Elephants and other thoughts…

As a new bride in the 1970’s, I lived and worked in Tanzania for three years and Maurice and I loved to pack our two-man tent, fill our basket with fruit and vegetables from the market (we had nothing as sophisticated as a refrigerated cool box in those days) and go on safari in our free time. Elephants are my favourite animal. Sitting safely in our vehicle, we watched them for hours. They are beautiful creatures and poachers should be hung, drawn and quartered for butchering them. We returned to Africa after a thirty-seven-year absence and here are a couple of our photos.

Apparently, elephants have amazing memories. I was going to write next “a funny thing happened to me last Saturday”, except it wasn’t funny. To keep it short, I ended up in Accident and Emergency at our local hospital. A stroke or a tumour was suspected as I had completely lost my recent memory. I knew who I was but couldn’t remember Easter, my birthday the previous week, what year we were in, who was the Prime Minister – and other basic facts. After an emergency scan revealed nothing untoward was happening in my brain (make as many jokes as you like) – my memory slowly returned and “normal life” resumed.
BUT, it was scary for everybody and a bit of a wake-up call. It might never recur and explanations for the cause are guesses, according to medical experts. One of the possible reasons for “transient, global amnesia” is stress. Now, I consider my life to be pretty wonderful. When I see film clips of war-torn countries, I wonder how people can survive such emotional terror. This winter, however, has been more difficult than most and my head is always bursting with thoughts, ideas, solutions and maybe my brain is trying to tell me to slow down…to simplify, justify, rationalise; less is more – that old mantra. for calm blog

      This year has seen a huge increase in the time I spend on social media and I find the technical and business side of writing particularly challenging. It also decreases the time I like to spend on writing and, at times, I feel the fun has gone out of the experience. How do other writers cope with this balance? Can we share strategies, please?
Until I had my shoulder operation this winter I regularly played tennis and that was a great antidote to busy thoughts. If I go on a walk (which I love), I find I am still thrashing out story ideas and plots in my head… dancing round the kitchen sometimes helps, but – I do tend to burn food in the process.
I am really curious to hear what other people do to achieve calm and peace of mind. Let me know and we can share ideas. (P.S. I do believe in prayer).
“You don’t have to control your thoughts. You just have to stop letting them control you.” (Dan Millman).

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Laugh and the world laughs with you…

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Continuing from yesterday, and after a difficult winter, I’m enjoying thinking about humour. Byron should probably have listened to his own advice: “Always laugh when you can, it is a cheap medicine.”
There are so many delicious quotes to throw around. Roger Moore said, “If you don’t have humour, then you may as well nail the coffin lid down now.” I can picture him saying that, with one eye-brow arched. Bless him!
The skill of writing with humour: selecting and delivering words at the right time; pacing the work – these are all very useful tools for an author.
Anybody who can write a funny story around a rusty, rickety old ironing board,(“L’Hipocrape”), has my vote. So, without further ado, let me introduce you to Patricia Feinberg Stoner. I’ve enjoyed all her books and am eagerly awaiting the publication of her next – hopefully in late autumn. I asked Patricia if writing comedy came to her instinctively. She had me in stitches with her account of life as an expatriate in France: (“At home in the Pays d’Oc” – please find links for all her books at the end of this blog as well as the opportunity to acquire a free sample of her next hilarious account).

“I come from a family of humourists. My father was addicted to bad puns and worse jokes, and my mother had a keen sense of the ridiculous. My earliest inspirations came from their book shelves. At the age of ten I found Langford Reed’s wonderful collection: The Complete Limerick Book. I was inspired, and wrote my first limerick on the spot. It wasn’t very good, but I was on the path. Not long afterwards I found a small collection of Ogden Nash’s verse, and began a life-long love affair with the American comic poet. My proudest possession is an anthology inscribed to me by Nash himself ‘Not from the author / Of Hiawatha / But a much sublimer / And younger rhymer.’
My own two collections of comic verse had their roots in boredom. In the 1980s I worked for an advertising agency in London. I wore sharp suits, I ate expense account lunches; I was over-paid and under-worked. To while away the long hours between getting in (10am) and lunch time (12:30-3:00) I began writing poems about cats: Nippengripp, the Stationery Cat, Dies Irae and their fellows. Many years later, I found the inimitable cartoonist Bob Bond, and Paw Prints in the Butter was born. Bob also added his magic touch to my second collection: The Little Book of Rude Limericks. Many of these were written during the tedium of long drives to the south of France, which is why young men of Lodève and ladies from Quimper rub shoulders in the book with a greedy young fellow from York.
My other great passion is for France, and all things French, still with a comic twist. At Home in the Pays d’Oc chronicles the adventures my husband and I had while accidental expatriates in that country, and Tales from the Pays d’Oc is my current work in progress. Do contact me for a free ‘sneak peek’.”

You can contact Patricia here. She is also on Twitter @perdisma

And buy, from here:  Pawprints in the Butter The Little Book of Rude Limericks and  At Home in the Pays d’Oc

 

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Always look on the bright side of life…

Everybody likes a laugh. I went to a wonderful exhibition at Mottisfont recently and tittered in front of zany cartoons by Heath Robinson. I wish I’d taken photos of viewers before and after they’d looked round. There were smiles all round.

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On the train home, I started to think about humour; how it works, why we need it. At the moment, I’m writing a novella which I hope will come over as gently humorous. (“Mavis and Dot” is to be launched in November 2108). I’ve dipped into creative writing courses over the years, but I’ve never attended a class on writing humour. Will my new book work? Is writing comedy a matter of instinct or must it be studied? If you try to analyse humour, will it work?
Perhaps to create comedy you have to be a little zany.IMG_3843

Comedians use the incongruous, employing quirky, wild ideas. When writing in humorous vein, we can send our readers down unexpected paths to keep them guessing. Maybe it’s best not to write comedy when you’re in a serious mood. But in life, even in dreadful situations, we joke, don’t we? How often have you heard someone say, “You’ll laugh about that one day,” when you recount them something bad that happened? Two weeks ago, in the dementia home where we left my beautiful mother-in-law, we giggled afterwards about some of the patients. The lady cramming cream cheese sandwiches into her pockets, the gentleman wearing one shoe and clutching a maraca, as if his whole life depended on it. I think we laughed in order to cope. “…humour can make tragic moments bearable.” (Rufus Wainwright).
What is funny to one person might be serious to another. And this could be another way of showing more about characters we invent in our stories.
Humour can also disguise or soften negative moments. Dawn French: “I’ve often said the most difficult things I have to say to people through humour. I can very quickly put some-one in their place with it.”
Let’s face it, life can be harsh, and laughter is good for us. Leave aside the academic aspects to creating humour, it can be better than medicine. So, if we can pull it off, we’re adding to the feel-good factor in our troubled world.
Let me introduce you to two clever humourists. I’m going to do this in two stages – today is the turn of Audrey Cowie and tomorrow we’ll meet Patricia Feinberg Stoner.
This week, Audrey published the second part to her book “The Haunting of Hattie Has-tings”. Audrey owie aka FieldWriting as Audrey Davis, this lady admits to being slightly crazy, so that backs up my theory about humourists. She started her career as a journalist in Dumfriesshire and put her writing dreams to one side, whilst bringing up her family and moving around the globe for her husband’s career. She’s lived in Singapore, Australia and Switzerland – no doubt storing ideas away all the time until an online Writing Fiction Course inspired her to get cracking. From there, her first novel – A Clean Sweep – was born, although it took a bit longer than nine months from conception. A short, darker prequel – A Clean Break – followed, and in November 2017 she published the first in a novella trilogy, The Haunting of Hattie Hastings Part One. Part Two was published on 21st March 2018, with the conclusion following in May/June. “After which she might have a wee lie down …”book cover

Chatting to Audrey on Facebook, her sense of fun is always refreshing. I asked her about her journey into self-publishing. “Before June 2017 I had four Twitter follows and no clue how or what to tweet. Now I have almost one thousand. FB was only used to admire photos of people’s dogs/babies/house plants. Book bloggers were a mystery to me, whereas now I worship at their feet. I had never heard of acronyms such as WIP, TBR, DNF and thought Mobi was a singer. Since then I have managed to upload four books to Amazon (but still manage to mess things up all the time). I exist in a muddle of scribbled notes, empty coffee cups (or wine glasses) and my friends think I’m one step away from madness, or hermit status. I am quite amazed at how much I’ve learned (and forgotten) and how much more I could achieve.”
I wish Audrey all the best for her future achievements and look forward to being haunted and entertained with her next instalment of Hattie Hastings.
Here is my 4 star* review:
“Part two of “The Haunting of Hattie Hastings” was eagerly awaited. I read the first part days after a painful shoulder operation. Just the tonic I needed. I love the bizarre situation of a dead husband, Gary, returning at unexpected moments, popping back to check up on things earthly. Hattie’s best friend, Cat, is now in on Gary’s ghostly comings and goings, but Gary doesn’t always choose the most tactful moments to return. Cat is “busy” with a new boyfriend when Gary appears to her. “There he stood in all his weird glory … Like a “ghostly gooseberry”.
In this second part we have a tender love scene between septuagenarians. Cat’s mother is gravely ill, but her new man is there for her. And we have the pathos of the little boy, Marty, who Gary befriends up in Paradise – or wherever he is. Marty has a little rubber toy called Grump and resembles a certain American politician with a rhyming surname. I don’t want to write a spoiler but, up in Heaven (or wherever), Gary is entrusted with a “mission” by Clarence, an annoyingly-pedantic God-like personality… And he decides to entrust this task to Cat, who has to travel up to Edinburgh to meet Marty’s parents, landing on their doorstep like a Jehovah’s Witness. Get the crazy picture? Audrey Cowie can do tender as well as stand-up comedy. I smiled my way through this book. It is refreshingly different. But I still maintain it is too much of a tease to leave the reader hanging off a cliff edge to see how the rest of the story pans out. I would prefer to read all Hattie’s adventures as one book.”

Don’t forget to pop by tomorrow for another giggle, with Patricia Feinberg Stoner.

Click here for: Audrey’s book

 

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It’s a small world…

We’ve just returned from four days in Snowdonia, North Wales. We stayed in a remote, converted slate miner’s cottage. To reach it, we drove up a dirt track through a pine forest and then parked beside a footpath that we followed for ten minutes, over streams and past ruined houses. It felt like being in our corner of the Tuscan Apennines. There was no WiFi, mobile connection was very poor, no television and…it was bliss. We needed this break and we soaked up the peace and quiet.
I took plenty of photos and I’m going to post some and mix them with our photos of Tuscany. As I poked around in the Welsh ruins, an Italian expression sang in my head: “Tutto il mondo é paese…” Roughly translated – it’s the same all over the world. The ruined homes of labourers who left the valley of Rhiwddolion, Betws-y-Coed because there was no future reminded me of decaying farmhouses in our valley of Rofelle and the migrants leaving for work elsewhere. The stream gurgling over mossy stones was like the Marecchia. I loved hearing Welsh spoken and tried to pick up a few words. Some were familiar – the word for danger is perygl; the Italian is pericolo, for example.
So, here’s a little game for you. See if you can identify which photos belong to which country: Wales or Italy.
A change is as good as a rest, they say. And so, back to writing.

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Slippers in the rain

One week ago, we left darling Giuseppina in a secure ward. We’re still sad, but resigned, and we know she will be cared for in her new home.
This week has thrown up gifts, as if to console. Clearing out possessions so we can let her house to pay for her care, we lingered over photos that revived memories of happy times: family gatherings, albums of baby photographs, letters and cards we sent her in the past. We found plenty of mysterious pictures and postcards from unknown senders; part of a period in life that, rightly so, shall remain locked with her. We came across an invitation issued in 1944 from a Lieutenant Colonel Mannington at the Military Hospital in Urbino, her home city. That was the evening she met her British husband-to-be and the start of a “storia”, as the Italian beautifully describes our word for romance. IMG_3648

I am pleased I wrote some of her story in my first novel, “Tuscan Roots”. This week, the cover for that book won an award. Pam Lecky’s cover award

I became a cover girl too! To my surprise, and delight, whilst shopping in our local supermarket,  I saw my name featured on the front of a woman’s magazine, “The People’s Friend”, advertising a story I wrote. I also took part  last Sunday in the Portsmouth Book Fest on a panel chaired by CHINDI authors – a fab group of independent authors that I am proud to belong to. These were both firsts for me and I was delighted and took them as messages, or prompts.IMG_3725

Before “I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit…” as Jenny Joseph warns, there is still so much to do and learn. So many doors to open.

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When I am old…

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I’ve been too busy lately. I know why. It’s because my heart is breaking and I’m trying to fill the time with things to take my mind off my sadness. My beautiful mother-in-law is suffering from Alzheimer’s and none of us know who to deal with it. Whilst I write this, she is trying to run away from our house… in her slippers…we are having to restrain her  as she hits us and it is so, so difficult to reconcile this mad woman with the sweet lady who has cared for me like a mother since losing my own mother over twenty seven years ago. I’m sorry if this is not the sort of thing one normally writes in a blog, but words are how I make sense of the world. Words and prayers, but tonight I am full of tears. Alzheimer’s is so cruel.

“And bending down beside the glowing bars, Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled And paced upon the mountains overhead And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.” (W. B. Yeats)

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Every picture tells a story

 

 

I’m enjoying Victoria Hislop’s “Cartes Postales” at the moment. I’ve never visited Greece, but this is a delicious appetiser for another place on my bucket list. The story opens with Ellie in London. Every week a postcard from Greece arrives through her door, addressed to someone else and signed with the initial “A”. Then, a notebook is received and it contains a moving account of A’s journey through the country; an odyssey. I’m only at the start but I’m tantalised already by this novel. And I particularly like the black and white photos, artistically enhanced, which are scattered throughout. At Christmas I read Kate Mosses’ “Winter Ghosts” and she has included faded, spooky photos throughout her book, which I loved.
Do you remember your favourite childhood reads? I loved poring over comforting, detailed images in Jill Barklem’s “Brambly Hedge” and Cynthia and Brian Patersons’ “The Foxwood Tales”. Thomas Henry’s brilliant illustrations in the old editions of “William” stories by Richmal Crompton still make me smile. They amplified my enjoyment of William’s escapades. I have a treasured, slightly mildewed copy of J. M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan and Wendy”, decorated by Gwynedd M. Hudson. There are only three colours used in each illustration and the style is redolent of the 1930’s. I’m lucky to have four grandchildren and the excuse to share these stories with them and peer at the pictures together again. Why shouldn’t there be illustrations in more adult books? illustrations
I have included photos in both my historical novels, many of them kindly donated by our local tourist office in Italy.  The Tuscan locations are an inspiration to me as a writer. Some would argue that it is up to me to paint those pictures through my words alone. I have had a couple of comments saying as much: “Not too sure about the photos – perhaps unnecessary to include because of the quality of reproduction,” said one reviewer. Contradicting this point of view, somebody else wrote: “…at first sight they’re just grainy little black and white images, but each one explains and is explained by the text, so that the more you read the more alive they seem, like Facebook pages from a hundred years ago.”
The e-pub versions of my book have been published by Endeavour Press and they have not included photos in their books. However, I’ve kept them in my paperback versions.

I’ve sneaked a peek at the back of Victoria Hislop’s book where she chats to Patrick Insole, Creative Director at Headline, about the photographs. He worked for many years in children’s publishing. He says the key to including illustrations is to identify “the moments where text and picture work together, where they are supposed to work together.” Hislop adds that “ultimately it gives the reader pictures that will float around – and live – in their mind’s eye.”
I have a third Tuscan novel in the pipeline and I intend to include photos. Victoria Hislop has encouraged me to think that I can enhance my text through photographic glimpses. But in the meantime, I’m looking for an illustrator for my WIP which is nearly finished. It is important for me to get the right pairing. I think I am almost there with my hunt. Watch this space for news of “The Adventures of Mavis and Dot”.

Here are the links to Victoria Hislop – “Cartes Postales” and The Winter Ghosts – Kate Mosse

I would love to know your opinions about illustrations and photos in adult books.

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Memory fades

 

I’ve had mortality on my mind this week. Sorry if this is a morbid subject but death is the one certain aspect of our lives and we don’t like to talk about it.

 

We nearly lost lovely Giuseppina a couple of weeks ago. She is my mother-in-law and celebrated her ninety-second birthday on January 1st. Since my own mother passed away far too young, Giuseppina has been like my mother. Unfortunately, she is now suffering from Alzheimer’s. We hear the same stories over and over again, but I don’t mind that. I love stories – I’m a writer, after all. It’s as if her stories – and her identity –  are being reinforced through repetition, so we don’t forget about her. I came across some poignant lines by Carolyn Haynali:

 

“Pray for me. I was once like you.

 

Be kind and loving to me, that’s how I would have treated you.

 

Remember I was once someone’s parent or spouse. I had a life and a dream for the future.

 

Speak to me, I can hear you even if I don’t understand what you are saying. Speak to me of things in my past of which I can still relate.”

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Mamma, as I call her, speaks about her time in the Second World War when she courted a handsome British army captain whom she married. She speaks about how a partisan was hidden in the family’s home, of the hunt for food in the countryside during a terrifying air raid – how she dived into a farmhouse to escape the bombs and came across a young German soldier strafing British planes. She speaks of her early bewildering years as a foreign bride on the edge of the Fens and how she feared non-acceptance. Of course, she speaks about happier times too and we love to listen to all these incidents that shaped her life. And I’ve included many in my first novel, “Tuscan Roots”. Who cares if she repeats herself? We will miss her stories when she’s gone, and it is important we know about her history.

The legacy of words is vital. Stories passed down orally can be distorted or exaggerated whilst the written word is a valuable testament. Look at this 1,800 year-old fragment of a recently deciphered letter from an Egyptian soldier while he served as a volunteer as a Roman legion in Europe. The letter is addressed to his mother and reflects his concern that six of his letters written home remain unanswered. These are emotions that any modern soldier would experience and a comforting piece of history, of common themes that transcend time.history

When I was at school, we used to learn poetry by heart and the lines of Walter de la Mare’s poem, “Farewell”, have somehow resurfaced in my brain

When I lie where shades of darkness
Shall no more assail mine eyes,
Nor the rain make lamentation
When the wind sighs;
How will fare the world whose wonder
Was the very proof of me?
Memory fades, must the remembered
Perishing be?

Oh, when this my dust surrenders
Hand, foot, lip, to dust again,
May these loved and loving faces
Please other men!
May the rusting harvest hedgerow
Still the Traveller’s Joy entwine,
And as happy children gather
Posies once mine.

Look thy last on all things lovely,
Every hour. Let no night
Seal thy sense in deathly slumber
Till to delight
Thou have paid thy utmost blessing;
Since that all things thou wouldst praise
Beauty took from those who loved them
In other days.

Walter de la Mare.

So, life comes it comes full circle. Yesterday we were allowed to share the wonderful news of a new grandchild to be born in early August. I hope this baby will one day be patient with me as I repeat my stories and I’ll leave you with that positive, happy thought.

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To every season…

We are often asked why we spend our winters in England and not in Italy. ‘Haven’t you got it the wrong way around?’ people comment.
Where we live in summer, at 600 metres asl in the Tuscan Apennines, the winters can be harsh. Temperatures can plummet to as low as -15 degrees centigrade. The local farmers are used to clearing roads and preparing for this eventuality. Their way of life is governed by the seasons.
In my second novel, “Now and Then in Tuscany”, I describe how shepherds and herdsmen travelled each winter down to the coast with their livestock. It was an annual trek that continued until the late 1950’s.
“Life followed the pattern that mountain folk from the Apennines had kept to since Etruscan times. Each year our men, boys and sometimes whole families continued to leave for the Tuscan coast, as autumn deepened its hold on the peaks.
“Old sayings are founded on truth and experience and the elderly would mutter as they cast their gaze to the mountains: ‘Quando l’Alpe mette il cappello, vendi la capra e compra il mantello.’ And indeed, when the Alp of the Moon donned its hat of snow, peasants who knew they were bound for the coast would sell a goat to buy a cloak and prepare for their journey.”
(From Chapter 27 of “Now and Then in Tuscany”).
I have a well-thumbed edition of a book written by a local author, Marta Bonaccini “A Veglia dalla Bice”. I love to dip into it to read of traditions followed by the mountain folk. As I mentioned in my last blog, veglia means a gathering by the fireside with neighbours and friends. Whilst stories and sayings were exchanged, hands were never idle. Boots would be repaired, trousers darned, a basket patched up or corncobs stripped of their outer husks to use for stuffing mattresses. Most of the young menfolk were away on the plains, so women, children and elderly kept each other company. Prayers were often recited by the fire, the villagers worried for the safety of their men working in an area rife with malaria.
‘Fatto il pane, ‘mazzato la troia, lascia che bufi, lasci che piova” – In winter, if the peasants had been able to slaughter a pig, and bake their bread, they were fine. There could be snowstorms aplenty, but they didn’t care if they had food for their bellies. I love the word for a snowstorm in Italian – “tormenta”, depicting a flurry of snow teasing and playing with the landscape.
The above is one tiny example of the proverbs, guessing games, songs and stories in this little book. Bice was an old lady who, sadly, died just before the book was published. It is crammed with her memories of how country people lived in the upper valley of the Marecchia. It is a fascinating record of a rhythm of life that risked being forgotten.
And that is why I wanted to write my second book, to record a significant era that is now over.  The transumanza does not happen anymore but it was a huge influence on the lives of my local friends. If you want to find out more, here is the link for Now and Then in Tuscany
Transhumance is a type of nomadism or pastoralism, a seasonal movement of people with their livestock between fixed summer and winter pastures. … (Wikipedia)

 

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Fantasy

Tonight, the 5th of January, is when La Befana delivers gifts to children. It is the eve of the Christian feast of the Epiphany. Many believe that the word befana is derived from the “Epifania” and the following is one of the legends behind the event. On their way to see the Christ child, the Three Wise Men ask for directions. La Befana, a little witch-like old lady, didn’t know the way but instead invited them in to her home. She was an excellent housekeeper and gave them shelter for the night. In return, the Magi invited her to travel with them, but she declined, saying she was too busy with her housework. Later, she had a change of heart and decided to search for them. To this day, she is still hunting for the little baby. But on the night of 5th January, she leaves good children “caramelle” (sweeties) and gifts, whilst bad children receive a lump of coal, onion or garlic.la befana
I picture the excitement of little Italian children tonight – just like our own grandchildren here in England and elsewhere who put out a carrot for Rudolph and a mince pie, following the tradition of Father Christmas arriving during the night of the 24th December. And I wonder about fantasy. Why do we need it? Why do we watch films? Why do we read? Maybe we need fantasy in our lives to survive reality. Before television took over as the focal point in so many homes, family and neighbours would take it in turns to gather in each other’s homes in Italy and share evenings together, where the focal point was the fireplace. (The Latin for hearth is focus). News and stories would be exchanged at these “veglie” and as well as real stories, proverbs, guessing games and gossip, there would be space for the imagination to run riot and thrill the listeners with fantastic tales of princes and castles, witches and phantoms. Picture the scene: silence reigning, save for the narrator’s voice and the crackle of flames which would cast a kind of cinematic glow on the faces of the listeners. Fantasy helped ease the hardships of the day’s toil.
“Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope, and that enables us to laugh at life’s realities.” Dr Seuss.

There is another lesson to be drawn from the fantasy of La Befana. I think we should do what we have to do before it is too late. We shouldn’t put off things but get on with those projects we’ve thought about for ages. Call that person we’ve been meaning to for some time. Write our bucket list and start to tick off some of our longed-for adventures.
Whatever your goals for 2018, I hope you do the best you can in whatever you want to do. I have two books I want to write. So, I’d better get on with them.
Felice anno nuovoA fresh page, the next chapteror a continuation...I wish you all the best for2018

 

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