Tell me a story

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I’ve been thinking about stories a bit in the past few weeks. When I was little I loved reading stories that allowed me to escape my small, conscientious, timid life. I delighted in the rebellious escapades of the naughtiest girl in the school.  I marvelled at what it would be like to be as bold and adventurous as the Famous Five, the Secret Seven, Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. Gosh, my mum wouldn’t let me play outside in our unfenced front garden, and I was only permitted to walk home from school via the side streets rather than along the main road (okay, it was the era of some strange child abductions but still…). My anxious, pimply, adolescent self longed to be one of the girls in the Sweet Dreams novels. Imagine being asked to ‘go steady’ and wear a letterman jacket! As a suburban Melbourne girl, I’m not quite sure I actually knew what that meant but it was clearly the pinnacle of teenage boy-girl relationships. Stories were for entertainment and escapism. True stories? Blah! So boring! Where was the fun in reading about other people’s lives? It all seemed way too earnest to my younger self. I did enough ‘learning’ at school. I didn’t need it when I snuggled down under my blankets at night or was wiling away the school holidays.

But, of course, as we add more years to our lives, our tastes can broaden and change. I still love reading novels and short stories for entertainment and escapism but I have come to appreciate the rewards of reading about the lives of others. A few weeks back, I went to the opening night of the Emerging Writers’ Festival. Melanie Cheng, who was the winner of the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, spoke to the audience and she had a great line about writers being the “personal trainers of empathy”. I loved that! It made me think about some of the writers whose stories I have been reading recently, not just in book form but also online, and how they have helped open my eyes and understanding of life experiences different from my own. I have thought about Magda and how societal attitudes contributed to the pain that tortured her as she sought to accept her sexuality, Maxine’s many encounters with racist attitudes in Australia, and why representation of diversity in the media is so important to Carly. I challenge anyone to read the personal stories in They Cannot Take the Sky or to listen to The Messenger podcast and not understand the damage the Australian government is inflicting upon asylum seekers (disclosure: I provide transcribing assistance to Behind the Wire). I have remembered the blog posts Sarah and Amanda have shared about anxiety and MS and how they have reflected experiences in my own life.

Reading – or listening – to the stories of other people’s lives is not about escapism. It is about staring life in the face. Sometimes that can be confronting. At other times, it can be comforting.

There have been times when I have wondered about blogging. What is the point of it all? What am I writing about? For what purpose? Perhaps you have felt that too. Maybe we should reassure ourselves that whenever we write, we are telling a story about part of our life. It is a way to connect with others – and even if that is only with one reader – in sharing our stories we are opening the door to understanding and empathy.

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Have you read…? The year to date in books

It’s been a while since I’ve done a book post so I think it’s time to do a quick round up of what has been sitting next to my bed, my couch, and shoved in my bag and carried around!

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The Book of Hygge by Louisa Thomsen Brits ‘Hygge’, that lovely concept of Danish cosiness, is hot right now, yes? And there are quite A LOT of books in the bookshops explaining to harried souls how they can incorporate hygge into their daily lives. This was the ‘how to hygge’ book that I received in my Christmas pile. It is a lovely looking book. The pics are muted and tranquil and they made me want to spend my days wandering through forests or sitting by candlelight with a mug of hot chocolate. And, to be honest, this is pretty much what the text said – over and over again! There was a lot of ‘hygge is stopping by at your neighbours and sharing a glass of wine on the verandah’,  ‘hygge is a basket of knitted slippers at your front door’, or ‘hygge is lighting a candle and eating breakfast together’. Now I am not averse to any of these suggestions, but I probably only need to hear the suggestion once, not once each chapter.  Reading the book made a long haul plane flight feel a bit more hygge-like, but I’m not sure if I’d been sitting on my couch at home that I would have continued reading it from cover to cover.

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The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North Fairly self-explanatory from the title what this one is about! The story of the wunderkind filmmaker Sophie’s life and death is told by those closest to her – her brother, ex-husband and lover, and those who were part of her working life – film subject, film reviewer and producer. As I read the novel, I was a little unsure how I felt about it. I wondered if I was learning more about the characters who had had relationships with Sophie, than I was about Sophie herself. The focus of their recollections seemed to be how THEY responded to Sophie, how she made THEM feel. But as I read on, I started thinking that in showing how they were affected by Sophie, they were painting a picture of her – a self-contained, distant young woman who was an observer of life (appropriate for a filmmaker!), who,  when she did become a participant, seemed driven by her own desires rather than the desire to share herself with others. For the most part, I found it difficult to warm to her, but Anna North has managed to infuse her with enough victimhood and trauma in her life for her to be seen as a psychologically isolated, tragic young woman. Not sure that I super enjoyed it, but the fact that I am still mulling it over weeks down the track shows it was an affecting read.

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The Dry by Jane Harper This was a goody! Set in the fictitious sunburnt Victorian town of Kiewarra, this thriller seeks to discover who was responsible for the murder of the Hadler family. Is it a murder-suicide, or is there a killer in the small town? Aaron Falk, a former local, now a member of the Federal Police, returns for the funeral of his old friend, Luke Hadler, and is persuaded by Luke’s father to assist in the investigation. Aaron’s return stirs up the town’s emotions surrounding the crircumstances of the death, years earlier, of Ellie Deacon, a friend of Aaron’s and Luke’s. Were they involved in her death? Had Luke killed her? Had Aaron? This novel had sufficient twists and turns to keep me wondering throughout as to what had taken place, and satisfyingly, kept me guessing until the end on both counts. Recommended!

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Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance And now for some non fiction! Hillbilly Elegy is part autobiography, part social commentary. JD Vance grew up in Kentucky, then Ohio before becoming a Marine and then graduating from Yale Law School. He spent much of his life living with his grandparents whilst his mother battled drug addiction and cycled through one failing relationship after another. Vance shines a light on what constitutes hillbilly culture – its genesis and how it has spread from the south to the Midwest as hillbillies have migrated in the search for work. Alongside his own story of what it was like to grow up in this culture, his time spent in the Marines, and at Yale, he describes the culture of a people who feel hardly done by through the decline blue collar jobs; who feel minorities have gained an advantage over them through Democrat presidencies. Being Australian, I have read this book as an outsider – I cannot judge how accurate his evaluation is. I have read some criticisms of the book; that Vance seems to be saying that because he has become successful, others could too if they’d only put in the work. I didn’t get that impression from the book. I saw it more as explaining why there was a disaffected group in US society ripe for the politics of Donald Trump. And throughout, for me, he was conscious of his good fortune in having a family who despite their violent tendencies, aggressive behaviour and addictions, valued education and knew that he could achieve. They knew he had the ability to choose a path in life, that he didn’t have to accept what was, and it is this that he feels needs to be role modelled for those growing up within the hillbilly culture. An interesting read to learn more about US society.

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Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty I’ve never read any Liane Moriarty before and with Big Little Lies hitting the small screen, I thought it was time to give her a go. I’m not sure if this novel is reflective of her others, but I have to say I was a little underwhelmed by this one. The story revolves around three couples, Erika and Oliver, Erika’s ‘best friend’ Clementine and her husband, Sam, and Erika’s neighbours, Vid and Tiffany. The three couples, plus the daughters of Clementine and Sam, and Vid and Tiffany, gather for a barbecue one afternoon at Vid and Tiffany’s. Early on we learn that something has taken place at the barbecue that shakes the relationship between the couples. The chapters flick between the day of the barbecue and the present where we are made aware of the strains in Erika and Clementine’s friendship, Erika’s mother’s hoarding, Clementine’s cello audition, and Vid and Tiffany’s attempts to maintain a relationship with Clementine and Sam in the wake of the barbecue. For me this was a page turner but only because there was such a heavy-handedness in writing about what had happened at the barbecue – along the lines of ‘if only we’d stayed home’, ‘if only we hadn’t agreed’ – that I was saying through gritted teeth ‘just get on with it!’. I’m not sure that I felt the fallout from the incident to be entirely warranted, and I didn’t warm to the characters sufficiently to be concerned with their stories once the incident had been revealed. As a holiday read, maybe it’s okay. I guess I’d say ‘proceed with caution’!

Have you been reading anything interesting this year? Have you read any of these? Should I try another Liane Moriarty?

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Have you read…? Any of these!

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Oh dear! I do have some catch up to do! It is a LONG time since a book review popped up here but I promise you, I HAVE been reading! Just haven’t got to WRITING about what I’ve been reading. So. Here we go. A quick run down of what’s been sitting next to my bed and beside my couch!

Reckoning by Magda Szubanski

For any non-Australian readers, Magda Szubanksi is one of our most beloved comic actors and has been a fairly constant presence on our TV screens since the late 1980s. Maybe think of Dawn French or Melissa McCarthy. Her autobiography, Reckoning, is a beautifully written, fascinating, illuminating, touching insight into her life and the life of her family.  Born in Liverpool to a Scottish mother and Polish father, her story of her identity spans the globe and reaches back into history as she tells of her father’s life as an assassin with the Polish resistance during World War 2. As I was reading, I couldn’t stop thinking about how difficult it must be to fit together the picture of the father who is now part of suburban Melbourne with the Polish youth living half a world away, in another time, killing Germans in cold blood. As she says in the first line of the book

If you had met my father you would never, not for an instant, have thought he was an assassin.

Alongside this aspect of her life, she also details the struggle she went through in being able to be open about her sexuality (she was very young when she realised she was gay); how it affected her sense of where she belonged and how it led to battles with food, weight and depression. And, of course, she details her life in theatre, television and film. A wonderful book about an incredibly complex life.

The Paper House by Anna Spargo-Ryan

My heart fell out on a spring morning – the kind that rose coolly in the east and set brightly in the west.

How can you not be captured by this opening line? And such lyrical writing continues throughout the novel. The Paper House tells the story of Heather and Dave as they face the unbearable sadness of a stillbirth, how they each negotiate their grief and the support they receive from Heather’s sister and distant father. For Heather, the loss of her child triggers, understandably, a deterioration in her mental health. As we witness this, we are also introduced, through flashback, to the tragic mental health battles of Heather’s own mother and how this affected their family as Heather was growing up. Spargo-Ryan also introduces us to Heather and Dave’s neighbours, Sylvia, and Ashok. As the three households interact, our eyes are opened to Sylvia’s own grief over the loss of her husband and how she and Ashok fill a hole in each other’s lives.

I loved the writing in this book. It was truly beautiful. My only niggle came from the nature of the mental health conditions suffered by Heather and her mother. I think this is more my own fault rather than Spargo-Ryan’s. Before I started reading, my preconception about the nature of Heather’s mental health battle was that it would be in the nature of depression and/or anxiety which I was interested in seeing explored but, whilst Spargo-Ryan deliberately chose not to name the condition, it seemed to be more a type of psychsosis. Heather’s mother’s condition, by contrast, appeared to me to be bipolar in nature. Related, yes, in that they are both mental illnesses but I think I would have preferred it if they had been the same; a genetic link. I’m trying to let go of this little niggle, because it is such a beautifully written book, but it’s still there, just below the surface!

The Strays by Emily Bitto

The Strays won the Stella Prize in 2015 for first time novelist Emily Bitto. Set in Melbourne in the 1930s, it is narrated by the adult Lily and is a recollection of the time she spent living with famed artist, Evan Trentham, his wife, Helena, their daughters and the various others artists (‘the strays’) who came to live with them. As a young girl on her first day at a new school Lily becomes friends with middle daughter, Eva. After school plays become sleepovers, weekends and then, when Lily’s father suffers a workplace injury, she lives, for a time, with the Trenthams permanently. Lily adores the free spirit of the home which is in sharp contrast to her own conservative home life. The dark side to the free spirit is an undeniable amount of self absorption by the Trentham parents and the artists. There is the desire for fame, acknowledgement, satiation of lust, and along the way, it is Eva and her sisters, and Lily, who get caught up and spat out by the behaviours of the adults in their lives.

This is yet another excellent novel by a female Australian writer. I have read so many recently! The characters and the setting are well realised, and Bitto has clearly been inspired by the lives of Sunday and John Reed in creating the Trenthams. We observe that whilst, in their art making, the artists may be great observers of their physical world, their own feelings and desires, in life, they do not observe the feelings of others or the damage that their actions are creating.

The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna

Another prize winner. This time, The Miles Franklin Award for 2015. Wow! I adored this book but I’m hesitant to say too much because I don’t want to give away spoilers. The story revolves around a young boy, Jimmy Flick. Jimmy’s condition is not named but I think it is reasonable to assume that he is autistic. He is obsessed with machinery and how things work and this is the way he attempts to make sense of the way people are behaving, including himself. Jimmy lives with his mum and dad and older brother, Robby.  Jimmy’s mum is the only person who is able to cope with his behaviour. His father finds it an enormous strain, and when combined with the work pressures and a fondness for drink, the home environment, despite the affection Jimmy’ parents have for one another, becomes a dangerous one. When tragedy comes to the home, Jimmy needs to learn how to navigate the world on his own.

The writing of Jimmy’s voice is stunning. I loved him and he tugged at all my maternal heartstrings. I loved his politeness and enthusiasm

Yes, Mr Ashworth. Yes, yes, I will. It’s ham, Mr Ashworth. It’s ham and pickle.

and his observations of his behaviour and others

I did what he said. I sucked oxygen through my mouth and down into my air passage until every cell got a portion. Oxygen was the glue, binding me together.

Like gravy and chips, my Dad had magnetic powers.  Mum had no defences for him.  He got in underneath. He was like a slice; she couldn’t give him up.

Really, I could pretty much quote the whole book! A highly recommended read.

 

Taking Stock: July ’16 -The Holiday Edition!

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Yes, I do feel a tiny bit bad! Here I am, away on holiday and writing a blog post. It’s a time when I could be stepping away from the internet and engaging fully in ‘the real world’! But aren’t holidays also the perfect time to take stock, to reflect upon what’s working/not working in life/what to be thankful for? And this has been that sort of holiday – sitting in the one spot, eating, reading, walking, thinking. Bliss! Plus, I wanted to share this cute little creation I spotted on the beach today!

Eating: ice cream from Shakes. The family tends to gravitate to the trusty old chocolate but for me, it’s macadamia, burnt toffee, panna cotta or tiramisu

Drinking: mojitos, wine, tea, coffee

Cooking: burgers for dinner. For me, holiday cooking is about things shoved in bread – burgers, sausages in bread, burritos if I’m feeling fancy!

Hearing: a cacophony of birds singing

Looking: at the tree frog that has taken up residence on the kitchen louvres

Watching: Line of Duty series 3. I feel like I need to go back to the beginning to see how all the pieces of the puzzle are fitting together!

Enjoying: walks on the beach, no commitments, not having to get in the car

Wondering: how I can incorporate more ‘holiday’ into the ‘everyday’. Can I carve out time each day to practise writing, to notice the little things? Do you ever wonder that too?

Absorbing: all the warmth I can before heading back to chilly Melbourne! I don’t mind cold days but it is nice to have a week’s respite!

Wearing: skirt, singlet

Feeling: a gentle breeze on my skin

Reading: lots! Just finished The Paper House, dipping in and out of Everywhere I Look and just started on The Eye of the Sheep which I picked up second hand at the local bookshop

Wishing: I didn’t have to pack my suitcase for tomorrow’s return home!

Marvelling: at the fact that our big kids still seem happy to come away with us on holiday!

What are you up to? Are you having a holiday at the moment? Is it away or at home?  Maybe you have one coming up? Do you use your holidays to take stock or to be a bit of an adventurer? ‘Taking Stock’ posts are the brainchild of crafty lady Pip Licolne. Maybe you could have a go too?

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Taking Stock: May ’16

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So. Here we are. May. How did that happen? Finally for us Melbourne peeps the weather is starting to climb only to the high teens, as autumn weather is meant to do. I can legitimately think about making soups and stewy things. Yay! Love a salad but adore warming, comfort foods. The leaves are falling and I am doing A LOT of raking up. After skipping past April, it’s time to take stock and see where this autumnal road is leading me!

eating: homemade chicken soup with a bit of chorizo thrown in. Yum!

drinking: green tea

cooking: this chicken bake for dinner

looking: after my boy who has a throat infection. Two in three months is a bit annoying!

making: ginger and honey tea for the sore-throated one. He probably won’t drink it but at least it makes me feel like a nurturing mumma!

listening: to the rain on the roof. One of the best sounds, don’t you think?

hearing: someone mowing the lawn. In the rain. Really?

reading: The Year of Magical Thinking. Thanks Isabel for the lend!

wearing: new jeans and new top. Exciting! Sprucing myself up a bit!

wanting: the current issue of Dumbo Feather. It was too stormy to cross the road to the newsagent’s this morning!

watching: Masterchef. I always say I won’t and then it starts, and the judges are so nice, and it’s such an easy to show to watch, and then someone is apparently cooking the best dish EVER…

giggling: at the amusing messages on my Mother’s Day cards!

enjoying: the prospect of a week with no after-school activities

hoping: to finish my cowl very soon so I can get on to my scarf project

wishing: I could feel some sense of routine about my weeks. Everything feels like it has been a bit higgledy-piggledy this year. People are at uni/not at uni, home for dinner/not home, going to work early/going late, etc. I’m waking up each morning thinking ‘what IS going on today?’

knowing: I’m super fortunate to have spent Mother’s Day with my mum and both my children

feeling: happy Waleed won the Gold Logie. Not that I hold any reverence for the Logies but I do love Waleed. He’s ace. My boy sat a couple of seats away from him at the football on Friday night. He said he was a focussed and contained supporter.

wondering: how we will survive an eight week election campaign? So many on ads on TV already.

pondering: who does deserve my vote?

How are things travelling for you now that we’re nearing the halfway mark of the year? Are you bunkering down for the approaching winter or anticipating the coming warmth of summer days? Taking Stock posts are the brainchild of the ideas queen Pip Lincolne. Maybe you want to ‘take stock’ too?

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Have you read…? Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

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Last year, I sat in my car in the supermarket car park listening to a radio interview with Bryan Stevenson, who was in Australia to speak at the Perth Writers Festival. His story of his work as a civil rights lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) was distressing, infuriating and inspiring. His excellent book, Just Mercy, fleshes out the stories he touched on the interview but also serves to illuminate a raft of issues in the American criminal justice and social welfare systems.

As a young law student in 1983, Stevenson undertook an internship with the Southern Prisoners Defence Committee (SPDC) in Atlanta. As executions began to take place again in the Deep South after years of delay, the SPDC worked to provide proper legal representation to condemned prisoners who had been convicted without proper or no legal representation. A visit to a prisoner on death row brought home to Stevenson the grave injustices of the legal system towards indigent and coloured prisoners. As he explains

Presumptions of guilt, poverty, racial bias, and a host of other social, structural, and political dynamics have created a system that is defined by error, a system in which thousands of innocent people now suffer in prison.

In the late 1980s, he established the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) to assist prisoners facing execution and, over time, this has expanded to tackling issues of mass incarceration, juvenile imprisonment, programs to assist those re-entering society after imprisonment, and the provision of policy advice on issues related to race, poverty and crime.

He explores a number of cases he has been involved in, with that of Walter McMillian being the thread that runs through the book. Walter, an African American, was wrongly convicted of the murder of a white woman and sentenced to death. For me, this case exposed enormous issues with the criminal justice system: racial bias, the ability of judges to overturn sentences imposed by a jury, the dangers of having elected judges/sheriffs/district attorneys, the corrupting effect of deals with witnesses, and the sheer incompetence and bias of some of those working in the legal profession. The appalling result in this case was even worse than the apparent injustice in Making a Murderer. Spoiler alert – after six years on death row, and thanks to the tireless work of Stevenson and his team, Walter was exonerated. Whilst this was great cause for celebration, the sobering thought, as Stevenson points out, is that Walter’s case only came to his attention because he was on death row. If the judge had not overturned the jury’s sentence of 30 years and imposed the death penalty, Walter would have spent his life in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Stevenson exposes the treatment of juveniles in the justice system. How is it that children as young as 13 can be sentenced to life imprisonment? How can children be imprisoned in adult prisons with all the risks that that entails? For Ian Manuel, a 13 year old when convicted, this meant spending 18 years in solitary confinement as this was the only way to keep him safe from other prisoners. The work of the EJI has seen the courts, over time, prohibit life in prison sentences for children.

Harsh sentencing laws for drug and minor offences has seen an explosion in the prison population with the consequence that the United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world. This has created massive overcrowding in prisons but also has led to social disadvantage becoming entrenched. Parents are removed from their children, those convicted of drug offences are not entitled to welfare or public housing, felons are disenfranchised. How are people able to rise above social disadvantage when society is not assisting them in any way?

As an outsider to the US, I have read about police shootings of black men, the college riots and the Black Lives Matter Movement. I understood that racism remains an issue in the country. Reading this book showed just how entrenched this racism  – hatred – is in some parts of the country and the devastating consequences this has for many African Americans. It made me think about how the proliferation of guns in the US has enabled so many people to become murderers where, without such access, they may have committed less serious crimes, or no crime at all. It made me appreciate the social welfare, health and justice systems we have in Australia (although there have been some devastating failures in our parole system) but it also made me think about how these systems are treating, or not treating, our indigenous people. It is a book that made me want to learn.

I am in awe of the work carried out by Bryan Stevenson and his team of lawyers. In the absence of societal support, it is essential to have people prepared to fight for the disadvantaged and disenfranchised; to provide them with a voice and to give them the opportunity to live life to their fullest potential. A highly recommended read for those interested in social justice and social policy.

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If you are interested in issues of race and/or the failings of the US justice system, you may like to have a listen to the first part of My Damn Mind and Anatomy of Doubt. Indigenous incarceration and disadvantage is explored in this excellent article by Sarah Gill

Taking Stock: March ’16

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Hello! How are you? It has been an AGE since my last post! But now it is Good Friday and everyone is home doing NOTHING because that is our Good Friday tradition – along with eating 70 million hot cross buns – so I thought it a most excellent time to put the feet up, pop the fingertips on the keyboard and take stock as we hit the ‘quarter way through the year’ mark!

Cooking: fish and chips. My mother has ingrained in me that this is only dinner permitted to be eaten on Good Friday

Eating: hot cross buns, hot cross buns, one a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns!

Drinking: instant coffee at this precise moment. Nothing fancy schmancy here!

Reading: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Wow! Opens the eyes to the incredible injustices in the US criminal justice system

Wanting: daylight saving to end. Light in the morning please!

Making: time to do some drawing every day

Enjoying: a very lazy day

Loving: that it is school holidays. Little sleep-ins, earlier nights.

Wearing: jeans, singlet, flowery top

Needing: to get said jeans altered. I think they’ve stretched and are now feeling uncomfortably loose

Hearing: twittering and chirrupping

Watching: Occupied with my man, Gilmore Girls with my girl, my boy watching his usual history documentaries

Listening: to  Clare and Pip interviewing Melissa and Ben

Feeling: happy with some new Etsy purchases courtesy a birthday gift voucher

Knowing: that even at 17 and 19, your kids are never too old for an Easter egg hunt! Easter Bunny was admonished last year for not leaving one. Oops!

Wondering: if I should do some embroidery? Feeling inspired by Threadfolk

How are you travelling up to this point in the year? Has it been smooth sailing for you? Choppy waters? Bit of both? Maybe you want to take stock too? Thanks, Pip, for the ‘Taking Stock’ idea!

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