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Archive for the ‘Tangents’ Category

Family, part 1

In Tangents, writing on July 28, 2016 at 12:35 am

 

dance.JPGwritten in early August 2015

Last weekend, I was on a dance floor for the first time in years.

I was at a close friend’s 50th birthday bash, dancing to music played by a cover band we had loved 25-plus years before.

A few of us had been among the band’s first fans, there for their earliest performances in the late 80s in the college town where we were struggling to get used to being employed college graduates.

Back then, we loved the band because they were immensely talented musicians; because they were hot (of course), and because they could pull off playing an odd, excellent mix of covers with ease—Elvis Costello, Squeeze, Earth, Wind and Fire, Bruce Springsteen and the Jackson Five are the ones I can think of off the top of my head. We mostly went to hear them play at an upstairs bar called La Terazza, where you could feel the floor shaking underneath you as they reeled from one song to the next until the bar closed.

They were serious musicians who worked on other ventures on their own, and a few years after starting their bread-winning cover band, their non-cover band got a recording contract that led to a lot of respect and a bit of fame, if not a huge fortune.

Later, they started doing their cover band thing again here and there in addition to whatever else they were doing to make a living, and when the time came for my friend’s milestone birthday, they were available to make us dance into the early morning hours again.

***

2015 looked a little different on the dance floor than 1989, no doubt; I’m sure that if we had invited our kids to the party, they might have posted “Vines” or Instagram photos of us with hashtags along the lines of #groovymiddleagedpeopletrytodance. And, speaking for myself, anyway, they might have been on the mark.

But groovy or not, what I felt on the dance floor along with the nostalgia was a bit of awe and a lot of grace. Around me was a network of people not unlike a family tree — and our connections to each other were a bit like the rings you see when you cut down a tree. (I’m mixing my tree metaphors, but bear with me.)

There was that original small ring of close friends I danced with in the dive bar 25 years ago. Then there was another layer of friends I got to know through those dive-bar-dancing friends over the course of my twenties.

Then there was another circle of acquaintances I don’t know well, but feel connected to nevertheless because I have heard their names so often and because I know they are important in the lives of my old friends.

And finally there was another small circle — the older brother and sister of my friend the birthday girl, who I’ve been able to spend pockets of time with over the decades of our friendship.

At the end of the night, the band played a song in honor of my friend – a song that they had never played back in the day because we were all 20-something and ageless and timeless then:

We’ve been through

Some things together

With trunks of memories

Still to come

We found things to do

In stormy weather

Long may you run.

Long may you run.

Long may you run.

Although these changes

Have come

With your chrome heart shining

In the sun

Long may you run.

As they played, I ended up on the dance floor in a cluster with the birthday girl and two of friends from those outer rings on the family tree. Spontaneously, one of them grabbed the hand of the friend next to her and soon all four of us had done the same, making a circle as if we were small children again.

At this age, I don’t see gestures like this among friends too often, and it was a lovely, genuine thing — sparked from nostalgia and music and the many things the women in that circle had been through together and what they had been to each other in varying combinations over many, many years.

***

Later, after the band finished loading up, they lingered with a small group of us from the dive bar days.  This time, we talked about our kids – or in one case, our dogs, who were for all intents and purposes much-loved kids, if not offspring. I thought later about the fact that they probably had come to feel like a family of sorts, too.

***

In the middle of a hard summer, that night was a powerful reminder of just how large my family is at 50.

There is my given family, as well as the families I have been fortunate enough to gather over the years — the one I was on the dance floor with last week; my best friend from third grade on, who died in 2008 but will always be a part of my life; the other friends I grew up with in my earliest years, riding bikes and playing Kick the Can after dark; the high school friends and college roommates I go on long weekend trips with once a year (as well as other high school and college friends I stay in touch with); the crowd I ran with in my 20-something days in Washington, DC; friends from my time in Prague in my early thirties; and friends I made in my late 30s and into my 40s while navigating marriage, divorce and parenthood.

As I write this, I’m sitting on the porch of one of my dearest high school friends (we bonded instantly in 9th-grade health class), enjoying some much-needed solo time and the peace and quiet of her home in the mountains.

I am listening to crickets and having a beer and enjoying some much-needed solo time while she and her husband are treating my daughter to a picnic at the pool with their two daughters; the three girls have never lived in the same town, but they have known each other all of their lives, and I can only hope that like my friend and me, they will be family to each other for decades to come.

I took two of the girls to Carl Sandburg’s home in Flat Rock, NC, today, and our guide, an earnest college intern, took great pleasure in sharing Sandburg’s idea of a good life:

“ … to be out of jail … to eat regular … to get what I write printed … a little love at home and a little nice affection hither and yon over the American landscape … [and] to sing every day.”

For my daughter, who is already a writer as well as a lover of music, I would wish all of these things (that first one is a given, of course) and a family as big and big-hearted as mine.

 

Postscript: When I wrote this a year ago, I had no idea just how much this idea of “family” – those we gather around us and not just those we are born with connections to – would take on more and deeper meaning than I would ever have imagined, so there will now have to be another post, a ‘part 2,’ one day.

A kid’s take on end-of-grade testing

In Tangents on June 2, 2014 at 9:25 am

photo-1Last year, my girl came home from school grumbling about the End-of-Grade testing that she andher fellow sixth-graders were enduring.

I suggested that she write a letter about it. “No one will listen to me,” she said. “I’m just a kid.” I told her the education decision-makers might listen more to her than they would to a grownup; this seemed to light a fire under her, and she nearly ran up the stairs to the computer.

This is the letter she wrote, which was sent to Arne Duncan, US Sec. of Education, and June Atkinson, State Superintendent of Education for NC.  She got replies from both eventually, which we both appreciated, but neither reply was something a kid could get very fired up about.

After listening to her lament EOGs again these past few days, I thought about her letter and decided to pass it along; I’m proud of her for taking the time to share her thoughts with education officials. I may have offered some proofreading help, but I didn’t edit what she said.

I’m impressed by the growing opt-out movements around the country; I was not yet prepared to take that step, but I will be paying close attention and giving it more thought.

Dear Reader,

First of all, I would like to thank you for your time. I have written you today because I don’t believe in the End-of-Grade tests we are forced to take. I beg you to read on, because I have some important opinions and point of views that I would like to voice. I know that other fellow students at my middle school feel the same way about the EOGs.

To start off, the EOGs cause a lot of stress for not just students but teachers. I heard one of my teachers say a couple weeks ago that she had to anticipate our EOG scores. Think of the stress that puts on our teachers. Also the immense pressure on us— will we get 3s, or 4s, and more importantly, will we pass them? You can almost see the stress hanging in the air in one giant cloud.

Also, most of us are already take 2 to 3 benchmarks for each of the 4 core subjects, excluding science. Couldn’t the officials average out the scores from those tests and use that as the basis as to whether we go to the next grade? It’s not like we’re the ones going off to college. Do you really need to measure whether we’re smart enough to go on to the next grade to drop on us a whopping 8 hours total of testing in a week?!

Even if you didn’t diminish the tests, why do you make 3rd graders take EOGs? They’re young and innocent. How would you feel in their shoes? Overwhelmed? Stressed out? Confused? Well, that’s how I felt in 3rd grade just 3 short years ago. Yup, still remember it. Wouldn’t you hate having to do that? If you don’t take them away from us in middle school, at least spare our young, new generation of 3rd, 4th and 5th graders.

Also another point to consider, it’s not like going to 7th grade is a major step in our life like going off to college. I can understand the SATs because turning 18 basically means that you’re a grown-up now. College takes careful examination. Seventh grade doesn’t. It’s just gonna be the same school, same friends and people, just different teachers.

My last point is that our accomplishments can be measured in other ways. My English teacher gives us a quiz/test on everything we learn. My math, History, and Science teachers give unit tests. Couldn’t those, as well as the Benchmarks, be an alternative way to measure our accomplishments? My point is, don’t we already take enough tests? Don’t you feel this way about tests or obstacles in your own life? Frustrated? Fed up? Well, that’s how we feel, too.

I hope you, reader, will take these points into very careful consideration. You just have to put yourself in our shoes to understand what it is like. You can change this… I can just motivate you. Oh, and I’d be willing to take a survey if need be.

Signed,

{We put her name on the actual letters, but for privacy’s sake, I’ll just call her a “A fed-up sixth-grader”… who has since become a fed-up 7th-grader.}

NC Literary Festival: A reader’s feast, with a Southern flavor

In books, reading, storytelling, Tangents on May 1, 2014 at 5:35 pm

I’m on a roll with writing 3/4 of a blog post that’s intended to be timely and never is by the time I get to the final 1/4.  But in my parenting/work-juggling life, it’s too painful to toss out 3/4 of a blog post, so I hope this one falls into the Old But Not Yet Stale news category.

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I spent many hours over two days at the NC Literary Festival, which was put on in early April at my new favorite place — the wildly colorful and inviting James B. Hunt, Jr. Library at NC State. (If you aren’t familiar with the namesake of the library, look up the former governor and education advocate; he is one of North Carolina’s finest people.)

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checking out the funky chairs and stylish vibe at the Hunt Library

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I’m sure there are many detailed, lofty and insightful accounts of the festival that you can find.

I’m afraid this is not one of them. But if you like stream-of-consciousness coverage, my festival take might be just your speed.

Writers talking

As a writer/editor sort and as a lover of stories, hearing writers talk about their work and tell their personal stories never gets old for me. I steal away to Quail Ridge Books for author appearances whenever I can, sometimes bringing my daughter and her homework along if a big favorite is coming to town on a school night.

The literary festival brought a two-day feast of writer talks to town — so many great ones were on the schedule that I was a little depressed that I have not yet found the holy grail I wish for often in my single working parent life: The ability to be in multiple places at once.

I wasn’t willing to give up on seeing everyone I wanted to see, so I decided to be strategic; I would take in the first 2/3 of one session and then slip out to take in the final 2/3 of the one that started later. This borders on rudeness, but I hope the writers forgive those of us who have a hard time choosing.

A good plenty

There were some big names on the marquee for the festival, but I did not end up hearing any of the ticketed event speakers, which included Lev Grossman, Junot Diaz and Richard Ford. This was due in part to the timing of the talks and in part to the fact that I didn’t make it by Quail Ridge Books to get the advance tickets (which were free).

Meaning no disrespect to these authors, I don’t feel as if my festival experience was diminished in the least, which is a testament to the lineup.

Here’s the menu I ended up with:

  • James McBride, National Book Award Winner, The Good Lord Bird
James McBride

James McBride

 

  • Frances Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun and the new memoir Under Magnolia
  • Wiley Cash, A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy
  • Lee Smith, Guests on Earth and too many others to list
  • Allan Gurganus, Local Souls and too many others to list
  • Michael Parker, The Watery Part of the World and All I Have in This World

And here are a few random notes and fragments I scrawled in a notebook because they resonated with me in some way — these are not verbatim quotes, as my reporter’s note-taking skills are not that sharp these days, and I often have trouble reading my loose handwriting.

~ Frances Mayes, in conversation with Elizabeth Hudson, Editor-in-Chief, Our State magazine

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  • We all carry stories and details … how do we mine ourselves for those details to tell a story? 
  • The light in the South is powerfully evocative, as is the fragrance (nothing like a Southern night) 
  • If you lose a parent when you (and they) are young, it makes you fatalistic … afraid you will lose someone else (like Mayes, I lost my father when I was 7 and he was 48, and I could very much relate to this)

~Lee Smith in conversation with Wiley Cash

  • The two read from their latest novels, and Smith noted that they both like to write in first-person — adding that 85 percent of first novels are written in first-person, which I found fascinating.  
  • First-person means you aren’t responsible for knowing all of the other characters’ thoughts. 
  • Smith recalled growing up around storytellers … trying not to fall asleep too early as a child so she wouldn’t miss the end of a story. Now, her stories always come to her in a human voice —  often that first-person voice of the character telling the story.
  • Cash said his stories start by knowing the characters before knowing what the plot will be. 
  • The voices of his characters are borrowed from people in his childhood – or, as he warned the audience, from anyone he happens to be sitting within earshot of …  given the excellent things I have … overheard … at coffee shops, etc., I was glad to hear this.  It makes me feel slightly less ‘Gladys Kravitz’ (if you don’t know what that means, don’t run to Google it; you’re too young and a Wikipedia explanation won’t do.

~Allan Gurganus and Michael Parker

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This was a great conversation, with many quotes from each of these NC writers that were keepers — I’m not going to try to make sense of which of my scrawled notes should be attributed to each writer, or I will never finish this post.

Gurganus was probably the source of more of them simply because Parker had prepared a lot of thoughtful, interesting questions for him.

  • Everyone is eloquent on one topic — their lives
  • Gurganus: My job is finding the genius in every character
  • We care about the music of the prose
  • Today people think of prose as the means to an end; in fiction, we think prose is an end.
  • Novellas: Gurganus loves the form and wants people to believe in it; tells a story about his Hillsborough, NC, neighbor, the above-mentioned Lee Smith, going to talk to a third-grade class and fielding a question from a child: “Is a novella a novel written by a girl?” 
  • The length of a novella is perfect – you can start it at dinner time and finish by bedtime
  • Gurganus pointed out that Parker now splits time between Greensboro and Austin, and the two talked about how landscape affects prose … NC is “vernal, crazy, green.”
  • Singing the praises of writers Mavis Gallant (who they noted had not gotten the credit/attention she deserved) and Alice Munro; Gurganus says he will pick a Munro short story arbitrarily and read it when he is feeling stuck.
  • Gurganus pointed out that the word ‘empathy’ did not exist until the 20th century, which I found interesting, as I have always found this to be a powerful word/concept … but unfortunately,  I failed to write down the context this fact 
  • ‘honoring the buried song in someone’ – this tied in with the discussion of empathy … somehow. 
  • Fiction is a force of memory
  • We are all walking around with encoded stories inside of us.
  • Another random note, I believe from a sidetrack about place and changes in place/surroundings: Gurganus discussing how mobile homes that were once modest and actually were “mobile” have now ‘swelled up like giant ticks’ … huge and immovable. Instant mental picture.
  • Both spoke of re-reading books a lot

And for any avid reader parents who are despairing that their kid may never develop a love of reading, Gurganus and Parker should give you hope: when my 12-year-old daughter, an avid reader, worked up the nerve to ask them a question, it was “What did you read when you were growing up?”

The answer? They didn’t really read when they were growing up.  Gurganus said he was too busy running around outside and playing in the woods (something he thinks kids today have missed out on) and only became a reader when he was stationed on the USS Yorktown during the Vietnam War.

Parker recalled how the first books that drew him in when he was a teenager were rock star biographies, something that gave him brownie points with my 12-year-old music lover.

Parker’s novel, The Watery Part of the World, is the only book I bought at the festival. I’ve wanted to read it for a long time, so I broke my vow to stop adding to my embarrassing “TBR” pile until I start making more progress.

You can catch Parker in a “solo” appearance at Quail Ridge Books, my favorite bookstore, today, May 1st: http://www.quailridgebooks.com/event/michaelparker

***

In short, this year’s festival was a great event in a beautiful space: Well-done.

Read a kid’s take on the Festival. 

Sometimes a writer just needs a little moral support.

In books, Tangents, writing on March 3, 2014 at 12:31 am

With great empathy (expressed via purring and delicate grunts), Hermione joined me in staring into the abyss of the blank page late last night.

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victory on the playground (for Alice)

In storytelling, Tangents on November 5, 2013 at 11:59 pm
width="295"In fifth or sixth grade, my best friend  and I trained for the Field Day Three-Legged Race.
Yes, trained – we wanted to win that sucker, so we practiced our three-legged stride faithfully … at recess every day and probably at home, too.
Our training paid off: Sporting our long, stringy hair, glasses and very best 1970s lack of fashion, we won the Three-Legged Race that day.

 And we loved winning it.

10287040_10202947238614961_8936849695838270406_oNot in a ‘Chariots of Fire’/serious sort of way — probably more because it was a funny sort of thing to win and because we had invested serious effort in that funny thing, and our plan worked

Fast-forward a few decades, and she had to be just as methodical in dealing the biggest challenge of her life –  MS. Years into it, when the disease became relentless, she tried every option available to her, including experimental stem cell treatments. This time, when the stakes were so much higher, all the drugs and treatments and research did not slow that progression.

But she was never going to let the MS take control, and she wrote the end of her story, which was lousy, but on her own terms; I take a lot of comfort in that. I hope one day our society will come around to understanding/respecting the wishes of people we love who have terrible diseases and zero quality of life and are ready to let go.

Today marks five years since she left, and I miss her every day. But I hope that my posting photos and stories on Facebook and elsewhere doesn’t make it seem as if I am continuing to mourn her death. I’m really just continuing to celebrate her life; it is still making mine richer.

Thanks, Al.

Down but not out

In running, Tangents on June 13, 2013 at 11:23 am

I haven’t run since early this year, and it’s discouraging. I miss my trail; it’s a reliably tranquil, calming drug. But my right foot still feels as if it will not hold up on a run. It’s not an out-and-out fracture (not enough pain), but  my fear that it may be a stress fracture is keeping me off the trail.

UmsteadApril

 

(Side note: Because it’s been a crazy/stressful year on the work front, and my freelancer life has me on an insurance plan with a deductible I never meet, I’ve hesitated to embark on a journey of X-rays and PT. It’s a bad feeling to be caught in that spot between the proverbial rock and hard place. But I’m hoping Obamacare will help those of us who work for ourselves and make it a priority to carry health insurance at some level, so our families or people who are insured don’t have to cover us if something big happens.)

Seeing an orthopedist or podiatrist to get to the bottom of the problem is on my to-do list for the summer, but in the meantime, my solution to the non-running and work-stress blues has been to look for silver linings and come up with lists of all the things I have to be grateful for. On the running front, my silver linings are:

1) I managed to resist becoming a couch potato. I found a substitute routine, going to the Y to ride the stationary bike and use the rowing machine. I haven’t been as often as I should have and often I can only go for 30-45 minutes, but I’ve kept at it, and for me, that’s evidence that the running/exercise instinct has finally burrowed into my (for lack of a better word) DNA. (People are using ‘DNA’ in the business setting now, and it drives me insane).

2) A few months away from running has not erased all the mental progress I made around running when I first did the 5K training program. While my lungs/stamina have always resisted the idea of running, my mindset was always the biggest obstacle. Even with temperatures heading up again in NC, I would be happy to get back out on my trail again tomorrow if I felt my foot could hack it. This is a big deal. Never in a million years would I have imagined that I’d be able to maintain my love of running after five months away from it.

For those of you still at it, run an extra mile or two for me!

Of mountains and mothers.

In Tangents, writing on May 12, 2013 at 12:19 am

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I shot this photo of Mount Rainier from the back of a Bainbridge Island ferry on Sunday morning.

I’ve been to Seattle about six or seven times since my first visit during a cross-country trip in 1994, and I’ve never forgotten how the locals talk about “The Mountain” (it’s capitalized that way in my head) with a mixture of reverence and familiarity. The weather – and locals’ psyches – seems to be measured by how clearly you can see The Mountain.

I spent six days in Seattle at the beginning of this month, and I can’t imagine six more perfect weather days in the Pacific Northwest, especially given that my friends who live there insist that summer warmth doesn’t truly arrive until July.

The Mountain was truly spectacular during my stay, and I don’t use that word lightly or often. I told the friend I was traveling with that we must have been “living right,” as some Southern relative used to say, to get such perfection.

One night, I got together with a book club friend who moved to Seattle grudgingly two years ago when her husband’s job took them there. Now, she said, she was struggling with the idea of moving back to North Carolina; she reeled off a list of things she loved about Seattle, naming most of the things I would expect (natural beauty, endless things to do, schools, attitudes, etc.).

She finished the list with The Mountain. “I have this sort of odd connection to it,” she said. “I can’t really explain it…”  She trailed off, seeming a little embarrassed.

But I understood, and I’d likely feel the same way.

I’ve been wanting to post this photo of The Mountain everywhere and was trying to figure out how to shoehorn it into this blog. I decided that Mother’s Day was just the right day to post it here, as my personal “Mountain” for 48-plus years has been my mom.

It may sound over-the-top hokey as metaphors go, but whether I can see her or not, knowing my mom is at the other end of a phone line or a road trip has given me the sort of strength and calm my Seattle transplant friend seems to draw from The Mountain.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

Sidelined.

In running, Tangents on March 9, 2013 at 3:39 pm

The veteran runners out there will understand this one all too well.

It’s been so many weeks since I went for a real run (i.e., outside on a trail) that I’ve lost count. After wrestling with knee pain and winning for the most part, I somehow ended up injuring my foot.

It’s clearly not a serious fracture; most likely, it’s tendonitis or a stress fracture (if I didn’t have freelancer-level health insurance, I might have tried to confirm that with some fancy diagnostics), but the prescription for a stress fracture is no running for weeks while it heals on its own.

And if there was ever a time I needed my go-to for blowing off steam, it’s now.

The whiner in me has a “Why me? Why now? Life is so unfair…” refrain running through my head every day.

But when my better instincts muscle in, I change my view.

It’s temporary.

There are plenty of other things I can do to exercise while I wait … and if I do that, I’ll be stronger and less susceptible to knee run knee problems when I start again.

It could be worse; I have too many friends with MS, for instance, who would politely tell me to shut up if they heard my whining.

Here’s to perspective.

Working on my form.

In running, Tangents on December 31, 2012 at 2:37 pm

[Caballo said] … if I really wanted to understand the Raramuri, I should have been there when this 95-year-old man came hiking 25 miles over the mountain. 

Know why he could do it? Because no one ever told him he couldn’t. No one told him he oughta be off dying somewhere in an old age home. You live up to your own expectations, man. 

 ~ From Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall

'my' trail

‘my’ trail

2012 could be billed as the ‘Year of Character-Building,’ to put it nicely – a long slog of a year.

For one friend after another, 2012 brought awful things. Life or death scenarios for children. Painful divorce. Suicide. Addictions that bottomed out.

The unrelenting stretch of bad news for my friends was hard to take even as a bystander.

My 2012 was a breeze in comparison, but it was an intense year of English-major-running-a-business stresses and solo parenting, which became something far more mind-boggling in August when my daughter started sixth grade. I’m still wrapping my head around how to manage my second go-round with middle school – this one as Counselor/Grownup in Charge/Homework Administrator and Overlord. I think it may be more all-consuming than when I was the sixth-grader riding a bus across town to the brand-new “pod” middle school I helped break in back  in the day.

All of which is to say I’m glad to see the backside of 2012. (Or, as one friend, whose 2012 began with her child’s cancer diagnosis, posted today: ‘You are cordially invited to BITE ME, 2012.’)

I’m grateful to have ended the year with a solo staycation that has cleared my head and left me with a sense of confidence and calm about 2013. On my first staycation day, I was thinking back on the year, and an image popped into my head out of the blue. No idea what prompted it, but it was right on the money.

It was a mostly silhouetted, rough-sketched figure, head down, shoulders squared, wincing and leaning into a headwind, all buttoned up. All resignation and dread. The posture was of someone bracing for what was coming – resigned to surviving it (with no thought of trying to get something out of it).

I think this was my stance in 2012 – or to put it in running-speak, my form. A year is a long time to live your life leaning into a headwind, so I hope to shake it off and begin 2013 with my grandmother’s famed upright posture (purposeful/determined).

And yet relaxed, too – as a slow, usually gasping amateur runner with a deep curiosity about what makes “real” runners tick, I’m soaking up Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run as I head into 2013. Reading about the Raramuri runners is reinforcing the idea I’ve seen elsewhere that the ideal running form involves relaxed limbs … that the most pleasurable running isn’t marked by taut muscles and pounding speed but by a feeling of floating along.

So in 2013, I aspire to run toward adventures and opportunities – instead of just bracing for what may be thrown my way – and to move through the good, the bad and the ugly (of life, business, Middle-School Administration, etc.) with relaxed limbs and mind.

Meanwhile, I’m going to get ready with my final run of 2012 on a trail lined with bare but beautiful trees and brilliant winter skies.

Happy new year.

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Postscript: I’m thankful to look back at my friends’ rough year and realize how many of those terrible scenarios played out with out-and-out happy endings and/or awe-inspiring doses of grace (what could rightly be called ‘amazing grace’). 

 

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