Groundhog Day

I love Groundhog Day.  It’s a silly tradition but it manages to work its charm. I always wake up on February 2nd filled with anticipation about all the implications of a shadow. (Did that funny-looking creature with an equally odd name see his shadow? Did he not see it?) The shift to more daylight, so incremental since the winter solstice, suddenly feels dramatic. Winter is on its way out; spring is on its way in.

I know Punxsutawney Phil doesn’t always get it right, and I don’t care. I may be less forgiving with my local know-before-you-go meteorologist whose forecast promised clear skies and left me running for cover in a downpour—just the thing that got Bill Murray’s character in trouble in a cult classic movie that celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. What better way to mark the story of a weatherman caught in a comedic time warp with existential implications than for Starz Encore Classic to have round-the-clock showings today?

Putting aside the clever spin ‘Groundhog Day’ (the movie) brought to this very day, for me it’s more about continuity, and the whys and wherefores of legends.

One legend links Groundhog Day to Candelmas, an ancient Christian tradition marking the midpoint between winter and spring during which candles were blessed by clergy and handed out. A sunny, clear day signaled (superstitiously speaking) a long, rough winter; a cloudy sky meant warm weather was on its way.  The legend of Punxsutawney Phil as we know him, seems to derive more directly from German lore in which a hedgehog seeing his shadow on a sunny February 2nd was a sign of a six more weeks of winter.  Early German settlers in Pennsylvania made the groundhog a stand-in for the hedgehog.

This February brings more than a spring alert. As many of you may already know, that novel you got a glimpse of when I asked for your support in a Kindle Scout campaign (which did rev me up even if it felt a little like ‘American Idol’ for book lovers), is coming, April 10th to be exact.  Publishing is a quirky business that demands a great deal of tenacity and faith from a writer.  We write, we revise, we chuck what we think doesn’t quite cut it or we tuck it into a folder if it has some vestige of possibility.  We crave validation, we cry at disappointments that make us question why we do the very thing we could not live without doing.

At the heart of my novel is a young girl’s special relationship with a doting gay uncle and her coming of age during the ‘80s, which were nothing if not a threshold decade. Think about it—AIDS. Ronald Reagan. Glamour and greed.  My fictional mind took me to an era marked by innocence lost. And my metaphoric soul took me to a month on the cusp of spring, the shortest month of the year.

Now it’s here, the novel and the month for which Just Like February gets its name. Leap Year plays its part in reminding us there’s something more at play in how we measure our days. And, yes, the groundhog makes a brief appearance.

 

 

 

Surfaces

I am by nature a person who likes order, everything in its place even if that place requires some reordering from time to time. Case in point: I have a thing for scarves. Just when I fear I have too many, I reorganize. Voilà—no more digging into a drawer to stumble on one I almost forgot I had. Abundance, something I do not take for granted, often becomes a nudge to divest.

There’s no having too many books, on the other hand.  The conundrum here is organizing them in a way that makes sense:  certain shelves devoted to poetry, others to art, novels grouped in ways even I sometimes puzzle over. I have my own logic (not alphabetical), which makes it all the more frustrating when I can’t locate a particular book that somehow is not on the very shelf in the very room where I was so sure I had put it.

Then there’s my kitchen. I certainly managed well enough before we reconfigured storage for plates, cookware, utensils, pantry staples. But a well-thought-out upgrade makes for a more efficient entertaining and cooking space. The pièce de resistance has to be a drawer devoted to spices 😉

Hard to say whether my affinity for order has a genetic component or is an acquired predisposition that comes from years of living in small apartments where the slightest disarray would seem magnified. And it hardly matters. I have a theory about space: the less you have, the more efficiently you use it.  Move from the small apartment to the large house on the hill and, for some reason, you have trouble finding room for everything.

All of which makes it amusing to me when I walk around my house to see things placed on surfaces everywhere. The bed in the room that was my daughter’s seems to have become my laundry sorting and folding surface.  I take my time, let freshly laundered clothes and towels sit there, until I’m ready to fold. Which could still be days before I put things away,

Issues of the New Yorker sit here and there, a visual point of pickup reminding me of articles I haven’t finished reading, new issues I haven’t even skimmed.

Whatever it is that brings some semblance of order to our lives is a good thing. Being a slave to order is not a good thing. Then again, order is one step removed from ritual, which is nothing if not a way of ordering our lives.  There’s no creating stories without sitting down regularly to write. There’s no quieting the mind in a meditation practice without sitting, paying attention to the in and out of breath, acknowledging the spin of thoughts and feelings that keep us from truly settling into the here and now, which brings us back to the in and out of breath. Open to any page in any of the books by the always enlightening Pema Chodron and something is bound to resonate. Here’s a Zen story I love from Comfortable with Uncertainty. It goes something like this: a man is by himself in a boat on the river in a boat at dusk. When he sees another boat coming toward him, it makes him happy at first to think someone else is enjoying the river on a summer night. The boat approaches faster and faster. The man stands up, screaming now for the boat to turn aside. The boat smashes into him. It’s an empty boat.

The mind is a knotty entity, sometimes leading us to perceive things not there.  As I keep trying to fathom the wisdom of Buddhism, I do my best to let that bigger thing called Mind remind me that everything really does change. Impermanence is the real order of our lives.  Barely a week ago, in this wintry Northeast landscape, the surface of the lake I walk around when weather permits was frozen solid. A bombogenesis that left me with a new word to play with and lots of snow gave way to much milder weather and a lawn I can see again. Today the lake is once again frozen. Think of all the shapes water takes and the metaphors it embodies. Even when surface water freezes, something is going on below.

 

As I sit writing, I get word of the death of someone once married to a cousin of mine. I have not seen her in years. What her death brings to the surface are feelings about the distance—in miles as much as mind—that loosens family ties once so tightly bound.  Expectation surrounding rituals (birth, bar and bat mitzvah, weddings, funerals) once a given, gives way to less absolute assumptions. Death brings a pause to any order in our day, not to mention our lives. Memories close to the surface, colored by time, may make us long for something long gone. Deeper memories paint a truer picture of the home we left, the one we can never really go back to.

 

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Go, Went, Gone

The week between Christmas and New Year’s always has me feeling a little in limbo. The twelve days of Christmas that underscore the holiday lore baffle me (though I’ll sing along for fun). As a Jewish woman, I have my eight days of Chanukah to lift and light my spirit.  But it’s this seven-day countdown, from a day that blurs boundaries between the religious and secular world in which we live to a day that simply announces the passing of one year into another, that has me on edge.

My ability to work during this week is on shaky ground.  I can’t focus in the consistent way I’m used to.  Clearing out papers, going through files, updating computers—that’s how my time in this week of limbo feels best spent.  Is this an idea worthy of a blog post? I ask myself. Can I find the time—between divesting, going to a movie or two, thinking about what I need for weekend guests—to just get it written?

I’ve written before about the unsettling feeling during the week when one year ends and another begins. Something that hits this profoundly every year can’t be denied. It’s as if this week—this very week—is riddled with expectation of something to come. So much distress in the past year, there’s the thinking that any new year has to be better.

Go, Went, Gone

Three words, the title of Jenny Erpenbeck’s latest novel, speak volumes about culture, politics, and language itself. As perfect a novel as it gets, the story line finds a retired professor in Berlin caught up in the plight of a group of refugees. Midway through the novel comes Christmas. As New Year’s Eve arrives, Richard, the professor, reflects on what it means:

He’s never quite understood what’s supposed to be departing in that final decisive second, while at the same time something new—something you can’t know yet—suddenly presents itself. Sometimes in past years he’s tried to concentrate on this future that was apparently arriving at just this moment. But how do you concentrate on something you don’t know yet? Who’s going to die? Who’ll be born? The older he gets, the more grateful he is to have just as little idea as anyone else what is in store.

What’s in store for Richard is, ultimately, a change in the way he views the world as his relationship with the refugees grows. What’s in store for the refugees becomes a disheartening waiting game.  Time is not always on their side.  One person can only do so much.

Despite all that I’ve read about how the calendar has changed over the centuries (something I touch on in my forthcoming novel) the transition from one year to the next still can unsettle me.  For all I’ve come to trust about the changing nature of reality, the anticipation of something that’s to come can easily trigger anxiety. Good or bad, once the moment or event arrives, the anxiety dissipates.

And somehow, in the crunch of days between 2017 and 2018, I’ve managed to settle into the unsettled. It’s anyone’s guess what comes next.

 

 

 

The sound of one tree falling

I love taking pictures of trees, most often in autumn and winter.  Watching leaves turn a glorious riot of color before they drop to the ground is a gift I never tire of. But there’s something even more compelling when they’re gone, and every knot on every tree trunk, every crooked limb, shows itself.  Until snow comes, there’s no hiding from a sense of feeling exposed.

A few years back, we had a surprise snowstorm on Halloween.  Tree branches snapped. Entire trees toppled, this one across my driveway in the middle of the night.  Nature has her own way of pruning. I didn’t hear a thing.

Gardeners have their way of pruning, too, and I marvel at the precision with which a tree is taken down.  It takes a certain kind of fearlessness (coupled with skill) to be up in a tree, sawing away while helpers are on the ground, directing a branch with ropes.  The saw makes for a very grating noise, yes; then comes the thud.

The view from my kitchen deck is even more open now that the gorgeous ash tree I’ve photographed more than once over the years is gone. I take no credit for the way the light just happened to hit it on a day in late August. Even more mysterious is how turning it into my iPad wallpaper forever gave it a screenshot date. The original photograph is missing and I made a point of capturing newer images of that favorite tree, even if they don’t quite measure up. Maybe there’s a message here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These days have me hearing trees falling, groaning under the weight of a planet in distress. I spend a lot of time trying to reassure my daughter that all is not lost. Things change. The profit motive (not to mention the vindictive behavior of the psychopath-in- chief) that underscores all that’s being done to undermine the environmental progress we’ve made will give way to a stronger, sounder resistance.

A landscape filled with trees is riddled with metaphor. Light bends leaves, deep, sinewy roots are what keep a tree standing.

Look hard enough and you see trees doing things.

Leaning on one another. . .

Or looking more and more like the terrain in Stranger Things.

This morning was filled with mist and the chill of missing sunshine, neither of which keeps me from walking.

 

On the way back I decided it was time to take a photo or two of the space left by the majestic ash—which calls to mind a parable as wise as it is touching.  Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree takes a boy from innocence to old age in his relationship to a tree who (physically and metaphorically) gives pieces of herself in response to his needs. He swings from her branches, sleeps in her shade; she lets him cut branches when he needs to build a house and her trunk when he wants a boat in which to sail away.  In the end, when he’s old and tired and simply wants a place to sit and rest, she invites him to do just that on all that’s left of her.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point to one more tree, dreamlike in its artfulness, that gets pride of place on the redesigned Home page of my website. Please take a peek if you haven’t already. Then consider the serendipity that brought me this Counting Crows cover of a Joni Mitchell song with these words:

They took all the trees
and put ’em in a tree museum
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half to see ’em 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why do weddings make me cry?

My daughter is getting married next May, and sometimes just the thought of it brings tears to my eyes. So happens spring will also bring publication of my novel—the culmination of years of writing, some publication, lots of rejection, and always, always the tenacity to keep at it, a bag of emotion all its own. Then there’s the sorry state of our country, not to mention the seasonal melancholy etched into every falling autumn leaf.

But this is mostly about weddings and the emotional undercurrent they give rise to. I was weeks from turning thirty-five when I got married, an age at which the thought of being ‘given away’ in a walk down some carpeted aisle didn’t quite cut it. My husband-to-be and I found a venue styled to look like a turn-of-the-century French ballroom. Very hip. Very Greenwich Village. Very us. We did all the legwork, thankful to have very accommodating parents with simple requests. In the mixed metaphor that was, and continues to be, our lives, we were married by an Orthodox rabbi. The wedding may have been larger than I would have liked, but my family was large. I say ‘was’ because the generation that would comprise my parents’ siblings, cousins, friends, etc., is mostly gone. My husband’s parents, whose circle of family and friends was much smaller by comparison, could care less about what would seem to be a proportional imbalance. They were just glad that their son was getting married, and to a nice Jewish girl, who would in two years’ time give them their first granddaughter to dote on.

And dote they did. And on a spring night barely six months from now, that first granddaughter will find herself under a makeshift Chuppah at a Malibu ranch. We’re counting on her only remaining grandparent to be at the wedding. She’s 91, sharp and healthy, even if a little frail. She lives in northern California, the wedding will be in southern California. My future son-in-law’s grandparents plan to fly in from New York.

Like my wedding, my daughter’s is looking to be larger than she would like, and we’ve all done our best to pare the guest list. This is never an easy task, and one that feels even more emotionally complicated in a time when friends are more like family than the relatives I feel distanced from.

You can’t go home again. But you can feel the ache of what that thing called home, for all the convoluted emotions it encompasses, gives rise to. “You will have only one story,” says Sarah Payne, the fictitious writer/mentor to Lucy Barton in Elizabeth Strout’s tender and touching novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton. “You’ll write your one story many ways.” I don’t know that I have only one story, but I do know that the complexity of mother-daughter relationships keeps surfacing (hopefully in different ways) in my fiction and essays. Then there’s the more general exploration of familial ties: what happens when that thing we think of as family disperses almost to the point of dissolving?

I tear up during the ceremony at any wedding I attend. Down-the-aisle love songs have a way of tugging at my heart, hitting that nerve that sits on the edge of love and loss in the way that weddings do.

For better or for worse, a wedding is an affirmation of love. It reminds us what it is to be young (or old) and truly in love.

It’s another link in a chain of rituals that bind us.

It’s a reminder that the circle of life is held together by new links forged from broken ones.

It tells us that our children are grown now, moving on.

All those months, the planning and attention to details—the venue, the food, the entertainment, the guest list, the dress (a tradition with a history all its own)—

—to be funneled into a celebration, one day only, that embodies the future and the past.

Suddenly it’s here. We lift our glasses to the bride and groom. We smile. We laugh. We cry. We dance.

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Ch-ch-ch-changes

An autumn morning, window open to the cool air. I settle myself on a gray cushion that puts me in the mindset of meditation, choose my music. No sooner do I close my eyes than I hear a thud (or two or three) that sounds alarming. How can I possibly stay put with Henny-Penny running through my brain? I get up, look out the window open to the deck below. Turns out what I’m hearing is the sound of one (or two or many) hickory nuts falling. Branches are dropping, too. I look up at the tree. A squirrel is flying from branch to branch. Another squirrel has landed on the deck railing. Autumn is their rush hour.

A few days of that thump-thump and it feels like old hat. I can do what meditation appears intended to help me do. Acknowledge the sounds, take in the thought, get back to the breathing, the moment.

So often so much easier said than done. I reassure my chattering brain with a story that speaks to my dilemma.

A student tells her master about her morning’s meditation experience. “My mind was clear,” she says. “Thoughts did not get in that way.” Her master’s response: “That is good.” The next day she has a different experience. “My mind would not quiet down,” she says. “I couldn’t stop thinking.” Her master’s response: “That is good.”

There’s a part of me (the expansive one, I call her) who trusts the wisdom here. Sit long enough to let the chattering brain slow down and you know it’s only good. No need to be hard on myself if one day’s attempt at meditation doesn’t quite bring serenity. It’s not about goals. It’s not about judgment. It’s about simply being in the moment to the best of my ability. Every day is different. Change is the only constant.

There’s another part of me (the contracted one, I call her) ruled by a mind afraid to lose even one thought.

Some days, the face of that horrible man with orange hair slips out of my consciousness almost as easily as he seems to have invaded it. Some days, the anxieties surrounding the future of our world, the anger and tears fueled by calculated acts of mass murder dissipate. This is not about denial. This is not about feeling helpless, a word I’m hearing too much lately. This (I think) is about giving in to a larger reality that knows everything changes. Day by day. Month my month. Year by year.

On any given day, when I’m out for a walk, there’s a certain tree on the road whose large leaves I marvel at, especially the way they appear to be shooting off branches from the lower end of the trunk. I think it’s a linden. Only when I finally decide to stop for a closer look do I see that this is a tree of two trunks, one truncated and giving rise to its own network of branches. Appearances can be deceiving.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even with unnatural fluctuations in seasonal temperatures, leaves are turning. Soon enough autumn’s peak moment will come and go.  Trees will become a lacework of bare branches, though this winter will bring to my home panorama spruce and boxwood touches of green.

Then there’s the lawn itself, a long time coming. I marvel at how quickly seeds become grass.

 I look forward to a yard without mud puddles from melting snow. This has not been a situation of neglect. It’s more a question of living with a man for whom interior and exterior design are all of a piece. If you’re going to finally get around to the lawn, you do it with a vision. You do it with a sense of landscape as an extension of what you see through the windows and glass doors. My house has always been a work in progress, major renovation when we first moved in (1995), followed over the years by an addition (2008), more interior/exterior repairs and updates, a new kitchen just this past summer, and last but hardly least, landscaping.

Everything in its time.

Everything takes time—unloading the dishwasher, reading emails, checking in on Facebook and Twitter. Sorting real news from fake news. Doing laundry. Reading. Doing yoga. Going out for a walk. Sitting down to write. Some things feel as if they take too much of our time. Some things feel as if they’re never done. And how is it that those moments and events we look forward to months ahead of time—a concert, a visit from an out-of-town friend, a wedding, publication of book—seem to have arrived in a flash?

Everything changes.

Right now it’s raining. The wind is blowing. And those hickory nuts are falling fast and furiously. I’m tempted to take a break from writing, snap a few more photos. It’s what these times have programmed into us: capture the moment, iPhone at the ready, with or without ourselves in the picture. Because we can. If we wait too long the moment will pass, something will change. And in the instant it takes to snap a photo, how often do we stop to think about what we might be missing?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Back to school

Seasonal lore tells us that March conjures the lion and the lamb, September those back-to-school rituals some of us loved, others not so much. The other night a mountain lion surfaced in a dream. I could give any number of reasons why this strong, sleek, beautiful creature paid a visit to my unconscious at this particular moment in time. More important, she (or he) got me thinking that the king of beasts has moved on to a different season, with a vengeance. With or without climate change to explain the ferocity of Harvey and Irma, hurricanes are a given in September.

Leaves have already begun to lose their vibrancy, which always brings on a touch of melancholy.  The Jewish New Year, with its message of repentance and renewal and all the memories evoked, is around the corner. Known as the Days of Awe but informally referred to as ‘the holidays’ in the solid, middle-class Jewish world I was raised in, they would either be early or late. That’s what you get when dates marked by a lunar calendar are measured in relation to the Gregorian (solar-based) calendar that rules our day-to-day secular lives. So be it. We live our lives according to the rituals that ground us. The calendar is a construct of convenience.

Even with the ache for all that’s gone from my life, I’m energized this time of year, revved up by the crispness of autumn. Ingrained patterns die hard. Those lazy, hazy days may have always been a welcome break from school days, but come September I’m headed (in my memory) to that windowless shop around the corner from my home, filled with the particular scent of fresh school supplies. Shopping for notebooks and briefcases (no backpacks back then), pencils and pencil cases meant a clean slate of things to learn.

As summers go, this one in the Northeast has had very few days, relative to summers past, of hot, sticky weather. We may still get a hurricane, hopefully not, but we’re bound to get a spell of summery days in late September, so often around ‘the holidays.’ If I can’t find a satisfactory answer to why we call it ‘Indian summer,’ I accept it as a Mother Nature’s reminder that shifting seasons are fluid.  This year brings a ‘late’ Jewish New Year, a day shy of the autumn equinox but always in sync with a full moon.

Memories are fluid, too, If you’re lucky, you get to soften with age and the hard memories that make the body contract with bitterness or anger loosen their grip. There’s no real wishing them away, there’s just the acceptance that the past may inform the present and future, but it doesn’t have to rule it. Maybe it’s true, you can’t go home again but you can pick and choose the memories that nourish the soul and soften the heart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Several years back, I answered the back-to-school call by taking a graduate-level refresher course at Sarah Lawrence College on how to read a poem. We analyzed poems, delved into prosody, which brought new levels of insight into familiar and unfamiliar poems.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness . . .

The very first lines of Keats’s “To Autumn” forever have the ring of a tongue-twister, and I think that’s the point. Cold air mixed with warm brings on the mist and with it the smell and taste and crispness of those first apples of the season. Senses are heightened with great poems, whether or not things make sense. The more I read this ode, the more I can’t help see the mix of emotion this time of year as part of the fabric of autumn.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay,  where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music, too—

Leaves are dying, yes, but before they drop, the trees become bouquets that can only be classified as glorious.

 

 

 

 

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Stories begging to be told

Tell anyone you’re a writer and inevitably you hear these words—Oh do I have a story to tell! If only I knew how to get it all down. Maybe I could tell it to you and you could write it for me.

 “Writing isn’t particularly different from hibernation,” observes the polar bear/narrator in Yoko Tawada’s very inventive Memoirs of a Polar Bear. This is writing at its most artful, even playful, a story offering up both literary and social commentary, something to especially savor during this month in which we celebrate reading women in translation ((#WITMonth). The smaller the world seems, in terms of how we connect, the larger it gets. Diversity, in all its expression of form, feels more urgent than ever.

Some say it takes courage to write. For me it’s more surrender, not so much sweet as the kind that comes from all that quiet time spent wrestling with words/thoughts/worlds. Not that courage doesn’t play its part, especially when it comes to telling a story that’s been kept quiet for too long. Unless it’s journal writing, for your eyes only, to write is to imagine you have a story people just might want to read.

First comes a kind of liberation—there! I did it—but once it’s out, the same vulnerability that may have kept you from putting down the story in the first place exposes you now to a world that can be as forgiving as it can be harsh. Did that inner critic we thought so demanding mislead us? Did that muse who lit the fire dissolve in her own ashes?

More than courage, it’s humility that’s on my mind. Madeleine L’Engle expressed it so perfectly in A Circle of Quiet:

“I think that all artists, regardless of degree of talent, are a painful, paradoxical combination of certainty and uncertainty, of arrogance and humility, constantly in need of reassurance, and yet with a stubborn streak of faith in their validity, no matter what.” It’s not about pitting ourselves against the greats, she goes on to say. It’s about a way of looking at the universe.

We are a storytelling species, which means we all have stories to tell. Some are transcendent, some banal. Some are driven by the artful play of words, others by the raw power of the story.

Look anywhere, listen—really listen—to what people say, and a story idea is bound to take shape. The other side of that equation is the story that finds the writer, the one she is simply meant to tell.

Woman at Point Zero. Nawal El Saadawi is a feminist force of nature in her native Egypt and her novel was sparked by an encounter (in her role as psychiatrist) with a female prisoner condemned to be executed for murdering a man. Firdaus, the prisoner, entrusts her story of abuse, female genital circumcision, enslavement, and prostitution to El Saadawi, who shapes it into a compelling narrative that touches on issues that ultimately touch us all. El Saadawi may be the conduit but Firdaus is the hero who turns on its head the question of victimization.

Monkey’s Wedding. The time is 1953, the place Southern Rhodesia, the tensions between native populations and the white ruling class growing. Rossandra White spent part of her childhood in Zimbabwe, which makes it impossible not to see her in Elizabeth McKenzie, as spirited a young heroine as it gets. Central to the narrative is Elizabeth’s relationship with Turu, the son of a man who works for her family. And like the best of novels that straddle the YA/adult fiction fence, Monkey’s Wedding lets the wisdom of innocence ring through a complicated political and cultural scenario.

Veronica’s Grave. The opening pages of Barbara Donsky’s very moving memoir take us right into the mind of a young girl who can’t make heads or tails of her mother’s ‘disappearance.’ One day mommy is there, the next day she’s gone, no explanation. People are at her home, crying, still no explanation. And no mommy. A baby brother will surface soon enough, but still no mommy. Like all children, she will find ways to express the confusion, the pain, the anger, and Donsky does an especially skillful job of letting the narrator’s voice change as she herself is transformed.

All of which takes me full circle down a long and winding yellow brick road, with its twists and turns and archetypes and metaphors. Who hasn’t had at least one you’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore moment in his/her life? Who doesn’t need a little more courage, a little more heart, a little more wisdom sometimes, the secret of course being what that trio of beloved characters knows only too well: they’re nothing without each other. I don’t know if there’s no place like home in a world of displacement but I do know there’s no dearth of stories that begin or end there. Some need a little coaxing, others are simply begging to be told.

 

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