Monthly Archives: September 2011

what we attend to shapes us

Labyrinth Habitat mural by Johanna Poehig;  I wake up from layered and complicated dreams. There are things I want to tell you about, but it’s not time for them yet. The alarm goes off at 4, and I think, I could just snooze for a little bit, and then I forget to press snooze, and now it’s after 5.

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The Fall writing workshop series begins next week — Write Whole: Survivors Write starts on Monday, and we do still have a couple of spaces left! Friday is the last day to register — if you have been thinking about joining us and giving yourself and your stories a regular, weekly writing time, please do contact me.

Tonight’s the Erotic Reading Circle at the Center for Sex and Culture; a good time for me to go through recent notebooks and find a story that I want to work more with. Have you seen the  call for submissions for Sex Still Spoken Here, the Erotic Reading Circle anthology? If you’ve participated in this latest round of the erotic reading circle (since about 2006), we want your stories and poems!

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We’ve started leaving the door to the puppy’s kennel open at night, so she can get up and come out when she’s ready in the morning. So far, she seems to stay in there all night, only getting out after I’ve been up and at the computer working for awhile. Right now she’s here with me in the office, digging behind the office door for something. All I hear is snuffling and claws scraping carpet, not hard, but persistent. I say her name, and she stops. She’s ready to go outside, but it’s still dark out. When she first came home with us, it was light at 4 or 4:30, and we could go out then. The earth’s rotation is thwarting our early morning walk.

There’s something about putting the work we believe in the most at a centered place in our day. How does that work for you? For me, it means writing first — whether that’s journaling, morning pages, blogging, freewriting on a story. Not editing, but generating new words, first thing in my day.

A message I heard this weekend talked about this idea that what we pay attention to, what we attend to, reveals what we love, and shapes who we’re about to be:

Attention is a tangible measure of love. Whatever receives our time and attention becomes the center of gravity, the focus of our life. This is what we do with what we love: We allow it to become our center.

What is the center of your life? Carefully examine where you spend your attention, your time. Look at your appointment book, your daily schedule. These things – these meetings, errands, responsibilities – this is where you dedicate your precious days, hours, and moments. This is what receives your care and attention – and, by definition, your love.

We become what we love. Whatever you are giving your time and attention to, day after day, this is the kind of person you will eventually become. Is this what you want?

— Wayne Muller

When I was listening to this message, I was thinking about how I shoved what I loved most to the far edges of my life, for years, in order to protect those things: writing, femininity, deep connection with other people. What I actually paid attention to was my stepfather’s desires, how he wanted me to be in the world, the work he expected me to do. That, plus I paid attention to his moods and emotions — I did these things, attended to these things, for my own survival. So, what did this reveal about what I loved? That I loved him more than writing? That I loved his moods more than my mother’s or my sister’s? I certainly gave his more attention —

I understand the core of this message, this idea: what we focus on shapes our days, shapes what will come for us. If I spend three hours writing today, I have that writing to work with tomorrow, and I am closer to having something to submit to an anthology next week. If I spend five minutes today attending to the state of my own body, I may be beginning a pattern that will let my body know that its states of being matter to me — what does that mean? I mean, if I pay attention to my body today, by next week, I might be sitting or moving differently because I paid attention to what my body needed. Every small action toward or in service of what we love builds up that place in us. Think about a ball of rubber bands: begin with one tiny band, add one more and one more, do this over a period of months, and you end up with a baseball-sized collection. Small actions, small attentions, add up to big ones.

Let this be a write for today: what aren’t you or your character attending to that you want to be? Take 10 minutes for that part of yourself today, and write about it. Or write about how you make space for what you love by attending to it. Just turn your attention to a part of yourself (or apart of your character) that you want to grow, and let the writing flow from there. (This could be a good morning for a love letter to the body, if it’s the body that needs some attention.)

Follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go. And be easy with you, ok? One small step, every day, that’s all. That’s powerful beginning.

Thank you for your attentiveness, your witness, your awareness, your tender ferocity. Thank you for your words!

it’s all useful

graffiti of stick figure walking, nine different figures in a square, some walking in the opposite direction“No writing is wasted. Did you know that sourdough from San Francisco is leavened partly by a bacteria called lactobacillus sanfrancisensis? It is native to the soil there, and does not do well elsewhere. But any kitchen can become an ecosystem. If you bake a lot, your kitchen will become a happy home to wild yeasts, and all your bread will taste better. Even a failed loaf is not wasted. Likewise, cheese makers wash the dairy floor with whey. Tomato gardeners compost with rotten tomatoes. No writing is wasted: the words you can’t put in your book can wash the floor, live in the soil, lurk around in the air. They will make the next words better.”
Erin Bow

Some mornings it’s hard to get started on the writing I want to do — I have to clear out the pipes first, should do a little notebook writing, often end up just typing a little journal writing into a new document and saving it as a morning write. Do we ever go back and read those morning writings, to get a sense of the trajectory of our lives, the folds and foibles that our hormones and emotions lead us through on a regular basis, to trace where our desires have driven us to (and from)?

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Yesterday was a good day — two hours of morning writing time, an hour hike with the pup in the hills (after which, finding myself sweaty at such an early hour, I thought I had maybe done enough work for the day) , then quiet breakfast time, some correspondence work, a mid-day trip to the beach with pup and Mr (where the pup, who up until now has continued to be pretty hesitant about water watched, again, another dog who leapt and bound into the waves after a stick, decided to mimic that same action and dove into the water after her ball — I couldn’t stop cheering for her; plus, I got to dip my own self into the water, which is never a bad thing for a Tuesday), came home and gave the pup a bath, did a bit more correspondence and 2012 workshop planning, made a new batch of peanut butter-banana-parsley (wheat free) cookies for the pup, baked sweet potatoes at the same time as the cookies,  started some yogurt going in the slow cooker, had a conversation with a friend and colleague about some workshop possibilities for 2012, and finally started my taxes for last year.

A good day, overall, I’d say.

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There is the issue of generating new writing on a computer that is connected to the internet — it’s enough work learning to freewrite on the computer, avoiding or curtailing the desire to rewrite immediately (since after all, look, there’s the writing in black and white, all ready to be edited), to edit, censor, fix those misspellings). that’s it’s own practice. Then there’s the fact that it’s much much easier to do research now than it used to be. Let’s say I’m working on a piece set in Billings, Montana. Never having been there, I want the character to walk from a drugstore downtown to a gas station way on the edge of town, near the highway. What highway goes through Billings? What drugstore would she be coming out of? What gas station would she be headed to? Google gives me all these answers, and other websites easily tell me more about Billings. I can stop in the middle of writing, check my facts (at least, take the first step toward fact-checking) and then get back to the writing– that is, if I don’t get lost on some page detailing, say, Billings’ licentious history (I’m avoiding going to Google right now to find out if, in fact, Billings does have a licentious history, and what that might be). It could be (I just edited there, started with ‘it might be’ and then took out the might because I’d just written ‘might be’ in the very last sentence, replaced the might with could — there’s the break in the freewrite) — it could be a better practice to make a note of the places where I want to fact check, and run those Google (and other) searches when I’m done with the day’s writing.

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Do you think any writing is ever wasted? I tend to agree with Erin Bow, above. All writing is of use, even the stuff I never look at again. Sometimes it’s just pipe cleaning, or core dumping, as my geek-self used to say: getting out of the way all the messy stuff that’s consuming my attention, the fears and worries, the panic, the ‘who are you to be sitting down to write?’ — the shopping lists, the laundry list of anxieties, the ongoing irritations with home or family or — all of that. Getting it out of the way is good and important work. Finding just the right words for my irritation, let’s say, can come in useful later. But also, there’s just clearing the air, letting all the voices have  a say and then making room for what’s more complicated, delicate, fragile, tenuous, the stuff I’m not clear about, that needs more room to move around and grow. That’s why I do those morning free-writes: start the engine, then clean out the (and here I want to stop and find a good reference! bring it back, Jen) –what? — clean out the oil trap, maybe, the places where gunk and dust collect.

Take 10 minutes for a freewrite today, especially if you’ve been feeling blocked. Write absolutely whatever comes through your head, including, I don’t have anything to write, this is stupid, why am I doing this, I need to go shopping and need to buy tomatoes, canned ones, apples, jolly ranchers — just don’t stop. For 10 minutes, don’t stop. Don’t worry about writing anything ‘useful.’ It’s all useful, this pipe clearing, and once you get going, you don’t know what’s going to arise. Let yourself not know what you’re going to end up having written. Enter into the writing with a desire to be surprised. Let yourself, too, be ok if you’re not surprised by anything you write — what matters is just those 10 minutes, that pen on the page or fingers on the keyboard, building the muscles, reinforcing the practice. Follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go (into dreams? a character’s next moves? what happened at work yesterday? what’s happening on the moon right now? anywhere.)

Then, if you want, do it again tomorrow. And the next day. And again, after that. Again.

Thank you for your tenacity and elasticity, your veracity and cantankerousness, your adaptability and solid-centered-ness, your belovedness, your profoundly good heart. Thank you for your words.

driving through the early morning

graffiti inside a brick-lined tunnel -- we can just see the mouth of the tunnel ahead

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
E.L. Doctorow

Sometimes the writing is hard, like pulling teeth — no, like dragging something out, forcing myself down a road I’m not at all sure I’m meant to be walking on. Is it like that? Wait, is this supposed to be what happens next? How can I know until I write it and find out?

(There’s only to write what’s illuminated just ahead of me, and see what comes alight after that.)

I’ve never been this far into a story before. At this point, there’s nothing clear about it. The characters are just now taking shape, telling me about themselves, showing me what they will and won’t do, introducing me to the differences between their story and my own.

That last is a delight. This weekend, at Writing the Flood, I started to write one of my own memories but then, because I wanted to use the time for work with these characters, I decided to make my story the story of the eldest daughter in the book — about her getting a letter saying that she was financially cut off after she tells her stepfather that she doesn’t want to have sex with him anymore. But the story didn’t fit her, it wasn’t right — it felt good to be aware of that, to be aware that she was not me. A different sort of clarity than I’d expected to find at the end of that 20 minute write, but important.

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This was the prompt: After a few moments of centering, find yourself at a time before this time, and see or imagine yourself or someone else opening a letter. Who is receiving the letter? Do we know who the letter is from? What is the energy, the response, of the person reading the letter? Give yourself 15 minutes for this one, follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go –

Thank you for the messages you send, those you receive and share, those you receive and welcome into yourself. Thank you thank you for your words.

my favorite part of the day

young person, folded up, arms around legs, maybe dreaming -- bubbles lifting up from their head...The garbage trucks agitated the puppy this morning, so she’s sitting with me in the office this morning, gnawing on a rope bone, being generally excellent. I hear little bitey sounds, the scratch of her claws against my bag.

Here’s what’s true: it’s still painful every time the alarm goes off at 4am. I have to pull myself up, drag the body away from sleep and dreams. There’s a snap, and I’m sitting up, pulling on a sweater, walking into the kitchen to light the burner for teawater. And then I’m in front of the computer (no candle, no notebook, not right now) and the illumination from the screen is way too bright for human eyes. I yawn, stretch, rub the sleep away from my face over and over. Why am I doing this? I open the document for this long story, and read through yesterday’s writing, or last week’s, finding where I’m going to touch in today, and suddenly I’m with these women who I’m coming to adore, I’m getting to spend part of my morning learning more of their story — the truth is that this is my favorite part of the day, this deep dark writing time, this morning imaginary, this tea-lined playhouse.

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My question for the day is this: How do you lift out and shape a 10-15 page (double-spaced) excerpt from a 122 page (single-spaced) first draft thing, when those 10-15 pages are going to go to one of your writing idols and 13 writing peers? Wish me luck with this.

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A prompt for today at 6:24 am. What about your favorite part of the day, or your character’s? Take 10 minutes, give me the smells and the textures of this part of your/their day.

Or, here’s a second for today. I’m pulling it from Trauma Stewardship, a quote from a community activist in New Orleans after Katrina: One step, one foot in front of the other: That’s how we’re going to do it. Copy that phase into your notebook and begin there — notice what associations or paths arise for you as you read that line. What does it mean for you or your character? What’s getting done there? Follow your writing wherever it seems to want to go.

Thank you for your deep persistence, for the ways you attend to what’s calling you. Thank you for your words, always always.

Fall 2011 workshop schedule!

graffiti of a pink-purple pencil standing up next to a doorwayHello writers & writers-to-be!

We’ve got a few workshops coming up this month and next around Writing Ourselves Whole, and I’d love to write with you!

  • September 17: Writing the Flood
  • September 28: Erotic Reading Circle
  • Beginning October 3: Write Whole: Survivors Write: 8 Monday evenings, 6-8:30. Open to all women who are survivors of sexual trauma
    Registration is open — Please sign up early, and avoid that late-registration fee!
  • October 15: LitQuake’s LitCrawl! I get to participate in Carol Queen’s Good Vibrations reading again this year, during Phase 2 of the LitCrawl (7:15-8:15)
  • November 12: Reclaiming our Erotic Story (Sacramento)a daylong writing workshop (10am-5pm); open to writers of all genders and all sexual orientations!
  • November 13: Write Whole: Survivors Write (Sacramento)a daylong writing workshop (10am-5pm); open to survivors of all genders

Read on for more information about each of these events— and visit our Sign Up page to register!

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Writing the Flood

Every third Saturday, 1-4:30pm
(unless otherwise noted)

September’s group meets on 9/17

Writing The Flood is a writing group for anyone looking to prime the writing pump: using the Amherst Writers and Artists method, we will write together in response to exercises designed to get those pens moving, and get onto the page the stories, poems, essays, images and voices that have been stuck inside for too long.  This is a time to work on a larger project, get started on new work, play on the page, or write yourself through a block and back into your writing voice.

Unless otherwise noted, this workshop meets on the third Saturday of the month. $50 (with a sliding scale) Limited to 12. Register or email me with questions:

Upcoming dates:

  • Saturday, September 17
  • Saturday, October 15
  • Saturday, November 19
  • (we break for December — no Writing the Flood this month)

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Write Whole : Our SF-based 8-week workshop

Write Whole-Survivors Write –  Beginning Monday, October 3

Meets 8 Monday evenings, 6:00-8:30pm.

This workshop is open to all women survivors of sexual trauma.

Gather with other women survivors of sexual trauma in this workshop, and write in response to exercises chosen to elicit deep-heart writing, and deal with such subjects as: body image, family/community, sexuality, dreams, love, faith, and more. You’ll be encouraged to trust the flow of your own writing, and receive immediate feedback about the power of your words!

8-week workshop fees: The fee for an 8-week session is $350. (I can generally work out payment plans; please contact me if you have question or concerns about payment.) The regular registration fee will be in effect through September 15. The late registration fee is $385; last day to register is 9/30. Please register early!

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The Erotic Reading Circle

Every fourth Wednesday at the Center for Sex and Culture

9/28, 7:30-9:30pm

suggested donation: $5+

Since 2006, we’ve been meeting on the fourth Wednesday of the month to share and celebrate the breadth of erotic artistry in the Bay Area!

The next Erotic Reading Circle meets on September 28, 7:30-9:30 at the Center for Sex and Culture,
1349 Mission Street, San Francisco (cross streets 9th and 10th). $5+ donation requested (no one turned away); donations support the Center for Sex and Culture. This month’s circle will be a collaborative effort with the Sex Worker’s Arts Festival events at the CSC!

Bring whatever you’re working on, or whatever you’d like to be working on.

Come join readers and share your erotic writing! Bring something to read or just be part of the appreciative circle of listeners. This is a great place to try out new work (ask for comments if you like), or get more comfortable reading for other people. Longtime writers will bring their latest… newly inspired writers, bring that vignette you scrawled on BART while daydreaming on your way to work. Carol Queen and Jen Cross host/facilitate this space dedicated to erotic writers and readers.

See you at the Circle!

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Reclaiming the Erotic Story
The Liberatory Potential of Writing Desire

November 12, 2011 – with Sacramento Sutterwriters

Can erotic writing liberate more than our libidos? Does greater comfort with sexual expression lead to greater agency in our communities? Many of us assume that the erotic is solely the province of the individual, and not the realm of social change or communal liberation – but what happens when we all have wider access to and more comfort with erotic language and sexual expression? The full breadth of our erotic power can challenge what our society teaches us about our sexuality, which is both damning and provocative when it comes to personal expression and human relationships.

When we bring our longing into the light and find common ground with others, when we risk exposing that which we’ve been trained to be ashamed of, I find that many of us step into a deeply empowered (and more embodied!) self.

In this workshop, we’ll take try out some explicit writing, and will consider how empowering a creative engagement with sexual identity, desire, and expression, as well as the ability to write out our fantasies and desire, can affect our intimate relationships, our communities and our work in the world.

The cost for this workshop is $100.  A $25 deposit would secure your place with the balance due on the day of the class (there will be a substantial discount for participants who attend this workshop and Write Whole on Sunday the 13th.)

If you are interested in attending, please give John Crandall a call at 916-708-9708 or an email at

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Write Whole – Survivors Write
For Survivors Of Sexual Trauma
November 13th, 2011 – with Sacramento Sutterwriters

Many of us who are survivors of sexual trauma feel fragmented or disjointed and have come to believe we must always live our lives this way.

In this Write Whole group, we are offered the opportunity to learn that we can live and feel whole in our experiences and desires – that we can create new art through writing, and transforming our pains and fears into power and love.

It bears repeating: Transforming our language is one way we transform our lives. Altering and expanding our language has the effect of changing who we know ourselves to be.

In this Write Whole workshop, you’ll write in response to exercises chosen to elicit deep-heart writing, engaging with such subjects as: body image, family/community, sexuality, dreams, love, faith, and more.

Though we come together as survivors, we are never required to write any particular version of “our abuse story.” In this space, you have the opportunity to write as you feel called to write, no matter what the subject.

Although the setting is a supportive one, this workshop is different from a “support group,” as the focus of the workshop itself is on each person’s writing. We create beauty out of the sometimes extraordinarily difficult stuff of our lives.

The cost for this workshop is $100. A $25 deposit would secure your place with the balance due on the day of the class (there will be a substantial discount for participants who attend this workshop and Reclaiming The Erotic Story on Saturday the 12th.)

If you are interested in attending, please give John Crandall a call at 916-708-9708 or an email at

Phase 2 (7:15-8:15 pm)

what if home is and isn’t?

graffiti of butterfly shadows...I leave home to go home for a week (with only intermittent internet access!), and then leave home to come home again.

What does home mean, when everything is relative?

Robert Frost is supposed to have said or written, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.

What if you don’t have that sense anywhere?

Someone asked, What if home is wherever you are? Yes, yes, that’s ideal: but where is home if you don’t yet have that sense within yourself, if you haven’t yet crafted a substitute within your own body?

(What if home isn’t a place? I know, I get it: home is an idea, an ideal, a sense of being, not any physicality. But what if I want it to be? What if I still have that movie-screen fantasy of the place you go and immediately relax into, feel welcomed in, know yourself to belong in — that house, that familiarity, the place that was always yours. What to do with that desire, any desire, when it’s impossible to attain?)

There’s more here; I’ll keep coming back to it.

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There were Monarch butterflies everywhere during my time home, back in Nebraska. It’s their season. They danced around me, reminding me of their orange-and-black majesty, how I adored them when I was little. That small visual, a monarch opening its enormous wings, its black and white body perched on a wild onion flower, or hanging off the salvia, while the cicadas throbbed the air around me and the crickets and grasshoppers snagged all the rest of the space with their scratchy songs and the humidity stickied my skin: That’s a little piece of home. That lives in my blood and memory. I carry that always with me, and when I see it again, have the sense of being allowed in — so maybe there is some of Robert Frost’s home for me, too. Is home a cobbled together thing, something stitched and piecemeal? How could it be anything but?

I tried to take a picture of every monarchI saw. That’s a good vacation, I think.

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What about this as a prompt: Home is the place where… Just begin with that.

Write it over and over, if you want, completing it anew with every rewrite. Notice what comes for you, for your writing self, as you read the phrase, as you copy it into your notebook, as you begin, and let yourself follow that inspiration and pull. Write whatever comes, and follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go.

Give yourself 10 minutes, at least.

Thank you for your majesty, your fierce tenderness with the beauty around you, for your kindness, your persistence, your words.

why I’m getting up at 4am

business-suited man, flying, next to the words, 'leap into the void'This blog entry has been waiting for three days for me to post it — I get up and do other writing, focus on this book that I’m growing, that I’m, what, that I’m finding the seeds for, letting coalesce through short writes, shitty first drafts (yes thank you Anne Lamott). I’m aware that much of what I’m writing now won’t be in any final draft. That’s ok. May be much of it is groundwork, backstory, allowing me to learn the characters and their lives. They are introducing themselves to me. This is a kind of intimacy.

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Don’t forget that the early bird registration (a 30% discount) for the fall writing workshops (Write Whole and Declaring Our Erotic) ends tomorrow, 9/1! Sign up and join us!

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It’s a quiet Monday morning here where I am, except for some strange mechanical noise that just started up outside. This morning when the alarm went off at 4:10, I woke up alert, and have had about two hours just for writing. It’s amazing, this forefronting of the writing work.

A friend, when I told him about my new schedule, rising at 4 or close to, going to bed by 9, he reminded me of what Natalie Goldberg said about committing to writing: “Know that you will eventually have to leave everything behind; the writing will demand it of you. Bareboned, you are on the path with no markers, only the skulls of those who never made it back – over and over again.”

The quote is from Thunder and Lightning, her book that helps folks who have been using a freewriting practice for many years learn to harness and direct that energy. I’m rereading it now, because what I’m doing now with this morning writing practice is different from any regular writing routine I’ve ever had. I wake up each day, brush my teeth, make my tea, turn on the computer, open up the book I’m working on, reread the previous days’ writings, and then begin again on the next or another section of that same book.

This wasn’t something I thought I had the capacity to do. For all the years that I’ve been writing, I’ve put myself in front of my notebook and let whatever wants to come out, come out. Sometimes I have an idea of what I want to work on, a story for a particular call for submissions or something I’ve been asked to write, but the vast majority of the time, I have no direction. I spent all those years just learning to trust my writing voice, learning to pay attention to what wants to get written. Now I’m asking my writing practice to be more consistently directed —

What motivated me to start this new schedule, though, was re-reading “5:00 AM: Writing as Ritual” in Judith Ortiz Cofer’s The Latin Deli (you can preview the chapter at that link, but you should buy your own copy!)

She writes:

An act of will that changed my life from that of a frustrated artist, waiting to have a room of my own and an independent income before getting down to business, to that of working writer: I decided to get up two hours before my usual time, to set my alarm for 5:00 AM.

In this short chapter,  Cofer describes her morning quiet time, sipping her coffee while waiting for the computer to boot up, reareading the previous day’s work and then diving into the next section, all in the quiet dark before her family awoke and she was presented with the needs of the day. She put her writing, her writing work, first. I read this earlier in the month and thought, Yes, please.

That’s why I’m getting up at 4AM these days.

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Is there some dream that has been on your backburner for years, simmering and patient? Want to write about that this morning? Give yourself 10 minutes, write out what it would look like to let that dream take center stage, take a big and important chunk of your day. How would you change? How would your days change? Follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go!

Thanks for your patience, your persistence, your joy. Thank you, always, for your words-