Grandma’s Politics and Puttanesca, ProJo

Posted on November 12, 2014
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Because she never learned to read in English, Grandma appeared to be uninterested in politics. Nonetheless, politicians frequently stopped by for her Friday night puttanesca, an Italian dish of spaghetti, anchovies, olives and capers. During election season, she made this meal in huge vats. On Saturday, neighbors would stop by to ask her opinions. Little thoughts and gestures from Grandma could set people thinking in a voters’ world that relied more on gossip than facts.

Despite backroom politics — as well as heated discussions at men’s private Italian clubs — women would pry Gram for inside information.

Gram would say, “We never know what goes on behind closed doors.”

And if she did not answer in words, it was never a good sign when she tilted her head, shrugged her shoulders, and threw up her hands.

During one particular race, neighbors pushed her for an answer as to her favorite candidate. She smiled and said, “You know I don’t take sides. They are both good men. They often sit at my table. But only one brings his wife — and even his mother.”

“Ahh, that tells us everything,” they nodded.

After every election, Grandma would receive a large basket of fall fruit and flowers.

Many years later, Gram’s influence was still talked about. When I returned to New Haven from New York, where I had been studying, I became involved in a medical center expansion project. The center, focusing on drug treatment research, was tied up by “not in my backyard” activists.

At a crucial meeting of politicians and physicians, when the mayor arrived — even before we introduced ourselves — he looked at me and said, “Little lady, do you have a family recipe for spaghetti and anchovies from your grandmother Nancy? You look just like her.”

Before answering, he told the story of political puttanesca. “Gentleman, if you were running for office some years back, you simply had to knock on the door of Nancy and Anthony and join the family. There was always room for one more.”

“Our family was another story. We were not in politics back then. We had very little money. But every Friday night, her nonna sent over a pot of spaghetti and anchovies and we feasted.”

Then he raised his eyes to the heavens and said, “Nancy, thank you, we are going to make the new center a reality — the puttanesca center.”

Amid laughter and applause, he turned to me and said, “I have just one request — her recipe.”

The mayor was given the recipe. The center was built. And on that day, years later, Gram’s often repeated words rang true: “Give to others and goodness will come back to you.”

Rita Esposito Watson, a Providence Journal and columnist, is writing, “Italian Kisses: Gram’s Wisdom.”


Rita Watson: Memories of Grandma:  Published on 02 November 2014

Spirituality of Music: Jesse Holstein

Posted on November 12, 2014
Filed Under Providence Journal - Health | Leave a Comment

I first met violinist Jesse Holstein through an auction to support the Providence Athenaeum; he would play at a small musical salon for the highest bidder. I kept raising my hand as the bidding escalated, before joining forces with an Athenaeum board member. Just as the auctioneer finished the words, “Do I hear …,” we raised our hands and won.

Later, our guests, who were mesmerized by Holstein, would describe listening to his string work as “spiritual moments.”

That seems to be a theme with Holstein.

Holstein’s passion, dedication and soul has been reflected in his 13-year association with Community MusicWorks, both as a performer and teacher, to “create an opportunity for professional musicians to build and transform their own urban community.”

CMW was founded in 1997 by Sebastian Ruth. Holstein and Ruth met while members of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and became friends. Ruth invited Holstein to join the program that brings bring classical music to urban youngsters through free after-school education and performance programs. Essentially, they wanted to fill a musical void for young people by working and living in the neighborhood with the children and families that they served.

Today, Community MusicWorks is a thriving musical microcosm with more than 100 students. It has received numerous awards and founder Ruth became a 2010 MacArthur Foundation “genius” award recipient.

In his classroom, Holstein has expanded his teaching to bring lessons of mindfulness to students at CMW.

He recently returned from a sabbatical at the Plum Village monastery in the south of France, where Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh is spiritual leader. The monk is internationally respected for his teaching and writing on mindfulness and peace.

Holstein says his teaching brought him to a self-realization that inspired him to pursue the practice of mindfulness.

“It was not an easy time at first,” Holstein said. “I am accustomed to multitasking and running from teaching to rehearsals to concerts and to socializing with families of my students. In France I was expected to do nothing but focus on the moment.”

Q. When you returned you decided to convey mindfulness to music students. How do you do this?

A. I have started to address spirituality with students. We are focusing on spirituality in the preteen group for those who want more depth by learning how music intersects with their lives.

We start each session with five minutes of sitting. One of things we do is to ask students to focus on one thing at a time in their lives, whether it is stretching, skateboarding, playing basketball or doing the dishes. We are trying to teach them to become uni-taskers instead of multi-taskers. If music students can be completely focused for 15 minutes, it is reflected in the quality of their work.

When a student wonders, “Why do I have to practice mindfulness?” the answers are simple. It builds impulse control and helps you connect with something deeper, values.

Q. What is the unique nature of your work in terms of both music and teaching?

A. My teaching has brought me to two different stages of self-realization, first through the CMW philosophy and now because of my experience with mindfulness. I think what distinguishes CMW from other programs, in addition to musical excellence, are the teachers, artists and scholars who comprise our community. In becoming accomplished instrumentalists we are trying to create citizens of the world — whether locally or globally — who are socially responsible. What we want to convey to students is our belief that music is more than just playing well.

We also have learned that what works for one is not for all, an older model from my own high school days. Despite being a creature of habit, I now try to meet the students where they are at. To do this, you need to check the ego at the door. We want to set up students for success and to become intrinsic motivators.

One way we do this is to encourage students to select their own music because, when they do, they are much more likely to open the violin case. They may see a skill in an older student, such as creating a vibrato, and say, “I want to learn that.” Then you let them. Or if they say, “When I try to read music the notes are coming too fast.” We trust the student to go at his or her own pace. We find out what works best for each individual.

Q. How does mindfulness help you when you perform?

A. Although I still get performance anxiety wondering what people are going to think of me, from practicing mindfulness I learned that those thoughts are just passing clouds.

What I see now is that I need to make time for my spiritual practice and breathing. When I get anxious before a performance, now I can say to myself, “These are just thoughts, emotions, old patterns that I’ve been stuck in for a long time.”

Learn more about music at Find more information about mindfulness at

Providence violinist finds the spiritual in music  / Oct 20, 2014  (GREAT PHOTOS AT THIS LINK.) Rita Watson is a Journal columnist who also writes for

Wear A Smile, Providence Journal

Posted on November 12, 2014
Filed Under Providence Journal - Relationships | Leave a Comment

If you have not as yet come up with a Halloween costume, try becoming a giant smiley face.

In looking at the research on smiles recently, it seems that a particular type of smile, one that lights up the whole face, comes about through a set of facial muscles that may control our joy and destiny. Named for a French researcher, the “Duchenne smile” reveals relationship secrets. Researchers have determined that a smile can predict happiness and divorce, convey love and compatibility between couples, and is happily contagious.

Those of us who grew up with older relatives always reminding us to stand up straight and smile might have inadvertently learned the secret to happiness, good relationships, and less stress. To visualize an image of the Duchenne smile, think of Julia Roberts and Mario Lopez, or the smiley face emoticon. The Duchenne smile uses facial and eye muscles to create that “you light up my life” look.

Looking through yearbook photos, a recent photo-prediction experiment at DePauw University accurately predicted marriage and divorce just based on the smiles. “The Science of Intimate Relationships” reported on couples who were happiest by two simple actions observed on videotapes — those who nodded in agreement as the other spoke and those with Duchenne smiles. It seems that in the act of smiling, you feel better and this sends a signal to the brain called “happiness.”

Consider this: In a study on toothpaste sales, it was found that people were willing to pay more for toothpaste promoted by actors with Duchenne smiles. If such a smile can sell toothpaste, imagine what it might do for your relationship? If your relationship is rocky for the moment, just smiling as you think about the joy you derived in the past will trigger production of the love hormone oxytocin.

Smiles and laughter are contagious, as we learned from studies at the University of Maryland. Try laughing alone in a crowd and within minutes the laughter will spread gleefully and the love will just bubble up and over! If you missed World Smile Day earlier this month, there is still time to promote its slogan: “Do an act of kindness. Help one person smile.”

You can practice the Duchenne smile until it becomes a reality for you. Much like gratitude, if you practice the gratitude you do not necessarily feel — through kind acts — eventually you will find yourself becoming a more grateful person. Try smiling more often at the person you love, watch movies together that make you laugh, and your love life and sex life are sure to reach new levels of compatibility and joy.

  Rita Watson: Wear a smile, light up your love life October 19, 2014

Rita Watson is a relationship columnist for The Providence Journal and

The Fiorentina Pears and a Bridal Bag were Family Traditions – ProJo

Posted on October 8, 2014
Filed Under Italian Kisses, Providence Journal - Relationships | Leave a Comment

Grandma spoke of “Papa’s pears” with reverence. The fruit trees that lined the walkway to Grandpa’s garden created a canopy that overheard family secrets and stories including our favorite — the pears for newlyweds. Grandma said that in her Italian village when young people married and moved from the farms “to set up house,” her mother would bring them a basket of pears. Since pear trees live for 250 years, these were wishes for a long, happy life together.

In this country, Gram kept up the spirit of tradition. Each fall she lined the pantry with jars for her pears in brandy. She made up a simple mixture of boiled sugar to which she added bay leaves and brandy and then the cored and sliced pears.

Each year at pear time, soft-spoken Gram would raise her voice.

“Anthony, Anthony,” she would call out. “That brother of yours was back in my pantry again. He knew I was making the pears and look at how much brandy he drank. I’m telling you, it’s time to talk with him.”

“Aspetta, my little sweetheart. I bought more brandy just for you.”

Grandpa’s little sweetheart was about 4 feet 10 inches tall and just as wide. They would kiss. She would smile then sigh. “Imagine he drinks the newlyweds’ brandy for their pears of long life.”

Grandma believed “Papa’s pears” were descendents of the Fiorentina pears, which her mother had received as a gift from relatives in Umbria, about three hours from their village in the Avellino region. The Fiorentina pear tree is often depicted in Renaissance paintings.

Since family weddings took place in the summertime, Grandma and Grandpa waited until the fall to visit newlyweds at their home. She packed jars of pears in a large basket and on top of the jars rested a small tray of her biscotti sprinkled with sugar-coated almonds and silver stands of tinsel — a miniature of their wedding tray.

At Italian weddings newlyweds passed a large tray of cookies to guests. The bride always had a drawstring satin pouch swinging from her wrist. When relatives took the cookies, they handed the bride an envelope with cash, saying, “Put this in your bag to help you set up house.”

Immediately after the exchange of cookies and envelopes, Gram nudged Grandpa. On cue, he stood up, lifted his wine glass and began his toast. “Here’s to the bride and the groom. I want you both to look around at all of your family. My wife just reminded me to tell you that marriage is for richer, for poorer. Even on days when you feel poor, remember this moment. Here you have surrounding you the riches of family. Salute.”

Rita Esposito Watson, a Providence Journal and columnist, is writing, “Italian Kisses: Gram’s Wisdom.”

Rita Watson: ‘Papa’s pears’ upheld family traditions

Learn to be giving: 10 relationship tips, Projo

Posted on September 15, 2014
Filed Under Providence Journal - Relationships | Leave a Comment

We have all been to parties where we envied those lovey-dovey couples and their public display of affection. And sometimes, in the same room, there was the silent-treatment pair making everyone in their company feel uncomfortable.

Recently, researchers have been highlighting relationships, and one study reveals that givers have a greater chance at happiness than takers. Givers are generous with kisses, kindness and words. On the flip side are the withholders, those who give the cold shoulder to their partners.

The successful principle of giving without expecting anything in return has been studied in business culture —researchers found that givers shared more important information as well as resources, while takers kept it all to themselves — and it applies equally to couples’ relationships.

Now let’s look at those silent treatment couples. Here, studies have shown that that there are harmful consequences when one person in a relationship shuts down. There is no giving; there is just withdrawing. Nonetheless, this is one of the most common ways married couples deal with conflict.

Here are the top 10 secrets to strengthening love provided by relationship experts:

In a love relationship, learn the value of “we” to help strengthen connections, says Dr. Karen Skerrett of Northwestern University. The book “Positive Couple Therapy: Using We-Stories to Enhance Resilience,” which Skerrett co-authored, points out that couples who create mutual stories and share them with family and friends develop “a sense of mutuality” that helps foster lifelong love.

Rita Watson, MPH, is a relationship columnist for All About You and writes the “With Love and Gratitude” column for

Rita Watson: Learning to give can strengthen your love:  Published on 24 August 2014

Italian kisses: Celebrating the feast of family and food, Projo

Posted on September 15, 2014
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Our grandmother disliked crowds, even those that gathered to honor the saints. When September’s “la festa de San Gennaro” approached — a large Italian street festival of music, games and food — Gram planned a gathering of some 30 relatives for cooking, eating, playing bocce and building sand castles. She said we could not attend the feasts until we were tall enough to see over the heads of the crowd.

The city feast that began in Naples was transported to Italian-American neighborhoods and featured the saint’s statue being carried through the streets. At our house, there was no saint to be lifted onto men’s shoulders, just buckets of sand from under the dock to our front lawn so that we could build our sand village. While the men gathered sand, we went with aunts and cousins to the gardens to pick the last of the escarole, cabbage and kale to make “minestra,” a greens and beans staple for the first September chill.

As Gram and our aunts cooked, Grandpa and the men prepared the bocce court, a patch of soil about 16 feet long by about 8 feet wide. With balls made of metal, the game was like bowling without the pins.

When the sun began to set over the water, Grandpa moved his Victrola (a record player that had to be cranked up) to the side porch so we could listen to Italian music from his 78 RPM records. Then he hung colored Christmas lights over the grape arbor saying: “Eh, bravo. Now it looks like the Italian feast.”

Once we all took our place at the picnic tables, we bowed our heads as he thanked God for family and food. Then Grandma and our aunts came along to place a large frizelle in everyone’s dish. The thick crusty slice of Italian bread seemed lonely until it was smothered by a hefty ladle of “minestra.” Later the tables were cleared for gobs of homemade gelato as Grandpa and the men turned on the Christmas lights over the bocce court. Then they poured themselves wine and raised their glasses, saying “Salute.”

We all moved onto the porch to watch and cheer on the teams. Smiling from her rocker, Gram nodded her head contentedly. Then she said, “If all those people at the city festival knew about this day, they would wish they could be here. If you went to the city, you would have missed all of this. Sometimes you will have wishes that may not come true. Instead of pouting, create a better memory. Look around you. We have colored lights, good food, relatives and music. Today while the city celebrates San Gennaro, we are celebrating the feast of family.”

Published: September 07, 2014 01:00 AM /Rita Watson: Celebrating the feast of family and food


Rita Esposito Watson is a relationship columnist for All About You and She is writing a book, “Italian Kisses: Gram’s Wisdom.”

Summer afternoon under the grape arbor, ProJo

Posted on August 30, 2014
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The grape arbor at Gram and Grandpa’s house was a welcome retreat at the end of the day. The rich royal-purple Concord grapes were plump and succulent. Grandpa’s grapes became his wine, which he enjoyed every afternoon at 4 o’clock. While neighbors complained about the August heat, Grandma reminded us to think about what we loved most about the month. That was easy — sitting under the grape arbor watching them taste wine from the first jug of the season and thinking about Grandma’s jams, Italian wine-dunking biscotti, and her espresso- and wine-laced tomato sauce.

While neighbors would sit on the porches looking at the still ocean, which seemed like a sea stuck in time, Gram would take us to the grape arbor. She would remind us of all the work that went into building the grape-leave canopy. Each day she would find a different way to retell the story, from planting to putting in the posts that the vines hugged.

We would spend hours under a giant weeping willow tree, where we played house, and parted the branches that became our door, to watch Grandpa tending the grape arbor. He explained to us that we had the most special of all grapes growing right in our yard. And Gram’s Concord grape jam was a treasured gift.

She and Grandpa would sit under the arbor, taste the wine, and say always to each other, “Yes, this is by far the best.” Then they would dip Italian biscuits shaped like small doughnuts into the wine. After a bite or two followed by another sip, Grandpa uttered a loud, “Ah bravo. Nancy, this is like wine and food from the old country.”

One day we asked Gram, “Does it really get better each year?”

Gram answered, “If Papa thinks this is the best year, and it makes him happy to believe it, then ‘yes’ this is best wine ever. When you get married remember that sometimes it is easier to say ‘yes’ and then just believe. Papa works so hard to tend to those grapes and it takes so many steps to make the wine that the flavor brings joy to him. Who knows? Maybe this wine is the best ever.”

That afternoon she asked with a twinkle in her sapphire shining eyes, “Is this the best ever jam that I have made for you?”

Someone brought me wine dipping biscuits last week and I vowed to go through my sister’s attic of photographs to find one of Gram and Pa sitting at the large picnic table shaded by grape leaves and smiling. And if I don’t find such a picture, this memory — as vivid as a painting — will remain the best ever.

Rita Esposito Watson, an All About You relationships columnist, is writing “Italian Kisses: Gram’s Wisdom.”  Copyright 2014 Rita Watson


Rita Watson: That summer afternoon was the best ever

Rita Watson: Clamming, zucchini flowers and lots of love from Gram and Papa

Rita Watson: Uncle Albert ensures 104-year-old great nonna’s proper burial

Rita Watson: Grandpa’s garden was a family ritual

Rita Watson: At Easter, Grandma always held tight to culinary throne

Love and social media: It’s complicated, Projo

Posted on August 30, 2014
Filed Under Providence Journal - Relationships | Leave a Comment

There was once a time when we dated and mated within a familiar social circle. People relied on family and friends to introduce them to a potential partner. Then the world of social media came upon us. Those suspicious of online matchmaking found a friendlier atmosphere on Facebook as a way to romance. But life on Facebook has its downside. Last month its happiness study came under fire for being unethical, and articles about how the site could make us sad began to resurface. Researchers have determined that excessive time on Facebook might trigger snooping, jealousy, cheating and even divorce.

The Journal of Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking explained last year that the more often one party in a relationship uses Facebook, the more they also monitor their partner’s behavior. This opens the door for the green-eyed monster. So if you interpret your partner’s Facebook friends as flirting, you might begin flirting as well.

 Most say it’s harmless. But it’s not. What tends to happen is that flirting and jealousy can easily slide into emotional infidelity, the slippery slope that leads to intimacy with a relationship intruder.

The snooping problem was reported in “Facebook surveillance of former romantic partners” from the Interactive Media Institute in San Diego. With more than 900 million people worldwide actively using the site, reports say that at least one-third are checking out what their former romantic partners are up to. This can undermine the healing ability of broken-hearted lovers, keeping them from moving on. And it also may fuel jealousy.

If you think a spouse or lover is cheating you are probably right; intuition is powerful. However, you might be wrong, as sometimes a behavior change indicates a person in the throes of depression.

Bottom line is this — never stoop to snoop. It puts you on the same level as the person whom you think is cheating, since you are both sneaking around.

For someone suspicious of a spouse or lover, instead of stooping to snoop, take the risk of talking — quietly, rationally, and thoughtfully. Explain that you feel as if there is a problem and ask what the two of you might do to work together towards a solution.

With any relationship in a rocky place you have options with forgiveness and facts. If you are forgiving, you might choose to stay in the relationship with integrity. Or with the facts, even if these prove to be devastating, you can work to repair the relationship or leave with dignity.

With any relationship quandary, when you are seeking a solution, instead of relying on social media, consider the value of a face-to-face meeting. Looking into someone’s eyes and talking is a method that has worked for centuries.

Rita Watson is a relationship columnist for “All About You” and

Rita  Watson: Love and social media is a …

… Rita Watson: Love and social media is a complicated mix/ Published on 27 July 2014

Copyright 2014 Rita Watson

Clamming and zucchini flowers of love, ProJo

Posted on August 30, 2014
Filed Under Italian Kisses | Leave a Comment

Periwinkle snails, clams, and batter-fried zucchini flowers might seem like an odd combination, but in the world of Grandma and Grandpa, these spelled summer love. The front lawn of their house bordered a rock pile wall with a small dock. The back yard beyond the grape arbor was a huge garden of vegetables. On days when Grandpa would take us to gather periwinkles and go clamming, we knew that Gram would be in the garden picking zucchini flowers.

We loved clamming time with Grandpa at low tide on sandbars teaming with life. Before heading out Gram reminded us, “Now stay close to Papa.” And he answered, “Nancy, please, you teach them cooking. I teach them clamming.”

We raced to the beach stairs at the water’s edge because at the end we knew we would find hundreds of periwinkles, tiny black snails hugging the giant rocks and dock pilings. When we had filled three hefty buckets Grandpa would let us sit on the dock while he carried the buckets to the kitchen pantry.

Then it was clamming and mud time. “When you see that water squirting, you know it’s a clam,” was Grandpa’s mantra.

He used a tool to get to the clams, but we used our hands and small shovels. And each time we pulled up a clam, Grandpa’s voice rang out, “Eh, bravo.” But part of sandbar fun was to squish our feet in the cool, jet black mud where the clams nestled.

Once back home with overflowing buckets of clams, there Gram was smiling and waving her bar of Castile soap. “Into the outdoor shower you go.” While we dried off and dressed under the grape arbor, she went to the kitchen to make us zucchini flowers, dipped in egg, flour and milk — which turned crunchy in her huge black frying pan. After devouring the delicacy, we rested until dinner.

First course on clamming day was the periwinkle challenge. After boiling them for two to three minutes, Grandpa carried a large plate to the table and gave us toothpicks to pull them out of their shells and dip into hot butter. As we poked at the periwinkles, while Gram boiled the pasta for spaghetti and clams, she came to sit with us, asking: “Which of you threw the mud first?” We shrugged. “Who did Grandpa raise his voice to first? We lowered our eyes.

That’s when Gram said, “Just because Papa bellows, he still loves you, but he wants you to behave. Sometimes his raised voice means love. Everyone shows love in different ways. Love can be with zucchini flowers, periwinkles, or clams. But always it is a hug.”

Then, while Gram and Papa laughed contagiously, they enfolded us into their arms.

Rita Watson, an All About You relationship columnist, is writing “Italian Kisses: Gram’s Wisdom.”

Rita Watson: Clamming, zucchini flowers an …

… Rita Watson: Clamming, zucchini flowers and lots of love from Gram and Papa

Published on 13 July 2014/ Copyright 2014 R ita Watson

Mindfulness: Freedom to live in the moment (ProJo)

Posted on August 30, 2014
Filed Under Providence Journal - Relationships | Comments Off

When a panorama of starbursts brightened the night sky, my mother explained that the dazzling display was for my birthday. Fireworks can transfix us for hours. Yet, in our multi-tasking world we often find it difficult to focus for even 10 minutes on someone we love.

Mayo Clinic’s Health Letter, highlighting mindfulness, discusses a practice for staying in the moment. In talking with Rhode Island Poet Laureate Rick Benjamin, I came to see that poetry also supports a mindfulness and freedom through the use of words.

The meaning of freedom can range from national Independence Day gratitude to breaking free of worn out relationships, prejudices and anger. I was invited to one of Benjamin’s workshops and, as a prelude to a discussion on enemies, he recited “Red Brocade” by Naomi Shihab Nye. Then after asking us to write a poem about an enemy — real or perceived — he admitted: “There was an enemy once in my family. I forgave him. We are now friends.” For Benjamin that might have been Independence Day.

In relationships today independence might also mean breaking free of the digital devices that invade our homes and even special times together. Have you ever watched what happens to a couple during a romantic dinner when a cell phone rings? In the split second to answer or turn it off, the mood is shattered. Strengthening a relationship takes work and focus.

These tips can be helpful:

Let go of anger and remind yourself often that in relationships it takes honesty to face the enemy within, courage to say “I’m sorry,” and wisdom to embrace.

Develop an attitude of gratitude rather than taking love for granted.

Smile often during the day — at friends, family, and strangers.

Look into their faces and silently wish blessings.

Practice mindfulness when you walk, eat, and when you find moments to be alone. Mindfulness fosters the freedom to be in the moment and not anticipate what might happen next. I still remember that day after the fireworks my father took us for a ride on the Flying Horses. I was expecting everyone in town at the fireworks display would be wishing me “Happy Birthday.” After telling this to my father he just smiled. Moments later the carousel operator came by to say, “This next ride is for your birthday.”

As we grow older, we have no buffer to mitigate disappointment and regret. We become responsible for our own freedom, our own joy. Savoring each moment frees us from distraction as well as fretting about the past and worrying about the future. Additionally, mindfulness creates a place in our hearts for acceptance and gratitude, and it gives us the ability to give someone we love our undivided attention.

Rita Watson is a relationship columnist for the Journal and

Rita Watson: Gratitude and kindness are … /  Rita Watson: Gratitude and kindness are like shields against debt and greed

Published in Providence Journal on 01 June 2014 / Copyright 2014 Rita Watson

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