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Cheryl's Musings

Cheryl's Musings: November 2008

Cheryl's Musings

How to Thrive on the Writer's Road


We are what we carry around in our mouths

Our puppy, Beau, is not subtle. When he's hankering for a walk, he'll find the nearest leash or collar and carry it around the house. If he's looking to play, he redistributes his toys across the floor. When he wants attention, he drags out his family's dirty clothes (preferably underwear, but socks will do in a pinch) and gnaws on them in the middle of the living room.

Right now, he's rolling on his back, tossing an old collar in the air.

It makes me think: maybe that's why I can't ever seem to corral the books in my house. Could I be carrying them around in my mouth when I'm not paying attention?

:) Cheryl

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A Writer's Thanksgiving

Thanks, God, for:

Words with which to play,

kids to read them,

hearts to touch,

And hearts that touch mine back.
Thanks for an astonishing universe
full of wonder and magic--
and the opportunity to write about it,
to try to figure it out.
Thanks for inspirational poodles
and puppies
even if they chew up my pens.
Thanks for the family
who inspire everything important
I've ever found to say
even if, sometimes, they make it hard to write.
Thanks for blueberry pies
that stain my tongue purple
the smell of honeysuckle
the taste of crisp turkey skin
the sensory details I notice
more acutely than if I didn't write.
Thanks for all the good things
I'm allowed to capture with pen and paper.
Thanks for the wealth of words
that only writers know.
Happy Thanksgiving! May you see all the blessings in your writing life and elsewhere.

:) Cheryl



Ellen Booraem on Cynthia Leitich-Smith's Blog

Ellen Booraem, a Class of 2k8 author, talks about how she gets past writer's block and encourages her writing to flow.

Here's a sample: "I was determined that I would keep my butt on that chair until I wrote a decent novel. About a month in, though, the inevitable morning came when I sat down, looked at the screen, and went blank. The panic rose like flood waters."

Check out her answers to Cynthia's interview questions here.

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Living Out of Balance

Thought for the day: Should a "balanced life" really be the writer's goal?

This is, after all, commonly accepted wisdom. Seek balance in all things, yada yada yada. And yet, I gotta wonder.

Here's the thing: I get the most writing done, the most passionate and real writing done, when I'm totally out of balance. If I tried to balance my writing life with the rest of life, I'd write three or four hours a day and spend the rest on all those important tasks that expand to fill any and all available time. But when I treat writing like a love affair, when I let it consume me...well, the laundry suffers, but the stories unfold.

I guess I'm an all-or-nothing kind of gal. I guess that's why I ask weird questions, like whether I should spend time blogging or reading blogs or reading the news or paying the bills. I guess that's why my answers to those questions change week to week (or, sometimes, day to day!)

This isn't a permanent lifestyle, of course. I do, eventually, have to do the laundry, walk the dogs, and even exercise. And certain priorities (read: kids, husband, and dogs, not necessarily in that order) can't stand much neglect. Heck, even I can't stand much neglect. If I don't spend a minimal amount of my time taking care of myself, then I lose my ability to function in all those other important areas.
Sometimes, I think every writer can use a bit of all-or-nothing focus. It's a great tool for making leaps-and-bounds forward progress on a particular piece--or for getting past a writing hump--or just for answering a particular writing question. Or maybe the occasional--or even frequent--bit of excess is part of balance! Who knows?

I say, if a bit of excess or imbalance helps move your forward, go for it.

:) Cheryl

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Notes to start a writer's week

  1. It's almost Thanksgiving! And the holiday is really about being thankful, not preparation of a beautiful turkey, so you'll do okay. (Although the pumpkin pie is another story).

  2. When asked to chaperon a school field trip, it's okay to say no. But if you feel obliged to say yes, even though the overstim of school field trips is tough on your introverted soul, think of it this way: RESEARCH! When else do you get the chance to hang out with so many kids at once?

  3. Coloring books aren't just for kids.

  4. Pretty file folders make it easier to keep your desk organized. As does dark chocolate.

  5. Other mothers forget to tell their children to bathe every day (I'm pretty sure). You're remembering the important stuff: breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and great books.

  6. Yes, the dogs love it when you practice your presentations on them. And no, the neighbors don't know. Although it might be a good idea to close the blinds so they don't think you're talking to yourself.

  7. Speaking of talking to yourself, a cell phone is a very good excuse the next time you need to hash out that bit of dialog--aloud--while walking on the bike path.

  8. Nail polish is, as of now, a legitimate means of character research. And maybe you could write an article about it, too...

  9. No, Cheryl. Bad, Cheryl. Focus on current projects. No more new ones.

  10. But...? NO. Go work on that rewrite! Well, okay, you can take the nail polish with you.

:) Cheryl

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Comment Challenge, Revisited

My earlier posts (here and here) about the Comment Challenge sparked a lot more discussion--and heat--than I anticipated. My apologies to the illustrious Mother Reader, who set the Comment Challenge ball rolling, so to speak. I think the challenge is a wonderful idea and a great way to encourage writers to connect with each other.

But I still think we each need to ask ourselves if participation is beneficial or a waste of time. Not that I think the answer is cut in stone: it will be different for each person. For me, it meant taking a hard look at how much time I was spending on the challenge--and why--and whether I was accomplishing that purpose. At the outset, I found myself spending a TON of time going through posts, trying to find something on which to comment, and yes, wondering if it was the best use of my time.

It wasn't. BUT--asking myself that question let me change my strategy. Has the Comment Challenge been a waste of time for me? No, but it could have been, if I'd participated without changing course midstream. Comments for comments sake aren't so useful (altho, as a goal-oriented person, I'm quite capable of collecting my 3/day for the sole sake of meeting that goal); but comments for the purpose of continuing a conversation or making a connection or saying thank you for someone's effort--those are useful.

Mother Reader addresses this question in her Nov. 19th post, where she answers the question "Is the Comment Challenge an insidious waste of time?" as follows:

Yes, as are blogging, blog-reading, and commenting in general — except where those things focus your writing, present fresh ideas, spur new thoughts, make helpful connections, form lasting friendships, and promote your work, blogging or otherwise.

Really, the best answer for each person is contained in two questions:
  • How can I maintain balance?
  • Why do I blog?
Lovely answer--because she pinpoints the fact that each of US needs to ask those questions of ourselves. The answers won't be the same for everyone. Some of us should be participating full steam; others, perhaps, will find they need less time on blogs and more time on other priorities.

Me? My life is totally out of balance, in all the best ways. But I guess that's another post!

:) Cheryl

PS--Yes, the photo is totally random :). What can I say? I think the emu is cute!

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The 4-Hour Workweek, Revisited

Since I mentioned Timothy Ferriss's book earlier this week, I thought I should offer my thoughts on the book as a whole (now that I've finished it!) It's an interesting book. Worth reading? Maybe.

This goal of this book seems to be to move workers (both employees and self-employed) to a place where they're spending minimal time working while maintaining a reasonable income stream. Ferriss's strategies for doing this are straightforward--and he includes some useful time-saving ideas as he presents them:

  1. Work efficiently. This includes a "media fast": he advocates not listening to the news reading the daily paper, or following news online; minimizing e-mail interactions; and he'd no doubt cross blogging, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, etc., off his list as "time-wasters", too.

    For me, it's about maintaining mindfulness. I benefit from reading blogs and staying in touch with people (friends, family, and business contacts) on Facebook; I can also get sucked into spending too much time on these activities.
  2. Apply the 80/20 principle to your work life. That is, he advocates focusing on the 20% of the customers who provide 80% of the income while eliminating that difficult 20% who cause 80% of the problems.

    Well, since I usually have somewhere between 1 and 6 clients, I'm not sure this applies...although I suppose it could be applied to which projects I pursue. Still, I'm not quite ready to give up that freelancer mentality of saying "yes" to all work (at least, all the work I can realistically accomplish).
  3. Remove yourself, as much as possible, from the daily operations of your business (or equivalent) and life by outsourcing many tasks to overseas (and therefore inexpensive) virtual assistants.

    Um, sounds good in theory, but I don't have a lot of administrative stuff to do. What would I hire a virtual assistant to do, write my blog for me? Not ready for that. Nope.
  4. Using the above strategies, make your work life mobile and automated, which frees you to take "mini-retirements" along the way.

As I said earlier, I started reading this book with a great deal of skepticism. It advocates a lifestyle that sounds too good--and too easy--to be true. And in the end, that hasn't changed. The book's entire premise (freeing the reader to enjoy a rich lifestyle by creating a self-operational, wildly successful business) rests on the assumption that just about anyone can come up with a product to market online, producing a generous income stream to support a lavish lifestyle. That's the premise: the book doesn't say much about how to come up with this great product, but spends most of its pages explaining how to separate yourself from your new business's day-to-day operations so that you can live large.

Having seen the multitude of people hiring others to write websites, eBooks, etc., in the Elance arena, I don't think creating a salable product is anywhere near as easy as Ferriss makes it out to be.

BUT...the book has a lot of other worthwhile points to make. Ferriss's ideas about valuing your own time are terrific. He's encouraged me to take a closer look at how I spend my time and whether that "expense" is worthwhile. He also provides great info on how to outsource some of the day-to-day work of running a business. I'm not to the point where it's worth my dollar to hire a virtual assistant, but it's good info to file in the back of my mind!

Perhaps my favorite point in the whole book is made near the beginning: people don't really want to be millionaires. They want to live like millionaires, to have the time and resources to design their ideal lifestyles. I enjoyed mapping out my dreams...and discovering that I'm living the biggest one right now. I live in a lovely place, with a great family--and I get to write. Every "dreamline" I could create contains those things...and it's kind of nice to remember that.

Guess I'm already rich and successful!

:) Cheryl

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Reasons to do school talks...

...even if you aren't published in the book genre.
  1. For the experience: most professional authors bring in a significant portion of their income from speaking engagements, so it never hurts to start figuring out what works and what doesn't work.

  2. To encourage kids to read or write or both.

  3. For the opportunity to ask kids questions.

  4. For the opportunity to talk to teachers.

  5. To spark ideas for new articles or books.

  6. Because it's fun!
Cynthia Leitich-Smith's blog contains a great post on doing school visits (which I read just after speaking to three separate classrooms full of 5th graders yesterday!): The ABC's of School Visits.

If you're an introvert, speaking in front of a classroom of kids may seem daunting, but it's entirely do-able--with some practice and preparation. Here are a few of Cheryl's tips for keeping the kids engaged (because engaged kids are happy kids!)

  1. Prepare, prepare, prepare! I prepared my talk as a Powerpoint presentation (and wow, is it easier to speak to a group when you have slides to show), then practiced until I could go through it with minimal help from notes. If you're stumbling through your words, the kids will lose interest.

  2. Lots of eye contact and interaction with the kids. I like to ask lots of questions when I'm speaking, questions such as:

    - What things have you wondered about that might make good article or paper topics? (answers included: Why does my cat think she's a dog? Why does your nose get all stuffed up when you have a cold? And, why do some people get sick when they try to read in the car and others don't?)

    - If you were writing about this topic (I spoke on the Red Gulch Dinosaur Tracksite), how would you narrow the topic?

    - Which of these cool facts would you want to include in the story?
  3. Mix plenty of pictures and fun stories into your talk.

  4. Practice your talk in front of a mirror with a focus on movement. Movement, facial expression, variations in voice tone and volume--these are all tricks that presenters can use to help keep kids engaged. Practice being big! Wave your arms! Stand on tip toes! Make eye contact! Get excited! And they'll get excited along with you.

  5. Finally, have a stash of small pieces of candy available (with the teacher's permission) to toss to kids who answer questions. Participation will skyrocket :).
I spoke about writing nonfiction to the 5th graders of my local elementary school yesterday morning. We went through the process I used when writing "Walking Like a Dinosaur", which appeared in the September 2008 issue of Highlights for Children. The kids especially appreciated all the cool info about dinosaurs; the teachers especially appreciated my emphasis on rewriting. It was exhausting, but great!
:) Cheryl

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Highlights' Wish List

If you've read much of this blog, you'll know that I'm a fan of Highlights for Children. They just put out their latest "wish list" for freelance children's writers. If you're looking for ideas of what to write, here's an excellent place to start:

HIGHLIGHTS FOR CHILDREN Current NeedsWinter 2008-2009


Nonfiction for Younger Readers (Ages 4 to 8) up to 500 words, Joëlle Dujardin, Associate Editor

All articles should have a clear focus and relevance to young kids.
  • First-person accounts of fieldwork

  • Photo essays

  • Arts stories

  • Ancient history

  • High-interest animals

  • Details from urban life (workers, transportation, etc.)

  • Nature

Science, 800 words (two-page features), 400 words (one-page features), 50 words (activities) Andy Boyles, Science Editor

  • Features about kids involved in science

  • Scientists studying high-interest animals in their natural habitats

  • Short, quick, easy, fun science activities
History/World Cultures, up to 800 words, Carolyn Yoder, Senior Editor
  • Fun, humorous, kid-friendly articles

  • Presidential (NOT Washington and Lincoln) and patriotic pieces

  • Need anecdotal articles, rather than broad interviews

  • American holidays, specifically Thanksgiving, Easter, Christmas, and little-known holidays

  • World-cultures pieces. ALL COUNTRIES. We want intimate snapshots of life in another country.
One-page Activities of all kinds, up to 300 words, Linda Rose, Assistant Editor
We prefer activities that require neither parental supervision nor materials kids aren't likely to have handy.
  • Indoor and outdoor games that involve exercise, creativity, and/or humor

  • Activities and games that kids can do whether they're on their own or with others

  • Projects that will result in a new hobby or skill and/or a quality finished product

  • Magic tricks
Short Puzzles, Games, Recipes, and Activities, Manuscript Submissions
  • Art activities

  • World-cultures activities

  • History and geography puzzles

  • Logic puzzles

  • Math puzzles

  • Codes

  • Any activities that easily lend themselves to strong visuals are a huge plus!

Crafts, Manuscript Submissions; please send a photo or sample of the craft.

  • World-cultures crafts (general or holiday-specific)

  • Crafts that encourage play (musical instruments, costumes, etc.)

  • Games

  • Gifts

  • Crafts for all holidays except Valentine's Day

Send magazine submissions toHighlights for Children803 Church StreetHonesdale, PA 18431

Puzzlemania, our puzzle book club for children ages 6—10, is in need of word puzzles—crosswords, word searches, logic puzzles, word scrambles, and codes. For detailed submissions guidelines, visit Go to About Us/Contributor Guidelines/Puzzles. Send puzzle submissions to

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The 4-Hour Workweek

I know, I know: this 4-Hour Workweek book sounds like total hype. In fact, it's the kind of book I wouldn't even read if it weren't that half a dozen people I respect have recommended it to me. I started it, I confess, with the predisposition to dismiss it as so much sales-talk garbage.

But. It turns out that this book is hitting the crux of some things I've been considering lately. I've been asking myself some tough questions, questions like:
  1. Is it the best use of my time to kidnap, hug, throw Jedis at people, etc., on Facebook?

  2. When does blog reading move beyond a helpful tool for keeping up with the industry and connecting with other writers--and move into a time sink?

  3. Why do I blog?

  4. Whatever that reason is, am I accomplishing that purpose?

  5. What about this Comment Challenge ? Is it a valuable way to build community or an insidious waste of time?

Sigh. I'm afraid that I'm offending bloggers, Facebook-ers, and writers everywhere, but when a writer has exceptionally limited time (isn't that most of us?) how much of our time should we spend on Internet connection?

Please--all thoughts and opinions are welcome.




The Comment Challenge

Last week, bloggers Mother Reader and Lee Wind began a Comment Challenge for fellow bloggers. I jumped in this week--better late than never--and it's been a valuable experience. Not exactly what I expected, but valuable.

The purpose of the Comment Challenge is to encourage community among writers and bloggers. To network. I love that idea. The question is, is that what I'm accomplishing by posting more comments on more blogs? I'm still deciding. Here's what I've noticed so far:
  1. I'm reading a lot more blogs. (Yay!)

  2. I'm posting on my own blog less frequently! (Bummer)

  3. By commenting on others' blogs, I'm drawing readers to try out this one. (Yay!)

  4. This takes a lot of time. (Bummer)

  5. I'm discovering some blogs that I love. (Yay!)

  6. ...but my list of unread blogs in Google Reader is growing faster than I can read them. (Crimeny!)

Maybe the key, for me, will be a happy medium. Hmm. I'm sounding like my mother!

But then, she turned out to be a pretty smart lady after all.

:) Cheryl



Notes to start a writer's week, take 2

  1. There is no neighborhood decorations committee, no matter what you dreamed last night. No one will issue you a ticket because you have not yet put out your fall decorations.

  2. I'm sure there are other moms who forget to get their kids up on Monday mornings, forget what month it is, and forget what year it is. Maybe you should buy the kids their own alarm clocks.

  3. I'm also sure that other absent-minded mothers buy Christmas gifts throughout the year, only to forget the "safe locations" where they are squirreled away.

  4. Speaking of squirrels: the kids will remember watching the ones living in your flicker box far longer than they will remember whether or not you raked the leaves.

  5. And no, no one cares about the leaves drifting in your garage, either. Unless your husband loses his bike in them. Then he'll care. But we can deal with that later.

  6. Plant watering is an entirely optional household activity. Consider your living room an experiment in natural selection.

  7. The dogs are still thinking you need more creativity walks. This week, they'd like to go on an all-day hike up some mountain with lots and lots of interesting smells.

  8. Oh, and they'd also like you to spend more time writing on the sofa instead of at your desk. The sofa is much more comfy for napping dogs. Please: consider the comfort of others this week.

  9. Your husband has scheduled himself a date in your Outlook calendar. Hmm. Could he be feeling neglected?

  10. You'll be a much better date (and mom and everything else) if you're happy. (Translation: write, baby, write!)

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Taming the unquiet mind

It's a warm, windy day today, the kind where rippling leaves and waving branches break sunlight into ever-moving patterns--a perfectly beautiful day to curl up in a patch of sunlight and write. I have the time, I have forward momentum on a story rewrite, and I have a relatively peaceful place to work...and yet I'm having trouble beginning.

This happens sometimes. My mind refuses to settle. I was up late last night working; today, I have a sick kid worrying at one corner of my brain, a hundred potential "to-do's" clamoring for whatever attention remains. Despite my best intentions, despite turning my mind back to the task at hand a hundred times, I can't seem to skip past the standard host of writerly doubts.

Time to try a new tactic. A change of project? A walk, perhaps? (The dogs vote yes, but my mom-voice urges me to stay home with sick kid). Yoga? Meditation? Or maybe it's time to read a great book? Or run errands and silence some of those never-ending to-do's?

Maybe my mind needs to regroup for the next bout of creativity. Trust the process--I can hold onto that. I'll have a bit of yoga, I think, to settle my mind; and then I'll take another running start and see if I can get past my current writing hurdle, which is really more about my mind than my words. But then, maybe that's always the case.

Happy writing :)


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Great post on networking

Hanish "Han" Vance was a guest blogger at the Guide to Literary Agents blog yesterday. Check out his article "Networking at Writers' Conferences" for inspiration on how to put yourself in the right place to make connections:,guid,3c91e92d-dd73-4582-802a-2bf1d9b0548e.aspx

I probably wouldn't go so far as to start smoking to make contacts , but as someone who doesn't take readily to this whole networking business, I found many of his ideas helpful.

:) Cheryl



Churning out pages...

One writing problem I hear voiced time and again--from writers at all stages--is the difficulty of writing the maximum number of words in the minimum amount of time possible. How do "those other" writers write so quickly? How do they churn out a book a year? Or two?

Most people seem to think that some writers are just naturally fast. By correlation, then, some writers are just naturally slow. Here's where I jump on my soap box to disagree.

See, I think that all aspects of writing--even aspects like speed and productivity--can be learned. Maybe I won't ever write as rapidly as Robert Heinlein or as beautifully as Libba Bray, but with practice, I can start to close the gap.

Sarah Sullivan talks about this idea in the Through the Tollbooth blog (, with a great story about a quantity versus quality pottery class experiment. One pottery class, divided into two groups, one group graded on quantity of work produced, the other graded on quality. Guess which group learned the most?

November is National Novel Writing Month (, where writers around the world practice the skill of writing quickly. Author Jonathan Stroud delivered an inspiring pep talk on the topic to participating writings. Unfortunately, it's not yet posted on the NaNo site, but here's a taste:

With my Bartimaeus Trilogy I had a big fat fantasy novel to write each year, three years in a row. One novel a year? That's not so hard. Or so I thought. Then I figured out that what with the time taken up with editing and revising my manuscript, and then with printing and distributing it, I actually had about five or six months to get the first draft done...

So I did exactly the same thing you're doing this November, and set myself a strict schedule of pages per week to get the first draft done.... Quality could wait. This wasn't the moment for genteel self-editing. This was the time when the novel had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into existence, and that meant piling up the pages.

So I did it, one page at a time, even when it was like pulling teeth or squeezing blood from a stone. I did it. And you can do it too.

Practice writing quickly, without a care for quality. You'll get better at it. You'll write more. And your writing--like those students' pottery--will improve!

:) Cheryl

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Re-entry issues

Does anyone else have trouble transitioning from writing-life to normal-life (whatever that looks like). When I'm writing really intensely--as I am right now--I have a really hard time finding my footing in the everyday world. It takes me a half hour to an hour to move from that dreamy place where my head is still in my writing, to a place where I can actually communicate with other people.

You know, important people. Like my kids.

Luckily, they love me anyways. I wonder, though, if I can send myself off to NASA to get nicely repackaged and re-engineered for seamless re-entry into this atmosphere. Think they'd take on the job?

:) Cheryl


Notes to start a writer's week

  1. No one will die because you started installing a flagstone patio and, five weeks later, there is still a hole in the yard. Nor will anyone kill themselves by tripping over said hole, the roll of partially-unrolled landscape fabric, the unsettled flagstone, or the bags of gravel, even though some of them have been opened. You parked the kids' wagon above the hole as a safety measure.

  2. No, the PTA will not fine you for filling the kids' wagon with turf or leaving it parked over a hole for five weeks.

  3. The weeds promise to return next year for you to continue your annual war.

  4. The squirrels, birds, and raccoons really appreciate that you left the apples on the apple tree in your front yard.

  5. The kids loved watching the raccoon family eating said apples. Just think: if you'd picked the apples, cut out all the bad spots, and made applesauce, those raccoons would have taken their business elsewhere.

  6. Yes, your husband thinks it's endearing that your pillow talk contains words like "character arc" and "plot twists".

  7. It is not immoral to hire a house cleaner.

  8. Neither is it immoral to go three weeks without doing laundry. That's what Target's underwear section is for. As for the kids--they'd rather you spent your time on important activities such as game-playing, cuddling, and dancing on the sofas.

  9. Your dogs still love you, even though they are voting for you to take more creativity walks. With them.

  10. And finally: Your family is happier when you're happier. (Translation: write, baby, write!)

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Speaking of emotions...

Writing retreats seem to be chock-full of them. I'm on emotional (and intellectual) overload after an amazing weekend making targeted changes to two different book manuscripts. Coming back to the real world seems particularly difficult...such a let-down after the non-stop stimulation of the "Big Sur of the Rockies" weekend. It seems that I spent every moment either writing, talking about writing, brainstorming writing ideas, reading a great book for writing inspiration, or hob-nobbing with other writings about--you guessed it--writing.

Luckily, home is the place to be when I'm coming off a writing-retreat high. I set the household mood dial to the "mellow/recovery" zone and started off the reentry process with an hour nap.

I think that all writing conferences and retreats should come with re-entry instructions, to remind us what life's like in the real world. :) Or maybe we have to trust those around us to help us rediscover our footing!

:) Cheryl

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