Archive for November, 2008

Another oldie for a busy day. It was written five years ago but the truth still applies.


Roseanne Roseannadanna got a bum rap. People laughed when the late Gilda Radner’s alter ego said, “It’s always something.” But she was right, and if harried country dwellers weren’t so busy, they’d surely get together and elect the hapless broadcaster their patron saint.

Take our family, for example. Lately, life feels like one calamity after another. Granted, much of the chaos has been around family health issues that rendered three of the four of us immobile at one time or another. I’m practically on a first-name basis with the hospital staff and my pharmacist has jumped to the next income tax bracket on our business alone. So I really don’t need any more upsets in my life.

Add to that the fact that I’m married to the world’s most fearless do-it-your-selfer, and you may get a hint of the chaos in which I live.

Our house is “getting on,” and it feels like we’ve been renovating constantly for the past two years. Last year it was the main bathroom, then the deck. He drained our pool and began excavating around it to convert it into a pond, complete with bridge and water wheel. Last month, he removed our carpets and installed new flooring, then ripped out and rebuilt our staircases.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the fact that he’s willing and able to tackle so much, but so many projects on the go can wear you down. It feels like every room in the house is serving as a tool shed, and we’ve lost all control of the inventory!

But back to my point in writing this diatribe. Once again, there is critical illness in our home. This time my loved ones are all fine, but the health of my furnace is a whole different story.

Here I am, on a country road, open to acres and acres of farmers’ fields on three sides, and going through one of the coldest winters I can remember, and my furnace has croaked. Granted, it’s been terminal for about a year now, but we’re firm believers in recussitation. It’s been on life support for a few winters now.

But on Friday morning, around 5A.M., it gave its death cry. It screamed in misery, broken metal clashing within, forcing my husband to disconnect its power and investigate. Diagnosis made, we began our search for a replacement part, only to find it no longer existed. Apparently electric furnaces get a head start on obsolescence.

Luckily, Mr. Fix-Everything-Somehow managed to do a makeshift repair so that we had heat by Saturday afternoon, before the temperature in the house could dip lower than fifteen degrees. But our squeaky, power-guzzling friend will have to go. Not that I’ll miss it. Last month’s hydro bill was over $800.00, due two weeks after receipt. Over a year, spending close to $4,000 on electricity is not unusual for us. That in a time of privatization. Very scary.

Of course, being in the country, we have no gas lines to access, so it looks like we’ll have to take the plunge and convert to propane. Ugly tank at the side of the house (which I hope to camouflage), and we’re promised lower bills. Spooks me a little though, despite reassurances from my husband. I can’t help but imagine riding high on a gigantic fireball one day.

It turns out we’re going to need the extra savings, too. Our old lawnmower/snowplow combo (which has recently received a “Junkyard Wars” rendition of a plexiglass and plastic enclosure) dropped dead yesterday before we could get our long, country driveway cleared. The drifts are now past my knees.

Yeah, Roseanne Roseannadanna was a woman of great wisdom. It really is always something. Think she was a country girl?


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They say there’s no greater loss than that of a child. I know it’s true, for even though I never cradled my daughter in my arms, I held her within my womb for nine months, and she was as rooted to me as the organs which keep me alive. Losing her felt like a thief had reached into my belly and ripped her away while I slept.  Even now, thirty-three years later, those memories make me ache inside. We were joined, and now she is gone.

There is another loss that while different, can be nearly as difficult to withstand. It can shock us in its intensity. It is the death of a parent, the person to whom we’ve been connected since birth. Without them, our identity is altered. We are no longer someone’s child. That part of us, the part that still yearns for nurturing from the person who helped give us life, is now rootless, left to flounder.

I have lived that loss. Ten years ago, my mother’s death sent me into a slow-motion freefall. And now, knowing how difficult that loss was, staring at my eighty-two year old father’s mortality terrifies me. I can’t imagine a life without him in it, but his age is a constant reminder of that eventuality. 

This week, a medical emergency made the possiblity of losing him all too real. A decision has been made. Four days from now, he will undergo an above-the-knee amputation of his left leg. The choice is his, necessary to end the agony of poor circulation. Left as it is, it will eventually kill him.

He is pragmatic. Amputation is a means to an end, something that cannot be avoided. He self-talks and is quickly able to put the situation into perspective. “Don’t pity me,” he says. “It could be worse. I could be blind, or dying of cancer.”

On the night he accepts the diagnosis and makes the decision, he suggests we stop for dinner. He orders a large meal, charms the pretty waitress, leaves the fried potatoes because they aren’t healthy – all as if nothing has changed. His greatest concern is that his family will worry, so he makes jokes to ease the tension. He calls my sister, miles away and unable to be by his side, and says “Don’t think this means I can’t still kick your butt.” He tells another that soon, he will “hop down for a visit.”

My siblings and I send emails back and forth each day, discussing possibilities, passing on his latest joke, all of us in awe of his neverending optimism and courage while facing a life-changing operation. We call him our hero. Each day, his actions remind us how to live. As long as his indestructable spirit is evident, we can hold onto the belief that nothing can hurt him.

His strength is our strength, his joy in life our joy, and none of us are ready to let that go.

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When there’s the possibility of a crisis ahead, we heed the caution signs and square our shoulders to brace for what awaits. Possibilities run through our mind, but they are fleeting. We avert our eyes rather than see the dangers in their entirety. To do so will give them life. We’ve named them, and for now, that is enough.

Fools that we are, we tell ourselves that we are prepared. We aren’t. Recognizing all there is to the danger, looking it squarely in the eye, will always bring a time of stunned silence: that slow-motion sequence where our feet feel leaden and our brains thick with sludge.

I am there now but I will not be there tomorrow. That is when I will write.

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I am getting old. A sure sign is that in the midst of the current global economic crisis, I find myself dwelling on memories from our last recession. Details that I haven’t thought about in over twenty years now feel like yesterday. Somehow, those reflections act as a comfort, a testament to our strength. If we overcame obstacles then, surely we can do it again.


Seeing things through these rose-coloured glasses helps keep my panic at bay. The reality, though, is that not everyone and everything will survive an economic downturn like this. There are businesses that will never reopen; people who will never own another home;  some who will never work again. And there are others whose mental and emotional state may always remain fragile.


I wonder about someone like Ludmilla.


 The Czechoslovakian Doctor

In the early 80’s, Canada was knee-deep in a recession, and unemployment was the highest it had been in decades. As a result, all levels of government allotted short-term grants to aid the unemployed in their job search and thereby alleviate the drain on their welfare coffers. An unusual set of circumstances resulted in me working as such a counsellor, and it was there that I met Ludmilla. She had been a young doctor in Czechoslovakia. It is so long now that I have forgotten her last name. When the Communists took over, she eventually realized she had to leave. With her elderly mother in tow, she immigrated to Canada in the hope of starting a practice here.

It was not to be. Year after year she worked to improve her English and tirelessly applied for any medical position, even lab work. Her mother’s health, always frail, grew worse, and the doctor herself became less stable.

When I met her she would have been in her early forties. The welfare office had referred her to us, and it was our job to help her find work. Hands shaky, hair dishevelled, her appearance gave no hint of the near-genius she once had been. I agonized over her fate as I tried to make sense of the documents she spread over my desk.

She came to our offices almost daily to read the want ads, use the phones, or just get some much-needed emotional support. We struggled to piece together a resume that might get her work in a medical-related field, but in truth, I knew the chances were slim. Each day, Ludmilla seemed more and more desperate.

The week before Christmas, she dropped into the office, and in broken English, invited us to her home later in the week. Crossing the line from “professional to personal” was discouraged, but her invitation was so unexpected that we had no time to invent a believable excuse for turning it down. So we agreed, and on the Friday before Christmas, we left to visit her.

We had difficulty finding her home at first, not realizing that the makeshift structure we were looking at was an actual dwelling. We knew beforehand that Ludmilla lived at the back of a beauty parlour, but it turned out to be not part of the same building. Instead, it was a one-room addition that clung to the main structure haphazardly. It leaned like an after-thought, the floor sloped.

Inside there was a bed, a table and two wooden chairs. They cooked on a hotplate, and shared the bathroom down the hall with the beauty parlour patrons. Their room was piled high with boxes; atop those were what seemed hundreds of books.

There were five of us, the mother, the daughter and we three guests. Two sat on chairs, the others on the bed as we exchanged awkward pleasantries. The mother spoke no English. She smiled as she prepared food for us: tea and small digestive cookies. It was lunchtime and we were hungry, but I found it hard to swallow. I wondered what hardship they had suffered in order to buy those biscuits. Conversation was difficult as we tried not to stare at the signs of their poverty. Everything they owned was in this tiny room.

Atop their old dresser was a small artificial Christmas tree, modestly decorated with some shiny trinkets. As I left, she took six tiny silver snowflakes from the tree and pressed them into my hand. I have them to this day.

Once, she had been a doctor.

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A little girl, soft and delicate,
visited today.
She twisted her curls
and chased my cats.
Her tiny voice tugged
at my resisting heart
and opened the wound left by Emily;
and now, as if it were yesterday,
I cannot sleep.

Years ago,
on warm September nights like this,
I lay awake,
counting kicks and dreaming
of a dark-haired child,
dimpled and velvet-skinned;
of baby giggles
and tiny arms
wrapped tight around my neck.

She would listen, wide-eyed,
to stories of princesses and magic
and tell me secrets.
She’d want high heels too early,
and like boys too soon;
and I would love Emily

Just like yesterday,
I am awake,
sitting cross-legged
on a hospital bed,
my arms wrapped tight
across my belly;
rocking to life,
willing to live,
but feeling no sign,
no kick from the tiny foot
pressed against
my aching rib.

Just like yesterday,
the scream is still
caught in my throat
as my doctors escape
in hospital routines
to avoid my eyes.
A nurse offers tea
and sits with me
through the long night vigil.

Just like yesterday,
my husband tells me
later that they let him hold her;
that she was perfect.
Ten fingers, ten toes,
her skin as soft as air
her hair dark,
her tiny nose upturned.
But I have never seen her,
will never hear her gentle breathing,
her cry, her giggles.

Will never hold her.

Part of me dies forever,
and today is
just like yesterday.

In memory of our daughter, Emily Potts, November 21, 1975.

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img_0881-smaller2Last year, my husband began the long processs of converting our sixteen by thirty-two foot inground pool into a pond. He’s an ambitious, highly creative type, and it was one of three or four projects he had on the go at the time. It turned out to be a challenge in ways we never anticipated.

He drained the pool then he cut its metal walls down to half their height. He built a replica of a mill, complete with board and batten, and next to it, a water wheel, lovingly crafted to perfect scale. Using the old pool pump for power, he planned the flow of water. When completed, the pump would push water up and over the wheel, causing it to turn, and creating a gentle waterfall at one end of the pond.

This year, we planned to fill some of the old pool with dirt so that the pond would be a more manageable size. But dirt, is, well, anything but “dirt cheap,” and for a while now, we’ve been weathering a serious downturn in our finances. My husband’s been a victim of the snowballing automotive sector disaster, and the past five years have been challenging. But he’s an optimist. He was convinced that living out in the country, he would sooner or later find a road crew wanting to get rid of dirt rather than drive it all the way back to the dump.

He didn’t need to wait long. In June of this year, he made arrangements with a crew to drop dirt into our driveway. He asked for two or three loads. The crew chief said “How about four?” My husband’s first thought was “Sure. More can only be better.” You can guess the rest.

Unfortunately, he was busy when they finally came to make their delivery. If he’d been watching, he could have stopped them, but they were gone before he could react. Stretching the entire width of our double driveway, for a good seventy-five feet, were five loads of dirt, each at least four feet deep.

I’m sure the road crew must have laughed all the way home.

Now came the job of trying to move the dirt, which turned out to be more clay and asphalt than anything else. It would need to go from the driveway, around the side of the house and several trees, and into the “soon-to-be” pond, a distance of probably a hundred and fifty feet.

If the weather had been perfect all summer, it would have been different. If my two sons were living at home and able to help, it may have even been possible. But it rained nearly every night, and the sun baked the clay dry each day. It soon became nearly as hard as rock. And then, one month later, my husband, working as a renovator while out of his regular employment, had an accident. He fell from a ladder. There’s more. He fell from the top rung of a ladder while stretching up to do something much higher. Wait. I’m not done. The ladder was on top of a fourteen feet scaffold.

Miraculously, he landed on his feet, and although he had no serious injuries, soft tissue damage in one foot made walking difficult. The dirt in our driveway sat and sat, much like a great crusty old dragon, mocking us. It was, to say the least, an embarassment.

After all, he’d asked the road crew for the dirt to save money. Now, we were doubly short of cash because not only was he was injured and unable to work as much, but we’d have to pay someone to come in and move the mess. In the end, the irony is that it would have been cheaper to order and pay for dirt from a landscaper!

I was not amused, and my husband spent a lot of time cursing his lack of attention as the road crew dumped the gigantic load. September came, and October, and the dirt remained there. Then one afternoon a stranger came to our door. “Do you want all of that dirt?” he asked. I rolled my eyes and explained the situation to him. ‘I don’t want the dirt for myself,” he said, “but I’ve been driving by here all summer, and every time I pass I look at the dirt and think that the guy who lives here must not be able to move it. No one could do it by himnself.”  

Then he told me that he and his family were renting a home at the next crossroad, and that he had use of his neighbour’s tractor. If we would tell him where we wanted the dirt, he’d move it for us.

I was flabbergasted.

And so it began. Over the next two weeks, he came several times. He always brought his little girl with him. She and I chatted while he scooped the rock-hard clay up and manoevred his way around the willow and spruce trees to the backyard pond. I told her that her father was very kind to help us this way. Honest as only kids can be, she answered, ” Yeah, but I think he really just likes to drive that big tractor.”

A few times, he came only to learn that the ground was too wet and soft. Immediately, the tractor’s wheels would sink and make deep ruts. He’d leave and come back again a day or two later, when it was drier. We’d be out running errands, and return to discover he’d cleared even more away.

Through it all, he never stopped smiling.

If he had been so kind at any ordinary time in our lives, we would have been touched. But coming at a time when our spirits have been low and we’ve often felt isolated by employment and financial woes, his kindness held even greater importance for us. It reminded us that most people are inherently good; that a simple unexpected kindness can mean more than any material offering. It assured us that it was alright to feel humbled, to be the one graciously receiving a stranger’s offering rather than always being the ones to give.

He likely had no idea that his gesture held such significance for us. We, in turn, gave a card of thanks, carefully worded, and in it, a gift certificate for dinner. Both pale in comparison to the gratitude we felt at a stranger’s unexpected kindness.

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On days when I’ve had no time for new writing, I’ll post the occasional older piece. This is something written for fun a couple of years ago. The speaker is Marion Cormier, a fictional character from a previous story I wrote called “It’s in the Stars.” Marion is a no-nonsense, salt-of-the-earth woman from Prince Edward Island, and in this discourse, she’s venting her frustration over what she sees as my lack of ambition and discipline.


Have you ever watched someone dilly-daddle for so long that you were ready to jump up and give them a damned good shake? I go through that most every day, but all I can do is grind my teeth and roll my eyes. I’m trapped, knee-deep in my creator’s hard drive, and it’s frustrating as hell. Fact is, she drives me crazy, floating along and letting every little breeze send her in a whole different direction.

Girl, don’t you know that you gotta pick a course and stay on it if you ever wanna get somewhere in this world?

She doesn’t hear me. Not sure she wants to, if truth be told.

She’s ‘bout my age, nearly as well-preserved as me. Not bad-looking either. She owns a cheap mirror that takes a good twenty pounds off her frame, and without her bifocals, she can’t see the little lines that others can, the ones that are just starting to appear. I think she refuses to even think about getting long in the tooth.

Lord knows I understand how that can happen. Gosh, nothing’s a bigger blow to a girl’s ego than the first time you lean sideways and realize the skin on your cheek seems to have left the bone.

But my creator’s going through life like she’s got forever – like she’s stuck at forty and still has plenty of time to become some kinda famous writer. She doesn’t. Something tells me if she looked reality square in the eye, saw that her life is moving along lickety-split without her accomplishing a whole hell of a lot, she’d be scared shitless. She’s living in a whole heap of denial.

You know, down deep I know there must be some of my feistiness in her, that we’re more alike than she wants to admit. After all, how’d she come up with a character like me if that weren’t the case? How’d she know that there are women like me who can’t resist the twinkle in a man’s eye? Don’t matter whether he’s a teenager old hawking overpriced chocolates at my door or a salt-and-peppered hunk of a guy with thirty years of lovin’ experience under his belt, if you know what I mean.

Heck, she wrote me in the blink of an eye, words coming as easily to her as breathing. I was under her skin, hidden ‘neath that proper veneer she learned from the other women in her life – the ones that came before me, the ones who told her “nice girls don’t” and all that other bullshit. I was bursting to come out of her like the sweat that beads up when the humidity rises. You know what I mean? You can’t do nothing ‘bout that kind of release, the kind that seeps from your pores even when you’re trying so hard to stay cool.

So, my point is, (forgive me if I’m goin’ in circles here but I do that when I’m steamed), she knew me then like she knew the palm of her own hand, so why the hell can’t she live like me, and do something for herself? Why can’t she admit there’s something inside her just dying to spring free and fly?

Okay, so maybe that’s not fair. Once in a while she does reach for her dream, but then her motor starts to sputter and she’s stalled on the “on ramp” all over again. It really gets me pissed that she’s not single-minded enough to stick to what she says she cares about.

Problem is, she sells out; I don’t.

You know, there was a time I followed the town heartthrob half way across the province, but when I found him and Stella Blanchard canoodlin’ behind the Tasty Treat, I knew enough to turn around and hightail it back to single living again. I never sold out on my dream of snaring a good, faithful man. Far as I’m concerned my creator just doesn’t seem to have the same sense.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggestin’’ she should leave her husband. The stars must’ve been shining on her when she met him ‘cause he still treats her like she’s Cleopatra or something. Damn, I could use someone like that.

No, what I mean is she gets all fired up ‘bout her writing, then lets every bloody little thing distract her. She goes from the computer to the laundry room to the day’s newspaper to the telephone and then to the soap operas. Now, don’t get me wrong. Some of those guys on those soaps set my heart a-flutter just lookin’ at them, and I sure can understand why any red-blooded woman might find herself lost in a little daytime fantasy. But once the credits start to run, you think she’d go back to her writing, right? No way, Jose! Then she starts playing some bloody computer solitaire game that gives me a headache every time I try to follow it.

Then sure as naught, her afternoon’s kaput and she’s getting ready to go out somewhere, fixing her make-up and primping even if she’s just headin’ out to the grocery store. See, that’s another way I know we’re kin. Like me, she always tries to look her best, and isn’t adverse to helping mother nature a little on her way.

I’ve heard those fancy television psychologists talk about fear of success. Makes no sense to me, ‘cause I figure failure’s a damn sight worse. But if there’s ever such a thing as being scared of both of ‘em, I know where Dr. Phil’s can find his first patient.

She’s my creator, a middle-aged woman who says she says she wants to be a writer. On good days, she shouts it, but other times it’s barely a whisper. Though she’s dear to my heart, there are plenty of times I wish I could just pry my foot off this page and kick her where the sun don’t shine!

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We tend towards being headstrong in my family. In fact, one of my sisters, angry at my mother, once threatened to run away. She was no more than six or seven at the time.

Parenting methods were tough back then and my mother called her bluff. She found a bag and helped my sister pack. My mother walked her to the door and my sister broke down in tears. She learned a lesson. From that point, she realized she didn’t want to leave home. Unfortunately, she took something else from the experience: her perception, then at least, that my mother didn’t care if she left.

As parents, we’ve all been tempted to do exactly what my mother did at least once or twice. That temptation can be overwhelming once our children become teenagers and start challenging house rules on a regular basis. But if we help our child “pack,” are we prepared to deal with the possible consequences?

Yesterday, in Barrie, Ontario, Steve and Angelika Crisp, along with two thousand other mourners, gathered to honour the life of their fifteen year-old son, Brandon. Their sorrow was mirrored elsewhere in Canada, by people who never knew Brandon or his family, but who had agonized with them, and prayed for his safe return. 

He’d been gone since Thanksgiving weekend, when his ongoing obsession with a particular Xbox game became the focus of a heated family argument. The Xbox was taken away, and Brandon became furious. He said he was leaving and never coming back. His dad, certain that Brandon would be home before dark, helped him pack.

Steve and Angelika Crisp never saw their son alive again.

The search for Brandon was extensive and lasted thirty days. People by the hundreds volunteered to search on foot. Helicopters and canine units scoured the area. Every day there was news of another possible sighting, but each lead went nowhere. The media shouted his disappearance in every way they could. Even “America’s Most Wanted” took up the cause. All this while his friends and family held their collective breath, and prayed.

On November 5, Brandon was finally found. Not the victim of foul play as was suspected, he likely died from a fall. His body was discovered in a forested area just a few kilometres from his home. It was a tragic end to the month long search for the young runaway.

No one’s fault, of course. Nothing that could ever have been predicted. Children and teenagers threaten to leave home all the time, and ninety-nine percent of them remember to return for dinner. But for Brandon Crisp’s parents, those odds don’t matter, and therein lies the tragedy.

My heart breaks for them.

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Yesterday was my youngest brother’s birthday. He turned forty-one.

I was sixteen, the eldest of five girls and one boy, when my mother announced she was pregnant again. I was mortified. Sure, we were Catholic, and I knew that made artificial methods of birth control taboo, but really, another child at her age? She was thirty-six years old! Didn’t she know when to stop?

In case that slid by you, let me say it again. She was thirty-six years old! In 1967, that meant you should be knitting baby clothes for the grandchild that might arrive in a year or too, not for your own!

How things have changed. I have friends whose first child wasn’t born until they were in their late-thirties; others still actively trying to conceive after the age of forty-five. I know young men and women who are still in school until thirty, who at thirty-five still aren’t settled into careers.

And then there’s me. Fifty-seven years old and in serious denial. Fashion magazines, towered haphazardly in a corner of my office, keep me abreast of the latest trends. After all, it wouldn’t do to dress like A matron. My wall mirror mercifully makes me look twenty pounds thinner. Without the help of bifocals to magnify my every facial flaw, I can apply make-up and believe I look as good as I did twenty years ago.

Yeah, I’m in denial alright.

Of course, standing up from my office chair slams me right back to reality. My  creaking knees and myriad of other chronic complaints don’t belong to someone in their thirties. They’re all part of the mosaic that’s created this “middle-aged me,” someone one who could never imagine having to raise a young teenager right now, and the same person who once moaned “Mom, don’t you don’t when it’s time to stop?”

Actually, I’m glad she didn’t. I rather like my “little” brother.

Happy Belated Birthday, Jeff!

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Lately, my writing life seems to be floundering. Ideas come to me, but so far into the night that they remain unwritten. During the day, my mind is dizzy with a million different distractions. Thoughts flutter inside my head like butterflies caged in jars. Keep them inside too long and they forget how to fly.

I need to go back to what started this decade of writing. Like so many good things in life, it was born of difficulty. Do we grow at all if our lives are smooth journeys?

My first piece of published writing happened almost by default, like so many things in my life. It was 1998 and Ontario was knee-deep in the “Common Sense Revolution,” Conservative Premier Mike Harris’ brainchild. I was a teacher, and his “revolution” was making me and thousands of other teachers sick. I was also dealing with stressful personal issues, among them the long illness and death of my mother, and when it came time to return to work following my bereavement time, I couldn’t do it.

Five months later, I decided to leave teaching permanently rather than return to the school system that the Common Sense Revolution had created. The decision scared me. I was a forty-eight year old wife and mother, with my share of a household to support. Leaving the teaching profession would leave a huge void in my life. But I was also angry and disillusioned, and I wanted people to know why I felt it necessary to resign. People needed to learn what was going on in Ontario schools.

My campaign started with a letter to the Toronto Star entitled “Time to Quit the Classroom,” and it was published on March 11, 1999. My letter of resignation was sent the same day. I received my first payment for an article and began calling myself a writer. But did I know what that really meant or what I wanted to write? Not a chance. I couldn’t even tell if I had a smigdgen of talent. But leaving the safety of the classroom, it was all I had left to hang onto. I’ve been hanging by my fingertips ever since.

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