Summer Time Reading Recommendations – Part 1

“Time is the most valuable thing a man can spend.” Theophrastus

It seems to me that I’ve been blogging about Greece in one way or another for months now. Perhaps it’s time to write about something else. Typically I give my book recommendations at the end of the year, however for the sake of shaking things up, including my own one-track mind, I thought I’d share some of the books I’ve enjoyed over the past several months. When I’m not ranting or organizing or writing, I spend my time reading.

Here are some of my picks by category and in no particular order. Beside each title and author I’ve written some of the notes I wrote in my journal after I finished reading the book. I know I’m a bit obsessive (stop laughing), but yes, I do keep track of all the books I read. Sometimes I reread books too, but that’s another story.

I might as well warn you it will take a couple of blogs to document my recommendations. I’m nothing if not opinionated. I know you haven’t noticed. I try to be subtle. Okay, now really, stop laughing.

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Since You Asked

“I claim to be a simple individual liable to err like any other fellow mortal. I own, however, that I have humility enough to confess my errors and retrace my steps.” Mahatma Gandhi

I’ve been back in Canada for over two weeks and still the questions persist: what was it like in Greece, what do you think of what is going on. I like being asked. I’m nothing if not opinionated.

Life in Greece seemed fairly calm to me. The cafes were full, the shops were open, and people seemed to be going about their lives. Greeks have lived under the fear of a complete financial collapse for so long that it seemed to me that they’d become stoic about it. Whatever will happen, will happen. I heard the words uttered several times. But for now, we have to live our lives. We can’t live in fear.

There were nightly protests in the streets. So as they went about their business during the day, people came out in throngs at night to make sure their wishes were being heard. I think there’s hopefulness at the center of any protest: people are engaged and more importantly, they believe their voices can make a difference. Peaceful protest always buoys me.

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Where Is Home?

“It may be that the satisfaction I need depends on my going away, so that when I’m gone and come back, I’ll find it at home.” Rumi

When I was a kid, I daydreamed about living elsewhere. I’d only ever been to Greece on vacation. But anytime we were there, I felt as though I was home. Greece was my first love and I’ve always pined for her.

I kept my dreams and schemes a secret. I thought it would hurt my parents’ feelings if I told them of my intentions. They’d made so many sacrifices when we immigrated to Canada. They chose Canada. Not Greece. Even though they’d had the opportunity to move to Greece (we were Greeks) after we left Egypt. They had their reasons. I’ve heard them a million times. Better opportunities, brighter future.

Pride (and it’s opposite, shame), not hurting your parents (or anyone really) and keeping things to yourself (secrets) are all elements weaved so tightly into my family’s fabric, nothing could possibly unravel them. You might ask, isn’t that true of most families. Maybe. I don’t know.

But ask yourself, who invented the Greek tragedy and you might have your answer.

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Family Folklore – Part 3

“Be a voice, not an echo.” Albert Einstein

So I went looking for long-lost property in Greece, and found another arm of my family instead. I haven’t made sense of what I’ve discovered yet, but I’m trying.

On the way back from Alekos’s farm, we were all very quiet in the car. The sun was setting on the horizon, the sky a palette of pink. I suppose each of us was trying to process what we’d discovered about the other and what it meant. If anything.

Alekos piped up at this point and touched my father’s shoulder. “Remember we are family now. We share a name and a history. We are related.”

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Family Folklore – Part 2

“Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion.” Democritus

Whenever we walked the seafront or streets of Kyparissia and we’d see an abandoned building or property, my husband would tease me. There’s the Leventoyannis mansion. I daydreamed of what I could do to these beyond-hope-fixer-uppers. I fantasized about returning to Greece to live. Permanently.

As I mentioned last week, I was stymied at every turn in my search for the property I was told was abandoned years ago by my paternal great-grandparents.

But on one of those walks after our visit to the land registry office, my husband noticed a large semi trailer truck making its way down the main street. It wasn’t so much the big white rig that caught his eye, but rather the bold black letters on its cab, just above the front windshield. LEVENTOYANNIS. Granted, spelled with a G, rather than a Y, but still my name.

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Family Folklore – Part 1

“It is a common saying, and on everyone’s mouth, that life is not a sojourn.” Plato

As a child, I was told my paternal grandfather’s roots were in the agriculturally rich village of Kyparissia in the Peloponnese. Family folklore has it that my great-grandfather had a lot of land there. It was left abandoned after he died and most of his children moved away. I have been back to Kyparissia many times to find some information about my great-grandfather and grandfather. This time I came back to see if there was any way to locate this discarded land.

My aunt said she found it once. Apparently there were too many back taxes owing on the land to do anything about it. My cousin, her son, told me he was here in 1984 and found an old woman who claimed to have known our family, the name Leventoyannis. This isn’t a surprise. That surname is associated with this region.

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There Are No Thieves In Greece

“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark. The real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” Plato

My husband’s wallet was stolen a few weeks ago as we stood on a crowded subway in downtown Athens. Within the span of two stops, the wallet was gone, along with something else I didn’t notice right away.

We contacted our bank, the embassy and the local police. At the police station, we met a French woman who was waiting to report another theft. She’d been riding on a bus. She’d lost all her identification and money.

I remembered several years ago a friend of mine had reported her missing wallet to the Greek police. When she used the word, stolen, the officer corrected her, saying, “Madame, there are no thieves in Greece.” And in fact, she had left her wallet on a park bench. A citizen had returned it to the police station intact.

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Greek Voices

“Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” Oscar Wilde

Greece is in the news again, on the brink once more. The tit-for-tat political rhetoric is never ending and fervent, but it gives no voice to those dealing with the economic crisis day in, day out – Greek citizens. In the end, they will be the ones to pay for the sins of their governments.

“I can’t tell you what I think,” a man responded when I asked him about the financial situation in Greece and the current talks between Athens and the EU. “What I have to say would not be polite.” I met him fishing on the dock in Kyparissia. I saw him again in the small village of Kalo Nero (good water in English). He’s retired. His pension reduced recently as part of the government’s austerity program. He worries he may not get whatever is left of his pension at the end of June. “Medical benefits have also been cut,” he said. “What can you do?” He sipped his coffee and shrugged.

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Bad Behaviour

“Opportunity is missed because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”  Thomas A Edison

My siblings used to tease me about being the one who never got into trouble. They still pepper me with their jokes. I was the perfect one. Didn’t have a single voice raised against me. Ever.

I don’t remember it that way.

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Who Cares About The Odds

“A pessimist sees the difficult in every opportunity, an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Winston Churchill

I wander the streets of our Athens neighbourhood with no particular goal in mind. I want to be in the moment, take in this place that feels like my long lost home. I think about what it would be like to live here full time.

I daydream about coming back, spending more time here. My husband calls it scheming.

The other day while out for a walk with my dad I met a young man standing with a number of other South Asian men lingering in front of a building that looked like an embassy. Not an uncommon sight in Athens: lots of men in uniform, flags I didn’t recognize, and people waiting.

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Philotimo

“You will never do anything in this world without courage. It is the greatest thing next to honour.” Aristotle

As many of you know, I’m in Greece with my father. We’ve been visiting relatives and hanging out. Every night we watch the news at 8. In some ways it reminds me of the closeness we shared when I was a child. We watched all the Montreal Canadians games on Saturday nights on CBC. I’m heartbroken for Montreal’s loss this week, but never mind. There will always be another time.

My dad used to translate all the play-by-play action then to my wide-eyed, enthusiastic child self. In Greece, he’s translating the Greek news for me. Some things stay the same. Other things change.

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What You Find When You’re Not Looking

“The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Marcel Proust

I’m in the process of editing my new novel. I typically enjoy this part. Or at least that’s what I say when it’s over. By that time, my memory of the pain I’ve endured has faded and words of bravado are easy to find.

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Impressions From A Jet Lagged Brain

“Every perfect traveler always creates the country where he travels.” Nikos Kazantzakis, Author

The plane started descending into Athens International. I noticed the shimmer of the Mediterranean. Similar to a mirror, the sea reflects the light Greeks boast about when they describe the sky and the sunshine here. I don’t think this particular blue or this brightness exists anywhere else in the world. It takes me by surprise every time I come back. It warms me from the inside out, makes me think, I’m home.

I love travel. It takes me out of my routine. It nudges me to pay attention, notice things I usually take for granted.

But, it beats me up as well. I’m suffering with a painful sore throat. My brain feels stuffed with cotton. I’m wrung out and disoriented. I’m not sure I’m in my own body. Each step I take seems to require more effort as though I’m trekking a muddy mountain trail rather than big city concrete.

As I write this, I’m wondering what is so wrong with routine anyway. It gives you something to count on, doesn’t thrash you about.

Driving in from the airport, the streets are relatively deserted. I didn’t expect quiet. Then I remember it is May 1st. Labour Day. The shops are closed and people have retreated to the countryside for a weekend away.

I’m destabilized by the stillness. It’s the mayhem of this city I love.

We eat in a small restaurant we enjoyed the last time we were here. We’re the only customers. Where are the incessant conversations, the voices−nasal and insistent—that fall one over the other to make a point?

Is this a new Athens? A place I no longer know? In my current state, I’m not sure I trust my own perceptions.

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Beginning in One Place and Finishing In Another – Part 2 

“Exclusion is never the way forward on our shared paths to freedom and justice.” Desmond Tutu

Last week I started to tell you about a discussion I had with my dad and the question he posed: how had I adjusted to moving to Canada when I was so young. I got off on a tangent and finished the blog without exploring his query any further.

Memory and thought got in the way, which in my book is always a good thing.

As I mentioned last week, I didn’t speak English when I started school in Canada. I remember coming home and raving about speaking this weird language.

I spelled out words I had learned. APPLE. CAT. DOG. MOTHER. FATHER. Giggled at the strangeness of the sounds in my mouth. I remember my mother smiling with pride. But that didn’t last long. Pretty quickly I saw the fear in her eyes too. She knew I would lose my native language to this new one. She would scold me when I didn’t speak in French to her.

Learning this new language was such fun. I persisted.

A few years later, I was asked by another teacher to complete an assignment for class. I was in grade 3 then. Looking back on it now, I realize it wasn’t a particularly difficult task. I had to collect fall leaves and catalogue them by name. This project stumped me though and baffled my parents. “They want you to pick up dry, dead things from the ground? And do what with them?”

Our neighbour, Mrs. O’Dell, was expecting her first child then. My parents asked her to help. And she agreed.

We went forging for leaves under, what seemed to me at the time, every tree in our neighbourhood. She got down on her hands and knees. She encouraged me to do the same. I remember thinking how I was going to get in trouble for getting my red skirt dirty, my socks and shoes coated in dust. But she was so cheerful, witty and engaged, I stopped worrying and sat down in the dirt beside her.

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Beginning in One Place and Finishing In Another – Part 1   

“We will live with racism forever. But senses of self, senses of belonging, senses of us and of others? Those are up for grabs.” Richard Powers

My father asked me recently how I dealt with our immigration to Canada. The question surprised me. We moved here years ago.

“But you were the oldest,” he said. “You didn’t speak English. How did you cope?”

I spoke French, Arabic and a bit of Greek. I don’t have much recollection of that time and how I adjusted. They are long buried memories, but as with all questions, it got me thinking.

I was assigned to two other six year olds on the first day of school, who were supposed to help me adjust. I’m not sure how I communicated with them or what I felt at the time. I know the girls, Debbie and Doris, were nice to me. They walked me home, shared their lunches, told me how to say certain words and provided sage advice such as: never wear a red skirt with pink socks.

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Books, Authors and Difficult Decisions

"You cannot open a book without learning something.” Confucius

Books surround me. I have one on the go at all times and 10 or so in wait. I read one book at a time, letting it consume me before I go on to the next one.

To say I love them would be an understatement. Books are my friends, my teachers, my entertainment, and my escape. But, at this time of the year, the pile doubles and sometimes triples. Publishers and authors alike send me their books hoping for an invitation to the festival I organize. I’m inundated. Exhausted. Worried.

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The D Word

“This wretched brain gave way and I became a wreck at random, driven without one glimpse of reason or heaven.” Thomas Moore

I’ve been head down, focused on this tiny screen for I don’t know how long. Months? Certainly. But more likely: years. When I’m not editing, I’m rewriting or researching, cutting, adding, rewriting some more. And when I’m not working on my new novel, I’m organizing the Whistler Writers Festival, now in its 15th year (read this as a flagrant promotion of one of my passions). There are other tugs on my time. I know I’m not unique. Everyone has time issues. That’s life.

But I’ve come to see how I deal with this mostly self-imposed pressure, as if anew.

And frankly, I don’t like what I see.

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What I Think

“In a time of universal deceit−telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Whether it’s expanded powers for the police to ostensibly combat the looming terrorist threat in this country or another new bill to deny parole to some offenders, our prime minister liberally throws in bullish statements such as, “I know Canadians think blah, blah, blah” or “Canadians want blah, blah, blah”?

He’s selling.

And we’d better be vigilant.

He wants us to get onboard with his program, his vision of this country. The implication of these statements being: if it’s good enough for other Canadians, it should be good enough for you. Just because thousands of others like to swim, does that mean I should throw myself in a lake and do something I don’t know how to do?

Besides, who are these other Canadians? How does he know what they think?

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Rejection

“The rung of a ladder was never meant to rest upon, but only to hold a man’s foot long enough to enable him to put the other somewhat higher.” Thomas Huxley, biologist

“It’s with deepest regret that I can’t make it.”

“So sorry, no. Can’t do it.”

“Sorry I don’t have better news.”

Just like the bruises I accumulate on my body when I hit the corner of a table or the dresser, this sampling of rejections marks my psyche. I want to argue and stamp my feet in the same way any self-respecting five year-old might, say something mature such as, “Come on! Please!”

Instead, when given the opportunity I make my case calmly, despite my growing frustration and spreading insecurity. I’m a whimpering blob of crushed humanity on the inside, but hopefully it doesn’t show.

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Little Bee By Chris Cleave

“Once you have read it, you’ll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens. The magic is in how the story unfolds.” Chris Cleave

So starts the back cover blurb of the novel, Little Bee by Chris Cleave, a columnist with The Guardian. In the UK, the book was published as The Other Hand.

And since I’ve been told not to tell you too much about the story, I won’t. I’ll just say that the book has two protagonists. Their lives intersect on a deserted beach in Nigeria and again in the London suburb of Kingston-on-Thames.

But, I will tell you how I felt about Little Bee.

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Amygdeleza – Part 2

“The virtue of justice consists in moderation, as regulated by wisdom.” Aristotle

If the Amygdeleza Detention Centre closes down as has been promised by the Greek government what will happen to the staff I met last November: the commander who spoke proudly of the centre and the work his staff were doing in aid of detained refugees, the young sergeant who enthusiastically described the humanitarian living conditions, the medical facilities, and the counselling support provided to refugees.

As I’ve indicated before, I don’t support the institutionalization of any, but the most violent, but the staff I met at Amygdeleza seemed to be committed to the refugees. Having worked in a prison myself, I know that most (not all) work in places like this because first, they want to help. They think they can make a positive difference in another person’s life. That was always my motivation when I worked in a prison and I felt strongly that this was what drove the people I met at Amygdeleza.

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Amygdeleza – Part 1

“No notice is taken of a little evil, but when it increases it strikes the eye.” Aristotle

A few weeks ago, after a second death in the Amydgeleza Refugee Detention Centre in as many days, the new Greek government vowed to close all refugee detention centres in Greece. I’m not a proponent of incarceration except in situations of violent and extreme crimes, but I do wonder what will happen to the thousands of refugees who sit in Amydgeleza and similar detention centers in Greece and other places in Europe. How will their claims be dealt with? Will these people be imprisoned in Greek jails instead? Is a thoughtful, comprehensive strategy in place for these people? Neither the Ekathimerini article nor the government provided any details. This makes me wonder about next steps.

A friend of mine who has adjudicated refugee claims in Canada tells me there are detention centres in Canada too. I’m not sure I knew where refugee claimants in this country were held, but I had assumed that they were living in the community until their cases were heard and a decision about their claim was made.

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Critique

“I think the most effective forms of critique are ones that establish a common ground for people to occupy, and then appeal to the best nature of people on that common ground.” Mohsin Hamid

This week my critique group met to discuss a draft of a novel written by one of our members. We typically meet monthly and review three submissions. But with longer pieces, such as a novel, we set aside an entire meeting. Our process is simple. The person who is having their work reviewed submits that work a few weeks ahead of the meeting. Members read it, jot down comments and come to the gathering prepared to discuss it. Discussions are lively and refreshingly frank.

The writer walks away with seven detailed reviews of her work. In the end, she chooses how to go forward. She is the author. That is her prerogative.

As I said, there’s nothing complicated about what we do. And yet, magic happens.

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When Done Means Starting Over – Part 2

“If you wish to be a writer, write.” Epictetus

Where will new ideas come from? Although I’ve got a long way to go to complete my current novel, I can’t help but wonder: what then? Yes, you guessed it. I have a tendency to skip ahead and begin to worry before I need to. I can’t seem to change that about myself. Don’t think I haven’t tried.

Part of my tendency to worry-forward has to do with knowing how much effort goes into completing a large project such as a novel. Unlike having a child where you forget the pain you went through, you never ever forget the hours of agony spent in your chair at your computer screen wondering what the hell you’re trying to say.

So at the moment I have two things I’m thinking about: where will I go when this novel is done? And, do I really want to go there? Again? I don’t have a good answer to either question.

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When Done Means Starting Over – Part 1

“A writer of fiction lives in fear. Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not.” Roald Dahl

At the end of last week I completed a draft of my new novel. I’ve told few people this because I have to first get used to the idea myself. I never know what my reaction is going to be, but whatever it is I like to go through it on my own, understand it, and then share it with others when I can be (relatively speaking) coherent.

This time around, there were a few brief moments when I gushed with satisfaction, happy dance and all. It’s done. Thank goodness, it’s done. There it was in front of me: close to 100,000 words and 35 chapters. These pages along with the umpteenth versions were the only concrete evidence of over three years of effort.

The elation doesn’t last long though. It is quickly replaced with self-doubt and a sense of loss. Tears come fast and often. I feel gutted.

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The People Have Spoken

“I always tried to explain that democracy is not perfect. But it gives you the chance to create your own destiny.” Aung San Suu Kyi

With my thirteen-letter surname, that some have a problem pronouncing, and my relentless effusion of all things Greek, I’m often asked about the situation in Greece. How is the economy? Have things improved? What do you think about the election results?

I’m happy to talk about Greece and my impressions, but I can’t pretend to know, in any depth, anything about its economy, its politics or even how the ordinary Greek person lives.  All I have is opinions. For what it’s worth here they are.

Six years of recession and austerity measures have crippled the country and left many Greeks financially strapped, psychologically dejected and emotionally disheartened. However, the family is a source of strength and families have helped each other weather the economic storm. Unlike Canada and the United States, where personal debt is high, the amount of personal debt in Greece is low. This helps, as does the Greek habit of socking away for rainy days. Yes, savings are dwindling, but at least it was there to draw from when it was most needed.

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Stressed!

“It’s not stress that kills us, it is how we react to it.” Hans Selye, endocrinologist

The year has begun. Well, almost a month has passed since fireworks and parties brought in 2015. This year, I told myself, I was going to try to take on less, relax more, and make a real effort to chill. You know where this is going? Right?

Despite my best efforts and I really do try, I find myself knee deep in paper, again, and a ‘to do’ list that is far too long for the time available, particularly if I have to eat and sleep too.

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Controversy

I am continually fascinated at the difficultly people have in distinguishing what is controversial and what is merely offensive.” Nora Ephron

A few years ago I was in Toronto doing a reading at McNally’s bookstore with authors, Mary Hagey, Ailsa Kay and Cordelia Strube. During the question and answer period someone in the back row asked (and I’m paraphrasing): “as authors do you write to garner controversy?” Because I tend to be opinionated (I know, I know, it barely shows), and have a big mouth, I said, “Controversial issues are the only ones I write about”. Basically, I want to write stories that provide new insight and make people think. And if some of what I write is considered controversial, that’s okay as long as it promotes discussion. I like discussion and positive action too.

I’ve had cause to think about this question again because of the recent attacks in Paris and the firebombing in Germany. And again, I came to the same conclusion. Yes, I do want my writing to get people talking and contacting me about the things they liked and didn’t like about my work. How do we learn from each other, take action to make positive change, if we don’t explore issues that are uncomfortable?

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What Violence Begets

"The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy, instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Martin Luther King Jr.

Do you remember being a kid and your brother or sister punching you in the arm or slapping you across the head? Your first response was to hit back. Mine too. What else would you do? Stand there and take it?

I always lost these fisticuffs, partly because the first blow I administered scared me. I’m a bit of a wimp. But more to the point, my sister was far tougher and single-minded. Striking back always got me more of the same. I learned pretty quickly that the best way to get out of these situations was to talk my way out of them. Understanding her frustrations, putting myself in her shoes, and listening along with talking were my best defence.

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Grateful

“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Anne Frank

I use this blog to rant at length about various topics. Not solely, but I can, and do, go on at times. I’m sure you’ve noticed. Many things seemed to bug me in 2014. From violence against women, to police brutality, to displaced refugees, to stupid political moves, it was difficult not to become disheartened with some of the events that transpired last year. I’m not sure I made sense of it all, but writing helped me figure out what I was thinking. This led to lots of good discussions with friends and family, which kept me engaged. And being engaged makes me feel as though I’m doing something.

As 2015 begins, it’s a good time to reflect. Oh, don’t worry. I’m not going to regurgitate the year’s past calamities. I want to take a different approach. I’d like to list some of the good things that happened to me in 2014. So, as I do every year, I consulted my gratefulness journal. The few lines I write at the end of each day remind me of the goodness in the world.

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