EYES OF NATURE

Nature quietly teaches us < Happy Earth Day > that nothing is as complicated as we try to make it. And yet, given the paradoxical realities of life, everything is more complicated than we assume or imagine. How do we navigate such treacherous waters — avoid the extremes, the habitual reactions, the angst and anxiety that flow from ineffective and counterproductive personal patterns?

Acknowledging paradox is an excellent initial step, but that takes awareness and presence and mindfulness, doesn’t it?

If we don’t realize that we’re always standing right in the middle of the yin and yang of things … how can we hope for insights or change or anything more than the status quo?

Each time dawn appears, the mystery is there in its entirety.
— Rene Daumal 1908 – 1944

We started this year focusing on smallish changes with life-enhancing potential. So here’s another idea along those lines — observe the paradox of any challenging situation before doing anything else. Sense the dynamics at work around you that aren’t remotely personal. Pause deeply. Step back. Reflect. Consider. Accept contradiction, confusion, the pull of opposite yet, complimentary, forces.

Just this can make a big difference in our perceptions, our judgments, and our attitudes. Even in how peaceful we feel.

  • Nature can be extremely helpful in this context. Look away from what is troubling you, annoying you, distracting you … and look into the eyes of nature instead. A budding tree. A flower in bloom. A breeze against branches. A sky that looks like infinity. When we step away from the conditioned mind, it’s easier to acknowledge a deeper reality … then paradox becomes more obvious. And we can see into situations and challenges and opportunities with a fresh sense of creative possibility. Perhaps … with greater wisdom, acceptance, and understanding. Maybe even compassion.

A good friend of mine shared these lovely spring pictures recently. She referred to them as the “night and day of tulips,” which seemed to fit this blog post quite well. The yellow ones, nearly three feet high, seem filled with light and spirit; the purple ones (queen of the night) are intense, moody, compelling. One gardening site described this variety of tulip as velvety, deep maroon-black blooms on sturdy stems.

  • However you describe themthe key is to pause long enough, look deeply enough, to describe them at all.
lynneapril2016tulipred
©dacotahkromes
lynneapril2016tulips
©dacotahkromes

“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” — Jack Kerouac

If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair. C. S. Lewis

IF… you’ve noticed the repetitive nature of most conversations, along with the habitual way of perceiving the world, you’ve probably wondered how any of this ever changes. Only when there are internal changes … does the world begin to “look” different. Only by deepening our life experience can we see the paradox that is always before us. So whatever you do … try not to let a dysfunctional, malcontent culture define you. Your own innate sense of life meaning is a far better guide than a hyped up, heavily glamorized, artificial (and struggling) society. Choosing to tune it all out and look within … is the gift of a lifetime. –dh

Thanks so much for stopping by this sunny space for kindred spirits.
See you again Friday, May 6th.
I will always be a student of society looking for the deeper story and the universal message
to derive a better understanding of the human condition.
— D. A. Hickman, The Silence of Morning
If you missed my recent interview on Richard Gilbert’s blog,
here is the link to
We Need Memoir.
Thanks again, Richard!

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READING GORNICK & SHARPLES

I’ve just finished reading two intriguing books, both memoir, both rich in personal meaning and nuance. One author writes about her life in New York City–specifically, the streets of the city and how human contact is often her goal; the other author writes about her son’s bipolar diagnosis and eventual suicide. At first glance the topics sound dissimilar. Yet, life and death issues, along with passages of noticeable clarity amidst emotional chaos are found in both books.

  • Style and structure vary tremendously, however, making for striking examples of how memoir can be successfully written from different perspectives. Popularized expectations of memoir are extremely limiting, but from a literary standpoint, memoir can flow from the soul. Coming to life effectively in an abundance of customized, highly creative ways.
  • Vivian Gornick is actually a bit of an expert when it comes to this genre. I fist discovered her work via her wonderful book The SITUATION and the STORY: The Art of Personal Narrative (2001, Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

gornickbookcover

“The question clearly being asked in an exemplary memoir is ‘Who am I?’ Who exactly is this ‘I’ upon whom turns the significance of this story-taken-directly-from-life? On that question the writer of memoir must deliver. Not with an answer but with depth of inquiry.”

I took her words to heart as I completed my memoir last August, reading her book to determine if I had gotten reasonably close to this lofty goal in The Silence of Morning: A Memoir of Time Undone. I imagine most other serious memoirists have studied Gornick’s work, as well. I agreed with her about the need for “depth of inquiry” in any solid memoir. A story is just a story without soul-searching; a situation just a situation without depth and contemplation and vivid questions to guide us.

But the Gornick memoir I’m focusing on here is The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir (2015, Farrar, Straus and Giroux). I first learned about her new book on author Richard Gilbert’s Draft No. 4 Blog — immediately, I was intrigued. Gilbert, the author of SHEPHERD: A Memoir, holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Goucher College, Baltimore, and teaches writing at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. Gilbert formerly served as marketing manager of Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, where he also helped acquire books.

The second memoir I want to discuss today is Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide (2011). Author Madeline Sharples is also an advocate for improved mental health services. Her mission since the death of her son is to raise awareness, educate, and erase the stigma of mental illness and suicide in the hope of saving lives. She’ll be participating in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness overnight 16 to 18 mile walk in San Francisco on May 21 for suicide prevention and awareness. Her memoir tells the steps she took in living with the loss of her oldest son–first and foremost that she chose to live and take care of herself as a woman, wife, mother, and writer. She hopes that her story inspires others to find ways to survive their own tragic experiences.

full-halllight-1I interviewed Madeline here in SunnyRoomStudio in 2012, in a post called Look Again. While working on my memoir, I noticed she had written about her son’s suicide, and this encouraged me to keep working on my book. Both of our sons died at 27 years. Paul and Matt both struggled with serious issues for several years before succumbing to what many might consider inevitable. Clearly, life is a challenging endeavor for everyone, but for our sons, it was a toxic battle with life and death issues. So when it came time to decide on a cover quote for my memoir, I knew exactly who to ask. Though our path into grief and beyond tragedy was necessarily different, there are unavoidable similarities. Shock, despair, self-doubt, a purposeful search for truth, plus the inevitable discoveries and insights that arrived like gifts from another world.

In returning to my look at Gornick and Sharples in the context
of their respective memoirs, several things come to mind.

Gornick (author of 12+ books) writes in brief passages without a single chapter break in her latest memoir. When I first began reading The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir … I wondered where she was going with the narrative, if anywhere at all. Drama and tension were understated (which I liked), but I also felt like I may have dipped into her private journal by accident. Scenes are lightly fleshed out, if at all. And dialogue was scattered to nonexistent. A certain chronology was there, as if lightly sprinkled atop subtle story layers. I liked that, as well.

  • When I wrote my memoir, I wanted to avoid mainstream genre guidelines. I didn’t want a book about my son’s life journey to read like some kind of thriller. I wanted to respect his journey, and mine. And I was seeking the substance of the story, the universal, core message–the deeper story of loss, struggle, and hardship–that would resonate far beyond a single brief lifetime.

From GORNICK: “New York friendships are an education in the struggle between devotion to the melancholy and attraction to the expressive. The pavements are filled with those longing to escape the prison sentence of the one into the promise of the other. There are times when the city seems to reel beneath its impact.”

gornick memoirBook notes on Amazon

A memoir of self-discovery and the dilemma of connection in our time …

A contentious, deeply moving ode to friendship, love, and urban life in the spirit of Fierce Attachments: A Memoir (Gornick, 1987) …

Written as a narrative collage that includes meditative pieces on the making of a modern feminist …

Gornick was born in the Bronx in 1935. This memoir was released when she was 80. She clearly has mastered the art of brevity. Odd Woman is 175 pages. Yet, there is obvious substance, as well. And there is clarity, along with an ability to notice the undercurrent of life. Consider her observations:

“Release from the wounds of childhood is a task never completed, not even on the point of death.”

“My mother had heart surgery. She emerged from the operation in a state of calm I’d never known her to possess. Criticism and complaint disappeared from her voice, grievance from her face. Everything was a matter of interest to her … .”

Madeline, in contrast, lives in California. But New York was part of her son’s story, a place where his ability as a jazz musician began to solidify. Yet, Paul also seemed somewhat adrift in New York because of an emerging bipolar disorder, indirectly reminding me of Gornick and her story of the streets, the people, the place, and how these influences shaped her as a woman, a person, an author. The role of “place” is an interesting theme in many memoirs. Madeline’s son makes several cross-country trips trying to outwit his mental health and nurture his considerable ability and musical ambition at the same time. And then there was his love life.

  • Gornick walks the streets of New York City to find herself, her friends, and to encounter humanity in its many guises. Missions of personal exploration are everywhere in memoir. Most authors … urgently wishing to explore life meaning and purpose.

From SHARPLES: “I think the reason I felt so little grief about Mom’s death was because I compared it to Paul’s. She lived a long life, and she made her own decisions about wasting it the way she did. I felt no remorse in that. It was all her choice. The only bad part was all the people she affected along the way with her miserable attitude and sharp tongue.”

  • Gornick also writes about her mother — their ongoing relationship and snippets of their unique history.

IMG-20140510-02135

I took this picture when walking through the cemetery where my grandmother is buried. Living nearly 99 years, Anna was a beacon of light in my life. I wrote about her in both of my books, because her memory looms large and bright. Still.

What memoirists choose to write about varies tremendously. The way our stories come together also varies. In the end, though, we are all writing about the mysteries of human existence. And that is why memoir is such an extremely important genre. What could be more important after all than the relationship between the deepest life mysteries and the delicate unraveling of human lives?

On the back cover of my memoir, I posed key questions that felt extremely important …

How do we better understand the human condition, the quest for inner peace?
How do we tap into the deeper mysteries, embracing challenge and loss as we go?
How do we distance ourselves from a malcontent culture focused on excitement, escape and excess?
And despite it all, how do we deepen our perspective … commit to sustained personal growth?

When I can pick up a memoir that touches any of these subjects, I’m pleased. These are things I want to know. These are subjects I find compelling and hopeful. On page 279, I wrote: “As my awareness expands, I peer ever more intently through the veil of time, daring to inch my way beyond a murky trail of human suffering. In moments of deep silence–vast, comforting–I also sense I am intrinsic to a captivating fantasy, a sacred play of infinite energy. Aren’t we all just riding some incredible wave?”

thesilenceofmorning14-HiRes

I’ll leave you with that question — that sense of infinite possibility. And since we’re also talking about the power of small changes this year, why not consider picking up a book that has been on your “to be read” list for way too long. I always feel a noticeable sense of gladness when I finally get to a book I’ve been wanting and waiting to read … ♥

Until my next blog post on Friday, April 22, I hope you are reading at least one memoir … if not several. When it comes to literature and the hubris of a superficial celebrity culture, a strong memoir, in welcome contrast, artfully reminds us of the true nature of the human condition in insightful, memorable ways. A world born of connection, yes, but we are also a world sustained by understanding, compassion, peace. IF we are to be sustained at all.

By the way, I’m reading another memoir, and will bring back a few remarks to SunnyRoomStudio. Patti Smith writes in her 2015 memoir, M Train, “How is it that we never completely comprehend our love for someone until they’re gone?” If you’ve already read this book, or any of the books covered in this blog post, please share a comment about one of them. Readers are always looking for their “next book” …

The failures of other genres to provide an emotional connection with
some of their characters and narratives gives memoir a toehold.
Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir
Thanks so much for stopping by this sunny space for kindred spirits.
I will always be a student of society looking for the deeper story and the universal message
to derive a better understanding of the human condition.
— D. A. Hickman

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A MOMENT IN THE SUN

Why is “today” so wrong, or “yesterday” … or perhaps, “tomorrow” … ever wondered about this? What happens when you don’t constantly spin stories in your mind? They often dissipate. The mind is a relentless story-maker, and some of this is necessary … in terms of giving our lives meaning and a sense of continuity. But this tendency is best balanced with an ability (and a commitment) to peer beyond heavily personalized stories that are a serious impediment to deeper self-awareness and liberation from time.

“The day that you’ve been waiting for is today; the moment that you’ve been waiting for is this very moment. You must pierce the veil of time and space in order to come to the here and the now. In the now, you will find what you have been looking for.” — Thich Nhat Hanh, “Inside the Now: Meditations on Time” (2015)

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It seems nearly every book written is about this kernel of truth … the journey to see beyond ego and a plethora of self-limiting personal stories. Another common thread in books is the ongoing search for happiness. A search that is often launched from a faulty premise: that “others” can bring me happiness, that “others” are somehow responsible for my suffering, that “others” have failed, yet again, to deliver what I expected and deserved.

What if we released those “others” from our very own well of personal suffering? Released ourselves from make-believe stories of woe, contrived drama, and a curious need to take everything personally? (And I’m referring to smallish situations here, not life events that are more like earthquakes … )

This year we’ve been exploring how small changes have rich and lasting potential. In my last blog post … I mentioned trying to let go of “time” … its many dictates.

What is the deeper story, after all? Don’t you want to know? 

The smallish change I want to suggest today is simple: whenever you find yourself feeling dissatisfied, at odds with people or the planet, release the thought — fully, immediately, without strings. Keep a journal of what happens next. Do you feel more expansive, more peaceful, more joyful? After you’ve done this for some time … did you notice something deeper edging its way into your awareness?

What was it? Can you describe it? Have you perhaps created space for personal growth, for something new to emerge within — for a stronger connection to all things unseen? Maybe this is how spirituality is discovered in the first place. 

springblossoms2012

The beauty of this kind of transformation will be apparent. Now you can be more of a “gift” to others instead of just another person filled with negative energy and forever looking for “something” nameless and nonexistent.

I explored this transformation in many ways during the aftermath of my son’s death … my memoir (written over seven years) shares the details of this unexpected journey … and eventually, I realized that we all have our moment in the sun … and it IS enough.

This moment of awareness, of complete awakening, may take us by surprise, but when we commit to living from a deeper perspective our efforts won’t go unrewarded.

Unfortunately, many seem unwilling to make the commitment or don’t even realize how bogged down they are in a narrow, superficial life path. One that makes them miserable, along with those they interact with. Whenever you sense a “complaint” arising from within, just stop, ask yourself if the so-called complaint is about YOU or someone/something else. Face the inner music, in other words. Faulty perceptions easily turn into complaints. We can explore this pattern, or continue to walk a dull, lifeless path  focused on making “others” wrong, deficient, or guilty of “something.” The choice is always ours.

Instead of mostly “taking” (or insisting on) what you think will make you “happy” … consider asking yourself how you can bring peace and light, even a deep sense of spiritual maturity, into the lives of others. But, first, you have to be filled with peace and light to make this a genuine offering. It’s really up to us. We can be a drain on others, or we can be a meaningful source of inspiration and well-being. We can be filled with understanding (a generous spirit), or brimming over with dissatisfaction, selfish “wants” and “needs.” Criticism, demands, and perpetual neediness. Only when we take responsibility for our own inner world can we truly be present to others. And only then … will we “find” what has long seemed out-of-reach.

As spring approaches, I hope these insights are useful: a small gift with the potential to open doors and change lives. ~ dh

See you again in a few weeks (April 1, 1016). Thanks so much for stopping by this sunny space for kindred spirits. ♥

  • My memoir, THE SILENCE OF MORNING, is now available in paperback and KINDLE formats. This deeply moving story emerges from the ashes of a tragic ending … loss from suicide, profound grief, unresolved spiritual questions, a powerful and revealing appraisal of our addictive culture, and even the greatest life mysteries … a compelling and timeless memoir by an author who cares deeply about humanity, the universal struggle to find peace within chaos and discord.
    • A poignant, courageous narrative; a book for all seasons that forges lasting bonds of connection and understanding; a determined and inspired spiritual journey.    

    ” … a new path. Holy and beautiful and heartbreaking.” –Susan Hall Pohlman, author of Halfway to Each Otherthesilenceofmorning14-HiRes

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READING SUKEY FORBES

“Our house was still filled with flowers, which I’d loathed from the start. The longer they stayed, the more I found their fragrance cloying, like the smell of a disinfectant spray meant to hide something grotesque. And after that first horrible week, I hated watching them die, then having to throw them away–another acknowledgment that time was moving forward without my daughter.” — SUKEY FORBES, The Angel in My Pocket: A Story of Love, Loss, and Life After Death (Viking Penguin, July 2014)

When I read this in Sukey’s book last fall, one thought crossed my mind: I know exactly what she means. Ill-fated flowers. Colors and fragrances that simply don’t help. Bouquets that droop before our eyes, reflecting an inner state consumed by the agony of loss — the harsh reality of temporary lives. Yet, usually without thinking, we send flowers to the bereaved. Of course not everyone feels the same about a gift of flowers during a difficult time; some people, I’m sure, find them comforting, slightly inspiring.

However, I valued Sukey’s honesty in this context. After her beautiful young daughter, six-year-old Charlotte, died unexpectedly to a rare genetic disorder, flowers of sympathy poured in. I had felt much the same in the aftermath of my son’s loss, but wasn’t aware that anyone felt the same. It seemed sort of ungrateful to even think that nature’s beauty wasn’t helpful when sent by well-meaning family members and friends during a time of tremendous shock. Yet, truth is often contrary to what we imagine to be “true.”

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Sukey is a graduate of Roanoke College and is also a non practicing Doctor of Chiropractic. She blogs for the Huffington Post and lectures on resilience, choosing to live, spirituality, and what happens when we die. Sukey was also my Studio Guest in October of 2014 here in SunnyRoomStudio. Read, Giving Sorrow Words.

JACKETCOVER

From the back cover:

“What do we do when the unthinkable happens? We have choices, of course. We can break, become tough, allow cynicism to seep into all our broken places. Or, as Sukey Forbes illustrates in this remarkable book, grief can kick the door wide open and let the light in. The Angel in My Pocket is a devastating and beautiful paean to the human spirit.” — DANI SHAPIRO, memoirist and author of Still Writing

Sukey’s memoir is also layered with stories of literature and family history linked to her great-great-great-grandfather, Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882). Many of Emerson’s words ring true yet today, and the essayist and poet is well-remembered among literary circles and by anyone seeking a lasting wisdom.

“The glory of friendship is not the outstretched hand, not the kindly smile, nor the joy of companionship; it is the spiritual inspiration that comes to one when you discover that someone else believes in you and is willing to trust you with a friendship.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sukey actively seeks her ancestors and her daughter’s spiritual manifestation in the aftermath of Charlotte’s sudden death. She writes: “Much has been written about how the poet Emerson was tortured by the loss of his beloved son, Waldo, taken by scarlet fever at the age of six. Less has been said about the grieving of the boy’s mother, Lidian, who essentially took to her bed for the rest of her life, numbed by the drug of choice for nineteenth-century women, laudanum, also known as tincture of opium.”

The world has been struggling with the dynamics of loss since the beginning of recorded time. And the beauty of memoir, books that often delve into riveting personal experiences, is the sense of personal connection they offer readers. It’s extremely easy to feel alone and isolated when faced with the throes of grief. But when we read memoir … we soon learn that the human condition is pervasive and all-inclusive. Personal narrative is perhaps the most meaningful literary genre for this very reason. Objectivity can only reveal a “report” of what happened, and usually isn’t that helpful or compelling. But the lovely subjectivity of memoir penetrates the dullness and predictability of the external world in critical and memorable ways.

IMG-20140802-02485the other Mccrory Garden (1)When we want to know more about ourselves … a memoir can enlighten in unexpected ways. Because essentially we find our inner self, our timeless self, through life experience … through those we have loved and lost … and through what others share along the way. 

  • Thank you for sharing your story, Sukey. When I think of the countless number of people waking up each day to a profound loss, I also think of those with the courage to face their grief — to share a deeply personal journey with perfect strangers who seek understanding, compassion, awareness, or maybe just trust and companionship during a rough passage. Curiously, there is often the misconception that writing memoir is all about authors — how we “survive” a riveting sadness. While this could be true for some, from my perspective, a memoir is a gift of self … more than anything. Suffering is best met by reaching out to others, by accepting the inherently painful aspects of the mortal journey, and remembering that everyone is suffering … one way or another. I appreciate your gift of self! ♥

ALSO from the cover of Sukey’s memoir: “If your life has ever come to a halt, if you have wondered how to want to live again, if you are looking for hope and longing for courage in the face of grief, if you seek staunch honesty and are keen to hear it from someone who knows firsthand that privilege does not protect you from pain, read this book and know that you are not alone.” — LAURA MUNSON, author of This Is Not the Story You Think It Is

  • THIS YEAR, on my blog, I am also writing about smallish changes that hold the promise of something more. The fourth idea I want to share today is this: Ask yourself frequently what you would be doing if the world of time didn’t dominate your existence. This simple, but daring, question opens MANY doors of insight. I look forward to hearing from those of you who try this! Remember, small changes are the magic of our lives.
  • My memoir, THE SILENCE OF MORNING, is now available in paperback and KINDLE formats. This deeply moving story emerges from the ashes of a tragic ending … loss from suicide, profound grief, unresolved spiritual questions, a powerful and revealing appraisal of our addictive culture, and even the greatest life mysteries … a compelling and timeless memoir by an author who cares deeply about humanity, the universal struggle to find peace within chaos and discord.
    • A poignant, courageous narrative; a book for all seasons that forges lasting bonds of connection and understanding; a determined and inspired spiritual journey.    

    ” … a new path. Holy and beautiful and heartbreaking.” –Susan Hall Pohlman, author of Halfway to Each Otherthesilenceofmorning14-HiRes

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Thanks so much for stopping by this sunny space for kindred spirits. This is also an anniversary post. I launched SunnyRoomStudio in February of 2010. Welcome to another year! See you again Friday, March 11.

JUST A FOGGY MORNING

WE’VE had some foggy mornings recently when everything seems hidden by a thick winter blanket. Looking out a window reveals familiar landmarks still recognizable despite a shroud of white-gray fog. How do you react to foggy mornings? Or do you really notice them?

We know they are temporary. The sun will burn through eventually, the fog will lift. Yet, somehow it’s easy to let a dreary morning seep into our veins … when we aren’t mindful.

I began this shiny new year in SunnyRoomStudio by considering how smallish changes can deliver significant impact, often in ways that surprise us with their staying power. And already we’ve considered a couple of things that fall under this lovely umbrella: taking frequent sky breaks and giving something away as often as possible. Small changes really are the magic of our lives.

JewelsPhotography2016
Photo, Julie Kingery-Conner *

So today I wanted to suggest yet another smallish change that came to me when I woke up to the fog of a mid-February morning that included a dense-fog advisory from the weather channel. Instead of pining for spring flowers or a bright summer sky … let “what is” become a welcome point of surrender, in a deep kind of way.

“If we surrendered to earth’s intelligence we could rise up rooted, like trees.” ― from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours

We waste so much energy “wishing it otherwise” … so much energy pining for a different reality. Something we are certain is “better than” whatever is right in front of us. But when something is deeply accepted, without reservation, a degree of emotional liberation is attainable. Some call it liberation from suffering … even from smallish things that simply drain our energy.

So the third smallish change for 2016–something we can easily build into our spiritual practice–is just this: stay mindful, peaceful even in the face of what seems “negative.” Try to allow “what is” to be enough, and to be okay. When we remember to do this we are less likely to cut ourselves off from the very life force that is inherent to each breath, each ray of sunlight, each moment in time.

And if it helps … consider what is still possible given the circumstances. If it’s the dead of winter, for instance, there are still great photographs of flowers, green grass, sunny skies. Seek them out. Enjoy them fully, not as “it’s just a picture,” but in terms of “this is beautiful.” The colors are vibrant and full of life; there is “completion” of something glorious right in front of me.

Deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light.
— Theodore Roethke

When you try this, let me know how it goes. I’ll be back Friday, February 26th with another smallish change that holds the promise of something more. And if you have ideas along these lines, please share them. Thanks so much for dropping by!

I’ve always loved taking pictures growing up in South Central Illinois, but the love of photography came to me after transplanting to Sioux Falls. I became inspired with the state, and claim it as my own now.” — Julie Kingery-Conner, Jewels Photography 

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