As the World Burns

It’s a breezy overcast spring morning shortly after curfew has expired. I didn’t sleep much last night. I live in an older suburb of Minneapolis in a little ranch house with a little yard on a little street. We’ve quarantined here for months, leaving only for grocery pickup, and my daughter’s followup medical appointments. Life and time has stood still, frozen in an endless loop of a mundane activities. Outside a global pandemic continues barely abated and neighborhoods are burning and being looted a few miles away.

Yesterday I cried when my cat’s ashes were delivered. It seems disproportionate to the world at large, but my grief is layered and dense. Some days it feels like I’m a matryushka doll, with sorrows, large and small stacked one inside the other. Too many personal losses and traumas in the last year, too much going on in the world that I felt powerless to make better. To even say it out loud, when people of color are dying at the hands of those hired and trained to protect all citizens, seems the height of a privileged existence, but my experience is the only one I can tell. Of all others, I must listen and learn.

At 2am I heard the nonstop sirens. I check the news. Police station burning, more businesses looted and burned. The National Guard sent in. I worry that it’s near the area where my daughter has her oncology followup appointment next week. Will we touch the rage? Will the rage touch us? For some people, the world has always been burning. I’ve spent a lifetime tiptoeing around rage and violence. Growing up poor with alcoholism and domestic violence taught me how to live on eggshells. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t talk back. Get through the moment.

In spite of, or perhaps because of my military stint, I don’t trust uniforms, guns, authority. But I live under the radar, the color of my skin unsuspected, unburdened by stereotypes except those of gender. Passive and uninteresting. Just enough activism to soothe my conscience. Memberships in the ACLU, NAACP, League of Women Voters. Little cards sent to me to make me comfortable, even when I know that there is no such thing as moral purity, blamelessness. The little cards aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, but they’re all I have.

I signed up to be an election judge this year. I thought, before the last few months, that this would be the only way to right the ship. To help legitimize the election. Doubts plague me and I don’t think anyone, from sociopathic capitalists to fuzzy socialists to bellicose anarchists have the right answers. Like most things, an imperfect system with good intentions requires a good faith effort by its participants. We’re too busy egging each other on and dehumanizing each other to manage that. My own efforts to remain a decent human have faltered in the face of willful ignorance and cynical exploitation. I am constantly talking myself down from self-righteous anger these days.

Another round of sirens. The national conversations have begun about this place that I have come to love as my first real home. The president weighs in, as usual, with ugly, violent language meant to sound tough and designed to throw more meat to his ugly, violent base. Most of the protests are peaceful, but the violent ones will be all that are talked about – a way to further cement the ideas of “us” and “them”. George Floyd called out for his mother before he died. Mama.

I’ve been researching for a story I’m working on. When I was at Glacier National Park a few years ago, I read up on the history of the area. I’ve been learning more about the Piikani Blackfoot Indians and the Marias Massacre of 1870. The massacre of nearly 200 women, children, and elderly men was covered up, lied about, reframed, and revised over and over again. I think about that story every day now when I read the news. Everyone has an agenda, a perspective, an opinion, a reason to highlight this fact and downplay that. But the video could not lie. Mama.

The unrest is not over and like everything else at the moment, outcomes are uncertain. Today I bury my cat’s ashes. This I know. I call my mom in Kansas to let her know we’re okay and to make sure that she and my 93 year old grandma are staying safe from this virus. I follow up on my daughter’s chemo med refill. I know that things will not always be like this. I will try to spend my day thoughtfully, get through more tears, find grace and joy in moments, knowing that the world burns outside. It’s the only existence I can manage at the moment.

The Green Study Commencement Address

Commencement addresses have become a thing, like any other in this world – critiqued, reviewed, mocked, and admired. I wondered what I could say to high school or college graduates. What, at the ripe old age of 53, could I impart to a group of people whose adventures are beginning? Not much really, but I’m taking a swing at it.

Dear New-ish Humans,

canstockphoto24756944Congratulations! You’ve reached a milestone. With luck, you will reach many more. Like menopause and cashing out your 401K. Maybe you’ll patent an invention or live to see your grandchildren graduate. Maybe you’ll travel the world and dive off cliffs or maybe, like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, you’ll see the world from your armchair through observation and a lot of knitting.

It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it is your path, no one else’s. We live in a world where people advertise their lives and if you look long enough, yours will come up short. All lives look great with selective editing, but real life is a rough draft full of unresolved storylines and happy endings that only last a page or two before the next challenge arises.

The surprise ending is not really a surprise at all. It pretty much ends the same way for most humans. It’s the path on the way there that counts. Outcomes take up only a fraction of a moment. The process is where life is at – messy, complicated, wonderful, terrible – those moments when you are struggling are where the meaning resides.

canstockphoto9626422I have had a messy life. Or I should say lives. Once I was a poor kid growing up in a rural town. Once I was a soldier. A college student. A janitor. A tutor. I became, for a longer term, a spouse and a parent. I traveled. I stayed still. I ran. I grew fat. I shrank. I trained in martial arts. I learned to abhor violence and guns. I briefly tried politics. I grew up evangelical. I became enamored of Buddhism. I went to therapy. I tried on personas, boyfriends, jobs, hobbies. Humans shed and grow almost 1,000 new skins in a lifetime. Why would anything about us stay the same throughout our lives?

And that’s what everything comes down to. Your generation knows this better than anyone, as you transition to new lives in the midst of a global pandemic. Nothing stays the same. Nothing was ever intended to stay the same. Change is constant. Unless you want life to be excruciating for yourself, accept this fact. Learn the skills that help you deal with change – resilience, adaptability, flexibility, knowing when to let go, when to move onto the next plan or idea.

canstockphoto7017741We also live in a world where everyone has opinions and way too many ways to convey them. Outside entities want you to like and thumb and swipe your way through life. They want to elevate your sense of self-importance so that you volunteer every aspect of your life like wares at a marketplace. This is the nature of consumerism, the nature of data mining and advertising. This is not the nature you want to cultivate, because in the cold dark night, when you’re alone, none of those entities will be there for you. You must learn to trust yourself, to spend time in your own head, to be your own confidant and best friend. Know yourself best so that you might understand others more. Listen more than you speak.

Some of you will be embarking on relationships. Maybe one, maybe many. The secret to any healthy relationship is this: you bring out the best in each other. You like who you are with the other person and they like who they are with you. Friends, lovers, partners, spouses. The same thing applies. I’ve stayed too long in relationships where I was a lesser person, ashamed of myself, hyperfocused on keeping the relationship because I felt I was lacking. Even if your relationship is healthy, alas, change applies here as well. You grow along with a person or you don’t. The trick is knowing when to let go or when to dig in.

canstockphoto6437374The lessons of generations before me eventually landed hard on my head. No matter what rights have been gained, no matter what ground has been covered, you can’t have it all. You shouldn’t have everything at once. To learn how to deeply appreciate one thing, one person, one moment is to learn how to better appreciate everything else more. To savor a moment is a luxury in a society that tells us to quickly want for the next. Defy the speed of the world around you. Slow down. Feel the joy of the moment. Be in it.

Lastly, but most importantly, there is the practice of kindness. What does that really mean? This practice is the most important thing you will ever do – it impacts everything. It shapes your relationships, it can protect the natural world, it can affect your job, it defines your role as a citizen. Operating from a place of kindness is not going to solve all the world’s problems. Sometimes it won’t even make the person talking to you be polite. You practice for the muscle memory, so even under duress, you choose to be the person you’d like to be.

Kindness is sometimes mistaken for weakness, but it takes a strong person to live in this world with compassion. Kindness is not agreeability or concession or surrender. It is approaching the world, your life, the lives of others, with curiosity and openness and compassion. It is one of the most powerful choices you’ll ever make, because it will characterize your life and inform your decisions.

canstockphoto2602119The world is full of wonders and dangers and conflict and love. We often judge lifetimes by accomplishment, by enduring works of art or invention or unfortunately, wealth. Most of us won’t end up on a college reading list or in a history book or on a Forbes list. But we can have lives well-lived, make the lives of those around us better, ensure that we do more helping than harm. Life is an adventure of your own making. Make it well.

Goodbye, Pete

For the first time in thirty years, I woke up this morning to neither a dog to walk nor a cat demanding to be fed. I said good-bye to my 17-year-old tomcat yesterday. I watched, masked and from a distance, as a vet drugged him into oblivion. He will be my last animal companion for a very long time, if ever again. I am both sad and relieved.

I’ve been thinking a lot about sacrifice and love and how it can reach a tipping point. With people, with animals, with any passion, there comes a moment when maintaining the relationships, the dedication, starts to feel like one’s life is draining away. This last year has aged me, short-circuited my brain, turned me into an insomniac. I’ve cried more, slept less, been less. Love and sacrifice have never been far apart. I have few regrets about this, but I’m tired.

Things had gotten bad with my cat buddy, Pete, but I didn’t realize how bad until this morning when I woke up without him. Feline dementia had him yowling throughout the night, sometimes during the day. In our small house, it was impossible to escape and his deafness meant no volume control. I would often get up to comfort him, turn on lights, anything to keep him from waking up the rest of the family.  I’d learned to get by on 4-5 hours of sleep. Last night I slept for 7.

He’d started to paw my feet to get attention while I was reading or writing and it was rapidly becoming an obsessive behavior. I couldn’t focus for more than 15 minutes at a time. And he’d returned to feral ways when it came to the litterbox. I spent quite a bit of time doing clean up. It happened slowly at first, until our house became a patchwork of plastic mats and makeshift litterboxes. After he was gone, I spent several hours with enzyme cleaners and hot, soapy water returning our home to a more hospitable state.

Making the decision to end another creature’s life is never easy. Like a person with Alzheimer’s, Pete would have moments of clarity and seem his old self and even as I knew I was making the right decision, I was riddled with doubt. It wouldn’t get better and I was exhausted. Pete was now anxious most of the time and began to lose his appetite, his hearing and vision, and arthritis turned his stealth walk into a bit of a lumber. In the end, he began not to recognize me, nor want human attention.

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Elliott, 1989-2003

Pete is one of four pets I’ve seen through long lives and silent deaths. Elliott was a Scottish Terrier who’d been marked down in a local pet shop. Sitting in his cage in a puddle of pee, he was the most adorable thing I’d ever seen. He was there through college and grad school, through crappy jobs, and even worse boyfriends. He was ferociously loyal and playful and I took him everywhere with me. In college, I taught private flute lessons (not a euphemism) and I sometimes used play time with him as an incentive for the younger students. He died at the age of 14. To this day, I feel a twinge of pain when I think of him. Some losses really stick with you.

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August, Adopted 2003-2008

For the next 16 years, I lived with cats. I adopted Pete and August from the local humane society. Pete was a kitten, August a cantankerous middle-aged cat who tolerated him. When August got kidney disease and I had to make the decision to end her life, I remember my daughter saying good-bye to her before preschool. August sat there, always the proper lady, while my 4-year old chattered away. When I returned from dropoff, August staggered to her blanket and collapsed.

Pete started getting a little more vocal after August was gone, strengthening his pipes for future yowling. We thought it was mourning and adopted Owney, a fickle, older Tortie. Owney had no interest in Pete and often took an active disliking to him. He

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Owney, Adopted 2008-2019

followed her, slept as close to her as she would allow, drove her insane with his constant lurking presence. She also succumbed to kidney disease. Near the end, she and Pete were still not friends, but she no longer hissed at him when he came near. That was last year.

Pete outlived his housemates. He was a laid back, gentle giant who had a rumbly purr and a penchant for suddenly flopping over in front of you while you were walking. Being underfoot was his trademark. He rarely took offense and even as his cognitive abilities began to slip away, never struck out in fear. He was, as we humans are wont to say about male creatures, a very good boy.

Pete in one of his favorite spots.
Pete, 2003-2020

There is a little garden in our backyard that hold the ashes of my animal companions. On the stone bench, the squirrels like to sit and chatter away before raiding our birdfeeders. The birdbath hosts cardinals and finches and dark-eyed juncos. At night, raccoons teeter on the wooden fence behind it, munching the Concord grapes. Occasionally neighborhood cats show up, eat some catnip and loll about in the grass. Pete has spent years in the study window meowing and chittering at the menagerie of critters. And now he’ll join that natural world, leaving me behind, to imagine I hear him meowing in the night. Grief is a funny old process.

Notes from a Non-Essential Life

Our family has been in “quarantine” for approximately five weeks, leaving only for grocery pickup, and medical emergencies. Work, school, meetings, and music lessons have all been conducted online. We wash our groceries. Door knobs are cleaned regularly. I still touch my face constantly.

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When all this began, I was filled with ambition. I was going to write blog posts a couple times a week, maybe run a contest, and get reconnected with other bloggers. Our house was going to be cleaned from top to bottom. I’d get my garden seedlings ready. We’d finish our deck and teach our daughter to drive. Maybe I’d get my curse of a novel edited and revised. I’d get on a regular exercise plan, maybe knock off some extra weight.

canstockphoto11545997Instead, I play “spin-the-bad-news-wheel” rolling from one news source to another. I’m rage-reading Twitter. A good day is one in which I shower and make one family meal. These days, I think about the repetitive pacing of animals in the zoo. Early in the morning, I walk my neighborhood – nearly the same route every day, in order to avoid other humans. The days all run together to the point that I’ve taken to writing the day and date on my whiteboard.

And yet, we’re safe (a relative term). We are able to get by financially. We have access to food and water and electricity. We have solid internet. Our home is a comforting sanctuary. We are among the fortunate.

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Between my daughter’s medical emergencies and the overwhelming news outside our front door, there are days though, when I feel the undercurrent of anxiety. Some nights I wake up, thinking that I hear someone crying out. I toss and turn and the following day is a blur.

canstockphoto8969152I return to the toolbox – meditation, exercise, gardening, writing. Halfhearted attempts at best. I even tried to add a little ritual here and there. During meditation, I decided to try some old incense. Buddhists do it. They seem serene. If serene means filling your house with acrid smoke that smells like an ashtray on fire, then I’m zen itself.

New tools. A Nintendo Switch video game that we gave to our daughter for her 16th birthday. Now our entire family spends time each day building a rapacious island dynasty in Animal Crossing. There is something quite calming about traveling to a remote island, stripping it of all its resources and running away. Virtual colonialism. My family of origin is British, so perhaps there is a genetic component.

As I express my concern about the lessons the game teaches, my daughter rolls her eyes. Mom ruins everything. I don’t want to brag, but I’m good at taking perfectly benign entertainment and deconstructing in such a way that you can’t help but feel guilt. I think it really adds another layer to the game.

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I didn’t think I could do it – writing at home with other human beings in the house. For years, I regarded solitude as necessary to writing. I’m a well-trained caregiver. Any noise or movement and I’m immediately alerted to potential need. I’m being forced to unlearn this mentality. In fact, my family would damn well appreciate it if I would stop checking in with them every hour.

My study has two doors, which creates a shortcut to the kitchen. I’ve had to learn to shut both doors. We all now use door knob signs to indicate “Video Call” or “Writing: Please do not disturb”. I also need NO – I do not know if we have any parmesan left or I know you are bored, but I’m not going to entertain you. They think I am writing a lot.

canstockphoto15046720The upside to the pandemic is (and I say that, acutely aware of my privilege at the moment) that the Gotham Writers Workshop is offering some of their classes via Zoom. These are classes in NYC that I would have never been able to attend. I’m taking a fiction writing course focusing on short stories and a course to complete the first draft of a novel. It’s been an interesting experience, but more importantly, connected me with other writers and feedback on my work.

I’m feeling very writerly these days. This week, I listened to my short story be critiqued six ways to Sunday, shortly after I received two short story rejections. One of those rejections was a kind note from the publication editor. I have surprised myself by being able to handle both critique and rejection well. I don’t think I could have handled it when I was younger. You know, last year.

*****

To admit to any moments of joy or happiness feels wrong. I know there is suffering and grieving and injustice in the world. I know that I’m a resident and user of services in a system that supports inequality as a feature, not a bug. This was the way before the pandemic and will likely be the way after. Like most crises, we see revealed before us that the “gaps” are canyons, that imagination is desperately needed everywhere – education, government, employment, public spaces, media, and relationships.

I want to think about the world differently. I want, after all of this is over, for the world canstockphoto8183571to be different. Maturing, evolving, kinder, with a sense that we truly are all in this together. I don’t fool myself, though. I knew after the 2012 Sandy Hook murders of school children and staff when nothing changed, that my country was its own worst enemy. And here we are, forced to watch as our government, led by cynical ignorance, fumbles about with our lives.

What I want for and of this world is of no account. I am a non-essential citizen. I started this post writing about perspective. As a nonbeliever in gods, I’ve arrived at a point just past nihilism: if nothing matters, then everything can matter or, to be more precise, I get to decide what matters to me. Kindness, curiosity, and learning still matter to me. I’m not particularly adept at any of those things, but that’s the path I am trying to trod. Same as it ever was.

Love in Exceptional Times

My 20th wedding anniversary was on April Fool’s Day. This will suffice as an explanation for the rubber chickens, whoopee cushions, and jester hats at our wedding reception. I drew the line when my husband said I should walk down the aisle with a pillow stuffed up my dress. To celebrate two decades of commitment, we quietly acknowledged the date and guilted our teenager into playing card games with us. The day was a tick on the calendar, but had less meaning to us than the days prior.

canstockphoto8378139Despite our efforts to stay quarantined, my daughter had a medical emergency three nights ago. The on-call oncology doctor sent us to the emergency room. We didn’t want to go, knowing that we’d be utilizing resources and making ourselves vulnerable to the coronavirus, but she was in severe pain. Then we made a choice that was unusual for us – my husband would stay at home to lessen exposure and I would take her to the ER.

The night was a blur of watching my brave kid be in constant pain. Six hours of testing and alternating pain meds. I broke for a moment when I asked the nurse where I could get a cup of coffee – in tears, shaken, unmoored. I thought I can’t take this anymore. My texts to my husband throughout the night were straight reporting until the last one. It will be better when you are here.

By morning, she had been admitted to the hospital, which was strangely comforting – we’d spent several weeks there over the last year, so the surroundingcanstockphoto26182548s and routine were familiar. Except for the extra precautions – everyone in masks and gloves – even more critical on the pediatric oncology floor. My husband arrived with overnight bags. He’d fed the cat, straightened up the house, notified his boss. I could feel myself breathe again.

Before he arrived, I thought of the other many long nights that we’d spent in emergency rooms, surgery waiting areas, by hospital beds, and sitting at home, alert to our girl’s every sound and movement. It has been a long year and while I could call it a bad year in terms of everything we’d all gone through, it wasn’t a bad year for our family relationships, our marriage, our time together. Our true fortune is that we know how to take care of each other and we know how to laugh.

canstockphoto0506045I tend to eschew sentimentality. It took me five years to tell my husband I hated heart-shaped anything. And it’s taken him a long time to get used to my distinct lack of interest in celebrations or gifts. There is this idea that anthropologically, humans need ritual and celebration, but I think those events are simply about noticing the moment. If noticing and appreciating the moment is the point, I probably have 50 micro-celebrations a day. The pleasure of birds on the feeder, that damned good cup of coffee in the morning, a wonderful paragraph I’ve read, laughing with a friend or just hanging out with my tribe.

By late morning, my daughter’s pain had dissipated, test results were good, and we were discharged with a plan. Transitioning back to home meant dropping our clothes in the garage, hitting the showers, and disinfecting everything that had been at the hospital. And the re-set on quarantine has begun again.

I thought about love, what it meant in terms of our marriage. For the last few years, while my mother-in-law was struggling with Alzheimer’s and the last year when our daughter went through surgeries to remove tumors, my husband and I learned just how much weight we could bear. We discovered that we could still be tender, even under the worst circumstances. We could still laugh when things were darkest. And we practiced kindness when it would have been so easy to rage.

canstockphoto16583600Perhaps it is not the length of time, but the fact that this commitment ever came to be that still amazes me. I placed a Yahoo singles ad twenty-two years ago, long before the swiping and the algorithms. I was 29, had just moved to Minneapolis, and wanted to get on with a social life. Of the responses, many creepy and weird, I picked his. With no locations mentioned in the metro wide ad, we found out that we lived two miles away from each other. We exchanged emails for two weeks before going on our first date. Thus far, it’s worked out pretty well.

Like character, love shows its nature under duress. The world seems like a very scary place now. Nothing is assured and everything is shifting and changing. The greatest luxury of all is to be kind to ourselves and to one another in the midst of chaos – and to realize that celebration can’t be saved up for singular occasions. When so much suffering is in the world, we are sometimes afraid to let the moments of joy in, to say yes, in the middle of all this, I can have moments of happiness. The gratitude for those gentle moments seems a lot like love.

Observations in the Time of Corona

The doctor shook his head after examining my daughter. We were talking about the Covid-19 crisis. This is a real public health failure he said. They were running low on seasonal flu tests, but he said they’d better test her because of the underlying conditions. We were in the middle of a dystopian movie, all of us in masks, him in a face shield and gloves. We’d been waved off from the main clinic entrance by similarly masked security guards and redirected so that we wouldn’t come into contact with any other patients.

Her cough started four days ago, followed by fever, body aches, and a severe headache. Our family had already begun sheltering-in-place before it started. We were the fortunate ones – my husband can work from home, I was already there, and the schools closed. Wcanstockphoto12785195e live in an urban area where, if stretched, we can get some form of grocery delivery. In February, I’d starting building up a small pantry so that we could get by for a month. Except for maybe toilet paper, of course. But they still deliver those anachronistic phone books. We have options.

I suppose if this last year hadn’t traumatized our family with large tumors and major surgeries, we’d be more panicky. We had hand sanitizer, masks, and gloves on hand months before coronavirus began rampaging around the planet. I started laughing a little hysterically talking to my husband and then I was so angry I could feel myself choking on it. Hadn’t we had enough? Hadn’t we spent enough nights on hospital couches and in waiting rooms? Hadn’t our kid been messed with enough?

The doctor called last night. My daughter tested positive for Influenza B. I’ve never been so grateful for a Positive result. A flu can be serious, especially for her, but she’s now on antivirals and resting like a champ. We are, in the scheme of things, extraordinarily lucky.

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My husband and I are both pretty shaken up, though. This week was a reminder not to get complacent about either our health or anxiety coping strategies. Being at home gives us a sense of false security, but like many people, our lives have changed drastically just in the course of a couple of weeks. There are a lot of canstockphoto15764544unknowns and scary times to come. People are arming themselves with guns and toilet paper (that seems very American and not in a good way).

We’ve learned to start with the basics: sleep, hydration, good nutrition, exercise. Then we level up with: meditation, yoga, journaling. The masterclass is creativity – solving problems with the resources we have, appreciating art and music and books, finding humor even when things are bleak, finding ways to grow our connections with other people, despite the physical distancing. And if you’re ready to hit the expert level: finding ways to help others, either psychologically or materially.

Having worked at home for many years, I’m on a first name basis with our postal carrier. canstockphoto2586629We yelled a conversation across the lawn yesterday, checking in with each other and asking about our families. I asked if they were taking any special precautions as mail carriers and she said not really. We talked about all the hoarding and she wistfully said I just wish I had some hand sanitizer for my truck. There’s no way to wash my hands on the route.

I told her to wait a minute. We’d had a bottle that we purchased after my daughter’s surgery, but we never used it. We weren’t going anywhere and we had plenty of soap. She was so happy and surprised as I tossed the bottle to her. It was a good reminder that in times of darkness, when we’re so much in our own navels, look for ways to help. Reach out to friends and family, donate to your local food bank, feed the birds, grow a plant. Anything beyond the hamster wheels in our heads that generate anxiety.

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Adversity tests our character. We can all be good people when life is relatively comfortable and predictable. But who are we under canstockphoto6297403pressure? Do we buy the last two packages of toilet paper on the shelf, or do we leave one? Do we choose to deny the problem and in doing so, put other people in danger? Do we adopt the language of war and battles and hunker down in our foxholes?

There will be challenges ahead. There will be a lot of choices taken out of our hands. But the choice of what kind of person we are in crisis is powerful.

Who do you want to be?

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Lastly, this blog has been oft neglected over the last year and half. If there were any time to connect, to share, to reach out, the time is now. I’ll be here more frequently and am coming up with some ideas to reconnect with blogging friends and showcase new bloggers. I’ve gone back on Twitter and you can find me @TheGreenStudy. Stay well and let’s make blogging cool again!