner. Having lived here for a few years he has learned to turn the other cheek and navigate situations to get what he needs. But he was still in disbelief when he shared the story with me.

His story reminded me of another friend – a Virgin Islander living in the states – who had come home for vacation. Needing to send a money transfer he went to one of our department stores. The lady serving him was so rude that he simply refused to deal with her and asked for a supervisor. What made him vent to me was the attitude of the supervisor. “She was even more rude than her employee,” he exclaimed to me.

I can go on an on with the scenarios. Each of us can probably write a book about the poor customer service in the Virgin Islands. The sad thing is that things seem to be getting worse.

Recently on a flight out of the Virgin Islands I had the pleasure of sitting next to newlyweds from South Dakota who had spent their honeymoon on St. Thomas. When I asked them about their stay they raved about the island’s beauty and all the fun they had. But…they also mentioned the poor customer service and lack of courtesy during their stay, especially by employees at the hotel where they stayed. I apologized. I had to. I assured them that the situation they described was one we were actively working to correct. No guest, honeymooners at that, should leave our territory with negative memories of our people.

Unfortunately many people in the Virgin Island think that because they say “good morning,” “good afternoon,” or “good night,” that they are not rude; that those greetings are a free pass to, well, be rude.

As I type this, I am on a plane back from a business trip where over a few days I had the honor of unofficially being a VI ambassador. Because, the fact is, most people I met wanted to know more about where I’m from. I spent a lot of time inviting people to the territory. And I am concerned. I’m concerned about the name we are making for ourselves by the way we treat our guests. But I’m even more concerned about the way we treat each other. Has rudeness become part of our culture? But more importantly what are we doing about it?

Yesterday I Had a Shower in the Street

I live on St. Thomas, Virgin Islands where public transportation is unreliable, taxi service is expensive and the most dependent form of mass transportation is unregulated. Still, I felt it was time to teach my 12-year-old how to navigate the island without depending solely on me and my trusty 10-year-old Toyota. When I gave her instructions for catching the “safari” – the open air, unregulated form of mass transportation most popular on the island – she told me she was scared. “Yeah right,” I thought to myself. She had caught the safari dozens of times with her grandmother. But as her mom, it’s my duty to remove her fears, right? So it was her first day of summer vacation when I decided to take her to work with me. I would park my car downtown and we would take the safari to work. Rain was forecasted for the day, but it was only overcast when I was lucky enough to find a parking space. So I took my chances. My first pointer to her: when depending on the safaris take an umbrella – you never know when it may rain.

The ride to work was great, as I continued to give her pointers. She confided that riding the safari with me was embarrassing. Why, I inquired. “If you ride the safari by yourself that means that you’re independent. If you ride the safari with your mom it probably means that she doesn’t have a good job, so she can’t afford a car.” I was surprised at the junior high logic. When I asked her “where does that leave us?” she couldn’t answer. “You should never make assumptions,” I told her, “cause we can never really know.”

I counted the walk up the hill to my office a good early morning activity. By lunchtime it was pouring and VI Alert messages to my phone confirmed that we were under flood watch. My plan of walking to and from the cafeteria had to be reworked. Umbrella in hand, we caught the campus shuttle to the cafeteria. An hour later, it was still pouring – hard. We had missed the shuttle back to the office. Luckily we were able to catch a ride with a colleague in a company vehicle. There were only two seats in the vehicle, so my 5’7” daughter had to sit on my lap.

The rain continued.

By 4:50 p.m. I got concerned. I started to feel that I had made a mistake in choosing this day for our safari ride. It was raining harder and harder. And it was flooding. We walked from my office down to the bus stop sharing our sole umbrella. I was thankful though – it was a covered bus stop. Well all of a sudden gusty winds began blowing the rain directly under the bus stop. I screamed out as the cold water wet me from waist down. And with everyone one else, I jumped on the benches. By this time, it made no sense wondering if I had made a right or wrong decision – I accepted that this was going to be a learning experience different than I had planned. Standing together on the bench with my daughter, cold wind and rain blowing up against us, I began laughing. Burst out laughing! She was pissed. We were drenched. She found nothing funny to laugh at. One by one everyone under the bus stop had gotten rides. That left the two of us. Then she began: “Mommy my shoes are soaked. Now I know what my friends were talking about….” “Mommy this safari is taking too long…” “Mommy do you realize that this was the worst day for us to catch the safari…” The most impactful: “Mommy, I can’t wait to get into our Toyota, without the rims…” I assume that she added “without the rims” because she had desperately missed the vehicle that, at this time may not look the best, but served a good purpose.

On the safari ride back to town I realized that my daughter had learned more than I ever expected. “It feels so good to sit in a moving vehicle,” she said. “I don’t know how anyone could not learn to drive, like my grandmother. I must get a car,” she continued. “Mommy imagine that some people have to do this every day…”

When we made it into the car she shouted out: “Yes! Yes! Yes! I missed my car!” The look of relief on her face was priceless. She took off her shoes and showed me her feet. They were wrinkled as though she had been swimming. I must admit, this whole thing was likewise an experience for me. It reminded me that I have so much to be grateful for.

As the rain continues to pour outside, I’m now safely at home, wondering how the homeless are making out. I wish that there was no homelessness and that safe, reliable transportation was available for everyone. I can’t change everything in the world. But right now I’m grateful for everything I have been blessed with. I can guarantee you that my daughter is too. She learned a much greater lesson than I even imagined.

Prayer for the Unemployed

Today my prayer is for the unemployed. It’s such a struggle for many of us who work to make ends meet. Creator please meet all of our needs, especially those who may have no job or income at this time. Please keep the unemployed in high spirits and right minds. During this period, help the unemployed to discover their talents and purpose; positioning them to create new employment for themselves or being prepared for when an opportunity arises. Help them to know that the world needs their gifts and talents, so that they may continue to serve You even during this time. Hear my prayer oh Lord. Selah.

I Surrender

Father God, Most High Creator, I surrender all to you. You created me and dwell within me. You know my heart’s desires; but even better you know my needs. I surrender all power and control to you, knowing through faith that you will direct my steps accordingly. The hardest part for me is letting go. Please allow me to let go- not just today, but always. As I follow your lead, help me to accept that there are things I may not understand. Help me to realize if there are things I don’t understand, it’s likely that my friends and family won’t understand either. Please God, don’t let outside chatter distract me from your path. My God, you have never failed me yet. Please help me to always remember that. Dear God, you have always given me what I’ve asked for. But often what I’ve asked for, and gotten, was not what I needed. Help me to remember that. I love you. I honor you. Help me to remember that I am not in control – you are. This is my prayer.