Category: Life-Story Writing Class


I Promise Me

October 14th, 2011 — 11:06am
I Promise Me
“I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.” –Robert Frost
A promise is a sacred pledge that something will certainly happen or be done.  I keep promises I make to others, but I often break the ones I make to myself.  I would like to “go to sleep” having kept of good chunk of the promises I made to me.  Perhaps writing them down will help . . .
I promise to floss everyday, no matter how late I am
I promise to have animal fat for breakfast only occasionally
I promise to always be reading a good book
I promise to give myself a daily time to reflect and pray
I promise to take mini-vacations (walk, movie, read a magazine, good cup of tea, etc.)
I promise to eat half the portion of food that my husband eats
I promise to have a glass of wine with dinner
I promise to spend part of each day in some physical activity
I promise to not compare myself to every beauty I pass
I promise to faithfully take vitamins and medications
I promise to explore more of nature around the region where I live
I promise to think long and hard before I speak about others
I promise to not overbook my time
I promise to attend more musical and theatrical performances with family and friends
I promise to redecorate one room of my house at a time until it’s complete
I promise to put all my photos in boxes neatly and call it good
I promise to listen more intently when others are speaking
I promise to be kindly honest when I don’t agree with what I’m hearing
I promise to speak less at meetings
I promise to indulge in my passion of cleaning out and organizing
I promise to play more with my dog
I promise to diffuse my jealousy by giving compliments
I promise to watch more sunrises and sunsets
I promise to listen to music more at home
I promise to hang photos and wall art in my upstairs hall
I promise to travel to new states and lands
I promise to take cooking classes frequently
I promise to bake for my husband once in a while
I promise to laugh at myself and with others habitually
I promise to not be so hard on my parents
I promise to keep writing
Susan Dixon
Life Story Writing Class
October 2011
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
BY ROBERT FROST
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Overview
Frost wrote this poem about winter in June, 1922, at his house in Shaftsbury, Vermont, which is now home to the “Robert Frost Stone House Museum.” Frost had been up the entire night writing the long poem “New Hampshire” and had finally finished when he realized morning had come. He went out to view the sunrise and suddenly got the idea for “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” He wrote the new poem “about the snowy evening and the little horse as if I’d had a hallucination in just a few minutes without strain.”

"I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep."  Robert Frost

Robert Frost (1874~1963)


This is the last story from my writing class.  The prompt this week was, “But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.” A line from Robert Frost’s poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.

A promise is a sacred pledge that something will certainly happen or be done. I keep promises I make to others, but I often break the ones I make to myself. I would like to “go to sleep” having kept of good chunk of the promises I made to me. Perhaps writing them down will help . . .

I promise to floss everyday, no matter how late I am

I promise to have animal fat for breakfast only occasionally

I promise to always be reading a good book

I promise to give myself a daily time to reflect and pray

I promise to take mini-vacations (walk, movie, read a magazine, tea, etc.)

I promise to eat a smaller portion of food than my husband eats

I promise to have a glass of wine with dinner

I promise to spend part of each day in some physical activity

I promise to not compare myself to every beauty I pass

I promise to faithfully take vitamins and medications

I promise to explore more of nature around the region where I live

I promise to think long and hard before I speak about others

I promise to not overbook my time

I promise to attend more musical and theatrical performances

I promise to redecorate one room of my house at a time until it’s complete

I promise to put all my photos in boxes neatly and call it good

I promise to listen more intently when others are speaking

I promise to be kindly honest when I don’t agree with what I’m hearing

I promise to speak less at meetings

I promise to indulge in my passion of cleaning out and organizing

I promise to play more with my dog

I promise to diffuse my jealousy by giving compliments

I promise to watch more sunrises and sunsets

I promise to listen to music more at home

I promise to hang photos and wall art in my upstairs hall

I promise to travel to new states and lands

I promise to take cooking classes frequently

I promise to bake for my husband once in a while

I promise to laugh at myself and with others habitually

I promise to keep writing

(Our writing class is talking about becoming a writer’s group.  We hope to start meeting in January.  Thank you to all who have spent some time with me these last seven weeks.)


7 comments » | Life-Story Writing Class

Tuesdays With Annie

October 3rd, 2011 — 10:11am
One of Annie's bears.

One of Annie's bears.

Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of something before you realize all that it is going to require of you. When this happens you can bail, do a partial job, or commit to the project. In February 2011, I became a hospice volunteer. I wanted to help patients write letters, thinking they would have very poignant thoughts to share at the end of life. My sister, a hospice nurse in New England, inspired the idea. When I approached the volunteer coordinators for Hospice, they asked if I would be willing to also help patients write about their lives. I agreed to give it a try.

I began working at Hospice House on Thursday afternoons. I knew that I had lots to learn and this was a great way to get experience in palliative care. I do whatever the nurses need me to do like make coffee and milkshakes (big), cook, do laundry, wash dishes etc. I interact with families and I also get to interact with patients, which was awkward at first, but eventually I relaxed. No writing needs surfaced until April, when two opportunities presented themselves simultaneously. One gentleman passed before we could get started, but another patient, “Annie’” was eager to share her story and thus we began.

In preparation, I researched hospice organizations and life-story writing around the United States via the Internet. Some hospice organizations simply record the patient talking about their life and then copy the recording onto a disc to give to families.  Hospice gave me a digital recorder, but it was quite old and audio quality was terrible. I decided to try to take notes on my computer, while the patient was talking, and then I would mesh my notes into a story. With no experience and no mentor, I dove into the project. For the past six months, Annie and her stories have been my labor of love.

Annie is a character. When we first met, she said that she had always wanted to write a book about her life, but she never got around to it. She even had a title for it, “Why me?” I explained to Annie that I wasn’t a book writer, but I would be glad to record details of her life, and when we finished, she could use them as she wished. I began visiting with her every Tuesday afternoon. I could see that talking about her life was helpful and enjoyable to her, and her social worker confirmed this. I’ve got about 16 pages that I’ve attempted to put in chronological order – an impossible task. Annie is 94 and very sharp, but she doesn’t always remember accurately, so proper order gets perplexing. Sometimes when I visit, we don’t work on her story, we just talk about the news or what’s on her mind at the moment.

I want to do my best for Annie by giving her a finished story someday, but I’m beginning to doubt that will happen. Annie still talks about writing her book, even though I’ve reminded her a few times that I’m not doing that. I’ve promised to visit her even if we aren’t working on her story and I’ve encouraged her to find someone that would really write a book for her, but she makes no attempt to end this charade that we have going on. It’s confusing for me and a bit stressful, but I suspect it makes her feel important to tell her friends that she is working on a book about her life.

In August, the charade got even more interesting when Annie told me that her friends encouraged her to write stories about her stuffed animals. Annie loves her collection of stuffed toys, and she makes up cute stories about them. Annie has great phrasing and tells stories with old-fashioned wording that makes them entertaining. So, one Tuesday in August, instead of feeling confused and stressed about the life story that wasn’t getting finished, I got to feel confused and stressed about what was I supposed to do with the two bear stories Annie had just told me. I told her that getting books published was a big job that required a lot of time. She wasn’t concerned about that, her plan was to take the stories to Barnes and Noble or the Hallmark store and get them to do it.

Annie is a master at getting people to do things for her. With no children of her own, no family in town, and only one living sister on the opposite side of the country, Annie is truly alone in the world. That single fact endears her to you. Annie cannot take care of herself, but she’s gathered a network of friends who keep her afloat. She’s a very cute old lady who calls you “darlin” and tells you she loves you and you can’t bear to break her heart. What was I going to do about these bear stories?

I decided to put together a storybook through Shutterfly, an Internet company that publishes photo books. I’d never done this, but Shutterfly is very user-friendly. A few Tuesdays were spent collecting photos related to the story, but I had to wait about a month to get one final picture of Annie’s friends, which she mentions in her tale. I completed the book and it should arrive next week. She knows her book is coming and I’ve explained that it is something I’ve made just for her. Yet, last week, she asked me where her friends could go for copies. Ugh!

Who knows what I’ll be working on next. It’s an experience of a lifetime! I am committed to Annie and her projects . . . whatever they are. If you want a copy of “Once Upon A Christmas,” I’ll need $40 and an address.

Love you, Annie!

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My Financial Education

September 28th, 2011 — 9:20am

IMG_1023

Money isn’t everything, but it can become everything if you don’t respect it. As a child, the dollars I received as gifts became clothes, toys, or electric devices (no electronics then). From high school on, I always had a job – cleaning a neighbor’s house, babysitting, working in the office of a meatpacking plant, phone sales for magazines, and errand girl for an insurance company. I don’t remember what those paychecks were used for. When I got my first adult job with a decent pay, I remember telling people “I don’t mind working and I love the allowance they give me.” Allowance? That word alone says how financially immature I was. Money is a green monster that cannot be ignored, and that’s the good news.

It’s good news because when you are not handling money sensibly, you are forced to deal with it and, therein, lies an opportunity to change. At age twenty-three, I lived from paycheck to paycheck, I had never balanced my checking account, and I had no savings. I had to confess to my new husband that I had $5 in my wallet, when we left on our honeymoon (he wasn’t surprised – he knew who he was marrying). I was very happy to turn over the whole checkbook management and financial decision making to him. I was proud of one financial fact about myself at this stage, I couldn’t manage money but at least I knew it.

Financial Education – Phase I: Observing. My husband, Bill, set up a savings plan and insisted we do our best to live off one income, as we planned to have children someday. We stuck to the budget he worked out for three years, and I saw that money planning did work. I was happy, in an ignorant sort of way, seeing my finances managed better. Shortly thereafter, a new equation disrupted my complacency. A new house + one wage earner = a tighter budget. I entered most of the entries in our checkbook because I paid bills and did the shopping. Bill tried balancing the thing, but this practice invariably ruined part of a day. Apparently, I couldn’t add or subtract accurately. Bill didn’t enjoy fixing my mess and tossed checkbook management to me. It was a brave move. He hoped to eliminate the monthly marital discord not attached to my feminine cycle. I was forced to face my nemesis.

Financial Education – Phase II: Managing a checkbook. I hated it but I also hated the frustrating balancing sessions every month, so I persevered. I became personal friends with a lady at the bank and visited her several times until I got it. She explained the process in a more female-friendly way. I brought my files down to her and she patiently went over what I was doing and offered suggestions on how to make it easier. After about four or five months, I achieved success. I wouldn’t let a two-cent discrepancy go unresolved; I became a fanatic. I felt empowered! However, knowing how much money you have is not the same as knowing the best way to use the money you have.

Financial Education – Phase III: Budget planning. Two kids and increasing expenses, still on one income, made me realize that I had to change my spending, or I was never going to get a new couch or save for our girls’ education. A financial workbook became my new bible. I recorded every single penny we spent for one month. Once I knew where the money was going, I could see where changes needed to be made. The workbook factored in maintenance on our home and vehicles, and even saving for vacations. I’ll never forget one story the author shared. He was counseling a couple through their financial crisis when he told them they had to put $100 away every month for their family vacations. Both husband and wife were aghast at that amount and declared they couldn’t afford it. The counselor told them they were correct, they couldn’t afford it, but they charged that amount on their credit card for a vacation every year. I would plan ahead where I could. One of the most fun tools was making menus. I grocery shopped every two weeks (without my girls) and couldn’t believe the amount of money I saved. My twenty-something self would not have recognized the new me.

Financial Education – Phase IV: Paying my fair share. When a former spendaholic becomes a budget-planning fiend, it’s easy to be concerned about every penny spent, but this can make a person a bit selfish, and it’s never good to be selfish. If you’ve ever ordered an inexpensive meal and then been forced to split the bill with people who had a meal, a dessert, and a cocktail, you know what I’m talking about. I had to learn that my newly-found frugality should not cost others. Money management is complicated and it’s not just about the numbers. True financial joy and peace requires balance and proper perspective, which brings me very nicely to the next lesson.

Financial Education – Phase V: Investing in people. My husband is a frugal person, but money is not the most important thing to him. The guy that won’t pay $4 for a beer with lunch, donates to charities easily. I knew that helping others was the right thing to do, but I had to learn to give more. People in need are a very good investment.  In our early days of raising children, family vacations were an expense I would have preferred to avoid, but Bill insisted we take three or four small trips every year. Priceless memories are a very good investment.  Bill put off basic perks while paying for meandering educations, including my own. He had no problem dedicating finances to our oldest daughter when she applied to an out-of-state graduate school, or to our youngest, when she changed to a private college because it was a better fit. Knowledge is a very good investment!  Bill fully supported our girls’ wedding dreams. Opposite of the couple in the movie, Father of the Bride, I paid for expenses begrudgingly. On the day of both events, I felt extremely grateful we could give family and friends some good food, good drink, and good music. Those celebrations were a very good investment.

Maybe money IS everything, because the way you spend it does say a lot about your core, your heart. I’m grateful for my husband’s patience over the years and his heart has taught me much. There will be a Phase VI, Bill is leaving his full-time job to pursue part-time work next month. I hope this phase is fun and doesn’t send me to financial planning sessions just to get the free meal.

Life Story Writing Class

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Still Learning

September 19th, 2011 — 7:41pm
Mommy helping Verbena blow out candles at her second birthday party.

Mommy helping Verbena blow out candles at her second birthday party.

I became a grandmother two years ago today, when Verbena Sue burst into the open air to meet the family that would adore her.  I had loved being a mom and couldn’t wait to relive those joys as a grandmother.  Specifically, I looked forward to creating a memory bank for Bean, a history of loving, that I hoped would be bubble-wrap for her when life got tough down the road.  Creating rose-colored memories is great fun, most of the time.
So, last Christmas this grandma-on-overdrive decided to start a new tradition, stolen from a friend.  The youngest member of the family (in our case eighteen-month-old Verbena) would place baby Jesus in the manger on Christmas Eve, after leading the family around the house in a small procession. . . while singing Christmas carols.  My dear friend’s family has done this for many years, and all six of her children are caring, happy, well-adjusted professionals.  I just knew this would be great for Verbena, and got the family to give it a try.
The result was spectacular!  We only sang about three words of the song before Verbena threw baby Jesus on the floor causing his arm to break off.  Everyone looked at Jesus on the floor, then everyone looked at me.  I didn’t know what to do, so grandpa picked up the baby and glued him back together, and then someone placed him in the manger, but I can’t remember who.   We gave Verbena some milk and put her to bed, and the adults had wine, while thanking God that this tradition was over.
Grandmas are wiser, but they still have things to learn.  Now, every Christmas when I look at that finely glued line in Jesus’ arm, I’ll be reminded to let life happen in a more natural way.  Someday, when Bean is old enough to understand, I’ll share this story with her and I’ll be sure to let her know that mistakes, even little ones, are often the best way to learn things.
Happy Birthday, Verbena!

I became a grandmother two years ago today, when Verbena Sue burst into the open air to meet the family that would adore her.  I had loved being a mom and couldn’t wait to relive those joys as a grandmother. Specifically, I looked forward to creating a memory bank for Bean, a history of loving, that I hoped would be bubble-wrap for her when life got tough down the road. Creating rose-colored memories is great fun, but sometimes things can go awry.

Such was the case last Christmas, when this grandma-on-overdrive decided to start a new tradition, stolen from a friend.  The youngest member of the family (in our case eighteen-month-old Verbena) would place baby Jesus in the manger on Christmas Eve, after leading the family around the house in a small procession. . . while singing Christmas carols.  My dear friend’s family had done this for many years, and all six of her children are caring, happy, well-adjusted professionals.  I just knew this would be great for Verbena, and got the family to give it a try.

The result was spectacular!  We only sang about three words of the song before Verbena threw baby Jesus on the floor causing his arm to break off. Everyone looked at Jesus on the floor, then everyone looked at me.  I didn’t know what to do, so grandpa picked up the baby and glued him back together. Someone eventually placed the baby in the manger, but I can’t remember who.  We gave Verbena some milk and put her to bed, and the adults had wine, while thanking God that this tradition was over.

Grandmas are wiser, but they still have things to learn.  Now, every Christmas when I look at that finely glued line in Jesus’ arm, I’ll be reminded to let life happen in a more natural way.  And someday, when Bean is old enough to understand, I’ll share this story with her and I’ll be sure to let her know that mistakes, even little ones, are often the best way to learn things.

Happy Birthday, Verbena!

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My Fifteen Minutes of Fame

September 13th, 2011 — 5:45am
How they celebrated when I graduated!

Celebrating my graduation!

Every fourteen-year-old walks around with two distinct thoughts about themselves.  First thought: “I am so amazing, I will accomplish great things and become famous someday. And, when I do become famous, everyone who has ever been mean to me will regret the way they’ve treated me.” Second thought:  “I am so lame and stupid and someday everyone is going to realize it.  I’ve faked them out so far, but I can’t keep it up forever.  I suspect some people already know, but they are just being nice.” This confusing sense-of-self was all I had, when I was forced to participate in a speech contest by my eighth-grade teacher, Sister Mary Donald.

Sister Donald and her fellow “sisters” worked hard to provide new and stimulating experiences for us.  We were introduced to protestant congregations around town, taught exercises by a Marine sergeant, and carted off to entertaining performances.  The speech contest was the latest piece in the experience puzzle.  We didn’t have to write it, all we had to do was find an article with a certain number of words and memorize it.  I found a story on the Pope’s visit to New York – anything Catholic couldn’t hurt, right?

My family heard the speech, over and over the weekend of the contest.  Practice was going okay, except that I had trouble remembering my next line at the same spot in almost every trial run.  I wasn’t concerned about that though, my anxiety totally centered on being able to walk on the stage when the big moment arrived.  I couldn’t imagine myself doing that.

My mother stayed home with my three younger siblings on speech night (she’s a smart one), and my father and I headed off to the dreaded competition.   Speech contestants sat in the first few rows of the auditorium with their teachers, and families sat behind them.  My father found a seat in the shadows at the very back end of the room, against the wall.  Brave Sister Donald sat directly in front of the stage, clutching copies of our speeches.

One by one, fellow students zipped through their oratories and celebrated back in their seats.  Finally, my name was called.  Which version of myself would emerge tonight – the amazing future prodigy, or its lame counterpart?   I stood up and actually made it to the stage.  Once there, it didn’t feel so horrible, “By golly, I was getting through this – I could see the end in sight, and I couldn’t wait.” Fate had another idea, however, I became the first person that evening to stop dead in the middle of their speech.  It was the familiar spot I always struggled with during my home performances.  My fifteen famous minutes were beginning.

The “official” procedure was to lead participants off the stage when they reached a moment of impasse, and call them back up to try again later.  Brilliant!  Sitting in the audience, stewing and stressing, is the perfect fix for a memory lapse!  Well, I might not have known my next line, but I did know that I was not getting back on that stage!

I declined the invitation to step down, and creatively asked Sister D for the next line in my speech instead.   She was shocked by my “creativity,” but she tried one more time to get me off the stage.  I politely refused her second request, as well.  She looked at me and I looked right back at her, and after assessing my determination, she realized doing it my way would be the least embarrassing for all of us.

The only sound in that auditorium was the shuffling of those speeches as Sister Donald, red-faced and wide-eyed, searched through her pile.  When the shuffling stopped, it got even quieter as she scanned to find the exact line I needed to move on and complete my indoctrination into the world of public speaking.   Eternally grateful for her efforts, I finished my speech and got to do exactly what I wanted – warm my seat, without the threat of another trip to that stage.

So, let’s review the events.  I forgot my speech in front of a large audience, I defied the rules by staying on stage, and I disobeyed my teacher, a nun, who’s married to God!  Nothing good was going to come out of this, and I just hoped that the memory that could forget a speech, could forget the whole evening someday.  Then came the big surprise!

No, I didn’t win a trophy, but when it was over, my classmates gathered around me and praised my stubbornness!  Parents commended my refusal to get off the stage, and even Sister D was okay with everything and managed to make a joke about it.  Apparently drama is not only interesting, it’s exciting!  My dad emerged from the shadows, said a few positive things, and asked me why I was the only speaker who had a microphone?  I didn’t have a microphone, but he was sitting so far away, he confused the ribbon up the front of my jumper for a mike.

What a weird evening for an impressionable, insecure fourteen-year old!  Who knew you could receive accolades by doing something others perceived as a bit brave?  I merely chose between two evils.  Did I want to be reprimanded for not getting off the stage, or did I want to get up on that stage again later?  The correct choice was crystal clear to me.  Deep down, that inexperienced fourteen-year-old girl knew exactly which version of herself was true, but she was going to keep daydreaming anyway.  Do you know how many times she’s been on Oprah?

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In Need of a Friend

August 30th, 2011 — 12:37pm
Dixie

Dixie

I moved from Washington, DC, to Salem, Oregon, during the summer of 1979.  My husband, Bill, had finished his commitment with the US Navy and found a job in the state that he fell in love with during his college years. I was so naively “up” for this 2,700-mile moving adventure, I thought little about what I was leaving behind, which happened to be my entire biological family in New England, including the maternal grandparents of my one-year-old daughter, Emily, plus friends and a support group in DC.  We said “adios” to everyone, and our little family, our dog, and my youthful ignorance piled into our Plymouth Volare and headed west.

When you move from a crowded big city to wide-open spaces, it’s only natural to want land, right? So, lucky us, we found a nice home on acreage about seven miles outside of Salem with only one visible neighbor.  The adventures continued through that summer – we enjoyed working around our new house, exploring sights around town, and taking day trips to the Oregon coast . . . then fall arrived.  Mountains of pumpkins arrived daily at the cannery down the road, the smell of wood burning stoves filled the Willamette Valley air, and the stuff Oregon is famous for began to fall. The rains came and with them dark clouds also began forming in my personal life.

I had no friends. Other than my husband, my daughter, my dog, and our realtor, I did not feel connected to anyone. Our one neighbor was a single woman who worked full time. We never saw her. There were no sidewalks out in the country where I could take my daughter for walks to get to know those far-away neighbors. I did meet other moms and babies at toddler activities around town, but they were not shopping for new friends and didn’t adopt us.

At 27 years of age, I began learning how important it is to have a network of people close by who KNOW you? I longed for people to interact with, to share a meal with, to gripe with, or to just run into on an errand about town. Our happy little family was kind of anonymous in the very “lived-here-forever” town of Salem. Mostly, though, I needed a best girlfriend.

We managed to meet some of our neighbors that first year, and without exception, they were “salt of the earth” type people, so kind and good. These wise women sensed right away that I needed a social life, and began inviting me to different activities that they attended. By the time those pumpkins were showing up at the local cannery the next year, I had joined a weekly bible study, which also had a children’s program for Emily. It was there that I met my dear friend of the last thirty-one years, Dixie.

Sharing intimate feelings about God’s word is a perfect way to get to the heart of a person. Dixie and I began visiting a bit after class, and monthly luncheons gave us more time to get to know each other.  I got my best girlfriend by the time we finished our study that year.

Dixie has helped me laugh when I took life too seriously; she’s helped me understand my children and my husband; she has listened with great interest to every story I’ve shared; and she has encouraged me in every endeavor.  This three-decade friendship is one of the greatest gifts of my life and even though we live in separate towns now, the closeness continues.

This experience of making connections in a new town helped me understand what my daughter, Elizabeth, was going through when she moved with her husband and one-year-old to Seattle last December. Now, I’m praying that there is another “Dixie” out there for her.

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Life Story Writing

August 30th, 2011 — 12:17pm

IMG_0950I’m taking a life-story writing class. The class meets for six weeks.  Each week, we’re to write something from our own life related to an assigned prompt. Our instructor is an enthusiastic writer, who just moved to town. I believe her to be a divine being, because her gift of this class has united some precious people with amazing stories to tell.

Every student in the class is there for a different reason, but they all enjoy writing in some way.  I signed up because I’m a hospice volunteer, who’s been asked to help patients tell their life stories. Noble, isn’t it?  Well, after two classes, I’ve gotten a bit selfish.  I’m excited to see what I can produce from my own life as well. I can’t get enough of this class!

I’d like to share some of my stories on this blog.  Thanks for your patience.

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