The Weirdo In the Attic

Though the rest of my house is respectably formal
The occupant of the attic has no notion of normal
She’s lived there as long as I can remember
Wearing snow caps in June and flip flops in December

While the downstairs is neat, decorated with taste
The top floor’s gathered everything that was ever misplaced,
She’s got magazine clippings on every wall
Odd socks, piles of books, a deflated football

And though everyone else eats at regular times
I can smell her fry onions before dawn bells chime
She’ll bake cookies at midnight or at 3 am, pie
(And it smells so delicious I think I might die)

At any odd hour of the night or the day
I’ll hear music or banging or sometimes a neigh
I think she’s rehearsing for some kind of circus
(She really must do it on purpose to irk us)

She forgets things that others consider essential
Like trash day, which she seems to find inconsequential
She misses appointments or comes late wearing slippers
Her hair’s always askew, she has trouble with zippers

Naturally having her there mortifies us
We’ve talked of eviction when her oddity tries us
But somehow we never quite get around to it
At this point I’m convinced that we never will do it

It’s partly because her peach pie is so tasty
And she gives great advice when you’re being too hasty
But mostly this house is so bland and so plain
The weirdo in the attic is what’s keeping us sane

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My Story, Their Story

It started with an innocent comment about the difference in our ages. 28 years. And yes, my daughter is 10, so there goes all the mystery about my age.

Somehow that led to the question why. Why 28? Why was that the age I finally decided to have a child? And how long had I been married? And how old was I when I got married? And speaking of getting married, what was that like anyway?

Questions like that don’t have a succinct answers. Questions like that have stories.

I was sixteen, far from home, super excited about a summer of working hard with other teenagers, super nervous to be sitting in the big group of them, super self-conscious and wondering what they all thought of me. Was my hair too frizzy? Did I look calm enough? Why didn’t I wear the other jean shorts? When they asked people to talk about themselves, I started planning. Be genuine. Tell the truth. Sound confident. Don’t say anything stupid. Don’t act like you aren’t trying to say anything stupid. Some guy in the row behind me stood up for his turn. The minute he started talking, my eyes got big. He was earnest. He was impassioned. He used big words and made no effort to sound cool. He talked about why he was there and how much he wanted to serve people. And I sat in my chair and thought, “What is with this dude? There is no way this guy is for real. No one actually talks like that.” And I looked around the room. And I wondered which of the people I saw were going to be my closest friends.

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The five-year-old completely lit up. She is the princess of stories anyway, but these stories were real. These stories were true. These stories were about her favorite people in the whole world.

These stories were also pieces of fantasy. These stories were about people who don’t exist anymore. These stories were about people she could only imagine.

It was my sophomore year of college and I had a job off-campus waiting tables. It was hard to squeeze in the hours between classes and rehearsals and homework, but college wasn’t going to pay for itself. On my way home from one long shift, still smelling like pizza and the bleachy spray I had used to clean up the salad bar, the back tire of my little car blew out, leaving me stranded in the rain. Making a phone call meant walking to the nearest gas station and popping quarters in a pay phone.  I considered calling my brother, but I couldn’t risk wasting my quarter if he was too busy, so instead I called the one person that I knew would come no matter what else he was doing. I called my friend Nate. He came. He changed my tire in the middle of a mud puddle. He followed me home. And then he brought me the patched up tire the next day and spent an hour showing me how to change a tire by myself.

Even the ten-year-old couldn’t roll her eyes too much. I refrained from lecturing. I refrained from offering dating advice or mentioning the best age to get married. (I’m not sure that I have any. I’m not sure that there is one.)

She’s heard a few of these stories before, but somehow they just don’t get old. Not when it’s your parents. Not when it’s the story of how you came to be.

That summer was the hardest one I had ever spent. The next year would be my last year of college and I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when it was over. I was living with my parents, but they had moved to a new town in a new state, and I didn’t know anyone there but them. I waited tables every hour I could get, and I hiked the mountains alone on all my days off.  My mom asked me to go with her to a funeral. A lovely family in their church had lost a baby. Stillborn. I didn’t know them. I went anyway. It was as heart-wrenching as you could imagine, but the love the little family felt for each other was palpable. I sat there and thought that if I ever had to face such an incredibly horrible moment, I would want Nate to be with me. I mean, I would want my husband, whoever he was, to be there, too, of course, but I would hope that m friend Nate would come and visit me. I thought that seeing him at a time like that would make something so painful a little more easy to bear.

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The conversation came to a natural end. We dropped the oldest off at a birthday party. Back in the car a few minutes later, my little girl asked for more stories. “What else would you like me to tell you about?”

“Maybe you could just give more details,” she said.

We didn’t stop talking all the way home.

It was the best and the most exhausting summer of my life. Study abroad. Two months in Argentina, speaking nothing but Spanish, wandering the streets of one of the greatest cities in the world with one of my best friends in the world. Really good bread and really horrible sinus infections. Adventures and misunderstandings and a World Cup win against England. Plus a few visits with our really good friend Nate who was living as an intern on the other side of the city. Those visits were really something. Eating churros with chocolate and watching this person I’d known so long completely light up from the inside out. The work he was doing. The people who were teaching him. The new ideas. We talked for hours. It was thrilling in a way I couldn’t put my finger on. Until three months later. Back at home. A cold and rainy night when the blankness of my future rose up and threatened to swallow me whole. A long conversation sitting in his car. The mere suggestion that we could…maybe…in some possible reality…be more than friends. “I’m going back to Argentina,” he said. “I know,” I said. And everything in my world fit together.

How do we talk to our kids about love? How do we talk them about growing up? How do we talk to them about dating? About marriage? About sex? How do we talk to them about becoming a parent?

There are no right words. There is no list of rules that ensure they’ll walk the right path. There is no adequate way to explain the complexity of life.

But there is our life. Our triumphs and our mistakes. The things that fill us with pride and the things we bitterly regret. Those things are real and they are alive.

And here’s the real kicker about our stories:  unlike our lectures, our kids actually want to hear them.

What on earth are we waiting for?

Posted in Back when..., The Storytelling Life | 2 Comments

The Heart of a Cloud

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By the time I discovered the manor at Shrouded Bluff, it had been empty for over a hundred years, but the house had not forgotten people.

I had rented a room in the village below, and the landlady, with a load of other unnecessary chatter, told me about all the best walking trails. When I asked about the bluff, she waved off the question. No one ever walked up there anymore. With all that mist, the stone steps were slippery and dangerous. Yes, there was a trail at the top, but there was no view at all, just a damp walk through the heart of a cloud.

It was the first place I went. I think I had some vague notion that if I went into the heart of a cloud it might make sense of the cloud in my heart.

The landlady was not wrong about the condition of the steps. Not only were they slick with condensation but years of neglect had left them broken and slanted. There was danger with every step. Oddly, this comforted me, to be so focused on the placement of my feet that I could not think about the misplacement of my affections. As I climbed, the cloud reached out and enveloped me, and when I reached the level top, I could see nothing but disembodied limbs of trees emerging from white walls ahead.

I followed the path.

It ran fairly straight, still rising slightly, cutting through the fog with its rough, pebbly persistence. After a while, a stone wall rose up along one side. I attempted to peer over it, and though I could see nothing through the thick mist, I had the impression of a great depth.

The path ad I continued until a dark shape loomed through the fog ahead. The thrill I felt could have been fear or excitement. I had long since lost the ability to distinguish my emotions. In any case, I did not slack my pace as I approached the mysterious monument.

With a jarring suddenness, I stepped out of the mist and into a space of open air. The wall suddenly swept away, curving around a wide lawn. In the center of that lawn was the manor house. It was imposing, two stories, countless windows, well-formed gables, a wide porch, every last bit built of stone. The pebble path led straight to the front door, and I followed willingly.

I never gave a thought to trespassing. The house was clearly abandoned, glass missing from many windows, stone pillars crumbling in places, tufts of grass growing on the roof. The porch steps were firm under my feet, though, and the front door, though not latched in any way, swung open without a creak. Inside, the house was spacious and elegant and heart-breakingly empty. Immaculate crown molding lined the ceilings, each door frame was carved into a work of art, the walls were covered in delicate papers, as lovely as they were faded. The wooden floors, though dusty, were still smooth and unbroken chandeliers dangled from the ceiling.

But there was nothing inside: no furniture, no pictures on the walls, not so much as a forgotten toy or stray comb. No wild animals had made their home here. No birds had taken shelter from the cold and damp. Only I wandered from room to room and the wind that swept in through the windows only to leave again as quickly as it had come.

I wandered from room to room, and tears ran down my face that such a masterpiece of beauty and strength should contain so much emptiness.

The house was glad to have me there. I felt that clearly. I felt how it yearned toward me, how it enfolded me in welcoming arms. It was cold, but it wanted to be warm. It was neglected, but it wanted to be cared for. It was desolate, but it wanted to be filled.

The house remembered people, and its memories were filled with longing.

I don’t recall making any decision. When I had visited every room of the house, I went back outside. I stood for a long time on that neatly encircled lawn. I followed the pebble path back to the slippery stairs. I descended with great caution and emerged from the cloud with little droplets clinging to my hair. I returned to my rented rooms.

The next day I bought a lantern before climbing the bluff.

The day after that, I bought a rug.

The day after that, I bought three small cushions, a music box, and a tea kettle.

This went on for many days. No one every questioned my strange purchases. No one ever asked me where I went each day. Over dinner at night, the landlady chatted of this and that, of village gossip and news of the world beyond, but she never made the slightest reference the Shrouded Bluff over our heads. It was as if I and the cloud made no impression on those around us.

Then one day, I packed my things. I payed my landlady. I climbed the stairs, more carefully than ever before.

The heart of the cloud was quiet and still. It was damp and gray. But it was no longer empty.

As you can see, the manor is a place of warmth and light, a place of music and elegance. The house and I have kept each other company all this time as we waited. We knew you would come one day, climbing through the fog with cautious steps, following the pebble path until your feet stood on our front porch and your hand knocked on our front door.

Please, come in.

Posted in Mystery | 2 Comments

Digging Deep: Treasure for your February

February is the worst.

Sorry. Did I already start a post that way? I think I may have. Yeah. Well.

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This is what February feels like to me. Just really a place I don’t want to be.

I was thinking the other day that really, as a storyteller, this ought to be my favorite time of year. The cold has driven us all inside. There’s nothing left to do but huddle around the fire and tell stories. In ancient days that’s how they survived the winter.  Mugs of ale, crackling fire, animal skins, and a minstrel or bard to keep everyone from killing each other. Not much has changed.  I should be in my glory.

Just one problem. I really, really hate being cold. It freezes my brain as well as my toes.

You know those minstrels did all their song-writing in the summer, walking by streams and eating fruit from orchards, and then saved them up for the winter months. I’m pretty sure they had the right idea.

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Spring. Please tell me you are coming soon.

BUT!!  We have tools available to us that bards of old did not.  When we can’t go outside and find flowers and waterfalls to inspire us we can open our magic boxes and let the internet take us away.

  • Look! Someone is doing something creative and different! Red Rocket Farm is telling stories with illustrations one frame a day.  You can follow it over time at the blog or on their Facebook page.  They just finished up a story, and you can read the whole thing at once now, but here’s hoping a new one starts soon, and we’ll get a little something new to look forward to every day.
  • I’m obsessed with titling these days (mostly because I’m terrible at it). I’ve been struggling for months to come up with a title for my fourth book, and then this morning my husband suggested the perfect one on the first try. I simultaneously love him and want to strangle him. But I comfort myself with Steinbeck: “I have never been a title man. I don’t give a dam [sic] what it is called.” (This in a discussion of what to call East of Eden, which is a perfect title. Read the article. It’s fascinating.)
  • This. This is NOT a good title. title
  • Speaking of titles, this is the best name for an instagram account ever. It’s a pretty cool concept, too.
  • When we’re too cold to make up our own stories, there are always books.  I keep hearing wonderful things about Station 11. Waiting on my library copy with a great degree of impatience.
  • And I know I’m not the only one who’s got “re-read To Kill a Mockingbird” on their to-do list right now. I CAN NOT wait for Harper Lee’s new book.  Have you seen the cover? When you’re this good, you can keep it as simple as you like.
  • This about says it all. And I’m proud to say, I’ve heard it from my daughter about a million times now, too. My work here is done.
  • For some serious inspiration to create, read the transcript of Bob Dylan’s acceptance speech at the Grammy’s. So many emotions. The thrill of hearing him say his songs all came flowing out of the immense amount of music he had imbibed over the years. (I knew my “need” to read wasn’t just an excuse.) A little guilt over how many times I’ve criticized his voice.  (But really…) And some laughs, too:

    Critics have made a career out of accusing me of having a career of confounding expectations. Really? Because that’s all I do. That’s how I think about it. Confounding expectations. 

    “What do you do for a living, man?”

    “Oh, I confound expectations.”

  • And a final laugh for your day. I never get tired of these.

Have a great week, everyone, and heads high.  March will be here soon.

Posted in Links | 1 Comment

Perspective

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Under the clover the whole world is green
From the ocean the ground seems an unsteady thing
In a tunnel, a flashlight’s unbearably bright
After lifting an elephant, a cow just seems light

To an inchworm a mouse is incredibly tall
From a mountaintop all of the world looks so small
On top of the clouds, rainy days are sunshine
And when I’m beside you, the unreachable’s mine

 

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Get Inspired: Photo Magic

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This isn’t my photo, but I call it “ghost fish.” Somewhere on the edge of my imagination, ghost fish swim through a very creepy story.

February. Hand down the worst month of the year, am I right? Far enough from Christmas that we’ve forgotten it, far enough from spring that we can’t see it yet. Cold and gray and what do you mean I have to buy three sets of perfect Valentines and hang paper hearts everywhere?

We’re on the hunt for inspiration. Something to make us glow from the inside and remind us that the world is fascinating and that there’s so much out there to counterbalance the greeting cards.  We’ve found some inspiration in books. We’ve found some from our kids.  We’ve found some in our online community. We’ve found some in history. Today we’re going to feast our eyes and look at life through someone else’s camera lense.

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Is there anything more mysterious that mist? It’s been used to the point of cliche, but there is still so much hidden in there to be discovered…

It’s no secret that I get a lot of inspiration from creative images.  I have no visual artistic skills of any kind, but I endlessly troll the internet for photos that trigger something inside me.  I keep a Pinterest page just for pictures that made me think, “I’m going to write a story about this.” I visit it often. If you read here regularly, you might find the roots of some of your favorite stories there.  I also keep this Tumblr purely for my own pleasure. When I get into that certain place where nothing fits together right and I can’t put my finger on the problem, I just scroll through the images and feel the internal sigh of relief.

I don’t have permission to post all of my favorites here, but follow me around the net a while, and take a look at the magic that’s being created.  You won’t be sorry.

Lissy Elle. She’s one of the first photographers I ever followed. Images like this one (and this one) hooked me forever.  Her Flickr feed ranges from the dark and bizarre to the whimsical and magical, but they all capture a very specific emotion. Love her.

Ashley Lebedev.  I first found this photo and was enchanted.  That took me to her very interesting Flickr feed. Many of these are more staged than I like, but there are a few complete gems.

Along those same lines is this photo. It’s one of my favorites ever, and the artist, Lione Bakker, creates portaits that have such a luminous quality.

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Someday I’m going to explore a post-apocalyptic world, and when I do, I’ll find out the story behind this.

I also love anything and everything that uses perspective creatively. Perspective is one of the most interesting things in life.  The more we examine it, the better.

That said, this one makes me feel a little sick.

I know it’s all a trick, but I still find most of these resonant with stories I want to tell.

And my all-time favorite (because I want to tame the moon).

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There’s a whole world above the clouds. If we could walk there, I wonder what we would find?

And finally, the wonderful way that photos can tell real life stories. So many people have done this well over the years, but Angelo Merendino is my new favorite.  This series brought me to tears this week. I don’t like to be brought to tears, but this was worth it.

Did you click the links? Did you soak it all in?

February doesn’t seem so bad after all, does it?

Posted in The Storytelling Life | 1 Comment

On the End of the Pier

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Sarah didn’t like many things.   Books took too long to read. Movies were all either boring or ridiculous. Running was way too much effort. Swimming was far too wet. Only Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2, played loudly on her headphones, made her feel alive.

Sarah didn’t like many people. Her mother was too exhausted to be interesting. Her little brother was too energetic to be tolerated. Her step-father was too rude to be listened to. Her teacher was too sweet to be believed. Only her best friend, Frankie, made her feel understood.

Sarah didn’t like many places. Her bedroom was narrow and confining. The bus stop had oil stains and smelled of exhaust. The park was too full of sad squeaking swing sets. The beach was too full of sad, squawking people. Only the spot on the end of the pier made her feel free.

Sarah was in that spot today, earbuds in her ears, Rachmaninoff in her head, butt seated on hard cement, legs dangling over the end of the pier, cheek pressed against the wooden railing, eyes on the endlessly rippling horizon. She was, for just one moment, perfectly happy.

Then the song ended, and she remembered.

Frankie the brilliant. Frankie the weird. Frankie the genius of comedy who could make Sarah laugh so hard milk came out her nose. Frankie the loyal. Frankie the kind. Frankie was moving to Iowa.

Iowa was so far way Sarah wasn’t sure it was real. Lots of corn, Frankie said. Not much in the way of hills. No ocean at all. Sarah couldn’t even imagine it.

Symphony No. 2 started up again, but now Sarah wasn’t listening. She was trying without success to picture a horizon filled with cornstalks and the sixth grade filled with girls who weren’t Frankie, while she watched the progress of the giant sea turtle that was swimming toward the pier.

There was a giant sea turtle swimming toward the pier.

Visions of Frankie drowning in waves of grain disappeared in a flash. Rachmaninoff swelled as the turtle raised its head and looked right at Sarah. He was just below her now, patiently treading water.

“I don’t like to get wet,” Sarah said.

The turtle was unmoved.

“I have my iPod with me,” Sarah said.

The turtle didn’t even blink.

“It’s not safe to climb down from this spot,” Sarah said.

The turtle waited.

Sarah took out her earbuds and set her iPod on the cement. Rachmaninoff was silenced, but her heart still beat the strong, steady rhythm of Symphony No. 2.

Sarah left her spot on the end of the pier and climbed down the wooden struts toward the cold water. She had never been to this place under the pier, but the rippling horizon remained in its place.

The turtle met Sarah where the water lapped against the pier.  It turned its back to her and she climbed on. Quickly and quietly the turtle took her out to sea.

Sarah knew that she should have felt afraid, but she didn’t. She felt alive.

The water stretched out on every side. The shore was just a smudge on the horizon. It was so very far away. Sarah lay her head on the turtle’s ridged shell and cried so hard her whole head ached. Then she told the turtle all about Iowa.

Sarah knew she should have felt ridiculous, but she didn’t. She felt understood.

The sun was sinking into the water, setting each ripple on fire as it slowly disappeared. The turtle turned back and carried Sarah back through a golden wonderland to the real world, to solid ground, to the continent that would soon swallow Frankie whole.  Sarah clung to the wooden pier as the turtle swam away.

Sarah knew that she should have felt abandoned, but she didn’t. She felt free.

Sarah climbed up to where Rachmaninoff waited in that perfect spot at the end of the pier.  She put the earbuds in and slowly walked down the pier, in the general direction of a sixth grade classroom that had no Frankie in it and of a state called Iowa, which Sarah still couldn’t imagine but now felt sure was real.

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Undefined Truth

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Let me tell you a story.

Hannah Arendt was born in 1906 in Germany to a non-religious Jewish family.  She grew up, went to the university and studied philosophy, but was prevented from becoming a teacher because she wasn’t allowed as a Jew to complete her teaching prerequisites.  She spent time researching anti-Semitism before being arrested by the Gestapo in 1933.  She was only in prison briefly and then left the country for France.  At the beginning of the war, she fled with her husband and mother to the United States, having been given illegal papers by an American diplomat who aided Jewish refugees.  After the war, she returned to Germany and worked for a Zionist organization that rescued children and settled them in Palestine.  She began to write books.  She became well-known as a philosopher, though she didn’t like being called that because she said philosophy was concerned with individual man.  She considered herself a political theorist because she focused on the fact that “men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world.”  She became a college professor and lecturer (the first female lecturer at Princeton, in fact.)  Hannah died in New York in 1975.

The man who helped Hannah and her family get to the U.S. was named Hiram Bingham.

Hiram Bingham was born in 1903 to a distinguished Connecticut Christian family.  He graduated from Yale in 1925.  Bingham’s career in the foreign service took him to Japan, China, Poland, and England before landing him in Marseilles, France in 1939.  When Hitler invaded in 1940, the French government put foreign refugees into internment camps and the U.S. government discouraged diplomats from helping these refugees.  Bingham didn’t care.  He cooperated with rescue workers to help over 2500 Jews flee from France as the Nazi’s approached.  He aided the emigration of Marc Chagall, Hannah Arendt, and novelist Lion Feuchtwanger, even sheltering Feuchtwanger in his house for a while after aiding in his escape from the internment camp.  As a consequence of all this, the US government pulled Bingham from France and transferred him to Portugal and then to Argentina, where he proceeded to help track Nazi war criminals in South America.  Naturally, he was passed over for promotion, and resigned from the foreign service in 1945.

Lion Feuchtwanger was born in Germany in 1884.  He fought briefly in World War I, but was released for health reasons. He was a playwright and later a novelist who was very influential in the life of famous playwright Bertolt Brecht. Feuchtwanger was among the first to recognize and expose the evils of the Nazi party.  His Conversations with a Wandering Jew was published in 1920 and already described the anti-Semitic fervor that would overtake his country with eery accuracy.  You can read more about the story of his persecution by the Nazi party and the many, many people who helped him escape here.

You can read about Bertold Brecht here.

You can read about philanthropist Martha Sharp, who worked with Hiram Bingham, here.

You can find your own meaning in these true stories wherever you want.

(All this information comes from the hallowed lines of Wikipedia. Yep, that's research.)

 

 

 

Posted in Back when..., The Storytelling Life | 1 Comment

Unknown

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I’m older than I used to be
I’ve learned a few things, too
Some questions have been answered
(I now know why the sky is blue)

Plus every day come new discoveries
So much more than I had planned
But still some mysteries elude me
Things I’ll never understand

Like why the sand feels so amazing
Between my toes down by the shore
But it’s the worst thing in creation
Under my feet on my own floor

Or why my favorite cozy sweater
Grows those little fuzzy balls
(Are there tiny elves that make them?
Are they living in my walls?)

And why do some people have everything
And others not enough?
And whose idea was all this junk mail?
And how did badgers get so tough?

And will we ever build a moon base?
And does a mountain know it’s big?
And how does hope make so much difference?
And will I ever own a pig?

And why on earth do you still love me
When I pass my days this way?
I know I’ll never comprehend it
And yet, you do, so it’s okay

Cause that’s the thing about not knowing
In a way, it’s the best part
What my brain can’t lay out neatly
I get to jumble in my heart

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It’s Not Stuff; It’s Stories

My parents have moved to town!  It’s a long, whirlwind story, but the happy ending is that this week they moved into a house less than ten minutes from ours, and now my children have both sets of grandparents living close.

If that sort of thing seems normal to you, then you probably can’t understand how this feels to me.  Three quick pieces of information for important context: 1. I grew up moving every year or two and never lived in the same town as my own grandparents, and 2. I went to college halfway across the country from home and then married someone local, and 3. We proceeded to move to Argentina, where we lived for nearly a decade and where I birthed two of our three children.

Needless to say, I never, ever envisioned a life in which my children would grow up around all of their grandparents. Sometimes, life just gives you those unexpected bonuses. I couldn’t be more grateful.

Cut to this weekend, to my kids helping Gramma unpack in her new house.  I was upstairs moving boxes of books to and fro, and when I came down, there were all three kids on the floor with my mom, beautiful tea cups and glassware on every available surface, having the time of their lives.

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“Tell your mom what you just told me,” Gramma said to my son.

In classic kid fashion, he was too squirmy to respond, so it was up to Gramma.

“He just said, “Hey, this isn’t really about the stuff.  This is really about the stories.”

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These are the moments you can’t plan for.  But oh, when they come.

Every tea cup has a story.  Every nick-knack is a reminder of someone, of something, of some time.

Each little treasure they unwrapped was a double treasure, an object of beauty and also a little glimpse into their Gramma’s long and fascinating life.  (Not so very long, Mom, only long to them.)

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These stories are all around us every day.  The things that fill our homes, that sit on our shelves, that hang on our walls.  They are artifacts, stories just waiting to be told.

When was the last time you let your kids in on their secrets?

Posted in The Storytelling Life | 2 Comments