poke

If you’re a reader of my blog or books, or if you’ve ever met me in real life, then you know very well by now the central theme of my writing, mentoring, relationships and… well, pretty much everything else. Let’s all say it together, shall we?

 

“You always have a choice.”

 

That seemingly simple statement has served as the guide for every talk I’ve given, every workshop I’ve led, every post on this blog over the course of eleven years and every chapter of every book I’ve written. I dare say it even turns up naturally in 80% or better of my personal conversations. In fact, those five words will serve as the actual title of my next book as well, where each of five sections will be devoted to just one individual word from that mantra: You Always Have a Choice. (Yes, there will be an entire multi-chaptered section diving into the single word a.)

I’m just as excited about saying it today as I have ever been, just as convinced of the life-changing potential it holds for those who accept it and then put into practice the truth of it. And it’s in this one central theme that every other piece of advice I’ve ever given finds its anchor.

I stated one such piece of advice this way in my first book, The Best Advice So Far:

 

“Do something new every day.”

 

Now again, if you know me at all in person or through my writing, then you know I don’t just say this. I do my best to live it out. I love the adventure of doing something new.

In my last blog post, for instance, I mentioned having seen for the first time in my life (and quite possibly the last) the rare yellow-crested night heron while on an excursion to a remote island in the Everglades.

I ended my last book, Alternate Reality, with a story about night diving with my friend Chad in the frigid Atlantic during an otherworldly phosphorescent algae bloom.

In between, I’ve share countless stories about everything from eating ox hooves and tripe at a Nigerian restaurant, to wearing a clown nose in traffic to cheer up other drivers, to lying down in the middle of a busy sidewalk and staring up at the stars with a friend who was stuck in a rut.

These stories have all been true. And I share them with others not to make myself out to be terribly adventurous, but in order to grab people’s attention and to provide a memorable hook for making broadly applicable points about life stuff that matters to each of us.

Every time I share such a tale, however, I’m also aware of the double-edged sword it presents. That is, people may focus on the stories themselves thinking “I could never do those things”—and so they wind up missing the big-picture truth behind the stories:

 

“You always have a choice.”

 

For this reason, I’m always careful to add that doing something new isn’t about being an extrovert or having money to travel or living near an ocean. Rather doing just about anything new…

taking a different route home from work one day

stopping into a local shop you’ve never visited just to see what they do there (whether you need the service yourself or not)

sampling a food you’ve never tried

listening to a music album or reading a book outside your normal genres

finding out the name of one nautical knot and learning how to tie it yourself

…provides pretty much the same benefit as exploring a sunken ship in shark-infested waters (yeah, so, maybe I did that as well, though the sharks were not part of the original plan).

And yet still, I know that many people go away feeling that such “run-of-the-mill” suggestions for doing something new every day are just a sort of consolation prize—like the pretty, popular girl in high school sitting you down and telling you in that helpful-on-the-surface-yet-somehow-annoyingly-condescending manner, “No, you’re… pretty too… in your own special kind of way.”

The truth is that I myself am by no means rich. Most of the new things I do in life are absolutely free. (And if they aren’t free, they’re cheap or something I’ve had to really save up for.)

Believe it or not, I’m also not someone people who know me would describe as a thrill-seeker. I just keep an open mind and trust myself to be spontaneous within reason.

And I’m 100% convinced that regularly breaking out of our comfort zone by doing something new is one key to happy living.

It wakes up your brain.

It revitalizes your energy.

It boosts your natural curiosity.

It keeps you present and alert for possibilities.

It promotes new ideas, new thinking, new connections, new solutions to old problems.

Most importantly, doing something new keeps us continually mindful of the practical truth that “You always have a choice.”

So today, I’m going to break some illusions about what “doing something new every day” more often looks like for me.

*****

Some years back, my friend Chad came into town for a whirlwind visit. We’d only get a couple of hours together before he had to head out.

We grabbed lunch at a place nearby and, as always, enjoyed some fun, energizing conversation.

When we were through, we still had a bit of time left and were determined to make the most of it. I don’t remember which one of us suggested it (either is as likely as the other), but we decided to go for a walk with the sole intention of finding something new to do—something that neither of us had ever done before.

Keep in mind as you continue here that we were in my home town a couple of blocks from my house, in an area Chad also knew well. And we were pressed for time. There would be no skydiving or piranha tanks or what-have-you.

A few minutes into our walk, eyes keen for opportunity, we came upon an old, cracked, weed-sprouting parking lot next to a building that had been abandoned for years.

“Ever been in this parking lot?” he asked.

“Nope,” I said.

So in we went, already having achieved our goal of doing something together that neither of us had ever done before.

Once in the lot, we looked around for something more, since (we mused) we had both been in an abandoned parking lot somewhere before, and since we did have a little more time before Chad had to go.

Already, though, just having entered the lot with the intention of seeing or doing something new had our synapses firing. I noticed some plants growing in the woods at the far end of the lot. I didn’t recognize them. Neither did Chad. So I suggested we go over and use our phones to try to identify the plant.

That was cool and all. But we were still itching for something that felt like… the thing.

Then we spotted it.

Walking side by side, we both stopped suddenly and looked down at the patch of concrete between us. We paused a few seconds to take in the sight. Then our heads slowly lifted in unison and we locked eyes, silly grins  simultaneously taking over our faces. We’d found that day’s really-we-mean-it-this-time new thing.

A Popsicle stick.

And…

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(re)view

review-the-best-advice-so-far

My mom joined me for the first two weeks or so of my extended vacation to Naples, Florida. One of the many outings we enjoyed together was a three-hour tour (just like Gilligan’s Island!) by boat through the Ten Thousand Islands of the Everglades mangrove forests to a remote island where we could go shelling for a while before returning.

Before I tell you more about our day, I’m going to share with you a review someone left online of this very same tour they’d taken just a day or so earlier:

Nothing special

Probably the most disappointing [cruise we’ve taken]. We spent most of the time traveling to the remote island that really was no different than the beach at our condo. When we arrived at the island, we were on our own to explore, so if there was anything special there, we missed it.

We saw a few dolphins and some shore birds. That’s it. This cruise was a bust. I would not recommend this tour.

Now, let me share with you my own review:

Perfect Morning with Mom

The staff and crew were energetic and personable. We had good personal conversations with several, and they love what they are doing, which makes a difference. Our captain (Dave) and mate (Jack) were terrific.

We saw lots of wildlife, and Captain Dave stopped often for us to get great views, photos and videos. On our tour, we saw burrowing owls, snowy egrets, herons, cormorants, pipers, skimmers, limpkins, pelicans, osprey and pink spoonbills; three manatees; skates; and a huge pod of dolphins that were not shy, many of which swam and jumped in our wake or beside us for a while. We had enough time on the island to collect a good assortment of “keeper” shells, one of which I’d never found before.

Even without the wildlife and shell haul, the boat ride itself was fun, relaxing and surrounded by beautiful views.

I went with my mom, and we both had an excellent time.

How is it that such a dismal review and a raving review could both have been written about the same tour?

Before I answer that, so that you don’t think I was just being overly kind in my review, allow me to share some pictures with you of what my mom and I experienced…

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hope z

young black male with bright clothes and a quizzical look

For as long as I can remember, my usual workout time has been between midnight and 3:00 AM. A couple of weeks back, two young guys—Josh and DaeDae—started working the overnight shift at my gym.

I’ve been chatting with them here and there—when I arrive, when I leave or whenever they happen to be cleaning nearby. Nice guys. But until recently, it’s been mostly small talk.

Friday morning, on my way out, I decided to go a little deeper with them. I wanted to ask about something that’s been on my mind quite a lot lately, especially where Gen Z is concerned.

You see, I’ve noticed a distinct change in people’s mind sets over the last five or six years. I suspect it’s been brought about by a perfect storm of political upheaval, a pandemic, a stark rise in hate crimes and a 24-hour news cycle (or pseudo-news cycle, in many cases) where strong personalities seem bent on peddling controversy and worst-case scenarios in exchange for ratings or personal social-media followings.

Meanwhile, we’re being continually bombarded with click bait—video and article titles that are intentionally vague, misleading, skewed or outright false. If they’re to be believed, everything we know and love is a hair’s breath away from being torn away from us. Our freedom. Our democracy. Our safety. Our health.

Our very existence as a species on planet earth.

And the result has been an outbreak of fear, anxiety, depression and doom every bit as widespread, infectious and devastating as COVID-19.

So I stopped and asked Josh and DaeDae this question: “How do you feel when you think about your future?”

And in stereophonic unison, they immediately replied…

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scam

scam - The Best Advice So Far

Most people who read my blog know me first and foremost as an author. So they are surprised when they learn that I do other things as well. (And conversely, those whose first dealings with me center on one of those other areas are always surprised to find that I’m also an author.)

Well, one of those other things I do is designing information systems. I’ve done this since I was a child and home computers first came out. But as far this story is concerned, here’s the simple version: I build fancy stuff with spreadsheets. Often, it’s stuff that few other people can figure out. And for that reason, I always have clients who seek me out and pay me well for this work (which I fit in between my writing and marketing and mentoring and…)

You might think these two worlds are incongruous, but in my mind, they’re just different ways of helping people. And I am passionate about infusing both with core values such as kindness.

To that end, I choose to donate a little time each week as I’m able to helping answer posts on a couple of free online forums. Typically, I can only volunteer about a half hour or so per week; but I can get a lot done in that time, considering that the forums are designed to help people with relatively small stuff. A little knowledge sharing here. A formula tweak there.

Recently, I read a forum post from someone who appeared to be located in Romania, and who was requesting spreadsheet help. But in assessing things, what he required wasn’t small stuff. It was a highly customized, time-intensive solution (i.e., real work).

Usually, I’ll just pass over such posts or suggest that the person consider hiring a developer. In this particular case, however, I made the choice to “break my rule” and try to help the guy out anyway. You see, I’ve been especially aware lately of the need for tenacious worldwide kindness. And while it wouldn’t bring about world peace, going the extra mile for this stranger in Bucharest seemed a good opportunity to put feet to my convictions.

Still, it was a bit tricky. Sharing complex solutions on a free forum would create unrealistic future expectations for site visitors. In addition, I can’t offer in a free public forum the same level of complex work that my private clients pay me for.

But my mind was made up. I was going to help this guy (I’ll call him “Ivo” here).

Since Ivo’s shared spreadsheet contained his email address, I reached out to him privately rather than through the public forum. I introduced myself. I explained essentially what I’ve shared with you here: that I am a longtime forum contributor, that the help he required went beyond what I could provide through the free forum, but that I was willing to help him at no cost if he would simply share a copy of the sample spreadsheet with me.

Some hours later, his email reply popped up.

As I try to keep this blog family friendly, I’ll have to do some censoring:

“You bet. You [#&%@!] poor [*!@~$] scammer, eat [&$^#%]. Maybe that’s more useful to support your laughable existence.”

Here, I’d offered him free work —work I’d have charged any other client $150 for—and this was his response?

What would you have done at this point

Most people who read my blog know me first and foremost as an author. So they are surprised when they learn that I do other things as well. (And conversely, those whose first dealings with me center on one of those other areas are always surprised to find that I’m also an author.)

Well, one of those other things I do is designing information systems. I’ve done this since I was a child and home computers first came out. But as far this story is concerned, here’s the simple version: I build fancy stuff with spreadsheets. Often, it’s stuff that few other people can figure out. And for that reason, I always have clients who seek me out and pay me well for this work (which I fit in between my writing and marketing and mentoring and…)

You might think these two worlds are incongruous, but in my mind, they’re just different ways of helping people. And I am passionate about infusing both with core values such as kindness.

To that end, I choose to donate a little time each week as I’m able to helping answer posts on a couple of free online forums. Typically, I can only volunteer about a half hour or so per week; but I can get a lot done in that time, considering that the forums are designed to help people with relatively small stuff. A little knowledge sharing here. A formula tweak there.

Recently, I read a forum post from someone who appeared to be located in Romania, and who was requesting spreadsheet help. But in assessing things, what he required wasn’t small stuff. It was a highly customized, time-intensive solution (i.e., real work).

Usually, I’ll just pass over such posts or suggest that the person consider hiring a developer. In this particular case, however, I made the choice to “break my rule” and try to help the guy out anyway. You see, I’ve been especially aware lately of the need for tenacious worldwide kindness. And while it wouldn’t bring about world peace, going the extra mile for this stranger in Bucharest seemed a good opportunity to put feet to my convictions.

Still, it was a bit tricky. Sharing complex solutions on a free forum would create unrealistic future expectations for site visitors. In addition, I can’t offer in a free public forum the same level of complex work that my private clients pay me for.

But my mind was made up. I was going to help this guy (I’ll call him “Ivo” here).

Since Ivo’s shared spreadsheet contained his email address, I reached out to him privately rather than through the public forum. I introduced myself. I explained essentially what I’ve shared with you here: that I am a longtime forum contributor, that the help he required went beyond what I could provide through the free forum, but that I was willing to help him at no cost if he would simply share a copy of the sample spreadsheet with me.

Some hours later, his email reply popped up.

As I try to keep this blog family friendly, I’ll have to do some censoring:

“You bet. You [#&%@!] poor [*!@~$] scammer, eat [&$^#%]. Maybe that’s more useful to support your laughable existence.”

Here, I’d offered him free work —work I’d have charged any other client $150 for—and this was his response?

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less lonely

We’ve heard it a million times: “Bad news sells.” And we’ve certainly had more than our fair share of it lately, haven’t we?

As someone who takes my own advice perhaps more than anyone, and ever keeping in mind that central theme of mine — “You always have a choice” — I went beyond simply turning off the bad news to making an active search of good news.

Would you believe that there is actually a whole news site called Good News Network?

There I read an article that not only held true to the claims of offering good news, but that introduced me to something I’ve suspected was true for some time, yet for which I had no proof.

Until now.

I encourage you to read that article for yourself. But the short version is that researchers from California and Italy teamed up to conduct a study which reveals that people with greater empathy and wisdom are less lonely.

Conversely, as you might have guessed, that means people with less empathy and wisdom are more lonely.

Well, that seems easy enough, right?

Just get more wisdom.

Get more empathy.

Be less lonely.

Phew! Glad we solved that one so quickly.

Hmmm…

In reality, those two qualities — wisdom and empathy — are a bit hard for most people to nail down. After all, how do you measure something like wisdom? How do you gain more of it, for that matter? If it were a matter of merely reading the array of inspirational memes that endlessly scroll across our social media accounts all day and pressing the “Like” button, we’d all have wisdom to spare. None of us would ever be lonely.

Likewise, if empathy were gained simply by being around other people, or commenting on their posts, or hitting the sad emoticon button when they post that they just broke up with their boyfriend again, empathy would be the norm (and, therefore, loneliness the exception).

Alas, not so.

Here’s a quick self-check for wisdom:

1.) Do you listen as well as you speak?

2.) Are you known for being…

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it’s a breeze

The Best Advice So Far - it's a breeze - curtain fluttering by an open window

One day last week, I wished a friend of mine a happy birthday. He turned 30 and was feeling old. Interestingly enough, he was a sophomore in high school when I met him, and I was older than he is now. So I was able to paint a convincing picture for him as to just how young he still is.

As we talked about getting older, a famous quote came to mind:

“With age comes wisdom.”

Yet I’m inclined to agree with the second half of Oscar Wilde’s observation on the matter:

“… but sometimes age comes alone.”

I don’t need to look very far to find middle-aged adults who are just as petty, rash, irresponsible or egocentric as they were when they were teenagers. (Some, in fact, are even worse off now than when they were younger.) Likewise, I know many in their twenties who are quite well-adjusted and have exemplary character.

That is, wisdom comes not merely from experience but from intention to ponder that experiences. To learn from it. To make new choices.

To change.

Well, after this exchange with my still-young friend, my eye was immediately drawn to a seemingly trivial bit of movement in my living room—a sight so familiar to me that, if not for that particular conversation, it would certainly not have been noteworthy let alone served as the inspiration for a blog post.

At the open window, the edge of a sheer white curtain floated and fluttered in the spring air.

In that moment, I was transported to a particular night in February back when my birthday friend was still in high school. He and a dozen or so other guys his age were gathered in my home on a Monday night for our weekly meet-up. They crowded onto the olive green sectional or found space on the living room floor, happily munching on pizza, which was the norm.

The conversation that night coalesced around a theme. Many of them expressed that they invited change, that they wanted more for their lives, that they were open to deeper connection with others and a sense of real purpose. They came faithfully each week, ready to absorb. They were honest about who they were and where they excelled or struggled. They took part in discussions and read books. But they hadn’t seen the personal progress they’d expected “by now.” They still weren’t feeling or experiencing whatever it was they thought they should be feeling or experiencing.

One or two of them even hinted that they were disappointed that the other group members hadn’t gone to greater lengths in supporting them during the week between meetings.

Where was the magic that would grant them the life they were looking for?

As they continued sharing their thoughts, I got up and headed for the kitchen, presumably to grab another slice of pizza for myself. What no one noticed was that, on the way, I cranked the heat up another ten degrees.

Even at a moderate 70°, I can tell you that 15 teenage boys will heat up a room quickly. With the thermostat now at 80°, it wasn’t long before the sweat was trickling and they were begging for relief.

Instead of lowering the thermostat, I opened the two windows along one side of the room. “Let’s see if this cools things down quickly.” But even though it was a frigid winter night, the temperature in the room didn’t drop by even one degree. No air was coming in from those open windows.

“That’s not working,” they moaned. “Can you just turn the heat down?”

I had them where I wanted them. Breaking the current flow of conversation, I said, “The windows are wide open. Why do you think the cold air isn’t coming in?”

One of them held his hand up to a screen, as if he thought for a moment that maybe a tropical heat wave had mysteriously descended upon New England. I could see that they were thinking. Another offered, “Maybe there’s no wind tonight.”

After a minute or so more, when I was sure their minds were open, I got up without a word and disappeared down the short hall. I opened my bedroom door (which I knew they would hear). Twenty seconds later, I returned and stood in the center of the room. I pointed to the open windows and, as if I were a sorcerer, freezing air whooshed into the room. In less than a minute, they were bundling up in the hoodies they’d so recently discarded; and within two, they were shivering and had had enough.

I turned down the thermostat, closed one window, leaving the other open just an inch or so as I revealed to them how I’d gotten that air to come in—to transform a stagnant space with something new and refreshing.

My secret? I had…

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the builders

The Best Advice So Far - the builders

I was wakened from a sound sleep by the ungodly grinding of a saw cutting through what sounded like concrete or metal right outside my bedroom wall. The whole place shook, setting the nearby jar candles to skittering. It was immediately clear that this was not going to be a situation solved by fingers in the ears or pillows over the head. So I got up.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, there was a loud crunching and a thunk.

That sounds like it’s right in the house, I thought. And then the noise suddenly cut off. Moments later there was a knock at the door. I opened it to find one of the construction guys there wearing grubby jeans, a tank top and a backward ball cap. His ears were studded and gauged, and one tattooed arm leaned against the wall of the stairwell that leads up to my floor. “Hey, um… what’s on the inside of the wall we’re working on?”

I knew something very bad had happened. “My bedroom,” I informed him. “Bedroom closet to be exact.”

I led him through the entryway and into the bedroom. I live in an old farmhouse with open closets, so I had used the bedroom closet for storage, placing a low white bench with drawers and storage cubbies in front of it on top of which a full-length mirror leaned back against the door opening. I took down the mirror.

The workers had broken through the outside wall into the room, a five-foot strip of the wall revealing daylight beyond. But that wasn’t what caused the sharp inhale or widening of my eyes.

It was the…

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elevator

Up and down arrows on an old-fashioned hotel elevator panel

Whenever someone learns that I’m a writer, they inevitably ask the following two questions:

  • What do you write?
  • Who is your target audience?

They’re reasonable questions. And you’d think that after a decade of professional writing, I’d have honed my elevator pitch by now. I haven’t. I’ve tried—really, I have. But it doesn’t seem any easier today than it was when I first started.

You know how people will ask you a question and a response comes directly to your mind, but then you edit it by the time it comes out of your mouth because you know that your first thought isn’t likely to be considered an “acceptable” answer? Like when someone you’ve just met asks why you’re still single or what your family is like. I mean, not everything in life has an elevator pitch (at least not a completely honest one), does it?

Funny enough, I don’t even feel awkward in actual elevators. Talking or explaining things isn’t my problem. It’s that my genre and audience don’t quite fit in any one nutshell.

Most of the problem can be chalked up to the connotations of words. For instance, consider the following snippet of conversation between an imaginary person (IP) and me:

IP: Are you liberal or a conservative?

Me: Yes

Well, that answer is certainly both short and true. But it doesn’t really answer the intended question. Let’s try again.

IP: Are you liberal or a conservative?

Me: I’m both. For instance, I’m conservative with my money but liberal with my willingness to help people.

OK, well, now we’ve got a bit more of an answer. It’s short enough. Yet while it does relay some important information about me, it’s still not what the asker is expecting. What’s more, given the question itself in isolation, my expectation would be that the asker was looking to place me on one side or the other of a line relative to their own understanding of those terms.

In actuality, if someone were to ask me that question, here’s how it would most likely go…

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unmentionables

white cotton briefs/underwear hanging on a clothes line

I’ve always thought it a little strange that we as a culture are conditioned to believe that certain topics are taboo.

Unmentionables, if you will.

I’m not sure who decided what made The List. Perhaps it was the same unmentionable “they” who are so often referred to in cultural lore:

“They say people hide razor blades in caramel apples.”

“They say you shouldn’t swim within thirty minutes after you eat.”

“They say the average person swallows eight spiders a year while sleeping.”

Pure poppycock, of course. But such things have been passed on for so long now that they feel true; and so we continue to live in their shadow, crouching in corners from boogeymen of our own making.

It seems much the same process accounts for what “should” or “should not” be spoken about with…

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emoti-con

Stylized sketched emoticons (happy, mad, crying, love) against random doodle background

Yusif is a talented writer. He’s completed one novel. He’s several drafts into another novel and has two more in the works.

I know Yusif personally. I’ve read his work. We’ve brainstormed together often. He’s creative and his ideas are truly unique, never derivative. What’s more, I’m certain that Yusif’s stories have mass-market appeal.

I was hanging out with Yusif at a museum one day two summers ago. He was looking at a blurry, black-and-white photo from the early 1920s, depicting a nondescript teacher and her students standing outside a one-room schoolhouse in the Florida Everglades when, out of the blue, he spun around and announced, “I want to write a story about this!” Before the day was out, he had completed a full chapter outline for what would be a middle-grade novel. And over the next two weeks, if memory serves me correctly, he was writing a chapter a day.

Upon completing each chapter, Yusif would read it aloud to me, sometimes in person and sometimes over the phone. His descriptions were masterful without being overwrought. I cared about his characters. His dialog was fresh and authentic.

He was passionate about researching details. He read every book he could get his hands on about the early settlement of the Everglades: the people, their background, customs, housing, transportation, religion, food, relationships with the Native Americans of the area. We made several more trips to area museums, churches, schools and Everglade City itself. We walked together through the actual setting of his story, studying the buildings, the photos on the walls. Eating alligator.

Within a year, the novel was completely written, thoroughly edited and ready to be submitted.

It was an exciting time.

Except when it wasn’t.

You see, there were many, many days during that year when Yusif read his work… and hated it.

The enthusiasm and positive attitude with which he went into querying the manuscript fizzled. As sure as he’d ever been that this book could fly—maybe even become a favorite book for many readers—he was now equally convinced that no agent would want the book. That readers wouldn’t get through chapter one without putting it down, never to pick it up again.

“Be honest with me. It’s awful isn’t it? No one’s going to want to read this,” he moped.

How is it that the very same story and ideas that had thrilled him now felt lackluster? That the characters he’d grown to love—that he’d brought into being, and rooted for and cried over—now seemed like cardboard cutouts? And that the same configurations of words that he’d painstakingly crafted and tweaked, and which he’d read aloud to me with pride only weeks earlier, now sounded bland and trite, even embarrassingly bad?

To quote the Bee Gees:

It’s just emotion that’s taken me over
Tied up in sorrow, lost in my soul

Interestingly enough, while Yusif was working on his second novel (with all of the wide-eyed wonder and hope with which he’d begun the first), we watched a video series where prolific author Judy Blume talks about her process. Her unassuming nature, candor and vulnerability struck me. Here was one of the all-time bestselling children’s writers, whose books have sold over 82 million copies and earned her more than 90 literary awards (including three lifetime achievement awards) saying, “So often, I’ve…

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