Sticks and Stones: Memoirs About the Writing Life


Write Like a Kid


I have the two latest California Poets in the Schools anthologies on my desk: If the Sky Was My Heart (2014) and Sing to the Heart of the Forest (2013). The more I read them, the more I understand why I read them, and why I, and everyone who reads and writes poetry, need these poems. In his excellent introduction to Sing to the Heart of the Forest, Steve Kowit explains:

“Unlike many journals and anthologies of contemporary American poetry that relish ambiguity and opacity, this anthology of young people’s poetry is deliciously readable, the poets managing to be surprising and creative in their language without diluting their humanity and ability to communicate what they wish to tell us.”

The insights in children’s poetry often startle us. A third-grader writes, “Green is the mighty bite of a snake” and a first-grader, “The world is blooming / with you and me.” The imagery in these books pops from the page; it is undiluted, agile, and profoundly innocent. Reading poetry that children have written awakens something deep inside us: the big, raw world, dangerous and full of untapped experiences, some beautiful and some tragic: “I was cursed with / cancer when I was 8,” writes sixth-grader Cameron, “My mom was how / I kept going. / My dad is how / I kept the fun / in my life.” Cameron died in 2013 of leukemia at the age of thirteen; Sing to the Heart of the Forest is dedicated to him.

Children’s poetry reminds us of how the childhood and adolescent years shape adults. “I am a tall mountain that’s never been explored,” writes eleventh-grader Alex. “The air in the room is full of ideas but I can’t grab one,” writes fourth-grader Chaya. These lines have a clarity that adult poetry too often lacks; as Kowit writes, too many of us fall into ambiguity and opacity. Children’s poetry reconnects us to a more wholesome ambition: as fifth-grader Shelby writes, “Poems want to be used / not just as a jumble of words / but as a friend.”

Victoria Chang, who wrote the introduction to If the Sky Was My Heart, tells us, “When I read the poems in If the Sky Was My Heart, I was immediately brought back to childhood and the wonder and anxiety I felt when I was the age of these student poets.” As Chang notes, many of these poems are “beautifully complex,” and “so often filled with hope and optimism.” We could even write a prescription: read two children’s poems and call me in the morning.

None of these poems would be published without the efforts of California Poets in the Schools, a 50-year-old arts organization that places poet-teachers in California schools. For more information on CPITS, visit their website, where you can order your own copies of these and other anthologies of student poetry.


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Sticks and Stones: Memoirs About the Writing Life


Happy 2015! I wish all of you a prosperous and creative New Year. Thanks also to everyone who takes the time to read this blog.

Let’s kick off January with a post about writing book reviews.


The Art of the Review


In the Sunday, December 28, 2014 edition of the New York Times Book Review, contributing editor Alice Gregory reviews four books of essays for “The Shortlist.” Her first review is of Where Have You Been? Selected Essays by Michael Hofmann. She writes, “An underused binary when it comes to taxonomizing literary critics is to distinguish between those who write best in hatred and those who write best in love” and “there is something noble about a critic who is most brilliant when being laudatory.”

As an occasional reviewer myself, I belong with Michael Hofmann in the laudatory category. I don’t claim to be brilliant, just more comfortable landing on the side of appreciation rather than disapproval. Surely, a place exists for the negative review, but not from this writer. I’d rather not review a book I truly dislike, since I would have to write a soul-crushing piece that lives forever with my byline and the unfortunate author’s attached. I write reviews, to quote Hofmann, as “an homage (for the most part) to literature.” I want to welcome readers to books I like instead of warning them away from books I dislike.

This is not always easy. Friends send books with the hopeful query, “Can you review my book?” Which means, “can you read my book, write a positive review of it, and place it at a journal?” That’s a lot of work, and I don’t always have the time or inclination to review the books that come my way. However, I too have been the asker, for blurbs and reviews, and in the spirit of reciprocity, I try to return the favor whenever possible.

Reviewing a book is, in my opinion, the best way to understand it. Reading a book on its own merit is just the beginning; reading with the intent to review leads to a much deeper level of comprehension. A review is a short lesson regarding content, style, and relevance: it must also convey some sense of the book’s readability and interest. Among the questions I ask myself as I write a review include 1) why should anyone read this book? 2) why would anyone shut off all other distractions and give this book her complete attention? I try to find hidden gems or oblique connections. I include the best examples I can find in the book.

DSCN2971I do not mean to imply that I, or any other reviewer, should give only glowing reviews. As Alice Gregory writes about Michael Hofmann, “This is not to say that Hofmann’s writing isn’t without barbs – and better for it.” A review should not be a work of unabated praise, but a balanced, thoughtful composition that enhances the reading experience. In this “Shortlist,” Gregory writes mostly positive mini-reviews of Hofmann and three other essay collections, including an apt summation of what criticism should not be: “parasitic work fueled by a professionally productive inferiority complex.” Rather, she writes, it should “connect minds joyously across time and continents.”


Here are some of my reviews:

Canyon in the Body by Lan Lan, translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

Every Seed of the Pomegranate by David Sullivan

Chinoiserie by Karen Rigby

How to Make a Bird With Two Hands by Mike White

The Darkened Temple by Mari L’Esperance






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Thirteen Little Poetry Projects



This is the final post for 2014.

I’ll be back in January with musings on Shakespeare, why I’m a sucker for kids’ poetry, the pros and cons of daily practice, prose vs. poetry, writing reviews, basking in obscurity, and other observations from the writing life.


Thirteen Little Poetry Projects

The list below contains my favorites from “20 Poetry Projects,” the creation of the late Jim Simmerman, a poet and professor from Northern Arizona University who died in 2006. I’m grateful for these little nudges in the direction of creativity, and refer to the list often. Mix them up; rearrange the list; choose three or four at random. You’ll have fun, and you might get a poem out of it.


  1. Begin your poem with a metaphor or a simile.
  2. Say something specific but utterly preposterous.
  3. Use at least one image for each of the five senses, either in succession or scattered randomly throughout the poem.
  4. Use the proper name of a person and the proper name of a place.
  5. Use a word – slang? that you’ve never used in a poem.
  6. Use an example of false cause-and-effect logic.
  7. Use a piece of “talk” you’ve actually heard.
  8. Make the character in the poem do something he or she could not do in real life.
  9. Refer to yourself by nickname and in the third person.
  10. Write in the future tense, so that part of the poem seems to be prediction.
  11. Modify a noun with an unlikely object.
  12. Use a phrase from a language other than English.
  13. Make a nonhuman say or do something human (personification).


Reprinted from Vibrant Words: Ideas and Inspirations for Poets by Erica Goss

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Sticks and Stones: Memoirs About the Writing Life



Step Up to the Open Mike


Everyone in the café heard me clear my throat into the microphone, my “hello” startling me through the loudspeaker. Fifteen years old and wearing a dress I’d made from an Indian bedspread, I delivered a quavering version of “Cameroon,” my favorite Miriam Makeba song, accompanying myself on guitar. Three minutes later I left the stage, having just performed at my first open mike.

I’ve attended hundreds of open mikes since that first time. I’ve heard amazing poetry and dreadful drivel, often on the same night. The open mike is an equal-opportunity performance alternative: anyone can sign up and read whatever they have with them. No criteria exist beyond showing up with a poem, song or joke.

Reading at a microphone is harder than it looks. We’ve all watched a reader adjust the mike for his or her height, never quite getting it right. Tall people like me stoop, while short people stand on tip-toe to reach the mike. Some hold the mike too close to their mouths, resulting in unpleasant clicking and slurping sounds, while others stand a foot away, rendering themselves inaudible.

I’ve seen people read poems neatly typed or handwritten on a sheet of paper, or inked on their hands, or from their phones, tablets or laptops. Some recite from memory (and occasionally go blank, start over, go blank, and give up). Some step up to the mike and then search their pockets for that elusive poem, never finding it. The audience generally forgives these lapses, as they can and do happen to everyone.

Not everyone is well behaved at the open mike. Some use it to air their favorite political viewpoint, or to advertise something. Some launch into a friendly but increasingly pointless conversation with the audience. Some read work that’s inappropriate for the venue (i.e., explicitly violent or sexual poetry at the public library) and some go on for way too

DSCN0865long. So it goes in the territory of citizen-performers. I’ve sat through open mikes where everyone was friends with everyone else and freely commented on each other’s work, both negatively and positively. I’ve read at open mikes where no one clapped (or snapped, a la the Beats). Most of the time, however, the open mike is a source of enjoyment, and sometimes, delight.

The open mike can change a person’s life. I’ve heard the beginnings of brave new voices in the tentative poems of strangers who got up the courage to read in public, often for the first time. Plenty of famous people started out at open mikes: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Leonard Cohen, Steve Martin, Chris Rock, and Ellen DeGeneres among them.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, we have a huge variety of open mikes in just about every town. Go out and find one, and boldly share your work. You never know what might happen.

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Stick and Stones: Memoirs About the Writing Life




The Black Dogs of Rejection

Thomas Mann said, “A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” We writers sweat over every sentence, agonize, rewrite, and rewrite some more. When we finally get a piece of writing ready to send out, we face that unfortunate fact of every writer’s life: rejection.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that rejections fall into a pattern. I’ve compiled a tongue-in-cheek list of the ones I encounter most often:


The Poet’s Top Ten Rejections


  1. The normal, everyday disappointment: “the New Yorker turned me down again.”
  2. The shocker: “my alumni magazine said ‘no’?”
  3. The self-defeater (also known as “pre-rejection” or “fatalism”): while browsing the calls for submission in Poets & Writers, you convince yourself not to send anything to anyone because you can already see the emails rejecting you.
  4. The Submittable message: “Your submission’s status has changed. Click here:”. The status changes from “in-process” to “denied.”
  5. The silent treatment: after hearing nothing for months to a year after you send in your submission, the journal posts the contributors to its new issue, or the winners of a contest, on its website. Your name is missing.
  6. The disappearing act: you never hear back. The website goes dark. The journal vanishes. So does your contest fee.
  7. The stalker: after rejecting you, the journal sends email after email asking you to buy the winning book, to make financial donations, or to subscribe to their magazine.
  8. The repeater: the rejection you get from the same place, over and over.
  9. The love letter: the eloquent message telling you how much the editors liked your work, but it wasn’t “quite right” for the issue, followed by:
  10. The invitation to re-submit: See #8.

Feel free to add yours!

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Interview: Alina Sayre, YA Author


Alina as a young reader, lost in a book

I’m happy to have Young Adult author Alina Sayre as my guest on today’s post. I met Alina at Village House of Books in Los Gatos last spring during California Bookstore Day. Her spirit and enthusiasm were infectious, as you’ll see as you read on. Alina is the author of The Illuminator’s Gift, a fantasy novel for ages 9-14. This week is the launch of her second book in the series, The Illuminator’s Test. Please welcome Alina!

Interview with Alina Sayre, December 2, 2014:

Were you a reader as a child? If so, what types of books did you gravitate toward?

Absolutely! My preschool teacher surprised my parents when she told them I was already reading (in fact, I was getting in trouble for correcting her when she ad libbed at storytime J). The first book I can remember reading solo was Dr. Seuss’s One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. But after that I especially loved fantasy (Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader), fairy tales (“Beauty and the Beast” is my favorite) and historical fiction (I wanted to be Laura Ingalls Wilder so badly that my dad built a makeshift covered wagon for my eighth birthday party). Interestingly enough, these are the genres I still love most today.

Did your parents read too? Did you see them reading?

One of my favorite memories of childhood (and adolescence, for that
matter) is reading aloud with my family. My dad starting reading to us from his college copy of The Lord of the Rings when I was eight, and it’s been my literary inspiration ever since. I was so proud when I could read well enough to take my turn reading aloud. Now one of my favorite parts of being an author is getting to read aloud to kids. Especially for auditory learners or reluctant readers, reading aloud is a great way to express the drama that your imagination can find in a book.

Quite a few adults read YA fiction. Can you explain this Ebook cover smallbehavior?

Secretly, adults (including me) are just big kids. While I do also read “adult” books, I love to read (and write) children’s literature because it’s a picture of a better world. Kids aren’t dumb, and they know that bad things happen in the world. Bad things happen in middle-grade and young adult books, too. But the distinction between good and evil is a little clearer, the story’s quest is a little better defined, and the hero or heroine faces life with a little more hope. Maybe we read children’s lit because we want to remember how to look at the world the way children do. Maybe the world would be a better place if we did.

How can we instill a love of reading, not just for content but for pleasure, in children?

One of my day jobs is as a private writing tutor, especially for kids who struggle with language arts. Of course I want my students to excel in reading comprehension and thematic analysis. But my biggest, long-term reading goal for these kids is to get them to love reading. Kids who read for pleasure read more, read better, and challenge themselves of their own volition, something no teacher or tutor can make them do. To that end, I start my reluctant readers with books that are a little below their reading level and on subjects that interest them. I’d rather a student have the experience of “mastering” a book and feel pleasure at the experience of reading than check off a box on their AR reading list. It’s a trade-off for long-term success, because a student who learns to enjoy reading is a student who will become a lifelong reader.

Can you relate a story where you convinced a reluctant reader to get through a book? How did you do it?

It’s key for students to understand that literature, especially classic literature, is not just a bunch of boring pages full of big words written by some old dead guys. The reason classics stay classic is that they speak to universal human experiences and help us learn to live. One of my favorite moments was teaching Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to a middle-school tech geek who has a bright future as an engineer and thought literature was so boring. We compared Dr. Jekyll’s transformative potion to modern-day technology: iPhones, Facebook, the Internet. Some people blame such technology for the problems in today’s world. But as we read through the book, we realized that the potion, like today’s technology, is just a tool, neither good nor evil in itself. It’s what people do with this powerful tool that determines whether its effects will be good or bad. It was the thrill of my life that when the student wrote his evaluation at the end of the year, he listed Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as one of his favorite books.

Are kids too distracted these days to really appreciate the world in a book?

Maybe it takes kids a little longer to learn to appreciate reading today, but I definitely don’t think they’re incapable of it. The fact of a world dominated by the Internet, texting, Snapchat, Instagram, and images rather than text is that kids are bombarded with a lot of information and not nearly enough time to process it all. Teaching them to work slowly through a book, especially one without illustrations, can be like training a couch potato to do crunches. The imagination is a muscle too. But literary enthusiasm is contagious. My students probably forget most of the information I teach about literature, but I hope they see my eyes sparkle when I talk about it.

IMG_0189I can’t remember many facts about The Iliad, but I remember a college professor who literally came to tears over Hector’s death. By the end of class, I was crying over Hector too. That moment impressed me deeply, and I hope to infect my students with the same contagious passion.

How does reading factor into your own creative process?

As I constantly tell my students, good writing comes from good reading. So I practice what I preach and read voraciously—kid lit, adult fiction, theology, psychology, biography, cereal boxes. I think reading multiple genres cross-pollinates my ideas and keeps me from getting stagnant. I hope this breadth of interests shows up in both of my books as the characters explore everything from chemistry to linguistics to navigation to manuscript illumination.

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Sticks and Stones: Memoirs About the Writing Life


My Father the Teacher

Recently, my mother sent me a poem I wrote at the age of six on a sheet of mimeograph paper. I turned the poem over and saw that I’d written it on the back of a copy of my father’s 1967 teaching schedule from San Bernardino State College. I thought of my father in his early thirties, leaving our house every morning wearing a tie and his corduroy jacket, leather satchel crammed with books, files, student papers, and the lunch my mother packed for him.

My father was a born teacher. A professor of German at the university level for many years, he ended his teaching career at the Defense Language Institute in San Francisco, where he taught enlisted men and women the rudiments of the German language. At DLI, most of his students were young, some still in their teens. When they started my father’s class, they were eight weeks from shipping out. Most of them had never visited a foreign country. “When my students finish the course, they can ask for directions, order food in a restaurant, buy things. It’s a start,” he told me.

After my father died, I found photographs of him surrounded by smiling young people. I didn’t recognize any of them. I assume they were his DLI students. I kept the photographs for a few years, and only recently, reluctantly, threw them away.

My father lost his job at San Bernardino State College in 1971 during a statewide fit of budget-cutting. He spent the next several years in a variety of jobs: taxi driver, lumber yard worker, translator, librarian. He wrote a book, did some freelancing, and went back to school. Eventually, he started working at the Defense Language Institute. After five years, the San Francisco DLI moved to Monterey, one hundred twenty miles away. Unwilling to move and disillusioned with teaching, my father worked as a technical writer until he retired. After retirement, he substitute-taught in the public schools in Sacramento County.

The 1970s and 1980s were hard on teachers. I just finished reading The Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein. Goldstein, the daughter of two teachers, writes compellingly about the history of teaching in America. “A Nation at Risk,” the 1983 landmark study, “set the terms of a debate we are still having today” (Goldstein). Standardized tests, teacher accountability, school prayer and charter schools forged a new and unfamiliar landscape.

I owe a huge debt to my teachers. Even the bad ones helped me learn, if only as an act of rebellion. I remember Mr. Hamilton chasing a wild boy around our fifth-grade classroom with a ruler (teachers still used corporal punishment in those days) and Miss Mead, turning the lights off and reading to her fourth graders as we lay our heads on our folded arms. In college, I discovered teachers who loved poetry as much as I did, and encouraged me to achieve my dream of being a writer.

“Teaching is the most fun I was ever paid for,” my father said more than once. “Seeing a student achieve an understanding of a new concept never gets old. I lived for that.”






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Deep Images


The following is reprinted from my book Vibrant Words: Ideas and Inspirations for Poets, PushPen Press 2014.

Deep Images

Years ago, I was a student in a drawing class trying to draw a tree. My teacher came by and said, “What you’ve drawn is your idea of a tree. This is what you’ve been told, all your life, is a tree.” My tree looked exactly like the trees I drew in elementary school. “You have to minutely observe something to stop seeing what you think it is, and see what it really is.”

Today we’re going tDSCN1946o look at something closely. Throw away your idea of what an object is, and try to understand what it actually is. The more carefully you look at something, the stranger it gets – that’s because you’re seeing details you don’t usually pay attention to.

Take any object. For example, I am looking at my desk lamp. If I describe its contour, I get this: “smooth, metal, screws, base, cord, bulb, switch, hinge, shade, arm, knob, arm, hinge, base…” and if I start to look at it more closely, I get “dusty, dead fly, scuff mark, silver, black, heavy, hot, too bright in that position, not bright enough in the other position, tilt, triangle thing the cord comes out of…” now I drill down again, and I get “casts shadow over my keyboard, makes the veins on my hands look like a topographical map, lights the tops of my books and the two-dollar bill I use as a bookmark, leaves my overstuffed files in the shadow.” Hmm. There is a story in this ordinary desk accessory. Is my lamp a metaphor for something else? Isn’t everything?

The experience of seeing this closely can simultaneously exhilarate and terrify. When I first saw a blown-up photo of a dust mite, it gave me the creeps for days, but I finally accepted the fact that the world is full of tiny, invisible living creatures.

Spend the day looking closely at things. Look at your children, your pets, your furniture. Look until you don’t recognize them anymore. Write down what you really see.



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Sticks and Stones: Memoirs About the Writing Life


“Writers often talk about the books that influenced them, but what are your nonliterary influences?” – Bookends, NYTimes, Sunday 11/9/14

Thomas Mallon and James Parker answer the question in two short essays. Mallon writes that he keeps “photos around me while I write the way other authors keep music on in the background, as a kind of atmospheric stimulation.” Parker states, “From my fellow bakers, I learned about industry and cohesion and the moral obligation to be cheerful.” I enjoyed these pieces as much for their diversity as for their content. Mallon uses photos “for unexpected details, such as the faces in the crowd, the people witnessing what a historical novelist can only try to reconstruct.” Parker credits drummers and comedians, as well as his years spent baking, as his “greatest nonliterary influences.”

My greatest nonliterary influence is the humble parking lot. I wrote about this in my book Vibrant Words: Ideas and Inspirations for Poets. Recently, the parking lot of my neighborhood hardware store was re-paved and re-striped, covering up its gray and pitted surface, the little tufts of grass and baby trees, the years of dumped coffee, crushed cigarette butts, crumbled leaves and motor oil rainbows. I have observed this parking lot for a long time. Its spiffy black and white appearance will soften soon, as when a pair of new white sports shoes gets its first scuff. The edges of paint marking off parking places will fray and split, and the asphalt will start to crack as soon as summer returns.

Some parking lots are challenging, like the tiny one behind the Beat Museum in San Francisco. A huge and empty parking lot surrounds the Veterans Memorial Building in Santa Rosa, where I learned to drive. Some cities seem to exist almost without parking lots, or with very small ones, such as New York or Berlin. Others, Los Angeles for example, are covered in them.

One of my favorite qualities of parking lots is that no one else cares about them, at least not for poetic inspiration. However, if you look long enough, you will discover a lot about these neglected patches of pavement. In an after-school enrichment class I once taught, I had students mark off four-foot squares in the school parking lot with chalk. I told each student that he or she was responsible for that square, and had the students make lists of everything they could observe about their squares. The students thought it was a little weird at first, but they complied, making more and more detailed lists. Since these were children under the age of ten, they saw things like fairies and Pikachu in addition to plastic straws, ripped binder paper and pencil stubs. I had them construct narratives from the lists, and then illustrated stories.

Today, claim your piece of pavement. Find a spot no one else sees the beauty in, and populate it from your imagination. Take photos of your parking lot throughout the seasons. Keep an album of parking lots you’ve visited on your travels. What happens there? Who comes and goes? What is the most common piece of trash you see? Why do you think that is?

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Sticks and Stones: Memoirs About the Writing Life


 Being Present

I recently watched The Artist is Present, a documentary about Marina Abramović. Abramović is known as the “grandmother of performance art.” She has cut and burned herself, ingested anti-psychotic drugs, and invited people to manipulate her body with a variety of objects, including “a rose, a feather, honey, a whip, olive oil, scissors, a scalpel, a gun and a single bullet” (Wikipedia). With her former partner Ullay, she created works that involved the two of them slamming into each other with bruise-inducing force.

Abramović created an even more controversial and popular performance piece at the New York City MoMA in 2010. Instead of shocking the public with violent and boundary-pushing acts, she simply sat in a chair and looked at people who, one by one, took the seat opposite her. She did this daily for three months. You can see the faces of every person who participated:

Expectation, embarrassment, bemused smiles, tears: the same expressions repeat over and over. Abramović herself maintains a calm, almost beatific demeanor throughout the performance, except for the times when she, too, weeps. It’s an affecting piece, one that becomes more and more intense as the weeks wear on. Regardless of the discomfort she must be feeling, seated in a chair for hours each day, the artist bestows the same attention on each person.

As I watched the film, I could see that something happened between the participants and Abramović: they felt present. The artist looked only at the person seated opposite her. Her attention from that person did not waver: she hardly blinked. Within the space of two people and two chairs, she created a complete environment. After each person left, the energy lapsed until the next person took his or her seat. Abramović closed her eyes between participants, an act as effective as closing the curtains after a play. When she opened them on a new person, the performance began anew.

As writers, what can we learn from The Artist is Present? After all, we rarely get a chance to witness the affect that our writing has on our audience, and few of us are as edgy and compelling Abramović. However, we can learn to be present, in our writing and in our encounters with the public. Being present is not easy: when we read in front of an audience, how often do we think about the actual people listening? Are we focused on their listening experience, or on our reading experience? What would it feel like to stop being “the writer” and instead become the interpreter of the writing?

When I was twenty-one, the poet Denise Levertov read at my college. Within a few minutes, she had the audience completely enthralled with just her voice. She read for us, not at us; each person there felt part of an environment created within the space of her poems and our presence.

Think about your readers. As a gift for their listening, be present for them. Just as you create for them, they complete the environment for you. Enter into that relationship with your full attention.

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