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Category Archives: Writing

The Critique: Standing in the Target Zone

kyujutsu14With arms out, your heart exposed, you reveal yourself or your work to human scrutiny. Don Miguel Ruiz, Jr. calls it “standing in the target zone.” It’s not easy. You go for that interview; you take that test; you offer up your love; or in my case you ask for feedback on a draft of a book. And you get a response.

Sometimes the balloons fall, confetti rains down, and they place bouquets of flowering praise into your hands. You step right into the target zone; you win—the job, the A, the love, the accolades. You feel valued.

Other times they throw eggs: hard-boiled, rotten, or fresh and usable. Spritely and alert, you dodge them, and evaluate their worth. They aren’t about you; they are about what’s between you and the words. So you toss the rotten criticism, digest the hard-boiled truths, and set aside the freshest critiques for later. You step out of the target zone soiled but ready to move on.

But other times—wow—other times you step into arrows, sharp and fast. Some are aimed at the target. You’ll deal with those later. But your guard is down; maybe you were expecting balloons. Suddenly, before you can grab your shield, one heads right at you. You take it personally, in the chest. You think, “You weren’t good enough for the job; you’re stupid; no one loves you; you are not okay, or talented, or worthy.”

If you’re quick, you can pull loose the arrow, stave the wound, and recover. You remind yourself that the barb isn’t about you; it’s theirs—their perspective, their point of view, their wounds, their opinions. You can take the arrow, clean it off, and learn what you can from it.

Sometimes, though, the wound festers, especially if, while you were pulling out the first arrow, two more hit their mark, one in your Achilles’s heel. This poison courses through your body. It hollows out your gut, robs you of your voice, and leaves you weakened, with a vise grip on your head and heart. You want to quit. You know better. You should have been vigilant, should have stepped out of the target zone, should have thrown up your shield and protected yourself. Now what?

You heal. It isn’t quick, but you heal. You step back, take stock, and you forgive. Forgive the archers for their aim and yourself for being human, for assuming balloons and making it personal—the job, the test, the lover, the book. You did your best, and you will begin again.

We live in a world of the instant critique. Want a hotel, a dinner, a book? Search the internet and the opinionated masses provided listings of one to five star judgments from which we can choose. Find an agreeable viewpoint on a web site and we post it on our Facebook page, or just “like” what appeals to us as we scroll the home feed. Suddenly, Facebook (or Twitter, or the website we light on) reads our preferences and presents us with more of what we want or need or agree with. We get filtered, faceless bursts. Not so, when we’re standing in the target zone.

Here is what I learned from the arrows. (And after some reflection, my attachment to the balloons.)

  • If I ask for feedback, if I put myself in the target zone, I need to be specific about what I want…and if I only want a bouquet, I’m not ready to put myself there.
  • If I think I am ready, I will request the information in small doses, step back when I sense my guard is down, and even walk away.
  • I will try to remember that I am not the judgment I receive.
  • I will listen, digest what I hear, and give myself time to evaluate
  • I will refrain from explaining myself, making excuses, or, if I am wounded, retaliating.
  • I will move on, make my choices, and enjoy where they take me.

And I will be judicious in my judgment. We are fragile souls. We want approval, love, and the kind attention of others. We want to be okay.

  • I will not give feedback unless it is requested (and believe me, I asked for it!).
  • I will offer my opinions up with genuine praise (and if I can’t find it, I’m not looking closely enough).
  • I will make all my comments specific and avoid advice, respecting the recipient’s ability to move forward in his or her own way.

It is called being constructive. It isn’t easy, but a bouquet opens the heart, a boiled egg nourishes the body and provides for growth—and an arrow can wound. My words are my words—I can’t guarantee how they’ll land, but if asked, I can shoot for the target, not the soul.

Setting and Story: Up Close and Personal

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posterPlace matters. In story, it is called setting. In family history, it’s where they lived. In now time, it’s where YOU live. A place impacts a story through weather, topography, physical landmarks, and as an amalgamation of all those things, through its personality. This week circumstances burnt this reality into my soul—literally.

Fire came to Black Mountain. Years of drought, and the naturally dry, heated days of August set the stage. Two weeks of triple-digit scorchers didn’t help. California weather, especially inland, produces annual grasses, chaparral, buckeye, and oaks that go dormant or retreat to survival mode as summer progresses. The vegetation is volatile. In some places, weather brings flood or tornado or hurricane or crime. In the Sierras it brings fire.

No one knows the culprit, not yet, but the blaze started on a Friday afternoon on the west corner of Black Mountain. From my vantage point, near the base of the mountain’s long northern side, I saw nothing, but I smelled it immediately; wind carried the ashes raining down on our deck. The wind came out of the west and carried the flames east up the steep, brush-covered western slope. Topography creates barriers or cocoons, it directs movement and prevents it, and it provides perspective. Black Mountain is a single large, looming mountain, dominant in the foothills and nearly detached from the body of mountains expanding up into the Sierra-Nevadas. There are homes on all four sides. Depending on where you stand, you may look at the mountain from north, south, east, or west. We looked south. Those looking east and northeast saw a firestorm eating away the ready, dry fuel. It swallowed the mountain, moving upslope and rounding to the south. The sirens sounded, and soon spotter planes and helicopters cruised the sky.

By nightfall, from our vantage point looking south, flames licked at the top ridge of the mountain. Firefighters from across the state organized at the high school, and first responders began evacuations. Now the details of this place became important. Firefighters rolled into endangered areas asking questions. How do we get here? What is the best vantage point for protection? The vocabulary of place dotted our conversation: the high school rock, the towers, the four-lanes, the park-n-ride, conservancy house, access roads, and the names of ranches and valleys (from Dimon to Loper). Every place has its landmarks, signposts for communicating. We communicated through ours, about the where and who of the evacuations, about the loss of homes and outbuildings, and about the moving destruction as the fire headed downhill along the northern slope, past the high school rock, and toward us. By then the sky roared with helicopters carrying water and planes dropping fire retardant.

Well before our evacuation, our community was at work. The people here match their landscape. They aren’t big joiners; they are private and self-sufficient. And they know how to roll up their sleeves and get to work, or if needed, give you the shirts off their backs. They transported animals, took in friends—were ready with what ever was needed. They opened gates and tore down fences, anything to help first responders. And when containment was near, they voiced their thanks. Expressions of gratitude peppered billboards, school signage, and Facebook. Homemade signs sprung up everywhere. Some places express their personality with an ethnic flare, an urban hip, a small town calm, or an historic charm. Ours is blue collar tough.

Does it matter? Back in my home, as the smoke settled, I drove west on Lodge Road, which runs along the north side of Black Mountain. I passed hundreds of trucks and thousands of personnel occupying Sierra High School (the staging ground for fire containment). I pulled into the park-n-ride to pick up a friend. We were going to lunch at a local restaurant down the road. A firefighter had gotten out of his truck. He was taking a picture of a child’s homemade sign of trees and flames and Thank You written in neat block letters. Our place, it seemed, mattered to him.


Editing Your Writing–Six Tips

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I prefer marking up a print copy for steps 3 and 4. Transferring the corrections to my computer adds another layer of scrutiny.

Whether you’re writing a family history, a journal essay, a cookbook, or the Great American Novel, editing looms as perhaps the most essential and difficult part of the process. I’m in the midst of editing two manuscripts. I don’t recommend it. On the other hand, it spurred some reflection regarding the task. I’ve edited grants and documents (in my previous life as an educator), personal family stories, genealogies for extended family, my blog, and two fiction novels. I’ve tackled each with varying degrees of intensity and understanding, and I’m getting better. Here are my thoughts so far, built on trial and a lot of error.

  1. Plan your work. Oh no, it’s the old debate about whether to write seat of your pants or from an outlined. Of course, some free spirited innovation, some inspiration from the ethers, is essential. But, while you might not want a hyper-detailed outline of your impending project, do block out the task just a Detours occur, but your work will appreciate the planning.
  2. Edit as you go. However you divide your writing task (by scene, section, generation, recipe), take time to read it through out loud. If you are lucky enough, like me, to have a small group of like-minded souls with whom you feel safe, read it to them. Take everything they say home with you, reflect on their input, and edit your work (or not, but get humble or you’ll toss out feedback when you shouldn’t.)
  3. When you finish the project, reread the whole thing for continuity, consistency, accuracy, rhythm and flow. For a longer piece, you might want to do this at the halfway mark or some other point along the way. You may opt to read it more than once and concentrate on one or two items at a time.
    1. Continuity–Does the piece move naturally from one point, scene, conclusion, plot point to the next? Does it make sense? Are descriptions or scenes with multiple people, places, or actions confusing? Are the pronouns clearly pointing to the right person, place or thing? Are there holes in the story or research?
    2. Consistency­– Is the narration in each scene consistently present or past tense? Is each scene from a single point of view, with no head hopping? Is it the best point of view? Are all dates, people, places consistent? (For example: Is it Andy or Andrew or both? Is his hair always brown? Is the date 1 May 1850 or May 1, 1850? Do you turn right to the hospital one moment and left the next.)
    3. Accuracy–If it is a research paper, can you reference every claim? If writing a cookbook, then is it a teaspoon or a tablespoon? It makes a big difference in a recipe; trust me. In fiction, is the world you create accurate? (For example: Is the moon rising at the right time of night, or day, for its phase? Does the plant you reference bloom at that time of year?)
    4. Rhythm and flow–Does each sentence sound sweet to the ear. Could a change in word choice improve the flow, sweeten the alliteration, or emphasize the mood? Could combining or separating out sentences vary pace? Writing is like music. It should have a cadence appropriate to the task. And the most essential part, the point of your sentence, paragraph, or piece, should crescendo. Does your sentence culminate in the key phrase? Does your paragraph conclude with the key point? Does your last paragraph (or chapter) reiterate your main idea, your theme?
  4. Read it again, focusing on details, not content. Even during your first edit, you will find errors unrelated to your focus. Fix the problem and write it down. Chances are if you fixed it once, you missed it five times over. Every writer has their personal flaws, writing traps they fall into with regularity. Mine is the over use of “…ing” words. Add your own writing traps to this list.
    1. Punctuation consistency– Commas in a series, commas in dialogue, commas in general…ugh! Have a good reference in reach, and good luck.
    2. Word repetition or overuse– Fix some of it as you go, especially if you see “smile” three times in the same paragraph–a flow problem. But along the way, you might sense an overuse of “eat.” Write the word down. Now is the time to use the “find” feature on your writing program and go on a word hunt. (Hint: If the find feature is pulling up the word inside words, put a space before and after the search word. Problem eliminated.)
    3. Weak word choice Do you use wishy-washy words? These, among others: sort of, really, almost, might. Be direct without losing your voice. Look for them; send them packing. (Not: You might look for them and maybe send them packing.)
    4. Homophones–You would think it a no brainer, but when I go on a writing terror, just trying to get the words on the page, I slip­–often. No one is immune too it. (That was a joke.) Same thing with “can not” or “cannot” and possessives.
  5. Now you are ready to hand your treasure to your Beta-readers. Choose two or three people to trust with your fragile ego. (Face it; it’s fragile.) Give up your work to them; ask them to give input, to expose your flaws. Be open, be humble, and be ready. When they’re done, wait a while, nurse your wounds, then return to step 3, and go at it again. This time make sure you read it out loud. (Hint: Use the “Bookmark” feature to keep track of where you are in your editing.)
  6. Know when to say when. If you feel like you rearranged the furniture, and then just put it back again, stop. You are done. Perfect isn’t realistic, is it? Hum…I might just take THAT advise to heart.

What are your “traps,” and how do you handle your editing? Let me know. I’m dying too here from you.

Book Contract Signed!

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Me signing…so fast the pen blurs.

It’s official. Today I signed a contract with HBE Publishing for my first novel. I’m very excited to begin my collaboration with Dan Dunlee, the publisher, on what is tentatively titled Mary’s Mountains.

In the story Maggie, an amateur family historian (who lives with her husband in the Sierra foothills–sound familiar?), investigates not just the birth and death dates of people but makes soul deep connections across time. In a single document Maggie discovers a woman, name as yet unknown, living on the Pennsylvania frontier in late 1770, and that mysterious woman draws Maggie in. Parallel to her search, the “real” story of Mary Hutton and her husband, Jacob Carter, unfolds.

But that’s all for now because, well, these things take time, and publication is a long way off…maybe a year and a half. Until then, I’ll enjoy the process. For now–back to editing my second novel, which is also a Maggie Chronicle.

Am I excited? You bet. So, this is no Throwback Thursday; it is future focused. Forward Friday? Fabulous.

3 for Fact and 3 for Fiction: Some of my favorite books

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3 plus 3


I’ve changed my site identity to reflect my expanding interest, writing historical fiction inspired by family history. Since I’m in the process of negotiating a contract for my first book and finishing the draft on my second, I thought it was time. I also changed the URL for my site, only a little, dropping the “wordpress” designation. Each of these changes take a little time to finalize so let me know if you see glitches.

I decided to honor these upgrades with a post about my favorite historical fiction and non-fiction writers. The criterion was simple; the author held such high esteem in my mind that he, or she, surfaced immediately. Why three? I like three. Rules of three are everywhere.

My three favorite writers of historical non-fiction

Bernard Bailyn–At 93 years of age, he still writes, having recently published a book of essays, Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History. Winner of numerous awards, he writes in with an ease that makes facts of early America come to life. My favorite is Voyagers to the West, but if you want a quick introduction to his work, try The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction.

Stephen Ambrose–Author of Band of Brothers and my favorite, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the American West, he breathed humanity into the famous and life into the past. He died in 2002 at seventy. A quote of his: “Love of the past implies faith in the future.”

David McCullough–Another award winning historian, 83 years old, and still producing. To take a year, as he did with my favorite, 1776, and interweave the details of the places, people, and incidents so artfully, requires an incremental understanding of history. And his television documentaries are outstanding.

(Runners-up: Jon Meachum because I loved Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, Doris Kearns Goodwin for Team of Rivals and her TED talk, and Colin Woodard because his book American Nations is so provocative.)

My three favorite writers of historical fiction

Diana Gabaldon­–I cannot lie. I’m a BIG fan. Not for the arc of her plots. They tend to run off and run on. But even when she goes rambling tangentially, I follow willingly because her description and her characters, and her attention to historical detail, mesmerizes, and I am there. My favorite book of the series is Drums of Autumn, because it explores a father’s love. (And yes, I watch the Stars channel’s Outlander series…I said I was a BIG fan.)

Geraldine Brooks– She is a master of a seamless, profound plot. Also, as in People of the Book, she interweaves the present to the past into her plots, a technique I use myself. When I was about ten, I read every Louisa May Alcott book, every one. Brooks is my modern day Alcott. In March, she tells the story of Little Women from the father’s point of view. “I would do my best to live in the quick world, but the ghosts of the dead would be ever at hand,” says it all.

Irving Stone­–He is a classic, and the classic, The Agony and the Ecstasy, accompanied me throughout Italy. It brought Florence to life. Besides, the title…wow, and his Van Gogh novel, Lust for Life…the man had a gift for titles–and beautifully evoked stories. Some authors should never die.

(Runners-up: Mary Renault because her stories of Alexander the Great inspired me, Tracy Chevalier who takes people famous and interweaves them with those ordinary, and James Lee Burke because he is my husband’s favorite author of mostly mysteries, but wrote White Doves at Morning, an unflinching account of the cost of the Civil War.)

And you? Which authors would you add to the list?


Two Challenges; Four Principles of Support


The family gathered, in way of celebration, at the edge of Sandy Creek on the floor of the new mill, still roofless but operational. They rejoiced at the rhythmic rumble of the saw as it cut through the first log, its first task in its new home. The saw, along with her wheel and a miscellany of household items, had bounced into Ohio over the rough roads of the Allegany. It ferried over the Ohio at Fort Pitt and kept them company under their makeshift shelter outside Fort Stuben. It weathered the winter and muddy spring. Now, while they ate, the saw bustled along, happy to be productive again.

From A Row of Stones (new tentative title…can’t decide) by Donna Croy Wright

When tackling any challenge in life, it helps to have a support system, experts to consult, a way to organize and analyze your efforts, and an understanding of the impact of human nature. It’s true whether the challenge is to determine familial connections before 1850 when no birth and death records were kept and census records did not name wives, sons, or daughters. And it’s true when writing a book (or losing weight or catching a criminal for that matter, but I’ll focus on the first two challenges.)


Through this blog, I connect with a fabulous network of family historians willing to share their time and resources. Only this week I corresponded with Oswalt, Croy, and Huston family members who shared their ideas and information with me. Meanwhile, for my writing, I meet meet weekly at The Writing Gym. We listen, critique, encourage, and share; and Pam Smedley always comes with some kernel to spark our thinking. Thank you all.


As I prepare for my trip to Ohio, I scoured the Internet but discovered a phone call to the research library of the state or county can be invaluable–besides connecting you to a real human being! I used Lisa Louise Cook’s recommended site, Stanford Newspaper Data Visualization, to determine the newspapers for the times and places I am researching for the trip. Using the indicator in the upper left corner I discovered the papers were not on line and housed only the Columbus, Ohio History Connections. So I did what I hate to do most, I made phone calls, and contacted the genealogy library in the county. They have those papers! They weren’t listed on the above site but they have copies. It will save time and be much more fun.

For my writing, I rely on some informative web sites and books, many of which I’ve shared.


I adore Excel. When I have a lot of information to analyze I create a spreadsheet. I’ve done this with the Bedford PA spreadsheet, Morges, Ohio Lot Ownership 1833-38, and Tracking Andrew Croy Family. Click on any one of the links above to check them out. I use tables and excel to organize my historical fictional, as well. For my book based on the Payne family in New Haven Colony, I created a table comparing historic events in New Haven Colony and Connecticut with the individual lives (and plot points) of my characters. (I do the same thing in my genealogy research.)


Humanity may change outfits but our emotions remain. The desire to be loved, valued, to nurture, to care for our children and our grandchildren prevails. The anger at rejection, the desire to hurt, abandon, take revenge or protect our interests remains. People cluster with those who are like them; the same religion, nationality, the same childhood history and familial relations. With this knowledge I read between the lines of all those tables and come to conclusions regarding them. It may not be “proof,” but it’s pretty likely.

It’s human to read emotion into the past. When I started my genealogical journey my empathy went into overdrive. I imagined their passions, I felt their pain, I wondered how they got from here to there and why. Their stories became my fictional world, and because I’m a romantic at heart, their stories are hopeful. They love each other. They nurture and protect each other. They care. Besides, like phoning a real person, it ends up being fun.

So what about Andrew and Susannah Oswalt Croy’s children? Using information on Susannah Oswalt Croy’s Saint Luke Cemetery Find-a-grave page as a jump off point, then organizing census and tax information on my trusty spreadsheet, along with marriage and later census records, I drew these conclusions. Grandparents take care of their grandchildren when their children can’t. They move to be near their children. They often have similar jobs. Children die, they move away, they divorce. They’re human.

  • First child: Michael Croy 27 March? (Find-a-grave not legible) 1801(census shows 1805, 1810) d. between 1860 and 1870 in Johnson Township, Clinton, Indiana. Matched to male of his age on Andrew’s 1820 and 1830 census, owned lot next to Andrew in Morges until 1837, appears in Coshocton 1840 census next door to father, Andrew, appears in 1850 in Coshocton with Rachel and children (Catharine, Andrew, Eunice, David, and Michael) then in Johnson Township, Clinton, Indiana with Rachel and children (Andrew, David, Michael, and Nancy)
  • Second child: Duncan Croy between 1801 and 1809 d. between 1841 and 1850 (based on census information and marriage records,) moved from Rose Township to Coshocton between 1831 and 1833 (Duncan shows up on 1830 census matching birth date of Andrew’s 1820 census. He marries Sally Morrison 27 September 1827. No record of him on Carroll County tax records 1833-1838. Andrew Croy moved to Coshocton by 1840 and a male of Duncan’s age is living with them with young children, a male age 5-9 (see Michael) and female under 5, no woman of similar age, wife likely dead. By 8 October 1841 married Elizabeth Clipliver (Clissliver.) No record after, likely both died between 1845 and 1849. In 1850, Susanna age 11 and Margaret age 5 live with Andrew (grandpa?)
  • Third child: Jacob Croy 6 March 1810 (causing him to appear in both 1801-1810 and 1811-1815 category depending on when census was taken) d. 2 June 1872 (My great-great-grandfather, wife and children are documented extensively in my blog so if you are interested, search. Suffice to say the family stayed in Coshocton with father Andrew until he moved back to Carroll County with his daughters. Jacob was a wagon maker, a complimentary job when your father is a saw mill owner.
  • Fourth and Fifth children: Richard and Mathias??Here it gets tricky. There were definitely 2 children born 1811-1820 besides Jacob and Samuel (seen below) but they are missing in 1830. A Richard Croy appears in the Rose Township census (born 1811-1820 fitting Andrew’s 1820 census,) no other record. Susannah Croy find-a-grave info lists a Mathias, but I found no collaborating evidence. I e-mailed to the find-a-grave contributor but got no reply.
  • Sixth child: Mary Croy Russel(l): b between 1812-1814 based on census d. after 1880. Married Robert Russell of Monroe Township, about 1834 (need better proof.) The photo on the website is difficult to read and looks like it says Mary C., daughter of R & M Russell. The family is found on 1840-1880 census records.
  • Seventh child: Samuel Croy: b 1811-1815 (census) d unknown Married Catherine McClish 10 February 1837. Age appropriate male appears on Andrew’s 1820 and 1830 census; based on land record resident of Muskingum County in 1 August 1839 and purchasing land NE ¼ of SE ¼ of S28 T13 R17, 1840 Census Samuel Croy in Green, Hocking, Ohio with a boy and girl under 5. By 1850 Catharine alone in Hocking County with children David, Cristina, Andrew, Noah, Luticia, George. Was Samuel looking for land in Nottingham, Wells County, Indiana? 1860 Catharine is there but alone with children Andrew, Mary L.(Luticia? listed as born in Indiana 1848) and George. 1870 no record 1880 Catharine in Wells with George listed as divorced. One marriage for a Samuel Croy in Wells to Mary Saltamore 2 August 1855. No other record.
  • Eighth child: Margaret Croy Russel(l): On find-a-grave at St. Luke Cemetery b. (census) 1821-1822 d. 29 November 1895 Married Matthew Russel(l) about 1841. Found in Monroe, Carroll County in 1850-1880 census.
  • Ninth child: David Croy Well documented. b. 22 March 1823 d. 4 March 1909 death cert. and find-a-grave: Oak Grove, Coshocton, 1840- 1900 census in White Eyes, Coshocton County, OH Married to Eunice Frazer (Frazee) who died 27 November 1860. Children: Robert, William, Matthew, Margaret, Mary, Jennie, Jacob, Richard, Nancy. Remarried a Hannah Phillips McPherson. 22 October 1871. Like his father, worked in sawmill. (Note: 1850 an Andrew Croy 19 is listed. Child of Duncan?)

While in Carroll County, I will look for marriage records and on Mary, Margaret, Mathias, Richard, and Michael, for obituaries on Mary, Margaret, husbands, and Andrew and Susannah, and other records for Mathias and Richard. Of course I will also visit the family cemetery, St. Luke in Carroll County.

As always, if you are interested in the citations regarding any of this, or have your own information or ideas to share, contact me. And a note on copyright: You are welcome to all information, charts, and pictures. I want to share. Only my words are sacrosanct and require my permission. Thanks.

The Gift of a Doll

My doll and I learning love.

My doll and I learning love.

When I was born my Uncle Muriel placed a doll along side me in my crib. A doll was a singular companion in those days. They didn’t come by the basketful, made on an assembly line, stamped out in a far off country, one of dozens to overload a child’s bedroom. They came alone, to be loved.

She was my only toy companion for many years, and I valued her. As I grew, I learned to cuddle her, care for her, protect her. Carried everywhere, taken on picnics, dressed, and fed cookies and tea, she entertained me. She sat while I read to her, endured my pampering, and listened while I cried or vented my frustration. I am sure I mimicked the nurturing I received from my parents, but it was more than that. I gifted her with what I desired…to be cuddled, cared for, protected, pampered, listened to, love. I learned to give what I needed. I learned how to love.

A constant companion.

A constant companion.

In this season of gifting, I think of her. I’m reminded to cuddle my grandchildren, pamper my husband, listen to others, and care. My desires are few. In our stamped out material world, I hope we receive less and value it more. I hope what we give and get does not teach us isolation, but teaches us how to love.

By the way, I still have that doll. It sits in a chair now, not cuddled much but protected, its job complete. So, here is one more wish, that we cherish our past and learn from it.

Cherished still

Cherished still.