Spring Survey Two Years On

Last Christmas our young friend and her parents gave us a tall prayer candle refitted with a photo of Robert Mueller looking thoughtful, surrounded by tiny, glittery stones. We’ve burned it most evenings all winter. Now the wick is hard to reach to light, the sides smudged with smoke, and that beacon extinguished.

Today I’ll just post a spring image from a more hopeful year – this spring doesn’t care, never held out hope for answers anyway. Flowers still bloom in our gloom – for now.

Wishing You A Fine Fourth

Do you remember the song, from around the time of the Bicentennial, with the line: “We must be doing something right to last 200 years!” Optimistic, patriotic, and oh so American in its celebration of just 200 years.

The line comes back to me every Fourth of July, because the Bicentennial is the only Fourth I remember well. Our family and my painter friend and her family – a backpack child each – hiked up to Lost Lake on the Kenai Peninsula. Planning to meet and spend the night, we each went up a different route, and we arrived to find a frozen lake amid snowfields. From the distance we could see the dad wrestling with a broken camp stove, and their energetic two-year old repeatedly circling the tent – both tiny in the mountain landscape.

We spent a cold night, and in the morning drank instant coffee and ate, by the handfuls, the cake with red, white, and blue frosting I’d carried up the trail in an aluminum pan. We packed up, walked down, and never forgot that Fourth.

This year is memorable for the wrongs the current American administration is doing. I Googled the lyric and found it used ironically in the opening scene of Robert Altman’s “Nashville.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TP94wyr5KB4)

I’m failing to tie this together. But I want to wish you a good holiday, and I’ll end with a hopeful phrase Lady B’s mom might remind me of: “This too shall pass.”

The Naming of Things

These days I move furniture around rooms in the new house using a marginally accurate graph paper drawing or a map in my head. The rooms have pragmatic by-purpose names.

By labeling book boxes to indicate destination, I hope to direct the movers to the bookcases on the landing, in the living room, or my workroom (more a space than a room). The upstairs bedroom will be my husband’s study, a guest room, and the television space (known in some circles as an adult lounge). For now I write “upstairs bedroom” on the boxes.

And there are so many boxes of books – my new neighbor came one afternoon, and we filled 19 boxes, a number since doubled. Piled up in stacks, they surround little islands of ever-shrinking comfortable regular life.

In a recent adjustment to my mental map, Granny Trudy’s desk will go on the landing. My father-in-law shipped it to us in Alaska, and it became the place for family business. The slanted, drop down desktop made a good place to write checks, back when we paid bills with paper.

Thinking about that desk being forever Granny Trudy’s desk made me consider how families identify things. We had “Jake’s cabinet” in the house in Anchorage, glass-fronted shelves with drawers below, built long ago by Jake the carpenter. In that house, ownership of bedrooms shifted around so many times that names changed frequently (sometimes rooms are identified by cardinal direction no matter who occupies the south bedroom).

A wicker chair, always Frances’s chair, is now downstairs, substituting for an armchair gone to a clever seamstress to be slipcovered. Inspired by Mrs. Hughes’ advice and the designer Anna Spiro, the newly covered-in-ticking chair might be called after Spiro or maybe Simone for the seamstress!

Traces of the past will remain in the garden nomenclature here – the Buffalito bed, the bride’s garden, the quad garden. Front and back of this house has always been difficult to label – is the front toward the drive or toward the bluff? There is a clear front to the new house, car parked right near the front door.

Some impulse to fill the new house in comforting familiarity operates on me, but it is countered by reminders to enjoy the chance to rearrange – and rename!

Saying Goodbye

Two paintings by the English artist Mary Newcomb depict a woman and her dog in a rowboat just at dusk. In the first panel, the rowboat goes one way, and in the other, with dusk deepened, it returns. In Christopher Andreae’s book about Newcomb, he includes Newcomb’s words (and punctuation) about the scene:

“After half an hour when more light had gone she returned past us, rowing slowly, turning to talk to the dog. The dog sat on like a little black mountain Both were very peaceful and companionable to one another It was a perfect moment.”

Before we even moved to Washington, and the dog Bill and Frances the cat were so much a part of life, I painted an “after” from Newcomb’s painting, replacing the black dog with Frances and Bill. The little painting is tucked in a bookshelf, right by the nightlight we use to keep the stairs lit after dusk. So most days, twice a day, I see it. When Bill died, it was hard to look at it.

And now Frances is gone as well. Because so many of you have read about Frances since the very beginning of “Her spirits rose…,” I wanted you to know.

Frances was abandoned in an apartment with a litter of kittens, and lodged a long time in a vet’s office cage before living with us in Alaska for three years, and then 12 years here on the bluff (“arriving in a little soft-sided satchel and ending in command of all she surveyed” as our older son said). I’m thankful for all the good times she had – and there were many – she loved living on the bluff, patrolling her garden courtyard and sleeping in warm spots and with us.

A friend wrote afterwards to remark how willingly we enter into these arrangements with pets, knowing full well what we’re signing up for (and getting so much), but feeling such pain when we have to say goodbye.

It was time and it was peaceful, but the house is hollow and empty. Not so companionable.

 

Books: Take Rooms In Your Heart

After the death of Ursula K. Le Guin, the Wordsmith sent an article by Karen Joy Fowler (Ten Things I Learned From Ursula K. Le Guin). Looking back on all this reading, I find myself thinking about one of Le Guin’s lessons: “There is no reason a book of ideas can’t also be deeply moving, gorgeously written, and inhabited by people who take rooms in your heart and never move out.”

Philip Pullman’s Lyra is truly one of those characters. Our young friend brought me the U.K. edition of the first book in Pullman’s new series, titled “La Belle Sauvage.” (It’s a dazzling physical book – printed watercolor blue waves for endpapers, embossed golden “Dust” glittering the book cloth, and a spine so fat it holds a long quote from the book.)

La Belle Sauvage is also the name of Malcolm Polstead’s canoe, a canoe that carries him, his daemon, and the baby(!) Lyra on a journey along a flooded River Thames. This book is the first of a planned trilogy (“The Book of Dust”) set in a parallel time when Lyra, the unforgettable heroine of Pullman’s singular trilogy (“His Dark Materials”) is but a wee babe.

It’s all here in the new book – a shadowy reflection of our own scary times, enchanting daemons, strange devices for manipulating time and space, big adventures, and spies. If you read and loved the earlier trilogy – welcome back – and if you haven’t, well, there’s a lucky project for the new year!

From the Trail Boss I found a tiny volume in my stocking, “How to Walk” by Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. Hanh is wise, comforting, and instructive in the best way: “Walking is a wonderful way to calm down when we are upset. When we walk, if we focus all our awareness on walking, we are stopping the thinking, storytelling, blaming and judging that goes on in our heads and takes us away from the present moment.”

Walking meditation, mindfulness aide – perfectly illustrated by the sumi ink drawings of Jason DeAntonio – Hanh’s voice stays with me (“yes yes yes, thanks thanks thanks”) as I walk back to health.

And, when it first came out, I read Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” – characters so despicable they’ll never occupy my heart. And I fervently wish they didn’t occupy the White House.

 

Lights For The Darkness

Sweet Baby’s parents recently sent a little video of Sweet Baby sitting on the floor next to her dad, surrounded by toys. She has a plastic flip phone with a realistic (old-fashioned) ring, even a fax tone, and she answers and initiates calls:

“Hello, I’m playing with daddy until Christmas! Bye!” Her dad asks who she’s talking to, “Poppa Jim!” When offered the phone to call back, she says, “No, I call Granny Kaytee.” “Hi. Playing with daddy. Christmas lights in the dark.”

When her parents ask for clarification, she (with a little sigh of exasperation), grabs the phone to “redial,” “Hi, Granny Kaytee. I’m just playing with daddy and Christmas lights in the dark. OK? Bye.” She snaps the phone closed with authority.

Well, OK, she’s right! For those of us who live where darkness comes early in the evening and stays long in the morning, dark defines December. And on a morning dim from clouds and rain, when Sweet Baby was here for Thanksgiving week, we lit candles at breakfast. To my delight, each day thereafter Sweet Baby requested that glow.

All the celebrations and realities of the season call for light – warm lamplight, twinkly outdoor sparkles, firelight – and trees! This year will be magic for a nearly three-year old, reading books, decorating the tree, cutting out cookies – and yes, Christmas lights in the dark!

 

Armchair Series – Outdoor

Today I will be sitting in a fine armchair like this to watch the Bainbridge Island Fourth of July parade. The current administration and its congressional minions seem intent on providing a new list of “freedoms” to celebrate: to be sick without the burden of insurance, to enjoy dirty air and water unencumbered by environmental regulation, to deny logic and science, to practice intolerance. The list goes on. But it isn’t who we are or what we celebrate!

A Thank You to Barack Obama

So I have been drawing house moments, chairs and a “settle” and a kitchen dresser, trying to shut out what’s happening, but emotion builds. In part because of the possibilities lost with the loss of the election, and the stark contrast we now face. No grace, no thoughtfulness, no kindness. I don’t even like the present and the future office holders in the same paragraph.

I’m grateful for years of that beautiful smile and sense of humor, for the best example of parenting I could imagine, for being a genuine consoler-in-chief when needed over and awfully over. You can’t delegate compassion and goodness and empathy, you sing “Amazing Grace” at the Charleston church because it’s who you are.

I appreciated not ever doubting that the best interests of the country’s people came first, and that there would be dignity always. President Obama was a grown up (is, it’s only Tuesday), making decisions by listening to the smart, knowledgeable people around him, and then figuring it out with his own set of values, his own formidable intelligence.

A huge part of my gratitude is that because of Barack Obama, we got to know Michelle Obama, that shining star of how to behave in tough, nasty situations and rock a stylish wardrobe, and the only redemption in crying my way through the farewell speech came in realizing he isn’t going away. We won’t have him in charge any more, making White House decisions with calm and reason – but we have him with us politically, to be a citizen as he said, to figure out how to go forward.

Have you seen these photos and captions by the White House photographer Pete Souza? http://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2016/11/the-obama-years-through-the-lens-of-white-house-photographer-pete-souza/508052/

Or these:

https://medium.com/the-white-house/behind-the-lens-2016-year-in-photographs-9e2c8733bbb3#.bowsyxffm

Thank you, thank you President Obama from the bottom of my heart.

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Just A Few Days To Go

Emotions fill the holiday season, I know that. But this one is different. I write while preparing for the arrival of our younger son, Sweet Bride, and Sweet Baby – and I recognize the privilege of time and space to make merry. Writing helps me wrestle my thoughts away from the anxiety that much cherished is threatened in the new year.

I had planned to write about Ann Patchett’s new book “Commonwealth,” to say that I read all six hours back and forth to Alaska, finishing as the plane landed in Seattle. In the beginning I was confused, chapters back and forth in time, characters I couldn’t quite keep straight, but by the end it seemed perfect to finish with Christmas and a family cobbled together by love.

I cried watching Patti Smith sing Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A’Gonna Fall” at the Nobel ceremony, and I thought of my blue-eyed sons and wanted to write about them, about how astounded I am by them and how grateful for them. They are accomplished and hardworking, and when I watch them care for their own “darling young ones” or hold their wives’ hands, I am undone.

And then today I read “How Does It Feel” in The New Yorker, the wonderful piece Smith wrote about the Nobel event. The link includes the song, and she tells of how she came to sing it, from artful choices and rehearsals through breakfast the next morning. It all fits together to honor art and science, family and friendship. http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/patti-smith-on-singing-at-bob-dylans-nobel-prize-ceremony.

Most of all, at the year’s darkest point in the season of lights, I write to wish you all kindness, beauty in art and nature, and love.

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“Sokay”

I flew to California on an Election Day. On the way to the airport, the taxi driver looked in the rear view mirror and asked me if I had voted, and for whom. He said, “Aah – a little white woman and a big black man, and we stand with Hillary!” He told me he’d think about me that night, and I him. And in a video that day, Lady Baby wore a self-assembled “pantsuit” and chanted “Hill-a-ry, Hill-a-ry.” Sweet Baby learned to say “Hillary” in her little voice, with a smile. Such a hopeful day.

I could list the reasons I feel sad and fearful at the Electoral College result and the dark possibilities this election presents to the majority who voted the other way, but you know them all too well.

So far we have seen a graceful Hillary speak and encourage keeping an open mind, and an eloquent and calm President Obama setting an example for the transition. He wants it to be as peaceful and orderly as it is inevitable. But successful transitions require a responsible person on the other side of the transaction.

I wrote this on the plane returning from Los Angeles to Seattle, the land below me all blue and ready to secede. After boarding, I sat down next to a woman and wondered, what does she think? Is she one of the majority of white women (53% by exit polls) who voted the other way? But I spotted her safety pin, and she mine.

It was good to laugh in our misery and confusion, be invited to join Pantsuit Nation, and enjoy the third woman in our row, our little bubble, as she chimed in with agreement.

Often when I start these posts I know where I want to go, but not how to get there. This time I started with a favorite expression of Sweet Baby, “sokay,” her verbal shorthand for “it’s OK.” I thought if I couldn’t write the exultant, thrilled for my granddaughters (and grandson) post, complete with a Madam President teacup, I might at least write that somehow it would be OK. But if anything I feel worse now than late last Tuesday night.

This is so not my desired outcome that I can’t think of any last paragraph right now that ends with it’s OK.

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When They Go Low

Today, thrown against the house by wind from the south, rain pours down. In the middle of two storm systems, I’m grateful to be home, enjoying each and every lamp lit against the gloom, relishing a warm house, and all the easy comforts of electricity – knowing a power outage could darken us at any time.

Yesterday, having business on Bainbridge, (last Thursday by the time this reaches “Her spirits rose…,”) I left home early and spent the day in the car listening to the news cycle, and found myself in tears more than once.

That morning’s announcement of the death of Thailand’s beloved King Bhumibol colored my thoughts. I knew the Sweet Bride would be so sad, I kept thinking how she, and even her mother, had known this good king their entire lives. As I drove, BBC told stories of his benevolence and concern for his people, a kind and respectful leader.

And then closer to home, the ongoing, orange-tinged insanity continued. Offensive is much too mild a word to describe the disrespectful spewings of venom toward other human beings by the Republican nominee. We have endured this for months, but this day reached the nadir with revelations by his victims.

By midday, bits and pieces of Michelle Obama’s heartfelt, furious speech began to be broadcast. I want to link the whole thing here, because Michelle put into words what we felt, both her disgust at what’s happened and her belief that “real men, strong men” don’t do this. FLOTUS’s speech in New Hampshire.

Listening to the whole speech, I realized that even in her anger, she left me with hope as she described her involvement in the U.S. Government’s initiative to insure education for adolescent girls around the world – “Let Girls Learn.”

I keep picturing Michelle at the podium literally pushing up the sleeves of her navy-blue sweater as she spoke of her hopes for young women (some of their smiling young faces in the audience) – making us want to protect them (and all children) and help them, never, ever disrespect them.

The Nobel Committee also lifted me up that day. The car echoed with the music and memories stirred by the selection of Bob Dylan to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature!

The honorable King Bhumibol, Dylan, and Michelle Obama. I want to fill my mind with their lessons, encouraging us always to “Go High”!

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How About Your Personal Projects?

The Cambridge Research professor Brian R. Little, author of “Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being” asks about our personal projects – how many we have and what they are.

Since the 1980s, Little has studied “trait psychology,” which looks at patterns of behavior, thought, and emotion, and he specifically peers through a lens of personal projects. For him these projects must have “personal saliency” – be significant for the individual. He finds people “typically report that they are pursuing about 15 personal projects at any one time.”

I read about Little’s book in connection with creativity, and was curious about his use of projects to define us. His book sometimes employs obscure (to me) words where simpler ones might do, but I reread and made notes to try to comprehend the chapter “Personal Projects: The Happiness of Pursuit.”

Little writes: “Personal projects are the things we are doing or planning on doing in our everyday lives. Personal projects can range from routine acts (e.g. ‘put out the cat’) to the overarching commitments of a lifetime (e.g. ‘liberate my people’). They may be solo pursuits or communal ventures, self-initiated or thrust upon us, deeply pleasurable or the bane of our existence. As our personal projects go, so does our sense of well-being.”

This might fall into the category of “duh” – that modern catch-all for the obvious (yes we do feel better when we get something done), but his ideas expand my list of core (really important to me) projects to include things I wouldn’t have thought of as projects. People differ in their reaction to the word “project,” but it’s interesting to think about what affects our sense of well-being.

My husband and I had a good time comparing lists when we went out to dinner the other night. Because Little devotes a chapter to personality and environmental preferences, I was curious about where my husband needed to live to support his core list. And, while making my list, I realized lists change over time, 10 years ago mine was very different.

The meaningful project and the easily done project have different effects – the latter alone is insufficient to assure well-being (too bad given how often I let the cat out), and meaningful projects tend to be complicated and harder to complete. Not surprisingly, Little says, “Well-being is enhanced when both efficacy and meaning are experienced within the same projects.”

Tangling with Little’s book is a project – but a rewarding one.

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If She Does Or If She Doesn’t

Hillary – she’s damned either way. In a recent New York Times Op-Ed piece, David Brooks explored why Hillary’s numbers in the “dislike” column continue to creep upward (her orange-tinged adversary has similarly high dislike numbers, but we know painfully well what causes those).

While not politically in step with Brooks, I did write about his book, “The Social Animal” (to the horror of a progressive reader). But in this Op-Ed Brooks asks the same question I wonder about all the time. How did we get to this vicious place where so much venom pours on the head of a woman who has devoted her life to public service, performed with grace and calm in trying situations, possesses the experience and knowledge to sort through our problems, and is respected around the world?

Brooks avoids the gender elephant, but posits the dislike is driven by Hillary Clinton’s failure to reveal herself as a person with interests beyond policy and government. She’s seen as someone who works too much and is overly serious. Though praised as warm and loving by people who really know her, Brooks says that the public knows nothing about Hillary’s free time activities. (Given how desperate this election is, what free time I wonder).

Golf or basketball games (anything involving balls either manipulated or watched) seem legitimate for the free time of other public figures, but a little yoga, a walk in a garden, FaceTime with a granddaughter, figuring out a present for a special person would surely draw ridicule as too feminine or too something negative. Apparently the fact that Hillary revealed she eats a hot red pepper each day to ward off colds was mocked as phony.

A therapist once told us that we like people for their flaws. But even if Hillary got self-deprecating and told stories about her flaws – and you know she has them – that would somehow backfire.

I hope she has a secret vice – watches “Nashville” or “The Good Wife” late at night to escape the relentlessness of this campaign. But if she reads briefings in bed, that’s OK with me.

It must lift her spirits when she receives photos of her granddaughter from her daughter, she seems to relish being a granny. And who better to care about where the nation goes (for people on the left), specially when that loving mother and granny is a respected senator, successful Secretary of State, and an incredibly hard working, smart, experienced liberal (she seems to recognize more than some these days that change takes time and negotiation to accomplish).

I don’t know how she keeps it up, but I wish her well – all the way to the White House!

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Being Grand

Did you see the Annie Liebovitz photograph of Queen Elizabeth with her great-grandchildren and two youngest grandchildren, taken to mark the Queen’s 90th birthday? The best part for me is the two-year old who proudly holds the Queen’s purse. That touch makes me ponder the Queen’s relationship with those little people, wondering how the tiny girl felt to hold that important handbag, and what she thinks of her great-grandmother.

I thought of that during the 12 days in April when I got to be close to both granddaughters and marveled at this treasured role.

Sweet Baby and her mother came north to our house when our younger son went to Alaska for a long ski weekend. We did all Sweet Baby’s favorite things, piling blocks, investigating kitchen drawers, climbing stairs and enjoying naps (everyone!). She relished the freedom of the bluff, and trundled a long way down the driveway on her little legs. When she tired, she’d hold up those irresistible arms and get a lift.

On Sunday we all went to the airport together, met her dad, and that family returned to California. Lady Baby’s dad had gone on a ski trip to Canada, so I went north to Downtown Abbey where there is exciting news.

In Lady Baby’s words: “I’m going to be a Big Sister! I’m going to have a Baby Brother!” In September she will be a wonderful big sister – and he a lucky, well-loved, and well-directed baby brother.

Conversation about Baby Brother is ongoing: “My mom and my brother are going to the parent meeting.” “My mom and my brother are going to walk in the pool.”

Lady Baby speaks often of the things she will do for him. She will be sure to fasten her seat belt, so if a car crashes into their car, she won’t tumble over on him. She’ll walk beside him when he rides his bike and put a hand on the handlebars (Lady Baby has a brand new bike of good size with training wheels – we could cover lots of ground on our outings).

Sometimes we played that she is the baby brother, and I am the big sister. As Baby Brother her language is limited, but his desires are complex, so sometimes she switches back to the oh-so-articulate four and a half-year old. She is such a thinker, and she’s working hard to figure out how this will all be.

I know it is the most common thing in the world to be besotted with your grandchildren. I hope the Queen has had long hours of playing and painting and walking the driveway at Balmoral or Windsor Castle.

And I know she loves all those children. I worried when I was pregnant with our younger son that I couldn’t love anyone, ever, so much as I loved his big brother – and then was jolted by an overwhelming feeling of loving the newborn, of loving them both. And so it always is.

It’s so corny to talk about love (do we say that to keep from admitting how important?). It’s complicated and takes so many forms – love helped the young mothers hold down the forts so the dads could go skiing, and love flooded Sweet Baby’s face at the airport reunion. (She clung to him, and her little face crumpled when he tried to put her down to help with the luggage.) And love led Lady Baby out of bed in the middle of the night to get her dad’s wool slippers and put them under her bed (to keep them safe).

The more love there is, the more love there is.

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Resisting Temptation

Walking with a friend one morning last December, we talked about habits and diets and health – and about her tendency to be an all-or-nothing sort of person when it comes to food. She’d recently lost access to a dietician food guru who helped her eat the way she wanted.

I told her about a system of “pre-commitment strategies” I’d read about, employed when people recognize they want to accomplish the kind of goals we set when we know something is good for us, but fear we lack the willpower to resist temptation. Research finds that people do best when they pre-commit to punishment if they fail. That’s right, not reward, but punishment.

Often this punishment is monetary. Websites like “StickK” help design a commitment, hold the money, and turn it over to a designated person or charity if slippage occurs. A list of goals people have committed to scrolls up the side of the website, along with the total dollar amount on the line (19 million a couple of weeks ago). A further twist, confirmed by research, finds the best compliance occurs when people stand to lose money to a despised cause.

We laughed about how counter-intuitive this is and about dreadful possible recipients. But when we reached her house, she told me to wait a minute, and came back out with a check written to me for $1200 – a year’s commitment!

I am to hold the check (pinned to my workroom wall), and she is to eat no dairy or sugar. Over the holidays we clarified our expectations, the possibility of unintended consequences: what were replacement sources of calcium and Vitamin D, how not annoy hosts as a dinner guest with food limitations, and how to travel and work long days with no easy availability to her chosen food.

Going whole months seemed dangerous. It would be easy to fall off the wagon in week one and say what the heck, I might as well eat whatever! So our contract agrees to a weekly check in, leaving $25.00 increments at risk.

In a draconian addendum to the contract, I will return her check and my friend will write another check to send her hard earned money away (and have her name registered as a donor). Given the designated recipient of the money (and both our tendencies to do what we say we will do), it will kill us if this fails.

For two weeks I happily put gold stars on a calendar at the end of each week. I heard great reports about the power of this strategy from her. She also said that rereading the article, (I had to ask her to send the link back), meant even more to her now that she was involved in the “program.”

And then, dinner out with risotto (parmesan cheese) happened. My friend confessed the transgression and ruefully admitted she’d have to write a check.

Painful. I couldn’t stand it – so offered an opportunity for redemption. Because another of her goals is to increase the two days a week she exercises without fail, I proposed that two weeks of daily exercise (five days without fail) could turn that black mark to gold star. Glad for the chance to exercise her way out of slippage, she accepted.

She’s back on track. And I love hearing from her every week – and drawing her gold stars in place!

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