Category Archives: Writing Stuff

What is Your Vision?

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Back in May, I had the pleasure of escaping for a week to Colorado where I met up with Michelle, an old friend from college whom I had not seen in 20 years.

My 40th birthday was looming on the horizon, and I had expressed many times that I’d like to welcome in this new chapter of my life with some quiet time for reflection and meditation. Michelle generously invited me to spend some time with her at her cabin in the mountains and then join her sister for a yoga/meditation retreat with SoulSpark Journeys in Steamboat Springs.

I was game. Who could turn down such a thoughtful invitation? It was one of those more obvious examples of synchronicity in my life, for which I’m always on the lookout. I had put it out there into the universe that I wanted this experience, and the opportunity presented itself.

Over the two days of the retreat, we were pampered with plenty of quiet time (holy cow do I love Yoga Nidra) and unbelievably tasty vegan and raw food (who knew?). But perhaps the most enlightening moments for me were spent in a workshop aptly named “Slow Down and Tune In.” I mean, that’s exactly why I was there.

I was expecting two hours of mindful meditation, or something else equally as quiet. When we began the workshop, however, I was surprised to be greeted with a tall stack of magazines.

“Have you ever made a vision board?” our instructor, Alex, asked us.

“Have I ever made a vision board?” I thought to myself. “My office walls are covered with them!”

Vision boards

Although I’ve made plenty of vision boards in the past, I would never turn down the chance to make another. I LOVE ripping up magazines and gluing the pieces to poster board. It engages with my ever-hungry-for-more-messy-situations inner child.

Plus – I think visions change over time. What we want right now might not be what we want tomorrow, or in a month, or in ten years. It’s worth taking the time to explore how our desires change.

If you don’t know what a vision board is, it’s pretty simple. Take a stack of magazines and give yourself about 30 minutes. Look through the magazines and pull out any images or words that speak to you. Don’t overthink it. If it sparks something inside of you, rip it out. (The more ripping the better – ripping is fun and therapeutic!)

After you’ve looked through all your magazines and chosen your images, arrange and glue them on a poster board in a manner that is pleasing to your eye. Here’s what mine looked like that day:

My vision board
My vision board

Heavy on the words, which is not insignificant given that many of my goals and aspirations have to do with being a successful writer.

But wait – there’s more!

But it was the next step that threw me for a loop. Every time I’ve made a vision board, once the images are glued together, I stop. I admire my creation, hang it up in my office, and wait for the visions to arrive.

But Alex asked us to take it a step further. Once we completed our vision board, she asked us to take 10 minutes to write about what we saw in it.

It never occurred to me to do that before. And I’m a writer!

I took a good look at my board, and this is what I wrote:

My Vision

Afterwards, those who wanted to showed us their vision boards and shared what they wrote. I think all of us were awed by the power and depth of feeling captured in each collage, and the poetry that resulted. That’s really the only thing you could call the words that the other women were sharing. It was all so spontaneous, yet all so deeply felt and richly recounted. I know I’m not the only one who got goose bumps that day.

What is your vision?

I challenge you to set aside an hour this week to make your own vision board and write about what you see. And I’d love for you to share it here with me, if you are so inclined.

We need to give voice and space to these desires and visions of ours. It is the first step toward creating the life we have imagined. Go for it!

Oh, and check this out!

My amazing friend Michelle owns a fantastic shop named Oak and Hawthorn. She specializes in plant magic and herb lore and makes gifts inspired by yoga, Ayurveda, Celtic mythology and the natural world. I highly recommend you check out her Etsy shop, Facebook page or blog.  I’ve got a few of her medicine bags and chakra jars. It’s magical stuff. And if you live in Denver, she does house parties!

Some of Oak and Hawthorn's gorgeous chakra bottles.
Some of Oak and Hawthorn’s gorgeous chakra bottles.

 

 

Time to Settle in…Almost

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neil gaiman

I’ve been back from my Epic Adventure for about six weeks now. I gotta tell you, it’s taken that long to get back into the swing of things. Which is something, considering the trip itself was only three weeks. But we did a hell of alot of living in those three weeks, so it has taken some time to process.

I felt creatively disconnected during my travels this time around. I thought I would feel the opposite, but somehow that didn’t pan out. A friend recently asked me if I enjoyed my trip. I said that yes, I did enjoy it, but I’m actually enjoying it more now that we are back. Isn’t that funny? The memory of the trip is providing more joy and fueling the creative fire more than than the actual experience of it. Weird. But cool. I’m cool with that.

I have that creative itch again. That little voice inside that says, “Write! Draw! Paint! Make stuff! Do it now!” I like that voice. That voice feels good. That voice is so happy at 7am with a cup of coffee, a notebook and a pen, sitting on my front porch in the stillness of the suburban morning. That voice is sometimes a whisper, but it’s gaining momentum. It’ll be a roar soon.

But I’m not quite there yet. I’ve actually got a little more traveling to do. Crazy. It’s been an absolute embarrassment of travel over here since May. First Colorado, then Orlando, then Chicago, then Frankfurt, then Rome, the Istanbul, then Bulgaria, then Greece, then back home, now off to the beach for a couple of days (poor me) and then camping in Sequoia next week. Then home for a good spell.

I’m really looking forward to settling in. It’s getting to be that time of year. Summer will turn to fall, and I’ll be incubating and coaxing ideas into life. I can’t wait.

I Popped My Alpha Reader Cherry…

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courage

I’ve been working on my novel since November. I finished the first draft at the end of that month, and put the manuscript away until after the New Year.

Come January, I read the entire thing to myself, out loud, and made notes.

I then ignored that pile of paper for the next four months. Why? Because I saw some big changes I needed/wanted to make, and the thought of actually making those changes was daunting. One big shift I wanted to incorporate was to change the time in which the story is set from present day to 1989. That’s a pretty fundamental change. Not to mention I needed to choose a different point of entry for the story that was far more active than what I had written and which required entirely rewriting the first few chapters.

So the thing sat there for awhile. I glanced at it from time to time and felt guilty. I piddled around with the first few pages but didn’t get much farther than that.

I finally got off my ass in April, thanks to Camp NaNoWriMo, and forced myself to sit down and complete the second draft by the end of the month.

I actually did it.

But then comes the scary part. It’s time for someone else to read it.

I’ve read all about beta readers and having a non-professional pair of eyes (or several pairs of eyes) look at your work and critique it before you start sending out queries. But, this being my first novel, I’m scared to death of having people read it and think it’s a total trainwreck. I’ve lost the ability to clearly ascertain whether or not what I’m writing is good or total shit.

Fortunately, I have a husband and he is a very good sport.

So, I asked him to be my alpha reader. What’s the difference, you ask? Here’s a great breakdown of the difference between an alpha reader and a beta reader. In a nutshell, I wanted someone to read it who could tell me whether or not it’s good enough to show to other people. Someone who will be honest with me but in a very loving way. Someone who can save me from the embarrassment of sending shoddy work off to people I respect and admire. Someone who has actually made a commitment to me with that ring on my finger and who has a vested interest in my success. I only had a tiny amount of courage to show this to someone, so that someone needed to be the most loving, least judgmental and smartest person I know.

Luckily, I have good taste in spouses.

I finished the second draft a couple of days before I was scheduled to go on a mindfulness retreat in Colorado with an old friend from college. I thought that would be the perfect opportunity to hand the thing off since I wouldn’t be hovering over his shoulder and my mind would be occupied with other things, like being mindful.

I ripped off the band-aid, and it didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would. Hubs read the whole thing in the few days I was gone, and even sent me text messages now again (my favorite – “There’s SEX in this story?!). He gave me a few notes, lots of encouragement and the confidence to let other people read it.

My plan is to polish the second draft in the next 10 days, before hubs and I leave for three weeks on a 40th birthday/our-friend-is-getting-married-in-Bulgaria trip to Eastern Europe. I figure my mind will be well-occupied in those days so I don’t dwell too much on the idea that PEOPLE ARE ACTUALLY READING THOSE WORDS I WROTE RIGHT NOW.

Wish me luck, friends! The adventure continues…

Writing Myself Right-Sized

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writing diet cover

Anyone who knows me or who reads this blog regularly knows that I struggle just a little bit with my weight.

I like food a whole lot. I also like making food a whole lot, and my husband likes making food a whole lot. We like trying new foods and expanding our palates and tasting different wines, and…. Well, you get the picture.

I also eat my feelings. I have lots of feelings. So this adds up to a whole lot of eating and a whole lot of food.

I’ve dieted since I was 15. I’ve gained and lost the same 30 pounds many times in my life. I’ve lost weight with Weight Watchers, SlimFast, the Master Cleanse and just plain old common sense.

None of these things are working for me right now.

So imagine my delight when I discovered that Julia Cameron, the woman behind “The Artist’s Way” is also the author of a weight-loss book, “The Writing Diet.”

Okay, I’m skeptical too. It seems everyone these days has their own diet book. But I’m also intrigued.

Writing has been a way into myself this last year. I’ve discovered that my creativity is heightened and I feel more fulfilled when I write. This was a huge surprise to me. I’ve always hated writing in the past.

So why not try using writing to help break this cycle of weight loss and weight gain? It’s worth a try, right?

I haven’t finished the whole book yet, but I’ve begun the program. It consists of seven tools:

  1. Morning Pages
  2. The Journal
  3. Walking
  4. The Four Questions – 1) Am I hungry?, 2) Is this what I feel like eating?, 3)Is this what I feel like eating now?, and 4)Is there something else I could eat instead?
  5. The Culinary Artist Date
  6. HALT – Don’t get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired
  7. The Body Buddy

I’ve been doing my morning pages every day for six months, and yesterday I started my journal and a daily walking regimen. Will I keep with it? I don’t know. But I’m going to share my progress and obstacles with you here.

I’m willing to give it a try. Anybody care to join me?

 

 

Finding the Path of Least Resistance

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river-517542_1920

Last night I attended the annual departmental reunion for my undergrad theatre program. A program which was terrifically formative for me and which has produced dozens, if not hundreds, of successful and even famous theater, film and television artists over the last 40 or so years.

There’s nothing like an alumni event for your competitive and prestigious alma mater to make you start questioning all the decisions you’ve made that have gotten you to this point in your life. 

There were many fresh, young, eager and excited faces there last night – full of hope and anticipation for good things yet to come. There were also a fair amount of faces in the 35- to 45-year-old range, looking a little dazed and sharing thoughts of “What the hell happened? Where am I? How did I get here?”

I’ve known since I was a teenager that I wanted to live a creative life, and more specifically, to pursue a career in acting. There was never a doubt in my mind about that. And for many years, I did just that. Many, many, many years. So many years of struggling to have a voice, to be heard, to find my place at the table.

I don’t think I’ve ever found my place as an actor.

I look around me and see so many of my colleagues in the same position. The market is glutted. It’s really hard to find your way and to make it stick. There is so much struggle, so much hardship, so much financial instability, so many sacrifices. So little success, so little reward.

I got into this business because I had something to say, something to share, a desire to make a connection with people and say “Look at this crazy life. This is something, isn’t it? Being human? Let’s figure out a way to make the most of the time we have.”

But I hardly ever get to do that, be part of something that puts something meaningful out into the world and puts food on my table. There are always road blocks, obstacles, big huge boulders in the way. And after 20 years I’m looking at this and thinking, “What the fuck? Why am I beating my head against the wall? I have something to offer this world. And I’m not getting any opportunities to do it, no matter how hard I try or how many different roads I try to go down.”

Which got me thinking about the idea of finding the path of least resistance. If I keep pursuing the same thing but don’t move forward, shouldn’t I try to find a path with less resistance? Shouldn’t I be more like water in a stream, diverting around obstacles with ease and grace and going off in a different direction? Is there any real merit in continually pounding the same obstacles until I’m thoroughly exhausted?

I don’t think there is. And I find tremendous freedom in that. But to others it looks like giving up, and it can be hard to manage those expectations.

Yes, acting was my first true love. But there are so many different outlets for my creativity, there is no reason I can’t set acting aside and find a path that offers less resistance. I just want to put my story out there, to pay attention to the world and to share my observations about it. I want to help illuminate this journey we’re all on by being honest about my own. I want to connect with people and hopefully in the process make my life and yours richer and more meaningful. Wouldn’t staying on the path that is going nowhere be counter-productive to my end goal of not only living a well-observed life, but also sharing it?

I studied the Michael Chekhov acting technique with the brilliant Lenard Petit many years ago. One of the biggest take-aways I got from it is the idea of working with the Four Brothers – a sense of form, a sense of beauty, a sense of the whole, and a sense of ease. Can’t we apply that not only to creating a character, but also creating anything? To creativity in general? I think so.

I want to create with a sense of ease. And I haven’t found that ease with acting, but I have found it with other mediums, like writing. Sharing with you on this blog and in other venues provides the same connection I seek with acting. So like the river, I will flow around the obstacle and find a new, unobstructed path.

I will find the path of least resistance. I will find my “yes” in a sea of “no”. And I will find a way to deal with the fact that to some it looks like giving up, although to me it feels like being honest about who I am, where I am, and what I need to do to live the life I feel compelled to live.

H.G. Wells said, “The path of least resistance is the path of the loser.” 

I disagree. If there is another way for me to achieve my goals and to be of service in this life, a way that provides less resistance than the path that I originally chose, would I not be a fool to say no to it? As long as I am not sacrificing who I truly am inside? Doesn’t it take strength of character to admit you may be going the wrong way and that you need to alter course? Can it not be both exciting and rewarding to take a breath, let go, and see what happens? To see what flows into that space you have created when you let go of the death grip you had on the things you thought you wanted? To understand that maybe all the choices you’ve made along the way were preparing you for something other than what you at first intended?

Have you encountered this? A feeling that there might be another way for you, if you can set aside other people’s expectations, and focus more on what feels right for you personally? How have you dealt with it? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Want To Know the Secret To Feeling Joy? It’s Really Simple If You Do This.

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You want to know the secret to feeling joy? Spread it.

No, really, it is as simple as that. Be the instigator.

I experienced this phenomenon firsthand a couple of weeks ago. You see, I had an item I needed to return to a friend of mine. She had accidentally left it at my house. Here is the item:

Aloysius (now Hoots), wearing a sweater and packaged up for his journey.
Aloysius (now Hoots), wearing a sweater and packaged up for his journey.

That friend happens to be in Kindergarten. Instead of simply handing said item back to her, I devised a plan to make the return a bit more, let’s say, dramatic than that. The more I thought about it, the more excited I got. So I sat down and wrote this letter.

 January, 2015

Dear Miraculous Miranda-

This owl informs me that he belongs to you and he would like it if I returned him to you, thank you very much. He tells me his name is Aloysius, and that he comes from a very long line of very rare and very special owls. That is why he has blue eyes, because he is rare and special.

(Or so he says. I, myself, have never really trusted owls.)

He wants to apologize to you, Miraculous Miranda, for getting himself lost. He was trying to fly, you see, but isn’t very good at it. His wings are bejeweled and that makes them very heavy! He landed under my bookshelf, and nobody heard his cries. He has such a very tiny voice, after all. I found him when I was cleaning out the dust bunnies, who had been keeping him company for several months, and boosting his morale. They never let him give up hope that he would find you again.

But his adventure did not end there! Oh, no. You see I must apologize to you as well, Miraculous Miranda, because I meant to give him back to you on Thanksgiving. I had put him in a special place of honor on top of my dresser, on the very top of a pile of very shiny, very old brooches. Do you know what a brooch is? It’s a very fancy way of saying a pretty pin for your shirt or dress. Anyway, all of the brooches are very shiny and bejeweled, just like Aloysius. I forgot he was there! Oops! My bad.

He was very irritated with me for leaving him with those brooches for so long. They are very chatty, and all they want to talk about is The War and how kids today don’t know how to dress. He wants you to know that he defended your fashion choices to them to the very end!

Anyway, Aloysius is very anxious to be back in your care, so I promised him I wouldn’t wait another moment. I am now sending him on an adventure all by himself through the mail. I suspect it will be very exciting! There will be so many letters for him to talk to, from far away places like England and Van Nuys! Think of all the things he will learn!

After you read this, and after you’ve given proper attention to Aloysius and fussed over him and told him how happy you are to see him (he really likes that, he’s just the tiniest, littlest bit insecure), please send word of his safe arrival. The brooches are ever so concerned about his safety on this voyage, and it would help to settle their minds to know he is finally back home.

Ever Yours-

Amy

P.S. – I put a sweater on him because he was very nervous that he was going to be cold during his travels. He can keep it to remember me by.

Oh my gosh, the delight I felt in writing this letter, the excitement of dropping the package in the mail, and the anticipation of the package arriving at its destination!

I mean, c’mon folks – it’s just a letter. All it takes is penning a letter to a friend, for the purpose of having some fun, to put joy in your heart. I rode the high of it all day.

And THEN the joy came back to me again when I received my own response in the mail!

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IMG_5345

 

Feeling a little low? Want some joy in your heart? Then spread that shit like peanut butter! Seriously, just give it a try. I bet it will work.

10 of My Favorite Words (as illustrated by cats)

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cat words

I love words. I love cats. So here are ten of my favorite words as illustrated by cats.

You’re welcome.

I created this slideshow using SlideShare. If you aren’t familiar with them, check it out. This particular presentation was made with Haiku Deck. You can just plug-and-chug and it makes it super simple and fun.

5 Best Online Editing Tools for Writers

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editing tools

I’m in the thick of editing my first novel, and it is proving to be a more daunting challenge than I may have originally expected. First – all those adverbs! Ack! When I wrote my first draft I consciously (there’s one again!) tried to limit adverb usage, knowing that it is better to show, not tell. But there are still so many! I know that is partially because in my haste to get to the 50,000-word finish line of NaNoWriMo I sketched out some sections instead of fully writing them. So I’m trying to look at this as an opportunity to better tell my story.

I’m new to novel-writing (writing a novel is novel to me, heh). While I’ve been a storyteller for some 20 years, this is my first foray into this medium. There are so many different tips and rules to think about! I’m no stranger to story and character development, but novels have their own kind of structure. I’m finding it necessary to consult the hive mind of the Internet to glean some of the information I’m lacking. While I, by no means, have even scratched the surface of writing resources that are available online, I have found a few that have been especially helpful thus far. In no particular order, here are my top 5 favorite editing tips and tools I have found on the web.

1.  Junkfoodmonkey’s Editing Recipe

Having never written, much less edited, an entire novel before, I had no idea where to start. My novel falls under the YA umbrella, and generally follows a linear story told in the first person present tense. I wanted to find a clear, concise, and above all SIMPLE recipe for editing what is a pretty straightforward story. Junkfoodmonkey gave me just what I was looking for, and so far the method they lay out has not steered me wrong.

2.  How to Write the Beginning of a Novel: 10 Things You Shouldn’t Do

If only I had found this BEFORE I started my first draft! There’s some really great advice in here. When I wrote my first chapter, I had the feeling I would be scrapping and rewriting it in later drafts, much like a theatre director will restage the first scene of a play once the whole thing is blocked. I had almost talked myself out of totally revising my opening chapter, but reading this post confirmed my intuition that my first chapter needs to be AWESOME and that I should spend a good amount of time reworking and polishing it until it shines and makes the reader want to keep reading.

3.  Polish Your Prose: An Editorial Cheat Sheet

This is a great tool once you’ve gotten to the line editing process (or at least I think it will be, I’m not to that stage yet). I’ve already noticed in my second read-thru that I really like the words JUST, SUDDENLY, and ILLUMINATE, for example. I’ve also got some run-on sentences and a cliché here and there. This list will be a good reminder to check for all these things in subsequent readings, to make sure my prose is clear and tight.

4.  How to Write Evil, Awesome Villains

Again, this might have been a good post to stumble upon while writing the first draft, but these are some great tips and tricks that I can still implement. I got a real baddie in my book, and although he is a power-hungry, larger-than-life villainous dude, he is still human. When I rewrite I’m going to look for opportunities to show his humanity and his vulnerabilities. I’m also going to take some time after this read-thru to work through an in-depth character description, which I didn’t do in my haste to finish the first draft.

5.  317 Power Words That Will Make You a Better Writer

Did I mention how I love the word JUST? Yeah, not a power word. This list, and my thesaurus, will be my companions when I reach the line-editing stage. I want my sentences to pack an emotional punch, and carefully choosing the best, most descriptive words is a huge part of that.

What did I miss? Do you have editing or revising tools and resources that you love? Please share in the comments! I’m always on the lookout for good advice.

 

 

 

The Importance of Place

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Today I start the process of rewriting my first novel.

I’m slightly intimidated by the process, but my enthusiasm remains in check. I’ve got 50,000 words of a Young Adult novel sitting here on my desk, courtesy of NaNoWriMo, and I intend to do something with it.

I read the whole manuscript from cover-to-cover in one sitting over the winter break. To my great relief, I was not cringing at every other sentence, nor did I feel the whole endeavor was pointless and that it was time to throw in the towel. If anything, it invigorated me. I’m intrigued by these characters, and want to do them justice.

My novel takes place in a fictional northwest Indiana town that is closely modeled to my hometown of Crown Point. I spent 10 days in CP over the holidays, and felt closer than ever to the lives of these people I have created, and even more connected to the world in which they live.

I’ve always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with my hometown. Doesn’t everybody, I suppose? Family is the center of life there, and I was lucky to have a warm and insulating throng of my own. But as I got older, the town felt stifling and I longed to know more, see more, of the greater world. I left when I was 18, and have only been back periodically for visits.

Having that space ,that time away, gives me to the opportunity to feel like a visitor whenever I am there. The town was incorporated in 1834, and you can see and feel the history all around you, yet things continue to change, as they do. I love to explore when I am there, especially the town square. Crown Point has a grand old courthouse in the center of town, flanked on four sides by various and sundry shops, including a movie theater. When I was kid my mom and I would shop at Lipay’s clothing store, and I took dance lessons at Miss Shirley’s which was directly above it on the second floor, next to a health food shop. Ben Franklin, aka the “dime store”, anchored the southwest corner of the square, and every week my mom would go to Huber’s menswear down the street to pay on her cards.

Lake County Courthouse, Crown Point, Indiana - photo by Amy Clites
Lake County Courthouse, Crown Point, Indiana – photo by Amy Clites

Today the square is a collection of home furnishings shops, restaurants, and bars. My favorite are the antique stores (there have to be at least a half dozen). On this most recent trip home, I ducked into one with my mom on a lazy Sunday to poke around.

I really feel like I step back in time when I go in these stores in Crown Point. There’s a sense of living history there, and it overflows the shelves. The building’s themselves are alive with history, each having been built for a specific purpose, which has long been discarded as unneeded in today’s world (goodbye apothecary shop, hello Copper Butterfly).

In my novel, I want the town itself, and the buildings therein, to feel like characters. In fact, I spent quite a bit of time imagining and sketching out the details of the Victorian farmhouse in which my protagonist lives. That house in my imagination feels alive to me.

So imagine my surprise, when poking through the antique store, I happened across a stand of reproduction postcards. Most scenes were of the town square and the courthouse, and I lingered over them, taking in the details and the differences of days gone by. As I turned the stand on which the cards stood, I saw that among the postcards was one of a house. Something about it seemed familiar and I picked it up to get a closer look. My jaw dropped when I instantly realized it was the house where my best friend grew up, and where I spent quite literally hundreds of days and nights. A flood of memories of that house washed in, and while I could barely contain my gleeful enthusiasm, the shop clerk I was sharing with could not have been more apathetic. Ah, youth!

 

The house where my best friend grew up, and where I spent most of my childhood days
The house where my best friend grew up, and where I spent most of my childhood days

Anyway, just today’s musings on how place has such a powerful influence over our lives, and shapes and colors the story of our days. I’m jumping into one of those places today, and look forward to sharing it with you in the coming months.