The Key

This post was originally written in response to a WordPress Daily Prompt that asked the question: Have you ever been addicted to anything, or worried that you were? Have you ever spent too much time and effort on something that was a distraction from your real goals? Tell us about it.

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shadowI wanted to write something cute and clever. Something amusing with perhaps a hint of a darker edge. Or maybe an innocuous anecdote about how I weaned myself off caffeine by cutting my morning coffee with gradually increased portions of decaf. I wanted to write something entertaining.

But I have lived too close to real, life-destroying addiction to be able to equate the term with something  benign or amusing. As soon as I saw today’s daily prompt, all I could think about was the moment when everything changed– the moment when I suddenly understood that it was possible to be addicted to someone else’s addiction.

The counsellor from the Employee Assistance Program was a quiet, gentle woman with the patience of Job. She listened to my whining for weeks. If only this was different. If only that person would do this. If only that person would behave differently. If only…

She just listened. Once in a while she would inject a quiet question. “What could you do?”

And I would rant on. I felt trapped. I felt caged. I felt like I was going crazy.

I don’t know how many sessions we had like this. And she listened. And quietly jotted down her mysterious notes.

And then one day, just before our hour was up, she tore a corner off her notepad and wrote on it the words Codependent No More. “I’d like to recommend that that you read this book, Anna. Perhaps when you’ve had a chance to read it we can talk about it.”

That was all.

I stopped at the bookstore on the way home, but I waited until the rest of the household was asleep before I pulled the book out to start reading. As I read far into the night, my jaw began to drop with the astonishing sense of recognition. How did the writer know? How was she able to put into words the insanity that dogged me daily? How did she read my mind? And then the creeping realization that my particular form of insanity was not unique. It was a recognizable pattern. It had a name. Others have found themselves in the same cage. And, most importantly, there was a way out.

But the penny really dropped when the author detailed a long list of “If—then” statements to help the reader see him or herself in relation to the pattern of codependence. I came to the statement (paraphrased) “If you are reading this book because you want to fix someone else’s behaviour, then you are codependent.”

Ouch. Busted.

That book taught me to own my own behaviour. And it showed me that, to a very great extent, the cage I felt trapped in was of my own construction.

And, before many more weeks had passed, it gave me the clarity to walk out of the cage.

Buzz

A perfect summer “re-run” — this post was originally written in response to a WordPress  Daily prompt  about anxiety.

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No way was I going outside.

I’d been actively avoiding “outside” all summer. My mother must have been at her wits’ end. It’s pretty hard to avoid the outside world at the summer cottage. It must have been exhausting having to battle with me every time the family wanted to go out somewhere that summer. I don’t recall how old I was, but I recall the anxiety like it was yesterday. At first it was triggered by the faintest buzzing sound. As time went by it reached the point where I assumed that the danger was present even if I couldn’t see or hear it.

“It” being bees and wasps. ESPECIALLY wasps. I was terrified of being stung.

So I stayed inside, depriving myself of summer fun in the name of protecting my hide from what I imagined to be a fate worse than death.

One warm September evening my dad set about barbequing supper in the back yard. My younger sister played outside, while I huddled on the safe side of the screen door. My mom made one more attempt to coax me outside.

“Come on out, Anna. It’s so nice out. We’re going to have a picnic supper!”

Don't be fooled by the pretty butterfly. If there was a flower there was bound to be a bee somewhere!
Don’t be fooled by the pretty butterfly. If there was a flower there was bound to be a bee somewhere!

“Well…”

Please come out.”

“Are there bees?”

“I don’t see any.”

I screwed up my courage, stepped outside, and started down the wooden steps. The same wooden steps from which hung, unbeknownst to all of us, a massive wasp nest that had been expanding undisturbed while we were away at the cottage.

The wasps, always more aggressive in the fall, were already getting riled by the increased human activity and the smell of grilling meat. My footstep on their roof was the last straw.  They swarmed me.

Surrounded by a cloud of buzzing fury, I froze in panic and screamed. And screamed. And screamed.  My mother, realizing I was too terrified to move, waded into the fray and pulled me down off the steps. I was stung in three places– once on each leg, and once on a forearm. My mother’s rescue effort was rewarded with one sting on the arm that grabbed me.

For half an hour I was a sobbing, hysterical mess. Having ascertained that I was not having any sort of allergic reaction, my mom calmly tweezed out all the stingers and applied antiseptic and Band-Aids.

And then something amazing happened. I was able to go outside. The worst had happened and I had survived. It turned out that my imaginings were far more painful than the real experience.

I have never again felt the kind of anxiety about stinging insects that plagued me all that summer. In my household, I have become the one who swats the wasp that comes in through the hole in the screen. I am the one who takes down the nests under the deck at the cottage before they get too big.

That was the first time in my life that I understood that worrying about something could be worse than the thing itself. It is a lesson I have returned to over and over again. When the familiar buzz of anxiety starts up in my head I remind myself that the sting of reality is seldom as horrible as anything I can conjure in my imagination.

Actually very beautiful --once the tenants have moved on.
Actually very beautiful –once the tenants have moved on.

Finding my way in

I don’t often remember my dreams, but I recall this one in vivid detail, even though I dreamed it nearly fifteen years ago.

I am walking through my house examining the contents of each room. I am moving from room to room at a slow, easy pace. Kitchen. Living room. Bedroom. I turn a corner in the hallway  and find myself in a room I have never seen. It dawns on me that the hallway doesn’t actually turn a corner there, but there it is, and here I am in this room. It’s a spacious room, furnished ornately with plush sofas and complicated woodwork. The décor is dominated by various shades of green that evoke the sense of being surrounded by woods and grass, even though I am clearly indoors. I walk around  the perimeter of the room and acclimate myself to my surroundings. Reaching the far side, I find myself wandering through another doorway into another room. This room in turn leads to a third. Each room is successively smaller and more cluttered. The third room is a chaotic jumble of crates and boxes. I don’t know what’s in any of them.

I am excited by the discovery of these rooms. I feel an overwhelming sense of potential. I am keen to “move into” these rooms– to integrate them with the rest of my home. I want to open up the boxes and see what’s in them. And I  really want to rearrange the furniture.

Only recently did it occur to me to investigate dream interpretations about the appearance of new rooms in a familiar home. I can’t say that I’ve done exhaustive research, but I like what I’ve found.

Apparently a house in a dream is typically seen as representative of the psyche, and the discovery of new rooms is indicative that the dreamer is becoming conversant with new facets of his or her personality.

I’ve actually dreamed variations on this dream several times throughout my life. I don’t recall the other instances as vividly as the one I’ve described here, nor do I recall what was happening in my life when I dreamed those other dreams. But the “new rooms” dream that I do recall came at a time in my life when I had just come though a  prolonged physical and psychological trauma of life-changing proportions.

So the dream interpretation resonates. When I dreamed these rooms, I was indeed discovering spaces in my psyche of which I had previously been unaware. I was rearranging my mental furniture, and unpacking some mysterious new boxes. Someone who has known me all my life said of me at the time, “It was like she was a different person.”

I remember when I woke up after that dream feeling a deep disappointment to realize that the extra rooms were not real. I really had been looking forward to living in those new spaces.

It took a long time for me to understand that that’s exactly what I did.

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This was a riff on today’s Daily Prompt: “An extra room has magically been added to your home overnight. The catch: if you add more than three items to it, it disappears. Hiow do you use it?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recognized, but not that way

The Daily Prompt asks, “As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? How close or far are you from that vision?”

Famous. I wanted to be famous. I blame the acting classes, and the modicum of success I experienced in the grade nine musical theatre production. Oh and I’m sure all those piano lessons were a contributing factor. To be honest, I wasn’t very specific about what I wanted to be famous at. So long as I was famous.

At some point in my early 20s I do recall pausing to reflect on how I would know when I had achieved fame, and I came up with an elegantly simple measure. For me, being famous meant that people I didn’t know personally would recognize me  and know who I was.

So thirty years later how am I doing?

To begin with, having spent so much of my career teaching in one form or another, I have amassed three decades worth of former students. One thing about being a teacher is that there is generally one of me with a whole roomful of students, multiplied by class after class, year after year. And, to be brutally honest, unless you were really exceptional (either for good or ill), the odds of me remembering your name fifteen or twenty years later are a little iffy. But you remember me, because I was the one performing at the front of the room. So when you rush up to me in the mall to say hi, I must admit that I experience that moment as if someone I don’t know has recognized me. It’s flattering, but a little disconcerting, especially when I really don’t remember any details of our time together.

Secondly, because of a series of management roles I have held, both in the independent high school where I taught, and more recently in the public service, my name has, for years, appeared publicly. I have, for at least two-thirds of my working life, been the person who is named as being officially in charge of something. Consequently, over the years there have been particular contexts in which I could introduce myself and anticipate a response of “Oh, I know who you are!”

Andy Warhol said everyone is famous for fifteen minutes, and I have managed to pull off a few fifteen minute stints of fame for my writing. Not Margaret Atwood  or Ernest Hemingway fame. Just the kind of modest fame that lets you go to bed grinning with self-satisfaction, but leaves you still needing to haul yourself off to the day job in the morning. I’ve read my work on the radio and been published in academic journals. I’ve written study guides for a local theatre and actually been paid to do it. And twice now, in the eight months I’ve been blogging here, the lovely editors at WordPress have seen fit to Freshly Press my work. I’m still riding the wave of the most recent Fresh Press, and I have to confess that it brings out in me that same impulse that long ago made me dream of fame. It’s thrilling to watch my stats spike, to count the likes (thank you!) and tally the new follows (Welcome!) Comments mean a great deal, especially the ones where the commenter has added their own thoughts,  and the biggest reward of all is when someone re-posts what I have written.

Because the truth is, I’m no longer looking for my old vision of fame. I no longer care if, when I meet you on the street, you recognize my face or know my name. What matters to me at this stage of my life is that something I did made a difference to you. When you re-post my blog, you are telling me that you thought I said something worth reading– that it mattered to you in some way, and therefore might matter to the people who read your blog.  And that matters a great deal to me.

 

 

 

I go walking: At Dusk

I don’t have high expectations of Saturday Night.  If there’s an event to go to, I enjoy going out, but I don’t feel a desperate need to find an event if one has not presented itself to me. I’m introverted enough to be quite content at home with a glass of wine or a cup of tea and a good book.  I’m also just as apt to be doing something quite mundane like laundry or, as was the case tonight, marking papers. A party animal I am not.

One benefit to a quiet Saturday night is an evening walk. I love walking at dusk. I love the steady changing of colour in the sky as the sun slips below the horizon. I love the particular shade of deep blue that the sky assumes just before the last light is gone and it is night-dark. I love the way the air feels as it cools down. At this time of year it’s a very solitary time to walk, but in summer twilight brings out lots of walkers who have been waiting for a reprieve from the intense heat of the day.

Things come out at dusk. Tonight it was a lone beaver floating placidly in the icy river where the water is lapping up past the clusters of weedy shoreline trees. All I could think was how cold that water must be, and how relaxed the beaver was in spite of the chill.

I also encountered a pair of mallard ducks paddling near the shore. They were quiet, until a second pair of mallards flew in and, apparently,  landed too close to the nesting spot the first pair was scoping out. Then there was a huge to-do of quacking, which only calmed slightly when the second couple relented and flew upriver a little.  Even so, the first pair of ducks were still trash-talking the second in an indignant tone as I walked back along the dike towards home.

The geese were out too, but in the darkening sky I could only hear them.

The thing about dusk is that it’s ephemeral. Night stays around for a significant time. Day is a commitment. But there is something about dusk that evokes a conscious sense of time passing. You can only enjoy it in the moment. I don’t even try to take pictures, because I know there is something about dusk to which my camera will never do justice. I have to absorb it with my senses, knowing that my time to do so is limited.

When I go back and read that, it occurs to me that it might sound kind of depressing. But that’s not what I feel at all. For me, that ephemeral space between day and night is a magical moment of letting go of the busyness of day and allowing myself to float peacefully on the night like that beaver floating along the river’s edge. Not even caring how cold it is.

riverbank1

Plan B

The Daily Prompt wants me to “Tell us your funniest relationship disaster story.”  Hah!

Technically, it wasn’t even a relationship, except perhaps in his imagination. But it was disastrously funny.

I was 15, in grade ten. He was an “older man,” in grade twelve. We met at a rehearsal of the school musical theatre production of Pajama Game.

He had a girlfriend, who was, conveniently (or inconveniently, depending on your vantage point), not in the musical.  Mostly we chatted while we were waiting for our turn to rehearse. No. Mostly he chatted and I tolerated his company.

And then the night of my first high school dance rolled around. I was excited about the dance. Excited to be going on my own to meet up with my friends.  Almost ready to leave, in fact, so that when the doorbell rang there was no mistaking the fact that I was dressed to go to the dance. No pretending otherwise.

And there he was, on my doorstep. Also clearly dressed for the evening’s festivities. And, I couldn’t help noting, minus one girlfriend.

“Hi there. I just happened to be passing by and I thought I would stop in to see if you wanted a ride to the dance.”

Now based on the simple geography of where his home, my home and the school were respectively located, there was no possible way that he “just happened to be passing by.” Those words have thus been logged forever in my family lore as the lamest of all pick-up lines.

I didn’t really want to go to the dance with him, but refusing the offer didn’t seem to be an option.  I asked, awkwardly, “Where is your girlfriend?”

“Oh, she was in a bit of a car accident….”

“A car accident!?”

“Just a minor one. She didn’t even need to stay at the hospital. She’s resting at home.”

“…and…you’re going to the dance?”

“Yeah. She’s fine. Shall we go?”

And so, dumbfounded, I went. And spent a totally surreal evening not hanging out with my friends.

When the time came for him to drop me off, he insisted that he was hungry (having missed supper to check on his injured girlfriend before heading off to the dance with me) and he simply had to come in and order a pizza. My parents were out, and my grandmother was babysitting my younger sisters. The plan was that when I got home she would hand off the babysitting duties to me and head home. Which, to my horror, she did.

And there I was, stuck with loverboy, waiting for the damn pizza to arrive. Injured girlfriend notwithstanding, it soon became clear that his idea for how we should put in the waiting time differed greatly from mine. I kept trying to come up with reasons why he really ought to be leaving, but he was impervious to all hints.

And so I was forced to resort to my secret weapon: my three-year-old sister.

“Oh Oh,” I said, hand cupped dramatically to one ear, “I think  she’s awake.”

“I don’t hear anything.”

“Oh yes, I’m sure she’s calling. I’d better go check on her.” At which point I marched into her room, shook the poor kid awake, and dragged her out to the living room. “See. She’s wide awake. There’s no way she’ll go to sleep until you’re gone.”

And then, because he was still too thick to take the hint, I propped my semi-comatose kid sister up on the couch between us and repeatedly elbowed her into remaining conscious until he finally wolfed down his pizza and accepted that he was not going to get lucky with Plan B.

 

 

 

 

 

Create the path by walking on it

Daily Prompt wants to know, “Have you ever become obsessed with something? Tell us about something that captivates your attention like nothing else.”

You may have noticed I haven’t been posting much lately. I have been doing a bit of non-blog writing, but mostly I’ve just been super-busy with other things. Chiefly, I’ve got a lot of papers to grade for the two (what was I thinking?) courses I taught this term over and above my already busy day job. I should be doing that right now.

I don’t know if I would call it an obsession, but at this point in my life I am focused on finding ways to live more creatively. Teaching is, for me, a creative pursuit. Grading papers is not. My job affords opportunities for creativity, but it also comes with lots of barriers to creativity. Sometimes I think my biggest barrier to living a more creative life is me.

One of my greatest creative mentors is a woman I have never met, but who lives so vividly through her books that I feel as though I have. A few days ago I was having a sort of “crisis of faith”—as in I was seriously doubting my faith in my own creativity. I expressed it in this blog post. The very next day, as though the universe itself was responding to my shaken confidence, I picked up Julia Cameron’s The Sound of Paper from my nightstand and happened upon these words, written by Cameron in reflection upon a concert of Richard Rodgers’ lesser-known works:

All of us who make things worry whether or not what we make is “original.” Listening to the Rodgers evening proved this worry to be irrelevant. Clearly, Rodgers was the “origin” of all his work. The prism of his sensibility is what made it original. The same is true for all of us. We are the origin or our work. Our allowing work to move through us in the issue. As we suit up and show up each day at the page or easel or the camera, we have an “eye” that becomes the “I” present in all that we do. (pp. 57-58)

Julia Cameron is one of those rare beings who actually make a living being creative. She has published both fiction and non-fiction, and even composed opera. But Cameron’s greatest gift to the creative world has surely been her many books of gentle wisdom on how to unlock the creativity we all carry within us. Beginning with The Artist’s Way, and moving through multiple volumes of reflections and exercises that encourage the reader to dig deeper into the depths of his or her own creativity, Cameron has quite literally “written the book” on how to live a more creative life.

Mind you, she’s not alone. There are others whom I have found to be able guides in my quest to centre myself within my creativity. Twyla Tharp. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Stephen King. And others whose names escape me for the moment.

So many things escape me. So many times I have tried to take a run at living a more creative life, and before I know it all the things that have a tendency to squelch my efforts rush in and fill up all the spaces in my day, and in my mind. The truth is my willpower is not very powerful. I’m way better at starting projects than I am at finishing them.

But I’m not giving up.

There’s been a lot written about Disney’s new creation Frozen. For  me, the most powerful metaphor in this amazing film comes in the middle of Elsa’s iconic song “Let it go” where she essentially creates a staircase by walking up it. That’s how I see the process of creating a different way of living. Create the path by walking on it. One step at a time.

Meanwhile, I need to grade some papers.

 

On deck…

Today’s Daily Prompt: Theoretically, summer will return to the polar-vortex-battered Northern Hemisphere. What are you looking forward to doing this summer?

The faintest breeze blows cool off the almost-still lake, while the mid-morning sun is already heating up the deck. Fresh coffee burns my lips while the butter melts into crisp cinnamon toast. The quiet is punctuated by the morning songs of bright birds and unseen insects. A jumping fish sends concentric ripples across the lake as a loon breaks the surface and glides placidly along the shoreline.

Everything else disappears. The stresses, the worries, the frustrations. Gone. Melted in the hot sun. Dissolved in the cool water. Washed away by one perfect cup of coffee in one of the earth’s perfect places.

coffee on the deck

Gym class not-so-heros

Some days the daily prompt is easy to answer. Today’s question is: Which subject in school did you find impossible to master? Did math give you hives? Did English make you scream? Do tell!

I was that kid. The one who liked school. The one who put up her hand to answer all the questions. The one who obsessed about handing in her homework on time. The one who got teased by the other kids for always having good marks. The one who adored her teachers. Even the sort of scary ones.

But then there was gym.

Since I started school in the mid-1960s, both teacher education and the Physical Education curriculum have evolved a much more appropriate stance towards accommodating the needs of the differently abled. But when I entered school with a full-on case of Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, “accommodation,” when it happened at all, typically meant one of the following:

  1.  Sit on the bench and watch. The best that can be said for this option was that it was crushingly boring. It could have been redeemed by modifying it to “sit on the bench and read a book” but I can’t recall that being an option. Presumably by watching I was going absorb some gym-related knowledge vicariously? More likely it just never occurred to my teachers that there might have been more worthwhile ways to spend my time.
  2. Do some benign alternate activity on the sidelines. I spent a great deal of junior high gym class listlessly lobbing a badminton birdie back and forth with my best friend who conveniently had asthma and needed to sit out even more activities than I did. You might be forgiven for expecting that this experience resulted in me becoming a badminton ace, but you would be very wrong. Since, in the mind of the teacher, I was never going to be an athlete, this activity really was just about killing time. Consequently I was never deemed worthy of any coaching or instruction that might have resulted in actual skill development.
  3. Try to participate as much as you can. This was the worst, by far. Because as soon I left my exile of the bench or sidelines, I stepped into the arena where, like it or not, I was up for comparison with everyone else in the class. And compare they did. I was the classic “last kid picked” for every team. And for some reason in that era it never dawned on the teachers that there was anything problematic with ALWAYS letting the most athletic kids (generally boys) select the teams. I was always the slowest runner, when I was enough in remission to run at all. I couldn’t catch a ball to save my life. To this day I still “throw like a girl.”

Even during the good times when I was fully in remission, which was the case by the time I reached my early teens, gym was unremittingly awful, because in all those years on the bench I had missed out on a lot of basic skill-building. This wouldn’t have been an issue for some activities, but most gym teachers at the time did not seem to possess imaginations capable of stretching beyond the  tried and true triumvirate of volleyball, basketball, and baseball.

I was never wired for team sports, but for most of my gym career they were my only options. Even as an adult, I shy away from any athletic activity where my lack of skill and prowess might impact on another player. In my 40s I enjoyed going to a “master class” in swimming where we mainly did laps. One day the teacher decided to switch things up and teach us a bit of water polo for 5-10 minutes at the end of each workout. I dreaded those minutes so much I stopped going.

Grade 10 meant switching to the high school. It meant, at that time, the last year of mandatory physical education. It also meant the first time that gym would be a graded course, as opposed to something in which I would get a pass just for showing up.

Fortunately, grade 10 also introduced me to a new breed of gym teacher. She was young. She was easygoing. She was a she. And her philosophy was that since this was our last year of gym class we should be exposed to physical activities that we could do when we were no longer in the high school world with its obsession with volleyball and basketball. So we went swimming — which was always the one physical activity at which I was both competent and confident. We went horseback riding–which scared the beejeezus out of me, but had me on a level playing field with all but a handful of my classmates. We went bowling (OK) and cross country skiing (yes!) We did lots of things I sucked at, a few things with which I could sort of cope, and two or three things I actually liked. But nothing we did lasted more than a couple of weeks, and the main thing was you had to try everything. When I brought home my mid-semester report card, my parents and I were elated. I had pulled off a C+.

My gym teacher also happened to be my home-room teacher, so when my parents arrived for the parent-teacher interview, the teacher had seen my report card with not only my gym mark, but also the A’s I had received for all my other courses. When my parents introduced themselves, they could see that the teacher was very nervous. She began talking about my progress in gym class in the most defensive of tones, which confused my parents greatly until they realized that she assumed they were coming to berate her for “only” giving me a C+, when clearly I was a far better student than that. “Oh no,” my mom exclaimed when she finally put two and two together. “We’re absolutely delighted with Anna’s grade in gym. She has had the best experience in your class of any gym class she has ever taken!”

Gymnasiums can still make me break out in a cold sweat. I don’t see myself ever joining an athletic team. Fortunately I got enough “team” training in band and theatre to consider myself a fairly well-rounded adult. In spite of the inadequacies of my physical education, I have found ways of being physically fit and active that work for me. I still love to swim, and you know, dear reader, how much I love to walk.

In fact, it’s time to go for a walk right about now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On tea bags, time, and running away to join the circus

I forgot to buy tea bags.

I could have bought tea bags at any number of points throughout the day. I knew when I went to bed last night that I was using the last one. But I forgot. And now, bedtime is looming without my usual cup of cranberry herbal tea.

This bugs me, just a little.

On the other hand, it bugs me a lot that the lack of my favourite bedtime beverage bugs me at all.

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I talk a lot about how much I value change. So much so, that the word change looms largest in my cloud of most frequently used tags. So I admit to feeling considerable irritation at being forced to face the uncomfortable fact that I am a total creature of habit.

And now this small thing– this lack of a tea bag– has me reflecting on all the other too-comfortable habits on which I rely. My far-from-adventurous diet. My homogeneous wardrobe. My evenings spent in pretty mundane activities. My holidays spent at the same family vacation spot every summer.

Do I really love change as much as I say I do? Or am I just a great pretender?

Am I a creature of habit because I’ve reached the stage in life where I know myself and what I want, or because I’ve settled into a nice, safe rut. This question is causing me a great deal more consternation than my lack of cranberry tea.

Deep down, the changes that I crave the most are big changes. Quitting-your-job-and-running-away-to-join-the-circus changes. Dramatic changes to how I live and how I make a living. Substantial changes to the way I spend my time and the people I spend it with. But they aren’t the kind of changes that just happen. They need building, step by tedious step. Perhaps I need to run out of tea bags more often to jolt myself out of my cozy patterns into taking actual steps toward the big dreams.

Sometimes I fear that it’s too late for big changes. I worry that I’ve reached the age where I should be happy just to settle in and appreciate my comfortable habits and my nightly cup of tea. But then I see other people, older than me, courageously strike out in new directions– new businesses, new relationships, new homes in new cities. And I have to believe that there’s still time for a grand adventure.

With or without cranberry tea.

imagine