Living “As If”

The Green Study will return to posting on March 8th, 2015.

Thank you to the new readers and commenters who arrived at The Green Study through the Freshly Pressed post Time Travel on Facebook. Sit back, lower your expectations and let’s get to know each other. Or not. I’m not good at small talk. Maybe I should just get back to writing. 

canstockphoto1697101It might have been the two rice and bean burritos that I ate for breakfast. Or the Netflix bender that lasted a couple of hours, watching “The IT Crowd” – a show I’ve been through at least twice already. Maybe it was the fact that I woke up thinking “I’ll never do anything exciting in my life again” or that I wondered if I was dying because everything ached.

Whatever it was, I was ready to throw in the towel yesterday, prepared to sink into a miserable pool of gluttony and self-pity. But I’ve been here before. I know the ending. I’d be filled with recrimination which would fuel several days of deprivation, punishing exercise and a regimented schedule that usually included some pious volunteering, structured writing times and no burritos.

Over thcanstockphoto10115026e weekend, I’d resolved to do some winnowing of my book collection, which was starting to overflow in unstable stacks about the study. I ran across Book in a Month by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. I’d purchased it in 2012 to get some support during National Novel Writing Month. It still had that new book smell. I flopped in my chair and started flipping through it. At the beginning, the author lists secrets to writing a book in a month.

The first secret was to Work “As If”. In summary, when writing, you should take notes of things that need to be changed, but write from that point forward as if those changes had already been done. This keeps you moving forward without getting hung up on the editing. If your character’s name was supposed to be Luigi and you called him Bob, you wrote him as Luigi from that point forward.

I’ll likely implement that idea while working on my book, but it occurred to me that this might be a technique that would work in other areas. What if I went about the rest of my day as if I were productive and energetic? What if I went about my day as if I’d eaten a nutritious breakfast, spent a couple of hours writing, doing yoga,  and getting things done. What if, from that point on, I functioned as if I hadn’t been a sloth?

So, I went to the gym, editing out the doomsayers of feeling good – guilt and self-loathing. I was a tad slothful, but moving. Then I came home, wrote for a couple of hours, cleaned the house, made dinner, did some reading. My deep and erudite thought was “Now THAT is how you pull your day out of the crapper.”

canstockphoto1323495Today I’m going to live as if I’m a writer who needs to get this novel done. That being said, I’m going to do what I often do after a post gets a lot of traffic and I’ve had loads of interaction with humans. I’m taking a break for the next couple of weeks from blogging. It’s an introvert thing. I’ll be back when US Daylight Savings Time screws us out of an hour in the midwest.

Thanks again to the generous readers and commenters. Welcome to the new subscribed readers. It’s lovely to meet you and I look forward to more conversation!

Until I return, I’ve put together a list of posts that I enjoyed writing and that will give you a pretty good idea if you want to keep following along or run away as fast as your fingers will type you:

The Green Study: Have We Met?

Will the Real Blogger Please Step Forward?

Love is Not Smothering…with a Pillow

Snipe Hunting for Writers

Boundaries and the Huggy Sunshine People

From Chicken to Merely Insufferable

She Knows Nothing…But She Should Know Something

Don’t Forget Me When I’m Gone

Being Just Right

Kicking Your Mom

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The Reader’s Delight: Being There

canstockphoto8858462As a reader, I am inexcusably fast. I say inexcusably, because as a writer I am learning the value of words, syntax, rhythm – the deliberate choices one must make while telling a story. Those details matter and they should matter to me as a reader.

One of my blogging friends, Bill over at pinklightsabre’s blog had referenced one of his favorite books several times, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. Despite my voracious and eclectic reading habits, I’ve never read anything by Joyce and decided that it was time. I’m only 40 pages in and I started reading it four days ago, an hour at a time. It’s slow going. Normally, I can put a book away in four days.

canstockphoto2445398I’ve been stuck on re-writes for my own first novel, never gaining traction on the kind of writing I know I’m capable of – the frustration of knowing the story, knowing what it could be and never feeling that it will get there. So I flopped in my reading chair with Joyce, bathed by illusory sunlight. I say illusory because it’s -6°F/-21ºC with a windchill 18 degrees colder. Even the cats don’t find warmth on the window seat.

What Mr. Joyce does in a page, even a paragraph, puts my novel to shame. I’ve taken to keeping a notebook and pen next to me while reading. I’ve re-read several passages over and over, unwilling to move on until I figure out the puzzle. How did he do that? How did he put me so easily inside a child’s mind, shivering and homesick? How did he switch back and forth from imaginary scenes to reality, between past and present?

It’s been a long time since I’ve had to work at reading. The last time was with Toni Morrison’s Beloved. These are not quick reads, because the devil is in not absorbing the details, of not sticking with the shifts in perspective and time. It’s easy to get lost.

I tend to write without frills. There isn’t an adjective I fear striking through or a very, really, so that doesn’t get deleted. But I see the problem with brevity. Yes, I’ve communicated a story and yes, the reader wants to know what happened, but I haven’t brought them through the looking-glass. I end up writing a news story, not creating a world.

canstockphoto10595770Today, I put down Joyce’s novel and sat silently, feeling rather emotional. I’d forgotten one of the most basic joys of reading – being there. My comfortable chair in the sunlight disappeared. I was in a boys’ dormitory. It was dank, dark, miserably chilling. I missed home. I was scared of the dark and the lurking shapes and eyes imagined. I was no longer inside my own head.

While a good writer is capable of transporting us, taking us out of ourselves and away from our mundane lives, there is little he or she can do if, as a reader, I don’t take the time to absorb the story. As a writer, it’s natural that my writing would suffer in the details, if I don’t notice them while reading.

For all my desire to write fiction, I read a preponderance of nonfiction. And I feel the effects rather acutely while working on the novel. I’m not sure when it happened, but I began to read to acquire information and not for the sheer pleasure of reading.

On this brittle day, when cabin fever is at its February peak, James Joyce reminded me of the passion that put me on the writing path in the first place – getting lost in a world entirely not my own.

Books about Reading and Writing:

Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose (seriously, how perfect a name is that?)

Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments by Michael Dirda

What book left an indelible impression on you?

What’s on your wish list to read?

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In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Things that Stick

canstockphoto8541895I woke up this morning thinking of Delmore Schwartz.  I had been dreaming that I was starting college again, right after the Army. I was still in uniform, but I couldn’t find my duffle bag in the dorm. I wandered around a lot, met someone at a bar and spent a good portion of my dream signing random forms for people. The words that occurred to me when I woke up were In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, the title of a short story written by the aforementioned Mr. Schwartz.

Delmore Schwartz died a year before I was born. He had a heart attack on a stranger’s doorstep at the age of 52. It took several days before someone claimed the body. Having suffered from a mental illness for a couple of decades, this shining, intellectual poet and short story writer faded to relative obscurity. Lou Reed was a student, Robert Lowell a friend, Saul Bellow a protégé – all of whom wrote in tribute to him.

That particular phrase, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, so imprecise, but weighty with meaning, will stay in my head for as long as I have cognitive abilities. It joins a collection of stories, phrases and poems that have resonated with me throughout the years. But I am a tad indiscriminate about what sinks in and stays. Let’s take a little tour through the archives.

  • There is a poem by William Wordsworth, “I wandered lonely as a cloud” and W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming“.
  • A quote about opera from the movie Pretty Woman (Cinderella as prostitute): “People’s reactions to opera the first time they see it is very dramatic; they either love it or they hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If they don’t, they may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become part of their soul.”
  • A bumper sticker:  “Jesus loves you, but I think you’re an asshole”
  • There’s all the lyrics to “At the Zoo” by Simon and Garfunkel, as well as “The MTA” by The Kingston Trio.
  • A quote by Chinua Achebe: “If you don’t like someone’s story, write your own.”
  • Most of the obscure references from anything written by Douglas Adams,  from the BBC series Red Dwarf and a good chunk of the dialogue from “Shirley Valentine”.

I sometimes wish I were more high minded. I wish I could retain literature and quotes that could be whipped out at an Algonquin Table gathering. When I’ve read accounts from POWs and concentration camp prisoners, they seem to be able to recollect poetry and literature and music while imprisoned.

One of my Russian professors was able to talk for hours about every aspect of Russian culture – there was a sense of reverence for literature and music. When I was stationed in Germany, many of the Europeans I met were also this way.

canstockphoto3711301If I were ever a prisoner, would I be humming a Verizon commercial jingle, instead of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition? I suspect that I’ve not been a good curator for my brain and that is something that seems less tolerable as I get older.

What has stuck with you over the years? Are you ever baffled as to why one thing stays and other more literate, profound things drift away?

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A Green Study Valentine

canstockphoto3823102As much as I’ve been twisting in the wind lately here at The Green Study, I’ve decided to take a break from my wannabe writer hand-wringing to say thank you to the many lovely writers, readers, artists, poets, musicians, photographers and generous people who have read, liked and/or commented here over the last few years.

When a blog has been around awhile, sometimes hopping in with a comment feels like showing up at a party uninvited. People seem to know each other and you wonder if you need a special handshake to get in the door.

If there is any measure of pride to be had in blogging, I have it about the commenters here. They’re kind, generous, astute and some of them are very, very funny. If you’re new to blogging and feel some commenter anxiety, this is a great place to dip your toes in the water, contribute to the conversation and introduce yourself to other bloggers.

canstockphoto9909736Thank you to the following regular commenters, in no particular order: Ruth (I miss you!) at A New Beginning, Kirizar at The Dust Season, Outlier Babe at The Last Half, Bill at pinklightsabre, Ross at Drinking Tips for Teens, Sandy at A Mind Divided, Helen at Tiny Lessons Blog, Luanne at Writer Site, John at A Napper’s Companion, Belladonna Took at American Soustannie, Lyle at Krahnpix, Almost Iowa, Dave at 1pointperspective, Kathryn at Art-Colored Glasses, Fransi at 365 and Counting, Alison and Don at Adventures in Wonderland, Honie at HonieBriggs, transforminglifenow and Elyse at FiftyFourandAHalf.

I know there are some new readers who have started jumping in and I look forward to our continuing conversations.

I’m always looking around for blogs that inspire, teach or just make me laugh. Here are a few that I’ve enjoyed lately:

Math with Bad Drawings I found Ben’s blog through the Freshly Pressed page and have enjoyed his astute, often humorous observations about math, science and teaching. Lately his posts, such as “The Church of the Right Answer” have a lot to say about learning and life.

Tropics of Meta Another Freshly Pressed find. A collaborative effort that is absolute brain candy.

The Brown Road Chronicles Steve couldn’t quit us and we’re grateful. He’s back with a delightful and talented mix of writing and music and goat tales (maybe). And if you’re in the mood for love or something that might actually kill love where it stands, don’t miss his Valentine’s Day Song.

Alena Dillon Anyone who can write a book called I Thought We Agreed to Pee in the Ocean: And Other Amusings from a Girl Wearing Sweatpants is bound to be funny.canstockphoto5319068

It would be impossible for me to capture in one post all of the readers and commenters who have contributed here, but you make all the difference in the blogging experience and are greatly appreciated.

Thank you and have a lovely day!

And if you dislike this holiday as much as I, may it be one that passes quickly.

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My Dubious Unemployment as a Person of the Writing Persuasion

canstockphoto10583842Lately, as I’ve tried to rehabilitate my creative self from an addiction to rules, schedules and the right way of doing things, I’ve arrived at this particular tenet: Questions are more interesting than answers. As an illustration, let me take you on a guided tour of my brain while unemployed.

For most of my life, I’ve been highly organized, driven, disciplined and determined. Why, you ask, don’t I have a job now? Why haven’t I started my own business? Why don’t I pay people to scoop the litter boxes and sort the family laundry? Why haven’t I won any awards or invented something spectacular like the hair scrunchie from which I make millions from hawking it on QVC? Why am I, by most concrete and measurable standards, not a success?

It does seem highly suspect that I should attain a college degree and work for years, yet the high point of my week was getting free groceries at Whole Foods when all their registers went down (seriously, though, I scored organic produce!). I’m smart. I work hard. Shouldn’t I be running my own philanthropic foundation now because I invented a new mobile app call CrackShot, exhorting people to take advantage of other people’s low riding pants? What have I been doing wrong?

canstockphoto15362073Now before you start sending me memes about success not always being money, but rather hugs and rainbows of cute bunnies, let’s be frank. Or Betty or whoever you want to be. Regardless of whatever faux Eastern philosophy has been slapped onto a t-shirt or coffee mug or the bumper sticker on your Hummer, many of us were raised with rather concrete ideas of what success means.

On a good day, I’m filled with gratitude that I have food, clothing and a place to live. I’m grateful for a family that I like to be around. I’m glad that I have opportunities which I’ve never had before. I can appreciate a good cup of coffee. Gratitude good. I get it.

On a bad day, when my writing is shit and every word seems made up, I resent not having the power to punch someone in the face who irritates me and then being able to lawyer up and get away with it. canstockphoto22305059Power and money and freedom – that’s what the human world recognizes.

I’ve read so many articles about writers and their work, that if one more of them refers to their “craft”, I’m getting put away for punching them in the face. Let’s bring it down a notch, artistes.

I’ve also been annoyed lately when writers have written about being “sponsored” by their spouses. I’m not being sponsored by anyone. I won’t try to justify it by making up some salary stay-at-home moms cite in defense of their worth. If I ever get that defensive, I need to go back to work. But we live under our means so that we have choices and this is, as a family, our current choice.

My ass is back in an outside job as soon as my husband says “my turn now”. El Patron wants to work on his super server and I’m back working in an office for some kid named Ashton who makes me think of that bully in 3rd grade who took my bike. Don’t get on my bad side, Ashton. I’ll put you in a corner.

Where was I? Why aren’t I a success? Perhaps it is that my brain is like a pinball machine, ideas bouncing everywhere. I tried to explain the phrase Renaissance woman to my daughter the other day. I suspect that the expression on her face was very much like the one I had when she said she wanted to be a musician. Don’t get me wrong, I’m psyched about the kid’s ambition, but it looks like finishing that room in the basement was a good plan. She’ll need somewhere to live while she’s viola busking.

It’s taken me a long time to realize that my creative nature has been losing out to safety. It’s safe to keep working at my age. Re-entry is going to be humiliating. It’s safe to follow rules, to honor the social measures of success, to be able to answer the question “what do you do?” I always had an answer. It was uninteresting and predictable. There was no need to engage further.

canstockphoto18643787Now, I don’t have a concrete answer. What do I do? I speculate on paper. I ask a lot of questions. I follow the trail that leads to more questions. I loiter at the library. I watch the grocery clerk as she tries to manufacture perkiness. I have weird inclinations, like wanting to learn French folksong lyrics or how to do the pigeon yoga pose.

Yesterday, I sat back in my reading chair and spent half an hour watching a spider traverse the ceiling. I thought, ninja spider! and I wonder if he hates me because I killed his companion in the kitchen yesterday. Then I thought about a short story I wanted to write about revenge. Then I wrote. That’s what I do.canstockphoto7439490

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Time Travel on Facebook

canstockphoto19374534

I’ve written before about my aversion to some social media. Besides the conspicuous consumption of time, Facebook is how I found out that my best friend from 5th grade had lost the use of both her legs and arms in a car accident. Which led me to a search where I found out that another classmate and her brother were both dead in their early 40s. It was jarring and traumatic. These faces, frozen in my mind’s eye, were young and healthy and living happy lives in some far off world. Anything beyond that failed to reach my imagination.

When I was in my teens, we moved to a house, town and school far away from where I’d grown up. It was, in reality, only about 40 miles away, but rural miles. No public transportation or extra family car or cell phone plans to keep in touch with old friends. We wrote letters. It seems quaint now, as if we’d moved by covered wagon.

The year before the move, on a parental whim, I had been pulled from the public school where I’d been since Kindergarten and plopped into a church school, where, as a girl, I was not allowed to wear pants with pockets. The culture shock led to a series of uncharacteristic pranks and mild hooliganism, including pouring unholy amounts of pepper into the school’s soup and some minor brawling during flag football. It was the same year in which the pastor of the church got caught embezzling and a teacher at the school molested my best friend. The following summer, we moved.

The student population at the new school was drawn from four rural towns and still my eighth grade class only had some 50 students. I settled in awkwardly, made friends at the fringes and envied the popular kids. With a deteriorating home situation, I got involved in everything: track, editor of the school paper, speech, plays, musicals, band, choir. I felt like a constant outsider, but pictures of my unwieldy teenage self are sprinkled liberally about yearbooks.

I worked, bought a car, started to drink, got high a few times, and went to frat parties in the nearest college town. Wherever I was, I felt, as so many teenagers do, that I did not belong. I had two best friends, one who was a parent’s dream and another, two steps from rehab and/or juvie. The three of us didn’t hang out together. I led distinctly separate lives. One had me competing in band and speech contests, the other got me acquainted with the police in two cities.

canstockphoto23898647At home, being tuned into every vibration of other people’s moods was self-preservation. It could mean the difference between being screamed at and hit or currying favor at just the right moment so that I could hang out with a friend. Sometimes it meant determining whether or not I would sleep in my bed or if the five of us, my mom, two brothers and sister would be staying in a dingy hotel room that night.

Living on eggshells and developing survival empathy made me weird. Other people became cults of personality in my head. I watched and listened keenly to what they liked and didn’t like, who their crush of the week was, what they wore and how they walked. I wanted to be them, but they seemed like these marvelous, otherworldly creatures to me – ethereal and unreachable. I was small.

It’s a particular kind of body schema to look out at the world, seeing and admiring other humans as big and important and full of life. It took me well into my late twenties to gain perspective in that rear view mirror, and years of living alone to step into my own life and take up space.

Which brings me to the other people. There were two friends. I have a picture of them together in front of the place where we all worked during the summer. They’re pretty girls with stylish hair and clothes I could never afford. Clear skin, beautiful eyes, casual in their bodies, bodies that had been admired and felt up by boys who I had revolving crushes on. In my eyes, they had and were everything.

Our junior year, they were driving home from a game on one of those winding rural highways, cut into the earth, the pavement laid out four inches higher than the gravel. The driver over-adjusted when the tire slipped off the edge of the road. The car flipped and rolled, sending the two girls through the windshield. One of them died.

Teenagers grieve loudly and visibly or they shutter themselves in dark corners and write bad poetry. We mourned that whole year, gossiping in righteous indignation when the dead girl’s boyfriend began to date someone new. By the next year, life had found a semblance of normal. The friend who lived was still enviable, made more alluring by her survival of a tragic accident.

In a story of fiction, she’d go on to live a happy life, a joyful existence in honor of her friend, never forgotten. In real life, she was dead at 41 from cancer, leaving behind several children. A few years later, her older brother, the quarterback with a quiet smile and gentle demeanor, was crushed to death by industrial equipment.

canstockphoto14061639If I ever needed a reason to read and write stories, it is this: they explode the moments, magnify the minutiae and put some meat on the bones of our lives. Between youth and endings, tragic or not, we are more than our milestones, births, marriages, deaths. These lives, so full of promise, take up space. To see only the milestones and the end of their story has all the depth of a deflated balloon. I missed all the meaning in the middle and it feels like cheap voyeurism.

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Blogging and Me: Three Years Later and Seven Lessons In

The Writing WallThree years ago yesterday I typed my first post called Climbing the Wall. It was a little 488 word ditty about starting something new. My public writing had always been confined to my high school paper or departmental newsletters. I once had a poem published in a town paper and that still remains the height of my writing career. I was 10.

canstockphoto7296234This is all to say that the first post felt like a very big deal. I didn’t really understand blogging or the fact that there were a million people like me doing the exact same thing, shooting off their words into an echo chamber. With trepidation and anxiety, I hit the Publish button. And then nothing happened.

Three years and 259 blog posts later, here is what I’ve learned about blogging and about myself as a blogger:

Blogging, Inc. is not my thing. I’ve gone several rounds with myself over the notion that I’m a blogger or a writer who blogs or a blogger who is in denial about what kind of writing I need to be doing. If you’re setting out to be a blogger, to monetize or to just feel super special, there are a thousand and one articles about how to do this. It’s a shell game of deciding whether to value quality over quantity, or to be a writer or a click-baiter. I’m sure there’s a few people who manage to do it all, but I’m not one of them.

You wanted to click it, didn't you?

You wanted to click it, didn’t you?

Freedom isn’t free. I hate advertising and have paid to avoid imposing it upon others. Financially this makes no sense, since this is not a moneymaking venture. But neither did buying cross country skis or material for that quilt I never finished. In this context, blogging is a hobby and I pay to make it more enjoyable for myself and for the readers. I’ve learned to rationalize this very well, don’t you think?

There’s no accounting for taste. WordPress has put me on their Freshly Pressed page 4 times since I started and that was pretty cool. The slow build towards readership would have been more lengthy without it, so I am grateful. What has appealed to the WordPress editors and to readers in general on this blog baffles me at times. Not being niche-oriented means that for any one reader, this blog is a hit-and-miss venture. Just me yakking at the wind.

How to walk the fine line between self-aggrandizement and an authentic voice. I occasionally repulse myself with some indulgent piece that comes off like a privileged whine. Reading a wide variety of blogs has made me incredibly self-conscious about being a white middle class middle aged woman in the United States. I wasn’t always middle class and barely qualified for womanhood, but my awareness that there are people whose daily lives are a nightmarish struggle means that I write with an evolving acuity. The flip side of this is that all experiences are valid and to deny one’s perspective is something akin to a lie of omission.

canstockphoto15632754I prefer conversation to controversy. I argue with myself regularly about mediocrity and sometimes mistake the lack of “hot” topics on my post list as a sign that I’m a lame middle-of-the-road human and at best, a slightly competent writer who has nothing to say. The bottom line is that I’m circumspect in real life and don’t believe in easy answers.  Sometimes I admire the phrases “staunch supporter” or “biggest fan”, but I could never imagine being either. There are no heroes or villains. There are humans who do amazing or awful things. We are all fallible and, on occasion, completely wrong. And it turns out, that includes me.

Grammar and punctuation matter.  I’ve gone back to the books on this one. Up until the last year or so, I’ve been an intuitive writer. I’m a heavy reader and I have an eye for misspellings and typos, but sentence structure tends to elude me. I focus on rhythm and flow, and I’m acutely aware that I regularly break rules. As a reader, I find that mistakes in writing can be very disruptive to the flow.

While I generally recognize good writing, I can’t tell you why or what I need to do to get there myself (sort of like the old porn Supreme Court misquote “You’ll know it when you see it” deal). Alert: This is the only place on the planet where an envy of English majors will be expressed. And I really need to learn how the hell to use a semi-colon. And not for an emoticon.

People are just as delightful/annoying/smart/obstreperous online as they are offline. There is plenty of argument that anonymity has given a piñata bat to people who come outcanstockphoto22418900 wildly swinging based on 140 characters or a post tag. My guess is that they’re likely that boorish in real life as well, but have other facets of their life that mask it. We talk about trolls as if they’re a new subspecies of human, but likely it’s that stupid kid who graffiti-ed your garage last year. With his name. Or it’s the city council member caught masturbating at the local library because books. With ladies. Or it’s the woman at the grocery store with the tight, murderous face because the little senior citizen in front of her has a few coupons. They’re miserable and they get to be doubly so online.

On the other hand, I’ve “met” some outstanding humans who I wish were my neighbors. And maybe some of them are. They’re kind, compassionate, thoughtful about issues and have a self-awareness that feeds their wisdom. There are writers whose masterful words make me want to be a better writer. Volunteers, who have dedicated themselves to improving the world around them. There are parents, anxious, in the face of all the advice and criticism, to raise children with added value to the world. Soldiers, who understand the ambiguities of war. The gracious, living with deadly illnesses, who are able to enunciate their experiences. The courageous, leading the front lines to a more accepting, diverse society.

I’ve exchanged lovely emails and comments over the last few years with people whose hearts are so big and so fragile it makes me feel like crying. Online as well as off, there are simply people who are a counterbalance to all the tragedy and despair in the world. They are hopeful and at times, downright funny. Some of them happen to blog.

canstockphoto8155142I read somewhere that 60-80% of blogs are abandoned shortly after their creation and that the average lifespan of existing blogs is a little under three years. Sometimes I like to console myself with random numbers. Sometimes, I just feel lucky to have this little piece of real estate on the internet.

Thank you to the readers and engaged commenters that have spent time on this blog.

There’s nothing better for a writer than being read and I am extremely grateful to you.

Here’s to the next three years, my friends.

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