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And just like that, it’s October – the asters are out, the nights are drawing in and we’re nine days away from our big fundraising gala at work. Here’s what I have been reading, to cap off September:

The Littlest Library, Poppy Alexander
After her beloved Mimi dies, Jess Metcalfe moves to a tiny country cottage on a whim. When she creates a little library out of the red phone box near her cottage, Jess finds herself becoming part of the community – but can she stay there? A sweet British rom-com – I found the ending a bit disappointing, but it was still fun.

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, Aimee Nezhukumatathil
I loved these vivid essays about various “wonders” – trees, insects and other creatures – mixed with the author’s personal experiences. Nezhukumatathil is a poet, and you can see it in her language. Beautiful, thoughtful and often unexpected.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Taylor Jenkins Reid
Everyone from my sister to my book-blogging friends recommended this novel about a reclusive Hollywood star who finally decides to tell her life story to an up-and-coming reporter. I blew through it in an evening – Hollywood glamour, compelling storytelling, some well-drawn characters – though it ultimately made me really sad. Marriage was always a calculation for Evelyn, and her decisions ended up hurting a lot of the people she loved. Still a fascinating story.

The No-Show, Beth O’Leary
Three different women are stood up by the same man on Valentine’s Day – what’s going on? Is he a cad, or is there more to the story? O’Leary’s fourth rom-com follows Miranda, Siobhan and Jane as they deal with the implications of his actions. Really fun and clever; I liked this one a lot better than The Road Trip, but not as much as The Switch.

The Gilded Girl, Alyssa Colman
When Emma Harris comes to Miss Posterity’s school of magic, she finds it challenging, but things are going okay – until her father dies and she’s forced to work as a servant. With the help of Izzy, a servant girl with magic of her own, Emma searches for ways to keep learning magic. This had a fun premise but was just okay; very much inspired by A Little Princess. I loved Tom, the newsie who befriends the girls. Found at Phoenix Books in Burlington, VT, this summer.

Animal Life, Audur Ava Olafsdottir
As a historic storm approaches Iceland at Christmastime, Domhildur reflects on her own midwifery career and that of her great-aunt, who left behind a series of manuscripts musing on coincidences, birth, humankind and light. This slim novel was both odd and oddly charming; I couldn’t quite make sense of it, but enjoyed the journey. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 6).

The Wind at My Back: Resilience, Grace, and Other Gifts from My Mentor, Raven Wilkinson, Misty Copeland
I enjoyed Copeland’s first memoir, Life in Motion, and have the greatest admiration for her work. This book pays tribute to Raven Wilkinson, a trailblazing Black ballerina who mentored Copeland for several years. Copeland charts her own growth and struggles alongside stories of Raven’s career, and calls out the enduring racism in the ballet world. Thoughtful, vivid and warm. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 15).

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

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Julia Roberts. Julia Child. Julia Cameron. A writer friend with whom I’ve recently reconnected. My yoga instructor, for a few months on Saturday mornings. And the name of my ex-husband’s new partner – indeed, the only name I knew her by, for a long time.

It’s not an uncommon name, Julia – especially here in the U.S., over the past century or so. I can think of other actresses (Stiles, Ormond, Louis-Dreyfus) and I’m sure I’ve met other women with that name, over the course of my life. For months after my marriage fell apart, the name hit me in the chest every time I heard it, whether or not it was referring to the woman whose last name I still didn’t know. (I didn’t ask for a lot of details; I figured – still figure – that for me it’s better not to know too much.)

I wondered, at the time: will I hate this name for the rest of my life? Would it make my heart clench every time I heard it? The name Julie, so similar but different, inspires nothing but warm feelings in me: since high school I’ve had at least one friend named Julie, women of courage and grace and great kindness, one or two of whom are still in my life. But I knew I didn’t want to recoil from every person I met named Julia. It’s a small detail of divorce I didn’t expect, this quiet reckoning with and reclaiming of a name that took something from me.

The reclaiming has been gradual, and it’s still in progress: it began with those Saturday morning yoga classes, a dark-haired nurse named Julia standing at the front desk, greeting all of us with a smile, learning my name. She moved to Florida a month or two ago, and I never told her – couldn’t figure out how to tell her – about this role she played in my life. In addition to sun salutations and child’s poses and deep warrior lunges, she brought a pleasant association with a name that had brought me sadness and grief.

Julia is also the name of a childhood friend’s daughter. Born a preemie, she’s now preschool age, spunky and slight, always on the go, if her mom’s Facebook photos are any indication. I haven’t met this wee Julia in person yet, but she and her brothers light up my feed when they appear, as does the joy of their parents and grandparents. We were all once afraid she might not make it this far, and now I think her folks worry more about keeping up – a joyous problem to have.

There’s no neat and tidy conclusion to this process, no total redemption (at least not yet) of this name and its difficult part in my story. But I’m learning to layer the good memories on top of the hard ones, not to hide them but to remind myself it all exists; it all belongs. These women I know, or have met, or whose work has influenced me, are part of the story of that name in my life, as much as the woman whose invisible presence hurt me so much. Tiny Julia; writer-from-Maine Julia; yoga instructor Julia; the redheaded actress whose cackling laugh I adore. The chef played so fabulously by Meryl Streep in a movie I love. And the writing teacher whose books have shaped my life so powerfully – thanks, in part, to that same ex-husband, whose presence in my life will never wholly disappear.

They all are part of the story of this name. I’m grateful that now, most days, it is a story of joy – even if the pain still stings once in a while.

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We’re halfway through May (I think?) and I’ve been blowing through review books and mysteries, as per usual. Here’s what I have been reading:

This Story Will Change: After the Happily Ever After, Elizabeth Crane
Crane had a good marriage – or thought she did – until her husband admitted he wasn’t happy. This memoir chronicles the dissolution of their marriage; chapters vary from a few sentences to several pages. I found it both heartbreaking and validating in the extreme; I saw so much of myself (and my ex) in Crane’s narrative. Wry, sometimes self-absorbed (but aren’t we all, in crisis?) and sharply observed. To review for Shelf Awareness (out August 9).

Delphine Jones Takes a Chance, Beth Morrey
Delphine Jones’ life plan went off the rails when she got pregnant at 16 (three years after her mother’s death). Now, at 28, she’s trying to get back on track – with the help of her precocious daughter, a cranky Frenchwoman, a kindhearted teacher and a Welsh pianist. I loved this sweet novel about facing our demons and finding our way. I loved Morrey’s first novel, too.

The Unkept Woman, Allison Montclair
Iris Sparks and Gwendolyn Bainbridge are happily back to their matchmaking business after several murder investigations. But then – of course – Iris is followed home by an unknown woman, who ends up dead in Iris’ flat a few days later. A witty, post-WWII British mystery (fourth in a fun series) with a few great twists. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 26).

Any Other Family, Eleanor Brown
I love Brown’s thoughtful fiction; The Weird Sisters is a longtime fave. This, her third novel, follows an unconventional family formed by three sets of parents who all adopted biological siblings. On a family vacation in Aspen, all the parents–especially the women–are forced to confront some hard truths about themselves and one another, and what future changes might mean for their family. Such a compelling story and an insightful exploration of adoption, family dynamics, what we carry forward from our own experiences and what truly makes a family. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 12).

The Bodyguard, Katherine Center
Hannah Brooks is good at her job, which involves providing private security for wealthy clients. But while she’s reeling from her mother’s death and a breakup, she gets an unconventional assignment – protecting actor Jack Stapleton by posing as his girlfriend. This was a super cute, witty rom-com (I could totally see it as a movie) with a sweet slow-burn romance. Set in Texas, which I loved, and I also appreciated how Hannah became (gradually!) more self-aware. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 19).

I Guess I Haven’t Learned That Yet: Discovering New Ways of Life When the Old Ones Stop Working, Shauna Niequist
Niequist has gone through upheaval in the last few years: not only the pandemic, but serious personal chaos and a cross-country move to NYC. She writes thoughtfully about big changes, health problems, learning to forgive and keep going, and the delights to be found in the unexpected. Occasionally veered into cliche for me but was mostly real and relatable. I especially liked the parts about “living lightly,” moving through anger and resentment (so hard!), and coming to terms with who you are in different seasons.

Framed in Fire, Iona Whishaw
The publisher sent me a copy of this 9th Lane Winslow mystery (I adore this series). Lane stumbles on (another) dead body when she’s visiting a friend, and meets an Indigenous man who may have some connection to both the area and the body. Meanwhile, an Italian restaurateur finds himself the target of arson and a smear campaign; the whole police force gets caught up in both cases. Thoughtful, compelling and well plotted, as always.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

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We are (nearly) halfway through April, approaching Marathon Monday, and smack in the middle of cherry blossom season. Here’s what I have been reading:

Freedom is an Inside Job: Owning Our Darkness and Our Light to Heal Ourselves and the World, Zainab Salbi
Salbi is a well-known activist for women’s rights, but she spent years hiding from her own fears and insecurities. This memoir charts her journey through relationships, body image struggles, professional and other challenges, toward a more peaceful, holistic vision of herself. Reading about her divorce was particularly striking to me; some other moments fell rather flat. Found at Bluestocking Books in San Diego.

Five Things About Ava Andrews, Margaret Dilloway
Ava Andrews has lots of ideas – but her anxiety often prevents her from speaking up. She also has a heart condition. When her best friend moves away, Ava pushes herself to try an improv class and a few other new things, with surprising results. A sweet, funny middle-grade novel with a realistic picture of invisible disabilities. Found at the Book Catapult.

The Dictionary of Lost Words, Pip Williams
Esme Nicoll, motherless child of a lexicographer, spends her childhood in the Scriptorium – a garden shed in Oxford where James Murray and his team of assistants are compiling words for the Oxford English Dictionary. As Esme grows up, she begins to collect words that have been left out – mostly words used by women and working-class folks. I loved this fiercely feminist, gorgeous novel set in my beloved Oxford. Recommended by my (also fiercely feminist, gorgeous) friend Shanna.

Reading the Water: Fly Fishing, Fatherhood, and Finding Strength in Nature, Mark Hume
Hume has loved to fly fish since he was a boy in rural Canada. This lyrical, thoughtful memoir traces his fishing journey through the years, and how he has passed the love of fly fishing and the natural world on to his new daughters. Quiet, moving and lovely. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 10).

Finlay Donovan Knocks ‘Em Dead, Elle Cosimano
After pulling off a hit job almost by accident, Finlay Donovan is trying to catch her breath, prep for the holidays and work on her new novel. But some suspicious posts on an online forum have her convinced someone is trying to off her ex-husband – and the forum might be connected to a certain Russian mobster. A fun, fast-paced follow-up to Finlay Donovan is Killing It; I can’t wait for more adventures from Finlay and her nanny/accountant/partner-in-crime, Vero.

A Natural History of Now: Notes from the Edge of Nature, ed. Sara J. Call and Jennifer Li-Yen Douglass
I picked up this weird little collection for $4 at Bookmans in Tucson – the price and the blurb from the late, great Brian Doyle sold me. It’s an odd, often startling, sometimes beautiful group of essays (and two short stories) mostly set in the American West. Some gross, some gorgeous, all surprising.

The Year of Miracles: Recipes About Love + Grief + Growing Things, Ella Risbridger
I found this sweet memoir-cookbook both healing and heartbreaking; Risbridger’s partner, Jim, died a few years ago and she writes about grief, building a new life, cooking for and with her new housemate, and how that all shifted during 2020. The recipes are a mix of simple and fiddly, but all are for home cooks with plenty of side notes. My grief is different than Risbridger’s, but I still often felt seen by her words. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 26).

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

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A blue-walled loft bedroom in an old church converted into condos. A wide leather couch, piled with blankets, in a cramped but comfortable house. A two-level, wood-floored apartment filled with abstract art, dried rose petals, and light. And a cozy guest room in a college town that I still think of as home.

Most friendships involve a balance between space and attention, with both parties weighing the needs of the friendship against the other obligations and people in their lives. During the winter and spring leading up to my divorce, several friends gave me the gift of space in a very particular way: opening up their homes to me, whether they were physically present or not.

My essay “Space to Imagine” was published last week over at the HerStories Project! Click over there to read the rest of it, if you’d like.

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We are halfway through January (almost) and the books have been saving my life, especially in this isolation period. Here’s what I have been reading:

Incognegro, Mat Johnson
My partner lent me this graphic novel, in which a (very) light-skinned Black reporter passes as white so he can report on lynchings in the American South. When he goes down to try and help his brother out of a murder accusation, things get (even more) dangerous. Compelling, heartbreaking, deeply unsettling.

If You Ask Me, Libby Hubscher
Advice columnist Violet Covington finds out her newspaper column is up for syndication – then comes home to find her husband in bed with a neighbor. She goes off the rails a bit trying to process the news and figure out how she wants to handle this new stage of life. I relished this smart, funny, mostly closed-door rom-com; the romance is fun but I also loved Violet’s relationships with her mother, her boss/college roommate and several friends. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 8).

An Eternal Lei, Naomi Hirahara
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Leilani Santiago and her sisters find a woman unconscious on a beach in Kaua’i. Leilani – an amateur sleuth – digs into the woman’s life and uncovers a few connections to their island community. A fun mystery with lots of Hawaiian details; the food especially reminded me of my trip there in college. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 22).

The Weekday Vegetarians, Jenny Rosenstrach
I love Jenny’s blog and her down-to-earth newsletters; I own her first cookbook, though I haven’t used it in a while. So naturally I was primed to enjoy this cookbook packed with recipes and tips for going vegetarian during the week (or any time). I’ve already made a couple of the recipes. Many of them are better shared with others, but I like her style and appreciated the inspiration here.

Home/Land: A Memoir of Departure and Return, Rebecca Mead
Increasingly worried by Trumpism in the U.S., Mead and her American husband (with their teenage son) decide to pull up stakes and move to London. Mead writes thoughtfully about her family history and her life split between two cities: her youth on England’s south coast, her two decades in NYC and the ways in which she discovers you can (and can’t) go home again. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 8).

Sisters of Night and Fog, Erika Robuck
As World War II sweeps Europe, two very different women find themselves working against the Nazis. Calm, quiet Virginia d’Albert Lake is determined to survive the war alongside her French husband, while fiery young French-British widow Violette Szabo will stop at nothing to destroy the regime that took her husband. Robuck weaves a gripping tale of the women’s stories, which intersect when both are captured by the Nazis. Well done, though heartrending at times. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 1).

Most Likely, Sarah Watson
Ava, CJ, Jordan and Martha have been BFFs since kindergarten. One of them will become president of the U.S. in 2049. But which one? Watson takes us through the girls’ senior year in high school, showing us their challenges, triumphs and deep bond. I loved this smart, warmhearted YA novel. Found at the wonderful Crow Bookshop in Burlington, VT.

Search, Michelle Huneven
Somewhat to my own surprise, I devoured this novel of a Unitarian Universalist pastoral search committee in California. It was both familiar and different from my own church experience; it was also funny, sharp and an insightful look at human nature. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 26).

The First Rule of Punk, Celia C. Pérez
Malú (don’t call her Maria Luisa!) is not happy about moving to Chicago with her mom. But gradually, she finds her way at her new school – forming a band, making friends, messing up and learning to own her mistakes. A sweet, funny middle-grade story.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson
I’ve been reading this one slowly for months; it is dense but readable, fascinating, multilayered, packed with good storytelling. Wilkerson brings the Great Migration to vivid life through the stories of her three protagonists, who all left the South for different regions. Just as thoughtful and important and interesting as everyone said it was.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

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We’re sweating in a heat wave over here – and nearly halfway through August. I’m finally getting a little reading (and reviewing) mojo back. Here’s what I have been reading:

Finlay Donovan Is Killing It, Elle Cosimano
Annie recommended this one as “an absolute blast” and she was right. Struggling author and recently divorced mom Finlay Donovan is meeting with her agent when a woman mishears their conversation and assumes Finlay is a contract killer. Suddenly Finn and her nanny (Vero, whom I adored) are scrambling to stay ahead of the mob while tangled in a murder investigation. I loved this smart, zany romp and can’t wait for the sequel.

Fearless, Mandy Gonzalez
Monica and her abuelita have come all the way to NYC for Monica’s big shot at a Broadway show. But the Ethel Merman Theatre might be cursed – and it’s up to Monica and her new castmates to save their show. A cute middle-grade theater story from one of the stars of Hamilton and In the Heights.

Goldenrod: Poems, Maggie Smith
It’s no secret I am a Maggie Smith fan: her tweets and her book Keep Moving have helped save my life this past year. Her newest poetry collection is full of startling images and hard-won wisdom and flashes of beauty. Some poems spoke to me more than others.

No Memes of Escape, Olivia Blacke
Odessa Dean is loving her life in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But then her traveling aunt comes home early, and Odessa and her friend Izzy are (almost) witnesses to a murder in an escape room. I enjoyed Odessa’s second adventure (the sequel to Killer Content); she’s a quirky, fun amateur sleuth. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 5).

Hooked: How Crafting Saved My Life, Sutton Foster
This fun memoir is exactly what it sounds like: an exploration of Foster’s life and career through the lens of crafting. She shares her adventures in crochet, collage and cooking, alongside anecdotes from her time on Broadway and TV, her love life, her journey to motherhood and her complicated relationship with her agoraphobic mother. Breezy and enjoyable. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 12).

The Year of the End, Anne Theroux
In January 1990, Anne Theroux and her husband Paul decided to separate. Anne kept a diary that year, and in this memoir, she revisits what was really happening behind and around those brief entries. A thoughtful, poignant exploration of divorce and rebuilding a new life; also a detailed snapshot of a moment in time. Quiet and moving. I received an advance copy; it’s out Oct. 12.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

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We are (almost) at the end of January, and it has felt so long (and cold!). But as always, the books are helping me get through. Here’s what I have been reading:

Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi
I’ve been hearing about this novel for years and finally picked it up as part of my ongoing efforts to read more Black voices. It’s a powerful collection of linked stories tracing the different destinies of two half sisters, Effia and Esi, and their descendants in Ghana and the U.S. Heavy and thought-provoking.

Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, Sonali Dev
Trisha Raje is a brilliant neurosurgeon who has to tell Emma, an artist patient, that a lifesaving surgery will cause her to go blind. Emma’s brother, DJ Caine, is a talented chef who caters several events for Trisha’s wealthy, close-knit family. Trisha and DJ give each other all kinds of wrong impressions, but are forced to reexamine their assumptions. I loved the gender-swapped nods to Pride & Prejudice, the complex dynamics of Trisha’s family, and the fierce dedication to work and family displayed by all the main characters. Recommended by Vanessa.

March Sisters: On Life, Death and Little Women, Kate Bolick et al.
As a longtime fan of Little Women, I expected to enjoy these essays about the March sisters much more than I did. They were well written, but felt forced, and (except for Beth’s) seemed to focus on less significant aspects of each character.

Hope Rides Again, Andrew Shaffer
Joe Biden and Barack Obama are back chasing down criminals, this time on the mean streets of Chicago. When Obama’s BlackBerry is stolen, Joe tracks down the thief, but quickly realizes he might be in over his head. Funny and very meta; the mystery plot was thin, but I read this for the bromance and the laughs.

The Fixed Stars, Molly Wizenberg
I adore Wizenberg’s first foodie memoir, A Homemade Life, and enjoyed her second, Delancey. This one is quite different: an exploration of how her sexuality shifted and what that meant for her life and marriage. She’s an excellent writer, and the parts about her divorce and soul-searching are well done. But I agree with my pal Jaclyn – some other parts felt too personal, even voyeuristic. Complicated, but still worthwhile.

Recipe for Persuasion, Sonali Dev
Chef Ashna Raje is struggling to keep her father’s restaurant afloat, when her cousin (Trisha – see above) convinces her to compete on a potentially lucrative reality show. The catch? Her celebrity partner on the show is her estranged first love, footballer Rico Silva – and they’ve got 12 years of secrets sitting between them. I really enjoyed this Persuasion retelling (and sequel-of-sorts to Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors), though there was a lot of trauma (especially for Ashna) that never quite got properly dealt with.

Links are to Trident and Brookline Booksmith, my perennial local faves. Shop indie!

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Hello, friends. Here we are, two days before Christmas, and I am feeling all the emotions: seesawing between loneliness and hope, heavy sadness and sharp, sudden joy.

On the long list of things that are different this year, my holiday traditions (like most people’s) have been upended. I’m not in Texas with my family, and I am also still figuring out life (and Christmas) after divorce. I love December and all its rituals, large and small, and this year I have had no choice but to adapt and remake so many of the traditions I love.

I wrote last week about how I put up my tiny tree, not the same as the big one we had for years, but still twinkly and lovely. Many of my ornaments remain packed away, for now, but the ones I’ve chosen all have deep and sweet associations. I cried when I found our old stockings packed away in a box, but I pulled out the snowflake hangers, and my guy and I bought new stockings, for a new season.

When J and I sent Christmas cards, we’d pick out a photo, design a card on Shutterfly, order stacks of them, then hand-address them all in one go, sitting at the kitchen table with Christmas music playing. This year, that honestly felt like too much. (I didn’t send cards at all last year.) I bought a few different sets of letterpress cards and have been addressing them in small batches, scribbling notes to faraway family and friends and sealing each one with a poinsettia sticker. The ones I’ve received are Scotch-taped to the doorframe, reminding me of the folks I love and wish I could hug.

There will be no Christmas Eve service in Texas this year, but I’ll tune into a Zoom listening party for the carol choir I’ve participated in. We won’t have a traditional menu, because we are making this part up as we go along. I won’t go running in my parents’ neighborhood or bump into friends from high school, but I’ll run along the Eastie trails I love, and wave at the few local friends I can still see in person.

It won’t look like this forever, I know. But this is how it looks now. And some days, it’s enough to simply acknowledge that it looks different, and keep on making it new.

Merry Christmas, if you’re celebrating. See you next week.

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My latest Chatbook arrived in the mail the other day. As usual, I tore open the jade-green envelope, flipped through the photos with a smile, added it to the growing stack on my bookshelf, and considered whether to cancel my subscription.

Since I started getting my Instagram photos printed through Chatbooks a few years ago, I’ve racked up more than 70 square softcover albums of my daily life. I loved the idea: an easy, affordable way to print the photos I was choosing to highlight anyway. And I still like the quality, and the ease and fun of getting a few photos off my phone. But every time I thumb through the pictures of flowers and books and my guy, a nagging voice in my head asks the same question: does it matter?

Since my divorce, I am a household of one: physically and financially independent. I wash my own dishes, pay my own bills, struggle to do my own meal planning and structure my days. Especially since the pandemic and my furlough, I also struggle to believe that being alone is not a lack, not a deficit. That my worth is not determined by my relationship to other people (though I do have, and am thankful for, deep loving relationships in my life).

Getting my own photos printed sometimes feels like a small declaration that I matter, and sometimes it seems like plain self-indulgence: who else is going to look at these albums? Who would care to? These photos and captions don’t matter much to anyone but me. Is that reason enough to keep spending the money? Am I overthinking this? (The answer is probably yes.)

I don’t have a good answer right now, for the photo albums or for the larger questions of how to build a life on my own. But for now, I’ll keep trying on both counts: keep snapping and posting photos of the details I notice and enjoy, and keep working to believe that my noticing counts for something. I’m not sure if I’ll keep stacking up the photo albums indefinitely. But for now, they serve as a small, tangible reminder: I am here. And I am trying to pay attention.

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