A Day in a Vacuum

imagesNVC9QTQFI have loved and hated.  I have lived a life of indescribable joy and unbelievable sorrow.  I have had moments of heart-bursting pride and moments of hide-my-head-forever shame.  With all of this, the normal calm is the key to my endurance.  As folks all around me long for a life less ordinary, more and more, I become painfully aware that the ordinary – the status quo – is what I relish.  I treasure that day when my heart neither leaps nor plunges.  I want a time when I can just be and a space where I can exist.  No good.  No bad.  No value, positive nor negative.  Pure existence with the absence of value.  That would be an ordinary day. A day in the vacuum.

The Easy Road

untitledI’ll let you in on a little secret.  I don’t think I love my husband and I don’t know if I ever really did, or will.  I married him  because at the time I didn’t think anyone else would (or could) love me.  I had fooled him into thinking that I was worth fighting for, so I let him fight.  I had always been pudgy and haven’t always been popular.   My thinnest, most beautiful, most effusive and most naïve 23 year old self was still stuck in the “I’ll never be worthwhile” rut of a mind frame, so I allowed myself to be wooed by a narcissist.  All of the signs of impending doom were present, and both sets of parents warned us that it was a volatile match, at best.  There were several points during our courtship and engagement period at which I called things off, but he always had a way of pulling me in.  So I have stayed through six children and almost sixteen years.

Life is not easy in hell.  I yell at the kids more than I should.  I am bitter, angry and full of stress.  In his absence I am relaxed and care free.  I am more attentive to the children and to myself.  I don’t worry about making his life perfect.  I don’t obsess over the minutiae of my religion and am able to be a more spiritually connected person.  The spirit of my faith makes me want to follow the laws out of love.  There is no waiting for the other shoe to drop.  He often resents my reactions to my feelings of stress.  What he fails to realize is that he is often the cause of my stress and anxiety.

Yet I do not feel the need to change my situation by leaving.  I realize that he will never permanently change and I am willing to live with that.  There are times when he is a little more bearable.  His breath is not so noxious, his chewing not so noisy, his demeanor not so overbearing, his humor not so acerbic, his temper not so explosive.  So I stay.  For now.  Because there are bills to pay, children to feed, chores to do and life to live.  The thought of doing all of that alone is daunting.  More so than an existence of mediocrity at best, battle at worst.  For the moment I’m taking the easy road and I continue to exist.  And maybe, just maybe, one day I will be courageous and start living again.

 

You’ve Already Learned it All

untitledI was asked to speak at my son’s 8th grade graduation last week.  I am excited about that, but couldn’t think of anything that I could tell the graduates that they haven’t already learned in school.  So I wrote this:

Thank you for allowing me to speak on this important night in all of our lives. Several years ago, we sat here while our dear friend, Ronald, addressed his son’s graduating class. He delivered an important message about the “good guy factor” that our children live and learn at The Best School Ever. He spoke not only about the qualities that should be implicit in every school’s education, but the extra pieces beyond the typical, that our students live and learn here. Well, since that topic has already been covered, I would like to speak to you about some specific lessons that you learn here.

Graduates, you have delivered thoughtful speeches this evening about great leaders from years past who have taught us life lessons for today. While it may seem difficult to grasp the lessons of the past and bring them to the here and now, I am here to tell you that these are lessons of the present. You have had a set of exemplary role models, and you have been fortunate to have learned living lessons from them every day of your lives in The Best School Ever.

Here at The Best School Ever you have learned perseverance, even through difficult times. Dean and Boss fought through many obstacles to make this school a reality. He wanted a proper education for his growing family and he would not settle for any less than what they deserved. He would not take “no” for an answer, and to this day, he still won’t. This resulted in something beautiful and holy in a place that was previously neither. Take this lesson with you. Don’t give up on anything or anybody if it’s something or someone that you believe in.

You have learned compassion. This is the ability to recognize the value of every person. Principal would never pass another person without saying “hello” or “good morning.” She treats the hired help with the same dignity and respect as she would expect for herself. I am not from the same background as she is and do not have a fraction of her knowledge, yet she has always treated me as an equal. For most of us that kind of respect goes a long way. Take this lesson with you. Wherever life takes you, remember that every person has a story and at the root of it all, we are all basically the same. When you encounter another person, even a homeless individual on the street, remember that this, too, is somebody’s son, daughter, brother, sister, father or mother. It could even be you.

You have learned modesty. Mr. and Mrs. Teacher live and breathe this lesson. Mr. Teacher could run circles around all of us with his  knowledge. He could run a University and be a dean somewhere. He could be doing a lot of things. But we are all incredibly fortunate that he and his wife are here in Our City, educating all of us with their words and their lives. Take this lesson with you. Remember that modesty is not just about the way you present yourself physically,(although that’s important, too.) It’s also about your  attitude. While it is important to recognize the talents that we are given, we must realize that everything is from above and to treat it as a gift, not an entitlement.

You have learned integrity. The word integrity, on the surface, seems to have two meanings. The first definition has to do with honesty, and the second meaning is one of different parts being mixed together to form a cohesive whole. But if you think about it, both meanings are one and the same. If you were to take every aspect of your life and mix these parts together so that they blend completely to become one integrated piece, then nothing is hidden and you are living a life of honesty and integrity. Mrs. Teacher 2 lives the life of integrity that she teaches. You can believe that if she is telling you to conduct yourself in a certain way, it is only because she has been doing it herself. Take this lesson with you. Believe in your convictions enough to live them. Act as if Mrs. Teacher 2 is always standing over your shoulder. The Best School Ever’s students would never cheat on a test, but if you are ever tempted, believe that she is standing behind you, guiding you. And later, when the time comes, be the same person in your business relationships as you are at home with your family.

You have learned ingenuity. Mrs. Teacher 3 has taught you to think outside the box. Take her invaluable lesson on peanut butter sandwiches, for instance. You thought that this lesson was about writing complete instructions. But it was more. And when she asked you to construct a 3 dimensional model, it was not just a history lesson. These were all about creativity and taking a unique approach to any given situation. Take this lesson with you. There is always more than one way to solve a problem. Whether you are working on a difficult project or potty training a toddler, you will always appreciate the ability to conquer a difficulty with the confidence that you have a number of different ways to accomplish it because you know how to think outside the box.

You have learned patience. Teacher 4 has had patience with all of you when grasping difficult math equations. She “gets” that not everyone learns the same way and not everyone understands the same language. She has patiently taught each of you at your own level, and has drilled the lessons into you using your own ability to absorb the information in your own way, until you have all understood. Take this lesson with you. Have patience with yourselves and with others. Not everything in life is going to come out perfectly the first time. Not a cake that you bake, not a speech that you write, not a building that you build. Behind every success are countless stories of patience with failure. With patience, eventually, you will see a seed grow into a plant and blossom into a beautiful flower, as we have watched you grow and develop through the years.

Dear graduates, perseverance, compassion, modesty, integrity, ingenuity, patience, and the countless lessons that all of your teachers here have given you – these are not merely things that you have learned from a textbook. These are living and breathing qualities that will take you through life. You are at a delightful crossroads right now. This is an exciting time for you as you are about to gain a taste independence and freedom that you have never before experienced. But you must choose. I know that you have the tools to choose the direction of your freedom wisely. Because this education that you have received has armed you with the tools to get through life, as long as you choose to use their wisdom. Then you will truly live a life of freedom.

Be a Cat, Not a Dog

ImageIt’s not that I don’t like cats, I just relate better to the canine species.  My very-wise-and-sometimes-very-direct clinical supervisor honed in on that fact and the fact that it does not always work to my benefit.  The Amazing Dr. C (who doesn’t really know me that well given that we have only been meeting for 2 hours once every other week in a group setting with four other social workers since December) hit the nail right on the head when she posited, “Rachel, you need to be more like a cat and less like a dog.”  Initially, the wounded child deep down inside of me was hurt by this.  I mean, this is not my first rodeo.  After all, I’ve been in this profession for close to a decade, now; more than a decade if you count my two years of internship.  In addition, I am a forty year old mother of six – I know how to behave appropriately given most situations.  How can this stranger tell me to amend personality traits that are so unique and often useful?  Is she telling me that there is something intrinsically damaged within me?  That is when the mature professional side of me forwent the hurt and let the message sink in.  The Amazing Dr. C., in her infinite wisdom, is preparing me for a long career of keeping myself out of trouble.  While I am taking painstaking efforts to embody the wisdom in this message in multiple aspects of my life, sometimes I fail.  This morning I failed in an epic way, costing me a tearful morning in my office with the door shut and a desk-full of unfinished business.  I am ordering myself a personalized cuff bracelet from my friend, Wendy, with the words, “cat not dog” stamped on it to remind myself to sink into the background.  With that, I give you three ways in which I should emulate a cat:

(1)  Dogs are eager people pleasers. This makes them easy to train to perform simple tricks. Cats do what they want, when they want, and only on their own terms.  I need to do what I do because I need to do it, and stop being so concerned about what other people will think of me.  This may stem from low self-concept or it may not, and I don’t really care why.  I am a people pleaser, and I need to quit feeling like my happiness is contingent upon the approval of others.  Because I would be an infinitely happier person were it not.

(2)  Dogs are social butterflies.  Cats are more solitary.  I recently discovered that I have difficulty spending time with myself.  It’s hard for me to “just be.”  One of my most pronounced fears is that of being alone.  I mean, a trip to the bathroom by myself would be lovely, but given several hours with minimal human contact would likely warrant a trip to the local sanitarium.  I have always attributed this to my extroverted nature, but I am beginning to think that it’s something more.   I need to be able to just bask in my own glory without approval or company.  It just boils down to one thing – lack of being comfortable in my own skin.  I’m not quite sure how to get to the point where I am comfortable being alone with me, but I know I will get there.  It’s going to be a long, lonely journey.

(3)  Dogs are noisy hunters.  They will often bark before they bite.  Cats are quiet – you don’t hear from them unless it’s absolutely necessary.  I’m pretty certain that this is the lesson that The Amazing Dr. C. was trying to impart to me.  I will often speak before thinking.  If I have something to say, whether it’s at a management meeting or in a social situation, many times I will blurt it out and catch myself in post-facto-regret.  That is what happened this morning.  I envy people like my colleague M.  She sits in meetings and never utters a word.  When I began my employment here at The Happy Home, I  was sure that she was just quiet because she was not that bright.  That lasted about ten minutes, at which point I saw her in action and read some of her notes.  The woman is a brilliant clinician with skills that I may, one day, acquire.  I guess M is just comfortable enough in her own skin to not feel the need to share every thought that she has with the world.

So now, on May 13, 2014, I am taking a good look at myself.  This introspection will, no doubt, result in some major changes in my life – personal and professional.  I will need guidance and support.  I know that I can count on The Amazing Dr. C. for guidance, because that’s why I pay her.  Support is up in the air, but maybe that is inherent in the problem.  I should probably start out by knowing how to support myself.

 

An Open Letter To My Beloved Residents

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In celebration of Older Americans Month, 2014, in honor of my wonderful population served, and in memory of my beautiful Oma, who, ironically,  was a resident in the nursing home where I am currently employed.  Although she passed away 37 years ago, I still feel her presence every day.

Oma

Dear Resident,

You over there, in the Geri-chair.  You probably don’t think I noticed you this morning, struggling to keep your dentures from falling out of your mouth while you attempt to convey your message to an overworked, underpaid nurses aid. You, too, on that side.  You who are unable to gesture to the aide because your joints are non-functional, as are your memory and ability to speak.  All of this is due to the attack of the monsters that we refer to as “The Aging Process” and “Dementia.”  But somewhere, deep down, you realize that your undergarment is full and it needs to be changed.  And somewhere, deep down, you wonder when your life turned into this existence.  Well, I noticed all of you.  I notice you and I want, so badly, to rescue you.  I want to take you home with me and personally provide all of your care.  I know that I can’t save the world and I certainly could never add more to my already runneth-over plate.  Plus, it goes against all of my education and professionalism to try to save you.  I am supposed to retain some semblance of distance.  Establish boundaries, they say.  I am the professional and nothing more.  I come here to The Happy Home every day to do a job - and I do it well.

I can’t help but imagine you in your prime.  You were the belle of the ball, the life of the party.  I can only imagine the way you flipped and whirled around with the best looking soldiers at the USO dances.  And then you met the love of your life.  He took your breath away and stole your heart.  You got married, bought a house and built a beautiful life together.  You had a family and raised your children to be kind and respectful – lessons that have lasted and remained with them for a lifetime.  And then they all moved away and raised their own families.  They got jobs and lived their lives.   You beamed with pride at every milestone achieved, every hurdle leapt, every goal accomplished.  You would never want to be a burden to them, so here you are at The Happy Home, receiving the “best care you can buy.”

And, you.  In your heyday you were the leader of your pack.  Working as a soda jerk in the evening to put yourself through school, you had dreams and goals.  Slowly, one at a time, you accomplished each and every one.  You were a shrewd businessman, but you never forgot your modest roots, and gave something back at every opportunity.  You’re the one who gave that young starry-eyed graduate, who went on to develop his own national company, his first job because, hey, we’ve all been there.  Although the business that you called your life’s work is still an iconic part of this town, you are no longer operating as the director.  Because, like everything else that has mattered in your life, your shrewdness has faded into a distant memory in the deep recesses of your mind.

I noticed you this morning.  I notice you every day.  When my life finally settles into a quiet at night, my thoughts tend to wander and they often land on you.  If you could tell me one thing, what would it be?  If you could tell your story would it make me laugh?  Would I cry?  No doubt, I would do a little of both.  A long, full and satisfying life is all about laughter and tears.  If you could tell me your story, you would.  And I would spend all day listening, hanging on every word.

With Nothing But Full Respect and Admiration,

Your Social Worker

 

 

Sixteen Ways to Please Your Mother

I love my mother.  Mom loves Paul Simon.  Mom loves her kids and grandkids.  I’m a writer and a musician (in my spare time).  Why didn’t I think of this before?  I wrote the following parody of the above song, just for her for Mother’s Day.  I plan to perform it with my musically talented kids, one on guitar, one on keyboard and the rest on vocals, maracas and tambourines.  I know she’ll love it!

Sixteen Ways to Please Your Mother

“The problem’s not inside my head”, she said to me

“The answer’s simple if you listen carefully.

I know you’d never want to be

Mother free

So there must be sixteen ways

To please your mother.”

She said, “it’s really not my habit

To be rude

Furthermore, you know I never

Like to intrude

But I’ll repeat myself

At the risk of being shrewd

There must be sixteen ways

To please your mother

Sixteen ways to please your mother.”

  1. Just give her a call, Paul
  2. Bake her a cake, Jake
  3. No need to cuss, Russ
  4. Just listen to her
  5. Hop in your van, Stan
  6. You don’t need to plaaaaan
  7. Just turn the key, Lee
  8. And visit for her

She said “It hurts me more than you

To see you in any pain,

I wish there was something I could do

To make you laugh again.”

I said, “Mom, I get it, you love me

So would you please explain

About the sixteen ways?”

She said, “It’s alright, I’ll just

Sit in the dark tonight.

And when you can get here

I let you change the bulb of light.”

And then she kissed me

Through the phone, that’s right.

There must be sixteen ways

To please your mother

Sixteen ways to please your mother.

  1. Bring her some roses, Moses
  2. Massage her back, Jack
  3. No need to be rude, Jude
  4. Just listen to her
  5. Just get on a plane, Jane
  6. Don’t have to be a pain!
  7. Just pack your things, Jean
  8. And hug her, you see.

 

Burned hand, burned tongue, burned out

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It’s turning out to be one of those days.
The kind of day when you wake up in the morning and everything hurts and nothing fits.
The kind of day when nobody listens but expects you to be at your most attentive.
The kind of day when you’re late to every meeting except for the one that gets canceled.
The kind of day when you burn your coffee and it burns you back.
The kind of day when everyone else is full of “I told you so”, but you can’t tell them anything because they know it all.
The kind of day when your resilience shines through.
Because tomorrow it won’t hurt and something will fit.
And tomorrow they may still not listen, but you’ll go in knowing that so you’ll ask for forgiveness instead of permission.
And you may still burn your coffee, but you’ll know not to let it burn you.
And you’ll accept the “I told you sos” and the know-it-alls and it won’t have any bearing on your mood.
Because you’re a day older. A day wiser. And you’re resilient.

A Hero and His Battle

untitled“It doesn’t take a hero to order men into battle.  It takes a hero to be one of those men who goes into battle.” – Norman Schwarzkopf

Every tale needs a hero.  In the story of my life, I’ve seen a number of them, but the one who stands out in my mind today is a ten year old boy I know.  He will never know how much he has inspired me, and probably does not even know who I am at this point.  Nonetheless, he remains a personal example of motivation and resilience, and I’m guessing that most folks who meet him feel this way, as well.

Our hero has a unique name, so to protect his privacy, we’ll call him “Buddy.”  Eight years ago we moved to the city where we currently live.  I took a trip to our new home (blissfully alone) about a month before we took up residence here in order to set the house up with utilities, furniture and such.  I met Buddy’s mom through a friend of a relative and stayed in their home that evening.  We had a great deal in common – both writers, kids of similar ages, similar religious beliefs, a love for coffee – and we hit it off immediately.  Before I met Buddy’s mom in person, we had spoken on the phone and she told me about a rare disorder that her son has, resulting in rapid growth and developmental delays.  I wasn’t quite sure what to say, I don’t remember what I said and I’m pretty sure it was all wrong.

Before I had kids of my own, I loved OPK (other people’s kids).  As a teenager I was a superstar babysitter and known far and wide as the pied piper sort.  Since I’ve given birth to baby number one, 14.5 years ago, I’ve basically been either annoyed by or indifferent towards OPK.  I think that something about that mama bond makes you really faithful to your own birthlings.  It must be instinctive.  When I met Buddy I was surprised by how quickly I was impressed and deeply touched by him.  My affinity for him truly had me question my theory of unique attachment to one’s own.  Buddy had this indomitable spirit the likes of which I had never encountered.  If there was something that Buddy wanted, nothing would stop him.  It was never with negativity or  malicious intentions, he was just determined - he approached life with a refreshing tenacity.  And there was something indescribably enchanting about Buddy’s innocence.  While some of the other children in his peer group had a tendency to be downright cruel, he was impervious to their often ruthless behavior.

Several years ago Buddy and his family moved to a different country, where his family had more support and better education and care for his special needs existed.  Several months ago I received the terrible news (via Facebook, my favorite news outlet) that Buddy was diagnosed with leukemia.  I was heartbroken.  I have wanted to reach out to his wonderful parents and offer them some words, hugs, coffee, wine, a shoulder, an ear or whatever else they might need, but I haven’t known how.  The truth is that Buddy’s family has an excellent support system in their current community.  Between close friends, neighbors and family members, I’m pretty sure that they are getting their needs  met as well as they possibly can.  But my heart aches for them.  Because nobody deserves to have their faith tested like this.  Nobody deserves to have a sick child- especially given what they have already endured.  Nobody.  Not even “bad” people, but especially not folks like Buddy’s parents, who opened their home to strangers hours after their youngest child was born.  At home.  Only because the strangers had nowhere else to go.  People who would give you the shirt off of their backs, even when they, themselves, are struggling.

It’s really easy for me to sit here, in my near-perfect existence, with my happy healthy family, and spew pleasantries about how you only get what you can handle, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and everything happens for a reason.  But the truth is that I would not want my faith tested in this way, and I certainly would not want people pitying me, throwing stupid ill-conceived “wisdom”, no matter how well intentioned, my way or humoring me in any other manner.  I cannot even begin to pretend to understand what Buddy’s mom is going through.  And since she currently lives halfway across the globe, I can’t offer play dates or rides for her kids, coffee for her, to do some grocery shopping or cooking, or any other practical type of support.  I guess that all I can do is keep her sweet boy in my thoughts and let her know that if she needs a non-judgmental ear, I’m here – halfway across the globe – ready to listen without judging or opining.  And I’m doing that right now.  With virtual hugs for her and that beautiful little boy who will probably never know what an inspiration he is to this old lady halfway across the world.

 

Opinions are Like Breakfast – An Outlook on Friendship

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Opinions are like breakfast. Here are seven reasons why:

(1) Everyone is entitled to them. In this country, we have certain inalienable rights. I’m pretty sure (don’t quote me on this) that the right to an opinion is in there somewhere. I know that the right to a morning meal is not in there, but that’s probably just because it was assumed by our founding fathers that it was inherent. I know that this is the commonly held opinion in these parts because my kids’ teachers will send a strongly-worded note home if they feel that they had an inadequate breakfast at home (not that I would know from personal experience. Quit judging.)

(2) Some may be healthy and fulfilling, while others are just wrong and damaging. That week old roast beef sandwich? Not unlike the girl I used to know who was of the opinion that she should stuff her size 14 body into a size 8 dress. And by that I mean that they are both absolutely wrong and damaging. The former to my intestinal well-being, the latter needs no explanation.

(3) It’s not always a good idea to bring them up. Bring your breakfast back up at a mid-morning meeting and everyone will assume that you’re either drunk or pregnant. Drunk could get you fired, pregnant could get you on the docket for water cooler gossip. Bringing up an opinion at an inappropriate time can have similar results depending on the severity of said opinion.

(4) Some people claim that they are essential to their well-being. WebMD, KidsHealth and other websites claim that the only way to live a healthy lifestyle is to begin your day by eating breakfast. They’re Internet-medical-professionals, so they oughtta know, right? My Aunt Mildred is of the opinion that I need to lose weight. She swears that it is the only way to improve my health.

(5) Those people may be wrong. Both are often overrated. While I agree that for children breakfast is super-important, I find that I function better if I eat little to nothing in the morning. A morning fast improves my energy level and my ability to focus. Not unlike the way that some of the more opinionated people who staunchly hold onto their opinions realize the complete absurdity of their opinions when they take a step back and take an honest look at these thoughts.

(6) They are vastly different depending on culture. In “Murica”, the typical breakfast consists of mostly carbs and proteins. When I visited the middle east last year, I was exposed to a culture where vegetables and salads for breakfast were the norm. I realized that culture often dictates the quality and quantity of foods served.  Likewise, culture can dictate opinions.  For example, the closed-minded opinions that some people here hold onto with a death grip are unheard of in other parts of the globe.

(7) They are most enjoyable when shared with a good friend. D is one of my closest friends. Nothing tastes better than a cup of coffee in her company and nothing feels better than a good laugh shared with her, knowing that we share opinions about most things.

Sadly, we see each other less often than once a year, talk on the phone at about the same frequency and have not lived in the same city in nearly eight years. But every time we get together we pick up right where we left off and it’s as if we had never spent any time apart. Recently, we went through a long miserable period of time wherein we were not in contact. Life kind of got in the way for both of us, which is a shame. Last month I hopped on a plane and surprised her by showing up at a life event in her family. The look on her face was priceless when she saw me, and I felt like I was going to burst into unabashed giddiness and joy.

That evening, as we sat down for a glorious dinner together, we lamented the fact that we don’t spend enough time together. While she described a hellish past year and I talked way too much (as I usually do), a sense of extreme sadness came over me. Because D is the kind of friend for whom you move mountains. She is the sister I never had, minus the cattiness and fighting. She endured personal hell this past year without my involvement and support, and to me that is inexcusable. And it has been plaguing me for a month now.

I work in a nursing home (and so does D, for that matter, on her end of the country.)  Every day I see people live out the end of their lives with regrets, some regrets that they are not even aware of anymore, since the beast that Dementia is has robbed so many of them  of the ability to feel regretful.  If I fail to maintain my relationship with one of the  few true friends I have ever had, I will surely live a life with regret.  I have no words of wisdom; I am fresh out of brilliance.  So I turn to you, dear readers, for guidance.  What are the best ways to maintain a long-distance friendship when lives are busy and budgets are tight?

 

 

 

For the Love of the Pen

ImageYesterday I was blissfully locked up in my bed with a stomach bug. I say blissfully because even my youngest spawn knew to keep away lest they, too, be subjected to a day being held hostage by their inner plumbing, sacrificing all recent meals to the porcelain goddess. Armed with a bottle of otherwise unpalatable tums and pepto-bismol and my laptop, I was free to spend time with what my husband refers to as his competition, my other lover – my writing. I began to dissect my intentions. Because although I don’t judge you, I reserve the right to judge myself. Why do I write? Why do I blog? Why do I yearn to be “freshly pressed?” Simply put, it’s all for the love of the craft. While professionally, I am considered a mental health professional, I am passionate about writing. I love taking an arbitrary concept that pops into my mind and molding it into a word, a sentence, a paragraph or an essay that will encourage perfect strangers to think about something that matters to me or to the world. And that, simply stated, is why I write and why I share my writing.